Have you tried reading pre-historical-fiction yet?

This is a genre that fascinates me. How did our very early ancestors live? What kind of value system did they use, and how did they communicate it? Author and blogger, Jacqui Murray explores these questions, and more, in the first book of her new Crossroads trilogy, Survival of The Fittest.

At the centre of the story is Xhosa, a young tribes-woman. ‘”Females weren’t warriors”, but Xhosa has hidden skills and a driving ambition, and in a world where only those who are strong survive, that’s just as well…

Five tribes. One leader. A treacherous journey across three continents in search of a new home.

Chased by a ruthless and powerful enemy, Xhosa flees with her People, leaving behind a certain life in her African homeland to search for an unknown future. She leads her People on a grueling journey through unknown and dangerous lands but an escape path laid out years before by her father as a final desperate means to survival. She is joined by other homeless tribes–from Indonesia, China, South Africa, East Africa, and the Levant—all similarly forced by timeless events to find new lives. As they struggle to overcome treachery, lies, danger, tragedy, hidden secrets, and Nature herself, Xhosa must face the reality that this enemy doesn’t want her People’s land. He wants to destroy her.

Question about the book for Jacqui: How did Xhosa count?

Xhosa and her People also had no need for counting. This is true even today with primitive people. Many count only to two (which is the method I’ve adopted for Xhosa). Beyond that, numbers may be described as handfuls or how much room they occupy in relation to something else. Counting people was unnecessary because all Xhosa had to do was sniff, find everyone’s scent, or notice whose she couldn’t find.

Book information:

Title: Survival of the Fittest

Series: Book 1 in the Crossroads series, part of the Man vs. Nature saga

Genre: Prehistoric fiction

Cover by: Damonza 

Available at: Kindle USKindle UKKindle CAKindle AU

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 TeachHUB and NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Quest for Home, Summer 2019. You can find her tech ed books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

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Porter Girl: The Vanishing Lord

lucy brazierJust had a cracking afternoon following the shenanigans and rumpuses of life at Old College.  Lucy Brazier’s second novel about life as the first female to take up the post of Deputy Head Porter at a Cambridge college is an unconventional detective story.  It’s a good pacey read, with plenty of twists, turns, puns and double-entendres.

What happens when you give a woman access to a bowler hat?  It goes to her head, and then she gets to grips with the rest of the Porter accoutrements – starting with tea (lots of tea), yummy biscuits and some sharing of extra large mugs of whisky.

Sounds fun, but where’s the mystery?  There’s a Head Porter with personal problems, a missing oil-painting, flashbacks to the founding of the college, convenient deaths, an interesting relationship with The Dean, and keys, lots of keys opening all sorts of locks. What does a college porter have to do with keys?  Well at Old College, everything:

The uninitiated are often perplexed to discover our disinterest in their luggage and our almost obsessive fascination with keys.  And hats, food and tea.  Old College does like to attribute unusual and inappropriate titles to things.

So why else would there be keys?  Well this is a novel of detection, which makes keys the perfect metaphor, too.  Watch out for the fishy ones.

Are you tempted yet?  Try a little scandal.

Night Porter is looking at me aghast.

“So, it’s true, then,” he says.  “What on Earth do you see in him?”

I consider this question wisely. The fanciful affair between myself and The Dean has been a very good cover for all number of even more scandalous machinations, but it is a difficult pretence to maintain.

“What can I say?” I reply wearily, “It’s his intellect.  And inventive use of the ‘F’ word.”

I’ve been allowed within the gates of a privileged world where sins come in different shapes and sizes, and encompass all kinds of actions, from buying the wrong kind of biscuits, and walking on the grass, to the breaking of bones, locks and desks and a lot more that fall between and around those examples.  And it’s all done at a cracking pace and with charm and wit.

And the crucial question, where can you get hold of a copy?  There are links for both Porter Girl novels on the Porter Girl blog site, where there’s lots of additional photographs and material, as well as snippets from Lucy’s other fictional enterprises, including Poirot parodies, and some political satire.

Or you could just check it out on Amazon – but the blog has so much more to enjoy I’d recommend that route.

 

More thoughts on, The Once & Future King.

This week was our first session discussing White’s novel, which for the sake of brevity, I think I’ll refer to as TOAFK, from here on.  Amongst the various thoughts we had about the reading, an interesting observation was that it was tricky to get hold of a second-hand copy from the usual local suppliers.

