Wednesday, 7 May 2014

my TBR mystery pile, in a photo

   I thought you would enjoy seeing what my TBR mystery pile looks like:




 Yes, it's true, I have had these and haven't read them yet, and they are all ones I really want to read, which is why they are pulled into these stacks.

If you look at my blog header, I have added a new one for reading 50 mysteries for this year.  I updated 2013 so you can see I only read 32, far short of my goal.  This year I will!  And I will get these stacks read!

If you want some more good crime writing to read:

Of course, all this was triggered by the announcement of the Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Writing List:  Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year has announced the longlist for 2014.  Look at this list and see if your mouth doesn't water:

 Rubbernecker, by Belinda Bauer (Bantam Press)
 The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes (HarperCollins)
 The Dying Hours, by Mark Billingham (Little, Brown)
 Like This, For Ever, by Sharon Bolton (Bantam Press)
 A Wanted Man, by Lee Child (Bantam Press)
 The Honey Guide, by Richard Crompton (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
 The Cry, by Helen Fitzgerald (Faber & Faber)
 Dying Fall, by Elly Griffiths (Quercus)
 Until You’re Mine, by Samantha Hayes (Century)
 The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)
 The Chessmen, by Peter May (Quercus)
 I Hear the Sirens in the Street, by Adrian McKinty (Serpent’s Tail)
 The Red Road, by Denise Mina (Orion)
 Ratlines, by Stuart Neville (Harvill Secker)
 Standing in Another Man’s Grave, by Ian Rankin (Orion)
 Children of the Revolution, by Peter Robinson (Hodder & Stoughton)
 Eleven Days, by Stav Sherez (Faber & Faber)
 Weirdo, by Cathi Unsworth (Serpent’s Tail)


I've linked you to the original site, so you can drool like I do over the dream of one day attending this festival.  It honours the best in crime writing published in softcover in the UK and Ireland the year before.  

I am happy to say I have already read three books on the list!  Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin, Dying Fall by Elly Griffiths, and The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes.  I see I haven't reveiwed 2 of them yet, my bad.  I will by the weekend, as they are both very good and I should have reviewed them last year when I read them. Certainly they both return in my thoughts frequently, always a sign that books are working away inside me, especially The Shining Girls, and all of Elly Griffith's books.  Rebus I just plain love.....

Although, this means I have many good books to catch up with.  Several are already on my to-get list as soon as we get them in softcover over here:  Ratlines by Stuart Neville, Children of the Revolution by Peter Robinson, and Like This, Forever by Sharon Bolton.  I already own The Chessmen by Peter May, although I'd like to read the one before it, first (you can see it in the photos - The Lewis Man).  I also own the first in the Adrian McKinty books, The Cold Cold Ground, and it's on my TBR pile too...

I really want to read some of the Theakston's list.  And I haven't even got started on wanting to read this year's Edgar Award winner, Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. I first heard about it earlier this week on Praire Horizons, here.  Now of course I want to read it as soon as possible!  

I do believe that I will always have stacks like that of books to read, it's just the titles that will change as I read one and replace it with another.  I am so very rich, even I am not wealthy with money, with the abundance of books I have to read (and want to read). For this I am very thankful, on this sunny Wednesday afternoon.  I am recovering from visiting the dentist yesterday and having 2 crowns and 6 fillings added.  I think a new book and some reading time is just the thing to heal with, don't you?

What's on your book stacks that you have been wanting to read for a while?

Saturday, 3 May 2014

two mystery reviews

      April was one of my worst reading months in years.  I read all of two books, although a few others are on the go.  I had a really difficult time settling down to read.  So I challenged myself today and read a book this afternoon:   Death of a Perfect Wife, #4 in the Hamish McBeth mystery series by M.C. Beaton.                          
                                


 I love M.C Beaton; her Hamish McBeth mysteries are perfect when I want something light and good and often funny. The Hamish McBeth mystery series are cozy village mysteries.   Hamish is the perfect Highlands policeman, tall, lanky, red-haired, able to look after himeself quite well, and pining away for the young lady of the mansion on the hill, the aristocrats of the area, Priscilla Haliburton-Smythes. Hamish is resourceful, courageous, clever, kind, thoughtful, and responsible.  He is an ideal village bobby, enjoying his life, a part of the village life, and yet able to interview suspects by being frank and open with them.  If he has to investigate a crime, he tells the person he has to question them to clear them.  No one resents him though they do have opinions, and it's hilarious to see the real thoughts, likes and dislikes of the villagers as they try to live together peaceably.
  
 In this ideal world of Loch Dubh, in the mountains of Highland Scotland, Hamish investigates a murder or two in each book of the series.  Sometimes smuggling or poaching are the major crimes, but there is always a body, almost always of an outsider or newcomer to the village.
 
