Reading Roger Housden: Saved by Beauty, Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran

I no longer remember where I even heard of Roger Housden’s Saved by Beauty: Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran, just that I requested it from the library. I have enjoyed reading about Iran for years, and the title instantly grabbed my attention; before I was halfway through, I knew I would order my own copy and re-read. It is impossible to speak of Iran without including poetry, and Housden does a marvelous job of talking (not just “telling”) about Rumi, Hafez, and poetic message, weaving it within and without the people and places he visits, his, and perhaps your, understanding of the world, and those understandings of the Iranian people’s. He meets with artists, writers, filmmakers, religious scholars, whirling dervishes, explores beauty, truth, evil, and comes up close to history as well as current events.

Apart from his encounters, one thing I also appreciated about the narrative is its willingness to praise where praise is due, but be critical, questioning, or skeptical as well. He also details the closing episode of his trip, several days of captivity (cold comfort, but in a hotel, at least, not Evin) and interrogation, and his feelings of raw and utter loneliness in the world in a manner that it brutal in its poetic truthfulness. I say “poetic” not because he translates the experience into a flow of poetry, but rather because his words are neither harsh nor softly new age-y. He does not display open anger (though it was there) or bravado, and his words translate to us perhaps in a dual manner as well: we feel a sense of muted horror and peaceful acceptance. But he leaves us with overwhelmingly positive feelings about the people of Iran, the real focus. The horrible government apparatus forces its way into the story because it is impossible to talk about Iran without bringing up the government they currently live under. Poetry and tyranny.

At a later date I hope this changes, as, I’m sure, does Housden. He mourns that he cannot go back to Iran, and in my small way I can appreciate this. I would love to visit this land and come close to the history, the places, the people who grew up breathing in poets such as Rumi and Hafez, the average one of whom could recite a few lines of either one, or perhaps Ferdowsi, were you to stop them on the street to ask the time. I’m sure there are some not inclined to poetry, but there is a very strong current of survival amongst the Iranian people. They are not, after all, Arabs, and Islam is a foreign religion, even though it has conquered the nation and, centuries ago, made their own Zoroastrianism religion a minority one. But they don’t forget their culture and in this manner remind me a little bit of Americans, who consistently thwart attempts to make them like Europeans. The pathway traveled to get to this point isn’t, for Americans, the same as that of Iranians, but it does have its similarities. It is also interesting to note that Rumi is the most widely read poet in America.

It also happens that I’ve admired Rumi for years, though only recently began to look into his life a bit more deeply. I’m not very far along, but reading Housden’s account deepened my desire, what with its – well, I might say philosophical –discussions or summations, but his do not alienate the reader in the manner philosophy often does people. The reality is, indeed, very real, but he immerses us into his observations in a manner graceful and beautiful, the end result being not only that we want more, but we also wish to be a part of it.

In the chapter titled “Paradise and Poetry,” Housden journeys to Shiraz, capital of Fars Province. Above, illustration of Shiraz by French scholar Jean Chardin while traveling through the Safavid empire in the 1670s. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons; click for more info)

This is not an alien concept to me: as a teenager I wanted to live in a Welsh forest and, not unlike Housden’s own ambition in his twenties, “live a contemplative life of reflection.” Well, I also wanted to write poetry and practice healing, both of which come from my mother, I suppose, who was a nurse by profession and, throughout my childhood, recited Poe continuously. I wasn’t a big fan, but for years after recalled “Annabel Lee” and, naturally, “The Raven,” in their entirety. Also, my father had a history bent and I was often tasked with writing essays about events he’d discussed with me. It was from him I garnered my initial knowledge of and perhaps affinity for Iran, and surely the inclination to discuss, dig deeper.

You must be set on fire the inner sun.
You have to live your Love or else
You’ll only end in words.

For better or worse, I never made it to that forest. I know it’s unquestionably better, for I cannot imagine life without my wonderful son, who in many ways has also brought poetry and contemplation to my life and still does. Teenagers have naturally poetic souls, and Turtle has listened patiently and compassionately as I talked about Saved by Beauty, Iran, Rumi. Even more magnificently, he doesn’t just listen, as I am blessed to have a child who thrives on engagement. Asperger’s drives a bit of the nitpickiness, but it too has a dual nature, and his digging helps keep me connected to the lower layers in a world of paying bills, dentist appointments and being on time for work.

Panoramic view of Shiraz at night including moon & Jupiter conjunction, July 2005. (Image courtesy Mehdi Maleknia via Wikimedia Commons; click image for more info)

Now, before my re-read (when I can mark up the book, a practice I picked up by necessity in university and one Turtle loathes), I cannot exactly place my favorite passage or chapter, but I do recall a few dripping tears. As I recall, this portion was not necessarily one of great sorrow (or was it?), because I remember a sort of detached wonder at my emotion. Perhaps I will recognize it next time and be able to understand more of why I responded in the manner I did.

Reading not unlike a memoir, Saved by Beauty also weaves Rumi (and other poets) throughout, undoubtedly one of the work’s best elements, though by far not the only. Housden unapologetically invites us into his world, as well as one he yearned for since childhood, a culture of more than three thousand years. His perspective is truthful and sober, though not without levity, and both he and Rumi invite all into his journey. As Housden writes of Rumi’s funeral, “no one is turned away.”

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.

Book Review: The Colour of Rubies by Toni Mount

About the Book

Murder lurks at the heart of the royal court in the rabbit warren of the Palace of Westminster. The year is 1480. Treason is afoot amongst the squalid grandeur and opulent filth of this medieval world of contrasts. Even the Office of the King’s Secretary hides a dangerous secret.

