Book Review: Whither Thou Goest

Whither Thou Goest (Book VII in The Graham Saga)
by Anna Belfrage

Recipient of the B.R.A.G. Medallion

whitherPeople who populate today’s societies—ehem, us—have a tendency to believe our world is superior to that of the past: more conveniences, broader rights for women and minorities, better medicine. While these advantages have indeed developed, they come with trade offs and in the realization of these gains we’ve lost bits of our selves and relationships. In Whither Thou Goest, the seventh installment of Anna Belfrage’s Graham Saga, this theme comes closer to the fore as time-traveling Alex Lind and her 17th century husband, Matthew, make their way to the West Indies to rescue their unknown nephew from the horrors of indentured servitude—in reality, brutal slavery.

Matthew himself once suffered this fate and it is largely his history that decides for the Grahams they should heed the plea of Matthew’s brother Luke to rescue his son, a youngster persuaded into the Monmouth rebels now facing a terrible future as the consequence of his misguided involvement. There is no love lost between Mr. and Mrs. Graham and Luke, but they also conclude that young Charlie should not be left to such a terrible fate as a result of the animosity between his father and uncle and events not of his doing. Their decision reflects the book’s title as well as their own bond forged, a bond that, like that of Ruth and Naomi, was not “supposed” to be:

“What do we do?” she said, coming over to hug Matthew from behind. She rubbed her face up and down between his shoulder blades, feeling him relax.

“There isn’t much choice, is there?” he said. “I have to go down there and attempt to find him.”



“Wrong pronoun,” Alex told him. “It’s ‘we’, Matthew, not ‘I’.” No way did she intend to let him face the ghosts of his past alone.

“We,” he said, and twisted round in her arms to hold her close.

So they go, and readers follow along, though with the added advantage of seeing events occurring in other family members’ lives. There also are small delights throughout as readers recognize events from the Grahams’ past that led to these moments, links bringing on the awareness of Belfrage’s genius for tying it all together, and from and through such a distance as thirty years. The book’s pace is swift, but not quite as whirlwind as its predecessor, and the author engages in language realistic for the period yet also a comfortable fit for us. So comfortable it is, one never wants to take it off. The only disappointment in this series is that eventually each book comes to an end.

It is a testament to Belfrage’s prowess as a writer of historical fiction that she can manage to get so far into a complicated series of events and a seventh novel, and still maintain reader attention as raptly as in the first book. But more than that, just as history is never static, neither are people, and the author brings us along as Matthew and Alex progress through the years: readers never grow out of the series, but rather the characters grow with them.

Therein lies the ability for Alex to accept—even in many instances relish—the hand she has been dealt. A freak thunderstorm painfully threw her past where a veil customarily divides time and in meeting with Matthew Graham she recognized something so special she fought powerful forces attempting to yank her back. There definitely was a fair share of life in 1658 Scotland unfamiliar and not terribly attractive to Alex—by law and religious tradition loss of voice and stature, for one—so why did she opt to stay? While there were pros to life in 2002, her personal assessment of where she stood may have brought a realization that there, too, the voice she had was also suffocated by circumstance.

Now, in Whither Thou Goest, Matthew and Alex are engaged in welcoming 1686—they have been together for nearly thirty years. The opening passages introduce us to one of the contradictions Alex has grown with all this time:



The shrubs were beginning to show buds; here and there startling greens adorned the wintry ground[. . .].Winter was waning, and soon it would be brisk winds, leaves on the trees and weeks of toiling in the fields or the vegetable garden.



The beauty of the new life of coming spring is paired with the awareness of the backbreaking labor it brings, with only brief opportunities to savor it around an immediate need to work for survival. In Alex’s 21st century life she wouldn’t have had to do this; instead she would have faced other perils connected to food supply. The lifestyles are so different, but Alex recognizes the similarities as well, here and in many other elements, such as religion. She is content with her choice, a promise towards Matthew that “thy people shall be my people,” and Belfrage’s treatment of Alex’s attitudes towards various aspects of her life strikes a balance, much like the one Alex maintains as she adjusts and carries on.

A complex personality, Alex may differ with us on various perceptions of 2002 as well as 1658 and on, but the author gives Alex’s voice life in a way that even those most opposed could admit that she makes a good argument.

Like Alex, Matthew is a strong enough man not only to survive, but also thrive because he is willing to grow in a similar way. While Alex certainly caught him off guard that day when they both were on the run and she literally landed at his feet, the intervening years have led him down the road he shares with her. The pair do not always agree, but he has grown secure enough to speak of Alex’s mother—the woman whose hand initiated her daughter’s passage through time—as someone deserving of compassion, even if she was a witch as he always feared she may have been. In discussing her horrific death, Matthew speaks of her dying “well,” that she forgave her tormentors not only because they needed it, but also because she did.

There is a welcome peace about and within this installment—for reader as well as protagonists, especially given recent events in the Grahams’ lives. Not that Belfrage gives anybody too much of a break—the 1600s in Scotland as well as the Colonies, to where the Grahams have repaired, is a perilous time for all, and getting hold of Charlie is the easy part. Finding their way back to Maryland is the real challenge. Moreover, Alex comes face to face with an old nemesis only to learn painful truths about the world and her place in it.

Nevertheless a softening shift can be felt, and Belfrage winds the threads of this aura through her narrative like a subtle breeze come to cool a painfully hot day. Acceptance occurs a lot, between Matthew and Alex as well as each of them with others, and the bond they have, one that has been growing over the years to reach this point, is tangible to another. It is significant that Belfrage has this insight coming from a relative of the Burleys, dangerous and destructive men once driven to destroy the Grahams, as she shows us again through this contradiction how life often blooms from the seeds of destruction.



Tilting his head, he studied Matthew Graham and his wife, fascinated by how they automatically fell in step, a slight leaning towards each other. Her skirts brushed against his leg, her profile turned towards him, and she said something that made him laugh, bending his head close to hers. Her hand touched his, fingers widened and braided tight together as they continued down the dusty road.

He had never seen anything like it, never seen two bodies come together so effortlessly, so obviously halves of a perfect whole. Welded together, it seemed, and Michael stood where he was, his eyes glued thoughtfully to their backs until they dropped out of sight.



Here as in many passages, Belfrage utilizes ordinary yet such poetic language, painting a moving picture in which readers can easily see what she describes: the tender closeness of a man taking in the words of his wife, the curl of her swinging skirts’ material, the wide, deliberate yet instinctive opening and joining of fingers as they move in time to each other’s steps. What’s more, she does this undetected: the words and rhythm are so natural it is as if they are a part of ourselves; we only understand how much these characters have “over the years” come to mean to us. Like the paintings of Mercedes, Belfrage’s draw us in and bring us to another time.

There are, of course, no easy conclusions, and the novel ends with a few questions unanswered, a lead-in to the next—sadly the last—installment in the series. There are continued contradictions with which the Grahams find acceptance: an event Alex has painfully yearned for occurs, but at a price; Matthew helps his son build a bridge between his own two worlds; a cherished piece of his past is re-imbursed, though he may never be able to claim it; and, as in the opening passages, fragile life makes an appearance, life that will bloom, but only with perseverance.

Whither Thou Goest, to be sure, contains scenes of heartbreak and sadness, with painful reminders for some characters of a past and connections they will never completely be able to escape. But it also is a love story of sorts, in which promises and commitments are made, solace is taken from unexpected quarters, and individuals experience awakening, a blooming of new life amidst ruins to be cleared as futures are built. It is a story only Anna Belfrage could tell of a family readers will never forget and often wish to re-visit.

About the author …

Anna Belfrage can be found at her blog, which also maps out The Graham Saga series for readers. Find her as well at Twitter, Facebook and at her Amazon author page, where you can also learn about her newest series, The King’s Greatest Enemy.

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This review previously appeared at the blog’s alternate location and a copy of Whither Thou Goest provided in exchange for an honest review.

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Links to previous Anna Belfrage-related reviews and interviews can be found here

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Lisl is a contributor to Naming the Goddess and her poetry has appeared at Bewildering Stories and in Alaska Women Speak. She is currently editing her volume of poetry, Four Seasons, and scribbling away at a collection of novellas, tentatively titled Border Dwellers.

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On My Retrieval of Apple Pie from Sweden (A Chat with Author Anna Belfrage)

A few weeks ago (or is it months?) I had a chance to visit with Anna Belfrage, award-winning author of The Graham Saga series (links to reviews below) as well as her newest, The King’s Greatest Enemy, the first of which, In the Shadow of the Storm, I have reviewed and you can find here.)

I was delighted and flattered that the chocoholic Anna Belfrage baked a scrumptious apple pie in honor of our role reversal. Usually, you see, I’m the one asking her questions, but this time she’d decided she wanted to pick my brain a little bit. So pick she did ….

An author’s best friend…

…is a good reader. Today, I’ve invited Lisl to visit, precisely because she is just that – a good reader. She also happens to be a very good writer, which is apparent not only in her excellent reviews but also in her poetry and those snippets of prose she has chosen to share. If you want to experience Lisl’s writing (and fab reviews) at length, do stop by her blog, Before the Second Sleep. In honour of the occasion, I’ve baked us a nice apple-pie. Plus, I might add, my home-made custard is to die for.

It is so nice to see you here with me, Lisl, what with you being all the way over in Alaska!

Thanks so much for having me, Anna! I’m loving your weather—makes me feel so at home.

Moose's Tooth
Moose’s Tooth in the Central Alaska Range (Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Ha! I imagine it does…Speaking of Alaska, what is it like to live there? I suspect you too struggle with myths along the lines that polar bears wander down your streets in full daylight (at least it’s a myth here in Sweden).

