Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

In 1968, Frederick Buechner had just moved with his family to a farmhouse in Vermont, after concluding a successful stint as a the department head of the Religion department at Philip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

Buechner began working on a new novel, but making the transition from writing amidst a busy career to focussing solely on writing was a challenge, and he soon found himself struggling. He writes in his memoir, Now and Then, that the writing of it…was so painful that I find it hard, even now, to see beyond the memory of the pain to whatever merit it may have.

In the midst of this struggle he received an invitation from the Chaplain at Harvard to present the Noble Lecture series in the winter of 1969, a proposal which both flattered and intimidated Buechner. Previous presenters had included luminaries such as Richard Niebuhr, and Buechner was uncertain he was up to the task.

However, the Chaplain, Charles Price, upon hearing Buechner’s concerns, wrote back, suggesting that he write something about “religion and letters”. And out of that thin sliver of inspiration, The Alphabet of Grace was born; first as the lecture series, and subsequently published as a book.

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Buechner’s idea was to write about the everyday events of life,

…as the alphabet through which God, of his grace, spells out his words, his meaning, to us. So The Alphabet of Grace was the title I hit upon, and what I set out to do was to try to describe a single representative day of my life in a way to suggest what there was of God to hear in it.

The book is broken up into three sections: Gutturarls (6:45-7:30 AM); Sibilants (7:30 -8:30 AM), and Absence of Vowels (8:30 AM – 11 PM). At the time Buechner’s family was growing up around him, and he writes of ordinary things such as getting up in the morning, having breakfast, dropping the kids off at school, and going to work–which in his case was to the nearby church where he co-opted a Sunday School room in which to write–followed by going home and finally to bed.

An ordinary day, in other words, such as is lived by many ordinary people. But don’t be fooled. Out of this ordinary day Buechner has crafted an extraordinary book, which will linger with you long after it is finished. It is a long meditation on how to see God in the midst of an ordinary life, and the difference that makes to the person living it.

The first sentence of the book is this:

At its heart most theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography. 

His point is that people understand concepts through the lenses of their own experiences, whether that be the concept of family, love, or friendship. And so it is with our understanding of God and faith. We meet Him in the daily ordinariness of our own existence, or not at all, and this is the theme that runs through this book.

Right at the beginning he quotes a passage from one of his own books (The Final Beast) in which the character, a young clergyman, lies down in the grass, praying a fervent prayer of only one word: Please. A prayer of longing, not entirely sure of what he is asking, until he clarifies it. Please come, Jesus. 

And nothing happens, at least, nothing that anyone would notice. Except for the young man, who, in the midst of an extraordinary moment of timelessness and significance, hears two branches of an apple tree strike together in the wind: clack-clack.

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Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

 

This was not just a moment in Buechner’s novel. He explains in The Alphabet of Grace that this was a moment he lifted out of his life and put in the novel. And it perfectly describes the way in which a person can be moved out of unbelief into faith, in ways that are hard to explain to anyone else but real, nonetheless.

The quote from the novel continues,

It was an agony of gladness and beauty falling wild and soft like rain. Just clack-clack, but praise him, he thought. Praise him. Maybe all his journeying, he thought, had been only to bring him here to hear two branches hit each other twice like that, to see nothing cross the threshold but to see the threshold, to hear the dry clack-clack of the world’s tongue at the approach of the approach of splendour. 

This idea, of the ordinary moment being transformed into one of transcendence, is the idea that Buechner explores throughout the book. The clack-clack of those branches are interwoven in and out of the ordinary events of his day.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Buechner is a giant of faith, who has it all figured out. Part of his great appeal is that he shows himself just as he is, doubting, confused, and weary, hanging on by the skin of his teeth, so to speak. And yet, he cannot even now turn away from the path.

Cannot is not the right word. If faith is anything, it is a choice. God comes to us with his hand outstretched, and it is up to us to take it, or not. In the moments of his day, through the interactions with his wife, his children, through the struggle of putting words down that convey exactly what he means, Buechner shows us how the choice to take that hand is presented again and again. It’s so easy to forget, in the midst of the minutes passing, that at every moment is a moment in which we can take that hand.

Doubt is not fatal to faith. In fact, doubt can strengthen faith, through an honest wrestling through the questions that plague us. Buechner writes of doubt, and the longing for a miracle that would put all the doubts to rest. But then he muses,

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. 

