Seven ‘bookish’ heavenly virtues.

This week I’ve been reading more lists, though you might call them expanded. Re-enchantment of the World came up with the idea of connecting our reading experiences to ‘ideas of moral excellence’, and created seven questions that allow us to explore the positive aspects of reading. So thank you, Ola and Piotrek, it’s been fascinating seeing your answers, and tracking down some of the others.

So fascinating, I can’t resist claiming my space.

Chastity
Which author, book or series do you wish you’d never read?

This is tricky. There have been plenty of books I haven’t enjoyed, and several I’ve not finished. But they all showed me something. I like thinking about how or why a book didn’t work for me.

There have been books that offended me, and one I was so disgusted by that I threw it in the fire. I can’t remember who wrote it, or the title. All I remember is that it romanticised rape.

Temperance
Which book or series did you find so good that you didn’t want to read it all at once, and you read it in doses just to make the pleasure last longer?

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell. I read it over seven weeks, in equal sections, with my autumn reading groups, last year. I’d decided not to pre-prepare in the summer, because I wanted to discover the story alongside the group. It took a lot of will-power to resist finishing it ahead of the schedule. I re-read it again, right after the course finished.

Charity
Which book, series or author do you tirelessly push to others, telling them about it or even giving away spare copies bought for that reason?

The short stories of Elizabeth Taylor (1912 – 1975). Kingsley Amis called her ‘one of the best English novelists born in this century’. I like her novels, but the short stories are stunning.

They’re subtle, and subversive. Approach them with the idea that she had hidden depths, and you’ll find layer upon layer of meaning. I could go on, and on, but I won’t – here.

Diligence
Which series or author do you follow no matter what happens and how long you have to wait?

I love trilogies, but add another title to that, and I tend to drift. So, not a series.

Author’s, on the other hand, I’ll wait for. I’ve been collection Jeffery Farnol novels for decades. They’re tatty old hardbacks dating from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. I haven’t wanted to read them for years, but I continue looking out for them, because one day he will be just what I need.

Patience
Is there an author, book or series you’ve read that improved with time the most, starting out unpromising but ultimately proving rewarding?

I was a teenager when I read my first Henry James, it was Portrait of a Lady, and I was determined not to be beaten. After that, I avoided him.

Then, I wanted a book to put with Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, for a reading group, and What Maisie Knew, was the best match. It was a revelation. I’ve read more of his shorter fiction since then, and his essays are fascinating. When I have enough time in hand, I’m going back to try Portrait, again.

Kindness
Which fictitious character would you consider your role model in the hassle of everyday life?

That varies, day-by-day, depending on what I’m reading. I can’t think of a single model. I do frequently wish I was as feisty as Lisbeth Salander, but I’d prefer not to have had the kind of experiences that seem to have caused her to develop those attributes.

Humility
Which book, series or author do you find most under-rated?

If only I hadn’t already mentioned Elizabeth Taylor… I don’t like to repeat myself, so looking back a little further in time, how about Arnold Bennett?

He was prolific and popular, in his day. But saying you write for profit, and letting people know that you have a rigid routine bothers some critics, especially if your books sell well.

The Grand Babylon Hotel was written in a month. I’ve read it, and while it didn’t strike me as being ‘great literature’, it was a lovely time-slip into Edwardian England.

The Old Wives Tale, which took him about seven months, has more power, and ambition. It hooked all four reading groups I shared it with, two years ago.

Virginia Woolf played a part in crippling Bennett’s reputation, in a 1924 lecture called Mr Bennett and Mr Brown. I suppose she had to. Though if she’d read his work closely she might have recognised some of his techniques.

On my bookshelf, Mr Bennett and Mrs Woolf sit side-by-side.

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Make a list, why don’t you?

I recently stumbled across this interesting and thoughtful list constructed by the Reverend Sydney Smith, in early 1820.

To Lady Georgiana Morpeth

(c) National Portrait Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done – so I feel for you. 

1st  Live as well as you dare.

2nd  Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.

3rd  Amusing books.

4th  Short views of human life – not further than dinner or tea.

5th   Be as busy as you can.

6th   See as much as you can of those friends who you respect and like you.

7th   And of those acquaintances who amuse you.

8th   Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk to them freely – they are always worse for dignified concealment.

9th   Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.

10th  Compare your lot with that of other people.

11th  Don’t expect too much from human life – a sorry business at the best.

12th  Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.

13th  Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.

14th  Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.

15th  Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant.

16th  Struggle by little and little against idleness.

17th  Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.

18th  Keep good blazing fires.

19th  Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.

20th  Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana.

Very truly yours,

Sydney Smith.

It is, I think, a beautiful list. It says a lot about both the giver and the receiver, and despite being nearly 200 years old, there aren’t many of the suggestions that feel especially dated.

I also like the brevity of it. So I thought I might try something similar, but shorter, on a different theme.

Dear Secret Writer,

Please, do dare. There are stories only you can tell, and we would like to read them. Are you really going to leave all those fascinating ideas buried in a file on your hard-drive?

