Recharging and Taking Stock

A recent alternative bookshelf experiment bathed by the winter sun (see closeup image at bottom)

Well, some of you have noticed I’ve not posted a review—or  anything else—for quite a while (I got a few emails, bless your hearts), and the truth is I was burned out. I know, very starkly stated, but there you have it. Though I never posted as often as some others, or blogged for as many years as them, what I have been doing was quite enough. If I do say so myself, I strive to make my reviews of a higher caliber because I like to look at details, compare/contrast, analyze and delve a little more deeply. Plus, I’ve been writing reviews since about 2012, maybe 2013, and I’m ready for a turning point.

I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities in doing this, and I want to take this moment to thank all the authors who have submitted books for review: your wonderful tales have reached into my reader’s heart, taken me to new worlds, brought me into contact with people from the past or those roaming amongst your imaginations (sometimes a bit of both), and provided me with massive amounts of information about our own history. For me this is absolutely priceless.

Some of the books I’ve reviewed atop the uppermost shelf of one of two identical – we call them the twins.

That sounds a bit like a departure, doesn’t it?

Well, in a way it is. As I say, I’m a bit frazzled, and I don’t want to end anything on a negative note, so I’m going to chill out for a bit, take a much-needed slowdown so nothing ever comes to that. I’m looking forward to browsing the library stacks and actually reading most of what I bring home.

And in a way it isn’t: I’ll still do some reviews, but for the time being, just playing things by ear as to what I’ll be checking out and when. I also will be focusing on some other ideas I’ve been wanting to pursue, such as writing about food. I’m by no means a foodie, but I do love to cook (baking is another story) and learn about ingredients’ relationships to each other. In fact, I just learned a baking secret (to me at least) that I’ll tell you about next time in an entry I’ve already started to write.

The climbing pink roses and shape of this vase, together with its green framing the floral, really caught my attention. It didn’t exactly match the color scheme I had fallen into, but I liked the idea of an “imperfection” in the room, something that stood alone.

And you know what? I so can’t keep away from books, so you know I’ll be exploring some written works about that universal love we partake in at least once a day. Unfortunately, not everyone can say “once a day,” so I’ll be looking at that angle as well, as I’d like it too, to take me somewhere.

I’ve got some décor news, a few new photos to show, a couple more hobbies I’m trying to develop and have been immersing myself again in my very first love of the written word: poetry. In fact, I’ve finally reached out to a few people who agreed to act as beta readers to my own collection of poems, many of which were written when I was still in school. I’ve gotten some fantastic feedback, which has really psyched me up even more. A very dear social media friend persuaded me to try my hand at making a few sketches for the collection, and it’s not been so easy, but I’m trying to get on with those. One of the above-mentioned developing hobbies is something that has helped me figure out how to proceed—more to come!

I adore looking at décor and the many ideas people have for creating their spaces. The moment I saw this image in Alison Wormleighton’s Victoria: Decorating with a Personal Touch, I knew I wanted to re-create this wonderful corner (Hearst Books, 2004, click image).

I’ve also got a collection of short stories to finish writing; lots of historical nonfiction to read on various topics of fascination; my fifteen-year-old son has re-discovered the Beatles in a yuuuuuge way; full-on winter is coming and I’ve been cooking up a storm and freezing lots of it. And, of course, I’m still plugging on with the editing (more details here). My only wish for change there is that I could do it as my sole source of income. As with any pursuit worth its salt, it is rewarding: I meet (or “meet”) great people and, perhaps most important, learn from them. Sometimes they think they’re the only ones gaining new info, but that’s never true, thankfully. I have an auntie who always says, “The day I know everything I might as well just stay home.”

So who knows what the next five years may bring? I really enjoy blogging, so whatever is yet to come, I hope I’ll be still be sharing it with you wonderful people as well as reading yours, finding out more about what’s going on in your universe.

See you soon!

 

Closeup of top image. The plant, I was told, is impossible to kill, and that has proven to be very correct. My kind of plant! The books with the gold on their spines, by the way, are fairy tales, the truer versions of which I have taken to reading lately. The slim, green volume beneath the wartime cookery guide is a collection of poems by Christina Rossetti. Willa Cather is my all-time favorite author since elementary school, and O. Henry, master of the short story, initially wowed me way back then with “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Last Leaf.”
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Reading 2017: The Importance of Covers (Book Blogger Group Chat)

I am so pleased to present this joint interview blog, Readers Voice: The Importance of Covers, which appeared early this year on Discovering Diamonds, author Helen Hollick’s brilliant blog highlighting the best of historical fiction in the form of reviews and other features. I was so pleased to join with three other bloggers as we chatted with Anna Belfrage, author of the wonderful Graham Saga series, to talk about covers and why they matter to readers. I’ve included the responses from Jo, David and Jenny, and highly encourage you to check out their blogs as well as books they’ve dipped into or treasured.

In some instances my own answers vary slightly from what appears at the original blog (linked above); owing to considerations of space, some snipping had been required for Anna’s posting. Feel free to spin through other entries too, both here and at Discovering Diamonds, as well as by Jenny, David and Jo – and as always, have fun!

Author Anna Belfrage has brought together four book-bloggers for a discussion about covers. 

Are covers important? Yes or no? 

Anna: I’d say they are – but let us not get ahead of ourselves. Instead, I’d like my guests to introduce themselves. Jo, why don’t you go first?

It’s difficult to overstate my love for this novel and its cover

Jo: Hello everyone, I’m Jo, a prolific reader and also an active book blogger at Jaffareadstoo – a blog I share with my ginger tom, Jaffa. I live in Lancashire in northwest England, and I am happily retired after a thirty year nursing career. To fill the void after I finished work I started blogging and chatting about books to anyone who would listen. I’ve also reviewed books for magazines and online websites. My passion is historical fiction and whilst I prefer medieval history, I do also love a good time slip novel that keeps one foot firmly in the present whilst visiting the past.

The one book that has made the most impression was Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. It’s the only book EVER that, as I finished the last sentence in the book, I turned immediately to the beginning and read all 863 pages again.
 
David: Hi, I’m David from David’s Book Blurg. I live up north near Newcastle in the UK with my wife and twin girls. I’m a lover of history but favourite period so far would have to be 1066. I particularly enjoyed 1066: What Fates Impose by Glynn Holloway.
 

Jenny: I’m Jennifer Quinlan, but everybody calls me Jenny Q! I am a native of Virginia—a ninth-generation Virginian, actually. My family has lived in the same county since the 1680s! I studied history and English at Virginia Tech, and I am the owner of Historical Editorial. I provide copyediting and developmental editing services, and I design book covers. I also have a book review blog, my first love, Let Them Read Books.

I will read a novel from any historical period if the subject catches my fancy, though I am partial to British, French, and American history. I can’t possibly name a favorite read, but some of the timeless books on my historical fiction shelf of honor are Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh Princes Trilogy and The Sunne in Splendour, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Gone with the Wind, Lonesome Dove, and Forever Amber. (AB: Ah, yes: Forever Amber – one of my first hist fit loves.) 

Lisl: Ehem. (clears throat) Well. I’m Lisl and come from the Great Land, known to most people Outside as Alaska. (“Outside” simply means any place not Alaska.) I keep a blog called Before the Second Sleep, in which I write book reviews and other tidbits that strike my fancy. Back in September I had a series called “Month of Mary Stewart” to celebrate 100 years since the birth of this wonderful author. My mother recommended Stewart’s The Crystal Cave to me and solidified the affection I already had for Merlin. Other than this author’s Merlin Trilogy, I love to read time travel, historical fiction—mostly in Arthurian, 1066, Wars of the Roses and American history—and a few other genres.

AB: Wow, what a lovely and varied group of people you are! And, dear readers, I recommend you pop over to the various sites – these are four very different reviewers with a common passion for good books!

Now, before we get started, what can I offer you to drink? Coffee? Tea? Hot chocolate with whipped cream?

Jo: Hot chocolate with whipped cream wins every time!

David: Earl Grey for me.  (A man of good taste.)

Jenny: Coffee please, and lots of it! Two creams, one sugar.

Lisl: Anna Belfrage, are you offering me chocolate? 😉 (AB: What can I say, Lisl? I live in hope ….) I would love a cup of tea, thank you!

AB: Right, with the practicalities sorted let me start by asking you how important you think the cover is. Will it sell the book to you? Or is it more a case of some covers putting you off even looking inside?

I can absolutely see why this image grabbed Jenny’s attention

Jo: A well-designed cover suggests that time and care has gone into the story. The cover sells the book to me and I have bought books just on the basis of the cover; equally I have been turned off by poorly designed covers, or covers which bear no resemblance to the story. I have given up on a book if I have found the cover unappealing.

