Book Review: The Darkness (Tales From a Revolution: Maine)

Tales From a Revolution: Maine
The Darkness
by Lars D.H. Hedbor

Note: Lars Hedbor will donate all proceeds for The Wind in the month of September to hurricane relief. Books are great for gifting, a weekend read or your favorite classroom. By purchasing in September, you will be positively touching the lives of those affected. Thank you so much!

In each young adult novel within his Tales From a Revolution series, Lars D. H. Hedbor focuses on a particular region, whose Revolution story is told from within the context of how the people there experienced the breakaway colonies’ fight for freedom. Each tale comes to us through the perspective of a local, in the case of The Darkness, George Williams, a teenager living on a small island off the coast of Maine.

Like Florida, a portion of whose story we see in The Wind, Maine isn’t one of the original thirteen colonies. Owing to geography and current events, the region acts as a bit of a buffer between Nova Scotia and Massachusetts, and the inhabitants are not unaffected by incidents farther south, such as the Boston Tea Party and Lexington and Concord. Shubael, George’s father, has pledged his family to the king’s side with the signing of a loyalty oath, but as the novel gets moving, Hedbor uses a rhythmic ebb and flow of dialogue to inform us that the man does, actually, have some rather firm sympathies for the rebels. Still, he would prefer to just live his life, as does George, whose excessive breaks and poor choices frustrate his father.

The author has a talent for creating characters apart from the standard mold; they are ordinary people, those so many of us long to read and know about, but they inhabit a wide range of society, as briefly spoken of in my review for The Smoke. In different ways, the choices they make render them extraordinary, and the roles they play in their time each aid in underwriting a chain of events that contribute to history as we now know it—or, as the case may be, don’t always know. Hedbor adds to his plots by setting episodes against the backdrop of documented historical and natural events, such as the war on Lake Champlain in The Prizeor a thrilling glimpse of General Washington in the time leading up to his crossing of the Delaware in The Light.

The author continues in this fashion with his inclusion of a Harvard-sponsored expedition to Maine to observe the solar eclipse of 1780. In fascinating detail drawn out by characters’ experiences, we also learn of a phenomenon that occurred on May 19 of the same year: a strange darkness that shrouded a wide area of land, upward to Portland and as far south as New Jersey, where Washington recorded the event in his diary. Later known as “New England Dark Day,” it was widely feared to portend the approach of Judgement Day.

George’s own observation of the occurrence is matched by that of the animals around him.

It was dark enough now that George could hear the birds in the trees at the edge of the field singing their evening songs, though they sounded confused and forlorn. The cattle were moving of their own volition to the barn, too, just as though it was the end of the day, and not close to noontime.

Perhaps more than any previous Hedbor novel I have read, The Darkness emphasizes the need as well as reward for our awareness of such events in the lives of our forebears, especially given these occurred at such a watershed moment. Moreover, many of us having ourselves recently experienced a solar eclipse—or at least witnessed the enthusiasm for it—speaks to the reality that our place and response to this natural phenomenon, indeed our understanding of it, has its roots in the culture that experienced it before us, as well as within the embryonic path of American science pursued by Dr. Williams of Harvard.


In a historically famous response to the darkness, Connecticut legislator Abraham Davenport replied: “I am against adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.” —New England Historical Society


George’s attention is drawn to this expedition as well as a rebel spy he first encounters as she pummels a British soldier attempting to assault her. Securing an apprenticeship in town enables George to meet up with Louise more often, and he slowly begins to realize that the network of rebels and their active sympathizers is wider than he once understood. He becomes more involved than he’d originally planned, partly through a growing love for Louise, as well as events linking all of them to the scientific investigation, a criminal act and the perverse justice and public relations meted out by British officials. However, circumstances conspire to separate the pair as the redcoats keep an eye on the expedition, wanting no part of further American rebelliousness.

Another talent in no short supply is the author’s ability to portion out just the right amount of information to facilitate the growth of his plot and character development. In The Darkness, Louise’s introduction might have been a bit more rounded out, to explain her attraction to the grungy and hapless George, other than his status as her would-be rescuer. Nevertheless, the pair work well together and Louise’s strength and will helps George to grow within his. Hedbor’s portrayal of the relationship George has with his two menacing older brothers is not only realistic, but often intensely relatable, especially to those readers who occupied the lowest rung in their respective families. Sibling cruelty, the author is well aware, often knows no bounds.

As always, Hedbor’s dialogue frequently contains within it messages passed, revealing the speaker’s positions, all while utilizing language beautifully suited to the era. The end result is a revelation that people are people and whether then or now, are subject to a wide range of emotions that, even when veiled, occasionally display a need to release. As George’s oldest brother, Lemual, speaks to a student setting up equipment in preparation for the eclipse study, the results of which have implications for the improvement of seafaring accuracy, he asks the young man about the importance of knowing the precise time.

“Because, on the day of the eclipse, we will then be able to determine with great precision when specific parts of the event take place. With that knowledge, and some rigorous and painstaking mathematical analysis, which the good professor will doubtlessly suggest one of us would profit from performing on his behalf, we can calculate precisely where within the moon’s shadow we stood when it crossed over our location.”

The dialogue also presents us with an opportunity to explore their perspective from their angles, as opposed to our own. Observing George silently examining

a marvelous mechanical clock, with hands that not only counted off the hours, but also the minutes and even the seconds[, o]ne of the students pointed out the pendulum that swung ponderously back and forth under the main workings of the clock and explained, “That’s made of two different medals, arrayed such that it will adjust itself for complete accuracy, even when the temperature changes. It’s an amazing advance in the precision of timekeeping, and we’re very fortunate to have this one.”

