Yearning for Wonderland

There is such a place as fairyland - but only children can find the way to it...until they have grown so old that they forget the way. Only a few, who remain children at heart, can ever find that fair, lost path again...The world calls them singers and poets and artists and story-tellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland. ~ L.M Montgomery

Singing the Dragons to Sleep: Farewell to Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011)

Today marks the end of an era: author Anne McCaffrey passed away at the age of 85, from a stroke at her home in Ireland.

I remember the first time I saw an Anne McCaffrey book: I was in a used bookstore, one that I frequently haunted in hopes of discovering some dusty paperback treasure. The books were always shelved stacked, spine-out, so you could scan whole stacks in a hurry. I was about 11 years old.

I was getting bored, as I already had a small book pile tucked under my arm, so I ran my finger down the shelf for “M-Mc.” The word “Dragon” caught my eye. I pulled it out; it was Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey. I had never heard of her, but I definitely liked dragons and I liked that there was a girl riding on the back of the dragon and that she seemed to have most of her clothes on. Even at the age of 11, I was skeptical about the fantasy novels that featured scantily-clad barbarian ladies on the cover.


I had read The Hobbit a few years before and had shuddered at visions of Smaug curled up, one eye half-open, gleaming with his gold. Who wasn’t fascinated with dragons? Who didn’t want to fly?

When I was older, I learned to appreciate her accomplishments. The White Dragon was the first science fiction novel written by a woman to make the New York Times Bestseller List. Her work often had strong female protagonists, not to mention queen dragons. She was the first woman to win a Hugo Award for fiction and the first to win a Nebula Award. She paved the way for countless female genre writers thereafter.

Anne brought us a whole world, blended science fiction and fantasy with carefree elan. Pern takes its place alongside hallowed fantasy lands: Middle Earth, Narnia, Oz, Earthsea, Discworld. Her writing allowed us to feel the wind blasting our hair back as the dragon launched into the air, to hear the flap of mighty wings.

She allowed us to fly. So ride the dragon’s wings to your well-deserved rest, Anne. Pern awaits.

Article first published as Singing the Dragons to Sleep: Farewell to Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011) on Blogcritics.

Book Review:The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory possesses the happy talent of weaving historical fact with historical fiction, a true gift. Effortlessly, she takes us through the lives of notable women of history. Sometimes they are famous (Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn) and sometimes they are obscure. Either way, she treats their lives with compassion, teasing out all the tiny details that make them spring into vivid three-dimensions.

Gregory establishes the benchmark for any historical fiction writer. A historian herself (Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh), she uses her writing to take her readers into hitherto undiscovered territory. Much historical fiction has been written about the Tudors, but in The Lady of the Rivers, Gregory moves further back, before even the War of the Roses.



The star of The Lady of the Rivers is young Jacquetta (previously encountered in The White Queen). She has visions of the future, a hereditary gift for the women in her family. This gift puts her into the dangerous orbit of the powerful Duke of Bedford. He wishes for her to use her visions to help him discover the Philosopher’s Stone, which allows the transmutation of lead to gold. He wishes to use this gold to strengthen the English army and maintain their hold of occupied France.

Women and power, visible and invisible, is one theme that Gregory revisits in the book. The Wheel of Fortune can throw you very high and cast you very low; to illustrate this, The Lady of the Rivers opens with Jacquetta befriending Joan of Arc, who was imprisoned in her uncle’s home. Because Joan brought the English army to its knees, she must die as a result. As a writer, Gregory is constantly exploring the conflict between men and the women determined to live their own lives.

The novel follows Jacquetta through her life, notably highlighting her influential friendship with Margaret of Anjou that places her squarely in history’s path as the Lancasters and the Yorks begin to clash.

There is a love story with the Duke of Bedford’s squire, Richard Woodville, for those who enjoy their historical fiction with a bit of spice, and there are mystical moments with the gift of foretelling and the goddess of Water, Melusina. In short, all the elements that make Philippa Gregory a giant force in the world of historical fiction.

My one disappointment was that Jacquetta’s life, by necessity of historical fact, was an unending stream of battles. Her husband was constantly being sent off in support of his king. This coming and going occupies a great deal of the book. While Gregory handles this deftly, it allowed my attention to wander periodically. Nevertheless, I am avidly waiting for the next installment in The Cousin’s War series.

Visit Philippa Gregory’s website at: www.philippagregory.com.

Article first published as Book Review: The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory on Blogcritics.

"He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless…"

Back when I was playing Lord of the Rings Online, I was wholly enchanted by the way that the game designers had managed to turn my beloved Middle Earth into a playable experience. They managed to incorporate so many tiny details from the books and the movies, creating a whole new reality. As a LOTR geek, I could pop through the round doors in the hobbit holes in Bag End. I could amble along old pathways with Strider. It was like World of Warcraft for book nerds.

In fact, I loved it so much, I had to stop playing because it was taking up way too much of my time. Before I left, though, I stumbled upon one of the most charming surprises I have ever encountered in a game.

I was playing Ilbe, the Hobbit Minstrel (don’t laugh), and was getting thoroughly thrashed with a small group of players in the Barrow Downs. In fact, I got killed almost immediately. Previously, I had been resurrected in one of the resurrection points near one of the towns. Not this time.

