YOFR: A Book of Any Genre That Addresses Current Events

This month I got more bang for my buck by choosing one book that would actually fit on both of the lists on the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge. This month on the Year of Fun Reading Challenge (YOFR) I was supposed to read a book of any genre that addresses current events. But the book I chose, Company Town, by Madeleine Ashby, also would fit under the Reading for Growth Challenge, under this month’s category of a Genre I Usually Avoid, as it is science fiction. Although I can enjoy SF at times, it’s not one of my go-to genres.

However, Company Town is pretty soft science fiction, which is the way I like my SF, generally. So it’s not too far outside of my comfort zone.

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I picked this book for a number of reasons. First of all, in my quest to try to read more Canadian spec-fic authors (sparked by my verrry slow Book Bingo challenge from last year), this one, shortlisted for CBC’s 2017 Canada Reads competition, fit that bill. Secondly, it’s speculative fiction. Thirdly, it addresses current events.

Sort of. Company Town is set in the near future, in a town located off the east coast of Canada called New Arcadia which has been completely bought out and taken over by an oil company, whose rigs provide the main source of wealth in the town. In fact, the rig pretty much IS the town. The protagonist is Go-Jung Hwa, the only person in New Arcadia who does not have any bio-engineered enhancements, and that makes her difficult for others with enhancements to see. This, along with her expertise in self-defence, comes in handy in her job as a security guard, and she is hired to protect the son of the multi-billionaire owner of the oil company that owns the town.

This was all I knew about the book before I read it. I don’t like to know too much about a book going in, which sometimes is not the best strategy. You can see that from how often I have been surprised by a book being YA when I wasn’t expecting it. This one, thankfully, is not.

I picked it because I thought it was going to explore the oil industry, and where it might be going in the future.  I live in Alberta, where the oil industry is one of our major sources of income, and where there is considerable debate about its merits. I thought this book might address that in an interesting, fictional way.

Well, not so much. The book doesn’t discuss the pros and cons of the oil industry or our reliance on fossil fuels (which I admit I was rather glad about) but it does address other current issues such as the place of technology in our lives and where it might be leading us. That threw me for a loop, but once I realized it wasn’t really about the oil industry at all I readjusted and quit trying to find that thread in it. The casual acceptance of the bio-enhancements portrayed in the book was certainly food for thought, and frighteningly very plausible.

The book also speaks to the power of big corporations and their hold on ordinary people. The portrayal of both the oil company which holds all the purse strings in the town and is playing fast and loose with the truth of what it is actually developing under the water and the invasiveness of the bio-enhancements which people add to themselves to “keep up with the Jones'” has a lot to say about the power of greed, unbridled capitalism, and the effects of those on ordinary people who just want a job to go to and to be successful in their lives.

The book doesn’t hit you over the head with these themes, though, which I appreciate. It is basically set up as a murder mystery, with Hwa trying to solve some unsettling murders which all seem to be related to a threat faced by her teenaged charge.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the positive side, Ashby is a strong writer technically, and she had an interesting idea. I loved the Canadian setting, and the near-future, gritty,  cyber-punky feel to the book. I liked the main character for the most part. Even though she would definitely fall under the category of “warrior-chick” which I get so tired of, Ashby fleshed her out enough that she is interesting and relatable.

However I did struggle reading it at times. It always takes awhile to settle into the world of any fantasy or science fiction book, so I tried to ignore my niggling questions and confusion I felt at the beginning. But those questions kept popping up, and kept not being resolved, and it started to bug me the further into the book I got. The worst was the questions that surrounded Hwa. You learn early on that she has a “stain” on her face, and for some reason this makes her unsuitable for enhancements. I assume the author meant a port wine stain but wasn’t sure why this made her unsuitable, which wasn’t revealed until later when you realize her mother thought her ugly and unworthy of the expense of enhancement.

But along with the stain she has some kind of mysterious medical condition which causes seizures, and it seemed to be related to the stain on her face, or was it? Do port wine stains cause seizures? I didn’t think so but maybe they do? Or maybe this was unrelated to the stain but the way it was written made me think it was…and so you see I keep being confused about this point which kept throwing me out of the book.

The setting, the oil rig/town with the various towers was a bit unclear to me too. I had a hard time getting settled into the landscape of the book. Maybe it was just me.

I found the plot confusing at times, too. It’s basically a sci-fi murder mystery, which is fine. But there is also some romance thrown in, which is also fine, but her love interest, Daniel, seems a little too good to be true and their relationship is not really believable at times.

I think that qualifier, “at times” sums up the problems I was having with this book. It was uneven. Maybe trying to do too much? Some places the book snaps along, at others it meanders, trying to find its way. And at times Ashby resorts to stock characters to prop up plot failings, and it doesn’t work.

All these problems come into stark relief at the climax of the book, unfortunately.  I looked at the Goodreads reviews I saw others struggled with the ending too. I’m not exactly sure I understand the explanation of it all, to tell you the truth. It all felt a bit forced and out of left field.

So while I really wanted to love this book, I came away unsatisfied. It has potential, but I wish it had just a little more cohesion and a better ending.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 5. Stellar idea and good writing, but plot needs work.