The novel’s conversations reveal Hedbor’s attention to the detail of language, not only pertaining to era but also relational makeup. Maine is within close proximity to Nova Scotia, from where thousands of French-speakers were expelled, less than two decades before, to the thirteen colonies. Therefore, when a Harvard student’s reply includes French nuance—“Understand that we are, of course, sensible of your position under the occupation of the Crown’s forces”—it is not out of the realm of possibility that his English might have been influenced by those Acadians who may have landed nearby, especially given his likely age. Linguistically, minority speakers do not generally have an enormous effect on the mainstream language, and Hedbor’s limited instances of such influence would be a statistically sound representation.

That the author’s inclusions of details large and small, within language and other angles, could engender such discussion, speaks to his dedication to research as well as accurate and genuine representation of the people he portrays. Readers can experience this in a variety of ways, such as within the tasks set out by Helen, George’s mother, purchases and availability of items and the running of a business. War is depicted, certainly, but people also had to continue with their lives during and after, and the rich detail Hedbor presents magnificently fills to the brim a 200-page book written in a manner amazingly suited to young adult as well as grown-up readers. Being able to attract a crossover audience and create intrigue and appeal within those readers is no small feat, but Hedbor pulls it off time and time again.

The Darkness is a worthy addition to Hedbor’s Tales From a Revolution series: it is an enthralling and absorbing story that captures reader imagination and brings to life the history we know a portion of and its people even less. Suitable for young adults (perhaps even a bit younger) and up, it also brings to us the richness of our ancestors’ lives and broadens the appeal of historical fiction and, indeed, the search for more real details of the lives of people who shaped who we are.

sensitive

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About the author ….

What made the American Colonists turn their back on their King, and fight for independence? How were they different from us–and how were their hopes and fears familiar to our own hearts?

These are the sorts of questions that I think are important to ask in examining the American Revolution, and in the pages of my novels, I suggest some possible answers.

My first novel, The Prize, was published in 2011, followed by The Light in 2013, and The Smoke, The Declaration, and The Break in 2014; The Wind was published in 2015, and The Darkness in 2016.

I’ve also written extensively about this era for the Journal of the American Revolution, and have appeared as a featured guest on an Emmy-nominated Discovery Network program, The American Revolution, which premiered nationally on the American Heroes Channel in late 2014. I am also a series expert on America: Fact vs. Fiction for Discovery Networks, and will be a panelist at the Historical Novel Society’s 2017 North American Conference.

I am an amateur historian, linguist, brewer, fiddler, astronomer and baker. Professionally, I am a technologist, marketer, writer and father. My love of history drives me to share the excitement of understanding the events of long ago, and how those events touch us still today.

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You can follow and learn more about Lars D.H. Hedbor and his books at his website and blog, Twitter and Facebook. The Darkness may be purchased in paperback (signed copies available upon request), as Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Kobo or at Smashwords. (Paperbacks also available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble links.)

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Keep an eye out in these pages for more from Lars Hedbor, including an upcoming giveaway of a signed and personalized paperback copy of a Hedbor novel of the reader’s choice, and my review of The Path, the author’s latest novel, on sale October 19 (or pre-order now).

For those in or close to Aloha, Oregon, come have some fun! Release party for The Path will be October 28, between 1:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon, at Jan’s Paperbacks

Photo courtesy Lars D.H. Hedbor

A copy of The Darkness was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

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Poetry in Bloom: “The Lady of Shalott”

Today we start our New Year’s resolution a mite early with a series-in-development, one that gives us a space here at Before the Second Sleep to advance more deeply into the realm of poetry, territory we’ve not had much previous occasion to explore. Given our love of poetry and the enormous opportunities one has as poet as well as reader, we have decided it is high time to move forward.

The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot, one of three interpretations of the character by John William Waterhouse via Wikimedia Commons

It is fitting to open with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” partly owing to our considerable affection for all things Arthurian, going back to childhood. This new direction has also been inspired in part by a review upcoming, for a “retelling and metamorphosis” of the ballad.

The works of Tennyson, Poet Laureate for over 40 years, reflect a reality about poetry, in that while in his lifetime his words were exceedingly popular (even when savaged by critics), following his death they receded a bit into the shadows. Dr. Stephanie Forward notes that “with such adulation [as the poet received in his lifetime] a subsequent decline in his reputation was probably inevitable.”

Following two world wars and re-examination of Tennyson’s place within Victorian society, his work began once more to be recognized as amongst the greatest in English literature. As literary tastes change and peoples re-discover the values within what came before, perhaps his poetry again shall wilt and bloom in a representation of the ongoing and also inevitable death and re-birth of the artistic design of our world.

“The Lady of Shalott” is loosely based on the life of Elaine, who appears in Le Morte d’Arthur as a noblewoman enamored of Sir Lancelot, later dying from a broken heart following this unrequited love. Tennyson writes of a Lady confined to a castle and subject to a curse that bars her seeing outside save for what is reflected in her looking glass. “Shadows of the world appear” describes how she witnesses life outside via those images, weaving her portrayal of them onto a loom, though becoming weary of the poor substitute the glass provides. “I am half sick of shadows,” she cries, determining that she shall leave her tower, even if it means facing the consequences within the curse.

Below are stanzas excerpted from “The Lady of Shalott,” first published in 1833 in Tennyson’s collection entitled Poems. For the ballad in its entirety, click here, and be sure to have a quick glance at Schmoop’s “Why Should I Care?” section—a brief and easy-to-read segment that may pleasantly surprise you.

Excerpt: “The Lady of Shalott”

[from] Part I

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

Part II

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-haired page in crimson clad,
Goes by to towered Camelot;
And sometimes through the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.

