September’s Books

OK, it’s a little late…but here’s a roundup of books I read/listened to in September, along with some I’ll be starting soon, with some brief thoughts on each.

The Lion of Skye, by J.T.T. Ryder.  The sequel to his debut Hag of the Hills, set in iron-age Skye in a world where myth and legend walk with humans, for those with eyes to see. Fast paced, sometimes bloody, and definitely not a 21st C worldview. Full review here.


Gallows Wake, by Helen Hollick. The sixth book in the Captain Jesamiah Acorne series: piracy with a touch of the paranormal. Expert writing, engaging characters, a solid plot, and no need to have read the first five. Full review here.


Something to Hide: A Lynley Novel by Elizabeth George. The 21st Lynley novel; competent, twisty, the plot focused on FGM among Nigerian and Somali communities in London. Readable, but overall it felt tired, as if the author is putting her characters through their paces reluctantly.


The Wind in His Heart by Charles de Lint. I’ve been a huge de Lint fan for many many years; this one, set well away from his usual fictional city of Newford, had some interesting elements, but overall was too similar in theme and some aspects of plot with others he’s written, even if the mythology was primarily Native American and not Celtic. Enjoyable, but not his best.


A Prayer for the Crown-Shy: Monk & Robot Book II, by Becky Chambers (audiobook). Along with the first book in the series, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, hands down the most delightful, hopeful, and subtly thought-provoking novellas I’ve read in a very long time. Highly recommended for those tired of dystopias (and perhaps real life).


Begun but not yet finished (NOT DNFs)

The Welsh Dragon, by K.M Butler. A historical novel about Henry Tudor, focusing on the years before he defeated the Lancastrian forces at Bosworth, ending the Cousins’ War (The Wars of the Roses) and taking the throne as Henry VII. So far, I’m thoroughly enjoying it; review to come.


Fairy Tale, by Stephen King. (audiobook).  I have a long way to go in this…like most of King’s books, it’s not short. Reserving my opinion for now, because this is a book with two distinct parts, and I’ve only just begun the second story. 


Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, a collection of essays by the late Barry Lopez. Like authors Annie Dillard and Robert MacFarlane, Lopez’s nature writing goes far beyond a set of empirical observations. I’m only not finished because I’m pacing myself, giving myself time to think about what he’s saying about human societies, the importance of place and belonging, and our relationship with the rest of the planet.

Although there are one or two statements among all the gems that don’t ring true, overall, a thought-provoking and sometimes lyrical book.


In the Queue:

Singing for Our Supper: Walking an English Songline from Kent to Cornwall, by W.R. Parsons. I’ve been following Will Parsons on his modern pilgrimages around the UK for some years, via Facebook, Twitter and his website. Walking in Britain has been both a place of peace and a source – the source, probably – for my novels, and my own walk across England, from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, a highlight of my life.  I, however, can’t sing a note. I am very much looking forward to this book.


The Last of the Atalanteans (The Drowned Kingdom Saga, Book II) by P.L. Stuart. The second book in Stuart’s magnificently imagined world, with that hardest of protagonists to do well (and Stuart does) – an unlikeable one. Will Othrun’s hubris and ambition lead him to glory or to the ashes of his dreams? I’ll find out soon.

Inspiration and Memory

Image by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay 

I had an aunt (well, my father’s first cousin, but as she was of his generation we called her aunt) who lived a life that seemed to me both exotic and exciting. Born an estate-worker’s daughter on a large rural farming and shooting estate in Norfolk, England, her mother died in a death pact with her lover when my aunt (I’ll call her Polly) was very small. Her father remarried, and sent the girls (Polly and her older sister) away to a boarding school which was a female equivalent of Dotheboys Hall, from what I can tell. Perhaps his new wife didn’t want them around. Perhaps he wondered if they were his at all.  But away they went.

