Book Announcement: The Blacksmith

How is the king like a blacksmith? He has a hammer as well as a sword.

Duncan Archer has heard that riddle many times, but he doesn’t know what it means. No one does, not even the members of the Royal Guild of Swordsmiths. It isn’t Duncan’s business anyway. Good sense tells him to stick to beating iron into shape for the residents of his backwater village, and not worry about the king and his nobles pounding Frankland into the ground.

But good sense never stopped Duncan from poking his nose into everyone else’s business. If it had, he might not be a fugitive, the subject of the biggest manhunt in the country’s history.

With a charge of murder hanging over his head like a sword, understanding that riddle becomes much more urgent.

The Blacksmith, book three of my five book Reforging series, is available now for non-US customers from as an ebook; the printed version will be available soon.

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Have you heard of the Fugue? You may have caught glimpses in other stories of that alternate magical world overlapping our own. It is a fecund land filled with wonders and peopled by almost human creatures known as the Seerkind. When ordinary bloke Cal Mooney by accident tumbles into it and out again, it breaks his heart.

But the Fugue is not now a very happy place. An unseen force known only as the Scourge despises all magic and is determined to obliterate them all. Humans persecute them, calling them fairies or demons. And one of their own kind, the exiled sorceress Immacolata, wants revenge. In the face of these threats, the Seerkind have taken cover, weaving themselves—people, landscapes, magic, and all—into a carpet that was left in the hands of a few dedicated guardians in the mundane world—the Kingdom of the Cuckoos, as they call it—to be released in a few years after the danger from the Scourge has passed.

Decades later, the all-clear signal still has not come, and the carpet is almost within Immacolata’s grasp. The last guardian is hospitalised, and dying. She has left it too late to tell her granddaughter, Suzanna Parish, what she needs to know to protect the Fugue.

This is the situation at the start of Clive Barker’s 1987 award-winning novel, Weaveworld. It’s a thick book (my edition is 720 pages) but it covers a lot of ground without much flab. The story moves along fairly briskly, only getting bogged down in a few places. We follow Cal and Suzanna as their paths converge, split apart, and re-converge, and their respectable, boring lives are upended in their struggles against the magical and mundane forces that would destroy the Seerkind.

The story weaves back and forth between the Fugue and the very concrete world of Liverpool. The characters are finely crafted, there are some evocative descriptions and gripping scenes, but I suspect that when most of the details fade I will still remember this story fondly, primarily for Cal’s quiet heroism. His actions at the climax are inevitable and awesome, and another character’s reaction—Is he out of his f***ing mind?—seems appropriate. And when the story ends, we’re left with one message that pretty well sums up the reasons we tell stories: What can be imagined is never entirely lost.

I’m not a big fan of the horror genre. I dip into it occasionally, and as often as not end up wishing I hadn’t, but this novel straddles fantasy and horror, and is (mostly) redeemed by Suzanna and Cal’s determination and devotion to the Seerkind, and to each other. But be aware that there are horrors here: fanaticism, monsters, violent sex, attempted genocide… There is also some very earthy language describing bodily functions, and some things that don’t quite work (the Menstruum, for one).

The story is full of religious language and motifs, some of them rather twisted: raptures and scourges, the Black Madonna and her dead, perverted sisters, an entity that calls itself the angel Uriel. But they are not always what they seem, and there’s little clear-cut black and white. No one, it seems, is beyond hope of redemption.

Audience: Adult. Contains everything: Violence, rape, bad language, horror. And heroism and hope.

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The 13 Clocks

I have tales to make a hangman weep, and tales to bring a tear of sorrow to a monster’s eye.
I have tales that would disturb a dragon’s sleep, and even make the Todal sigh.

I don’t remember exactly when I discovered The 13 Clocks, by James Thurber, but I believe it must have been while I was in elementary school. I loved it. Even now, decades later, it still charms me. Not so much for the story, which is rather forgettable, but for the wordplay, which fired my imagination.

Thurber adores alliteration, makes up words with abandon like a darker Seuss, and scatters internal rhymes in random sentences. There are no lines breaks to prime you for rhyme, you have to be on your toes to catch it as it goes. Cadence is important, too; this book begs to be read aloud.

