Friday, July 31, 2015

The Prince of Fishes is here!

I'm thrilled to announce the release of my latest little fairy tale retelling, The Prince of Fishes.

In Constantinople, the Queen of Cities, poverty-stricken Michael the Fisherman and his wife Eudokia dream of a better life for their family. When Michael catches a fish that is able to grant wishes, he and Eudokia finally get their chance to taste the wealth and power of their wildest dreams. But will their ambition destroy the city and cost them everything they hold dear?

An epic clockpunk retelling of the Grimms' fairytale The Fisherman and His Wife, set against the theological turmoil and imperial grandeur of 700s Byzantium. Novella, approximately 33,000 words.
This is a retelling of the Grimms' fairy tale "The Fisherman and His Wife". It's not one of the well-known princess stories, so Disney won't make a movie from it anytime soon; but it was a favourite of mine growing up, a fascinating trainwreck of a morality tale about the insatiability of ambition and the way that small sins lead step-by-step to immense sins. I was reading John Julius Norwich's Short History of Byzantium when I got the idea for this story in December last year--it seemed that only in early medieval Byzantium could such a story, with all its potential for epic and tragedy, conceivably have played out--and had a wonderful time retelling an old story in a very new way!

Enjoy!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Announcing THE PRINCE OF FISHES by Suzannah Rowntree

Well, I know a lot of you are still chewing through Pendragon's Heir, but for those of you who've finished with my pride and joy, I'm super excited to be publishing my next novella, The Prince of Fishes, a week from now on Friday, July 31. Mark your calendars!


THE PRINCE OF FISHES

In Constantinople, the Queen of Cities, poverty-stricken Michael the Fisherman and his wife Eudokia dream of a better life for their family. When Michael catches a fish that is able to grant wishes, he and Eudokia finally get their chance to taste the wealth and power of their wildest dreams. But will their ambition destroy the city and cost them everything they hold dear?

An epic clockpunk retelling of the Grimms' fairytale The Fisherman and His Wife, set against the theological turmoil and imperial grandeur of 700s Byzantium. Novella, approximately 33,000 words.

Releases on Kindle Friday, July 31

Friday, July 17, 2015

Death Be Not Proud by John Donne + updates, including writing

So I've reviewed my backlog of vintage novels, I'm still savouring reading the next, and I thought now might be a good time for a bit of gossip, which I'll round off with a new favourite John Donne poem.

Reading


Goodreads tells me I'm still 2 books ahead on my 2015 challenge, which is 90 books. So, yay! 
At the moment I'm reading The Small House at Allington, my annual Trollope. So far it is subtle and bittersweet and a bit sad, and as usual, I'm loving it, but not at high speed.

I picked up The Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, in Oamaru, New Zealand. I'll have to tell you all about it sometime, but I am working through the whole thing in a leisurely manner and am in the middle of the Elizabethan poets right now. I had heard paeans of praise to this book, but it actually is that good. Like an endless box of chocolates, and you can never just stop at one.

When I was in New Zealand I got the idea from Rachel Gray to set aside an evening each week for read-aloud time with my siblings. So on Wednesday nights, I've been reading Rolf Boldrewood's Robbery Under Arms aloud to my sisters. It's the classic Australian novel of bushranging and all my brothers loved it growing up--but somehow I never got more than a few chapters in.

I have a couple of non-fiction books I aim to pick up and demolish in the next couple of days as well. Beyond Stateliest Marble: The Passionate Femininity of Anne Bradstreet by Douglas Wilson is one. Captive in Iran by Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh is another.

Watching

Last night I treated myself to Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella, having heard wonderful things about it from The Rabbit Room. I have mixed feelings about the result. With CGI butterflies, bluebirds and mice, with very Disneyfied set design, with magic that consists mostly of sparkles, and with a fairy godmother (Helena Bonham-Carter, who I didn't recognise at all until thinking, "I can't believe they wrote a character this nutty and didn't get HBC to play her") calling out "Bippedy-boppedy-boop", I couldn't help feeling that something about the story was being trivialised--I say this as one who has never seen the original Disney film. Also the message of kindness and courage was subtly linked to one about trusting your heart, following your heart, etc, and that never goes down well with Scots Presbyterians like yours truly.

