As many of you already know, I was never a diehard reading-by-the-numbers reader. Although some time ago I began recording my books in a wonderfully thick, green memoranda volume, later switching to an online database, it never occurred to me to count. I loved gazing at all the marvelous book covers, reminiscing about the stories and worlds I’d passed through. It also didn’t hurt that I could keep track of which books I owned, favorites and those I wished to read.
Until recently, though, it never occurred to me to put a number to them, and I admit at first it did strike me as an I-read-more-than-others type of exercise. At the start of 2016, however, when I noticed the Goodreads Reading Challenge, it also piqued my interest, perhaps owing to the gap in between my green-book recording and the recent years’ entries in another online library. I also contemplated that it might be a way to expand my horizons or hone my discipline (though I confess this latter element remained a vague goal).
And so it began with an aim of 50 books.
For much of the year I was ahead of the game, which I could see because of course the Goodreads algorithm notes how much you should be reading each day or week to keep up with your chosen number, and whether you are behind, on target or ahead of the game. As we got closer, perhaps a month or two before the end of the year, I reached my goal and increased it to 60. Other than for numbers, I’m unsure why I did this because, while achieving a goal is said to be such a great thing, this one really did very little for me except perhaps draw me into a competitive mindset I didn’t actually value and one that created a bit of stress.
Now, mind you, I don’t dislike competition in of itself but, having now experienced this reading challenge, it became clearer why this kind of contest doesn’t do much for me. What can I say I achieved by reading 60 books in one year? Bragging rights? The awareness within myself that I could do it? Without begrudging anyone else their goals, I simply didn’t really care all that much—it didn’t make me a more thoughtful reader because I did it faster, nor did I gain any real end aim for it all. I decided in 2017 I wouldn’t bother.
I also left most of the groups I belonged to because I couldn’t keep up with the notifications, most of which I wasn’t interested in, anyway. Let me qualify that: I didn’t have the time to be interested in them. What I did see were considered notes to each other in groups that, had I more time, I would follow up on. Because I didn’t (and likely won’t for the foreseeable future), they began to clutter my mind rather than enrich it, so I had to sweep them off my plate.
And then one day I saw something that caught my eye—I no longer recall if this came from a group that invited me, or one I’d not yet left, or by some other path—and I was immediately interested. Actually I saw many somethings and ended up choosing one, possibly even tailored or trimmed to suit my needs better. It was a group having an ongoing discussion about a reading challenge and, at least in my memory as I sit here recalling it, there were dozens of options, none of which I’d ever considered! They involved getting serious with one’s to be read (TBR) list, step reading (i.e. one book from one genre or series, two from the next, three from the next and so on up to 15), re-reads, and all manner of challenges that I felt really fed the mind, rather than needlessly raced it. Unfortunately for me, I tend to get bogged down by the way all these notifications and messages back and forth in threads is set up, so I never ended up really contributing to the discussion, though I was encouraged and influenced by it.
And so it is I decided to have at it for 2017, though in a different manner in which I approached last year, and that I’ll write about in our next installment of the Reading 2017 series. But let it not be said I got absolutely nothing out of 2016 reads–that would be categorically untrue. Of course, some I liked better than others, or perhaps it is more accurate to say they dug themselves deeper into my reader’s heart. Most were indie, many of which I wrote reviews for and which were part of different series (one, “950: 1066 Remembered,” still ongoing). Some, too, were traditionally published. A great number of them led me in other directions or linked to pathways I’d not yet traveled, or hadn’t in quite some time. Still others brought me to places and figures I found seemed already to be etched in my heart and our further travels together began.
And all that is the real victory.
Click here for the first entry in our Reading 2017 series, where a fellow blogger and I talk about books and blogging. To see what I’m reading now (or at any given time), click here.
Tales From a Revolution: West-Florida The Smoke
by Lars D.H. Hedbor
Clickherefor your free copy of The Declaration (See below for upcoming author appearances)
The American Revolution being part of a larger world war is an idea that many people don’t touch upon, or disagree as to the accuracy of such an association. However, it remains true that many British saw our rebellion as part of French technique to run them down, and Spanish losses during the Seven Years’ War influenced their involvement against the British when the thirteen colonies declared their independence. Surely not forgetting the seizure of Havana, the Spaniards set themselves up to avoid a repeat, later aiming to re-take Florida, which had been divided by the British into east and west.
Thus it is in West Florida that Lars D.H. Hedbor sets The Wind, which opens with a dramatic hurricane scene that nevertheless has a feel of calm, as Gabriel falls from a noisy and chaotic sinking ship, into a quiet bliss, taking in the welcome stillness and warm water.
The whistling of the wind in the rigging, the desperate shouts of men struggling to make themselves heard over the storm, the crash of water against the sides of the ship, all were silenced. Gone, too, were the cracks and thuds of falling spars, the hoarse cries of surprise wrenched from the throats of men as they were swept from the decks, and the deep, muffled boom of the thunder.
The passage has a peaceful effect on readers as well, and it is not difficult to imagine how someone might be lulled into the quiet arms of death by drowning. This introduces The Wind as perhaps the most intense and powerful installment in the Tales From a Revolution series I’ve read thus far, and that’s saying something, given Hedbor’s previously demonstrated and considerable skill in transporting readers to the moment, bringing events to vivid life and enabling an audience to see the era through the eyes of his characters, who are drawn with a deep understanding of the time and locales in which they live. Here the author goes one step further in portraying a Spaniard, as opposed to an American colonist, freshening up an already-lively series with a whole new, larger perspective.
The storm that washes Gabriel onto the shores where he meets Carlotta, preceded by Governor Galvez’s plan through covert operations to aid the American rebels, also brings a number of changes into the lives of the people in its midst. The bold plot is “swept aside now by the unpredictable power of the storm, a factor that [Gabriel] suspected was not doing as much harm to the plans of their enemies upriver.” As Gabriel recuperates in Carlotta’s ramshackle dwelling, she embarks on a search for her husband, Paulo.
As Hedbor moves his story along, his competency as a writer is easily apparent. Enabled by third-person narration, the author skillfully weaves in and out of Gabriel’s point of view and his observations of Carlotta’s emotional state. Shortly after awakening the subsequent morning, “[h]is expression formed the question that she answered with a slow, sad shake of her head.” Following a few words, she “punctuates her conclusion with a deep sigh” and after a quiet conversation, her shoulders shake “with the unrelenting sobs of the bereaved.” The intervening dialogue strikes a balance in their exchange, and the tale has established itself as readers eagerly anticipate learning the fate of Paulo as well as what Gabriel plans for his future.
As the narrative continues and Gabriel’s fate opens before him, Hedbor adds more plotlines, to include murder, siege, betrayal, shipboard battle—and a foray into magical realism. The protagonist feels obligations toward the villagers, but yearns for his sailing life as he strains to cope with the growing conflicts, personal and political.
“It is a matter of our honor and our duties as subjects of King Carlos of Bourbon, in Madrid … [h]e says to fight in his name, and we can do no other.”
Still she scowled at Gabriel, answering, “The King is not living in a hut far from his real home, counting his blessings for every potato that some far-off benefactor deigns to send him …. You ask whether our progress here satisfies me, without ever asking me once whether the goal you work toward is anything that I want. Perhaps I was not interested in re-building these shacks, and waiting for the next storm to blow them into splinters.”
That Hedbor so succinctly and brilliantly speaks from such a wide variety of perspectives, whether within one novel and the opposing ideals of two or more characters, or when examining his other works in which he presents stories from such a diverse sampling of colonists who lived over 200 years before—this is nothing short of awe inspiring. His dialogue and its attendant character gesticulations and facial movements, depicted or observed, the narrative that flows so smoothly, contains such a trove of experience and understanding; it moves with fluidity and grace, despite the great import of its prose and importance within. We take in an entire world with the expenditure of only a few words. This is carefully crafted art, consummate storytelling, and while Hedbor’s previous novels* are radiant, The Wind champions what people have been doing for thousands of years, and fulfills the inbuilt human yearning to be told a story.
As we move closer to the Spanish attempts to wrest back from the British what was taken and divided, we encounter yet more storms, the wind of which carries in what seems like certain fate (see derived hurricane tracks here). Galvez’s forces take their aim at the Siege of Pensacola, the portrayals of which are perhaps the most skillfully executed in the entire novel. Whether inevitable defeat etched out in the scenes sailors witness, anger, upswept optimism or the burden of silent losses, readers are carried on and feel each wave as the pages turn, sense the rise and fall of fortune like the ebb and flow of the sea, smell the salt air that inspires and the longing of separation.
That Gabriel becomes part of a tale for our ears and eyes might be gratifying for him, given that his role—fictional here, though representative of many whose journeys crossed the routes described herein—floundered for quite some time, away from the imagination of the American reader. His aim for a comeback quenches American taste for revivals, and in our quest along with him to attain it, we encounter a story so rich and thrilling, readers will wonder exactly why this account is not more widely known. Thanks to Lars Hedbor, it soon will be, on our own shores and elsewhere.
Lars D. H. Hedbor tells a little about himself and how his novels came to be…
What made the American Colonists turn their back on their King, and fight for independence? How were they different from us–and how were their hopes and fears familiar to our own hearts?
These are the sorts of questions that I think are important to ask in examining the American Revolution, and in the pages of my novels, I suggest some possible answers.
