In October 2016 I began a series of posts in memory of 1066, arguably the most important year in the history of England. Interestingly enough, while I enjoyed history, this era was not always my favored, as it once seemed so complicated and intimidating; my memories of studying it in school were filled with details I didn’t really understand, or there were so many layered on top of each other they seemed to crush me.
Paula Lofting’s Sons of the Wolf persuaded me out of my comfort zone, the Wars of the Roses period, and when I began to see the era as populated by people rather than a series of dates (as I was able for the fifteenth century), plus the greater significance of exactly what had happened–what I only partially appreciated during my school years–I was hooked.
A couple of years after, I read Annie Whitehead’s To Be A Queen, which was poetry in prose and simply unforgettable. Whitehead’s examination of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, indeed the Lady herself, impressed upon me our great heritage of language, literature, spirituality and yearning for freedom–plus the willingness to fight for it. While I certainly admire other historical figures and groups, the Anglo-Saxons have to greater effect shown me the importance of remembering, thus this series for them and the freedom they fought to keep for us. Unfortunately, they did lose the most important battle and the end of their era arrived, but their legacy lives on.
Today, five years since this series, we once again mark another anniversary of Hastings, so soon after Stamford and the great hope that Harold Godwinson would drive the invading Normans from English shores. Alas, it was not to be, and the years that followed birthed more stories and writings than most modern people have ever heard of, though it’s always a good time to look into our past: where we came from, who influenced us and, indeed, the invaders. Below are just a few pieces/works for or about this dramatic period that changed the course of history, and you can also find articles about Harold Godwinson and other 1066-related topics at Murray and Blue.
I really admire detectives, and of course I love the Middle Ages, so when I asked around about medieval mysteries, I was thrilled when my contacts really came through. Amongst many other recommendations, author Joanne Larner suggested Fortune Like the Moon, and I am so glad she did. I’ve been in a reading slump lately, thanks in large part to too much research intake without a break, and Alys Clare’s novel set in twelfth-century England went a long way toward pulling me out.
This is in contrast to another book I recently read and didn’t dislike, even am interested in pursuing the next installment, but felt dragged a bit and perhaps didn’t need to be up in the 400-page count that it was. I feared a little this dragging sensation with Fortune Like the Moon, aware it could be an unjustified association, but something about the book made me dive right in. It may have been the cover artwork that captured and kept my attention, or perhaps the epigraph, the words of which seemed to signal a faster-moving story and more rapidly-changing details to keep up with:
Like the moon, changing,
Forever waxing and waning . . .
Indeed, it takes no time at all to get to the mystery to be solved: the first word in the book is “dead.” The opening sentence gives a visual and tells the who, what, when and where, setting us up immediately to seek the obvious remaining W—and does it with economy. As the story progresses, we learn more of its setting and circumstance. King Richard Plantagenet has just ascended to the throne of England, a country he knows virtually nothing about and whose language he barely speaks. Clare deftly provides brief background to the Lionheart’s family circumstances, including his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, a formidable woman determined to educate the English about their new king, who was to be perceived as humane and just, filled with wisdom and Christian forgiveness. To that end, she declares, in Richard’s name, an amnesty that frees all prisoners in English jails who had been awaiting trial or sentencing, though she is fully aware this could backfire, and badly. The aforementioned death, laid out in the novel’s prelude, leads to the predictable criticism of arrogant naïveté and the need for Richard to button this up quickly. Enter Sir Josse d’Acquin, an Anglo-Norman acquainted with this strange land (via his East Sussex mother) tasked with solving the mystery and, hopefully, setting English minds at ease about their new monarch.
Clare’s style is attractive and pleasing not just for her ability to economize, but also because it is so relatable, even in situations most of us would never find ourselves in. For example, when describing the murdered nun’s remains: “So much blood.” In the hands of another author, such a phrase might come off as sophomoric, but here it works, even when the perspective shifts from omniscient narrator to Josse, who frequently talks to himself, and then to the Abbess Helewise, whose wisdom is revealed in her awareness of false modesty’s trap as well as her willingness to recognize intelligence equal to or greater than her own. She and Josse get on so well, in fact, that I found the lack of conflict a bit disconcerting, though not entirely out of place. When would the king’s appointed investigator have to do “battle” with evil forces, and would those include Helewise? There is no doubt she is brilliant, but would the Abbess’s co-operation later be revealed as disguise of her true motive(s)?
Looking back at Chapter One, we see Clare’s use of circumstance to skillfully shape her characters. Richard, in a fit of temper, stubs his toe on a stone floor slab. Trying to massage the toe is ineffectual, since he is wearing his boots. His anger results in him lashing out, whereby the bishop he had been addressing steps back in haste, following which Richard gains control of his rage and carries on. Though it seems a curious event at first blush, it is not long after that we are able to use it as an opportunity to further assess the king’s character by way of a sort of compare/contrast when he first meets with d’Acquin. Josse, seemingly nervous, kneels in mud and sits in a puddle, the second of which the king initially remains silent about, likely to avoid acknowledging that Josse stands taller than himself. Having given the mercenary the once-over and determined him to have made an attempt at a smartness in appearance he does not naturally possess, he eventually alerts the man to the water soaking the hem of his tunic, though impatiently, whereas Josse’s awkward responses had been marked with respect.