David: When buying a book the cover is the most important thing to me. I need a cover that catches my eye otherwise I might not even look at the back of the book to see what the story is about. I wish I could take the time to browse more but there’s so much choice out there that an author needs to stand out and the cover is the first thing you see.
 
Jenny: It’s both for me. I am drawn to gorgeous book covers like a kid in a candy store, so it’s more likely that a cover is going to draw me to the book rather than put me off. I tend to just skip right by books with unattractive covers. I would like to say that the importance of your cover is second only to the quality of your content, but there are many books with subpar content and outstanding covers that are selling a lot of books, so if your goal is to be a bestseller, then your cover is probably the most important part of your package.
 

Lisl: Oh, in some instances a cover can indeed be the pull to the whole story. It has happened not a few times that I see a cover image or design from afar and from that alone must check to see what’s inside.

AB: Consensus seems to be covers DO matter. Do you have any favourite covers?   

Lisl: First I want to toss in here that I love old editions’ book covers, both size and pictures. Some are quite alluring and bring me in, while others are dated, though often still captivating! Two in particular that stand out for me are from Stewart’s above mentioned Merlin Trilogy. The first shows Merlin in his early years, which perhaps caught my attention at the time because he was a child, like me. I had been somewhat accustomed to hearing mostly about adults in my mother’s stories. On the second book in the series was a depiction of Arthur, whose attractiveness, strength and boldness—all seen in this image—appealed to me. The two covers possessed a sort of mystical feel with the night sky, troops on the move, discovery and magical growth, all set within an ancient time, one that I felt I was being beckoned to join. They both stand in stark contrast to that of The Crystal Cave’s first UK cover, which shows a bunch of crystal clumped together. A geologist might appreciate it, but I think even students of literature would find it a staid and simplistic choice, also lacking in the human touch.

David: Oh yes, Nursing Fox by Jim Ditchfield and Legionary by Gordon Doherty! Both very different but pleasing and eye catching.
 
Jenny: I couldn’t name a favorite cover, but here are four historical novels that had not been on my radar that I recently bought or checked out from the library for no other reason than that I found the cover irresistible.
 

Jo: My favourite cover is Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. I bought the book purely for the cover and had no clue what the book was about and hadn’t heard of the, then, debut author. I just knew that I had to have a hardback copy of it to keep. 

One of David’s favorites 
AB: What must a cover have for it to grab your attention?
 
Jenny: I’m very drawn to women (and men) in period clothing. A gorgeous dress with a dreamy background gets me every time. I’m also drawn to evocative setting images combined with an attention-grabbing title/font combination.

Jo: Good graphics, nothing too fuzzy. Easy to read font that stands out. A design that ‘grabs’ my attention. I like simple designs using negative space rather than filling the whole of the cover with too much information. For me less is more. I want to feel an emotional connection to the story and to pick up on the mood of the book from the picture on the cover.

Lisl: Well, it needn’t have people, as my last comment may have implied—but the design should inspire some sort of sensation, even if it is simple admiration for the colors, bends, direction, etc. Ideally it would give me some sort of hint regarding the where and what for, but apart from that should at least have some element that reaches out to make a connection, even if it is a time period, for example, I don’t often read, or design that implants some curiosity into the moment.

David: For me the cover has to set the tone of the book. With Legionary by Gordon Doherty you can tell straightaway the period and that you’ll see a lot of battles being fought. Nursing Fox, however, has a much more contemplative cover, again setting the period but also has a human touch to it which fits perfectly with the tale. It’s clear we might see some war but you know mainly it’s going to be through the eyes of the nurse.
 
AB: What will immediately put you off a cover?
 
David: I hate to say it but cover with pictures of real people on them. I’m all for portraits depicting individuals; I’m just not a big fan of photos of real people being used. I like an artist’s touch rather than the Photoshop look.
 
Jo: A title in a font that is difficult to read. Garish colours. If the cover is too vague and confusing so that I can’t decipher what the book is about. If the cover looks ‘cheap’ or poorly presented.
 

Jenny: Too many elements crammed in. Text that’s hard to read. Black-and-white or sepia photos with a simple title slapped on them.

Lisl: Generally speaking, solid colors and no drawing or design. There is a very popular series whose covers are a variety of different solids. If I ever saw these books in the shops before I heard of them, I never noticed and likely wouldn’t have investigated what they are about. It was only word of mouth that brought me to them. It isn’t that I loathe this sort of cover, just that there’s a nothingness to them that produces usually the very same in terms of response … nothing.


AB: Now, one perennial cover is the “headless woman in a period gown” cover. What are your thoughts about it? 

Jenny: Works for me! So often when a woman’s face is on the cover, it doesn’t match my vision of the character in my head. Her manner of dress and her body language is much more alluring for me.

I totally agree with Jo – a stunning draw into the story!

Lisl: To be honest, I really enjoy taking in the different gowns—colors, styles, era designs and so on. Bodies without heads, though, well, it’s a bit weird, to be honest. That said, they do create a bit of curiosity re: what the rest of the woman might have looked like: does she seem confident in her carriage? (This you can see in the eyes.) Does she give off a strong vibe or one that shows she can be bent to another’s will?—and all kinds of questions, really. The lack of answers to these in terms of an illustration or image to give some clues matches the historical reality that, with some exception, women’s lives simply were not recorded to the extent men’s were. The humanity we often want to see is missing in the records, but it also extends the mystery of distance in time, lending it to the story.

Audiences tend to want to see into characters’ souls, and you can’t do that with a headless body, but there are other ways to captures reader attention, and one great cover image I thought was Anne Easter Smith’s Queen by Right, which depicts Cecily Neville with gloved left hand holding a goshawk and in the other, a basket of white roses. While I don’t know all that much about falconry, the image piqued my attention and bestowed upon Cecily greater individuality, strength in particular. The roses go along with the theme, of course, all adding significantly more meaning to the cover than many others, whose great dresses, unfortunately, don’t take us beyond beautiful fashion.

Jo: I’ve grown to accept this as it seems that a lot of historical fiction features the “headless woman” or a woman in period costume gazing wistfully into the distance. It’s immediately recognisable as a historical ‘brand’ and as such, survives and to be honest, I’ve become accustomed to it now.
 
David: I like it I’m honest. It sets the tone and lets the reader know the type of book it will be before reading, a female lead, some romance, delicate period drama perhaps. I like to know what I’m getting and this type of cover wouldn’t put me off.
 
Another of these perennial favourites is the “bare-chested, wild-haired man in a kilt” covers. Thoughts? 
 

David: Not for me really… I’m not a fan of bare chested men 😊  I’m aware that books appeal to different readers so these covers do have their place but just not on my book shelf.

Jenny: I do love a man in a kilt, but I am not such a fan of the bare-chested cover. It really doesn’t do anything for me. I’m not reading the book for the man’s abs. But I’ll take a man in breeches, vest, and coat any day!

Jo: If the book is about a “bare-chested, wild-haired man in a kilt” … then yes, why not. I’m sure this type of cover sells this particular genre and if it’s what readers enjoy then that’s ok with me.

Lisl:
I tend not to take them seriously, really.

AB: Which historical fiction covers do you think work particularly well? Why?

Jo: All three covers are different and yet they all appeal to me both for their simplicity and attention to detail: The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick, The First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson, The Edge of Dark by Pamela Hartshorne.

David: Oo, apart from the two previously mentioned I think others which get it spot on would have to be Wolf’s Head by Steven A. McKay, The Bowes Inheritance by Pam Lecky and I’m by no means biased when I say In the Shadow of the Storm by Anna Belfrage (AB: Thrilled! But I can’t very well include a pic of my own cover). I think each of these set the scene for the story nicely and speak to me as a reader before picking the book up.
 

Jenny: For me, historical fiction covers absolutely need to impart the essence of a time gone by, and the good news is there are many ways to do this using a combination of character representation, settings or objects, or even a historical-looking font. (AB: As Jenny designs covers, she preferred not to name specific covers.)

Lisl: Apart from the Stewart covers already mentioned, there are a few that come to mind straight away. I loved Annie Whitehead’s cover for To Be A Queen so much I wrote a cover crush entry about it.  A mood of longing and loss is woven into the image, and even the title speaks of the distance—in time or space—between ourselves (or the characters) and what has been lost, or can never be.

I always thought the first edition for Paula Lofting’s Sons of the Wolf was as beautiful as its successor turned out to be. A ghostly rider moves amongst swirling colors that race past him, obscuring a completely clear view, as if we are given glimpses through an indistinct tapestry, the hues of which bend and blur events. The wolf referenced in the title, and who represents the warrior’s forebears, is seen above. I especially loved a particular effect of the image: one may have to take it in more than once to fully realize what it depicts, as it is not portrayed starkly, but rather as if one is seeing it—and events—through time.

