Interesting Finds

This month’s mix is all over the place. But it’s been an all over the place kind of month.

This is NOT SAFE FOR WORK. But if you know anything about Catherine the Great, you’ll want to check out this post. I am seriously amused.

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Taylor Swift. Her music is catchy enough but I have issues with her as a person sometimes. However, she is setting an excellent example for people everywhere refusing to play the quiet victim.

A book list of historical fiction, including the very first historical novel. How apropos after my first post this month!

I have no idea how I got signed up for this dating newsletter, but I’m finding some of the articles useful for story research. This “introverts dating guide” is gold, so I wanted to share!

After looking at this collection, I rate myself a beginner postcard nerd. I always ask friends to grab me some wherever they travel, but these ones are works of art.

I am a bigger nerd than I thought–this time because I love etymology.

If you’ve been living under a rock, this is an excellent write-up of what happened in Charlottesville the week before last. And for the record, these are the only correct answers to the unsaid questions: the right to free speech should not cover hate speech, there’s a reason holocaust memorials are not statues of Hitler, and it is more than time that all Confederate statues come down—there’s no debating this anymore.

People Who Don’t Read Fiction, or, A Defence of Fiction

Chances are, if you’re reading my post here, you are a fan of fiction. After all, I’m all over the internet as a writer and reader of fiction. Also, taking an assuming leap here, chances are that if you are a fan of fiction, like I am, you too are confounded by people who do not like or refuse to read fiction.

I have to admit that I see people who don’t read fiction in a strange light. Just like I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with people who don’t like animals. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people who don’t like fiction. I think it’s strange, but it’s not nearly as odd to me as the animal thing.

My friends and I have discussed this topic at length, and the main rationale we hear from people who don’t read fiction is that they don’t/can’t learn from it. Honestly, this infuriates me. I don’t want to insult anyone, but if you can’t learn from fiction, you’re either too lazy to figure out its purpose or you lack an ability to sympathize, or you have some combination of the two.

Understanding fiction isn’t for lightweights. Not only do you have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but you have to be able to read between the lines. Reading and comprehending fiction requires skill and intuition.

Now, I read non-fiction as well. I enjoy books on history and philosophy and science. One of the best books I’ve ever read is a non-fiction book called Sex with the King. But the thing about non-fiction is, you don’t have to go an extra step. All you have to do is read a straightforward argument and decide whether you agree or not. You can go an extra step, but you don’t have to.

With fiction, you’re always presented opposing views. Sure, the author leads you in a certain direction, like a thesis would, but you get to see all the sides. This isn’t always the case with non-fiction. Exceptional non-fiction will provide a full view and use counterarguments, but there is still no requirement that you think outside its confines.

I must admit, I’m tired of people trashing fiction, especially genre fiction. If you open your mind, you can learn just as much, if not more so, from fiction of any kind. And it’s usually a much more enjoyable journey. Some books I would liken to non-fiction, as far as what they can teach a person, include: The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, A Thousand Acres, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Beautiful Monsters.

Those are just off the top of my head. What fiction books would you consider more educational than some non-fiction?

A New Way of Keeping Tabs: Things in My Face, Reader Edition

Early this month, I shared a post on Anxiety Ink about my newest means of keeping tabs on my writing goals. I created an ugly chart and I mark on it every single day whether I write fiction words or not. There’s no better way of keeping an eye on myself than with a bright blue item I can’t escape.

One month in, it’s really working for me. My return to reality week has been the hardest because I caught some bug on the plane home and I was just not present in my life. I nearly didn’t make my “write at least 3 days a week” goal that week, but writing on my chart made me realize that. So I opened my WIP and got some words down ASAP so I didn’t disappoint myself.

As I mentioned on Anxiety Ink, part of the reason I made the chart was because last year by the end of the week when I was finally able to sit down at my desk and see my progress, it was way too late to catch up. I was behind before I even realized it because I wasn’t keeping track where I could easily see my progress, or lack thereof.

One of my goals this year, again, is to read at least 68 books. Early on, I’m coming to understand that the same reason I failed at hitting my writing goals last year is keeping me from staying on top of my reading goals this year: I don’t know I’m behind until it’s too late.

So, I’ve commandeered a small corner of my 6 Month Plan and devoted it to tracking my reading. Every time I finish a book, I write down a number–my last read was the third one I’ve finished so a three went down in roman numerals. I also decided this would be a great chance to learn more roman numerals…mostly because I’m weird.