In both instances we see Richard certainly behaving according to his station, but we also feel the hint of manipulation he employs, suppressing it only because he needs something, and frustrated at the requirement. Appearing separate from one another and with other scenes in between, the continuity of this illustration is smooth and well laid out. The only angle I question is of Richard stubbing his toe: if the boot is too thick to massage the toe, how could he have stubbed it? My own ignorance of footwear available at the time—I know very little of this Angevin era—may play into this, but even if it’s a legitimate doubt, it really doesn’t mar the attempt to provide Richard more rounding, and the dialogue is superb.
It also helps that the author includes a drawing of Hawkenlye Abbey, its various areas labeled for easy reference. It is what I refer to as “simple, not simplistic,” and laid out in such a manner that one could easily envision characters moving within the grounds. We get to know them in their daily routines and directed tasks, and Clare gives a real sense of her world as well as that which existed in the historical period. And, as earlier stated, she is able to tell a developed story without running it into excessive length.
Though the book is labelled on online sites as part of a trilogy, I am quite pleased to report it seems to have been successful enough to keep going, and now stands as a seventeen-book series. Given my pleasure at the genre, characters, story, dialogue, introduction to the historical period, continuity and, in this particular installment, setup of Josse and how he comes to be where he is—at beginning as well as end—that is a grand thing and I will definitely be reading more.
Life for Autumn Toelle-Jackson started out happy, almost like a dream. When she entered her thirties, however, tragedy made up for lost time. Over the span of a few short years, she endured several miscarriages and the loss of her husband, a dear cousin, and child.
But one small cross-section of a life doesn’t do justice to the amount of love, resilience, growth and blessings a person experiences after such titanic losses. With each new harbinger of grief, Toelle-Jackson was forced to discover another way to survive the pain. In Boldly into the Darkness, she examines all the lessons and outcomes of her life story with aching intimacy and insight. The result is a portrait of healing so complete, it transcends the traditional survivor narrative and enters new territory, a bold light shining where before was only darkness.
It has been quite a while since I’ve read a memoir, so I was pleased to be presented with Autumn Toelle-Jackson’s Boldly into the Darkness: Living with Loss, Growing with Grief & Holding On to Happiness for review. Hers is a story including successive losses, within a short period, of people very close to her: her husband, cousin, then her daughter – and these were following more than one miscarriage. How in the world does one deal with such devastation? How does one overcome the painful fear of vulnerability by allowing the world into their private life?
One reason I found for the ability to realize these and other achievements came rather quickly. At the start of Toelle-Jackson’s narrative, she states, “ [D]espite traumatic events, it’s not a traumatic story. Instead, it’s a story overflowing with love and marked with loss.” When I read these words I felt a bit (selfishly, I admit) relieved, because I had begun to fear the darkness I felt sure was certain to be between the covers of this volume. Death and the destruction of humans, even strangers, is awful for most, and it is such a profound horror I think our brains are wired to not truly be able to grasp it in its huge, stark reality. However, I have also long said that witnessing the profound grief of those left behind makes me question which is more devastating to observe.
I don’t think the author necessarily sets out to comfort readers, and that’s all right – it’s not her job to do that. Moreover, the jolt of events are part of the reading experience and it’s up to us to digest what she offers responsibly, thoughtfully. Still, she does offer us something:
Over time, I learned that, with each new grief, I’d shatter and then find a way to survive, whether I wanted to or not. I learned that I had choices, and I’ve chosen to do more than live. I learned that while the darkness brought sobs of anguish and never-ending tears, it also held healing and rebirth. I learned to live with my losses. I found ways to grow from the grief I carry. More importantly, I learned to grab hope wherever I could find it and hold on tight, because sometimes the hope that things will get better was all I had.
This passage immediately struck me with the understanding that Toelle-Jackson was presenting her audience with a requirement of sorts: reading her story passively and feeling sorry for her isn’t a viable option. There is more to life than suffering, and crafting its sum—and any reading about it—as a mere grievance narrative, is counterproductive and not akin to what we are made to do, be and achieve. She continues: “Those we lose are more than the loss. They are love, laughter, and happiness. That should be their legacy. Their death shouldn’t define them. Our loved ones are more than that one point in time.”
With this, Toelle-Jackson claims her life and those of her loved ones for something and somewhere brighter and higher—the trick is getting to that spot. As the author moves forward with her story, beginning almost immediately with her husband Joe’s untimely death, she opens the door to the dark part of her life and allows us to gaze within. It is a complex area, organized in segments that play tricks on observer and participant alike, its sting delivered according to role as well as experience and understanding. One passage I appreciated most was that which drew on her relatability to natural forces, occurring during retreat to a small, Pacific-coast town in February. Here were gardens, parks, a beachfront, and as she makes her way through these and other spaces she recognizes actualities that comfort even as they present truth in their sometimes harsh reality. For example, a Japanese-styled garden whose calming area was suggestive of a poem, even within its sometimes wild spots, “a place where suffering was OK because it was part of existence. It was a place where brokenness mixed with peace and beauty because in nature it all goes hand in hand.”