1st Visit a good play, and dare to dream.

2nd Write long letters to old friends.

3rd Join a writing group

4th Read everything – even cereal boxes, small-ads on the local notice-board and the fly-posters on lamp-posts and hoardings.

5th Sit in cafes, with a notebook and pen, and imagine what you would do next, if you were, indeed, a writer.

6th Read one new poem, every day, slowly.

7th Listen, really carefully, when other people are speaking, for at least a minute at the time.

8th Join a reading group.

9th Practice telling jokes.

10th Practice saying, ‘No, thank you. I’m not available for an hour on those days.’

Just published: The Quest for Home

Stories of early humans have always fascinated me. I love history. I’ve also struggled with measuring time in thousands of years, rather than hundreds. How easy understanding the past must be for believers in ‘intelligent design’.

I’ve fantasized about what the lives of our early ancestors might have been like. The junior-school history books with their simple stone-age-man summaries and pictures only tantalized. So often early human’s were summed up by the words, primitive, or caveman.

Jacqui Murray’s Crossroads trilogy, set 850,000 years ago, challenges those concepts. The characters in, The Quest for Home, the second of her three novels, are tribal, but they’re far from primitive. They don’t merely hunt and gather, they must adapt to changes in their circumstances, as they’re displaced from their homeland.

There’s some intriguing background about the research that went into building an authentic world, in the foreword. However, if that kind of thing is not for you, don’t worry. This is primarily, a well-written story driven by a set of strong central characters. The historical notes are supplemental, rather than essential. I only read them afterwards.

It is Jacqui’s choices of a few key details that make the world she’s created feel authentic.

He stepped close enough she could smell his sweat, the pond plants stuck in his hair, and the sourness telling her he hadn’t eaten in a while.

From the beginning, we are reminded of the skills early tribes would have needed. Jacqui’s background notes tell us that:

Homo erectus, the star of Crossroads, is a highly intelligent prehistoric hunter-gatherer who outlasted every other species of man and was the first to spread throughout the Old World of Europe and Asia.

Xhosa, the female leader of ‘our’ tribe, is a new kind of woman. Not only has she trained to become a skilled fighter, she is also quick-witted and resourceful.

When her father died, both Xhosa and Nightshade stood ready to accept the responsibilities of Leader and engaged in a series of contests that tested their cunning, strength, planning, and battle skills. If Nightshade had won, he would now be Leader, she content to serve as his Lead Warrior…

Nightshade is a ferocious fighter. But:

In the fullness of the challenge, Nightshade’s brilliance as a warrior failed to defeat Xhosa’s cunning but if strength were the deciding factor, it would be Nightshade.

So, Nightshade, Xhosa’s childhood friend, becomes her Lead Warrior. As the story opens the group have been washed up on an unknown shore. Many are missing, but the rest gather together. They mourn their losses and prepare to go in search of a homebase, a safe place that only Seeker knows the route to.

It only takes a little extra stress on the group dynamics to raise opposition, overt and covert. The tribe must cross unknown territories, owned by foreign tribes. Luckily, Xhosa has loyal supporters in the group gathering round her. These are the ingredients that give this story a fine pace.

Key characters are a mentor, a girl with the ability to foresee big events, and a boy called Seeker.

What made Seeker especially valuable, and why Xhosa didn’t want to lose him, was that he assured her he could find their new homebase. How he would do that had something to do with the movement of the stars. That made no sense to Xhosa but it had guided Seeker, Zvi, and Spirit for more than two handfuls of Moons.

This, then, is a story of refugees. Xhosa’s people are pushed on not just by Seeker’s ability to read the stars, but also by the inhabitants of the lands they cross. The arguments about boundaries and economics have echoes in our own times.

Although The Quest for Home is book two of a trilogy, you don’t need to have read book one, Survival of the Fittest, to follow and enjoy this stage of the story. You might though, find that the temptation to back-track to part one is pretty strong. That’s where I’m going next, anyway.

Available at: Kindle US   Kindle UK   Kindle CA   Kindle AU

Author bio:

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the Man vs. Nature saga. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for  NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, In the Footsteps of Giants, Winter 2020, the final chapter in the Crossroads Trilogy.

Amazon Author Page:  https://www.amazon.com/Jacqui-Murray/e/B002E78CQQ/ Blog: https://worddreams.wordpress.com Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jacquimurraywriter/ LinkedIn: http://linkedin.com/in/jacquimurray Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/askatechteacher Twitter: http://twitter.com/worddreams Website:  https://jacquimurray.net

Have I said enough? I aimed to be brief…

This week, while checking back through an old diary, I found a quote I’d like to share. It comes from the Scottish poet, Liz Lochhead, and seems as valuable and applicable to prose as poetry.

A poet has to trust the readers’ intuition and intelligence…

Woman Reading a Novel, 1888 painting by Vincent van Gogh.