Meeting with lords and lackeys, clerks, courtiers and the mighty King Edward himself, can Seb Foxley decipher the encoded messages and name the spy?

Will Seb be able to prevent the murder of the most important heir in England?

All will be revealed as we join Seb Foxley and his abrasive brother Jude in the latest intriguing adventure amid the sordid shadows of fifteenth-century London.

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As it happens, when recently writing a review for one of author Toni Mount’s previous publications, How to Survive in Medieval England, I happened upon the portion of her website focused on a “Medieval Artist,” whose introductory words beckon us in: “Dear reader, I am Sebastian Foxley, scrivener of London and the creation of Toni Mount.” It’s true about characters: they can take on a life of their own, which has often led me to musings about how these figures and authors connect. So when I see such introductions or “interviews” with characters, I am sure to be drawn in, as I was here. Just beneath was the cover image of the latest book Foxley appears in, The Colour of Rubies, tenth in Mount’s medieval murder mystery series. There was no hesitation; I wanted to check this series out. So when the opportunity to review this latest arose, I knew Foxley had expertly captured my attention.

Following an opening scene with a mysterious foreigner, we are introduced first to Jude Foxley, which came as a surprise that I found I quite liked; that this brother of Sebastian reveals himself to be such a curmudgeon only added to my intrigue of how this novel was to play out. As it moves forward, numerous characters are introduced, and I was further relieved and delighted to realize I was having no difficulty remembering who they were or their places within the plot. For me this is fairly huge because I have found that some novels lose their appeal following a cast of characters too numerous to be supported by the story. Mount’s skilfull management of her personalities, however, keeps the focus where it needs to be, even with those of necessarily limited dimension playing their required roles, lesser though they are.

With precision and fluidity, Mount’s tale marches forward, and we start to see a connection between the mysterious Italian of the novel’s opening, though who he is remains a mystery, as does the identity behind the murderer of one of Jude Foxley’s colleagues. His brother, Seb, is brought to work in an undercover capacity, writing out summonses, as does Jude, in a workroom that freezes feet and ink alike, deterring production and raising the unjust ire of Secretary Oliver, who oversees the Scriptorium and suffers none of its ill effects. Escaping in the evening to the dormitory provides little relief: it is just as cold, privacy is nonexistent and personal valuables are never safe, as the married Jude, ineligible to reside in the dorm, warns his brother: ‘I’ll take your cloak home with me later. It’ll not be safe in the clerk’s dormitory. As I told you, the clerks are all bloody thieves.’ Whether this is true or not, we do not at this point know, but there is the sense Jude issues the warning for true benefit as well as to stand apart from his brother’s shadow. As the youngest of numerous siblings myself, I remember compensatory bossiness quite well, and the wonderful realism of the brotherly exchanges, harsh as they often were, was exceedingly satisfying in its complexity. Humans can be strange creatures, and brothers can be so different it astounds.

Indeed, one huge angle I loved about the author’s presentation of the tale is linked to my overall view of medieval people, and that is her true representation of them. That is to say, we do not see merely one long narrative of aristocrats performing exalted tasks. The ordinary is also given its due: soggy socks; worries about rent; having to perform tasks or errands on a break and not getting to eat lunch; not enough sleep; petty work supervisors; and the like are real-world problems that existed then as they do today, breaking down some of the barriers between modern readers and the real people of flesh and blood that we too often view as so distant as to not really need or deserve our consideration. That Mount includes these characters’ woes adds to the authenticity and overall enjoyment of the story.

We also get to see the greed, sibling disputes, lust, promiscuity, selfishness and other negative character traits that plague this world (just like ours), as opposed to presenting the era as only one of sharp morality and stilted English. At the same time, Mount does not eliminate that reality from Sebastian Foxley’s era and we see a multi-dimensional period less easy to define than is often asserted.

Seb and Jude climbed the stair to the dormitory but their hopes of a little wine left from last night to cleanse Jude’s cheek were dashed.

‘I fear the servants have cleared all away,’ Seb said when they saw the sideboard was bare of any remnants of yesterday’s payday feast.

‘Drunk it, more like,’ Jude said, ‘No matter. It doesn’t need bathing. Where’s that salve you said you have?’

‘In my scrip. I put it in the coffer by my bed.’ Seb lifted the coffer lid and stared, dismayed, at what lay within. ‘Oh, Jude. Look. My belongings … See what has come to pass.’

‘I warned you not to leave anything of worth in this bloody place. Why did you bring your damned scrip? You should’ve left it at home, as I told you, but do you ever listen to me?’

 

This is one of many passages that stood out to me because it speaks of character complexity and the questioning of what we really know, or think we do. When Jude says, ‘Drunk it, more like,’ it is easy to write the retort off as one reflecting anger of Jude himself not having any of the remnants, or perhaps at the thought of using it medicinally instead of as refreshment. Perhaps he even makes the statement in a complimentary fashion, noting that they had the good sense to drink the wine rather than waste it on such an act as his brother now proposes. After all, Jude has previously asserted, ‘Wine’s for drinking, not for wasting on a little nick.’ However, as we saw previously, Jude’s assessment of the king’s clerks is not always so generous. He disapproves of their behavior and warns his brother. Jude tends to swim upstream, but he is also a product of his time, so it might not be all that surprising for him to hold to some of the day’s prevailing mores, even in a small amount, or when assessing others.

