Book Review: Force 12 in German Bight

Force 12 in German Bight

By James Boschert

It is widely known that through history proximity to water has always been a top priority, even when marine access near where settlements occurred gives way to roaring oceans and seas with conditions so brutal and unforgiving that we marvel at how anyone had the fortitude to face them at all.

force 12The North Sea in particular, containing the world’s busiest shipping lanes, has never been known for its placid nature; even a brief query into logs and records reveals a long history of casualties of her rage—and not just sailors and other seafarers. In 1362, the Danish duchy of Schleswig lost an entire city when Grote Manndränke (“Great Drowning of Men”), gale-induced flooding, swept in from the sea, killing at least 25,000 people and dragging Rungheldt, and everything within, out to a watery grave. It is said that the city’s church bells can still be heard ringing in the area on stormy nights.

The forces that stir the waters are measured by what is known as the Beaufort scale, a system developed by Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, which relates wind speed and conditions of the sea into a standardized measure. Evolving over time to adapt to technology and land observations, the scale tops out at Force 12.

North SeaWithin this setting author James Boschert sets the main events of Force 12 in German Bight, though the book opens with a hideous death on land, at London’s Paddington Station, where an electric train grinds to a halt and runs over the body of a man thought to have jumped in its path. Detective Inspector Steven Greenfield picks up the case, quickly determining the man was murdered before his body hit the rails, setting off a series of links that eventually take readers out to sea, embarking upon an odyssey none of our literary shipmates could ever have imagined.

Following a few scenes that introduce other characters to the novel, Boschert cleverly moves us out to sea, commencing our journey as a group of barge workers embark on their own latest dredging foray under the turbulent waters of the North Sea. Equally skillfully, the author sets the stage for later events and how the setting interacts with the characters and our own absorption of how it all unfolds:

“Patrick wanted to get off the deck quickly; he didn’t want to get in the way of one of the fifty ton cranes, which rumbled about on the wide, wooden-clad steel deck like huge dinosaurs, lifting cargo off the back deck of the tug, and swinging it up onto the larger vessel. Unless one knew what was going on, the upper deck of the barge was a dangerous place to loiter.”

One of a group of hard-living men who curse the isolation of their rough work space, Patrick spends some time re-acquainting with his cabin mate and socializing at a clandestine welcome-back party before assuming his night shift. Within these scenes Boschert simultaneously and seamlessly instructs and informs the reader of barge operations, various billets and the mechanism of constant breakdowns the vessel endures. He pulls the technique off expertly, and I was drawn in by the dialogue as it ran smoothly along it course, without a hint that it was actually pulling this double duty.

BBC shipping forecast areas with German Bight in the SE portion of the North Sea, near Denmark and Germany

Some new readers may be tempted to cast Force 12 in German Bight as a “guy book,” given its setting, nearly-all-male cast and the male-oriented industrial lingo; this would be a grave mistake. The dialogue’s liquidity, soundness and intrigue drew me in to such a degree I found myself looking into certain terms—servo motors, gyroscope, winch room, for example—in order to place myself even more closely within the events of the story than I already was. This is a measure of how closely I wanted to align myself with these characters, drawn with such authenticity that I sought to know their world on the deepest level possible.

Finding myself gripping the book at times, I could indeed smell the sea air, feel the heavy diesel stink in my nostrils, hear the thunder of the machinery, visualize the droplets of sea shooting into the air, then pounding back down as people shouted at each other to be heard, while their movements compensated for the rise and fall of the waves that tossed their barge up and down with them.

Making his rounds that evening, Patrick discovers a dead body, the American Charlie, whose head wounds seem to indicate murder. He guardedly summons a comrade called Skillet and from here on out he and the men who gather around him are locked in a battle for the barge as well as their lives. Not only is an unknown murderer on board, but he is also part of a planned piracy excursion using the Cherokee as a go-between.

ship in Force 12
Ship in Force 12

Given their location in the North Sea, an area in Danish territorial waters called German Bight, a region most prone to vicious storms, the Danish police are called in and here we meet Detective Inspector Erland Knudson and Assistant Detective Hedi Iverson. Boschert’s portrayal of these characters is so spot on it might be difficult to believe they are fictional. Knudson is smooth but realistically imperfect as he lets his subordinate take the lead to utilize the skills he’d seen her demonstrate before.

While the plot moves forward and the onboard, at-sea investigation evolves into a deadly game of cat and mouse, Iverson occasionally betrays her anxiety at her foray into what is typically male territory, but without losing either her credibility as a strong female detective or her dignity. Boschert has no need for a token female and Iverson never regresses into being one. She had assumed masks as all police do, but she’d never claimed to be anyone other than who she was. This unpretentious role will indeed attract more female readers, but with an endurance that goes far beyond the mere appearance of a woman character.

As events unfold, more information is divulged to readers than Patrick and his group as they stealthily aim to take back their barge and bring it to safety. At some intervals Patrick stumbles upon information that enables him to catch up to us, or at least get closer, though he has a few tricks up his sleeve as well, performances carried out while we are taken elsewhere or as we look away.

Forced up against the pirates’ superior position as well as their determination to carry out their nefarious plans, Patrick and the others must utilize their previous hard-living habits, not anymore as façade, but virtually a lifeline.

Ruthless, anonymous pirates aren’t the only challenge Patrick faces as the storms outside batter away at their “rust bucket”; radio communications are poor to non-existent and conditions in the German Bight become truly fearsome.

“German Bight. Wind: south nine to ten, backing ten to gale eleven, perhaps severe gale twelve later in the day. Seas: rough with waves in excess of forty-five [feet] or more. Rain: squalls and storms, possible hail. Visibility: low to poor.”

It is in conditions such as these, with horrific death beckoning from just over the rail, that sailors’ superstition can arise, especially given the understanding these men have of the sea, a most unforgiving mistress. They would certainly have known of the lands previously turned into islands, coasts broken to bits and a city such as Rungheldt, swept in its entirely under the sea by the Grote Manndränke all those years ago, though by no means had that been the last casualty.

“The hair on [Patrick’s] neck began to rise and he felt a cold chill pass through him, because what he saw was a ship. Not a modern steam ship, but a sailing ship of pure white with all sails set, and it came straight at them. Shit! “The Flying Dutchman”!

 The ship flew towards them in eerie silence while he clutched the rails. He remembered what the legend said: The Flying Dutchman was a portent of disaster for ships and sailors who beheld it in a storm, for when they did their ship was in grave peril and would go down with all hands.”

As he and others battle with pirates as well as their own fear—of natural forces and human agents of evil—contact with land authorities is sporadic as those back in London become aware of certain activities, though not necessarily the connections between them all. Boschert knows exactly how to spin a yarn and draw gasps from readers who will find themselves unable to lay the book down. Throughout history the sea has captivated many, and Boschert effortlessly uses its allure to reel us in with a thrilling tale that ranks along with the very best in the industry. Readers will thrill, marvel, sweat and cheer as a delicate balance of anticipating and acting must be undertaken, and there are no second chances.

