See below to get your free copy of The Declaration.
Having established himself, with The Prize, as an able and talented author of historical fiction set in Revolutionary America, Lars D.H. Hedbor presents to us more of this era from the perspective of another colonial citizen. This time round the author of The Light sets his tale in New Jersey, where many of the events lead up to General Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware.
Hedbor writes his novels as events that occur alongside the Revolution, putting the spotlight on ordinary people and in the process giving us an authentic glimpse into what life was like for those such as ourselves. While Washington is referenced several times in the course of the story—and the thrill of this is palpable for characters and readers alike—Robert Harris and those around him are the real stars of the show.
Robert is a well-regarded blacksmith in Colonial Trenton, though as a devout Quaker he faces a crushing choice in light of his and his community’s circumstance. As a peace-loving people, the Society of Friends abhor the use of violence, and decline to take part in activities against the king’s rule. However, as Robert predicts, there will come a time when they no longer will be able to ignore the abuses committed against the colonists, as their freedoms, including that of religious observance, will be stripped away.* His own father has spoken with their worship group and suggested Robert be “read out” of their meeting—that is to say, denied participation in Society of Friends’ fellowship.
Creating a Quaker protagonist is a marvelous choice, not merely for the sake of diversity, but also because it reveals the colonies’ complex nature. Having to flesh out the significance of revolutionary activities from a variety of perspectives tells a much larger story of how a small and ragtag army took on a superpower and won. Hedbor also has Quakers in The Light utilize speech that includes such linguistic features as the familiar first-person singular pronoun thou (you at the time being the plural form). This was a familiar address they engage, regardless who they are talking with, to indicate their belief in the equality of all, in opposition to the practice of the time in which thou was used to address one’s social inferiors. An intriguing word in the author’s end notes informs readers of the difference between this and modern-day usage, which exists minus the corresponding verb forms (typically ending in st ).†
“Father, [Robert said angrily, “]thou knowest that the King and Parliament are committing violence against these colonies, in contravention of all commitments to respect the freedoms we are due as Englishmen. How long can it be before they sweep away all of their commitments, and we are forced to attend services in the King’s churches, or to tolerate the keeping of slaves by our neighbors? If they can change their word so easily in one matter, what stops them from all things being malleable in their hands?”
Nevertheless, Peter insists upon Robert’s return to Quaker ways or be read out, and the narrative foreshadows the establishment of the Free Quakers, a schism supportive of the rebels but keen to maintain relationship with their inner light, a metaphor referring to the light and guidance of Christ. In meeting, Quakers meditate upon the Bible, and when they feel the presence of Christ in their heart, they address their peers. Robert’s friend Charles later voices his fear of exclusion from this setting in following their conscience, but also for the group as a whole: “What have we to gain by staying within a community that fails to act in its own defense?” Robert later concurs, wearily stating that “the only peace they are working toward at present is the silent slumber of the grave.”
Hedbor’s dialogue from opposing sides is remarkable as he manages to articulate perspectives from all involved parties, credible in tone as well as word. Though many of us might find for Robert in this situation, Peter and the others’ objections are persuasive, and readers are given an exceptionally effective view to how truly difficult it was to quit one’s own community, and the losses they face no matter which way they turn.
On another level—as if the possibility of war and break from everything one holds dear isn’t enough—Robert faces conflict with a fellow colonial and businessman determined to undermine him. The dual plots run parallel as events carry Robert, friends and family from one instance to the next, not realizing all the while how intertwined it all really is. The author successfully brings us through Robert’s wins and losses, touching on themes such as patriotism, defense, justice, punishment, compassion, responsibility, acceptance and community. Though there are no actual battle scenes, Hedbor illuminates the inner turmoil of one set of individuals, and the warring that occurs within one’s self.
As is true of The Prize, Hedbor crafts a magnificent story that stays fresh, captivates and thrills, with beautiful prose of his own and at least one famous quote recognizable by every American: “Now we have our freedom again, if we can but keep it.” The passions of the characters are acutely felt, and readers sense the rising glory of Charles’s joy, and indeed will share his sentiment that it is an “exciting day to be an American and a patriot”—or anyone at all who cherishes freedom. That the author manages to skillfully pack all of this and more into less than 200 pages is a testament to his ability to write with economy, still telling a story larger than any of us could imagine living.
As a final note pertaining to dialogue and prose, Hedbor’s is amongst the finest. Poetic at times,
He quietly left the house, breathing in the crisp morning air as the world around him seemed to stretch its limbs and welcome another day.
fluid and smooth in its transitions, readers are likely to complete The Light in short order (perhaps excepting young adult readers, to whom I highly recommend this tale as one not likely to be learned in any classroom), while retaining a sense of longing for more of these stories. To that end they shall not be disappointed, as Hedbor has several more of these treasures telling stories of some early inhabitants of our nation, a collection not to be missed.
