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

Today we are joined by author Paula Lofting, whose debut work, Sons of the Wolf, recipient of the B.R.A.G. Medallion, is a fantastic introduction to 1066 for those unfamiliar with the year or its significance. Those more schooled in this era will see in the novel as well a story that brings to life the people and proceedings of the time in a manner that revitalizes one’s appreciation for what led to these events, and the individual experiences of those who lived them.

Award-winning debut work Sons of the Wolf (Click image for review)

Starting in September of 2016 we began a journey through memories via reviews, poetry, interviews, excerpts, even visiting with a real historical character and more. As the year drew to a close our focus pulled back and we began, much like those whose lives and changes we remember, to carry on, as it were, take in other elements of life and move forward. But they never leave our awareness, these people and events, and for many something akin to a scar in the soul remains.

Very much like our forebears, we need to make sense of the pain and what has happened, often without much of the necessary information, so we gather what we have and tell. We fill in gaps to the best of our abilities, with imagination and understanding of evidence as well as realities of the world, and pass it all on to the next generation. This is as our ancestors themselves would have done; what is different now is that it typically is transferred to media in the form of books, plays, movies, art and song–and by the many rather than the few commissioned individuals.

Paula Lofting continues this tradition, today sharing with us details about what led her to this path, educated guesses regarding missing details, and her role in carrying on the tradition of telling.

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Hello, Paula Lofting, and good day!

Hi, Lisl, thanks for having me on your fabulous blog.

Oh, it’s fantastic to see you here! So far you have published the award-winning Sons of the Wolf and then The Wolf Banner, with a third in the works. Could you tell our readers a bit about your first two novels?

Click image for my review of Lofting’s exciting sequel to Sons of the Wolf, The Wolf Banner

Ok, so Sons of the Wolf is a series, which starts with the book of its name. I got the inspiration for Sons after reading a book by David Howarth called 1066: The Year of the Conquest. Mr. Howarth told us a story through the eyes of his own village, as it occurred 1,000 years ago. It follows the fortunes of a thegn, Wulfhere, who Howarth mentions in his book as having been the landowner back then. He owned this little village called Horstede (now called Little Horsted) and surrounding land, and owed service to the king for it.

Through Howarth’s descriptions of daily life in an 11th century homestead, I conjured up a story in my head, and just had to get it onto paper! Book I of Sons of the Wolf starts when the thegn is returning home from a battle in Scotland with his fyrdsman, and the reader is introduced to his family, of which there are plenty. We also see historical characters: Harold Godwinson and his brothers, King Edward the Confessor and Harold’s sister Edith, the queen, plus the very lovely Edith Swanneck. The premise of the book is to show the events that eventually lead to the Battle of Hastings, so there is conflict, as well as love, betrayal and a bloodfeud involved.

In the second book, The Wolf Banner, we have three threads emerging. The main one follows Wulfhere and his brood as their lives are very much changed by the bloodfeud that impinges it. We have Earl Harold, who is basically running the country for the king by now, and we see the torment he suffers in not being able to help his younger sibling and nephew, both of whom are held hostage by the duke of Normandy. The reasons being, that if Harold was to demand their release, it would open a whole jar of worms that would spell danger for England.

The third thread belongs to a character called Burghred, who was supposed to be only a minor character from the first book, but refused to be held back and stole a storyline for himself.

Sons of the Wolf starts in 1054 and by the end of The Wolf Banner, we are in 1059. The next book, Wolf’s Bane, will cover the years from 1059-63 or 64, I’m not sure yet.

Did publishing your first book tweak your process of writing? Did you make any changes to how you set about doing things?

I can’t really answer this [laughs]. I don’t have a clue.

You’ve spoken of wanting to write a book since you were a small girl. What was an early experience in which you learned that language had power?

I think perhaps in primary school. I always felt like I was not one of the in-crowd, was never chosen for anything. I wasn’t a poor student, but I wasn’t an exceptional student. I felt like a nonentity until I really got into composition lessons. Here I found my forte and the teacher would read them out, give me top marks and always complemented my writing.

Secondly, I realised in my own childish way, the power of language when I found myself spending hours at the library looking at the books and spending the whole weekend wrapped in a book—and when I say ‘in a book,’ I mean I was there, inside it. Nothing had ever excited or drawn me in like a book. Language has the power to provide an escape route, somewhere to go to when the world is all too much. Now, as I write, that power has taken it to another level.

Your bio includes mention of a few authors who influenced your imagination. Did any of their works lead you to pre-1066 as the era you wanted to write about? Had you already chosen before you came across the real Wulfhere?

Not entirely sure, possibly Rosemary Sutcliffe; however, her books are mostly post Roman, early Romano Celt. But probably there is some influence there. I remember reading the fabulous Hope Muntz story of The Golden Warrior and being immersed in that as a teenager. I’m sure that I was very much taken by Michael Wood in the early 80s; his TV programme In Search of the Dark Ages was very influential.

I also remember my father teaching me about kings and queens and going through the Anglo-Saxon ones, too. But a lot of this became consigned to the corners of my memories as my life progressed and this era wasn’t reawakened in me until my early forties, when I found myself at a Hastings reenactment and suddenly the switch went on again. Ever since, I’ve immersed myself in Harold’s story and the events of that time. I’ve found it’s almost as if I was there, or one of my ancestors was and that it could be in my DNA, as someone suggested.

How did/do you research your main character and his era?

Fortunately, there was not much to know about Wulfhere; what is recorded is just his property and land holding, and his name. I would have loved to have known more about him, but at least the not knowing means I can have free reign with him.

Now what I do have to research (it’s an ongoing task) are the events of the time, so that means I need books, as many as I can get my hands on, primary and secondary sources. It’s very important to try and get as many primary sources as possible, because there is not a lot of written work available for this period, and so one must gather what one can.

Thirdly, I have always had a strong belief that to write good historical fiction, one needs to be able to create the world as close as possible. I didn’t want to make anachronistic mistakes in regards to housing, diet and clothing, or place chimneys in stone houses when they had hearths in the middle of the floor in halls made from timber or wattle and daub. And so I joined a living history group and I think that I have a good handle on how people lived in the 11th century, and even know what it’s like to be faced with a screaming enemy running towards you as you stand in a shieldwall, shoulder to shoulder. I’ve fought with a spear and tried my hand at a sword, so I have some idea of what it was like. The best thing is being killed, sliced to death with a sword or an axe, and being able to live to tell the tale.

Do you feel you owe anything to the real people upon whom you base your characters? If so, what? If you were—whether through time travel or some other method—to meet Wulfhere of Horstede, what would you say to him? What do you think he might say to or ask of you?

In answer to your first question, I believe it’s important to get the facts as right as is possible. I wouldn’t take liberties like others have done with real characters’ lives. For example, I read a book about Hereward, where Harold’s character (a nasty black-guard) kills Edward the Confessor by smothering him on his deathbed. There was no author’s note to explain, and there is no evidence to say that he did this. It’s one thing to believe something has happened, but to defame someone’s character by accusing them of a murder there is no evidence for, is not on, in my honest opinion.

So, in looking at the sources regarding the characters in my book, I hope to have come up with a fair account of their characters. To do this I look at what were their deeds, what do the sources say about them as people and so on. In this period there isn’t a lot, but what has been written about Harold does not equate to a murdering evil git. That’s not to say he was perfect. No one is. So you have to try and get a balance when writing about a factual person. Most good people are known to do bad things once in a while and most bad people are known to have done good things once in a while.

With Wulfhere and his arch enemy, Helghi of Gorde, they are just names in the sources, so I have little to go on, but for the sake of the story I feel I can take liberties because they are only footnotes in history. And if I were to go back in time and speak with my Wulfhere, I would probably give him no end of a hard time for all the silly stupid scrapes he gets himself into. He would probably tell me it was my fault anyway, for writing the script.

What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? Was there any scene in particular that was most difficult to write?

I don’t think I have too much of a problem writing about men. I haven’t come across anything yet where I might have had to consult a guy to find out how a man might react in a certain situation. Maybe I’m just in tune with my masculine side.

Bayeux Tapestry, Scene 4: Here Harold sails on the sea (by image on web site of Ulrich Harsh [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons). Click image and scroll to see something amazing!
As a fan of your Sons of the Wolf series, I’ve grown attached to Wulfhere and his family, and your narrative has taken us readers through their loves, losses, victories and so on. As we get closer to 1066, can you tell us anything that might be upcoming?

Cripes, how do I answer this without giving out spoilers? Hmm. Ok, let’s summarise what I have in my head:

  • Someone will fall in love with someone whose station is too far above them
  • Someone else will fall in love with the wife of someone else
  • There will be more conflict between the two families of Horstede and Gorde
  • There’s bound to be a death or two
  • Harold gets a new companion in his houseguard
  • There is a rocky road ahead for one young couple
  • And someone has a nervous breakdown

Do you have an idea how many installments you might end up with in the Sons of the Wolf series? Or is that already mapped out?

I have no idea but I can say that there could be seven altogether. I just hope that I can think of more titles with Wolf in them.

Will Harold feature more prominently in the novels as we move toward that fateful year?

Yes, he definitely will. His story must be told and he basically is 1066 personified.

What do you believe were Harold Godwinson’s strongest character traits and weakest flaws? Were these the result of individual MO or more aligned to standards of the time?

Until post-Conquest, you will not find much in the way of anything bad written about Harold. This could be because his family had so much influence in the country. I think probably his strongest trait was his skill in diplomacy. He handled two incursions by the Welsh king and his English ally, Alfgar, without causing a war and would rather use diplomacy than get heavy and call for battle. However, his reluctance to invoke a civil war on behalf of his brother, Tostig, was for the wider good of the kingdom. Paradoxically, it was to play a part in his downfall. Alienating his own brother was not good for Harold.