Well, it can be somewhat isolating, especially if one doesn’t have many connections to Outside, as we call it. I don’t have television programming, for example, which is why I rely so much on the Internet, because I want to know what’s going on in the world. But that’s just me—we do have television here! It’s also really lovely in summer and winter with loads of stuff to do.

The myths I hear most are how many people don’t realize we don’t have penguins, they think we might not accept American money and are surprised to learn we have cars. At one time I worked in a small specialty shop frequented by tourists and loved hearing these silly things—typically they came from people who genuinely wanted to learn about Alaska, and interacting with their sincerity and friendliness made that one of my favorite jobs ever.

Like me, you live in a place where the seasonal differences are not only due to temperature but due to lack or excess of light. Do you think the dark of winter vs the endless light of summer has a permanent impact on the people living that far north?

Oh, definitely. People form habits and patterns based on these conditions and as part of our culture they are so ingrained we joke about them while simultaneously don’t even notice, if that makes sense. For example, the Summer Solstice is observed by just about everyone, even those with zero interest or real knowledge in the history behind it, because it marks a transition in our year when we psychologically start prepping ourselves for termination dust and the coming of winter. There’s an old joke (one of many) about how you know you’re an Alaskan, because you make your Halloween costume large enough to wear over a coat.

keplerPeople who run into you on FB and the like, will probably mostly know you as a book reviewer – one of those readers who highlights aspects of the book not even the author may be entirely aware of. I get the impression you read very carefully. Does this mean you also read very slowly?

I don’t suppose I read slowly, though certainly I’m no speed reader. Overall it probably depends on the book. I think I do read carefully, which is a natural habit but there are others to thank for helping me develop my skills, including a particular professor. She engaged our classes rather than lectured and with her we learned so much regarding reading and writing about literature. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers her fondly.

In my reading I use a great deal of what I learned to this day, even with casual, not-for-review reading, though it doesn’t necessarily slow me down. Having said that, there are some books I do read more slowly, especially if it’s new information or a lot of characters to familiarize myself with.

Do you read more than one book at the time? If yes, do you read similar genre or totally different genre?

For better or worse, I do this a lot. At one time I tried to give it up, but finally just accepted the habit. It can be overwhelming on occasion, but then comes the satisfaction of closing up that last page of one book, then another and then another all within a short period of time.

Whether the genres are similar or different just depends upon circumstance—if I happened to have seen a book that looks really great, for example, and can’t wait, like a book on Kepler I recently came across. Now you’ve got me thinking about it, I think most of the time they aren’t the same, but perhaps there is always some connection: something in, about or related to one book leads me to another. What I can say for certain is that except for review books, which I read in order of when I received them, books choose me, not the other way around.

I have recently noted a certain fascination from your part regarding graphic novels – the modern day version of what I used to call comic books.

I first read Spiegelman’s Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale in a lit class in which we discussed the controversy of placing Holocaust memoir in graphic novel form. I thought it a great way to engage readers on all levels. Later I came across Satrapi’s Persepolis and Persepolis 2, of growing up in an Iran adversely affected by the 1979 revolution. They could be painful to read but by the genre’s nature the pictures show more than just events: we as readers gain greater dimension to the author’s insight, including images of herself as she perceives herself. It is very, very powerful.

I can’t say I’ve read a ton of graphic novels, but you’re right; largely thanks to Turtle they are becoming more of a presence in my reading repertoire and it seems a shift is indeed occurring.

What brought you to your love of reading, and what books were fundamental to igniting this passion you have for the written word?

witchHonestly, I don’t really know how I came to love reading in the first place, though my parents modeling it as a worthy pursuit—they were both enormous readers—surely played a large role. I can remember, even picture in my mind, books I found on shelves and flipped through, books about a boy in a jungle and animals that talked. Like now, perhaps the books beckoned to me and I couldn’t resist. Various people habitually brought me books as well: The Witch of Blackbird Pond; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Island of the Blue Dolphins; Strawberry Girl and The Cricket in Times Square were just some from my mother. My father also brought home books for me, most memorably Francis Marion: Swamp Fox of the Revolution. Even my older brother—horrible in my then opinion– picked up books he thought I might like. I still have from him Galahad: Enough of His Life to Explain His Reputation and The Favorite Poems and Ballads of Rudyard Kipling. The Crystal Cave and The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself both also surely went a long way toward my own writing, possibly because they both instigated a deeper delving into myself, owing to my fascination with and curiosity of their subject matter, but also they spoke of times I instinctively felt a close connection to, and it seemed almost as if I was trying to discover who I was, and why what mattered to me, did.

I know you have a son – and that he too is a voracious reader. How have you transferred over your love of reading to him?

I did the easiest thing any parent could do, but what is also the most powerful—I read near and to him. I never gave him any kind of spiel about how important books are, and didn’t have to act enthusiastic because I really was. Before he was born I read aloud—partly because I’d heard about how babies can hear their mother’s voices—but also I really enjoy feeling the words as I read. After he was born I continued to read to him, at that time whatever it was I was reading. As it turns out talking or reading to babies triggers an amazing series of events within the brain that in turn opens windows to further development. I remain in awe of how such a simple, pleasant act can benefit such complex systems.

Turtle has been a library enthusiast his entire life. Very early on he shared plots, illustrations, criticisms, favorites and so on with me, and we still read to each other. Over the years we have developed our own special little traditions or funny jokes, a development covered in Mem Fox’s wonderful Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever. Simple to read, colossal in guiding children toward reading and other success.

I also try to support the idea that what he chooses matters—ask questions, let him read funny or other parts of note to me, discuss ideas that arise from readings—and have always let him choose his own books from the time he could. Unless it’s for school I never make him finish a book he isn’t enjoying—how is that reading for pleasure?—and provide a nice place for his collection as well as comfortable spots to curl up and read.

What would you consider are the main benefits of instilling a love of reading in a child?

Apart from what I’ve mentioned above, there are some very practical benefits. While nothing is fool proof, I have nevertheless seen over the years that children who enjoy reading are less likely to be drawn into negative behavior. They also have a larger vocabulary, especially if they have been read to because they’ve made the connections between how a word looks as well as sounds, and are more confident about experimenting with new words. Children develop better communication skills and academic achievement tends to be higher. Perhaps best of all, it fosters loving relationships between people who truly share when they communicate.

Are there books you wouldn’t allow your son to read? And if so, why?

Well, I’ve found there are goalposts that have to be shifted a bit periodically, as well as maintained.

dh-us-jacket-artI don’t own a single book I wouldn’t let him read, primarily because we have always been able to discuss different topics, even if my side of the conversation was/is delivered with age appropriateness in mind. Having said that, I will say that when he was younger I might have had some difficulty with this “policy” of mine I have maintained because some books—specifically history—might have been really scary for him. Some of them are scary for me. As for books we don’t own—as far as I know, no, though that is said with some relief at him having reached this age, when I feel he is ready to read some of the more disturbing historical events.

Most parents worry about sexual content as well, and though that is a concern for me, I have to let him learn to be a responsible reader. Plus, I’ve tried to communicate that he’ll never get in trouble for asking me questions. In support of that I attempted to go beyond the standard “You can ask me anything” by communicating that while many kids ask and tell each other lots of details, much of this is incorrect and can lead to real trouble. He agreed the possible awkwardness of asking mom is way better than trouble encountered from following bad advice. I periodically re-inforce that with how I respond to books we read together, though we haven’t come across any real sexual situations in the books he chooses. Swear words, yes, and we’ve had decent conversations about appropriate—and not—places to say that sort of stuff. Hopefully this will keep working with continued maintenance, which is the real point.

I note that quite a few of my “new adult” acquaintances never read – they spend their time on social media and streaming movies instead – or channel-hopping between TV shows. Personally, I worry this leads to a general lack of reflection. Would you agree? And do you see a similar trend?

Sadly, yes on both counts. I suppose some people are more inclined to reflection than others, so even movies could trigger that for them. However, film can’t convey what words can, so a lot will get missed. And of course there’s the danger of shutting down imagination—if the film production company tells you what a dragon looks like, why should you try to imagine it? It creates lazy thinkers, in my opinion.

Nowadays I become really happy when I see people exchanging ideas or engaging in healthy debate, largely because it’s sorely lacking anymore. Even many families act, as someone wrote recently, like a group of people who happen to live in the same house rather than as a cohesive unit. We’ve got a rule we hope can create a positive difference: Read the book first.

You are not only a reader, you are also a writer. Tell us a bit about this!

Well, in school I loved to read and had a really great rapport with my English teacher. She encouraged my fledgling efforts, which at that time I think were small and not necessarily directed toward a bigger picture; they just sort of came and I didn’t have any real desire to complete them. This changed at one point, however, when I wrote a short story about two teenage girls during the Salem witch trials. I really liked the tale—secretly though, because I was unsure it was any good by actual standards. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep it, though it has been in my mind lately and I think at times of trying to re-write. At any rate, from there I did start to write more, but the results were most often poems. I later did write down some rough outlines for stories that lately have been repeatedly knocking, so I’ve been working on them.

What is it that attracts you to writing poetry? Which are the challenges vs writing prose?

