My New Addiction: Game of Thrones and a Top Three

Note: the following contains some spoilers for Seasons 1-3

I’m a complete newbie when it comes to Game of Thrones. I’ve had several of the books for a few years now, and more than once I’ve seen the complete first season in the shops and thought about getting it. My son even urged me to, although I’m unsure why, given he doesn’t tend to be interested in these sorts of books/movies/television series. And to be honest, I myself didn’t even really know much about it, other than that it depicts some sort of, well, game of thrones in which a variety of rivals lay claims to one throne with a multitude of validations, real or imagined. (As you can see, the GoT volumes on my shelves have been gathering dust, but not to fret, dear readers, I have been energized – see here.)

And then came Christmas morning: there under the tree, as I discovered, waited my Game of Thrones future. It was an especially delightful gift because it was totally unexpected—this series was not on my mind in the least. Now my son—previously uninterested, as you will recall—and I are on the third season and have been fully reigned in. The hook is deep. We’ve discussed many angles of the show, including the over-frequent bits of nudity and sex, though to be fair, not nearly as extraneous as the borderline porn featured in Outlander; tactics; secrets we think characters may be hiding even from us, the viewers; awful deeds and small kindnesses; what lives beyond the wall. We’ve scanned the maps and poured over the genealogy in order to ensure we have the relationships straight. And we both seem to be rather preoccupied with its sort of medieval fantasy, though as far as I know this isn’t really set, as my son says, in a different time so much as another world. Sure, the author may have had ulterior motives for this—freedom with writing and not having to adhere as strictly to history as historical fiction writers must—but it also liberates us as viewers, for we never have to wonder about the Danegeld, when Duke William’s army might arrive to create a mess, or the horrible end of Richard III, mistreated even in death, because none of these figures necessarily exist in this world.

It is probably inevitable that the two  of us would start making lists of who we prefer and don’t—we certainly spent enough time gushing and griping over the various characters. Now that work, school and deadlines are on the calendar again, our viewing is sure to slow down, but our conversations likely won’t, especially as we are now in Season 3, a time in which many changes are underway, events conspire to influence events, and some are confronted by reality. I’d like to take the time now to highlight my initial favorite characters, let’s go with three, and I will attempt to pinpoint the reasons I was drawn to them. Fret not, for I will be returning with updates.

Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell

3. Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell—Yes, Stark is late by now, but he is the first character I liked. I admit, this is a bit of a biased affection, given that the story opens with the Starks, giving them a bit of preferential advantage. But there is substance there, such as Stark’s lesson to his son that he who pronounces a death sentence must be the one to carry it out. It’s probably impractical in today’s world, but I respected him for it. (Though I do rather wish this could be enforced today.) He is a flawed character, having brought home a bastard child from the last war, a circumstance that will have its own set of ramifications. He also speaks the truth to his king, Robert Baratheon, delivering it with humor and grace, though in the end truth becomes his enemy.

Continue reading “My New Addiction: Game of Thrones and a Top Three”

Friday Night Flashback: Second Generation Harry Potter

British edition of the the first Harry Potter installment. I love Hermione’s hair in this image, which is also true to how it is depicted in the story.

It’s been a long time since I last entered a blog entry under this series—2016, in fact. So the time is ripe for a re-visit, which could be said to have its beginnings in May, when my now 17-year-old son and I decided once and for all—for we had tried this before—to re-read the entire Harry Potter series, start to finish. I’d initially started it in college and continued on, not yet interested in the movies as they began to appear while the book series was still being written. I started re-reading when I was expecting this very same boy. When he was about four the final installment burst onto the scene, enthralling this little turtle to no end, even though he had experience only of the debut novel from me reading it to him.

I can still see his sweet self, so small as he sits straight up against the fat pillow on my bed, his little legs stretched out in front of him, the enormous Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows laying on his lap. We had acquired it the night before at Borders, and he is wearing the glow-in-the-dark white Harry Potter glasses they’d given him. His enormous eyes peer out from behind them, reminding me why so many people are so inclined to give him freebies all the time. He’d walked away last night with three pairs of glasses and two posters. (We still have them.)

I would so love to live in a house like the Burrow!