 In Death of a Perfect Wife, Trixie and Paul Thomas move to Loch Dubh from London, buying a dilapidated house and turning it into a room and board hotel.   Not too long after arriving, Trixie has turned the town upside down with her magnetic personality, convincing many of the village women that the way to be happy is to have a clean house and protest things that want changing.  Secretly she is up to something not so nice.  Trixie's influence on the village is funny at first as she convinces the doctor's wife that the doctor needs a healthier diet and a cleaner house.  But as she begins to play husbands against wives, and Priscilla against Hamish, she is revealed to be quite nasty, and it is a shock but not a surprise when she is found dead one day.  Suspects are many, as are motive, and Hamish has to investigate many of his neighbors before the culprit is uncovered.

 There is nothing better to cozy up with on a rainy Saturday afternoon for a few hours, than a trip to northern Scotland and watching Hamish outwit his boor of a superior officer DCI Blair. DCI Blair  loathes Hamish, mostly because Hamish is always solving the crime.   Hamish lets Blair take the success is because Hamish doesn't want to leave his village.  He has everything he needs there, and he is contented with his small police office, tiny tenant farm at the back where he raises sheep and chickens and eggs, his dog Towser at his side, and the occasional crime to solve. 

At Christmas I read two of the books in the series, and decided to read these in order - there are 21 now in the series:

Series
Hamish Macbeth
1. Death of a Gossip (1985)
2. Death of a Cad (1987)
3. Death of an Outsider (1988)
4. Death of a Perfect Wife (1989)
5. Death of a Hussy (1990)
6. Death of a Snob (1991)
7. Death of a Prankster (1992)
8. Death of a Glutton (1993)
     aka Death of a Greedy Woman
9. Death of a Travelling Man (1993)
10. Death of a Charming Man (1994)
11. Death of a Nag (1995)
12. Death of a Macho Man (1995)
13. Death of a Dentist (1997)
14. Death of a Scriptwriter (1998)
15. Death of an Addict (1999)
16. Death of a Dustman (2001)
17. Death of a Celebrity (2002)
18. Death of a Village (2003)
19. Death of a Poison Pen (2004)
20. Death of a Bore (2005)
21. Death of a Dreamer (2006)
22. Death of a Maid (2007)
23. Death of a Gentle Lady (2008)
24. Death of a Witch (2009)
25. Death of a Valentine (2009)
26. Death of a Chimney Sweep (2011)
     aka Death of a Sweep
27. Death of a Kingfisher (2012)
28. Death of Yesterday (2013)
29. Death of a Policeman (2014)
and
A Highland Christmas (1999)

I now have read the first four in the series, as well as A Highland Christmas, which was quite good and enjoyable to read over the holidays this past Christmas.  I will do a more thorough review of them in a post soon.  I have also read two others in the series over the past few years, while I decided if I wanted to read it sequentially.  I do!  There is a progression in this series, and references once in a while to past events, so reading them as they were written is a good idea, though not necessary. Depends on if you like dipping into a series or not.  I highly recommend these for anyone looking for a comforting, enjoyable mystery series to read. 

                                                            
One of the 2 books I read in April was Bellfield Hall (re-named A Moment of Silence in the UK), by Anna Dean.  This is the first in the Deductions of Dido Kent mystery series.  I really enjoyed it.  I had picked it up last year, but hadn't read it, and then Cath at Read-Warbler read it and loved it.  So her post convinced me to give it a try.  

I think I had hesitated to read it because I was afraid that it would be too Jane Austen-like. By this I mean, the temptation to write a character like Jane Austen would, or like Jane herself could have been, is immense these days.  I don't like either.  To me, Jane Austen and her characters belong to her, the author, and while I know many people enjoy the spin-offs from her novels, I have great difficulty reading them. In any case, even though the main character in this series, Dido Kent, is a spinster, and rather Jane-like in her sharp acuity in noticing people and their expressions around her, the similarity to Jane ends there.  The books are set in 1805, right at the time of many of Jane's novels, Regency England.  The social mores, conventions, and conversations and society rules are the same as in Jane's novels, because it is the same time period. However, the characters are Anna Dean's own creations. I am so happy to report this!   Reading Bellfield Hall is like having a series set in the wonderful time of Jane Austen.  We get to see more of Regency England, the way that women can and can't move around by themselves to go anywhere, and how spinsters rely on the goodwill of family members to support them.  Dido is 35, so considered out of the dating game by then, an old maid.  She is summoned to Bellfield Hall, home of the Montagues, where her niece had just announced her engagement to a wealthy country man, Richard Montague, at an engagement party. Catherine is distraught because her fiancé has tried to end their engagement during the party.  Catherine refuses to believe that Richard is serious, and asks Dido to come and try to track down where her fiancé has disappeared to.  She wants an explanation, for she thinks the letter he left doesn't explain anything to her.   However, upon her arrival, a dead body is discovered on the property:  a young woman, murdered. Who is she?  Is there a link to Richard's sudden disappearance?