*For a brief introduction to origins of Quakerism the Colonies, click here.
†You may find a very succinct explanation of modern-day usage of thee and the dilemma that has arisen for Quakers over it here (see “Best Answer”), and very accessible coverage of verb forms here.
About the author ….
What made the American Colonists turn their back on their King, and fight for independence? How were they different from us–and how were their hopes and fears familiar to our own hearts?
These are the sorts of questions that I think are important to ask in examining the American Revolution, and in the pages of my novels, I suggest some possible answers.
My first novel, The Prize, was published in 2011, followed by The Light in 2013, and The Smoke, The Declaration, and The Break in 2014; The Wind was published in 2015. 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.
You can follow and learn more about Lars D.H. Hedbor and his books at his website and blog (where you can also obtain a free copy of The Declaration, Hedbor’s favorite in the Tales From a Revolution series), Twitter and Facebook. The Light may be purchased in paperback (signed copies available upon request), as Kindle, Nook, iBook or Kobo.
See my review for The Prize (Tales From a Revolution: Vermont)here.
Photos courtesy Lars D.H. Hedbor
A free copy of The Light was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review
Image of the Week: Mariana by John Everett Millais
Perhaps it was reading Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” that drew me in, for it is so that many of the topics that interested me as a teenager were happened upon in connection to others I had read about. Rossetti’s brother Dante was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of English artists whose works are recognized by millions not only from the paintings themselves, but also facsimile in the form of greeting cards and other commercial products.
The Pre-Raphaelites, as they were later known, were not fond of the academic style of art taught at the time, which focused on strong light matched by dark shadows. Instead they favored bright color and great attention to detail. My eyes marveled at the massive amount of fine line and brilliant color; it would take days, weeks to “read” such paintings and drink it all in, for consuming it was what one did.
It is difficult to decide which painting could possibly be the best, for the group deliberately avoided any sort of dogma that would inhibit the individual artistic interpretation of its members. Later growing from the original three—Rossetti, Millais and William Holman Hunt—to seven, with the addition of Rossetti’s brother William, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner, the group inspired such artists as Edward Burne-Jones and John William Waterhouse.
Nevertheless, there were some I particularly favored, including Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin, given my lifelong affinity for the wizard. Spotting the image on a book cover led me to being a reader of the novelist A.S. Byatt, and I made the connection after reading Possession (which itself is filled with an abundant amount of detail), that just as reading an entire book gives you a greater appreciation of its story, so too could the taking in of a painting. I recall learning in class about how an image is meant to draw your eye to one portion, a center of interest. For me, however, that point alone left the painting’s story untold; the narrative unfolded as more of the canvas was explored.
That moment came for me when I saw Millais’s Mariana. Apart from its connection to Tennyson’s poem “Mariana,” I admired the subject’s dress; it accentuates her hips, those of womanhood, today often brushed, or worse starved, out of photography and painting. The color is lovely and the soft feel of the velvet extends the sensory effect of the image.
Mariana seems tired, perhaps a bit stiff, as evidenced by her arched stance that indicates a need to stand up and stretch. She is looking outside, perhaps an implication of longing in the days of women’s confinement; ahead is the light, behind her the dark. In this manner the painting points to a distinction between indoors and outside, as well as gloomy days, hinted at by the shadowy background with its bed curtains, perhaps suggesting a life not of literal sleep, but a dull one in which a person exists rather than lives.
She waits for her love, but the passage of time does not bring his arrival and
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary;
I would that I were dead!”
Thickly-crusted flower pots, rusted nails and broken sheds denote a passage of time that Millais also demonstrates with the embroidery Mariana had been doing, though she leaves it sitting on the table in front of her. Neither Tennyson nor Millais indicate any movement in their respective narratives: Mariana is stuck in her painful position, living a life of discomfort and mental anguish.
Though not a singularly cheerful focus, the painting enables the observer to see and have what Mariana cannot: a view to lovely details and opportunity for choice. Are the leaves, for example, symbol of the outdoors that could present a piece of another world to Mariana? Or do they merely represent to her the dying season that she would become part of?
Mariana hears the passage of time in her state of non-movement, with the ticking of the clock. There is a sparrow chirping as well, though at the point she hears more, she has begun to lose her mental agility, and what she sees matches the mood of her auditory abilities: the sunlight represents not cheer, but only something to reveal how
[…] most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers,
the dust serving as one more mocking reminder of the passage of time, and her aloneness within it.