That said, I was amazed by how good the movie was. In with all the endless sparkle-ballgown-twirling and handsome-prince-prancing and CGI-bluebirding (oh, aren't I hard to please), the original message of the fairy tale itself shone out unmistakeable and triumphant: HUMILES EXULTAVIT. Branagh's Cinderella is a humble heroine; she is also a decidedly unfeminist brand of heroine who rarely ever appears these days, in that she is a meek, servant-hearted, and forgiving heroine who is tried and tested, but not broken, by a long ordeal. Fanny from Mansfield Park is one such heroine, and I could name others. 

Along with that, this Cinderella also features a Prince who loves, respects, and honours his father even when they disagree; a King who graciously respects his son's marital preferences even though they don't line up with his own, and forgiveness

Though occasionally too cutesy for words, this film is built around a solid core of goodness. I don't know how it happened, but with this and the first Thor movie, Branagh is gaining steady ground in my regard as one of the few directors working today who cares about humility and respects family relationships.

Writing

With Pendragon's Heir all safely released, I'm up to my eyebrows in two new projects.

The first is a series of novella-length fairy tale retellings. I got the idea when I had so much fun writing The Rakshasa's Bride last November--my retelling of Beauty and the Beast (see Pinterest board). I have a number of others in various stages of completion:

The Prince of Fishes (Pinterest board) - a retelling of The Fisherman and His Wife, in clockpunk 700s Byzantium. Awaiting final critiques and tweaks.

The Bells of Paradise (Pinterest board) - a retelling of Jorinda and Joringel, in Tudor England and Spenserian Faerie. Awaiting a little characterisation surgery and finalisation.

Never Send to Know (Pinterest board) - a retelling of SPOILERS!, in Jazz Age New Zealand in the style of a Mary Stewart romantic suspense novel (I hope). Two-thirds of the way through a rough first draft.

The second project, I'm not saying too much about at this stage. It's been bubbling very quietly on the back burner of my mind for three and a half years now. It's another major novel, which might end up dwarfing Pendragon's Heir. I've been quietly researching it for several months, and just last week I sat down in fear and trembling to outline the plot, characters, and setting. I hope to have a solid working outline by the end of this month, at which stage, DV, I will plunge into work on the first draft.

Gulp.

A Poem!

One hallmark of Mary Stewart's novels is reference to classic literature. She and her heroines are always exquisitely erudite. Sometimes, as in This Rough Magic, she uses one specific author or work to add thematic resonance throughout the story. I've been trying to do something similar in Never Send to Know, using John Donne's poetry. Here's a favourite sonnet.

Holy Sonnet X
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot

I have to admit I have never quite appreciated TS Eliot. I do not understand The Waste Land, I do not understand that Prufrock fellow, and I've always felt a good deal of sympathy for James McAuley's evaluation of Eliot's "mighty line":
To drift, and flutter, hesitate, opine,
Hint at a meaning, murmur that God knows,
And gently settle in a soup of prose. 
All the same, plenty of people I respect have respected Eliot, and I thoroughly enjoyed the introduction he wrote to Charles Williams's All Hallows' Eve. Plus, he wrote Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, and that is something I can not only appreciate, but heartily recommend.

This is a collection of fifteen or so comic poems for children, all about cats. If you've ever listened to any Andrew Lloyd Webber, or are otherwise familiar with the musical Cats, then you know some of the poetry already. There's Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, the cat-thieves--and there's Growltiger's Last Stand, a chilling and epic account of a pirate-cat's demise--and there's the magical Mr Mistoffelees (who may be deceiving his owners as to where exactly he produced seven kittens from), and Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town.

They are all, of course, completely charming. As nonsensical as the verse is, it doesn't talk down to its audience--Eliot juggles, with supreme confidence, words like legerdemain and extemporize, without the least regard for age-appropriateness. And, though I suppose I really shouldn't be, I'm continually amazed by the wonderful ear for rhythm and internal rhyme and the jolly rattling clatter of well-used words--coming from one who made his name in free verse:
There's a whisper down the line at 11.39
When the Night Mail's ready to depart,
Saying 'Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can't start.'
All the guards and all the porters and the stationmaster's daughters
They are searching high and low,
Saying 'Skimble where is Skimble for unless he's very nimble
Then the Night Mail just can't go.'
Though of course, it should go without saying that no one has the right to write free verse unless and until he's learned to write excellent metred verse. For me, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is not just a terrific collection of funny nonsense verse for children, perfect for introducing the little dears to some high culture--it's also the main reason I'm inclined to treat TS Eliot seriously as a poet at all. The man could write. Look at him, spinning words like juggling-balls!
Macavity's a Mystery Cat: he's called the Hidden Paw--
For he's the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He's the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad's despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime--Macavity's not there!