My first novel, The Prize, was published in 2011, followed by The Light in 2013, and The Smoke, The Declaration, and The Break in 2014; The Wind was published in 2015, and The Darkness in 2016.
I’ve also written extensively about this era for the Journal of the American Revolution, and have appeared as a featured guest on an Emmy-nominated Discovery Network program, The American Revolution, which premiered nationally on the American Heroes Channel in late 2014. I am also a series expert on America: Fact vs. Fiction for Discovery Networks, and will be a panelist at the Historical Novel Society’s 2017 North American Conference.
I am an amateur historian, linguist, brewer, fiddler, astronomer and baker. Professionally, I am a technologist, marketer, writer and father. My love of history drives me to share the excitement of understanding the events of long ago, and how those events touch us still today.
When: Sunday June 4 (1:30-5:00 p.m.): Wilsonville Festival of Arts Where: 29600 SW Park Place, Wilsonville, OR The annual Wilsonville Festival of Arts is the Wilsonville Arts & Culture Council signature event. Lars will be meeting with readers and signing books all afternoon.
When: Saturday June 24 (3:45- 5:15 p.m.) Where: Hilton Portland, 921 SW 6th Avenue, Portland, OR Historical Novel Society’s 2017 North American Conference Book Signing. The premiere event for historical fiction in North America, the 2017 HNS Conference is being held in Portland, Oregon. Meet Lars and get your books signed during the book sale at the conference!
When: Friday June 23 (10:30- 11:30 a.m.) Where: Hilton Portland, 921 SW 6th Avenue, Portland, OR HNS 2017 Imagining the American Revolutionary Era Panel [Lars D.H. Hedbor, C.C. Humphreys, Laura Kamoie, Stephanie Dray; moderator: Matt Phillips] Between Outlander, Turn, and Hamilton: The Musical, the American revolutionary era has gained renewed public interest and attention. Join authors established in this era in a discussion of trends and opportunities in American revolutionary fiction, research challenges and advantages, topics and figures ripe for fictionalized treatment, how to incorporate historical sites into your research and promotion, and more.
Photo courtesy Lars D.H. Hedbor
A copy of The Wind was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.
James Cardona’s Community 17 is the dystopian story of a young boy, Isaias, living in the slum segment of a society governed by watchers who enforce their rule on inhabitants by way of constant surveillance and interference. Government mandates include video diaries they are required to keep, recording daily activities and thoughts on such; school attendance referred to as “programming” and other children “program-mates”; and received social mores that frown upon emotion and open communication. Therefore, negative attention might be attracted not only when someone says or does something out of line, but also when failing to exhibit the appropriate amount of enthusiasm for the dictated status quo.
Within this society exist plebs— Isaias’s marginalized group— free thinkers and citizens, this last status of which it is said might be obtained if someone can pass all their tests. Isaias and Jessia secretly plan to make their way to the citizens’ side even though no one who has ever crossed over has been heard from again. Free thinkers position themselves as those who secretly work to loosen the stranglehold the Agency holds on the plebs. However, within this remains the possibility that Isaias and Jessia will be separated.
The novel opens with a suicide bombing, the technique later dismissed, unsurprisingly, by a supporting character: “Paradise. Another one of the free thinkers’ empty promises. If you do their work for them, your family will go to paradise.” These are the bitter words describing the free thinkers, known but not necessarily admired by the entire pleb segment of the population, even if they mutually loathe the Agency, who dictate their lives. Reflecting elements of some insidious governing groups operating in our own real world, readers easily recognize the plebs’ double oppression for what it is, with freebies thrown in to soften or erase the hand of tyranny and hierarchical division manipulated upon the masses.
Cardona cleverly, selectively separates or mingles details of and Isaias’s experiences with free thinkers and the Agency—the group in charge of the bomb investigation—to mirror what the experience must be like for those in his position: thought control that works not only with the ongoing surveillance, but also in creating a sense of self doubt that stalls the taking of action, and who operates behind this subversive atmosphere remains a question until the very end.
The author also holds the reader in thrall with this deliberate introduction of atrocious policies and acts, exposing what is behind the curtain only when he is sure we have digested and moved on from the previous astonishing revelation. This, too, is reflective: It has been said that people will participate in their own oppression if the methods to bind them are introduced slowly and over time. Cardona’s understanding of and presentation in this cautionary tale has a two-pronged fear factor: it is all too frighteningly extreme to be real, yet it is so realistic it should terrify anyone consenting to sign their own agency over to anyone with the means to control it.
Having said that, it should also be noted that Cardona doesn’t come out and say any of this and, in fact, neither do his characters most of the time. Their speech is so stifled that even their own thoughts frighten them.
I guess what bothers me the most is being in the dark and hearing the rats around me. Everyone was used to the rats in Community 17. The garbage attracts them. Who hadn’t woken in the morning to find new rat bites somewhere on their skin? But here, in the dark, in this hole where there is no escape? There’s something terrible about listening to their little feet scurrying toward us … I feel like I’m becoming one of them.
He flinched at the last line, wondering where it had come from. That wasn’t in my head, was it?
Without needing to engage in any manner of preaching, Cardona gives us a disturbingly clear and close-up view to the life of someone whose community is referred to by a number. That Isaias’s character might have been a bit more developed could be related to this, as his community’s overlords prefer to perceive him as a being labeled by a bio-identifier.
As a young adult novel, Community 17 lives up to its storytelling task: engrossing and thrilling, with conflict many teens would have some familiarity with in today’s world, it carries the reader through its scenes and events with language appropriate for teen readers, yet also satisfying for the adult literary palate. The dialogue shows young adults in moments of confusion as well as making some astute observations, all of them very realistic, leading me to marvel at Cardona’s people watching-skills. He has his finger on the pulse of today’s teens, shrewdly observing their interactions with society and how society responds to them.
While Cardona’s writing is concise, well-paced and complex in its plot, he takes the tale one step further by introducing every chapter with several lines of verse, each grouping strong enough to stand on its own. Alternately, they could be read as one storyline that loosely follows Isaias’s journeys, while also running, thread-like, through the novel and providing thoughts, images and phrases reminiscent of biblical accounts of questions and revelations. By virtue of the repetition of such imagery as rocks, water and pools, we call up such writings as Isaiah, who speaks of “a sure foundation” (28:16) and “water [that] shall burst forth in the wilderness” (35:6), water called forth from rocks for Israel, who doubted the veracity of God’s word.
As Isaias, too, hears “truth” from those who position themselves as all-knowing, creating uncertainty as to who he can really believe and what their motives are, he progresses through literal and figurative tunnels, growing more ill as each day goes by, certain he will be captured at any moment.
Only there is shadow under this red rock.
Come in under the shadow of this red rock,
And I will show you something
Different from either
Your shadow at morning standing behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Here is poetry that stirs the soul, drawing one’s mind into it as we search, as Isaias searches, seeking a cure for this afflicted community, Isaias’s sickness, to find Bethesda, “a pool among the rock,” the waters of which would wash away all that ails such a society and its inhabitants, who currently survive on the navigational skills that lead them through a labyrinth of duplicity.
As the novel leads readers to its dramatic conclusion, questions still remain, and Cardona gives the sense Isaias knows more than he lets on to those around him as well as readers, and the author pulls off this withholding impeccably. As elusive as the truth its characters seek, Community 17 is the book one tries to read in one sitting, that they take with them when leaving the house: its layers are probing, addicting, spiced with mystery, deceit, loyalty, romance and backstabbing. It is compelling, with a silence that will follow the end as readers quietly close the book and contemplate its effect.
James was born in Lorain, Ohio, and received his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Delaware with a minor in Religious Studies. He also studied briefly at Penn State University. He spent six years in the U.S. Navy and served during the first Gulf War. He has worked in factories and food service, as an electrician, a teacher, supervisor and engineer. But like many creatives, his heart beats most strongly when it is full of the magic of building something new. Besides writing, he can be found drawing, painting, writing computer code, tinkering with electronics and building robots. Prior to his knees turning creaky he was an avid runner, completing about fifty or so races at the half marathon distance or greater.
His debut novel was Gabriella and Dr. Duggan’s Dimensional Transport Machine, the first book in the NuGen series. In 2013, he wrote the children’s science fiction-holiday book Santa Claus vs. The Aliens, followed by first in The Apprentice fantasy series, Under the Shadow of Darkness. In 2015, he penned three new books. Gabriella and the Curse of the Black Spot, second in the NuGen series and The Dragon’s Castle, second in The Apprentice series. Finally, in 2015 he wrote something completely different, Community 17, a whirlwind, dystopian science-fiction adventure. In 2016, James released Dragon Hunters, a science fiction-fantasy mashup of a story, and The Night Wolf, a prelude tale set in the world of the apprentice series.
He is currently working on The Worthy Apprentice and Into Darkness, which are parts three and four of The Apprentice series respectively. He is also writing something fresh and new, a science fiction book tentatively titled Rebirth.
To see much more about the multi-award winning author James Cardona, including more biographical information and history, see his fun, informative and intriguing website. You can also follow him at Goodreads and find his books at Amazon and Amazon UK.
Photos courtesy James Cardona
A free copy of Community 17: A Dystopian Novella was provided in order to facilitate an honest review.
