Reading 2018: Requiem, Reviews and Year of the TBR

Peering ahead to the new year, a portion of my reading “challenge” for 2018 is to move away from thinking of it so much as a challenge and more of something I just do. There may be some uneasy feelings speaking toward the “requiem” segment of this, our next title, it not sitting so well to remember the dead as part of a challenge. Maybe they wouldn’t mind; I don’t know. I just don’t want to forget them, and maybe that’s all they would want, too.

German cavalry of the 11th Reserve Hussar Regiment in a trench, in France, in the Western Front during 1916 Bundesarchiv, Bild 136-B0560/Tellgmann, Oscar/CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

In the last couple of years, I think the first memory that brought me to where I am today, to this part, is of reading Siegfried Sassoon in high school literature classes. At that time and long after, I read everything about World War II I could get my hands on. The Great War—not so much. What I recall most from then were this poet, the horrible trenches and a theater of miserable mud. I didn’t really think of it all much post school. So it was curious that Sassoon came to mind so recently, and then here and there I saw references to that terrible time as centennial anniversaries rolled through the last few years. When I received a particular book for review, set during and after the “war to end all wars” that didn’t, I began to realize I should follow up on all of this.

Another contemplation I’d been having was to focus on my TBR—to be read. For the last couple of years I’ve been doing a lot of reviews, which I love, but admittedly took up a lot more of my time than I should have let them do. While I remain convinced of the massive amount of amazing stories hidden within the indie community (where most of my reviews came from), I also want—need—to delve into my own choices for reading material. This resulted in my two-pronged decision pertaining to book reviews and changes in how I do them:

  • The time I spend on them will, by necessity, be significantly less than before. I’ll be doing fewer, and plan to shave off much of the analysis, aiming for greater succinctness.
  • My choices will come from requests and my own perusals. Also, I may write about topics I’ve read books on, rather than reviews, per se (for my own picks), so I can vary content in the blog more than in the past. I’m also aiming to get back to more food entries and other fun stuff.
It’s happening this year, Jayne!!!

This all works together very nicely because, apart from enabling me to continue this endeavor without losing touch with my family, I can spend some quality time with much (I hope) of what’s been roaming through my mind, themes and topics I wish to explore and learn more about. As it happens, lots of books about the Great War reside on my TBR, including such works as: Jünger’s Storm of Steel; Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s memoir that has also been made into a film; The Summer Before the War and All Quiet on the Western Front.

I decided to read at least one book each month to observe the 100th anniversary of war’s end, marked by a phrase most know: “At the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month ….” Nearly a full year will pass before we reach that early-morning moment, and, especially in these days of historical omissions and fabrications, I hope we shall remember November 11, 1918 long after the novelty of its centennial observation concludes. The people—the living and the dead—given their place in the two-minute silence deserve no less.

There are, of course, many other titles on my TBR, including a great number that have literally been sitting on my shelves collecting dust. Some are ones I’d picked up in the past, knowing I may or may not like them. They looked promising, though, obviously, but leaving them forgotten for so long seemed so wasteful. For that and because I also began to run out of space, I determined to make a physical change to the setting, that of cleaning up and clearing out.

My favorite Dickens: I purchased this book to re-read at least three years ago. I hope this year will be the one!

In addition to the bi-annual wiping down of the house, as I call it, occasionally I instigate a purge, typically when conditions approach those they now do: overcrowded spaces occupied by items unused or that have outlived their usefulness. While hesitant to place books in the latter category, I would concede that if they aren’t being read and hopefully enjoyed, then they belong to someone else. I went through the last of the shelves overnight: taking them all down and going through each individually, dusting the shelves, and replacing with those books unread that I fully intend to, or those experienced but that have extra special significance to my own journeys. At one point I may let go of these too, but for now I take it a little bit at a time.

And of those not returning to my shelves? They deserve to find a special place in other readers’ lives; those readers, too, should be able to experience the magical journeys and amazing tales I have been so fortunate to happen upon. Some I haven’t read, and I set them aside to explore and figure out if each is a good match for me, which could indeed include the phrase literacy teachers employ: the “right book, right now.” At some point I may want to return to one or more, but that is for later. Any that aren’t good fits for me when I pick them up will have storytelling opportunities elsewhere.

The newly opened space on my book cases are ones I’m unaccustomed to, but the refreshed emptiness, as well as the removed books’ path ahead, represent the unknown, really, something that awaits all of us in the future. I find this fitting as well, for all of this, my reading goals and the opening up, gifts us the dual perspective of remembering the past while continuing to look into and create a better future.

Off the shelves of young Turtle

I don’t have a number in mind yet, that is for how many books I aim to read, apart from the twelve Great War works. Similar to last year (which was only yesterday!), numbers really aren’t as important as the content and quality I take away from what I read, how it can enrich my life and others’, even if in smaller ways. So, I may just choose a random number and when I reach it, equally randomly tack on another set.

