Friday, June 16, 2017

Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott

John Buchan devotes six pages in his biography of Sir Walter Scott to a review of Guy Mannering, Scott's second novel: "Lovers of Scott will always dispute which is his best novel, but all will put Guy Mannering among the first three."

That was more or less my impression, as I read. Guy Mannering is a very successful work, showcasing Scott doing what he did best, and doing it at the height of his powers. As Buchan points out, Scott's first novel, Waverly, was the result of ten years' brooding - and as a novelist myself, I understand Buchan's opinion that getting Waverly out of his system liberated Scott as an artist, to invent with new gusto. There's an infectious high-spiritedness about this story - the author is enjoying himself, and so do the readers.

The story opens with a traveller going astray in the southwest of Scotland late at night, late in the eighteenth century. Young Guy Mannering arrives at Ellangowan, seat of the humble but very old Bertram family, on the same night as the birth of the new heir. Partly in fun, he takes the child's horoscope, which threatens danger to him at age five and twenty-one. And sure enough--five years later, the boy is kidnapped and vanishes without a trace.

Fifteen years after that, after a duel gone wrong, Colonel Mannering returns from India with his only child; the Ellangowan family is forced to sell their ancestral home for a song to their dishonest lawyer, the social-climbing Glossin, and young Captain Vanbeest Brown, determined to win Julia Mannering's hand despite her father's disapproval, follows the Mannerings into Scotland only to become hopelessly embroiled in Glossin's dealings with smugglers - to say nothing of the mysterious plans of Meg Merrilies, the titanic, and possibly insane, gipsy woman.

Not every single element in this book works. There are two perfunctory attempts at romantic subplots in which, together with the young ladies involved, the author evidently lost interest early on; a comic relief character who is reduced to a one-note gag, and some backstory set in India which is unconvincing, and rushed in the telling, especially compared to the quality of the main story. None of Walter Scott's admirers - and he counted John Buchan and GK Chesterton among them - would have suggested that Scott always hit his mark. "He was a chaotic and unequal writer," Chesterton observes, but, with equal truth: "We have learnt in our day to arrange our literary effects carefully, and the only point in which we fall short of Scott is in the incidental misfortune that we have nothing particular to arrange." Scott aims to shoot the moon. Of course, he doesn't always succeed. But when he does!

I think the thing I appreciate most about Guy Mannering is how it spans, and welds together, a number of different genres. This kind of thing is usually difficult to do well, but Scott makes it work. There's a wide streak of comedy-of-manners here, little different from the kind of thing you might expect to find in Anthony Trollope - the funeral scene in Edinburgh, for instance. Then there's a good bit of lightly fictionalised travel writing, the kind of thing Scott excelled at, since he spent much of his youth in the Border Country and knew its landscape, its people, and its pasttimes. And all this is used as the scaffolding for the romance of a lost heir, mysterious gipsies, dangerous smugglers, murder and robbery.

I'm a connoisseur of fine romance of this type, and in my youth I was frequently impatient with all the other stuff Scott insisted in mixing in with it. Today, I'm beginning to understand that you simply cannot be impatient when reading Scott. The power of those sudden gleams of romance ("They are coming," said she to Brown; "you are a dead man if ye had as mony lives as hairs") depend on the "slow bits" for their effect. They are like a bomb going off under the reader's feet. You never know when it's going to happen. You might have given up hoping that it might happen. And then, shazam. John Buchan defined romance on several occasions (including in his six pages on Guy Mannering) as being "strangeness flowering from the commonplace", and the commonplace is necessary to ground the strangeness: to make it believable, and to give it real emotional heft when it does happen. That's why the backstory in India (a hectic muddle featuring a duel, a raid, a capture, and a death of shock all on the same day) seems so unsatisfying: as romantic as it is, it seems completely unhinged from normality. It has nothing to ground it. But for the majority of the book, the romantic bits do seem thoroughly tethered to reality - and that's the main reason why the book works as well as it does.

Not that there aren't other reasons. There are plenty of characters to love. Meg Merrilies is unforgettable, Dandie Dinmont makes you want to cheer and feel that everything will be alright every time he appears, Gilbert Glossin is a terrific, sympathetic, yet oh-so-evil villain, and many of the others are excellent too.

Oh, and there's the hilarious moment that a quotation from Sheridan's The Critic turns up. It's an audacious, fourth-wall-breaking, tongue-in-cheek moment (which sadly only makes sense if you've actually read The Critic, which YOU SHOULD).

Needless to say, I thoroughly recommend Guy Mannering. It's a book that will definitely reward your patience.

Find Guy Mannering on Amazon, the Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Poem: In the Huon Valley by James McAuley

At the moment, I don't have a vintage novel to review: I'm working my way through another Walter Scott, Guy Mannering. It's one I've never read before, but it's been fun so far. I have my suspicions about this Captain Brown character. I think we may have met him before *eyebrow waggle*.

Anyway, I look forward to reviewing that when I get the chance - hopefully next week! In the meantime, I want to share a poem - another of James McAuley's, since this year is his centenary.

James McAuley is perhaps most famous for the Ern Malley hoax, but he ended his life in Tasmania, as a professor at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. Southwest of Hobart is the beautiful Huon Valley, the centre of Tasmania's apple and cherry industry, a green rolling valley bordering the Huon River. I've spent many happy months in the Huon Valley, and later this month I'll be heading back to participate in the Pilgrim Artists' Festival, where I'll be giving a workshop on fiction writing.

As I'm looking forward to seeing old friends and familiar scenery, it might be a good time to share James McAuley's poem about this lovely place...

In the Huon Valley

by James McAuley

Propped boughs are heavy with apples,
Springtime quite forgotten.
Pears ripen yellow. The wasp
Knows where windfalls lie rotten.

Juices grow rich with sun.
These autumn days are still:
The glassy river reflects
Elm-gold up the hill,

And big white plumes of rushes.
Life is full of returns;
It isn't true that one never
Profits, never learns:

Something is gathered in,
Worth the lifting and stacking;
Apples roll through the graders,
The sheds are noisy with packing.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow by Allen French

After reading The Elder Edda, I wasn't quite ready to leave Iceland, and I decided the time was ripe for my long-intended re-read of Allen French's The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow, which I'd read, once, about ten years ago and remembered liking very much.

The story follows a young boy named Rolf, the son of the landowner Hiarandi the Unlucky. When an act of mercy by Hiarandi leads to his being made an outlaw, and ultimately killed by a greedy neighbour, Rolf vows to prove that his father's killing was unlawful. But when he meets the son of his father's killer, Rolf can't help liking him. Will Rolf and Grani find a way to see past their own grudges, and lay the feud to rest?

One of the things I particularly remembered about this book was that it was somewhat more than just another standard vintage adventure story for boys. Set in medieval Iceland shortly after its conversion to Christianity, The Story of Rolf is written in a rather good imitation of actual Icelandic sagas. And this goes further than thees, thous, and the occasional lapse into present tense. It also includes a tense, laconic writing style, a very arm's-length treatment of the characters' thoughts and emotions, characters bursting into the occasional skaldic verse, some crazy and unexpected (yet totally fun) fantasy elements, and a subject matter (the tension between blood-feuding and Christian forgiveness) that is also to the forefront of one of the few Icelandic sagas I've actually read, The Saga of Burnt Njal.

