2017: The Year That Was

Before I forge on into this New Year, I had one more task I wanted to do here on the blog. I thought it would be interesting to examine my stats (helpfully supplied by WordPress) on how I am doing here.

It’s a bit humbling, to be honest, but ho hum. The truth hurts! The good news is the number of views per post is finally starting to go up a bit.I’ve had a few posts get over 100 views this year, so that’s a nice change.

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Here’s the details, in unforgiving black and white:

  1. Most popular post on the blog – the post that has been viewed the most (239 times) is my review of “The Last Kingdom”, the Netflix miniseries about the Dark Age warrior Uthred,  based on the Saxon books by Bernard Cornwall. This appeared on the blog in 2016, so it doesn’t count as the most popular of 2017, but it’s tops over all, so I thought I should mention it.
  2. Most popular post in 2017 – my recent post on Kings and Queens of Anglo-Saxon England got the most views in 2017, with  196 views. That was up on the blog in December and was my last post this year on Anglo-Saxon people and culture. I’m glad to see this topic resonating with readers.
  3. Second and third most popular in 2017 – those go to Penda: King of Mercia (165 views, from February) and What They Wore: Clothing in the 7th Century (110 views, from August). Again, I’m happy that these posts are generating some interest.
  4. Least favourite from 2017  – the dubious honour for this goes to my Year of Fun Reading: Wrap Up (10 views). But that’s probably because that was only a week ago and it was posted in the week between Christmas and New Year. So I’m not sure the lack of views means that people weren’t interested.

It’s interesting to have a look at the numbers, but I find it hard to do any kind of useful analysis on them. It’s probably (hopefully) not true to say that a post is no good judging by the amount of views it gets. Lots of other variables factor in, including time of day you post, and how many people share the post (thank you SO much to those who have done this!). But in general I will say a few things strike me as I look at these stats.

  • The number of views are generally increasing. So, I will take that as a positive.
  • People are liking the posts on Early Middle Ages people and culture. These tend to be the most popular posts on the blog.
  • Book reviews, such as my “Year of” reading challenges and other reviews, are fairly popular, and posts about writing, are slightly less popular that those. And less popular than both those are the posts with my original fiction. That’s not so great for this aspiring writer!

I have tried to do a better job of promoting my blog on social media, mainly via Twitter. I have used Hootsuite to schedule posts so that there is more from me on Twitter but this is something I could definitely improve upon. So I will try to be a little more intentional about that this year and see if I can get my readership continuing to grow.

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The whole spectre of marketing my work is a huge area that I know I can improve upon. There is reams of advice out there for bloggers on how to do that, so I will take some time to work on this in 2018.

However, there is a delicate balance here that I find tricky. I really enjoy writing here on the blog, and I try to do a decent job of crafting interesting posts. Each post probably takes from two to four hours to write. Depending on the topic and the amount of research I have to do, it might be longer.

But I’m also trying to get a novel published. Definitely my writing here detracts from that, just because time spent here is time I’m not spending on my book.  I really enjoy posting here, and the connections I have made through my blog are wonderful, so I don’t want to give it up. And I can see that WHEN I get my book published, it will be good to have this space as a place to connect with readers. So I have to be careful with time management for it all to work.

Last year I developed a writing schedule that I managed to stick to fairly well, but I will spend some time this month revisiting that. I find that setting goals really helps me. I really want to be able to publish in 2018, so I need to get my ducks in a row. And I need to do some serious work on figuring out strategies for effective book launches, and marketing of said book, etc.

There’s lots to look forward to in 2018! Thank you to all my faithful readers, and double thanks to those who take the time to comment or share my posts. You all are a great encouragement and blessing to me, and I look forward to continuing to connect with you here on The Traveller’s Path in the year to come.

Onward and upward!!


Feature photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

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2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

So…here we are in 2018!

A brand new year is an opportunity for reflecting on the past and looking forward to the future, and in this case, I’m going to do the latter and reveal my new reading challenge for 2018: The Year of Reading Buechner.

First of all, a brief explanatory note. I started doing a reading challenge two years ago, with my Year of Reading Lewis, in which once a month I read a book by C.S. Lewis and blogged about it here. I truly enjoyed that series, and will definitely do a Year of Reading Lewis, Pt. 2, one year, because there are many more Lewis books I want to re-read and others I want to discover.

Last year I embarked on the Year of Fun Reading Challenge, inspired by the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog, and had a great time! But this year I wanted to return to something a little more meaty. I almost decided on doing my Lewis Pt. 2 series again, but in the end decided to branch out a bit and try someone different; an author into whose works I have been wanting to delve more deeply.

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Frederick Buechner. Photo from frederickbuechner.com

Frederick Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) is one of America’s greatest living writers, still active today, in his nineties. He has earned many awards, including the O. Henry Award, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, finalist for the National Book Award, Christianity and Literature Belles Lettres Prize, Critics’ Choice Book Award, and others. His honorary degrees include ones from Yale and Virginia Theological Seminary.

Buechner is both an author and a ordained Presbyterian minister, and his writing runs the gamut from poetry, essays, fiction, sermons, and autobiography. He has published over 30 books, which gives me a lot to choose from!

I am not completely new to Frederick Buechner. A couple of years ago I read The Son of Laughter, his book about the biblical patriarch Jacob. I found it so startling and compelling I have been eager to read more of his work ever since. Aside from that, though, I chose Frederick Buechner for my focus this year for a couple of reasons.

First of all, he is someone who writes about the intersection of faith, culture, and art, and that is something I am very interested in. I’m looking forward to his thoughts on this, and to examining how he does that in his own writing.

Blechner also has a couple of fiction books on medieval saints. Godric (published in 1980) was the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that year, and Brendan (1987), is about one of my favourite characters from the Early Middle Ages, Brendan the Navigator. So I will be able to tie at least some of his writing into my Dark Ages focus here on the blog.

Finally, I have been intrigued by the many quotes and excerpts I have read by Buechner.  And in October, when I read this post over at A Pilgrim in Narnia, I was sold. Buechner it would be for 2018!

Probably his most famous quote is one that is good for us all to ponder, especially as we head into this new year:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

– Frederick Buechner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation.

I hope you will join me as I journey into the writing of Frederick Buechner. As in previous years, I will be reading one book a month for this series and will blog about it on the last Friday of the month. The series will start at the end of January with one of Frederick Buechner’s newest: The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Your Life. 


Featured Image from Quotesvalley.com

Merry Christmas!

To all my loyal readers, I wish you a very merry Christmas! May your holidays be filled with love and laughter and warm times with family and friends. 

This Irish Christmas prayer is my prayer for all of you: 

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Blessings!


Featured Photo by Walter Chávez on Unsplash

 

Fiction Feature: Two Sides, Pt. II

Last week I shared Part I of this story. If you missed it, please start there! Here’s Part II…hope you like it!