For book lovers of all genres, Force 12 in German Bight is a top-notch thriller that will take you to a world you may or may not know. Its gripping narrative will hurl you around with the storm as you follow the characters in their aim to best those who would destroy them first.


JamesBoschertSmallIconJames Boschert’s unique biography has provided him with an in-depth knowledge of his novels’ subjects. He grew up in the colony of Malaya in the early fifties during the turmoil of a Chinese Communist insurgency. He joined the British Army at fifteen, and from eighteen to twenty-two fought in the jungle wars in Borneo and Malaysia. Afterwards, Boschert lived in the Middle East, serving in countries such as Oman, Lebanon, Israel, and finally Iran where he worked with the Shah Pahlavi’s army. When the 1978 revolution overturned the Shah, Boschert negotiated a perilous escape from Iran, returning safely to the United Kingdom.

As a civilian, Boschert has worked as an engineer on a tanker in the North Sea and as optical engineer involved in the development of laser telescopes at the National Ignition Facility in Lawrence Livermore, California.

James Boschert is the author of the popular Talon Series. Set in twelfth-century Palestine, Talon‘s adventures include: Assassins of Alamut; Knight Assassin; Assassination in Al-Qahirah; Greek Fire; and A Falcon Flies. Boschert has also written When the Jungle is Silent, a novel about the 1960s jungle wars in Malaysia.

You can learn more about Boschert and his books at his website or Facebook. Force 12 in German Bight and all of the author’s books are available for purchase at Penmore Press.


The reviewer received a free copy of Force 12 in German Bight in exchange for an honest review.


This post was updated to include reviewer’s notation about copy acquisition.


Book Review: Serpents in the Garden

Serpents in the Garden (Book V in The Graham Saga)
by Anna Belfrage

Alexandra Lind in 2002 was living an ordinary Edinburgh life—well, as ordinary as could be with her family background and recent experiences. On her way through a freak thunderstorm and driving rain, Alex hits a crossroads, cursing the luxury car that would no longer work. Shortly thereafter she is catapulted into another world or, more accurately, another era, having been driven through a rip in the veil dividing time. She is now in 1658 Scotland and meets up with Matthew Graham, whom she inexplicably falls in love with, and decides to spend her eternity with him. Her decision is so firm she fights tooth and nail to stay when the frightening passageway between the worlds once again yawns open.

serpentsSince A Rip in the Veil Alex and Matthew have birthed and raised—and lost—children, created and nurtured a home, resisted religious bigotry and official persecution, and eventually settled in the Maryland colony with an aim towards a free and meaningful future for themselves and their children. There are haunting memories of this place, too, and Belfrage adds more historical detail via interaction between the Grahams and local Natives, particularly their chief, Qaachow, whose wife and infant son Alex had once saved, resulting in a shield of protection for their homestead.

This guardianship is sorely necessary, unfortunately, given the visits from the militia and frighteningly close and frequent contact with the band of Burley brothers, who themselves are a study in unflagging determination. They frequently raid for slaves, have absconded with Native and settler women alike and are bent upon revenge for Matthew’s role in their youngest brother’s death.

True to real life, the Grahams always seem to move from one set of complicated circumstances to the next, and Serpents in the Garden opens with their son Jacob’s abandonment of his apprenticeship as well as his handfasted wife. It doesn’t take long for Belfrage’s succinct manner and way with words to make itself known. As the parents discuss their son’s foolishness and rationale, a short exchange links the two eras—for the Grahams as well as readers—in understanding how teenagers can be so imprudent.

“The day I get hold of Jacob Graham I’m going to chew his ear off,” Alex said as she went about the room, hanging up [Matthew’s] clothes. “What was he thinking of?”

“You mean thinking with, and you know the answer to that as well as I do.”

“Do you really think that’s all it was?”

“He’s not yet sixteen and aye, he’s a lad of much heart – we both know that[….] Jacob has known for several months that he and Betty were to wed eventually, and there’s a fondness between them. He wouldn’t have done it unless he cared for her. Unfortunately, he didn’t care enough for her not to.”

“Or he was too young to understand that.”

“Aye, not quite sixteen is a wee bit too young.”

As the tile and opening suggest, betrayal is a theme throughout this particular installment, and it and its “promises” come in various waves and formats. Jacob’s naïve actions have consequences for the girl he has left behind, and as his parents scramble to right the situation as best they can, they both dip into an old betrayal involving Matthew’s brother Luke, and experience smaller ones between themselves and within their community. Amidst all this treachery large and small is the threat of duplicity that hangs over the family, a menace made all the more confusing to Alex given its presentation as well as the manner in which it weaves in and out of the fabric of her family’s life, threatening to destroy them.

Qaachow, the Indian chief, comes to remind the Grahams of his dedication to repaying the blessing he has received from them by bringing their own boy, Samuel, into his camp when the child comes of a certain age. Alex sees no way in which this could possibly represent gratitude, for it separates mother and child, but by its nature would also force the impressionable young boy to unwillingly and unwittingly betray his own family by bonding with another, as well as their way of life. The actual serpents Alex had been battling in her garden come to life in the form of Qaachow, because unlike other betrayals, which to her are clear and discernable, this one works by stealth, cunning in its deception, promoting what she sees as evil as good, rationalizing his future deed with words she tries to dismiss as ideas that will be forgotten.

ripThe Grahams, however, do have extremely solid bonds of their own, amongst which lives a love that surpasses old treacheries, insecurities and uncertainties. Alex loves her oldest child—technically her stepson—with a fierceness he has been aware of since he was very young, and returns it in equal measure. Even Ian’s paternal line can technically be questioned, given his biological mother’s marriage to Luke directly after her divorce from Matthew—an old betrayal that might have caused the young man to question his loyalties had he not loved Matthew and Alex so much.

The intensity of this love and understanding amongst the family because of it—in truth they also all love each other fiercely—leads Matthew to divulge some identity secrets to Ian about Alex and when Belfrage brings another Graham brother home, he references an event that would have killed Ian had Alex not saved his life:

“Does it hurt much?” Daniel asked as they made their way back down.

“Aye.” Ian turned to face him and in his unshielded gaze Daniel saw just how much it hurt, and what effort went into concealing it. “But I could have been dead[.]”

“That would have killed her.”

“Who? Betty?” Ian gave a little smile.

Daniel gave his head an irritated shake. “Mama, of course.”

“Mama?” Ian sounded very surprised.

“She loves you best. We all know that.” Daniel smiled at the dumbfounded expression on his brother’s face. “We don’t mind, aye? And she can’t help it, can she?”

Ian cleared his throat, looking like quite the daftie with his mouth hanging open.

Daniel grinned and went to find Ruth.

Through all this Belfrage continues to portray the family as the real people readers will see and identify with. Their time is not our own, though some struggles can be understood and all the historical events appreciated, both from having learned about them on a broader scale and now for reading how they affected an individual—albeit fictional—family. She enables us to travel history with Alex as she lives a 17th century life with 20th century memories. The author then widens the spectrum—pointing towards the next in the series—and the cast of characters naturally expands as their lives grow bigger and the children move into adulthood and circles of their own. Belfrage handles it all seamlessly, creating stories within the story that will leave readers hungry for more.