One shop said that the book rarely came their way, which led us to speculate about whether most people developed sentimental attachments to theirs.  I still have my first copy, held together with an elastic band, in the drawer with Wuthering Heights which also got read-to-bits.

Why do I keep them? It’s not just sentiment, they’re riddled with notes.  One of these days, when I’ve some spare time, I’ll sit down and see if there’s still any value in those old thoughts.

I don’t write in all of my books, usually only ones I’m studying.  I’m a bit precious about books, not even holding with folding over the corners of the pages – yes, you know who you are…we’ve talked about this.

annotated novelHowever, quite a few of my books have been annotated, because I often buy second hand, and I’m nosy.  I like to see what someone else thought, so given an option, I’ll choose the copy laced with resentment and exclamation marks.  Mostly this happens with old text books, but sometimes I’ll stumble over a note some reader was driven to make in the text of a novel.

Getting back to TOAFK, what I find interesting is that it’s still in publication.  You can buy a paperback or hardback copy, which suggests that it’s still selling well.

I like to think that copies of it are holding their places on a lot of family bookshelves.  Perhaps they are waiting to be re-read, perhaps to be handed on to the next generation.

 

david turnley  us military in saudi arabia

Photo by David Turnley.  U.S  military in Saudi Arabia

 

Reflections: Let’s Talk Book-Talk.

Zennor in darknessWow, what a day.  Zennor in Darkness, by Helen Dunmore, with eleven students.  I’m still buzzing.  Six hours of lively discussion and passionate debate.  We covered a lot of ground, and my plan had to be continually revised as we shared ideas, questions and insights.

What luxury, to spend the whole day focusing on one novel.  It has to be a strong story, to warrant that degree of investigation.  Why did I chose Zennor in Darkness?  Let me share my list of reasons, which are in no particular order:

  • It’s got a generous cast of engaging, rounded characters.
  • It describes working class lives in St Ives and Zennor.
  • There are believable descriptions of how life was for people experiencing the first world war from ‘the home front’.
  • It includes two ‘real’ people, who lived extraordinary lives – DHL and his wife, Frieda.
  • The style of writing is varied.
  • The scenery is beautiful.
  • It investigates history, religion and family.
  • It deals with issues around secrecy and knowledge.
  • It has a tingle factor.
  • It fits in with the WWI commemoration themes of this year.

And that was just after the first read.  On my second, closer study of the novel, I began to extend and refine my list.  I added themes, patterning and the one that intrigued me most, how do we feel about fictionalizing DH Lawrence & Frieda?

Well, I thought, it depends on how much of their part in the story is fiction: it was the beginning of a quest that took me from my bookshelves, to the library catalogue, through bookstores (new and second-hand) and surfing about the internet.  I gathered my evidence, took it to the day school and set it before the rest of the group.  Their enthusiasm matched mine.

The result?  An exhilarating day of debate and discussion.  At the conclusion, most of us went home to read more Dunmore, and I’m going to revisit DHL’s novels.

So, if you’re looking for a suggestion for a book-club read, and you haven’t already tried, Zennor in Darkness, why not add it to you reading list?

dhl & frieda

Elegance and humour – the romance of Regency.

georgette heyerOnce again I’m reaping the benefits of being a bookworm, as another relative, downsizing, discards a box of books my way.  This week sees me wallowing in nostalgia with some of Georgette Heyer’s regency novels.

Sometimes we need some self-indulgence.  Besides, truth is, they’re nicely written.  Okay, so they may seem a little dated, and no, I haven’t forgotten that they’re historical romances.  I mean that the (admittedly few) recently published historical romances I’ve read have a less ‘mannered’ approach to their telling.  Georgette Heyer’s opening sentence to her novel, Frederica is:

 Not more than five days after she had dispatched an urgent missive to her brother, the Most Honourable the Marquis of Alverstoke, requesting him to visit her at his earliest convenience, the widowed Lady Buxted was relieved to learn from her youngest daughter that Uncle Vernon had just driven up to the house, wearing a coat with dozens of capes, and looking as fine as fivepence.

Okay, it’s probably not authentic regency syntax.  But it’s not meant to be.  This is romance.  It’s escapism.

It’s not the easy, colloquial approach that’s commonly in use now, though.  Heyer leant towards being archaic: not so much that she’s a struggle to read, but there is formal feel to her writing.  The thing is, she didn’t allow that to slow her up.  Her stories are not bogged down by explanations.  These are ‘show don’t tell’ novels.  The story always moves forward smoothly.  What the language of her narration does is help me to keep me in the historical mode.

