Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones. But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight....

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Historical fiction that immersed me in 2014



In recent years, I’ve come to crave historical fiction.  When I was in school, history was hardly my favorite subject.  I think that had to do with history textbooks.  Yet I had been learning some exciting history while reading good books.  Researching later on, I found that history books in the library were far more interesting.  An author’s narrative style, their ability to tell a story, and their personal commitment to a historical subject made a nonfiction book readable and even fascinating.  Eventually, I chose to read books that concentrated on a time or a gap in my understanding.  Here I will share the works of a few historical authors, those I read in 2014.


I had read The Histories of Herodotus, Volume 1, and because I enjoyed this ancient historian’s perceptive and flowing style, read Volume II.  This was not only history but anthropology, and it lead up to the Persian attack on Athens, a thrilling chronicle. Here are my comments:
 


As with Herodotus's other works, this varied between fascinating accounts and more tedious material. It was mainly about the Persian Empire's campaign against Athens, after they had conquered most of the city-states in Greece and Turkey, besides the Middle East and Egypt. I'm surprised there wasn't a blockbuster film about this.  The description of the armies that marched with Xerxes into Greece was incredible - a much bigger cast than Cleopatra going into Rome. Most Greeks thought that Xerxes was Zeus come down to earth and most submitted. The Athenians didn't think that and tried to persuade others to accept that Xerxes was a mortal man.

The Greek tactics turned out to be Herculean, winning the naval battles and waylaying the Persian army until the Persians had no more supplies or food.  I don't usually enjoy war stories but this was so colorfully told.



Then I read The Girl from Ithaca by Cherry Gregory.  Odysseus’s sister gets caught into the Trojan War in this historical fiction.   My comments:

 

I liked from the beginning the author's interpretation that the Trojan War wasn't just about Helen, and that it was about women and Greek men.  Cherry Gregory's telling was usually well-based on the historical story, and it told about Odysseus's sister being part of the war. The idea that women helped during the years of the Trojan War is solid.

The book also brings Greek heroes into human scenes while Neomene, Odysseus’ sister, attempts to be diplomat with Helen, helps to heal the injured, falls in love with a hero, and all the while, shows with the other women caught in the war the ancient woman's options in a treacherous and advancing world where warriors won.



Another recently published historical novel is Fiji by Lance Morcan and James Morcan.  I was glad to discover this book last summer and to be absorbed with the Island of Fiji in the 1800s.  Here are my comments:

 
Fiji was immediately very readable, written with flair, and smoothly intertwining its character plights with the history of missionary efforts, traders, and the Fijian people. While a love story between Nathan, the American trader, and Susannah, the missionary's daughter, dominates, the other characters figure with their own plots. Rambuka the outcast is comprehended in all his vengeance towards his brother. The passion of Joeli for his people and Sina for her lover, after she is abducted by Rambuka and made a slave, is ably drawn.

Also, the theme of death, its meaning to the Fijians, to the missionaries, and to Nathan, gives this book its realistic depth and that contrasts with the native lifestyles, their attachments, and their festivities.  Moving at the end, the book is full of believable heroism.





Dealing in used books, I kept coming across those of H. Rider Haggard, an author I hadn’t read.  He was very popular in the late 1800s, and I’d heard he had inspired some of the plot in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I read his book Cleopatra.  Ever since reading Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra in college, I’ve been interested in depictions of Cleopatra, historical and fiction. Haggard’s was tops, I thought. The books I’ve read of his seem to be modern movie fare.  Here are my comments on The People of the Mist.




Because of his uncle's financial affairs, Outram loses his family mansion and his intended. He leaves England for Africa with his brother but when his brother dies, Outram has no gold, only his trusty Zulu servant Otter. Otter recognizes a woman from a slave camp that he escaped. Soa knows where rubies are but she requires that the two help her free the white woman she worked for, and as many other captives as possible.  After they all bamboozle Arab slavers, I realized I had downloaded a long Kindle book. What I’d read seemed adventure enough but every time I picked up the book, the characters were so well-drawn that I continued to the ruby treasure. Soa ran away from the mountain People of the Mist and she knows how to disguise Juanna and Otter to look like gods prophesied to return someday. From one peril to the next, the story surges.




At Authonomy.com, I read the first chapters of Gev Sweeney’s The Scattered Proud.  This is set in colonial America and moves to the France of Napoleon.  Here are my comments:




Gev Sweeney does a brilliant job in creating characters that are challenged with the turmoil of colonial times, then the revolution politics in France, heroically and in the spirit of religious commitment. An adolescent at the outset, Jeannette matures in France where her clergyman father dies.  She continues work at an orphanage with Kit, a young clergyman who is married to a returned French ex-patriot.  The scenes in France are vivid while the characters Jeannette comes to know are surprising under their surfaces, especially when she takes refuge in the country outside of Paris. The Bonaparte brothers enter because of stored arms which is part of a clever intrigue, a scene led up to and climactic. This is a book that doesn’t slacken in its storyline, continuing to be as compelling as the first scenes.  Underlying is the protagonist’s religious probing which can entangle the contemporary reader.