And so, through the ordinary day of an ordinary man, we see his journey and gain a new understanding of our own., We hear the clack-clack of the branches, signalling the approach of the approach of splendour. 

And with him we say, praise Him.

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

I have really been enjoying the non-fiction books I have read so far in my Year of Reading Buechner, but this month I turned my eye to one of Buechner’s fiction books. I have been eager to read Brendan: A Novel, for a couple of reasons. One, because a few years ago I read and really enjoyed Son of Laughter, his fictional account of the life of the Biblical patriarch, Jacob; and secondly, because this book was all about one of my favourite people from the Early Middle Ages: Brendan the Navigator.

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Brendan was published in 1987, and won the Christianity and Literature Belles Lettres Prize that year. As I mentioned, it is the fictional account of the life of the 6th century Irish saint, Brendan the Navigator, whose story of adventures and miracles encountered during a sea voyage with fellow monks was one of the most popular stories in medieval times.

The tale is told from the point of view of Finn, Brendan’s companion and best friend, and is set in a realistically dark and dirty sixth century Ireland. Brendan is no polished saint in this book, in fact far from it. Finn is a nominal Christian at best, and he casts a skeptical eye on some of Brendan’s tales, because he knows how much Brendan loves to embellish the truth. But there are times when Finn sees Bren performing a miracle himself, and is unable to explain away the occurrence except as a miracle.

There is a great tension in this book between truth and lies; faith and doubt. Brendan himself struggles between these dichotomies. He makes his way with great self-confidence at times, but at others he is racked by doubts. This novel does not allow you to think of him as a saint in the way we normally think of them, as people who are so advanced in holiness that they have left us behind in the dust.

I love the way Buechner portrays the people of sixth century Ireland in this book. They feel like real people. And I appreciate they way he shows how Christianity met and mixed with the old religions that the Irish Celts practiced.  Even Brendan himself, when sent to pray in a cave overnight as penance by the Abbot Jarlath, also turns to the Celtic god Dagda.

He knew it was the one and only true God he was supposed to call on for mercy but he thought it would do no harm to call on the Dagda as well. He only whispered his name in his heart instead of speaking it out loud though. The last thing in the world he wanted was for the Dagda to turn up there in the cave lugging his terrible great club and his brass cauldron. All the boy was after from him was a bit of luck. 

And when Brendan sets off on his voyage, he does so in order to reach Tir-na-nog, a kind of earthly Paradise, the land of the young, where the gods of the Irish Celts lived. It eventually morphed into the idea of the Otherworld, the land of the Elves. These tales  abounded in Celtic folklore, but it is not exactly a kosher concept from a Christian point of view.

But this was an age where the old beliefs were meeting head-on with the new, so this juxtaposition of pagan and Christian is very realistic for the times.The Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator), the medieval manuscript that details Brendan’s voyage, says that Brendan was trying to reach the Promised Land of the Saints. The idea is of an earthly Paradise, such as the Garden of Eden. The stories of Tir-na-nog could certainly have been meshed with that idea, in the minds of Celts who are new to the faith. So I like this insertion into the book, although it is not strictly true to the stories of Brendan.

There is also quite a bit of comedy in this book. The “holy fool” is a theme you find often in Buechner’s writings, and in this book Brendan takes on that role. He is a braggart, full of wild tales and exaggerations; and odd-looking, with his mis-matched teeth, pointy head, and large derrière. He stumbles through this book, at times serenely performing miracles and at others cowering in unbelief and doubt. And so in this way Buechner makes a larger-than-life saint a person we can relate to.

Other characters also have their comedic moments. Finn himself is cheated out of going on Brendan’s first voyage because as they set sail a sudden squall comes up and he falls out of the boat, the others not noticing in the dark.

In the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator), the medieval manuscript that details Brendan’s voyage, the saint only takes one voyage, but in Buechner’s book, he divides it into two. Finn accompanies Brendan on the second voyage, and finds both miracles and heartache along the way. In the end, we are again left with uncertainty about exactly what they encountered, and where, and how much was truth, and how much exaggeration.

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An illustration from the Navigatio from a 14th century manuscript. It shows one of the stories in the tale, of Brendan and his monks staying on an island which they later discover is actually the great whale Jasconius. Image from Wikicommons.