When I tell that story nowadays he is apt to chime in with, “That’s not even the largest book at 759 pages, whereas The Order of the Phoenix has 870.” The kid has a mind like a steel trap and so when, a few months ago, we began talking about the movie series and he was able to remind me of so much I had forgotten (which has also happened before), I was enthralled by how much he’d retained. I understood how a teacher friend of mine felt, when Turts was in first grade and I’d been reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane to him and a friend. He summarized the entire book for her in an articulate fashion that wowed her then, as his summaries and fill-ins do me now.

Even more so given that neither of us had really watched or read in a few years, something he mourned about a little. “It was such an important part of my childhood.” I laughed inside a bit at such a young person using that phrase, but understood where he came from. I remember his pride in having finished The Sorcerer’s Stone in first grade—all by himself. His adoration of the few HP themed items he had, for in Alaska we don’t see much of that kind of thing in the shops, and I personally didn’t then know they existed—not until one day in a thrift store I came across The Monster Book of Monsters, a furry book replica of that appearing in The Prisoner of Azkaban (for the longest my favorite in the series). We’d been Christmas shopping and I was absolutely thrilled to find it—but my gushing came also from the realization that outside of Alaska probably existed an entire universe of Harry Potter products. (Until then we’d really only seen the sort of merchandise that appeared in Barnes and Noble.) Perhaps not unlike the Alice in Wonderland shop I’d discovered during a long-ago trip to Manhattan, a botique in which much more than teapots were sold, and everything was decorated with something Alice related.

Explorations – a break from the formal classroom setting in which kids can choose from several topics to learn in a more relaxed and fun manner. This is from Turtle’s fifth-grade session.

In the end, we never really acquired much of it, though I admit sometimes seeing some items gives me a thrill as I recall Turtle growing up with Harry Potter and the conversations the series engendered. I told him so much, you see, starting before he was even born, and Harry’s adventures and scrapes related to so much in real life, including some of what Turtle has experienced in his. No magic, of course, at least not the sort requiring wands, but many others, such as the Harry-related games we played; how he purchased a wand for me to protect myself when he went to a friend’s sleepover; that he and Lilli (his aforementioned early playmate) used to call who they were when preparing to watch one of the movies (“I’m Harry !” or “I’m Hermione” – I myself always liked to call Luna); funny passwords we made up to go in and out of certain rooms; or the Harry-themed school Explorations he excelled at.

There also was the bullying. As a small child he didn’t quite know what to do about these situations, and when he got into trouble he didn’t immediately make the connection that what the bully had pushed him into led to these breakdowns. These were kids who were as unknowing as I was when encountering the enormous intelligence packed into such a small person who was sometimes bossy or didn’t quite catch on to social cues, on occasion getting lost in the shuffle. In some ways he turned to Harry, though I suspect not merely for the escape. He truly was advanced in intelligence (as we later learned), and so I wonder at times that he was, even then, analyzing the world he read about and was able to bring it to bear on his. He couldn’t put spells on his tormentors, but he did learn to assess people more critically and to choose very particularly who he would let become close—to be like Harry, who chose his friends based on mutual value and consideration, rather than popularity or intimidation.

Because Turtle had to be taught some social cues that most people understand innately, he came to rely on these analyses to help him get by. I can remember very clearly a first-grade classmate whose rudeness to his own mother shocked me. As with the bullies, Turtle didn’t catch the looks they exchanged, nor the tones of voice. But he had other ways to learn, if a bit more difficult. For instance, the boy had a borrowing scheme he employed on Turtle at book fairs: “You should get this book; it’s so good,” then ask to borrow it. He came to understand the connection, especially recalling that the boy had remarked one day that there weren’t any other books he was interested in. He later refused to allow his acquaintance to copy his math answers on a test and the boy subsequently latched onto someone else.

US cover – I love the image of the Knight Bus that seems to be part of the same series as the covers above, though this image reflects the story better, in my opinion. This portion of the narrative also is why this particular installment was my favorite for a long time: I’m in love with time travel and a fabulous rescue.

Turtle mightn’t have understood social cues and indicators, including ones that gave the warning signals he needed, but he recognized a pattern when he saw it, partly (I think) from natural inclination and partly from his own examination of the cohorts he observed in the Harry Potter books. He spoke of them frequently and once asked if he was stupid for having to experience being “used” to realize this boy wasn’t interested in his friendship, only what he could get from it.

