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

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

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

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

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

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Cool cover!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who did?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 Other posts in this series: 

January: Book I Read Because of the Cover

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

March: An Unputdownable Book

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.

Year of Important Books: Wrap-Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading for Fun: 

A book you chose for the cover

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

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

A juicy memoir

A book about books or reading

A book in a genre you usually avoid

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

A book in the backlist of a new favourite author

A book recommended by someone with great taste

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

A book about a topic or subject you already love

Reading for Growth:

A Newberry Award winner or Honour Book

A book in translation

A book that’s more than 600 pages

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

A book of any genre that addresses current events

An immigrant story

A book published before you were born

Three books by the same author

A book by an #ownvoices or #diversebooks author

A book with an unreliable narrator or ambiguous ending

A book nominated for an award in 2017

A Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award Winner

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

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

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

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

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: The Last Kingdom

I finally finished watching this 2015 BBC series, which has been available on Netflix for some time now. It is an 8-episode adaptation of the Saxon novels by Bernard Cornwell.

To be clear, I only read the first of the Cornwall novels, also called The Last Kingdom, as I discovered them in the midst of writing my own Dark Ages novel. I read the first book to get a flavour of how another novelist tackled some of the practicalities of writing about this era, like, what do you call the various places? How do you explain the social structure of the times? What do these people eat? etc. Of course I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t want to read any more than one, because I didn’t want my books to take on any “Cornwell” flavour. And besides, Cornwell’s books take place after the Viking invasion, and mine, before, so I didn’t want to mix myself up in the history that I was learning.

Because I have only a little familiarity with the books, therefore, this review will strictly be on the series itself, without any reference to the books and how well the series did or did not capture the essence of the books.

So, caveat aside, it was with great anticipation that I settled down with my husband to watch this series. I mean, if it’s good to read another novel about the era you are interested in, imagine the delight of seeing it come to life?

And I will say the The Last Kingdom did not disappoint. The makers of the series went to a great deal of trouble to get the details right, for the most part, although I did have a couple of small quibbles with it, which I will cover later.

First of all, high marks to the producers for their excellent production values. I loved the costumes, and the way the Danes were portrayed in terms of their dress and hairstyles as opposed to the Saxons.

 

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This is the bloodthirsty Dane, Skorpa, ably played by the Swedish actor Jonas Malmsjö. That’s not blood on his teeth, they are showing how the Danes would file horizontal grooves in their teeth and stain them with red berry juice (probably to look like blood, however!) Looks like a character quite capable of going beserker, no? Photo: BBCAmerica

In fact the producers did a great job all in all of showing the contrast between the Danes and the Saxons. Just as an aside, the Danes themselves were not called Vikings until centuries later, in the 8th century they were called denes by the Anglo-Saxons, from which we get the word “Danes”. In the series we see the fighting, drinking, barbarian, party-animal Danes, and the more pious, educated Christian Saxons. I think there is a sense in which this contrast is played a bit too far, but I understand that for dramatic purposes you need to have clear demarcations between your characters or else it all becomes a muddle.

Speaking of protagonists, our hero of the story is Uhtred son of Uhtred, the heir to an earldoman of Northumbria. Uhtred is a boy when his father is killed fighting the Danes, and Uhtred is taken as a slave. He finds favour with his master and is basically adopted as a son. So his story is an compelling one – among the Danes he is seen as a Saxon, among the Saxons, a Dane. And this makes for some interesting conflicts and dilemmas for Uhtred, and keeps us watching!

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Our hero, Uhtred, played by Alexander Dreymon (photo from BBCAmerica). In many ways a stranger in a strange land, no matter where he goes. His quest is to get back his ancestral seat of Bebbanburg, and he will do just about anything to do it, including kill, cheat, and marry a pious Christian wife in order to get her wealth, even though he is a pagan.  But it’s never that easy…..

I get tired of Christians being portrayed as boring, dull, serious, and stupid in modern entertainment,  and although because of the aforementioned contrast with the Danes there is a bit of this happening in this series, on the whole I was happy with the portrayal of the Christian people here. I especially like the character of Mildrith, Uhtred’s Saxon wife, given to him in an arranged marriage by King Alfred. I like the interplay between the two, and the way her faith is portrayed as genuine. She comes across as a real person, not a caricature, and I appreciate that.

Sometimes when we read history, it’s all dry facts and dates. But when you see the events unfolding, even in fictional form, it brings back to us how terrifying these events must have been to the people of the times. While watching the Danes raid, rape and pillage I remarked to my husband, “Gee, it’s like they were the ISIS of the times.” And aside from the religious motivation of ISIS, which the Danes did not share, they were strictly motivated by the prospect of land, wealth, and power, the comparison works. The terror of seeing the Danes descend upon your village must have been overwhelming. As the kingdoms fall one by one and only Wessex is left, you get the sense that this is one of history’s turning points, as indeed it was in many ways.

Speaking of Wessex, one of my favourite characters in the series, besides Uhtred, is Alfred, King of Wessex. Because of my research of the history of the times for my books, I have learned a bit about Alfred, and discovered that he really was one of England’s greatest kings. He comes along after the events in my novels, of course, but because I was intrigued by him I read more than I needed to about him. And I think this show gives us a good portrait of this man. By all accounts he was more of a scholar than a warrior, and an extremely intelligent man. But he is able enough militarily to stop the Danes’ advance (in the show, it was because he had Uhtred’s help, hah) at a time when all the other English kingdoms had fallen.

Alfred leaves us some fantastic legacies – he develops England’s first code of law, commissions several important translations of major Latin works into Old English and likely is responsible for the commissioning of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (mental note – I have to feature this on my blog soon!) and Bede’s  Ecclesiastical History as well. I definitely have a soft spot for this king, and I loved seeing him come to life in this series!

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The Alfred Jewel, discovered in 1693 in Somerset. There is an inscription around the edge which reads “ALFRED MEC HET GEWYRCAN” which mean “Alfred ordered me made” (you can see the letters on the bottom left of the jewel). It is thought by scholars to be the end of a pointed stick by which people would follow words in a text as they read. This beautifully decorated gold, enamel and crystal object was worthy of a king, and it was likely one of Alfred’s own possessions. (Photo by Bill Tyne, on Flickr)

Final small quibble with the series – Wessex, the “last kingdom” was not really the last kingdom to fall in all of Britain. Our friends the Celts up in the north and west of Britain in some cases were never conquered or managed to align themselves with the Danes against the Anglo-Saxons. And although the Danes and Saxons get a lot of screen time, we don’t see much of the Celts in the series, except for the introduction of Uthred’s relationship with the British sorcerer Iseult near the end. I would have liked to have seen more of the Celts in the show, but I understand that the focus had to be on the other two cultures, and the Celts were very much on the fringe of the cultures of the times, so it’s not wrong that the story didn’t include them much. Hopefully we’ll get to see more of them in Season 2, which happily, has been confirmed. No release date yet, I’m not sure if they have begun production.

All in all, I give this series 5 stars. The acting is excellent, the production values superb, and the story-line compelling. Be warned, though, there is plenty of violence and blood, so if you are squeamish, this might not be the show for you. There is some sexual scenes as well, but I thought they were done tastefully for the most part.

I really enjoyed seeing these people and cultures come to life. If you have watched the show, what did you think?


 

Featured photo from BBCAmerica.