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Two Sides, Part II

By L.A. Smith

I tossed and turned, thinking through my options, but by morning my decision was made. I had to move fast, before the Jack could snare any more. It was up to me to stop him. Tariq wanted to help me, but he had no idea what he was up against. Taliban or no, the Jack was a bird of a different stripe. He would tear the innkeeper to pieces if he stood in his way.

It would have to be a fight. I would have to challenge him in a duel, and to the victor belonged the spoils.

I checked my computer first thing. I had sent out a couple of messages last night, to other Watchers, asking some questions, looking for some support. But when I tried to log into my mail, it didn’t work. Nor could I access the internet. Service was down.

We are in this ’til the end. Together. Jacks lied as easily as breathing, but something about those words wouldn’t let me go. Something bad is coming.  I felt it too, deep in my bones.

My cell phone was dead, so I grabbed at the landline but it had no dial tone. I strode to the window and pulled aside my curtains, looking into the rain-lashed day.

It was blowing pretty hard, leaves and branches scattered on the streets. An orange light flashed down the road, and I craned my head to see.

Telephone company truck.

The storm had taken down our phone service, and had screwed up our Internet connection too, it seemed.

I had no doubt that if I tried to take my car and drive out of town, a road would be blocked, washed out by the rain, or my car wouldn’t start. Something would happen to prevent me from leaving.

I took a deep breath, letting the curtain fall.

#

Later that day, I stood by the door to the Lantern, composing myself. I had spent some time going around to the people I had already talked to, and some more that I hadn’t. Good ol’ Bob at the Thrift Store, he had done as I had asked, warned his friends against the Jack. He was pretty dismissive of the movie talk that had sprung up overnight, not being one to be dazzled by bright lights.

But just in case, I had used a little sparkle of my own, one that he could not help be dazzled by.

This was desperate times. If I lost the coming fight, the Jack would still be here, with no one to stop him. I’ve seen what happens to a town when a Jack wins. I didn’t want that to happen here.

So I warned as many as I could, reinforcing my words with a little sparkle, trying to turn back some of those the Jack had gathered under his wings. It worked pretty good, actually, and so I was feeling a little more confident as I stood by the door, getting ready for the end game.

He would be out of here by midnight, I resolved. I had cut his influence. Now I just had to   best him in the fight that was coming. I clenched my fists, took a deep breath, and pushed the door open.

The Jack looked straight at me as soon as the door opened, his eyes springing to mine like he had been waiting for me. He looked sick, greyer than he had been yesterday, the lines on his face etched deeper. He nodded at me and hacked into his handkerchief.

I pushed through the crowd that flocked around him. ”I’ll meet you at the Trench in an hour,” I said. “I have something to show you.”

Something sparked in his eye, and a smile spread on his face.

My friends were looking at me with gaping mouths, and again I was reminded of chicks waiting for their next worm.

“Oh, aye,” he said, and even though the music was pounding, I could hear him as clearly as if we were the only two there. “In an hour.”

#

The Trench was an odd thing. It was a scar in the earth, an opening to unknown depths. About 400 feet long and no one knew exactly how deep. In some spots geologists had measured over 8,000 feet down, but their readings always went a little wonky, and so the jury was out on it.

Needless to say, you couldn’t just walk up to the thing, there was too much of a risk that someone could fall in. An enclosure ran around it, with a gate. A building stood nearby where you could buy tickets, along with a gift shop, and a walkway going over and around part of it which had a self-guided tour.

It may seem odd that I had asked the Jack to meet me there, as it was a popular spot with tourists and locals alike. But that wasn’t where I was. That Trench wasn’t the only one in town. There was another one, that only the locals knew about, about a mile from the big one. A smaller scar, about 30 foot long, but just as deep, as far as we knew. It was on private land, and not easily accessible.

Not a problem for me, though because that land had been my Gramma’s. It belonged to my cousin, now, but I didn’t stop in for a visit. This meeting was just for the Birdman and me.

I had no worries that he would go to the other Trench. He would know where to go, where I was. That’s just the way it was, between Jacks and Watchers.

And in the meantime, the others, who had heard my challenge, would go to the other one, for no matter that the Jack would dissuade them, slip away unseen, his hold over them was such that they would follow.  Some of them would figure it out, when they got there and we weren’t there, and head over to the right place. But by that time, it would all be over. One way or another. I would make sure of that.

So at the appointed time I was waiting, mentally assessing possible scenarios for the upcoming fight, looking over the landscape, rehearsing strategy.

This Trench was in a clearing in the woods in the back of the property, at the top of a small rise, a crack in the earth like a crack at the top of a loaf of bread. I was waiting at the bottom of the rise, and I saw the blue jacket coming a ways off, even though the day was waning and the shadows starting to lengthen.

The rain had stopped, but everything was drippy and soggy, and it was cold.

He approached, hacking and sputtering as he came, and I thought I saw him weave unsteadily on his feet.

I frowned. He couldn’t be drunk. The Jacks aren’t affected by alcohol. If they get drunk on anything, it was on the misery and chaos they caused in people’s lives.

He came to a halt in front of me, panting heavily, coughing wetly again.

“Sick, are you?”

He smiled, faintly. “Never mind that,” he said, waving my words away. “I’ll do just fine.”

“What’s this about?” I said, abruptly, curiosity besting my resolve to be quick. “You’re needling me into a fight you can’t win. That’s unlike your kind.”

He barked a laugh, which turned into a wheezing cough. He bent over, hacking and gasping, and as he did, he staggered. Even though I should have known better, I took a step forward, instinctively putting out a hand to steady him.

And he came at me, fast. He was already bent down, low, and he propelled himself forward, grasping my outstretched arm and using my momentum against me to pull me towards him.

His head rammed into my gut like a sledgehammer, and the wind was knocked out of me.

But my training held me in good stead. My reflexes were pretty fast, and I managed to slip away from his grappling hands, staggering a few steps away and giving myself a couple of seconds to get my lungs working again.

Even so, it could have gone bad for me except for the Jack’s weakened condition. The exertion had caused him to cough again, and he was bent over, wheezing just about as bad as me.

I recovered a split second before him. No more Mr. Nice Guy. I darted forward, and as he lifted his head to get his bearings my uppercut caught him squarely under the chin.

I had put everything I had in it, and it would have dropped most men. But this was a Jack, and even debilitated by whatever mystery sickness had gripped him, he was made of pretty strong stuff.

It rocked him, alright, but he managed to stay upright. I didn’t give him any time to recover. I was on him hard, got a couple more punches in before he got his hands up.

The next thing I knew I was staggering back, reeling from a powerful right hook. I felt my eye swelling and cursed my luck.

But it was the only sound blow he landed, as it turned out.

As fights go, it was pretty quick. The sickness that had laid him low had taken away most of his strength. But even so…it was odd. I felt like he was holding something back.

But, whatever. I would take any advantage I had. I soon knocked him down, and paused for a moment as I crouched over him, my fist cocked. I had him, and he knew it. I could see the acceptance in his eye, and my blood surged in triumph.

I lowered my fist. He would surrender to me, and leave, and that would be that.