“Oh, my dear boy, certainly not. Many people much older than yourself don’t catch on, even when it happens more than once. Some do, but they don’t have the courage to do anything about it.”

“Well, I wasn’t really sure. I wondered what would happen if I didn’t let him cheat off my paper.”

“Then, my love, you scored a double victory. You chose honesty even though you had a feeling he might not like it. You’ve knocked out a mountain troll and lived to tell the tale!” At this point he only understood certain symbolism, typically from seeing it acted out—and this one he had. And it thrilled him that I referenced a Harry Potter movie line. Though not exact in verbiage or parallel in experience, it reminds me of how Harry and Ron became friends with Hermione—one of my favorite chapter endings in the entire book series, in truth.

“There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.”

 In the following years he did indeed choose companions well; some of his friends today are ones he has known since early childhood, and they are a great group of kids. They don’t all love Harry Potter movies or books, which certainly contributed to his moving away from the series for a while. Kids grow, they encounter other or additional interests. Being at home, however, quarantined and unable to mix with his friends, also certainly influenced his return to the story. He spoke wistfully of reading in general, how he hasn’t been doing much of it, particularly Harry Potter, and we had a looooong conversation about that.

Turtle is something of a second-generation Harry Potter aficionado. He wasn’t yet born when the books initially exploded in popularity, and has always regretted not being around for those first B&N midnight release parties, where just about everyone dressed up as a character. He understands that the kids who read the books as they were released grew with Harry, and though this is also true of those who read the books later, he often points out that they are just reading “history,” grow that they might. The first generation experienced it in the 90s, at exactly the same time Harry and his friends did. “Do you know why they started releasing the books at midnight? Because kids would skip school to go buy and read the books,” he claimed. He says he will always miss those days, if it is possible, he adds, “to miss something you never experienced.”

More to come on our re-reading of this fabulous series, so stay tuned!

Some interesting tidbits about Harry Potter

Author J.K. Rowling’s website

Book Review: Fair Weather

Fair Weather by Barbara Gaskell Denvil
A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

I absolutely adore time travel, and for that reason alone was fairly certain I would enjoy Barbara Gaskell Denvil’s Fair Weather. All right, there’s the medieval setting, which played a sizeable role in persuading me as well. Set partly in King John’s England, it also contains a murder mystery, which I haven’t read a lot of, though have found I tend to be fond of the furtive element.

As it turns out, enjoy is rather an understatement. I sped through this book of over 500 pages in four days, and though a quicker read is not always indicative of its worth, my online log shows the bulk of the reading done in the final 48 hours, and I remember these hours well: staying up appallingly late, the sense of urgency as I devoured pages with avaricious hunger until, finally, as I observed the bulk on the right side of my copy thinning out, the occasional warning to my inner self that it would soon be over.

From the very first page I was invested in the book, as Molly opens by confiding in the reader about her secret place. The very first large paragraph draws us into her existence, one in which even the pervasive smells of her other world—as we are to learn of—beckon from the streets of thirteenth-century London. Here is Tilda, an orphaned street waif, and Vespasian Fairweather, who has taken the little girl under his wing and taught her and others how to steal for survival.

As Molly’s visits to this time become more frequent, and grisly murders splinter her life and state of mind, she realizes she must find answers, quickly, before both worlds are destroyed. Encountering Vespasian, she senses he holds much of the information she seeks while necessarily protective of her own. What has he done? How much power does he really contain? Is he aware she is not native to his era? Seeking these and many other answers, Molly comes to understand that she must get much closer to the dangerous Vespasian in order to free herself of him and the menace looming all around.

Gaskell Denvil is an extremely talented writer. The murders do occasion some rather descriptive images, though I was able to make a clean break from the physical element each time as I moved forward in my reading. Many readers find this a troublesome proposition, given their horror at such acts as the author describes, or toward what they sometimes fear is their own severance from compassion. In other words: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Molly, however, agonizes over the crimes, though via the deft hand of a creator whose perfect balance keeps it all from becoming overly melodramatic or without substance. Simultaneously, as the author leads us in, we feel right along with Molly, whose self-awareness works to keep us all in check. This in turn ties in with another deliciously mysterious and captivating element of the book I shall leave for readers to discover. Suffice to say the author handles the enigma that is identity exceedingly well—readers will notice certain passages that reveal her expertise.