There also are a number of seductions here and for readers new to The Graham Saga, Serpents in the Garden will present a complicated story they can sink their teeth into, for it certainly can be read as a stand-alone novel. Belfrage provides enough action and development in each of the series’ books that such satisfaction can occur, and always provides background information. Having said that, readers should know that as they come to this fifth in the series, they are very likely to end it having experienced their own seduction, one that will lead them back to A Rip in the Veil. Alex is a sympathetic character and brings her own identity into the mix, and her creator deftly weaves us into the story, us wanting to carry on as she prepares to tell us more in this award-winning series.

“I love you, too,” she breathed against his skin. “I always have, and always will.”

“Always?” His fingers brushed through her hair.

“Since before I was born,” she replied, giggling at her own jest.


Read my review for A Rip in the Veil (Book I in The Graham Saga)

Read my review for Like Chaff in the Wind (Book II in The Graham Saga)

Read my review for The Prodigal Son (Book III in The Graham Saga) (with author interview)

Read my review for A Newfound Land (Book IV in The Graham Saga)


Anna Belfrage can be found on Amazon, Twitter and Facebook. You can also learn more about Belfrage, her characters and her world at her website and blog, which also contain details about her just-launched series, beginning with In the Shadow of the Storm. (And watch for more mention of Belfrage’s newest novel here at Before the Second Sleep!)


This post previously appeared in 2015 on the blog’s alternative location.

Book Review: Come and Take It

Come and Take It: Search for the Treasure of the Alamo

by Landon Wallace

Having recalled the Alamo from history lessons and visited once during a short stay in San Antonio, I was intrigued by the idea of Alamo historical fiction, since I haven’t seen much of the topic in this genre. I admit I was a little apprehensive, given my greater familiarity with Revolutionary battles and locations than Texas history, but decided to let my distant “connection” and a trial lawyer storyteller lead the way. In the end, the gamble led to a clear win.

Click image for further info

Opening with the robbery and murder of a World War II hero and descendant of an Alamo leader’s slave, Landon Wallace’s Come and Take It shifts from the veteran Joe Travis’s point of view to that of his grandson, tasked with sorting his late grandfather’s affairs. Nat has an abrasive relationship with his brother, Joseph, though the two manage to keep it together enough to advance in brief stages. Joseph is a rising star in the political scene, a status Nat neither understands nor appreciates, and Wallace’s skillful treatment of their exchanges not only bestows a sense of realism, but also avoids the “bad brother/good brother” stereotype. Joseph, too, loved Papa Joe, and in fairness his physical distance from his brother interferes in allowing him to see, as Nat does, events as they play out.

As the novel progresses, new characters are introduced by way of their own points of view opening various scenes—a perilous undertaking if done too loosely, though equally iffy when an author doesn’t allow characters to take enough control of their own roles. The balance Wallace displays results in characters who actually live and breathe on the pages of this book, and even the extreme personality of Angelina, Daughters of the Republic of Texas member and treasure seeker, has its roots in being a lifelong recipient of Texas lore, ancestors revered and a 175-year-old myth. Combined with her addictive personality, readers can see why she allows herself to be swept away, even if they don’t agree:

But even if reason told her different, Angelina couldn’t let go, her whole being so wrapped into the prize that she couldn’t give up. She knew that the treasure hunt had become a narcotic, as powerful an obsession as a junkie’s addiction, but it didn’t matter.

Wallace also weaves an unlikely romance between small-town coach Nat and his former sister-in-law, Renee, a history professor on sabbatical, with expertise in unraveling the knotted threads of history and asking the right questions in order to gauge what they should be looking for. Renee also happens to be quite personable and lovely, so it seems almost a matter of course they should be drawn together, though the pair resist and are driven apart by opposing perceptions in how to proceed.

Whether teaming up harmoniously or being wedged apart, Nat and Renee also present as characters one can believe in, and grow to care about as they progress from initial discovery to coming to understand what readers knew before them:

“Nat, hi,” Renee said [into the phone] while looking over at her mother, who raised her eyebrows and grinned. “We had a great time but we’re glad to be home.” She shrugged toward her mother, as if to ward off her suggestive look. “How’s the research going?”

 “That’s why I’m calling. I had a breakthrough while you were gone.”

“Really?” Renee countered.

 “It all started with a prompt from Joseph.”


“Yeah, I think you know the guy.” Nat chuckled. “Listen to this. He hired a private investigator to look into Papa Joe’s death and never told me about it.”

 “Are you surprised?” Renee asked, taking a seat.

 “No, I guess not. At first I was hot … I figured he’d hired the guy just to look into me, but I got over it. But then I did find something totally unexpected.”

 “You have my attention.”

 “Joseph’s guy reviewed phone records. It appears Papa Joe’s research into our family tree had a far different purpose than we thought. My grandfather was looking for something much more specific than our genealogy. Something you and I never imagined.”

More than expertly handling the introduction and re-appearance of various characters, Wallace is an exemplary guide who leads readers through a labyrinth of personal experiences—those of modern-day characters as well as historical figures such as the legendary Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and William Travis—that fit like pieces of the puzzle Nat has to assemble in order to learn what his grandfather was up to.

Battle of the Alamo--click for further information
Battle of the Alamo–click for further information

From the beginning readers are a half-step ahead of Nat, beginning with Papa Joe’s defiant, dying words to the robbers seeking very specific information about Bowie’s treasure: “’Come and take it,’ he [had] gasped.” We witness him denying the invaders what they want, and though we as readers know more than Nat does for much of the book, owing to Wallace’s omniscient narrator format, it is a limited omniscience, and Nat comes out with a surprise or two up his own sleeve.

Owing to my unfamiliarity with much of the legend, I looked up many pieces of the historical information and found Wallace’s research and presentation to be spot on. He has woven a yarn worthy of its characters and historical background, and the manner in which he progresses, allowing us bits of information at a time via such discordant personalities is unique and genius—not to mention pulled off in a manner that can only be described as no less than consummate.

The only thing I had a hard time doing with Come and Take It was putting it down. The weaving together of so many differences, of two eras so far apart, an unfamiliar (to me) piece of my country’s history and myself—all this and more kept me turning pages because I simply had to know what happened next, including the tumultuous ending to all of this that Nat and Renee find themselves facing.

Even for those well-versed in Alamo and Texas history, this is a must read—for the flashbacks, the fleshed-out characters, the sure thing or the doubts even the “bad guys” have. This is history, mystery, politics, romance, genealogy, the re-visiting of legendary figures and those who grow up with these myths by their sides. Wallace presents the various effects this can have on those touched by all this and, in the process, touches us as we watch their struggles and victories, and once more are taken back to a piece of history that we never really left.


Click for further information
Click for further information

Landon Wallace is a native Texan and trial attorney who can tell a story both in and out of the courtroom. He lives in North Texas with his wife and family. Come and Take It is his second novel.