Given the ruby’s association with raw emotion, we see its reflection throughout the book, in many forms, as implied by the title’s umbrella-like nature. The shades of emotive signals and secrecy, retreats and revelations, such as Jude’s attempts to talk himself into more sensible behavior, bursting into rages or setting himself in opposition to his brother are just the beginning. There is an undercurrent that flows throughout the book, keeping the reader always a little on edge, especially as the pace moves somewhat fast, making one simply not want to set the book down. The intrigue and twists contribute to this, and the curveballs come in fast and swift, bringing us to realize there is much more beyond the book.

Though there are details and events that happen in prior volumes, and those occurring apart from the books entirely (see the wonderful looking The Foxley Letters here), The Colour of Rubies most definitely can stand on its own.

However, with the ongoing strife and Seb’s overarching desire to see peace between himself and his brother – not to mention amongst other family members interacting with the two – I know I won’t stop here. I cannot deny I recommend that neither do you!

About the Author

Toni Mount is a history teacher and a best-selling author of historical non-fiction and fiction. She’s a member of the Richard III Society’s Research Committee, a regular speaker to groups and societies and belongs to the Crime Writers’ Association. She writes regularly for Tudor Life magazine, has written several online courses for www.MedievalCourses.com and the Sebastian Foxley series of medieval murder mysteries. Toni has a First class honours degree in history, a Masters Degree in Medieval History, a Diploma in English Literature with Creative Writing, a Diploma in European Humanities and a PGCE. She lives in Kent, England with her husband and has two grown-up sons.

The Colour of Rubies, along with her many other books, is available at Amazon and Amazon UK. You can also find Toni Mount at Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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The blogger received a complimentary copy of The Colour of Rubies
from the publisher in order to provide an honest review.

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Note from the blogger: I highly recommend you check out SebastianFoxley.com and scroll down a bit ~ amongst other items on the entire page, you will see some more introduction in Seb’s own words and a lovely small video about how his visage comes to life. The layout of all the delicious book covers probably will stir you as well! ~ Lisl

Book Review: The Strife of Camlann: The Arthurian Age (Book II) by Sean Poage

BOOK GIVEAWAYS SOON TO COME, STAY TUNED!

Arthur’s Men have returned to Britain to keep the peace between fractious allies. Gawain wants only to raise his family and forget the war, yet he carries a heavy burden: an oath to maintain a lie.

But is it a lie?

Looming conflicts threaten more than any border or throne. The course of history, the future of the Britons, will be decided at Camlann.

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Many readers are familiar with and enjoy Arthurian legend, and there indeed are many versions, and perspectives within such, to choose from. One that came to my attention in recent years was Sean Poage’s series, The Arthurian Age, the first of which, The Retreat to Avalon, I read and reviewed. Told from Gawain’s point of view, it is gritty and gripping and brings us into an individual world we don’t usually get to see. The Strife of Camlann carries on with this angle while moving more deeply into events that frame Gawain’s world and understanding of it. As Gawain remembers and moves forward, layers are peeled away; we begin to better comprehend his burden as Poage’s narrator leads us further in, toward social encounters and violent skirmishes that test the warrior, to conversations, such as one with Myrddin (Merlin), that both confuse and enlighten him. There are small teasers along the way, but so authentically stated and placed that none elicit a mere “I just want to find out what happens in the end.” Each one, for better or worse, is a crucial ingredient to the outcome that we both see coming and don’t.

As with his debut novel, the author’s research is in great evidence in this installment, all of it also contributing to our thirst, not just for the “what happens,” but also for the people who lived it all. His characters come to life in a manner that penetrates us; whether this is because so many of them are like us may be a factor. Also contributing is Poage’s attention to detail and the dimension within which he provides it. Rather than just doling out specifics, he leads us into their labyrinthian world and we have to make our way just as many of the book’s people do. We see the material manner in which they lived, the connections that bound them together but were also cause for concern owing to various individual and group agendas. Jealousy, indifference, attachment, fear—these and other motivations inform their actions and within all this we become witness to the shaping of a nation.

We do have two glossaries to aid us in keeping in order the myriad names of people and places involved, which I highly encourage readers to utilize. They are a bit on the extensive side but let not disquiet enter our reading realm, for there is a singular joy in discovery that links events and our understanding. Sometimes, admittedly, there isn’t, owing to the tragedies that touch our people’s lives, but that we—our people and us—share our grief helps us to move forward to the rebuilding of lives and goals, and Poage’s narrative helps us to believe that these characters somehow know that they matter to us.

I expected the flow of writing here to be fluid, as in The Retreat to Avalon, and was not disappointed. We are rewarded with even better this time: the author’s ability to smooth his writing, to create a narrative flow that billows like silk in a gentle wind, has noticeably increased. Knowing when to sweep over minor events is also a valuable skill, and this author does it with grace. There are numerous passages that display this nimble quality, though one in particular stood out for the manner in which Poage retains the undercurrent of trauma even while displaying Merlin’s signature mordant sense of humor and breezing through time.

“Myrddin, I. . .” Gawain felt his sense of hope drain away. “I know it’s pointless to ask you to stay. But thank you.”

“You may thank me by not squandering what I have saved.” He opened the door and wrapped his cloak against the chill.

Before he could close the door, Gawain called out, “Myrddin! How did you know to be here at all? You, I mean . . .Did you know?”

Myrddin paused, looked back. From the shadow within his cloak, his eyes twinkled, and his lips curled into a lopsided smile. “We talked of this before. Do they not say I’m a seer?” And he was gone.