But my family was and is full of strong women, so as soon as she could, my grandmother rescued Polly from the boarding school and basically employed her as an au pair, helping take care of my father and his sister while my grandmother cared for her dying father. (Older sister had left by then, found employment, soon married and disappeared from the family.)  And probably because of connections through the family who owned this large estate, Polly found herself taken on by a very wealthy industrialist’s family as a nursemaid, and then by another as a companion/secretary….and somewhere along the way she met a very eligible, well-placed Danish man and married him. Just as World War II broke out.

He and she were part of the Danish resistance: he spoke fluent and impeccable German and had connections in Germany, so he was thought to be a collaborator. She was his English wife, and beautiful, and ferried gun parts and more around Copenhagen strapped under her skirt. When dementia was taking its toll on her mind in her last years, she’d tell these stories over and over again: how she learned to take the guns apart and put them back together again in the dark; about flirting with German officers while carrying false documents, remembering the danger.

They survived, the war ended. The business he worked for flourished, and when they came to North America (via Cunard steamers – she hated flying) to mix business and pleasure, hobnobbing with the Kennedys at Hyannis Port (she didn’t like Jack), they took time to visit her cousins – my family, and that of my actual aunt in Alabama. Then her husband died, suddenly, and she was left well off and well connected.

She took herself of on an around the world cruise, had an affair, thoroughly enjoyed herself. For the next twenty-five years or so she travelled, entertained, mixed with people who were the equals of that family who owned the big estate in Norfolk. And then age and dementia took its toll. She died at 95, well taken care of in a private nursing home in England.

Why am I thinking about her?  Because today I introduced a new character to my work-in-progress, my MC Eudekia’s grandmother. And when she says to her granddaughter ‘My dear, how lovely to see you,’ and offers her cheek for a kiss, I heard that—unexpectedly—in  Polly’s voice. And I thought what a perfect inspiration for this character, who is ambitious for this granddaughter of hers, who knows the power of sexuality and how to use it, who won’t listen to those who say that the man Eudekia loves is socially beyond her grasp.

I’ve written before how my mother’s and my aunts’ service during WWII inspired the first book of the Empire series, Empire’s Daughter. This inspiration is a bit more direct.  I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out; how many of those stories find their way into a book set in a fictional world 1500 years earlier.

Show, Tell, Hint

Working with one of my editorial clients a few weeks ago, I pointed out to him that he had several dropped story threads in his novel.  “But,” he said, “the entire action takes place over only a few days. Not everything can be resolved in that time.”

My response?  There’s a difference for the reader in leaving a story thread in a place where the reader can speculate about it, and just dropping it.  In one case in my client’s novel, the protagonist had expressed (to himself) his interest a woman he worked with. And that was it. The brief scene was there for a number of reasons, but mostly to show that, regardless of personal grief and a building complex political situation, the protagonist wasn’t entirely wrapped up in those two things. But it went nowhere, leaving the reader unsatisfied.

I made a few suggestions, and in the next draft there were a two more brief scenes of interaction between the two which fit smoothly into the narrative, and leave the reader with the hint that this relationship’s going somewhere. We don’t know it, but we can sense it, and that’s enough. Readers don’t need every thread tied up neatly; in fact, it’s good to leave a few minor open-ended questions for them to speculate about, a technique that helps keep a book in their minds.

In my own work, I have a few of these, the most prominent being a question of what happened to two of my characters. No one really knows, but suggestions are made, the search for them has a role, but in the end, I leave it to the reader to decide whether they’ve survived or not.

There’s another way to use ‘hints’ instead of showing or telling, again to leave questions in the reader’s mind, and that’s to be ambiguous. Not often, but this is the classic ‘is Deckard a replicant or not?’ question from Blade Runner. But the ambiguity doesn’t need to be that central; it can be about a characters’ motivation, or the nuances of a relationship.

Here’s an example from one of my books:

“Cannot we both just be content with what we have, at least for a little while?” I said, straightening. “You are alive, and recovering, and you have Lena, and the baby very soon.”

His hand was still on my arm. “And you, mo duíne gràhadh?”

My beloved man. A sudden restriction in my throat made my voice hoarse. “I have enough,” I managed to say, “being here. With you.”