Other techniques she engages are the sprinkling throughout Fair Weather of enchanting personification—

Shops shut early as winter dark still slunk in by mid to late afternoon.

—along with passages of graceful and shimmering imagery:

The electricity lightens my room in gaudy detail, but my eyes see only the spasmodic sputtering of lemon shadows from candle stubs.

Expressive in its striking eloquence, possessing perfect rhythm within each and every sentence, Gaskell Denvil’s poetic words convey so vividly what she points out for us to see. The ordinary isn’t simply transformed into magical, for this meanders throughout the world of the novel, recognized by characters and their observers; simple words are strung together like pearls until we are presented with a glorious necklace that transforms, as a whole, an entire sentence and, in turn, each scene.

This is not all: the author creates a world in which many complicated events and perspectives intertwine, and links within their history connect to larger figures and implications. In the hands of a lesser writer this could spell doom, and indeed a complaint of mine regarding some other fantasy novels is that they often tend to involve an overabundance of characters amongst unorganized events and too much deus ex machina. However, Gaskell Denvil’s management of her characters is in perfect balance: she allows them to be who they are, but they don’t run amok. They make sense in relation to each other, have limitations, sometimes can offer quick solutions and at others meet the consequences of when they cannot.


I tumbled into the pupils of his endless eyes. He was utterly in command of my mind.


Interestingly, characters’ comments occasionally seem to deliberately reach out to readers: “Time travel is more common than you think.” (“Yes! Yes!” I shout from within.) At other moments they engage in this while simultaneously reminding us that they, too, have a sense of history while we delight in the recall of figures we’d forgotten amidst our overloaded modern society, or in recognition of religious reservation, not a recent invention. “Purgatory,” said Vespasian softly from his high chair in the shadows, “is a dubious invention of the church.”

As Fair Weather progresses, its plot widens and we come to know more of the ancient demon Lilith and other mythological figures than before as we witness the rise of the battle between good and evil, acted out by individuals whose lust for power is so great, no act, vessel or other is sacred enough to be spared their malevolence. Gaskell Denvil—or is it Vaspasian himself?—does a superb job of revealing only what she wants to be known. Mystery, however, is not retained for its own sake, as we gradually are brought to understanding of the methodology of revelations and the harsh lessons and consequences of choosing to ignore events that do not seem to directly affect us. Not that the author wags any fingers—simply that her scenes are so vibrant, powerful and comprehensively created, it is easy to envision ourselves within the environment as we encounter surprises and questions are answered.

I also loved that these people defy easy characterization. While good and evil battle it out, there typically is an element of both within any entity, and their dimensions don’t always allow readers to determine so quickly whether one is to be trusted, liked, avoided and so on, placing us that much more into the mind of Molly. We observe the world through the eyes she herself sees it—and even that changes, given the times she inhabits, events that occur and her growing understanding of the nature of all matters, such as the spirituality of alchemy, what good really is and the nature of control.

I sat beside him. He didn’t move or seem surprised … I looked down at my own reflection in the water at his feet, my face partially obscured by floating weed and summery green algae. It was deliciously balmy … [b]eside me, still watching me[, h]is cotta was crumpled as a cushion, his hands clasped beneath his head. He cast no reflection in the pool at all.

“If you are who I believe you are, you know about that already. I have no intention of explaining myself further—even in dreams. Come back into my own world if you dare … and find out for yourself.”

“I shall, though not at your command ….” I lowered my gaze, knowing his eyes could read me. Cross and frustrated by his answers, I pointed to the pool. “Look,” I said. “Like the devil, you cast no reflection.” But when I looked up for his reaction, he had gone.

Despite its hefty bulk—oh and this becomes a great boon soon enough!—Fair Weather is a novel one will definitely return to, for its language is accessible, the story captivating and those who populate it will reach out to readers. It is commonly understood that great works reveal to us more each time we approach them, and this will certainly be so with Fair Weather, for we grow with its reading as does Molly, and getting to know Tilda, Vespasian and others is an enchanting maze into which we will want to re-enter repeatedly.

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About the author …

Having been born into a literary family where book shelves filled every room, Barbara Gaskell Denvil grew up assuming that writing would be her career. She began writing when she was extremely young and then went to work in the British Museum Library, with ancient folios and manuscripts.  This cemented her love of both literature and history. Moving on to work in traditional publishing, scripting, reviewing, editing and publishing many articles and short stories.