Dido comes because Catherine is her favourite niece, and because her brother Francis (Catherine's father) asks her to.  Or as she says to her sister Eliza, Catherine has told her father she wants Dido with her, and so what Catherine wants, her father gives her. Dependent on him as on all of her brothers for her income, Dido goes where she is summoned, and her time is considered theirs to use.  In this way, we see some of what befalls unmarried women in Regency England. 

The fact that she is a spinster, and not wealthy of her own accord, allows Dido to approach the servants and socialize at the dinner engagements equally.  I am not sure that Dido would have been able to move so freely in a country house without being noticed that she was talking to the servants, but both of Richard's parents are otherwise occupied, and of course pay her no mind as she is just the spinster aunt of their son's fiancée.  

Part of the novel is constructed in letters Dido writes to her sister Eliza, which is very much in keeping with the letters Jane Austen wrote to her sister Eliza.  I kept thinking of Jane and Cassandra corresponding like this, and having recently read some of Jane's letters to her family, My Dear Cassandra, I was able to see that the tone in the letters in this novel as well as the tone of the book itself is close to perfect. It is like stepping into Regency England, with the the lightness and delicacy of touch that Jane Austen had, without the novel being Jane Austen like.  Dido is a woman in her own right, and her investigation is well-done with plenty of clues, questioning, searching out the truth hidden in plain sight, and concern for the people in the house.  Who could be the killer?  Was it a family member, a potential member of Catherine's family, and so of Dido's? What happened to Richard?  Why did he leave the engagement party without a word being said?  

A few of the things that elevates this book is that while Dido investigates, she has to do so carefully, aware that a killer is in their midst, and that she is there as a guest.  There is no real investigation into the death because there are no policeman at that time, no village bobby to call.  The local coroner investigates a little, but only so much as to determine the woman was murdered, by persons unknown.  Dido investigates in order to clear her niece's fiancé; Lord Montague, Richard's father, doesn't want scandal to touch the family, and so no real inquest is held, it is thought that someone outside the family happened by and killed the unknown lady.  Many of Dido's clues come because she talks to the servants, who are the ones who know what happens in the house, although they have no one to tell, except amongst themselves.  

And Dido falls in love.  It is most unexpected, and fun to watch happen.  It is even better that is possibly returned.....except that there is of course, something in the way.  He is a man of values, to esteem, after all. And the mystery ends on the happy note of the mystery solved and romance in the air, in the genteel sweet air of Austen's novels.  Lovely.

It is an enjoyable mystery, with interesting characters, and Dido shows herself to be skilled at reading people and understanding motives.  She is clever, and I liked her.  So thank you, Cath.  I have a new series!  Hurray!  Well worth reading, especially for country house mystery fans, Regency readers, and anyone who loves Jane Austen.

And in case you wanted another new mystery series to start:

And for those looking for a new paranormal mystery series, this one reviewed over at Lesa's Book Critiques looks very good:  Ghost Seer by Robin D. Owens.  Just released, and it looks interesting. 

Other reviews:
Bellfield Hall
Kittling Books
S.Krishna's Books
Eva at A Striped Armchair

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

My Book of the Year Last Year - The True Secret of Writing

     As I have been very slow to get caught up in any book reviews, despite reading some very wonderful books this winter, I thought I would write about my book of the year for last year:  

                                                              


Natalie Goldberg's The True Secret of Writing

Some history first:  I am a writer.  I write stories,  have completed one full draft of a fantasy novel now hidden away in a drawer, and a lot of poetry.  I am always looking for books on writing, on finding time to write, and how to open up more to the writing I want to do.  I have read Natalie's Goldberg's writing books since the very first one came out twenty years ago, Writing Down the Bones.  I loved that book. It taught me to pay attention to details, especially when writing characters, and setting.  Writing could be done anywhere.  And that there is always time to write, somewhere, in your life, even if it 20 minutes in a cafe somewhere.

When I saw  The True Secret of Writing, I picked it up out of curiosity, since I had found some of her other books following Writing down the Bones were along the same themes found in that one.  Not that they aren't good, but that I had already come across those ideas before.  To my surprise, when I opened The True Secret of Writing, I was immediately captured.  I bought it, and read it through July, dipping into it every evening or so. 

It has changed everything for me.

Her secret she has found is simple:  Sit.  Walk slowly.  Write.