10-3-14-4My mother was an enthusiastic reader of Edgar Allen Poe—she read and re-read his works a lot, and aloud, especially his poetry. She never came out and said poetry had to be read aloud, but I could hear in her voice what came to pass in the words, the narrator’s passion as he speaks of his Annabel Lee, or the isolated anguish of the man mourning the lost Lenore. Though at the time I wouldn’t have described it this way, I had an appreciation for how so much—events, emotions, information, even entire lifetimes—could transpire in so few words. That they were also lyrical and lovely captured my entire imagination and as I began trying my own hand at poetry, I experimented with different words, explored their meanings and histories, sometimes simply repeating the words to hear the way they sounded as compared to how they looked.

Unarticulated thoughts began to transform into phrases born within my soul, and it was slightly intoxicating. I had never before been able to speak with great confidence—I was a rather shy child—but poetry was akin to a new language possessing the words I needed that my native tongue didn’t have, and it opened the world to me. Though the contexts are not exactly the same, I felt a little like the astronomer depicted in L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire as he crawls under the edge of the sky.

In some ways it seems like poetry comes easier to me, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say poetry is easy. In university, when my writing skills really improved a lot, I was a language tutor and somewhat of an MLA [Modern Language Association] geek. Between that and the papers I wrote, I developed into more of an analytical writer. When I first started trying to expand on my stories this presented a great challenge as creative writing skills were now what I needed, but didn’t really possess.

keatsWriting poetry requires saying a lot with few words, which is true of prose, of course, but the parameters tend to be narrower. Also, a word might not feel right, or could turn out to be much different to what you’d intended and you think, “What do I do with this now?” Although in poetry, this may be a pro because of the separations between poems, despite the relationship uniting them all in one volume. For example, I once tried to write a poem directed at a country—not my own, but one I really do like. I was trying to express anger, but the end result was something so radically different to what I’d aimed for I was astounded. When I thought about it more I wondered that what I had inside me was communicating a different anger that also needed to be directed elsewhere, not at this place I was so fond of. The result was a complete product—with its own challenges toward my intentions, but still a workable poem.

Like all writers, I suppose you also use your writing as a cathartic exercise, i.e. you write with no intention of ever letting those particular words see the light of the day. And yet – in my case, at least – sometimes that writing is so intense it is almost a pity to hide it away. Your thoughts?

Ohhhhhh, yes. The poem I just talked about falls into that category. It feels so very personal, and I have some reservations, but I still thought, “And now I just put it back in the drawer?” Some work is so emotive it just can’t be contained again.

As a final question, which books would you bring with you to a desert island? You are only allowed three and they must last you a life-time…

This is really difficult. I mean really difficult. Just three?

I thought about The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I have a Bevington edition from my university class that could keep me busy for many years. It’s not that I’m a huge fan of Will, but what he did with language was inspirational, and all those plays could really keep me thinking, and probably writing. And let’s not forget the poems!

Possibly Boorstin’s The Discoverers. He covers a variety of topics—astronomy, measurement of time, science, geography, history, key figures in exploration and expeditions for spices, discovery, the opening of China and so on. I’ve read it a few times and each reading grants me a new observation on something that didn’t quite settle in the last time.

Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin. This may come as a surprise for you, given my oft-repeated love of Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave [“Yup,” Anna says]. I do love Stewart’s book and feel almost drained leaving it off, but would have to confess that Tolstoy’s, which I read just once, leaves more room for discovery. Plus it has pictures. OK, well in all seriousness I don’t feel quite so connected to Merlin [in Tolstoy’s book] as with Stewart’s work, but the less familiar material would lead me through terra incognita and perhaps a few wonderful surprises.

Wow, not exactly the easiest of reads…Thank you so much for dropping by, Lisl – it has been most inspirational!

Thanks so much, Anna, for having me and I hope we’ll do this again sometime.

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Links to my reviews for Anna Belfrage’s The Graham Saga series …

A Rip in the Veil 

Like Chaff in the Wind

The Prodigal Son (with Chocolate Cake Author Interview)

A Newfound Land

Serpents in the Garden

Revenge and Retribution 

Stay tuned for the following reviews:

Whither Thou Goest and To Catch a Falling Star

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Cover Crush for A Rip in the Veil

Chocolate Brownies Author Interview

Stay tuned for updated review for A Rip in the Veil

(Winner of The Reviews Book of the Month Award)

and

Sunken Pie Author Interview (Of Pies, Books and Other Essentials)

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The Flammarion Engraving is given its name as its earliest appearance can be traced to its inclusion in Flammarion’s 1888 book L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology) (Wikimedia Commons)

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Lisl is a contributor to Naming the Goddess and her poetry has appeared at Bewildering Stories and in Alaska Women Speak. She is currently editing her volume of poetry, Four Seasons, and scribbling away at a collection of novellas, tentatively titled Border Dwellers.

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Book Review: Gang Warfare: As War Clouds Tower Sweets Turn Sour

Gang Warfare: As War Clouds Tower Sweets Turn Sour

(Book II of the Gang series)

by Peter St. John

See the trailer for the newest Gang novel here or below!

The Blitz over London, one of the most infamous events of World War II, inspired countless works of music, art, film and literature, fiction and non-fiction, and while we know many details are shrouded in the mysteries of time lost and faded, there nevertheless is so much documented it has filled studios, libraries, museums—and more—all over the world.

Gang WarfareYet somehow the children of this era don’t seem to have quite the audience as do other people and events that have grabbed the spotlight in urgency, horror and remembrance. In general terms, we do know that childhood was much less regulated than it is today: children could travel far and stay out late; they played in gangs and made up stories created from a space within their own experiences and imaginations. Like children of today, their play often reflected a need to make sense of the world, whatever the circumstances.

Author Peter St. John draws on his own childhood to give us a closer glimpse of the world of one group of children during this time, particularly an orphan evacuee come from London to live with his auntie. Impatient and no-nonsense, she rarely believes what he says or upbraids him when she does.

The narrative centers around what becomes a colossal misunderstanding, initiated when a school bully knocks a bag of allsorts from the boy’s hand, leading to accusations from the bully’s mother—who also is the school caretaker—that her son was the victim. As the trivial incident’s aftermath gains speed, one sorry event leads to another and the boy finds himself in trouble or having to answer to peers and adults alike for more than his share. Grown-up rivalries intensify as the entire village begins to fragment: legal proceedings result in the formation of factions, church memberships and volunteer activities suffer, and a huge fight erupts at a fund raiser followed by the loss of all proceeds. Later, a catastrophic event occurs that has the capacity to further disintegrate relationships or bring everyone together.

Widdlington School with Peter and allsorts reduced
Widdlington School with Peter and allsorts reduced

Throughout the novel, St. John’s protagonist, named but once in the story, speaks to God, another way he tries to make sense of it all, offering statements and asking questions as to why certain events happen or on the nonsensical nature of their outcome. True to children’s tendency, the boy displays a wisdom often lost on many adults:

“You know—when I think about it really hard—I don’t think You work like that at all. You don’t come galloping up like the US cavalry to help this person or that person, just because they’re in trouble or they pray the loudest. It’s more like You’re there all the time ready to advise. But even Your advice is no good if nobody’s listening.”

The author does an absolutely marvelous job of portraying children’s lives, whether seeing them and their peers through the eyes of one character, of creating an understanding often lost as we grow, as to why this or that means so much to them. It’s a funny thing, sometimes, to observe what children perceive as important and valuable, and what they will do to maintain or protect it. All the while, their vulnerability shines through and we realize how crucial it is to allow them these custodial roles in preparation for responsible and compassionate adulthood. That St. John so succinctly communicates this via those with the least voice in society is a testament to his expertise in character development and plot continuity.

Indeed, as events move forward we see that, true to life in any era, the boy’s path is host to other episodes even as he maintains singular goals: keeping out of trouble, saving enough money to buy the village idiot a pair of pajamas, for example. Though told in first person, the narrative also honestly gives voice to other characters and our protagonist judiciously weighs what he sees, hears and experiences, captured so poignantly by St. John’s keen eye for personality and detail.

A note about appeal: The book’s blurb reads in part that “Gang Warfare is a novel for all readers from nine to ninety-nine.” I couldn’t agree more with this assessment (except perhaps to expand these parameters a bit): events portrayed, while focusing on the village’s children, include many ages and a variety of temperaments. Readership might include the curious, young or old; those who lived through the war (or any other) or had relatives who did; early childhood educators; schoolchildren; people of all ages interested in childhood in different eras; lovers of historical fiction—and the list goes on.

St. John’s style also captures the imagination and flows so smoothly it is easy to read large chunks at a time without feeling the need to put the book down. In fact, it is so engaging I often found myself struggling to do just that in order to attend to other tasks. This is especially telling, given the accented speech of a couple of characters, Jenno in particular as she appears more often, whose presence made me wonder before I started to read if that would detract from the experience. It doesn’t, and that may be because St. John follows the “less is more” ideal, resulting in a character whose persona and what she has to say take the stage, rather than how she says anything. And while there are occasional phonetic spellings, the result remains a delightful rhythm with no need for author micro management. St. John has created a character who speaks for herself, with the dual result of readers enjoying her speech and marveling at what a clever girl she truly is.

“Oi reckon that were about the biggest tree in the village. Old Farmer Catchpole’ll ‘ave a roight ‘ard job clearin’ it away—nearly all ‘is workers are called up in the army.”

 “Maybe ‘ee’ll get some women ter ‘elp,” suggested Jenno.

 “Don’t be daft,” said her brother scathingly. “That ain’t women’s work.”

 “Soon women will ‘ave ter do everyfink,” contradicted Jenno. “Mark moi words. Just as soon as there ain’t enough men ter go round because of the war. An’ that’s now already.”