So I have found that historical fiction can be the tumultuous stuff of life!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Kids, eReaders, and Book Browsing

Image courtesy of AKARAKINGDOMS at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
The Kindle Fire HD Kids Edition tablet was launched this fall.  With it, kids can navigate to eBooks by topic and interest.   I think this is a great thing, to have digital shelves just for children and for them to decide what they would like to read.


Used books are changing.  I now prefer vintage editions that have excellent illustration, thinking that a large illustrated hardcover might still be the choice of parents when they want to buy shelf copies.  I am staying away from “reading copies” of novels, editions that are not collectible but are affordable for classics.  

How do children become inspired to read?  In my childhood, we had a babysitter who went to her work with a large bag of books.  Dolly was a favorite and we begged for her to come, but were often told that she was too popular to come every time.   She would open up her bag, containing some dolls and toys too, and then she would spread the books out for us to open and pick for reading.

I’ve believed in that method.  In Duluth, I worked at a bookshop that concentrated on children’s books, also a lakeside book store that had a large children’s room, and then I worked at a used books and antiques store where a children’s book dealer had a large and cozy space.  Children like to see displays and they like to look for themselves, especially when it comes to illustrated books.  Sometimes parents walked away from their browsing kids so that the children’s section became a kind of babysitter for shopping moms.  That could become an issue.  But the biggest issue to me was children selecting books and imploring their parent to buy them when the shopping moms were not out to buy books.

Children are used to libraries.  I heard many parents explaining to their child that a store is not a library, and that they couldn't take home anything they wanted. 


I belonged to a Children’s Book-of-the-Month Club long ago.  Books were sent to me and I tried them out.  Now as a used book dealer, I jump when I see one of those books I remember -  Across Five Aprils, The Golden Impala, The Winged Watchman.  Even then, I still browsed in the public library, looking for a book I might like for sure.  Now our libraries have eBooks to download without cost and eReaders that can be checked out.

Traditionally, parents bought hardcover books, if they bought children’s books.  The paperback was less expensive but, because children might not want to read a whole paperback novel, the library or the school was usually the place where they would select one.


Image courtesy of suphakit73 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
“Look Inside” previews are one of the most useful selling tools for books on the internet, I think.  A selling or a decision tool.  For children to be able to explore that way might lead to more satisfying reading experiences.  And the eBook is inexpensive like the paperback.  All books have to compete with free library books because few want libraries shut down.  









Image courtesy of  Patchareeya99 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net



At one time, I thought of starting an internet site for children’s writing.   Going to the few sites that had been created, I found out that some kids were spammers.  The children’s sites had to invest in high level internet security.  Even the children’s authors and illustrators site that I visited had the same problem.  Children were coming in and spamming or attempting to leave messages for authors.  That was the reason for the advanced password security at the site.





A child choosing for themselves, outside of school, will lead to another type of education.  That experience will mean much to them.  After all, children are all sent to a desk job for 35 hours a week, and one where they are constantly evaluated.  That has had a negative effect on book reading.  If children can choose books outside of school, then they might want to read more.   Libraries seem like a school environment.  The tablet or eReader with children’s choices, having other capacities too, might give the freedom that stimulates if a child is in a quiet hour, in a car, or prevented from outside play because of weather conditions.  And hopefully, parents, authors, and publishers will find out what young people really want.
  
 
Image courtesy of supakitmod at FreeDigitalPhotos.net



Monday, November 17, 2014

On the US Post Office besides the whereabouts of The Wide Awake Loons



The Postmaster of the USPS has stepped down.  In September, the post office endured a cyber attack.  Information about employees was breached but the employees didn’t know about that until November.  At a local post office, I was asking about the threatened closure of Duluth, Minnesota’s mail processing  center when I learned about the cyber attack.  Ever since the advent of email, the post office’s financial woes have worsened.


I visit a post office on an average of four times a week.   My ebay score says that I’ve sent out at least 4000 packages but that’s probably half of it since the numbers refer to feedback.   Many of my packages are sent book rate.  


Although it sounds bad for the post office, I want to encourage people to use USPS for packages, especially now at Christmastime.   In all of these years, I have had only one domestic package lost.  That was a small package containing a sulfide marble and it was insured.  The marble was a little treasure however the value of it was returned in full.  I’ve had a few things break but that was early on and my packaging could have been part of the blame – sending a large print with a heavy frame and having the glass break.   I have had books sent media rate eaten by machinery, arriving with grease on the package and damaged.  That’s happened twice, I think.  What was insured was efficiently processed and the money came back.  Of course, media mail is inexpensive and that is the risk.