Looking back, I'm stunned by how well this style works for this story. The Story of Rolf  was first published in 1924, so it comes after the worst of the Victorian literary excesses, but I can't imagine that writing historical fiction in a style so spare and laconic must have seemed like an obvious decision. And to be honest, French isn't unaffected by the literary fashions of his time. Still, he was trying something pretty unprecedented in his day, and the result is a story that fuses the best of the delicious drama that characterises vintage lit, with the best of Icelandic terseness, adventure, and sheer epic awesome. There's a depth to the characters' emotions and motivations that can be somewhat lacking in the old sagas, and yet the very straightforward storytelling style strengthens what could be a shortcoming in vintage fiction.

And there are so many things to love about the book. The plot operates at a slow, tense simmer that takes you through many twists and turns, but it's always building toward a specific goal, which is how this blood feud is ultimately resolved. And I loved the resolution. One of the marks of a truly great story is a resolution that lifts it beyond itself into something higher, and The Story of Rolf has one of these. I won't spoil it, but I will say that it left me with a lump in my throat.

And also that I loved the theme. Since finishing the story, I've been chewing on one particular aspect of it--just a minor aspect--that I think this book gets wonderfully right when it comes to the concept of forgiveness. It's common to assume that forgiveness is something unconditional and unilateral. In fact, forgiveness cannot be accomplished without repentance on the side of the wrongdoer. It is the victim's duty to be ready to offer forgiveness if it is sought, and that means killing anger and bitterness and resentment; but this does not mean treating a professed enemy in every respect as if he is your friend. One must be ready to forgive, but there is no true forgiveness possible for an unrepentant enemy. I won't say more, but I will say that I was stunned and encouraged by how well (and beautifully) The Story of Rolf discusses this truth.

There were lots of other things I loved about this story. I loved the female characters--this is, of course, a solidly manly adventure story for boys and so the female characters are definitely in supporting roles--but what characters they are, fearless, determined, and wise. I loved Frodi, the peaceful smith, who winds up with a string of nicknames referring to his undeniable awesome. I loved that epic deeds are done, and narrated with such dry understatement. And I loved the characters cropping up out of old sagas.

The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow isn't a perfect book. I would have liked to see Rolf himself have a greater character arc, for instance, and one plot device near the end was a little unbelievable. But overall, I loved this story. A brilliant bit of vintage young adult fiction.

Find The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow on Amazon, the Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Elder Edda (trans. Andy Orchard)

"Myths, gods and heroes from the Viking world", promises the subtitle to the new Penguin edition of The Elder Edda, and from the moment I discovered it in the library a few months ago I've been waiting for a good opportunity to tuck in. My acquaintance with Icelandic literature has been fairly limited - I've read  Njal's Saga, The Saga of the Volsungs, and of course Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun which doesn't really count, but I knew to expect gore, fatalism, and some of the sparest, barest, most economical writing I've ever come across.

The Elder Edda comes in two parts. The first section contains mythological poems dealing with the gods, goddesses and fates of Norse myth, while the second is a cycle of poems revolving around Sigurd the Dragonslayer and his ill-fated loves Brynhild and Gudrun. I was already familiar with the Sigurd cycle from The Saga of the Volsungs, and from Tolkien's Sigurd and Gudrun (with Christopher Tolkien's excellent commentary on the same). In the Edda, the story is told in a way that seems rather more fractured and fragmented. The poetry itself often elides events, lacunae plague the text, and the poems don't always follow a logical progression: they repeat and restate events, often with significant contradictions (is Brynhild the same figure as the valkyrie who teaches Sigurd runes? was Sigurd murdered at home or in the forest?). It's not surprising that most people would just read The Saga of the Volsungs instead, which tells the story in a much more straightforward fashion. But now that I've actually read the Edda, I think this is a crying shame. In poetic form, these stories gain far more power than they did in prose; they become a grand, operatic tale of fate, compulsion, obsession and loss.

(Epic poetry, and poetry that tells any kind of story, has been out of style for hundreds of years, and it's such a shame. There are just some things you can do in poetic storytelling that you can't do in prose.)

Part 1 of the Edda, the part that deals with myths of the gods, was the part that was mostly new to me. It was also the part I had the most mixed feelings about. My two favourite poems in the whole collection cropped up here. The Voluspa, the very first poem of all, is magnificent. It tells the legend of the creation of the world and then fast-forwards into a prophecy of Ragnarok, employing repeated lines and even stanzas to build up an incredible dramatic intensity - I would recommend trying to get a copy of this book just for the pleasure of reading this poem. And then there's the game of Spot the Inkling: Tolkien and Lewis both obviously loved this particular poem. Lewis lifted whole lines from it for his poem Cliche Came Out of Its Cage, and Tolkien got the names of Gandalf, Durin, Thorin Oakenshield and the other dwarves here. (Who knew that Bifur and Bofur translate as "Trembler" and "Grumbler", while "Bombur", of course, is "Tubby"? Seems like Disney wasn't so far out with the names of Snow White's dwarfs either). And I suspect that the image of the surviving gods after Ragnarok discovering their gold playing-pieces in the grass of the newly-remade world may have found its way into Prince Caspian.

Another favourite poem from this section was The Song of Volund. You hear legends of lame blacksmith gods all over Europe of course - there's the English Weyland (obviously related) and even the Greek Hephaestos, but the Norse Volund is an elf prince seeking revenge after a brutal attack. His revenge, when he takes it, is more brutal than the original wrong, because this is a pagan story of grisly and pointless violence, but there's high drama here too and a certain kind of harsh beauty. 

Many of these mythological poems, however, have less to do with storytelling and more to do with various contests between the gods: mostly contests of lore or insult. The latter have a strong gutter element that I didn't appreciate, but the lore-contests were fascinating for the way in which they presented the Norse cosmology and philosophy. The Havamal contains some of the most detailed discussion of pagan philosophy and conduct: to read it is to step into a world that has, thankfully vanished. Pagan piety is both recognisable and alien to us today, all of it predicated upon a fundamentally hostile universe in which anyone can only trust himself: don't drink too much, don't speak too much, give gifts in an attempt to make friends, don't trust your friends, don't trust your women, and don't be ambitious:
Middling-wise should each man be
never over-wise;
for he lives the fairest life of folks
who knows not over-much. 
Middling-wise should each man be
never over-wise;
for a wise-man's heart is seldom glad,
if he is truly wise. 
Middling-wise should each man be
never over-wise;
he never knows his fate before,
whose spirit is freest from sorrow.
The poems of the Elder Edda, a record of Icelandic paganism, were written down well after the conversion of Iceland to Christianity, evidently by Christian scribes. As usual, I'm left with little doubt in my mind that they did this to preserve in the remembrance of their people not just the cultural achievements of paganism, but also the cultural failings. Norse paganism was deeply characterised by suspicion, fatalism, and violence. We ought not to take our own culture for granted or pride ourselves on our superiority. There, but for the grace of God, go we.

Find The Elder Edda on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Rose and the Ring by William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray is most famous for Vanity Fair, of course, but I actually have never read the book. After re-reading his hilarious children's story The Rose and the Ring last week, I'm thinking I probably should.

A satirical take on the traditional fairytale, The Rose and the Ring is the story of four princes and princesses, and the various adventures that befall them because of wicked uncles, conniving governesses, and the Fairy Blackstick whose magical gifts don't always provide what you expect.