So for the long and the short, I’ll be reading and remembering the Great War through the year, with a number attached only to keep myself up to date, in short enough segments of time that I can aim to experience a rewarding range of perspectives, themes, genres and approaches, but each long enough to give me time and space to process individual works thoughtfully, without any sort of systematic but senseless rush.

Simultaneously I’ll be re-uniting with my TBR and choosing books to read I’ve been wanting to for so long. I actually got a bit of an early start with that in the last month, despite the slowdown I wrote about yesterday, and overall it’s been glorious. I’m looking forward to those moments when something pops in my head and connected to it a book I know I have. “Oh, I think I’ll read that!” Or when I can get a library book knowing I have a greater chance of reading it before it has to return to its base. Incidentally, my TBR does contain some previously-read titles, though I will let mood and interest mostly dictate whether I get to them or not.

I know there are other bloggers and readers out there with their own challenges, and I’m looking forward to seeing their ideas, and sharing in many different ways the journey through 2018. Happy New Year!!!

See also:

Erin Davies’s Presidential Challenge at Flashlight Commentary

Stephanie M. Hopkins’s 2018 Reading Goals at Layered Pages

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January 1, 1918: This day 100 years ago marks the period between the Battle of Jaffa (December 1917) and the withdrawal (March 1918) of the 52nd (Lowland) Division to the Western Front. The 54th (East Anglian) stayed on and would take part in operations at Berukin (April 1918) and later (September 1918) at the battle of Sharon.
(Scroll to bottom of Revolvy page to see additional links there.)

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Book Review: Hand of Glory

Hand of Glory by Susan Boulton

Dried and pickled, bestowed with magical powers and held in the highest of esteem by thieves, a Hand of Glory, retrieved from the right arm of a villain, was their gateway to a house of riches just waiting to be relieved of them. Lighted candles held aloft by the hand’s fingers predicted how many occupants were abed, and not only provided a mystical tool and protective power for the intruder, but also prevented anyone from a premature awakening until the flame was extinguished.

Such is the object of Archie Hawkins’ desire as he and his brother, Jim, have been carrying on a family crime legacy by joining the fighting at 1917 Passchendaele with the aim to scavenge loot off soldiers—and they weren’t picky whose side they came from.

On the same night they perform their ghastly duties to retrieve a hand, Captain Giles Hardy lay wrapped in barbed wire, watching as death and destruction fall all around him, convinced that he too would, and should, die. As it turns out, Hardy makes it home to Stafford, but is haunted by what he has seen as well as the ghost of a close comrade, Corporal George Adams. Drawn by a new acquaintance into the world of outdated séance and a crafty medium, the spirit realm both intrudes and lends a hand to lead Hardy to the links in his past he never knew, as he continually seeks to escape the Great War battlefields he remains tied to, even years after the Armistice.

Given that I was not entirely convinced this particular mythology was a good fit for my interests, it was fortuitous that Susan Boulton’s Hand of Glory opens with robust action playing out on the Western Front as more than one brand of battle rages. From there I was drawn into the dugouts, witnessing the death throes of men both resigned to as well as fighting death, the wet dust of the departed and all the filth, excrement and other assorted miseries of the infamous trenches. While there are indeed battle scenes, the author focuses less on them than the histories and personalities of the men they engage, and the sudden silence of remembering as unlikely suggestions purr amidst senses on the brink: the silky voice of a lover or “burning autumn leaves. The scent that lulled the English countryside into its winter sleep.” Boulton’s subtly is even subtle as she artfully weaves memories of the dying within the deafening pounds and thuds of warfare so that, not unlike some of the men themselves, we don’t realize that slipping away in such an environment could be so serene.

These are amongst Hardy’s haunted memories as he begins to piece together details surrounding thefts within Stafford of late, and the investigation he hopes will bring peace to himself as well as the departed. If I thought it would be a simple matter to just read a bit one day and put the book down, I was disabused of that notion as Boulton’s pages flew from left to right under my fingertips, my eyes greedily soaking up the story with a setting, era, plot and mythology that mesmerized my reading self. Not unlike sleepers unable to rise from their beds when a Hand of Glory’s fingers were lit, I was frozen to the folio as the tale progressed.

The War Memorial in Stafford in its current location. (It was turned round when the new Crown Court was built.)

Part of what makes Boulton’s yarn so addictive is the authenticity of the era’s presentation. Small moments and particular words make it so, and contribute to a feel of reality as the author also manages her narrative to ensure smooth progression. Early in the novel, a waitress “bobbed a small curtsey” to a group of newly-arrived patrons. Later, from Archie’s perspective, we read that “[t]he Victorians had turned the small halt into one of their gothic, wrought-iron confections, which now straddled six lines.” Here Boulton also conveys characters’ own awareness of the time they inhabit, with this reference to the now-passed Victorian era and the growth of the railways, with a small dig at the era’s predilection for excess.