“The rencontre took place early in the evening under a storm-darkening sky, with just enough daylight remaining to preclude the accidents that plague swordplay at dusk and in darkness. The wind had risen, bringing with it the chill of river and sea; this, along with the approaching sunset, and the location on the outskirts of the city, kept witnesses where they belong, that is to say, away.”
So starts Benerson Little’s debut work of fiction, Fortune’s Whelp, in smooth follow-up to the pirate historian’s previous works of non-fiction. Enclosed by approaching night in a violent scenario, Scotsman Edward MacNaughton plunges fast forward through land and sea adventure and into discovery of an attempt to assassinate King William III. As the Jacobite plot’s date draws nearer, MacNaughton must identify who around him conspires for their own ends or toward political gain, willing to take him down in the process—and this includes the women he finds himself involved with.
From the opening scene through to the conclusion of Fortune’s Whelp, Little’s narrative wraps itself around us as we are glued to the edges of our seats—miss our bus stops, lose track of bedtime, leave dinner to burn—with a tension so thick it preoccupies us even after the fearsome moments have passed.
Perhaps it is MacNaughton’s magnetic draw of intrigue, or the historical details, mundane and enthralling alike, that Little weaves through his tale—the elements of reality that haunt the reading and our tendency to read rapidly, as if fast-flipping pages might get our protagonist more swiftly away from those who track him—that amp up the tension and render this novel one not easily surrendered to the tasks of daily life. This anxiety-provoking is exacerbated by Edward himself, who frequently confirms reader suspicion with acknowledgements of perilous moments, such as when he “sensed dangerous eyes upon him.”
MacNaughton is written as a hybrid of questionable romantic hero and admirably devilish villain, and he does indeed doubt or reprimand himself as he moves about in his world as described by his creator in a fashion that brings us as close as we could get to it: this age is described so in detail, though without relying on detail description. Instead, elements stitch themselves in and around all aspects of MacNaughton’s movements, from an appearance of Spanish brandy to his mockery of a naval officer (“doubtless your mother paid for your commission”) and his progression-via-instinct through a series of streets and alleys when attempting to find while simultaneously avoid an enemy. We are given glimpses and understanding as to how the era operates, with a toss of humor here and there, for relief as well as to show another side of the time.
“I’ve seen that bugger around here before; he talks a lot but won’t pay for anything.”
Edward gave the woman the coin. His reason suggested this was part of a trap; his instinct considered it unlikely. In either case, he was on his guard against two potential enemies.
“Come with me.”
“You’ve just tipped me the wink, and I’ve paid, haven’t I? To Walter Lane, then to a place we’ll be safe from his eyes.”
“If you want to dock, it’ll cost you more.”
“Pardon me, mistress, but you’re pricing your wares a bit high, aren’t you?”
“I’m worth every penny and shilling of a guinea,” she replied indignantly.
“I believe you,” Edward said sincerely.
Little’s narrative is written at such a pace that we seem at times to make haste along with MacNaughton, with a smoothness that carries us along, always wanting to keep going. Transitions are seamless and one scrape or another all are linked by events and associations, so we clearly see the story is much more than a series of adventures in the life of any man: MacNaughton has goals in mind, if only he can safely make his way to them before plots and pitfalls find him first.
MacNaughton is his own man though he is also, as the novel’s title indicates, fortune’s whelp. Bred on adventure and fed with swashbuckling plot twists, our protagonist frequently courts fate even as he faces down his enemies, be they actual persons or probing anxiety in a darkened alley. Daring, energetic and skilled, he is nevertheless written with flaws that could easily brand him as real as the historical figures who make appearances in Fortune’s Whelp.
Any reviewer would be remiss to ignore the fight scenes in this novel: thrilling and of the nail-biting variety because we know MacNaughton isn’t an always-victorious two-dimensional character, Little sets them up so expertly that upon commencement we hear the clash of weapons, smell the salt in the air, gain our footing as we establish purchase within the skirmish, right along with the characters.
Edward watched him warily; the man was surely full of tricks. He might pull a pistol, hurl dirt or snuff in his eyes, or dart his sword at him.
“Behind you, sir! The watch!” the man shouted at Edward.
Edward turned his head just enough to draw the man’s attack, then, as it was dark and difficult to follow a blade with the eyes, made a round parry, found the blade, and thrust swiftly. Sensing his adversary’s counter-parry, he turned his sword hand up, allow it angulate around his adversary’s parry, and, covering with his left hand as he thrust, hit his adversary just below the right collarbone.”
The author not only provides explanations for those unfamiliar with sword fighting terminology, but also does it in a manner in which readers can choose for themselves how often to stem the flow of reading to refer to the notes, or not to at all. Following his conclusion, Little adds several sets of notes, including those on swordplay with an alphabetical listing of particular terms and their meanings (separate from the glossary, which cuts down on all-over-the-map searches). It is great fun to act out the fights, even at a slower pace, to have a greater appreciation of what MacNaughton is up against.
Many books, perhaps even most, reveal to readers more information upon subsequent reads and re-reads, and it is rewarding when we realize these small surprises. Fortune’s Whelp is one in which readers finish, close the book and know ahead of time this is in store for them. With so much history written within a novel of intrigue, and daring revealed within the history, there is an instinctive understanding that this is a book to re-read, and this reviewer answered that summons—interestingly enough even though Jacobite plotting and seventeenth-century history isn’t generally where my interests reside.
For those who love a great tale, written with engaging and realistic characters who call you to their side, for seafaring types and landlubbers alike, Fortune’s Whelp is a compelling and captivating novel whose fate it is to draw readers over and over again.
About the author …
Born in Key West, Florida, Benerson Little grew up variously on all three US coasts. Following his graduation from Tulane University, he entered the US Navy and served as an officer for eight years, most of them as a Navy SEAL. Upon completion of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training in 1983 (BUD/S Class 121), he was assigned first to SEAL Team THREE, then to SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team ONE. After leaving the Navy in 1989, he worked as a special operations and intelligence analyst, including for the Naval Special Warfare Strategy and Tactics Group and for a private intelligence collection and analysis firm, among other professions.
He now works as a writer and consultant in several areas, with an emphasis on maritime and naval issues, including maritime threat and security, and especially maritime history. He is considered a leading expert on piracy past and present, and is a recognized expert on pirate tactics and anti-piracy operations throughout history. He has appeared in two television documentaries on piracy, has advised on others, and is the STARZ premium cable network’s historical consultant for its Black Sails series, currently filming its third season. He often advises film-makers, novelists, historians, biographers, genealogists, treasure hunters, journalists, and others.
You can learn more about author Benerson Little’s books, news, writing and more at his informative and fascinating website, Facebook, Twitter and his blog.
Author photo courtesy Benerson Little.
A copy of Fortune’s Whelp was provided to the blogger in order to produce an honest review.
Today we are joined by author Paula Lofting, whose debut work, Sons of the Wolf, recipient of the B.R.A.G. Medallion, is a fantastic introduction to 1066 for those unfamiliar with the year or its significance. Those more schooled in this era will see in the novel as well a story that brings to life the people and proceedings of the time in a manner that revitalizes one’s appreciation for what led to these events, and the individual experiences of those who lived them.
Starting in September of 2016 we began a journey through memories via reviews, poetry, interviews, excerpts, even visiting with a real historical character and more. As the year drew to a close our focus pulled back and we began, much like those whose lives and changes we remember, to carry on, as it were, take in other elements of life and move forward. But they never leave our awareness, these people and events, and for many something akin to a scar in the soul remains.
Very much like our forebears, we need to make sense of the pain and what has happened, often without much of the necessary information, so we gather what we have and tell. We fill in gaps to the best of our abilities, with imagination and understanding of evidence as well as realities of the world, and pass it all on to the next generation. This is as our ancestors themselves would have done; what is different now is that it typically is transferred to media in the form of books, plays, movies, art and song–and by the many rather than the few commissioned individuals.
Paula Lofting continues this tradition, today sharing with us details about what led her to this path, educated guesses regarding missing details, and her role in carrying on the tradition of telling.
Hello, Paula Lofting, and good day!
Hi, Lisl, thanks for having me on your fabulous blog.
Oh, it’s fantastic to see you here! So far you have published the award-winning Sons of the Wolf and then The Wolf Banner, with a third in the works. Could you tell our readers a bit about your first two novels?
Ok, so Sons of the Wolf is a series, which starts with the book of its name. I got the inspiration for Sons after reading a book by David Howarth called 1066: The Year of the Conquest. Mr. Howarth told us a story through the eyes of his own village, as it occurred 1,000 years ago. It follows the fortunes of a thegn, Wulfhere, who Howarth mentions in his book as having been the landowner back then. He owned this little village called Horstede (now called Little Horsted) and surrounding land, and owed service to the king for it.
Through Howarth’s descriptions of daily life in an 11th century homestead, I conjured up a story in my head, and just had to get it onto paper! Book I of Sons of the Wolf starts when the thegn is returning home from a battle in Scotland with his fyrdsman, and the reader is introduced to his family, of which there are plenty. We also see historical characters: Harold Godwinson and his brothers, King Edward the Confessor and Harold’s sister Edith, the queen, plus the very lovely Edith Swanneck. The premise of the book is to show the events that eventually lead to the Battle of Hastings, so there is conflict, as well as love, betrayal and a bloodfeud involved.