Many of the other famous people from this time appear in this book, such as Saint Brigid, and Saint Malo. I particularly like the appearance of Gildas in this book, near the end, after Brendan is back from his voyages and goes away to Wales to escape his fame.  Gildas is a sour and bitter monk, which actually kind of fits the work for which he is best known today, called De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), in which he details the many sins and failing of kings and churchmen alike.

As Finn says,

He spent his days in his hut with a quill in his hand scratching out on his parchment the nastiness of his times. 

But through Gildas, Brendan gets to meet the great king, Artor, an old man now, still serving as king at Caerlon. Brendan and Finn go to meet him, as Brendan wants to bring him God’s peace after he hears the tale of the betrayal of his queen Gwenhwyfar and the child Artor had with his half-sister. Finn doesn’t hear what Brendan says to Artor, but Artor is grateful for his visit. As they leave Caerlon, the small, wizened figure of the king stands at the battlements, his hands raised over his head in farewell.

Finn says,

I pictured him standing there all the rest of the day and the night as well with his arms in the air and his beard blowing. If I went back in a thousand years it wouldn’t surprise me to find him standing there yet if there’s anything left standing by then in the world. 

I love this picture of King Arthur, watching over Britain throughout the ages.

During a conversation with Gildas, as Brendan reflects on this voyages and expresses the fear that perhaps he had missed the point of what God had called him to do, it comes out in the conversation that the old monk only has one leg.

“I’m crippled as the dark world,” Gildas said.

“If it comes to that, which one of us isn’t, my dear?” Brendan said.

Gildas with but one leg.  Brendan sure he’d misspent his whole life entirely.  Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy.  The truth of what Brendan said stopped all our mouths.  We was cripples all of us.  For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees.

“To lend each other a hand when we’re falling,” Brendan said.  “Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.”

This book comes at you sideways. It is a window into the life and times of Brendan, well-researched and imaginative. But it’s more than that, too. Brendan’s voyages, both physical and spiritual, mirror our own voyages through life, with their ups and downs, their triumphs and tragedies. The book contains many treasures, but not all of them are ones that you find along the surface. It forces you to dig deep and ponder a little bit. Not a bad thing, nowadays.

The New York Times Book Review called Brendan: A Novel, “Strikingly convincing…sinewy and lyrical.” I agree.  There is a lot that is earthy in this novel, but at times it will take your breath away. It reminds me a lot of Son of Laughter in that way.  It  took me a few chapters to get into it, but by the end I knew it was one I would have to read again.


Other posts in my Year of Reading Buechner series can be found here:

 2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

 

 

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Thus begins my new reading challenge for 2018: Year of Reading Buechner, in which I read one book per month of American author Frederick Buechner.

For my first book in this series I decided to start with Buechner’s newest, The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (Zondervan, 2017). I started here because, unlike some of Buechner’s other works, it was relatively easy to find. I also wanted something that was new, not just a rehash of some of his other works, but something that would nevertheless give me an introduction to some of his ideas and themes.

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This book succeeded in those goals, for the most part. It was a good introduction to Buechner’s work, but I wouldn’t say it is completely new material. It is based on a series of unpublished lectures given in 1987 and 1990, and in those lectures he tells some of the same familiar stories about his childhood, people he’s met, etc. that I have heard other places. And because it’s based on a series of lectures, the style is perhaps less formal than it would be if he had published these as essays. Or maybe not. Perhaps this is the way he writes, too. I’ve only read snippets of his non-fiction amd just one novel, so I don’t have a huge base of comparison.

At any rate, setting those minor caveats aside, I did enjoy this book. The casual style is very easy to read, but that’s not to say that the thoughts expressed are simple ones. In many ways Buechner reminds me of C.S. Lewis, who can take very complicated subjects, especially in the realm of theology, and make them easy to understand. In Remarkable Ordinary, Buechner’s theme is that God speaks through our ordinary lives, through the people we meet and the events of our day, and it is up to us to take the time to pay attention, to stop, look and listen, as the tag line of the book says.

The book is divided up into three sections: Part 1: Stop, Look, and Listen for God, Part 2: Listening for God in the Stories We Tell, and Part 3: Telling the Truth. 

In the first section Buechner talks about how art, whether it is a painting, or a story, or music, can be  valuable to us because it forces us out of our own thoughts and into a place where we are forced to notice something completely different.  Literature, he says, forces us to stop.