Macavity, Macavity, there's no on like Macavity,
He's broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime--Macavity's not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air--
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity's not there!

Macavity's a ginger cat, he's very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly doomed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he's half asleep, he's always wide awake.

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
For he's a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.
You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square--
But when a crime's discovered, then Macavity's not there!

He's outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard's.
And when the larder's looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke's been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair--
Ay, there's the wonder of the thing! Macavity's not there!

And when the Foreign Office finds a Treaty's gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scap of paper in the hall or on the stair--
But it's useless of investigate--Macavity's not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
"It must have been Macavity!"--but he's a mile away.
You'll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,
Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare:
And whatever time the deed took place--MACAVITY WASN'T THERE!
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is something that's becoming increasingly hard to find: real art, good art, aimed at children--or, indeed, at anyone who enjoys a bit of good poetry.

Find Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats at Amazon or The Book Depository.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

You probably all know about The Three Musketeers--or think you do. The story has, of course, achieved a kind of pop-cultural osmosis. Callow young D'Artagnan arrives in late Renaissance Paris determined to join the King's Musketeers, but accidentally picks a fight instead with three of the most distinguished of the musketeers--scholarly Aramis, brawny Porthos, and mysterious Athos. Their duel is interrupted by the Cardinal Richelieu's guards, the sworn enemies of the musketeers, dedicated to law, order, and prevention of fun, and the four young men become inseparable friends. Meanwhile, D'Artagnan falls in love with his landlord's wife (yes, it's that kind of book), who also happens to be a dressmaker-come-spy for Anne of Austria, the Queen of France, who is in love with George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (I did say it's that kind of book), whose footsteps are dogged by Milady Countess de Winter, scheming servant of the Cardinal, who desires to compromise and ruin the Queen in order to go on controlling the King.

Kidnappings, murders, poison, war, seduction, intrigue, stolen jewels, assassinations, wagers, spies, horrifying revelations, and lots of swordplay ensues.

In some ways, it's no wonder people have been reading and enjoying this book for years. In other ways, my hair stood on its end the first time I read it years ago, and when I went to re-read it a couple of months ago my hair stood on its end again. The Three Musketeers is even more outrageous than Dumas's other classic, The Count of Monte Cristo. In that novel, though its hero redefines morality to suit himself, having awesome fun in the process, Dumas flings a sop to morality by rounding off the story with the hero discovering that revenge isn't as fulfilling as he expected. In The Three Musketeers, on the other hand, Dumas doesn't even try to be profound. This is a book about bad men doing bad things--killing, seducing, lying, drinking, brawling, and generally treating people like dirt--and having a ripping good time doing them.

Similarly to The Count of Monte Cristo, Dumas depicts his heroes as demigods, somehow above the ordinary run of people, bending morality to suit themselves. This comes out most clearly at the end of the novel, in which they define and administer justice on their own initiative. Men have become gods, knowing the end from the beginning, doing what pleases them.

Dumas gets away with this by providing his "heroes" with the indispensable foil of one character more villainous than themselves. The nadir of the whole novel occurs when Milady, the wily villainess, is captured halfway through her mission to assassinate the Duke of Buckingham, and in order to escape, attempts to corrupt the righteous but naive young man assigned to guard her. It's a really uncomfortable segment of the book; and yes, partly that's because no one should feel comfortable reading about the deception and destruction of goodness and innocence, but it's made worse by the author's cavalier attitude toward such things; he writes the passage well, but one comes away with the impression that he couldn't care less--to be good is to be foolish.

So yes, you would be correct in assuming that I didn't enjoy this book--in fact, I think I was even more offended by it this time around. That said, I want to point out two things.