But he grimaced.  “Finish it, Watcher. Do it. Y’know ye want to.”

The thought had crossed my mind, I admit it. It was the reason I had chosen this spot. I could throw him down the Trench and no one would ever know. But that was going to be the last resort, if I couldn’t best him any other way.

I had beaten him fairly. I wouldn’t kill him now, in cold blood, so to speak. It wasn’t the way I worked.

He saw my hesitation. “I’ll come back, and collect them again. It’s too much fun to be had here, stealing them from right under yer nose. Ye ha’ no idea, what I’ve learned already. The secrets yer friends carry, it’s like to turn yer stomach, Watcher.”

“Enough,” I said, shoving myself upright. “I’ve won. Time for you to go.”

He clambered wearily to his feet, hacking once or twice. He wiped the spittle off of his chin, his beady eyes glittering with malevolence as he eyed me. “Not yet, Watcher. Yer not quite ready, me thinks.”

Ready? I didn’t have time to puzzle it out, because he came at me again, quicker than a snake striking.

It took me by surprise, so I was a split second too long in my sidestep away from him. He clipped me, spinning me around, and then he was on me, and it was different this time. This time he was giving me everything he had, nothing barred.

I did the best I could, knew that if I could hang on long enough this blaze of effort would wear him out. But it was too much. He was in close, punching, twisting, wrestling me, and I laid a few blows on him, but glancing ones, only.

He was strong, and quick, and had fought many more times than me, even with all my practice bouts. I held my own for a few moments, but soon I was on the ground, the Jack growling as he wrapped his hands around my throat and began to squeeze.

In panicked desperation I heaved up, ripping and tearing at his face.

And it worked. His grip around my throat slackened, for just a second, but it was the second I needed. I tore his hands away, and pushed him off me.

My momentum kept me going, and I had no thought now, for mercy. He had shown me none. He was scrabbling away, but I leapt on him, and our positions were reversed.

My hands around his throat, my guttural roar loud as I squeezed.

Everything fled from me except for the fight to survive. Rage filled me, mixed with disgust for this creature and his ilk; my strength renewed by the memory of the friends I had lost to the Jacks before and fear for the friends here already caught in his snare.

He was heaving under me, but he was getting weaker, I could feel it, and pressed harder, triumph surging.

“Stop this! Chris! STOP!”

The voice was loud in my ear, the shock of it like a cold dash of water in my face, and it loosened my grip.

It was Tariq, who shoved me off the Jack. I sprawled inelegantly beside the Birdman, who was heaving and hacking in great wheezing breaths.  “Not this way, Chris, you must not!”

“What the hell–” I sputtered, scrambling up and pushing Tariq aside. It was his turn to go sprawling. I grabbed the Jack by the collar, hoisting him up, intending to smash his head against the hard ground.

He grabbed at my arm, a twisted grin blooming on his face. “Secrets,” he whispered, and choked and sputtered again, “I know them all—“

But I was foiled again by the barkeep, who leapt to his feet. “Christian!” he roared.

I tell you, I felt that, right in the heart of me, my name resonating there like the clanging of a bell, and  I dropped the Jack out of my suddenly numb hands,  falling to my knees beside him.

A memory opened up: my Gramma’s voice firm as she prayed for me. Lord, bless this boy, who bears your name and does your work, in his hour of trial and time of testing. 

I was young, maybe 5 or 6, and we sat on the porch of her house, looking out towards this very spot, although the Trench itself was hidden by a line of trees. I was impatient, thinking only of the cookies she was baking for me, that smelled so good.

For a split second, I was there, seeing my Gramma, her white hair around her like a halo, wishing she would stop talking and get me a cookie.

Then I was back, the Jack howling and twisting, and Tariq, stern and resolute with his hand stretched towards me.

“What—“ I croaked, disoriented. None of this made sense.

“Look,” Tariq said, gesturing at the Jack.

His howls, though weaker now, still rent the air. He twisted and bucked, but he seemed to be unaware of me, his eyes rolling in his head. Something was terribly wrong with him.

Suddenly his eyes righted, focussed on mine again. “Do it, fool,” he rasped, his voice a low snarl. “I want you to do—” A fit overtook him again, and he went rigid, for a moment.

It would have been easy to finish him off. He was helpless, caught in the grip of whatever illness had overcome him.

But the blood lust had left me, and I felt nothing but pity and horror as I watched him shake and gnash his teeth, howl in one last unearthly screech, and then, in a great shudder, fall still.

He was dead.

We were both frozen there for a moment, the Jack and I, until Tariq squatted down on his heels beside us, and I tore my gaze away from the Jack. “How–?” My tongue stalled, tripped up against all the questions I had.

He regarded me solemnly, and I had to resist the urge to squirm under that measured gaze. “Christian,” he said, shaking his head. Again, I felt that chiming resonance within me as he said my name, muted this time. “You are a Watcher, but you do not see.”

Sudden fear seized me. Was he a Jack?  I pushed the fear aside. It couldn’t be. They had one name, only. And Tariq wasn’t it.

But who is he? I wanted to interrogate him, to find out what was going on, to find out exactly how much he knew, and how he knew it. But the words died in my mouth in the face of his quiet regard. “I don’t understand,” I managed.

A faint smile crossed his face. “Ah. At last you show some wisdom.” He gestured at the Jack again, lying between us.”Look at him.”

The command in his voice was such that my head snapped down without hesitation. The Birdman was perfectly still, absolutely dead. My eyes roved over him, but I saw nothing that jumped out at me.

I looked back at Tariq. “What killed him?”

“His time was over. Is that not so, for all men?”

“But he was sick, or something. I’ve never seen a Jack—“ I broke off.

“Look at him,” he said, again.

Prodded by a sudden impulse, I reached towards the body, rolling it towards me. The head lolled limply, his hair caught in a sudden gust, lifting off his face.

Shock went through me like a bolt of lightning, and I dropped him as if burned, scrabbling to my feet. There, behind his right ear, was a small birthmark, in the shape of a star.

A mark identical to my own.

Tariq rose to his feet smoothly. “Now you see.”

And suddenly, I did. I had always wondered where the Jacks came from, who I was, what this strange dance we were engaged in meant. With a slow shudder of horror I saw the truth. “He knew he was dying,” I whispered, and Tariq nodded. “And he wanted to somehow change me—“

Tariq shook his head, sharply. “Don’t be foolish. He was only prodding you down the path you were eager to go.”

“What are you talking about? I don’t want to be a Jack—“ But then my mouth snapped shut as memories of my day rushed back. I had gone around to my friends, to people I loved, and had used my influence on them, sparkling  at them to quiet any questions they had about why I was so insistent on them staying away from the Jack. I had seen their acquiescence, felt it, smugly satisfied in my success. They had been wrapped around my little finger, snared just as securely as a Jack snared his victims.

And then what? I had come out here to run the Jack out of town, or I had tried to tell myself that, but in the face of Tariq’s unwavering gaze I had to admit to myself that really, I had come here to kill him. To take my revenge, to toss him in the Trench—

I staggered, a wave of dizziness washing over me. “I would be like him.” I gasped, backing away in horror.