The kingdom of Paflagonia, especially its charming young princess Angelica, is thrown into a fever of excitement by the news that the dashing young Prince Bulbo of Crim Tartary is about to pay a visit. This is bad news for Angelica's cousin Prince Giglio, who has been in love with Angelica for years, but things get really complicated when Angelica, in a fit of pique, throws away the ring Giglio gave her when they were children. Unbeknownst to Angelica, the ring is a magic one which makes the bearer irresistible, and when it's picked up first by Angelica's unscrupulous governess, the Countess Gruffanuff, and then given to Betsinda, the little foundling maid, the result is highly interesting times for both kingdoms...

I loved this book as a teenager, I love it as an adult, and as I was re-reading it recently I was thinking I should really find out how it would go down with children. I think they'd love it, too. There are plenty of jokes, of course, which only adults are likely to understand, but I think most children would get a kick out of the bold Count Kutasoff Hedzoff or Lord Chamberlain Squaretoso, and even the very young are likely to appreciate the King of Paflagonia being crushed by a warming-pan ("Even Though You Wear a Crown / Burning Love Will Knock You Down" the mock-sententious page headings proclaim). The whole thing is illustrated rather quirkily by the author, and it's all charming.

There seems to be a rather-tongue-in-cheek theme about keeping one's word at all expenses, although this threatens to send one of our heroes to the scaffold and marry another to the loathsome Gruffanuff regardless of other ethical considerations. Probably more meaningful is the contrast between those of our characters blessed by the Fairy Blackstick with "a little misfortune" as opposed to those blessed with unearned beauty and charm. Thackeray has a huge amount of fun spoofing fairytale conventions here, and while most people who set out to make fun of fairytales only wind up proving themselves crashing bores (and usually also boors), Thackeray clearly shows enough affection and respect for the story form to save him from either fate.

The Rose and the Ring is a fantastic read no matter your age, and a comic classic. I thoroughly recommend it.

Find The Rose and the Ring on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Have you read Vanity Fair? Do you recommend it? I'm curious - let me know!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

I can't believe it--Vintage Novels has been around for nearly seven years, and I've never reviewed Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio

Let's fix that.

When Master Cherry, the carpenter, discovers an apparently sentient piece of wood, he's a little creeped out--so instead of cutting it into a table leg, he instead gives it to his friend Gepetto to make into a puppet. No sooner is the puppet carved than he turns out to be a naughty prankster with a very short attention span, a truly impressive level of gullibility, and a nose that grows longer when he lies. The well-meaning but airheaded Pinocchio quickly gets embroiled in a series of dangerous adventures, and his longsuffering friends--his father Gepetto, the blue-haired Fairy who takes him under her wing, and others--suffer as many dangers trying to find him again. It's Pinocchio's wish to one day become a real boy and to make Gepetto and the Fairy proud of him, instead of grieving them by his many foolish antics. But how can a naughty little puppet ever change?

Like no doubt most of my readers, my first experience of this classic children's book was the classic Disney film. It was years ago and I don't remember it very well, but when I read the book as a teen I found it both far more moving and far funnier than I expected.

Pinocchio is a hilarious book. The plot is episodic and rather chaotic, and none of it makes a lick of sense. Pinocchio is a wooden puppet who acts and is treated like a little boy, and nobody finds this strange. Other puppets are treated like puppets, but seem to interact with humans as if human. Pinocchio is a complete blockhead (conceptual pun probably intended by the original author) prone to the kind of silly actions that even children can appreciate as silly, and the adult characters are also pretty outrageous. Mixed in with the surrealistic silliness is a good streak of satire and even some rather black humour--characters are constantly in danger of being eaten, burned alive, hanged, and so on. I don't know how I would have handled it as a child (possibly just fine), but as a teen and later, an adult, I found it completely irresistible.

But there was something more to the book as well, something that hit me unexpectedly hard when I read it as a teen. I suppose many readers today would find the story, like so much classic lit from the 1800s, fairly moralistic. Oh, and it is, and I'll get into why that's a bad thing in a moment. But as moralistic as the story is, it's also convicting. Pinocchio means well, in a ditzy sort of way, but he's enslaved by his impulses and has low sales resistance to any kind of temptation. This time, reading the book, I was struck by how vivid a depiction it is of Romans 7, in which Paul bewails how even the desire to do well and obey the law stirs him helplessly up to sin. Pinocchio's inability to resist temptation not only gets him into one peril after another, and but also causes untold danger and suffering to his parental figures, Gepetto and the Fairy, whom he honestly loves and longs to please. As the book continues, it becomes clear that the one desire of Pinocchio's heart, to become a real boy, will never become fulfilled until he has learned self-discipline.

These religious aspects of the story are certainly intentional. Gepetto, Pinocchio's father figure, is also his Maker. And the insistent description of the saintly Fairy's blue hair seems, even to a Protestant growing up in a secular culture like me, a fairly overt reference to the blue scarf associated with the Virgin Mary in traditional religious iconography. But I was disappointed that in the end, Pinocchio wins his goal simply by learning to turn over a new leaf, empowered by his own innate goodness.
"Well done, Pinocchio! To reward you for your good heart I will forgive you for all that is past. Boys who minister tenderly to their parents, and assist them in their misery and infirmities, are deserving of great praise and affection, even if they cannot be cited as examples of obedience and good behaviour. Try and do better in the future and you will be happy."
My inner theology nerd wants to parse out the story in terms of justification and sanctification. After all, while we can't earn our justification, sanctification is something that we can desire and work towards; so if Pinocchio is said already to have "a good heart", then perhaps this is a better picture of sanctification than justification? And to be sure it's as a tale of sanctification that the story has the most power. But having re-read the story, I'm left with the niggling dissatisfaction that no matter how you categorise it, Pinocchio earns his happy ending, on his own merits. That is moralism, in the sense of putting one's faith in good works.

Pinocchio is a messy but irresistible classic, full of things that you'll feel kind of terrible for laughing at. And while I didn't much care for the author's moralistic solution to his protagonist's predicament, I thought the depiction of impulsive sin and suffering was incredibly convicting, even as an adult. I don't know many stories that run the gamut of emotions this flamboyantly from sheer silliness to waterlogged remorse, but somehow, Carlo Collodi makes it work.

Find Pinocchio at Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg, or Librivox.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Nicholas Carey by Ronald Welch

I'm still gleefully working my way through my stack of gorgeous new Ronald Welch hardbacks. To recap, Ronald Welch was a historian and schoolteacher who wrote this awesome series of adventure/military history stories for boys, following the adventures throughout English history of a fictional noble family. Long out of print, the books have recently been reissued in beautiful heirloom-quality hardbacks, and you can get them from Slightly Foxed.

Nicholas Carey is the tenth book within the series's chronology. It's 1853, and Nicholas Carey, a younger son of a cadet branch of the noble Carey family, is lazing around Italy painting landscapes of dubious quality while enjoying leave from his regiment. Nicholas dislikes exertion or activity, but when his beloved firebrand of a cousin gets himself mixed up with Italian nationalists on the run from Austrian imperial forces, Nicholas joins the adventure to keep an eye on him. Europe is seething with anarchists, revolutionaries, and assassins--but it's on the battlefields of the Crimea that Nicholas will face the true test of his character.

Like all Ronald Welch's books, this was an exciting adventure story with a satisfying coming-of-age theme. On top of this, Nicholas Carey comes with a truly impressive wealth of historical detail. Welch always seems at home in various historical periods, but I'd guess that he's most at home here.