Gang Warfare is an absorbing read, perhaps more so because St. John’s story includes all of us: we’ve all been children or are at this time, and most of us have learned or are learning about the war years. Children might find some respite from the grind of daily misunderstandings and the tale takes grown-ups back in time, perhaps recalling when they didn’t have the words they needed and experienced injustice because of that.

Leta & Peter
Leta & Peter

But it is also a lively story filled with the magnificence of childhood and its attendant activities, performed in war as well as peacetime, many illustrated in colorful pictures (some superimposed on photos) with a delightful childlike vision. Adding that view to the evacuee’s tale brings even more dimension to it as we come to understand, really, it is our story as well.

I can hardly recommend Gang Warfare enough, except perhaps to say that although it is a standalone in the Gang series, the others must certainly be experienced as well. Peter St. John had created a tale for all people, of all people, absolutely not to be missed.

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About the author…

Peter St John was born in London. The orphanage where he lived was destroyed in 1940 by Hitler’s blitz. He was evacuated from the ruins to the countryside.

“Grammar” school was “Granpa” school: young men at battle replaced by oldies. As an eager Air Force pilot, Peter navigated the winds, envied the birds, and learned the “arts” of war.

Back in Civvy street, Peter discovered marriage, fatherhood and Australia. He studied engineering and put letters after his name.

St. John author picAimed for the moon at Woomera, but hit the rusty desert instead. Then came Sputnik, and the Cold War space-race. Peter rocketed to lend a hand in Europe, and discovered Paris, languages, and ELDO (the long-defunct European Launcher Development Organisation). An office on three continents; one in sweltering French Guyana. Who’d volunteer for Devil’s Island except to rocket into space? But Europe’s leap to orbit was crippled by political irresolution (subsequently re-activated as the European Space Agency).

So back to Australia where Peter now daily took “the liberty boat from shore” to reach the Navy’s concrete HQ “ship” in Canberra. But the project for which he strove never saw the sea. His ship was again scuttled by politics. Disgruntled and unemployed, Peter set off for Parliament House, where he was offered a job helping senators peer critically over government’s shoulder, and bring Parliament’s Standing Committees to the people. And then the PM asked him to join his staff!

But soon the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva called, requesting participation in strengthening parliamentary democracy around the world. Six challenging years for Peter…

And so to fiction, with his first novel published in 2007. This has been followed by eight more.

Peter lives in France where he is active in the promotion of creative activities. He has a son, two grandsons, a great-grandson and a great-granddaughter.

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You can follow and learn more about author Peter St. John and his work at his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. Gang Warfare may be purchased at Amazon, Amazon UK, Wordery, Book Depository and Silverwood Books.

On Monday August 8, the seventh book in the Gang series, Gang America, is scheduled for release. Be sure to check out this and the rest of Peter St. John’s fabulous-looking books at Amazon and elsewhere!

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All images courtesy Peter St. John

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The blogger was provided a complementary copy of Gang Warfare: As War Clouds Tower Sweets Turn Sour in exchange for an honest review. 

Image of the Week: The Flammarion Engraving

As a child I was always absorbed by horizons, and as the years went by these stayed true to their nature within my grasp of concepts and absorption of knowledge. Looking outside from my favorite overstuffed and slightly shabby sofa chair in our toasty warm and safe living room, I marveled at the orange and pinkish hues in the sky. I felt poetry humming within me, increased when I gazed upon the horizon across the water near my grandfather’s bungalow.

This leap from a small distance between myself and what I gazed upon to a larger one, whose distance remained enormous no matter how far out our boat went from the beach, perhaps imprinted upon my mind the vastness of all there was to know out there—and hungrily I sought it all out, two of my fascinations becoming the sea and the stars.

Flammarion
The engraving is given its name as its earliest appearance can be traced to its inclusion in Flammarion’s 1888 book L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology) (Wikimedia Commons)

In the process of stuffing myself with the world I came across The Discoverers, Daniel J. Boorstin’s history of man’s quest to do what I’d been doing: learning about the world and, therefore, himself. It was here I first recall seeing the Flammarion Engraving, a work that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology). It depicts a man in long, voluminous robes, the fullness and folds of which tend to draw in our modern eye with greater force.

discoverers
(Click image for a review from the same year as The Discoverers‘ 1983 release)

At first I thought he was an astronomer, one while engaged in his work comes upon a different dimension he simply has to cross, and I wondered about the horizons he had hitherto observed and now seems to have reached. I supposed, as I examined the image more closely, it was now technically a border—I marveled at how the same thing often has a different name or title depending upon where it is in time.

Upon closer examination I began to develop ideas based on what the image depicted. Carrying a staff, the man seems to be on some sort of excursion, though of great length or small, I couldn’t say. However, he does appear to be some distance from his little town, set around a lake or other body of water. The area surrounding the settlement is hilly, though at some expanse the elevation rises, the shrubbery becomes thicker and we see what may be the start of a tree line. A forest? Foothills?

Is there some sort of magical element or aura in the more mountainous region? Did the man gaze upon it from a favorite spot, as I used to do when scanning the sky from the window as a child? Or did he detect some enchanting overlap he simply had to investigate? Could it have been a sheerly accidental discovery, and he is more curious than afraid when he crosses the border between realms? He seems only to have a casual hold on his stick: his hand hovers loosely above, not gripping it, ready for quick retrieval. Moreover, he leaves it behind, almost. His left hand remains close by, but his right hand—most probably his dominant, but now placed in a more vulnerable position—reaches out past the world he knows.

The picture’s caption doesn’t give away precise answers:

“A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch …[.]”

Whatever the case, I related to this man and can still recall staring at him on a plane at age 16. I was a bit of a captive audience, certainly, but was not unaware of the reality that while I had gained a greater upward physical distance from my settlement than he from his, I had nevertheless not yet managed to find the firmament he did.

The holistic universe ahead of me in time as well as space, I began to deliberate on it as connected in other ways not previously contemplated (at least not by me; you will recall I was a naïve 16): perhaps in layers, or through ley lines that transition via imperceptible gradations, or both, plus more of which connected to time and people’s travel through it, or to foreign eras.

It was around this time I began to further develop ideas that had been swirling through me, within my mind, unarticulated, throughout early childhood, about people belonging to what I called their “native” time, and that some were here with the rest of us, though not necessarily native.

Does the traveler pass through time when he reaches the border? Could he peer backward over his shoulders, past his torso, legs and feet still within his own realm, and see his village in the distance? A question repeated itself in my mind: is he afraid? Excited? Had he suspected this existed and gazes upon it all, as if trying to memorize it, create an imprint in his mind? Does he feel as if he has closed a gap of distance, or that it remains as enormous in his world as ever?

 

Flammarion_Woodcut_1888_Color_2
Wikimedia Commons

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Note: There are a great variety of colored images of the Flammarion Engraving; simply put its title into your favorite search engine for results. 

 

Book Review: How to Destroy the New Girl’s Killer Robot Army

Slug Pie Story #3:

How to Destroy the New Girl’s Killer Robot Army

by Mick Bogerman

A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

How to Destroy the New Girl’s Killer Robot Army is Mick Bogerman’s deceptively slim third volume (151 pages) in the Slug Pie Story series. If upon reading the title you think it sounds fun, you’d be on target; after all, this is the same author who gave us How to Navigate Zombie Cave and Defeat Pirate Pete and How to Rid Your Swimming Pool of a Bloodthirsty Mermaid. While I haven’t read the first two, I find the titles delightful, and can assure you the third is fully capable as a stand-alone. There is plenty of action packed into it, and some danger into the bargain. As Bogerman himself writes in his note to parents:

“So, if you’re looking for a wimpy, child-type book, turn away now. But if your kid is not a wimp, likes a heart-pounding scare and chasing down evil killer robots, then this, dear parents, is the story for your kid.”

robot army
For audiences 8-12 (and up!!), this award-winning novel is adventurous and fun from start to finish, including the cover!!

 Reading like a how-to or instruction manual, complete with chapter headings such as “Tell the New Girl to Go Away” (it’s always wise to start with the easiest option) and “Find the Lair,” this is the story of Mick and his efforts to extract Savannah Diamond, the new and very not quiet girl at school, from his life. He’d really like to Fed-Ex her back to Florida, but as this isn’t an option, he has to find some other way to overcome her interference. She isn’t just going to peacefully stand down. She’s not that kind of girl.

 

“Last week she outran me in gym class. I have a reputation to keep … Then afterward, she called me a gastropod … Why couldn’t she just say ‘snail’ like a normal person? … Last night was the last straw … I looked over at my brother and he was doodling in his notebook: Finley + Savannah. Inside a heart. Yuck … [S]he’s got to go.”

 Mick tries his level best to oust Savannah once and for all, though his plan doesn’t exactly follow instructions—perhaps the reason he helpfully sets up the book as he does—and he soon finds first one, then an army of robots invading his house, and sees the writing on the wall. I mean, literally, writing on the wall—in blood:

FEAR US Mickey Bogerman OR ELSE

Mick isn’t afraid—at first. But when his dog is attacked, people go missing and the unstoppable army continues to advance, he knows he has to move on this in a serious way. Will he be able to recruit the troops to stand with him and save himself and all of Beachwood from total catastrophe?

Audiences may guess this is a rather fast read—and for me, an adult, it was. With all that, the amount of story in the book is generous and there is much more to the narrative than the robot element. So while a kiddo into robotics might be drawn to the tale, there are other components that broaden its appeal: wrangles between siblings, challenges at school and the follies of friendships. With a boy and girl going head to head, the novel positions itself as intended for both: girls will relate to Savannah and her responses, while boys will find their world, until recent years grossly underrepresented, given another valuable place in children’s literature.