“Yes,” he said, quietly, and that word pressed in on me so hard I almost fell to my knees again.

“And if I had done it, if I had killed him…” I couldn’t finish.

”You would have risen from his death, tossed his body back to the depths, and had taken his place as a Jack, your name erased, your legacy turned to his purpose. And you would have done it eagerly.”

I could see it as he spoke; see me finishing the deed, see me striding away from here, whistling, not a care in the world, my corruption following me like a dark shadow.

And but for Tariq, I would have done it. “Why are you here?”

Something flashed through his eyes, a burnished flame, and then he smiled, and shrugged. “You asked for my help, remember?” His eyes caught mine, his gaze serene, and the breath caught in my throat.

I had a million other questions, but I couldn’t get them out as he turned, walking away rapidly.

The clouds were beginning to part, the death of the Jack bringing the usual summer sun back. Tariq had almost reached the trees when a sudden spear of sunlight stabbed the ground in front of him, and he walked through it and into the trees.

Or maybe he disappeared into that light. It was hard to tell, from where I was standing.

I looked down at the Jack, at one of my own, who had nearly succeeded in capturing me in the same darkness that had enveloped him, and shook my head.

With some effort, I dragged him to the top of the rise, and panting, rolled him into the black rift at the top.

I listened for a long time, but I did not hear anything from the depths.

Finally I stood, wearily, and made my way down the rise, heading for the trees. I was halfway there when my friends appeared. George, and Jim, and luckless Ed.

They approached me, worry on their faces, and congregated around.

“Holy cow, Chris, what happened to you?” Jim said, whistling as he looked at my eye, the bruises on my face. “Where’s that guy?”

I shrugged. “Gone.” I grinned then, feeling light as a feather. “We had a little disagreement.”

George frowned. “You chased him off?” He let out a breath, and I could almost see the Jack’s spell dropping off him. “Ya know, he was a bit creepy. I bet he wasn’t going to make a movie after all. I heard he was a con man. You likely did us a favour.”

He clapped my shoulder, the rest crowding close, eager to tell me what they really thought of him.

Just like chicks around their mama, looking for a worm.

I grimaced. “Come on, fellas, Never mind. Look, I’m tired. Been a rough day. Let’s go to the Lantern, shoot some pool. Waddya say?”

They grinned, and nodded, and I hadn’t used any sparkle on them at all.


Want more original fiction? Here’s the links to my other stories up on the blog:

Two Sides, Pt. 1

Chasing the Prize

More

Life for Life

Dust 

A Delicious Irony

“Red”

This Strange Thing Called Fear

 

 

Fiction Feature: Two Sides, Pt. 1

I’m trying to be more intentional about sharing my own original fiction here on the blog.  This story is one of my personal favourites, but it’s too long to share in one post. So, I’ve decided to give it to you in two parts. Part II will come next week. I hope you like it…all feedback welcome!


 

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Two Sides (Pt. 1)

I knew a Birdman would turn up eventually, but it was still a shock when I found one at the Lantern.

Tariq, the barkeep, caught my eye when I entered and nodded towards the table where my friends were sitting. I looked over and the breath caught in my chest.

Jim, George, and luckless Ed, they were all there, and one of those creatures was with them. To their eyes he would seem an ordinary person, but I knew better.

His blue coat was faded and torn, lapels shiny with use. Despite his down-and-out appearance, he sat like an eagle among the chicks, claws ready to rend and tear. His eyes met mine, and I saw laughter in them. Not fresh, clean laughter. More like the throaty chuckle of a raven on the roof.

The sight of him snapped all the tiredness out of me, the shock of it quickly turning to anger. It had been four years since I encountered one, in a town far from here. My faint hope that I had seen the last of them evaporated.

Jim saw me, and his face split in a grin.”Hey, Chris, c’mon over. Got someone you oughta meet!”

Steeling myself, I sat down at the table.

“This here’s Jack. He’s new in town, just came today.” Jim had been at the liquor long enough for his limbs to be loose, his smile goofy.

He needn’t have bothered with the introduction, for the Birdmen were all named Jack. This one had black hair flecked with grey, a five o’clock shadow darkening his chin. The picture of a scruffy, middle-aged down and outer.

Which was odd. Normally they didn’t look a day over thirty.

He put his hand out across the table.”Pleased to meet ye,” he said, a friendly smile stretched on his face.

I nodded back, but there was no way I’d take his hand.  I’d seen men snared by a Birdman by just one touch. Doubt it could happen to me, but I wasn’t taking any chances. “Likewise.”

His hand hung there a moment, and then he drew it back, that smile easy on his face.

George looked embarrassed at my apparent lack of manners. “You had a bad day today, Chris?”

I just shrugged. He couldn’t know I was being far more polite than I should be. I should be kicking that jack-a-daw’s head in, so I figure my restraint was pretty good manners.

The waitress appeared, thumping a pint of my favourite brew down in front of me.

I looked up at her, to say thanks, but she only had eyes for the Jack. She smiled at him, a dimple flashing, never mind that she was fifty if she was a day. “Any more for you?”

His eyes twinkled as he hoisted his still-full mug.”Nothin’ more for now, lady-luck.”

She just about giggled, I swear. “Well, just let me know, will ya?”

He’d snared her, alright. And as I glanced at the men around the table, saw the way their eyes shifted to that Jack, drawn like iron to a magnet, my anger deepened. Not just Linda had been caught.

That’s what the Birdmen do. They draw people into their traps, and they take. They go through their lives and poke, peck, and steal, uncovering all the garbage, leaving it strewn and stinking behind them once they’d had all the fun they wanted.

Just like a crow through the dump, my gramma used to say. But not nearly as loud. It’s why I called them the Birdmen.

Gramma had the gift of seeing them for what they were, and she knew right away that I did, too. It was the birthmark that gave it away, the small dark shadow etched on my skin just under my right ear. Hardly noticeable, except to those who know what to look for. A mark shaped like a star.

Gramma taught me all she knew about them. It was her that had named me, encouraging my mom to lay on me the name of Christian, after her father.

A good, strong name, she told me, once I got old enough. It will help. The Jacks are sensitive to that kind of thing. 

When I see a Birdman my insides give a bit of a quiver, and I feel cold and hot all at once. Minor imps, Gramma used to call them. Those words are too cuddly. Nothing minor about the damage they cause, the lives they ruin. And nothing impish about the way they go about it.

They call us the Watchers, and can spot us just as easily as we spot them. Makes for awkward situations, sometimes. Like now, sitting across from one with my friends all around, oblivious.

“And you are—?” Jack turned his beady eyes back on me.

I smiled back, just as easy as he had smiled at me. “Christian.” I enjoyed the slight twitch of his shoulders on hearing my name. “My friends call me Chris,” I added, before he could comment.