You can learn more about Wallace and his books at his websiteTwitter and the author’s Facebook page. Come and Take It is available for purchase at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The reviewer received a free copy of Come and Take It in exchange for an honest review.


Happy Alaska Day!

Happy Alaska Day to all Alaskans, and others who care about the Great Land. You’ll find below the reprint of a previous book review, well worth the re-read (if you’ve seen it before) to remember the amazing place we live in, and the incredibly wonderful people who populate the 49th state.

Since in 2015 the 18th falls on a Sunday, Alaskans will be celebrating the holiday on Monday the 19th.


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

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.

To read more of this amazing tale, click here.

Book Review: The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell

Today, October 4, 2015, marks 109 years since the birth of Mr. Norman Campbell, who passed away in 2012.

The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell

by Norman Campbell/compiled by Diana Jackson

25% of proceeds from the sales of this book are donated to the local Kingston on Thames branch of Age Concern and Cancer, UK, Mr. Campbell’s chosen charity

I have a gcampbell book coverreat love for the ordinary, perhaps largely because so often it translates across history or events as extraordinary, rendering otherwise lesser details worthy of great note. Objects become artifacts, experiences awe, and so often people in later eras feel some link to those of times past; connections bond them despite the enormous differences of their environments that they may nevertheless both relate to so closely.

So it occurs within The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell, in which we the readers are given a firsthand glimpse into life in the earliest years of the 20th century, on through to the end of that era and into the 21st. Narrated by Campbell in a conversational style, the commentary seems to be directed at readers, and parenthetical laughter occasionally pops up, as it would when people are sitting together remembering.

young norman
Young Norman

Campbell starts with his parents’ marriage, followed by his birth in 1909, then continues on in linear fashion, through two world wars, his adventures to and in Australia, the advent of radio and television, his passion for music and perhaps surprisingly, his interest in surfing the Internet.

His words, so like the spoken words they actually are as recorded by Diana Jackson, revive for us memories of memories, perhaps stories heard from relatives about an era in which ordinary goals are reached by exhausting and extraordinary means. They then transition us with great succinctness to the present. Campbell does this with the fluidity of a born historian who in just a few sweeping words provides a glimpse of something that was and how it became something else.

Under the stairs was the coal cellar in those days. You could still find coal dust down there today but I’ve put a bit of carpet over it now. The coal man used to come in here with the coal on his back and that’s where he used to shoot the coal. All the dust would fly up in the hall. Schewww! You can imagine.

Most people have taken this cupboard out to give more room and maybe have a telephone or something under the stairs. I have filled in the banisters though, and put in a false ceiling because it was far too high up to paper.

Illustrated throughout, the pictures take on a new dimension of fascinating when we recall a passage from the acknowledgements:

This book, Norman’s memoirs, is also illustrated by photos and pictures from his multitude of albums and scrap books, squirreled away over more than a century.

For most people scrap books initiated 100 years prior, even if they ran for only a few seasons and indeed are exhilarating to take in, typically come from an older relative or, in some exciting instances, are discovered in attics or lofts. That these were held in reserve and collected for so long (100 years!) and by the same person, is nothing short of stunning.

sunlight soap labelExamination of the pictures reveals our own past, in people, places or items recognizable or not, and one finds their breath at times drawn in to realize the forebears of some of what we know today. This isn’t just about seeing a quaint-looking label on, say, laundry soap, though that is charming as well, but also to reflect about the conditions under which these products came to be or operated. Sunlight soap, for example, was created in 1884 using palm oils as opposed to the heretofore utilized tallow seen in depictions of early sculleries in which the maid’s hand would dip into a jar, emerging with a palm full of goop used for washing up. Sunlight was manufactured into a bar for the sake of convenience and the product came with a £1,000 guarantee.

Interestingly, such advert artifacts appear only at the start of the autobiography in close proximity to family photos. In fact, the Sunlight ad is the first image not of a family member, and subsequent clippings—one for linoleum, the next from an outraged citizen offering to pay £100 to anyone who can prove true the rumor about his consumption of horse meat—given Campbell’s age (toddler) at the time they are dated, points to a collection, perhaps of his mother, that inspired his own continuity of the habit.

spencer and annie campbell
Spencer and Annie Campbell

Did Annie Campbell have a sense of history that she perhaps passed on to her son, encouraging him by word or deed to preserve his present for the future? While it may seem an extravagant or extraneous question, its exploration makes other inquiries, of the Campbells as well as ourselves. How many of us today clip and retain product adverts? Do many people now see these even as worthy of retention? While the labels were mass produced in Annie Campbell’s day, now they are produced in mind-boggling numbers, awareness of which perhaps makes them truly unspecial in the eyes of many today. Annie Campbell, perhaps aware of the import of the product’s ingredient transition and maybe with a keen sense of the changes occurring in her world, might have kept them for others. “She was a bit of a clairvoyant. She used to dream of the future,” Campbell says, “and tell fortunes with the cards and tea leaves[.]” Perhaps she looked to the future and wondered what we might make of the people of her time, and wished to provide some answers. If so, she must have known there are clues sprinkled throughout her artifacts.

In addition to this glimpse into perspective, we see notation for images in a font resembling handwriting, much like people did when they pasted photos into the black pages of the old-time albums. When we see, then, the placement of some images at angles, rather than always straight and flush with the same sides of the pages, it brings the realization that the entire autobiography is itself the album. Campbell has not only invited us into his world, but also his time, and over the course of his lifetime has gone to great lengths to ensure we get an extended view. The chapters being headed by the years and a title facilitate the album presentation as it allows readers to peruse from beginning to end or to flip through, much the same way we flip through an album, skipping, going backwards for a second look, comparing the people within at the end to how they appeared—or what they did—at the start.

Surrey Comet, 1953

Compiled by Diana Jackson following Campbell’s death, the inclusion of an occasional address to Jackson herself does not take away from this album being meant for others to share in, and in fact shows a greater depth to Campbell’s invitation for us to participate in his life’s experiences, for indeed he must have realized the connection between readers and himself simply by knowing even portions of what he knew, such as television: Most have seen it, and he reaches out to add to our awareness of the space it occupies in our lives. When television is developed in 1953, and Campbell witnesses on one the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (current Queen Elizabeth II) he sees himself as a pioneer, and later contemplates a purchase.

I thought about it and since I was spending so much in the Kinema and so much in the Elite and so much in the Empire, I thought that all of it could go to pay for the television instead and then we didn’t have to go out.

We’d have all our entertainment indoors; magic. But that was the worst thing that could ever happen. All our social life went. I’ve never been out to the pictures since. The other thing is that everyone is scruffy these days. No one ever dresses up anymore. And then many of the picture houses were turned into Bingo halls when television took over.

As it turns out, Campbell’s wary observations were very keen indeed, for like the labels that are nowadays cast off as ordinary and of little importance for the eyes of the future, activities that once were central functions in people’s lives also transitioned into the ordinary. The processes that got people to those events–saving money, planning for, dressing up—were eliminated as something that once was magical sunk into the insignificant.

