2017 Reading Challenge: The Unputdownable Book

I am working my way through my 2017 Reading Challenge , albeit slightly chaotically, and this month I decided to read a book that is said to be unputdownable.

I am trying, as much as I can, to choose books that are generally speculative fiction for the challenge. I do read any genre, pretty much, but my aim is to keep this blog focussed on Dark Ages history (relates to my work-in-progress historical fantasy book), a little bit about my own personal writing journey, some short stories, and book reviews or author interviews. I don’t want to widen the scope of the blog too far, if I can help it.

Over at the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog she has some suggestions for the books on the list, and this science fiction thriller was one of them. Perfect!

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This is NOT a book I would pick up because of the cover (see my first post in this Reading Challenge) but once you read the book the cover makes sense, stylistically.

Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch, was published in 2016, and is about a college physics professor, Jason Dessen, who is abducted and knocked unconscious. When he wakes, he finds himself in a place that is similar to, but significantly different from, the world he knows.

He quickly realizes that the people who greet him enthusiastically think that he is a scientist who has invented a machine that would allow him to explore other, parallel Earths, and they think he is the first person to come back to them after making such a journey. In this new world, the happy family life he has come from has evaporated. Here, he is unmarried; a driven, brilliant researcher who has is doing ground-breaking work in physics.

But that is not his life….or is it? Is the world he thought he knew not his life, and this one the true one? Who was the person who abducted him, and why? And how can he get back to the one life he wants above all others?

Oh, yes, this was unputdownable – which means that I would give myself a half hour longer here and there to keep going, because I had to find out what was going on. That’s as close to binge-reading as I can get these days. But it was a great deal of fun. It’s been awhile since I got quite so caught up in compulsive page-turning.

The physics behind the invention are a little over my head, to be honest, but Crouch does a good job of giving you just enough information to help you grasp the concept, but not so much you get lost in the weeds. For books like these, I want just enough tech-talk to know that such a thing might be possible in theory, and then I don’t worry about the hows. I do have a lot of admiration for authors who write science fiction, though, especially this type of “real world” science fiction. They have to know how it works to make it believable. I think Crouch succeeded in that task in this book.

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“…physics ARE coming…”? Hmm…Nope. Awkward.

The great thing about this book is that it is not just a science fiction thriller. There is some  thought-provoking philosophy in the story as well. Just before he gets knocked out, his abductor asks Jason, “Are you happy with your life?” This  question is the foundation of the book in many ways, and it is one that we ponder about our own lives as we see Jason’s attempts to get back to the life he wants.

The book also forces you to look at the consequences of the choices we make every day: to date that person or not, to take that job or not, to give up that opportunity for career advancement at the cost of your family life, or not. In the book Jason gets to visit several different versions of himself and the life he could have had, and it makes us wonder about what those “other” lives would be like in our case, as well.

Technically speaking, from a writing point of view, for the most part I had no issues with Crouch’s writing. He certainly knows how to keep you turning the pages! The only thing that began to wear on me after awhile was use of lots of short, choppy sentences.

For example, here’s a scene from the beginning of the book, just after Jason wakes up after being abducted and is getting debriefed about his experience.

“Let’s try a different approach,” Amanda says. “What’s the last thing you remember before waking up in the hangar?” 

“I was at a bar.” 

“What were you doing there?” 

“Seeing an old friend.”

“And where was this bar?” she asks. 

“Logan Square.” 

“Okay, can you describe…?”

Her voice drops off into silence. 

I see the El. 

It’s dark.

Too quiet.

Too quiet for Chicago.

Someone is coming. 

Someone who wants to hurt me.

My heart begins to race. 

My hands sweat.

I set the glass down on the table.

“Jason, Leighton is telling me your vitals are becoming elevated.” 

Her voice is back but still an ocean away.

Is this a trick? 

Am I being messed with?

The whole book is not like this, but there is quite a lot of it, and I did find it a bit tiresome in places. But this type of short sentence structure is one trick an author can use to keep a reader barreling through a story, and is particularly effective in this kind of thriller.

A well-crafted story, with high page-turnability, and which leaves you something to think about once you have finished. I give Dark Matter five stars.