Probably the worst thing Harold ever did was lay waste to Wales in 1063. But Harold could not have been expected to do anything else, really. The Welsh king had been a pain in the butt for too long and now with his ally, Alfgar, dead, Harold waived his diplomatic side and stormed into Wales to devastate it. Thus, Gruffudd lost his head, and Harold gained a new wife. And this laying lands to waste was not uncommon in medieval times, but given the fact that Harold had restrained his hand on a number of occasions, I think he was less of a war monger than some other kings of the period.

If you had the power to change any historical events, such as who won at Hastings, would you? Why or why not?

I would love to be able to change this, but actually, I’m glad that I can’t. Mainly because I think that it ended how it was supposed to end. If that day had ended any differently, all of history would be changed. I’m not sure that would be a good thing. Things might have turned out worse for the world, not that it could get much worse….

As it is, Harold has left his mark in history as the ‘good guy’ and William left his mainly as the bad guy who committed atrocities against the English. If he were alive today he would have been a war criminal.

That’s important to point out. What did you feel or think when you first began to learn about 1066, and how might you have grown to feel about it, or perceive it over time?

I didn’t realise that I would be so obsessed by it. There is something about this era that really gets to me. It started out as an interest and now I live, eat, and breathe it. I was talking to Helen Hollick last year at the Historical Novel Society conference and she mentioned that she believes it could be in her DNA, that perhaps the emotion she feels around what happened on that day is embedded in her blood, passed down to her by an ancestor who was there. It kind of makes sense. Perhaps that is the only way to explain the deep, intense passion I feel every time I read about it, or learn more about it.

I must say, it’s really hard not to dislike William of Normandy, even though I have tried to be objective about the events of that year. But when I looked into the Harrowing of the North, which he caused, and in which tens of thousands were said to have perished as a direct consequence and following the devastation, I decided to let go and accept that actually, I cannot be objective about something so heinous, and it was thought of as such by his contemporaries. I’m not saying that Harold was the perfect king and a saint, but William seems to have been so authoritarian and devoid of all conscience. It was not a good time to be English and one of the lower classes.

What would you say to people who either express no interest in who won the Battle of Hastings, or those who side with William?

Read Marc Morris’ brilliant and objective account, The Norman Conquest. It gives factual evidence of his brutality without taking sides. He also points out that the English nobility could be just as brutal towards each other (bloodfeuds were rife in England at that time, especially in the north), and that the Normans rarely killed another noble. However, William didn’t mind maiming and destroying the lives of lesser men.

The other thing I would say is, the Witan chose Harold, ok there was no doubt some manipulation going on there, but if I had been around at the time, there’s no way I would want the untried boy, Edgar, inexperienced as he was, on the throne. Nor would I want William of Normandy ruling my country, giving land to his friends, and disinheriting my fellow countrymen. I would want a tough Englishman to fight for me and my rights, and at that time, Harold was the man.

William had no blood link to the throne. Nor apparently, did Harold; however, having no blood link and being English was better than having no blood link and no ties to England. Harold had spent four months with the guy in Normandy and only escaped with his life when he was forced to promise on oath to serve William as his vassal. He knew the damage William could inflict. And that’s one reason he wanted to be king, I believe. The evidence is there. William was not good for England or Englishmen.

Do you think there could have been any way William might have been less cruel to the English people? Was it his upbringing that played a role in his treatment of the conquered?

William did have a terrible childhood. He suffered many traumas, his father died, his life was in danger, his guardian was killed whilst he was asleep in the same room. He was forced to hide amongst peasants when his life was in danger. And then later, there were those who would force him out of his duchy if they could. So yes, it must have affected him. I think the experiences that William had in his youth played a profound part in his psyche and his behavior towards those who would oppose him. He had to be tough. And tough, he was. These are the reasons why he was like he was, but they are not excuses for the terrible treatment he doled out.

What would you say, if able to communicate with them, to the people who suffered under William? Do you believe it matters to them whether or not we remember the details of their experiences?

I think if I were in that situation, I would want the world to know, to remember what happened to me and my people, just the way that the people of Rwanda, for example, wanted their story to be told. The only difference is that in the 11th century the only media were the chronicles and half of these would not have realised that they existed, but I suspect they would want their story told by word of mouth, just the same. I’d like to think that they appreciate that all this time after, someone is feeling their pain.

Bayeux Tapestry, Scene 26: Here the body of King Edward is carried to the Church of Saint Peter the Apostle (by image on web site of Ulrich Harsh [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons). The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of 1066 in images from the Norman point of view. Click image and scroll to see tapestry in its entirety.
Now for some fun questions!

What are two things you cannot do without?

My ipad and computer.

What website do you visit daily?

[Laughs] Has to be FACEBOOK!

What do you do when you have to queue up?

Huff and puff and mutter obscenities under my breath.

What is your favorite store?

Cripes, I dunno. Anything with books in it. I’d love it if we had a huge Barnes & Noble like you have.

Which season do you resemble the most?

Autumn, nice and matured and full of flavor [laughs].

Paula Lofting, thank you so very much for joining us today as we look back 950 years in our remembrance of 1066 and its enormous impact on English and world history.

Thank you, Lisl, it’s been a pleasure!

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About the author …

Paula has always wanted to write. Since she was a little girl, coming home from school to sit at the table with her notebook and write stories that buzzed around in her head. A prolific reader, she loved nothing better than to spend weekends with a book in her hand. Earliest influences such as Rosemary Sutcliffe, Leon Garfield, Charles Dickens, C.S.Lewis, inspired an interest in history. It became her lifelong wish to one day write and publish a book, but not being able to type, and having no funds for a typewriter to learn on, this ambition was reluctantly put on hold.

With the advent of PCs and a need to retrain and use a computer, this old ambition was stirred and she decided to rekindle her love of books and writing at the grand old age of 42. At this point, she had reached a turning point in her life and studied nursing, and also decided to write the book she had promised herself one day she would write.

Her debut novel, Sons of the Wolf, was first published with the assistance of SilverWood Books in 2012. More recently she has republished it with her new publishing company, Longship Books, in Kindle. A new paperback version will be published by June. It is a story set in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of England and the first in the Sons of the Wolf series, about this amazing time in English history.

She has always admired the works of Sharon Penman and Bernard Cornwell, Edith Pargetter and Mary Stewart, amongst many others. History is a great love of hers and her interest in the subject goes beyond that of the keyboard. She also enjoys Anglo-Saxon re-enactment with Regia Anglorum, also a great source of research for her writing. Paula says: “Write for enjoyment, write for yourself, regardless of what others say you should; for if you don’t write what you love, then how can you expect others to love what you write.”

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Follow author Paula Lofting and keep up with her news, including her magnificent new blog and impressively researched and written entries about 1066, as well as the upcoming Wolf’s Bane, third in the Sons of the Wolf series. You can find her at her blog, Twitter and Facebook.

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Coin of King Harold Godwinson By PHGCOM [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Note: This post has been updated to replace the previous cover of Sons of the Wolf with its updated design. 

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Reading 2017: Readers’ Chat

Back in June of 2016 I had a lovely conversation with Stephanie Hopkins, of indieB.R.A.G. and Layered Pages, one which contemplated different angles of the reading experience. I decided to re-blog it here for the benefit of my and other readers, and merge it into a series focused on my progression of reading between that year and this new one.

To get us started, Stephanie’s interview elicits a few responses that will be re-considered in future entries of the series, some answers or ideas of which I already have thought about, others that have yet to arise. Here’s how our summer chat went.

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Lisl, why do you blog?

I’d like to say it’s a way for me to journal without actually having to use pen and paper—I’m often so lazy about writing in an actual book, despite loving the idea of it. The flaw with that answer, however, is that I don’t blog much that people might perceive as journal-y.

When I first considered the idea of a blog, I knew I wanted whatever I blogged to help me think more deliberately, to articulate ideas rather than experience them instinctively and without further growth. And I wanted to write. I’d always loved reading and writing, and research and writing analytical papers in university to this day remains one of my happiest set of memories. I wanted to do something that picked back up on that.

vivaldi's muse
Vivaldi’s Muse by Sarah Bruce Kelly, subject of one of my first reviews, remains a favorite to this day. (Click image)

A few years ago I started to write book reviews and found the challenges of doing this led me from idea to idea and also kept my mind active, always contemplating something or other, always learning. It kept me looking for meaningful angles, and this is where my training with close readings came in, something we did in our literature classes with a particular professor. I also became a little more confident about stepping outside my comfort zones in terms of reading material, and I more easily began to see threads even in genres that before I might not have chosen quite so quickly.

I’m also happy to say that writing for my blog, even when 80% of what I end up with never gets published, has helped me toward my goal of writing creatively—this had been much more challenging to me than analytical writing—and has also led to many rewarding partnerships and alliances, including being a part of an indie writers’ community where we help each other.

How many books a year do you read?

Well, I never really thought about counting until the end of last year. I’ve had a Goodreads account for a while but wasn’t really recording anything on it apart from remembering to add a book here and there that I wanted to read. Then when 2016 began I saw the reading challenge and decided to pick a number and aim for it. To be perfectly honest, I have zero interest in competing with anyone for numbers—there will be loads of people who read many more books than I, and that’s absolutely OK with me.

What I saw in the challenge was a chance to add a little more discipline to my life, even in a smaller fashion. I also liked the idea of looking back at my reads last year, and thought it would be nice to have a set of steps leading me from one attraction to the next as 2016 progresses; at the end I might see a pattern of thought or recall events surrounding those choices—a bit of nostalgia.