Connected via Tennyson to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Mariana utilizes a Victorian context to present an historical view of women. This connection furthered my own journey through art and literature and through the Rossettis (Dante illustrated Christina’s first volume) the same could be seen, as
Day after day, night after night,
Laura kept watch in vain
In sullen silence of exceeding pain.
She never caught again the goblin cry,
‘Come buy, come buy’;
She never spied the goblin men
Hawing their fruits along the glen:
But when the moon waxed bright
Her hair grew thin and grey;
She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn
To swift decay and burn
Her fire away.
Though sisters Laura and Lizzie experience a completely different circumstance in “Goblin Market” to Mariana, it too reveals historical context within its composition: of women, the author and society at large. (Brief consideration of where one could go with a fuller compare/contrast of Mariana and “Goblin Market.”) At the time, untested as I was in the world, I found it fairly astounding—and intriguing—how one could glean history from fiction of various sorts: art, music, poetry, even, as I learned later, textiles and cuisine. Moreover, one could build from an extant foundation—I mean utilizing more than inspiration. I supposed it could be flippantly stated that Mariana is a sort of Victorian fan art (though of course of a greater quality than most of what we see today), which led me to wonder how long people have been doing this sort of fan art/fan fiction thing.
Which isn’t to make little of such endeavors—people are generally aware of their abilities and shortcomings; they don’t typically engage in fan followings for fame or fortune. They simply recognize their own connections to various art forms and the many practitioners of it, and through them, with varying linkage and results, build the narratives of their own—our own—lives.
As the eighth and final installment in Anna Belfrage’s The Graham Saga series, To Catch a Falling Star found me reluctant to read as well as hungry to devour it. I’d accidentally fallen in with Alex Lind, who beckoned me into her world—both of them, time traveler that she is—when I reviewed number three, The Prodigal Son. It transported me and, knowing I simply had to read all from the start, I set out, smugly comfortable with my fat stack of books, assured of a brilliant journey that would last for some time to come. Reading Falling Star’s opening lines began the end of this long journey.
Isaac Lind should not have drunk quite as much as he did that evening, but flushed by the success of his latest exhibition, he allowed himself to be dragged along, to be toasted in pint after pint of lager.
He caressed the wooden frame of the picture, a depiction of a somnolent courtyard[…] In the middle a fountain, a constant welling of water[…] In olive greens and muted browns, with the odd dash of whites and startling blues, the water spilled over the fountain’s edge to fall in transparent drops towards the ground[…] He tried to break eye contact with the falling water, but now he heard it as well, the pitter-patter of drops on wet stone, the trickling sound of water running through a narrow channel, and there, just where he had painted it, a minute point of white beckoned and promised, entrapping his eyes in a shaft of dazzling light.
Isaac’s mother, Alex, had fallen through a rip in the veil of time when he was just a toddler, and apart from one short encounter, he has not seen her since. His grandmother’s paintings having played a role in these events, this opening then serves as foreboding. Now 32, a veteran time traveler at it again, certainly he may be able to see his mother once more. Apart from the vagaries of shifting through eras, the relationship is complicated by mother and son’s personal history, pertaining both to Isaac’s birth as well as his perception of Alex’s “abandonment” of him. Indeed, she chose to remain in the seventeenth century where she landed, and by the time Isaac falls through once more, she has raised a family, homesteaded in the colonies and seen too much in the passage of her “adopted” time.
Initially, Isaac’s appearance is welcome to those familiar with the saga, for he has not played much of a role in the previous installments, apart from his one “visit,” although Alex does guiltily think of him from time to time. But even new readers fall in quickly, given Belfrage’s masterful shaping of dialogue and events that fill in pertinent bits of information. Isaac is a sympathetic character and from the get-go, readers follow him hopefully.
As these events play out, Alex is experiencing a separation of her own. After years of feuding between her husband, Matthew, and his younger brother, Luke—often with terrible consequences—a truce of sorts has been called and the couple prepare to leave their colonial home, taking only a portion of their family back to Scotland. Having been forced out of their country in the wake of religious persecution, she now had grown roots in her new land and leaving it, and her children, is devastating.
Meeting up with Isaac once more, as well as returning to Scotland, produces mixed feelings within Alex. She must face her guilt and work through the confrontations with her confused and unhappy son, as well as the long-ago losses and compounded homesickness when she sees how far they have grown from Hillview, Matthew’s ancestral home. Her husband begins to bond more closely with Luke, who appears to be trying to sort out their past, and Belfrage give us greater glimpses into Luke’s life as well as his changing perceptions of his world and the individuals who populate it. Her treatment of the younger Graham brother is especially skillfully woven because we are kept in a questioning state: “Exactly how hard do old habits die?” Just when we think things have changed, something else occurs, bringing our assumptions into question, though knowing answers could come from any direction.