6 Month Plan (2)

I keep track of all the books I read on Goodreads, but I don’t pay enough attention. Goodreads is distracting so it’s easy to ignore my progress. My chart, which is pretty bare-bones, makes me so much more accountable to myself and makes shirking that much more difficult.

Have you taken steps to improve your productivity this year?

Evolving Reader

In October I read Dark Places by Gillian Flynn for the book club I’m a part of with two good friends. I wrote a post in relation to it for Anxiety Ink and referenced Mary Higgins Clark, who I read quite heavily in my early teens. I haven’t read a book by Clark in years, even though I remember all of the stories I did read with fondness. That fact coupled with my mid-reading feelings about Dark Places (mainly that I just don’t read books like this anymore) got me thinking about how I’ve evolved as a reader.

I’ve always been an enjoyer of stories, but I didn’t get into reading like a maniac until I was around 12. A lot of disruptive things had happened in my life and I was in the midst of a few transitions. This lead to the realization that there is a solace and safety to be found in books. I started reading voraciously and haven’t stopped since.

From around that time there are titles that stand out for me, stories that I know quite intimately because I so connected with them when I read them. Crow Lake by Mary Lawson, We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates, Nora Roberts’ Chesapeake Bay Saga and In the Garden Trilogy, as well as slew of her Eve Dallas titles. I also read every Clark book I could get my hands on.

I immersed myself in Revolutionary France with Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B. Trilogy. I read Anita Shreve’s All He Ever Wanted and was so angry I had to step away from such books for a while. I was horrified by When Rabbit Howls by Truddi Chase. I read a lot of John Grisham. Then somehow delved into the world of fantasy with The Witches of Eileanan by Kate Forsyth, The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce, and The Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart (which I discussed in detail here).

I can’t remember books I’ve read more recently with the kind of detail I can recall about those mentioned above.

I suppose I’d refer to all of these books as my foundation books. I have a fondness for all of them, and return to their authors every now and then, but in some cases I’ve changed as a reader. My tastes have altered and I expect different things from the titles I pick up now. Obviously 25 year old me does not want the same things as 13 year old me.

I’m going to create a few diagrams below to show the kind of reader I was and the various paths I was lead down, much to my reading pleasure. Perhaps if you’re looking to change up your reading and aren’t sure where to start these will help you out. I’m only going to do a few genres and a few titles because otherwise this will turn into the post that never ends.

Romance
I am an enormous romance buff. I can spend hours in the romance section of any bookstore. I’ve read nearly every subcategory and I’ve figured out what I do and don’t like. While Mary Higgins Clark is always found in the mystery section, a number of her books contain a romance element. I suppose I’d have to list her as my first exposure, as well as some truly entertaining Harlequin titles I got my hands on early in my reading life.

Romantic Suspense
This subgenre ties with Paranormal Romance for my favourite subgenre. I’ve read widely within it and have pretty high standards. For the record, I will read anything by Linda Howard.

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Paranormal Romance
I’ve read so many paranormal titles that I would consider myself an expert. I have become increasingly picky when it comes to pararom because I feel like I’ve seen it all and some authors are simply better at writing it than others. I don’t care for soft romantic suspense either. I like dark stories where the door stays open, if you catch my drift.

         

Horror
I would not consider myself a King fan, though Cell is one of the best horror stories I’ve read. One of my best friends is a huge fan so I’d have to count him, through her influence, as my horror foundation.

   

Urban Fantasy
I adore urban fantasy and there are so many fabulous women writing in the genre!

     

Fantasy
My fantasy tastes are all over the place. I’ve listed high fantasy with what I suppose you could call regular fantasy and medieval here. I’ve removed all the urban titles at least.

           

Fiction
This genre is far too wide to tackle in full, so I’ve charted with titles I mentioned earlier.

     

YA
I dislike that YA lit is hodgepodged all together. I sometimes wish it was organized into different genres like adult lit, but I think that time will come soon. When I was a young adult there weren’t nearly as many titles available to me as there are to kids now. I love it. But as you can see, my younger years weren’t well organized.

           

I have glossed over a lot of titles and genres. I have to revisit this idea with a little more research behind me.

I’d love to hear about your gateway titles and the paths they’ve lead you down! While I have more to-read titles than I will ever admit, I love to hear a good recommendation.

Three Series Set In Medieval Britain You Should Read

Even after thousands of years, there’s still something that calls to me from ancient Rome. Especially when it comes to literature. I can’t say that I know all the ins and outs of the Roman Empire, I know a little about this, a little about that. But one thing I’ve always found myself drawn to is the epic failure of Rome’s conquest of Britannia and the formation of Medieval Britain.