 

2017 Year of Fun Reading: Wrap Up!

All good things must come to an end. Before I head off bravely into a brand-spanking new year, I have to pause for a moment to say farewell to my last year’s reading challenge, the Year of Fun Reading.

This was a reading challenge that I found on the blog of Modern Mrs. Darcy (if you don’t listen to her What Should I Read Next? podcast, you should!). Each month I read a book that fit into the category she suggested, and, as the title suggested, it was actually a lot of fun.

To put my own spin on it, I tried to read books that fit into either speculative fiction or history, to complement my focus here on the blog.

As I went though the year I discovered authors I had never read before, which was great. I read good books, and not-so-good books, and rediscovered an old favourite. As I close up the series, I wanted to follow my previous pattern and do a wrap up of what I learned through this year of reading.

Just as a refresher, here are the categories, in order, and the books I read for each one. I didn’t do them all in the order that the “official” list suggested, and I borrowed one or two from the alternate list of “Reading for Growth” instead of “Reading for Fun”…which got me into a little trouble. I realized as I compiled my list I actually read two Books I was Excited to Read but Haven’t Read Yet because I has forgotten that I did this category at the beginning of the series instead of at the end, so I did it again. I also only read eleven books, not twelve, due to less time for reading that I thought I would have in the summer, and Way of Kings was a long book! Oops. Oh well.

Links included to each post, just in case you want to refresh your memory, or are visiting my blog for the first time (hi!).

January – Book I Chose for the Cover – Hot Lead, Cold Iron, by Ari Marmell

February – Book You Are Excited to Read or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet – Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

March – Un-put-downable Book – Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

April – Book Set in a Place You’ve Never Been But Would Like to Visit – Daughter of Smoke and Bone

May  – Book I’ve Already Read –  Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

June – Book About Books or Reading – Ink and Bone (Great Library #1), by Rachel Caine

July – Book of Any Genre Addressing Current Events – Company Town, by Madeline Ashby

August/September – Book That Has More Than 600 Pages – Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

October – Book Recommended by Someone With Great Taste – Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

November – Book in the Backlist of a New Favourite Author – The Forgotten Girl, by Rio Youers

December – Book You Were Excited to Buy or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet – Kin of Cain, by Matthew Harffy

Without further ado, here’s my wrap-up of the 2017 Reading Challenge:

  1. The book I liked the least – Well, this was tricky. I didn’t hate any of the books, but unknownthere were a few that were definitely underwhelming. But, Queen of the Tearling has to be the one I enjoyed the least. The plot holes and thinly veiled hostility towards religion was just too much for me. Meh. A close runner-up would be Daughter of Ink and Bone. I actually gave that book two stars, and Queen I gave three, mainly because of the sexy angel element in Daughter. It’s plot is much tighter than Queen of the Tearling, though, so all in all Queen of the Tearling gets the dubious nod for the book I liked the least.

 

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2. Book I liked the best – in contrast, it was quite easy to pick the book I liked the best, even though there were strong contenders for this one. But far and away the book I enjoyed the most was The Book of the Dun Cow. I love so much about this book, from the writing, to the characters, to the plot, to the beauty of the story. I read it under the category of  The Book I’ve Already Read, and I’m so glad I did. I loved it way back when, and my appreciation for it has only deepened with time. Fantastic and highly recommended.

3. Book/s I wished I had written – It goes without saying that Book of the Dun Cow would

Unknown fall under this category also. I can only hope to ever write that well, and it’s the kind of book that hits me in all the right ways. But in surveying the other books on the list, I would have to say Way of Kings would be my second choice for the book I wish I had written.  I do love epic fantasy, and found the world-building and concepts explored here interesting. It’s a great feat to build a world and characters as ably as Sanderson does. But I would try to trim that beginning just a wee bit, if I were to do it. But, hey, he’s a multi-best-selling author and I’m just a wannabe, so what do I know anyway?

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4. Book/s I’m still thinking about  – again, Book of the Dun Cow. ‘Nuf said. But setting that one aside, I would have to say that the book that lingered with me the most was Dark Matter. Aside from being a terrific thriller and a fun read, it raised questions that lingered long after I finished it.

 

5. Book I was most disappointed in – the nod for this has to go to Company Unknown-2Town. I had high hopes for this one, and I really wanted to like it, but it just didn’t succeed in the ways that I wanted it to. Aspects of plot and characters were a bit too muddy, and the ending a little too out of left field. I want to support Canadian authors, and I was excited to read this one, which was picked as one of the Canada Reads books of 2017, but it just didn’t live up to my expectations of it. Bummer.

225x225bb6. Book that pleasantly surprised me – This was a pretty easy pick. I had been avoiding Ready Player One because I really dislike the “teen hero saves the world” plot, AKA Wesley Crusher. I haven’t read Ender’s Game, but I saw the movie and just couldn’t get into it because of that very reason. I figured that Ready Player One was just the same. But,my book guru recommended it, and as she and I have similar tastes in books, I gave it a try. And I liked it! Yes, perhaps the author got a bit carried away by the 1980s references and relied on them too much to carry the plot along, but, whatever. I found it a fun read. Really looking forward to what Spielberg is going to do with this on the big screen. If ever a book was made to be a movie, this one was!