In the second book, The Wolf Banner, we have three threads emerging. The main one follows Wulfhere and his brood as their lives are very much changed by the bloodfeud that impinges it. We have Earl Harold, who is basically running the country for the king by now, and we see the torment he suffers in not being able to help his younger sibling and nephew, both of whom are held hostage by the duke of Normandy. The reasons being, that if Harold was to demand their release, it would open a whole jar of worms that would spell danger for England.
The third thread belongs to a character called Burghred, who was supposed to be only a minor character from the first book, but refused to be held back and stole a storyline for himself.
Sons of the Wolf starts in 1054 and by the end of The Wolf Banner, we are in 1059. The next book, Wolf’s Bane, will cover the years from 1059-63 or 64, I’m not sure yet.
Did publishing your first book tweak your process of writing? Did you make any changes to how you set about doing things?
I can’t really answer this [laughs]. I don’t have a clue.
You’ve spoken of wanting to write a book since you were a small girl. What was an early experience in which you learned that language had power?
I think perhaps in primary school. I always felt like I was not one of the in-crowd, was never chosen for anything. I wasn’t a poor student, but I wasn’t an exceptional student. I felt like a nonentity until I really got into composition lessons. Here I found my forte and the teacher would read them out, give me top marks and always complemented my writing.
Secondly, I realised in my own childish way, the power of language when I found myself spending hours at the library looking at the books and spending the whole weekend wrapped in a book—and when I say ‘in a book,’ I mean I was there, inside it. Nothing had ever excited or drawn me in like a book. Language has the power to provide an escape route, somewhere to go to when the world is all too much. Now, as I write, that power has taken it to another level.
Your bio includes mention of a few authors who influenced your imagination. Did any of their works lead you to pre-1066 as the era you wanted to write about? Had you already chosen before you came across the real Wulfhere?
Not entirely sure, possibly Rosemary Sutcliffe; however, her books are mostly post Roman, early Romano Celt. But probably there is some influence there. I remember reading the fabulous Hope Muntz story of The Golden Warrior and being immersed in that as a teenager. I’m sure that I was very much taken by Michael Wood in the early 80s; his TV programme In Search of the Dark Ages was very influential.
I also remember my father teaching me about kings and queens and going through the Anglo-Saxon ones, too. But a lot of this became consigned to the corners of my memories as my life progressed and this era wasn’t reawakened in me until my early forties, when I found myself at a Hastings reenactment and suddenly the switch went on again. Ever since, I’ve immersed myself in Harold’s story and the events of that time. I’ve found it’s almost as if I was there, or one of my ancestors was and that it could be in my DNA, as someone suggested.
How did/do you research your main character and his era?
Fortunately, there was not much to know about Wulfhere; what is recorded is just his property and land holding, and his name. I would have loved to have known more about him, but at least the not knowing means I can have free reign with him.
Now what I do have to research (it’s an ongoing task) are the events of the time, so that means I need books, as many as I can get my hands on, primary and secondary sources. It’s very important to try and get as many primary sources as possible, because there is not a lot of written work available for this period, and so one must gather what one can.
Thirdly, I have always had a strong belief that to write good historical fiction, one needs to be able to create the world as close as possible. I didn’t want to make anachronistic mistakes in regards to housing, diet and clothing, or place chimneys in stone houses when they had hearths in the middle of the floor in halls made from timber or wattle and daub. And so I joined a living history group and I think that I have a good handle on how people lived in the 11th century, and even know what it’s like to be faced with a screaming enemy running towards you as you stand in a shieldwall, shoulder to shoulder. I’ve fought with a spear and tried my hand at a sword, so I have some idea of what it was like. The best thing is being killed, sliced to death with a sword or an axe, and being able to live to tell the tale.
Do you feel you owe anything to the real people upon whom you base your characters? If so, what? If you were—whether through time travel or some other method—to meet Wulfhere of Horstede, what would you say to him? What do you think he might say to or ask of you?
In answer to your first question, I believe it’s important to get the facts as right as is possible. I wouldn’t take liberties like others have done with real characters’ lives. For example, I read a book about Hereward, where Harold’s character (a nasty black-guard) kills Edward the Confessor by smothering him on his deathbed. There was no author’s note to explain, and there is no evidence to say that he did this. It’s one thing to believe something has happened, but to defame someone’s character by accusing them of a murder there is no evidence for, is not on, in my honest opinion.
So, in looking at the sources regarding the characters in my book, I hope to have come up with a fair account of their characters. To do this I look at what were their deeds, what do the sources say about them as people and so on. In this period there isn’t a lot, but what has been written about Harold does not equate to a murdering evil git. That’s not to say he was perfect. No one is. So you have to try and get a balance when writing about a factual person. Most good people are known to do bad things once in a while and most bad people are known to have done good things once in a while.
With Wulfhere and his arch enemy, Helghi of Gorde, they are just names in the sources, so I have little to go on, but for the sake of the story I feel I can take liberties because they are only footnotes in history. And if I were to go back in time and speak with my Wulfhere, I would probably give him no end of a hard time for all the silly stupid scrapes he gets himself into. He would probably tell me it was my fault anyway, for writing the script.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? Was there any scene in particular that was most difficult to write?
I don’t think I have too much of a problem writing about men. I haven’t come across anything yet where I might have had to consult a guy to find out how a man might react in a certain situation. Maybe I’m just in tune with my masculine side.
As a fan of your Sons of the Wolf series, I’ve grown attached to Wulfhere and his family, and your narrative has taken us readers through their loves, losses, victories and so on. As we get closer to 1066, can you tell us anything that might be upcoming?
Cripes, how do I answer this without giving out spoilers? Hmm. Ok, let’s summarise what I have in my head:
Someone will fall in love with someone whose station is too far above them
Someone else will fall in love with the wife of someone else
There will be more conflict between the two families of Horstede and Gorde
There’s bound to be a death or two
Harold gets a new companion in his houseguard
There is a rocky road ahead for one young couple
And someone has a nervous breakdown
Do you have an idea how many installments you might end up with in the Sons of the Wolf series? Or is that already mapped out?
I have no idea but I can say that there could be seven altogether. I just hope that I can think of more titles with Wolf in them.
Will Harold feature more prominently in the novels as we move toward that fateful year?
Yes, he definitely will. His story must be told and he basically is 1066 personified.
What do you believe were Harold Godwinson’s strongest character traits and weakest flaws? Were these the result of individual MO or more aligned to standards of the time?
Until post-Conquest, you will not find much in the way of anything bad written about Harold. This could be because his family had so much influence in the country. I think probably his strongest trait was his skill in diplomacy. He handled two incursions by the Welsh king and his English ally, Alfgar, without causing a war and would rather use diplomacy than get heavy and call for battle. However, his reluctance to invoke a civil war on behalf of his brother, Tostig, was for the wider good of the kingdom. Paradoxically, it was to play a part in his downfall. Alienating his own brother was not good for Harold.
Probably the worst thing Harold ever did was lay waste to Wales in 1063. But Harold could not have been expected to do anything else, really. The Welsh king had been a pain in the butt for too long and now with his ally, Alfgar, dead, Harold waived his diplomatic side and stormed into Wales to devastate it. Thus, Gruffudd lost his head, and Harold gained a new wife. And this laying lands to waste was not uncommon in medieval times, but given the fact that Harold had restrained his hand on a number of occasions, I think he was less of a war monger than some other kings of the period.
If you had the power to change any historical events, such as who won at Hastings, would you? Why or why not?
I would love to be able to change this, but actually, I’m glad that I can’t. Mainly because I think that it ended how it was supposed to end. If that day had ended any differently, all of history would be changed. I’m not sure that would be a good thing. Things might have turned out worse for the world, not that it could get much worse….
As it is, Harold has left his mark in history as the ‘good guy’ and William left his mainly as the bad guy who committed atrocities against the English. If he were alive today he would have been a war criminal.
That’s important to point out. What did you feel or think when you first began to learn about 1066, and how might you have grown to feel about it, or perceive it over time?
I didn’t realise that I would be so obsessed by it. There is something about this era that really gets to me. It started out as an interest and now I live, eat, and breathe it. I was talking to Helen Hollick last year at the Historical Novel Society conference and she mentioned that she believes it could be in her DNA, that perhaps the emotion she feels around what happened on that day is embedded in her blood, passed down to her by an ancestor who was there. It kind of makes sense. Perhaps that is the only way to explain the deep, intense passion I feel every time I read about it, or learn more about it.
I must say, it’s really hard not to dislike William of Normandy, even though I have tried to be objective about the events of that year. But when I looked into the Harrowing of the North, which he caused, and in which tens of thousands were said to have perished as a direct consequence and following the devastation, I decided to let go and accept that actually, I cannot be objective about something so heinous, and it was thought of as such by his contemporaries. I’m not saying that Harold was the perfect king and a saint, but William seems to have been so authoritarian and devoid of all conscience. It was not a good time to be English and one of the lower classes.
What would you say to people who either express no interest in who won the Battle of Hastings, or those who side with William?
Read Marc Morris’ brilliant and objective account, The Norman Conquest. It gives factual evidence of his brutality without taking sides. He also points out that the English nobility could be just as brutal towards each other (bloodfeuds were rife in England at that time, especially in the north), and that the Normans rarely killed another noble. However, William didn’t mind maiming and destroying the lives of lesser men.