Gawain smiled a moment. It faded with the crunch of Myrddin’s footsteps on the frosted earth. He has never felt so alone in all his life. When Neas came, offering pleasant small talk as she tended his injuries, he barely responded. After she left, he dozed uneasily.

The creak of the door woke him. The room had dimmed to late afternoon’s light. “Neas, I need nothing but peace.” There was no reply, but a presence drew his eyes to the door. His breath caught. I’m dreaming again. Oh, dear God, let me be dreaming. Don’t let it be her shade now, too!

There do remain some of the action beats and speech tags used interchangeably that I complained of last time, but their instances are far fewer and go further in providing a narrative diversity. That the author has grown as a writer is without doubt, as is the care he takes in the consideration of his characters. Also grown is my anticipation for the next installment, which he addresses in his author’s note. It was exciting to read his words that reflected many of the thoughts I had had, including the idea as to where the next and final chapter will take us.

I can’t help but look back at The Retreat to Avalon, which I’d skimmed through, re-reading certain passages, before beginning the second book. The Strife of Camlann retains its predecessor’s true-to-the-period detail and strong character development. As the passage above hints at, Arthurian mysticism does not go unacknowledged, but reality has a firm grip, much as in Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy. Poage’s Arthurian era dispenses with magic and dragons, while we still see the glory, which strengthens the epigraph he chose that in part states, “There is more here than nostalgia for a glory that no longer exists.” Stripped of the décor, Gawain’s world within Arthurian legend, as told by Sean Poage, remains solid and real as history, revealed to us not via legend borne of a vacuum, but rather merging facts with fiction to capture the reader’s imagination and help set the stage for the next 1,500 years.

About the Author

Historical fiction author Sean Poage has had an exciting and varied
life as a laborer, salesman, soldier, police officer, investigator,
computer geek and author. A history buff his entire life, he is most
drawn to the eras of the ancient Greeks and Dark Ages Britain. Traveling
the world to see history up close is his passion.

These days he works in the tech world, writes when he can, and spends
the rest of the time with his family, which usually means chores and
home improvement projects, with occasional time for a motorcycle ride,
scuba dive, or a hike in the beautiful Maine outdoors.

The Retreat to Avalon and The Strife of Camlann may both be purchased at Amazon, here and here, respectively.

Sean Poage may be found at his website here. I strongly encourage you to check out the Free Stuff tab, which includes info on how to obtain an autographed book plate from the chapter of your choice. There are other goodies as well, so have a gander!

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The blogger received a free copy of The Strife of Camlann
in order to provide an honest review.

Book Review: Hauntings (Anthology)

“Fear is as old as life itself.”

I’ve said it dozens of times: I believe it is coded into our very DNA to want to be told stories. For very many of us, this craving additionally comes wrapped with a bit of thrill seeking—not necessarily a desire to be wholly terrified, but perhaps to experience a bit of a spine-tingling sensation, that love of the tingle on various levels, which would explain why ghost stories, when they began to be told for entertainment’s sake, were such a great hit with a diverse public.

Though there were particular masters—M.R. James, for example—the genre contains perhaps as many styles as there are readers, from the Senecan tragedies mirrored in Shakespeare and Pliny the Younger’s description of a ghost bound in chains that birthed an archetype, used to humorous effect in Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” to the modern-day possessions of people and places, event imprints and ghostly re-enactments of horrific bloodbaths, to name just a very few.

Historical tales of ghostly events have been and remain quite popular, an intriguing angle being that this sub-genre seems to be as in-demand amongst those not considering themselves history buffs as those who do. Perhaps this is because mixed within are both recognizable historical figures (of numerous eras) and those who, in life, were more of the ordinary set, such as ourselves, with relatability as an added factor. This is no small achievement, given the sheer variability of perspectives amongst readerships.

Illustration by James McBryde for M. R. James’s story “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad.” (Image courtesy Wikimedia. Click for further details.)

Yet this is precisely what Stephanie Churchill and nine other authors from the Historical Writers Forum have achieved here with their compilation of Hauntings: A Collection of Ghostly Encounters. Opening with Simon Turney’s tale of a tormented Roman general and proceeding through time, these stories “that take you through a labyrinth of historical horror” indeed weave through the years, echoing events and imprinting in our minds the concerns of the living and the dead. Some of the backgrounds are recognizable, others not; all are followed with historical notes for additional background. One of the best finds I encountered in my own reading is that even eras and cultures I was unfamiliar with or didn’t generally care for before nevertheless drew me in. These are powerful yarns that weave a pathway through the imagination, creating a fascination for the traditions or superstitions behind the events for greater appreciation of what those in the stories endure.

Anthologies can be a tricky chemistry to master: a variety of authors, with different styles; eras and settings that often are poles apart; ghosts that may or may not show up fairly soon into the tale, or perhaps not at all—these run the risk of becoming the anthologies many readers love only a few of the stories from and indeed read them repeatedly, but the rest gather literary dust. In this case, Hauntings rises above that fate not only with its sheer readability, but also marvelously written accounts that at times cause an appreciative intake of breath ~

The clouds above raced past as if they had somewhere to be[.]

~ or occasional self-awareness and/or conversational style:

I thought they were merely a part of the castle’s memories, you see.

What I love about these and other examples is that the entertainment value is kept company by lovely phrases or a reaching out to readers without stepping out of the roles to which characters are assigned. The gripping narratives engender emotions arisen as well for the sake of others, those whose stories we are in the midst of, forgetting that we came to the story for our own ends, in the process gathering a great deal about our own sensibilities as well as those of past societies and individuals within them. Moreover, there is not a filler tale in the lot. One could read the anthology cover to cover or skip around, but I guarantee you will read them all, likely repeatedly. Dust is not in the future of these tales.

