Author Interview: Valerie Biel (B.R.A.G. Medallion Winner)

Circle of Nine: Sacred Treasures – A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

Hello, Valerie Biel, and welcome! Thank you so much for taking a few moments to chat with us. And congratulations, not just for your initial B.R.A.G. Medallion for Beltany, but now also Sacred Treasures. Sa-weet!!

So, Sacred Treasures is third in the young adult Circle of Nine series in which Brigit Quinn, still somewhat working through having her newfound knowledge and magical abilities, faces additional challenges. Her gifts being hereditary, they also spur Brigit to turn an eye to those who came before, and the possibilities and realities she finds are, to say the least, confounding.

Is there anything else you would like to add about Circle of Nine in terms of its description?

Thanks for that great summary, Lisl. Yes, Brigit is gradually becoming more used to the idea of being part of the Circle of Nine (the nine women who have the job of guarding the ancient ways and stone circles of Ireland.) She never wanted these “magical gifts” she’s been given and is still working through how she feels about them when she is catapulted into a mission to protect the circle. And what’s worse is that she doesn’t know who she can trust to help her fight those who wish to destroy the circle.

Did you read fantasy as a child? Or did you “discover” it later on?

I read a ton of mystery novels—series mostly as a preteen and teen. I definitely discovered fantasy as an adult reader! That may seem strange when I have such a love now for both reading and writing in this genre.

How did Brigit’s story come to you?

I was inspired by my travels to Ireland and became fascinated with the stone circles that dot the countryside. Beltany, the subtitle of the first novel in the series is an actual stone circle in County Donegal, Ireland. There’s something eerie and beautiful about these circles which rise up out of the greenest grass you’ve ever seen. Who built them? Why did they build them? If that’s not enough to start a story, nothing is. That led me to write the historical chapters of Brigit’s ancestors first. These chapters are included in the first and second book in the series. Brigit discovers these stories through a book of family history she is given on her 15th birthday.

Who were your favorite authors? Who or what inspired you to record your stories?

I have so many favorite authors in so many genres . . . I love a good creepy story like Stephen King writes, but I also adore Jane Austen’s novels. I am a little bit all over the place. Epic long journeys through another time are some of my favorites. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is one I will read and re-read.

I read a ton of young adult and middle grade novels too. There’s so much smart writing out there to choose from!

I have always been a storyteller. I don’t know if this comes out of my birth order as the youngest in a family of six or what – but I’ve always liked telling a good story and being the center of attention that way. My first attempts (3rd grade or so) were decidedly not good, but I’ve improved since then! I am so much happier when I’m creating new stories and plot lines and playing around with characters. It’s my creative outlet.

Would you want to have any of Brigit’s powers?

Yes, please, all of them! But I won’t spoil anything for the reader by listing them out here.

How did you select the names for your characters?

Oh, my gosh! You would laugh if you saw my gigantic spreadsheet of names. I spent a lot of time on the internet gathering cool Irish-sounding names. I’m very careful to keep track so I don’t re-use a name.

How long, on average, does it take for you to write a book—at least the ones you’ve penned so far?

It has totally varied – my first book took a year when I was writing part time. When I switched to writing full time, I could complete a novel in four months—about 80,000 words.  I don’t write every single day, but when I’m in writing mode I can write up to 4,000 words in one day. Not all of those sections make it to the final novel, of course.

Is Circle of Nine the (or one of) young adult book(s) you wanted to read when growing up?

I think so. Don’t we always write what we want to read? I know I do.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Oh, I am so distractible. I write from home and when I used to perch at the breakfast bar, all the comings and goings in the house interrupted me constantly. I finally have snagged one of my kids’ bedrooms for an office. (She is 22 and assures me she is not moving home—so it’s okay!)

Now, I’d say that social media is my Kryptonite. I have to turn everything off – no pings, no pop ups – to immerse myself in my work in progress.

Do you ever read reviews for your books?

Ha, I do. Every-Single-One! Mostly, that’s okay because my reviews have mostly been good, but there’s always a stinker in there somewhere. I get a little upset, but I find there’s always something to learn from a less than stellar review.

As a fantasy author, what would you choose as your mascot or animal spirit?

A bird or a butterfly.

Have you ever been on a literary pilgrimage?

Whenever we travel, I weave in stops at important literary locations or authors’ homes/museums. For instance, on a trip to England with my family we stayed in a number of Jane Austen-ish locales like Bath and Lyme Regis.

I’ve been on personal literary pilgrimages—or maybe that is better defined as a research trip. Luckily, we don’t always have to visit far-off places to write about them with the ability to immerse ourselves in a place via the internet, but truly there’s nothing like being somewhere to convey the sights, sounds, and smells of a place in our literary descriptions.

Do any other mythologies interest you? Would you consider writing a story within that setting/location?

Yes, I am completely fascinated by other mythologies and folk lore of other countries, especially those beyond the traditional Greek and Roman studies we encountered in school. Norse and Viking themes are big right now, but lately I’ve been intrigued by Egyptian mythology.