Feeling the sun on her back perhaps enabled Toelle-Jackson to connect her thoughts to what she observed, as she “saw firsthand how life was sprouting out of the darkness of winter and growing from the small seeds of last year’s plants.” This is, of course, the cycle of death and re-birth we all recognize, and a theme Toelle-Jackson expands upon as she screams into the ocean and “the waves below me take their fury out on the rocks.”
I felt the turmoil in my soul. And like the waves releasing their power, I started to let go of my anger…I stood there and screamed, and the roar of the ocean drowned out the noise I made. With each shattering wave, I let go of some of my anger. Not all of it and not for forever, but it was a start. I knew I was angry and had been keeping the emotion to myself. But there on the cliffs, I gave it free rein to erupt from me like the water below.
But she also beckons us through entries to other portions of her past: growing up with a large family, including her beloved cousin Brittany; family trips; horse competitions; working toward future goals; attending college; and maintaining a long-distance relationship. We learn of the drudgery involved in the everyday (e.g. eight-hour drives) as well as the immensely joyful and satisfying: long conversations with Brittany or the college experience in which Toelle-Jackson took part in, that rite of passage involving making one’s own choices and learning how things work, what today we often call “adulting.”
These are presented because, as the author stresses, love without loss is not real, and has a talent for showing us this even within portions of life that often seem inconsequential, or at least not glaring examples of an ideal so profound. Her college days, she writes, were “pretty boring”; on weekends she preferred to drive home to compete with her horse, Norman, or stay in with a good book instead of attend parties. Certainly, it might be labeled as on a smaller scale of the love-loss match, but it illustrates the requirement that each one be paired with the other.
It is perhaps this understanding that enables Toelle-Jackson to direct her journey in a more productive fashion, and she does, guiding us as she moves through the lessons she must learn, drawing on the love and support of others as well as what lives within herself. She allows herself to grieve, is painfully honest in her self-assessments and observes, in search of meaning or some sort of recognition. Some of what she speaks of are “easily” recognizable truths, though there isn’t a formula to utilize and grieving is different for everyone. But one thing the author stresses through Boldly into the Darkness is the concept of understanding that we all have choices. She may have been thrust into the darkness, she tells us, but that doesn’t mean she can be forced to stay there, and she doesn’t. Finding her way out and learning to live with its remnants is her story, and she tells it powerfully, truthfully, with compassion for those who experienced it with her.
I don’t know if I could say which of those three is the most crucial “ingredient”; perhaps none are more vital than any other. The power socks it to us, providing the details of events that create scars in the soul. As her new world, a world now without her loving and much-loved husband, carries on, the author relates how she felt, what she needed, what she didn’t know she needed and how she came to learn. These are not always pretty truths, but Toelle-Jackson’s sincerity produces invaluable awareness for all of us, some of which could also be applied to ordinary relationships of all kinds—those with or without tragedy as partner, and those involving love, friendship or even just colleagues or neighbors—in which constructive honesty creates authentic bonding, the benefits of which are too numerous to list here. In turn, such authenticity reveals a care for others within a cyclical nature that turns back and shows people truths about themselves that they choose to follow up on or not. That Toelle-Jackson chose to wasn’t in itself a magic bullet: the journey had to be undertaken. Here she presents the peaks and valleys of that expedition, speaking truths without judgement in a manner many others could find solace in. Her writing is gracious and smooth, even when the emotions are raw and jagged, and I can’t help but consider what a thoughtful writer Toelle-Jackson is.
Boldly into the Darkness is a bit of a tour through that frightening space, as its author mines the deeper parts of her soul and the human psyche, determined to find the light that must exist alongside. She reminds us that though there is no love without loss, the dark cannot exist without light, and tells her story as one way to help others find something to grab on to that they too might pull themselves up and recognize that we are designed to survive. Individual losses present unique journeys, and various pathways she traversed might not work for some others. But the strength and hope Toelle-Jackson presents is a ray of brightness that may benefit all of us, in the best and worst of times.
About the Author
Autumn Toelle-Jackson has lived a life of love and loss, filled with happiness and marked by tragedy. Labels are too simple, but they do have meaning and they do tell part of her story: wife, widow, mother, survivor. The loss of a husband, a beloved cousin and mentor, her daughter, and miscarriages have left scars on her soul and memorial tattoos on her body, but Autumn learned to grow through it all. She found love and reasons to get up each day until those days strung into weeks, then months, then years. Autumn and her family created GrowingwithGrief to provide those who are grieving with a place to find community, resources, and help.
Autumn Toelle-Jackson’s website may be accessed here, and you can purchase Boldly into the Darkness at this page. This wonderful memoir may also be found at Amazon, Amazon UK and Books2Read, a page with links to major online vendors for the ebook and audio book.