Heyer’s novels hold a special place in my heart.  They were my introduction to literature.  As a result of reading them, I was ready to move on to Jane Austen, Henry Fielding, Thackeray and the other great early novelists.  I don’t say I wouldn’t have got round to them without her, but I think I might have missed an important lesson in story-making.

I say that, because these stories seem to reflect Heyer’s love of literature.  I discovered moments of recognition, not only amongst the great novelists she had been influenced by, but also at the theatre.  I’m not suggesting plagiarism, or direct borrowing.  It seemed to me that what Heyer had done was to take characters or situations and set them into a new story.

There were a lot of other historical romance writers available when I was reading Heyer, and I read as many as came my way, but I never felt the need to collect those, as I did hers.  I don’t think I can have read even half of her fifty novels, but the ones that I did have access to, I reread regularly.  Why?  Well they are easy reads.  The characters are attractive, fun and busy.  There’s always something happening, and the narrator has a lovely wry sense of humour.

Interestingly, at the time I collected them I was earning pocket-money as a babysitter, and all the households who employed me had at least five or six Heyer’s on their shelves too.  With only three tv channels, it was the bookshelves that kept me entertained and awake on late-nights.

So I’m glad to find that even though there are still some of these softly aging old copies on the second-hand market, several of the titles are now available electronically too.  I hope, if you’ve got a wet afternoon, or a quiet evening, you too might be tempted to give one a try.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which Shelf?

It was only after I’d checked the general novels and then the classics shelves that I thought of looking in the children’s books section.  Sure enough, there was T.H. White’s, ‘The Once and Future King’.  Perhaps this doesn’t surprise you, especially given the illustrations the publisher has used for the new cover.  51jAaoccw9L._SL190_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU02_AA190_Besides, ‘child’ covers a lot of time, anything up to…to…actually, now I come to think about it, I’ve no idea about this.  Looking back at my own history, I think my reading extended into the adult section somewhere around the time I started secondary school.  I wouldn’t like to pin that down specifically, mind, because for a long while I alternated, continuing with the children’s section for at least as long as I was in school.

I wasn’t just returning to the books I’d loved for years, the Famous Fives, school girl mysteries and the teenage ghost and horror collections etcetera.  I read contemporary writing for children too.  Sometimes these were recommendations, often they were random choices.  Which means, I suppose, that the covers attracted me.

Books, especially those chosen or read in public, are status symbols.  If you think that might only be true for children, and you’ve left that behind, let me ask what you would be willing to be seen reading on the bus or train?  Isn’t there a genre, or certain publishing house that you would not dream of being associated with?  What we carry brands us as directly as the way we dress.

Rumour has it that the popularity of kindle is partly based on it’s ability to disguise the genre being consumed.  There are some who claim that the rise in popularity of erotic fiction has only occurred because it can be read covertly.  I don’t know how true that is.

I do know that a lot of people are discussing the Fifty Shades sequence of novels, in public, but perhaps that’s just because of the publicity that surrounds it.  I hear a lot of, ‘Have you read it?’ ‘What do you think about the writing?’  (This can’t be the only book where a justification usually follows the admission, ‘Yes, I have..’ can it?)  I don’t hear many of those people admitting to reading other similar titles.

I also know that we only had one copy of ‘Fifty Shades’ donated to the bookstall at the local fete this year.  The first year any have turned up.

But I want to get back to T.H. White.  I think I was in my late teens when I first read The Once and Future King.  I still have that copy, though it’s now held together with an elastic band. Fontana imprintThis, I think is a book that I could have been seen carrying in public at any age.

I would also like to add that it’s a cover that more accurately conveys the content of the book.  I know it’s taken me a long time to get here, but this is my real question about this book, ‘Did the person who decided on the illustration actually read the book, the whole book?’

Here’s the opening:

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.  The governess was always getting muddled with her astrolabe, and when she got specially muddled she would take it out of the Wart by rapping his knuckles.  She did not rap Kay’s knuckles, because when Kay grew older he would be Sir Kay, the master of the estate.  The Wart was called the Wart because it more or less rhymed with Art, which was short for his real name.

Clearly, at this point, the main protagonist is a child.  I agree that if you ignore the academic references (can you?) it might be possible to assume the intended readers are children.  After all, there are plenty of younger reads that are meant to be enjoyed on another level by the adult who reads aloud.  I’m not convinced this is that kind of book.