I did feel that the various parts of the plot had little to do with each other: the first two-thirds of the book focuses on revolutionary nationalism, while the final third deals with the Crimean War. I did, however, appreciate getting the context for the war: as we follow Nicholas on his various adventures across the map of Europe, we get a snapshot of much of the continent in the 1850s. And just as in Tank Commander, the depictions of the harshness of modern war were visceral, compelling, and never felt cheap.

As for the characters, Nicholas Carey was an enjoyably different hero. Nicholas is competent and well-meaning; he's just disinclined to exert himself. His elders shake their heads over his laziness, but the fact is that the other young men of his generation are not much more mature. Cousin Bernard, heir to the earldom, is a cavalry dandy with an outrageously affected accent, and cousin Andrew, who is constantly seeking out adventures and dragging Nicholas into them, does so because he's immature and a terrible judge of character. When the Crimean War begins, great numbers of fashionable young officers sell out their commissions so as to avoid the war. Throughout the course of this story, I enjoyed watching Nicholas mature into someone who, by contrast, is willing to put personal comfort and desires aside for the good of others.

A time that produced spoiled and selfish young men: it's an interesting perspective on the Victorian era, and I wonder if Ronald Welch intended to suggest that the hardships of war were necessary to restore a sense of masculine responsibility and self-sacrifice in the young men. It's interesting, however, that the Earl of Aubigny in this book, the most authoritative and exemplary character, is an explorer and philanthropist who left his army career early in order to live a productive peacetime life. Though not a soldier, the Earl sets a standard of peaceable manhood.

Nicholas Carey is another exciting historical adventure story for young people, providing a colourful and sometime grittily realistic picture of the nationalist upheavals and wartime hardships of the mid-nineteenth century. As usual, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

For a limited time, Nicholas Carey and the rest of the Carey Family Series is available from Slightly Foxed. Highly recommended to fans of GA Henty - get a copy while you still can!

Friday, April 28, 2017

April Updates

It's been a while since I posted one of my update posts, so I thought I would share a bit of what I've been up to...including an announcement about a new story that almost no one knows about. :-D


As usual, I keep a regular log of what I'm currently reading on Goodreads. Probably the book I'm most excited about at the moment is something I'm reading as part of this stage of work on OUTREMER: Healer of the Nations by Gary North. It's a brilliantly insightful book on international relations from a Christian perspective, and as I take a step back to look at the history I've been learning and try to evaluate the ins and outs, the rights and wrongs of it all, this specific book has been incredibly helpful. How ought Christian nations to relate to each other and to nations of other persuasions? Is there any truth in nationalism or internationalism, and what do Christians have to say about such things? These are questions that most Christians don't even think of asking, and this book, despite bearing the stamp of the times when it was written (before the collapse of the Soviet Union), has been extremely helpful to me in thinking through the issues involved in the history I've been learning.

It's available from the publisher as a free PDF here.


As part of the preparation for the second draft of Ten Thousand Thorns (more on that in a minute), I went back and watched on of my favourite wuxia films. Reign of Assassins isn't one of those serious arthouse wuxia films, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero. Instead, it's much closer to the wuxia books I read a while back: a preposterous, swashbuckling tale of ordinary people having extraordinary adventures. The always queenly Michelle Yeoh plays Drizzle, a deadly assassin who after accidentally killing the man she loves, seeks redemption in a quiet life as a street vendor in Nanjing. The Polearm Guy from Musa (Woo-sung Jeong) plays the goofy errand-runner who's sweet on her. Drizzle's former colleagues, in search for a powerful Buddhist relic that disappeared when she did, are determined to get their revenge for her defection. Will Drizzle ever be able to leave her life of violence behind her? Or is her newfound happiness about to meet an ugly end?

Although I found the ending of the film a little unsatisfying (one character gives up his revenge for no discernible reason), overall this is a charming story. I would, however, highly recommend pairing it with (ex Zen monk) Ellis Potter's book 3 Theories of Everything, which will explain the Buddhist worldview behind the film, and its preoccupation with domesticity, nature, and the small, quiet arts.


Last time I posted these updates I was listening to My Soul Among Lions, and right now I'm listening to them again, some more. Volume 2 of their ambitious project to record all 150 Psalms in a country/folk style, covering Psalms 11-20, was released just a few weeks ago and I've been listening to it over and over. As with the first album, some of the renditions are more successful than others (Psalm 18 is perhaps a little too long to fit into one track?) but overall, I'm enjoying this second album even more - particularly their Psalms 14 and 20.


So, here's the part you've been waiting for. *rubs hands*

This month I have been working on the second draft of Ten Thousand Thorns, my retelling of Sleeping Beauty as a homage to wuxia. It's coming together nicely, but looks like being the longest of my novellas so far. Because of the wordcount (potentially 35,000 words, give or take), I'm not sure how much longer I'll be finishing the second draft - but I'm looking forward to sending it to beta readers, hopefully early next month! No other story I've ever written has ever made me smile so hard, so it's been a real pleasure to work on.

The other project I'm working on this month is OUTREMER, you'll all be pleased to know. I've been fidgeting with it since the beginning of the year, and my task this month was to take a step back and do some evaluation of the ethical issues in the history. As an author, my job is, in part, to pass judgement on people's actions. Should I depict Balian of Ibelin and Maria Comnena's decision to force their daughter Isabella to divorce Hopeless Humphrey of Toron as a good or a bad thing, for instance? And what about the decision to march East on crusade at all? It's been a great time for me to challenge some of my existing assumptions, and to be a little more critical of some of what I've been reading in the history books--and a completely exciting time to think about the hand of Providence in these events. At this stage, my hope is to begin writing the second draft in the second half of this year.

And! Here's something you don't know: Last month I had a lot of fun writing the first draft of a whole new fairytale retelling. This one is titled The City Beyond the Glass, and it's a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses in Renaissance Venice, in...well, its own style, really, though it did grow out of my fascination with Rosamund Hodge. I don't think I've ever written such overtly unpleasant characters as the ones in this story, so it was a terrific challenge. 

I didn't tell you about it at the time because of the Death Be Not Proud paperback release (did you get your copy yet? Schuyler of My Lady Bibliophile called it, and I quote, "to die for"). As always, if you've already read Death Be Not Proud and have not already done so, please do consider leaving a short review at Amazon.

And actually, I have another review request. I recently put together my four existing fairytale novellas in a boxset of their own. If you have read all my fairytale novellas, would you consider leaving a short review of that as well? It would be a very substantial help. And as always, if you haven't read the existing novellas, shoot me an email and I will be very happy to shower you with free review copies!

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

The Introduction to my Oxford World's Classics edition tells me that The Way We Live Now was composed in a fit of uncharacteristic spleen. Trollope had spent eighteen months travelling in Australia and New Zealand (his book of observations on Australia is a classic) and returned to England late in 1872 finding his literary star declining to the extent that he had to give up his country home and live in London. There, disgusted by the dishonesty he saw running rampant in fashionable society, he composed The Way We Live Now.


It's hard to summarise the sprawling, multi-stranded plot of this novel, but here are some of the primary plot lines:

Sir Felix Carbury, baronet, a ne'er-do-well gambler and coward who having frittered away his patrimony is now sponging off his devoted mother and long-suffering sister, elects to support his dissolute lifestyle by marrying an heiress. The heiress in his sights is Marie Melmotte, the only daughter of the fabulously wealthy but utterly mysterious Great Financier Augustus Melmotte - but as bullied and controlled as she's been all her life, Marie is beginning to develop a mind of her own.

