My new pad

It’s been some time coming, and I have decided to make the move. Actually I have already started posting at a new home: so far a welcome to the new year and January 3 gets a special nod as this day in 1959 the territory of Alaska, six months following an overwhelming vote in favor of statehood, gets the official signature.

For now previous material shall remain live and I welcome you to my new abode that you can access with just a click.

There also are a few posts at the group blog, The Review, not having made the journey to before the second sleep, that shall do before too long at the new nocturnal meeting place. I’ve been working on series exploring big cats, Alaska history including a 1916 Christmas album I’ve compiled, and have more outlines making their way from my notes to the research and then keyboard. I’ll also be returning to book reviews and have several great novels queued up as I type. One of them is the re-visitation to an author and the characters she brings to life from a seminal period in English history. Neither will you want to miss as I meet up again with Merlin, a companion from childhood. And for your historical bent, a work of fiction based on events in the life of someone related to the author.

And that’s not all! At before the second sleep as well as The Review, we are consciously and continually expanding our scope to include genres and topics of a wide variety to showcase creativity in many forms. Having made my own move this will be much easier and allow me to journey more into this realm.

So join me for some more middle of the night musings and check out the great team and amazing array of talent and exploration at The Review, where we also have lots of giveaways and a fun Facebook page where, amongst others, you can meet up with lots of great indie and traditional authors and fellow bibliophiles with interests of all kinds. You can also follow and receive notification just as you do here, and never have to worry about searching the Internet.

Looking forward to seeing you, and here’s wishing you a splendid 2014!

berry cream pie

Book Review: The Prodigal Son by Anna Belfrage

The Prodigal Son by Anna Belfrage with author interview: Learn some fun details about the characters!
(See giveaway details at bottom!)

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Set in 17th century Scotland during a time of religious persecution, Anna Belfrage’s The Prodigal Son opens to the departure of Matthew Graham, Alexander Peden and two others from an illegal conventicle, followed by a half a dozen soldiers seeking to arrest them. Matthew reflects on his wife Alex, a time traveller from the 21st century, and her opposition to his covert activities and the consequences they may bring upon their entire family.

Third in The Graham Saga series, the novel lays out events in the family’s past as these trials continue to haunt each member in different ways. Belfrage accomplishes this by sprinkling information throughout the story, like a flavor that satisfies as its strength increases. This provides fulfillment for the questions arising, particularly for readers unfamiliar with the first two of the series’ books, whilst ensuring a taste for more.

Though Matthew narrowly escapes the opening episode, the soldiers embark on a campaign of harassment, accosting him and searching his homestead periodically, their goal being to intimidate as much as to turn up Minister Alexander “Sandy” Peden. Complicating circumstances include the hatred of Graham’s own brother, Luke, previously responsible for having Matthew deported to the colonies and sold to indentured servitude. Between Luke and a returned Matthew is Ian, the child born to Matthew’s first marriage with Margaret (now wed to Luke), and whose paternity is debated throughout the book, though Matthew had been tricked into relinquishing all rights to the boy.

Alex, a modern woman who by necessity has adapted to life in her new time and place, slowly warms to Ian, though she fears the cost to her own eldest son. She perceives Peden to be a fanatic and scorns his belief that women are spiritually inferior. Though she admires his strength, her views of his rigidity in matters of faith clash with Matthew’s protective actions—acts that guard Peden from the authorities, but leave the Grahams wide open to total destruction.

Belfrage serves up details of this threatening aspect, too, over time, in courses that reveal frightening, hinted-at possibilities and then, finally, a shocking reality readers may have a difficult time digesting. While most are aware of religious persecution in history as well as our own era, human psychology provides a protection against such knowledge with scant, sometimes forgotten details or by placing distance between the parties.

Here the author provides no such immunity: we have grown attached to the Grahams and their children, having seen the various sides of each and been given a glimpse of their cares in the world. When tragedy strikes—for the Grahams as well as another family—its proximity sears our hearts and the reality of what people have had to endure sinks in with a terrible understanding.

Belfrage makes room, however, for humorous relief, unappreciated by the commanding officer taking part in questioning Matthew, but recognized by modern readers for the inquiry’s circumstantial nature:

One of the younger soldiers took a step forward. “He’s tall and the man we saw was tall—that we know for sure.”
“Ah,” Simon [Matthew's attorney and brother-in-law] nodded. “And did he have dark hair?”
“I don’t know,” the young man said.
“No? Why not?”
“He was wearing a cloak.”
Simon rolled his eyes, smoothed at his coat. “Not much to go on,” he said to the officer, who shifted in his seat.
“Tall, a competent swordsman—and we know Mr. Graham has a past as a soldier—who else could it be?” the officer said.
“You?” Simon said.

The author creates believable characters who are simultaneously honest and flawed, whose imperfections, occasional obstinateness and recognition—if reluctant—for a balanced concern of the difficulties they face all bring readers to a riveted attention of where each are headed and we develop concern for their futures: we care what happens to them, and ache when all does not go well.

Matthew, for example, continually breaks his promises to Alex by time and again riding back to Peden, passionately maintaining his inability to forego his spiritual obligations. He roundly condemns the forces of Charles II for their brutality, though one exchange brings concession by default: “‘[F]or years it was people like my family that were persecuted by people from your church.’ That shut Matthew up.”

Neither is Alex spared the confrontation of brutal truths. Though through the novel she uses her “past” history lessons to remind her of events or circumstances in the time she now inhabits, it sometimes takes drastic measures for her to understand her husband’s position in more than just theory. After a brutal beating at the hands of an interrogating lieutenant, she concedes: “I sometimes forget that this is a time where the little people have no voice, where the representatives of the crown can do as they please and there’s no venue of recourse.”

As implied in the title, however, there is room for redemption, and as we witness naked fear, cruelty and tragedy, so too do we see tenderness for the precious in life, hear the stolen laughter and feel the power of two whose bonds of love will dare to fight to remain united in the face of all attempts to ruin them. Matthew and Alex’s love for one another is acted out in some explicit romantic scenes—perhaps more than many other works of historical fiction—as but one part of what makes them whole. That wholeness also confronts the truth within the extravagance of their divisions and possibilities of homecoming in more ways than one.

Where this will take the family remains to be seen in Belfrage’s newest novel in The Graham Saga, and though one could continue on to read the fourth without having experienced the first two, this reviewer predicts many will want to return to the beginning. This is not because The Prodigal Son does not work as a stand-alone novel; as stated above, Belfrage does a spectacular job of seamlessly filling in the blanks of two complete previous works. However, a feast is a difficult thing to pass up: Alex, a strong, modern woman on a 17th century learning curve, her equally resilient husband, their friends and family—-readers simply will want to know more and experience the events in their lives along with them from beginning to end.

Interview with Anna Belfrage

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The tea is steeped and cake at the ready! I’ve recently read The Prodigal Son and was utterly intrigued by the
questions–and some problematic possibilities–raised in my mind pertaining to Alex’s journey back in time.
 

 

Hello, Anna, and thanks so much for joining us today and taking the time to answer some of our questions.

And hi to you too, Lisl. I’m thrilled to be here!

The Prodigal Son, third in a series, features time travelling Alexandra Lind and her 17th century Scottish husband, Matthew Graham, living in the latter’s time and homeland. How did you first decide to bring these two characters together from different eras? Or did they come to a life on their own?

It all began with Alex. She sort of kept popping up in my head – sometimes at the most inopportune times – and demanding my attention. Obviously, having a modern woman speak to me of the hardships in the 17th century grabbed my attention, and soon most of my nights were populated by dreams featuring Alex. With Alex came Matthew, at first no more than an outline. (Alex is the jealous type, and she isn’t too thrilled by how fond I am of Matthew. When she scowls at me, Matthew grins and winks, rather flattered by our attention.) On a more serious note, I did know I wanted to set a book in the 17th century, in Scotland and during a period of religious unrest. As I have a soft spot for men who have the integrity and courage to defend their beliefs, Matthew grew into a man of convictions, a man willing to risk a lot for his faith – and for his family, even if The Prodigal Son places him in the uncomfortable situation of risking his family for his faith.

Alex, being a modern liberated woman, faces challenges in the 17th century that she wouldn’t likely encounter in her “past” life. How do you decide her balance? That is to say, how does she know when to assert her independent thought or to step back?