The thing is, ‘The Once and Future King’ is composed of four, arguably five books, depending on which version you read. While the cover at the top of this page could apply to book 1, The Sword in The Stone, by book 2, The Queen of Air and Darkness, Arthur is a man.  There are still children at the centre of the story, there is still magic imbedded in the plot, but the story moves into adult territory.  While not graphic, there are seductions, rape, betrayals and battles.  This is, after all, based on the Arthur myths.

Now I’m not saying the book is unsuitable for children.  I haven’t attempted to define what age group childhood covers, let alone what material they should or should not read.

I’m thinking here about teenage, because that, at least, can be accurately summed up as thirteen to nineteen.  What concerns me with the issue in my top illustration, is that it limits this book.  I’m not sure how many older teenagers would be comfortable to be seen reading this copy, let alone adults.  Which is a shame, because T.H. White did not write these books for children, any more than Charlotte Bronte did with Jane Eyre, or Charles Dickens with Great Expectations or Nicholas Nickleby.

Here is the original cover for the collected novels, as it was published in 1958.  I ask you, which cover do you prefer?

Once_future_king_coverIncidentally, in the same shop, The Dark Materials trilogy and all of the Harry Potter novels were shelved amongst the ‘adult’ A – Z of authors.

I’d like to recommend…

I’ve just been on a journey backwards and forwards in time between 1936 America and Manila in 1902 and 1936 thanks to William Boyd’s, The Blue Afternoon. It was quite a trip, all in all. Some stories the reader just hitches a ride on the words and enjoys the passing scenery. Not this one. I’ve been kept involved all the way, guessing about connections and murders, taking a new view of history, working out what’s going on, and why, and trying to second-guess how.

I’ve stood at the shoulders of an architect and a surgeon as they worked. I’ve experience the blue afternoonthe joys, frustrations and passions of different kinds of love and loss and colonial life. There was so much story in this one short novel it would be difficult to write a summary without giving away the plot, so I’m not going to attempt that. You can find one somewhere else, if that’s what you’re after. But my recommendation, whether you’re a reader or a writer is to try this novel yourself.

I’ve not read any thing else by William Boyd, so I can’t draw comparisons with his other books.  I can only say that here, I find good writing.

What do I mean by good writing?  Well look at the first sentence.

I remember that afternoon, not long into our travels, sitting on deck in the mild mid-Atlantic sun on a slightly smirched and foggy day, the sky a pale washed-out blue above the smokestacks, when I asked my father what it felt like to pick up a knife and make an incision into living human flesh.

It’s a little long by some standards, perhaps, but look what Boyd does with it.   Besides giving us a situation, a setting and an atmosphere, it gets me asking myself, who is remembering, and why do they want to know about ‘living human flesh’?  I’m only an inch into the text and I’m already preparing to turn to the next page.

I like a lot of things about this story.  Take, for instance, weather and scenery. Los Angeles, 1936, ‘was cloudy and an erratic and nervy wind rattled the leaves of the palmettos that the contractor had planted along the roadside.’ In Manilla, ‘Cruz’s house was a substantial stone building with a tiled roof, hairy with weeds, and a saffron lime wash on the walls which was flaking and dirty.’  It’s economical.  There’s just enough of a word picture for me to create the image: not so much that I’m struggling to construct an exact replica.

Go back to that first sentence again and look at how he constructs his images.  Ever heard of a ‘smirched‘ day before?  I haven’t, and yet put it with foggy, and I think I understand exactly what he means.  Like the wind in Los Angeles, which is not just ‘erratic’, it’s ‘nervy’.  This is what we mean when we talk about keeping language fresh in our writing.  I don’t think it’s forced, and it doesn’t need to happen in every paragraph, or even chapter.  Its effect is made, at least in part, because it is unexpected.

For me, ‘unexpected’ is the key to my enjoyment of this novel.  The story unravels slowly, truths are teased out by our narrator, and, for the most part, delivered in such a way that I do not feel cheated: by which I mean that the author has not manipulated events to achieve his goal.  Here, the twists in the plot felt feasible rather than engineered, even when they were surprising.  They arose naturally as a result of the characterizations.

Here’s a story with some big events in it.  Things that told clumsily could have looked contrived and ridiculous.  Instead, there was a sense of inevitability about the way they unfolded and the final denouement.  I don’t think I can give a higher praise than that the ending surprised, pleased and stayed with me, long after I’d closed the covers.