All of London society understands that Augustus Melmotte is an adventurer and probably a swindler, but his unimaginable wealth makes him, not just respectable but positively sought-after. As he juggles more and more daring confidence schemes than he ever has before, Melmotte rises higher than ever before - and risks the fall of his life.

Upstanding squire Roger Carbury is devotedly in love with his cousin Hetta Carbury, but unfortunately Hetta has fallen in love with Paul Montague, a rather pliable young man trying to escape a former engagement to an unscrupulous American woman. Will Paul escape Mrs Hurtle's machinations? Which of her suitors will Hetta choose?

Satire and Pessimism

The Way We Live Now was not published to very positive reviews. It begins, after all, with a scorching critique of literary society, as penniless and desperate would-be bestseller Lady Carbury wheels, deals, cajoles, and flatters newspaper editors for favourable reviews (even today, I defy any writer not to read this and wince!). While the tone of the story mellows toward the second half, becoming more sympathetic to its characters, the tone has a good deal more bite in it than Trollope's usual fare, and few of the characters are as lovable as those in Trollope's other stories.

In addition, the plot and cast seem to have gotten away from Trollope somewhere. Lady Carbury, for instance, is introduced as the book's central character, but the character of the Great Financier, Augustus Melmotte himself, quickly wrests the plot away from her, as do a host of smaller supporting characters - the repulsive Georgiana Longestaffe with her increasingly desperate efforts to find a husband, romantic farmgirl Ruby Ruggles with her dangerous crush on Sir Felix Carbury, feckless Lord Nidderdale and the other upper-class twits at the Beargarden Club - some of which end with a bang, and some with a whimper. Paul Montague is another of those indecisive young Trollopean heroes whom you want to reach inside the book and hit over the head, but to whom we give a (reluctant) pass because we suppose he is rather truer to life than the average romantic lead.

So, I will admit that I found The Way We Lived Now a little difficult to love, and certainly not as delightful as The Last Chronicle of Barset. However, there were plenty of things to like.

Politics and Family

There was the Lady Carbury plot - a little sidelined by the great business of Melmotte's rise and fall, but by the end of the book I thought it was the most satisfying thing in the whole novel. I loved how her friendship with Mr Broune developed from coquetry to brutal honesty.

One of the things I've come to notice and deeply appreciate in Trollope's novels is his concern for women and their status. This comes out partially in Hetta Carbury's plot - of whom it's said that she "had been taught by the conduct of both father and mother that every vice might be forgiven in a man and in a son, though every virtue was expected from a woman, and especially for a daughter." Similarly, Marie Melmotte has always been bullied and controlled by her father, and gradually, over the course of the book, begins to assert her own judgement. Unusually for his young female characters, Trollope does not let Marie off without some pretty trenchant criticism, but I wound up with a gleeful appreciation for her. When the loathsome Felix Carbury first set about cold-heartedly convincing Marie to marry him for the sake of her fortune, I was worried for the put-upon and naive young girl. Well...I hate to spoil anything for you, so I'll just say that I needn't have worried. Or at least, not about Marie. 

Perhaps most fascinating was the political satire in this story. Augustus Melmotte becomes such a titanic figure in London society as to run for Parliment. His political opinions are so unformed that he could equally easily run for the Liberal or the Conservative platforms, and he ultimately chooses the Conservatives purely because he thinks he will make more money that way. And London eagerly plays along: "Mr Melmotte was not like other men. It was a great thing to have Mr Melmotte in the party. Mr Melmotte's financial capabilities would in themselves be a tower of strength. Rules were not made to control the club in a matter of such importance as this." Not only are shots taken at the willingness of political causes to prostitute themselves to larger-than-life personalities (h'mm, where have we seen that before?) but also at Conservatism itself: "The Conservative party at this particular period was putting its shoulder to the wheel, - not to push the coach up any hill, but to prevent its being hurried along." The more things that change...

Dishonesty and Hypocrisy

If there's one overarching theme in this book, it is that of dishonesty. Melmotte is the great swindler who dominates the whole story, of course, but the book is full of lesser dishonesties. Felix Carbury, living on credit and loans extracted from his already impoverished mother; Lady Carbury herself, "false from head to foot" who must learn the value of honesty; Georgiana Longestaffe, incapacitated by her greed for any honesty either social or romantic; or on the other hand, the unexpectedly wonderful Mr Brehgert, whose honesty proves himself immediately one of the best characters in the book. Overall the book is mournful in tone: Trollope puts aside his customary optimism in order to bewail the dishonesty that he felt had come to characterise his time: "a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable." The Way We Live Now is a tale of hypocrisy on a grand scale; its aim ultimately to wake its readers' consciences. The fact that it was disliked in its day and is now regarded as Trollope's magnum opus is perhaps a sad sign that hypocrisy is as lively as ever it was: we are always more willing to put on sackcloth and ashes for the sins of our forbears than for the sins of our own day.

Find The Way We Live Now on Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Poem: Pietá by James McAuley

It's Good Friday, and owing to 2017 being the centenary of the birth of James McAuley, one of my favourite poets, I thought I would find one of his poems to post. It's not quite an Easter poem, but it is written with Easter in mind - so here it is.


A year ago you came
Early into the light.
You lived a day and night,
Then died; no-one to blame.

Once only, with one hand,
Your mother in farewell
Touched you. I cannot tell,
I cannot understand

A thing so dark and deep,
So physical a loss:
One touch, and that was all

She had of you to keep.
Clean wounds, but terrible
Are those made with the Cross.

James McAuley

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Bell Mountain Series 1-4 by Lee Duigon

I don't quite know what I expected to find in Lee Duigon's Bell Mountain series. A series of Christian fantasy for children put out by an independent Christian publishing house that otherwise mostly just publishes heavy and bearded theological tomes? Don't get me wrong: I love me a heavy and bearded theological tome. They can be useful for dealing with spiders, hitting people over the head with in arguments, and impressing (or repelling) persons of the opposite sex. But, fiction is a totally different kettle of fish, and I was intrigued to find out whether this series was as good as I heard it was.

Yes. It was.

The Series So Far

Young Jack is just the unwanted stepson of the municipal carter of tiny, unimportant Ninneburky. But he's been having dreams--dreams of a bell hung high on mysterious Bell Mountain, a bell that can be heard around the world. Only Ellayne, the chief councillor's uppity daughter, agrees with Jack that the dream must be true and that God wants them to climb the mountain and ring the bell. But it's a long way to Bell Mountain. There are plenty of dangers in the outside world. A deadly assassin from the Temple in the great city of Obann is determined to hunt them down. And then there are all the prophecies that say the world will end when the bell rings...

That's where the story begins in Book 1, Bell Mountain. But it doesn't stay there. In Book 2, The Cellar Beneath the Cellar, the tale explodes into a continent-spanning epic: barbarian invasions, a long-lost boy king, and a hunt for lost scrolls. Book 3, The Thunder King, and Book 4, The Last Banquet, feature wars, giants, monsters, sieges, betrayals, and prophecies. The tale moves fast, following a host of colourful supporting characters: Helki, the Flail of the Lord; Obst, the unwilling missionary; Lord Reesh, the treacherous First Prester; Hlah son of Spider, a barbarian prince on an unlikely mission; an assassin who has renounced his past; a three-year-old girl who can prophesy the future; a girl blown off-course in a storm. And that's not all--there are nine books now available in the series, with more to come.