It is a case of the right book at the right time for me.  Last spring, I knew I had to quiet down, stop moving, just sit and rest, though I didn't know how to.  I knew I wanted more silence in my life, in a big way.  Too much drama, conflict, too much getting away from my past, all were taking a toll on me.  And I realized that I like my life now. I am happy.  So why did I need silence, crave it so much?  Why did I not feel fully present in my life, and how could I?   And what did this have to do with my writing?

Into these beginning questions I already had asked myself, this book fell and rang into me and through me.  It's still ringing.  It is changing everything in how I approach and do things, in my life.  All from a perspective of greater calm ( I hope).  Possibly just a better perspective on things, which is calming too.

Natalie suggests sitting for 5 or 10 minutes at first, and then increasing it to 20.  You just sit there, and every time your mind goes somewhere, bring it back to here, now.  Breathe.  And it is amazing.  It is bringing me into now, the present, which is where I want to be.  Thoughts are powerful, and they can pull me off track, into imagining/planning the future, rewriting the past (or wishing I could), recreating conversations and dramas, trying to pay attention to everything in my children's lives, at work, with my husband....it is innumerable the number of claims on me, and become all the ways I distract myself from being here, now.  I distract myself from looking around me, and taking in what I see and hear and feel.  This is exactly what I have needed to do, part of what my craving for silence was about.  It's not that the world around me is too noisy (thought with cell phones, the internet, tv, etc, it is noisy), it's that I wasn't quiet within myself.  Natalie's book showed me how to do just this:  quiet down.  Sit still. 

And then, the walking slowly has been a revelation for me. I have always been trying to hurry, walk faster because I'm already a slow walker, hurry here, try to get my heart beat up and burn more calories on my walks, hurry hurry hurry.  Walking slow is hard!  I have to slow down, to my own pace.  It is amazing what I see, hear, when I look around me as I walk, then.  I love it.  I find I do end up going a little faster, but at a comfortable pace that doesn't stress me at all, and is a good workout that is comfortable for my knees. Most of all, I take in more of the world around me, the shape of the trees, the light in the sky, the water, the sounds of the birds.  I am present, and I have time for it.

Natalie has been a Zen student for most of her life, and teaches writing groups through the philosophy of Zen.  It is an interesting idea, and she explains how she runs her writing retreats, what happens during them, some of the outcomes for people involved.  They all want to be writers.  She wrote this book to bring her Zen writing classroom out into the world, so even if we can't go to her workshops or retreats, we can still teach ourselves how to silence our minds, how to sit still, how to walk slowly, and then go to our writing.  She has taken her 20 years of running workshops and writing retreats and distilled her wisdom into this book.

This book has been working on me all year.  I remind myself almost daily to walk slowly.  I try to sit every day, though I have been resisting it lately.  I love the peace sitting brings.   I have learned that taking the time to sit quietly, means I somehow have more time in my day.  I feel like time is slower, that there is time for all I want to do. Maybe I am slowing things down so I can see what is important to me, and making sure I do them, or pay attention to them if it involves other people.  I'm trying to, anyway!  I can't see yet if it affecting the quality of my writing, though I suspect it is and I will see it more clearly when I look back. 

It is a book that I recommend to anyone who wants to write, whether it is journal writing, memoir, biography, history, fiction, whatever you want to write, there will be something in here for you.   There is no magic that will make you a writer, just sitting down and writing, putting pen to paper.  This book will help you to sit down, and with your mind calmer, hear those writing thoughts and ideas more clearly and write them down. 

For me, it is also helping me to calm my life down, so that it is becoming still and quiet, like a deep pool.  I want to be more present in my life, with my family, with my friends, in everything I do.  For me, this book has been the way into moving deeper into my life.  And for that I have been so thankful every day since last summer.

So that leads me to my question of the week for you, dear reader: Have you ever read a book that seemed to open up something in you, or led you to where you wanted to go? 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

New Books!!!

       At long last our winter is wearing away.  We have had several days above zero, and the snow was melting, melting away.....though we are due for some snow/sleet/freezing rain over night and tomorrow again.  The only way I've gotten through these last two weeks is by hunkering down and waiting out winter.     In case you think I am exaggerating, this is the picture of our park near my house, taken yesterday while out for my walk:
The river is slowly coming free of ice, though the shore line is still all iced up, as you can see in the distance behind the trees - that's the beach and river, still snow covered.  There are crocuses out, though that and some songbirds are the only real signs spring is coming. 

   I discovered one day a few weeks ago  while looking through a shelf, that I had a gift certificate from a local independent bookstore, Perfect Books, from Christmas that I hadn't used yet!  So I decided, in true book-lover fashion, that it was time to cheer myself up and use it.  My husband, who gave me the certificate, was shocked that I hadn't used it yet.  I had to remind him that for two months I didn't leave the house unless it was for work, we had so many viruses and illnesses and winter cold blahs - and if I am honest here, I was learning how to hibernate.  So I wasn't resenting being at home, I was learning how to slow down for winter time.