What are your favorite genres?

Phew, that’s a bit rough! From childhood I would say anything to do with King Arthur and Merlin, but I also developed a serious interest in history and historical fiction, especially the Wars of the Roses era. But I also am a longtime fan of ghost stories and like to read accounts of travel around the world, especially humorous ones. I’m quite fond of other genres as well, but I think perhaps these are my favorites. You might get a slightly different answer next month!

Where are the different places you read?

I’m not sure if you’ll believe this, but I often read standing up. Because I never really paid attention until recent years, I’d assumed it resulted owing to discomfort following an injury in a car accident. I also have this crack about the designers of chairs hating humans—so many seats are so uncomfortable! My mother, however, says I was always a restless reader.

I do adore an overstuffed chair, though, and sometimes I’ll curl up in the corner of my sofa, and I especially love this if it’s snowing or raining like mad outside, which I can see from that spot.

What thrills you the most about reading?

The-Crystal-Cave
The Crystal Cave, a perennial favorite.

There are some characters who completely speak to me, and Merlin was one such. Though I had books from an early age (albeit not a lot at first), my mother told me tales of Merlin, so I didn’t actually read about him until later. Once I did start to, it was as if he had been waiting for me and I chased him everywhere. Becoming part of his world when I picked up a book made me feel thrilled and at home at the same time.

When a character gets that close to me, I feel a crucial part of my soul being filled and it is very rewarding. Naturally I want to write my experiences, and that leads to further discovery of that character as well as myself.

I want also to say that now is a really marvelous and remarkable time for storytellers and readers alike: the independent and small publishing community, as I have discovered, is simply chock full of tales so thrilling and magical and thought provoking it takes your breath away. Imagine reading book after book after book that wow you enough to either write about them or tell people, “You must read this!” Humans have an instinctive desire to be told stories, and this market, unfortunately ignored by traditional publishers (and their loss!), is filling that coded desire in a big way.

Name your favorite childhood book. 

Oh, wow, it would have to be The Crystal Cave. I’ve read that book so many times I’ve lost count. But I also was a fan of Nancy Drew Mysteries and Trixie Belden, another mystery series I first discovered on my auntie’s old shelves.

What is the first thing you consider when buying a book?

Ha! The one thing we are always told not to—the cover!!! Whether it’s a book I spot in passing or a title I deliberately seek out, I always examine the cover, perhaps as an attempt to get an advance glimpse inside that world.

In a story, what is the most important aspect of that story?

Well, is has to be believable, have a sympathetic character and a riveting plot. Even non-fiction should capture me, so to speak, as opposed to being just a lot of fact-filled pages. You might be interested to know I recently re-visited this very question, combined with a bit of walking down memory lane, and decided to write about it, which you can find here.

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Many thanks to Stephanie Hopkins and indieB.R.A.G. for being one of the rewarding partnerships in my reading and writing experience! 

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Next up: A look back at Reading 2016

Book Review: Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog

Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog

by Rossandra White

Winner of Feathered Quill’s Silver Award for Memoir

IndieFab Finalist in Foreward Reviews’ 2014 Book of the Year Award

Beverly Hills Book Award Finalist 

Someone once told me that releasing a first book is akin to hanging one’s soul on a meat hook in a display window for all to see (something like that), and I had to admit that was a pretty good assessment. So when I first received Rossandra White’s debut work, Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog, I remember thinking it was rather brave of an indie author to release a memoir as her first book.

But White carries her own in this fantastic tale that opens to the morning rhythm of a battered relationship, related in a wry tone that immediately grabs the reader with its spirit, honesty and affection. She likes when she has her semi-estranged husband’s company in the morning and the dogs Sweetpea and Jake’s loveable antics are on display, though the couple’s opposing perspectives continue to drive them apart.

Then, just like that, she comes home from work that evening to a note that reads: “Gone to Mexico. Adios.” But it’s happened before. She isn’t shocked. What gets her is the non-conversations they have as she tries to understand.

 “Okay, so are you finally going to tell me what’s going on?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why do you keep doing this?”

“Doing what?”

 And so the author brings us on a trip down memory lane via stories set in Laguna Beach and her native South Africa, acquainting us to her past experiences with so many of those who have been important parts of her life, including her husband. She tells it like it is, accepting blame as well as assigning. Her style is spare, words economical, yet they are powerfully packed with emotion and layers of element that beckon us to follow her, then wollop with detail that springs up seemingly from nowhere.

Within minutes the three of us were walking down our rustic dead-end street toward Laguna Canyon Road and the beach, the dogs trailing their leashes. I had to pass Larry’s green van, dubbed the “Love Cage,” parked in the vacant lot next door, a forlorn sight without the battered VW beside it. That van was where we first made love. It was our motel on wheels for a trip up to Northern California ten years earlier to reunite with his two youngest adult daughters, missing for seventeen years after his ex-wife kidnapped them.

Of course, this suddenness reflects many of White’s own experiences, which she deftly analyzes, looking for clues pointing toward the reasoning behind different events, and succinctly illuminating what she finds. In this manner she transports us through episodes, including with her mentally and physically handicapped brother, Garth, back in South Africa and her beloved pets, one of whom, Sweetpea, is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

The book’s compact size is a testament to White’s skill in storytelling, which for some other authors takes a much larger space to do. And it isn’t only economy, but also how she navigates two parallel threads that run linearly until they meet, also representing a time when she herself made the necessary choices regarding addressing the issues once and for all, including her own role within them.

White’s honesty is searing, but the compassion inherent within—from the author but also others, including her husband—and her writing style brings readers into the story as we journey through the years from childhood and miles of South Africa to California. We are so connected with her telling that we shudder or rejoice at her triumphs, embarrassments, fears and achievements, even smaller ones that reflect her coming into her own.

The contradiction reflected in White’s title—the holding fast while still letting go—is a state of affairs the author lives with and we see through most of the work: conversations that say nothing, living apart in the same house, attention weighted with neglect. This plays out in other ways as well, such as her own dedication across thousands of miles, and as she begins to recognize a great deal more self-sufficiency in those she is tasked with caring for, the bearers of whom provide her, in their own unique ways, with a sort of comfort in return.

It is telling to say that the day I received the book in the mail I read five chapters on the way home. The compelling narrative finds in readers a little bit of who each of us are as we seek out our own paths. White subtly deconstructs the past, her journey laden with frankness and humor as her language wraps around us, settling in comfortably in its ability to mirror our own experiences, at the same time being very much her own story. Punctuated with photos giving glimpses into her childhood, as well as matching stories throughout the book, Loveyoubye is a story of growth and forgiveness, an examination of the meaning of love and how to care for one’s self as well as others. Poignant, heart-rending, sweet and funny, White’s dexterous vision and storytelling strength brings together and reconciles opposing worlds, a union that comes with a cost, but one she brilliantly reveals without regret.

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About the author…

Rossandra White, a fourth generation South African, spent the first twenty-three years of her life in Zambia, where she had a baboon for a pet and learned to tell a log from a crocodile. She is the author of the memoir Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog, published by She Writes Press, and two, as yet, unpublished novels, Monkey’s Wedding and Mine Dances, set in Zimbabwe and Zambia respectively.

whiteShe lives in Laguna Beach with her two Staffordshire Bull Terriers, where she writes and blogs about the wild old days of her childhood in Africa as well as the wild new days of her life in America.

Readers can keep up with the author at her website, Twitter and Facebook.

Loveyoubye may be purchased at AmazonBarnes & Noble and Kobo.

Added notation: Monkey’s Wedding, set in 1950s Zimbabwe, is now available at Kindle and IngramSpark.

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The author provided a copy of Loveyoubye in exchange for an honest review. 

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Book Review: Running on Empty (Brand Spanking New Release)

Running on Empty: The Irreverent Guru’s Guide to Filling up with Mindfulness

by Shelley Pernot

Most of us have heard the sentiment expressed in the title of Shelley Pernot’s debut published work, Running on Empty. We have so much going on in our busy workdays and schedules that even when our go-go juice runs dry, we somehow must soldier on: make it out the front door finishing breakfast on the run, prepare for a business meeting as we navigate through the commute, barely make it into the office, where we shall spend the day multi-tasking, keeping up on e-mails and continually transitioning from one duty to the next and the next and the next … you get the idea. The typical result is a lifestyle consisting of a pattern that we repeat day after day, with little fulfilment as the years go by. This is much like the dogs Pernot uses to illustrate this cycle, dogs who chase a mechanical rabbit around the track every day, never, ever catching it.

[W]e all have … [a] part of ourselves that we’ve never really expressed. Perhaps something that we’ve disallowed because it was different, silly, or how the heck are we ever going to make money with that. And slowly, over time, we lose touch with these parts of ourselves. We drift along unconsciously, busy chasing that mechanical rabbit, caught up in the game of life. And then we wake up one day and wonder … “How the hell did I get here?”

runningEnter mindfulness. Rather than a new-wave, New Age-y sort of philosophy, mindfulness entails a focus on the now in an accepting manner. It seeks to avoid judgmental thoughts—about ourselves and others—and focus more on what we are doing in the present moment. The benefits are many, but some idea how one might gain from its practice is the stress reduction resulting from a decrease in the amount of critical commentary that actually slows work down, hinders creativity and inhibits confidence. Once we are better able to see past the negativity, we come to understand what we really can do.

For example: Suppose I decide I want to make a few illustrations for a work in progress. My brother and father were the artists in the family and I can really only make stick figures. I can’t draw faces. My hand smudges the page as I travel across it. I could continue on in this manner, which more than likely won’t result in anything productive, beneficial or even fun.