7. Best writing – our of all the books I read this year for this challenge, there were three that stood out to me as having writing that is better than the rest:

  •   Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin Jr. tops the list.  Wangerin’s poetic, yet5139RwDhQDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ simple style of writing here is a master class for writers. The voice of the book is distinct, with its folk-tale feel, and the reader falls under the story’s spell from the first page. But with the first introduction of Chauntecleer the Rooster and Mundo Cani Dog, you realize there is something more to this story than a simple children’s tale, depths which slowly unfurl along the way of the story’s slow telling. This book won the National Book Award for the U.S., and it is a deserving winner.
  • The Forgotten Girl, by Rio Youers. I fell in love with Youer’s writing when I read Weforgotten girlstlake Soul, one of the best books I’ve read in the last couple years and probably the one I have recommended to other people more than any other book recently. The Forgotten Girl didn’t have quite the same impact, but Youer’s skill in writing was still on display in this suspense thriller. I loved the way he wove a sweet love story into the midst of this story. I also love the portrayal of the main character and his father. Youers ability to write about love and relationships in more than just a superficial way is one I much admire, especially as he does it here in the midst of a super-charged plot. Very well done and a great read. Unknown
  • Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson. As I mentioned above, it’s not easy to create a whole new world and make it believable, but Sanderson does that here. Although I love big, long books, it’s been awhile since I’ve read any, just because I haven’t had the time. But this book reminded me why they are so much fun. Even though the beginning was a bit tough to get into, once I did I thoroughly enjoyed it. Now I understand why Sanderson is so very much admired for his epic fantasies!

All in all, I really enjoyed this year’s Year of Fun Reading. Thank you to Ann Bogel, the Modern Mrs. Darcy herself, who inspired this challenge. If any of you are wanting to do something similar, she has her new challenge for 2018 up on her blog right now.

However, I’m going to do something different for 2018. Come back next week for the reveal of my new Reading Challenge for the New Year!

 

Fiction Feature: Two Sides, Pt. II

Last week I shared Part I of this story. If you missed it, please start there! Here’s Part II…hope you like it!


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Two Sides, Part II

By L.A. Smith

I tossed and turned, thinking through my options, but by morning my decision was made. I had to move fast, before the Jack could snare any more. It was up to me to stop him. Tariq wanted to help me, but he had no idea what he was up against. Taliban or no, the Jack was a bird of a different stripe. He would tear the innkeeper to pieces if he stood in his way.

It would have to be a fight. I would have to challenge him in a duel, and to the victor belonged the spoils.

I checked my computer first thing. I had sent out a couple of messages last night, to other Watchers, asking some questions, looking for some support. But when I tried to log into my mail, it didn’t work. Nor could I access the internet. Service was down.

We are in this ’til the end. Together. Jacks lied as easily as breathing, but something about those words wouldn’t let me go. Something bad is coming.  I felt it too, deep in my bones.

My cell phone was dead, so I grabbed at the landline but it had no dial tone. I strode to the window and pulled aside my curtains, looking into the rain-lashed day.

It was blowing pretty hard, leaves and branches scattered on the streets. An orange light flashed down the road, and I craned my head to see.

Telephone company truck.

The storm had taken down our phone service, and had screwed up our Internet connection too, it seemed.

I had no doubt that if I tried to take my car and drive out of town, a road would be blocked, washed out by the rain, or my car wouldn’t start. Something would happen to prevent me from leaving.

I took a deep breath, letting the curtain fall.

#

Later that day, I stood by the door to the Lantern, composing myself. I had spent some time going around to the people I had already talked to, and some more that I hadn’t. Good ol’ Bob at the Thrift Store, he had done as I had asked, warned his friends against the Jack. He was pretty dismissive of the movie talk that had sprung up overnight, not being one to be dazzled by bright lights.

But just in case, I had used a little sparkle of my own, one that he could not help be dazzled by.

This was desperate times. If I lost the coming fight, the Jack would still be here, with no one to stop him. I’ve seen what happens to a town when a Jack wins. I didn’t want that to happen here.

So I warned as many as I could, reinforcing my words with a little sparkle, trying to turn back some of those the Jack had gathered under his wings. It worked pretty good, actually, and so I was feeling a little more confident as I stood by the door, getting ready for the end game.

He would be out of here by midnight, I resolved. I had cut his influence. Now I just had to   best him in the fight that was coming. I clenched my fists, took a deep breath, and pushed the door open.

The Jack looked straight at me as soon as the door opened, his eyes springing to mine like he had been waiting for me. He looked sick, greyer than he had been yesterday, the lines on his face etched deeper. He nodded at me and hacked into his handkerchief.

I pushed through the crowd that flocked around him. ”I’ll meet you at the Trench in an hour,” I said. “I have something to show you.”

Something sparked in his eye, and a smile spread on his face.

My friends were looking at me with gaping mouths, and again I was reminded of chicks waiting for their next worm.