I’m also a total sucker for medieval art, and I love it on book covers. Martha Kennedy uses one to grace her novel Savior, and the effect is one of growing with the cover from the first phase, before reading the book, but still admiring the image. Taken from a medieval illuminated manuscript, this one depicts knights on their coursers in the heat of war. Brought to bear on the passages set at the Battle of La Forbie, a new understanding of how these men lived and died alters what one sees in the image, a lovely cooperation between storytelling and cover art.

AB: As a final question, is there any particular period you would want to see more books about? 

David: I’d like some more books set in the Wild West. It’s not a period I’m particularly familiar with but ever since I was a kid I’ve loved cowboys.

Jenny: No more Tudors please! I’d like to see more fiction set during the American and French revolutions and the War of 1812, maybe some more Irish medieval.

Jo: 11th, 12th or 13th centuries.

Lisl: I’d love to read more about the Barbary Wars.

(AB: And for those who, like me, don’t go “aha!” when hearing Barbary Wars, here’s a link.)

I am rather encouraged by Jo’s periods given my own writing preferences 🙂 And I agree: no more Tudors! How about some Stuarts instead? Thank you so much for joining me here today – and I must say that the covers you’ve mentioned are very varied – which just goes to show that what appeals to one reader may not appeal to another. Duh!

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Many thanks to Anna Belfrage and my wonderful co-bloggers for such a great time!

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Previous entries in the Reading 2017 series:

Readers’ Chat with Stephanie Hopkins

Origins of the Challenge

Reading Challenge 2017

New Genre Library (True Crime): Murder in Greenwich

Upcoming:

New Genre Library (Graphic Novel): Title TBA

New Genre Library (Science fiction): Title TBA

New Genre Library is a three-part spinoff series of Reading 2017

And a couple of other fun entries to round out the year!

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What’s in a Book?

 

crystal cave
This is the cover of the copy I had as a teenager. Together with the image on The Hollow Hills, Merlin and his time sang out for me.

As you have likely figured, I love books. Since childhood I have reveled in the feel of a book in my hands and been drawn by the stories within. The Crystal Cave was one such force. Having grown up hearing my mother tell tales from King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, I thought I’d had enough, at least at that point, and stowed the trilogy she’d purchased (anyway) on the shelf in my night table. When dusting one day the book did what you hear about in films: it called to me. I tried to clean around it but the world within was relentless, beckoning, pulling, whispering my fate. I remember still being crouched on the floor next to my bed as I reached the fourth of fifth chapter.

For my money, this is what a book should do–get a hold on you and resist letting go. One author remarked that one of the greatest compliments he can get is when someone says they lost sleep reading his work. Dinner burns; you hang onto the strap in the Metro with one hand, open book in the other; errands fall by the wayside; or you keep thinking about what happened last and when a free moment comes once more, you head for that book. There are a lot of ways to feel the pull and I know many of you share the sentiment when I say it is a wonderfully delicious sensation.

Hollow Hills
The cover I knew way back when. It was as if I recognized the place I was from, and longed to return.

Later, in university, I was so fortunate to enter the classroom of an amazing professor whose classroom style, wealth of information and sheer love of literature–you could feel it in the air and settling on your being–was so infectious that she practically had followers. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but I was delighted to discover I was not the only one who had found one day that something was different about our love of reading. It had reached a whole new level. Perhaps we understood about the key she had just handed us, that she was teaching us how to unlock the door to yet more worlds. There’s no way to teach anybody everything there is to know about literature in four years, and I do admit to having been a bit burnt out toward the end, but what I learned about it, what else I can see and gather from what is present in any story–and not–made it all the more rich and rewarding. Many others know more than I do, and so the learning process continues, and will, until I am no more. She gave that to me, to us.

It’s a great honor for me to be able to perform even a fraction of what this gifted professor did. Reading is so important in life, the earlier the better, for practical as well as “leisurely” reasons, and if I am able to open up this world to anyone, even lead them to a fantabulous story they remember for life, I consider that a great success. It reminds me of a poem a friend once gifted me inside a greeting:

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.–Ralph Waldo Emerson

So it starts with practicality: great recommendations toward books worthy of the time, money and energy readers invest in them. I only review works that meet this criteria.

That said, what exactly does it take to meet this criteria? Any given reviewer, myself or anyone else, has his or her own tastes, some of which may overlap with others’. Ultimately it comes down to the question Would you tell others they should read this? with a breakdown to the following points:

  • The blurb describes a plot that captures my attention and develops within the book in a well-written, logical and authentic style. It is researched well.
  • The work maintains a reasonable balance between being reader- and writer-friendly. That is to say it doesn’t spoon feed me information or isn’t dumbed down, but also doesn’t rely on referential material the author is withholding or unreasonably expecting me to know already.
  • Characters are developed and meaningful; I grow to care for and remember them long after the book is finished.
  • The language is lovely—the words needn’t be posh or expensive, but they are more than mere vehicles for the transit of information. Instead they touch me in a way that draws me in and makes me think. I also appreciate words that flow like water off my tongue as I read them aloud.
  • I become so invested with the book I don’t want to put it down.
  • Economy: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” As short as Hemingway’s six-word short story is, it tells a tale that even can be interpreted in more ways than one, and that impresses me. It’s a somewhat extreme example of how someone can say a lot with very few words, but it gets the point across rather well, no? I very much admire authors who can do this.
  • Literary techniques are utilized so seamlessly the links they create seem part of the natural landscape

While this is not an exhaustive listing, it covers the major areas where I look for quality. Of course, some books touch each of us on different levels, which is one reason I enjoy reading reviews as well as writing them. This enables me to get a glimpse through the eyes of another onto the world we share, the same books we may experience. Some books find their way to a special spot in my reader’s heart, such as The Crystal Cave and the rest of The Merlin Trilogy. No matter how often I read them, I am transported and the world outside pauses as I join this one, as happened to me first during that long-ago teenage day.

thelastenchantment02.png
By the time I reached this volume in the series, I was losing that feeling of knowing there was still so much more ahead to read. It triggered a quest in me: to find and read every book about Merlin and King Arthur I could find. My mother watched knowingly, willingly chauffeuring me from library to library, bookstore to bookstore. 

Book Review: In the Shadow of the Storm

In the Shadow of the Storm (Book I in The King’s Greatest Enemy series)

by Anna Belfrage

Prior to reading In the Shadow of the Storm I had devoured Anna Belfrage’s Graham Saga series in its entirety—more than once. I think I may have read the first, A Rip in the Veil, perhaps four or five times. They just never grow old. Her writing is fluid, the characters likable and events dramatic and keep-you-on-the-edge-of-your seat thrilling.

shadowHowever, I wondered. Belfrage herself had said she didn’t think this new series would be my cup of tea and indeed I don’t know 1321 England, where the novel is set, all that well. It wasn’t difficult for me to take the plunge, however, because my previous experience with her work is of being immersed in reader-friendly writing. That is to say she doesn’t withhold information, expecting you to know every reference or nuance in order to enjoy the book. Nor does she spoon feed readers information as if we were not to be trusted handling history.

The story opens as Kit de Courcy is abducted with intent of dropping her in place of her half—and legitimate—sister, Katherine de Monmouth, who is scheduled to marry Adam de Guirande, vassal to Roger, Baron Mortimer. Forced into “replacing” her runaway sister, whose appearance she mirrors, Kit goes through with the wedding, followed by constant tension tempered by Mabel, Katherine’s servant, whose own history with the family is long.

In this time of Edward II, who allows his favorites to unduly and dangerously influence him, despite their own personal ambitions, awaiting fate has a chilling feel. Hugh Despenser the Younger scatters his own supporters amongst the king’s officers, is an unyielding gatekeeper and demands bribes before he will allow baronial access to Edward, a set of circumstances that lends him the opportunity to force relinquishment and confiscation of lands and lordships, rapidly accumulating his own real estate kingdom.

Baron Mortimer, whose family holds a long-standing feud with that of Despenser—owing to the battlefield death of the latter’s grandfather committed by the former’s—watches in horror as Despenser’s power grows and frightening fate comes closer to reality. The Marcher barons initially succeed in having Despenser exiled, though the king protects his favorite, even seizing Welsh lands with the intent to grant them to Despenser. His alliance with Despenser and refusal to stop the violation of his own barons’ privileges put all involved on a clear path to war.

Belfrage succinctly opens up and lays this all out with a narrative that is accessible, polished and enticing. History is never dull with this author, and even an era unknown opens wide, beckoning for readers to step within as she guides us, not only fearlessly on her part, but also while putting us at ease. Once you get rolling, you won’t want to put this book down.