Hauntings is a set of stories that will appeal to lovers of ghosts, but also those enamored of history (and even not a few not so enamored!), so I am quite sure it will bring in many who have never picked up a ghost story in their lives. We are, after all, bred to it. We want to know what came before us. We wish to be thrilled. We are looking for a little fear factor, even the exhilaration, the electrified feeling that passes through us when the unexpected comical comes our way. Truly a collection of craft, this anthology delivers what we have been seeking for millennia, and then some.

Hauntings author contributors (click each name to learn more):

Simon Turney

K.S. Barton

Paula Lofting

Stephanie Churchill

Judith Arnopp

Jennifer C. Wilson

Lynn Bryant

Kate Jewell

Samantha Wilcoxson

D. Apple

The blogger was provided with a courtesy copy of Hauntings in order to provide an honest review. 

Hauntings is available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK.

Lisl is currently working on a novel set in Anglo-Saxon England, and can be found at Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She loves rain, the sea, ghost stories, poetry and Casablanca

Book Review: How to Survive in Medieval England by Toni Mount

2022-2-13: Added note: One of our two winners has not responded and it has now been a week since the drawing. Unless I hear from the second winner this evening, I will be doing another drawing in the morning. Comment for your chance to win in the event of a new draw. Congratulations to Roslyn, our first winner, who has responded! Per the publisher, Roslyn’s copy should be en route!

How to Survive in Medieval England
by Toni Mount

This useful guide is a vital accessory when you next visit the Middle Ages. How will you manage without your mobile phone, internet or social media? When transport means walking or, for the better off, horse-back, how will you know where you are or where to go? Where will you live and what should you eat?

 What if you fall ill or are mugged in the street?

 All these questions and many more are answered in this new self-help guide: How to Survive in Medieval England comes with top-tips to make your visit to the Middle Ages much more fun; have a go at preparing medieval dishes and learn some new words to set the mood for your adventure.

 PLUS unique interviews with the celebrities of the day, from a successful business woman and a condemned felon, to a royal cook and a very controversial King Richard III.

 Have an exciting visit to medieval England but be sure to keep this book to hand.

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Comment below for the chance to win a free copy of Toni Mount’s

How to Survive in Medieval England

(More info at bottom!)

At last! Not only someone who takes my ideas about time travel seriously, but also an author who creates an entire book about the experience! OK, well, the writing of How to Survive in Medieval England had nothing to do with me, but I was pretty excited to learn about it nonetheless. From author, history speaker and teacher Toni Mount, this handbook is a fantastic resource not only for those interested in the journey and requiring sound advice, but also re-enactors, history buffs and those who want to know more about ordinary people of the Middle Ages. The volume being a great candidate for dividing up by categories, this is exactly what Mount does: there are ten illustrated chapters with the ins and outs, dos and don’ts of medieval life, from warnings regarding the utmost necessity of work, to health and medicine, awareness of religious beliefs, food, clothing and more. The author also considers the perspectives of her readers: some will want to assimilate, and so need to know what is and isn’t done, while others are strictly observers and just don’t want to be set ablaze for sorcery. Whatever your reason for passage through time, this is a book to keep close by even after your return, given its sheer repeat readability and delightfully laid out subject matter.

Mount’s presentation is smooth and alluring, in large part thanks to her often wry and humorous approach. This is the sort of topic that not only can get away with, but almost seems to need, the author’s presence. Many other books that set out to talk about ordinary life in the Middle Ages maintain a disassociation from their authors, and that hurts the experience because the topic becomes dry, even boring. In this case, however, the author provides a conversational quality that includes readers, and her style is casual and accessible.

Having said that, there is much more that keeps us attached to the book, including the sidebars with informational bits and bobs and interviews with natives to the age, some “superstar” famous and some less so. No matter which class of people, Mount has to ensure a respectful distance—not just physical—from this era’s inhabitants for, as you will see for yourself once you obtain a copy of How to Survive in Medieval England, their personalities are not only significantly more formal, but also a bit standoffish; some of today might even say rude. These portions are perhaps the most magical because, as observers to her conversations with those in the know, we get to watch what is almost two simultaneous discussions: one in which she plays her role expertly, and another in which you recognize the wink wink sort of nuance, as if the author is saying, “Yes, we don’t talk this way amongst ourselves but, you know, this is how they do it, so just listen and learn.” We can almost see her suppressed smile as she converses with those we meet and gain insight into how they operate.

It is clever on the author’s part that the sidebars mentioned above—which appear as Did You Know? and Top Tips—also often maintain the style of interpersonal communication we sense in the interviews. Consider this Top Tip:

Each Did You Know? not only provides the edification we all seem to crave about medieval times, but also with fascinating angles not often covered in other texts. These truly are the everyday, whether ordinary or weird. The author also dispels some myths we have been taught, all while making this such an accessible and smooth read for us that it is easy to forget the massive amount of research that went into preparing this volume.