If you ask Matthew, she shows very little restraint when it comes to voicing her opinions. In general, I agree with him; Alex is an independent woman – but she is also an intelligent woman, and as she has no yearning to be tried as a witch, she keeps an adequately low profile with certain people. I believe all humans have the capacity to adapt very quickly to new social norms – it is a prerequisite for our success as a species – and Alex is no exception to this.

Do you see yourself in Alex at all? If yes, how so? Is she modeled after someone in particular?

I hope I would accept new circumstances as well as Alex does. And yes, she is forthright and brave, has a big heart and a capacity to laugh at herself and others – I would like to believe these are qualities we share. But no, Alex isn’t modelled on anyone but her own self; she was very much a person in her own right when she started visiting me.

Every so often in The Prodigal Son Alex seems to open up a bit for the reader, including once when she laments the loss of her reading time and material. What kind of books did Alex like to read?

Alex is a computer engineer. Ergo, it follows the poor woman had a fondness for reading stuff like Bringing IT Security to a New Level. She was twelve when she read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. Other than that, she read quite a bit of crime with favourite authors being Reginald Hill and Elisabeth George. She also read everything by Gabriel García Marquez and loved Don Quijote. Her father taught her to love poetry – mostly in Swedish.

As you wrote the novel, did you learn anything surprising abut Matthew and/or Alex, or their children?

I just love the Graham children, and especially Ian, who is so torn in two. I had no idea Ian was dyslectic until I wrote the book, neither did I know just how complex Matthew’s love for his land was. Hillview lives in his blood, sits in his heart. His little manor is a precious charge he must hand over to the next generation, and to fail in doing so would be unbearable to him.

Do you have any interesting writing quirks? Do you write every day?

I write something every day. Not necessarily part of a new novel, or so, but I will definitely set pen to paper (finger tips to keyboard) on a daily basis. Most of it ends up on my blog – or in the virtual trash can.

Not sure I have any quirks – hang on; I guess I do. When I’m writing the more action-packed scenes, and especially if Matthew is in danger, I just can’t write it in one go. I write a sentence, stand up, take a little turn, pour some tea, watch two minutes of The Mentalist or whatever my husband is watching, sit down, write another sentence, exhale, and do it all again. Very exhausting, let me tell you!

Who were/are your favorite authors growing up or as an adult?

Growing up I was a major Henry Treece fan. I read a lot of Rosemary Sutcliff as well, and Tolkien – always Tolkien. As an adult, I am a fan of Sharon K. Penman, Antonia Fraser, James Burke, Barbara Nadel, Michael Dibdin and Salman Rushdie – oh, and of Diana Gabaldon.

What topic have you never read about that you would like to?

Not sure what you mean; like things I want to know more about? If so, I’d really like to get to grips with Plato. And I wouldn’t mind knowing more about astronomy, or about geology. And I’d like to learn to read music scores. And to speak and read Russian.

Do you have any projects on deck currently?

Apart from the ongoing Graham Saga – and there are more books to go – I have a trilogy tucked away which tells the story of Jason and Helle, two people who met and loved but briefly three thousand years ago before he was cheated into betraying her and thereby caused her death. Since then, he hurtles after her in life after life, desperately wanting to make amends.

Other than this, I am working on a novel set in 17th century Sweden and England, starring a young girl who grows up at Queen Kristina’s court and who becomes rather attached to a set of jewels that don’t belong to her, and so….

But both these projects take second place to the Alex and Matthew story – I have a very emotional relationship with these, my favourite characters. Sometimes I think they’re around for real, but my husband keeps on informing me that isn’t the case.

Do you like to read e-books, or still prefer the sound and feel of paper?

I have become an e-book addict. Why? Because it’s so convenient, and as I travel a lot, all I need is my Kindle to carry the equivalent of Ancient Alexandria’s library with me. But there’s something to reading a “real” book – especially in the bath.

I’ve read of your fondness for chocolate and recently discovered your love of math. Which do you like better?

Chocolate! Given the approaching X-mas season, a chocolate Advent calendar is obviously the perfect combo….

Given the opportunity to journey back in time, would you take it? What if you didn’t get to select the era? If you did, which would you choose?

I’d like to know for sure that I could go back. I may daydream a lot about life in other times, but I think the reality of it was pretty harsh. It was cold, it was dirty, the food could be dismal, and should you fall sick – or develop a toothache – well, God help you. (My preferred century, the 17th, was probably one of the dirtier, as in most European countries the communal bathhouses had definitely closed by then… ) Despite all this, if I were given the chance…. And if I’m to choose an era, it would be the 17th century – somewhere in the Colonies. Or the 15th century in Spain. Or maybe the early 14th century in Scotland. Or… Agh!

Is there anything else you’d like to mention to readers about yourself or your books?

I sing a lot. I cheer my colleagues up by dancing in their doorways – strangely enough, not all of them seem to appreciate it. I hate flying. I have a car thing, and should anyone feel like gifting me a bright blue Audi R8, I’d be thrilled to bits. I make an awesome apple pie. I dreamed of becoming a Navy SEAL and saving the world when I was young(er). Actually, I still dream of being a Navy SEAL and saving the world…

tee und kuch

 
Thank you so much for joining us, Anna, and we hope to see you again soon!

Thank you for having me, Lisl, and I must say that German Chocolate cake was just the thing on a cold and rather dreary November day!

 
 
Anna Belfrage has so graciously offered two copies of The Prodigal Son as giveaways. If you would like a copy of the book, simply comment below OR at the Facebook link for this post (below) and you will be entered for a chance! Drawing will be December 1.

*********FOR FACEBOOK USERS*********

To comment at the Facebook link, please click here.

This post originally appeared on, and I may also be found at:

Floral-Swirl-Background

The Open Door

It was a dark and stormy night–no, no, that’s so not right. Besides, it had stopped snowing days ago and the hoarfrost clinging to the trees stood stark against the clear blue sky. Mid afternoon shouts of romping children squealed in through the crack I’d allowed with the open door to relieve some of the baking heat, and I peered into the stove at my rosemary bread. Nearly done.

But the house was slightly dark, which I found odd, given the southern exposure that generally lights up the rooms and, one might think, contribute to the heat even this far from the kitchen. Peering outside I scanned the skies for clouds, chalking it up to time of day and knowing night would soon have us in its grips, not so long after dinner. Running upstairs for a jumper I swerved to avoid something Adam had left there. I’ll have to discuss this with him later—again.

Still surprisingly early when I tucked him into his bed later, I decided to read, something I hadn’t had heaps of time to do lately, given the circumstances. Very satisfying it was to sit down in a tidy room; my mind felt a bit more at ease for it hadn’t since some weeks—the room as well as my mind, that is. Mad, jagged piles of mail and papers threatening to overwhelm me at any given point had been stuck in a corner, sewing projects piled up, notices from school: all hinted to me with their glaring reminders of unpaid bills, necessary mending, unfinished applications, attorney appointments and job interviews to prepare for, re-furbishing plans to attend to—and the wee one needs boots! I drew in a breath and then just as quickly shushed myself: not tonight. I needed to take advantage of the calm and orderliness of my surroundings, for I am one, unfortunately, with poor filters and have always found it difficult to ignore disorder around me; my mind senses it too keenly and itself feels cluttered and distracted.

*********

The soft thud of the heavy book on the carpet must have been what woke me. Still stretched across the sofa, I groggily scanned the room, indulging once more in the lovely order finally achieved, and remained seated. The pleasure of not jumping up for some demand or another washed over me and even my face seemed to blush. I glanced at an empty corner, which I’d designated as the spot for the suit of armour I’d had my eye on; it would fit nicely with the décor I’d spent months gathering. My home was comfortable and inviting, and I felt pleased.

Long ago I had dreamt I was sitting on a sofa, elbows leaning on knees, when I became aware of a tiny form at the door frame peeking round the corner and, elbows remaining on knees, opened my arms to invite the small, sneaky being to me for a hug despite the late hour. It was perhaps this recall, an immediate indicator then that the child I carried was a little boy, that told me now the sensation I felt of someone creeping down the stairs behind me was this boy child, six years later acting out the dream I’d had of him, even if not precisely in the same way.