Her books now alternate between fantasy and historical fiction, drama, mystery, adventure and romance, with a passion for medieval settings and historical accuracy.

Miss Gaskell Denvil’s work has been traditionally published by Simon & Schuster, but she now favours self-publishing as it gives the huge satisfaction of individual control. And personal choice of genre and artistic inspiration.

… with a few extra words:

Bannister’s Muster is my new project. This is a children’s series (for age group 8 to 14) based partially in the medieval shadows of old London, and partially in a fantasy world. Book 1 – Snap – is already out and Book 2 – Snakes and Ladders – will be published in late November.

The launch will be held in the Eltham Library, Melbourne, Australia, on 2nd December. Everyone is invited.

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Sign up or follow Barbara Gaskell Denvil for news, review, historical, writing and research articles and more at her website or Facebook and Amazon author pages. Fair Weather and her other books are available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK.

Barbara loves to hear from readers, so do please get in touch

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A free copy of Fair Weather was provided in exchange for an honest review. 

Friday Five: The First Set

I simply couldn’t wait to start gathering my piles together. I’ve been thinking so much lately about so many of the wonderful books I’ve been dreaming of reading in the new year—and very possibly sooner. Not unlike my son, who has been organizing piles since his fine motor skills were first developed enough to curl his little fingers around the items of his choice, I’ve been stacking in anticipation of the day after I post the last review in my current bracket.

What of it? Well, I had planned to re-open for a few more submissions, as I did last time, but in the end decided against that. I may do it again; possibly requests will make their way to me, and certainly I’ll do reviews of some books I read on my own, and blog about things I’ve been wanting to but haven’t had the opportunity. For right now, though, the goal is to finish up the year and open 2018 with a clear, settled, relaxing slate.

So my thinking was that on the occasional Friday I’ll share a bracket of five books I have on my TBR, works I’ve been especially chomping at the bit to get to. I may or may not read them in bracket order, as often my reading choice is subject to mood, and it’s not likely to be easy to choose—you should have seen me just now sorting through books with such indecision—but I console myself with the possession of new time and the understanding there will be other Fridays.

Enjoy!

Four Nails (by G.J. Berger) This author’s debut novel, South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon, has been instrumental in widening my parameters to include more reading of Roman and early Celtic historical fiction. This really is a fascinating time, and other great reads related to the era or its people have made their way to me, further adding to my enjoyment of the amazing stories people have to tell. In the case of Four Nails, Ashoka, taken into a slave caravan from India, navigates his way through the Second Punic War as he discovers the power of friendship and strength “known only to those with nothing left to lose.”

The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805 (by Richard Zacks) I’ve tried to read this book before and been overwhelmed by commitments I’d made to the reading and reviewing of others before it (not to mention real life). Possibly my inhalation of Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates answered my appetite for that time being, but I wanted more about the Barbary Wars and it’s been dancing around my mind, demanding answers. Having started the book once, I believe it provides more extensive details about some historical figures discussed in Brian Kilmeade’s aforementioned title, such as William Eaton, who knew well the old Barbary maxim that “whoever acts like a sheep, the wolf will eat,” an understanding seemingly forgotten in today’s world. I’m looking forward to learning more about these wars and where that might lead me.

The Lost Kingdom—1066: I am the Chosen King (by Helen Hollick) It’s been awhile now I have heard not a small amount of praise about this author, and though I purchased this volume some months ago, have not yet read it, a situation I intend to remedy as soon as possible. I can thank Paula Lofting for pushing me, if not exactly kicking and screaming, somewhat reluctantly into the Anglo-Saxon era, which I completely and utterly fell for. Here Hollick picks up in 1044, when events unfold that have a role in how the battles of 1066 will play out. In this year England stands at a crossroads and everything hangs in the balance as Harold Godwinson sacrifices all for his country. From childhood history lessons we know how this will play out, but here we are promised a revelation of what makes up the real Harold, “shattered by the unforgiving needs of a Kingdom” and given “all the honor and dignity that history remembers of its fallen heroes.”