Images courtesy Autumn Toelle-Jackson.
A copy of Boldly into the Darkness was provided by the author in order to facilitate an honest review.
In the time following the discovery, beneath a Leicester parking lot, of the remains of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, the medieval monarch has indeed gained a wider audience as we learn more details about the find. For example, it was announced that he was not, after all, the scary neighborhood hunchback; rather, he suffered from scoliosis, which actually makes him more of a boss, given his accomplishments, as reported even by his enemies.
Much material continues to be released, and many people, even those not previously inclined toward history, have started seeking out all things Richard. Publishers give it to them too, though the nature of these offerings is sober; they tend to be serious reads of medical and martial material with, really, no happy ending—at least not for the Richard of 1485. Alas, Bosworth still is soaked in blood, and Richard still falls. In fairness, it’s not really a walk in the park to spin that into something cheerful.
Author Joanne Larner has long lamented the same, so she set out to shake up the playing field a bit with her debut novel, Richard Liveth Yet. A more lighthearted look into the latter Wars of the Roses era by way of time travel, she also brings Richard Plantaganet to modern England and we get a glimpse into his perceptions of us, rather than only the standard fare of vice versa. With her latest, Distant Echoes: Richard III Speaks!, Larner takes time travel to a different level—dimension—by way of innovative software and science that teams up a subject’s DNA with technology to track voice vibrations, even those that occurred over 500 years ago.
Stepping back for a moment, it is worth giving attention to the book’s epigraph, song lines from “Sheriff Hutton” by the Legendary Ten Seconds: “Where distant echoes still resound/That which is lost may still be found.” Capturing the attention of readers of a genre whose very nature evokes images, events, perhaps even portions of collective memory, echoes from the past, it further stimulates the need to positively identify all this and wonder if we really could experience history and, amongst other events, hear the speaking voice of a medieval king.
Larner opens the novel with protagonist Eve experiencing the end of a romantic relationship and moves forward with her signature chapter titles named after songs. A medium that transcends time, music of some sort appeals to just about every human; it seems to be coded into our DNA to like it, nay, need it. For this I can’t help thinking Richard would have appreciated Larner’s creative idea; even if he didn’t always love some lyrics, he would recognize that most messages are those that touch someone, somewhere, and the relatable forms they take can promote unity.
It was with a similar unity that, even amongst differences and a mixture of complex personalities, Eve’s professional team moves forward with their project and echoes of the past filter into the modern lives of these Future Tech employees. Larner also puts a bit of a twist into the sessions in that not everyone experiences them the same way, which, in reality, makes great sense as individual perspective and changing variables play into it all.
Eve’s colleagues possess different levels of understanding when it comes to history, and Larner cleverly utilizes this to determine what and how much information is communicated between characters and, as a result, readers, many of whom might also maintain differing degrees of awareness. Of course, everyone, reader and fictional researcher alike, wants to know about the ultimate medieval mystery: What happened to the princes in the tower? It is with great dexterity that Larner manages the range of perspectives, historical knowledge and “eavesdropping” abilities of her cast as each individual keenly looks forward to the moment of truth. Amongst the chaos, intrigue and dangerous, unknown loyalties of 1485, and those that develop in Eve’s own time, will they find it?
One of the best elements of Larner’s novel relates to the manner in which the narrative moves forward. Alternately giving us glimpses into Eve’s private life, already wracked by the grief of losing an important relationship, we also witness her discovery into other areas, how she copes with learning and what she does with her new understanding. This parallel plot does make for a more meaty tale, but it doesn’t just simmer near the first. Instead, they both marinate, the two forming a deliciously satisfying whole impossible to forget.
Really quite innovative, Larner’s novel demonstrates her richly developed sense of Richard Plantagenet, and two thoughts come to mind: one, that hopefully this author’s amazing imagination continues to give us wonderful stories of the king and; two, that the science doesn’t actually exist shouldn’t preclude Distant Echoes! from gaining a wide (and wider) audience, as it doesn’t seem these days to surprise very many, though it does intrigue, when once wild ideas are developed. Larner not only has her finger on this pulse, but also presents it in an accessible, smoothly flowing work, reminiscent of Daughter of Time, that allows historical players to tell their own tale.
Joanne Larner was born in London and moved to Rayleigh in Essex (UK) in 2001. She had wanted to write a novel since the age of thirteen and finally managed it in 2015. She was helped by two things: National Novel Writing Month and Richard III. Richard was her inspiration and she became fascinated by him when she saw the Channel 4 documentary The King in the Car Park in February 2013. She researched his life and times and read countless novels, but became fed up because they all ended the same way – with his death at the Battle of Bosworth.