Needless to say, the series is thoroughly entertaining. I was also impressed by the quality of the craftsmanship. I'm very familiar with many of the most common mistakes made by half-baked or rookie authors (including myself), and the more I learn about writing craft the more these things niggle at me. Lee Duigon's storytelling is not airtight: look very carefully at Books 3 and 4 and you'll notice that two of the most important characters, Jack and Ellayne, are given relatively little to do. But there's plenty he does get right. Three-dimensional, flawed, yet lovable characters. Detailed, convincing worldbuilding. Rich thematic goodness, with an optimistic postmillennial slant. It's all here.

A Few Things I Liked

It's hard to review four full-length books in one post, so I'm just going to pick out a couple of the things I particularly liked. I will try to avoid any but the mildest spoilers, but there might be a few for early books in the series...

First, while the books are apparently aimed at children, they manage to remain realistic, with a helping of darkness and grit. This comes through in a number of ways. It's a common trope in children's fantasy for the children to head off into the world all by themselves, competent to deal with whatever comes their way. I really appreciated that when Jack and Ellayne do this in Bell Mountain, it's made very very clear that they are completely at the mercy of whatever unscrupulous adults might find them. The book is not paranoid about this, but it is rather more honest than a lot of children's adventure/fantasy fiction. 

From Book 2 forward, a large part of the plot focuses on the war that results from an invasion of Heathens from beyond the mountains. Some Heathens convert to belief in God and it is totally not done in modern evangeli-speak; it's got rather more in common with, say, the conversion of Iceland as depicted in The Saga of Burnt Njal. I thought this was great world-building, but just as good is the fun Duigon has throughout by not having these tattooed, polygamous, scalping barbarians suddenly turn into well-behaved modern Americans overnight.
"It's a kind of hymn," she said. "They are asking God to let you drink fermented mare's milk from the Thunder King's skull."
Because of the realistic grounding of the series, it's the kind of story that adults as well as children ought to enjoy. In fact, I'd almost recommend that parents give the series a bit of a read-through first in case their children may not be ready for some of the gritty details.

A Headscratcher or Two

One of the things I'm often interested to note is how other Christian fantasy authors include a Christian worldview in their secondary worlds. From the synopses of the books I could tell that this particular series isn't all that subtle about it: there are overt references to God, his Scripture, his Spirit, and so on. This is not the Tolkien approach, with an unspoken Christian worldview lurking in the background, nor the Lewis approach, with symbolic/representative versions of the Godhead. With such overt references to Christianity, I wasn't sure whether the story would bear up under the weight of realism. In the final analysis, I think Duigon did rather well on this front, but I'm a little ambivalent about his preferred approach.

Basically, Duigon has not included Christianity as the religion in his invented fantasy world; instead, he's made up a fantasy analogue to Christianity. Instead of the Children of Israel passing through the Red Sea, we have the Children of Geb walking across the sea to Obann. Instead of the Temple in Jerusalem we have the Temple in Old Obann. Instead of King David we have King Ozias. When the fantasy scriptures are quoted they are either paraphrases or pastiches of Holy Scripture. 

This is a good approach from a storytelling point of view since it melds the religious themes organically into the setting and prevents them from overpowering the storytelling. However, the analogue religion is so close to Christianity that I'd be a little nervous that very young children, or people not fully familiar with actual Scripture,  might come away confused. Rather amusingly, characters throughout the books declare "Magic doesn't exist" and whenever werewolves or ghosts or witches are mentioned someone usually sniffs at the superstition. I, of course, have no problem with such elements being used in fiction, if done wisely. After all, these are obviously superstitious/fantastical elements. Reading, for instance, the Narnia books as a child, it was always very easy to distinguish between the fantastical dryads and dwarfs and Talking Beasts of Narnia, and the realities of our world. But I'd be a little worried that reading something like the Bell Mountain books as a child, I would have had real trouble distinguishing between the fantasy religion and the real thing.


With that slight caveat, I have to tell you that I have been thoroughly enjoying these books, and I am looking forward to reading more of them. They are perfect for fans of Andrew Peterson's Wingfeather Saga (in fact, I like the Bell Mountain series better overall) and also ought to appeal to fans of N. D. Wilson and Anne Elisabeth Stengl. This is definitely a series that deserves to be more popular, and I'm looking forward to reading the next eight books!

Find Book 1, Bell Mountain, on Amazon. The first plot arc of the series takes up the first four books, so you may like to get The Cellar Beneath the Cellar, The Thunder King, and The Last Banquet while you're at it.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I first read Douglas Adams's classic sci-fi comedy years ago when I found it at the library. The book left me sore from laughing, and I subsequently loaned it around all my brothers, who equally enjoyed it. Recently, as I've been enjoying reading aloud with my sisters, I decided it was high time to share The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy with them.
The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.
Arthur Dent is having a truly terrible morning, lying in the mud in front of a bulldozer to protest its imminent demolition of his house - but not half as terrible as it's about to become in twelve minutes' time, when Earth itself is demolished to make room for a hyperspatial express route. Luckily, Arthur's best friend Ford Prefect is not actually human, nor a vehicle, but a seasoned galactic hitch-hiker from "somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse", and a travelling researcher for the most remarkable book in the galaxy: The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Ford and Arthur survive the destruction of Planet Earth, but how will they cope with the third worst poetry in the universe, or being flushed out an airlock into space? The odds are a million to one against their survival--but fortunately for them, the President of the Galaxy has just pulled off the heist of a lifetime...

And no matter how bad things get, at least they'll always have the comforting and informative Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy with them, complete with large, friendly letters on the cover: Don't Panic.
Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.
In the great tradition of PG Wodehouse, the Goon Show, and Monty Python, this book is dry, chatty, and completely bonkers. It actually started life as a radio show before turning up in book form. And then there was a trilogy. And then it went on and became five books ('the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker's Trilogy') and a TV series, and a film, and a computer game, and who knows what else, none of the versions bearing much relation to the others.
The reason why it was published in the form of a micro sub meson electronic component is that if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in.
As usual with science-fiction published several decades ago (the book was originally published in 1979) it's interesting to see what parts of the sci-fi speculation look like coming true, or not. There's nothing in this book that would prefigure the internet, for instance. But it's hard not to see the parallels between the (in-universe) Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a book so immense it has to be carried on a portable hand-held electronic device and kept updated by roving researchers, and threatens to render the Encyclopedia Galactica obsolete, with Wikipedia.

As for the Infinite Improbability Drive, I'm sure that's not meant to be much more than a hilarious joke.
There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
The last book I read aloud with my sisters was (of course) the joyously medieval sci-fi tale The High Crusade. It's hard not to compare these two classics of sci-fi comedy with each other. It would be hard to find two more dissimilar books, even given the genre similarities. The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is cynical, dry, and British. The High Crusade is idealistic, brash, and American, and this helps it to emulate the medieval character in ways that bring tears to this history-lover's eye.