As far as the plot goes, it’s a simple, straightforward fairytale. The villain is the evil Duke of Coffin Castle: His nights were spent in evil dreams, and his days were given to wicked schemes. When a prince appears, the duke assigns him an impossible task to prevent him from marrying the duke’s niece. There are classic fairytale elements: a prince dressed in rags, curses and spells, chests of jewels, and love at first sight between the prince and a passive princess. (So the story’s not perfect. Oh, well, it was written in 1950.) There are more unusual elements, too, primarily the clocks frozen at ten minutes to five. In the duke’s castle, it is always Then, never Now, after he murdered time. His sleeves are still stained with the blood from his crime.

And then there’s the Golux, the fairy godmother stand-in, who is on the side of Good, by accident and happenstance. He forgets things, and makes things up, and may or may not be able to help the prince out of his predicament.

There is, by the way, some violence in this story, with the duke feeding his enemies to the geese, and threatening to slit the prince from his guggle to his zatch. That’s not uncommon in fairytales. Any child who can handle, say, Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel (remember the oven?) should be able to handle this charming little tale.

The illustrations by Marc Simont are pretty cool, too.

Audience: lovers of fairytales and wordplay of any age.

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Of all the settings in all the thousands of books I’ve read, Tamson House in Ottawa, Canada is among the ones I’d most like to visit. That world-straddling residence is a significant presence in the urban fantasy Moonheart by Charles de Lint. At least semi-sentient, it’s better developed than most of the human characters. It’s a massive structure, covering a full city block, but the facade facing the street presents it as a row of townhouses, camouflaging it’s true nature. The garden it surrounds is larger than any garden hemmed in by walls and streets could possibly be. The house is home to a collection of characters living more or less communally, including the owner, Jamie Tams, his niece, Sara Kendell, and a biker, a live-in gardener, and a few other oddballs. Various other visitors move in and out more or less at random—anyone the house takes a fancy to stays as long as they want. Neither Jamie nor Sara pay them much heed; the house itself seems to somehow enforce unspoken rules about residents cleaning up after themselves and playing nice with each other.

Besides owning Tamson House, Jamie and Sara own an antiques store. It’s more of a hobby than a real business, as they are independently wealthy and don’t need the extra income. (I kept thinking they had to be fabulously wealthy to afford the upkeep on this huge house, but perhaps the house itself has a hand in its own maintenance. I wasn’t quite sure about that.) The story opens when Sara uncovers some unexpected items in a recently-delivered box of knickknacks, items that draw the attention of the Horsemen (the Royal Canadian Mounted Police).

In another thread, the Horsemen are also showing interest in Kieran Foy, a wandering folk musician and wizard in training—even if he’s not sure exactly what the magic is—who has come to Ottawa in search of his missing mentor. When Kieran and Sara’s paths cross, trouble happens, in a big way, as a more than thousand-year-old feud goes critical. Kieran and Sara are spirited away to an Otherworld, populated by Native American shamans and manitou (spirits) interwoven with ancient Welsh bards, where they begin to piece together the clues needed to understand and counter the evil that is harming both worlds.

While Sara and Kieran are in this Otherworld, learning how to handle newly-discovered powers as wizard and sorceress and falling in love—although not with each other—Tamson House is under attack. As Jamie comes to terms with the part his ancestors played in creating the situation they’re in, a multiway battle for control of the house is underway between a motley assemblage of residents, Horsemen, gangsters, and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named The-Dread-That-Walks-Nameless. (Sorry, couldn’t resist, but Moonheart was published in 1984, long before that other story.)

This thread set in modern Ottawa, with its ensemble cast—sometimes working together, sometimes at cross purposes—was the more interesting storyline. The other threads didn’t move me as much. There was a bit too much New Age romanticism for lost Native American traditions for my taste in the interactions with the high-minded inhabitants of the Otherworld, and neither of the two romances felt particularly gripping or believable. Oddly, though, relationships between other, minor characters were more believable—the Mountie and his lawyer girlfriend, or the biker and his girlfriend—probably because the author was taking already established relationships as a given, and seeing how they changed under stress.

There were some minor flaws: a few continuity errors, so many characters I needed a scorecard to keep track of who’s who, and it’s at least fifty pages too long (out of 477), but overall it’s an intriguing story.

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Fallen Into the Pit

Before there was Brother Cadfael, there was Inspector Felse.