I was resurrected in the Old Forest near Breeland. Instead of verdant rolling fields and friendly, apple-cheeked hobbits, I saw this:

Giant spiders, creeping undergrowth, and hostile trees surrounded me. Panicked, I hacked and slashed my way through, running like crazy from the most dangerous monsters until I realized I was actually lost. I was running in circles and couldn’t get back to my group. I was in danger of being picked off again, my life force was dwindling, and all of a sudden in the distance I saw a light…

I slowly walked up to the door of the cozy cottage. Once inside, I wandered around like a child, exploring. I thought it was possible that I had actually been killed in the Old Forest and this was just Hobbit Heaven.

And then I realized…this was Tom Bombadil’s House! The literary thrill from that realization was like a shock. I experienced true bliss, also known as nerd-vana.

Sometimes this also happens in real life. We are wandering lost in a dark, scary place and, just when we think all hope is lost, we see a light in the distance. There is a refuge just behind that door; all we have to do is open it.

Book Review: The King’s Rose by Alisa Libby

Poor, foolish Catherine Howard: she is my favorite of Henry VIII’s queens. Much fuss is made of Madame Boleyn, but the difference between Anne B. and Catherine H. is the difference between fire and water.

Anne’s passionate and tumultuous reign managed to immolate just about everything she touched: her brother, her family name, the unfortunates who paid court, and of course herself. Catherine was under water, in way over her head before she even knew it, and was soon washed away for Henry’s final wife, Catherine Parr. Catherine’s greatest crime is that she was young, foolish and in love.

Take a young girl, raised in lax circumstances, and raise her to the highest lady in the land. Then surround her with courtiers and confessors and advisors who would rather see her fall. Add a mercurial, jealous king, old and ailing. Drama, in any setting, let alone the Tudor court where the penalty for refusing the king anything is treason.

Should you be equally enamored with this era, you will be enchanted by Alisa Libby’s novel, The King’s Rose. Written from the point of view of young Catherine, it sweeps you into Catherine’s dizzying ascent through the Tudor court.

Catherine’s primary assets are her notable beauty and willingness to be dangled in front of the king as a dazzling lure by her family, the Howard clan. She loves the magnificent gowns and jewels: “I am like a dream of me.”

Only later does she realize the true cost of all these luxuries: complete and total compliance to a king old enough to be her grandfather. Libby does a masterful job of portraying the fascinating yet creepy courtship of Catherine by Henry and the willful blindness of the court to the inappropriateness of the match.

Predictably, this glorious wealth’s appeal starts to wane as she is thrown together more often with Thomas Culpepper, a handsome courtier. The pursuit of this love affair, as crazy as it might be, seems all the more inevitable and poignant in the way it is portrayed by Libby.

Through the eyes of Catherine, you see the dread as the coils tighten, you hear the pound of distant drums; she is surrounded by people who know too much of her past, as she walks the steps to the end that history has taken her.

The King’s Rose is quite well-paced and all the little delicious period details are tossed in with effortless flair. One of the greatest challenges of historical fiction is immersing the reader in the era without distracting them with all the things they must learn to understand the people of the time.

Fans of Philippa Gregory and of the Tudor era will devour The King’s Rose. Read more at Alisa’s website.

Article first published as Book Review:The King’s Rose by Alisa Libby on Blogcritics.

Book Review:(S)mythology by Jeremy Tarr

Article first published as Book Review: (S)mythology by Jeremy Tarr, Illustrated by Katy Smail on Blogcritics.

(S)mythology bills itself as a contemporary fairy tale and that it is: a very whimsical, very adult fairy tale. This dark, yet touching tale stars Sophie, a dreamer and innocent naïf who searches for her ideal love. (S)mythology features a quirky cast of characters who both help and hinder Sophie in her classic Hero’s Quest, including Poseidon, a Guru, mermaids and all manner of fish and fowl, both fair and foul.

Many of the ideals of love are up-ended here. Sophie looks for love in the archetypal, bump-into-a-stranger on the street style and that is exactly how she meets Smyth, in a fateful rickshaw accident. They fall in love and wish to live happily ever after, except…Sophie is cursed. Anyone who loves her and looks upon her is turned to stone. She craves love and stability and a family, but she ends up with a collection of statues instead.

Like Orpheus, she goes into the Underworld to rescue Smyth. She fools Death once, but Death can only be fooled once. Without ruining anything I will tell you that people die and bad things happen to good people, as they do in real life (and in fairy tales). There are some sequences that are squeamish and not for the faint-of-heart, but the redemption of the story is worth enduring the dark bits.

One common theme in the book is eyes, and sight or seeing/not-seeing. Often, the blind characters see far more clearly than the seeing ones do. Sophie allows her ideals of love to get in the way of seeing the true love she actually possesses. But all ends up as it should, with lessons learned and an ending that is both delicate and sweet, like the last bit of summer’s ice cream melting away.

The website (http://www.smythology.co.uk/) is quite clever and deserves a visit on its own merits. You can read an excerpt from the book and visit the different locations (including Londontown and the Underworld).

The stylized and whimsical artwork by Katy Smail deserves its own special mention. This is a new breed of illustrated book, a novel with lots of pictures (64 illustrations in total). The illustrations capture the ups and downs of Sophie’s quest and blend with the story perfectly; it is a magnificent synergy of art and writing, one in which the one almost could not exist without the other.

I highly recommend (S)mythology for those who love the work of Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and those with fairy tale sensibilities, those who know that when life intervenes to prevent the ideal, it sometimes offers a happy ending anyway.

Published by The Big Head.
http://www.smythology.co.uk/