The author deals with historical reality with the skillful dexterity she utilizes in the preceding seven books. Religious persecution—in the colonies as well as Scotland—battles and factual historical figures all play a role she does not whitewash, even to the detriment of Alex’s relationship with Matthew. Belfrage moves us between eras and places with a hand so adroit we not only fall into the story, but also follow along with baited breath, around every obstacle and with an eye out for anything that might come between our players and their goals.
Life being what it is in seventeenth-century Scotland, adversity and heartbreak are constant companions. Even here, what characters see and how they see it, wraps us into their destinies, makes us care about them all the more. At times they make the best of it, while on other occasions, not so much: “The night was bitterly cold, the stars strewn like shards of crushed glass on a velvet background.” But so often even the bitter language of their love rises within a bouquet of poetry, reminding us, and perhaps them, that life is too precious not to move forward.
While the story opens with Isaac and moves at one point for a long spell back to Maryland, it really is Alex and Matthew’s tale, with the degrees of separation surrounding them: they are the nucleus, and they move forward with heartbreak and laughter, sharing the story of their loves and their losses, accepting some realities, while left wondering about others. At their now-advanced ages, Matthew and Alex begin to wonder about future Grahams. “Was there anything left of them in the twenty-first century? Would there be someone living here, in their place, and would that person’s name be Graham?” Given the strange way they came together, how exactly would this work? Even this element of the story unites characters with readers, as Belfrage weaves time together in such a fashion that we recognize ourselves in those who came before, and how their choices affect the lives we live today.
Having completed this last of the eight novels of The Graham Saga, it is perhaps easy to overlook—this is how seamlessly Belfrage writes us all together—that the re-reading of the series sets us all upon a circular sort of journey, much like the one Alex possibly faces, when her seventeenth-century self passes on and time marches forward until her original era dawns, and she is born again. Will she re-live it all in the same way we will when we go back to the beginning?
To Catch a Falling Star ties together some loose ends, answers some questions as its creator draws the Grahams’ story to a close. Alex recalls her first night with Matthew on a Scottish moor, and Jacob, her young son, gone too soon. She caresses a carved wooden infant, much as she did the one Matthew had made for her on that moor, as she agonized over her feelings for the baby Isaac. As we—reader and Alex alike—recall the start of her journey, she and Matthew are passing into a new phase of life. “Colour was returning to their world, greys morphing back to greens and browns, reds and blues.” One can’t help but recall the colors Isaac sees just before his second passage, as one world spills into another, both then and now.
It is a difficult moment, for all the remembering, and new questions, about future as well as past, and knowing this is the end of the long journey once embarked upon with such pleasure, aware there was so much more ahead. Alex herself used to say she would make the same choice—to stay—if she were to do it all over again. For all the heartbreak, grief and terror, there is also immense joy, love and bonding of souls in these tales, these “desert island books,” as another author refers to them, and like Alex, we would do it all over again as well. And we will. We will.
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.
See my review for In the Shadow of the Storm, book one in The King’s Greatest Enemy series, here.
This review previously appeared at the blog’s alternate location and a copy of To Catch a Falling Star provided in exchange for an honest review.
Links to previous Anna Belfrage-related reviews and interviews can be found here.
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. She likes to color, cook and is learning to sew.
People 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.
This review previously appeared at the blog’s alternate location and a copy of Whither Thou Goest provided in exchange for an honest review.
Links to previous Anna Belfrage-related reviews and interviews can be found here.
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 ….
…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.
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.
People 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?
Honestly, 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.
I 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?
My 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.
Writing 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.
Links to my reviews for Anna Belfrage’s The Graham Saga series …
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.
Yet 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.
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.
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.
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.
Aimed 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.
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!
All images courtesy Peter St. John
The blogger was provided a complementary copy of Gang Warfare: As War Clouds Tower Sweets Turn Sour in exchange for an honest review.
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.
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.
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?
Note: There are a great variety of colored images of the Flammarion Engraving; simply put its title into your favorite search engine for results.
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.”
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.
About the author…
Author 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.
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!
Update: The draw has been completed and we have a winner. Congratulations to Nataliya, and thank you so much to author Richard Abbott for generously providing a copy of his marvelous novel for our contest!
Far from the Spaceports by Richard Abbott
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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 …
Richard Abbott writes fiction set in two very different places. First, there is science fiction, set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships. The second area is historical fiction set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC.
His first science fiction book, Far from the Spaceports, introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. 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.
The blogger was furnished with a complimentary copy of Far from the Spaceports in exchange for an honest review.
All images courtesy of and/or provided by Richard Abbott.