Previous posts in this series: 

A Book I Read Because I Liked the Cover

A Book I’ve Been Dying to Read

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 Reading Challenge: Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

I’m not exactly going in order through Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2017 Reading Challenge. Last month I did the first one (a book I read because I liked the cover), but this month I skipped ahead, to the second-last one in the list: a book I was excited to buy or borrow but haven’t read yet. 

This was surprisingly easy, given the backlog of books by my bed and on my Kindle. I decided to read The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen. I bought this book last year, when it was available as a Kindle deal – in fact I think I might have got it for free. I’ve heard lots of good things about this 2014 fantasy novel, and I was quite happy to give myself permission to read it, finally!

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Yes, this is also a book I would read because of the cover! 

 

Kelsea Gwynn is a nineteen year old princess whose mother, the former queen of the Tearling, is dead. Kelsea has been living in an isolated forest home, raised by two guardians who have kept her hidden from those who would harm her, in particular, the Red Queen of the rival kingdom of Montmesne, who is a witch who has lived longer than she should and has ruled over Montmesne for over one hundred years.  But her time of isolation is over, and the book opens with the Queen’s Guards coming to escort her to the capital, where she will be crowned as Queen.

Kelsea is not your average fairy-tale princess. She is overweight, and plain. But she has spent a lot of time reading during her time of exile, and she is smart and compassionate. Her journey to the capital is fraught with danger, for her Uncle who is Regent is not exactly thrilled to give up the throne, and the Red Queen wants her out of the way as well.

The young queen must prove herself at every turn, to her hardened guards, her advisers, and most importantly, to herself. She struggles with doing the right thing, because she is often unaware of what that might be, just like in real life. And there is much that is hidden from her, including important details about her mother, whose memory she idolizes. No one knows who her father is, and it is hinted that this is a vital piece of information, especially to the Red Queen.

There is some magic in this book, but not a lot. Kelsea has a blue stone that she wears around her neck, given to her as an infant, which is one of the ways the Guards know that she is, indeed, the princess they seek. This stone gives her prophetic dreams and superhuman strength at times, but Kelsea is unsure how it works.

Most of the book is about Kelsea settling into her role as Queen, and trying to prepare for the war with Montmesne that she knows is coming, due to the fact that her first act as Queen is to stop the shipping of slaves from Tearling to Montmesne.

I enjoyed this book, with some very large reservations:

The setting. As the book begins you assume this is a medieval-type fantasy, set in an alternate world, as the people ride horses and don’t have electricity or any modern conveniences. But soon you find out that this book is set on Earth, in the future, after some kind of disaster that prompted William Tearling to set off in a boat with a bunch of survivors, discovering this heretofore undiscovered continent. Right. In fact this premise was so obviously bad that I kept giving the author the benefit of the doubt, and pretty much convinced myself that the “ship” must have been a spaceship, and that this was a new planet. But alas, nope. Somehow with all our satellites and images of the Earth from space, we have totally missed a continent. Huh? This was more than annoying to me, and every time the Crossing was mentioned, or the fact that they used to have this or that technology, or mentions of Harry Potter (!), it totally threw me out of the story. Which is a bad thing. I just don’t understand why keeping the setting as Earth was necessary to the story, when it would have been much better set on a different world altogether.

The magic system. As I said, there is a little bit of magic in the book, but given that this is supposed to be Earth in the future, well, how? None of that is explained. Kelsea has her stones that give her some powers, and the Red Queen has done some kind of deal with the Devil (or the Dark Thing as it is called in the book) and one supposes that is why she has some magic powers, but it’s all very nebulous.

Bashing of religion. I’ve said this before, but I get tired of books that portray religion and religious people as Bad or Stupid. Here are some quotes from the book:

“(…) If you can tolerate my arguments, you’re free to minister to or convert any other occupant of this Keep, not excepting the pigs and chickens.”

***

“You make sport of my religion, Lady,” (…)

“I make sport of all things inconsistent, Father.”

***

Andalie pursed her lips (…), “I’m not a religious woman, Lady. I’m sorry if it pains you, but I believe in no god, and even less do I believe in any church.”

***

“How do you expect anyone to believe in your God in these times?”