What are your favorite literary journals? Genres? Books?

I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s book On Writing. (There are so many other books about writing and how to write that I’ve read, but this is one I will re-read.)

I love The Sun – it’s a beautiful literary journal.

Are there any question not asked here today that you would like to address?

No, this has been a lovely and interesting set of questions to answer!

And now for some fun queries…

Do you ever (or often) have conversations in your head?

Yes, doesn’t everyone. Sometimes out loud, too. I think people assume that I’m talking on a hands-free cell phone in my car when they see me at a traffic light. (I live in a small town, so everyone knows everyone.) In truth, I am likely working out some dialog between two of my characters.

What is your favorite mode of transport?

Trains – I really adore trains.

What track have you played to death lately?

The music from the Young Pope miniseries on HBO is fantastic and yes, I’ve played it to death.

What accent(s) do you find charming?

Irish & Scottish

What does your ideal day look like?

It would begin with waking up to breakfast in bed on a tropical island.

But, a  good day in my regular life includes an hour or so of social media work before writing for a solid four or five hours and then a break for a workout/run before cooking dinner and relaxing with an excellent book (or possibly some reality TV like the Great British Baking Show or The Amazing Race.)

Thanks again, Valerie Biel, for joining us and congratulations!

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About the author …

Valerie Biel’s debut novel Circle of Nine: Beltany has been honored as a 2015 Kindle Book Award Finalist, a finalist in the Gotham Writers’ Young Adult Novel Discovery Contest and the Readers’ Favorite Book Award Contest as well as being a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree. The final installment in this series – Circle of Nine: Sacred Treasures – has also received a B.R.A.G. Medallion and was short listed for the Eric Hoffer Book Award grand prize, earning the First Runner-Up distinction in the YA category. In addition to the young adult stories in the Circle of Nine world, she has also authored two middle-grade novels and is represented by Kim McCollum of the Purcell Agency.

When she’s not writing, she’s working on freelance publicity projects and assisting other authors through her business Lost Lake Press or teaching about writing topics at conferences, libraries, and schools. She’s a member of a fantastically fastidious critique group through her membership in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

When Valerie’s away from the computer, you might find her working on community theater projects, local history preservation, wrangling her overgrown garden, traveling the world, and reading everything she can get her hands on. Once upon a time, she graduated from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in journalism and political science. Now, she lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband and children and dreams regularly of a beautiful cottage on the Irish coast where she can write and write and write.

Follow and learn more about author Valerie Biel and her world at her website, blog, at her Amazon author page or Facebook, TwitterInstagramTumblr, or Pinterest.

Author image courtesy Valerie Biel.

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Author Spotlight: A Study and Some Personal Experience of Lewis Carroll

A few months ago I began a contributing assignment for a Facebook writer’s group I belong to, and decided almost straightaway to re-post here on the blog for others to read the entries as well. Unfortunately, time often got in the way and I’ve since done several, perhaps five or six, without the additional postings. No worries, we can catch up or meander along, as we like!

Last night as I finished writing this most recent one, I decided to take the few moments it would require to get it going once and for all. And so here I present you first, the inimitable Lewis Carroll.

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“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Lewis Carroll self portrait, c. 1856 By Reginald Southey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
You know Lewis Carroll and the journey his Alice took through Wonderland and, subsequently, in Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, in which Alice moves through the story and countryside as a chess pawn, advancing from square to square by crossings on the terrain she follows. The stories’ main character is inspired by Alice Liddell, with whose family Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was acquainted. Their relationship and later years are magnificently explored in Anne Clark’s The Real Alice, which I read as a teen and highly recommend. Also worth checking out is Martin Gardner’s fantastic The Annotated Alice—especially the bit about looking glass milk, which fascinated me to no end as a child.


Some interesting tidbits about Through the Looking Glass and chess may be found here.


However, Charles Dodgson was much more than a quirky children’s author. He was also a mathematician and logician, artist and Anglican cleric who served as a don at Oxford University. In his time the art of photography was in its infancy, and Dodgson was a keen practitioner, later running a successful studio that produced about 3,000 images, though many have been lost.

Alice Liddell (age 7) and ferns: this was published as a miniature on the last page of the original Alice’s Adventures Underground (1861). Lewis Carroll [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Dodgson taught mathematics at Christ Church College and, like today’s learners, many of the students were accustomed to blocking the possibility that they could do well in mathematics. He created fun ideas and games to help make the material less dense and dull, as well as syllogisms to aid in the study of logic. As the page linked here states, knowing about his scholarly achievements helps us to better understand his most famous works. (Do explore the whole page, but in particular the syzygies on bottom right, last image but one.)

Two links to explore Carroll’s puzzles on logic may be found here and here.