Tonight, after a lovely hour wandering the shelves, I bought three books using the gift certificate:  2123 by Kim Stanley Robinson, Wild Rice Dreams by Vera Wabegijig, and The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane.  Two weeks ago on a rare date night with my husband, I had bought the other three books included in the picture below:  The Reckoning by Jane Casey, Dying in the Wool by Frances Brady, and Written in Red by Anne Bishop.   Unpictured is a book I forgot to include in the picture:  Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman.

                                           

It was so lovely to be in Perfect Books  (link to their online site, in case you are curious) again.  I hadn't been in since before Christmas.  I really did hibernate all winter.  It is surprising how much I hid away, and how much I did enjoy it. I got plenty of reading done, not that you would know by my lack of book reviews here.  They will come!!  I am exited about my new books, and happy to be able to get out for walks again.  I love walking, and I especially love walking in nature.  Of all the books I  bought today, I am especially delighted by The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane.  I never dreamed I would find the book over here, and I've already peeked and loved it. 

     Sprinkled in the pages of The Old Ways are some of the thoughts of other walkers who were also creative writers, thinkers, artists.  History and quotes from books that talk about subject or history in the landscape that MacFarlane is wondering about, so this is like a long travelogue, a conversation we are having with (a very learned conversation!) him while he is out walking. 

 I have often thought and felt to myself that the best way, and the only way to really know a place, is to walk it, many times, over and from all sides, and in all light.  Slowly a place, the river, the houses, the trees, the light, reveals the spirit of the place that I am living in at that time.  I am forced to slow down, to breathe it in, to feel it with all my senses, and become part of it. MacFarlane writes about what he sees while walking these ancient pathways in the UK, with this kind of idea in mind, "the ideas and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations" (from the quote on the back of the book).

 I also find that walking frees me up so that I often find lines of my poems coming to me, or thoughts I want to follow and think about. Sometimes I find myself looking at the landscape of Ottawa and wondering what it was like when it was all covered with huge pine trees, and only the Algonquin and Odawa peoples coming to mingle in the trading parties in the summer at their camps.  How wild this must have been then!  Somewhere underneath all the politics that goes with being a capital city, far below that artificial level, lies the spirit of the wilderness and the river that rushes by.
 MacFarlane decides to walk the old ways, the hidden roads and paths of the UK, and this book is how the landscape he saw moved him and showed him what our ancestors knew about walking the old ways.  It looks like a beautiful book and I look forward to getting to know the ancient paths of England through his eyes and imagination.

See?  Books really do cheer me up.

Monday, 31 March 2014

The Wood Wife - beautiful fantasy

                                        

  The Wood Wife by Terri Windling is the second book I've read for Carl's One Upon a Time Challenge.  I read Doll Bones by Holly Black last weekend, and will post about it next time.  (It's good, don't worry!)  The Wood Wife is one of those fantasy books that comes along a few times in one's lifetime.  It's true in some deep way that my bones recognize. A true story telling, that contains so much wisdom and spirit that the reader is enriched in reading the book.  At least, I was. 

First of all, you should know that I tried twice before in years past to read The Wood Wife, and failed both times to get past the second page.  I despaired, because The Wood Wife won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and everyone who had read it has loved it. So what was wrong with me?  Then, in a lovely moment of synchronicity, I took out Jo Walton's new book What's So Great About This Book? from the library, and there was a lovely review of The Wood Wife.  I say lovely, because as soon as I read Jo's post, I knew that I wanted to read The Wood Wife asap. Luckily for us, Tor has links to past year's posts, and here is the link to Jo's Tor review of The Wood Wife.

What do I think about The Wood Wife?  I think it is beautiful.  It makes something in me sing, the same thing in me that recognizes that spirit lives in all things around us, and that telling stories brings out magic.  Books (telling stories) is a form of magic.  In The Wood Wife, Maggie Black inherits a dead poet's house in Arizona.  She had been corresponding with him for years, deeply moved by his poetry, but not invited to visit him while he was alive.  When she inherits his house, she is surprised, and the novel opens with her arriving at the house.  In a way, this is when Maggie arrives where she is meant to be, and the novel is the unraveling of Maggie the old, to Maggie the true. 

I love how Windling infuses the book with bits of the poetry the dead poet, Davis Cooper, writes, that has so moved Maggie:  a book called The Wood Wife.  The poetry Windling writes is lovely and rich, and each chapter opens with a bit taken from the 'book' Cooper wrote. Here is an example, from Chapter Two:              The hills call in a tongue
                                     I cannot speak, a constant murmuring,
                                     calling the rain from my dry bones,
                                      and syllables from the marrow.
                                                      -The Wood Wife, Davis Cooper.