Suppose, however, I choose to push all that out of my mind and sit down with a pencil and sketch pad, just for the heck of it? I plan it for a school day so there are no distractions at home and decide I’ll give it an hour. Or even thirty minutes. I make a focused decision to try my hand, paying attention to what I’m doing, refer to a manual about drawing, experiment a little, see what I can come up with. At the end of my allotted time, even if without a finished product, I have more than likely made at least one discovery, perhaps conjured up ideas I could try next time, even been a little excited about what I was doing. That positive experience was enabled when I tossed away the judgements and focused on the project, accepting whatever small benefit I may have gotten from it.

One of my favorite ways Pernot illustrates acceptance links to the next phase in all of this, that is to say: OK, so how do we do this? I gave an example above from my own experience. The author presents a variety of techniques for practicing mindfulness, stressing that even small gains matter and that practitioners are “striving for excellence, not perfection.” After all, if we judge ourselves harshly because we didn’t focus on our present as much as we could have, it isn’t just a “violation” of a main tenet of mindfulness practice; it does—even more importantly—break down what we did achieve. Considering that mindfulness can be practiced in countless ways on tasks large and small, in just about any setting, there’s a lot to gain.

Pernot’s casual but informed writing style and continuum of life experiences assure us that the methods she posits are effective growth mechanisms, designed not only to engage greater thoughtfulness, but also to enable our awareness of why they work. Throughout the book she uses humor—often of the corny sort that draws us in because we can relate to so much of it. It’s sometimes silly, but it’s also a gift to us because it provides us with a lighter feel to it all as we gain greater confidence that this isn’t all about, as she says, “zenning out” or being all spiritual and complicated.

Each chapter focuses on one angle of learning to practice mindfulness, with exercises at the end of every one. Simple and straightforward, they nevertheless give readers some practice in the adaptation of mindfulness to their own lives and developing discernment and awareness. Moreover, each subsequent chapter builds on what we learned in the previous, sometimes surprising in its depth of information, especially considering the lightness of the read.

Along the way, Pernot also travels with Ed, the Mystical Mindfulness Monk, a character whose own curiously successful adaptation to our modern world (he likes Cheetos) lends consideration to the novelty of monks in a context not often perceived. His levity pairs with Pernot’s titular irreverence, transforming the journey from mere discovery to one with lightness, speed bumps, and equanimity, providing the concept of mindfulness with the same light re-evaluation that perhaps there is a side to this we are pleasantly surprised by.

The book is so well laid out and, as mentioned, so easy to read that one may encounter the temptation to speed through it, given its accessible and conversational tone. It should be, however, savored, much like delicious food (incidentally, another angle of mindfulness found to have contributed to healthy weight loss). It is fun enough to be easily read again, especially owing to its deceptive depth of understanding.

Though the book’s blurb promotes Running on Empty as “[w]ritten for the professional struggling with work/life balance,” I would slightly disagree, as in today’s age, and especially what I call the “culture of rush,” not to mention the push of a favorite buzzword (that I personally loathe), multi tasking, nearly any job can lead to a pattern of thoughtless living. Nearly everyone in every socioeconomic level has a smartphone, computer or variety of apps, and falling into an unintentional life is a danger few of us can afford to ignore.

What’s extra lovely about Running on Empty is that while it can function as a tool, and can be referred back to countless times, it also tells a story—several, in fact—and is filled with laughter and feel-good. Pernot’s passion for mindfulness, her open admissions regarding her shortcomings and wonderful writing style don’t only give her credibility. We also see she is a lot like us—she sings karaoke, for crying out loud—and the desire to digest more of her contagious good nature leads to great hope that there is much more to come from this teacher, this irreverent guru of laughter and learning.

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The blogger was provided with an advance review copy of Running on Empty in order to write an honest review. 

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About the author …

A small town girl from east Texas, Shelley Pernot earned her MBA from a top European school and then proceeded to a well-paid job in risk management in London. In 2009 she moved back to the U.S. and discovered yoga by accident. After a few months of practicing, she went on sabbatical to become a yoga teacher and then traveled to Africa.

Upon returning to her FTSE 100 energy firm employer, she assumed a new role in Leadership Development devising teaching programs like Courageous Conversations, aimed at establishing a corporate culture that welcomes honest discussion.

Having dreamed of starting her own coaching and training business for years, she launched True North Development as a safe space for people to explore what’s holding them back from reaching their potential. Running on Empty is her first book.

To learn more about Shelley Pernot and mindfulness, click here.

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Book Review (Updated): A Rip in the Veil

A Rip in the Veil (Book I in The Graham Saga series) by Anna Belfrage

This novel’s review in its original form appears here.

A Rip in the Veil is an indieB.R.A.G. Medallion recipient.

Previously having read and enjoyed The Prodigal Son, third in The Graham Saga series, I approached this first book with assurance and excitement. It is, after all, where the adventures begin, where the rip in the veil dividing time(s) occurs, at least in the case of Alex Lind. From my reading of that third in the series I knew she’d gone tail spinning through time back to the 17th century following a freak thunderstorm, though further details, of course, remained unknown to me. Reading the opening sentences of the first in the series, I was very aware of my transition into the beginning, and that enticingly soon these details would be revealed. I am quite sure anyone who has ever read Belfrage’s Saga out of order—which can be done—will understand.

ripHaving now read A Rip in the Veil for a second time it should be noted I didn’t like the book as I did before. I have grown since that reading, come to new awareness and made changes in my own life. I am different to that person who read the book last time. Through all that, I came out at the end of my second go-round with this result: I love it at least ten times more. Some of this could be attributed to a greater understanding I have toward the foreshadowing I hadn’t noticed the first time. It could also be said that having gone on to read—since The Prodigal Son—the rest of the series save its final installation, my affection for the characters has grown. All this would be accurate and surely contributes to my ongoing admiration for Anna Belfrage’s first in her timeslip series.

However, her strength as a novelist carries through more than in the ability to create strong characters with enduring appeal—an accomplishment in of itself not to be to sniffed at. Her words flow off the pages with the sort of enchantment that allows readers to recognize their beauty and rhythm, but also veils the utilitarian duties they pull on the side.

Further, true to the nature of a splendidly written book, one finds something else to adore they might not have taken in at first. In this instance one example would be phrases that capture our attention from where we stand now, not unlike the sun hitting stained glass at just the right angle or time of day. “The bright turmoil of oils,” for example, engages the imagination as it interweaves contemplation of an artist and her emotions; they unify in the moment and stir the sensations. There also is the author’s subtle sense of invitation into the story. We may share an understanding with a select character, or the author might slightly pierce the boundary between events as they occur and the observer holding the book, by acknowledging the observation.

“Jeans; everyone wears them where I come from.”

“Djeens,” he repeated, “well, you must be from very far away.”

“You could say that again,” she mumbled, hunching together.

and

[F]or an instant Alex thought she could see shame in his eyes. For an instant, mind you, and then his face hardened.

As Belfrage gets her tale going, readers also recognize what Alex herself does not, and her responses artfully contribute to the flow and continuity of the story as the author inserts detail clues for readers’ benefit; we learn ancillary information without being instructed, and the technique is used throughout the book, sparingly and subtly, also economically lending insight into players’ personalities.

The most apparent location these hints appear would be in dialogue, which also informs readers of how much each character knows about various events. In this way and others, Belfrage weaves a complex story, pleasurable and fascinating to follow—and I do mean fascinating: there were a number of occasions that gave me pause as I stopped to consider implications, how something could work, what might it mean in reality, and so on. The author’s prose lends credence to such a possibility, too: described with verbiage so on target and believable, responses and consequences so plausible, not an extra or out-of-place word, it becomes real as readers as well are drawn into the vortex with Alex, mysteriously and frighteningly into another time and, really, another place.

“Are you alright?” Matthew asked Alex.

“Yes,” she said shakily.

“Do you know him?” He cocked his head at the groaning shape.

“No.”

“Yes you do!” Two penetrating eyes fixed on her.

Alex shook her head, taking in a battered face, a dirty flannel shirt and jeans that seemed to have burnt off at calf length. He looked awful. The skin on what she could see of his legs was blistered and raw, made even worse by a large flesh wound. But he was here, an undoubtedly modern man. . . One person dropping through a time hole she could, with a gigantic stretch of mind, contemplate. Two doing it at the same time was so improbable as to be risable[. . . .]

[The man’s] eyes stuck on Matthew. . . His eyes widened, his mouth fell open, he cleared his throat and gawked some more, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a cork.

“Where the hell am I?” he said. “Where have I ended up?”

Indeed, sense of place is a strong element in Alex’s story and we see some overlap in time, eliciting more questions that contribute to an urgent sense of need-to-know. I also longed to learn how those Alex leaves behind react; here, Belfrage does not disappoint. Initially alternating with some frequency between her new/old world and the time she has left behind, gradually the narrative settles into Alex’s story within her current surroundings, only periodically bringing readers back to those seeking answers as to her whereabouts. This reflects Alex’s perspective of the experience, as she begins to make a life, her life, in this strange place she has landed. Like Alex, we acclimate to life without frequent news and knowing of her family.

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The Prodigal Son is also a B.R.A.G. Medallion winner (click image for more details)

Perhaps the most significant element Belfrage employs throughout the book, this literary reflection of a character’s reality does extra duty as it is simultaneously employed with temporal distortion—texting her father from 1658, muttered comments Alex has to explain away—and a spot of pastiche, whereby her 21st century words, ways, songs, clothing names (e.g. djeens) are imported backward in time. Alex herself often brings this distortion to readers’ attention with her questioning of her new world (which is actually old) and how she could be there, given that at this time, she has not yet been born. Nor have any of her family, so how could they be searching for her? What may be the most satisfying yet, and perhaps a little surprising, is Belfrage’s manner of writing about timeslip—writing mostly in the destination era being the largest contributor to the sense of surprise—utilizing postmodern technique to do it. Moreover, her interweaving of the various strategies is absolutely seamless.