He twitched again, with a cold flash in his eyes that no one but me saw. He got the message, though. The Birdmen are sensitive about names. Gram thought that it was because they all had the same name. And so they had developed elaborate and arcane rules about names, ways to control and manipulate someone else by understanding what their name meant.

But there were some names that were immune to their charmings.  Names like mine.

“Unusual name, these days,” Birdman said.

I raised an eyebrow. “Named after my great-grandpa,” I said, and took a small sip of my beer.  “How ’bout you, Jack?  Who you named after?”

I couldn’t help it. They think they are so smart, the way they sneak in the shadows, tangle up anything that’s good. Lord it over all those poor people who don’t even know what happened to them, once they’re gone. Don’t even remember them, for the most part, except in their nightmares.

Oh yeah. If I get a chance to get under a Birdman’s skin, I take it.

His eyes darted fury at me. “Not sure,” he said, smoothly, and tried on a smile again. “My daddy never tol’ me much about my family. It was just him an’ me, and he’s gone now.”

Stricken looks flashed around my friends, sympathy for that cuckoo. It just about made me sick.

I wanted to needle him some more, but as I glanced around the table, I  relaxed my clenched fists.The Jack had already caught them neatly in his claws. From now on, until he had his fun and left, all of these guys would want nothing more but to please him.

If I pushed him too hard, he would take it out on them.

“Sorry to hear that,” I said. There was no sorry in my voice, not at all, but my friends relaxed.

“Sorry,” Jim mumbled from beside me, his hang-dog eyes looking even more mournful as he looked at the Jack.

“Yeah, man, sucks,” George said, pulling deeply on his beer.

“These things happen,” Jack said, lightly. He slapped the table then, jovial. “Well now, friends, it’s been real convivial gettin’ to know ye. I was a-gonna move on from here tonight, try my luck down the road, but I think maybe I’ll stay awhile. What ye think, then, boyos?”

And as they all chorused their assent, piping around the table like hungry chicks at their mama, the Jack just sat and smirked, his beady black eyes hard on mine.

#

I tossed and turned that night. At 2 AM I gave up, heading for the kitchen, and was stopped by a sharp knock on the door. The cold curdle in the pit of my stomach told me who it was.

I clenched my fist, and turned to the door. Despite my revulsion, I was curious.  Usually the Jacks wanted nothing to do with us Watchers. Like I said, they preferred to operate in the shadows, in secret.

“Waddya want?” I asked, my voice low.

“Let me in. Let’s talk.”

I snorted. “Come on. Let’s not waste time. Tell me what you want, or leave.”

Silence fell, profound and deep, and then he cleared his throat, coughed once. “Neutral ground, boyo? Across the street, in that old park?”

I almost assented, but fortunately my brain kicked into gear before I opened my mouth. Obeying a Jack gave them power over you. It’s one of the ways they did their dirty work.

“Nice try.” I said, “The pier. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

There was a low chuckle, another cough, and then I heard the creak in the floor as he walked away.

I hurried to the living room, pulled the curtains back a notch and scanned the street below.

A lone figure strode purposely away from the building, coat tails flapping, and disappeared into the night’s shadows as he turned the corner. What kind of trap was this?

I had no fear there would be any more of them. The Jacks were always alone. Just like Watchers. Only one of us to a place. Two sides to a coin, Gram told me. Heads or tails. Just make sure your side always lands up. 

Just the way it was, a mystery I had yet to understand. All I knew for sure was that when a Jack showed up, it was my job to deal with him. My mission from God, or that’s what Gramma used to say. But she had more faith than me.

It didn’t take me long to get ready. Pulled on my jeans, a hoodie, my black bomber jacket.  It was the middle of summer, but I knew it was going to get colder.  It was part of the effect they had on a place.

I stopped at the door and looked at the icon that was hanging there, the one Gram had sent me, when I met my first Jack. St. Michael the warrior angel. I touched it briefly.

“Look after me, won’t ya?”

The serenity in his eyes gave me some courage, and I quickly pulled open the door, shutting it softly behind me.

#

It got progressively cooler as I neared the lake, and soon I was zipping up my jacket.

Traffic was light, and what cars I saw were heading away from the water. You might think that was a coincidence, but I knew better. A Jack mesmerized people up close, but repelled them from a distance.

Who knows why. Cancer took my Gramma when I was 15. She didn’t have long enough to teach me everything I needed to know. We couldn’t live in the same city, she had moved soon after I was born. Our phone calls had been sporadic, letters few. Not for lack of trying, but the odd rules that governed us made it so that letters were lost, phone calls dropped, e-mail addresses broken.

But she got a call through to me, near the end. Don’t be afraid, she said, her voice weak. Your name will guard you, but be careful. The Jacks will destroy you if your courage is weak. You’ll fall sometimes, but you have to keep getting up. Don’t let them win. Please. 

I had to blink sudden tears from my eyes, remembering. I curled my hands into fists and kept walking.

Mist was rising from the lake as the cold presence of the Jack met the sun’s warmth radiating from the earth. The water was black. No moon, tonight. Clouds were blotting out the stars. Soon the summer’s heat would turn to rain.

The wooden pier stretched over the water. At night, lights affixed to one side in regular intervals lent it a festive air. But tonight, with their warm glow only dimly showing through the fog that shrouded the pier, it was no longer festive. Eerie would be a better word, made even more so as I glimpsed the black silhouette of the Jack, standing at the end of the pier, waiting.

#

He stood perfectly still as I approached, my steps echoing off the wooden pier. The  water lapped and sloshed against the pilings.

The fog rolled around me as I walked, caressing my skin with clammy fingers. I tried to keep my fears under control. Birdmen could  sense fear from a mile off, and would exploit it in a second.

It’s why most people would call me cocky, arrogant even. But I have my fears just like any man. I’ve just learned to bury them.

The Jack’s coat was unbuttoned. He didn’t feel the cold. “Evening,” he said, pleasant-like, nodding his head. His words vapourized into steam as he spoke.

“What do you want, Jack? Tell me, and be gone.”

His nostrils flared in distaste, not liking the sound of his name from my lips. “I come to warn ye, and to deliver a proposition.”

I eyed him, skeptical. “Warn me about what?”

“Something bad’s comin’,” he said. He paused for a moment, letting his words sink in. “But you and me, if we work together, we can stop it.”

I must admit, I wasn’t expecting that. “Stop what?”

The Birdman shook his head, emphatically. “I will not name it, and call it closer. I have told ye as much as I can. It’s coming, Watcher. And when it gets here, you will rue the day ye refused my help.”

I snorted. “Really. Cute.”

He stood there, glowering at me. Rain started spattering, the wind gusting against us. I was impatient now, wanting this meeting over.

I took one step closer. “I’ve got a warning and a proposition of my own, Jack. You and I can go through the dance our kind always does, and in the end you will leave this town, considerably worse for wear. Or, you can leave now. Tonight. Make your choice.”

My hands balled into fists, and I held myself ready.