  The longer Maggie stays there, the more she understands about Cooper and what he was writing about.  The language of the stones, the trees, the howling of the coyotes, the colours in the sky and the brush, the mountain - all these are alive and sing in the way that the earth sings to those attuned to it.  With Maggie hearing this for the first time, we the reader get to experience the land singing, and I found this incredibly moving. I could see the Arizona landscape, the colours, the heat, the way Maggie was experiencing them. It made me want to be there!

There are myths and mythic creatures in this novel, mixing Old World Europe with Native American myths. It feels a bit uneasy, which it is exactly that in real life:  the old myths and native American myths are uneasy with one another, although there is enough similarity that some of the stories and figures have gained a foothold here, even blended with one another when they are the same at their core.  This is the case of the white stag, which appears in this novel.  It is a familiar symbol from European and Celtic mythology, and in the hands of Windling, it becomes something rather more and special with the colouring of the Arizona native people's myths around it. What does the white stag represent?  In The Wood Wife, something a little unexpected, in the end.

Maggie is a poet, although she has lost this ability in looking after her first husband.  It's a failed marriage that ended some time before the novel opens, except that her ex-husband is still attached to looking after her.  It's a theme in The Wood Wife, about artists, spouses, loved ones, some of whom create, some of whom support artists.  What is the price of art?  What kind of art?  When does it become not healthy to seek out the Muse in nature?  In The Wood Wife, however, the land and the myths in the land also reach out to the artists, and the book is an exploration of how what one brings to art, also shapes if one survives being an artist or not.  It's a beautiful novel, tragic and hopeful, with love resounding all the way through it.

As Jo Walton says (and I completely agree with) in her review, it's refreshing that Maggie is 40 years old.  An older heroine, who has life experience already, and discovers how much more there is still to learn, about everything still.  I loved this.  Life doesn't stop once you have had your first adventure.  Sometimes the greatest adventure comes after you have tried and failed at things.  Sometimes it comes when after putting aside creative work, something awakens that true thing in the heart that says, yes.  I need to write/paint/dance/sing/build/grow, whatever it is that a person is really called to do.  This is what makes this novel so true for me, that people are sick when they are not doing what they should be doing, and become well and happy when they are. 
      "Beauty, motion, that-which-moves."
      "Ah.  that's what my Dineh relatives would call hohzo: walking in beauty.  That is how a man should live his life.  If he doesn't, he sickens and dies."

Maggie is wandering, homeless, working as a journalist studying artists and writers, because she is afraid to be open to poetry, and can't hear it any more.  She thinks she has lost it forever.  In coming to learn about and be around what moved Cooper Davis to write, she finds her way back to what she has lost.  That is the way that art works, and creative ideas.  They come to you through following what you love, and what inspires you, until you find your way to your true heart. 

There are also lovely human characters in The Wood Wife.  Dora is sweet and strong, and in despair as she watches her husband Juan pursue what he thinks is true art, though it turns out to be a much more dangerous thing than he realizes.  Johnny Foxxe makes music.  Cooper Davis wrote poetry, and his wife Anna Navarra painted extraordinary pictures of surrealism in the Arizona landscape, pictures that are lovingly described by Windling, so we the reader can picture them too.

There are Trickster figures, and mythic figures, and powers that stalk the land and watch over it.  Once again, as in Charles de Lint's books, there is the sense that the myths are not to be played with.  Juan makes a bargain with one of the figures, and almost dies.  Cooper did make a bargain, and died for it, as did his wife Anna.  Those old stories of faery touching and changing humans, linger here too.  There is a price to be paid for seeing the earth as it is, and walking with the figures of myths and stories.  Everyone who lives on the mountain is changed by living there.

The Wood Wife reminded me a little of Possession by A.S. Byatt.  In fact, I think The Wood Wife is what I wanted Possession to be.  I was a little disappointed in the dryness of Possession, in how the critical literary heritage in the book sapped the passion that is at the heart of creating poetry.  In The Wood Wife, all that passion for creating remains, and grows, so that making art is revealed  as a true calling.

There is a way to tell a story that is true.  Poetry, dance, all art have this sense around them, that if they are done true to how the artist feels and sees it, the listener feels it ringing or tingling through them.  The Wood Wife has this sense for me.  A magical, marvelous true fantasy.  I loved it.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The handless maiden, or how a fairy tale comes alive

               I don't usually get deeply personal on my blog.  However, this year I have had a deep experience with a fairy tale, which is still moving through my life.  I have been thinking on this for a while, and wanted to share with you one example I have found of a fairy tale being true.  I don't have all the answers for what it means for me, as it's a work in progress currently.  As we go through this Once Upon a Time challenge with Carl, I thought it would be fun to share how powerful fairy tales and myths can be.