From childhood, even before I fully understood what I was absorbing into my brain, I found Dodgson’s life and career to be fascinating and filled with worlds of information from nearly every discipline. Dodgson was also an artist and he inspired me to give the form a serious study, so for one year I focused utterly and completely on drawing.

Alice Liddell dressed up as a beggar maid, Lewis Carroll [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I didn’t come out in the end a renowned artiste, but the experience did open for me many doors I hadn’t yet explored, exercised my brain in ways that enabled me to think using varied patterns, and exposed me, via a great deal of linkage, to many more creative ideas and people, all of which immensely enriched my life. As a lover of words, I took special delight in his nonsense verse; “portmanteau words”; literal use of phrases and idioms and poetry. One of my favorites was “Jabberwocky”:

 

 

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

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“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

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He took his vorpal sword in hand;

Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree

And stood awhile in thought.

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And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

(Complete poem)

The Jabberwocky, as illustrated by Sir John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” John Tenniel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Dodgson was close friends with Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brother to poet Christina Rossetti, also previously written about in these pages. George MacDonald, Scottish author and poet, was so enthusiastic about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that Dodgson decided to submit it for publication, and since its release in 1865 it has never been out of print. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson died in 1898, just short of his 66th birthday.

It was many years following his death that the myths about Dodgson’s disinterest in women and deviant eye for girl children arose, perhaps partially exacerbated by his family’s suppression of his letters and journals, as they depicted relationships with adult females that would have been considered scandalous at the time, and the family wished to preserve his reputation. The accusations of pedophilia, too, ignore Victorian perceptions and habits and uphold an insistence upon viewing Dodgson via our 21st century lens. This isn’t to say that pedophilia was acceptable to Victorians, but rather that child nudity was perceived as a symbol of innocence and not erotica or pornographic. As stated in an essay where this debate is discussed, the accusations perhaps say more about the accusing society—ours—than Dodgson, especially given the modern sexualization of children.

Carroll’s diagram of the story (Through the Looking Glass) as a chess game. Lewis Carroll [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Whether just for fun or a more serious study, try your hand at a few of Carroll’s puzzles at this page, which starts with another brief but fantastic bio of the author and contains a word on the puzzling question presented by Lewis Carroll, which has never been answered with complete certainty! A succinct summary of how the Alice books came to be, with some fascinating background, tells more here.

I can’t say enough about the two books mentioned in the first paragraph, and further study of this fascinating and genius man and his wonderful works, which keep us actively guessing and pondering, and probably always will.

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Page from the original manuscript copy of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, 1864, Lewis Carroll [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Early edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, inspired by a rowboat expedition up the Thames, with Dodgson, the Reverend Robin Duckworth and the three Liddell sisters: Alice, Edith and Lorina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To see next in the series, Author Spotlight: Sir Alec Guinness, click here

This post was updated to add a related link 

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Book Review: Baffled by Love

Baffled by Love: Stories of the Lasting Impact of
Childhood Trauma Inflicted by Loved Ones
by Laurie Kahn

How does one explain the reality of cruelty perpetrated by humans onto other people? More baffling would be an encounter with statistics that indicate victims of violence often know their abusers. Worse still wouldn’t even be realizing that many of the traumatized are the most vulnerable of our citizens—children—but rather that those who hurt them so badly are the very people meant to cherish and protect them: authority figures such as parents, relatives, neighbors, coaches, babysitters. The understandings they develop of the world and how to function as part of it are learned within the context of their violent upbringings and brought to bear on every relationship they subsequently enter into. Without intervention, the dysfunctions that set the stage of their personalities—coping methods, interpersonal communication and more—can negatively impact their broader life in the present as well as far into the future.

Laurie Kahn, a psychotherapist in practice since three decades, brings us through some of the dark places individuals have traversed in Baffled by Love: Stories of the Lasting Impact of Childhood Trauma Inflicted by Loved Ones. These are re-tellings of childhoods disturbed, interrupted and robbed by sexual and other violence, emotional manipulation and “corrupt models of love.” As adults, Kahn’s clients couldn’t form healthy intimate relationships because what they understood to be love was actually a set of circumstances that crippled their abilities in love and other arenas.

This failure to know love can prove debilitating…Love is the pathway to connections with others; it is the key to our humanity. Love breeds compassion, and it sustains us in the face of adversity. Love creates meaning in our lives. Without empathy or compassion for others, you can harm others and feel little or no regret. Children who are deprived of love have two difficult choices: yearn for love or succumb to numbing indifference and contempt for others.

 Lovelessness is excruciating in its banality. It robs a child of her vitality. It leaves no physical welts or scars, just a devastating, enduring emptiness. Lovelessness has no language, poetry, or music. It is unnamed, hidden from view and disabling.

 Kahn’s discussion of each chapter is set up within a framework introducing a client or a particular angle that lays out a concept she expertly deconstructs and subsequently pieces together before our eyes as a means to illustrate how people’s lives are affected by what they have endured. However, the author doesn’t merely present case studies and pair the experiences with smart summaries of what went wrong, nor is her picking apart of life details shrouded in psychologist talk that—as I have often found elsewhere—makes sense individually but loses me under the weight of its numerous detail of theories, labels and pathologies.