“I believe in my God, Majesty.”

“Then you’re a fool.”

Okay, we get it.  Enough already. Obviously the author has bought into the cultural narrative that religion, and in particular, the Christian religion, is Bad. In particular, the Catholic Church, as this is the only religion that is portrayed. What happened to all the other denominations and all the other faiths isn’t explained. Another problem with setting this book on a futuristic Earth.

What audience is this for, anyway? I thought this book was  an adult fantasy, when I first started reading it.  But given that the main character is nineteen, and the story line seemed to be about her transition from child to adult, I began to think that perhaps this was meant to be a Young Adult book.   However, there are some pretty sexual themes and scenes in this book, and some strong language, mainly in the scenes with the Red Queen, who likes to have sex with her slaves to alleviate her frustration at not being able to find Kelsea, and tortures them as well when they displease her. And she uses them as a sacrifice to the Dark Thing. So a little too intense for Young Adult,  I would say. I found it a bit jarring, as the lack of strong world-building and the focus at times on Kelsea’s appearance and her unrequited attraction to the charming rogue, the Fetch, seemed pretty YA territory to me, which was interspersed with scenes featuring the  sad0-masochistic Red Queen. It seemed like Johansen was trying to write to two different audiences.

The villain. Kelsea has a bit of a set-to with her uncle, but he is quickly dealt with (and left to go high-tailing to the Red Queen, which doesn’t seem like a great idea), but aside from that, the danger comes from the Red Queen, and it’s a very far-off danger. The two don’t even meet in the book, although Kelsea has vague dreams of her (and vice-versa). We see the Red Queen’s obsession with Kelsea, but we are not sure why, other than Kelsea is Queen of a rival kingdom that under the Regent had been subjected to Montmesne. It’s all a little too unfocused and unclear for me, and even though I was interested in Kelsea’s growth as a person and as a Queen, I would have liked to have seen more about this conflict in the book.I suppose the fact that this is the first book in a series has something to do with that. Presumably the conflict between Kelsea and the Red Queen will intensify.  But we still need some conflict in this book, and I don’t see it. The Regent Uncle, although nasty, is taken off the scene early, and the Red Queen is a remote threat. And while we are on the subject of the Red Queen, this is how she is described:

No one knew who she was, or where she had come from, but she had become a powerful monarch, presiding over a long and bloody reign…

Hmm. No one knew who she was or where she had come from? Really. Presumably she had at least come off the ship with the rest, hadn’t she? And for that matter, if there was a previously undiscovered continent on Earth, were there people there, or not? Maybe the Red Queen was the only remaining person of the Lost Tribe on the Lost Continent? Which, for all the problems with that premise, is at least more interesting than the above description.

I have heard this book compared to The Hunger Games and The Game of Thrones. I’m not sure why, to tell you the truth. I didn’t particularly like The Hunger Games, but the story and the world-building was much more compelling than what I found in the  Queen of the Tearling. And while Johansen is a competent writer, she has nowhere near the skill of George R. R. Martin, never mind that the political machinations in Tearling are not nearly as compelling as those in Westeros.

So, I’m a bit conflicted about this one. It held my attention, and I liked the fact that the heroine was not your typical beautiful, svelte princess. I really wanted to love it. But the confusing setting and the lack of real conflict was a big drawback. This is the first book in the series, so perhaps it gets better in subsequent books, now that the scene is set and the characters are in place. Maybe. But I’m not sure I liked this one enough to pick up the next ones.

Emma Watson is set to play Kelsea in the upcoming movie based on the book (unattractive and frumpy she is NOT, but oh well). Maybe the movie will fix some of the obvious plot holes. We can only hope.

My rating: three stars.

2017 Reading Challenge: Cover Crush!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The description on the back begins:

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

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

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

And in a word, yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Year of Important Books: If Only They Could Talk, by James Herriot

 

You may have noticed by now that animals feature large in this series of blog posts in which I am returning to books that were important to me in childhood. The Wind in the Willows, The Yearling, Winnie the Pooh, and Watership Down all are about animals in one form or another. It is true that many children books are about animals, so it is no wonder that many of my favourites contain four-legged characters. But it is also true that although I read a lot of books as a child, the ones with animals were invariably my favourites. Yes, I loved Peter Pan, and The Swiss Family Robinson, Huckleberry Finn, and other non-animal classics. But the animal stories have always risen to the top of my faves.