It would be one thing to say Hand of Glory is a thrilling read and the pages couldn’t be turned fast enough, though this wouldn’t be doing the novel justice. Readers are swept into the story with a breathless anticipation, all the more so because the author’s words and imagery bring the scenes to a living presence, as if we are watching the real characters experience these events, or in a movie, its Hitchcockian elements—trains, domineering mother, false accusation, side-switching or suspicions of such, suspense over surprise (though there is this), the charming criminal, crucial close-ups and more—lending a weighty heaviness to a number of scenes as the camera slowly, willfully, pans across a dark, silent setting, or one in which a single element is ever-present and undisguised, but often also remains undetected.

Adams coughed, as if the smoke of the non-existent cigarette were troubling his lungs. He looked at Hardy, his ghostly eyes narrowing. “It’s coming to a bloody head, sir, after all this time. We’ve got a good chance to get it damn well done for good.”

 “Get what done?” Hardy asked, confused and angry, cursing under his breath at the nonsense of it all.

 Adams did not answer. The smoke from the cigarette gathered against the windscreen. Flames flickered. Red-hot. The gothic window of tree branches. Fingers entwined in his. The cold metal of a ring on a small finger. Hardy screamed and the illusion shattered. He slumped back in his seat, staring out at the windscreen at the night-wrapped lane that led to his home. How long he had been sitting there he did not know. His mind tumbled over and over, stressed to breaking point. Was he really here? Still in Flanders? Or, as one doctor had tried to put it, in a mental retreat where all his fears and perhaps hopes played out: a self-created purgatory?

 The author easily transfixes us not only with suspense, mystery, horror and criminal enterprise, but also imagery that, while often reminiscent of the legendary director mentioned above, casts as well its own role with lines powerful enough to stop us dead as we seek to take them in again. Boulton shows us moroseness,

Dull and reluctant, the day began

 a silken, swarthy sense of voyeurism as we follow an intruder

The moonlight crept down the hall, running pale fingers over the pictures hanging on the walls.

and the theater Hardy cannot escape.

A star shell exploded high over the battlefield, banishing the darkness for the space of its short, sputtering fall to earth. In the flickering man-made light, hell was again visible, pockmarked and drowning in the late autumn rain.

That hell follows Hardy, chained to his prior entrapment even years after release, with his investigation and journey to free himself as well as others questioning “the war to end all wars,” as character dialogue purposefully reveals no perceptions as to what anyone may or may not have gained from it all.

From the start Hand of Glory is gripping, taking us to an England transitioning into a new world forged from flames while the old still undergoes its destruction. Its people, forward-looking and dated alike, walk side by side, and Boulton utilizes their shared language—the feel and character of it—to depict Hardy and others within this transition as they examine that circumstance and what it will mean for all involved.

That the paranormal mixes with historical fiction and wartime storytelling is quite clever and makes the novel stand out from either genre. Boulton takes that one step further by writing a story that carries readers along quickly as the action and suspense build up through a cast of characters intricately linked to the past as their paths converge in their post-war present. Some of this is recognizable before or as it occurs, but the manner in which it does, itself brings us back to stories of the past attached to readers (or viewers) urging on their heroes or shaking fists at baddies, this reader involvement entangling with the action and furthering the sense of urgency previously built upon by the author. It’s an innovative kind of old story that will capture new readers in its imaginative, disturbing grip.

War medals of the author’s grandfather, the real George Adams, who, as she writes in her dedication, “made it home in 1919.” The medals are 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal, referred to by veterans as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. (Click image for more information.)

About the author …

My name is Susan Boulton and like the song by The Police says, I was born in the 50′s and I had the unusual distinction of arriving into this world  200 yards from where, 37 years before, Tolkien spent time thinking about hobbits.

I have lived all my life in rural Staffordshire, and have a passion for the countryside, its history, myths and legends, all of which influence my work. Married with two grown-up daughters, I now put my over-active imagination (once the bane of both my parents and teachers) to good use in my writing.

I have had short stories published in the following:

Flash spec (Volume I and Volume II) (EQ Books)

Touched by Wonder (Meadowhawk Press)

Ruthless People

Alien Skin

Golden Visions

The Dark Fiction Spotlight

Tales of the Sword (Red Sky Press)

Malevolence – Tales From Beyond the Veil (Ticketyboo Press)

“Mirror” – Kraxon Online Magazine

Novels:

Oracle  (Ticketyboo Press)

Hand of Glory (Penmore Press)

To learn more about author Susan Boulton and keep up with her news, follow her at Facebook, Twitter or her blog! She will also be at, and taking part in panels, Sledge Lit 3 at the Quad in Derby UK on November 25th 2017. This looks like a lot of fun, so go on and check it out! Hand of Glory and other works by Susan Boulton may be purchased at at Amazon or Amazon UK. Enjoy!

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A free copy of Hand of Glory was provided to the blogger in order to facilitate an honest review. 

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Photos courtesy Susan Boulton