Having moved lazily from my groggy state and now sitting up so the stairs were to my right, I was surprised to see nobody there. A soft feeling, however, had spread across the room, and slowly I felt the movement of others as they gathered nearby, watching me as I unseeingly watched them, breathless, and quietly astounded at my lack of terror. Some I felt were people I recognized; the identity of others I could not say. In the corner stood a very still and tall someone, watching me quietly, as if he were assessing me, or perhaps my world. Oddly my first articulated thought was of the suit of armour and how impossible it was for him to remain because of this; I knew he smiled from one corner of his mouth and laughed ever so softly, as if he were benignly amused at my acquired dilemma. I looked back to the others and heard their reassurances that all was well; they can no longer be harmed and the time for mourning them has passed.

The time is past? How do you – I stopped, tickled by a breath near my face, the breath of the first someone to lean down to the level of my seated position, as he looked directly at me. That is, we were face to face; though I could not see him, I knew I was looking squarely into the face of someone long late. I tried to say the words in my mind, to create a greater sense of reality, that I was not imagining or making this up and even if I could not see, I was indeed staring directly past some breach between two worlds. My heart beating only somewhat stronger, perhaps because I continued on some level to tell myself this was not happening, I searched the space before me for his face, for something visual, anything to help me reach across to him, for I felt I must see him, had to communicate with him; the devastation of not doing would be great.

It must have been relief that came with the breath finally escaping from my lips, though it also seemed to solidify some separation, and this being was no more, at least not in front of me as only moments before. The feeling of grief took me by surprise, like a storm that breaks without warning and, as the rush around my ears and self that engulfed me dissipated, I collapsed onto the sofa. All the gathered company had disappeared, excepting the mysterious man who outrageously stood in the way of “my” suit of armour; I was alone. I could hear Adam’s soft, rhythmic breathing coming from his room upstairs, and I wept.

*********

My mother’s favorite ghost was the lady who floated down the stairs as she sat knitting. Always some ‘Lady,’ I scorned when I heard her stories.Grey, green, betrayed, sorrowful, unimaginative, why do they have to be here at all? Of course she recognized my disdain for the fear it was, and frequently scolded me for what she designated as my lack of discipline. She came from a misty land filled with ghosts and though she chided me—So do you! You have this ability as wellthough you refuse to work to develop or understand it. It is easier for you to be afraid—she was wrong. She told stories of her premonitions and ghostly encounters in her own childhood, but even my father seemed not to spend much time giving these tales any credence. I supposed then that I was like him, and wanted no part of it all. Still, there were unnerving, eerie parts of our house: the back storage room, staircase and my bedroom were all areas that alarmed me owing to the unsettling events that occurred there, and I avoided them like the plague.

It was a gigantic show, of course. Though I never engaged these apparitions or presences alone, I liked listening to her stories and after some time openly allowed her to tell them, even reveled in their brashness and chill-inducing breathlessness. There was the man in the kitchen who apparently, she concluded, must dislike dirty floors because every single timeshe dropped something—which she always asserted was actually pushed from her hand; she felt the force—she ended up realizing how dirty the floor was and she might as well clean the whole thing. Nothing ever “fell” from her hands when she stood on a floor immaculate. Someone else disliked loud noises, the explanation she conjured up whenever my brother complained of his stereo being turned off. I myself heard coughing and speech at night on the other side of my bedroom wall, in what my mother called the “loft” despite its adjacent location.

One day I returned from school to find her closest friend waiting for me. My mother, she related, had been papering the wall on the stairway, fell all the way down and broke her arm.Pushed, really she said in a whisper. She says in no uncertain terms that she felt a hand give her a good shove and down she went. Apart from wondering how it got to be called a “good” shove, I later wondered that my mother had to have missed some serious pre-considerations when she failed to reckon on the danger of climbing a stepladder at the top of a staircase. My siblings mocked my common sense at every turn, but even I would not have engaged in such reckless behavior.

In reality, I believed her. I lost no love for this particular staircase and sprinted up or down whenever I had to pass through its hair-raising effect. More than once I had encountered something myself there, though it puzzled my mother why I sat at the top of it at bedtime. The truth is I refused to go upstairs to the bedroom I shared with my sister until she came as well—the stairs were the less frightful as our room clearly had some manifestation, as evidenced by my chronic nightmares, voices and the sensation of someone being in there. As the time Nadia came upstairs was generally much later than my bedtime I tended to be chronically tired at school. Once I fell asleep sitting at the top of the stairs and hit the door jam with such force I developed a cartoonish bump on my forehead. I also fell several times though it was not until someone pushed a glass of water out of my hands as I was about to descend did I actually ever feel anything. There was definitely a push.

*********

So it was I surprised myself by being unafraid one evening as I stood by the washing machine and the lights flickered on and off. Indeed it was with great relief that I looked up at them because just several nights before my visitor had appeared to me in a dream, perhaps in response to my request. Having recalled my mother’s advice to ask apparitions who they are or what they need (Are you bloody kidding me? had been my response), but not being quite ready to accept a verbal reply should it come, I did in fact speak aloud, carefully choosing my words to form statements and no questions. Briefly I expressed my disappointment, explaining my shameful cowardice, and asked him to return in a way that could facilitate communication without fear breaking us apart. I expected that nothing would happen.

Ordinarily I would have dismissed such an encounter as did in fact occur save for the utter vivid reality of it all. Very rarely have I had a dream in which I was so aware as I was in this one, and never before did I know I was in an altered state as I carried on a conversation with someone. Yet there I was, fast asleep when he appeared at my bedside, at first standing some distance away, and I swiftly sat up. He began to speak and came closer, sinking to his knees in much the same way as I had been taught to do for the comfort of small children. His facial expression was very earnest and he spoke to me as if it were of great import that I hear what he had to say. For all his intensity, he was also very kind and soft-spoken. I was so awake, so very, very awake, and yet I slept.

It was perhaps after some time I began to tire, and this may have lessened my ability to absorb the notion of speaking to someone from the next world. I found myself easing off the elbow holding up my head and backing onto my pillow, which in turn may have further increased my unease. Suddenly I felt it was unnatural to be engaged as I was, and a shock of alarm shot through me. My companion’s expression became inquisitive, then anxious when I said, “I am sorry, so very sorry but this is a bit much for me.” Immediately he backed away, apologizing as he did, and my regret was swift to arrive, for I could see the upset written clearly on his face. How I longed to turn back time but for mere seconds! Alas, it was too late and once more I found myself, face wet with tears, wondering how it is this could happen and why did I care so much about these encounters.

*********

The flickering lights brought me straightaway to recall of my mother’s guidance on the ghostly: they can be mischievous or simply want to say hello; electricity is a favorite medium for them to capture our attention: just acknowledge them and all will be fine. I smiled in relief, for I had spent some days being sorely disappointed and wondering if he would ever return.

As time went on I became somewhat accustomed to the lights—which had hitherto never shown any signs of faulty wiring—flickering at one turn and going completely off at the next. Of course the deeper suspicion that aging wires really was the only cause may have engendered acceptance, although the timing frequently puzzled me. One afternoon found me wrecked and with heaps of washing to do, when the lights went off and remained so. Astonishingly unafraid, I sighed deeply and waited. Still the lights failed to return. I became slightly impatient. Please turn the lights back on I bid in a somewhat testy voice. Without hesitation they returned, I resumed my work and went to my bed.

*********

As months passed I continued to be aware that the male presence in the living room—in my suit of armour’s corner—had not taken his leave. Apart from the décor dilemma, this was not so much a cause for concern, although I did find it peculiar he remained. I sensed he watched me frequently, and as I came down the stairs and his position was directly opposite, often our eyes would lock, even though I could not see him. Sometimes I would stop, continuing the gaze, almost willing him to speak for I sensed a very strong personality, a dark and brooding one almost but again, not threatening to me. I thought if he ever spoke or appeared I might scream and leap from my skin, but this dance went on nonetheless. If I allowed myself to form actual words in my mind—He is watching me, for example—then I could sense his energy in a stronger form; many of the times he was somewhat amused with me, though I never could learn what I did to entertain him so. I wondered if he ever moved from his spot when I slept or left.

It is perhaps an indicator of how comfortable I was—or at least how edgy I was not, as “comfortable” may be taking things a bit too far—that one night I wished to take some tea in between my first and second sleep, though I felt slightly wary to go downstairs. I would have to walk through the spot where someone had taken to lingering: the bottom of the stairs, as if it were some transitional spot that somehow benefitted them and also lent credence to Adam’s firm insistence on that first night that he had not left anything there. Whether I was bothered by moving past here or not simply depended on the night, though I never detected any sort of pattern to be able to predict if I would or would not run screaming at last, betraying some terror occupying my inner being. It was just all too smooth.