More and more holes are burned through our walls. Five or six behind us in the kitchen, four in the entrance hall, one to the left of the doorknob. Robots spill out: spiders, scorpions, giant ants, beetles, roaches, and centipedes. Made out of parts and pieces of work tools, kitchen utensils, bike parts, and electronic toys. Pieces soldered together onto tiny motors, wires strung like veins, their legs and claws and teeth sharpened into knife points.


One way Bogerman achieves this—perhaps to mixed response—is the use of casual, and sometimes improper grammar, with gonna making a few appearances, along with dialogue such as, “You’re the one can’t talk right now[.]” It is a technique, however, used sparingly and not one that sounds out of place given the distinctly different manner in which people in any language speak versus how they write.

Bogerman also writes in a manner indicative of someone who loves words, matching particular experiences to distinct phrases, and I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot more of this even apart from the Slug Pie Stories. “As I trudge across the south parking lot, a dog howls loud and long like he’s just swallowed a bowlful of grief[,]” for example, caught my attention coming from a teenage boy, hinting at the deeper personality growing beneath the surface. It also reflects his own mood at the moment, given that he hadn’t had bus fare and is returning from an hour’s worth of walking to get home.

How to Destroy the New Girl’s Killer Robot Army is a super fun read with scary elements and distinct and realistic representations of how teens relate to others (parents, neighbors, siblings, teachers, friends), what they like, things that concern them and how they handle conflict. As a female, it was such a delight to get this glimpse into a boy’s world, and other readers, kid as well as adult, are also sure to love this delightful action-adventure tale.

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About the author…

bogermanAuthor Mickey “Mick” Bogerman has lived in Beachwood, North Carolina all his life. Mostly he tries to stay out of trouble, but mostly trouble seems to find him anyway. He has a knack for antagonizing scary creatures and girls, not necessarily in that order. Mick’s favorite subjects in school are science (slime, rockets, bugs, and rocks—what’s not to like?), gym class (running, climbing, throwing—more stuff to like), and reading (yay Mr. Corcoran lets him read whatever he likes—like comic books). Speaking of comic books, Mick’s favorites are X-Men, Demon Knights, Spiderman and Batman.

You can follow and learn more about Mick Bogerman’s work at FacebookTwitterPinterest,  Instagram and his website. How to Destroy the New Girl’s Killer Robot Army is available for purchase at AmazonBarnes & NobleBooks a Million and Kobo.

Upcoming:
Audio Book release of Slug Pie Story #1 How to Navigate Zombie Cave and
Defeat Pirate Pete (Audible/I-tunes/Overdrive): August 12th

E-book release of Slug Pie Story #4 How to Protect Your Neighborhood
from Circus Werewolves (Amazon, B&N, I-tunes, Kobo): September 21st

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A complementary copy of How to Destroy the New Girl’s Killer Robot Army was provided to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

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Images courtesy Slug Pie Stories, LLC

Book Review: Far from the Spaceports (with Giveaway)

Author Richard Abbott is generously gifting a FREE COPY (Kindle or e-pub) of

Far from the Spaceports

for one lucky winner! Read the review and comment below or here to get you name in the draw!

Far from the Spaceports by Richard Abbott

Spaceports cover

I’ll be honest up front: I don’t normally read science fiction, and in fact am not really a huge fan. Nevertheless, when a read of Far from the Spaceports was presented for possible review, I was open to it because I’d seen reviews for other novels by Richard Abbott, which … means nothing really, I know, given they aren’t sci-fi. But he’d piqued my curiosity in the past and a preview at the blurb gave me a sneaking suspicion this wasn’t “typical” sci-fi.

How glad I was I didn’t dismiss it out of hand, for Far from the Spaceports was a delightfully pleasant read, not only with a fantastic plot but also personable characters (one as artificial intelligence!), intriguing world-building, an especially thrilling and sweat-breaking scene and lures from one transition to the next—all the way through.

The sole bump for me was an opening chapter segment with a tad bit of disconnect, but I put this down to the narrative and I getting to know one other, and walking into a scene in progress smoothed over quite quickly. Potential readers with the same sort of relationship to sci-fi as I generally have can also rest assured that the jargon written into the tale is not the dense or fearsome linguistic mine trap from which we often recoil: in fact it’s fun to read and typically rather understandable: “Slate … had flicked on the message within a couple of femtoseconds of reception.” Abbott does a great job, as I came to see early on, of keeping his readers informed and on track with contextual passages of dialogue or prose that need little information padding at all.

Far from the Spaceports, set in the Scilly Isles, an asteroid belt close to Jupiter, is Mitnash’s story of his mission to the Isles to investigate financial fraud. He works under the jurisdiction of the Economic Crime Review Board (ECRB), along with his “onboard persona,” Slate, also referred to in the beginning as a stele. This I found rather fascinating, given that Slate performs, really, essentially the same function as ancient stelae in terms of the passing of information, though electronically and with the added modern ability to communicate via cochlear implant.

Ceres
Ceres, largest of the real-life asteroids, discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801. It lies in the orbit between Mars and Jupiter (NASA/JPL)

Abbott’s choice to tell Mit’s tale in first person is a splendid one, as readers can more closely get to the heart of what the protagonist is thinking and feeling, whereas there would be a remove with even an omniscient but detached narrator. We engage in more of a personal feel to what Mit experiences, such as the whining of an electric car, “probably older than I was,” in double-duty fashion providing readers an idea of just how long the colony has been functioning as well as the character’s sense of resigned acceptance regarding priorities of supply.

Mit has been doing this for a while as well, as indicated by his statement that, “Some years ago I’d asked Slate to use [his partner] Shayna’s voice as the audio basis whenever we were away from Earth.” As the story progresses we are privy to Mit’s impressions as he takes up his newest mission as well as his relationship with the loyal Slate, who provides him with data computations and information helpful to his investigation.

The information technology is what in part makes this novel different to many other sci-fi stories I’ve given a shot: it is the focus, not stereotypical laser battles with weapons that can melt your enemy, nor outstanding physical feats of bravado acted out by your hero. Mind you there is action and Mit is tested, required to engage his wits to escape physical and other danger that he finds himself embroiled in, can predict or see coming. His arsenal is awareness and prep, intelligence—of the cerebral as well as provided sort—and quick wits in detecting and escaping the mysterious, suspicious and dangerous. Abbott’s persuasive mixture of just the right ingredients at particular moments shows off a research and storytelling expertise blended together with such dexterity readers periodically pause to admire the effect—of writer as well as character.

“[He] was looking at me with the unfocused expression of someone who was querying a remote [stele]. I had practiced for hours in front of mirrors and human trainers to avoid exactly that look. He saw me watching and tried to cover himself.

 ‘[My contact] tells me your supplies will be transferred within the hour, Mr Thakur.’

 I nodded, knowing full well he had been running a completely different query.”

 Indeed, Far from the Spaceports is a mystery novel, complete with queries and lies, and the author skillfully balances this genre mix with humor, including that coming from interaction with Slate, who has a developed personality as well as perspectives. On occasion she is suspicious, which makes sense given her ability to mine data and utilize formulae to determine viability. But Abbott bestows her with more than that, allowing her to avoid the paradigm of “sidekick” by making her a greater part of the story and not merely a tool Mit utilizes to progress in his detective work; he needs her as much as she needs him, and not just for efficiency. Readers will appreciate her worry about being marginalized, for example, or frustrations, even snobbery regarding equipment. Already miffed in one scene, she retreats into mostly silence.

’The fake[ flowers] are better on Deimos.’

 Pretty, though.’

 She made a noncommittal noise. Neither of us had seen a real agapanthus plant, but Slate would have been able to acquire much more accurate sensory data than I could, so she was probably right.

 Whether right or not about the quality of the flowers, she also disliked her current living space and was letting me know. A hand-held was small, slow, and impoverished compared to her usual frame. She always made her voice sound tinny when she was transferred to inadequate hardware to remind me of her frustration.”

 At one point Mit partners with a new character who, despite her late appearance in the book, is also well developed, though presented in such a way I often wondered if she was helping Mit or would turn out to be a double agent or baddie. This continued the anticipation earlier created—and that provoked actual sweat on my forehead—when Mit has to work his way through a spell of psychological warfare perhaps even more frightening than super-powered space arms.

This links also to contemplations of what a futuristic world looks like, though to Abbott’s credit, he doesn’t fall into any sort of dystopian-like trap with machinations of evil—also sci-fi staples that may have turned me off in the past. Instead, he gracefully explores various elements, periodically pointing to new versions of what appears in our existing world: small anachronisms used to define or identify actions no longer actually performed in the manner described. For example, someone today might counter repetition with, “You sound like a broken record,” despite these devices being obsolete. In Mit’s world, errors in a systematic analysis are “still call[ed] a fat finger problem even if no fingers are actually used.”

Things can also get a little intrusive, such as it being “almost impossible to persuade anybody you were out of contact,” to the very dangerous, such as hacking and a higher level of identity theft. Abbott makes it believable because though it amps up the results to something quite deceptive and potentially very destructive, more so than we deal with today, it was birthed from our current technology. It adroitly fits readers of all stripes.

Dawn
Artist’s impression of the Dawn spacecraft above Ceres (NASA/JPL)

At the end of the day one could describe Far from the Spaceports as a sci-fi mystery, which it is, though it is so much more than merely that sum. With likeable characters and bad guys readers can’t easily identify, believable futuristic technology, a well-balanced mix of drama and dry humor, and a very engaging and well-told storyline, it is a new take on detecting, with enough questions arising in the end or remaining unanswered from earlier that it seems open to a sequel.