Through the book, we get hints of Alex’s history awareness as she periodically betrays, to readers only, her knowledge of what is to come in this historical era. The temptation for an author to lean on this type of understanding must be great; fortunately for readers and characters alike, Belfrage does not rely on it. In fact, she shies away from it in most instances, as Alex determinedly seeks to make her way in this era with more natural supports—and, of course, to avoid accusations of witchcraft. When readers may expect some historical event to be referenced, Alex moves on; she has learned quickly.

As Alex learns what she needs to in order to survive—including about Matthew’s vengeful younger brother Luke, and the wife once paired with Matthew himself—she also begins to see much in Matthew, joining forces with him to live a life of integrity in the face of religious persecution and inconceivable human cruelty. Alex sees this very quickly after they meet each other, during their journey back to his home, and through their time living there. She also captures the attention of someone who believes there is more to her than she tells, bonding with her and others as she makes her way through newcomer status and the daunting awareness of not knowing what she is doing, including in the presence of those who wish her ill.

Matthew has an ally in Simon, his brother-in-law and attorney, who protects his interests and indeed, his life, counseling the newlyweds in ways small and large. In a sense, as Matthew and Alex get to know each other, their story is timeless—two people with a bond who must learn to integrate their beings into a cohesive and workable whole. On top of their own challenges, ordinary and unique, the pair must also deal with the threats that remain, for despite Matthew having made it home, Luke’s anger has not subsided, and it menaces Matthew and those he loves at every turn. The Grahams do not claim victory over every challenge, and sometimes must learn to compensate, including with each other.

“I didn’t like the ‘obey’ part,” Alex grumbled as they walked back to Simon’s office [following their wedding]. “I mean the love and to hold and all that, fine. But to obey? It makes me feel like a dog. . . . Why should I obey you?”

“Because I’m your husband,” Matthew explained with exaggerated patience. “And you’re but a mindless wife.”

Will they always be so lucky? How do they keep Luke’s hatred at bay and can they continue? What of Alex’s strange circumstances? She was brought here against her will; what if the forces that carried her here reverse themselves? Can she ever go back? How can she stay under the conditions she will be required to live? These are just a few of the top questions that will arise from readers, who certainly will reach eagerly for the next book for answers as well as more of the Grahams, for while the book’s technical brilliance impresses the intellect, its soul captures the heart and imagination.

It is understood that certain factors affect any given reading, including order of books read. Did my awareness of Alex’s future, so to speak, with Matthew affect my perspective of the first in the series? Undoubtedly. Would I have enjoyed it as much had I not read the third book first? The only truthful answer I can give is that I do not know, though I am certain I still would be clamoring for the rest, as I had been. It has not escaped me, however, that like Alex, I myself have done a bit of time travelling by learning of a future portion of her life in the 17th century before being brought to the first part of her time there. While many of my questions arising from the third are answered in the first, the readings of both remain magnificent. When first I published this review in its original form, I had added, “and I will not be satisfied until I have read them all—and even then I may still want more.”

I assure you, even after having now read them all (except the most recent), I very much still want more. I will be reading this book again and again with the knowledge that Belfrage has created the Grahams and a tale vigorous enough to journey with us through time and all of our own changes.

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Update: I have read them all by now, and I want more. 

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Anna Belfrage can be found on Amazon, Twitter, on her website and at her fantabulous blog, where you can learn more about the author, the Grahams, her sew series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, other projects and her world.

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

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

Browsing Books: Frozen Fingers Edition

Several weeks ago I was in the midst of one of the harshest upper respiratory infections I have ever experienced–bronchitis-like symptoms that worsened after months of me trying to tell myself “it’s viral anyway” paired with wheezing and burning, wrapped into that asthmatic cough that if not controlled, makes you … sick. I mean, really sick.

The smoothies in Clean Green Eats attracted my attention, snd a further skim shows realistic looking recipes with ingredients I like to eat.
The smoothies in Clean Green Eats attracted my attention, and a further skim showed realistic looking recipes with ingredients I like to eat.

Having finally gone to the doctor ready to plead for something, anything, just not to be told, “You merely have to let it play itself out.” Well, the doctor still didn’t think it was bacterial, but sent me home with a boatload of instructions, a couple of prescriptions and a decent amount of sympathy. (I’m not normally a sympathy monger, but it was nice to know she didn’t seem to view me as yet another Petri dish on legs and then push me out once she scrawled her signature.)

I actually crawled back to work after collecting my medicine, because it was bloody cold outside and the office was closer. We’d been under the thumb of a cold snap where temperatures went down to minus 15 or so–not the coldest in the Great Land, but enough to make me feel even more sluggish and slow, icy and longing for home.

Fast forward to the end of the day when my son begged me to make a pit stop at the library to pick up his holds. “But it’s freezing out … I can’t curl my fingers!”

“I have a great idea,” he began, and I knew there was no way out.

“When you get to the library, run into the building as fast as your little legs will take you.” (Where have I heard that before?) “Go to the restroom and run your fingers under warm water, then go sit down. And then,” he said with a dramatic pause, “you can relax there for a few minutes or maybe even get a couple of books for you.”

How could I say no? This child often goes to the library and brings a backpack full of books home for me–and he’s found some treasures. He makes me tea and sets me up on the sofa with DVDs. He draws pictures to cheer me up, leaves sweet little notes around the house. Really, he’s a prince and seriously, was it really that big of a deal to make one quick stop?

It’s as if the library  had been expecting me. I didn’t find a ton of books that day–thankfully, as too many at one time can be a bit overwhelming–but did pick out a few that seemed as if they were waiting just for me.

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The chapter “Using Food as Medicine Recipes” rounds out a section that helps readers personalize a nutrition plan. I see this as crucial because it helps avoid the all-at-once approach many take to dieting, whether to lose weight or improve their health, and that often sets us up for failure.

Example: I like cookbooks, though I rarely buy them anymore because they’re a tad on the expensive side and everything seems to be on the Internet anyway. The thing is, that path works better when you know what you’re looking for. And now here I was, wanting just to be home and curl up with a book (and some easy-to-make comfort food wouldn’t hurt), when I saw The Immune System Recovery Plan, touting on its cover, “Identify and cure the causes of illness, personalize your treatment, see immediate results: With 40 recipes.” Hey, curing illness and making food, I liked that!

The book is mainly directed at those suffering from autoimmune diseases, and though I’m often tired, sick and stressed, there are other elements to consider: habitually sleeping poorly and being around children a lot last year often made me vulnerable to picking up the germies these critters tend to carry around with them. Last year had also been a super stressful one for me, and although I made some changes, such as to slow down and work mindfulness into my life, I’d slipped up and lost some control on how I respond to stress. I also think I carried the previous year’s bug into the new one, because even in the summer I was sick and the pattern of feeling better and symptoms soon returning repeated itself over and over.

So I may not be part of the target audience, but the book still seemed to have something to offer for improvement of my circumstances. In particular, the author speaks of inflammation, a problem I’d had in the past pertaining to a previous auto accident-related back injury. I’m sure you can already see that looking into all this isn’t a one-read deal, and not for the faint of heart or lazy. Because I can indeed be very lazy at times, the mindfulness program I hinted at earlier will–I hope–come in nicely as I aim also to improve my ability to focus and perform tasks with greater deliberation and patience.

A side note here: mindfulness isn’t a New Age-y kind of philosophy, and actually, as far as I know, has its roots in the Slow Movement, which itself was actually born in Italy and initially focused on food, later expanding to be applied to many or even all activities of daily life with an underlying aim of improving mental, emotional and physical health. As I wrote in one of my first blog entries here, I personally believe our culture of speed is one of the worst developments we picked up on, and has adversely affected our food, finances, attitudes, health and constructive abilities–and that’s not an exhaustive list, not by a long shot. Don’t get me wrong; elements of life such as high-speed Internet and direct deposit are fantastic and not necessarily destructive. But others, such as microwavable food and the unwillingness to work for something has helped to produce a society of people largely lacking the appreciation of a good meal–which doesn’t only include food that causes fireworks in our mouths and a joyous surprise as how delicious and tender the food is, but also the sharing aspect of it.

hungry-girl
Don’t be fooled by the title–the author is, simply, a hungry girl! These recipes, food descriptions and shopping tips are for the benefit of everyone. There is also a section of vegetarian recipes, some of which meat eaters might find quite yummy. I enjoy food preparation, and trying out new meals and snacks, even if developed for those with allergies or certain food preferences, is a fun way to expand my repertoire.

Mind you, I’m not unaware of the benefits of doing some things quickly, and another cookbook I was led to contains a guide with “Recipes in 15 Minutes or Less,” “No Cook Recipes” and, for a twist on how to save time while still maintaining a high standard of production, a section with slow cooker recipes. Hungry Girl Clean and Hungry: Easy All Natural Recipes for Healthy Eating in the Real World seems to me like a useful resource for that transitional phase in which one wants to begin looking into all this slow-down business, but also needs to retain a sense of reality regarding the world in which we live. Small changes, a few at a time, create positive habits and the encouragement of progress can also strengthen one’s dedication toward these new goals.