So as I thought about what to include in my reading list this year, I just couldn’t go without including a James Herriot book. I discovered these charming tales about a 1930s Yorkshire vet when I was somewhere around ten or eleven, I think, as books I brought home from the school library. And luckily Herriot was still writing new books during those years, and so I got the joy of reading his new releases as I got older.

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My slightly battered James Herriot collection, bought in 1984. But it’s not complete – I’m missing The Lord God Made Them All (1981) and Every Living Thing (1992). Methinks a new collection is in order!

 

James Herriot is the pseudonym of James Alfred “Alf” Wight (1916-1995), a Scottish veterinarian who practiced in and around the Yorkshire Dales during the 1940s to the 1970s. The books were semi-autobiographical in nature, and he began writing them in 1966 when he was 50 years old, at the urging of his wife. He had always wanted to write books, but in the early years his busy practice did not allow any time for writing, but thankfully he listened to his wife and began to put pen to paper.

His first few stories on other subjects such as football were rejected, but then he turned to what he knew best: being a vet in a rural country practice, and his first book, If Only They Could Talk, was published in 1970, followed by It  Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet  in 1972. But the books were not runaway successes. It wasn’t until American publisher Thomas McCormack (St. Thomas Press, New York) read the books and decided to bundle them together into one volume and publish them under the title All Creatures Great and Small in 1972, that Wight became a bestselling author.

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James “Alf” Wight, aka James Herriot. Doesn’t he have a kind face? Photo from biography.com

There is more to these stories than a collection of tales about a rural country vet. But If Only They Could Talk is certainly that, told with a dry humour that is one of the appealing characteristics of the books. In this opening volume of the series we get introduced to the main characters – James Herriot, a newly minted vet looking for this first position, his employer Sigfried Farnon, owner of a practice in the fictional town of Darrowby in Yorkshire, and Sigfried’s younger brother Tristan, a ne’er-do-well, charming young man who is bent on doing the least work he can do and yet still graduate from veterinary school.

But underlying the well-drawn and likeable characters in this book and in the ones that followed is the obvious love and respect Wight had for the people whose animals he looked after, and for the place itself – the wide, wild upswept moors of the Yorkshire Dales, and the picturesque valleys between them.

I love the interactions between James, Sigfried and Tristan, and suffered along with James as he was presented with one baffling case or strong-willed farmer after another, but a lot of my love for these books is tied up with passages like these:

We took a steep, winding road, climbing higher and still higher with the hillside falling away sheer to a dark ravine where a rocky stream rushed headlong to the gentler country below. On the top, we got out of the car. In the summer dusk, a wild panorama of tumbling fells and peaks rolled away and lost itself in the crimson and gold ribbons of the Western sky. To the East, a black mountain overhung us, menacing in its naked bulk. Huge, square-cut boulders littered the lower slopes. 

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Rolling hills in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, scenery that would have been very familiar to Alf Wight. Photo from photeverywhere.co.uk.

This wild country is populated with tough, hardy farmers.  Not an easy bunch to impress but Herriot manages to gain their respect as he shows his willingness to come out to their isolated farms at any time of the day or night, summer or winter, roll up his sleeves, and get to work. His respect for these people and their way of life is evident, giving us a glimpse of the last days of farming in England before the horse disappeared all together and was replaced by machines.

A lot of the humour in the book comes from Herriot’s ability to laugh at himself and the sometimes absurd situations he finds himself in. For example, in this particular book my favourite scene is where James is assisting another vet, Angus Grier, whom Sigfried warns James, can be vindictive if you cross him. James innocently says the wrong thing on the way out to the farm, and Grier gets his revenge by getting  James to don a calving outfit he is carrying around in his trunk.

The outfit turns out to be a heavy rubber suit which obviously had been designed by someone who had never been calving and is more like a scuba diving suit that almost immobilizes James once Grier zips James into it.