But he just sneered at me. “I will not leave. I canna. And neither can you. We are in this until the end, together. And if ye will not help me, the both of us will be destroyed, and your precious town an’ all.” His eyes were black holes of wrath. “You know how to find me. Ye change yer mind, come to me. But I tell ye true, I will be running the show, then. No partnership.”

Despite my anger, a tendril of fear was uncurling in my belly. He seemed to believe what he was saying. And no matter that for the Jacks, lying was as natural as breathing, I was almost believing him, too.

Almost.

We eyed each other a moment longer, then I turned on my heel to leave. Though the rain, I heard him again, his voice raised. “Test me words, Watcher. Try to leave. And when you canna, come to me. We’ll talk again.”

I hunched my shoulders at the words and kept walking, into the worsening storm.

#

The next day dawned grey, wet, and cold. The radio was full of chatter about an unexpected summer squall that looked to be settling in for a few days. Typical. As long as the Jack was here, summer would be but a memory.

My boss called to say I wouldn’t be needed that day. Too wet to work on the house we were building. Fine by me. I had preparations to make.

To rid yourself of a Jack was a tricky business. So much of it depended on when you first discovered him. If he hadn’t been around long, his influence was much less, and it was easier. Their magic only went so deep. But if he had time to weave his way into a community, to establish friendships, to start to glean all the nuggets he wanted from people’s lives, well, it became much more difficult. Almost impossible, in fact.  Just depended on his experience, and the people themselves.

Physical force was a method of last resort, but sometimes that was all I had. There was a reason I did manual labour for a living, a reason I took boxing and martial arts training. I wanted to be ready.

Thing is, weapons were useless. Knife, gun, whatever, had no effect on a Jack. So if it came to it, it was a knock-down, drag-em-out fight, ’til someone surrendered. Killing was the last resort, even if it was possible. Gram said it was hard to kill a Jack. I hoped the same would be true of me, but I had yet to test either theory.

The easier way was to cut off his circle of influence. Get to the people he had started to charm, and better yet, the people he had yet to meet. If I could warn them about him, then he was out of luck.

Watchers had some help with this. Sparkle, I called it. I could turn on the charm myself, get people to listen. It was more than just personality, it was a little magic of my own.

Like my Gramma said, two sides to a coin.

I used it sparingly, for it came at a cost. It fed the arrogance I needed to win. Frightened me, if truth be told. Luckily us Watchers didn’t encounter the Jacks very often. One every few years was the norm. Good thing. It wore on me.

My town was small, around 7,000 people. Everything was close to everything else, no place too far to walk to. It meant that nowhere in my town was off limits to the Jack, and the thought brought a cold shiver to my gut.

I touched St. Mike again on the way out. I was going to need all the help I could get.

#

I started at Second Best, a Thrift store at the end of Main. The owner was a good friend of mine, and his store far enough away from the Lantern to have escaped the Jack’s interest, for now.

I told Ben the Birdman was a con man and a thief, and to show him the door when he came in. Ben listened carefully, and by the time I left I knew I had convinced him, and that he would warn others about the Jack, as well.

But the rest of the day was a draw. Mike at the Cafe had already met Jack yesterday, and was lost to him. Same result at the travel agent, and a few other places. But I had better luck at the burger joint, and the jewellery store, and at the pharmacy and the liquor store.

So I was feeling pretty good when I got to Happy Tots, the daycare at the opposite end of Main from Second Best. But soon as I brought up the Jack, Celia, the cute twenty-something that ran the place, screwed up her face in a frown.

“Why, I met him  this morning! Nice guy, he was. Real nice. He brought some apples for the kids, and everything! They just loved him!”

I tried to warn her, used a little sparkle, but she was having nothing of it. I left there with a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach, all my previous successes like ash in my mouth.

I had made a tactical error. I should have came here first. The kids had no chance against a Jack, and through them he would get the parents. Some of those parents I had already talked to, but I may as well have not bothered. My warning would dissolve against the eager endorsement of their kids.

The rain beat against me as I made my way back along Main, kicking myself for a fool. Before I knew I looked up and I was back at the Lantern.

Cars lined the street on both sides. My fists clenched. There was no point in my going in, none at all, but I was angry. I shoved the door open and stepped inside.

Tables were filled, the waitresses hustling. I saw him right away, at the same table as last night. My friends were all there, circled around him, and a couple strangers, besides.

I pushed my way through the crowds to the bar, ignoring their table.  It took a couple of minutes for Tariq to notice me, but when he did he hurried right over. “Chris, welcome! Sorry, I did not see you there.”

“No problem. It’s busy.” I couldn’t quite hide the bitterness in my voice. I nodded at Jack and my friends. “He been here all day?”

Tariq looked over, a frown crossing his face, and then looked back at me, and shrugged.”On and off. What can I get you?”

Interesting. The Birdman had been in the bar long enough that Tariq should be fawning at his feet. But there are a few people, other than Watchers, who are immune to the Jacks and their charm. It looked like Tariq was one of them. “Just a Coke tonight. Got some work to do later. I’ll go sit with the guys. Can you bring it over?”

”Jenna will bring it,” he said, with a small smile of apology, gesturing at the packed room. “I’m a little busy.” He hurried off, and I watched him go, wishing I could explore his aversion to the Jack, maybe use it to my advantage. I’d have to talk to him later.

“Chris! There you are!” Ed waved at me to join them, and with a sigh, I pushed myself away from the bar, ignoring the grinning Jack and nodding at the guys as I sat down.

Jim raised a mug at me. “Cheers, bud!” he said. “Bout time you showed up. You weren’t working in that crap today, were ya?”

I shook my head. “Nah. Had some other things to do, though.”

My eyes met the Birdman’s, briefly. He nodded at me, imperceptibly, raised his glass at me, and then hacked a cough.

“Ya know, this Jack here, he’s quite the guy,” George said, eagerly. “Tell ’em, Jack, what you’ve been thinkin’.”

The Jack coughed again, into a dirty handkerchief he pulled out of a pocket.”Well, now, yer friend here, I don’t think he’ll be interested,” he demurred, waving a hand.

“C’mon, Jack! Sure he will!”

“Alrighty. Y’see, I’ve got meself a wee business.” I could see the amusement in his eyes. He loved this, playing for an audience, the real story one only he and I understood.

“You don’t say,” I said. “And what kind of business would that be?”

“I make movies. Documentaries.”

“He’s gonna do a movie about our town!” Jim announced, all wide-eyed. “And he wants to interview all of us!”

My stomach curdled at the thought, but before I could comment, Jenna arrived with my Coke.

“Thanks,” I said, looking up at her. Cute girl, with long bouncy black hair. But she had no time for me. Her sapphire eyes were fixed firmly on the Birdman.

He flashed a smile at her. “Ah yes, Miss Jenna here is gonna be in my wee movie, aren’t ye, darlin’?”

Jenna flushed, and shrugged. “Maybe,” she said, but we all saw her “maybe” meant “yes”, and the table erupted into raucous laughter.

Someone called out for another drink, and Jenna reluctantly tore herself away from the Birdman’s gaze and hurried away.