The Secrets of People Who Never Get Sick brought my awareness back to other ways of treating illness, and to be sure, food is included in the book (chicken soup, detoxification, garlic, to name a few secrets). Not unlike the dental practices I researched a few years back, some of today’s health secrets, as I read in Gene Stone’s introduction, actually originated quite a long time ago. Not all are included in the work, the tips of which Stone received from ordinary people who either never get sick or are able to solidly chase away illnesses, unlike many of us who repeatedly nurse these conditions. As within the books discussed above, the author advocates reading about what other people have done to maintain their good health, and working out for ourselves what makes sense for us.

I commented earlier that engaging in the research involved in all these recipes, elimination or introduction of foods, new ways of shopping and so on isn’t for the lazy. I say that in good fun, because I know that it isn’t always laziness that prevents us from really looking into new ideas–sometimes, but not always. It can be overwhelming or intimidating. However, it does come down to a choice that we make, even if we temper or slow it to suit our abilities, needs, and understandings.

This is reflected in the title  of Raymond Francis’s Never Be Sick Again: Health Is a Choice, Learn How to Choose It. Not having read the book, I’m not entirely convinced we can choose to defeat such diseases as cancer, though the idea lingers in my mind as a strong possibility. Of course, no one wants cancer, and few wish to die from it. But some do. Why? I am hopeful I will find more answers to this and other questions, but equally hopeful that “give[ing] you the power to control your own health” will nevertheless supply a number of benefits for optimum well being. Here too, nutrition comes into play, including a sentence that included words quite similar to those I’d read in one of the other books: giving your cells the nutrients they need. In other words, going to bed hungry, the author writes, is not a problem for most Americans. But in many cases their bodies are “starved” of proper nutrients.

Since the day I went to the doctor I have been feeling better, but one thing I had to do was seriously. Slow. Down. A few weekend days I spent entirely in bed, and even reading, one of my favorite things to do in all the world, took a sharp nosedive. (It’s now mid February and so far this year I’ve read only two books.) I quit a part-time evening job I had and continued on with only my day employment. Some things simply didn’t get done and others I took on with a one-at-a-time approach. I took the time to perform some “preventative maintenance” (e.g. Neti pot, which can be time consuming and feels really weird), telling myself I don’t want in three weeks again to be feeling the way I did that day at the medical office.

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“Getting sick is harder than staying well.”–Raymond Francis

“Pick [a secret] that appeals to your strength.”–Gene Stone

 

There’s still more to do and it’s a learning process. I probably will end up having to return and check those books out from the library again, or simply buy them, but to examine them deliberately and resist the temptation to allow myself to stick them on a table and forget. I will surely be starting again to cook and freeze food, as I have in the past been in the habit of doing–even, by the way, “frozen fingers” of a different kind. Fortunately, I also already habitually use certain foods (e.g. garlic and onion) or have helpful rituals (e.g. stretching and water when I wake up), but there is always room for improvement and new knowledge, or expansion on that one already possesses.

If the way I feel today is any indicator–a vibrant sort of happy surprise that on a Saturday I’ve been to the cinema, run an errand and now am getting some writing and editing done, instead of moving about the house in a malaise, half-heartedly typing something or engaging in distracted conversation–then I’m looking forward to this. I’m not flipping through books in a frenzied research run, and that’s okay. We’re in for another cold snap, meaning more indoors time, but I’m feeling again like I can enjoy cooking with my young teenage son and the way the house smells, doing things for him without making it larger than it really is, which is a far cry from how I felt even in the days during the back and forth when I felt better. I think it is more real this time, and it’s like a lighter feeling in my mind that elicits the emotion of how good it feels to feel good.

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An upcoming blog will discuss the practice of mindfulness and some fun resources for learning more, including an absolutely gorgeous magazine I’ve discovered, and that I think you will also enjoy. 

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

Now 1066 has passed, as has its 950th anniversary, and we look back upon the year, in some ways not unlike how its inhabitants might have. The Christmas coronation of William, who they later called the Conquerer, has occurred, and the old year passed into a new … January becomes February, and time marches forward. 

Before, we marked our memories in a structured sort of fashion, when the new order was still getting its grips, with remarks such as, ” A week ago today …” or “One month ago.” Now the memories and longing wrap themselves around us as they strike our inner minds randomly, as the required daily tasks remind us that life plunges forward; some events remain as ordinary as before, and yet we aren’t completely sure what to expect. Promises have been made, but the outcomes are troubling. Transitional, perhaps, difficult only in this phase. Or is the foreign conquerer as fearsome as our imaginations lead us to believe? Our anxieties and uncertainties seek consolation in familiarity and affection, and it is difficult not to remember our old king, how awful it is to refer to Harold Godwinson as belonging to the past. Were his deeds all we thought they were? How all these others now talk of him with distrust, admiration, of betrayal and foolhardy leaps into the unknown? Did we really know him? What did we know? He is gone now, and we struggle to make sense of exactly who he was, this king of ours ….

“A Dynasty Denied” by Rob Bayliss

Harold Godwinsson is somewhat of an enigma. He is a hero to some and a usurper to others. He marks the last page of the Anglo-Saxon period in English history, when England truly ceased to be a nation in the Scandinavian world and was drawn deeper into the power play of continental politics. But who was this grandson of a minor thegn who rose to be King Harold II? To find out we must fully explore the world he lived in and the roots from which he grew.

Harold was born in 1022, the second child of Godwin, the Earl of Wessex, and Gytha Thorkelsdottir. It is thought that Godwin himself was the son of Wulfnoth Cild, a thegn with large estates in Sussex. During the ill-starred reign of Aethelred the Unraed (ill-counsel) Wulfnoth was outlawed and his lands confiscated. The reasons for this banishment are unclear, but it occurred during a muster of 300 ships in 1008AD to counter the Viking threat. Unknown charges were brought against Wulfnoth by Brihtric, brother of the infamous Eadric Steona.

harold_godwinson_02
Coronation of King Harold Godwinson By Anonymus (The Life of King Edward the Confessor) (http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/cgi-bin/Ee.3.59/zoomer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Wulfnoth fled with his twenty ships; obviously he had been a man of power and influence to command such a number. Brihtric gave chase with 80 vessels but he was obviously not the sailor that Wulfnoth was. A storm drove Brihtric’s fleet ashore whereupon Wulfnoth fell upon his hunters and burnt the 80 ships. With a third of his fleet lost the king was unable to stop the Viking invasion of Kent; Aethelred the Unread indeed.

What subsequently happened to Wulfnoth is unknown, but he died in 1014. His son Godwin served under Aethelred’s son, Aethelstan and was bequeathed a Sussex estate on the prince’s death, also in 1014.

This was time of chaos. The Dane, Sweyn Forkbeard, had invaded England after years of raiding, and driven Aethelred into exile, to be declared king. However, a mere two months into his reign, Sweyn died and Aethelred and his family returned to England. The Danes still in England declared for Cnut, Sweyn’s youngest son and a bitter time of conflict, unseen since when Alfred had fought the Great Army, fell across England. Aethelred’s eldest surviving son by his first wife, Edmund Ironside fought Cnut to a near standstill. Eventually the two made a form of peace; Cnut became king of the old Danelaw and Mercia, while Edmund retained Wessex and London.

Within weeks of the peace treaty Edmund died in November 1016, ushering in the reign of Cnut the Great, now ruler of a vast North Sea empire. Cnut married Emma of Normandy (Aethelred’s second wife and widow) and cemented his position. He had Edmund’s family sent into exile to Sweden – presumably intending them to be killed there; instead, however, they found their way to Hungary and safety.

Among Cnut’s new English followers was a certain Godwin. It seems that Godwin had followed the Ironside after Aethelstan’s demise. One thing Cnut prized above all others was loyalty and, keen to have a smooth transition of power, accepted the Sussex thegn’s oaths given to him.

Godwin’s rise under King Cnut’s patronage was rapid. By 1018 he was Earl of East Wessex but by 1020 he was Earl of all of Wessex. He accompanied Cnut on an expedition to Denmark and obviously gained Cnut’s trust and affection.

Godwin married Gytha, Cnut’s sister in law; they would go on to have 11 children, including Harold, Swegn and Tostig. Godwin also took under his wing Cnut’s nephew, Beorn Estrithson, who grew up alongside his cousins Swegn and Harold.

Cnut the Great died in 1036 and the Witan – the council of earls, bishops and chief thegns – was duly held in Oxford to decide upon the succession. There were two sons from the union of Cnut and Emma: Harold Harefoot, the eldest son and locally based in England, and Hardecnut, based in Denmark. Harefoot had his base in the Midlands and his claim was supported by Earl Leofic of Mercia and Cnut’s Danish fleet. Harefoot certainly appeared as the easier option and yet Emma and Godwin, and through him Wessex, backed Hardecnut. It would appear that the realm would be split between the two but Magnus of Norway was threatening Hardecnut in Denmark and so the promised king never came. Godwin increasingly felt threatened as Harefoot stamped his authority on the north. He had too much to lose to react to Harefoot seizing the treasury at Winchester, within Wessex itself. Real politics of the time forced Godwin towards Harefoot’s claim.

Queen Emma, now isolated, sent for her sons by Aethelred in exile in Normandy. So it was that the exiled aethlings Edward and Alfred landed in England attempting to rally support. Edward landed at Southampton, attempted to move inland to Winchester and his mother, but was driven off back to his ships. It would appear that the population, now resigned to accepting Harold Harefoot as king, had no wish to have the issue of the succession muddied further. Alfred landed at Dover with the intention of moving towards London but at Guildford Godwin apprehended Alfred and his followers.