Owing fealty to Mortimer, de Guirande is required to follow his lord, even while he fears he has overreached. After all, this is a time when some officials outright refuse to be in Edward’s presence if Despenser is with him, for fear of being murdered. These concerns overlap his domestic anxieties, what with the rumors concerning his new wife and the baron, his brother reminding him at every turn and Katherine’s bizarre behavior. Slowly, however, the pair begin truly to grow as a couple and their bond sets Katherine—Kit—on a path closer to war as well.

It occurred to me that some readers may balk at what they see as a stereotypical forced marriage of the demure woman to a boisterous and aggressive man, whom she later falls in love with, fights others for and so on. However, it also remains viable that we seem so familiar with these alliances because, unlike weddings followed by years of drudgery and dull existence, even if those were far more common, the former received much more press. To begin with, these pairs were historically more likely to be literate, therefore capable of expressing themselves and recording their experiences. Moreover, even amongst our ancestors, stories of women acting outside the standards of behavior, provided they advanced only to certain spots outside, were far more entertaining than long narratives about women who duly washed dishes for the lengths of their lives. And, of course, our female kin were more likely to enjoy stories in which their sisters, at least to some extent, won what so many wanted: the happiness of having secured a spot in which a woman mattered beyond her ability to reproduce.

So while Adam and Kit falling for one another might not come as a surprise, what happens within all that is to Belfrage’s credit. Her characters are multi dimensional and their lives do not play out according to script. They are complex people with a variety of perspectives on the complicated affairs in their country, which they are required to respond to not only to inform their lives but also to protect them.

Kit having to work through her abduction—it being perpetrated by a woman is the first step in Belfrage’s defiance of the bad caricature of Vedic-like wife stealing—and deal with how to move forward in light of her own experience, principles, fears and, let’s face it, reality of politics, affect her relationships with Adam and Mabel as they weave through each interaction. There are no easy outs, and the author remains true to historical reality by remaining within its confines.

Ever since Adam rode away, Kit seemed to spend her days in endless vigil. Not that she stood on the curtain wall all the time—Lady Joan would not have allowed it—but her mind was always with him, wondering if he was cold, if he was well and alive. Outwardly she maintained a rigid calm, submerging herself in her sewing to allow her thoughts to wander, unimpaired, to him.

 “In God’s hands,” Mabel sighed. “Best you pray, my lady.”

 So Kit did, becoming a recurring visitor to the little chapel.

 “I did not expect such a devout sister-in-law,” William said with a little smile, when yet again he came upon her on her knees at the alter.

 “I did not expect to live through the fear of losing my man in warfare,” she retorted.

 “You didn’t?” He sounded surprised. “Men of noble birth have always ridden to war with depressing regularity.”

The author moves forward, taking Kit and the others beyond this, geographically as well as within the plot line. We see Kit settle in to who she is, gaining self confidence and growing close to her husband. It is classic Belfrage in the sense that her writing is so wonderfully sinuous, graceful or gritty when called for and one with our reading selves. However, Adam and Kit are their own people within a whole new story, and the events of their lives and perilous, changing times are brought to life with a force that informs and entertains with a staying power as strong as their will to claim their lives for themselves.

Inspired in large part by Ian Mortimer’s The Greatest Traitor, Belfrage not only delves into a period in history unfamiliar to many (including myself), but also does so with aplomb and expertise. Having woven a fictional story within historical events, both containing links back and forth to other political allies and enemies, kin and neighbor, events and consequences, it is one clearly articulated and recounted by a professional. Belfrage’s storytelling, so assured and captivating, is one of the reasons why humans innately love to hear a tale told.

The King’s Greatest Enemy continues in Days of Sun and Glory , most definitely a continuation I shall not like to miss, nor should you.

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From Anna Belfrage’s website

annaI was always going to be a writer – well in between being an Arctic explorer, a crusader or Richard Lionheart’s favourite page (no double entendre intended – I was far too innocent at the time). Anyway, not for me the world of nine to five, of mortgages and salary checks. Oh no; I was going to be a free spirit, an impoverished but happy writer, slaving away in a garret room.

Life happened. (It does, doesn’t it?) I found myself the bemused holder of a degree in Business Admin, and a couple of years later I was juggling a challenging career, four kids, a husband (or was he juggling me?) a jungle of a garden, a dog, a house …. Not much time for writing there, let me tell you. At most, I stole a moment here or there.

Fortunately, kids grow up. My stolen moments became hours, became days, weeks, months …. It is an obsession, this writing thing. It is a joy and a miracle, a constant itch and an inroad to new people, new places, new times.

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Follow and learn more about Anna Belfrage and her work at her websiteTwitter and Facebook. Also stay tuned for an upcoming interview wit Belfrage and more book reviews of her fantabulous stories!

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A copy of In the Shadow of the Storm was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

Images courtesy Anna Belfrage.

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Author Interview: Carol Edgerley (B.R.A.G. Medallion Winner)

Stay tuned for my reviews of Claire and the upcoming Susanna: The Early Years, books II and III in The Merencourt Saga.

Today I am honored to welcome Carol Edgerley, author of the B.R.A.G. Medallionmarg-winning Marguerite, the story of her French great grandmother’s adventurous life and times. Born to privilege, Marguerite de Merencourt defies her parents’ ambition and chooses her own path. Her travels take her to British India where she learns and begins to pay the price for the independence she claims.

Edgerley follows the saga up with Claire, which focuses on Marguerite’s firstborn daughter, and currently is working on a third book, Susanna. While all these women are strong characters determined to find success, they are very much their own people and the directions their lives take are as varied and unpredictable as anything fictional tales might serve up.

Interestingly, when reading Claire, by which time I had already read and reviewed its predecessor, I broke periodically, tablet at my side, to engage in chat with Miss Edgerley. She was first to “see” my reactions to what I had been reading and we discussed families, ambition, children—all kinds of topics. It was a great experience and, unplanned as it was, provided a real opportunity for both of us to unpack some of our thoughts, ideas, responses to life events, coming from different perspectives as they do, and contemplate it all in a thoughtful fashion. It was amazing to experience alongside my reading, and I shall treasure the memory always.

claireI, too, enjoyed the unexpected dialogue about Claire with you, Lisl!  It’s not every day that I have the opportunity of “seeing” somebody’s reaction to a book I have written. I was also impressed that you did not immediately condemn Claire for being a double-dyed bitch: she was a complex character, had a difficult childhood, was sometimes stupidly impulsive, but capable of deep love and loyalty. Claire was so like her mother in temperament…but without her innate courage.

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Carol Edgerley! It’s so wonderful to get to chat to you again! How have you been doing these days? Hopefully the sun has been shining strongly in your neck of the woods.

So this is probably a question you frequently get: You were meant—on orders of your mother, who was not pleased with your math scores—to be learning from an auntie handpicked to tutor you. Instead the pair of you got into conversations about her family. As you write in your foreword, once you asked, she was off and running. So it took no cajoling or persuasion to get her going? Did she try to tell a little but then get back to math? Did you have to ask a few times? Or did she pretty much abandon that project? (giggles) Did your math grades improve at all? 

My great-aunt Christina was a real sweetie as well as being a mathematician and teacher. Faced with the (undoubtedly) sulky face of her niece, maybe it wasn’t altogether surprising she was easily distracted from the onerous task in hand? Did my grades improve? Er…no. I can add, subtract, multiply and divide and still know my multiplication tables!

How long after hearing these details and stories did you begin to write down the bits and pieces? Before you began to seriously work on the first book, had you any idea you would become a writer?

I never did write anything down. The story seemed to be branded on my mind, occasionally trotted out in conversation when appropriate (discussing one’s unusual relatives for instance). I was a dedicated teacher with no thought of becoming a writer.

Marguerite was a formidable woman who overcame a lot. She escaped an arranged marriage, but alienated her family. What if she had gone ahead with the marriage? Do you think her strong will could have seen her through it to be as ambitious and productive as she proved to be apart from it?

From my own standpoint, I think Marguerite would have carried the mantle of Countess magnificently, despite her young age! Her strong will might well have clashed with her older and possibly more conventional husband’s family, but I am sure Marguerite would have brushed all that aside. And she would always have had the support of her father and grandparents.

Are there any other books, authors or styles that influenced how you wrote Marguerite’s story?

Not for Marguerite. I wrote about her in longhand from the heart (subsequently investigating the mysteries of a computer, Mac Word and email) and later transcribed the manuscript to a computer, editing chunks with lots of swear words as I went. I don’t think I ever thought about style per se…I merely liked the way Rosamund Pilcher wrote her books for instance. Also Judith Kranz’s writing appealed to me.