The Path of the Hawk (by Ian Graham) This is another novel, first in a series of the same title about “an elite unit of soldiers and spies,” that I purchased and reluctantly put aside in this year of overflowing plate. It came to my attention via a review written by author Steven A. McKay (remember this name—you’ll see it again), who describes exactly what I’m looking for in a fantasy novel (when I do read one): “The writing style is engaging and entertaining, the action fast paced and imaginative, and the characters interesting and well-drawn. The world they inhabit is detailed enough to feel real but not in the boring, overdone way some fantasy writers do.” Real is a key word for me here, not dismissive of magical elements, just that they don’t appear each time like some deus ex machina, with little or no relationship to the characters or their history. I also like McKay’s mention of fast-paced, and knowing they are spies and soldiers—characters I’ve been enamored of since childhood—I’m very much looking forward to a thrilling read.

Sextant: A Young Man’s Daring Sea Voyage and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans (by David Barrie) I almost feel guilty mentioning this account, given I’ve done so at least twice before. I love the sea and reading a history of mapping it, I imagine, will provide a glimpse into a world so many of us only dream about knowing, even having learned of all those important historic expeditions in school. Of course that’s not enough! “[A] love letter to the sea and sky,” this book’s blurb gives me the impression it will tap directly into more of my childhood fascinations as the two definitively linked earthly elements recount memories of my own attempts at creating a sextant—wholly unsuccessful, but the keeper of a fleet of wondrous memories.

Thanks for joining us and look for more in weeks to come!

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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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.

Month of Mary Stewart: A Walk in Wolf Wood

A Walk in Wolf Wood: A Tale of Fantasy and Magic

by Mary Stewart

The cover for the copy of A Walk in Wolf Wood I read as a child
The cover for the copy of A Walk in Wolf Wood I read as a child

A Walk in Wolf Wood came my way owing to what my mother called “a great pairing”: medieval fantasy and child protagonists matched to my love for the era of Merlin and my then newly-minted Mary Stewart fangirl status. As young adult literature it also suited my age, and I was pleased to see magic wrapped up in the entire package as well. Even for children, Stewart knew how to present intrigue.

Our story opens to the setting of Schwartzwald, Germany’s Black Forest, just outside of which brother and sister John and Margaret are picnicking with their parents, who shortly afterward fall into a post-lunch slumber. As the heat settles around the party, lulling even the afternoon to sleep, the children see a man approach and then pass them, weeping, as his tears “poured down his face and dripped onto the faded red velvet of his coat.” The intuitive pair notice the unusual clothing, naturally, but in discussing it, reject the idea that he is a re-enactor or some other sort of role player. John has difficulty articulating his instinctive understanding that the dancers they’d seen at St. Johann’s were “just dressing up” and that the weeping man seemed to be accustomed to what he wore.

As readers of fantasy are aware, children are intrepid creatures and it doesn’t occur to them to simply watch events pass by—of course these two have to run after the weeping man and see what his story is! It’s practically a requirement—“It’s in the script,” my mother used to say—and the entire experience is better off for of it, especially today when children are much more regulated and corralled than they were in the not-so-distant past. Stewart couldn’t have foreseen the downside of mixing children with Internet, but she presents to them, and all of us for that matter, the magic of imagination and not just where it can take you, but also when.


“It’s not turkey. It’s swan. And that bit’s peacock. Meg, you should just see the way they do them up, all the feathers and tail, the lot! They’re fixing them up now in the kitchens, ready for supper. Just wait till I have time to tell you everything! But we’d better exchange news first. No, no one suspects me. I really came down to get out of joining the boys’ games in the courtyard!” He made a face. You should see them! Black eyes and broken noses are the least of it! It’s all war games, of course, mock fights and tilting at the quintain—that’a sort of tournament practice—and they really do hammer at it. The master-at-arms is in charge, and he’s really tough type. I don’t think I’d have lasted very long there!”


As it turns out, their imaginings and urge to follow the man lead John and Margaret to a house in the forest, where they eventually befriend the one they come to know as Mardian. Though he once had been servant and close friend of Duke Otho, an evil sorcerer called Almeric has placed a spell on him, and he is fated to a shapeshifting existence while the sorcerer has assumed Mardian’s identity at court. The real Mardian helplessly watches Almeric’s takeover plan successfully move from step to step toward its ultimate conclusion, a palace coup that would not only unseat the duke, but also eliminate him and his son, Prince Crispin, entirely. Only John and Margaret can change the course of this wicked plan, though to do so they must enter the castle and place themselves in Almeric’s very path.