What happened next would blight the reputation of Godwin and his family, especially in Edward’s eyes. Perhaps wishing to prove his loyalty and trustworthiness to Harold, Godwin yielded Alfred and his followers to Harefoot’s men. Alfred’s men were disposed of and the unfortunate aethling was taken to Ely where he was blinded and died of his wounds soon after. Godwin was therefore implicated in the murder and when Harefoot died and Hardecnut eventually claimed the throne in 1040, Godwin was forced to assist in the desecration of the dead king’s grave. As punishment for the support that Harefoot received, all England was subjected to a harsh taxation from Hardecnut. Godwin had to answer the charges ranged against him and swore an oath that Alfred’s cruel fate was by orders of the Harefoot alone. He gave the new king a magnificent ship, built at great expense and tried to keep his head down.

Continue reading “950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: A Dynasty Denied (Rob Bayliss)”

New Genre Library: True Crime (Murder in Greenwich)

This new series explores genres new or newish to me as part of my 2017 reading challenge, to be discussed in an upcoming post.

Murder in Greenwich: Who Killed Martha Moxley?

by Mark Fuhrman

I don’t typically include true crime on my list of preferred genres, though a couple of memories lingering in the back of my mind may have opened me up to it. In 2012 Samantha Koenig was abducted from a coffee hut close to our house and later murdered, and it was my young son’s most in-your-face introduction to the realities that life can dish out. More recently I read a beautifully-written true crime memoir, Finding Bethany, authored by an Anchorage detective whose own sister had also been murdered when he was a boy. He weaves in her story as well as that of his search for Bethany and, later, her killer.

I didn’t know either of these young women, though I recall Bethany’s case from when my son was a new baby, and Samantha’s killer was arrested when my boy had just turned nine. While our personal timeline is insignificant to the cases, the two events stood in my awareness then, like bookends. A strange coincidence occurred in Detective Klinkhart’s own timeline: Bethany Correira disappeared on his sister’s birthday, May 3.

As I type I recall another book I read years before, that of a London detective investigating the murder of a baby. His suspicions were later found to be correct but Victorian England was obsessed with the new profession of detecting, and the investigator who lends his name to the title of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher saw his career destroyed. Perhaps it set the stage for the affection and admiration I have for homicide detectives in particular, whose work takes them to the dark side, sets them amongst people who block them at every turn, whose passion for restoring some sort of justice to people they (mostly) never knew taps into a deep sense of integrity and demand that murderers pay for their crimes, no matter who they are.

Before a year or two ago, I never heard of Martha Moxley or Michael Skakel, though I vaguely recall reading about the case, perhaps when Skakel was in and out of prison on appeal for the 1975 murder of fifteen-year-old Martha Moxley of Greenwich, Connecticut. More recently his case came to national attention once more when it was determined he had indeed received a fair trial with competent counsel, and his conviction for the murder was reinstated. I saw the news piece at iOTWreport, where blogger Big Fur Hat notes retired Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman’s instrumental role in re-opening the case and the resultant conviction. Something struck a chord and I decided immediately to read the book.

murder_in_greenwich-1The late Dominick Dunne opens Detective Fuhrman’s Murder in Greenwich account with a foreword that straight away acknowledges the Moxley murder case never really became a national story. This struck me as odd, given its circumstance: a fabulously wealthy neighborhood, closely guarded and protected from outsiders by its own security force, a beautiful teenage girl who died right in front of her own house. That a “Kennedy cousin” lived next door and might have been involved seems like it would contribute to its national story status, though as Fuhrman discovers and relates as his investigation proceeds, Michael Skakel’s family wealth and connections actually play a role in the cover up and shielding of the suspect, even years after the crime.

Fuhrman leads us through sections in the book that outline background, his taking on of the case, evidence examination, individual profiles of participants, and a breakdown of his investigation. Each section contains attention to detail that he writes in narrative and linear form, inviting readers in as he points out and connects details, drawing conclusions or asking questions. For instance, on the night of the murder Martha was out with friends and her mother, Dorthy, was painting a room upstairs. The cold drove her to close the window despite the fumes, and at one point

she heard a commotion on the side of the house—the sound of voices so loud that she could hear them through the closed windows. She clearly heard the voices of male youths, or at least one male youth. She was accustomed to hearing kids on the property, since they often cut through her yard. But these voices didn’t sound friendly or innocent[.]

Fuhrman also reports that several neighbors noted a cacophony of dogs barking, and some even went outside to investigate. Later, in “Hypothesis of a Murder,” he utilizes forensic clues to determine that Moxley was not killed where she was found, and notes a streetlight near where she was initially struck with a golf club before being dragged to a spot under a tree and left. How could it be that when he pursued his investigation, despite advantageous views from some areas to the spot, the noises Mrs. Moxley heard and the amount of blood the crime produced, nobody saw or heard any part of the commotion outside?

Perhaps most awe inspiring is how meticulously Fuhrman traces details, follows leads, digs through years and records redacted and aged, runs up against Greenwich detectives who absolutely refuse to cooperate with him, or at least answer his questions as to why they didn’t follow certain procedures, why they allowed a dog, for example, sniffing and licking around on the ground, to literally eat evidence. The author traces the Skakel family’s earlier history and Michael’s movements through the years as he was shielded by his family from authorities who eventually began to focus on him.

As a writer Fuhrman is to the point, revealing his compassion and detecting talent as he moves forward, each step noting in layman’s terms what even seemingly insignificant details might mean to someone “reading” a crime scene. His periodic illustrations and accompanying notes lend greater understanding not just to the details of a murder and what a detective might be looking for—including what is there as well as what is not—but also what sort of procedures investigators follow, such as note taking, order of who they talk to, keeping people separated and even simple first steps, such as blocking off the crime scene. It is unfortunate, exceedingly sad even, that the Greenwich police had so little experience investigating murders that they didn’t even know to do this.

Is this the largest part of the reason why local authorities refused to help Fuhrman? Did pride get in the way as they bitterly considered the consequences of an outsider solving a case they couldn’t? Did they later come to understand the horrific series of mistakes and careless acts of their force? Or were they afraid of the Skakels and stalling on an investigation in order to protect a well-connected member of their community? Fuhrman touches upon all of this and more, at times expressing his anger at how, with so much evidence, someone could be allowed to get away with this crime, and nobody seemed interested in changing that. This he does with great feeling, though without falling into any over-emotive passages that crash and burn by the time readers finish the book.

On the contrary, this account has stayed with me, and as an outsider I saw Fuhrman’s investigation in a way he doesn’t, as someone not typically exposed to the anatomy of a murder, as he calls it, and as it includes the murder as well as its subsequent investigations. In the case of Murder in Greenwich, this entails also how one copes with an unsolved case and the incredulousness that comes with the awareness that, as Fuhrman frequently declares, someone out there knows something.

As readers and consumers of current news, we now know what the Mark Fuhrman of 1998 didn’t: Skakel faces justice in the end. Given his family’s possible appeal yet to come, the anatomy may still be forming itself, perhaps never to end, not so long as anyone remembers that a lovely, vivacious girl once lived, that despite those in-your-face realities of life that haunt our memories and bookmark our timelines, someone cared enough to stand for her and demand answers to the questions left behind.

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Thanks to BFH at iOTWreport for linking!

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

“Between Two Worlds” by Annie Whitehead

My name is Annie; a few years ago, on my travels as a writer, I discovered an Anglo-Saxon lady. This lady really existed, but survived only as a footnote in history, and now I’m going to visit her.

Every morning after my kids had gone off to school on the bus, I would walk along a green lane, which took me between fields. At the end of the lane there is a cluster of dwellings, and, just out of sight, an old farm. Midway along the path, the way is darkened by trees and it was at this point on my walks that I sensed a little of what some folk describe as a ‘thin place’ where the old and new worlds collide. This bucolic and slightly ethereal location became the basis for my fictional village of Ashleigh, the home of Káta, wife of Helmstan, and secretly loved by Alvar the Kingmaker, earldorman of Mercia.

upper-slaughter
Upper Slaughter, where Alvar lived, as it appears today. Do you suppose Káta might recognize it? By Charlesdrakew (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Today I am stepping through, metaphorically, into that other world, back to the year of AD963. I want to talk to Káta, and I have a message for her.

I know a little about her daily chores and I think I know where to find her. She will be in the bake-house, supervising the kneading of dough for the daily loaves, or she might be in the weaving-shed, working one side of the big loom. Ashleigh means ‘the clearing in the ash grove,’ and the village is surrounded on most sides by trees. Most people live in, or near, the enclosure but some live out in the woods. The houses are all made of timber, with thatched roofs, but inside I am surprised to see that the main hall has lime-washed walls, and is insulated with embroidered hangings.

Káta, wiping her hands free from flour, comes in from the bake-house, and gestures for drinks to be brought. She obviously doesn’t stand on ceremony, having come straight from working, but she thinks I don’t hear her add, “And bring the best cups.”

She glances round, and I can see from the way her gaze sweeps from corner to corner that she is assessing whether her house is ‘presentable.’ This lady is very house-proud.

She bids me sit down, and she stares at my feet. More precisely, at my boots. I always wear thick-soled walking boots when I come down the lane. She puts out a hand as if to touch them, and I am sorry that they are so muddy. She withdraws her hand. I look down at her leather, soft-soled shoes and I realise why she is so taken with mine.

“How often do you need new shoes?” she asks. “Mine do not last long, especially not at this time of year.”

I smile. How we take these things for granted in our modern world; my shoes will last me for years, whereas hers will wear through incredibly quickly. Being a shoemaker must be a lucrative job in the tenth-century!

When we have finished our drinks (she has given me wine; it’s too sweet, and I don’t drink in the middle of the day, but I don’t wish to offend) she will take me on a tour. November was blood-month, the time when the animals grown for food are slaughtered, and much of their summer produce has been preserved for the winter. Traditionally, they hang cheeses from the rafters – a hazard for tall people! She will need to keep a check on her personal store of dried herbs and plants, which are used for medicine.