In this sense Campbell’s compilation might also serve as a cautionary tale as well as a memorabilia that enables us to cherish our own forebears. In displaying to us the charm of the ordinary, he also discreetly advises us—in his way of saying much with so few words—of the danger of the reverse, of becoming nonchalant in the face of the remarkable. It is here we see that he, too, might have been “a bit of a clairvoyant,” drawing from his mother more than he—at least on the surface—lets on, and presents to us this brilliant autobiography that could be read on a number of levels.

This amazing man continues his story, with clarity and dignity even explaining the pattern of his days with carers, not just for physical assistance but also to help him bear the loneliness around him. At 102 years of age, those from his generation are gone, he is widowed and, living in the home he grew up in, is surrounded by their memories. He finds joy in the Internet and reaches out to his extended family who live, literally, all over the globe. His story is written in a simple manner, but it is by no means simplistic and, as mentioned earlier, he presents it to us with many layers to peel back and discover that beneath it all is great complexity, which is, as Campbell himself might say, “as simple as that!”

To the end, Campbell displays that bright spark, a telling humor that makes us want to dig deeper to understand what else it is he knows, what is he trying to tell us, or even just share with us. Diana Jackson:

I saw Norman in hospital three days before he passed away and he said[,] ‘I’ve got it Diana! The name of my book. The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell!’

‘You can’t call it that,’ I spluttered. ‘You’re still with us.’

Indeed he is.

same house

Norman at 102 years of age He passed away just two months later
Norman at 102 years of age
He passed away just two months later


(All images from The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell.)

Thank you to Mr. Norman Campbell, for sharing your remarkable life with us!

For more from Diana Jackson, see her blog, where you can also read more about Mr. Norman Campbell.

To purchase this fantastic book, please go to Amazon or Amazon UK.


This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternative location


Book Review: A Newfound Land

A Newfound Land (Book IV in The Graham Saga)
by Anna Belfrage

The fourth novel in Anna Belfrage’s Graham Saga series opens with promise: the sun on the eastern rim and Alex awake before anyone else, moving forward towards her morning refreshing, seeing the “stands of grasses to her right sparkle with dew, and just by the door her precious rose was setting buds.” By this time the Grahams had been here, in their Maryland homestead, since four years, long enough for Alex to derive a sense of comfort from the permanence of the building. Alex likes roots.

newfound landThat yearning would be understandable, given her circumstances: Thrown through a severed veil separating time from her native 2002 back into the Scotland of 1658, Alex has had to endure a great deal of building in order to create and maintain the life she has acquired. Now married to Matthew Graham, whose familial history entails bitter feuding, questionable circumstances of birth and death, and the attempted destruction of his life and marital family, she has also suffered with him the religious persecution that finally drove them out of Scotland and to the early Colonies.

By this time Alex has been in her adopted era since fourteen years, and the narrative shifts between her current here and now and the world she left behind, particularly with her father, Magnus, who later connects with Alex. In one scene between the pair Belfrage addresses the issue of how Alex manages to reconcile her previous lack of belief with her current faith in God, even if that faith isn’t exactly in line with Matthew’s. The exchange is painful but realistic in its provision of explanation, not despite but because of its passion as well as shortcomings.

“Your faith?” Magnus broke out in loud laughter. “Come off it, Alex,” he said once he had calmed down. “You’re not sitting here telling me that you’ve developed a belief in God, are you? What happened to my super-rational daughter?”

She gave him a cold look, stood up and moved away from him, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Alex, you can’t believe all that stuff.”

“I can’t? How would you know? You have no idea what my life has been like these last fourteen years or what events have shaped me, do you?” She looked out into the yard where Ruth and Sarah were playing a game of tag, and then turned to face her father. “In this life, God is a constant. Sometimes He’s all we have. So when I say our faith, that’s exactly what I mean: our faith. I may not be quite as much of a Bible reader as Matthew, and there are aspects of his belief I don’t agree with, but I’ve learnt the hard way to put my trust in God and hope He’ll keep me and mine safe. And so far He has.”

The Grahams need this protection because this installment introduces them to the Burleys, a set of brothers so corrupted and foul that nothing seems too extreme for them. They also encounter an unwelcome ghost from their past, lies intended to trap them, Indians with whom they fortunately get on, even if it is an uneasy alliance, and a host of ordinary events that pepper the lives of people over the years and ones part of a foundling community.

One of the larger challenges Belfrage herself encounters in portraying the relationship between Alex and Matthew is the bringing together of their two worlds. Like Magnus, readers may question not only how she adapts but also why she accepts some of the circumstances she does. Alex speaks well for herself on many occasions, not only to us but also her husband, who, while adamant in his determination to retain the patriarchal status as provided by the coverture system, also listens to and thoughtfully contemplates where his wife is from and what she says. The pair don’t always agree, but his serious deliberation exists, and the author maintains a balance not just for balance’s sake: she makes a considered approach to what is believable not only to us, but also to Matthew.

What works for Matthew might strike some modern readers as anachronistic, given the reputation 17th century men have for keeping women in their place. But Belfrage doesn’t deviate or follow a disingenuous path; Matthew is a strong enough personality that he would never allow this. He does come to “absorb” some of Alex’s perceptions or at least appreciate them, and though he makes himself heard, he also listens, forcing us to question our assumptions about his people’s humanity and sense of compassion.

Following an especially bitter and ongoing row over a minister tasked to educate their children in religious studies, the methods of which Alex objects, Matthew forces his wife to apologise for her rude behavior. Her refusal and subsequent avoidance of him—she is deeply hurt and angry at being humiliated via the minister’s relentless misogyny and Matthew’s failure to check it—in turn causing him despair at the “walls of impenetrable ice she was putting up around herself.”

When the pair at last arrive at a place where they can exchange words, he speaks his own hurt:

“Do you recollect, once, very many years ago, when you told me I was all you had?”

Of course she did; a dark night in Scotland when she’d pleaded with him to put her and her children first—before his religious convictions.

“It’s the same for me. You’re all I have, Alex. All I want and all I need, and when you choose to close me out as you’ve been doing these last few weeks, you leave me standing very alone in a cold and unwelcoming world.” He rested his forehead against hers. “I don’t like it out there on my own.”

As stated, however, Matthew is very much his own man, despite the control Belfrage holds over him.

“Another one?” Magnus sounded disgusted. “But David’s just seven months old!”

“As I said, it isn’t always easy to avoid.”

But, of course, in this specific case there’d been no question of attempting to avoid it. Matthew had set out to make her pregnant and she had silently acquiesced without really knowing why. That was a lie. She knew exactly why: because the loving had been spectacular, a reconfirmation that it was she and Matthew against he world—and because he’d demanded her submission.

Addressed in this installment as well are relations between the colonists and local Indian tribes, and Belfrage does an impressive job of bringing Alex’s 21st century sensibility into the mix without falling prey to what so many authors do: the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle anti-Americanism that has more to do with sneering than valuable critical commentary. With this formidable skill she enables readers to continue stepping through time closer to what it really looks like as opposed to a whitewashed version of events.