The other thing I would say is, the Witan chose Harold, ok there was no doubt some manipulation going on there, but if I had been around at the time, there’s no way I would want the untried boy, Edgar, inexperienced as he was, on the throne. Nor would I want William of Normandy ruling my country, giving land to his friends, and disinheriting my fellow countrymen. I would want a tough Englishman to fight for me and my rights, and at that time, Harold was the man.
William had no blood link to the throne. Nor apparently, did Harold; however, having no blood link and being English was better than having no blood link and no ties to England. Harold had spent four months with the guy in Normandy and only escaped with his life when he was forced to promise on oath to serve William as his vassal. He knew the damage William could inflict. And that’s one reason he wanted to be king, I believe. The evidence is there. William was not good for England or Englishmen.
Do you think there could have been any way William might have been less cruel to the English people? Was it his upbringing that played a role in his treatment of the conquered?
William did have a terrible childhood. He suffered many traumas, his father died, his life was in danger, his guardian was killed whilst he was asleep in the same room. He was forced to hide amongst peasants when his life was in danger. And then later, there were those who would force him out of his duchy if they could. So yes, it must have affected him. I think the experiences that William had in his youth played a profound part in his psyche and his behavior towards those who would oppose him. He had to be tough. And tough, he was. These are the reasons why he was like he was, but they are not excuses for the terrible treatment he doled out.
What would you say, if able to communicate with them, to the people who suffered under William? Do you believe it matters to them whether or not we remember the details of their experiences?
I think if I were in that situation, I would want the world to know, to remember what happened to me and my people, just the way that the people of Rwanda, for example, wanted their story to be told. The only difference is that in the 11th century the only media were the chronicles and half of these would not have realised that they existed, but I suspect they would want their story told by word of mouth, just the same. I’d like to think that they appreciate that all this time after, someone is feeling their pain.
Now for some fun questions!
What are two things you cannot do without?
My ipad and computer.
What website do you visit daily?
[Laughs] Has to be FACEBOOK!
What do you do when you have to queue up?
Huff and puff and mutter obscenities under my breath.
What is your favorite store?
Cripes, I dunno. Anything with books in it. I’d love it if we had a huge Barnes & Noble like you have.
Which season do you resemble the most?
Autumn, nice and matured and full of flavor [laughs].
Paula Lofting, thank you so very much for joining us today as we look back 950 years in our remembrance of 1066 and its enormous impact on English and world history.
Thank you, Lisl, it’s been a pleasure!
About the author …
Paula has always wanted to write. Since she was a little girl, coming home from school to sit at the table with her notebook and write stories that buzzed around in her head. A prolific reader, she loved nothing better than to spend weekends with a book in her hand. Earliest influences such as Rosemary Sutcliffe, Leon Garfield, Charles Dickens, C.S.Lewis, inspired an interest in history. It became her lifelong wish to one day write and publish a book, but not being able to type, and having no funds for a typewriter to learn on, this ambition was reluctantly put on hold.
With the advent of PCs and a need to retrain and use a computer, this old ambition was stirred and she decided to rekindle her love of books and writing at the grand old age of 42. At this point, she had reached a turning point in her life and studied nursing, and also decided to write the book she had promised herself one day she would write.
Her debut novel, Sons of the Wolf, was first published with the assistance of SilverWood Books in 2012. More recently she has republished it with her new publishing company, Longship Books, in Kindle. A new paperback version will be published by June. It is a story set in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of England and the first in the Sons of the Wolf series, about this amazing time in English history.
She has always admired the works of Sharon Penman and Bernard Cornwell, Edith Pargetter and Mary Stewart, amongst many others. History is a great love of hers and her interest in the subject goes beyond that of the keyboard. She also enjoys Anglo-Saxon re-enactment with Regia Anglorum, also a great source of research for her writing. Paula says: “Write for enjoyment, write for yourself, regardless of what others say you should; for if you don’t write what you love, then how can you expect others to love what you write.”
Follow author Paula Lofting and keep up with her news, including her magnificent new blog and impressively researched and written entries about 1066, as well as the upcoming Wolf’s Bane, third in the Sons of the Wolf series. You can find her at her blog, Twitter and Facebook.
Note: This post has been updated to replace the previous cover of Sons of the Wolf with its updated design.
Back in June of 2016 I had a lovely conversation with Stephanie Hopkins, of indieB.R.A.G. and Layered Pages, one which contemplated different angles of the reading experience. I decided to re-blog it here for the benefit of my and other readers, and merge it into a series focused on my progression of reading between that year and this new one.
To get us started, Stephanie’s interview elicits a few responses that will be re-considered in future entries of the series, some answers or ideas of which I already have thought about, others that have yet to arise. Here’s how our summer chat went.
Lisl, why do you blog?
I’d like to say it’s a way for me to journal without actually having to use pen and paper—I’m often so lazy about writing in an actual book, despite loving the idea of it. The flaw with that answer, however, is that I don’t blog much that people might perceive as journal-y.
When I first considered the idea of a blog, I knew I wanted whatever I blogged to help me think more deliberately, to articulate ideas rather than experience them instinctively and without further growth. And I wanted to write. I’d always loved reading and writing, and research and writing analytical papers in university to this day remains one of my happiest set of memories. I wanted to do something that picked back up on that.
A few years ago I started to write book reviews and found the challenges of doing this led me from idea to idea and also kept my mind active, always contemplating something or other, always learning. It kept me looking for meaningful angles, and this is where my training with close readings came in, something we did in our literature classes with a particular professor. I also became a little more confident about stepping outside my comfort zones in terms of reading material, and I more easily began to see threads even in genres that before I might not have chosen quite so quickly.
I’m also happy to say that writing for my blog, even when 80% of what I end up with never gets published, has helped me toward my goal of writing creatively—this had been much more challenging to me than analytical writing—and has also led to many rewarding partnerships and alliances, including being a part of an indie writers’ community where we help each other.
How many books a year do you read?
Well, I never really thought about counting until the end of last year. I’ve had a Goodreads account for a while but wasn’t really recording anything on it apart from remembering to add a book here and there that I wanted to read. Then when 2016 began I saw the reading challenge and decided to pick a number and aim for it. To be perfectly honest, I have zero interest in competing with anyone for numbers—there will be loads of people who read many more books than I, and that’s absolutely OK with me.
What I saw in the challenge was a chance to add a little more discipline to my life, even in a smaller fashion. I also liked the idea of looking back at my reads last year, and thought it would be nice to have a set of steps leading me from one attraction to the next as 2016 progresses; at the end I might see a pattern of thought or recall events surrounding those choices—a bit of nostalgia.
What are your favorite genres?
Phew, that’s a bit rough! From childhood I would say anything to do with King Arthur and Merlin, but I also developed a serious interest in history and historical fiction, especially the Wars of the Roses era. But I also am a longtime fan of ghost stories and like to read accounts of travel around the world, especially humorous ones. I’m quite fond of other genres as well, but I think perhaps these are my favorites. You might get a slightly different answer next month!
Where are the different places you read?
I’m not sure if you’ll believe this, but I often read standing up. Because I never really paid attention until recent years, I’d assumed it resulted owing to discomfort following an injury in a car accident. I also have this crack about the designers of chairs hating humans—so many seats are so uncomfortable! My mother, however, says I was always a restless reader.
I do adore an overstuffed chair, though, and sometimes I’ll curl up in the corner of my sofa, and I especially love this if it’s snowing or raining like mad outside, which I can see from that spot.
What thrills you the most about reading?
There are some characters who completely speak to me, and Merlin was one such. Though I had books from an early age (albeit not a lot at first), my mother told me tales of Merlin, so I didn’t actually read about him until later. Once I did start to, it was as if he had been waiting for me and I chased him everywhere. Becoming part of his world when I picked up a book made me feel thrilled and at home at the same time.
When a character gets that close to me, I feel a crucial part of my soul being filled and it is very rewarding. Naturally I want to write my experiences, and that leads to further discovery of that character as well as myself.
I want also to say that now is a really marvelous and remarkable time for storytellers and readers alike: the independent and small publishing community, as I have discovered, is simply chock full of tales so thrilling and magical and thought provoking it takes your breath away. Imagine reading book after book after book that wow you enough to either write about them or tell people, “You must read this!” Humans have an instinctive desire to be told stories, and this market, unfortunately ignored by traditional publishers (and their loss!), is filling that coded desire in a big way.
Name your favorite childhood book.
Oh, wow, it would have to be The Crystal Cave. I’ve read that book so many times I’ve lost count. But I also was a fan of Nancy Drew Mysteries and Trixie Belden, another mystery series I first discovered on my auntie’s old shelves.
What is the first thing you consider when buying a book?
Ha! The one thing we are always told not to—the cover!!! Whether it’s a book I spot in passing or a title I deliberately seek out, I always examine the cover, perhaps as an attempt to get an advance glimpse inside that world.
In a story, what is the most important aspect of that story?
Well, is has to be believable, have a sympathetic character and a riveting plot. Even non-fiction should capture me, so to speak, as opposed to being just a lot of fact-filled pages. You might be interested to know I recently re-visited this very question, combined with a bit of walking down memory lane, and decided to write about it, which you can find here.