Instead Kahn focuses on her clients’ humanity, often enabling our understanding in ways as simple as identifying what was lost and how that negatively impacts now, when the individual needs the foundation of such typical experiences to proceed in a constructive manner. In so doing the author displays her storytelling prowess, perhaps exercised even more brilliantly given these are not “stories” in the manner of which we are accustomed to discussing them. Respectful in how she handles each person, she lays out the scenes, interactions between herself and a client, perhaps, or someone may narrate or act out a memory—providing openings into angles she simultaneously discusses. One of Kahn’s most succinct passages illustrates the concept of what she calls “damaged danger detectors”:

Wendy was raised believing that the world was a dangerous place, and that family provided love and comfort. The abuse and neglect she experienced and witnessed in her family left her with no way to assess who was safe and who was not.

It points to what many of us hear about regarding any family dynamic, negative or positive: what the child grows within is what he or she perceives as normal, with the added handicap of mistaking other abusive behavior for caring, or inability to recognize warning signs in later relationships and, tragically, falling into the trap of serial victimhood.

Also a major part of how Kahn sets up her topic is by opening herself up as well to what we see. Alternating chapters move into the memoir, a condition, she writes, that “mortifies” her. It pairs, however, with another approach she utilizes, that of searing honesty within her counselor-client relationships that results in self-reflection, specifically as to the emotions she feels that unsettle her the most. With adroitness she addresses the relationship between the traditional therapeutic ideal of distance, not getting too close to clients, and trauma survivors’ greatest fear of triggering their therapists’ withdrawal.

As the book proceeds, all of this is wrapped amongst each other, nestled with details of her clients’ and Kahn’s own childhoods, as it exposes a reality that these lessons—repeatedly taught and learned by the author in her counseling role—can provide benefit to those outside of these scenarios as well. Honest self-reflection enables us to love ourselves better as we are even if we simultaneously, silently, admit there is much room for improvement, and provides compassion toward others and the ability to grow this sort of love. In this way and others Kahn keeps Baffled by Love from becoming, at its heart, an exercise in voyeurism. Instead, she enables us as humans to travel through this life with a better set of luggage, packed with tools that strengthen our self-respect as well as regard for the myriad ways in which we and those others who occupy any given moment with us got there, and move forward together.

While not the easiest book to read given its content, Baffled by Love nevertheless is also not a mere litany of abuse. Kahn explores ways to find healing, to discover a productive love, all within writing so smooth and pleasing we hardly realize we are, in some instances, also being instructed. Her varied angles are threaded together impressively, creating a smooth tapestry, powerful in its representation of histories and touching in its willingness to be vulnerable for the sake of others. With something to offer a wide audience, even those without the issues her clients faced, it is a worthy read that transcends other accounts of the healing of broken love.

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About the author ….

Laurie Kahn MA, LCPC, MFA is a pioneer in the field of trauma treatment. For more than thirty years, she has specialized in the treatment of survivors of childhood abuse. In 1980, she founded Womencare Counseling and Training Center.

Since then, her ideas and expertise have served both people who have experienced childhood abuse and hundreds of clinicians who have graduated from her Trauma Consultation Training Program.

Laurie’s personal essays have been published in anthologies, and her articles and book reviews have appeared in the Journal of Trauma and Dissociation and The Journal of Trauma Practice.

She lives in Evanston, Illinois with her husband, Michael, and her labradoodle, Kali.

For more information about Laurie, please visit Womencare Counseling and the author’s website. An excerpt of Baffled by Love is available here and may be purchased at Amazon.

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The reviewer received a free copy of Baffled by Love in exchange for an honest review. 

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Reading 2017: Reading Challenge 2017

As readers are aware from my last entry in this series, I was not entirely satisfied with my challenge experience for 2016. It seemed to focus solely on numbers and achieving more—more than one’s own from a previous year, certainly. But it’s also difficult to deny the creeping competition involving others, which in this context I’m not all that interested in, to be honest. I read 60 books last year, more than some others did. Bragging rights? Hardly! Many other readers gobbled up a whole lot more books than I did. OK, so?

So, I wasn’t planning to do a 2017 challenge because, quantity being the primary accomplishment, I was bored. Plus, I didn’t really want the stress. Then I came across one of my Goodreads group’s discussions, and saw a few options that intrigued, opening me up to the realization that my imagination was lacking. As mentioned in that previous Reading 2017 entry, their many options included a serious re-visiting of one’s To Be Read (TBR) list; step reading through different series; re-reads; exploring new authors and so on. I decided to take a little from a couple of ideas and tailor them to my own challenge, which became:

Explore three genres that are new or newish to you and read five books that have been on your TBR for more than one year.