Considering those issues in 8000 cases, I think the USPS is an excellent service.


I had to complain about UPS.  Recently, I had a very large package ordered, and it weighed almost a hundred pounds.  To my shock, one UPS employee had to deliver that from the truck and up steps in our steep neighborhood.  I actually helped him.  The package had some outer damage by the time we accomplished this.


My recent conversation at the post office was leading to that.  The postal clerk informed that the USPS has a maximum weight of 70 pounds.  The UPS maximum is 150 but I would never have expected one person to deliver a parcel weighing more than 70 pounds.


I’ve long been frustrated with UPS.  That service was originally for businesses and for international package shipping.   UPS employees are not so familiar with particular buildings and houses.  They are not given keys to apartment buildings.  They deliver when people are at work and then they leave a note saying that you should be present to sign for your package.  They come back when you have to be at work.  Sometimes they don’t return during the time frame that they schedule.   I used to have UPS packages delivered to my workplace which solved everything – if it was okay with the workplace.  I even had a computer and monitor delivered there when I wasn’t quite sure that the boss would like that.


In my experience, USPS is totally adequate.  If I want to send something fragile or expensive, I insure it.  If the sender wants to know definitely that the receiver was the one to take the package, they can just fill out a slip to be signed.  I haven’t found much reason to switch to UPS, especially as it is usually more expensive.


Just a heads-up to share that although the USPS is having troubles, they are still very reliable.


~~~~~
The Wide Awake Loons is re-published and with illustration inside.  Silver Knight Publishing endured a crippling phishing attack last April, and since then, they have worked with reduced staff and offered authors a contract reverting rights to them.   I have re-published The Wide Awake Loons with my imprint Couchgrass Books.  The book is the same except for some minor editing.  Now it has illustration inside.


The book is available again in paperback at Amazon.  It is also a Kindle book.  It will be soon be available from Barnes & Noble and at Ingram's by January 15, besides other book sites.


Here are a few illustrations.  More are on the blog page Middle Grade.






 




Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Photo posts of autumn color (and free Kindle books!)




*Josiah’s Apple Orchard, MG novel, will be FREE Kindle Oct. 16-21.*






*The House in Windward Leaves, Halloween-time fantasy, will be FREE Kindle from Oct. 29 to Nov. 2*




An enchanted entrance







My one-act play, “The Lawn Auction” is published in Mused Literary Review’s Fall Equinox issue.   The journal is part of BellaOnline, a much-visited site for women and their concerns.  I've read the whole issue and found poems, fiction, and nonfiction that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The Wide Awake Loons is being re-published.




The Lake Superior shore region is known for its fall color.  When I was growing up in Southern Minnesota, our next door neighbors took a trip up to Duluth every fall just to see the trees turning color.   We were in school and never could take that in.  Since moving to Duluth, I have marveled at Indian summer here.  I take pictures every year, and admire trees from my windows that are just plain breath-taking.  This year, I’m putting pictures in this blog post. 








Decoration for the evergreen








 
The boulevard trees arching are scheduled to be removed for blocks due to road & sewer pipe improvement.


 
Mountain ash
The yellow leaf road

My new banner at Facebook




























When I lived in Minneapolis, I wrote this poem.  It was published in Rio Number 14 in 2004, online.





On a day when a maple leaf
is really a flower

Last walk in harpstring hues
tousled by the yellowing
palms of trees.  This day was
borrowed from August.

In other chameleon trees, fire
supplies mood but not the balm.
I gasp too at fall’s rude turmoil,
at petals imploding like dresses
exposing crooked legs.  Some
bloom backwards, stuck on a
perverse carousel around houses,
papery-soft like widows with tissues.
Squashed are most.  Appallingly
their mauves are trampled.
Striped petunias put up a
frilled front, looking less ruined.


I pass a huge sidewalk blossom.
A flamingo flower strung in
pink from the sky.  Billowed
as poppymallow, silky as
tiger lilly - maple leaf?

I picked the leaf, passed
the foundering flowers.  Picked
a laugh bluffing about maples
and meanings.  What’s in flower?
What’s dying flame?  What
isn’t borrowed?

Next day I check the maple flower
between leaves of an unborrowed
book.  It has flared, crinkled
to its capillaries, gauntly as
an octogenarian’s face.  Today
fall fell chill.  This is a leaf
the shape of a sunstorm
the flamboyance of a maple
defying definition to the death.





Clouds can be astonishing too.