Many thanks to Stephanie Hopkins and indieB.R.A.G. for being one of the rewarding partnerships in my reading and writing experience!
Someone once told me that releasing a first book is akin to hanging one’s soul on a meat hook in a display window for all to see (something like that), and I had to admit that was a pretty good assessment. So when I first received Rossandra White’s debut work, Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog, I remember thinking it was rather brave of an indie author to release a memoir as her first book.
But White carries her own in this fantastic tale that opens to the morning rhythm of a battered relationship, related in a wry tone that immediately grabs the reader with its spirit, honesty and affection. She likes when she has her semi-estranged husband’s company in the morning and the dogs Sweetpea and Jake’s loveable antics are on display, though the couple’s opposing perspectives continue to drive them apart.
Then, just like that, she comes home from work that evening to a note that reads: “Gone to Mexico. Adios.” But it’s happened before. She isn’t shocked. What gets her is the non-conversations they have as she tries to understand.
“Okay, so are you finally going to tell me what’s going on?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why do you keep doing this?”
And so the author brings us on a trip down memory lane via stories set in Laguna Beach and her native South Africa, acquainting us to her past experiences with so many of those who have been important parts of her life, including her husband. She tells it like it is, accepting blame as well as assigning. Her style is spare, words economical, yet they are powerfully packed with emotion and layers of element that beckon us to follow her, then wollop with detail that springs up seemingly from nowhere.
Within minutes the three of us were walking down our rustic dead-end street toward Laguna Canyon Road and the beach, the dogs trailing their leashes. I had to pass Larry’s green van, dubbed the “Love Cage,” parked in the vacant lot next door, a forlorn sight without the battered VW beside it. That van was where we first made love. It was our motel on wheels for a trip up to Northern California ten years earlier to reunite with his two youngest adult daughters, missing for seventeen years after his ex-wife kidnapped them.
Of course, this suddenness reflects many of White’s own experiences, which she deftly analyzes, looking for clues pointing toward the reasoning behind different events, and succinctly illuminating what she finds. In this manner she transports us through episodes, including with her mentally and physically handicapped brother, Garth, back in South Africa and her beloved pets, one of whom, Sweetpea, is diagnosed with a terminal illness.
The book’s compact size is a testament to White’s skill in storytelling, which for some other authors takes a much larger space to do. And it isn’t only economy, but also how she navigates two parallel threads that run linearly until they meet, also representing a time when she herself made the necessary choices regarding addressing the issues once and for all, including her own role within them.
White’s honesty is searing, but the compassion inherent within—from the author but also others, including her husband—and her writing style brings readers into the story as we journey through the years from childhood and miles of South Africa to California. We are so connected with her telling that we shudder or rejoice at her triumphs, embarrassments, fears and achievements, even smaller ones that reflect her coming into her own.
The contradiction reflected in White’s title—the holding fast while still letting go—is a state of affairs the author lives with and we see through most of the work: conversations that say nothing, living apart in the same house, attention weighted with neglect. This plays out in other ways as well, such as her own dedication across thousands of miles, and as she begins to recognize a great deal more self-sufficiency in those she is tasked with caring for, the bearers of whom provide her, in their own unique ways, with a sort of comfort in return.
It is telling to say that the day I received the book in the mail I read five chapters on the way home. The compelling narrative finds in readers a little bit of who each of us are as we seek out our own paths. White subtly deconstructs the past, her journey laden with frankness and humor as her language wraps around us, settling in comfortably in its ability to mirror our own experiences, at the same time being very much her own story. Punctuated with photos giving glimpses into her childhood, as well as matching stories throughout the book, Loveyoubye is a story of growth and forgiveness, an examination of the meaning of love and how to care for one’s self as well as others. Poignant, heart-rending, sweet and funny, White’s dexterous vision and storytelling strength brings together and reconciles opposing worlds, a union that comes with a cost, but one she brilliantly reveals without regret.
About the author…
Rossandra White, a fourth generation South African, spent the first twenty-three years of her life in Zambia, where she had a baboon for a pet and learned to tell a log from a crocodile. She is the author of the memoir Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog, published by She Writes Press, and two, as yet, unpublished novels, Monkey’s Wedding and Mine Dances, set in Zimbabwe and Zambia respectively.
She lives in Laguna Beach with her two Staffordshire Bull Terriers, where she writes and blogs about the wild old days of her childhood in Africa as well as the wild new days of her life in America.
Running on Empty: The Irreverent Guru’s Guide to Filling up with Mindfulness
by Shelley Pernot
Most of us have heard the sentiment expressed in the title of Shelley Pernot’s debut published work, Running on Empty. We have so much going on in our busy workdays and schedules that even when our go-go juice runs dry, we somehow must soldier on: make it out the front door finishing breakfast on the run, prepare for a business meeting as we navigate through the commute, barely make it into the office, where we shall spend the day multi-tasking, keeping up on e-mails and continually transitioning from one duty to the next and the next and the next … you get the idea. The typical result is a lifestyle consisting of a pattern that we repeat day after day, with little fulfilment as the years go by. This is much like the dogs Pernot uses to illustrate this cycle, dogs who chase a mechanical rabbit around the track every day, never, ever catching it.
[W]e all have … [a] part of ourselves that we’ve never really expressed. Perhaps something that we’ve disallowed because it was different, silly, or how the heck are we ever going to make money with that. And slowly, over time, we lose touch with these parts of ourselves. We drift along unconsciously, busy chasing that mechanical rabbit, caught up in the game of life. And then we wake up one day and wonder … “How the hell did I get here?”
Enter mindfulness. Rather than a new-wave, New Age-y sort of philosophy, mindfulness entails a focus on the now in an accepting manner. It seeks to avoid judgmental thoughts—about ourselves and others—and focus more on what we are doing in the present moment. The benefits are many, but some idea how one might gain from its practice is the stress reduction resulting from a decrease in the amount of critical commentary that actually slows work down, hinders creativity and inhibits confidence. Once we are better able to see past the negativity, we come to understand what we really can do.
For example: Suppose I decide I want to make a few illustrations for a work in progress. My brother and father were the artists in the family and I can really only make stick figures. I can’t draw faces. My hand smudges the page as I travel across it. I could continue on in this manner, which more than likely won’t result in anything productive, beneficial or even fun.
Suppose, however, I choose to push all that out of my mind and sit down with a pencil and sketch pad, just for the heck of it? I plan it for a school day so there are no distractions at home and decide I’ll give it an hour. Or even thirty minutes. I make a focused decision to try my hand, paying attention to what I’m doing, refer to a manual about drawing, experiment a little, see what I can come up with. At the end of my allotted time, even if without a finished product, I have more than likely made at least one discovery, perhaps conjured up ideas I could try next time, even been a little excited about what I was doing. That positive experience was enabled when I tossed away the judgements and focused on the project, accepting whatever small benefit I may have gotten from it.
One of my favorite ways Pernot illustrates acceptance links to the next phase in all of this, that is to say: OK, so how do we do this? I gave an example above from my own experience. The author presents a variety of techniques for practicing mindfulness, stressing that even small gains matter and that practitioners are “striving for excellence, not perfection.” After all, if we judge ourselves harshly because we didn’t focus on our present as much as we could have, it isn’t just a “violation” of a main tenet of mindfulness practice; it does—even more importantly—break down what we did achieve. Considering that mindfulness can be practiced in countless ways on tasks large and small, in just about any setting, there’s a lot to gain.
Pernot’s casual but informed writing style and continuum of life experiences assure us that the methods she posits are effective growth mechanisms, designed not only to engage greater thoughtfulness, but also to enable our awareness of why they work. Throughout the book she uses humor—often of the corny sort that draws us in because we can relate to so much of it. It’s sometimes silly, but it’s also a gift to us because it provides us with a lighter feel to it all as we gain greater confidence that this isn’t all about, as she says, “zenning out” or being all spiritual and complicated.
Each chapter focuses on one angle of learning to practice mindfulness, with exercises at the end of every one. Simple and straightforward, they nevertheless give readers some practice in the adaptation of mindfulness to their own lives and developing discernment and awareness. Moreover, each subsequent chapter builds on what we learned in the previous, sometimes surprising in its depth of information, especially considering the lightness of the read.
Along the way, Pernot also travels with Ed, the Mystical Mindfulness Monk, a character whose own curiously successful adaptation to our modern world (he likes Cheetos) lends consideration to the novelty of monks in a context not often perceived. His levity pairs with Pernot’s titular irreverence, transforming the journey from mere discovery to one with lightness, speed bumps, and equanimity, providing the concept of mindfulness with the same light re-evaluation that perhaps there is a side to this we are pleasantly surprised by.
The book is so well laid out and, as mentioned, so easy to read that one may encounter the temptation to speed through it, given its accessible and conversational tone. It should be, however, savored, much like delicious food (incidentally, another angle of mindfulness found to have contributed to healthy weight loss). It is fun enough to be easily read again, especially owing to its deceptive depth of understanding.
Though the book’s blurb promotes Running on Empty as “[w]ritten for the professional struggling with work/life balance,” I would slightly disagree, as in today’s age, and especially what I call the “culture of rush,” not to mention the push of a favorite buzzword (that I personally loathe), multi tasking, nearly any job can lead to a pattern of thoughtless living. Nearly everyone in every socioeconomic level has a smartphone, computer or variety of apps, and falling into an unintentional life is a danger few of us can afford to ignore.