The first-person narrator here interprets the question ‘And you?’ to mean ‘can you be content?’ – a reasonable response to the first statement he makes to the second character.  But there’s a second interpretation: he has gone on to say ‘you have Lena, and the baby…’  The question ‘And you?’ can also mean: ‘Do I have you, too?’ 

In this case, I know which of these two questions was really being asked (and no, I’m not telling.) But occasionally, I don’t know the answer, or not at the time I write it. And sometimes these ambiguous hints get clarified later in the story, and sometimes they don’t – allowing, again, for speculation.

I believe that for a reader to be fully immersed in a story, there needs to be these unanswered questions that involve them in the world, not just show it to them. What did happen to the Entwives in The Lord of the Rings?  What was it Ada Doom saw in the woodshed? Does Shane ever return?

(By the way, I think Deckard is a replicant. Your thoughts?)

Let’s Talk Success – Again

I spent half an hour yesterday consoling? advising? a new indie writer about ‘success’.  They have one book out, another on its way. They’re worried about sales, about marketing, about making a name for themselves. Here’s what I, the ‘seasoned indie author’ told them.

We live in a world where the popular measure of success is celebrity; fifteen minutes of fame and making the big bucks. But the chances that you can make a living from writing novels, and only writing novels, is miniscule. Look around you, I said. In this very bookish town in which we live, we had three nominees for the Governor General’s Award (Canada’s major literary fiction award) this year. All but one have other careers, and the one who doesn’t is a retired professor. In the ‘before days’, when there was an open writing space freely available to all on Monday mornings, I’ve shared table space with yet another Governor General’s Award short-listed author (who also has another career) and an Edgar-nominated mystery author (who also has another career) and a Stephen Leacock award short-listed writer (who also, etc….). I’ve read at literary festivals with some pretty big names, too – and almost all these writers do something else other than write novels: teach, practice law or work in warehouses, are system analysts or build houses.  And these examples, I will note, are all (except two) traditionally published authors.

This doesn’t mean your writing is a hobby. It doesn’t mean it isn’t viable. It doesn’t mean there aren’t a few people who can make a living at it. And maybe you’re one of them.

And maybe you’re not. But if you’re not, you’re in very good company in the literary world. You shouldn’t think less of yourself, or that you’re a failure. I consider myself a successful writer, but the actual profit from my books isn’t a major part of my yearly income.

But:

  • ‘your books got me back into reading’
  • ‘your books are my go-to when I need to escape this world for a while’
  • ‘I dread the day when you stop writing this series’
  • ‘I’m waiting for your new release more than any other book in 2022’

and many other similar expressions of what some people find in my books is my measure of success. If your stories resonate with a few readers; if they bring smiles to their faces or make them ask themselves hard questions; if they read until 3 a.m. because they can’t put them down, or leave the light on to sleep because you terrified them – isn’t that success?

Did the new author take this in? I don’t know. But I hope so. Because they are talented, and have stories to offer to the world that some readers will fall deeply into. I’d hate them to waste their time and energy and talent worrying about only one definition of a successful writer.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

Enchanted Ground

London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City, by Tom Chivers

London Clay

All my life I have had recurring dreams of paths, of underground tunnels and caves, of the liminal space between land and water. And so I am drawn to explorations in prose of these places, other writers’ experiences. London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City is one of these books.

But it is more than a record of author Tom Chivers’ experiences in exploring what lies beneath the ever-changing city – the layers of history and prehistory exposed by construction, reimagined from old maps, seen in the lines of minor streets. (This too attracted me to the book, landscape history and archeology, as many of you reading this will know, is an avocation of mine.) London Clay chronicles the author’s experiences in the wastegrounds of London – sometimes literally in sewers, sometimes in the abandoned expanses of what was once the industrial docklands, sometimes in the sterility of modern developments, as he searches for traces of the past.