In the interest of a truer exploration, I added a “three by three” element to the new-genres side of the challenge: that is to say, three of each new genre for a total of nine books. There’s that counting thing again, but the real aim is to look into the genre from at least a few different angles, each author having their own style, and stories being like children in a family, typically they are completely different to one another. I wanted to avoid any expectation that one story could represent an entire genre.

I purchased this book in 2012 and still have yet to read it. Will it make the TBR challenge in 2017?

The TBR addition wasn’t merely to add bulk: I really do have a boatload of reads I keep saying I am getting to. I recall once making a very intellectual stranger laugh when I commented within some casual group book talk that I was trying really hard to be “just about to start reading” a non-fiction work about the Peloponnesian War. I wasn’t that keen on his resultant mirth until he told me most people skip anything that reveals the difficulty they have getting started, but the ease with which they name drop. OK, that stirred me a bit. That, dear readers, was in 2012.

As of now I haven’t yet chosen my TBR reads, though my “new or newish” genres are sci-fi, true crime and graphic novels. Having previously read and reviewed one sci-fi tale might have given me the courage to move forward, because I loved it (and a review of its sequel is slated for next week)! I do admit I was tempted to make this upcoming one part of my three-by-three bracket, but slapped my wrist and told myself to be brave.

Graphic novels, too, I have a tad bit of experience with, though I’d wanted to expand my repertoire and read a few more than the kiddie ones I’d been doing. I liked them, sure, but had also heard that some classics had been transformed into this genre and that really put me on alert for something fantastic that could be.

The first in my true-crime reading spree. (Click image for review.)

Finally, true crime had been recommended to me and I made the leap, reading and reviewing the first of the three I’d resolved to review one from each genre in their own three-part series, the start of which can be found here. Mark Fuhrman’s Murder in Greenwich was so well written I decided to seek out another from his collection. Another recommendation led me to my final true crime, which rounded out that genre early in the year. I’ll write more about the entire bracket later in the Reading 2017 series.

So: nine new-genre reads and five long-time waiting ones. A number again, but after all the challenge does require you punch one in. I made mine fifteen for a nice, rounded figure, and reached it quite quickly—though not having met my real goal. I’ve upped it to twenty-five, though this too has been achieved, and am about to raise it again. It’s a good feeling to be able to dismiss what that number might be, knowing there is something more important within, and the links that lead me, like stepping stones, along a pathway of ideas as I pile yet ever more on top of my already tottering TBR.

A few picks from my TBR (Click to read more about selected titles; what I’m currently reading is linked in sidebar)

Stay tuned for more in “Reading 2017” and its three-part spinoff series, “New Genre Library.”

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Book Review: The Dragon’s Castle

The Dragon’s Castle (Book II in The Apprentice series)
by James Cardona

I recall being surprised as a teenager that books about Merlin qualified as fantasy; I had grown accustomed to perceiving that genre as stocked with dei ex machina and endless casts of characters I couldn’t keep track of. Certainly, I did concede that perhaps I just wasn’t good with all those relationships, but it remained true I simply didn’t wish to trail after an endless parade of people in each book. As a result, I’ve been rather uninterested in fantasy for a number of years.

Lately I’ve been having a new look at the genre and The Dragon’s Castle, second of two James Cardona  novels I’ve now read, has gone a long way in persuading me that I might have been missing out. The novel features four, perhaps more modern, wizards: Nes’egrinon and his apprentice Bel, who are drawn to the fortress city of Sha’mont as war looms, and Shireen under the watch of her mentor, Meetta.

When Bel and Shireen come face to face, the memories of their prior history pick at scars of the past and a forced split, owing to the regulations prohibiting romantic relationships amongst those who choose the wizarding way. This inner conflict occurs alongside the threatened invasion of Sha’mont by its king’s cousin, Seol, who rules half of the divided kingdom their grandfather had bequeathed separately to his two sons, Seol and Thrashel’s fathers. As with any kingdom, jealousies and ambition hold sway; as things heat up, the problem the wizards encounter is discerning exactly who holds these emotions, and how they wield their power.

One marvelous difference in Cardona’s tale is that it is not populated by so many people who appear randomly but bear also the requirement of knowing reams of prior history in order to understand their roles. To be sure, there are many people within, but the author keeps it straightforward and doesn’t assign greater importance to anyone who doesn’t fully make himself known. Moreover, he provides a character listing, divided into magical and non-magical, with simplified descriptions of the role each person plays. In my own reading I almost never had to refer to it, given that Cardona weaves what backstories we need so seamlessly into his narrative, readers are able to do what they are meant to: sit back and enjoy the story.

And enjoy it I did. Cardona’s style is what I might call “spare, with details.” One look at the book—nearly 600 pages—may well cause balking at use of the word “spare,” but I assure, you’ll be glad to hold such heft in your hands, knowing you still have so much addicting read ahead. The narrative has plenty of detail, but keeps the plot moving forward and doesn’t get hung up on a move here or a contemplation there, largely because the story is so skillfully written with both openness and mystery. The revelation of one detail comes with clues but stays concealed for a reason. Simultaneously we become involved with other scenes so thrilling and some potentially deadly the flow of adrenaline becomes a rush, while we still care for the characters involved.