What’s extra lovely about Running on Empty is that while it can function as a tool, and can be referred back to countless times, it also tells a story—several, in fact—and is filled with laughter and feel-good. Pernot’s passion for mindfulness, her open admissions regarding her shortcomings and wonderful writing style don’t only give her credibility. We also see she is a lot like us—she sings karaoke, for crying out loud—and the desire to digest more of her contagious good nature leads to great hope that there is much more to come from this teacher, this irreverent guru of laughter and learning.
The blogger was provided with an advance review copy of Running on Empty in order to write an honest review.
About the author …
A small town girl from east Texas, Shelley Pernot earned her MBA from a top European school and then proceeded to a well-paid job in risk management in London. In 2009 she moved back to the U.S. and discovered yoga by accident. After a few months of practicing, she went on sabbatical to become a yoga teacher and then traveled to Africa.
Upon returning to her FTSE 100 energy firm employer, she assumed a new role in Leadership Development devising teaching programs like Courageous Conversations, aimed at establishing a corporate culture that welcomes honest discussion.
Having dreamed of starting her own coaching and training business for years, she launched True North Development as a safe space for people to explore what’s holding them back from reaching their potential. Running on Empty is her first book.
To learn more about Shelley Pernot and mindfulness, click here.
Previously having read and enjoyed The Prodigal Son, third in The Graham Saga series, I approached this first book with assurance and excitement. It is, after all, where the adventures begin, where the rip in the veil dividing time(s) occurs, at least in the case of Alex Lind. From my reading of that third in the series I knew she’d gone tail spinning through time back to the 17th century following a freak thunderstorm, though further details, of course, remained unknown to me. Reading the opening sentences of the first in the series, I was very aware of my transition into the beginning, and that enticingly soon these details would be revealed. I am quite sure anyone who has ever read Belfrage’s Saga out of order—which can be done—will understand.
Having now read A Rip in the Veil for a second time it should be noted I didn’t like the book as I did before. I have grown since that reading, come to new awareness and made changes in my own life. I am different to that person who read the book last time. Through all that, I came out at the end of my second go-round with this result: I love it at least ten times more. Some of this could be attributed to a greater understanding I have toward the foreshadowing I hadn’t noticed the first time. It could also be said that having gone on to read—since The Prodigal Son—the rest of the series save its final installation, my affection for the characters has grown. All this would be accurate and surely contributes to my ongoing admiration for Anna Belfrage’s first in her timeslip series.
However, her strength as a novelist carries through more than in the ability to create strong characters with enduring appeal—an accomplishment in of itself not to be to sniffed at. Her words flow off the pages with the sort of enchantment that allows readers to recognize their beauty and rhythm, but also veils the utilitarian duties they pull on the side.
Further, true to the nature of a splendidly written book, one finds something else to adore they might not have taken in at first. In this instance one example would be phrases that capture our attention from where we stand now, not unlike the sun hitting stained glass at just the right angle or time of day. “The bright turmoil of oils,” for example, engages the imagination as it interweaves contemplation of an artist and her emotions; they unify in the moment and stir the sensations. There also is the author’s subtle sense of invitation into the story. We may share an understanding with a select character, or the author might slightly pierce the boundary between events as they occur and the observer holding the book, by acknowledging the observation.
“Jeans; everyone wears them where I come from.”
“Djeens,” he repeated, “well, you must be from very far away.”
“You could say that again,” she mumbled, hunching together.
[F]or an instant Alex thought she could see shame in his eyes. For an instant, mind you, and then his face hardened.
As Belfrage gets her tale going, readers also recognize what Alex herself does not, and her responses artfully contribute to the flow and continuity of the story as the author inserts detail clues for readers’ benefit; we learn ancillary information without being instructed, and the technique is used throughout the book, sparingly and subtly, also economically lending insight into players’ personalities.
The most apparent location these hints appear would be in dialogue, which also informs readers of how much each character knows about various events. In this way and others, Belfrage weaves a complex story, pleasurable and fascinating to follow—and I do mean fascinating: there were a number of occasions that gave me pause as I stopped to consider implications, how something could work, what might it mean in reality, and so on. The author’s prose lends credence to such a possibility, too: described with verbiage so on target and believable, responses and consequences so plausible, not an extra or out-of-place word, it becomes real as readers as well are drawn into the vortex with Alex, mysteriously and frighteningly into another time and, really, another place.
“Are you alright?” Matthew asked Alex.
“Yes,” she said shakily.
“Do you know him?” He cocked his head at the groaning shape.
“Yes you do!” Two penetrating eyes fixed on her.
Alex shook her head, taking in a battered face, a dirty flannel shirt and jeans that seemed to have burnt off at calf length. He looked awful. The skin on what she could see of his legs was blistered and raw, made even worse by a large flesh wound. But he was here, an undoubtedly modern man. . . One person dropping through a time hole she could, with a gigantic stretch of mind, contemplate. Two doing it at the same time was so improbable as to be risable[. . . .]
[The man’s] eyes stuck on Matthew. . . His eyes widened, his mouth fell open, he cleared his throat and gawked some more, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a cork.
“Where the hell am I?” he said. “Where have I ended up?”
Indeed, sense of place is a strong element in Alex’s story and we see some overlap in time, eliciting more questions that contribute to an urgent sense of need-to-know. I also longed to learn how those Alex leaves behind react; here, Belfrage does not disappoint. Initially alternating with some frequency between her new/old world and the time she has left behind, gradually the narrative settles into Alex’s story within her current surroundings, only periodically bringing readers back to those seeking answers as to her whereabouts. This reflects Alex’s perspective of the experience, as she begins to make a life, her life, in this strange place she has landed. Like Alex, we acclimate to life without frequent news and knowing of her family.
Perhaps the most significant element Belfrage employs throughout the book, this literary reflection of a character’s reality does extra duty as it is simultaneously employed with temporal distortion—texting her father from 1658, muttered comments Alex has to explain away—and a spot of pastiche, whereby her 21st century words, ways, songs, clothing names (e.g. djeens) are imported backward in time. Alex herself often brings this distortion to readers’ attention with her questioning of her new world (which is actually old) and how she could be there, given that at this time, she has not yet been born. Nor have any of her family, so how could they be searching for her? What may be the most satisfying yet, and perhaps a little surprising, is Belfrage’s manner of writing about timeslip—writing mostly in the destination era being the largest contributor to the sense of surprise—utilizing postmodern technique to do it. Moreover, her interweaving of the various strategies is absolutely seamless.
Through the book, we get hints of Alex’s history awareness as she periodically betrays, to readers only, her knowledge of what is to come in this historical era. The temptation for an author to lean on this type of understanding must be great; fortunately for readers and characters alike, Belfrage does not rely on it. In fact, she shies away from it in most instances, as Alex determinedly seeks to make her way in this era with more natural supports—and, of course, to avoid accusations of witchcraft. When readers may expect some historical event to be referenced, Alex moves on; she has learned quickly.
As Alex learns what she needs to in order to survive—including about Matthew’s vengeful younger brother Luke, and the wife once paired with Matthew himself—she also begins to see much in Matthew, joining forces with him to live a life of integrity in the face of religious persecution and inconceivable human cruelty. Alex sees this very quickly after they meet each other, during their journey back to his home, and through their time living there. She also captures the attention of someone who believes there is more to her than she tells, bonding with her and others as she makes her way through newcomer status and the daunting awareness of not knowing what she is doing, including in the presence of those who wish her ill.
Matthew has an ally in Simon, his brother-in-law and attorney, who protects his interests and indeed, his life, counseling the newlyweds in ways small and large. In a sense, as Matthew and Alex get to know each other, their story is timeless—two people with a bond who must learn to integrate their beings into a cohesive and workable whole. On top of their own challenges, ordinary and unique, the pair must also deal with the threats that remain, for despite Matthew having made it home, Luke’s anger has not subsided, and it menaces Matthew and those he loves at every turn. The Grahams do not claim victory over every challenge, and sometimes must learn to compensate, including with each other.
“I didn’t like the ‘obey’ part,” Alex grumbled as they walked back to Simon’s office [following their wedding]. “I mean the love and to hold and all that, fine. But to obey? It makes me feel like a dog. . . . Why should I obey you?”
“Because I’m your husband,” Matthew explained with exaggerated patience. “And you’re but a mindless wife.”
Will they always be so lucky? How do they keep Luke’s hatred at bay and can they continue? What of Alex’s strange circumstances? She was brought here against her will; what if the forces that carried her here reverse themselves? Can she ever go back? How can she stay under the conditions she will be required to live? These are just a few of the top questions that will arise from readers, who certainly will reach eagerly for the next book for answers as well as more of the Grahams, for while the book’s technical brilliance impresses the intellect, its soul captures the heart and imagination.
It is understood that certain factors affect any given reading, including order of books read. Did my awareness of Alex’s future, so to speak, with Matthew affect my perspective of the first in the series? Undoubtedly. Would I have enjoyed it as much had I not read the third book first? The only truthful answer I can give is that I do not know, though I am certain I still would be clamoring for the rest, as I had been. It has not escaped me, however, that like Alex, I myself have done a bit of time travelling by learning of a future portion of her life in the 17th century before being brought to the first part of her time there. While many of my questions arising from the third are answered in the first, the readings of both remain magnificent. When first I published this review in its original form, I had added, “and I will not be satisfied until I have read them all—and even then I may still want more.”