 As many of you know, Terri Windling has an amazing blog over at Myth and Moor.  She writes about everything from the daily walks she takes with her family's dog Tilly over the moors near her home, to folk music every Monday, to writing and art, to exploring fairy tales and their meaning.  Last spring, she posted about the fairy tale The Handless Maiden, which I read at some point.  I don't really remember being moved at all, or particularly drawn to this fairy tale, even then.

Then, later last spring, I had a dream. In my dream, Angelina Jolie was cutting my hands off, and I had to have another woman's arms attached.  My family - husband and children, the real ones I live with, not dream ones - were waiting for the new hands to go on.  I was okay with it.  I woke up as the knife cut through my hands.  I wrote it down, which I do when I can remember my dreams, and wondered why Angelina Jolie was in it.   Beauty? She is beautiful.  Intelligent, interesting, yes. I don't watch movie stars though I see all the headlines at the checkout at the grocery store.  Then about a month later, I was thinking about the dream on and off, and something about it finally pinged in me.  Something about my hands.   I went back to reread it. And suddenly I thought, my hands were cut off!  The Armless Maiden!  and I ran back to Terri's blog to read what she had written about it in her post.  This time I went through it more carefully, and I was able to see what my dream was telling me:  my arms were being removed because I need to find a new way to care for myself.  In my dream, another woman's hands (anonymous woman, no one I knew) were being attached.  What I realized in the summer that I needed to do, was to grow my own, again.

For me, this has meant looking at how I care for myself, in almost all aspects of my life.  From getting enough sleep (do I?  don't I?  why or why not?) to how I eat (and I am overweight, I'll be honest here), and why do I eat so much?  When do I eat?  To how I care for myself in other ways: how often do I do things for other people because I should?  What do I really want to do?  Why do I struggle to know what is really true for me?  And almost all of it comes down to me living through other people's rules, which we pick up as we grow up.  It's easy to adopt ways of doing things because that's how they are done.  The real purpose of growing up is to choose a way and a life that is true to me, so that living every day is a reflection of me, and what I value most.

In the fairy tale, the handless maiden wanders until she comes to a dark wood, where she finds an orchard and the trees which bear pears, which she is able to eat off the branch.  I have been eating pears for months now.  Every time I eat one, I think to myself, I am the handless maiden.  What do I need to learn?  How am I caring for myself?  Is this me, or someone else I am doing this for, in my life?  And as I eat the pear, I think of taking its nourishment, which represents the feminine strength, according to Marie-Louise von Franz in the Handless Maiden post.

I am middle-aged, and I would think too old for fairy tales, except fairy tales don't work in our ordinary time.  They come when we are ready for them in our souls.  Being 50 is nothing in fairy tale time.   When I went to Clarissa Pinkola Estes' book Women Who Run With the Wolves, which is like my bible for when it comes to understanding how fairy tales reveal women's souls to us, she says the Handless Maiden tale is for women of all ages.  That the fairy tale is about a voyage undertaken several times during a woman's life, for as she ages and changes, so does how she needs to live  changes. 

Particularly relevant to me in that same post is this passage quoted in the post, from Midori Snyder:
"To follow the example of the armless maiden is an invitation to sever old identities and crippling habits by journeying again and again into the forest. There we may once more encounter emergent selves waiting for us. In the narrative, the Armless Maiden sits on the bank of a rejuvenating lake and learns to caress and care for her child, the physical manifestation of her creative power. Each time we follow the Armless Maiden she brings us face to face with our own creative selves."
As many of you know, I am a writer, and a poet, and have struggled with balancing my family, working full-time, with finding energy to create anything, for most of my adult life.  What this fairy tale is bringing me is the opportunity to create my own life, with writing more central to it.  One of the questions I have also been asking myself this year is, what supports my writing? 

Out of this, I am learning things about myself I didn't know.  I'm looking at how I value my creativity, and what place I give it in my life.  Questions I was afraid of asking before, I'm asking now, because I feel a re-awakening of the pull to write, the call to be conscious that I am a writer, and I write poems, and I need to make a real space for this in my life now.  If I am going to be true to myself, and live a life that fully satisfies me every day, then I need to incorporate space and time to be creative every day.  It sounds simple, and it's a sign of how far I have been from myself, that I have to undo so much unnecessary other things I do that keep me from writing.  Most of these are demands that I place on myself, not other people, though much earlier in my life they were placed on me by others.  Or just rules that I assumed for everyone, or really underneath, the fear of being different, which has haunted me every since grade school, when I didn't want to be different from others, even though I was.  I am still learning how to undo that one!