A young adult novel, The Dragon’s Castle has its fair share of violence, though not gratuitous and it is on par with that of many other YA novels. Moreover, Cardona’s characters address the manner in which war mangles and destroys the lives of people caught in the middle, and they thoughtfully contemplate their own decisions, before and after choices are made. The complexity of the plot as well as how the author moves us through it treats young adults as competent readers, with a perfect balance of reader- and writer-friendly language also suitable for adults.

While much of the language is pragmatic and to the point, Cardona’s narrative is at times laced with graceful views to the world around the wizards, typically woven smoothly into a small passage that provides an abundance of detail.

Although they mostly rode in the shade as the trees on either side of the path held hands overhead and provided much cover, yet it was steamy and humid in the forest. They did not press their horses but let them walk at their own pace.

Whether a more sedate scene such as referenced above, or one of action-filled episodes, the author brings readers into the moment and tension builds within as we read along, urging and championing Bel as situations flare up, secrets are revealed and the cast searches for victory without the total destruction of all they and others hold dear. Moreover, Cardona skillfully constructs a fantasy that nevertheless reflects realities of our own world, romance, difficult decisions, loss and interpersonal communication playing many of the same roles young readers themselves are likely to encounter as they mature.

Though The Dragon’s Castle is second in its series, it reads exceedingly well as a standalone novel, and I highly recommend it not only for an audience already keen on fantasy, but also for those seeking a great new read. Equipped with steady pacing and fantastic plot, constructed with technical expertise and care for humanity, this is a novel that will draw readers into a world brought to life so engagingly they won’t want to put it down.

About the author …

James Cardona was born in Lorain, Ohio, and received his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Delaware with a minor in Religious Studies. He also studied briefly at Penn State University. He spent six years in the U.S. Navy and served during the first Gulf War. He has worked in factories and food service, as an electrician, a teacher, supervisor and engineer. But like many creatives, his heart beats most strongly when it is full of the magic of building something new. Besides writing, he can be found drawing, painting, writing computer code, tinkering with electronics and building robots. Prior to his knees turning creaky he was an avid runner, completing about fifty or so races at the half marathon distance or greater.

EM3 James Cardona

His debut novel was Gabriella and Dr. Duggan’s Dimensional Transport Machine, the first book in the NuGen series. In 2013, he wrote the children’s science fiction-holiday book Santa Claus vs. The Aliens, followed by first in The Apprentice fantasy series, Under the Shadow of Darkness. In 2015, he penned three new books: Gabriella and the Curse of the Black Spot, second in the NuGen series and The Dragon’s Castle, second in The Apprentice series. Finally, in 2015 he wrote something completely different, Community 17, a whirlwind, dystopian science-fiction adventure. In 2016, James released Dragon Hunters, a science fiction-fantasy mashup of a story, and The Night Wolf, a prelude tale set in the world of the apprentice series.

The Worthy Apprentice is now available and he is currently working on Into Darkness, which are parts three and four of The Apprentice series, respectively. He is also writing something fresh and new, a science fiction book tentatively titled Rebirth.

To learn much more about the multi-award winning author James Cardona, including more biographical information and history, see his fun, informative and intriguing website. You can also follow him at Goodreads and find his books at Amazon and Amazon UK.

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Click here for my review of Community 17: A Dystopian Novella.

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Photos courtesy James Cardona

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A free copy of The Dragon’s Castle was provided in order to facilitate an honest review.

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

Having previously looked backward into history as part of our examination of 1066, multiple award-winning author Annie Whitehead now brings us into even closer focus as we seek to make sense of this Conquest and all it has wrought. In so doing, we find we are not the only ones weighing the flood of events, actions, loyalties, what we say and what we do not. Could something have changed this deluge, could we have prevented it? Might we have escaped paying a price while remaining true? Or was it fated to happen, that we be swept up and carried along in meandering history, so like the wildest river Alvar speaks of with King Edgar?

The “thin place” author Annie Whitehead walks, where worlds old and new rub shoulders, and opportunities may arise to cross paths with those who came before …. (click image)

If we were to spy upon King Edgar, look at him from a (very) long-distance viewpoint, we would notice that, even compared to his contemporaries, he is short of stature. Perhaps his reputation is a little unremarkable, too. In a list of kings which featured Alfred the Great and Aethelred the Unready, Athelstan, he would barely stand out.

Yet in many ways, he was the most successful king of the tenth century. Respected, loved, he never had to fight, not on the battlefield, anyway. He and his brother were orphaned at a very young age, when their father the king died and was succeeded by his brother, who then died young, and childless. The teenage boys grew up separately. One of them, the eldest, was profligate, and louche, and was deeply unpopular. The other was Edgar, who grew up in the house of the powerful earl of East Anglia, where he developed ambition, and learned the art of politics. He saw how to harness the power and strength of other men, and he decided he wanted a kingdom for himself.