When he had finished he stood back admiringly. I must have been a grotesque sight, sheathed  from head to foot in gleaming black, my arms, bare to the shoulders, sticking out almost at right angles. Grier appeared well satisfied. “Well, come on, it’s time we got on wi’ the job.”He turned and hurried towards the byre; I plodded ponderously after him like an automaton. 

Our arrival in the byre caused a sensation. There were present the farmer, two cowmen and a little girl. The men’s cheerful greeting froze on their lips as the menacing figure paced slowly, deliberately in. The little girl burst into tears and ran outside. 

…Grier was working away inside the cow and mumbling away about the weather, but the men weren’t listening, they never took their eyes away from me as I stood rigid, like a suit of armour against the wall. They studied each part of the outfit in turn, wonderingly. I know what they were thinking. Just what was going to happen when this formidable unknown finally went into action. Anybody dressed like that must have some tremendous task ahead of him. 

The intense pressure of the collar against my larynx kept me entirely out of any conversation and this must have added to my air of mystery. I began to sweat inside the suit.

As it turns out the only task James has is to hand Grier a tin of ointment.  I will admit to laughing out loud at this scene, the picture he paints is so excruciatingly embarrassing and ridiculous you can’t help it.

I should perhaps start another series of blog posts, entitled,  “Places I Have Visited Because of Books, ” because, just like the Reichenbach Falls was basically the reason we went to Switzerland, when my hubby and I went to England the first time together I insisted on going to Yorkshire to see the Dales and the places so vividly described in these books.

We went to the small town of Thirsk, which is one of the places Wight lived and was one of the towns upon which he based his imaginary town of Darrowby. But best of all, we took a drive up the fells above the town, up to the high country, and spent a marvellous afternoon exploring this beautiful and remote landscape.

And even though I was there in the mid-eighties, some fifty years after the books were set, I would think that mostly it is the same. Beautiful and rugged, with a sense when you are up there that you are on top of the world.

I can see why Wight loved it so much. And I’m so glad he finally took some time to put his pen to paper and share with us these wonderful tales of the people and animals he served there.

Review – Abomination, by Gary Whitta

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: Edoardo Albert

I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing author and historian Edoardo Albert’s book, Edwin: High King of Britain, a couple weeks back. Today I am very pleased to invite him to the blog, for a discussion of books, writing, and…pizza?

Hi Edorado, and welcome to The Traveller’s Path. Let’s start by having you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey as a writer.

My name is Edoardo Albert and, yes, I am a writer. Words are my drug of choice. Those little packets of meaning – squiggles on a page or fleeting movements in the air – that put my mind in yours and yours in mine; that allow me to hear the dead and speak to the future; the everyday miracle that we ignore. It’s a dangerous business, opening up a book and reading the first line – there’s no knowing where you might end up: heaven, hell, a dull Thursday in Croydon or talking to a woman with a fish’s head. Dear reader, beware! You hold in your hands something more dangerous than an unexploded bomb, more skittish than a thoroughbred sea horse, more insidious than the Zika virus. Listen… Can you hear? I’m in your mind now.

Hello…

How did you get interested in writing about this time and place? And in particular, what was it about Edwin that prompted you to write about him? 

Taking the B1340 road north out of Seahouses. That’s what set me off, eventually, writing about 7th-century Northumbria. When you take this road, you see up ahead, squatting on a great upthrust of the Whin Sill where earth and sea and sky meet, this: Bamburgh Castle.

IMG_2465This I later learned to be the ancient seat of the Idings, the kings of Northumbria; the stronghold of the earls of Northumberland, who held off the Viking kingdom of Jorvik when it seemed all England must surely fall to the Norsemen; five thousand years before Christ, hunters sat atop this rock and looked east over what is now sea and saw there the richest hunting ground of Europe: the water meadows and marshes of Doggerland. All gone now, lost beneath the waves, when the Storegga Slide triggered the tsunami that cut Britain from Europe and started the island kingdom’s story. But, then, I knew nothing of this. All I knew was what I saw: the most magnificent castle I had ever seen – and I had never heard of it before.