As the book progresses, Mount’s instructions and information also bring us to awareness of the changes taking place within medieval England, that even amongst themselves there were differences between peoples and the eras in which they lived. After all, 1154-1485, the time range covered and a period of over three hundred years, leaves quite a bit of room to move about! She also shows us that in many ways we aren’t as different as we often seem to believe. The Middle Ages had thieves and con men; people kept records of what decedents left and to whom; and, as referenced above, knowledgeable medicine. Like us, they did not know all there is to know about the human body, but they worked diligently to understand and make discoveries, and without their trail breaking, we might not know what we do nowadays. We often tend to think we are better and smarter than those of the Middle Ages, and it can cut when we find out we aren’t. There are parallels, even up to this very day, of Roger Bacon’s advice about gathering information:

I have always said that learning about our ancestors (whether they come from this particular region or elsewhere) enables us to learn about ourselves, and Mount brings us through a fascinating array of medieval circumstances that, perhaps oddly, perhaps not, resonate with us as people. We see a picture of fifteenth-century bra and briefs, for example, found in Austria’s Lengberg Castle, and can’t help but wonder about the woman who once wore them. Would she be embarrassed that we have her undergarments on display? Or would she be, if even only a little, pleased they were discovered so us people of the future could know her times were “civilized”? That in their day they had items and ideas as modern as could be achieved at the time? That they had nice things too.

Also through word etymology, poetry and ways people found to have fun, Mount guides us through medieval England in a manner unlike any book on the topic I have ever read before. Packed to bursting with fascinating facts and stories of the lives of those who paved the way for ours, we see strangers, certainly, and also ourselves, but above all we recognize the humanity in those we don’t know but want to. Because people of all ages have been curious, I daresay there would be some, I hope, who wish to meet us as well.

In this way, Mount brings people together, dispelling myths and providing background for some of the “absurd” beliefs or actions of the Middle Ages. People generally had reasons for what they did and, once we understand what they were, a lot of the weeds are whacked away, even if we also are aware that beliefs evolved over time, paving the way for our own. I admire that the author achieves this without making fun of medieval people, but also without sacrificing who we are to better appreciate the lives they lived.

About the Author

Toni Mount is a history teacher and a best-selling author of historical non-fiction and fiction. She’s a member of the Richard III Society’s Research Committee, a regular speaker to groups and societies and belongs to the Crime Writers’ Association. She writes regularly for Tudor Life magazine, has written several online courses for www.MedievalCourses.com and created the Sebastian Foxley series of medieval murder mysteries. Toni has a First class honours degree in history, a Masters Degree in Medieval History, a Diploma in English Literature with Creative Writing, a Diploma in European Humanities and a PGCE. She lives in Kent, England with her husband and has two grown-up sons.

How to Survive in Medieval England, along with her many other books, is available at Amazon and Amazon UK. You can also find Toni Mount at Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Two readers will win a FREE COPY of Toni Mount’s How to Survive in Medieval England ~ to join the fun, simply comment below and you’re automatically in the drawing! No purchase necessary and please remember to leave contact information in the event you are the winner! Paperback copies for US and UK based winners, e-copies elsewhere. Drawing will be held Friday, February 4, 2022.

 
A courtesy copy of How to Survive in Medieval England was provided
for the blogger in order to provide an honest review.
 
Congratulations to Roslyn, who has responded to my message; your copy of How to Survive in Medieval England is en route! I hope you enjoy the book and find it helpful if you re-consider your stance on making the trip to the Middle Ages! 
 

(2022-2-13 @ 16:06 AST) I have not heard from our second winner, so if I receive no word in the next 12-15 hours, I’ll be doing a new drawing. In the event of no word, contest will be considered open and I will choose another winner. Comment for your chance to win! If you have already commented, you need not do so again to be in the drawing, though you are free to!

(2022-2-14 @ 10:30) I am so happy to announce that our second winner has contacted me and her book shall be on its way shortly. This concludes our business and the contest is now closed. Congratulations to our winners, and many big thanks for everyone’s participation, including and especially that of Toni Mount, who wrote this fabulous book, and Pen and Sword History, for your sponsorship. 

Happy Valentine Day, All!!!

My Tottering TBR: Reading Roundup (November 2021)

It’s been a strange year for reading. At the start of 2021, I’d wanted to focus on my neglected bookshelves to accomplish finally reading a batch of books I owned but hadn’t completed. (One would actually be a re-re-re-re-re-read, but I’d been keen to pick it up again so many times.) I tried to balance this with a boatload of other books—either purchased, already owned or borrowed from the library—that I was consulting for multiple projects I have in my head and outlined on paper. Now, as the year begins to draw to a close, I started to assess what I’ve read through the last ten months, though, truthfully, recognition was dawning back in about September, and I found I was rather disappointed. I had chosen twenty-one works and thus far had finished only one.

There is a part of me that laments the numbers: at one time I read an average of about sixty books a year, and last year I read eighteen. While this isn’t a thrilling development, it isn’t really the prime focus of my dissatisfaction. What is also shows up in the results of what I have been doing this year with books: the sense of having learned something valuable about or within life; possessing new takeaways that enrich time here on the planet, for myself and others; that I grew in appreciation for what and who came before, the events that shaped them and how they shaped events. Well, the one book off my 2021 list that I managed to read, Michael Jones’s The Black Prince, did move me, and I will be taking the experience along moving forward. So perhaps I should be focusing on this and not whinging so much about what I didn’t achieve.

I suppose it also isn’t true that I didn’t make any gains within the disorder of this bloc of time, and through the last week or so especially, did advance in a manner that isn’t dependent upon actual reading, though there was lots of that involved. The gist: for over a year I’ve been stymied by trying to move back and forth amongst the aforementioned multiple projects – not because that was my goal, but rather I simply couldn’t focus. Lockdown, etc. has not made me more productive, just life more chaotic, and while I read  a fair amount, I finished few of the works I picked up. At some point, something snapped, or it may be more accurate to frame it as a few pieces finally fitting together better and the dawning realization of how absurd this pathway was coming into sharper relief.