Indeed these are times when alliances could mean the difference between life and death, and with the Burleys on the rampage, warring Indian factions spilling over borders—unrecognised by them, of course—and the ghostly past inhabiting, indeed invading, his present, a friend is never unwelcome. The Grahams are provided with a uneasy glimpse, however, of what such partnerships might cost, as well as the fearful understanding that paying it may be their only option.

A Newfound Land, while part of a series, is readable as a stand-alone novel. While the past is a large part of the events occurring in this installment, Belfrage takes care of that by skillfully and effortlessly weaving necessary details throughout the story via dialogue and other means, which readers don’t at first realise are for their benefit because the author does not rely on formulaic fillers.

Having said that, prepare yourself for the need to go back to the beginning—not owing to any lacking of the current book, but rather because Belfrage’s storytelling, melodic, detailed, filled with the passion and hunger for life and historical understanding, will make you wish to experience all that as you peel away the layers of events that brought Alex and Matthew together in the first place.


Read my review for A Rip in the Veil (Book I in The Graham Saga)

Read my review for Like Chaff in the Wind (Book II in The Graham Saga)

Read my review for The Prodigal Son (Book III in The Graham Saga) (with author interview)


Anna Belfrage can be found on Amazon, Twitter and Facebook. You can also learn more about Belfrage, her characters and her world at her website and blog, which also contain details about her upcoming series.


This post previously appeared in 2015 on the blog’s alternative location.


Book Review: The Dragon’s Harp

Era of Dragons: The Lost Tales of Gwenhwyfar
Book One: The Dragon’s Harp
By Rachael Pruitt

Growing up, Arthurian legends were practically part of who I was, having been told them at my mother’s knees; later she began to expose me to written accounts, which I greedily consumed. I’ve lost track of how many or even which versions of the various tales I have read, but one thing is certain: there wasn’t much heard from the perspective of one very central character: Guinevere. So it was with great interest I learned of Rachael Pruitt’s novel of Gwenhwyfar—the Welsh spelling of this queen’s given name—where she came from and what made her the person she became.

Dragons Harp Cover SmallIt is fitting that Pruitt opens the novel not only from Gwenhwyfar’s point of view, but also beginning in the twilight of her life, when she has much to look back upon: this is no naïve girl telling her story as it begins and moves forward, but rather a mature woman utilizing hindsight and the wisdom gained over many years to simultaneously examine her own (and others’) behavior. Now, however, her husband murdered and children gone, Gwenhwyfar shares a moment on the sands with a gull, an encounter reminiscent of the many cultures, such as hers, in which the spiritual wisdom of animals is revered and incorporated into tradition and cultural habit.

Born into fifth century Wales, the young Gwenhwyfar, presented to us by her older self, is at this time eight “sunturns”; she reveres her parents but still recognizes the divisions existing between them as her mother has embraced the new religion. Occasionally Ceridwen acts upon outrages from her new perspective, her own mother somewhat of a go-between in the moments when she oversteps her bounds.

Gwenhwyfar has known war her entire life, and though she still retains some of the innocence of youth, her perspective clearly incorporates the reality set around her:

I tiptoed, even though there was no one to hear me, only the oppressive stillness of damp watching stone, its grey gloom penetrated by a faint haze of light from arrow slits rock-cut at each outward turning of the stairs. The worn steps felt like carved bowls beneath my summer-bare feet.

Nevertheless, Gwenhwyfar is, as she reminds herself, a Battle Chief’s daughter, “not to be bested by shadows.” So it is she wills herself to investigate mysteries that present themselves to her, including by listening in on conversations, one scene drawing me back to Stewart’s Merlin crawling through the unused furnace to eavesdrop on conversations in the palace rooms above him. Gwenhwyfar has inherited her father’s tough stance, even if she does on occasion duck behind her mother’s skirts.

Remains of the keep at Dinas Emrys (click image for details)
Remains of the keep at Dinas Emrys (click image for details)

As the young girl comes of age at Dinas Emyrs, she certainly faces her share of trials, told to us in language filled to the wondrous brim with poetry and magic. Pruitt’s sentences are so fluid readers not only move from one scene to another many pages away without realizing how far they’d travelled, but also do so as part of the story itself, indeed, as part of their surroundings. “I dug into my soul,” Gwenhwyfar confides, “resisting his pull, as if I were digging my toes into sand so as not to get swept out with the tide.”

This, indeed, is how both author and protagonist set it out: the latter by commencing her story at a fireside to a young girl, the former with a “storytelling hearth” aura, the flickers of which can periodically be felt as the pages turn. While the mark of a great “wayback” story tends to be that readers are so immersed in it they forget it is being told from an older or other vantage point—while that is a strength, Pruitt manages to defy the dichotomous nature of that method and still keep us mesmerized within the flow of the tale: Gwen’s metaphorical digging in of her toes is reminiscent of the beach she surveys before she begins her story, and the gull who gifts her a shell, a raven who leaves a feather.

Readers are drawn into the events, warlike and magical—and the two are not always exclusive of one another. Indeed “magic and bloodshed went hand in hand,” as Gwen discovers at a turning point in which her whole world changes in a way that even death had not done. Merlin, her uncle in this telling, reminds her that greatness is typically found in the midst of ordinariness. The merging of elements with dual nature is a theme carried through the story within personalities, relationships, worship, beauty, even to the outcome of how it affects those involved: to their benefit or detriment. The “soft breath of dawn” might awaken to a cruel day; the presence of one with evil in her heart might walk through a night in which “the stars themselves grew tired.” Even the novel’s cover might speak to naked brutality or beauty, most likely both.

There is violence portrayed in The Dragon’s Harp; truth be told, it could not be any other way. Gwenhwyfar’s sixth-century Wales was a violent place where vacuums never existed for very long, a condition which surely also must have influenced the girl to grow into the woman, queen and wife she later became. It was exceedingly breathtaking a tale, a glimpse of sorts, into a world and time of her life many previous storytellers have skipped or ignored in terms of its influence on later history, as if Gwenhwyfar didn’t exist until she became a queen.

Fans of Merlin will also find a treasure within, as the mage appears, as mentioned earlier, as Gwenhwyfar’s uncle and, later, tutor. A seminal moment, one those familiar with the legends will recognize, involves Merlin as pertains to his meeting with Vortigern, who tradition says demanded the blood of a youth without a father to be sprinkled upon the foundations of his constantly collapsing fortress. The boy Merlin is dragged off to be sacrificed, but instead tells the engineers of a pool beneath the foundation, within which two dragons, one red and the other white, nightly battle it out, thus causing the destruction.

twodragonsPruitt’s telling is rather different and the duel between red dragon and, in this case white serpent, is not instigated by a superstitious and desperate king, though a young person in peril is present. The author stays true to the legend, however, and her imagery is punctuated by thunderous music from the skies as magic and community work together to ensure the defeat of red over white, leading to Merlin foretelling the freeing of this sacred land from their enemies and the coming of Arthur.