Like many books before it, Far from the Spaceports surely contains elements I missed that could be caught on a subsequent read. Of course, readers know only too well this is near impossible in these days of to-be-read piles threatening to topple over. However, as I approached the end I felt sorry not to be moving through more breathtaking scenes with Mitnash (I hope he doesn’t mind that I’ve been calling him Mit), that there weren’t at least 200 more pages. So then, as now, I resolved it shall be read again and I hope I’ll be doing it in anticipation indeed of that sequel I mentioned as possibility.

Far from the Spaceports is simply an amazing book that took me to a world I was alien in yet felt comfortable exploring and want to return to. Combining all the right elements of mystery, psychological thriller, sci-fi, adventure—not an easy balance—this is a novel that will bring aboard a wave of new readers for sci-fi, and have Richard Abbott to thank for it.

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Update: I am so pleased to announce that the author is indeed working on Timing, a sequel to Far from the Spaceports projected for release in early autumn. Stay tuned for my review as well as some chatting with and a guest blog from author Richard Abbott. 

In the meantime, be sure to comment below or here to get your name in the draw for your  FREE Kindle or e-pub copy of Far from the Spaceports

About the author …

richardabbottRichard 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. A sequel, Timing, is in preparation for release 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.

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.

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! Far from the Spaceports is also available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK.

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The blogger was furnished with a complimentary copy of Far from the Spaceports in exchange for an honest review.

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All images courtesy of and/or provided by Richard Abbott. 

Book Review: Hysterical Love

Hysterical Love by Lorraine Devon Wilke

A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

When I first picked up Lorraine Devon Wilke’s Hysterical Love, it was with anticipation, a muted sort of joy, not unlike that of a child anticipating a delicious treat or new toy. I had previously read and thoroughly enjoyed Devon Wilke’s debut novel After the Sucker Punch and was very ready to dive into this one.

hysterical loveDan McDowell opens the novel, telling his readers he is “flummoxed” by relationships—not that this is so odd, but he was sure by now, at age 33, he’d be a bit past that phase. His bewildered recounting of what had just happened to him gave not only a promising opening to what looked to be a great yarn, but was also, well, so on target. It read, as I delivered the opening paragraphs aloud—reading aloud being a frequent habit—in a very male manner. It sounded like a man would say this, as opposed to the way a female author might write what she wants a male character to be expressing.

In this case, Dan is still a little confused as to how he ends up camped out in his neighbor’s spare bedroom, when just an hour or so before he and his longtime girlfriend had been setting a wedding date and Jane became Dan’s fiancée, at least for that hour. The long and the short is this: Jane muses aloud on the passage of time, she can’t believe it’s been three years of exclusivity, and…a split-second eye avert on Dan’s part and it’s all over. “I am the only person you’ve been with since we met, right?”

Something else about that male thing: Devon Wilke has got it down. Having read her before, I knew she was adept at writing a protagonist who is fast on her feet, articulate and can be sharp—the unifying trait being she wraps all points together and responds in full and succinctly. But that is a female character. How would the skills of her creator be utilized to mold a male type who didn’t merely change costumes for a different book?

The answers came as I continued to read—and laugh. As Dan relates his tale to us, his speech reveals who he is: “[S]omehow, despite amazingly good behavior on everyone’s parts, and often against the nature of all parties involved, someone in the room pulls the pin.” Like Tess’s, his remarks are witty, but closer to the nature of male metaphorical speech and the types of symbolism men tend to engage.


In Hysterical Love, Devon Wilke

has once more created a cast

of characters we want to know.


As Dan continues his narrative, his own commentary within the script, his hindsight enables him to recognize what he’s done wrong, and trigger phrases that just don’t go down well with the opposite sex: “Technically,” “What’s the big deal?” and a hilarious transition phrase that cues us into the impending shit storm: “The temperature drop is like the girl’s room in The Exorcist.”

As it turns out, Dan had been with his previous girlfriend after he’d met (and slept with) Jane, his defense being that he and Jane hadn’t verbally or officially committed to an exclusive relationship. From Jane’s point of view, just having slept together constitutes the commitment, and she isn’t having any of his excuses.

At this point I was no longer the least bit curious about a female author writing from a first- person male protagonist perspective. It was Dan speaking.

Not long after, Dan’s sister Lucy and he have a series of conversations pertaining to their father, who has recently fallen ill, and the concept of whether Jane truly is Dan’s “soul mate.” Lucy reveals the existence of a short story their father had written before their parents’ marriage, about a woman he’d had an impassioned affair with, a revelation startling Dan enough to spark questions such as, “Do you suppose there’s a genetic component to being crappy with relationships?”

The sarcastic question is two-pronged. The father he knows is impatient, unsentimental and underwhelmed with just about everything, “all of which combine to make his previous self impossible to reconcile with who he is now.”

Like Hysterical Love, After the Sucker Punch is also a winner of the B.R.A.G. Medallion (click image)
Like Hysterical Love, After the Sucker Punch is also a winner of the B.R.A.G. Medallion (click image)

But Dan also, following Lucy’s train of thought within her ongoing advice to him, begins to contemplate the idea that this woman, “Barbara from Oakland,” might really have been the one his father was meant for. Could that explain the deterioration of his father’s previous creativity and passion, and poor relationship with the family he does have? Moreover, what might this bode for Dan and Jane? Was their disastrous argument meant to steer Dan to his true soul mate? In order to seek answers, Dan concludes he must find Barbara. In so doing, he befriends Fiona, a waitress and herbal pharmacist who soon becomes partner in his “vision quest.”

Through this Dan continues to have contact with his daily life, such as phone conversations with his sister who is, unsurprisingly, angry with his disappearing act. The heated conversations are slightly reminiscent of those between After the Sucker Punch’s Tess and her own sister, and though Dan answers back in self-defense, he carries a greater restraint; he holds back more often, perhaps having quickly absorbed a lesson learned from his unthought out answers during the engagement-ending skirmish with Jane. In his subsequent reflections he assesses himself in a straight forward, honest manner. His commentary is pithy and on-target, and he doesn’t discount what others say to or about him. In Dan McDowell, Devon Wilke has created a character eager to grow and learn, but one nevertheless subject to the shifting of mood or whim. He is well balanced, but as in need of growth as any of the rest of us.

Devon Wilke is also an astute observer of human behavior, and there were frequent bouts of laughter on my part or murmured “Mmm hmm” upon recognition of the comically familiar. At one point Dan bemoans his own supposed blandness during a photography gig as his clients engage in what most of us either are guilty of or have run up against ourselves:

“On this particular day I’d come from a job … shooting women in pantsuits and men in navy blazers who chattered nonstop in that weird business school jargon that makes my teeth grind: ‘adoptive processes,’ ‘aggressive mediocrity,’ ‘burning platforms,’ and so on. My simple statements like, ‘Please stand near the window,’ sounded witless by comparison.”

 There also are moments when characters’ great sense of humor cuts in unexpectedly and belly laughter in the midst of a serious discussion ensues—and not just because of what was said but also who says it. During a passage of necessary berating by Bob, gay owner of the spare room and longtime friend, Dan experiences an aha moment.

“Do not start with this time/space crap. You’re not twelve, buddy, and you’ve only got me [covering him at work] for two more days. So go find her, ask your questions, and git on home. Simple.”

 Suddenly it all burst from me like a tumultuous dam of repressed … tumult. “I met this girl, Bob, this warm, gorgeous, generous girl, who gave me tea and herbs and let me tell her the whole story without one snide comment. She had a computer that saved my life, she helped me find the gazebo, her house is full of dried flowers and herbs, and her butch roommate is apparently a masseuse nonpareil. I think she might be my soul mate.” Deep breath.

 “The butch roommate?”

 “No, fool, Fiona.”

 “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a straight person use the word ‘nonpareil’ before.”

 “Fiona said it and trust me, she’s a very straight person.”

 “Okaaaay ….”

 “I mean … Fiona. Even her name is special. Have you ever heard a more poetic name?”

“I’m not going to mention that you now sound even gayer than your last statement, but let’s get real: there are plenty of Fionas out there since Shrek, my friend.”

It is in ways such as this that the author makes writing about emotion, or the path to various realizations, seem so easy. Her prose fits so well amongst its own various parts, as well as with what readers know as reality, and her dialogue wastes not a single word. Smooth and accessible, it all nevertheless delves deep into the human psyche to mine the best pieces of the self to face the circumstances placed before her protagonist, even as he necessarily stumbles in the process.

I also must say, I really do appreciate Devon Wilke’s treatment of her characters, in particular Dan, who could easily have been written as either a jerk or a male with unrealistically feminine character traits, two stereotypes that in today’s world are leaned on heavily enough it damages relations. I don’t know for sure, but my guess would be that most men in reality are like Dan, somewhere in between, and although they may not always be understood by their partners, their perspectives matter.

“Jane, it may be clumsy, the way I’m putting all this, but it’s what I’m actually going through, what I’m feeling, and I don’t know how else to say it.”

Although Jane snidely responds with, “Oh what you’re feeling, what you’re going through[,]” she, too, by virtue of her dialogue and circumstance, is required to face the caricatures many women unwittingly promote by latching on to the idea that men remain unaffected by events. She is like any other individual who has her lesser moments, but she is a thoughtful, caring person as well. Devon Wilke gives her voice and Jane uses it to show a balance that exists within ourselves, when we have the wherewithal and courage to reveal it, as well as within others with whom we share the world.