The upshot: I have put away all research type books for any projects except the one I had to consciously decide to focus upon. It’s my first step in getting a handle on this mess, and the next is to try to ignore all the other beckoning works until I’ve finished reading the one I have out. I know I cannot read all my research books cover to cover, but I will do for some, and two of these are included on my current list of reading. It’s an exception to my newly-imposed one-at-a-time rule, but this particular author is a favorite, and these two items also are two I’ve been wanting to read for a very long time. It’s a work in progress, but I did tell myself to look through both briefly and make a decision about which to aim for first, then stick with it.

My 2021 list was not organically developed, and I suspect that was part of the problem, though it’s also true that such compilations don’t always necessarily need to be, nor can they. With this in mind, the list that follows is a genuine mixture of what developed on its own and at least two I picked out with deliberation. The rest may be found here.


The Weaver’s Tale (Kate Sedley) – The first book in this series, Death and the Chapman, came by way of recommendation and I loved it. Roger the Chapman, former monk and itinerant peddler who occasionally speaks of, and meets, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, looks into a disappearance that leads him down a dangerous road amidst the hustle and bustle of medieval London. His self-effacing personality, intelligence, fallibility and humanity combine to create a character I want to follow, especially given his perceptions of the duke and place within history to provide such firsthand accounts, up close as well as at a distance. I am looking forward to continuing Roger’s journey of solving mysteries as we both witness how he grows into the role (there are a number of more installments yet to come) and the world in which he operates.

The Beloved Disciple: Following John to the Heart of Jesus (Beth Moore) – Another book I’ve wanted to read since some time and picked up because of my desire to know more about John the Disciple. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in love with Moore’s writing style and approach to readers, and other books beckoned me away. However, I felt a bit pulled toward it recently because I really do want to read about John, so decided to give it another go. Because I’m not planning to review it, I peeked at a few mentions online and saw that a few others felt the same way, but at least a few powered through and said they were glad they did. One reader spoke of a portion at the end with deep insight. The jury is still out, and we’ll see what a more patient reading might bring.

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Annie Whitehead) – This author first came to my attention when I read her debut work, the historical fiction To Be a Queen. The novel tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of King Alfred the Great and one who was to prove a talented strategist in her own right. She appears in Women of Power as well, along with a number of others I look forward to being educated about. A glance at the table of contents alone informs readers that this is not a garden-variety book about forgotten women, not with chapter titles such as “Pioneers: Abbesses and Peace-weavers in Northumbria”; “Murder in Mercia and Powerful Royal Daughters” and “Serial Monogamy: Wessex Wives and Whores.” Having skimmed the book some I can see it is a bit on the academic side, which isn’t a deal breaker, though it does inform me on how to approach it and the breadth of information it surely must contain. For example, the chapters are arranged in categories rather than chronologically, which for me can be a bit challenging, especially if there are a lot of (unfamiliar) names, interactions and connections to solidify. But I’m game.

Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality (Edward Frenkel) – I picked this book up a few years ago and never got the chance to read it, but because it was a loaner from the library, it fell off my radar. That is, until I found one of many pieces of paper I know are strewn about my home, paper with titles and authors listed on them, written in a moment of haste as I aimed not to forget about the blurb I’d (then) just read. Upon seeing the title scribbled there I could instantaneously see in my mind the Starry Night cover and felt the love of math course through my veins, a love that grew during a required class about teaching mathematics. It hasn’t really developed a great deal – which may have something to do with a silly insistence of mine to read at least portions of physics books I don’t entirely understand – though the author may perhaps aid in this as he pairs math with his memoir of growing up Jewish in the Soviet Union, a nation that discriminated against him but failed to churn out in Frenkel the negative results of oppression. I’ve watched a couple of his videos; his demeanor is cheerful and love of what he does contagious. I have actually begun reading it—I’m up to “The Essence of Symmetry”—and for me it is at least partially an interactive read, as I physically move items while he talks about them. Not unlike reading battle scenes, aloud and effecting the described movements, it nevertheless conveys (so far) affection and joyfulness for the subject so many learn to fear. We’ll see!

The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself (Daniel J. Boorstin) – I first read this book at around age sixteen and it has never left my shelf. Opening with a history of how man came to measure time, it moves forward through centuries of investigation and discovery of the earth and the seas, natural science and society. Presented in chronological order, it is written with a deep appreciation for its subject matter, including the individuals who people it, as well as the readers who hold the book copies in their hands. Aptly named, I found through the years that I learn something new each time I read it, having absorbed other knowledge that links back to Boorstin’s work, gifting me the pleasure of recognition as I pour through the pages. As a sixteen year old, I naturally didn’t remember everything Boorstin talks about in The Discoverers, but it did open a new world for me, one every bit as fascinating and frightening as that the investigators found as they pushed boundaries in their quest to know more.


Lisl is currently working on a novel set in Anglo-Saxon England, and can be found at Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She loves rain, the sea, ghost stories, poetry and Casablanca

Talk of Ghostly Tales on Halloween and Throughout the Year

Anticipating an anthology of ghostly tales currently on its way to my neck of the woods, I’ve been thumbing through other collections and excitedly thinking about what the new set will bring

It’s been a crazy last few weeks and Halloween, sorry to say, fell off my radar. Well, to be completely honest, I don’t really whoop it up as a general rule, but it can be fun to engage in some of the playful traditions, such as making scary (fun scary) treats or reading ghost stories.