 Stop thinking. Stop expecting. Stop living in the past. Stop living in the future. Stop doing anything and just pay attention to this. To this boy and this black man floating down the Mississippi River on a raft, this old king going crazy on a heath because two of his three daughters have done terrible things to him, pay attention to this young woman named Anna Karenina who is about to drop in front of a train because her love has failed her. Literature, before it is saying anything else, is saying, Be mindful.

In the same way, an visual artist is saying Look.

Look at each other’s faces the way Rembrandt looked at the old woman’s face. Or look at your own face, maybe that’s the hardest of all, in the mirror the way that Rembrandt looked at the old woman’s face, which is to say  look at it not just for the wrinkles and the sunken upper lip and the white fluff, but look for what lies within the face, for the life that makes the face the way it is.

And music, of course, invites us to Listen. Interestingly, Buechner postulates that the medium of music is time, in that one note follows another the way one moment follows another moment.

…I think that what the musician is trying to do is to say, Listen to time, pay attention to time, pay attention to the sounds and the silences of time. Experience the richness of time.

…It is also saying, Listen to the sounds, listen to the music of your own  life.

This book is full of little moments like that, sentences that invite you to Stop, Look, and Listen. Woven throughout the book is the encouragement to take that idea one step further and specifically to stop, look, and listen to God in your life. Buechner has spent a lot of time thinking about and writing about this idea, and you can tell. This concept soaks through his words, the notion that God is always speaking to us, and that we need to train ourselves to pay attention.

So much of life is showing up and paying attention, and that is doubly true of the life of faith. The beautiful story of Elijah in the Old Testament (1 Kings 19:9-14) shows us that often God often speaks to us not just through the fire, wind, or earthquakes in our lives, not just through the dramatic moments, but with a still, small voice, in the quiet moments when we may not be expecting to hear Him.

Last week I posted on the blog about how the Celtic Christians see the world, as one in which God speaks to us through everything  so in that sense, everything means something. But to pay attention in this way is hard. We get used to looking ahead to our next thing, and forget to pay attention to the present. Or we are consumed with guilt or worry from past actions, and are blind to the present moment of grace being offered to us.

All of this reminds me from this wonderful scene from the film, Bruce Almighty, starring Jim Carrey:

Too often we are so caught up in our own troubles, or we fail to acknowledge that God might be speaking to us in a way we don’t recognize, so we miss what He is clearly saying.

This book was a good reminder to slow down and pay attention. A good way to begin a new year!

2017: The Year That Was

Before I forge on into this New Year, I had one more task I wanted to do here on the blog. I thought it would be interesting to examine my stats (helpfully supplied by WordPress) on how I am doing here.

It’s a bit humbling, to be honest, but ho hum. The truth hurts! The good news is the number of views per post is finally starting to go up a bit.I’ve had a few posts get over 100 views this year, so that’s a nice change.

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Here’s the details, in unforgiving black and white:

  1. Most popular post on the blog – the post that has been viewed the most (239 times) is my review of “The Last Kingdom”, the Netflix miniseries about the Dark Age warrior Uthred,  based on the Saxon books by Bernard Cornwall. This appeared on the blog in 2016, so it doesn’t count as the most popular of 2017, but it’s tops over all, so I thought I should mention it.
  2. Most popular post in 2017 – my recent post on Kings and Queens of Anglo-Saxon England got the most views in 2017, with  196 views. That was up on the blog in December and was my last post this year on Anglo-Saxon people and culture. I’m glad to see this topic resonating with readers.
  3. Second and third most popular in 2017 – those go to Penda: King of Mercia (165 views, from February) and What They Wore: Clothing in the 7th Century (110 views, from August). Again, I’m happy that these posts are generating some interest.
  4. Least favourite from 2017  – the dubious honour for this goes to my Year of Fun Reading: Wrap Up (10 views). But that’s probably because that was only a week ago and it was posted in the week between Christmas and New Year. So I’m not sure the lack of views means that people weren’t interested.

It’s interesting to have a look at the numbers, but I find it hard to do any kind of useful analysis on them. It’s probably (hopefully) not true to say that a post is no good judging by the amount of views it gets. Lots of other variables factor in, including time of day you post, and how many people share the post (thank you SO much to those who have done this!). But in general I will say a few things strike me as I look at these stats.