However, I was in a good position to learn more, since my brother-in-law, Paul Gething, was one of the directors of the Bamburgh Research Project, an ongoing archaeological investigation into the castle and its surroundings. Paul and the BRP were busy revolutionising our understanding of the early medieval kingdom of Northumbria and, to make their work better known, Paul and I jointly wrote a book about the history and archaeology of the realm, called Northumbria: the Lost Kingdom. In writing that book, I learned about the kings of Northumbria and, in particular, the kings of the conversion period, when the pagan Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, and the kingdom reached a zenith of power: Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu. Reading their history, and the extraordinary story arc of their reigns, I thought that someone must surely have written about them before. But no one had. So I decided to. Edwin: High King of Britain was the first volume of The Northumbrian Thrones; Oswald: Return of the King came out in May 2015 and the final volume, Oswiu: King of Kings, I’ve just finished writing and it will be published in the autumn (or fall, for my north American readers).

I love the portrayal of Edwin’s faith journey in your book, as he moved from paganism to Christianity. I noticed in your biography that you yourself have had a bit of a faith journey of your own. How did your own personal experiences help you to write Edwin’s story? 

I don’t think it did help. Admittedly, I’ve been a bit around the houses with respect to faith (born Catholic, turned atheist at six, dabbled in occultism in my teens, experimented with mysticism, turned Sufi Muslim, back to where I started: if you’re interested, I managed to sneak it into my latest book, London: A Spiritual History, under the guise of using my own life as an example of the myriad spiritual histories that make up the arc of the city’s encounter with God), but when it comes to characters, I attempt to enter imaginatively into their worlds and their personalities, not import my own. This is particularly important in historical fiction, where the world the characters inhabit is so very different from my own.

However, I do find this time (7th-century Britain) particularly fascinating because of the clash of worldviews that characterised it, as the pagan, Germanic, illiterate but strongly oral culture of the Anglo-Saxons, the successful invaders, clashed, melded and reformed under the influence of the Christian, Latin (and Celtic), and literate civilisation of Europe and Ireland. There are fascinating parallels to draw with our own day, as well as much that is unique to the time and place.

What was the biggest challenge for you in writing this book? And is there anything you left out that you wish you could have included? 

Writing it as well as I could. No, nothing left out that I wanted to include.

You have written non-fiction and fiction. Do you enjoy writing one more than the other? 

Fiction.

Who is your favourite writer? (or writers, I know it can be hard to narrow it down!)

I’ll have to go for writers: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Evelyn Waugh.

Once you have finished this series, do you think you will write more stories about this era? Or do you have something completely different planned? 

I’ll be working on a non-fiction book next, so nothing definite yet. Lots of different ideas – some very different indeed! – but at the moment I’m not sure.

Tell us about what you are working on now.

A couple of book proposals for non-fiction work. I’m just firming up the ideas and then my agent is going to start touting them round to publishers (I have just recently signed up with an agent for my non-fiction work but I still represent myself for my fiction).

And now, just for fun:

If you were going to hire someone to write a soundtrack for your novel, who would that be, and why? 

Catherine Groom. Expert in early music, brilliant composer and teacher, funniest writer on Facebook I’ve ever read, and she’s already written the music we used for the intro to the audio extract from Edwin: High King of Britain that you can hear here on my website.

Who would you cast to play Edwin in a film adaptation of your book?

Russell Crowe. Definitely.

Pizza or burger? 

Pizza (the clue’s in my name!).

Tea or coffee? 

Tea (my father is from Sri Lanka, home of the best tea in the world, and his father worked on the tea plantations there).

Favourite TV series?

I barely ever watch television nowadays. But the best series I’ve ever seen is undoubtedly the production of Brideshead Revisited staring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews.

One piece of advice for new writers?

Read. And, if you can, become famous by some other means – this will ensure a publisher’s contract and get your books into stores throughout the land.

Thanks so much to Edoardo, for stopping by the blog today! I am so looking forward to delving into some of his other works – definitely I will be checking out his book on Northumbria. I’m eager to read the other books in his Northumbrian Throne series as well, but I will have to wait until my own are published. Somehow it’s tricky to read about a character you are trying to create in your own mind – too much second-guessing going on. 

I hope you all enjoyed this interview as much as I did!