“Oh, aye,” he said, and even though the music was pounding, I could hear him as clearly as if we were the only two there. “In an hour.”

#

The Trench was an odd thing. It was a scar in the earth, an opening to unknown depths. About 400 feet long and no one knew exactly how deep. In some spots geologists had measured over 8,000 feet down, but their readings always went a little wonky, and so the jury was out on it.

Needless to say, you couldn’t just walk up to the thing, there was too much of a risk that someone could fall in. An enclosure ran around it, with a gate. A building stood nearby where you could buy tickets, along with a gift shop, and a walkway going over and around part of it which had a self-guided tour.

It may seem odd that I had asked the Jack to meet me there, as it was a popular spot with tourists and locals alike. But that wasn’t where I was. That Trench wasn’t the only one in town. There was another one, that only the locals knew about, about a mile from the big one. A smaller scar, about 30 foot long, but just as deep, as far as we knew. It was on private land, and not easily accessible.

Not a problem for me, though because that land had been my Gramma’s. It belonged to my cousin, now, but I didn’t stop in for a visit. This meeting was just for the Birdman and me.

I had no worries that he would go to the other Trench. He would know where to go, where I was. That’s just the way it was, between Jacks and Watchers.

And in the meantime, the others, who had heard my challenge, would go to the other one, for no matter that the Jack would dissuade them, slip away unseen, his hold over them was such that they would follow.  Some of them would figure it out, when they got there and we weren’t there, and head over to the right place. But by that time, it would all be over. One way or another. I would make sure of that.

So at the appointed time I was waiting, mentally assessing possible scenarios for the upcoming fight, looking over the landscape, rehearsing strategy.

This Trench was in a clearing in the woods in the back of the property, at the top of a small rise, a crack in the earth like a crack at the top of a loaf of bread. I was waiting at the bottom of the rise, and I saw the blue jacket coming a ways off, even though the day was waning and the shadows starting to lengthen.

The rain had stopped, but everything was drippy and soggy, and it was cold.

He approached, hacking and sputtering as he came, and I thought I saw him weave unsteadily on his feet.

I frowned. He couldn’t be drunk. The Jacks aren’t affected by alcohol. If they get drunk on anything, it was on the misery and chaos they caused in people’s lives.

He came to a halt in front of me, panting heavily, coughing wetly again.

“Sick, are you?”

He smiled, faintly. “Never mind that,” he said, waving my words away. “I’ll do just fine.”

“What’s this about?” I said, abruptly, curiosity besting my resolve to be quick. “You’re needling me into a fight you can’t win. That’s unlike your kind.”

He barked a laugh, which turned into a wheezing cough. He bent over, hacking and gasping, and as he did, he staggered. Even though I should have known better, I took a step forward, instinctively putting out a hand to steady him.

And he came at me, fast. He was already bent down, low, and he propelled himself forward, grasping my outstretched arm and using my momentum against me to pull me towards him.

His head rammed into my gut like a sledgehammer, and the wind was knocked out of me.

But my training held me in good stead. My reflexes were pretty fast, and I managed to slip away from his grappling hands, staggering a few steps away and giving myself a couple of seconds to get my lungs working again.

Even so, it could have gone bad for me except for the Jack’s weakened condition. The exertion had caused him to cough again, and he was bent over, wheezing just about as bad as me.

I recovered a split second before him. No more Mr. Nice Guy. I darted forward, and as he lifted his head to get his bearings my uppercut caught him squarely under the chin.

I had put everything I had in it, and it would have dropped most men. But this was a Jack, and even debilitated by whatever mystery sickness had gripped him, he was made of pretty strong stuff.

It rocked him, alright, but he managed to stay upright. I didn’t give him any time to recover. I was on him hard, got a couple more punches in before he got his hands up.

The next thing I knew I was staggering back, reeling from a powerful right hook. I felt my eye swelling and cursed my luck.

But it was the only sound blow he landed, as it turned out.

As fights go, it was pretty quick. The sickness that had laid him low had taken away most of his strength. But even so…it was odd. I felt like he was holding something back.

But, whatever. I would take any advantage I had. I soon knocked him down, and paused for a moment as I crouched over him, my fist cocked. I had him, and he knew it. I could see the acceptance in his eye, and my blood surged in triumph.

I lowered my fist. He would surrender to me, and leave, and that would be that.

But he grimaced.  “Finish it, Watcher. Do it. Y’know ye want to.”

The thought had crossed my mind, I admit it. It was the reason I had chosen this spot. I could throw him down the Trench and no one would ever know. But that was going to be the last resort, if I couldn’t best him any other way.

I had beaten him fairly. I wouldn’t kill him now, in cold blood, so to speak. It wasn’t the way I worked.

He saw my hesitation. “I’ll come back, and collect them again. It’s too much fun to be had here, stealing them from right under yer nose. Ye ha’ no idea, what I’ve learned already. The secrets yer friends carry, it’s like to turn yer stomach, Watcher.”

“Enough,” I said, shoving myself upright. “I’ve won. Time for you to go.”

He clambered wearily to his feet, hacking once or twice. He wiped the spittle off of his chin, his beady eyes glittering with malevolence as he eyed me. “Not yet, Watcher. Yer not quite ready, me thinks.”