Then there is my fascination with all things Arthurian. Knights, epic quests, the famed Round Table, Merlin –all of it pulls on my heart strings. Always has. Ancient codes, ancient magic, Welsh history. What is not to love?

Couple my Roman Britain interest with my fascination for Arthurian tales and you can guarantee I’m going to read any book that pairs those two together. Even ones that don’t if they’re set in medieval Britain. I can’t help myself!

There are three series I’ve read (some in-part) that definitely do the Dark Ages justice.

The Roman Britain Trilogy by Rosemary Sutcliff

I’ve read Sutcliff’s trilogy most recently, and I finished all three stories, The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, and The Lantern Bearers, in the compilation The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles. While the tales are aimed at a younger audience, I don’t think that should stop any older reader from enjoying them.

I picked up my copy of The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles after seeing the movie version of The Eagle of the Ninth. The dynamics between the two main characters Marcus, a Roman, and Esca, a slave, was rich and entertaining both on screen and on the page. My greatest disappointment was that the rest of the books did not follow these two but instead leapt forward in time to cover other stories about Marcus’s ancestors. Honestly, that disappointment didn’t last long.

What makes the series work so well is how this leaping in time allows Sutcliff to show the rise and fall of Rome exclusively in Britain. The Eagle of the Ninth illustrates the tensions between the newly settled Romans and the old Celtic tribes of Britain who are fighting their conquerers tooth and nail to protect their culture.

The Silver Branch shows Rome at its height of power, but also the instability that has arisen on the island with the heart of Rome so far away and the series of commanders who instate themselves as emperors. The main characters are loyal to Rome, wish to make their fathers’ proud as they follow in their footsteps, while they navigate an unsteady world.

Lastly, The Lantern Bearers paints a vivid image of the abandonment of Britain on Rome’s part and the new tensions that have developed across the land with the invasion of the Saxons. The main character of the last book, Aquila, is particularly broody and deals with the greatest adversity. His tale is the one that will haunt you. He was definitely my favourite.

What ties all three stories together so well is their mutual focus on pairs of young men at a critical point of development.  Their understandings of honour and their willingness to fight for what they believe is right add suspense. Not that right is always utterly black and white, as they find out. My only pique is the fact that Sutcliff’s women are few, and the ones she writes are boring.

A Dream of Eagles Series by Jack Whyte

There’s nothing negative for me to say about Whyte’s series, though it has been a long time since I started them. Each is rather lengthy, but once you’re into the story it feels like it needs to be longer. I have to admit I’ve only finished the first four books in the series so far. The only reason I haven’t read the next two, or the companion stories, is because I don’t want to be done! I’m rather attached to the world and I keep having bouts of separation anxiety.

This series also follows a lengthy period of time; it’s set directly during and after Rome’s abandonment of Britain. What makes it unique in my opinion is how it shows the commencement of the Dark Days of Britain and how one small faction does whatever it can to make a life worth living in the face of social annihilation. It’s evolution or destruction as far as they’re concerned. Moreover, Whyte writes this series without a great deal of magic involved. Aside from some gifts of foresight, even Merlin is more cleaver than magical in this world.

The first books, The Skystone and The Singing Sword are narrated by King Arthur’s great grandfather Publius Varrus. In them we see Publius, a master swordsmith, come together with his former legion general, Caius Britannicus. With a host of others, they form the foundations of Camelot while Roman sentiment is still relatively strong across the island. However, in The Singing Sword Rome starts to leave Britannia and so the people of Camelot form new bonds with their neighbours, the clan of the Pendragons, and define what it means to be a Briton.

In the next books, The Eagles’ Brood and The Saxon Shore, Merlin, or Caius Merlyn Britannicus, Arthur’s uncle, takes over the narration of the series. In this pair of novels we see the next generation of Briton’s deal with their newest enemies, the Saxons, not to mention the daily struggles of leading a colony in a war-torn place. My favourite aspects of these two books is the relationship between the cousins Uther and Merlin, and ultimately how Arthur comes to be born and raised by Merlin. The Saxon Shore especially shows what is meant by the Dark Ages and it’s with tenuous bonds that Merlin manages to maintain the legacy of this forefathers as he struggles under a mountain of personal grief.