London Clay kept me both entranced and contemplative, thinking of what lies under other cities I know – York, Seattle, my own. History both visible and invisible, traces left from names we know and names we don’t. Throughout the book, Chivers returns to holes: entrance places into the underground pushed up by geology or dug down by humans through the London Clay of the title. Like Orpheus, he goes down into the dark, returning with only shards and shadows and stories to tell – both of London and himself. In his own words:

London is enchanted ground…a glorious hyperreality: a hundred million possible Londons, present and past, imagined, intended, forgotten and reborn. Time is all around us….

I had set out, armed with a tattered map, to discover what lies beneath the streets. But I have found myself descending deeper into the layers of my own life than I had expected…

As I embark on a modest project on the history of the city on which I live – not a book, simply a collection of articles for our community newsletter, only some of which I will write – I cannot help but think Chivers’ book will influence it. Mine is a much smaller city, and much younger, its visible history easier to find. An intended city, imagined on paper, planned. But it too has the past hidden below what is seen today, and I can’t look at it the same way as I would have before reading London Clay.

Jati’s Wager, by Jonathan Nevair: A Review

I’m pleased to be participating in the Storytellers on Tour blog tour (Aug 29th – Sept 4th) for Jonathan Nevair’s second novel in his Wind Tide series, Jati’s Wager.

A space opera heist brimming with action, twists, and turns that doubles as a story of personal growth, mentorship, and sacrifice.

Ailo is a streetwise teen surviving alone on the remote moonbase, Tarkassi 9. She wants nothing more than to flee into the wider world of the Arm. When her chance arrives, she makes it no farther than the first ship out of the system. That’s where Jati, the Patent War veteran and general fighting the Monopolies, gives her a second chance. It’s an unlikely partnership, but Ailo’s rogue status is just what Jati’s People’s Army needs to drive the final spike of victory into a weakening Garissian Council.

A team of experts assembles and hope rests on Ailo’s skill, stealth, and tenacity to pull off the impossible. It’s a wild gambit, and a moral code may need to be bent, or broken, to achieve success. When an internal shadow rises, casting doubt on their plans, Ailo and Jati are forced to weigh the cost of revenge against honor and justice.

My Review

Your own survival is paramount when you’re a street kid. You learn to be fast, to be silent, to move in and out of the shadows; to trust your instincts; to rely on your own judgement. You develop coping mechanisms, too; mental ones, to give you support, advice; a friend you can rely on. But all your experience and all your wiles aren’t foolproof.

When stowing away on a ship leaving the moonbase she’d grown up on doesn’t go the way Ailo had hoped, she becomes part of a crew under the legendary Jati, general, Legionary, idealist.  Ailo has to learn to trust more than the part of her mind she calls Gerib, her ‘imaginary friend’ who guides and counsels her, and to see herself not only as an individual but as part of a team with a larger purpose.  As the links between her hidden past and the cause Jati is fighting for are revealed, skills that have lain latent in Ailo’s mind: skills of tactics and strategy, of language, and the fusing of the two that make for skilled diplomacy, begin to emerge. But those are not the only reason Ailo is valuable to Jati. Is she the last piece in the puzzle that will bring them victory against the Garassian council?

Fast paced and complex, Jati’s Wager is a book that needs your full attention. Packed with action, the story moves forward rapidly, but the action invites deeper moral questions, not just for Ailo, but for the reader. There is a war to be won, but can it be done in a way that leaves the long history of violence, of conflict and retribution, behind?  What is the moral path for a warrior? – not a soldier, someone who follows orders, but a warrior, making mindful, conscious choices, aware of the myriad consequences. Is vengeance – or sacrifice – ever appropriate? The questions of personal survival versus the collective good; the role and meaning and restrictions of history, and the power of language are woven throughout the story, reinforced in many ways, large and small, creating layers of meaning and contemplation in both the reader and Ailo.

Jati’s Wager is the second book in Jonathan Nevair’s Wind Tide series, but it can be read as a standalone. Links to his first book, Goodbye to the Sun, are present and important, but sufficiently explained that the reader does not need to have read it (although I strongly suggest you do!) In the background, not only do the myths of the Trojan War have a presence, but the author has quietly included references to classic science-fiction, ideas from Carl Sagan, and – in a sentence that made me bark with laughter – a nod to Apocalypse Now.