Ready? I didn’t have time to puzzle it out, because he came at me again, quicker than a snake striking.

It took me by surprise, so I was a split second too long in my sidestep away from him. He clipped me, spinning me around, and then he was on me, and it was different this time. This time he was giving me everything he had, nothing barred.

I did the best I could, knew that if I could hang on long enough this blaze of effort would wear him out. But it was too much. He was in close, punching, twisting, wrestling me, and I laid a few blows on him, but glancing ones, only.

He was strong, and quick, and had fought many more times than me, even with all my practice bouts. I held my own for a few moments, but soon I was on the ground, the Jack growling as he wrapped his hands around my throat and began to squeeze.

In panicked desperation I heaved up, ripping and tearing at his face.

And it worked. His grip around my throat slackened, for just a second, but it was the second I needed. I tore his hands away, and pushed him off me.

My momentum kept me going, and I had no thought now, for mercy. He had shown me none. He was scrabbling away, but I leapt on him, and our positions were reversed.

My hands around his throat, my guttural roar loud as I squeezed.

Everything fled from me except for the fight to survive. Rage filled me, mixed with disgust for this creature and his ilk; my strength renewed by the memory of the friends I had lost to the Jacks before and fear for the friends here already caught in his snare.

He was heaving under me, but he was getting weaker, I could feel it, and pressed harder, triumph surging.

“Stop this! Chris! STOP!”

The voice was loud in my ear, the shock of it like a cold dash of water in my face, and it loosened my grip.

It was Tariq, who shoved me off the Jack. I sprawled inelegantly beside the Birdman, who was heaving and hacking in great wheezing breaths.  “Not this way, Chris, you must not!”

“What the hell–” I sputtered, scrambling up and pushing Tariq aside. It was his turn to go sprawling. I grabbed the Jack by the collar, hoisting him up, intending to smash his head against the hard ground.

He grabbed at my arm, a twisted grin blooming on his face. “Secrets,” he whispered, and choked and sputtered again, “I know them all—“

But I was foiled again by the barkeep, who leapt to his feet. “Christian!” he roared.

I tell you, I felt that, right in the heart of me, my name resonating there like the clanging of a bell, and  I dropped the Jack out of my suddenly numb hands,  falling to my knees beside him.

A memory opened up: my Gramma’s voice firm as she prayed for me. Lord, bless this boy, who bears your name and does your work, in his hour of trial and time of testing. 

I was young, maybe 5 or 6, and we sat on the porch of her house, looking out towards this very spot, although the Trench itself was hidden by a line of trees. I was impatient, thinking only of the cookies she was baking for me, that smelled so good.

For a split second, I was there, seeing my Gramma, her white hair around her like a halo, wishing she would stop talking and get me a cookie.

Then I was back, the Jack howling and twisting, and Tariq, stern and resolute with his hand stretched towards me.

“What—“ I croaked, disoriented. None of this made sense.

“Look,” Tariq said, gesturing at the Jack.

His howls, though weaker now, still rent the air. He twisted and bucked, but he seemed to be unaware of me, his eyes rolling in his head. Something was terribly wrong with him.

Suddenly his eyes righted, focussed on mine again. “Do it, fool,” he rasped, his voice a low snarl. “I want you to do—” A fit overtook him again, and he went rigid, for a moment.

It would have been easy to finish him off. He was helpless, caught in the grip of whatever illness had overcome him.

But the blood lust had left me, and I felt nothing but pity and horror as I watched him shake and gnash his teeth, howl in one last unearthly screech, and then, in a great shudder, fall still.

He was dead.

We were both frozen there for a moment, the Jack and I, until Tariq squatted down on his heels beside us, and I tore my gaze away from the Jack. “How–?” My tongue stalled, tripped up against all the questions I had.

He regarded me solemnly, and I had to resist the urge to squirm under that measured gaze. “Christian,” he said, shaking his head. Again, I felt that chiming resonance within me as he said my name, muted this time. “You are a Watcher, but you do not see.”

Sudden fear seized me. Was he a Jack?  I pushed the fear aside. It couldn’t be. They had one name, only. And Tariq wasn’t it.

But who is he? I wanted to interrogate him, to find out what was going on, to find out exactly how much he knew, and how he knew it. But the words died in my mouth in the face of his quiet regard. “I don’t understand,” I managed.

A faint smile crossed his face. “Ah. At last you show some wisdom.” He gestured at the Jack again, lying between us.”Look at him.”

The command in his voice was such that my head snapped down without hesitation. The Birdman was perfectly still, absolutely dead. My eyes roved over him, but I saw nothing that jumped out at me.

I looked back at Tariq. “What killed him?”

“His time was over. Is that not so, for all men?”

“But he was sick, or something. I’ve never seen a Jack—“ I broke off.

“Look at him,” he said, again.

Prodded by a sudden impulse, I reached towards the body, rolling it towards me. The head lolled limply, his hair caught in a sudden gust, lifting off his face.