“My duties are many. As lady, I must look after the folk who dwell on our land. I must nurse them when they are ill, bring food to those who are too elderly to fetch their own…”

“Like meals on wheels,” I say.

She shakes her head. Not in rebuttal, but in confusion.

In winter, they do not do much sewing, for daylight hours are short, but she assures me that they do mend their linens. She is proud of her beeswax candles – no smelly tallow for this lady!

Other things are purchased, such as crockery, and combs carved from antler.

“I would dearly love to ride to Chester to buy some new cups,” she says. I was right when I thought that she was house-proud.

She twirls her cup in her hands, but I notice she keeps her right hand hidden from view.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “I won’t tell anyone about that.” (Although readers of the book are sure to find out its significance.)

brooch
An enamelled Anglo-Saxon brooch of the period – Kata was given one similar to this by her husband, Helmstan. Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum. (AN1909.453 Jewelled cross pendant, gold and garnet, AD 600 – 700, Ixworth, Suffolk. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.) (Click image for further detail.)

She fiddles with a brooch. It is a present, she says, from her husband. It is enamelled, and she treasures it because it was a present from London, a place where she has never been.

“I have a message for you,” I tell her. Her forehead wrinkles and I add, “It is from Alaska.”

“Who is Alaska?” She holds out her hand, as if for a letter.

“Not a who. A where. Alaska is a place, across the sea. Lisl lives there. It’s a long way from here. Even the boat journey would take months.”

She shrinks down in her chair. “The longest journey I ever took was from my father’s house to this one. Have you been to this … Alaska?”

I shake my head. “No, but I would love to go one day.”

“Then you have met someone who has been there?”

I smile again. How to explain? In her world, only the written page, or word of mouth, can convey information.

Instead, I tell her, “Lisl says that in Alaska many of the folk there grow their own little patches of garden, and the homesteaders sell lots of their produce. Some of the villages there are small and really isolated and some don’t have proper roads into them.”

Káta barely raises an eyebrow. “So things are not so different in Alaska.”

“The weather is a little different. Lisl says there’s a chance you might run into a stray bear.”

Now she is horrified. “I’ve seen pictures of such things. Thank goodness we do not have bears here.”

I am rather glad that we no longer have wolves in this country, but I keep silent.

We walk past the wooden gate-house, no more than a viewing platform, really, and out onto a lane that is considerably busier in these times than it is in mine. Folk all know each other by name, and occupation, and there is much more of a sense of community than in the rural England in which I now live.

Káta says, “Is it like that in Alaska?”

I shrug and say, “I don’t know. I’ll ask…”

picea_glauca_taiga
White Spruce Taiga with the Alaska Range in the background. While we might be intimidated by traveling along some of the roads Káta would have been familiar with, she might find uneasiness in the vastness of this landscape. By L.B. Brubaker (NOAA photo [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Click here to see my review for the multiple award-winning Alvar the Kingmaker.

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About the author …

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion and Chill With a Book Award.

Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Æthelred the Unready. Alvar the Kingmaker is also a recipient of the B.R.A.G. Medallion, Discovering Diamonds Special Ward and Chill with a Book Readers’ Award.

whitehead-author-picShe has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog.

Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017. She lives in the English Lake District with her husband and has three grown-up ‘children’.

You can learn more about and follow author Annie Whitehead and her work at her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook and her Amazon author page. Click titles to purchase To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker and 1066: Turned Upside Down.

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950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: Alvar the Kingmaker

Alvar the Kingmaker by Annie Whitehead

A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

Recipient of a Discovering Diamonds Special Award and

Chill with a Book Readers’ Award

“My father told me that the lady of the Mercians was dead and gone before the days of the great Athelstan who was king even before Edgar’s father. Her daughter was shut away, and ever since there have only been West Saxon kings.”

 So relates Káta to husband Helmstan, simultaneously telling part of a new story as well as filling in a bit the bridge between the days of King Alfred the Great and his daughter, and their now, here in Annie Whitehead’s second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker. Her debut, To Be A Queen, is Æthelflæd’s story of loyalty, identity, the determination to act upon what is right for self and one’s people, and how those people took her as their own and called her their lady.

alvarNow, however, Mercia has been absorbed into the Wessex kingdom, and time has marched forward: new generations, new rivalries, new threads that loosely wend their way in to form new models of a society growing away from its past.

As a reader who had hungrily consumed Queen, I found myself greedy for this next book, even though I knew nearly half a century comes between the two eras, that Æthelflæd would not appear in it. Nevertheless, she does touch the story, as the Mercians, indeed the even more ancient Hwicce tribe, yearn for their centuries-old identity, past days and the rights enjoyed at that time.

Whitehead brings this to life as she introduces the warrior Alvar, who grows into his status as a statesman following a broken oath and crowning of a new king, the above-mentioned Edgar. Her tale brilliantly takes us through the years of Alvar’s close friendship with his deputy Helmstan, and the secret love he holds for the man’s wife. During these years he also must do battle with church leaders who play ungodly hardball, unafraid to bring harm to the innocent, who unwittingly wander into their sights, as they seek to destroy Alvar, seize his lands and render him irrelevant. When civil war erupts, he finds he must make his way past accusations of regicide and the future under a king whose weakness endangers the land against Danish military raids.

There is something unreal about witnessing the birth of Æthelred’s reign, knowing as we do about the choices he is to make that will link to future claims and pave the road toward the most important year in English history. Whitehead’s prose conveys these realities, though with a storytelling brilliance that captures my reader’s heart as well as the individuality of the people who actually lived this time. Utilizing historical details, the author weaves their tales, revealing their dimensions beyond mere residency, instead showing us what matters to them. Entwined within are the many ways people live and love, heartbreak that ensues and choices they make that on occasion affect many others.

Like vines creeping across brick walls, the moments within  these lives intersect and influence the scenes and events of Alvar the Kingmaker, and Whitehead’s prose is as lyrical as we have come to expect it to be. Like poetry in bloom, flowering into a prose that flourishes across her pages, it subtly wends its way in ordinary moments as well as highlights passages in a fashion that causes one to stop and read it again—best aloud.

Káta partially closed her eyes against the sun, and looked through rainbow-lashes at the brightness. Away near the woods, the incessant triple hoot of the wood pigeon announced that full summer had arrived, while beyond the mill the rising laugh of the curlew marked the way to the estuary, but, beside them, the downward slope of the riverbank offered shelter from the breeze, and the loudest noise here was the gentle chatter of the water.

As the flowering poetry-prose making its way among the pages, Whitehead carries us across the scene, visiting each small moment as we gracefully flit from point to point, exhilaratingly experiencing the beauty of the moment and the sweetness of summer as Káta encounters it as part of her world.

The author gives us glimpses and insight into much of Káta’s world, even parts of it she herself is not privy to, as we traverse time and geography to understand the linkage between the events within this time and as they will later relate to other important episodes. Alvar’s fealty to his king cannot prevent the direction of time’s march, however, and that surrealistic sensation of hovering above history, witnessing it unfold unleashes a flurry of questions and possibilities loosed by the winds of change that gust through the pages of the book, in the end reminiscent of Henry’s last leaf, clinging to the vine, an indicator of strength so long as it remains tethered to its host.

We know, for example, that Æthelred will later wed Emma of Normandy in attempt to pacify Viking raids with a unity between England and Normandy. Their son, the future King Edward the Confessor, however, will die childless, opening the way for a storm of claimants and the end of a dynasty. Is Edward the last leaf, the one torn from its root as the seasons inexorably must change? Or does his youth, largely spent in Normandy and perhaps laced with loyalty to his mother’s land, coincide with the timing as “[t]oo many things have come loose that cannot be tied together.”

Whitehead does not actually bring her story as far as Edward’s reign, though it is nearly impossible not to think about what the future beyond Alvar and Káta holds as they themselves live as part of the bridge between the days of Alfred and Edward. By their time, yes, Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd is long dead and gone, her daughter’s fate not entirely certain. Nevertheless, she is their heritage as they will one day be someone else’s. Exactly how they get there remains to be seen, however, as Alvar rises in his position as a statesman and loves not only Káta, but also another.

The road that leads this other to him, like other events, helps determine history, but we also live through more personal trials with the characters, an omniscient narrator cleanly carrying us from perspective to perspective, smooth dialogue coursing through the pages like Káta’s water as its presence fertilizes and grows the life within its words. Whitehead also makes this sharper with her habit of assigning nicknames or slightly modernized versions of Anglo-Saxon names to her characters. Perhaps the best part is that the events are based on the lives of real people, and so as we think back to Káta’s moment in the sun excerpted above, it is difficult not to be awed by the author’s ability to transport us—really making us feel as if we are there—a thousand years back to a time that determines our own, and the people who made it all move.

A poignant, sometimes humorous, masterfully-told tale of the life of a man dedicated to his country, Alvar the Kingmaker is a must-read in the growing collection of an award-winning author whose name is solidly linked to quality historical fiction and enlightening Anglo-Saxon studies.

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Stay tuned for some follow-up guest posting from multiple award-winning author Annie Whitehead.

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About the author …

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion and Chill With a Book Award.

whitehead-author-picHer new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Æthelred the Unready. Alvar the Kingmaker is also a recipient of the B.R.A.G. Medallion, Discovering Diamonds Special Ward and Chill with a Book Readers’ Award.

She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog.

Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017. She lives in the English Lake District with her husband and has three grown-up ‘children’.

You can learn more about and follow author Annie Whitehead and her work at her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook and her Amazon author page. Click titles to purchase To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker and 1066: Turned Upside Down.

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A copy of Alvar the Kingmaker was provided to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

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