And since we’re having a peek, let me introduce Alvar (Old English name ‘Aelfhere’). He was Edgar’s right-hand man, helping him to secure a throne, and, much later, helping his son to secure one, too. He and his king are thinking about the years they spent together, when Alvar was earl of the powerful erstwhile kingdom of Mercia, dependent on Edgar for his position, while Edgar was dependent on the loyalty of Alvar, and the folk who lived on his lands.

Edgar: You broke an oath to serve me.

King Edgar the Peaceful, a contemporary portrayal in the New Minster Charter. via Wikimedia Commons

Alvar: I did. And it has been a cross to bear. But I saw a strength in you that I had not seen in your elder brother, whom I had sworn to serve. Some said his morals were lax, but my lord, I could say the same about yours. He was a weak man, and although it wasn’t fair what they did to him, it’s true that he was not fit to rule. He tried to buy the nobles, by giving them land. You seemed to understand what was required of a king. You respected the people you sought to rule. That was important to me.

Edgar: Ah yes, the Mercians. A proud people.

Alvar: Rightly so. Look what we achieved…

Edgar: Let me stop you before you give me a history lesson. You begin to sound like your faithful man, Helmstan. Always talking about Mercian independence…

Alvar: But you recognised it as fact.

Edgar: I did. I was nothing if not prudent. The Mercians and the Northumbrians were mainly of Danish stock by the time I came to the throne and I would have been mad not to acknowledge that. I knew I had to win their support against my brother, and I had to repay the debt. My policy was to keep everyone happy, with no reason to rebel. It worked. You all loved me.

Alvar: We did. We didn’t love each other though, that was the problem. We, the lords, and your bishops, well, let’s say we found ourselves with different ambitions.

Edgar: I held you all together, didn’t I?  Between us all, look how we even managed to arrange that all the kings of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man bowed down to me. Now that was a team effort. I even ignored the rumours about you and my wife…

Alvar: There was only ever one person who believed those rumours, and she should have looked at the evidence.

Edgar: When you say ‘she’, do you mean my wife, or Helmstan’s wife?

Alvar: You knew? Please say you never told him. I was never disloyal. I kept it secret, or so I thought.

Upper Slaughter in Gloucestershire, where Alvar had his main residence. Courtesy Charlesdrakew via Wikimedia Commons

Edgar: You were never disloyal to anyone, and that was your failing, really. You served me and mine well and faithfully. I know how much you sacrificed to help me take the throne, to help me keep it, and I know how hard you fought for my son.

Alvar: There was nigh-on full scale civil war, you know? At first, I was merely fighting for your son, as rightful heir, and then the tide of Mercian resistance seemed to sweep me along. It carried me to some dark places. Things were done…

Edgar: But even if they were done in your name, they were not done by you. Some of your enemies could have said the same thing, could they not?

Alvar: Ah, now here is where I must beg to differ. I did all I could to prevent what happened. Had I arrived just a few minutes sooner, I could have averted a killing. Dunstan, on the other hand…

Edgar: Shall we speak of him with full honour, and accord him his title of Archbishop of Canterbury?

Alvar: If you insist. The archbishop knew of many things, some done in his name, some done for his cause, about which he should not have kept silent.

Edgar: Hmm. Perhaps you are right. So how would you sum up our story?

Alvar: It is a story of kings, murdered. It is a tale of Mercia – a once proud kingdom, with nationalist feeling still running high. It is a love story, and love, as we know, never takes the straight course but meanders like the wildest river. The key word of this tale is loyalty. We are all bound by it, we all makes mistakes because of it. Some of us die for it…

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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 (HNS) 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 newest release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia. 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.

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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For links to previous entries in our “950: 1066 Remembered” series, including reviews for To Be A  Queen and Alvar the Kingmaker, click here.

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“Thin place” photo courtesy Annie Whitehead.

Browsing Books: Magical Magazine Edition

I used to love magazines. Only particular periodicals, of course, but love them nonetheless, for their gloss and thick, wonderful feel in my hands, a sensation that seemed to promise an equally fat chunk of time and pleasure in the perusal of their lovely images, thought-provoking articles, book recommendations, recipes, readings and snip-worthy portions, some of which, by the way, I retain from the collection of a teenage me.

hygge
Photo by and courtesy Alex Beauchamp. Click image for a lovely article about hygge.

As the years went by, however, I became less enamored of magazines, partly because more adult obligations entered my life and I simply lacked time. Though it is true, too, that the ads, which before I mostly skipped over save for their cut-and-pastability, grew old, and there were so many of them in the glossies I had once cherished. I suppose someone had to revenue the expensive articles, but paying the price for what nearly amounted to a book of advertisements was no longer charming. Moreover, as the letters from editors and articles became viciously politicized, I grew weary of expending so much mental energy working through words that demonized people such as myself—and via laundry lists of hate tellingly leaving out details that didn’t fit their apparent agendas. These reads no longer fed my soul, but rather sucked from me like a parasite, especially considering I was paying for them to do it.