So she decided to write a different type of Richard story and added a time travel element. The rest is (literally) history. She found his character seemed to write itself and with NaNoWriMo giving her the impetus to actually DO it, she succeeded. After she began writing the story that was in her head, she found that there was far too much material for one book and, in fact, it finally turned into a trilogy consisting of Richard Liveth Yet: A Historical Novel Set in the Present Day; Richard Liveth Yet (Book II): A Foreign Country and Richard Liveth Yet (Book III): Hearts Never Change. Book II takes place mainly in Richard’s time and Joanne found that many actual historical elements seemed to match serendipitously with her requirements. For example, the characters who were contemporary to Richard, the date of Joana’s death, the fact that Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice, had twins that didn’t survive the birth, etc.
The idea for Distant Echoes began when Joanne listened to Sheriff Hutton by The Legendary Ten Seconds and it reminded her of a sci-fi novel she had read as a teenager, where friendly aliens could see the ‘echoes’ of events after they had occurred. She wanted to write about the real Richard III, telling of acts of his that, though documented fact, are not known by the average reader, his good laws and fair judgments being eclipsed by the presumed and unproven murder of his nephews. The idea lent itself to ‘eavesdropping’ on Richard, using his own words where possible, and Distant Echoes was born.
For more about the author and her books, sign up or follow her at Facebook, Twitter and her blog. Distant Echoes: Richard III Speaks!, the books mentioned above and more are available at Amazon and Amazon UK.
The Liminal Zone – by Richard Abbott
Book Three in the Far from the Spaceports Series
Selkies in space?
Nina Buraca, investigator of possible signs of alien life, has heard tales of mysterious events on Pluto’s moon Charon, where a science outpost studies extrasolar planets. Facing opposition from her colleagues, she nevertheless travels from Earth to uncover the truth. Once there, she finds herself working with a team of people who have many secrets. To make progress, she has to take sides in an old dispute that she knows nothing about.
Can she determine who – or what – is really behind the name “selkies” that the station’s staff have given to this uncanny phenomenon? And how will the discovery change her life?
The Liminal Zone, a novel in the Far from the Spaceports series, takes you a further twenty years into the future – and out to the edge of our solar system – for an encounter with the unknown.
My copy: Paperback, 242 pages, ISBN: 978-1-8380120-0-7
Richard Abbott likes to write on a variety of topics, so it should come as no surprise that his Far from the Spaceports series—set in a future collection of space colonies—would also eventually shift away from financial fraud in the outer reaches to mystery of another sort. In this case, investigator Nina Buraca makes her journey to probe the idea (possibility?) of selkies in space, having first gone up against obstruction at home and, now, seeming dead ends at her new duty station. Her journey is physical as well as emotional, having left behind a relationship with Aquilegia, her AI companion of over six years. As her time at Charon, Pluto’s major moon, moves forward, she encounters resistance, particularly from her assigned house AI, simply called House, and questions her own motives and behaviors as much as she does House’s obstinacy and peculiar shortcomings.
In the Far from the Spaceports universe, it isn’t unusual for humans to interact with their AI partners in ways that bring disagreements, petty jealousies and even offense on the part of the AI to the fore, and these are treated as they would be in humans, that is to say without surprise at the source. Abbott’s novels have gone far greater distance than any movie featuring AI in giving the concept sustained credibility, and here he takes a completely different approach to achieving this by way of any references to Aquilegia as in the past: she makes no appearance in the entire book apart from within Nina’s own memories.
Nina’s musings pair with her out-loud conversations and she runs up against a lot of frustration as the inhabitants of Charon seem to do their best to block any discussion of selkies in their galaxy. The novel’s progression reflects this as the creatures are not mentioned a great deal, most often by reference or implication, creating a sense of the mystery for readers, as it envelops them as much as does the claustrophobic feel of gravity deficiency. An encounter Nina experiences perpetuates this impression as we cheer (in lower tones) for her success, despite the bleak outlook for her exploration. Will she ever find selkies? Will anyone even ever talk about them?
For those unfamiliar with the mythical selkies, an exploration of their history is available here. Especially given our contemplation of the metaphorical role these beings inspire, it makes sense that Nina’s journey becomes as introspective, alongside its investigative nature, as it does. Few people enjoy discussing their emotional states of mind, so it almost stands to reason that those in Charon would withhold any topics that essentially force them to face their own character. As the novel progresses, we realize Abbott’s aptitude for creating a study of human nature that runs alongside the plot of Nina’s story, which can, on some levels, be ours. Space becomes far less alien than the unknown and often deliberately unexplored range of our own inner terra incognita.
In language use, Abbott once more makes reading about previously-perceived “dense” topics actually fun, with talk of “massaging” data and signal processing code that we not only understand, but also delight in as we move through the concepts. He also does impose limitations on his AIs, which surely contributes to their authenticity, one example being a human emotional state witnessed by an AI, with the human response that brings them closer in footing:
Unaccountably she was crying, and out of habit she shook her head to let her hair hide her face for a moment. He made a little wordless noise, of recognition, or appreciation, or something. She deliberately brushed her hair back again so that the wetness in her eyes and on her cheeks was in plain view. If he could face the prospect, she owed it to him to face it with him, to the extent possible.