[from] Part III

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

[from] Part IV

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
Over towered Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

 

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, via Wikimedia Commons

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Stay tuned for my review of Richard Abbott’s Half Sick of Shadows in an upcoming blog.

Audio Book Excerpt: Timing, Extracts B & C (Richard Abbott)

Excerpts from Timing, Book 2 in the Far from the Spaceports series by Richard Abbott

Click image for book description
Click image for more info

Today I’m pleased to present to readers what’s next up in our series featuring author Richard Abbott, whose space jaunts have so delighted meand many others. Of course, I’d previously reviewed Abbott’s debut sci-fi novel, Far from the Spaceports, followed up by another for its sequel, Timing. The audio excerpts below come from the second novel and, like our previous entry, utilize Amazon’s Polly software, which is enabled for text-to-speech in multiple accents and intonations. This compares to Alexa, a single voice.

Before moving forward, for those unfamiliar with the novels and their plots, I’ve linked the book covers to their respective Amazon blurbs. Abbott’s world-building opens a new type of sci-fi, one accessible even to those not typically enamored of the genre (such as myself), and Mitnash, along with his partner Slate, originating from artificial intelligence (AI), will capture your imagination as they seek to solve the mysteries of high-tech crime in space. Last time we listened in as a group discussed data they’d studied; today we pick up our place within Timing at a moment when Mitnash and Slate are perplexed about Callisto, then continue as the pair are joined by Parvati and Chandrika, who share their conversation regarding the loss of Selif’s ship.

Owing to the limitations on the range of voices offered just now, as Abbott points out, one voice’s accent isn’t quite where it should be. Will you spot it? Readers with previous experience in this technology, unlike myself, are likely to agree with the author, who expresses his fascination at “just how much the field has moved on since the first ‘computer voice’ some years back.” He adds that the wording is “broadly the same as the book, but changed in a few places where it sounded more flowing to move words around (funny how different spoken-aloud can sound than read-in-your-head).” (Indeed, that is so!) I’ve indicated changes in red, with words omitted from the original text in brackets and red font, and any added text (just one spot, in this instance) in red.

Note that there is more omitted text than what I’ve indicated, and can be seen in the paperback edition on pages 38-43. Toward the end of Extract A, however, while Abbott’s choice of excerpt makes perfect sense, I added in the rest of Mitnash’s statement (Maybe. But I’m not convinced. Is there any way to see if there’s any crossover of personnel?) as a point of interest to indicate some text that does not yet transfer as smoothly within text-to-voice. However, if I left out the rest (see red below) the remaining text on its own would be unclear as to who is speaking, and the missing text would be sensed. Hence my longer addition here, where I did not do it elsewhere.

Finally, related to this technology are two articles pertaining to development, limitations and what awaits in the margins of progress, for better or worse. “Computer-dictation systems have been around for years. But they were unreliable and required lengthy training to learn a specific user’s voice[,]” writes The Economist at the start of this year (click here and see note below). By June, Baidu, Inc.’s Deep Voice 2 text-to-speech technology was being reported on following a paper presented the previous month, detailing its ability to “listen to hundreds of voices to learn certain speaking styles. After less than 30 minutes of time listening to each speaker, Deep Voice 2 then can recreate the style perfectly[.]” (Click for article.) Where do we go from here?

And without further ado, simply click the arrow to listen–and enjoy!

 Extract B

After that debacle, [we] Slate and I gave up investigations for a while, and just had fun. But eventually we both decided it was time to start work properly.

“Slate, perhaps we should go through the details of the problem on Phobos?”

She cleared the wall screen, and scattered a whole array of documents across the surface.

“Where shall we start?”

With a top-level summary of the losses, compared with the ones we saw on Callisto.”

A chart opened, with two traces spilling across it. Red for Phobos, blue for Callisto. They were mostly flat, with irregular spikes showing the discrepancy pattern. Irregular, but averaging out at more or less one a week when you looked at the big picture. Callisto came out slightly more often,  Phobos slightly less. Other than that, there really wasn’t a great deal of similarity. Different days, different amounts, different principal components.

I was missing something.

“Slate, we did leave the old code on Callisto running in parallel with the new, didn’t we?”

“Absolutely. With triggers to send an alert down to us, if ever the problem surfaced again.”

“And have the triggers fired at all?”

“Not at all Mit. Not even once.”

“But why not? We never found the root cause. Why isn’t the same problem happening every few days still?”

Slate was silent for a while.

“That’s a really good question. I have no idea. Maybe, whatever situation was causing it has gone away?”

“That would be an absurd coincidence.”

“Or maybe it was an insider job, and the person is keeping a low profile? Maybe we frightened them off?” [In which case Jo’s coding style has nothing to do with the problem.]

I wasn’t convinced, but we lacked information. [Maybe. But I’m not convinced. Is there any way to see if there’s any crossover of personnel?]

[I can request the staff roster. But remember Callisto: the records are very skimpy. I’ll ask Khufu what he can find out.]

[Meanwhile, is there any chance of getting a look at the code repository on Phobos?]

[No. I asked last night while you were asleep, and they won’t open a remote link. Not for anyone, not for any reason. You’ll have to wait until we get there.]

“So, is there any more we can do for now?”

“Not really. I can show you the same data in different charts, but you’re not going to learn anything helpful by looking at them.”

So we didn’t do that. We cleared the screens, out of habit, then Slate got on with whatever she did when I was not conversing with her.

 

Extract C

I wanted human company again, so I stretched, and went in search of Parvati. She was brewing chai as I wandered in to the kitchen. Seeing me, she doubled up the amounts, found a second mug, and arranged some savoury crackers and a red and yellow striped cake on a tray.

“Did you and Slate get anywhere?”

I shook my head.