Have you met Marguerite de Merencourt? If so, what was your impression of her? Did she give any clues as to her impression of you?

I believe Marguerite saw me as an infant, and apparently declared me to be on the scrawny side and needed feeding up! I would have loved to meet her when she was a girl…so much fun in spite the constraints of a difficult youth.

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Sadly, no pictures of Marguerite are now known to exist; she was not very keen to be photographed. From childhood Minette, as she was affectionately called, drew great comfort from and loved horses dearly. Above: Calcutta Racecourse

What traits do you think you inherited from your great grandmother? My guess would be the animal lover in you. (I must show you that magazine spread about the donkey sanctuary in Ireland, by the way!) What else?

Yes, a love of animals of course, especially horses. I suppose I also inherited a core of steel that has enabled me to cope with life’s difficulties…if not always correctly! Other than that, I have dark curly hair like she had…and I regard France as the country where I have roots….

What is your favorite part of writing?

I love relating amusing incidents, also vignettes that are exciting or adventurous. I hated writing about the negative aspects of my girls…but that’s how it was after all.

Do you have other ideas banging around for future projects?

There is still the second half of Susanna’s life (volume 2) to come, after which there is the fascinating story of Olivia…all supposing I can pin her down to garner all the pertinent points of her life and factual events!!  Not an easy task as Olivia is a great traveller….

Do you have an all-time favorite book (or series)?

I adore all David Starkey’s historical books as well as Simon Schama’s. Alison Weir is also a favourite author of mine. At the opposite end of the scale I enjoy Mary Higgins Clark’s novels, also Martina Cole and Lynda le Plante’s thrillers.

Apart from your relatives and ancestors, are there any historical figures you would like to spend a day with if you had the chance? Or an historical event you would want to witness?

I would have loved to be around during Edward VIII’s scandalously salacious affair with Wallis Simpson! The woman actually referred to Queen Elizabeth as “Cookie”! As for spending the day, I guarantee there would be no boredom on a visit to the Tower of London and Hampton Court with David Starkey or Simon Schama!  My two heroes of all time!

Here are a few different kind of questions I thought might be fun…

Could you go a week without the Internet?

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I’d wake up early for that pool!

I have gone five weeks without telephone or Internet, thanks to the local telephone guys’ incompetent messing up the line with “works”! GRRR!  It was like being “Confined to Barracks”!

 Are you an early or late riser?

Early. With children and animals…no chance of snoring till midday! After which it became habitual…and even if the opportunity presents itself, I simply can’t!

 What jokes make you really laugh out loud?

Silly caricatures or videos of animal antics that I post on my Facebook timeline, and the occasional bit of smut…provided it’s funny!

garden oneDo you buy flowers often?

Yes, I do…in winter!  I love my garden that is a mass of flowers from May onward…nothing arranged, just a profusion of colour and scents. In winter I buy bunches from the local supermarket!

What was your latest discovery?

An unwelcome one!  With increasing age I find I can no longer play with my weight…put on a kilo or two…lose them just as easily. Strong genes in the family condemn me to taking care of what I put in my mouth all the time!  Being a vegetarian doesn’t help much…but I believe I have finally found my personal answer to a reasonable weight and good health to boot!

What would you like to mention—book related or not—that we haven’t yet talked about?

garden twoI dread what the future holds regarding the overwhelming migrant problem Europe is facing.  All those who rant about “lack of humanity” and that all should be accepted into whatever country they wish…cannot have thought about clash of culture, school places, medical availability and housing, not to mention a lack of desire to integrate with the country’s own population.

Ability and willingness to integrate is so crucial, especially as concerns the country’s heritage. That’s why it’s so important that writers such as yourself record the lives of those who came before, and I am so grateful for this. Not just for the amazing reads, although there is that. From our ancestors we have also learned a great deal about our past and how to be better people. However, everyone must engage in this type of self reflection and bring the best to wherever they go.

Carol, thanks so much for taking the time to sit with me for a few and being such a great sport! I always enjoy our chats and am looking forward to more in the future. And as for that chat when reading Susanna–you’ve got it!

Me too, Lisl!  Keep smiling and in regular contact!  xxx

You bet!!!

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Carol Edgerley tells us in her own words a bit about her amazing life…

Born in Calcutta, Carol spent most of her early childhood in France and then Jersey in the Channel Islands. Educated first at a French convent, she then attended Jersey College for Girls and later went to Heathfield, a girls’ boarding school in Ascot.

carol edgerleyThroughout her long life (and three marriages) Carol has travelled extensively, visiting the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, living several years in France, India and Hong Kong.

A qualified teacher, Carol ran a successful tutorial in Hong Kong for many years, teaching children French and English towards eventual O-Level examinations. She is delighted to still keep in touch with a number of ex-pupils.

Upon retirement to France, Carol was able to carry out a burning desire to write the story of her French great grandmother’s astonishing life, told to her by a great aunt when she was twelve years of age. In the delightful surroundings of her home in the Dordogne at that time, she wrote the story of Marguerite in long hand, initially for the benefit of her three children.

Years went by, and sweating blood and tears, Carol battled the mysteries of a computer, Mac Word and email…finally Facebook and Twitter. Encouraged by friends and her three children, she re-invented herself as a writer and typed out the manuscript of Marguerite on her new Mac computer, editing furiously as she went. The exercise, however, took decidedly longer than she had imagined!

Unwilling to pursue a (generally) disappointing path to literary agents and publishers, being dismally aware her work might end up unread, and thrown on a “slush pile,” Carol ventured into the world of self publishing. It was one of her life’s greatest emotional moments to hold a print copy of Marguerite in her hands for the first time!

Delighted by readers’ response to the book, Carol went on to write Claire, the story of Marguerite’s wilful elder daughter, who led an amazing if somewhat tragic life. Now there is Susanna: The Early Years (Volume 1), soon to be published, this being the story of one of Claire’s granddaughters. This particular book shines a light on bullying in its worst form, an unpleasantness that unfortunately persists to this day.

Susanna: A Tale of Passion and Betrayal (Volume 2) will follow in due course.

Carol still lives in France, now in a comfortable old farmhouse set in the centre of its own twenty-eight acres of pastureland in the Vendée. Sitting at her desk in the veranda, she is invariably surrounded by six much-loved adopted dogs of all shapes and sizes.

Breakfast time!

Her two well-travelled horses now gone to heaven, she keeps five gorgeous, Baudet de Poitou donkeys. Adding to the animal family, there are two small bunnies living in their “château” and very large cage, a sweet barn cat, and an elderly cockatiel that can colourfully swear…when in the mood!

During summer months, Carol receives visitors at her bed & breakfast, helping to finance her large animal family and maintain her home.

You can follow Carol Edgerley and learn more about her work at her Facebook page for Marguerite as well as her own timelinewebsite and Twitter. And remember to pick up Susanna, latest addition in The Merencourt Saga.

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All images courtesy Carol Edgerley.

Book Review: Shaman’s Blues

Shaman’s Blues (Book II in the Mae Martin Mysteries series)

by Amber Foxx

A B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree

shamanSecond in Amber Foxx’s Mae Martin Mysteries series, Shaman’s Blues gives us a sneak peak into a dire moment in Jamie Ellerbee’s life, then re-opens with Mae Martin as she prepares to leave her Virginia practice where, until now, she offered energy healing and psychic services. A year since discovering her psychic ability, Mae is now in the midst of a divorce and about to embark on a journey to New Mexico, where she will attend university and re-unite with her father, who came out and separated from his family when Mae was a teenager.

Before leaving, her soon-to-be-former supervisor, Deborah, gifts a CD of healing music to Mae, with an “ulterior motive,” as Deborah playfully calls it. The musician, Jangerrai, seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth, or at least from Santa Fe and all known Internet, and Mae is tasked with finding him.

It doesn’t take Mae long to encounter a variety of personalities: her father and his peevish partner, Niall; Kenny, her new neighbor; even Muffie Blanchette, owner of a local restaurant that caters to what Neill refers to as “spiritual tourism.” Dada Café, called after an art style later linked to theater, utilizes customers in a similar way as the stage movement, with the philosophy that the “audience is as much a part of the show as the actors.”

Muffie, who typically circulates, advising patrons on colors, food intake and the state of their auras, disappears following an encounter with pragmatic Mae, who is then informed by the manger, Roseanne, of Muffie’s stated intent to ascend. She thinks Muffie is a whackjob, and shows the psychic Muffie’s website:

Sri Rama Kriya teaches us how to choose our time and leave our bodies without pain or death, how to channel our spirits directly to the upper realms of energy and light. When you study Ascended Bliss, you are freed from the cycle of karma and rebirth, and from your body.