Third in the series, The Liminal Zone, like its predecessors, stands alone as one story. Concepts such as AI remain, though the characters are completely new, and the protagonist’s journey is longer and perhaps more fraught with anxiety of a deeper level, given its exploration of the inner landscape. There is joy to be had as well, a Shakespearean sonnet makes an appearance and a subtheme of constructive silence—silence being feared by many—is threaded throughout, with subtly and calm. Also, as with Far from the Spaceportsand Timing, it is a story to experience repeatedly as readers happen upon discoveries of their own.
Other previous blogs featuring Richard Abbott and his work ~
Please note this is the last full entry of 2020, as we go on hiatus for the Christmas and New Year holidays.
We’ll be back in 2021 and are excited to meet you there!
Set in 1920s Neustadt and Berlin, Emil and the Detectives tells the story of young Emil Tischbein and his adventures during and after a train ride from one city to the other. The boy’s mother sends him off to the capital with DM120 to be delivered to his grandmother, and twenty more for himself. Because it has taken Frau Fischbein—as her son delightfully addresses his mother on occasion—months to save the amount from her hairdresser salary, Emil carefully pins the bills to the lining of his coat pocket. Upon arrival, however, the cash is gone and Emil meets up with a group of local children to help him see if a mysterious man from the train is their thief and whether they can recoup the loss.
From start to finish this children’s novel is absolutely addicting, charming and enchanting. For modern readers, the most striking feature of the book is the manner in which language transports us back to an earlier time—and not merely via such simple examples as, “Sometimes she sings gay little songs” or “The house is going to rack and ruin.” Author Erich Kästner allows his characters such a range of voice one can easily imagine how they say what they do, with playful sarcasm or extra bit of stress on a word that nevertheless goes unremarked by others because this, actually, is part of the individual’s personality.
However, credit where credit is due: much of this praise must also be awarded the translator, May Massee, who renders Kästner’s original German into an English-language version that seems to be a wonderfully faithful one. Having not read the novel in its native language, I cannot say for sure, but one recognizes the feel of the time—that is, within the last, gasping days of Weimar—even amongst the doings of a “model boy,” who sometimes finds it very difficult to maintain his resolution to remain such. The children also seem to have much more freedom than modern youngsters, and there exists no self-awareness that points out as much, leaving it to the children to do what children of the time did.
The Mine (Tales From a Revolution — Connecticut)
by Lars D. H. Hedbor
When I prepared myself to read the next installment in author Lars D.H. Hedbor’s Tales from a Revolution series, I knew chances were high I’d enjoy the story. Set during the American Revolution, each young adult novel in a different colony, the books capture a snapshot in time within the lives of fictional characters who very well could have actually existed. As an amateur historian, astronomer, fiddler, home brewer, linguist and baker, Hedbor is well placed to know a thing or two about this era and the ordinary details of people’s lives. It was this that attracted me to the series in the beginning because, as I’ve repeatedly stated, there is much to love and admire in the ordinary, from the versatility to variety, how people relate to one another, what they notice in their lives and what is important to them. When faced with war, some of this changes; much of it does not. They still have to keep their teeth clean, plough the fields, collect groceries and—in spite of or perhaps because of the war—they continue to do things such as dream about their futures and fall in love.
I’ve been doing book reviews since about 2013, and I love it. I came into contact with some very wonderful people, and the stories and topics I’ve interacted with have truly enriched my life. As a writer myself, it has also meant a great deal that a few authors have shared advice and information with me. And, of course, there are the wonderful tales. I’ve said more than once that I believe our very DNA is coded to us wanting to be told stories, and humans throughout history have indeed sought out and provided.
To be quite honest, I think books and the wonderful stories people tell are a big part of what makes life worth living.
Additional note 2021-1-9: Circumstances have warranted a change to how authors set up book reviews. Please see Book Review Guidelines tab for additional information.
Be sure to check out the companion post to this Book Review Rollout here.
And so here we are – 2020. It’s a long way off from 2012, when I first started this blog, and I’ve come into contact with some really fabulous people. Most of the time this site has been going I’ve done book reviews, and at one point I stopped, picking up again with other ideas and topics I wanted to talk about or delve into. To be honest, I still want to do this, but it’s kind of hard to stay away from the stories. This, of course, has happened before, and I periodically opened up to accept a few review requests. When I started contemplating things again this time, I decided to shake it up a bit. Some aspects will stay the same, though, because the goal is to make it easier for all involved.
To start with: As a child and teen I was enamored of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Crystal Cave and anything by Lewis Carroll. These days I still read the aforementioned and am open to reviewing memoir, ghost stories, historical fiction, some/various non-fiction, young adult, time travel and lots of indie books within these genres. My favorite historical eras are pre- and post-1066, the Wars of the Roses (in particular, the second half of the fifteenth century), American Revolution and WWII. I have somewhat new sort-of interest in the American Civil War and possibly events related to Edward, the Black Prince (another subject I’m currently exploring).