This changed a couple of years ago when by chance I happened across a few magazines whose cover images communicated such feelings as “soulful inspiration” and “cozy retreat,” along with “creative simplicity” and “comforting beauty.” I was drawn to the special edition of one that spoke entirely about mindfulness, a sensible philosophy, oddly paired as that phrase may seem, that focuses on the moment. The many ideas wrapped themselves around me like a warm blanket because they were exactly what I needed in a life that had so much packed into it and demanded an amount of attention I could no longer give and remain healthy. Lovingly the words reached out to me, persuading that only one action should be something I do in that very moment: slow down.

Some readers here may remember the one that struck me from the start and that I haven’t let go of since: Flow. “A magazine for papers lovers,” it bills itself, and I am most definitely a paper fool. In the past couple of years I’ve seen a bit of an uptick in the magazine’s drive to increase reader consumerism with their spinoff products, something I really don’t need and work to avoid, but apart from that I love it as much as ever. The magazine sections, with several articles in each, include “Simplify Your Life,” “Feel Connected” and “Live Mindfully,” and every issue comes with a goodie or two for the paper geeks in us. This time it’s an herbarium booklet—perfect for walks during the oncoming spring/summer.

One article that appealed speaks of finding balance, another on the advantages of waiting (helpful for those mom-to-kid discussions on delayed gratification) and “The Fun of Watercoloring.” Interestingly, the piece’s blurb points to a thought I’d been forming just recently as I attempt to drive away anxiety about my own watercolors-to-be: that them coming out not as expected (or hoped) might actually be a great thing. And the pages smell wonderful. (Yes, I smell books.)

And books indeed are what these treasures really, when it comes down to it, are. I’d contemplated this before, but it was confirmed in my mind last night when I found a new title, Bella Grace. It’s hard to overemphasize how really thrilled I was to stumble upon this, which also happened accidentally. Typically on our visits to the bookstore my son and I gather a few items and head for the café. As usual I went for the periodical section for my favored titles, but didn’t see this one until I was putting the not-gets away! So just as accidentally as with Flow, I came across one containing a section—cited on the cover no less—called “Everyday Bits of Magic Worth Celebrating.” As I turned the card-stock quality paper, illustrated with photos as opposed to the drawings in many of the other new-style magazines, I breathed in the scent of the pages, marveled at the pieces’ titles and their wonderfully economic lengths that, for me, emphasize not “brief for those in a hurry” (although that may be part of the publishers’ rationale), but rather enables the flow of thought without overwhelmingly long articles, and gasped longingly at the prompts strategically positioned following sets.

There are entire pages with just one large photo and an inspirational quote that strikes me as words we really can be inspired by, as opposed to philosophical mantras that sound great but people often dismiss as so much else competes for their thought and time. I was so delighted at much of what I saw, including in “Sentiments” where readers write in, such as: “I stopped reading most mainstream magazines because I became disenchanted with the ads and constant advice. Your magazines are total immersion therapy for soulful art and inspiration.” That is the kind of thing I have been looking for for so long—soulfulness and inspiration, not badgering or condescension from those who care only about how much money they can wring from us. The publishers of these magazines have creatively tapped into what I believe many in our societies are feeling, and providing us with a return on the money we spend. Certainly they gain when we buy their products, but we benefit as well, whereas an expensive dress we saw in a fashion magazine can make us feel beautiful or happy for only a limited amount of time if that was the kind of thing we sought with its purchase.

Of course, you’ve heard this sort of thing before; so have I. Many of us have stopped buying, but still long for something we can’t always identify or define. Naturally, much of what we need and want grows internally and no purchase—even beautiful magazines—will put that there. It’s up to us to make the effort, but what I see here also is an exchange of ideas that can enable the internal growth of an intentional life, bringing a great deal more happiness and flowering of initiative and design.

Another thing I love about it—apart from the smell—is that there is absolutely no outside advertising, so the content remains timeless and you can pass it in its folding jacket cover to someone else as a small treasure. And while the magazine does have an online presence, the real content is in the book itself, accessible by getting off the Internet, reading and sharing.

One final note: Bella Grace’s “10 Easy Ways to Add Hygge to Your Life” defines the Danish word as “a general coziness as well as taking pleasure in simple moments.” Bella Grace thinks I know what this word already means, but I’d never heard of it until last night (despite my Danish Auntie Astrid, whose love certainly was hygge itself). Nevertheless, upon arriving home I practiced it most enthusiastically with a milk bath, climbing onto a yummy bed fluff with pillows, candles and the remaining scent of my blueberry soap as I settled into the magical, wonderful words and images that I am sure I shall muse more about at another time.

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