I assure you, even after having now read them all (except the most recent), I very much still want more. I will be reading this book again and again with the knowledge that Belfrage has created the Grahams and a tale vigorous enough to journey with us through time and all of our own changes.
Update: I have read them all by now, and I want more.
Anna Belfrage can be found on Amazon, Twitter, on her website and at her fantabulous blog, where you can learn more about the author, the Grahams, her sew series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, other projects and her world.
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, practices calligraphy and is learning to sew.
Several weeks ago I was in the midst of one of the harshest upper respiratory infections I have ever experienced–bronchitis-like symptoms that worsened after months of me trying to tell myself “it’s viral anyway” paired with wheezing and burning, wrapped into that asthmatic cough that if not controlled, makes you … sick. I mean, really sick.
Having finally gone to the doctor ready to plead for something, anything, just not to be told, “You merely have to let it play itself out.” Well, the doctor still didn’t think it was bacterial, but sent me home with a boatload of instructions, a couple of prescriptions and a decent amount of sympathy. (I’m not normally a sympathy monger, but it was nice to know she didn’t seem to view me as yet another Petri dish on legs and then push me out once she scrawled her signature.)
I actually crawled back to work after collecting my medicine, because it was bloody cold outside and the office was closer. We’d been under the thumb of a cold snap where temperatures went down to minus 15 or so–not the coldest in the Great Land, but enough to make me feel even more sluggish and slow, icy and longing for home.
Fast forward to the end of the day when my son begged me to make a pit stop at the library to pick up his holds. “But it’s freezing out … I can’t curl my fingers!”
“I have a great idea,” he began, and I knew there was no way out.
“When you get to the library, run into the building as fast as your little legs will take you.” (Where have I heard that before?) “Go to the restroom and run your fingers under warm water, then go sit down. And then,” he said with a dramatic pause, “you can relax there for a few minutes or maybe even get a couple of books for you.”
How could I say no? This child often goes to the library and brings a backpack full of books home for me–and he’s found some treasures. He makes me tea and sets me up on the sofa with DVDs. He draws pictures to cheer me up, leaves sweet little notes around the house. Really, he’s a prince and seriously, was it really that big of a deal to make one quick stop?
It’s as if the library had been expecting me. I didn’t find a ton of books that day–thankfully, as too many at one time can be a bit overwhelming–but did pick out a few that seemed as if they were waiting just for me.
Example: I like cookbooks, though I rarely buy them anymore because they’re a tad on the expensive side and everything seems to be on the Internet anyway. The thing is, that path works better when you know what you’re looking for. And now here I was, wanting just to be home and curl up with a book (and some easy-to-make comfort food wouldn’t hurt), when I saw The Immune System Recovery Plan, touting on its cover, “Identify and cure the causes of illness, personalize your treatment, see immediate results: With 40 recipes.” Hey, curing illness and making food, I liked that!
The book is mainly directed at those suffering from autoimmune diseases, and though I’m often tired, sick and stressed, there are other elements to consider: habitually sleeping poorly and being around children a lot last year often made me vulnerable to picking up the germies these critters tend to carry around with them. Last year had also been a super stressful one for me, and although I made some changes, such as to slow down and work mindfulness into my life, I’d slipped up and lost some control on how I respond to stress. I also think I carried the previous year’s bug into the new one, because even in the summer I was sick and the pattern of feeling better and symptoms soon returning repeated itself over and over.
So I may not be part of the target audience, but the book still seemed to have something to offer for improvement of my circumstances. In particular, the author speaks of inflammation, a problem I’d had in the past pertaining to a previous auto accident-related back injury. I’m sure you can already see that looking into all this isn’t a one-read deal, and not for the faint of heart or lazy. Because I can indeed be very lazy at times, the mindfulness program I hinted at earlier will–I hope–come in nicely as I aim also to improve my ability to focus and perform tasks with greater deliberation and patience.
A side note here: mindfulness isn’t a New Age-y kind of philosophy, and actually, as far as I know, has its roots in the Slow Movement, which itself was actually born in Italy and initially focused on food, later expanding to be applied to many or even all activities of daily life with an underlying aim of improving mental, emotional and physical health. As I wrote in one of my first blog entries here, I personally believe our culture of speed is one of the worst developments we picked up on, and has adversely affected our food, finances, attitudes, health and constructive abilities–and that’s not an exhaustive list, not by a long shot. Don’t get me wrong; elements of life such as high-speed Internet and direct deposit are fantastic and not necessarily destructive. But others, such as microwavable food and the unwillingness to work for something has helped to produce a society of people largely lacking the appreciation of a good meal–which doesn’t only include food that causes fireworks in our mouths and a joyous surprise as how delicious and tender the food is, but also the sharing aspect of it.
Mind you, I’m not unaware of the benefits of doing some things quickly, and another cookbook I was led to contains a guide with “Recipes in 15 Minutes or Less,” “No Cook Recipes” and, for a twist on how to save time while still maintaining a high standard of production, a section with slow cooker recipes. Hungry Girl Clean and Hungry: Easy All Natural Recipes for Healthy Eating in the Real World seems to me like a useful resource for that transitional phase in which one wants to begin looking into all this slow-down business, but also needs to retain a sense of reality regarding the world in which we live. Small changes, a few at a time, create positive habits and the encouragement of progress can also strengthen one’s dedication toward these new goals.
The Secrets of People Who Never Get Sick brought my awareness back to other ways of treating illness, and to be sure, food is included in the book (chicken soup, detoxification, garlic, to name a few secrets). Not unlike the dental practices I researched a few years back, some of today’s health secrets, as I read in Gene Stone’s introduction, actually originated quite a long time ago. Not all are included in the work, the tips of which Stone received from ordinary people who either never get sick or are able to solidly chase away illnesses, unlike many of us who repeatedly nurse these conditions. As within the books discussed above, the author advocates reading about what other people have done to maintain their good health, and working out for ourselves what makes sense for us.
I commented earlier that engaging in the research involved in all these recipes, elimination or introduction of foods, new ways of shopping and so on isn’t for the lazy. I say that in good fun, because I know that it isn’t always laziness that prevents us from really looking into new ideas–sometimes, but not always. It can be overwhelming or intimidating. However, it does come down to a choice that we make, even if we temper or slow it to suit our abilities, needs, and understandings.
This is reflected in the title of Raymond Francis’s Never Be Sick Again: Health Is a Choice, Learn How to Choose It. Not having read the book, I’m not entirely convinced we can choose to defeat such diseases as cancer, though the idea lingers in my mind as a strong possibility. Of course, no one wants cancer, and few wish to die from it. But some do. Why? I am hopeful I will find more answers to this and other questions, but equally hopeful that “give[ing] you the power to control your own health” will nevertheless supply a number of benefits for optimum well being. Here too, nutrition comes into play, including a sentence that included words quite similar to those I’d read in one of the other books: giving your cells the nutrients they need. In other words, going to bed hungry, the author writes, is not a problem for most Americans. But in many cases their bodies are “starved” of proper nutrients.
Since the day I went to the doctor I have been feeling better, but one thing I had to do was seriously. Slow. Down. A few weekend days I spent entirely in bed, and even reading, one of my favorite things to do in all the world, took a sharp nosedive. (It’s now mid February and so far this year I’ve read only two books.) I quit a part-time evening job I had and continued on with only my day employment. Some things simply didn’t get done and others I took on with a one-at-a-time approach. I took the time to perform some “preventative maintenance” (e.g. Neti pot, which can be time consuming and feels really weird), telling myself I don’t want in three weeks again to be feeling the way I did that day at the medical office.
“Getting sick is harder than staying well.”–Raymond Francis
“Pick [a secret] that appeals to your strength.”–Gene Stone
There’s still more to do and it’s a learning process. I probably will end up having to return and check those books out from the library again, or simply buy them, but to examine them deliberately and resist the temptation to allow myself to stick them on a table and forget. I will surely be starting again to cook and freeze food, as I have in the past been in the habit of doing–even, by the way, “frozen fingers” of a different kind. Fortunately, I also already habitually use certain foods (e.g. garlic and onion) or have helpful rituals (e.g. stretching and water when I wake up), but there is always room for improvement and new knowledge, or expansion on that one already possesses.
If the way I feel today is any indicator–a vibrant sort of happy surprise that on a Saturday I’ve been to the cinema, run an errand and now am getting some writing and editing done, instead of moving about the house in a malaise, half-heartedly typing something or engaging in distracted conversation–then I’m looking forward to this. I’m not flipping through books in a frenzied research run, and that’s okay. We’re in for another cold snap, meaning more indoors time, but I’m feeling again like I can enjoy cooking with my young teenage son and the way the house smells, doing things for him without making it larger than it really is, which is a far cry from how I felt even in the days during the back and forth when I felt better. I think it is more real this time, and it’s like a lighter feeling in my mind that elicits the emotion of how good it feels to feel good.
An upcoming blog will discuss the practice of mindfulness and some fun resources for learning more, including an absolutely gorgeous magazine I’ve discovered, and that I think you will also enjoy.