On this night I felt the disquiet, though oddly enough I decided to go for my tea. I say I “decided,” though it was not so much a choice as that some force, my own or otherwise I do not know, propelled me to the kitchen. All the while I had instinctive rather than articulated thoughts of the weirdness I felt coming from downstairs, but moved as if I were a puppet, somehow controlled by someone else. I coached myself just to keep moving, whatever happened, to play at being calm, with the notion that only the appearance of fright could elicit anything horrid.

The kitchen felt very safe; I prepared my tea and moved through the dining room towards living room and the stairway. Walking through the same spot I had to get to the kitchen, this time I suddenly began to move as if I were in a film and progressed in slow motion.  I strode directly into…something. Have you ever been walking through a neighborhood, perhaps very early in the morning and suddenly your face is enmeshed in a gigantic spider’s web? The sensation is somewhat equitable, as in you realize it and generally keep going, though the web stretches with you. In this instance I, too, moved on for I felt it crucial to continue unhindered and return to the safety of my room. But this whatever it was stretched as I went, elongating into a battle of wills as I determined that as slowly as I may be walking, not only will I get away from it but I will do so the victor. Within this slowed version of time I walked, tea in hand as it splattered and scalded my wrist, then leapt in tiny waves out of its cup and I could feel myself break free from the phantom I had just walked through and calmly proceeded to my room.

The lights continued to capture my attention, though not always in ways I favored. They came on at night when all were abed, and my spoken wishes began to be ignored. I became aware of another presence, that is, in addition to the two I already knew: I could sense their differences, perhaps in the same way mothers can discern those of their babies’ cries. It stood in my room at night near to the same spot my first visitor had, and it by turns frightened me as well as caused my temper to flare. On several occasions I woke in the night to catch it blowing in my face; twice it seemed to be sucking my breath away. I gagged and coughed to resume normal breathing and shooed it off.

After some time the kitchen lights began to play havoc with my work, including just some days after installing fresh bulbs. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I lost my temper that day; with so much pressure bearing down on me related to being jobless and too many other stressors, I felt not the energy to play games with someone whose tricks were now becoming unfunny. Angrily I told it I had enough to do without chasing after its silliness and mean games. You are to leave this light alone, now.

At one point I consulted experts to have a look and offer advice. They explained the etiquette of communicating with the dead and showed me machinery designed to detect factors to eliminate the possibility of ghosts or enable an exchange. Results were rather inconclusive: while there was nothing really to confirm any sort of presence—and even I didn’t sense anything in the company of these ghost hunters—the male of the group claimed to have also walked smack into someone unseen, and several of us witnessed an India tin by some unseen force rattle and settle, as if it had been picked up and dropped straight down onto the counter. There were also those questions we asked yielding a fantastically lit-up monitor that went mad at particular enquiries. We discussed reasons why they might not show themselves: they may be gone or never have existed; annoyed or discomfited by my recent furniture shift; or not in favor of the newcomers’ arrival. We discussed a great deal, but nothing in either direction could ever really be ascertained. I questioned the entire experience, wondering if perhaps the strain of the past year was simply too much, and my own energy caused many of these occurrences.

*********

Things then came to a head. I had taken practically to cowering under my covers at night, growing increasingly frustrated with a situation in which sleeping required a guard; I left the light on to disable the spectre’s ability to sneak up to me, and enabled my light sleeper mode—something I could do from the days when Adam was a sickly baby and I woke at the sound of his labored breathing.

On one particular evening I woke just as the creature made to come closer; my eyes opening sent a swoosh across the room and it reeling backwards. I sat up, throwing off the protective covers, vexation emboldening my anger, which outranked any fear I may have felt. I would not have tolerated any human intruder; why had I allowed this to go on for any supernatural one? This is my home and you are violating my good nature; I won’t have it any more. You are to leave at once!  I felt its astonishment and a drawing back of breath, similar to that of an infant gathering steam for another good wail and knew it aimed to test my resolve. No! It’s enough! You snuck in here with others, but are unwelcome! Get out! I hissed these last words from my standing position in the middle of the bed as I watched its transparent form, a shape I could not quite define, rush from the room, an echo reverberating down the hallway as I knew it was gone. At the doorway stood someone else whose head turned as he observed the pathway of departure, and I felt also his somewhat surprise at this turn of events. But I was grievously exhausted and fell down to the bed, where I woke up next morning without having pulled up the covers.

*********
Some weeks later, when it had been just over one year since the night when my living room was somehow opened to those who had passed, I sat with a pile of books, reading, skimming, trying to decide which one to indulge in. I happened to glance at the red book I’d been reading then, and a breeze blew in from the open window. Late morning, the sun was finally marking his appearance, with a break in the cold snap. We’d had a very rainy summer, often too miserable for the children to play outside, and hoped for a nicer one this year, though it was still some months away.

The chinook coming from the glacier blew in once more, this time capturing the leaves of Tagore, skimming through as if by some unseen hand looking for a particular page. The swirls indicated a midwinter relief, and I stood in the doorway to watch the magnifiscent sunrise, observing as if Aurora herself brushed broad crimson and saffron strokes across the sky just for me. Stretching, I captured some of the dust in my hands, releasing it to the air as I watched it dance away into time. Slightly chilled I turned back to my work, noticing as I sat once more that a passage had been chosen. Leaning down as I sipped my tea I read—

That traveller is no longer here, no longer here.
His beloved kept him not,
His realms released him,
Neither sea nor mountain could bar him.
Today his chariot
Travels at the beck of the night
To the song of the stars
Towards the gate of dawn.
I remain here weighted with memory:
He is free of burdens; he is no longer here.

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Thank you for reading this account recording some of the events of this particular year. This post originally appeared on, and I may also be found at

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A studied look at the Kingmaker

Book Review: The Colour of Treason by S. M. Harrison
(To put your name in the hat for a free copy, see below.)


                                        ‘They have but two rulers in England:

                                     Monsieur de Warwick and another whose

                                                name I have forgotten.’


                                         The Governor of Abbeville. Letter

                             written March 1464 to King Louis XI, King of France

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For those familiar with the major players within the Wars of the Roses, the epigraph for S.M. Harrison’s The Colour of Treason will be rather telling. Fought during the 15th century, this series of dynastic wars set Yorkists against Lancastrians in an ongoing bid for the throne of England. At the time of which Harrison writes, Henry VI (Lancaster) has been succeeded by Edward, a charismatic leader who inherited his father’s claim to the throne following the latter’s death at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. The novel opens eight years after Edward has realized what his father, Richard, Duke of York, died pursuing.

The younger Plantagenet, now Edward IV, by this point has spent most of his reign defending his throne. Henry’s queen, Marguerite d’Anjou, bitterly opposes the king and obsessively chases after the crown, which she believes to be the birthright of her young son, Edouard. Owing to her husband’s bouts with insanity, she had at times ruled in the king’s place, and also led Lancastrian factions when waging war to keep or reclaim her family’s position. Now, however, she sits in exile, a status reflected by her appearance only later in the book.

ElizabethWoodvilleKing Edward’s position is not as secure as one would hope, in part thanks to Marguerite’s relentless aim to unseat him. He has had, though, a strong alliance with his cousin Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, who would be known later in history as “Warwick the Kingmaker.” Warwick, the most powerful nobleman and military commander of his time, and second only to the king in wealth, attempted to negotiate a treaty with the French to secure a bride for Edward, only to learn the king had secretly married a widow, Elizabeth Wydville. This duplicity, as well as the rank nepotism that now pervades the court, incites Warwick’s great ire, leading to a split between the cousins as well as events that color the lives and fates of Elizabeth Hardacre and her York-supporting family.

Awakened in the night by clattering horse hooves chased by the roar of thunder, Elizabeth spies a mysterious visitor, none other than a Warwick messenger who has her mother, Lady Catherine, on edge. As Sir John de Laverton explains her family’s now-precarious position, linked to letters authored by her father Sir Robert, Elizabeth experiences conflicting emotions for the knight and is bewildered by her mother’s ill treatment of the midnight visitor. Mysterious words of past events from her nurse as well as her mother intrigue Elizabeth, though she learns nothing save that her father is now suspected of treason. Without explanation, Elizabeth is sent to live with her cousin, Matthew, realizing later that she is essentially hostage to Warwick’s endeavors to route out her father’s intentions. Warwick’s actions result from his attempt to ensure Sir Robert Hardacre maintains co-operation for the safety of his daughter.