“Ah, a beauty she is,” the Jack said. There were a few ribald comments from the men, and I grew sick of it, suddenly.

I took a swallow from my drink and then stood up, dropping some coins on the table.”Look, fellas, I gotta go.”

“Come on, Chris, don’t you wanna hear about the movie? Jack here says we can all be in it. It’s all about the Trench.”

The Trench, a unique geological feature just outside of town, was a deep fissure in the earth that fascinated spelunkers and geologists alike. Everyone had a theory about what caused it, from a long-ago earthquake to a UFO landing gone wrong. It put our little town on the map, so to speak.

There would be no lack of people eager to invite the Jack into their homes and yammer away into a camera about it. And once in their homes, the Birdman had them. Simple as that.

“I’m sure I’ll hear all about it,” I muttered, and turned on my heel, eager to leave.

No one called after me. I didn’t have to look back to know they would all be pressing around the table towards the Jack, my presence all but forgotten.

I yanked the door open, but before the door shut I heard the Jack coughing again.

It gave me pause. I had never known a Jack to be sick. They seemed above any mortal diseases. He must be faking it, for sympathy, or something. But they didn’t usually need to stoop to such lengths. Yet another thing about this particular Jack that was not quite right.

It was dark outside now, rain still falling. I squinted up at the clouds sourly, and strode around the back of the building, to take the short cut to my apartment.

Just as I passed the back door, it opened, and Tariq stepped out, the security light illuminating his face. “Please, I would have a word.”

I joined him under the shelter of the eaves, the rain dripping all around us, washing away the usual smells of dank garbage and urine that haunted the alley behind the Lantern.

“This man,” he said, distaste in his voice, his shoulders hunching up slightly. “This Jack.”

I eyed him carefully. He was immune, all right, and wary. And as much as I was glad to see it, it worried me. Jacks weren’t too kind to the ones who saw them for what they were.

“What about him?”

“I think you do not like him.”

“You think right,” I said. “He’s bad news.”

“You know him, then?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“I wish him away from here,” he said, suddenly vehement. “But the others, they are excited by this movie—“

“Look, Tariq, you are right to be worried. But just stay out of his way, okay? I’ve got a plan. I’ll deal with him. He’ll be gone soon.” I spoke with more confidence than I felt. The Birdman’s inroad into the daycare had shaken me quite a bit.

“Let me help.“

“No. It’s too dangerous. Just lay low, try to ignore him.”

He frowned up at me. “I am not a child, Christian.”

Resolve filled his face and I remembered that he had come here from Afghanistan, fleeing the Taliban. He was no stranger to evil men and what they could do.

I placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know. Look, I appreciate the offer. But you see how he easily he can get people wrapped around his little finger. And if you try to move against him, they will all turn on you. You can’t fight them all.”

His face was grim. “And you can?”

“No. There’s another way.” I paused, unsure how to explain. “Let me deal with him, please. He and I, we have some history. I know what I’m doing.”

“Do you?”

There was something in his eyes that stopped my quick answer, and the words died in my mouth.

Just then the door cracked open. It was Jenna, the waitress. “We need you, Boss. It’s crazy in there.”

“Yes, I am coming,” Tariq said, and she closed the door.

He turned back to me. “I will help,” he said, stubbornly. “This is too big for you, I think. That man, he is no man. It is a jinni, come to bedevil us. Your pride will destroy you if you are not careful.”

He turned and pulled open the door, and slipped inside to a burst of laughter and music that faded as the door shut.

END PART ONE


Part two coming next week! In the meantime, if you have missed my other original fiction here on the blog, here are the links: 

Chasing the Prize

More

Life for Life

Dust 

A Delicious Irony

“Red”

This Strange Thing Called Fear

 

YOFR : Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

(Last week I fell behind, and missed posting this on Friday. And then things got even busier. But I’m back on track now, so this week, you get two blog posts!)


This month my Year of Fun Reading Challenge required me to read a book recommended by someone with great taste.

I don’t know about you, but I have a book guru in my life. Someone who I look to for book recommendations, because I know she shares the same love of reading and appreciation of a good book that I do. And we also are similar in that we read widely in book genres. She might have a few more romance-y type books than I do, and I might stray a little further down the science fiction/fantasy path than she will, but generally we both like to read widely, and have pretty high standards when it comes to quality of writing and plot development.

So when I was looking for a book to fulfill this challenge, I decided to read a book that my book guru recommended, that being Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2011). This book has been out for a few years, and has been getting rave reviews from day one.  However, I was a little leery of it because it features a teen mastermind who basically saves the world, and I don’t particularly like Young Adult fiction, nor storylines about teen geniuses that save the world (Wesley Crusher anyone? Ugh.)*.

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So I had been avoiding this book, until my book guru told me she had read it and enjoyed it, and recommended that I give it a go.

What makes a good book, anyway? For me it’s a mix of great characters, a compelling story and high quality of writing. You can play around on the sliding scale of good to bad on any one of these qualities but essentially I need a book to have some of all of them for me to truly enjoy it.

Ready Player One hits the mark on all of them, I am thankful to say. My book guru was right. I did enjoy it!

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There are a lot of dystopian future novels out there, and Ready Player One fits firmly in that camp. A lot of those YA dystopian novels also feature some kind of love triangle (i.e. Hunger Games). Although there is a romance in this book, it’s not a love triangle, thankfully.

The story is set in a near-future America (2044), where due to global warming, an energy crisis, and economic collapse,  life is pretty dire indeed. The only relief from the bleakness of life is the virtual reality platform called OASIS where players can immerse themselves in another world (or worlds, technically) using specialized goggles, haptic gloves (to feel things) and body suits.

On his death, James Halliday, the creator of OASIS, reveals that he has hidden a very special Easter egg inside of OASIS, which, if found, will enable the winner to inherit his  fortune and ownership of OASIS. An Easter egg, if you don’t know, is a special hidden bonus in video games that gamers can find, which may or may not have anything to do with the game itself.  This sets off a global egg hunt (inside the virtual realities of OASIS), but the clues are so tricky enthusiasm wanes quickly and eventually, five years after the announcement, no one has deciphered the first clue and the only ones left searching for the egg are the die-hard dedicated gamers.

The protagonist, Wade Watts, who has given his avatar in the game the name of Parzival, is a young teen who lives in the “stacks”, basically a trailer home in which the trailers are stacked on top of each other. He is your typical geek, who spends far more time in the virtual world of OASIS than in the real world. He spends most of his time trying to figure out the first clue to the first stage of the hunt and in a eureka moment figures out that the first clue will lead him to a place on the virtual planet that his (virtual) school is on.

When he finds it, the announcement goes out on the game scoreboard, and the interest in the hunt is revived world-wide, as people realize that the announcement of the Easter egg was not just a joke that the OASIS founder, James Halliday, had perpetuated on the world. Parzival is immediately famous, and the eyes of the world are on him as he begins to work out the next clue.