Fairy tales are real, in a way that our souls recognize, some deep wordless place inside us that is connected to the soul of the world around us.  When I think of my dream, I say to myself," no I don't want another woman's hands, I want to grow my own now."  It's not easy, though it is interesting, and fun, and mysterious.  I don't always like what I find, though I do like that I can be more freer in my life, and recognize what I need to create my art (a little bit, at least, now).  The things I craved - silence, being still, listening, solitude - I am beginning to give to myself more.  I am happy to say that my family are very supportive in this also.  If I'm happy, they are happy!  Just so long as I want to be with them, which I do, and it bothered me that I was always waiting to get some time to myself.  It's tricky, learning to balance everyone's needs, and along the way I put mine lower, at the end of the day, or not at all if we were busy.   I am able to be with them in a truer sense now, not always longing  for the time to be quiet, because I know I already have it.  It's not perfect, I still wrestle with when the best time is to be creative, and long for more time to dream, and wander in nature, and let things come to me. 

Have you ever had a dream that had fairy tale elements in it?  Do you recognize themes in your life that resemble any fairy tale in particular?  Has any fairy tale really resonated with you? 


Sunday, 23 March 2014

Carl's Once Upon a Time VIII challenge

    It's here!  It's here!  It's finally here!  Carl's annual Once Upon a Time Challenge, VIII. 


As he writes:  
“Come away, O human child: To the waters and the wild with a fairy, hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
~William Butler Yeats
 "It is that voice that beckons us to Middle-earth and Newford, that calls out from the gap in the village of Wall and from the world of London Below. It is the voice that packs so much promise into four little words…
“Once upon a time…”
Perhaps you too have heard that voice whispering on the spring wind, or perhaps Old Man Winter continues to drown out the sound; either way that time has come: Once Upon a Time is here!"
                  

I am going to do Quest the Second:" Read at least one book from each of the four categories. In this quest you will be reading 4 books total: one fantasy, one folklore, one fairy tale, and one mythology. This proves to be one of the more difficult quests each year merely because of the need to classify each read and determine which books fit into which category. I am not a stickler, fear not, but I am endlessly fascinated watching how folks work to find books for each category."
                    
 I am also going to do Quest the Short Story: " This quest involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally you would post about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary."

The books:
 Doll Bones - Holly Black
The Wood Wife - Terri Windling
Dragon Haven - Robin Hobb
London Falling - Paul Cornell
Red Moon - Benjamin Percy
Frost Burned - Patricia Briggs
Moon over Soho - Ben Aaronovitch
The Wise Man's Fear - Patrick Rothfuss
The Raven Boys - Maggie Stiefvater
Under Heaven - Guy Gavriel Kay
And Blue Skies From Pain - Stina Leicht
Ironskin - Tina Connolly
Gossip from the Forest - Sara Maitland
 
Short stories from:
Snow White, Blood Red - ed Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
 Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm - Philip Pullman

The books are a rough list, I may add to it if I come across other books I forgot to add, or that just look interesting.

Some books I read for past OUaT challenges:
This is one of my favourite challenges.  In past years, I have read such wonderful fantasy,dark fantasy, and faerie books as:
Of Blood and Honey - Stina Leicht, review here
some fairy lore from The Lore of Scotland, here;
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, review here
Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint, review here;
A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin, review here ;
The Face in the Frost - John Bellairs,  The Godstalker Chronicles - P.C. Hodge, Jack the Giant Killer and Drink Down the Moon - Charles De Lint,  Bone Crossed - Patricia Briggs, Tooth and Claw - Jo Walton - all reviewed here;
 Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, reviewed here;

I also came across a post I did in 2009, during that year's Once Upon a Time Challenge. It was for science fiction and fantasy day, and talks about why we read fantasy.  I thought it would be timely to link to here.   I also found a post I did on one of the essays in Ursula K LeGuin's book The Language of the Night, linked here.  Her book is all about fantasy, and why we need it.  Indispensible, and if you are looking for something to challenge you during this challenge, to help you sort through why you love fantasy so much (because so many people still think fantasy is a genre that is barely decent and certainly not literature), then this book will help you see how honourable fantasy books really are.  We do need them.

  If you read fantasy, do you have any thoughts on why you enjoy it so much?  Is it the fairies that intrigue you, myths coming to life, or the incredible range of story types available?  Do you like paranormal romances, vampire fiction, werewolves, derring do adventures, hobbits, elves?  Magic?  Trolls and goblins and dangerous things in the shadows?  Fantasy has all of these.  There is something in fantasy writing that reaches to our wordless selves that understand some things are beyond word knowing.    We know fairy tales are true, even if we don't quite know how we do.  Fantasy books enrich our imaginations, giving voice to our fears and dreams, and showing us ways to survive and avoid dangers.

I hope you have a wonderful fantasy reading challenge, my dear readers.   Thank you to Carl for once again hosting it!