There are trying times ahead in the novel for Gwenhwyfar and Pruitt’s insight into the girl’s character as well as her times indicates a studied approach to an era in which magic reigned, as well as love and respect for those who lived within it. The detail of characters and perspective is impressive, and it is difficult to overstate Pruitt’s mastery with words, the more so given it is of a world that has all but disappeared to those of the modern world. Rachael Pruitt brings it back for us, a gift from our past sweeping us through time to reach the telling. Along the way readers will find this book exceedingly difficult to put down, and late nights are surely in the stars.

Fortunately for us, Pruitt has plans for four more installments in the Era of Dragons: The Lost Tales of Gwenhwyfar series, the title of which perhaps will lead us to clues as to how the tales finally, thankfully, come back us after so long.


This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternative location.


He Comforts Us, Your People

May you rest in the arms of God as He comforts us, your people,

that we shall meet again.


Southern tip of Manhattan Island as seen from space on September 11, 2001

seen from space

The Pentagon as seen in the aftermath of the strike


Navy Quartermaster Matthew Konchin at the 2013 memorial service in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where courageous Americans revolted against tyranny, preventing a targeted hit, but losing their own lives (click image).


Double rainbow over Freedom Tower and Lower Manhattan on the eve of September 11, 2015

Photo by @zeb
Photo by @zeb
rainbow 2015
Photo by @zeb

My lovely country’s beautiful flag #GodBlessAmerica

American flag flying in the wind

God bless and protect our military, firefighters, police, emergency personnel, veterans, freedom fighters and martyrs, to whom we owe all

To all our friends around the world

Thank you




“Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament”

“Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament”

Willa Cather (1873-1947)
Willa Cather (1873-1947)

Willa Cather took me by surprise.

As a voracious reader in high school I was fortunate to have an English teacher–unlike Paul, whose story is discussed below–who shared with me the fruits of her twenty-plus year collection of literature and its study: medieval, classic, contemporary, literary fiction, essays on Baroque art and passion plays, luxurious reference books with rich, bold paintings and images to help me envision the worlds I studied in my free time. I immersed myself in private study and thought life was grand.

Hence my surprise when the world I inhabited was taken by storm following the reading of a short story introduced in class–“Paul’s Case” or, as I have also seen it titled, “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament.” Paul is a dissatisfied high school student living in early-twentieth-century Pittsburgh, a boy with great passion but little direction, who sneers at his teachers and loathes his neighborhood. His father wishes for him to aspire to the life of a family man and a respectable job, but Paul longs for music, art, the culture he was born to live. He ushers at the symphony, longing to live the life of luxury experienced by the German singer but “trapped” in a week-long suspension and meant to answer for it as the story opens. Leaving school for the working world, Paul soon after makes off to New York City–a glamorous town and the height of culture–financed by stolen money and lives for several days the life he feels he is meant to live.

Cather weaves words through Paul’s experiences with such finesse that at some moments I was taken aback with the sudden realization I had somewhere transitioned to another scene or moment; and mused at how the author used this ability to reflect the manner in which persons sometimes exist from one moment to the next until the understanding dawns that an entire lifetime has gone by. She also writes with a nostalgia overflowing with deft observations of human inclinations–especially impressive for an adult female as she portrays a teenage boy discontented with his life and the failures he already sees in his father’s aspirations for him.

“Paul Case” is perhaps the first I’d read up until then in which his story–or “case,” as the teachers reference his attitude–simultaneously depicts the examination of an individual temperament. Indeed, the entire work is a literary case study wrapped in layers of guise, motifs and escape, perpetrated by protagonist and author alike, each playing their respective parts in the world’s immense design. Through our shared love of art (albeit in different forms) and dedication to its continuity in our lives (though a different means of expression), I saw how we were a bit alike, that having been a very solitary year for me. But we were also so very different and the manner in which Paul’s art influences him and winds its way through the story awed me into a number of further readings following another realization that I had acquired a new favorite author. I was later moved to put to paper my own analysis of Paul, so fascinated and disturbed as I was by this boy who in life might be quite unlikeable, but under Cather’s direction bestowed with a quality rendering him unforgettable.

Willa Cather is also the author of My Antonia and Death Comes to the Archbishop. She grew up in Nebraska, an environment that was to have a great influence upon her outlook and writing. Initially working as a journalist, she later won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours. “Paul’s Case” was published in 1905 as part of The Troll Garden.

red carnation
“Paul’s Case”

Paul had his secret temple. . .his bit of blue-and-white Mediterranean shore bathed in perpetual sunshine.

It perhaps would be easy to sympathize with a boy such as Paul, who is moved by “starry apple orchards” and who feels a zest come into his life at first sight of the instruments that set free his inner spirit. However, those intoxicants with which Paul is able to forget his dreadful English teacher are the same that enable him to dismiss the inconsistencies, the contradictions of both his resentments and desires.

Upon first encountering Paul, we recognize the duality of his nature: rebellious, yet sensitive to the criticisms of others. He is somehow able, at least to a certain degree, to hold the teachers under his sway; his behavior unsettles them. One instructor feels that he senses a boy who is haunted, not strong. Perhaps the teacher—significantly, the drawing-master—sees him as somewhat of an adolescent Keats, burdened with an image of “feminine” sensitivity and weakness. Another likens him to a helpless cat, tormented by a group as vindictive as their own gathering.

The flip side is, of course, that of a Paul who seemingly bounces back without exerting much effort. He runs, after all, with a light-heartedness he hopes will enrage his teachers. So self-sure is he that it takes being sat upon to calm him of his glee. The boy seems to possess a glee that might take him to the fine places he desires to be in if he applies himself. He by no means is lacking in some artistic gift, for he only needs a spark, a thrill “that ma[kes] his imagination master of his own senses, and he could make plots and pictures enough of his own.” Perhaps he misapplies himself; he denies the drive toward acting and music, yet nothing is made of writing, to which his natural abilities seem to point.

Unfortunately, Paul fails to progress beyond this stage of rebelliousness, as he is far too undisciplined and lacks the drive with which to challenge himself. Although his teachers believe him to be perverted by racy books, Paul’s sensitivity is not a result of absorbing fanciful stories, for he rarely reads at all. He is dissatisfied with his life, but his preferred alternative is to exist in a world of “glistening surfaces and basking ease.” He has the desire to partake of such a fine existence, but has “no mind for the cash-boy stage.” He would like the status of “Saint” Andrew but, as we see, desires not the martyrdom of the twelve-hour toilers.

Paul therefore escapes into the romantic world of the symphony—at least as he views this world to be. For him it is not a world that includes indolent husbands and the necessity for skillfully stretching a Mark or a dollar. Nor is it a world where limited season subscriptions or an ordinary sore throat might send one spiraling downward. Indeed, this universe is one of endless champagne bottles and mysterious dishes (brought to him, naturally) in warm, lighted buildings. This is Paul’s temple, the wishing-carpet in which will lead him to all these grandly decorated concert halls peopled only by individuals of superior taste—no English teachers—and succulent dishes to soothe his palate.