Elizabeth, initially believing she will be wed to her cousin, conflicts with him, his lack of fortitude and Laverton, who appears to play the role of her jailer, albeit a familiar one. Disgusted by his drunken and lascivious habits, the girl attempts to expel her simultaneous attraction to him, determining she will escape in order to seek out her father, imprisoned by the Earl of Warwick. In so doing she carries out a semi-premeditated crime, commencing life on the run as a felon.

In only one other work of fiction has this reviewer read of a woman making her way through the crime-infested nighttime roads and forests of 16th century England. While it surely must have occurred, portraying it presents a challenge in that predictable outcomes stand a high chance of falling victim to the stereotypical, whilst the opposite might smack of the fantastical. Harrison wisely chooses the middle way in allowing Elizabeth to be captured, though she must learn to be comfortable with deception as a travel mate.

Just then he noticed her. She was well camouflaged in her dark green cloak against the bark of the trees. She looked almost like a young sapling, at one with the forest. Her hair was the colour of autumn and it fell in waves about her shoulders. 

Shortly before Thomas Conyers catches up to Elizabeth, he wonders if she might be a witch, so deftly does she unify with the forest and escape him. Given what we know of this era, it is a reasonable contemplation to assign to a character, but Harrison declines to rely on this typecast, instead portraying Elizabeth as a liar by necessity. She has, after all, had time in life to develop a colorful imagination, and her time on the lam surely has been used wisely by coming up with a cover story.

As events move on Elizabeth, becoming more and more entangled with people and places, manages to make contact with Warwick, though not in the way she might have anticipated. Rather than perceiving him as enemy to herself and her family, she both acts out her own will—questioning all that she knew and believed before—and is submerged into events that color what and how she sees, as “a shudder ripple[s] through her. . . like a wave lapping at the shore, a tide demanding to be turned by the moon.” Questioning herself, she wonders:

Were they not similar, Warwick and her? They both had secrets they could not divulge. . .his eyes held a light within them all of their own, like moonlight reflected on a dark lake[.]

Throughout the novel Harrison utilizes color to itself color how moments and events are perceived and even foretold. At one point Warwick caresses “a mutinous autumn-coloured curl from her cheek”; later he remembers how Edward the ungrateful king has ignored and embarrassed him, and that his chronic lack of gratitude causes him to forget Warwick and all he has accomplished.

He saw the green of the grass turn to black and the twilight turn to darkness and he wondered how his discord with Edward had come to this. How had the youth who had relied on him after the death of his father come to despise him so much? How could he have forgotten that it was Warwick who had saved his life after the route at Ludford by whisking him away to safety at his fortress of Calais?. . . [He let] the white rose fall from his hand. As he did so he noticed that it had pricked him; a single drop of red blood bubbled on his thumb. 

Indeed the novel very much promotes Warwick as a sympathetic character, a portrait that elicits mixed feelings: the earl fails to recognize or appreciate his power in terms of its influence and responsibility he must bear as the holder of authority; instead he deflects a great deal of that responsibility and his selfish actions hurt many of those around him, including his little daughter Anne. As Clarence also is portrayed as rather bumbling—sometimes almost comically so within miniature tragedies—Warwick is prone to collect on the moment and seems to sometimes enjoy his son-in-law’s failures. Having said that, it is easy to admire Harrison’s adroit management of Warwick’s emotions, conceits, hurts, anger, shortcomings and desires. She presents aspects of the Kingmaker, more individual and emotive sides often lost beneath tales of ambition as well as the clatter and anonymity of Barnet weaponry and chaos. The repulsion and attraction Elizabeth feels for him remembers that for Jack de Laverton and her own confusion and guilt.

In the end, much of what so many characters predicted comes to pass and Elizabeth accedes to their judgments. Too much tragedy has occurred within Elizabeth’s own sphere, and she has witnessed the corruption of power. Like so much else, including her emotions, what colors treason and other acts of men engages a heartbreaking duality in which beauty and monstrosity both reside. It brings her to a place in which she must make a devastating choice, and the favor of one shall destroy the other.

The Colour of Treason, winner of the indieBRAG medallion, is followed by a sequel, A Rose of England, which continues Elizabeth’s narrative and answers some of the questions raised hitherto, including that of what her mother knew and what secrets motivate Higgins. As enrapturing as this novel is, and how successfully Harrison brings readers to examine Warwick on a deeper level, it is very likely they will not want to miss the rest of his complex story.

As part of our promotion of Su Harrison’s The Colour of Treason, we have two autographed copies to pass on to winners of a draw!! To enter, simply comment at the link below (click banner) and on 10-29-2013 two readers’ names will be drawn.

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Alaska Day: Remembering an Extraordinary Arctic Rescue

The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure
–by Martin W. Sandler

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In March of 1867, after a long and arduous debate resulting in what was then labeled “Seward’s Folly,” the United States acquired by purchase from Russia the Alaska Territory. Later that year, on October 18, the formal transfer occurred in Sitka: with the lowering of Russian flag and raising of American, an area twice the size of Texas now belonged to the United States for the bargain price of $7.2 million, or about two cents per acre. Less than 20 years later many of those who had openly mocked the purchase would be flocking to Alaska, seeking gold and creating boomtowns.

Whaling at this time was also a lucrative occupation, albeit uncomfortable and dangerous. In so entering the territory of this trade, including coastal northern Alaska in the Arctic Circle, sailors submitted to what historical author Martin W. Sandler refers to as “the harshest and most dangerous environment in the world, an immense region of ice and snow with temperatures that fell to as low as sixty degrees below zero, a place where a person’s every step might very well be his last.”

These are the conditions we find in Sandler’s The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure, children’s non-fiction that commemorates a type of endurance hardly imaginable in its scope and requirements. Consider: Several whaling ships caught in Arctic pack ice in September 1897; one manages to escape and make its way to San Francisco, where her captain informs the world what has happened. About three hundred men are trapped in the northern reaches with no way of knowing how much of their story has or will reach the outside world, let alone whether they can be rescued.

In a state where even today only 20% of the land is accessible by road, people still marvel at this story, this attempt to rescue those trapped in a place too frozen to sail away from, with too little food and shelter, unbearably cold and cramped quarters and conditions rife with the makings of disease and despair. In 1897 it was a rare person who believed it could happen, but how? Flight was not yet a reality and shipping was out of the question. The remaining option, if it could be called such, was an overland rescue effort. Owing to Alaskan conditions—mountainous, frozen, uneven and unforgiving terrain—this type of trek even today would consist of grueling marches through a country known for storms so severe they destroyed sleds and blinded one from seeing just ahead; even minor injury to dog or human would devastate the entire enterprise.

The wonder of it all is not only that the above-mentioned conditions and frightening possibilities are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg in terms of what must be endured in such a colossal effort, but also that three men actually did it. First Lieutenant David Jarvis, Commander of the Overland Relief Expedition, Dr. Samuel Call and Second Lieutenant Ellsworth Bertholf together and separately journeyed 1,500 miles, working alone and with others along the way to secure the relief and freedom of 300 in peril of their lives. The conditions horrific and possibilities for failure endless, the three men nevertheless move forward to a simply impossible rescue that for them could only end one way.

For this reason today’s post is as much a celebration of the human spirit as it is book review. An Alaskan story on this, the day Alaskans celebrate their land, we remember those who lived these stories as they unfolded. Indeed they are multiple stories, as Sandler points out, for the three rescuers could not under any circumstances have completed this mission of their own accord. Along the way they had help from a multitude of sources, not least of which were the Native peoples living in the regions through which they passed. Two major figures in Alaskan lore and history, Charlie Artisarlook and Tom Lopp, whose reindeer herds lay along the route the men followed, allowed the rescuers use of the animals as transportation and later, sustenance for the trapped and hungry men freezing in the cold and dark north. A multitude of others contributed in ways small and grand to make the mission a success, providing materials as well as instruction and understanding of the ways of living amongst various Native tribes. All would prove invaluable to the daring operation.

Occurring some 50 years after the advent of photography, the story is told in large part by the images of Dr. Call, who recorded the trio’s odyssey in pictures. Nearly every page of this coffee-table styled book contains a fascinating visual, including those of the wrecked ships, the creaking groans of which had been described as “a frightful sound” and certainly worse to escape. Conditions, too, were noted in his images as well as the words of reports, diaries, journals, letters and memories.