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, on the other hand, is thoroughly up-to-date and agnostic. Its absurdist view of the world, which provides such a barrel of laughs, only masks a profoundly empty and depressing philosophy. This is made clear in the first two pages of the book:
And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a chance, a girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realised what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever.
And it's made clearer yet later, when the whole story becomes about the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything--which, when finally revealed, turns out to be the completely meaningless "Forty-Two", and all the work must be done again in order to discover what the Ultimate Question is, in the hopes that this will reveal the meaning of the answer. But of course, even that quest turns out to be hopeless.

What's left is a rather unsatisfying and anticlimactic plot. Adams, while hilarious, was a heathen consistent enough to encode his absurdist worldview deep into his plot structure. The result is a denatured, anticlimactic plot that resolves nothing and answers nothing. The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is brilliantly funny and well worth reading. But it's also a consistent expression of its deeply unsatisfying philosophy.

Find The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the novel) on Amazon or the Book Depository. If you are looking for the most remarkable of all books ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor so that you can make and experience a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, try this.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

DEATH BE NOT PROUD release!'s finally here! The Death Be Not Proud novella, originally released as part of the Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales collection, is now available in illustrated paperback and standalone e-book!

Moonshine liquor, jazz-fuelled dancing, and the risk of a police raid - these are all in a night's work for cabaret singer Ruby Black. But when a rugby star mistakes her for a dead girl, Ruby's life threatens to become briefer and more exciting than she bargained for. 
Two years ago, schoolgirl Wu Xue Bai was brutally murdered. Now, Ruby herself is in danger. Who killed Xue Bai? What lies behind Max Moran's obsession with the dead girl? And will Ruby learn the truth before secrets from her own past catch up with her? 
A fairytale retelling set in Jazz Age New Zealand, inspired by the thrillers of Mary Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock. Novella, approximately 23,000 words. 
$2.99 ebook | $6.99 paperback | Add it on Goodreads

If you haven't read it yet, go and get it! Death Be Not Proud is a bit different to anything I've done so far, and I'm excited to find out if it works for you!

Already read Death Be Not Proud? There are two things you can do that would be an enormous help to me!

First, please head over to the Amazon page and leave a short, honest review. Reviews are marketing gold to indie authors like me, and are absolutely essential in helping me connect with other readers who would enjoy my work.

Second, if you would like to see more of my fairytale novellas in print, do consider buying the paperback, for yourself and/or for a friend! The Rakshasa's Bride paperback, and this one, have been an exercise in paying a little extra for professional editing and illustrations, but unfortunately it means that unless they sell well, they will be the only two I am capable of producing. So, if you would like to see The Prince of Fishes and The Bells of Paradise, as well as future fairytale novellas, available in this format, you can help by investing in existing paperbacks!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Escape from France by Ronald Welch

Book 8 in Ronald Welch's Carey Family Series is Escape from France, a fast-paced adventure set during the French Revolution. I first stumbled across Ronald Welch's stirring adventure stories for boys at our local library, which still owned a few of the old Oxford University Press hardbacks, and Escape from France was one of the books I read. At the time, I considered it an exciting story, but also less substantial than many of the other Carey Family books I'd read, especially my favourite, Captain of Dragoons.

So I was interested to see what I would think of it lo these many years later, as an adult.

We meet Richard Carey at Cambridge, a capable but arrogant young man who easily deals with all the challenges that come his way--whether it's academic study, a crooked bookmaker with a pugilistic bodyguard, or a ne'er-do-well cousin who must be rescued from his gambling debts. Meanwhile, however, political conditions are deteriorating across the channel in pre-revolutionary France. When the Careys' distant cousin the Marquis of Vernaye is arrested, Richard's father (the 7th Earl of Aubigny) and uncle (international hellraiser Sir Rupert Carey) commission Richard to cross the Channel to France and rescue the Marquis's family.

Richard laughs at Sir Rupert's wild stories and wilder advice. But once landed in France, he finds that the once most civilised nation on earth has become a more dangerous place than he imagined. To make matters worse, cousin Armand is determined not to escape until the Marquis of Vernaye can be rescued from the feared Abbaye Prison itself. In a France beset with spies, informants, adventurers, card sharks, and duellists, Richard begins to realise that Sir Rupert may not be as crazy as he thought...

This story reminded me very strongly of two other books, GA Henty's In the Reign of Terror and (of course) Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel. Indeed I'm sure there have to have been a lot of other books written about heroic Englishmen crossing the Channel to rescue French aristocrats from the Reign of Terror. Given that, it's tempting to ask what Escape from France adds to the conversation.

In some ways, I don't know that it tries to add much to the conversation about the French Revolution and as usual, Ronald Welch shies away from investigating too closely the ethical questions inherent in the period of history he's writing about. The Marquis of Vernaye is said to have been kind to his tenants, while other aristocrats and the ancien regime at large are shown to have been oppressive. One thing I liked was that there are sympathetic characters and villainous characters among both the aristocracy and among the republicans, and one main character is shown to be a moderate republican who remains loyal to his country despite the Terror--I felt there was a good representation of a few different perspectives.

Ronald Welch is worth reading for two main reasons. One is the depth and accuracy of his military history, and his best books (like Captain of Dragoons and Tank Commander) tend to focus on wars. I actually missed that focus in Escape from France, which seemed a little more romantic and less grounded in tone.

There's another main reason to read Ronald Welch, though, and that is his continual discussion of masculine maturity. Escape from France is about a young man who thinks himself competent, but has really lived a short and privileged life. It's only when he finds himself alone and on the run in France, without any of the advantages of being an Earl's son in England, that he begins to realise how much he has to be humble about.

Escape from France is an exciting, fast-paced adventure through revolutionary France. I enjoyed it, and I'd recommend it, together with the rest of the Carey Family series, for children and young teens. The series has been out of print for many years, and is currently being reprinted in limited clothbound editions for Slightly Foxed, so get a copy while you still can!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

DEATH BE NOT PROUD cover reveal and release date/ONCE freebie

Hello, friends! I'm just popping my head in to tell you that the Death Be Not Proud standalone will release on March 27 - next Monday! It will be available in ebook format and also illustrated paperback.

(Once again, the illustrations are by my talented little sister Abigail, who keeps getting better. Click here for a preview!)

You want to see the cover? I know you want to see the cover. Here's the cover!

As usual, I started designing this cover on the side, as I worked on the very first draft of the story. In the end, it went through many, many more drafts than the story itself did!

Design note: that's not actually black there against the red. I tried black, but it didn't stand out well. However, when I altered it to a very very very dark green, the effect was much better. Why? Because green is opposite to red on the colour wheel, which means that the colours contrast more vividly.

And now you know.

Anyway, in case you missed it, Death Be Not Proud was originally released in December 2016 as part of the Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales boxset. Which is available right now for free on Amazon, one day only, if you haven't had the chance to read it yet! So, go ahead and grab that if you haven't already, because it also features five other stories besides mine.

But--if you enjoyed the story itself--when Monday comes, do consider nicking off to order the Death Be Not Proud paperback (so that it can sit next to the Rakshasa's Bride paperback on your shelf, looking colourful). I need hardly remind you that Suzannah Rowntree books make excellent birthday presents, paperweights, and flyswatters.

Keep an eye out for the Death Be Not Proud standalone, coming Monday, and add the book on Goodreads while you wait!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Eothen by AW Kinglake

I'm still a little amazed that I got sucked into reading travel non-fiction; after all, you would think that there were few things less interesting than listening to someone telling you in exhaustive detail about his holidays in places you've never been. On the other hand, as I attempt to write convincingly about such places, a bit of travel non-fiction has certainly come in handy.