Trusting the reader is both important and difficult. It’s not just about avoiding over-explaining things, it’s also about ensuring we say enough to make our meaning clear. While I like to think that I’m able to make that judgement, I’m aware that, especially when I’m writing up to a deadline, I have blind spots.

There are some tried and tested solutions to this problem. One, is the thing so many writers find tricky, to put your first draft away for several weeks as soon as you think it’s finished. If you go on to write on other topics, then that theory says that by the time you return to your first piece you’ll view it through fresh eyes.

If time is shorter, and in my experience it so often is, you might try reading it aloud to yourself. Alternatively, you can give your writing to someone you trust and let them tell you what they think… what they really think. Because, the other aspect of this quote that interests me is that when she says, trust the reader’s intuition and intelligence… Liz Lochhead seems to echo a suggestion I picked up from Stephen King’s autobiography, On Writing.

In it, he talks about having a group of ideal readers who check the first drafts of his manuscripts. These people represent the readers he expects to buy his novels. He suggests that he writes with an idea not just about his story, but about the style of telling that will suit the audience he’s aiming for.

Print by Alberto Manrique

Whether we’re aware of this or not, I think we all write with a reader in mind. It may be that we can’t visualize that audience, but we surely know something about the intuition and intelligence we expect from them. I suspect they’re mostly people like us, or they’re the ‘beings’ we’d like to be.

Finding readers who understand who you are, and what you aspire to, can be tricky. l’m lucky in having two trusted readers. They’re both people I know well, and who know me well.

I don’t say I write for them, my writing is something completely selfish. But when I’ve finished, and I’m checking the draft, I do find myself thinking about how Ray or Ruth will perceive my words.

And later, if either says, ‘I don’t get why/what/how...’ then no matter how much I might want to protest, I know that I’ve got to think about making changes to my writing.

Woman Reading a Novel, painting by Vincent van Gogh.

Just published: Jean Lee’s new novella.

Night’s Tooth is a fantasy western. Everything we need to know about what this story is going to do is set up in the opening sentence.

Sumac tucks the brass buttons off the last Confederacy coat into his pocket, before tossing it into the dying fire.

Here we have a character with an interesting name. I happen to know that Sumac is a type of tree, known in Britain as Stag’s Horn. Is this relevant?

I always assume names are potentially important, and since I have the botanical reference in my head, every time Sumac is mentioned, I get a momentary memory of the tree. I also know that sumac powder can be bought for cooking with, though I’ve never used it.

But I digress. Why is Sumac keeping the buttons rather than the coats? That’s intriguing, particularly since the next sentence explains something of where he is, and where the coats have come from.

The road up from Bad Axe had been long and cold, and none of the Wanted papers mentioned anything about Slit Mick’s armed companions.

Confederacy coats confirm I’m in America, and the period is some time in, or after the 1860s. It’s winter, and Sumac has travelled a long way. He must be formidable, because in the next sentence we discover not only that he’s killed the whole gang, also that he ‘enjoyed‘ the challenge.

Sumac, then, is impressively ruthless. I won’t say admirably, since the next thing he does is to pick human flesh from between his teeth. In case we’ve misunderstood the significance of that, this section finishes with Sumac thinking about the dead men as part of the ‘food chain‘.

Here is no cosy hero, despite his appearance.

Sumac’s built like a god, a girl told him once, a god of the old country. He asked which country that was. She called it Norway.

Worrying as some of his actions and attitudes are, Sumac is the focus of our attention. The narration is third person, but we experience the world, and events, as he does. The gang, nearly blew Sumac’s ear clean off when he came for Mick, so it was only right Sumac had his fun with those worthless hunks of meat… Did you note that, ‘only right‘?

I can’t say I’m comfortable with the idea that Sumac had his fun. But I’m in the-world-of-story, and Jean is making it easy for me to accept the unacceptable. Besides, with a name like Slit Mick, the outcome was always going to be bloody. But just in case you did begin reading in the expectation of a traditional Western, that’s been rectified.

It soon becomes clear that Sumac is not human. Besides his appetites and attitudes, he is able to transform into a cougar and use natural magic. His observations about the way the world works are intriguingly alternative.

The men’s photographs are so grainy Sumac wonders why anyone bothers with that technological contraption of wood and glass to do what anyone’s done just fine with pencils and paint.

The narrative voice is also interesting. It’s third person, but so close to Sumac that it assumes the oddities of his sentence structures, a distinctive, colloquial, syntax. Look for instance, at what happens when Sumac arrives at the sheriff’s office, with Slit Mick’s body, to collect the two thousand dollar bounty.

Sumac makes no never mind about the bloody handprint he leaves on the knob.

There’s not much time to wonder, though. Slit Mick is small-fry compared to the big prize Sumac is really after, a mysterious character known as, Night’s Tooth.

“Sumac don’t dare lose him, not now, not when he’s so close Sumac can catch his canine scent riding the snow and coal dust.”

The hunt is on. We’ve yet to discover the true nature of any of the creatures roaming the town, or the full extent of what is at stake. This is an edge of the seat, full speed journey, with plenty of unexpected twists.