“Total blank. The figures don’t tell us any more than the basic alert message we got from Finsbury, and they won’t let us access the code yet. There’s almost nothing we can do until we get there.”

We moved back to the bridge, and enjoyed the snack together.

“Chandrika just picked up the latest from the wreck site for Selif’s ship, if you’re interested?”

I very definitely was interested. We finished the crackers, and she sliced two generous portions of the cake.

“They’ve made available the results from the data recorders. There’s nothing at all unusual until about three minutes before the crash. At that point, Selif took the vessel’s riding lights offline, and uploaded an amendment to the nav plan. [Anyway,] The upload was completed successfully, taking only the expected lag. Except that a couple of seconds later, both recording devices ceased gathering data. At the same instant. That is unheard of.”

I looked at her.

“How did that happen?”

“The maintenance log for the recorders showed that Selif had skipped two routine services. So they highlighted that in the report, and almost immediately the manufacturer put out advisory notices, basically denying all responsibility if people ignore the recommended schedule. So the official version simply lists an open verdict.”

“Is there an unofficial version?”

She grinned.

“Of course. Chandrika, why don’t you tell them?”

“To be sure. I heard this from one of the personas on Martin’s. He works part-time with a man who’s an expert on the embedded systems in boat engines.”

I nodded. It was a highly specialised area, and one that I knew next to nothing about. But it made sense that a man with those skills would have an opinion on data recorders.

“Well, he said two things. One is that a full restart cycle for those boxes is about half a second longer than the time from the point of failure, up until the impact on Tean. And the second thing is that there are only two known exploits for that model of recorder which could bring down both boxes together. One of them cannot possibly have anything to do with this case: a different ship configuration altogether. The other one happens to rely on a routing plan change.”

I sat there, absorbing the news. It made sense that these units would go into an automatic reboot mode if they went dark for some reason. Normally, that would restore them to full operation in plenty of time to carry on doing their job. But in this case, the boat had hit Tean before they had started up again. I stirred in my seat, but Slate beat me to it.

“That’s very precise timing on someone’s part. Does anybody think it is just a coincidence?”

“Oh, Slate, the official verdict is open. Nobody is suggesting anything.”

We all laughed together.

“Either it was phenomenally bad luck on their part, or…”

I paused, and Parvati continued.

“Or else someone wanted rid of them, and found a clever way to do it.”

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Click here for the previous entry in this series, Extract A, and stay tuned for my review of Half Sick of Shadows as well as more from Richard Abbott!

About the author…

Richard Abbott writes fiction set in two very different places. First, there is science fiction, set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships. The second area is historical fiction set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC.

His first science fiction book, Far from the Spaceports, introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. Its sequel, Timing, was released in the second half of 2016.

His historical fiction books explore events in the Egyptian province of Canaan, following events in the life of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath during a time of considerable change throughout the region.

His latest publication, Half Sick of Shadows, a retelling and metamorphosis of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” is now available for purchase, along with his other works, on Amazon and Amazon UK.

Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance.

When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.

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You can follow and learn more about Richard Abbott and his books at Facebook and Google–and be sure to check out his brilliant collection of images! The author also has some amazing content at his blog, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, including Polly and Alexa, with space-related and not, his own reviews and reading list, information about his other books, and much more.

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Note: The Economist link loads slowly, if at all, though I’ve noticed a direct copy/paste of address to bar, as opposed to linkage, seems to do the trick: https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21713836-casting-magic-spell-it-lets-people-control-world-through-words-alone-how-voice

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Book Review: Hand of Glory

Hand of Glory by Susan Boulton

Dried and pickled, bestowed with magical powers and held in the highest of esteem by thieves, a Hand of Glory, retrieved from the right arm of a villain, was their gateway to a house of riches just waiting to be relieved of them. Lighted candles held aloft by the hand’s fingers predicted how many occupants were abed, and not only provided a mystical tool and protective power for the intruder, but also prevented anyone from a premature awakening until the flame was extinguished.

Such is the object of Archie Hawkins’ desire as he and his brother, Jim, have been carrying on a family crime legacy by joining the fighting at 1917 Passchendaele with the aim to scavenge loot off soldiers—and they weren’t picky whose side they came from.

On the same night they perform their ghastly duties to retrieve a hand, Captain Giles Hardy lay wrapped in barbed wire, watching as death and destruction fall all around him, convinced that he too would, and should, die. As it turns out, Hardy makes it home to Stafford, but is haunted by what he has seen as well as the ghost of a close comrade, Corporal George Adams. Drawn by a new acquaintance into the world of outdated séance and a crafty medium, the spirit realm both intrudes and lends a hand to lead Hardy to the links in his past he never knew, as he continually seeks to escape the Great War battlefields he remains tied to, even years after the Armistice.

Given that I was not entirely convinced this particular mythology was a good fit for my interests, it was fortuitous that Susan Boulton’s Hand of Glory opens with robust action playing out on the Western Front as more than one brand of battle rages. From there I was drawn into the dugouts, witnessing the death throes of men both resigned to as well as fighting death, the wet dust of the departed and all the filth, excrement and other assorted miseries of the infamous trenches. While there are indeed battle scenes, the author focuses less on them than the histories and personalities of the men they engage, and the sudden silence of remembering as unlikely suggestions purr amidst senses on the brink: the silky voice of a lover or “burning autumn leaves. The scent that lulled the English countryside into its winter sleep.” Boulton’s subtly is even subtle as she artfully weaves memories of the dying within the deafening pounds and thuds of warfare so that, not unlike some of the men themselves, we don’t realize that slipping away in such an environment could be so serene.