For all of its grandness, however, Paul fails to reside on his “Mediterranean shore bathed in perpetual sunshine” for the black motif running through the story, invading his world. A secreted temple with subterranean halls shades his sunbath, and we see him attempting to elude this reality throughout. It is perhaps his pretentiousness, which fools even himself, if at least, for a time: a red carnation in his buttonhole, violet water tucked away in his drawer, his self-consciousness and contrived gestures. Later these will be replaced by a parching dryness, dying flowers and the succumbing to the lurking blackness.

For the time being, however, Paul lives his days (in consolation?) with hysteria and lies. His wild eyes are suggestive, but not indicative, of drug addiction, and he utilizes his facial expressions for shock value. His gestures are also used in this manner, as we see when he bows to the assembled teachers in farewell. Given his self-consciousness we may also wonder whether his latest face-pulling and evil gestures at artwork are designed for this purpose as well.

Running throughout “Paul’s Case” also is a flower motif. Following the surface assumption that the youngster, in his fancies, equates flowers perhaps with his romantic bent, we are given to realise that these delicate beings are very much Paul himself. As his bow is a repetition of the carnation cheekily perched upon his coat, the various flowers are symbolic of Paul in separate stages, and not only of his frailty.

Like the flowers in the shop window bravely defying fierce winter, Paul looks out from his eighth-floor window into a raging snowstorm. As he resides in the hotel by way of stolen funds, by artificial means, so too do the flowers in the park. Violets, roses, carnations, lilies-of-the-valley, all behind the glass, “blossom thus unnaturally in the snow.” Later, dressed for supper, the floral images are reflected: actual flowers, many-colored wine glasses, the rosy tinge of his champagne.

Although Paul attempts to balance himself equally in the opposing elements of his world, the sunbath of the Mediterranean blinds him, as did the lovely German soloist, to any possible defects. On the other hand, perhaps he spends too much time in the dankness of his secret temple, his subterranean paradise, the darkness of which is not conducive to the growth of a delicate flower. Even memories of the sunny sands were, after a time, of no use. These become overtaken by memories he wishes to be rid of, memories that repulse him and “f[all] upon him like a weight of black water.” Like the black thing in the corner, which threatens him at every turn, the memories come rushing at him as a tidal wave, crushing him with their blackness and superior strength.

“The thing was winding itself up. . . .” The whole world is the street he hates so, containing the cooking smells, and horrible yellow wallpaper; there seems no escaping it, and to only this “reality” has Paul now resigned himself. As he makes his way to his final destination, the scenery reflects Paul’s own inner landscape: dead grass and dried weeds are scattered about, and even the once-lively, gleefully scandalous red carnation in the boy’s coat clings to the button with what little life it has left.

Once more, the beautiful array of flowers in the park is as Paul. From the safety of their respective protective devices do Paul and the arrangement of flowers mock the world that threatened each of them. Now he subjects the carnations a black fate; by covering them with snow, he smothers them with the darkness he himself has feared for so long. As they have parallel existences in life, so too will flowers in death, again reclaiming their space in the earth, once more becoming part of “the immense design of things.”


This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternative location.


TJ’s Household Haiku Challenge: Cobweb

OK, it’s that time again, a roundup from a fun group who challenge themselves, with prompts from the household, to write haiku based on those objects/items, etc.

(Click for more info)
(Click for more info)

I had a whole lot of fun with this one: cobweb. Strictly speaking, I’m supposed to write only about the webby little things you see at times in your house, behind doors and in out-of-reach corners and so on. But spiders are indeed often found in those cobwebs, are they not? For those who prefer more tightly-knit parameters, a haiku appears at the end that I think you can relate to. But in the meantime, do accompany me for a spot of reminiscing and a few things about spiders and cobwebs.

Long ago I thought I really liked spiders, that they were so cute and fun. That was when I envisioned them in a cartoonish sort of way. Of course I knew some spiders were quite dangerous–my fondness was more an abstract thing. And I had even once written a short poem about a spider I’d watched as she crawled up my bedroom wall. She appeared to be dragging something, and that put ideas into my mind.

Later after I saw many closeup images of what spiders really looked like, with their veiny legs and buggy eyes, and ikky-looking moist bodies–they kind of remind me of a fellow sixth grader lifting the brush from the can of industrial glue in art class and crying out, “Mucus membranes!”–well, after that I was no longer so enamored. But it was fun while it lasted…I suppose. Shudder.

Below is the aforementioned poem, re-worked into haiku form. The original  will appear in my book Winter Islands, which I hope to have ready for Christmas.

Unlike her cousin

Who simply marries her prey

This one hunts him down


Desperate, he backs

Against the wall, revealing

Aptly frightened frown


And then she cooks him

Frying in the pan until

Deep and saucy brown


I see her hiking

up my wall, a long-legged

fat cousin in tow


I wouldn’t take off

my shoe and beat the wall like

others that I know


I realize she’s got

to do all that she does, so

she can live and grow

Fancy spider (Click for more info)
Fancy spider (Click for more info)

But there were other spiders in my life as well. For example, one who wore quite a bit of kohl around her eyes and jingled a lot because she habitually donned ankle bracelets. These are very fashionable to have and wear, you see, and handy to be given upon marriage (they’re worth a lot). If you are a spider who eats her partner after mating, well, then you’ll make a lot of noise, I suppose.


a3ankaboota labsa khulkhaal

(she-spider with an ankle bracelet)

As she moves swiftly

the market parts when it hears

her tinkling ankles


Why not be stylish?

So many ways to sound fine

with jingle jangle

Charlotte (click for more info)
Charlotte (click for more info)

Another was a hitchhiker. Once I drove all the way to the East Coast, and early in the trip, somewhere about Tok, I realized I had company, who not only was clinging onto my passenger side rearview for dear life, she’d also built herself a little home…for comfort I suppose. I couldn’t bring myself to wipe her off, and that tenacious girl clung on all the way to Sault Ste. Marie–the Canadian one. She also sort of reminded me of a spider story I’d been told my whole life, one many of you may also know, about perseverance.

She weaves and falls but

never gives up. The lesson:

try and try again

Some spiders appear in my life via the distance (thankfully) of a magazine article. In one I read years ago, it talked about poisonous spiders in Australia that have been known to lurk in toilets or their underlying pipes. One unfortunate consequence of this is that on occasion, people who need to use the facilities in the middle of the night, received stinging surprises on their bottoms because they’d not been able to see the bathroom crashers in the dark. I think there was something in there about how, after word got around, people were wise to turn the lights on.

To be honest, I could be remembering incorrect details, or the most sensational ones, so if you are planning a trip to Oz, don’t let it turn you off. Several people I know who grew up in Australia have said they never in their entire lives came across any of the fabled dangerous animals of the continent.

Down under spiders:

Do they really sneak up pipes?

Bite you from behind?

A Wolf spider, Lycosa bicolor from Coober Pedy, South Australia
A Wolf spider, Lycosa bicolor from Coober Pedy, South Australia (click for further info)

And then of course there are the more ordinary critters, those we encounter with a sputter and a bunch of spitting following meeting up in a close up manner.

Outside the greenhouse

post rain, and walk right into

her silky smoothness

Pinterest image (click for page)
Pinterest image (click to enlarge)