  • The number of views are generally increasing. So, I will take that as a positive.
  • People are liking the posts on Early Middle Ages people and culture. These tend to be the most popular posts on the blog.
  • Book reviews, such as my “Year of” reading challenges and other reviews, are fairly popular, and posts about writing, are slightly less popular that those. And less popular than both those are the posts with my original fiction. That’s not so great for this aspiring writer!

I have tried to do a better job of promoting my blog on social media, mainly via Twitter. I have used Hootsuite to schedule posts so that there is more from me on Twitter but this is something I could definitely improve upon. So I will try to be a little more intentional about that this year and see if I can get my readership continuing to grow.

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The whole spectre of marketing my work is a huge area that I know I can improve upon. There is reams of advice out there for bloggers on how to do that, so I will take some time to work on this in 2018.

However, there is a delicate balance here that I find tricky. I really enjoy writing here on the blog, and I try to do a decent job of crafting interesting posts. Each post probably takes from two to four hours to write. Depending on the topic and the amount of research I have to do, it might be longer.

But I’m also trying to get a novel published. Definitely my writing here detracts from that, just because time spent here is time I’m not spending on my book.  I really enjoy posting here, and the connections I have made through my blog are wonderful, so I don’t want to give it up. And I can see that WHEN I get my book published, it will be good to have this space as a place to connect with readers. So I have to be careful with time management for it all to work.

Last year I developed a writing schedule that I managed to stick to fairly well, but I will spend some time this month revisiting that. I find that setting goals really helps me. I really want to be able to publish in 2018, so I need to get my ducks in a row. And I need to do some serious work on figuring out strategies for effective book launches, and marketing of said book, etc.

There’s lots to look forward to in 2018! Thank you to all my faithful readers, and double thanks to those who take the time to comment or share my posts. You all are a great encouragement and blessing to me, and I look forward to continuing to connect with you here on The Traveller’s Path in the year to come.

Onward and upward!!


Feature photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

YOFR: A Book About a Topic or Subject You Already Love

So…here we are at the final post for my 2017 Reading Challenge. Wow! How did the year go by so fast?

This last entry was a no-brainer for me. Recently I picked up Matthew Harffys novella, Kin of Cain, and it fits this month’s category perfectly. Like his other books, this story is set in 7th century Northumbria, in the year 630 AD.

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This book is a companion to his other, longer books, set in this era. The first of these, The Serpent Sword, I reviewed here on the blog. And the author was gracious enough to provide me an interview as well.

So, yes, I am a fan of Harffy’s work. I have purposely not read any of his other Bernicia Chronicles books yet, as I haven’t wanted his interpretation of 7th century Britain and it’s  people to colour my own, while I am in the midst of writing mine. But being that this one was a shorter story I thought I could risk it. And I’m glad I did!

The other books in the series are about Beobrand, a young man who goes on a quest to avenge his brother’s murder. This novella takes place before the events in the first book, The Serpent Sword, and the main character is Octa, Beobrand’s brother, who is a warrior in the court of King Edwin of Bernicia.

It is wintertime, and evil is stirring. Livestock and men have been found ripped apart, their bones gnawed upon. Edwin sends a group of his trusted warriors and thegns, Octa among them, into the icy marshes to find and kill the beast that is responsible for these atrocities.

This story is definitely engaging. It’s suspenseful and a little creepy here and there. And full disclosure, there is some gore, so if that kind of thing bothers you, be warned. The writing is solid. The details of seventh century Britain are done right, immersing you into this world. And Harffy includes a twist at the end that I really loved.

It’s a short, satisfying read, perfect if you want something that is not too long in the midst of this busy season. And if you want to delve more deeply into this fascinating world, Harffy’s Bernicia Chronicles now has four books, with a fifth to be released soon.

My rating: Five stars. Exciting, engaging tale of seventh century Northumbria, with good writing to boot.

 

YOFR: Book You were Excited to Buy but Haven’t Read Yet

Well, this category for my Year of Fun Reading Challenge had quite a few options for me! My Kindle and bookshelves are groaning with books I have bought with great excitement but haven’t read yet. Good thing I have decided to only review speculative fiction books for this challenge, or I would be in real trouble.

In looking through my To Be Read pile, I found A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, Book 1), by V.E. Schwab, and immediately knew this was the one.

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Love this cover! 