Shock went through me like a bolt of lightning, and I dropped him as if burned, scrabbling to my feet. There, behind his right ear, was a small birthmark, in the shape of a star.

A mark identical to my own.

Tariq rose to his feet smoothly. “Now you see.”

And suddenly, I did. I had always wondered where the Jacks came from, who I was, what this strange dance we were engaged in meant. With a slow shudder of horror I saw the truth. “He knew he was dying,” I whispered, and Tariq nodded. “And he wanted to somehow change me—“

Tariq shook his head, sharply. “Don’t be foolish. He was only prodding you down the path you were eager to go.”

“What are you talking about? I don’t want to be a Jack—“ But then my mouth snapped shut as memories of my day rushed back. I had gone around to my friends, to people I loved, and had used my influence on them, sparkling  at them to quiet any questions they had about why I was so insistent on them staying away from the Jack. I had seen their acquiescence, felt it, smugly satisfied in my success. They had been wrapped around my little finger, snared just as securely as a Jack snared his victims.

And then what? I had come out here to run the Jack out of town, or I had tried to tell myself that, but in the face of Tariq’s unwavering gaze I had to admit to myself that really, I had come here to kill him. To take my revenge, to toss him in the Trench—

I staggered, a wave of dizziness washing over me. “I would be like him.” I gasped, backing away in horror.

“Yes,” he said, quietly, and that word pressed in on me so hard I almost fell to my knees again.

“And if I had done it, if I had killed him…” I couldn’t finish.

”You would have risen from his death, tossed his body back to the depths, and had taken his place as a Jack, your name erased, your legacy turned to his purpose. And you would have done it eagerly.”

I could see it as he spoke; see me finishing the deed, see me striding away from here, whistling, not a care in the world, my corruption following me like a dark shadow.

And but for Tariq, I would have done it. “Why are you here?”

Something flashed through his eyes, a burnished flame, and then he smiled, and shrugged. “You asked for my help, remember?” His eyes caught mine, his gaze serene, and the breath caught in my throat.

I had a million other questions, but I couldn’t get them out as he turned, walking away rapidly.

The clouds were beginning to part, the death of the Jack bringing the usual summer sun back. Tariq had almost reached the trees when a sudden spear of sunlight stabbed the ground in front of him, and he walked through it and into the trees.

Or maybe he disappeared into that light. It was hard to tell, from where I was standing.

I looked down at the Jack, at one of my own, who had nearly succeeded in capturing me in the same darkness that had enveloped him, and shook my head.

With some effort, I dragged him to the top of the rise, and panting, rolled him into the black rift at the top.

I listened for a long time, but I did not hear anything from the depths.

Finally I stood, wearily, and made my way down the rise, heading for the trees. I was halfway there when my friends appeared. George, and Jim, and luckless Ed.

They approached me, worry on their faces, and congregated around.

“Holy cow, Chris, what happened to you?” Jim said, whistling as he looked at my eye, the bruises on my face. “Where’s that guy?”

I shrugged. “Gone.” I grinned then, feeling light as a feather. “We had a little disagreement.”

George frowned. “You chased him off?” He let out a breath, and I could almost see the Jack’s spell dropping off him. “Ya know, he was a bit creepy. I bet he wasn’t going to make a movie after all. I heard he was a con man. You likely did us a favour.”

He clapped my shoulder, the rest crowding close, eager to tell me what they really thought of him.

Just like chicks around their mama, looking for a worm.

I grimaced. “Come on, fellas, Never mind. Look, I’m tired. Been a rough day. Let’s go to the Lantern, shoot some pool. Waddya say?”

They grinned, and nodded, and I hadn’t used any sparkle on them at all.


Want more original fiction? Here’s the links to my other stories up on the blog:

Two Sides, Pt. 1

Chasing the Prize

More

Life for Life

Dust 

A Delicious Irony

“Red”

This Strange Thing Called Fear

 

 

Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, PT. II

Two weeks ago we left off with Cuthbert, prior of Lindisfarne, taking a break from his rigorous duties and retiring from the world to live the life of a hermit on the Inner Farne Island, a few miles east of Lindisfarne. We’ll pick up the story from there….


The island of Inner Farne was deserted….or was it? Bede tells us that the first thing Cuthbert does is to banish some devils from the island who presumably had moved in once Aidan left, as the first Bishop of Lindisfarne had once used the Inner Farne as a place of retreat as well.  Once the island is cleansed from evil spiritual influences, Cuthbert is now free to build his hermitage.

The Inner Farne is one of a group of wild, windswept islands. Certainly Cuthbert got his wish to be free of human company, but even today the wildlife there is quite extensive, including over 100 species of seabirds (the Cuddy Duck among them) and myriads of seals. I imagine Cuthbert strode into this wild and rugged environment with a smile on his face, eager to begin his life of prayer and contemplation.

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The south end of Inner Farne. Cuthbert’s hermitage was on the north end. The white on the cliffs is from bird droppings! Today, many go to the Farne Islands for bird watching as it is one of the most famous sea bird sanctuaries in Britain, home to over 22 species of seabirds, including Cuthbert’s favourite Eider Duck and over 70,000 puffins!