Wait, who am I kidding? I read ghost stories at all parts of the year! While I don’t really care for some tales that people qualify as ghost stories – yarns that tend to fall, for me, more into the camp of horror, such as werewolves and zombies – I do love a haunting. However, I’m pretty much a coward when it comes to such things, and I don’t think I’d ever go into a dwelling with a scary reputation, for example, in real life. So to follow Algernon Blackwood’s Jim Shorthouse and Aunt Julia into number thirteen, an abandoned house that has experienced a series of hastily departing tenants, provides a thrill not unlike the one Jim himself feels, even after my having read the story dozens of times. There is also a fabulously funny haunting within Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” one whose poignant ending provides something of a map toward the reason why we are so drawn to them, even with their unknown qualities. They scare us at times, yes, but we also feel a sympathetic curiosity, not just to their current predicaments, but also the lives they once lived, and how they came to be within the same flux as ourselves.

Hauntings is on its way to my mail box!

There are, of course, so many varieties of ghost stories as well as how they are told, it would be impossible to pin down an exhaustive catalogue in a mere blog entry—surely a reflection of all the unique characters that live and have lived in our world. I’m very fortunate in that my exploration of this genre is enabled by my son, who likes to buy me books, recently having gifted me Chilling Ghost Stories, companion to another I own (and that he also brought home for me), Great Ghost Stories. They are indeed both chilling and great, some by masters such as M.R. James and Ambrose Bierce, as well as other, lesser-known authors. Also included and to be marvelously re-discovered are novelists and short story writers whose influence has waned in this century: Charlotte Riddell, Amelia Edwards, W.W. Jacobs.

It is a truism, within the discussion of ghost stories and tales of hauntings, that as long as humans carry on, the tales will be told. Modern stories may or may not reference or allude to histories that have settled within the collective or individual consciousness, but they do continue to link us to the world alongside ours, introducing thrilling perspectives and raising hairs. One such I had the opportunity to preview, within a setting I don’t often enter in the reading world—that of a mental institution—was Samantha Wilcoxson’s “Among the Lost,” from the newly published Hauntings. Wilcoxson and nine other authors “take you through a labyrinth of historical horror,” encountering such characters as a young psych nurse who encounters a mystery at her new place of employment; a tormented Roman general; and a Norse woman confronting a terrifying destiny. I am delighted to add that I will be reviewing this collection in the next few weeks (it is currently en route), so do stay tuned!

For those ghost story aficionados and others who simply cannot wait to get their ghastly tales on, Hauntings is available at Amazon and Amazon UK. I should add that Paula Lofting, the collection’s editor and the only contributor whose work I am familiar with, is on familiar ground, historically speaking. She writes about pre-1066 in Sons of the Wolf and The Wolf Banner, both of which I have read and reviewed. So it will be intriguing to see where she takes her storytelling skills within the ghostly plane, and what her co-authors also bring to the genre.

Happy Halloween, and see you back here soon!

Where Were You When…? – Remembering 1066

Nearly 1,000 years have passed ….

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.

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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.

hastings
By image on web site of Ulrich Harsh via Wikimedia Commons (Click image)

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: Sons of the Wolf (Updated) (October 14, 2016)  Marks the Battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: 1066: What Fates Impose (October 14, 2016) Marks the Battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: 1066: What Fates Impose (October 25, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: Sons of the Wolf (November 5, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Blog: “Senlac Ridge” (Ian David Churchward) (November 12, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: The Wolf Banner (November 20, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Blog: “One Crown, Four Claimants” (G.K. Holloway) (November 25, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Poet Post: “Prayer to Woden” (Rob Bayliss) (November 26, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: The Wolf Banner (December 11, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: Marching Toward 1066 (Annie Whitehead) (December 19, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: 1066: What Fates Impose (December 25, 2016)

950 Intermission: Recording History in Film (December 31, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: The Bastard of Normandy v. the Golden Warrior (Paula Lofting) (January 16, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: Alvar the Kingmaker (January 23, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: Between Two Worlds (Annie Whitehead) (January 28, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: A Dynasty Denied (Rob Bayliss) (February 9, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Interview: Paula Lofting (B.R.A.G. Medallion Winner) (April 1, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: The Price of Love and Loyalty (Annie Whitehead) (May 13, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Interview (Glynn Holloway) (September 25, 2017) Anniversary of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, September 25, 1066

950: 1066 Remembered, Secrets Through a Tapestry of Time (October 14, 2017) Final installment, marking the Battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066

#iHeartAngloSaxons

Another series that may be of interest,

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen

Image of the Week: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians (Blog that led to the series) (July 22, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Book Review: To Be A Queen (September 13, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Interview with Author Annie Whitehead and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians (September 20, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Guest Post: Invitation to the Past (September 27, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Excerpt: To Be A Queen (October 4, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Cover Crush: To Be A Queen (October 11, 2016)

#iHeartAngloSaxons

Book Review: Fortune Like the Moon by Alys Clare

Fortune Like the Moon:

Hawkenlye Mystery Series Book 1

by Alys Clare

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:

Oh Fortune!

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)?

A silver denier of Richard, struck in his capacity as Count of Poitiers. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. More on the Lionheart here.

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.

Book Review: Boldly into the Darkness

Boldly into the Darkness: Living with Loss,

Growing with Grief & Holding On to Happiness

by Autumn Toelle-Jackson

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.

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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.”

A beautiful family.

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.