So here’s how I’m opening up the works ~
Once you read through you should have a better idea if pursuing a review from Before the Second Sleep it a suitable fit for you. ~ While I used to ask that authors shoot me an email to see if I’ll do a review, I decided to just do away with that. Since I have a lot more on my plate than I used to (at least it feels that way—it could be that some things were just replaced with others), I’ve given myself permission to respond with very brief emails or not at all. If you receive a brief email from me, please do not take it personally; it is sheer necessity. The “not at all” category used to be something like authors sending me e-copies of their books without asking if I would review them.
To be honest, these authors were on to something, even though I’d always said, “Don’t email me your books; I’ll delete them.” But they had a good idea because lots of stories looked quite intriguing and I thought, “Actually, this could be pretty efficient.” So I sort of took this idea like a piece of clay, rolled it around a bit and created my own shape to it. Out of this and past experiences, I developed these guidelines:
If you are interested in a review, just go ahead and send me your book. Please note the following caveats:
I only accept hard copies. Extended electronic reading gives me a headache and I’m done with it, so paperback or hardback are fine. I will provide my address below.
I do not guarantee I will review your book once I read it. Unless I become inundated, I will, however, start every book I receive. If I finish (which I will try to do within 90 days; be aware it may sometimes go over) and decide to write a review, I will let you know, so please be sure to provide your email address.
I work really hard on my reviews and aim to make them quality pieces that provide honesty while honoring the work. Because these entries really are joint efforts—you write the book and I do a review—I don’t want either party to get any short stick. Please remember that reviewers spent their (unpaid) time to give authors free advertising, so a little promotion of those very reviews, a win-win situation, does not go unnoticed. No one is expected to wed themselves forever to the blog; I just hope to avoid one-sidedness. For my part, I’ll be posting my reviews to Amazon, Goodreads and linking on Twitter and Facebook (maybe one or two more), these last two possibly more than once. If you have book signings (once we live in normal again), launches, etc., feel free to let me know so I can contribute what I can to these types of events.
Generally I don’t see the point in taking the time to write a bad review, one in which there is really nothing redeemable about the book. However, if I make note within the review of something I didn’t love, please remember this is just my opinion. Others may very well disagree with me, and that’s all right. Broadcasting why I’m wrong or that “the reviewer probably doesn’t know this but…” is in bad taste and makes an author look bad. Neither one of us wants that.
Authors/publicists are responsible for providing any direct links, actual images, author bio, promotional dates, etc. they would like to include in the review blog entry. Images not your own are required to have permission to use; without this I will not include them.
I work full time and am currently engaged with a few of my own projects. I am carving out very specific time to spend on reading books for the blog, but I’m just one person with a family who takes priority. Please see next two bullets for more on this and related.
I am very aware authors are proud of their work, sometimes anxious and are trying to promote and market their books. I truly admire people with stories who get them out there, and I’ll do what I can for some authors as well, including and especially indie. However, there are appropriate ways in which to conduct promotion, and haranguing book bloggers/reviewers is not part of that. Here is a great post about this topic. In my opinion it’s one of the better discussions out there because it also covers reviewer responsibility, which I do my level best to live up to.
If you wish to send an email to let me know your book is on its way, that’s a great idea – this enables me to easily contact you for info when moving forward (plus I prefer to be able to let you know when the book arrives). Email is the method I use for communicating re: book reviews and provides greater assurance I will not miss any messaging; my email is provided below. Please do not contact me on social media re: doing book reviews (the exception is to ask for a link to this page).
If you would like to do a giveaway, guest post, etc., by all means please let me know via email; I’d love to host it. Authors outside the United States can, at least in my experience, order from Amazon.com (as opposed to Amazon UK, etc.) to send books Stateside, rather than having them ship overseas.
Please check back here periodically, as there may be updates or additions to the policies.
Be sure to have a peek at my sidebar every so often as it changes to reflect my rotation of reads. I also keep a widget full of blogs I follow – which needs a thorough dusting, to be honest – so check it out when you swing by to see if I’ve cleaned up or added more. For new posts, go ahead and click that button! (Upper right on main page or tab at bottom right.) You’ll get a notification—just one, so you won’t be inundated—to let you know when there’s something new for you to check out.
You can contact me at scully_dc AT yahoo DOT com
Please be aware that sending me your book indicates acknowledgement of this policies page
Be sure to check out the companion post to this Book Review Rollout here.
Glad to have you here and I hope each one of you is finding something marvelous in this crazy, mixed-up world.
The Ghost Midwife: Murder at Rotten Row and The Midnight Midwife
Books II and III in the Seventeenth Century Midwives series
by Annelisa Christensen
Straight out of the gate: Having read and loved Annelisa Christensen’s earlier novel, The Popish Midwife, I reviewed it, and was rather excited when I received word about two newer books in the Seventeenth Century Midwives series: The Ghost Midwife and The Midnight Midwife. When at last viewing the slim volumes in my hands, I was a little disappointed, because I am a greedy reader, and when I love something, I want lots of it! Fear not, dear reader, as there is much to admire packed into the pages of these two smaller books. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention the warm beauty of Christensen’s covers, with images framed by what could be a window, from which the reader gazes out upon scenes bathed in the yellowish light of the evening lanterns, all contrasted against the bright red, green and blue of a dress or cloak. The pictures are signature Midwives, and the moods they create absolutely match those of the stories within.