These are amongst Hardy’s haunted memories as he begins to piece together details surrounding thefts within Stafford of late, and the investigation he hopes will bring peace to himself as well as the departed. If I thought it would be a simple matter to just read a bit one day and put the book down, I was disabused of that notion as Boulton’s pages flew from left to right under my fingertips, my eyes greedily soaking up the story with a setting, era, plot and mythology that mesmerized my reading self. Not unlike sleepers unable to rise from their beds when a Hand of Glory’s fingers were lit, I was frozen to the folio as the tale progressed.

The War Memorial in Stafford in its current location. (It was turned round when the new Crown Court was built.)

Part of what makes Boulton’s yarn so addictive is the authenticity of the era’s presentation. Small moments and particular words make it so, and contribute to a feel of reality as the author also manages her narrative to ensure smooth progression. Early in the novel, a waitress “bobbed a small curtsey” to a group of newly-arrived patrons. Later, from Archie’s perspective, we read that “[t]he Victorians had turned the small halt into one of their gothic, wrought-iron confections, which now straddled six lines.” Here Boulton also conveys characters’ own awareness of the time they inhabit, with this reference to the now-passed Victorian era and the growth of the railways, with a small dig at the era’s predilection for excess.

It would be one thing to say Hand of Glory is a thrilling read and the pages couldn’t be turned fast enough, though this wouldn’t be doing the novel justice. Readers are swept into the story with a breathless anticipation, all the more so because the author’s words and imagery bring the scenes to a living presence, as if we are watching the real characters experience these events, or in a movie, its Hitchcockian elements—trains, domineering mother, false accusation, side-switching or suspicions of such, suspense over surprise (though there is this), the charming criminal, crucial close-ups and more—lending a weighty heaviness to a number of scenes as the camera slowly, willfully, pans across a dark, silent setting, or one in which a single element is ever-present and undisguised, but often also remains undetected.

Adams coughed, as if the smoke of the non-existent cigarette were troubling his lungs. He looked at Hardy, his ghostly eyes narrowing. “It’s coming to a bloody head, sir, after all this time. We’ve got a good chance to get it damn well done for good.”

 “Get what done?” Hardy asked, confused and angry, cursing under his breath at the nonsense of it all.

 Adams did not answer. The smoke from the cigarette gathered against the windscreen. Flames flickered. Red-hot. The gothic window of tree branches. Fingers entwined in his. The cold metal of a ring on a small finger. Hardy screamed and the illusion shattered. He slumped back in his seat, staring out at the windscreen at the night-wrapped lane that led to his home. How long he had been sitting there he did not know. His mind tumbled over and over, stressed to breaking point. Was he really here? Still in Flanders? Or, as one doctor had tried to put it, in a mental retreat where all his fears and perhaps hopes played out: a self-created purgatory?

 The author easily transfixes us not only with suspense, mystery, horror and criminal enterprise, but also imagery that, while often reminiscent of the legendary director mentioned above, casts as well its own role with lines powerful enough to stop us dead as we seek to take them in again. Boulton shows us moroseness,

Dull and reluctant, the day began

 a silken, swarthy sense of voyeurism as we follow an intruder

The moonlight crept down the hall, running pale fingers over the pictures hanging on the walls.

and the theater Hardy cannot escape.

A star shell exploded high over the battlefield, banishing the darkness for the space of its short, sputtering fall to earth. In the flickering man-made light, hell was again visible, pockmarked and drowning in the late autumn rain.

That hell follows Hardy, chained to his prior entrapment even years after release, with his investigation and journey to free himself as well as others questioning “the war to end all wars,” as character dialogue purposefully reveals no perceptions as to what anyone may or may not have gained from it all.

From the start Hand of Glory is gripping, taking us to an England transitioning into a new world forged from flames while the old still undergoes its destruction. Its people, forward-looking and dated alike, walk side by side, and Boulton utilizes their shared language—the feel and character of it—to depict Hardy and others within this transition as they examine that circumstance and what it will mean for all involved.

That the paranormal mixes with historical fiction and wartime storytelling is quite clever and makes the novel stand out from either genre. Boulton takes that one step further by writing a story that carries readers along quickly as the action and suspense build up through a cast of characters intricately linked to the past as their paths converge in their post-war present. Some of this is recognizable before or as it occurs, but the manner in which it does, itself brings us back to stories of the past attached to readers (or viewers) urging on their heroes or shaking fists at baddies, this reader involvement entangling with the action and furthering the sense of urgency previously built upon by the author. It’s an innovative kind of old story that will capture new readers in its imaginative, disturbing grip.

War medals of the author’s grandfather, the real George Adams, who, as she writes in her dedication, “made it home in 1919.” The medals are 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal, referred to by veterans as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. (Click image for more information.)

About the author …

My name is Susan Boulton and like the song by The Police says, I was born in the 50′s and I had the unusual distinction of arriving into this world  200 yards from where, 37 years before, Tolkien spent time thinking about hobbits.

I have lived all my life in rural Staffordshire, and have a passion for the countryside, its history, myths and legends, all of which influence my work. Married with two grown-up daughters, I now put my over-active imagination (once the bane of both my parents and teachers) to good use in my writing.

I have had short stories published in the following:

Flash spec (Volume I and Volume II) (EQ Books)

Touched by Wonder (Meadowhawk Press)

Ruthless People

Alien Skin

Golden Visions

The Dark Fiction Spotlight

Tales of the Sword (Red Sky Press)

Malevolence – Tales From Beyond the Veil (Ticketyboo Press)

“Mirror” – Kraxon Online Magazine

Novels:

Oracle  (Ticketyboo Press)

Hand of Glory (Penmore Press)

To learn more about author Susan Boulton and keep up with her news, follow her at Facebook, Twitter or her blog! She will also be at, and taking part in panels, Sledge Lit 3 at the Quad in Derby UK on November 25th 2017. This looks like a lot of fun, so go on and check it out! Hand of Glory and other works by Susan Boulton may be purchased at at Amazon or Amazon UK. Enjoy!