In Hysterical Love, Devon Wilke has once more created a cast of characters we want to know, in a compelling exploration of life and love, what it means to be part of something greater, such as a family or romantic relationship, and considers exactly how effective it is to philosophize on any given level, especially where human emotion is concerned. None of these characters know their future, and one of the best parts of reading the novel is that neither do we. Unlike many books in which easy predictions prove correct, this tale is not so easy to foretell. I loved the suspense created when I wondered how far Dan and Fiona’s friendship might go. Do they start something and then he realizes he has to return to Jane? Or do they recognize what they have and start a new life together? Will his father recover? Do his parents’ and family’s relationship take a turn toward a new road? Articulated or not, these are questions that arise and the reality is, as in life, it all could go either way, and making one’s way into and through adulthood is part of the process. It enables us to recognize the privilege of sharing Dan’s story all the way through before learning the outcome.

As literary/realistic fiction, Hysterical Love will also delight readers of such genres as romance, romantic comedy, or fiction and non-fiction dealing with questions of love, family, fate and interpersonal relationships. A deliciously fair sized novel, it is a joy to read and impossible to lay down.

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About the author…

devon wilke book signingAuthor, photographer, singer/songwriter Lorraine Devon Wilke brings the sum total of her creative experience to all her work, including her compelling contemporary fiction. Pulling from every chapter of her eclectic background, she creates characters and plots that are both unique and recognizable, with dialogue that jumps off the page. Additionally, her book covers are designed with her own photography, and her debut novel, After the Sucker Punch, includes a free download of one of her recorded songs.

A longtime contributor to The Huffington Post, the trademark “sass and sensibility” she puts into her journalistic essays also infuses her fiction. Using wit and candor to explore provocative themes of family, faith, love, or tragedy, her stories always embrace an elemental mix of heart and soul.

Currently working on her third novel, both After the Sucker Punch and Hysterical Love are available in print and ebook via Amazon. Her extensive photography collection can be viewed and purchased at Fine Art America; she entertains readers with cultural commentary and updates her creative adventures at her blog, Rock+Paper+Music. On the music front, she continues to write and record whenever she can, and has recently been cast in new rock musical set to debut in San Diego, California, in early 2017.

Devon Wilke can be contacted here, and all links to her work are available via her website.

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See my review for After the Sucker Punch here.

The blogger was provided with a free copy of Hysterical Love in exchange for an honest review.

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Images courtesy Lorraine Devon Wilke.

Book Review: Savior

Savior by Martha Kennedy

A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

savior-2-edition-coverSavior is Martha Kennedy’s poignant tale of Rudolf and his brother Conrad, inhabitants of thirteenth-century Zürich and a society immersed in religion and warfare. Rudolf suffers from depression, a condition he is counseled comes from Satan and can be eradicated in a fight to save the world from such sin. A local priest explains that with Jerusalem once more in the hands of the infidel, who “wasted no time in desecrating the holy sites and persecuting Christians living within its walls,” fighting these invaders would help to expiate sin and contribute to his salvation.

Kennedy opens Savior with a quote from St. Augustine that reflects Rudolf’s state of mind—“I bore a shattered and bleeding soul,” it reads in part—and a downpour reflecting the emotion, as if nature herself was as anguished. No amount of service to travelers escaping the downpour, or joy in his fiancée, Gretchen, eases Rudolf’s internal torture.

Conrad, on the other hand, is restless and though negative about Gretchen or some content of the minnesingers’ songs, sees a bright future elsewhere, such as under the tutelage of a knight, who could teach him the rules of chivalry. He longs to see the reality behind the travelers’ wonderful stories, so filled with the strange and faraway, the wild and brave. One could easily imagine Conrad delighting in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville had he known of even the outlandish within the travelogue, yet to be published.

Thus begins Rudolf’s aim to join the latest Crusade, following his own examination on the roots of his torment, and Conrad’s in his quest for adventure and something beyond the confines of the Longfields’ estate and his father’s goal for him, to serve his brother as a stable hand.

Image from first edition cover: Herzog von Anhalt from Codex Manesse (Wikimedia Commons)

As the boys prepare to leave, Kennedy alternates between Rudolf and Conrad and their conversations with those who seek to dissuade them. Through expressive, sometimes heartbreaking, dialogue readers are given an internal view to the opposing motivations of each to make the dangerous journey, the same their father had made in his own youth, and which had driven their mother close to the brink: Rudolf, to rid himself of feeling suffocated by the presence of evil, Conrad to “be[come] the hero of his own romance.”

One of the first features I noticed in Savior was the manner in which Kennedy brings to life not only her characters, but also the emotion swirling through so many scenes, while simultaneously managing its effect and keeping it out of the realm of the overwhelming. Readers feel each mood as it hovers, and the author consummately provides the history that we need to know behind each person’s perception.

Despite their opposing motivation both Rudolf and Conrad search for self, and the dialogue, whether between the brothers or one of them and a supporting character, reflects this intuitively. It is as if Kennedy overheard and recorded real conversations rather than created ones that sought to speak from distinct perspectives.

Character growth in Savior is depicted beautifully, largely utilizing the author’s dialogue expertise but also the internal discourse of several characters, including that which plagues and then begins to inform Rudolf as he faces the terrible reality of war, and the now-porous walls of his depressive prison. While his understanding is not exactly as he thought it might be, there is a greater openness to his examination that questions circumstances while retaining the devotion he had always known.

Kennedy wisely allows Rudolf to be the thirteenth-century man he is rather than forcing on him either genuine modern sensibilities or political correctness, while truthfully opening his understanding to the political machinations that had made their way into bonafide belief. The changes wrought by invasion and crusading alters his individual world and eventually society as a whole, and the pain of that transition is felt in Rudolf’s experiences.

Through the current trendiness of Christianity bashing in our own time, it would be easy to label Savior as an indictment of the religion given its early misdirection. While Kennedy does not pull her punches in illuminating the misdeeds of those who abused power and manipulated religiosity, she does also address human failure to recognize the beauty Rudolf’s God desires for him, and how ignorance is the main driver behind misinformation treated as the nature of God.

“Brother Youhanna, did those priests lie when they said my sins would be forgiven if I came to fight the infidel?”

 “Lying? No, yet I doubt they spoke the truth. They spoke from their beliefs, in the limits of their understanding, but Truth is not carried on the edge of a sword.

 “But if the Holy Father in Rome told them, would it not be the truth?”

 Youhanna shrugged.

 Rudolf never imagined the Holy Father could speak anything other than the truth. “What then?”

 “Confusion. Desire. Blindness. Anger. No one is free.”

As historical fiction the novel is top notch. Kennedy brings readers to the brutal Battle of La Forbie where injections of stark prose match what lay out in front of the arriving fighters: too few of them—the Hospitaller leader looks at them “thinking only that they had come to die”—horrendous confidence-destroying heat—shedding layers of protection one at a time, eventually succumbing grievously to, “Who cared if a sniper’s arrow picked them off? They were in Hell now. Death would bring Heaven”—and locals trying to “redeem themselves for the crime of survival.”

From their position on the coast to de Brienne’s impatient and premature strike from a disadvantageous terrain, Kennedy remains true to historic events, smoothly writing in both Conrad and Rudolf’s places in and before the battle. Rudolf experiences a watershed moment, flawlessly written into a scene leading to the moments both he and the fighters have been waiting for. A bridge in the novel, it is filled with an array of memories, sensations, activities and song of the minnesinger, and displays an achingly beautiful passage of time both ghastly and poetic, a combination not often seen done, even less often done as well as it is here.

While Savior is a work of historical fiction set in a time when religion was a way of life and not just part of it, it also is a coming-of-age story, though related within a cultural milieu so different to many of the same stories of today. This is not a Vietnam, or a coming to grips with gruesome urban events, and though it retains the spiritual with its mood and prodigal son angle, it opens itself to readers in its search for truth, an age-old quest, even while appearing in some ways so foreign to what many readers will know, such as medieval attitudes toward mental illness. It is also a book audiences will want to read again and again, it being easily recognizable as one with layers that often reveal themselves upon subsequent visitations, which I highly recommend.

Monk beating Satan (Wikimedia Commons)
Monk beating Satan (Wikimedia Commons)

About the author…

Martha Kennedy has published three works of historical fiction. Her first novel, Martin of Gfenn, which tells the story of a young fresco painter living in 13th-century Zürich, was awarded the Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society Indie Review and the BRAG Medallion from IndieBRAG in 2015.

Her second novel, Savior, also an BRAG Medallion Honoree (2016), tells the story of a young man in the 13th century who fights depression — and discovers himself — by going on Crusade.

Martha KennedyHer third novel, published in July 2016, The Brothers Path, a loose sequel to Savior, looks at the same families met in Savior three hundred years later as they find their way through the Protestant Reformation.

Kennedy has traveled intensively in Switzerland, journeys that have at once inspired and informed her writing. She has also published many short-stories and articles in a variety of publications from the Denver Post to the Business Communications Quarterly.

Kennedy was born in Denver, Colorado and earned her undergraduate degree in American Literature from University of Colorado, Boulder, and her graduate degree in American Literature from the University of Denver. She has taught college and university writing at all levels, business communication, literature and English as a Second Language. For many years she lived in the San Diego area,but has recently returned to Colorado to live in Monte Vista in the San Luis Valley.

All of Martha Kennedy’s novels are available in both paperback and ebook formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and other online booksellers. You can also contact the author!