Highly recommended, both for lovers of space opera, and readers that like books that make them think.

Like a chance to win a copy?

http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/e832e988101/?

Prize: A print copy of Jati’s Wager by Jonathan Nevair – US/UK Only

Starts: August 29th, 2021 at 12:00am EST

Ends: September 5st, 2021 at 11:59pm EST

Book Information

Jati’s Wager (Wind Tide (#2)) by Jonathan Nevair,

Published: August 18, 2021 by Shadow Spark Publishing

Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera, LGBTQ+

Pages: 425

CW: death of parent (mentioned), death of mentor, verbal abuse, graphic violence and death, blood, homelessness, trauma, guilt, kidnapping (mentioned)

POSSIBLE ULTIMATE TOUR EXPERIENCE TICKETS: Let’s Get The Party Started, Represent, Lost In Space, Snark It Up, The More The Merrier, The Wings Of Change

Book Links

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/58579886-jati-s-wager

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B099QM63SQ

Author Info

Jonathan Nevair is a science fiction writer and, as Dr. Jonathan Wallis, an art historian and Professor of Art History at Moore College of Art & Design, Philadelphia. After two decades of academic teaching and publishing, he finally got up the nerve to write fiction. Jonathan grew up on Long Island, NY but now resides in southeast Pennsylvania with his wife and rambunctious mountain feist, Cricket.

You can find him online at www.jonathannevair.com and on twitter at @JNevair

Website: https://www.jonathannevair.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/JNevair

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jnevair/

Publisher Info

Shadow Spark Publishing

Website: https://shadowsparkpub.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ShadowSparkPub

Instagram: http://instagram.com/shadowsparkpub

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/shadowsparkpub/

Release Day Reality

My sixth book is out today.

The cat just loudly deposited a hairball on the rug. Her retching woke me.

The dishwasher needs emptying; the birdbath filling.

My day planner tells me I have a guest post due today, reading to do for a book review, and various tasks related to my volunteer job as editor of our community newsletter, as well as feedback notes to write for a first-time author I’m mentoring.

In other words, the world hasn’t stopped because I have a new book out, and, you know, that’s ok.

Brian and I will go out for ice cream at our favourite place by the river a little later today, to celebrate. (Normally, we go out for a meal, but as it’s also our 40th wedding anniversary this week, we’ll do that on Friday.) Friends are sending congratulations. I am suffused with the sense of accomplishment and pleased with the book’s reception so far. It’s the sixth book in a series; there will be a small spike in sales this week, and then it will trail off, to be purchased as people work their way through the first five. Six years and six books into the life of an indie author, I know it’s a long game.

Next week I’m taking a holiday, travelling a couple of hours north to Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, for a few days walking and birding, leisurely brunches on outdoor patios, some pleasure reading, and whatever else catches my fancy. After this short break. Heir will take up some of my time – guest blogs, interviews, a blog tour, perhaps some readings, but it’s out in the world, no longer mine alone but belonging too to its readers, to make what they will of it. Both the next two books – Empress & Soldier and Empire’s Passing – are nudging me: work needs to start in earnest there.

As it will. Alongside dishwashers to empty, and meals to cook, and community work…and hairballs.

Fantasy and Me: From Puck to Aslan

In the previous installment of this occasional series, I wrote about Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, and mentioned the influence I perceived it had on later works. Today, I’m going to focus on its influence on one series: C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books.

‘Ah, but you’re a fairy,’ said Dan.

‘Have you ever heard me use that word yet?’ said Puck, quickly.

‘No. You talk about “the People of the Hills,” but you never say “fairies,”’ said Una. ‘I was wondering at that. Don’t you like it?’

‘How would you like to be called “mortal” or “human being” all the time?’ said Puck; ‘or “son of Adam” or “daughter of Eve”?’

‘I shouldn’t like it at all,’ said Dan.

Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rudyard Kipling

“Sons of Adam” and “Daughters of Eve”, of course, is how Aslan, the Christ-figure lion in the Narnia series, refers to the children Peter and Edmund,  Susan and Lucy. 