 

For one thing, it takes place in London, one of my favourite cities in the world. But it’s not quite the London we know. In this world, there are four Londons, Red, Grey, White, and Black. Grey London is “our” London, where most people are unaware of the existence of the others, or that magic is even possible.The book is set in the reign of mad George III, adding historical details to this rich fantasy, which also pulled it to the top of my list of books I haven’t read yet. Historical fantasy? Set in London? I’m in!

Grey London is dirty and boring, lacking hardly any magic. Red London is called Arnes by the people there, ruled by the Maresh Dynasty, a place where magic is commonplace and revered. White London is a dangerous place, ruled by a succession of kings and queens who murder their way to the top. People here fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city of colour and life. Black London is cut off from all the other worlds, for their safety, for something terrible happened there once, and to open the locked door that leads there will bring that terror to the rest of the worlds.

Kell, the main character, was raised in Red London, and is an Antari – a magician with the rare ability to travel between all the worlds. Kell is an adopted son of the royal family and due to his ability to travel between the various worlds he is an ambassador, carrying correspondence between the three kingdoms.

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It always amazes me the talented people who do fan art for books they read. This is an image of Kell, done by Londei on DeviantArt. Note his black eye, which marks him as an Antari. I love that detail in the book as I have two different coloured eyes…maybe I’ve got some magic, too? 

He also plays a dangerous game as a smuggler, bringing magical artifacts and other items between the Londons, and it is this activity that brings him into danger when he accepts a commission from a stranger to deliver a letter, and discovers she has given him a powerful magical stone instead, an artifact from Black London that he must return to that closed world or bring disaster to the others.

This brings him into conflict with Holland, an Antari from White London who serves that Kingdom; his adopted Royal family, who both respect and fear Kell for his rare ability to Travel; the evil and sadistic King and Queen of White London, twins who have a secret of their own that will bring disaster to Kell and those he love; and finally, to Delilah (Lila) Bard, a cut-purse in Grey London who steals the stone but also saves Kell’s life.

I loved the world-building in this book. The distinctions between the worlds are clear, and the descriptions of them fascinating. The characters are interesting and complex. Lila veers into cookie-cutter “badass girl” territory but there’s more to her than that, and I particularly enjoyed seeing how the relationship between her and Kell grows and changes throughout the book.

Schwab is a good writer. The first paragraph of the book immediately pulled me in:

Kell wore a very peculiar coat.

It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.

The first thing he did whenever he stepped out of one London and into another was take off the coat and turn it inside out once or twice (or even three times) until he found the side he needed. Not all of them were fashionable, but they each served a purpose. There were ones that blended in and ones that stood out, and one that served no purpose but of which he was just particularly fond.

I admire this beginning, and not only because it’s intriguing. Notice how it also tells you several things about this book and about the main character, all in a few words. There’s magic (cool!), travelling between Londons (? what? what’s that?), and a main character who obviously has a need to blend in at times and stand out at others (hmm, now what’s that about?). And, perhaps he is a little bit vain, or at least aware of his appearance, as indicated by that last phrase.

There’s a lot to learn here about how to tweak interest and keep your reader turning the pages, no?

This is an adult historical fantasy, and that made me happy! I have written before about my general dislike of young adult books, so it was great to have a book that was firmly in the adult camp (although I do see it described as YA in places). The one quibble I would have with the book is that I wished it was longer, and that Schwab would have taken a little more time in showing us the worlds and deepening the characters. I would have liked to have spent more time there! This has the feel of a Young Adult book, however, in terms of length and in how we don’t get to linger too long in any one place in the plot. But the subject matter is quite dark at times, and thankfully there is no teenage girl having adult sexual relationships with older men or warrior-chicks in the midst of a love triangle in this book. Phew.

Thankfully this is the first book of the trilogy. We get a good introduction to the characters and to the worlds, the story moves along nicely and leaves us wanting more. I will definitely be checking in with Kell and Lila to see how this all turns out in the other two books, A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars. This would be a 5 star rating from me if Schwab would have developed this a little more and made it just a bit more meaty. But on the whole, this was a great read.

 

 

 

 

 

2017 Reading Challenge: A Book in the Backlist of a New Favourite Author

This month I cheated a wee bit on my Year of Fun Reading Challenge. I was supposed to read a book in the backlist of a new favourite author. However, I decided instead to read the newest book of a new favourite author.