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A free copy of Hand of Glory was provided to the blogger in order to facilitate an honest review. 

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Photos courtesy Susan Boulton

Book Review: Monkey’s Wedding

Monkey’s Wedding by Rossandra White

2017 Independent Publisher Award Medalist
2017 National Indie Excellence Awards Finalist
2017 International Book Awards Finalist
2017 Paris Book Festival Awards Honorable Mention

Rossandra White is the author of the multiple award-winning

Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog

Anyone who has ever witnessed a sun shower and is asked about it later likely experiences a variety of curious and immediate memories. For myself, two branches of thought come together, starting with my mother’s frequent assertion that rain on one’s wedding day is good luck. This merges with the historical status of animals as purveyors of phenomena explanation in such folkloric expressions as monkey’s wedding, which refers to rain falling when the sun is shining brightly. It is magical and wondrous, typically a short-lived event that nevertheless has the capacity to elicit thrill and awe at nature’s fantastic contradiction. Perhaps people once witnessed a group of monkeys acting joyfully during a sun shower and related it to what made sense to them, deciding the simians must be on their way to a wedding.

In my own memory a monkey’s wedding really is magical, and so, might I add, is Monkey’s Wedding. Author Rossandra White brings the theme to bear on her novel starting with the cover’s color tones—dark profile of a hut and baobab tree set against the bright, hot orange and red of the sun and sky to the contradictions throughout, sometimes so subtle we don’t recognize their droplets as they nevertheless work out as part of the situations within which they exist.


Jiminy. That’s what she called her baby brother, instead of James or Jimmy. He reminded her of that little cricket from Pinocchio: head too large for his bird body, all that thick black hair, and when he wasn’t crying or vomiting, he chirped.


Elizabeth and her British parents live in 1950s Rhodesia, members of a society in transition as indigenous peoples begin to demonstrate their resentment of white rule. Annie, Elizabeth’s expectant and often moody mother, seeks to keep her daughter separated from “those kaffirs” even while the girl is developing a disallowed friendship with Turu, son of Nelson, the family’s houseboy (an ordinary but telling appellation). Though she reveals to her mother he is nasty toward his son, Annie tends to be focused on how the help are “getting bolder.” The pair maintain a strained relationship and Elizabeth’s father plays peacemaker, though she at times agrees with her mother’s assessment.

Turu, too, evades suspicious adult eyes as he navigates through time with his grandmother, a Shona high priestess who has chosen the boy for a position he severely doubts he can fill. White expertly shifts between perspectives, revealing some but not all there is to know from any given quarter. Her narrative is also tinged with a feeling of silent mystery, as if we are approaching something that knows we are there, and the sense of expectancy is heavy as Anesu the priestess seems to speak for our benefit, all the while enjoying our unfamiliarity, playing us a bit as she leads us along a path we know not.

The plot’s parameters widen, and we see Elizabeth and Turu off on their escapades, ordinary activities for children—even their plot to steal extra sherbit from the shopkeeper— were it not for the underlying, unspoken awareness of their race differences. Each child harbors thoughts about the other’s race and its implications, though they also spend time exchanging information and peacefully learning about one another. The book’s title reflects their friendship as they sustain a mostly productive relationship amidst societal shakeup. They do row on occasion, their tiffs sometimes being related to the increasing temperature and pressures of racial tensions booming over their heads, but their childhood wisdom often sets right derailed moments and each achieves opportunities to see for themselves who the other really is.

As the author steers us through events, discord amongst the unseen occurs too, as ancient spirits demand reckoning, pulling Turu into events in ways that confuse and shake him, and Elizabeth seeks a path into a world hidden from her, all while in plain sight. With Elizabeth, we catch proverbial glimpses of another world, perhaps with some recognition as Anesu performs chants and prepares poultices, admonishes Turu’s avoidance of his duties and bestows upon Elizabeth something that recognizes a connection even she doesn’t quite understand. Exotic though it may seem, it offers a real alternative to Elizabeth while powerful forces of both worlds thunder over their lives, threatening everything they know.

Thanks to White’s proficiency in winding through varying perspectives, scenes and histories, details are deliciously different yet also familiar, and we find that identity isn’t always what we might have previously experienced. Amidst exposure to traditional mythology, we also encounter a moment in which Turu’s handling of a modern machine is optimal given Elizabeth’s inability to do. There is, of course, the male/female stereotype to consider, but Turu’s ability to get the car running also highlights the reality that this mechanical place is also his world, whatever his ethnicity. Afterward,

 [a]lmost right away, it felt as if Jasu, God of the Sun, had turned his face toward them. The deep green of the sisal turned to hard green, scrubby grass the color of a lion’s haunch. The smell of rain hung in the air. On the distant horizon in front of them, the huge baobab tree beside bwana van Zyl’s shop looked like a fat stalk with tiny twigs branching upward. Acacia and other thorn trees dotted the veld. Three hundred yards away, five eland buck appeared out of nowhere and floated on a heat wave past the jagged outline of his people’s ruins.

Later, Elizabeth joyfully shifts attention to the ongoing monkey’s wedding, explaining to Turu about making a wish. His dismissive attitude highlights awareness of their shifting, sometimes merging, roles when she owns the superstition and he practical modern knowledge, bringing to delightful life the novel’s epigraph, an African proverb about sharing paths. White doesn’t spell any of this out, which is part of what makes it so superb. She allows her characters to be who they are, retaining the emotional or mystical nature of any given moment by employing a beautifully minimalist style.