The next pair, The Sorcerer Volume I: The Fort at River’s Bend and The Sorcerer Volume II: Metamorphoses, sometimes sold as a single work called The Sorcerer, I desperately need to read soon! Not to mention the companion book Uther that I’ve had my eye on for what seems like forever.

Whyte’s style follows in the tradition of historical fiction. After reading A Dream of Eagles you will truly wonder whether is was all real, whether Camelot really did rise then fall much like the empire that lead to it’s creation.

The Arthurian Saga/The Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart

Ok, I’ve saved the best for last because Mary Stewart is one of my favourite authors of all time and her Merlin series is unbelievably good. Yes, the entire five book series is called the Arthurian Saga, but Merlin is the star of the first three which comprise the Merlin Trilogy. This one will always hold a special place for me because it is the very first Arthurian series I read. Plus, the books aren’t enormous tomes!

It’s been a long time since I’ve read them, so my memory is a bit sparse compared to what I was able to recount about the stories above. They all deserve five stars; I still feel strongly about that.

While Stewart’s series is set right after the abandonment of Britain, there is very little focus on Rome or the legacy of Rome. Thus it does rely on its readers to intuit the cause of Britain’s Dark Days. What Stewart does focus on are the Welsh roots of the Arthurian legend; I learned more about Wales and the Welsh language from this series than I have anywhere else.

The saga begins with The Crystal Cave, a story devoted entirely to the creation of Merlin. We follow the magician’s upbringing and learn what makes him unique in this world of constantly-fighting lesser-kings. Near the end we also come to learn of the origins of Arthur and Merlin’s role in his conception. I love how human this book paints Merlin. And Stewart too shows Merlin as more of a genius of his time rather than a man of magic, though in those days those may have been one and the same.

Next comes The Hollow Hills, which follows Arthur’s upbringing and rise to manhood. Narrated by Merlin, we follow as he plays politician amidst the danger of a ravaged Britain in order to keep Arthur safe and to ensure that he is able to claim his rightful place as heir to the Pendragon when the time is right. As hard as Merlin works to keep Arthur’s path clear, mainly by keeping the boy hidden, there are other powers at work wishing to taint the future of the High King.

The Last Enchantment marks the final book in the Merlin Trilogy and book four in the Arthurian Saga. Once again narrated by Merlin, we celebrate as Arthur comes uncontested to power. However, there are evil forces who have made good on their desire to see Arthur’s reign come to an ignominious end –not that we’ll see the end in this installment, just the threads that will lead to it later on. The focus of this story is the court of King Arthur and Merlin’s role as adviser. It’s fraught with tension, especially while the plot of Arthur’s half-sister unfolds.

I’m torn when it comes to The Wicked Day, book four. Mostly because Stewart makes me love Mordred and Arthur, and then she lets their stupid pride get the best of them. But I suppose you can’t change legend or history, depending on what you believe. Merlin is absent from this book and it’s told in third person, unlike all the others. In it the tale of Mordred is revealed in the tradition of Merlin and Arthur in the Merlin Trilogy, and shows his great attempt to become more than an instrument of doom. His failure is horribly tragic and wonderfully detailed.

Finally, much to my surprise, there is a fifth book in the Arthurian Saga! I came across The Prince and the Pilgrim while browsing the shelves at Powell’s Books in Portland when I visited a couple of years ago. I may have said, “holy shit, it can’t be,” when I realized what treasure I held in my hands. I’m looking forward to reading it but I’m still mad about Arthur and Mordred, which is why I haven’t yet picked it up.

I must mention one aspect of Stewart’s series that I find troubling. The depiction of male magic versus female magic really sets my teeth to grinding. Obviously, Merlin’s magic is all good since he works consistently to help Arthur. His nemesis is the truly evil Morgause, who uses her feminine wiles and witch magic against Arthur at every opportunity. Morgause is evil, no question. But there isn’t a powerful woman in the whole series to balance her out. The Lady of the Lake is simply too much of a side player.

I take issue with any storyteller who depicts female sexuality and power as evil, especially when her foil is a largely abstinent man. However, I suppose that is the foundation myth Stewart had to use. And these were written primarily in the 70s.

And there you have it! After compiling this list I realize that while I’ve read a number of books set in Medieval Britain, I’ve only read a few series. I’d love to rectify that, so if you have any to suggest please let me know!

 

*Please note this post contains affiliate links. Should you click on the links and purchase any of the books I’ve mentioned I will receive a small commission from Amazon at no extra cost to you. All funds are reinvested into E.V. Writes, so thank you in advance for your support.