Ellis Peters is well known for her series of historical mysteries featuring the Welsh monk, Brother Cadfael. She began writing those in the late 1970s, but she honed her skills on an earlier series written between 1951 and 1978, featuring an English detective, George Felse. Anyone who likes Brother Cadfael and is not fixated on the Middle Ages might enjoy the thirteen books in this series, too. Set contemporaneously in the U.K., they were not written as historical novels, but given the span of time since then, one can enjoy them as period pieces, appreciating the window they provide into post-war life in Shropshire along the Welsh border.

In Fallen Into the Pit, the first book in the series, the war is over, but the peace is still fragile, and the Comerford village’s inhabitants are still struggling to come to grips with the changes it wrought, both for those families whose sons/husbands/brothers/fathers never came back, and those whose returning sons are all but unrecognisable. Among those is one Chad Wedderburn, a teacher at the school Felse’s thirteen-year-old son, Dominic, attends. Wedderburn is a hero with an impressive war record, but he confounds the villagers’ expectations by spurning their praise, refusing to join the British Legion, and taking an uncompromising stand rejecting all violence.

Some former prisoners of war are also in Comerford. With their homes in ruins and no jobs to return to, they have stayed and been put to work in the coal mines or as hired hands on nearby farms. Among them is Helmet Schauffler, a young German with an attitude problem. He bullies anyone he can, in one case driving a coal miner to take the first swing, then knifing him. To the local authorities he presents a polite face and avoids harsh penalties by pleading self-defence, blaming problems on his inadequate English and prejudice against Germans. But he has antagonised too many people, and when Dominic stumbles across a body lying half in a stream, George Felse is disturbed but not overly surprised that Schauffler has been murdered.

Wedderburn is one of several suspects, and when another man—Wedderburn’s rival for the town beauty’s affections—is found dead, the villagers’ suspicions focus on him. Dominic refuses to believe his teacher is the murderer, and sets out to prove his own theory, which may only make him victim number three…

I don’t love the Inspector Felse books as much as I love the Brother Cadfael mysteries, but there is still a lot to like in them. By current standards for mystery novels, they tend to start off slow, but the in-depth characterisations and descriptions of life in a village where everyone knows each other—and the toll suspicion takes on their sense of community—are significant contributions to the pleasures of reading this author’s work. Chad Wedderburn is an interesting character, as is Dominic Felse.

In an unusual twist, although George Felse is ostensibly the detective, and he and Dominic come to the same conclusion, it’s Dominic’s reasoning we get to follow in the final act. In some of the other books, the inspector’s wife is the main point of view character.

Be warned, however, that there is racist and anti-Semitic language in this particular book. It fits the character, but could be upsetting to some unprepared readers. There is also one minor character with a really unfortunate name. (A tween girl nicknamed Pussy. Ugh.) Despite those and a few other minor quibbles, I enjoyed this very British mystery.

Audience: adults and late teens. Off-screen violence but no sex. Some offensive language.

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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Most of the books I review on this blog are ones that I can endorse, ranging from lightweight, pleasant entertainment to hefty tomes worth the effort for the emotional or intellectual impact. That has been a deliberate choice; I’d rather advocate for books I approve of than stomp on ones I don’t. With all the choices out there, why waste my time and airspace drawing attention to books that don’t deserve it?

That’s why I’m approaching The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M Valente, with some trepidation. It’s an award winner, a best seller, and it has garnered praise from such luminaries as Neil Gaiman and Tamora Pierce. Lots of readers love it, and I can understand why they do. But it has also drawn a number of articulate negative opinions, not just the usual ‘This is soooooo boring’, and I understand those, too.

It left me deeply ambivalent. There are some things about it I loved and some that really annoyed me.

First of all, there’s the question of the target audience. It is marketed as a book for the middle grades, but many of the narrator’s comments seem targeted towards adults rather than children, and the breadth of the vocabulary will challenge many adult readers. Is this a book for children or for adults who enjoy reading children’s books? I don’t have an answer for that.

By the way, this Fairyland has little to do with the fae of myth and legend.  This is a Fairyland cut from the whole cloth of the writer’s imagination, like Wonderland or Oz, and that’s fine with me.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead. If you don’t want them, bail now.