At this point Roseanne enlists Mae to find Muffie, steering her two searches together and leading the healer toward a path inhabited by a series of quirky characters of many temperaments. Foxx even sets the story in a place with a cautionary moniker: Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, pertinent not only for being an unusual designation, but also the city’s acquisition of it whereby the inhabitants became part of the television show it gets its name from.

As I was getting started, I’d wondered if the book would read like a New Age novel, but Foxx keeps it diverse, with doubt even from Mae re: the veracity of some individuals’ beliefs, and includes the added bonus of treating vulnerable characters with dignity. Shaman’s Blues is also a smooth read with an intriguing landscape to match the sense of place infused within:

Openness to the odd fit with the character of the land: vast empty spaces of juniper-stubbled pink-beige dirt, dramatic wind-carved cliffs, narrow hoodoo towers, broad mesas, blood red arroyos, black volcanic teeth jutting from brown earth. Anything seemed possible here.

 Fortunately, Mae is open to these possibilities, and as she encounters answers new questions arise, leading her to be a detective of sorts in the life’s mysteries referred to in the series’ tagline, “Every life hides a secret.” What secrets are these two people hiding? As she makes considerable strides in her searches while also trying to live her life, Mae begins to recognize the realities of hiding behind created identities, to become someone more fascinating as well as more ordinary, to hide from others and from one’s own self.

As Mae locates Jangerrai and begins to unravel some of the mystery behind a semi exchange of roles involving the two missing persons, she becomes familiar with the world of the shaman, part of his world whereby an individual in aboriginal Australian society is chosen by the spirits to learn to utilize the elements and act as a go-between for the human and spiritual dimensions. It is a heady realm to be investigating and the skittish singer only slowly and reluctantly reveals to Mae the events that brought him to the place he now inhabits.

The journey is one that Foxx maps out with expertise and finesse, playing knowingly to reader expectations and drawing back at just the right moments. We feel Mae’s frustrations, sometimes groan at her enduring patience, and always eagerly read on to see what she is coming to know, whether it be more recounting of events or details that link her closer to understanding the past. It is a topographic exploration of the psyche to learn the lay of the land, and she must walk it to determine the features and their limitations, as well as which direction to move from there.

Few of us have the gifts Mae is given, but we have in common with her our own limitations, such as with a likeable but needy person who holds on too much, too long.

It was going to be a long, long night. Mae hoped she could get through it still liking him. He had the potential to either entertain her or get on her nerves, and it was a fifty-fifty which way things would go.

The author also tosses in the familiar in a new way—  “Whoop – missed the street – chuck a yewy”—and humor we can relate to—“a van that looked old enough to vote”— to create a balance of the fresh and familiar. In so doing, she also tells us a story with a potentially heavy framework, but in a manner that keeps us from having to perform the heavy lifting.

As she begins to wind down, Foxx also gives us a thrilling few moments, within the plot as well as where it all will take those involved, including readers. I personally was pleased to see that certain events do and do not transpire, and how the author takes us back to Mae’s beginnings while also showing the resultant links amongst various players. These are sure to spur readers to seek out number one in the series and learn the events in Mae’s own life, her marriage, the discovery of her gifts, everything that leads her to the moment she herself now inhabits, where we as readers first came together.

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AmberAmber Foxx has worked professionally in theater, dance, fitness, and academia. Her training and academic studies in various fields of complementary and alternative medicine, including energy healing, bring authenticity to her work. She has researched psi phenomena through the scientific literature and by talking with seers and healers. A college professor and yoga teacher, she divides her time between the Southeast and the Southwest, living in Truth or Consequences during her New Mexico months.

The fifth book in the Mae Martin Series, set in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico and the Mescalero Apache reservation, is well underway and should be out later in 2016.

You can learn more about and follow Amber Foxx at her website. Shaman’s Blues and other books are available for purchase at a variety of outlets and can be accessed here.

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A copy of Shaman’s Blues was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

Images courtesy Amber Foxx.

Learning to Crawl

The computer is in!

Allow me to explain.

Some of you may have noticed a spot of slowdown on the blog lately. This is owing to my poor, sweet, wonderful, loyal but ailing Apple to require a trade in. And today I collected the new do. By tomorrow perhaps it shall be called my. We’re becoming acquainted. I’m delighted to report the keyboard weighs less than a comic book. It’s somewhat awe inspiring.

Unfortunately, shortly after the demise I also began to experience quite a bit of wrist and elbow pain, which I’ve had before and was always happily telling people–truthfully–that it wasn’t typing that caused it. I can still recall a sociology class in which we spent every minute writing down what the professor was saying, and I couldn’t keep up from the pain caused by writing. That led to my first laptop.

Now my wrist is enclosed in a somewhat horrible black cast type thingie, differentiated by the ability to remove it for showers and dish washing and so on. It’s a little awkward for typing, though taking it off too much leads to the inevitable, so now we’re at a point where we plod on at a slower pace, doing what we can as we go back to crawling for the time being. It requires an adjustment as I’m somewhat accustomed to moving more quickly than that, but this may just be the opportunity I’ve been looking for–that slow movement thing some readers may recall me spouting off about.

Well, really now, I do want a slower pace…and less stuff. Yes, I sort of threw that in there, refreshed as I am feeling from having in the past week or so been conducting a purge of the contents of my house, getting rid of more than I’ve ever done at one time. The link, though, is that for me, surroundings relate to state of mind, and if my state of mind is orderly, my pace can be smoother, which in turn leads to a sense of calm, that not needing, or not requiring as urgently, the sense of having to live life at breakneck speed.

AppleTimeCapsule_(1)
My new best friend

Somewhat unrelated-but-related is a comment someone made to me a few weeks ago: “You’ll never have to scramble again.” He was referring to that frenetic shuffle some of us experience when trying to save files in a race against time, removing from our plate yet another chunk of urgent to do.

Ok, so. Tomorrow I shall look to update my sidebar and this weekend be aiming for a new review. I have plenty more to come, so stay tuned, but do bear with me as my typing has slowed. And remember, to some of you I live in the past–that is my time zone means you go to bed and I’m just eating lunch or something crazy like that.

Yes, I said it! I have gigantic pile of books for review, so if you are looking for something to read, you’ve come to the right place.

Next time, lovelies.

Book Review: After the Sucker Punch (With Soundtrack)

After the Sucker Punch

B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

by Lorraine Devon Wilke

Perceptions can be tricky animals, especially when filtered secondhand, even more so when they involve those closest to us. What happens when we find out that what we thought others thought—of us—is way off base? That actually the reflections they’d been silently entertaining along the way were rather negative? The kicker: what if that person was our parent?

after

Tessa Curzio’s situation goes one step further in that she discovers her father’s dismal judgments about her after he has already passed away and she can no longer ask him about it. In fact, After the Sucker Punch opens with Tessa reading his previously-journaled words reaching out to slap her with a hurt as fresh as the grave the family had lowered him into just hours before. It’s a sucker punch that she knows not only re-writes the past, but also alters the future she is at that very moment moving into.

Knowing the novel’s premise, I was slightly apprehensive about my own relationship with Tessa. Would she be someone who deflects responsibility and whinges a lot about what is done to her? This wasn’t an impression I’d already formed of Lorraine Devon Wilke’s protagonist, more a concern based on real-life individuals who tend to blame parents for everything that goes wrong in their lives. It was a nice, thick book with one of the most well-written blurbs I’d ever read. I really wanted to enjoy it.

Guess what? I loved it. And, as goes the dual affection most parents feel for their children, I also liked it. Devon Wilke fills the story with pieces of a logophile’s dream: crinkly handwriting, tragedy porn—and the use of soundtrack as a verb are some that highlight along the way how the words interact with each other as well as those who utter and listen to them. Tessa is fast on her feet, sometimes too fast, which leads her on occasion to speak out of turn or too soon for what she really feels, but this adds to the novel’s depth and honesty because the author presents our lead as she truly is.

Their brother Duncan was a highly successful product liability attorney who’d made a name and several million in a case involving a child’s death caused by a drug later recalled by the FDA. He had become somewhat of a celebrity and certainly an expert, garnering a pulpit style that often edged toward high-pitched pontification. There was talk of politics and much consensus that he was a bold and righteous crusader. Tessa thought he might just be an ambitious prick but odds were that was sour grapes. Duncan’s financial and general life success stirred bona fide envy in her, as did his inexplicably close relationship with a father who seemed far less interested in her.