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This map, from farne-islands.com, gives you a good view of the Farne Islands, and where they lie in comparison to Lindisfarne. The Inner Farne is the island on the very bottom, closest to the main land. You can also see that some of the islands join to make larger ones at low tide.

For Cuthbert and the monks, the spiritual disciplines of prayers, fasting and communion with God were not to be taken lightly. They considered them labour, spiritual labour, whereby they were praying not only for themselves but for any and all concerns. Just as Cuthbert had fought against the Mercians as a soldier, he now took all the spiritual discipline he had learned as a monk and used it as spiritual warfare, conquering the devil’s temptations and standing against the work of the devil in the world through prayer, always seeking to draw closer and closer to Christ.

But he couldn’t just sit out in the open in the gusting wind and rain. His second order of business, after the clearing the place of devils, was to build himself a cell for shelter and prayer. Practically speaking, this would not be easy. After all, he is alone. Bede’s description of Cuthbert from when he first becomes a monk at Melrose gives you a hint that he is capable of the task:

Like the mighty Samson of old, he carefully abstained from every drink which could intoxicate; but was not able to abstain equally from food, lest his body might be thereby rendered less able to work: for he was of a robust frame and of  unimpaired strength, and fit for any labour which he might be disposed to take in hand.

So, he was up to the challenge, and he sets himself to work. It is possible that some of the brethren may have helped Cuthbert. Bede doesn’t say. But he does describe the result:

The building is almost of a round form, from wall to wall about four or five poles in extent: the wall on the outside is higher than a man, but within, by excavating the rock, he made it much deeper, to prevent the eyes and the thoughts from wandering, that the mind might be wholly bent on heavenly things, and the pious inhabitant might behold nothing from his residence but the heavens above him. The wall was constructed, not of hewn stones or of brick and mortar, but of rough stones and turf, which had been taken out from the ground within. Some of them were so large that four men could hardly have lifted them, but Cuthbert himself, with angels helping him, had raised them up and placed them on the wall. There were two chambers in the house, one an oratory [a place for prayer], the other for domestic purposes. He finished the walls of them by digging round and cutting away the natural soil within and without, and formed the roof out of rough poles and straw. Moreover, at the landing-place of the island he built a large house, in which the brethren who visited him might be received and rest themselves, and not far from it there was a fountain of water or their use.

Pretty impressive, huh? I find these details fascinating, especially considering Bede almost certainly visited this hermitage after Cuthbert’s death. Unfortunately nothing remains today of Cuthbert’s buildings.

Although Cuthbert is alone on his island, he is not completely cut off from the world. The mention of the guest-house above gives you a clue. Cuthbert was visited regularly, firstly by the monks who would also bring him food and water. He would minister to them as well, in prayers and spiritual advice. There is a lovely mention in Bede’s account of how he would wash the monks’ feet, and they his, showing  their mutual submission to one another, and to God.

But Cuthbert’s fame as a holy man was spreading, and he began to get others coming to him for advice or blessings as well, including Elfleada, the daughter of King Oswald of Northumbria, who had taken over as Abbess of Whitby Abbey after Hild‘s death. He could not refuse this royal personage and met her on another island, further south from Inner Farne.

As time went on Cuthbert decided he should grow his own food and not be dependant on the Lindisfarne brethren, so he plants some barley, reprimanding a flock of birds who come to eat it, who promptly depart, never to return.

Cuthbert seems very content on his island, and withdraws even further from society, only interacting with people through a window he cuts in the wall of his hermitage. But in 684 AD his idyll comes to an end. He is elected in abstentia as Bishop of Hexham abbey at a synod, which comes as a great surprise to him and he refuses, even disregarding the tears and pleas of his fellow monks. It takes King Ecgfrith coming to his island to persuade him for him to finally relent, but only if he can swap with Eata and become Bishop of Lindisfarne instead, which they agree to.

But his time as Bishop would be short. In 686 AD he returns to his island home, having been told by God that his time is near, and after two months becomes afflicted with some sort of sickness, possibly tuberculosis. On March 20, 687 he dies there, while at prayer in the oratory. He is  accompanied by Herefrid, the abbot of Lindisfarne, who then tells the rest of the gathered monks outside who had been spending the night in prayer and watchfulness alongside their beloved Bishop. Immediately one of the monks ascended a hill with two lit candles, as they had agreed upon this signal as a means of telling the brethren at Lindisfarne the news, and the watching monk at the monastery hurried to tell the others.

Cuthbert had previously agreed that he would be buried at Lindisfarne, and so the brethren bring his body back and inter him near the altar there. But his death was not the end of Cuthbert’s remarkable story.

Many miracles continued to be reported by people who visited the monastery and his fame continued to grow. The first Anonymous Life of Cuthbert was written in the early 720s, and it is around this time that Bede wrote his poem about Cuthbert.

As Cuthbert’s fame grows, the monks at Lindisfarne decide that it would be a good idea to dig up his bones and put them in a small box as objects of veneration. So, eleven years after his death they dug up the coffin and opened it, and to their shock and amazement they discover that his body is perfectly preserved. As Bede recounts,

…opening the tomb, found his body entire, as if he were still alive, and his joints were still flexible, as if he were not dead, but sleeping. His clothes, also, were still undecayed, and seemed to retain their original freshness and colour. When the brethren saw this, they were so astonished, that they could scarcely speak, or look on the miracle which lay before them, and they hardly knew what they were doing.