Here are some of the things I loved:

  • That wonderful, mouth-filling title.
  • The illustrations, by Ana Juan, at the start of each chapter.
  • Her mother’s sword. What a wonderful idea! And if it sparks a bit of mother-daughter bonding from children trying to understand what their mothers’ swords are, that’s a good thing.
  • September’s hero’s journey, wherein she grows a heart, and loses it, because isn’t that what growing up is all about?
  • Her ship—a raft, actually, with a spoon for a mast—and the revelations that lead her to build it.
  • The strange characters peopling this Fairyland, from the Wyverary (the Wyvern whose father was a Library) and the civilised Wairwulf to the soap golem and the loyal key, plus a charming lantern, and many other strange and wonderful creatures.

On the flip side, my biggest complaint is over the messages another character’s ejection sends. Maud Smythe, the previous queen, had found her own way into Fairyland rather than being brought there as September was. Because of that, she couldn’t stay, despite being a wise and just ruler, and was thrown back into the hands of an abusive father in the mundane world. September, on the other hand, with loving parents, was invited in. When she left Fairyland she was given assurances she would be able to return.

Seriously, what kind of a message is this? Life’s unfair, too bad? Or that girls who work at getting out of a bad situation get the shaft, while the ones who are more passive are rewarded? Neither of those is a message I want to pass on!

A few other things I didn’t like included:

  • The intrusive narrator. While it is true that a story needs conflict—or there wouldn’t be a story—and the direction the story takes is up to the author’s whim, we don’t really want to be reminded of that in the middle of the action. Maintaining the illusion that there’s some inevitability to the progression of events gives a story more emotional weight.
  • The non-stop whimsy. Charming at first, it gets tiresome after a while. So does the narrative voice that’s patronising and a bit too twee.
  • The use of the word ‘ravished’ to describe September’s willing abduction to Fairyland. There’s nothing overtly sexual in the story but the connotations of that word made my skin crawl.
  • The scene where September sacrificed her shadow to save someone else. That came out of nowhere, with no foreshadowing or explanation. September’s choice seemed to have been a bad one, but I still don’t know why, because that plot thread was left dangling.

My daughter had a much stronger reaction to the scene with the shadow than I did. She was already annoyed because the story felt too much like travelogue to her; she couldn’t make out the plot and every new scene felt disjoint and unconnected to the preceding scenes. Then this scene upset her so much she refused to listen to me read any more it. She hardly ever does that.

If you love it, that’s great, but it wasn’t a good choice for me and my family.

Audience: Anyone with a high tolerance for whimsy and surrealism, and who doesn’t mind the things that bothered me.

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This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin

What is This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin about if it isn’t about Charles Darwin? The creative process, primarily, as the author, Emma Darwin, explores her failure to write a novel about the Darwin family, and the toll that failure takes on her, ultimately landing her in the hospital with a heart attack. Somewhat secondarily it also takes a look at the burdens and benefits of being a member of a large, prominent, and tightly-knit family.

Emma Darwin is an English novelist and teacher of creative writing. She also happens to be the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, along with 150 other great-great-grandchildren. This book—a blend of memoir, biography, and essay on the art of creative writing, plus excerpts from her fiction, including the failed work—has its roots in the Darwin Bicentennial (2009) when her agent began pushing her to take advantage of her name and connections, and write about the Darwin clan. She hadn’t wanted to capitalise on those connections, but since every review of her work included the connection to ‘The Ancestor’, it seemed a sensible thing to do. Why not?

Despite her own instincts which told her not to, over the next several years she explored her family’s histories, starting with Erasmus Darwin, the 18th-century natural philosopher and grandfather of Charles, and working her way down. She was looking for what she calls the white spaces, the gaps between the well-documented events in these famous people’s lives where a novelist could find room for invention. After much scrambling around in the family tree and some false starts, she made a serious attempt to write a story involving her grandparent’s generation (Charles Darwin’s grandchildren) spanning the two World Wars and the Spanish Civil War.

She describes the multiple iterations she made on the expanding story, and the reasoning behind each rewrite, as her agent tells her that each new version still isn’t working. She eventually had to admit that a serious lack of tension in her novel was due to the tensions she was living with as a writer: Her dread of showing off or offending her dozens of cousins. The constraints put on her imagination by the fact that the lives of the more notable members had already been thoroughly covered, often by multiple biographers, and by her own desire to stick to the essential core of the lives of these real people. And perhaps most important, her attempt to write what someone else wanted her to write rather than the stories she wanted to tell—stories that kept leading her away from the Darwins. How does one write a compelling story about people who generally led productive lives without a lot of drama?