Arctic ice

“[O]ne who has not spent a winter in the Arctic can scarcely conceive the terrible conditions which exist. . . The snow falls dry and flakey, and even after it has lain for many months it does not pack sufficiently hard to support a man’s weight much of the time. . .Upon the steep slopes and in the jagged mountains the same conditions exist, but even worse, for here large, jagged rocks and deep crevices make most of the country impassible.” Indeed Jarvis, Call and Bertholf for most of the mileage they covered with dogs had to break trail and run alongside the animals to fight tipover. Sledding with reindeer, though faster, had its own challenges.

Classified as a children’s book, it will appeal to readers of all ages with interest in the Arctic (or even Antarctic, as a precursor to the Shackleton expedition), adventure, history, Alaskana, Native cultures, survivor stories or photography. The story is told mostly in a linear fashion, which research suggests boys—a demographic whose readership percentages lessen as they approach the middle-school years—tend to prefer. Almost like a journal itself, the work’s layout also consists of images of such historical significance as promissory notes, official orders and lists of provisions.

Sandler wastes no time in the story’s telling, and the book’s pace reflects the speed with which serious concerns develop and need to be addressed. Periodically he returns the reader to scenes at the top of Alaska, including via a lone traveller unaware of the approaching rescuers but determined to get out and tell the world of their plight. It is a technique that magnifies the uncertainty faced by each of the major parties—rescuers and trapped—and their isolation from one another, for there was absolutely no communication between the two.

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Sailing the Bear, built in Scotland in 1874 and especially constructed to withstand heavy ice, the rescue party initially make their way past St. Lawrence Island and aim to put in on the south side of Cape Prince of Wales peninsula in the morning of December 13, over three months after the whalers were stranded. “In the afternoon, however,” writes captain Tuttle, “considerable drift ice began to make its appearance. Knowing that as soon as the wind died out the sea would go down and the [drift] ice would form into a solid mass which it would be impossible to get through. . . I went. . . full speed [south].” As the skipper gets his ship safely away, his men see the ice between their position and the cape had turned solid. They later land in Tununak, which adds 700 miles to the Overland Expedition’s journey.

Amongst the inevitable questions following adventures, there always seem to be those seeking to track the main players. Sandler has anticipated this and provides an aptly-named “What Happened to Them” section following the main work. Delightfully, “Reindeer” are included in the cast–for even they had an enormous role to play and without them the mission probably could not have started, let alone continued. Like so many in the Great Land, they gave their lives as a sacrifice to save others. Their human partners, as we learn, go on to triumph and tragedy, some of which readers, children as well as adult, will make connections to from previous information or knowledge.

The incredible journey undertaken by Jarvis, Call and Bertholf (et al.) is but one illuminating the spirit of a land that puts a necessary premium not only on working together, but also attempting creative solutions when none other will be found. Unforgettable stories, amasingly, are a huge part in the fabric of Alaskan life, and such tales continue to be passed down through generations because those people are who we are, no matter where they came from. This dual sentiment of history and diversity lives in the celebration of Alaska Day when we remember the historical significance of an Alaska with a new future, then as now, and the people who grew this pioneering country into what it has become–and those who shape what it shall be.

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The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        —by Martin W. Sandler

Publisher: Candlewick (September 11, 2012)

ISBN:10: 9780763650803

ISBN-13: 978-0763650803

ASIN: 0763650803

This post is appearing simultaneously for Alaska Day and I can also be found at:

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The Review is going strong!

Well, launch day week fortnight has drawn to a close, and it was a smashing success! There were so many entries we had to extend the launch period twice to fit it all. Even better, our Facebook page was like a constant party atmosphere, with loads of fun people joining in and contributing in a variety of ways.

If you have not come on over to check out the fab gathering of sheer talent at The Review, just click on the banner below because it’s better than ever! Whilst admins took on the launch duties, the review team has now joined in and the results are not to be missed! Authors, writers, readers, interviews, book reviews, special features, give aways–there’s always something happening. Speaking of which, there’s also The Review‘s Facebook page as well as another dedicated to the current event, The Review’s Great Halloween Creepfest! Come and laugh, be frightened, silly, or just come check it out!

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Flashback Friday: Hiraeth

Tonight brings us once more to memories, those which have been lingering since some weeks now as if they are starved for attention. In this time, largely because some of my child’s interests and questions have transported me back to when I was his age, recalling what I spent my time doing and reading about, I have been re-visiting a great deal of personal scribblings that I’ve carried around the world. At one time I read a lot of Jan Morris, whose writing introduced me to hiraeth, a Welsh word that according to the University of Wales, Lampeter encompasses a “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an the earnest desire for the Wales of the past.” While I am not Welsh, as a teenager I related to the feeling as I had always had a sensation of being strongly attached to those who came before me, as well as the land they and we had once inhabited–meaning the land itself but also what it once was in contrast to what it had become. When I walked through it I somehow felt the sensations of other beings, as if I were remembering them from times past, and was mournful over our ruptured bonds, longing for the connections to re-establish.

As I have discovered, there are a number of poems addressing hiraeth, one from Tim Davis, the first line of which speaks of the direction one might receive from the sensation. While Davis’s poem attempts to define, mine seeks words for the emotions I had been experiencing. I do not pretend to understand it completely, or connect myself with a land I do not know. I could only, then and now, express relief that someone actually had a word for my feelings and, having no other, I took hold.

Hiraeth

Slowly in the curling evening fog
An evasive enchantment wistfully rolls
A sigh moves it slowly upwards

A dismal rainshadow hangs overhead
Then lets flow a mournful flood of sorrow
If eternity could tell its tale

Once more the call of Gwydion echoes
Silently through a valley and a peak
Which absorbs the everlasting grace

Freely called, though few discern
Longing rumbles distant in Time
Moving through the ages

The unspoken passage of messages here
Erupts the natural instinctive sense
Enthralls for a lifetime, and then lets go

Bonding with books: Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer

Every year at the start of school I gift my son his Schultüte, a small gift bag with goodies, school supplies, etc., a sort of “welcome to the new school year” packet of treats. It has evolved from the traditional cone to a gift bag, partly because he adores those sacks, but also because from the get-go books, which don’t fit into a cone very well, have always been part of the deal. This year I shopped at the eleventh hour, but got incredibly lucky.

One of the titles he hasn’t yet read, and two others, The Young Merlin Trilogy: Passager, Hobby and Merlin and Sword of the Rightful King, both by Jane Yolen, have been big hits. (Interestingly, the greater inspiration to read them came from the BBC Adventures of Merlin series.) The last book, admittedly, I chose purely for myself: the subject matter is one he’d never really brought up as an interest, though he did know about it. Moreover, I loved the sweeping beauty of the work and felt it crucial for my child to learn more about this significant figure in history. I try not to force particular books on him, and have learned that nine times out of ten, owing largely to his insatiable curiosity about the world, he will at some point make his way to a work I have chosen (and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t). In so doing I wonder: will he see himself in the book, possessing the same hunger for knowing and deep drive to understand the mechanics of the world, as did Leonardo da Vinci?

With this post I launch a new series called “Bonding with Books.” My intention is to highlight with each entry a particular book I find contains a sparkle that will mesh well with what Mem Fox refers to as “reading magic“: developing a continuing bond with children through reading to them, an act that from the time they are born does more to facilitate brain growth than any costly or elaborate educational tool parents could ever purchase. Each post will contain a relevant quote from Fox’s book Reading Magic: Why Reading to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever, aiming to spotlight the bond children develop with books they explore and love, as well as that achieved between parent and child when this event occurs on a continual basis. Though unseen, the magic that happens truly is larger than life. My own child is now ten years old; I’ve been reading to him since before he was born and today he and the process of reading magic continue to render me awestruck.

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When I first spotted Beautiful Dreamer, I was attracted straight away, though it didn’t initially occur to me to wonder why it was grouped with classics for young adults–its appearance, after all, is that of a picture book. In size it measures the standard 12″ by 9″ of a younger child’s book, and the cover bears loads of pictures drawn in a style generally attractive to and favored by the 32-page set. All of which is not to take away from its beauty: Leonardo, flying through the sky surrounded by a border of images reminiscent of his life. Of course the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, as well as pictures of the polymath studying, observing, drawing, appearing at court, and more, all feature on the spectacular front cover.