She isn’t completely honest or perfectly perceptive, though. Frankly, Tessa is somewhat of a mess. Not entirely, and not all her emotional chaos is visible, not even to herself. As the year moves forward and she assesses her life and where it is going, she also begins to untangle the web of her inner being as well as her relationships with family, partner, friends and career. Once part of a band, Tessa seems to reach out for the sort of stability those days provided, though with each knot she picks free, she slowly begins contemplating what stability really means.

This sense of stability manifests itself in many different ways, some of which we as readers could certainly relate to as Tessa begins a downward spiral of self-doubt. When her auntie, a nun and counselor unfazed by sexuality and her niece’s lapsed Catholic status (and opinions), makes contact and wants to get together, Tessa feels conflicted and practices avoidance:

Aunt Joanne. She had called repeatedly, concerned that they hadn’t talked before they both left Chicago, but so far Tessa had managed to return the calls when she guessed her aunt would be occupied, trading messages without the actual burden of conversation.

Some of the conversations she does engage in lead to snarls in communication, expertly laid out with Devon Wilke’s dialogue. She argues with her sister Michaela, over the latter’s reluctance to ship their father’s multiple journals to her sister, who feels she needs to read them all in order to get a better grip on who her father was and what else he thought of her. There is a breakdown in the relationship with her partner David, the recipient of her sometime unrealistic expectations—“I wanted you to want to read [the journal]”—and who struggles to understand what she is going through.

Devon Wilke’s aptitude for shining light on human behaviors and what motives, conscious and not, often lie behind them, is stunning in its capacity, lyrical presentation and raw reality. It’s not often the latter two of this triad pair together, certainly not well at least, but Devon Wilke does it while avoiding the pitfall of a bitter sarcasm so consistent it becomes a turnoff. Instead, she captures the strength and fragility of the human heart, teaming it with a character readers feel they could be a friend to because the duration of the relationship—for us, the length of the novel—benefits all quarters and not just Tessa’s.

While the entire work is filled with examples of the author’s outstanding abilities to create dialogue and utilize it to tell her story, one set, between Tessa and Michaela, I found to be the most nourishing, for where it leads them, even when it doesn’t point to perfection. Moreover, the third-person narrative doesn’t take Tessa’s side and simply present Micky as the bad guy. Real life is much more complicated than that and Devon Wilke clearly knows it, as she presents both sides in conversations and—the true test—readers can see valid points from the two corners.

It is perhaps unsurprising that as a musician herself, Devon Wilke acts as conduit for Tessa to pour herself into song, and at story’s end “Tessa’s Song (My Search For You)” captures so much of the nuance contained within the experiences Tessa undergoes and that we follow, having experienced many of the emotions as she. Events are different, naturally, but we all have hearts capable of being broken and spend our lives protecting them from such an eventuality.

Available online with a link provided, Tessa’s words are equally strong and vulnerable, and Devon Wilke’s vocal and instrumental arrangement captures so perfectly the rise and fall of sensitivity in the telling of Tessa’s journey in a manner most often best understood by the heart and audio sensibilities.

So elusive, I wonder if you ever figured it out?

How your silence always made me feel a little loud

So convinced if I sang and danced and jumped up and down

You would see me, just me, and maybe be a little proud

It is a recognition that registers, stirring listeners’ own instinct for healing, a powerful resonance for the courageous and often frighteningly difficult steps toward honesty within oneself, and the requisite changes, or decision to remain, that need to be addressed. The song is strong out of the gate—much as Tessa might have been had she began the conversation with her father—the guitar strumming forcefully, with demonstrated strength. As we move through the stanzas, there are glimpses of vulnerability– in the words, certainly, but also with technique: always made me feel a little loud or jumped up and down are part of I phrases that tend for us humans not to come easy and require, surprisingly, sustained support, here demonstrated via the companionship of backing vocals.

Tessa presents in the song as she does in After the Sucker Punch; she is clearly a complicated character, at times confused, and even reader perceptions of her may alternate as they witness her struggle. This is not necessarily a negative, for Tessa, like us, learns more about who she is as the story carries on.

Who she is also appears in song, in its various forms, as an elongated you credits the person her father is or her statement that “we squandered the time we had” both admits her own culpability and insists upon responsibility for other parties, too. She also acknowledges the individual she is as well as that she is in some ways like her father, the trick to doing both of these being able to carry it out sans indictment of the self while also accepting responsibility. It’s not an endeavor for the meek of heart, and friends like Kate could provide support if Tessa accepts it and both don the term friendship in all its ugly glory. That is, truths must be revealed, and friends remain so despite the presence of flaws. Tessa wants to know how her long-term friend can do all this and Kate answers, “Because I was there. I was a witness to your life, Tessa.”

After the Sucker Punch is Tessa’s story, one she can only retrieve with the aid of others whose contributions she will either receive or reject. It is also a portrait of father/daughter relationships and all their attendant baggage, including the need to define oneself within that dyad without further input from the one whose assessment opened the door. Funny, poignant, angry, loving, insightful, momentous, like families themselves, After the Sucker Punch is a story of acceptance from an author readers will want to return to again and again.

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A copy of After the Sucker Punch was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

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Lorraine singingAuthor, photographer, singer/songwriter Lorraine Devon Wilke brings the sum total of her creative experience to all her work, including her compelling contemporary fiction. Pulling from every chapter of her eclectic background, she creates characters and plots that are both unique and recognizable, with dialogue that jumps off the page. Additionally, her book covers are designed with her own photography, and her debut novel, After the Sucker Punch, includes a free download of one of her recorded songs.

A longtime contributor to The Huffington Post, Devon Wilke’s trademark “sass and sensibility” infuses her writing with candor, provocative themes, and, whenever possible, lots of laughter. Whether exploring issues of family, faith, love, or tragedy, her stories always embrace an elemental mix of heart and soul.

lorraine purpleCurrently working on her third novel, both After the Sucker Punch and Hysterical Love are available in print and ebook via Amazon and various other sites. Her extensive photography collection can be viewed and purchased at Fine Art America, she keeps readers updated on her “adventures in publishing” at After the Sucker Punch, and her more topical essays can be found at The Huffington Post or at her blog, Rock + Paper + Music. On the music front, she continues to write and record whenever she can, and has recently been cast in new rock musical set to debut in San Diego, California in early 2017.

Devon Wilke can be contacted here, and all links to her work are available via her website.

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Stay tuned for my review of Hysterical Love!

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Book Review: Never Waste Tears

Author Gloria Zachgo is so kindly gifting a FREE COPY of Never Waste Tears to one lucky winner. For your chance to win, simply comment below or at the link provided at review’s end.

Click here for author interview!

Never Waste Tears by Gloria Zachgo

Never Waste Tears opens in 1861 with news of Fort Sumter spreading through town on the same day Nathaniel Carter turns 13. In almost no time the American Civil War is upon the families and even those who don’t go off to fight are adversely affected long before their loved ones return—some in boxes—as well as upon re-unification.

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Never Waste Tears is a B.R.A.G. Medallion winner (click image)

Through Nathaniel and other characters, author Gloria Zachgo speaks to readers of this time, utilizing diary entries that also enable individuals to recount events as they see them unfold. At first Nathaniel and a local girl, Rebecca, speak of their experiences, and their diaries take us very quickly through to 1868, when we start to witness people beginning westward journeys in pursuit of the promises of homesteading the land.

As Americans are wont to do, the people look especially to the future for healing, often found in the privilege of hard work, the bounties of which they can in turn gift to those yet to come.

It is with this mentality and the promise of land that would be ceded to them after five years of successfully working it that five individuals, some of whose diaries enter the story later, commence along with others what had to have been a heartbreaking beginning to even a promising new life, many of them knowing they likely would never see their families again.

Journal entries is a particularly clever technique for this book because as the story begins to cover more terrain, events occur that crisscross with each other in the same ways as do the trails settlers cross, consider, return and flee from, creating pathways and perspectives unique to each character. We see events strictly through their eyes, even when we know additional bits as experienced and related in others’ journals. It’s a bit like being a fly on the wall—a much bigger wall, of course—and demonstrates that even listening in is no easy task, considering all we are given to know.

Carl…

 When the war finally ended I didn’t go home right away. Instead I fulfilled a promise to the boy from Kansas who saved my life and gave up his own. He stepped in front of a bullet that was meant for me. I killed the man who shot him. And then I held that boy in my arms whilst he took a while to die.

 I didn’t go home. I couldn’t. I wandered instead…One day I come upon this little creek in the middle of nowhere…The rattlin’ in my head stopped and I no longer smelled the stench of death in ever’ thing. I heard a meadowlark’s sweet melody…Some kind of miracle happened to me in that place.                                                                                                              

Zachgo’s characters speak in a manner that, while not especially peculiar to that time, at least not in its entirety, lends flavor to reader understanding of their background and social class. Speech patterns evident in such phrases as “She’d growed to love my family” and “I knowed how much she loved me” are given just enough mileage to win readers rather than alienate them. The author successfully balances the sincerity of their speech without leaning too heavily on it.