She does eventually come to terms with failure, after recovering from her heart attack, and gives us this detailed example of one creative endeavour’s multiple metamorphoses. As another novelist who has ripped apart and rewritten one of my babies, I can sympathise, and appreciate the glimpse into someone else’s mind.

Personally, I’ll be looking forward to her next novel even if it has nothing to do with the Darwins. I didn’t read this book because I have a great interest in Charles Darwin. (I knew who he was, of course, but not much about his life outside of his contributions to science.) I read this book because I discovered Emma’s blog, This Itch of Writing, some time ago, and it was more helpful to me as a fledgling novelist than any other source of writing advice I have found.

Besides the story about her story, the tour of her family tree was fascinating, and I’m more interested now in digging further in, particularly regarding a few standouts: Gwen Raverat, artist and memoirist; Julia Wedgewood, novelist who appears to have fallen in love with Robert Browning after the death of his wife Elizabeth Barrett; and the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. (The man who wrote the gorgeous hymn tune Sine Nomine—a.k.a For All the Saints—was an atheist? I had no idea. I hadn’t connected him with the Darwins, either.)

There were a few other minor gems in this work. In one place, she says:

Women’s first names are the linguistic equivalent of mitochondrial DNA: transmitted through the mother, as surnames may be transmitted, like other DNA, through the father.

Yes, my family has passed down women’s names, too. In another spot she describes pain “on a scale from one to childbirth”. (Yes! Love that!)

To sum up, as another writer, I found this book very interesting, but it isn’t only for other writers. There’s enough meat here about creative thinking in general that it’s worthy of a wider audience.

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The Final Empire is a grim dark place, caught for a thousand years in the iron fist of the Lord Ruler, a god-like immortal with a squad of fanatical minions, the Steel Inquisitors, bent on rooting out heresy and enforcing his will. The technology is approximately late 19th century, with canned food and massive slums, although without rapid communication or transportation systems, but the society is strictly feudal. The peasants—the skaa—are regarded as subhuman by their noble masters, who can rape and kill them with impunity.

In fact, if any noble takes a skaa woman as a plaything, the law requires him to kill her before she can bear a child. Why? To prevent the noble’s magical powers—Allomancy—from leaking out into the skaa population and making them dangerous.

What the nobles and the Lord Ruler don’t know is that it’s too late. There are already skaa with allomantic powers, and one of them—Kelsier—is bent on revenge for his wife’s death.

Kelsier recruits a crew of thieves to organise and lead a skaa rebellion and overthrow the Lord Ruler. Can he succeed, when countless others have failed over the centuries? What price will he and his crew have to pay for his audacious plan?

And what will a successful rebellion mean for Vin, the teenage girl with powerful Allomantic abilities among Kelsier’s recuits? He and his crew teach her how to use her talents and how to act like a noblewoman, then dress her up and send her off the the nobles’ balls under an assumed identity to spy for them. At her very first ball, she draws the attention of a young nobleman, Elend Venture, the heir of one of the Empire’s most powerful houses, and before long she falls for him, rather hard.

That was not at all what Kelsier had in mind.

Vin is the primary viewpoint character in all three books of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, and it’s largely her story as she grows from a fearful, solitary street waif to a self-confidant, respected, and heroic adult. The first book, The Final Empire, chronicles the skaa rebellion. The second book, The Well of Ascension, could have been subtitled The Education of Elend Venture, as he learns some hard lessons while trying to prevent societal collapse in the rebellion’s aftermath. The third book, The Hero of Ages, is driven by a serious mistake Vin makes at the end of the second book, a mistake that threatens to bring about the end of their world.

I need to say something here about the magic, which is strikingly original (or at least, unlike any I’ve encountered elsewhere). There are three main branches: Allomancy, Feruchemy, and Hemalurgy. (We only find out about Hemalurgy in the third book.) They are all powered by metals, either pure elements or alloys. Allomancers “burn” (metabolise, somehow) the metals to power changes in their perceptions (tin enhances senses, bronze allows discovery of other Allomancers, etc.) or abilities (iron and steel power pushing and pulling on metals from a distance, pewter provides greater strength and endurance), while Feruchemists use the same metals as stores for their own bodies’ capabilities (memory, strength, etc.).