Once I turned Beautiful Dreamer open, I quickly found that every inch of page in this treasure is a feast: the first inside pages are a rich purple inlaid with da Vinci quotes in a soothing and delightful white font to contrast against the dark background. The body matter also supplies a number of quotes, one of which contains an especially wonderful message for children:

The earth is moved from its position by the weight of a tiny bird alighting upon it
The surface of the sea is moved by a small drop of water falling upon it

Perhaps it was this moment in which I knew I had to have this book, for this message is one that all children deserve to know, and how I wished to pass it on! Moreover, when part of a book read to a child, navigating through the metaphor alone could bring on a great sense of satisfaction. The genius of this particular phrase is that the amount of feel-good in deciphering the message is likely to be in direct proportion to how much it is needed. Surely Leonardo understood human nature very well, including those who may have more than enough self-esteem, and so the message is paired with the urging to act upon it: You can achieve great things, he seems to be whispering across time, along with: Do! Do!

The book goes on to introduce readers to Leonardo, his interests, habits, achievements, delights, talents and abilities–all from childhood to his later years and death, said to be in the arms of Francis I. Through a series of sidebars the author also presents readers with interesting facts about Leonardo and his times, such as the purchase of the Mona Lisa by Francis, hence why the painting today hangs in France, and not Italy. These and other bits of information presenting throughout the book provide absolutely perfect jumping-off points (or continuity) for children and parents to discuss in a relaxed and fun way what they are reading and the connections children will make. Leonardo’s interests also seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to those of most children: the natural world, animals, how things work and are made, mysteries, flight and grand plans to name but a few. Leonardo, like many children, dreamed of planning and doing a number of projects.

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Each section is arranged to take up facing pages before it moves on to the next, which renders the book utterly readable as bedtime material because in terms of length, it is most definitely not a picture book. The pages are set up to avoid formulaic or repetitive frame placement, which in itself makes the pages simply much more interesting as an exploration. Moreover the detail and vibrant, rich colors in the pictures engage the eye, offering a multitude of opportunities for children and parents to discuss details or make a game of finding or perhaps naming certain items–or whatever other games might strike their sharing fancy! For, as Fox points out:

The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading. It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud–it’s the relationship winding between all three, bringing them together in easy harmony.

So have fun when reading with your child!

And what joy to be had! Reading for pleasure becomes (or continues) because it is something done together that provides for a safe and relaxed learning atmosphere, a non-threatening grand time that occurs for both readers when children share their thoughts, ask questions about the events or pictures, or make connections between what is happening in the book in their little hands and another book, or something they know of from their own lives. The book provides for easy stopping points as well, given the sidebars and sections laid out as they are. While the facing pages may be enough for one sitting, Beautiful Dreamer makes it easy for readers to choose whether to continue or to choose one item to explore.

“The Fantastic Notebooks” discusses and presents images of some of Leonardo’s observational records whilst in Milan: astronomy, measurement, achitecture, optics, physics, botany, mechanics, philology, mathematics, flight, power, the stage, military arts and science, anatomy and water, just to name a very few of the different topics da Vinci studied and wrote on in his lifetime. True to the book’s introduction, children could, especially when engaged in conversation about their own habits, see Leonardo as not unlike themselves:

…trying to follow an explanation of how something complicated, like a bird’s wing or a poem or the human eye, actually worked. Or perhaps you once tried to draw a leaf or a horse’s head or a hand, making every detail exact.

I was especially struck by the connection between these two sections because my own ten-year-old also has passions that he records in notebooks, and we talk about them periodically–or he even jumps up to record something very important in one of his notebooks–whilst reading together. Allowing children measure of freedom for movement, ideas and direction enables their learning, even though it may strike some parents as very informal and not at all educational, while in fact the absorption taking place is fairly astounding.

One of my favorite sections was that entitled “Strange Animals, Mythical Beasts.” Reminiscent to me of Sir John Mandeville and the famous stories he brought back from his world travel, as told in his Travels of Sir John Mandeville (c. 1357), it contains a selection of Leonardo’s sensational stories of exotic animals, some of which today are discernable to even very young children. One such might be the unicorn, delightful drawings of which grace almost an entire page and which some children, through discovering connections, may “recognize” as a rhinoceros. Conversations may tip towards medieval beliefs, African animals, even fabulous stories of children’s own making. Exchanges are limited only by the child’s own participation and grownup encouragement to seek links in our wide world, observations and dicussions in which Leonardo himself would surely have delighted.

Your Destiny: The Adventures of Merlin

The Adventures of Merlin

I actually don’t watch a lot of television—not because I am a TV snob, I just don’t have a great deal of time–and as a result never bothered to invest in cable. Amusing consequences involved my then-six-year-old son asking me, “What is a commercial?” I was slightly happy he had to ask me this, but later I thought about the vilification of television and settled on the conclusion I’d always done: That television isn’t so bad, and in fact can be a worthy tool, but it matters how you use it. Even if for entertainment, I have found it can be used in concert with sneaky little educational insertions, and my now-ten-year-old turtle is the one who actually led us to this particular case. His success in persuading me to sign up for a TV/movie streaming subscription found me one evening, bone tired and flipping through the choices until I saw the word “Merlin,” at which point I hastily clicked. For I am fan of Merlin since childhood and still recall dragging my mother to all the libraries in the region to collect books I’d looked up that had anything and everything to do with Merlin and King Arthur. Life having gotten a bit in the way of these pursuits, I nevertheless remembered my mother’s voice, “And yet here we are again…”
 

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“He cannot glimpse his part in the great story that is about to unfold. Like everyone else, he must live and learn.”

So we are told as we watch the young Merlin—known to us from Arthurian legend—climb a pathway on the journey’s last leg from his home in Ealdor to Camelot, where he takes up residence with his guardian and the court physician, Gaius. Merlin’s introduction to Camelot comes in two main parts: one by witnessing an execution and next by tangling with a boisterous and perhaps bored Prince Arthur, who has him thrown into the stocks. By the first episode’s end, Arthur and his father Uther Pendragon’s opinion of the young boy—unbeknownst to them, a powerful sorcerer—settles to deep admiration and he is awarded with a position in the palace.

Watching this and subsequent episodes required me to settle into the idea of Merlin’s story being told rather differently to the way I’d always been taught. For starters, Merlin is unacquainted with Uther until this day, twenty years into the king’s reign, when he meets an Arthur already grown into his role as heir—there is to be no sword in the stone moment, at least not in the accidental discovery sort of way we know best. Moreover, Arthur’s opinion of the newcomer is rivaled only by Merlin’s view of the prince: “There must be another Arthur because this one’s an idiot.” As we later learn, Camelot itself also existed long before the prince and his father: recorded events trace back at least 300 years.

I enjoyed the show enough to be fairly delighted by it—-and amazed at the accidental events that led me to it—-though I did wonder how Uther, so zealously fixated on his war against magic, could at times be so gullible. He eagerly laps up stories told by strangers yet refuses to believe his own son, or Gaius, his trusted physician of twenty years. Nevertheless, Uther does argue some powerful points, such as when he consults Geoffrey of Monmouth re: a knight’s nobility papers, or the need to show strength in the brutal world in which they live.

The camera work caught my eye in a number of ways: the rapid movement combined with zoom to indicate a shift in perspective or at particular moments of acuity; transitions from scene to scene at opposing levels and, perhaps most importantly, the manner in which the camera loves the actors, utilizing their talents to capture even the most subtle elements in the repertoire of each. This was most evident in the second season, when they seemed to grow more and superbly into their roles: Colin Morgan as Merlin displays an incredibly wide range of emotive capability with the ability to shift rapidly. His eyes and facial expressions—even when there somehow weren’t such; he managed to somehow create a visible flow of energy within his countenance that transmits Merlin’s fear, wariness, despair, panic. The shows of emotion are also much more powerful than the moment that contains them: the flash of anger in his eyes or tight-lipped determination in the face of danger. In one particular scene on a staircase Bradley James as Arthur says more with a sorrowful and despairing visible plea than any words ever could have. Guinevere, who often rambles and pulls her punches, becomes more assertive, though her dialogue remains appropriate to her character’s station.

Merlin

The second season also tackles issues modern audiences perhaps relate to more closely, such as “The Witchfinder,” in which an agent who works for no one, and who claims that his own “methods are infallible and findings inscrutable,” lays the burden of proof upon the defendants, interrogates them alone, and makes deals he later betrays. “The Lady of the Lake” brings us a Merlin we haven’t quite seen; his earnestness and empathy for an outsider opens a new pathway that leads him to “The Last Dragonlord,” in which he finds some answers of his past and a better idea of the greatness of his future.