William Dalrymple, surely the most entertaining travel writer of recent years, cites 1830s traveller Alexander William Kinglake as one of his inspirations. Since Kinglake also roamed through the Levant, stopping at Smyrna, Cyprus, Nablus, Cairo, and Damascus, I decided to read his account of his journey. The prospect was tempting on account of being a look at travel in the Levant before the upheavals of the twentieth century, but I was a little surprised by how very entertaining it was.
It is the plague, and the dread of the plague, that divide the one people from the other.  All coming and going stands forbidden by the terrors of the yellow flag.  If you dare to break the laws of the quarantine, you will be tried with military haste; the court will scream out your sentence to you from a tribunal some fifty yards off; the priest, instead of gently whispering to you the sweet hopes of religion, will console you at duelling distance; and after that you will find yourself carefully shot, and carelessly buried in the ground of the lazaretto.
Armed with this dry wit, a small army of long-suffering servants, and the kind of swagger that Englishmen abroad could command in those days (which has now transferred itself to the Americans), Kinglake sets out on his journey into the Ottoman Empire. He spends an evening with the famously peculiar Lady Hester Stanhope in her ancient monastery in the Lebanon. He gets lost and almost starves on the east side of the Jordan, is told off by a Franciscan friar in Jerusalem for not joining a clerical brawl with the Greek Orthodox, sightsees in Cairo during a plague epidemic that kills half the population, and pretty much has the time of his life.

Modern readers might find Kinglake's attitude toward the locals rather snobbish and condescending - and so it is, although I don't believe moderners themselves are any less so when beholding their forbears. One of the local traits that strikes Kinglake about the inhabitants of the then Ottoman Empire is described like this:
[T]he Sheik explained to Dthemetri the grounds of the infinite respect which he and his tribe entertained for the Pasha.  A few weeks before Ibrahim had craftily sent a body of troops across the Jordan.  The force went warily round to the foot of the mountains on the east, so as to cut off the retreat of this tribe, and then surrounded them as they lay encamped in the vale; their camels, and indeed all their possessions worth taking, were carried off by the soldiery, and moreover the then Sheik, together with every tenth man of the tribe, was brought out and shot.  You would think that this conduct on the part of the Pasha might not procure for his “friend” a very gracious reception amongst the people whom he had thus despoiled and decimated; but the Asiatic seems to be animated with a feeling of profound respect, almost bordering upon affection, for all who have done him any bold and violent wrong, and there is always, too, so much of vague and undefined apprehension mixed up with his really well-founded alarms, that I can see no limit to the yielding and bending of his mind when it is wrought upon by the idea of power.
I think Kinglake is often guilty of sweeping generalisations, but it was interesting that this theme kept cropping up in many of his dealings with the locals, so as to bear out his observation that "You will find, I think, that one of the greatest draw-backs to the pleasure of travelling in Asia is the being obliged, more or less, to make your way by bullying." Personally I think this has to still be something of a generalisation, because every human being has eternity in his heart and knows the worth of liberty and grace. But I also think it's no accident that people ruled for so long by a religion that sees God as a principle of total, raw power should finally extend their worship of power into their daily lives like this. 

Not all of Kinglake's generalisations seem as valid as this, and generally he views the local people among whom he travels the same way Mr Bennet viewed his neighbours. This results in an interesting sort of two-level effect, where Kinglake is laughing at the oddities of the people he travels among, and the modern reader is laughing at the oddities of Kinglake. In fact, I'm convinced Kinglake was aware of this - he spends plenty of time laughing at himself and his people, not just at those he calls "Asiatics". There's the hilarious passage where he passes another English traveller in the desert: the hope that the fellow-countryman won't disturb his privacy by attempting to speak to him; the embarrassment and then resignation when their servants stop to exchange greetings; the social tact and delicacy necessary to speak to a gentleman one hasn't been introduced to and isn't particularly interested in, on matters of mutual interest. There's an equally funny passage where Kinglake, lost in the desert and suffering from thirst, shocks a pair of Bedouins considerably - but I risk giving away too much.

Eothen, Or, Traces of Travel Brought Home From the East, to give it its full title, was quite simply a lot of fun, compounded by the fact that it's not just a journey to far-away places, but also back in time.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Book Sacrifice Tag!

I haven't finished reading any fine vintage literature lately, so I don't have a review to post today. Instead, a few months ago there was a rather hilarious bookish tag going around the blogosphere, and I thought I'd fill it out. Here unapologetic thoughts on 5 books that I could definitely do without.

#1: An Over-Hyped Book

Situation: You are in a bookstore when the zombies attack.  Over the loudspeakers you hear the military announce that over-hyped books are the zombies' only weakness.  What over-hyped book will you chuck at the zombies?

The Hunger Games. Seriously. It's not that The Hunger Games is a bad book - indeed it's better than a lot of the YA fiction I've dipped my toes into - it's just that then I read Red Rising and realised that it was everything I'd wished The Hunger Games had been, and wasn't.

#2: A Sequel

Situation: You are caught in a torrential downpour and you're probably the type who melts when you get wet.  What sequel are you willing to use as an umbrella to protect yourself.

Maybe this is cheating a little, but let's say Zorro: A Novel by Isabel Allende. The original Zorro of Johnstone McCulley's pulp novel The Curse of Capistrano (no, I'm not kidding) was a swashbuckling hero who dashed about with sword, pistol, and black horse righting injustices and stealing hearts. In Isabel Allende's dour, sour reboot of the story, highbrowishly subtitled ~*A Novel*~, Zorro rates high on gender equality and racial inclusivity but fatally low on suavity, swashbucklery, dashitude, or fun.

#3: A Classic

Situation: You're in English class and your professor won't stop going on about a classic that "revolutionized literature". Personally you think the classic is garbage and you decide to express your opinion by hurling the book at his head.  What classic is that?

The Great Gatsby. I did not like that book. Now that I am grown, I suspect that I was not meant to like it, but where is the point of reading something meant specifically to annoy? Down with you, Gatsby.

#4: A Least Favorite Book

Situation: You're hanging out at a bookstore (where else would you be?) when global warming somehow manages to to turn the whole world into a frozen wasteland.  Naturally, your only hope of survival is to burn a book.  Which book would you not regret tossing into the fire?

To this day the worst book I have ever read is Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber. *shudder* I could probably keep warm for a century burning the planet's supplies of Forever Amber, and the world would be a better, brighter, braver place for it. But I'm actually not sure I could face ten minutes with nothing to read but a giant pile of my most loathed book of all time, let alone a century.

#5: A Series

Situation: There's a flooded stream you have to cross on your quest and you can't get your feet wet.  Which series (oh yeah, btw, you brought your whole bookshelf and also probably local library with you) will you use as stepping stones?

I never told the kind friend who loaned me this series at the time, but I could barely stand John Marsden's Tomorrow When the War Began series and after the only character I liked died at the end of Book Three I loathed it. (Sorry, Alice). You probably have never heard of this series, but it's basically Red Dawn in Australia, and while looking back I can appreciate certain aspects of the storytelling, which could be very gritty and brutal, mostly the memory just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. (Also, the premise is kind of ridiculous. Australia is overrun in a night or two by some unspecified Asian nation, really? And none of our allies want to help us...except New Zealand? Seriously? I love NZ, but they aren't exactly a military powerhouse...and, they make fun of our accent.)


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