I found this system intriguing, but in fairness I’m not sure it’s accurate to call it a “magic system.” It has supernatural origins, and it doesn’t follow the rules of science as we know them, but it does have clearly defined and apparently consistent rules of its own, so in this alternate reality maybe those rules are consistent with that universe’s science? Certainly the Steel Pushes and Iron Pulls obey the laws of physics, and there’s a fair amount of drama in Vin’s training regarding her having to be aware of relative masses and angles of attack, among other things. For example, if this small woman pushes on a large soldier’s metal breastplate, she’s going to throw herself backwards, not push him aside.

This makes for some cinematic descriptions of fight scenes, with Allomancers flying through the air, using mass and momentum to confound their less adept foes.

Besides the magic system, there are other things I liked about this trilogy:

  • Kelsier’s crew like each other (mostly) and work together well (mostly). Trust and teamwork are rewarded. Having a sense of humour is important.
  • The main characters are all struggling to do the right thing. They wrestle with doubt, frustration, and limited knowledge and resources, but accept help from friends and struggle on. They believe that individuals can make a difference. Their world is dark and grim, but they hold on to hope, because that’s the one thing the Lord Ruler can’t take from them.
  • Vin and Elend meet cute, and their romance is sweet and absolutely clean. I can’t help it that I have a soft spot for geeks and bookworms.

But there were some things I didn’t like:

  • It’s flabby. My edition totals 2100 pages, not counting the appendices. There’s a lot of of repetition and excess verbiage. Even where the characters have to communicate by scratching words into a steel plate, for reasons explained in the third book, they ramble on and on, apologising for their brevity. (Yeah, right.) There was, perhaps, some excuse for the first book being 640 pages, as Vin and the reader have a lot to learn,  but there weren’t nearly as many new ideas introduced in the second book, and it was even longer. Instead we get far too much political wrangling and replays of banter between crew members.
  • The writing is serviceable but not particularly good, the dialogue tends to be rather lame, and the author doesn’t seem to have ever bothered reading his own work aloud. (Try voicing “Sazed said” hundreds of times. It gets old.) The vocabulary is limited and some quirks are repeated ad infinitum. (Characters ‘pause.’ They are occasionally given a different way to indicate that they have to stop and rethink, but far too often they just ‘pause.’)
  • There’s a lot of violence. A lot of people die, some of them in nasty ways. Mouse over for spoiler. The fight scenes are interesting early on, while Vin is learning how to use Allomancy, but they get tedious after a while. And while the romance is clean, I’ve never understood why some people seem to think depictions of loving physical relationships should be more harmful to young minds—or old minds for that matter—than unstinting brutality.
  • The ending of the trilogy, with a blatant deus ex machina resolution, left me cold. In most cases, deus ex machina comes into play when the author can’t find a better way out of a plot hold they’ve written themselves into, but here this was evidently what Sanderson and intended all along. Mouse over for spoiler.

In sum, I enjoyed this trilogy, as did my family, but it’s flawed and seems quite overhyped. (176,000 5-star ratings on Seriously? Take those swooning reviews with a grain of salt. It’s fun, but certainly not the best fantasy I’ve ever read.) The first book in the trilogy is the best, with some tedium but building up to a great climax. The second was disappointing, and the third started off slow but picked up, and was better than the second. I’m glad I read the whole thing, mainly because I did want to find out what happens to Vin, but it hasn’t left me eager to pick up another doorstop any time soon.

Audience: adults, older teens. No sex or bad language but lots of violence, brutality, and gore.

Posted in Epic Fantasy | Leave a comment

Trip Diaries

Years ago, when I was single, I always travelled with a trip diary: a small notebook to record anything I wanted to remember about my experiences. I carried a camera, too, and took photos, but there are many things a camera just can’t capture: overhead comments on a famous painting, the sound of an organist practicing Handel in a nearly empty cathedral, the scent of roses in an English country garden, … Words can’t fully capture those fleeting moments either, but between the two—the photos and the words—I have the triggers to evoke memories years later.