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Follow Martha Kennedy to learn more about the author and her books at her websiteFacebookAmazonGoodreads, Twitter, or her Savior blog  and Facebook pages.

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The blogger was furnished with a free copy of Savior in exchange for an honest review.

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Photos courtesy of and provided by the author.

Book Review: The Prize (Tales From a Revolution: Vermont)

Tales From a Revolution: Vermont

The Prize

by Lars D.H. Hedbor

prizeOne thing I like best in the world is the ordinary. While fascinated with history and, indeed, some of the figures who played pivotal roles in certain events, I know too there were others whose parts, even when as witness alone, are precious in the memory of our nation. Imagine if others whose lives we know little about had somehow been able to record (or have recorded) events as they saw and lived them—imagine the greater understanding we would have of their time, how much closer we could be to those who came before.

Lars D.H. Hedbor captures the possibility of these moments in his Tales From a Revolution series, the first of which, The Prize, is set in Vermont and told from the point of view of Caleb, a boy on the cusp of manhood at a time when his colony is about to engage in open warfare against the British as the American Revolution is accelerating.

Though young, Caleb is savvy enough to understand the politics of events in his time, and the author presents American grievances succinctly as the book opens with the young man musing on current events and what led to them. Hedbor also layers the plot with familial conflict and distrust of a particular neighbor whose history we learn in bits over time, and why it matters to his neighbors and the revolution itself. These layers are threaded together so seamlessly that the effects in terms of relationships and lateral consequences play out smoothly and effectively as the narrative progresses.

Curiously, many today have forgotten or never knew that not all colonists were in total agreement with the shift away from British control. In fact, the rebels were in the minority and in some cases households divided. Hedbor illustrates this in part when Polly, Caleb’s mother, rows with her husband over his service with Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys. Her family history haunts her, but her husband refuses to back down, citing the cost that always arises following submissive retreat.

“I’ll take no foolish chances, Polly. But I do not think it meet to stand idly by while my sons can manage the farm, and my service is needed […] I know this is hard … war always is. But peace purchased at the cost of capitulation is harder still.”

At just 187 pages, The Prize is a brief read, but Hedbor packs into it a fleet of detail about those living during the birth of a modern-day local Vermont legend of attempted trickery against the British, swiftly utilizing every sentence to provide historical and background information, simultaneously keeping the narrative on track. As in the dialogue quoted above, the author inserts period vocabulary to bring authenticity to characters’ speech, though sparingly enough to avoid affectation.

He also manages to bring readers into the story not only with his magnificently descriptive passages—

“There was the sour-sweet smell of rum and applejack, as well as the leathery aroma of tobacco smoke. The sharp reek of hard-working men competed with the more pleasant odor of a rich mutton stew, dark bread and sharp cheese set out before one patron at a nearby table.”

—but also those denoting real-world experience and understanding regarding the mechanics of action characters engage in.

“Once on the water, he reveled in the speed he could build up in the dugout. The air smelled of the rich soil and the fresh green leaves on the trees. Reaching forward with long strokes, he concentrated on pulling the water past him with his paddle, first on one side and then on the other, correcting his course as necessary with a twist of its blade as he drew it out for the next great pull.”

In this way Hedbor grants us the experience as close to Caleb might have lived it as we could get. His descriptions bring to life these elements, but also so much more as they trigger in our imaginations the feel of walking through a colonial restaurant pub, breathing in the smoke as we delight in the possibilities inherent in words such as applejack, hear the sound of leather and shifting chairs, contemplating what these people think and feel as to the revolution at their shores while they engage in ordinary pursuits such as a mutton stew. Their distance fades and they become individual personas with opinions, anxieties—perhaps even excitement.

With this Hedbor brings us to contemplate, more importantly, how did ordinary people perceive and move through the amazing changes taking place in their society, particularly when so much remained in question? We might consider the possibility that it was an exciting time in which to live, but did they?

“Mark this moment well, lad, for you shall never see another so filled with import as this, so long as you live. I know that I have not, in my many years.”

The author thus addresses the contemplation without losing sight of the ordinary that continues, as it must, to occur. A love story weaves through the novel as historical events keep on keeping on, with all having to face the accompanying realities: a relentless royal campaign to beat down the colonists, Hessian mercenaries, food and materials appropriated by British soldiers, loyalists, the distractions of war and necessary preparations removing people from earning a living, loss of friends and family.

As events move forward, Caleb keeping a close eye on them, he grows in his understanding and abilities to carry out his responsibilities to his family and community. This brings the greater weight of knowledge as he faces new alliances as well as unthinkable possibilities. Hedbor masterfully transitions his narrative through all this, mirroring the further reality that while Caleb unknowingly rubs elbows with some fascinating figures in the birth of a nation, we witness the same, bringing to bear the idea of the conventional cradling the extraordinary.

As Caleb’s mundane begins to heat up and helps to shape what will be the unparalleled, a nation governed as no other in history has ever been, we witness success and failure, love and loss; uncertainty leads many days. Hedbor presents the tale in a style appealing to grown-ups and young adults alike. The language is accessible and appealing, the book engaging and difficult to put down.

As readers close in on answers to mysteries and questions that arise through the book, though with some that will be left unanswered, there is a satisfying sense of connection upon reading certain familiar names, e.g. Benedict Arnold—despite what we know of how his days play out. But a deeper bond also emerges when we are witness to such events as depicted in The Prize taking place in Vermont, in an area close to update New York, that we don’t typically hear much about in common discourse, including our own school lessons. It lends such broad appeal that students of the Revolution and casual reader alike—American or not, child or adult—will revel in the great pleasure of reading such a captivating story of a mesmerizing time in American and world history, involving even the most ordinary of us all.

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About the author…

LHedbor-HeadshotWhat 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. 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 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 Prize may be purchased in paperback (signed copies available upon request), as Kindle, Nook, iBook or Kobo.

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Photos courtesy Lars D.H. Hedbor

A free copy of The Prize was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review

 

Image of the Week: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

On this Friday evening I’m pleased to announce a new feature to the blog: “Image of the Week.” I do confess this is inspired by a book I recently read (more on that in an upcoming post), though ideas for future images might spring from a variety of sources.

I’ve got two motives in mind, one being my desire to immerse myself more in photography, even if at this point it’s on a seriously amateur level. While today’s image is not a photograph from my own hand, it is intriguing in its appearance as well as subject. Also, the reading experiences I have enjoyed with small and independently published authors have been so rewarding because they’ve brought me to far more worlds than I believe I might ever have visited had I not discovered (or been led to) and pursued these novels, and I’d really like to share them and the personages within.

Since we all know this is a great big world and anything at all might capture one’s imagination, it will be inspiring to see what might pop up during any given week.

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Today we have a look at this image of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great and later to be known as Lady of the Mercians. Born (c. 870) to the West Saxon King Alfred and a Mercian mother at the height of the Viking raids against England, Æthelflæd spent her childhood on the run from the invaders’ long reach.

Æthelflæd_as_depicted_in_the_cartulary_of_Abingdon_AbbeyMarried by her father to Æthelred of Mercia, she left her native Wessex for her new court. Upon her husband’s death in 911 she led her adopted land to freedom from years of Danish onslaught. Together with her brother, known to history as Edward the Elder, Æthelflæd understood that defense of England required unifying the land rather than fighting the enemy with smaller armies without cohesive organization. Her plans to defeat the Vikings were cunning and even the Danes recognized her value as a military strategist. Her death was mourned by friend and foe alike.

While I learned a bit about Alfred the Great at school, this era later had the same effect on me as did 1066: I was intimidated by the immense detail and perhaps also the amazing import of it upon later times, including our own.

Having now been persuaded out of my “historical comfort zone,” I began recently to read of Æthelflæd and was absolutely captivated. I’ve always understood that love of freedom and a willingness to fight to the death for it isn’t a modern phenomenon, and earlier instances of it solidifies our fight for it today. It isn’t a fly-by-night concept; we fight for something humans have demanded through history, and won even when far less equipped as we are today. There is admiration, even pride, for what was achieved against the odds.

There also is an innate human desire, nay, need, to know from where we come. This is why societies make record of what happens in their time, who they want those to come to know about. Images, engravings, coins, these and more are created and develop, and individuals continue to make new and different works of art, but also consistently return to the previous, for study as well as expansion. What do we see in these images? What was the artist thinking or how do his techniques mirror the times?

This portrait of Æthelflæd, from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220, obviously dates from much later than her lifetime, but a few details might tell us a bit about her status even so many years later. An image found at the British Library’s Online Gallery is accompanied by a caption informing readers that most cartularies have minimal or even no decoration. That this one does makes a statement, and though characterized by its medieval style lacking depth, it nevertheless translates high regard by placing Æthelflæd on a throne and showing her positioned as if issuing directive. Straight backed and regally attired, she is a figure of force even to the modern eye, which on occasion tends to perceive such images as less than serious. There are certainly many more details to be interpreted by eyes more well-versed in art than mine, though my hope is that even this small amount of discussion will spur interest in others about these figures who really are people so like us, and though they lived in such a distant time, they are ours, and we are theirs.

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Sources:

Æthelflæd: Her World: Warring Kingdoms and Viking Raids.” History’s Heroes? East of England Broadband Network, n.d. Web. 22 July 2016.

Johnson, Ben. “Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.” Historic UK. n.p., n.d. Web. 22 July 2016.

Queens Æthelswitha and Æthelflæd, in the Cartulary and Customs Of Abingdon Abbey.” British Library Online Gallery. The British Library Board, 26 March 2009. Web. 22 July 2016.