This amazing occurrence sends the Cuthbert-cult into high drive, and it is this event that prompts the Lindisfarne community to commission Bede to write a new account of Cuthbert’s life and spread the news of this miracle. The monks hastily make a new, oak coffin to house the saint. This coffin, built in 698 AD, still can be seen today, and is one of England’s most important wooden objects from before the Norman conquest.*

In homage to Cuthbert, and to God, Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, creates the Lindisfarne Gospels, one the greatest treasures of the Early Middle Ages (arguably one the greatest works of art ever produced).  Cuthbert (now reburied in his new coffin) becomes a huge draw to pilgrims.

Disaster strikes in 793 AD with the first Viking attack on a Christian church in England. The Vikings had first appeared in 789 AD, off the coast of Wessex, killing a king’s reeve. But the attack on Lindisfarne was different, as it struck at arguably one of the holiest places in Britain, desecrating the church with the blood of the monks, the church itself partially burnt down, the precious objects ransacked and taken away as treasure. Some of the monks were carted away as slaves.

However, somehow the Gospels survived.* In the chaos of that day (and many more, for the church was attacked many times after that), the monks preserved this precious book, for which we owe them our eternal gratitude.

But by 875 AD the monks had had enough. They fled Lindisfarne, taking with them what ever precious items they had, chief among them the Lindisfarne Gospels and the body of Cuthbert. They also had with them some of the bones of Aidan (the rest buried at Lindisfarne), and the head of Oswald, the great king (and saint in his own right by this point). They wandered about Northumbria, settling here and there and getting driven out again and again by the maurading Danes, but always taking their relics and the marvellous book with them.  The monks were no milquetoasts, though. At the prompting in a vision from Cuthbert himself, they were involved in a bloodless coup by saving the young Dane Guthred from slavery who ended up deposing the current Viking leader of  Crayke, near York.

Finally after seven years of wandering they settled at the old Roman town of Chester-le-Street, and built a monastery, staying there for a hundred years. But in 995 AD the Danes were threatening again so off they went, carting their book, the relics, and Cuthbert, and went to Ripon. When things settled down they started back, but on the way the wagon carrying the heavy coffin became stuck on the road, and the monks took this as a sign that this was where the saint wanted to be laid to rest (maybe the poor monks were exhausted, too.).

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I love this sculpture, located in Durham, which commemorates the journeys of the Lindisfarne monks as they travelled across Northumbria.

The site was Durham, and here they built a church and monastery, replaced by a cathedral after the Norman invasion. Cuthbert’s fame was at its peak at this point, and they wanted a church worthy of the great saint. However, people were skeptical of the story of the incorrupt body and so, before he was interred by the altar, the monks opened the coffin again and found the body still preserved inside. The coffin was placed in a beautiful shrine and visited by a great many pilgrims.

Alas, during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry the VIII , the shrine was dismantled and the coffin reburied (not after opening it and once again finding the body complete!).

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This beautiful pectoral cross was found in the folds of Cuthbert’s vestments when his coffin was opened in 1827. It almost certainly belonged to Cuthbert himself, and he would have worn it around his neck. When Henry VIII’s reformers plundered the monasteries and opened Cuthbert’s coffin, looking for treasure, they missed this little cross, because it was hidden. Thankfully!

In 1827 the coffin was opened one last time, and a skeleton was found (darn). A post-mortem was done and the doctor said the bones were consistent with everything they knew about Cuthbert. He was laid to rest the final time in Durham Cathedral, where you can still visit his tomb today.

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The final resting place of Cuthbert is in Durham Cathedral, interred under the marble slab bearing his name. Behind the tomb is damaged statue of Cuthbert (ironically without at head), holding Oswald’s head, an object of veneration in its own right and which made the long journey with Cuthbert along with some of Aidan’s bones. Durham is a definite must-see for my next trip to Britain. Bede is also buried there, in a separate tomb!

….Or can you? There is a legend that before Henry’s agents could come and destroy the church and presumably Cuthbert’s coffin, the monks opened the coffin and replaced Cuthbert’s body with that of a recently deceased brother monk. They spirited Cuthbert’s body away and buried it in a secret location in the grounds of Crayke Abbey. The location was only known to twelve monks, revealed to another only when one of the twelve dies.

So ended the life and travels of Cuthbert. It is said that with all the travelling he did as a monk and the journeys he took after death with his fellow monks, that he was one of the most well-travelled people of Britain at the time. There is some dispute about the exact route, but after they left Lindisfarne the monks travelled between five hundred and a thousand miles before settling in Durham!

Cuthbert had a remarkable life, and a remarkable death. No wonder he is still celebrated today!

 


* Click here to read a fascinating article about a new display in Durham Cathedral of that coffin and some of the objects found in it.

**It weighs close to eighteen pounds, and due to its size, would have probably taken two people to carry.