Having said that, it should be noted that the author also brings to life these amazing events with imagery so stunning it provokes the senses and emotions, allowing readers to experience the moments as well, easily calling to mind scenes both reminiscent and foreign, whether ordinary or exceptional, a further union of opposites.

After tea Elizabeth headed for her bedroom, where she lay on her back on the cool cement floor. The tin roof creaked as the sun beat down on it. In minutes, she was asleep.

*

Night had spread its blanket over everything.

*

 The air stirred around her, and she opened her eyes. A short distance away, down a gentle slope, sat a hut with walls the rich color of a gazelle’s hide and thatch that was plump and golden. A strange, mesmerizing, blue-tinged fire burnt in front.

*

 He returned with the milk and plunked the bucket on the table harder than he meant to. Milk sloshed up. The small brown creature on the other end of the table gave a short jerk of surprise and blew a spit bubble.

The contradictions rain down on us throughout the book, though sometimes so subtle in application it’s as if a shower has passed us before we had time to register it. Black and white, magic and ordinary, resentment and joy, life and death, young and old, outspoken and voiceless—these and more mingle with one another, like a monkey’s wedding, inspiring those it touches as they at times recognize a spiritual connection made between a twain that ordinarily “shall not meet.”

While Monkey’s Wedding now is amongst my top five reading recommendations for those wishing to know more about Africa, I’d also add that part of White’s dexterity in storytelling is that this tale could have happened nearly anywhere, simultaneously being particularly African, further adding to her mastery of fluently combining the unlikely. Set in 1953, it also is a timeless tale, evocative, magical as its spirit, like those within, wisping in and out of environments, maintaining an absolute embrace of our senses while setting us completely free to imagine.

About the author …

Rossandra White, a fourth generation South African, spent the first twenty-three years of her life in Zambia, where she had a baboon for a pet and learned to tell a log from a crocodile. As well as Monkey’s Wedding, she is the author of the memoir, Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog, published by She Writes Press. At the moment, she’s working on finishing another novel, Mine Dances, the sequel to Monkey’s Wedding. She lives in Laguna Beach with her two Staffordshire Bull Terriers, with whom she fights for space in her bed. When she’s not writing, she’s at the gym or hiking the hills behind her home.

Readers can keep up with the author at her website, Twitter and Facebook.

Monkey’s Wedding may be purchased at Amazon and Amazon UK.

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Author image courtesy Rossandra White

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The author provided a copy of Monkey’s Wedding in exchange for an honest review. 

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A New Look … Maybe?

As can be seen by a glance at the page, I’ve changed the look up a bit. Actually, I’ve been playing around for a couple of days now and soliciting opinions because I have such a hard time making up my mind. A couple of things I knew I wanted was a sidebar – left or right, I think I’d like either one – and an end to what drove me to redecorate: full visibility for the captions under my sidebar images.

Here’s what I mean:

Seriously, what the heck? I contemplated, though, that perhaps it was time for a change of pace anyway and so started checking out different themes. I finally decided that this (Colinear) was perhaps maybe the one, at least I like it enough to move forward and put my sidebar items back in place – they didn’t automatically place there in this theme like they did in the others. That’s a bummer, and I also don’t really love that I can’t (as far as I can tell) get at a “click to link” option or add in captions beneath the images. Sure, for books the title and author are easily discerned, but I’d like to be able to caption people’s status as award-winning authors, or a prize the book won, and so on. Plus, not everything is a book, but I’m hoping to find my solution as I probe more into the widget options. I also have become aware of a failure to save properly: several times I’ve made changes and the preview had to be closed and draft re-saved several times before the new or corrected text appeared.

I was also at first pretty jazzed to see that there is a specific widget for linking to Goodreads. It’s nice in that it shows all your books, and links to their respective Goodreads pages, and so the blog page’s appearance changes, subtle though it may be, whenever I begin or finish another book. However, I did notice a glaring omission from that list of currently-reading books, and that is a Bible that also occupies my shelf but for some reason Goodreads sees fit to block from my widget. I don’t really care if not a single person employed by Goodreads ever reads one, or they want to throw a few down the nearest toilet; that’s their prerogative, too. My choice, however, is to own and read one, and while I’m not typically quick to accuse, the appearance of them overstepping their bounds is pretty strong and distasteful.

Added Notation: After publication I showed my son the Goodreads widget and he suggested it may be able to hold just five titles and selected randomly. Under his direction we played around a bit more – deleting 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry and adding in another book, though nothing changed. We logged out and back in, and deleted the new book as well. Then we ensured just five books were on my currently-reading list and not only did the Bible not show up, but also 1066 didn’t go away! Very strange! As before, despite my annoyance at the omission, I am willing to believe it is just random, with the added consideration that this widget works only sporadically. Perhaps by tomorrow the changes on my Goodreads page will have caught up to the widget? (Or is the widget working to catch up to the Goodreads page?) Will the search for a perfect theme continue? Stay tuned!

Added Added Notation: Guess what! Goodreads has not, after all, shown itself an outfit willing to go as far as to algorithm “offensive” titles out of public view: the widget has updated and the Bible shows! My very bad, Goodreads and readers, my very bad! It’s hardly an unreasonable suspicion, what I’d been wondering about, given these strange days we occupy; nevertheless I’m glad I’m inclined to keep questioning, myself as well as others, and that there are times I really love to be proven wrong. Not to mention the situational reminder that asking one’s child for advice isn’t an upside-down proposition at all. And now I really am off to bed. The daylight has tricked me into believing it’s only 20:00 or so, but it’s past 23:00 now and the wowza fatigue has hit. Toodles!