“Down at Cair Paravel there are four thrones, and it’s a saying in Narnia time out of mind that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit in those four thrones, then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life.”

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Yes, but, you may be saying – it’s coincidence. It could be, except for something else:  the Narnia’s children’s last name is Pevensie.  In Puck of Pook’s Hill, Pevensey – the Pevensey Levels (which is a real place, and Pevensey a real town), the Manor of Pevensey, and the Lord of Pevensey – are an important part of the story.

Antique Prints of Pevensey Sussex
Pevensey Castle, Sussex. Engraver & Publisher:
G. Rowe, & G. Wooll, High Street, Hastings

Why?  Pevensey is referred to as ‘England’s gate’ in Kipling’s story (it’s where William the Conqueror landed in 1066), and perhaps it was nothing more than the idea of the wardrobe in Narnia also being a gate between countries (or worlds.) You could perhaps argue that Lewis was attempting to replace Kipling’s ‘People of the Hills’ as the oldest, lost mythology of England with Christianity. Or maybe it was completely unconscious. Writers borrow, often without knowing they are.

I was – full disclosure here – never a fan of the Narnia books. I was not fond of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, or the child’s version of A Pilgrim’s Progress I had, either. I didn’t like being preached at as a child (or adult), even subtly. What I did – and do – like is the continuity, the fantasy stories of one generation influencing the next, and the next.

Next time, a look at Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, which I still re-read every few years.

Fantasy and Me: Back to the Beginnings

“Weland gave the Sword, The Sword gave the Treasure, and the Treasure gave the Law. It’s as natural as an oak growing.”

Puck of Pook’s Hill, by Rudyard Kipling.

H. R. Millar’s frontispiece to the original edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. Public Domain

I’m going to try to give some coherence and structure to these posts on my favourite fantasy books, so let’s go back to my childhood to start it all. Here, in Puck of Pook’s Hill, is the very beginnings of my on-going love for fantasy.

For those of you not familiar, Puck of Pook’s Hill is a 1906 children’s book by Rudyard Kipling. Yes, I know Kipling is politically incorrect. I didn’t know that when I was eight, and my memory of a child’s delight with this book remains.  

Puck, an elf (perhaps), (the same Puck as in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I’ll also be writing about, at some point) and “the oldest Old thing in England”, appears to two children, Dan and Una, from Midsummer’s Eve to early November. Either he, or characters from history he brings with him, tell the children a series of stories, which illustrate a version of a history of England from before the Conquest to the signing of the Magna Carta.

The stories begin with Puck appearing to the children and explaining who and what he is (which is not a fairy):

‘Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don’t care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors? Butterfly wings, indeed! I’ve seen Sir Huon and a troop of his people setting off from Tintagel Castle for Hy-Brasil in the teeth of a sou’-westerly gale, with the spray flying all over the Castle, and the Horses of the Hills wild with fright. Out they’d go in a lull, screaming like gulls, and back they’d be driven five good miles inland before they could come head to wind again. Butterfly-wings! It was Magic—Magic as black as Merlin could make it, and the whole sea was green fire and white foam with singing mermaids in it. And the Horses of the Hills picked their way from one wave to another by the lightning flashes! That was how it was in the old days!’

So many of the elements of the Eurocentric fantasy I grew up were introduced to me first in this book of interrelated short stories and poems: Weyland Smith, the Wild Hunt, the ‘Little People’, and the mythologized Roman Empire (which became the idea behind my own books.)  The power of trees: Oak, Ash, and Thorn; the magic of hollow hills and circles, and, too, the interconnectedness, the interweaving, of magic and history.

Kipling’s stories would influence a generation (or more) of writers; I believe they can be seen strongly in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series (more on those another time), but also on another writer, if only in one small way. Because when Puck is described, one thing that is mentioned – along with his small stature – is his ‘bare, hairy feet.’ Just like Bilbo’s.

Featured Image: H. R. Millar’s 2nd illustration to the original edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, from the chapter Weyland’s Sword, entitled, “Then he made a sword”.