The first thing is that a few months before, I attempted reading another novel set in the French court around roughly the same time period, with much the same morals--Kate Forsyth's Bitter Greens, which deals with the origin of the fairy tale of Rapunzel. I forget whether it was three or four chapters in that I abandoned it in distaste. What struck me was the extraordinary contrast in tone between The Three Musketeers and Bitter Greens. The former book is, as I mentioned above, about bad people having fun doing bad things. Bitter Greens, on the other hand, appeared to be about bad people having an absolutely rotten time doing bad things. The narrator was deeply bitter, and the wages of sin appeared to be no fun at all. In some ways, that's an encouraging sign--if The Three Musketeers was born to a society which could imagine sin being tremendous fun, Bitter Greens appears to have been born to a society that can no longer imagine anything being fun, a society suffering burnout. And that is deeply sad. But also, perhaps, hopeful.

The Three Musketeers, by contrast, throws itself into everything with an infectious enthusiasm which is the novel's chief charm--and perhaps also a real strength. I defy anyone not to feel stirred by Aramis informing the cardinal's guards that--


“We shall have the honor of charging you,” replied Aramis, raising his hat with one hand and drawing his sword with the other.

Or the multiple occasions upon which D'Artagnan or one of his friends insists that an authority figure "tell me how I can get myself killed for Your Grace". In amongst the killing and what-not there is a great deal of courage, courtliness, and verve--which are real virtues. And those, I think, not the vices, are what make the novel at all fun.

Find The Three Musketeers on Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

The Princess and the Goblin

 As a little girl, there were few books I loved better than George MacDonald's classic fantasy, The Princess and the Goblin. I don't know how many times I read and re-read it, but it can't have been fewer than three times, and perhaps as many as eight or nine. MacDonald had the gift in all his fantasies of inventing images so simple and so powerful that they gain an unassailable foothold in the imagination, and the most powerful image of all of them must be that of the little princess who gets lost in the castle where she lives and ends by discovering a wonderful, wise, and mysterious great-great-grandmother living in a distant tower. The fairy ancestress, her splendid and gorgeous apartments, the fact that few but the princess herself know of (or can believe in) her existence, and the princess's adventures under the oversight of this powerful protectress, make the story not just one that every little girl is bound to adore on first reading, but also exactly the kind of fairy-tale GK Chesterton spoke of when he said that fairy-tales give us, not so much dragons, but heroes to fight dragons.

I've already reviewed The Princess and the Goblin on Vintage Novels, quite early on, but I've recently had the chance to re-read it, for the first time in years. In addition to the fairy great-great-grandmother and her small protege, the plot also features Curdie, a miner boy who lives near the princess's castle, and the malicious goblins who infest the mines, battle the miners, and ultimately hatch a fiendish plot to kidnap the princess. It's up to Curdie to foil their plans, but not without the help of both the young and the old princesses.

I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this story. In some ways, it was every bit as good as I remembered. The imagery was just as enthralling as every, and I was particularly impressed, this time around, by something you don't often see in Victorian or children's literature: a good balance between innocence and beauty on the one hand, and aggressive, unapologetic courage on the other. Princess Irene has a somewhat revolting habit of talking to flowers, it's true; but she eventually proves to be cool-headed and practical when she's called to undertake a dangerous rescue mission. Curdie, on the other hand, kills monstrous creatures with his mattock and even gets shot by a crossbow on occasion, but he's always kind and gentle to his mother.

On the other hand, in some ways, I was able to spot some flaws I hadn't noticed before. I think the most worrying thing was a subtle but unmistakeable theme having to do with unbelief. Irene sees and believes in her grandmother, but various other key characters do not. When Irene wants to blame them for not believing, her grandmother gently reproves her, with the implication that unbelievers are not to blame for their unbelief. Irene sums up her lesson by saying, "So as Curdie can't help it, I will not be vexed with him, but just wait." Curdie's mother, wiser than he, makes similar comments: "I don't blame you for not being able to believe it." This theme, being one of the strongest in the book, and being so contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture (in Romans 1:20, for example), is worth pointing out.

That was a disappointment, especially when it's wrapped up in what's otherwise a really delightful story. Just something to be conscious of if you've chosen to read it with small children--which I would definitely recommend doing!

Find The Princess and the Goblin at Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg, or Librivox.

The Princess and Curdie

Again, it'd been years and years since I read this book, and again, I found myself surprised by revisiting it in older years.