Last year I reviewed the book Westlake Soul, by Canadian writer Rio Youers, which quickly became the book I’ve told more people to read over the past year than any other.  I absolutely loved both the book and Youers’ writing style. So as per this month’s challenge  I thought I might read one of the books in his backlist, but I quickly discovered that up to the point where he wrote Westlake Soul, his books were definitely veering into (or firmly planted in) the horror genre.

While I have been known to read a smattering of horror books or, more likely, short stories, I find that I just can’t bring myself to read them at this stage in my life. My husband is often gone for work, and I rattle around in my empty nest quite a bit. And once night falls, it gets creepy when you are by yourself! *

However,  I have been eagerly awaiting Youers’ newest release, The Forgotten Girl (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) which is billed as a supernatural thriller. That, I can do. So it was with a great deal of anticipation that I settled down to read it.

forgotten girl

Love the cover. When Sally uses her psychic abilities she likens it to “letting the red bird fly” so the image is appropriate.

The Forgotten Girl opens with the main character, a twenty-six year-old dread-lock sporting, vegetarian, peace-loving street musician named Harvey Anderson, getting kidnapped and beat up by some unknown assailants. Harvey has no idea why they have taken him or why he is being subjected to this brutal beating. It’s quickly apparent that Harvey has been followed for some time, and that the thugs know all about him, and all about his dad, who came home from the Vietnam War wounded in both mind and body, and all about his girlfriend, Sally Starling, who recently has left Harvey.

The problem is, Harvey has no memory of Sally at all, even though they show him proof that he has been living with her for the past five years. They tell him that she has erased all memories of herself from his mind.  He soon realizes that she is the prize they are seeking. They were on Sally’s trail, and the trail led to him, and they want him to lead them to her.

But Harvey cannot. Only a vague flicker of a memory resurrects: a dancing girl, but with no features or any indication of where she was then or where she might be now. This is unfortunate for Harvey, for the next step in the interrogation is the creepy villain of the book who has set the thugs on Sally’s trail, whom Harvey calls “the spider”: Dominic Lang. Lang is a powerful psychic who crawls into Harvey’s mind and searches through it for any trace of the girl both he and Harvey once knew; a horrific violation that leaves Harvey shattered.

And angry. The thugs and the spider leave Harvey with the message that they will be watching and following him, waiting for him to lead him to Sally. But in the resurrection of that one tiny memory (which he begins to think that Sally left him deliberately, as a beacon to lead him to her), something else has been resurrected. Love.

The anger stirred me. Riled me. It also exposed the indefinite emotion inside–the one I’d been afraid of admitting to. And it was love. Of course it was. I loved a girl I couldn’t remember, and that made total sense to me. Because love is quite apart from memory. It runs deeper, like a hole in space that exists even after the star has exploded. 

As Harvey begins his journey to the girl he has forgotten, he gets deeper and deeper into a conspiracy that not even his paranoid father could make up, reaching to the top levels of government. The book races along a fast clip, always keeping you interested, but with Youers’ lyrical prose giving you moments of contemplation about the nature of love, memory, and loss.

memories

This could actually be a pretty good tag line for The Forgotten Girl

The characterizations in this novel are complex ones, and the relationships that Harvey discovers with both his damaged father and his “forgotten girl” are rich and true to life. And in the terrible circumstances he finds himself in, Harvey has to confront his worst demons, overcome the weaknesses he finds in himself, and discover strengths he didn’t know he had.

I particularly liked the way his relationship with his dad grew and changed in the book. Youers’ ability to portray family ties in interesting and realistic ways, so evident in Westlake Soul, shines in this novel as well. The only drawback is that I wish we could have seen more of Harvey and his dad together.

Both The Forgotten Girl and Westlake Soul touch on themes of memory, love, and courage. Both are about who you become when everything is taken away from you, and the roles of both our minds and emotions in our relationships with the ones we love. Westlake Soul sits a little higher on the shelf in my mind, but that is not to say that The Forgotten Girl is not worthy of much praise.

Bottom line, this book is about a man who loves a woman and loses her, and the depths that he will go to get her back, even if all he has left of her is a wisp of a memory. And that’s a story I can heartily approve of!

I really enjoyed it and look forward to what Rio Youers will do next.

My rating: 5 stars for excellent writing, a thrilling and interesting plot, and well-drawn characters.


*Ok, technically, I am not completely alone. I have my wonderful Labrador RetrieverX, but although he is good company I’m not entirely sure how useful he will be if the zombies come a-callin’. He’s a lover more than a fighter, if you know what I mean….