Language utilized also tends to be of a stark nature, reflecting, as language often does, the environment, though the diaries show it is as valued as the sound of a harmonica played after supper, companionship and love of animals or the view of a heartbreakingly beautiful sunset. Its role at times is utilitarian, but links the characters in connections they form with words from their hearts.

Besides, Zachgo doesn’t need to overuse dialect, given the depth of insight we are given to the actual character of various personalities. Moreover, on occasion we forget we are reading journals as we fall into events relayed via actions, events and dialogue as well as introspection. The characters’ passions burn bright in all they say and Zachgo keeps us hooked as we continue turning the pages to see what becomes of this or that situation. In many instances, the reading is not unlike being witness to an ongoing narrative being relayed as your eyes dart from one speaker to the next, then back to the first and so on.

[Homestead deed as written out in 1868 image to be replaced]

As the time for departure inches closer, we learn more of the fear extant in the hearts and minds of the people as they embark on and move through their journeys. For Nathaniel and many others, this new start is the only option for creating something different, and the yearning for it remains even after lengthy and repeated introspection. However, the unspeakable difficulty of what lay ahead links to past lessons learned reflected in the title’s directive about never wasting tears.

Because settlers have to reach so far down inside of themselves to muster every ounce of courage, strength and fortitude they possess, tears are viewed simultaneously as too extraneous and precious a use of energy to squander. Other duties and activities need the resource far more.

The loneliness and deprivation, backbreaking labor, fear, constant threat of Indian attacks and unsettling nature of not knowing what may come next requires a great deal more than some understand when they set out, and Zachgo demonstrates their discovery of this with a slowly-emerging awareness the characters handle with varying degrees of ability—or none at all. It is, after all, a novel filled with conflict of individuals with themselves, others and nature, much more than most human beings could go up against in one lifetime.

Set in post-Civil War America as it is, this particular war extra notorious for having literally engaged brother against brother, Zachgo’s characters search not only for something to call their own on those homesteads, but also the elusive unity Americans so desperately need at this painful time. Again we see this reflected in the language as people refer to themselves in a manner indicative of how they behave toward one another.

Separations abound and in order to make it in this harsh environment, unity has to permeate every angle of their lives, but with understanding of what divisions are useful and necessary, in contrast to today’s supposed ideal that in order for all things to be equal they must be exactly the same. Zachgo introduces what I find to be a more genuine feminism, one that recognizes the reality of women’s overall lesser physical strength, without removing the possibility that they can still contribute to the rich growth of a productive society.

Nathan…

 She stopped to catch her breath. I was immediately sorry and a whole lot confused. I started to open my mouth, but she wasn’t finished with me just yet.

 “Let’s get one thing straight betwixt us. I can do some things myself and I don’t need you to tell me I can’t. If I have to dig the whole well myself, I will find a way to do it. It may take me a lot longer than you men-folk, but I can do it.” When she stopped for another deep breath, I took the opportunity to hold up my hands in surrender.

Later, following a conversation between Nathan and his wife, he writes, “How good it was to hear the word ‘us’ in her words.”

Never Waste Tears is a story of true discovery of one’s self and others, and what that brings to the relationships previously conflicted. The characters learn what they must make room for in their lives in order to survive, though too often at such great cost they sometimes wonder of its worth.

For readers of today, the worth is everywhere in their stories, including the understanding that despite progress and advancements in society since this era, they do have something to tell us about how we relate to each other, as well as them. It is also an examination of language in which they—and we—see that not all words are created equal and the adaptation isn’t quite as straightforward as many of us may believe.

I also appreciated Zachgo’s inclusion of perspectives that consider the Native population without finger pointing, as well as a representative character who moves around a lot, not only for his job in aiding and guiding settlers, but also because this is his nature. I would have liked to get to know Skinner a bit more, as it seems he would have had a wealth of tales from a wide variety of sources and perspectives. Perhaps this can lead to opening for a sequel, or at least a companion book with some or all of these characters.

A fascinating, poignant and crucial witness to the lives of those who dared to dream, Never Waste Tears is a must read for the collection of any student of American history, those curious as to what it was like to move west, or anyone looking for a rewarding and timeless read. The homesteaders’ stories will settle within and make any reader richer for the experience.

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zachgo bio picAfter raising two children and selling her home-based business, Gloria Zachgo discovered her artistic talents. When the walls of her home grew heavy with her eclectic drawings and paintings she found she also had a flair for writing fictional stories. One of those stories developed into her debut novel, The Rocking Horse, which received honorable mention at the 20th annual Self-Published Book Awards winners.

Zachgo published her second novel, Never Waste Tears, in December of 2014. It was selected as an indie B.R.A.G (Book Readers Appreciation Group) Medallion honoree.

She lives with her husband, Ron, in Kansas, where she is currently working on another novel.

You can learn more about Gloria Zachgo at her website, Amazon author page and Facebook. Follow her at Twitter and her Goodreads author page.

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For your chance to win a FREE COPY of Never Waste Tears, simply comment below or at this blog’s Facebook page, located here.

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The reviewer was provided with a free copy of Never Waste Tears in exchange for an honest review.

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This post was updated to include a link to author interview.

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My Tottering TBR: Reads of 2015

Strictly speaking, I suppose this isn’t really a blog about my tottering TBR, given these are books I’ve read this year. Never mind! Some of them are titles I plan to read again, others may very well end up being re-read. All of them are worth passing the word on, and so I hope I can pick up this chunk of my pile and add it to yours–unless, of course, you’ve already got them.

In which case I’d say, what are you waiting for? Get reading!

Stay tuned for reviews upcoming, scroll back in time to check out some of my thoughts on a few of these books. 🙂

Happy New Year, and long may you read and nourish your soul!

read list 2015

Side Note: I received The Giver DVD as a present last year, though, being subject to our household rule re: reading the book before seeing the film, made a trip to the library. I’d actually read the book years ago but remembered very little of it. The re-read was worth every moment and for those aiming to choose a title for their book club, it is my number one pick. Everyone who values freedom needs to read this dystopian novel, which would be among the first for the burn pile in a totalitarian society.

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The image curiously without a cover? Well, not sure why it turned out that way on Goodreads, but I decided to make it a little fun and let that one be a surprise. Hint: There’s a related anniversary coming up and this book was one of my biggest surprises of 2015. There were a few I’d been fearful I wouldn’t dig, but did. This one, however, was a topic I’d previously steered clear of, but instead re-introduced to me an historical figure I completely fell for. Huzzah to breaking barriers!

I’ll be publishing my review for this one soon.

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I love George Washington and can’t get enough of books about our Revolution, so George Washington’s Secret Six was a delightful find, especially given my own early spy aspirations. Interestingly, this batch of books concerns oppression of many different sorts, a sad commentary on history, truth be told–that we could find so many ways to write about tyranny, individual as well as collective. However, I remain steadfast in my belief that history must be remembered no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel–and passed on truthfully: no whitewashing and no omissions based on standards of today. We owe our ancestors so much, and remembering their struggles, even in fictional form, is the very least we can do. In the case of novels such as The Unwanteds, which, like The Giver, is not historical, we do recall societies in which many of these standards were implemented–or rigid rules were, ostensibly for the protection of the people–and aim to pass to our children the same freedoms we enjoyed.

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This year I continued an historical fiction series I’d begun in 2014 and couldn’t get enough. I got to read a few of my son’s choices and began to write my thanks in a series called “Ordinary People”–a nod to those regular, everyday people who courageously performed acts of selflessness for the benefit of others, often at risk to their own lives. This series will be continuing in 2016 as, despite the state of the world today, there is no shortage of these brave souls, only widespread recognition of their achievements.

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Surprises came with a few of these lovelies: as I was in the midst of reading Northwest of Eden I knew I would review even before I’d finished reading. Force 12 in German Bight captured me entirely and I am privileged to have edited a work that was more than just a job, as the fiction fantasy of The Dead Gods gripped my attention with the amazing story and its author’s gift with words.

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A sequel I knew I wanted to read before it was written; an Alamo story I sunk my teeth into and my first read of an author so astute in the ways of various viewpoints I long for the next one by her (on my bookshelf as we speak). Also: A fantastically fun and poignant story in Witch Ever Way You Look At It  that I couldn’t put down.

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A couple of reviews upcoming from more authors I yearn to read more of. I don’t want to give too much away on these, so keep your eyes peeled!

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Do stay tuned for more reviews in upcoming days as well as other musings.

May you have a wonderful 2016, with books and otherwise.

Happy New Year!