While I have never been attracted to werewolf stories, for a reader with my preferences this one nevertheless works well because Stewart focuses on how the spell robs Mardian of his full life and forces him into a destructive existence that eats at his will to overcome it.

“[F]or a year and more I have been as I am now. By day I am still Mardian, but the night, as you have seen, forces the wolf-shape on me, and with it the wolf’s appetite and lust for blood. With sunrise the bloodlust goes, and my man’s shape and mind return, but the memories and the shame remain.”

 Throughout the novel Stewart also weaves an aura of enchantment that occasionally manifests itself in the children’s self-awareness and their conclusion that everything they are experiencing must certainly be a dream. How else could they have walked only a short distance into another time? Moreover, how is it they are able to communicate with Mardian, whose language is different to theirs? For this they conclude they in reality are asleep near to their parents, and they speak a “dream language” that enables communication.

Stewart provides answer for these questions, cleverly inverting the notion that we in the modern era are the sensible, cleverer people, and Mardian’s fourteenth century is populated by the backward and superstitious. Yearning for some explanation for their experiences, the children opt for the ages-old technique of finding an explanation, no matter how illogical, for their experiences and ascribing them to it, whereas Mardian directly faces the truth, counseling them that

“spell it is … and no dream, my dears, as you had hoped. This is real, as your own time is real, and there is suffering to be won or escaped from. It is for you to choose. Choice is man’s right, and for that I leave you free.”

 In this scenario, twentieth-century children seek to escape the possibility of sorcery and imagine an alternate reality to account for it, whereas Mardian explains it quite matter-of-factly, even hinting in rather modern fashion that the choice to remain in the state they have concocted or move away from is their own. It is he, not they, who is unafraid of the idea of mixing time, and he who references their native time without including their own travel within the realm of evil.

A magical cover image: flags flying at the castle, looking a bit Hansl and Gretl-like, getting friendly with the wolf. Stewart is a master at turning the familiar a bit inside out.

As a fantasy tale, A Walk in Wolf Wood more than stands on its own, for it also encompasses time travel and a sense of history, and speaks to the themes of royal life, treasonous activity and the bonds of true friendship. A young adult novel, it attracts grown-up readers as well with its rich descriptions and the storytelling magic fans of Stewart are accustomed to. Simple but not simplistic, it is an engaging read with just the right recipe to charm readers of various ages as they follow John and Margaret and where the enchantment will take all of them.

Click title to see the series intro, “The World of Mary Stewart.”

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues later today with “Image of the Week” and concludes next week with a review for The Prince and the Pilgrim.

A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

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This post has been updated to include links to related entries.

Book Review: The Fantasmagorical Forest

The Fantasmagorical Forest, Book One: Two Stones by S.L. Dwyer

Winner of the indieBRAG Medallion

Is it unfair to say that most, or at least many, teenage girls have a tendency toward self-absorption and hyperbole? In that context, what is the worst thing that could happen in their world? Loss of phone privileges? No trips to the mall? A summer filled with boredom and loathing? “This is going to be the worst summer I ever spent in my whole life.”

forestFifteen-year-old Katelin is a typical teenager who, like many others, has had to face some extra reality during these tough years, in coping with the death of her father. As the one-year anniversary approaches, she retreats into her familiar zone, reacting strongly and negatively to whatever does not match her coping mechanism. Unfortunately, this is pretty much everything, given that her mother is setting Katelin and her younger brother up for some summer with their great grandmother in the Appalachian valley.

Far removed from friends, malls, pool parties and anything else teenager-friendly that would keep her days filled and memories at bay, Katelin is in no mood to hear her mother’s hint about the surrounding forest when she repeats the adage about looks being deceiving. “’Sure,’ Katelin thought. ‘It looks just like it should—a place in the middle of nowhere, miles and miles from anything. Nothing deceiving about that.’”

Author S.L. Dwyer gives readers a view to what Katelin takes in—or sees and rejects—as they approach the isolated home. In a “cozy cup of lush forests,” a “blanket of buttercups” leads to a comfortable-looking home with wraparound porch and filled with country décor and appetizing food. Nana, as their mother calls the grandmother she herself spent time every summer with as a child, gives Katelin space to be as eleven-year-old Simon introduces himself to the older woman and eagerly opens up to their new circumstances.