While writing and researching The Popish Midwife, the author happened upon “A New Ballad of the Midwives Ghost” and writes in her afterward: “Many ballads of the time were the equivalent of news stories made more enjoyable and memorable by putting them to music. The songs might have been sung in taverns or coffee houses, or learned and sung in the home or elsewhere.” This may strike modern audiences as a macabre practice, but then again, maybe not: Our own children still play “Ring Around the Rosy” and jump rope to a song about Lizzie Borden, while teens and adults alike engage in memery with topics lifted directly from the headlines. Christensen was no less moved, and her intellectual pursuit of the ballad’s origins resulted in The Midwife Ghost, a mix of history and imagination stemming from her knowledge of and admiration for the real midwives of the seventeenth century.
In 1679 London, young Mary enters service in a well-to-do house on Rotten Row, where she soon encounters the ghost of a midwife with some very specific instructions. Following a series of ghastly and frightening events that send alarm throughout the servant staff, all eyes fall on Mary, who discovers a dark and terrible secret that had been hiding in the home for fifteen years. It is up to her to work through the problem of her knowledge and what to do, while simultaneously the others begin to view her with suspicion.
One thing I love best about Christensen’s writing is its aura, the words she chooses that fit her stories, characters and the time so well. Moreover, the individual nuance makes itself known: Mary’s pleas to hear her story out before any judgment is passed, while wise with the understanding that hers is indeed a fantastic tale, could not be the words of Catholic Elizabeth Cellier, or even midwife Abigale, who in The Midnight Midwife also finds herself trapped within circumstance. Each woman has her own distinct voice, while simultaneously revealing themselves as persons of their time. Thus is the author’s skillful balance between depicting members of a society and people operating within the infancy of individualism.
As a ghost story, Mary’s yarn is probably best at the length it is, despite my own ravenous appetite for more. With this, Christensen’s judgement on length is validated, and the divisions between segments of the tale sit in perfect points. Through events as well as the way the characters speak, readers also get a solid idea of how seventeenth-century folk perceived their world, what frightened them, what was important. But these are not merely a gaggle of grownups on a more childlike level, or simple people in “a simpler time.” We may fancy ourselves more shrewd today, but Mary knows the world she inhabits: she knows, for example, to press the stubs of candles together to earn a few pennies, and doesn’t cringe when pulling an unseen cobweb from a dark recess.
I fortified myself with another deep breath. I could not leave it this way. A man never did find a misplaced thing, even if it was waved before his face. If I had imagined it all, it did seem as if it were real, and I would not believe it was nothing until I had searched in that hole myself.
Christensen brings us face to face with the awareness that our ability to be unafraid was preceded by those who first faced those ghosts. So too does she show us that our ancestors tackled the mysteries and vagaries of humanity, on levels corporeal and spiritual. Such is the challenge of the above-mentioned midwife, Abigale, who adopts a baby, also called Mary, an act that ushers in with it the holding of a secret that later threatens to destroy their lives utterly.
By the time this threat makes itself known, Mary is a 21-year-old sister to two other adopted girls and talented helper to her mother in the various birthing rooms Abigale serves in. However, Mary’s grown-up self is not the same as the baby she once was, and Abigale comes to understand that she has a choice to make, one that may serve to destroy her family or keep it whole.
Once more Christensen brings us into the mindset of seventeenth-century people faced with a fearful circumstance, again maintaining a balance, here between the depiction of their social and individual selves. The circumstances are both familiar and not to our modern world, as are the demands, sympathies and cruelties of human nature. Perhaps less familiar today, at least to some, is the comfort and guidance found in spiritual works, such as Saint Augustine’s City of God, from which comes the understanding that an omniscient God sees the whole that explains the diversity and similarity of parts, which individually contribute to providing an overall balance.
As a philosophy, it is often neglected in our modern world, particularly on a secular level and within varying contexts, and Christensen’s story takes her characters, and us, through a labyrinth of experience wherein they, often like us, seek the balance to which they belong and, therefore, the beauty of the whole. If this sounds a bit like dense reading , here is where you exhale, because the author does not need to engage deep and difficult texts in order to convey all this. Her character interaction is smooth and realistic, authentic in the differences they face as well as create, and the dialogue is superb in so many ways: there is a true seventeenth-century feel to it, even while we recognize much of what people say and how they behave.
Also based on a seventeenth-century ballad, The Midnight Midwife brings us into the joys and sorrows of one family headed by a single-parent midwife – the neglect of which, as a subject of study, Christensen here contributes to eliminating. In examining the fierce love of a mother and how far she will go – or stand back – to protect her child, she explores varied facets of seventeenth-century society and private life, the history of which are the beginnings of our own understanding.
Author Annalisa Christensen provided the blogger with copies of The Ghost Midwife and The Midnight Midwife in order to facilitate an honest review.