The sequel to The Princess and the Goblin finds Curdie a little older, but not (alas) wiser. When he carelessly decides to shoot a white pigeon which he should know belongs to the old fairy princess, however, his repentance leads him back to the castle and the tower where the wise old lady entrusts him with a dangerous mission to the town of Gwyntystorm, where the Princess Irene has gone to live with her king-papa. With the help of a band of grotesque beasts, Curdie sets out to discover a plot that threatens both the king's life and his reason.

I never loved this book as much as I loved the first one, although it is a good story in itself. On re-reading it recently, I decided that must be partly because of the plot, which is nowhere near as tightly-woven as The Princess and the Goblin, and tends to wander into satire or didactics. That's a shame, for the themes, if a little laboured, are a good deal more sound than in the first book. I particularly appreciated what MacDonald has to say about sin (that unless you consciously struggle against it, you are bound to succumb to it): "There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection." The whole plot is deeply concerned with these two ways, one of dying, the other of living; Curdie himself is given the gift of discerning who is on which path, and as it's pointed out, while two people may seem to be at the same place in their lives, one may be on the "braid, braid path", while the other may be on the path "so thick beset with thorns and briars".

Interestingly, one of the most powerful expressions of virtue in the novel has to do with hospitality, with a corresponding emphasis on the evils of unkindness to strangers. Other sins featured include petty theft, selfishness, and high treason, but unhospitality seems to get the most attention. That really struck me. I don't know about you, but I've not heard a great deal of teaching on hospitality, and most of it seems to focus on having friends around for Sunday lunch--but George MacDonald is talking about what Scripture talks about, which is caring for strangers and travellers, making sure you open your home to them in love rather than treating them with suspicion and distrust.

In conclusion, I'd highly recommend both these books. Neither are without their flaws, but both are absorbing stories, a rich feast for the imagination also intended to nourish the souls and intellects of the hearers.

Find The Princess and Curdie at Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg, or Librivox.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Announcing WAR GAMES: 2nd Edition!

This week I finally got around to a job I've been unable to touch for months: updating my book War Games: Classic Fiction for the Christian Life.

I have a soft spot for this book of mine. Second to writing fiction, my favourite thing is writing about fiction. I want to help everyone get the most out of the books they read. War Games was my chance to rave on about some of the greatest works of Christian fiction I've ever read, with the aim of leaving readers far better equipped to evaluate and benefit from the fiction they read. If what my readers say is to be believed, War Games was a success.

'A fantastic introduction to fiction for Christians. ...Recommended particularly if you're asking the question "Should I read fiction?"' - Joshua, Goodreads reviewer (and longtime friend)

'Folks, this is epic... If you struggle with picking out hidden themes like I do, War Games will explain and clarify a lot of the novels you've been enjoying." - Schuyler, My Lady Bibliophile


Family and church reformation as a cure for social ills. Christian boldness in the face of totalitarianism and modernism. Sacrificial love in the City of God. Sure, you’ve heard of these classic books already. You might even have seen the movies. But have you caught the vision?

Fiction with a solid Christian worldview drills us in right action and reaction in a host of different circumstances. It runs war games for the Christian life, showing how wisdom might apply in hypothetical scenarios. It prepares us for battle.

Journey through eighteen classic works of fiction from Beowulf and Njal’s Saga to Mansfield Park and The Lord of the Rings, discovering the exceptional wisdom hidden inside the world’s best-loved stories.

So what's new in the 2nd Edition?

I'm so glad you asked!
  • Fewer typos. Yes, this book had a few, but with the help of some extra pairs of eyes, I've eliminated most of them.
  • Shiny new interior design. Since publishing the 1st edition, I've taught myself to format both ebooks and paperbacks using professional methods. I've also done some reading in the fine art of typography. This is particularly visible in the paperback edition, which will look the same on the outside, but much smoother and prettier on the inside.
  • Suggested essay topics! These questions at the end of each chapter, ranging from simple to fiendish, can be used as essay topics, journalling inspiration, or study group conversation starters. Or they can be ignored completely. Use them as you will!

Great! Where can we get the book?

You can buy the updated Kindle edition just the same, at Amazon, for $2.99.
The 2nd edition paperback is live right now at Createspace for $10.99. It'll take a few weeks to become available through other channels, such as Amazon and The Book Depository.

In the meanwhile, if you already have a copy of the Kindle or paperback 1st edition, and would like a copy of the suggested essay topics, please email me and I'll be very happy to send you a copy of the essay topics.

Happy reading!

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