While periodically readers will find themselves almost comforted by lush descriptive terms, this isn’t Dwyer’s only strength. She has an ear for teen and pre-teen verbiage and uses it effectively to satisfy young adult as well as adult readers. Phrases such as “Jeez, Katelin, why the baditude?” and Katelin’s overuse of “like” will be familiar to and fit in the ears of the younger set, while increasingly sophisticated verbiage draws them into narrative patterns also satisfying to an adult audience.

Katelin, however, isn’t quite there yet, and though she eventually allows Simon to lead her out of the house, she attempts to be unwilling as each step leads the pair closer to the fantastic within the forest. A morning blueberry-picking excursion that ends late at night as the pair desperately seek the correct path home—following the instructions of a fairy they’d encountered—increases Simon’s sense of adventure, acting as persuasive agent to Katelin’s reticence.

Her instincts seem proven correct when she is forced to enlist Nana’s aid to find Simon, who disappears into a tear between two worlds. While Katelin’s interest is secretly aroused, and her curiosity piqued regarding what other secrets the forest keeps, her brother’s rescue also debilitates and angers her. This is confirmed when their frightened Nana warns them from the forest and shortly after vanishes. The children embark on a quest to find her, requiring Katelin to take a stand and move forward to rescue the only person responsible for their well-being.

Dywer solidly handles this back and forth with Katelin, whose behavior realistically vacillates between conceding Simon’s point (“What else are you gonna do all day, sit here staring at the trees?”) and maintaining face by sustaining her anger and the wall she has built to keep it close to her. Fear at times holds her back as her anger slowly fades and her willingness to explore opens up. Her battles with herself and external forces overlap and Dwyer portrays Katelin’s growth process so genuinely that it is easy to forget there actually exist transitions between stubborn retention and moving forward. What occurs to Katelin and her realizations regarding the role she plays in her own misfortunes don’t come in one fell swoop, and even when she has an aha moment, Dwyer wisely makes no attempt to magically transform Katelin into a new person. Growth comes in fits and starts, and I found this pacing of Katelin’s to be one of The Fantasmagorical Forest’s greatest strengths.

Pieced in with all this puzzling is a history the children slowly come to realize, a history of the forest that involves their family, details also revealed at a pace that Dwyer successfully utilizes often for suspense, but also contemplation. When they come upon a precious stone—one of the two in the title—they also learn of a second. What happens when the stones are re-united, however, is unknown, and Katelin will be required to face the consequences if and when it is determined to bring them together at all, and the consequences if they do not.

This and other unknowns are faced and decisions will be made as Simon and Katelin meet and either ally or do battle with a variety of strange and fascinating creatures with an assortment of powers and limitations. The worlds and encounters the children pass through are both charming and alarming, linking back to what their mother had said about appearances, though there are no solid rules for determining which way any creature or entity might lean, or how best to assess who might be a great strength or supporting persona. It is up to Katelin and Simon to learn and adapt to their environment as they seek to ultimately rescue their Nana.

The Fantasmagorical Forest is a fabulous young adult novel suitable for adults, and all audiences will appreciate it as a coming-of-age story. While it contains some familiar elements, it is definitely its own tale. It also leaves open some questions, such as the stones and how they fit into the history, and I look forward to learning more about this mysterious and fantastic valley.

 

From the author’s website

Born in Connecticut, raised in Florida, and lived all over the country. My residences almost match my careers. I began as a nurse and went back to school for an engineering degree. Then on to finance and technology. Diverse, yes. Satisfying, no. My real love was writing.

bus_cardI am just your average person filling up my own personal space in today’s exciting world. I have always immersed myself in books from a very young age. Traveled to exotic locales and fought for the good side in the land of words written by those who crafted a story that enthralled and entertained.

I don’t write in any particular genre. When I discover a story tumbling around in my head, whatever the genre, I write it. The greatest enjoyment in writing is when the characters begin to steer the story in their own direction. It is truly exciting to find yourself cruising along with your central character, discovering new areas of the book coming not from my own conceptions, but riding the story that evolved through my characters. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else besides writing – books are magic. The world of fiction is so much more exciting than anything you could imagine in everyday life.

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Learn more about and follow S.L. Dwyer at her website, and check out her other books, including Dirt, also a winner of the B.R.A.G. Medallion.