In those days, I usually jotted down the day’s events in restaurants, while waiting for my dinner or while enjoying a cup of coffee or glass of port after the meal. Now, travelling with family, I turn my trip diary into a sort of game, partly to jolly the family along in the sometimes interminable interval between giving our order and getting our food. “What,” I will ask, “do you want to remember about today?” And then I’ll scribble frantically while they call out things that mattered to them—sometimes things I had completely overlooked. Often we’ll have a good laugh, and just as often go off on tangents, talking about history or science or any of dozens of other topics.

So it’s a shame I forgot my little notebook on our short trip down to the South Island last week. Instead, I’ll jot down here a few things that stood out on our circuit from Christchurch to the West Coast and back:

The waterspout over the road to the west of Arthur’s Pass. 

Bruce Bay, where the road runs right along the edge of white surf, and I was glad we passed through in good weather.

Mist rising from a river, along nearly 180 degrees of our field of view, as a cold front moved in.

Driving through rain and dimming light at the end of a long day, frantically searching for our motel on a secondary road twenty minutes from the nearest town, and the cattle lowing at us from the neighbouring field when we finally found it.

The waterfalls along Haast Pass where other tourists had piled up rocks in the streams just for play, and where our legs were covered with bug bites after a five minute walk.

Bliss over udon, tempura, and pork katsu at the Sasanoki Japanese Kitchen in Wanaka.

The contrast between the temperate rain forest on the west side of the Southern Alps and the arid Mackenzie Basin a few kilometres to the east.

The pleasure of setting out on the open road at the start of the trip, and the equally valid pleasure of coming home to familiar surroundings and a firm mattress.

Of course, I haven’t had time in decades to go through those trip diaries. I have cracked them open on a few occasions to check when we went to a particular spot or to give recommendations to friends. I hope when I’ve been retired a few years I’ll have a chance to get them out and relive those experiences.

Posted in A Writer's Life | Leave a comment


The old house is perfect. Ellen March falls in love on first sight with the pre-Revolution farmhouse, sitting in a clearing surrounded by lilacs, apple trees, dogwoods, oaks, and maples. It doesn’t matter to her that the locals say the house comes with the ghost of a witch, or that the rural Virginia setting is miles from anywhere, the nearest town the isolated community of Chew’s Corners. The house has what she wants: solitude. With her daughter and the three nephews she had helped raise all nearly fledged, it’s time she took care of herself for a change. Her only near neighbour, Norman McKay, is a handsome, wealthy bachelor. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters, there’s Norman’s sullen nephew Tim, the town’s despised delinquent. When Ellen comes to his defence in an incident with the town’s teens, it doesn’t endear her with their parents, and while he awakens a maternal response in her, she’s not happy when her daughter Penny falls for him.

And then there’s a string of events, possibly coincidences, that provoke gossip that Ellen herself is a witch. With the town dominated by a fire and brimstone sect—The Earthly Church of the Wrath of God, no sentimental schlock about love preached there—she makes enemies when she speaks up against intolerance and superstition. The townfolks reactions are discomforting but not frightening, at least, not at first. Ellen proves she is quite capable of taking care of herself when she can deal with them one-on-one.

She just never expects to be trapped in her own house, along with Penny and Tim, by an armed mob…

Witch, by Barbara Michaels, is an old favourite. It was published in the 1970s, and I loved it when I first read it, probably in the early 1980s. I re-read it again recently, and still enjoyed it. Younger readers will probably consider it dated, but I don’t care. A cell phone would have saved Ellen a lot of grief, and her occupation for the last ten years was housekeeper for her widowed brother-in-law and his three boys. She doesn’t  look for a job, but the book never explains how she can afford to buy and refurbish the old house.

Despite the book’s age, Ellen is a strong female character—strong in the sense of acting on her own, rather than being passively buffeted through life. She is misled and manipulated for a while, but once she realizes her error, she doesn’t dither around.

The publisher’s blurb gives the impression that this is a ghost story, but that’s misleading. The supernatural element is minimal; this story is more in the vein of Mary Stewart’s suspense thrillers than Micheal’s other supernatural thrillers like Ammie, Come Home or The Crying Child. This story is about mass hysteria, driven by a culture clash between a sophisticated ex-urbanite and an isolated rural community, and manipulated by a man who has much to lose when busybody Ellen sticks her nose in. There’s romance here, too, based on something much more important than mere sexual attraction, and a functional extended family. (They actually like and help each other! How shocking!)

Audience: Adults and teens. No sex or bad language. Some violence and psychological abuse.

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