Wade (Parzival) has two good friends in OASIS: Art3mis (a girl he has a crush on), and Aesch (pronounced like the letter “h”). Wade has never met these people in real life, he only knows them through their avatars in OASIS. He helps both of them get the first clue as well, and the three of them begin the task of trying to figure out the rest of the clues and get the prize. They, along with a couple of others from japan (Daito and Shoto) become the top five “gunters” (egg-hunters).

Complicating the search is the main antagonist, Nolan Sorrento, the head of Innovative Online Services (IOI), the worldwide Internet provider, who wants to find the egg in order to gain control of OASIS and monetize it. The IOI players are well-funded and have all the resources that the gunters could only dream of.

This is a well-written novel, with likeable, realistic characters. The plot is exciting and interesting. It was a great deal of fun to be immersed in this Easter egg hunt along with Parzival. Sorrento and IOI are ruthless, even resorting to murder to advance their progress in the game. OASIS itself is a fascinating place, with lots of worlds to explore and puzzles to solve.

The plot builds to a satisfying and exciting climax, allowing our hero to grow along the way and face down his nemesis in a way that fits seamlessly into the plot.

The best part of Ready Player One, however, is the fact that the whole novel is immersed in the pop culture of the 1980s. Halliday, the creator of OASIS, was a 1980s aficionado, so the clues to the hunt and the various puzzles and challenges the gunters have to solve, are all related to the 1980s somehow, including games of PacMan, nods to Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, and movies such as Blade Runner and War Games, and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail (yessssss!).

I graduated high school in 1980, so all of these references made the book that much more fun. I suspect they are part of the reason why this book has become so popular. It has even caught the eye of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, whose film adaptation of the novel is coming out in 2018. Which is fantastic. This is one of those books that is just begging to be made into a movie, and to have Spielberg at the helm is perfect for it.

Ready Player One is a good book, meeting or exceeding all of my requirements for book excellence.

Thanks, Book Guru. I owe you one!

My rating: 5 stars. Loved it.


*Fun Fact: Will Wheaton, the actor who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, is the narrator for the audiobook of Ready Player One.

Repost: It’s A Monk’s Life

It’s been a busy couple of weeks so I thought I would share a post from a couple of years ago that didn’t get a lot of looks.  Hope you enjoy!


Religion is what you do with your solitude.”  – Archbishop William Temple

The Irish Celtic monks who lived at Lindisfarne in the 7th century would have understood this quote. Solitude was an important part of their practice of faith – so much so that the choice of the tidal island of Lindisfarne was a deliberate one, made to accommodate their desire to set themselves apart from the world. This island that was separated by the tides twice a day was a perfect place to enforce that solitude.

The monks there practiced a rugged aesthetic Christianity, whose roots went back to the Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries. Their monastery was modelled after the one at Hii (modern-day Iona) founded by Columba, which also was situated on an island and at the time the most influential centre for the particular flavour of Christianity practiced by the Irish monks. Lindisfarne’s Abbot and Bishop, Aidan, came from Iona in 635 AD along with 12 other monks at the invitation of Oswald, King of Bernica, to start a monastery in that kingdom.

Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne Island, Northumbria. CC image courtesy of David Newman on Flickr

Irish society at the time was based on clan and kinship ties, and the monasteries were similar, in that they revolved around the Abbot as leader and promoted a strong sense of community. The Celtic Christianity practiced by the monks included much that resonates with us today: the goodness of Creation, a greater allowance for the role of women in the church, and an emphasis on accountability between individuals. But it also contained elements we find difficult to understand. In particular, the extreme aestheticism shown by practices such as praying for hours while immersed in the cold ocean, rigorous fasting, hundreds of genuflections at a time, the cross-vigil (praying prostrate on the floor before a cross) and even self-flagellation.

There is not enough space in this blog post to fully comment on those practices, other than to say that they, like the monks themselves, are a part of their times, and difficult for us to understand without the same frame of reference that the people of the day shared. This was a chaotic time, and discipline was key to survival. Sacrifice and discipline were much more entrenched in that world, where pledging to your lord, and giving your life for him as part of a war band, was common. Sheer survival meant hard, disciplined work. The Irish/Celtic monks carried this idea into their practice of the faith, and added to it the religious ideal of becoming like Christ. In order to follow Him fully they dealt severely with any sin that might distract them from that goal.

It was through practicing the discipline of solitude that the monks built time into their day to meditate upon God and pray. Aidan, in particular, felt this need keenly as the busy monastery began to fill with students, guests and monks. He established a place away from the island, on another small tidal island a stone’s throw away from Lindisfarne, but this proved to be too close for true solitude and so he eventually made a retreat for himself on the Farne Islands nearer to Bamburgh.

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This is a replica of St. John’s Cross at Iona Abbey, in Ireland, founded by Columba in 563 AD.  The original is found in the Abbey museum. This is possibly the first “Celtic” Cross erected in Britain.

Meditation for Aidan and the monks was never an “emptying of the mind” such as is practiced in Eastern religions. Meditation for them chiefly meant meditation on Holy Scripture, much of which they had memorized. The monks were required to memorize all one hundred and fifty Psalms plus a Gospel; this, plus the many other scriptures they chanted together at their four times daily services would prove much food for prayerful meditation during their times of solitude. The monks also would meditate on the natural world: the tossing sea, the graceful way of birds in the wind, the rising of the sun and moon. This was not pantheism, but a deep awareness of the presence of God in all of Creation. God had created all, therefore all creation was good and held something to teach them of God and His ways.

In researching the lives of the monks I found much to challenge me and much to puzzle me. But I could not help but be impressed by their devotion. Of course they were not perfect people, and their emphasis on aestheticism led to some bizarre extremes that I find hard-pressed to justify. The temptation to go the extra mile and be “more” devoted than the next person was one that I feel some must have succumbed to, and in the end at times their strange practices became more about themselves and their own glory as opposed to the glory of God.

But that is not to say we cannot learn from these men (and women, there were some strong female figures at this time in the church, Hild, daughter of King Oswy, among them) and their practice of faith. I daresay I could use more time for solitude and meditation myself. Too often these days we are afraid of silence, filling our ears with ear buds rather than the sound of the wind or the birds. What are we losing? What do we not know about God that we would know if we would disconnect and listen for a time to the Word and Creation?

I have attempted some small retreats a time or two, and have found it surprisingly difficult to disconnect. The minute you start thinking about taking a day, or a half-day away, the “list” clamours up in your mind, demanding attention. And when you do manage to ignore that distraction and take the time, you find that silence is difficult. Listening prayer is difficult. And I suppose that is the point.

“Come further up, come further in!” urges Jewel the unicorn in Lewis’ The Last Battle. The monasteries were all about making a space for people to do just that, and to take what they learned back to their world in the form of education, healing, and spiritual direction.

This is all summed up nicely in a prayer attributed to Aidan himself:

Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart,
alone with you, God, holy to you.

Then with the turning of the tide
prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond,
the world that rushes in on me
till the waters come again and fold me back to you.


Photo credit: Quiet Time, by Leland Francisco, on Flickr