Other than that I really do like the Goodreads widget, which means I can do away with the “What’s on My Night Table” link. I also like that the text area is wider and the lines cleaner, sharper. It looks refreshed. Additionally, unlike several other themes, it doesn’t underline links, which matters because some are titles, some not, and it created a look of inconsistency. Also, the colors, while slightly altered, are at least in line with what I had before in terms of ease of reading: light background, distinct hyperlinks. I still have some work to do on the sidebar, but that will be forthcoming, plus I decided to air out the place some more and put up different kinds of items, such as video, audio and slideshows – and hopefully other things, rotating and static.

I also just discovered my pages (tabs) don’t show, so I’ll have to figure that out as well. If you’re looking for something you knew to be there previously, please bear with me as I make adjustments. If you’d like information on one or more of them you knew to be available before, feel free to drop me a line at scully_dcATyahooDOTcom.

That’s it for now, lovelies! Good night from the Great Land and may your dreams be sweet.

Forget-me-not, our official flower with the same colors – blue and gold – as our lovely flag.

Author Spotlight: Sir Alec Guinness

Because learning is an endeavor that embraces many linkages, often taking us to places we least expect, tonight’s author spotlight is a fantastic example for the epitome of what our author spotlights are meant to be, leading us into other realms of creativity, imagination and talent that inspire and drive. Do allow me to step back for a moment first.

Drawing by Nicholas Volpe after Guinness won an Oscar in 1957, by Nicholas Volpe via Wikimedia Commons

My fourteen-year-old son being the film aficionado he is, soon into his explorations discovered classic movies, Lawrence of Arabia being one of which he was instantly enamored. I’d seen it myself as a child, and re-watched with Turtle. Not long ago we had the opportunity to experience something no amount of Blu-Ray sessions can capture—watching this epic film on the big screen. Our recent watching ignited a spark that had glowed when seeing it as Turtle cut his teeth on this older epic, which celebrates its 55th anniversary this year: Sir Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal, Emir and leader of the Arab Revolt during the Great War. His deliberate, slow speech and developed Arab accent (copied from a conversation he’d had with Omar Sharif) paired with portrayal of a real-life, complex character who maintained a delicate balance between tribal and new world politics. Guinness’s performance consistently displays the massive effort of such an intense role, all while sustaining a dignified and cool composure, speaking volumes with his coded facial expressions, particularly his eyes, even when he utters not a word. He maintains a magnificent presence.

It may surprise some to know that Guinness does indeed fit into this series by virtue of authoring three volumes of memoir: Blessings in Disguise; My Name Escapes Me and A Positively Final Appearance, also recorded as audiobooks. A Commonplace Book, reflections on life, literature and the world around him, was published posthumously. Within these works we are led through a world of ideas and experiences that touch history, literature, politics and religion, his lifelong craft, observations on society and so much more. His storytelling, whether in film or on paper, brings us closer to the heart of the man as well as the re-discovery of what lives within ourselves.

Born in 1914 London as Alec Guinness de Cuffe, Guinness’s first job was in advertising copy. He later was promoted to understudy (in a role with two lines) for a salary of £1 per week. During World War II he served a commanding role in the Royal Navy and planned to become an Anglican priest, later converting to Catholicism. Each morning he recited the first line of this stanza from Psalm 143, one of the seven known as penitential psalms, expressing sorrow for sin.

Cause me to hear thy loving kindness in the morning;
for in thee do I trust:
cause me to know the way wherein I should walk;
for I lift up my soul unto thee.

 

Guinness maintained lifetime ties to his Shakespearean acting roots, including parts in Hamlet; Henry V; The Tempest; King Lear and Richard II. His performance links to literature continued with roles in Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and Little Dorritt; Our Man in Havana; Kind Hearts and Coronets; Dr. Zhivago and Tunes of Glory, along with stage productions of The Alchemist; Cyrano de Bergerac; The Cocktail Party and Dylan. Apart from Lawrence, Guinness starred in two other films celebrating significant anniversaries in 2017: The Bridge on the River Kwai (60) and Star Wars (40). He also appeared in the serialized television versions of two of John le Carré’s renowned espionage novels, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People.

The actor is rumored to have had a volatile relationship with director David Lean, who nevertheless considered him to be “my good luck charm” and continued to cast him in films. Guinness went on to win the Best Actor Academy Award in 1957 (The Bridge on the River Kwai), several nominations and, in 1980, an Academy Honorary Award for Lifetime Achievement. He also won the British Academy Television Award for Best Actor twice, in the role of le Carré’s George Smiley. In fact, le Carré was so impressed with the actor’s performance that he based his characterization on the protagonist in subsequent novels on Guinness. Amongst a number of other honors, Guinness was also appointed, in 1955, Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), and knighted in 1955.

Sir Alec Guinness married actress Merula Sylvia Salaman in 1938, who also converted to Catholicism. They had a son, Matthew, who followed his father’s footsteps, becoming an actor and working extensively in theatre. Sir Alec passed away in August 2000, aged 86; the Lady Guinness, also 86, followed just two months later.

As a passionate reader with a rather average interest in film, it is not often an actor captures my attention in quite the way Sir Alec Guinness has, and I look forward to exploring his work, especially given that so much of it links directly to literature, an opening that likely will lead me not only to new work to explore, but also the interpretations he bore to invigorate and inspire.

Some great links to peruse:

Sir Alec Guinness biography

The ten best Alec Guinness movies 

Works by Alec Guinness 

A magnificent biography of Alec Guinness

Sir Alec Guinness receiving an Academy Honorary Award for Lifetime Achievement 

From Guinness’s Academy Award-winning performance as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai   (also below)

For our previous Author Spotlight: Lewis Carroll, click here

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