References to this future periodically occur within the show’s dialogue, and as the episodes march forward, Arthur continues to mock Merlin–they have a somewhat unusual relationship, given they are master and servant–but ever so slowly seems to begin to more seriously consider his words. Merlin himself, however, still questions himself and others, unsure what his next move should be or why anything he does might matter. Given what we know of Merlin today, it is somewhat surrealistic to hear Gaius, his uncle, reference future generations–that’s us–and what we will say and believe of him, or for him to be speaking from a world in which Merlin, the greatest wizard who ever lived, does not yet exist.

Herein lies a link to the–a–beauty of it all: Whether audience members are familiar with the legends of Merlin and King Arthur or not, the non-traditional manner in which the stories are laid out in each episode ensures a freshness and vitality to draw in new and younger viewers. Those who, like me, grew up at the knee of a storyteller, get to experience it all over again, with a perspective that deconstructs and forces us to perceive events in new ways. Viewers new to Merlin in general have a great many reasons to be attracted: action, plot, history, characters we come to care about. The timeless quality of humans wanting–perhaps even needing–to be told stories, is satisfied in such a way it makes us want to tell others in a continuation of what our ancestors have been doing since the beginning of time.

Today even small children know about Merlin and, given their wont to carry the real world into play (and vice versa), it is hardly surprising that Merlin’s stories remain as alive as they do. Moreover, there is simply such an enthralling amount of history infused into their creations it is, frankly, somewhat staggering. For those who think that television has nothing of value, I offer you this, as Gaius himself counsels Merlin on magic: “It’s how you use it.”

Inspired by The Adventures of Merlin‘s writers, characters he drew close to and most importantly, Merlin himself, Turtle offers his own creation:

“Merlin”
From the forest where the sword
was thrust in the stone
To the Kingdom of Camelot
where Arthur sits on the throne
North, South, East and West
Travels Gwaine, the best of the best
From where druids practice sorcery
To where Merlin’s trapped in a giant oak tree
From where Percival travels to Lancelot,
the man who dreams to be a knight of Camelot
Where Arthur drowned in Avalon’s wave
To where Tailesin saw the Crystal Cave
And in England’s deepest hour of need
Out of the tree
Will emerge Merlin in victory

*********

Merlin (Colin Morgan)
Arthur Pendragon (Bradley James)
Uther Pendragon (Anthony Stewart Head)
Gaius (Richard Wilson)
Lady Morgana (Katie McGrath)
Gwen (Angel Coulby)
Kilgharrah, The Great Dragon (John Hurt)

Three of my favorite episodes from Season II; I highly recommend:

“The Witchfinder” Jeremy Webb/Jake Michie
“The Lady of the Lake” Metin Huseyin/Julian Jones
“The Last Dragonlord” Jeremy Webb/Julian Jones
(Directed by/Written by)

Review previously published and I can also be found at

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The Red Priest’s Annina: Book review and author interview

Not long ago I had opportunity to read the young adult novel Vivaldi’s Muse, Sarah Bruce Kelly’s expanded version of The Red Priest’s Annina. Not only was I utterly enchanted by the author’s rich, descriptive phrases and seamless narrative, I was also delighted to learn of the first book. Expanding upon a previous novel is a wonderful way to introduce youth to fascinating and important figures in history and society, and with their reading comes growth and greater understanding–not to mention simply a fabulous story. I am honored and pleased to have been able to review not only Vivaldi’s Muse but now also The Red Priest’s Annina. I caught up with Sarah Bruce Kelly, who so graciously gave the time for an interview, which appears below the fold. To top it all off I’ve added a treat, cosied in between the two. Divertiti!

Red Priest's Annina
The Red Priest’s Annina tells the story of Anna Girò, who at age 14 in 1722 arrives in Venice hoping to study with Antonio Vivaldi, opera impresario and ordained priest. Referred to as Il Prete Rosso, for the color of his hair, Vivaldi had fingers that “flew like lightning over his violin strings, and his music sparkled with fire, as did his golden red hair and deep blue eyes.” Anna in fact had met him before in Mantua, her hometown, where her dreams of singing in the opera had developed, and now she longs to study with Don Antonio.

This young adult novel follows Anna not only through her studies but also her triumphs and despairs, wrestle as she must against forces holding her back, including her own uncertainty. From the very opening page, the girl falls mute to duty: “I bit back the song I ached to sing.” Though filled with the flight and excitement of song, Annina confides to us that arguing with her father is pointless, and retreats.

Shortly thereafter she learns of the circumstances that will take her to Venice, and despite her initial exhilarating introduction to the city and all its feasts for the senses, Annina begins to encounter the shadows that seem to accompany even the most ecstatic dreams. Kelly’s descriptive phrases flow like silk scarves sailing through Carnevale, as she leads us from the “salty sea air and the shrill of gulls flood[ing the] senses” through the obscure veneziano dialect and even slumping spirits following admonishing words designed to dampen Annina’s passion.

As language defines a people, it also characterizes the world Kelly has created, one filled with sights and sounds, scents and sensations that reach out with words utilized so skillfully one cannot help but be drawn in to the scenes themselves. When Annina first arrives at the house at which her patron had arranged her stay:

An old lady stood in the foyer, dressed entirely in black. Her withering stare made my throat clench. I felt gagged.
“I am Signora Malvolia, proprietress of this boardinghouse,” she said. “I understand you are here in Venice to study music, under the patronage of the Duke of Massa Carrara.”
The air, thick with the stench and taste of mildew, was dizzying.
“Si,” I said, as I sank into a curtsy with legs as wobbly as a newborn colt’s.
She pursed her lips and looked me over. “They call you Annina?”
I nodded warily.
“You may call me Signora,” she said, her lips tightening.

True to her name, Signora supports Chiara Orlandi, whose every move is designed to isolate Annina: rifling through her belongings, withholding mail, initiating rumors, engaging deceit, and at long last, offering a hand in friendship. How far is Chiara prepared to go before her plans backfire? Can a friendship between the two rivals succeed?

Given Annina’s age and inexperience, it is unsurprising that Chiara manages to fool and lead her into compromising situations. Annina’s determination not to be seen as needy or impractical leads her to internalize, which aids Chiara’s schemes. At one point it seems the threatened singer will manage to push Annina away from her dreams after all. After Annina botches a score transcription that makes her late for a music lesson, Chiara delivers the younger girl’s punishment:

“I’ve asked Signora to reassign your status in this household to that of a servant. Tomorrow morning you’ll begin to learn the art of dressmaking and assist our resident seamstress in sewing operatic costumes. That will be your fulltime job.”

Here Annina recalls her mother, who had abandoned the family, perhaps in an unhappy search for her own musical past, sacrificed for her female role in society, recognition only having come much later when she remarries in order to secure herself a protected place in society. Annina, a child of this second marriage, feels abandoned by everyone in her life and turns to la moretta, the mask purchased at the start of Carnivale from a woman who had told Annina she would suffer much, but that the mask would shield her. It seems to promise her protection, but by its very nature, her silence is the price for such safety. In our journey with Annina we witness her ongoing struggle with this duality: the need to have and develop her voice paired with the exposure that renders her vulnerable to those who would crush it. In turn we observe her impact on those in the same circle, and influenced by what her voice might offer.

Kelly has a delectable way with words, which enables her to convey a variety of lessons—music, history, political, social—while simultaneously presenting young adult readers with the story of a girl who endures personal struggles in many of the same ways they do. This particular span of years tends to be acutely rife with the politics of interpersonal relationships, harboring jealousy and rivalry as it does, along with the distinctly poor choices adolescents and teens often make in order to benefit with a positive spin. The opportunity to grow with Annina, to recognize Chiara’s schemes for what they are, is so rewarding because readers can relate to her, no matter their own talent or perceived lack of it.

While Signora is a fictionalized character, Chiara Orlandi is historical, of whom little is known. The Duke of Massa Carrara was one of Vivaldi’s early patrons, and although Kelly’s treatment of his character is ficticious, it is based on knowledge of the era’s common practices. These and other aspects of the story bring to life the realization that Kelly has done her research well. Based on documentation the author translated herself, she has woven a story that stands up to examination and critical exploration. The Red Priest’s Annina presents historical fiction at its finest.

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