Book Review: The Butterfly Conspiracy by Vivian Conroy


The Butterfly Conspiracy is a historical mystery with the undertone of an adventure novel.

Miss Merula Merriweather is different from other girls. She has an unconventional family life, not knowing what became of her real parents or who they were. She isn’t the prettiest of ladies, relying on a spotless reputation to secure her future. She puts that spotless future in danger by pursuing her passion: zoology.

Merula has a special interest in butterflies. Her uncle allows her to use the greenhouse as a place to raise imported creatures from their cocoons. She has an impressive collection of butterflies, but one of them—the largest—is her pride and joy. She has raised it and seen it hatch, and makes the decision to let it out during a zoological lecture.

When Merula’s prize butterfly lands on a wealthy woman’s arm, the woman dies immediately. Blame is placed on the insect, which is killed by the butler. It was heartbreaking to read about Merula’s butterfly being disposed of mercilessly, but under the circumstances, what else could they think to do?

Lord Raven Royston was present during the scene at the lecture. He knows that Merula’s butterfly was not the cause of the death, and he wants to bring justice. He helps her rescue the last cocoon of her butterfly species, escaping a greenhouse that has been set on fire. He introduces her to a chemist friend who collects bizarre creatures such as scorpions and giant spiders. When it becomes clear that police are after her, he gives her shelter at the home he hasn’t visited in twenty years.

Merula and Raven are a great team. She isn’t the fainting sort—after all, she worked with insects for fun—and does well under pressure. He is a deep thinker and willing to try explanations that seem absurd. Together, they work out what happened to the woman. If the butterfly did not kill her, and Merula insists it isn’t venomous, what did?

Rarely do I come across a book and realize from the blurb alone that I need to read it. This was the case with The Butterfly Conspiracy; I cheated my October reading list in order to devour the mystery. The characters are very well developed, the mystery seamless, and the ending satisfying.

There is even an air of steampunk to the world described here—I was waiting for the mechanic creatures to come out!

I had already found a great mystery series in the Lady Hardcastle books, but now I will be looking out for these books too. If you want to try a new mystery series, or if you like visits back in time, The Butterfly Conspiracy is a great book!

5 Intriguing Facts About Bram Stoker


If you’ve noticed that my blog’s been a bit slow, I have a good reason. I said that I would be reading Dracula in September. Dracula has long been my favorite book, though it had been a while since my last read. I had forgotten a lot of the details that make it great.

I decided to reread it after almost a decade, and felt as if I were opening a new book. When a long time passes between rereads, you forget enough about a story for surprises become fresh as ever.

I finished two days ago and have been mulling over how well-written it is. ‘Composed’ in the form of letters and diary entries, it pulls you in. Being told from the viewpoint of the frightened heroes, it helps you share in the fright.

Here are five intriguing facts about Bram Stoker, creator of the most famous vampire in history.

He Wrote Other Books

I admit sheepishly to having been surprised when, surfing on Amazon, I found other books that Bram Stoker had written. Dracula overshadows them, but I am excited to explore some of his other titles.

These include The Jewel of Seven Stars, which is a book about a mummy’s curse, and The Lair of the White Worm, about a giant white worm that can turn itself into a woman.

Portrait of Bram Stoker

He Was A Sickly Child

Bram Stoker suffered from a mysterious illness when he was a child that left him bedridden for long periods of time. Not much is known about this illness, but it seemed to clear up when he was seven years old.

One has to wonder if some of the horror stories Bram Stoker came up with originated during these periods he spent bedbound.

He Worked At Dublin Castle

Bram Stoker worked at Dublin Castle as a clerk during his time at university. When I learned this, I wondered how much this job would have influenced his descriptions of Castle Dracula later on.

After all, is this not the writer’s dream? Especially a writer of Gothic fiction! I can’t imagine that time in a castle wouldn’t have molded the stories he would pen.

Dublin Castle (Source)

Dracula Was Inspired By A Dream

Any author knows that dreams can give us the most bizarre ideas for stories. Whatever we come up with in the waking hours doesn’t stand a chance against what we do in slumber.

Bram Stoker claimed that his most famous book, Dracula, was inspired by a blood-sucker in a dream. He blamed the dream on a ‘too-generous helping of dressed crab at supper.’ Fans of gothic and horror literature can be thankful that the crab supper was so generous!

He Was Walt Whitman’s Fan

Bram Stoker sent fan mail to Walt Whitman. He was impressed by Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which he came across during his college years. The collection of poetry was controversial for its experimental style; this seems to have been the reason why Stoker was impressed by it.

In 1872 he wrote Whitman a 2000-word letter expressing his enthusiasm for Leaves of Grass and hoping that one day the two of them could be friends. They met three times after this, forming a friendship based on common interest in philosophy, theater, and literature.


Bram Stoker was a fascinating man, just the person to write a novel enthralling as Dracula. There is much more to be known about him, so I will be doing my research—if I’m not lost in one of his other novels!

On a side note, I have been writing again! It’s a historical romance, and I wrote 11k in about 2 days without meaning to. If there are any more pauses between posts, the reason is that I am writing a work of my own that I hope will have fans one day.

Forgive these pauses; I hope that one day you’ll read Tessa’s story and enjoy it as much as I love writing it!

Update: Books I’m Reading In September


I can’t believe we are halfway through with September! I posted a list of books I was going to read in September, and I’m going to update you that. Some books I have read as planned, others are taking more time, and more crept in because my bibliophile self could not stick to the plan.

Stonehenge: A New Understanding is taking me the longest to read. I can’t quite name why—I bought it because I am interested in Stonehenge and its history, but the way that it is told in this book is slow and rather dry. Perhaps a person who is interested in obscure archaeological details would enjoy it more.

I am still going to finish it one day, but as it is, I’m reading a chapter at a time. I don’t want to speed-read something I don’t like and forget all about it. There is valuable information to be found in this book, but I’ve enjoyed other history books that were far more gripping.

I’ve read half of Dracula. At once upon starting, I remembered why it was my favorite book ten years ago. The book manages to be frightening without the notorious jump-scare that has invaded modern books and movies. You’re able to soak in the mystery. When they are frightened, so are you. I’m thinking that I’ll read the second half of Dracula in October.

As an aside, I’m reading the paper copy I enjoyed as a teenager; holding the pages is a great comfort!

Now, for the books I have finished so far in September:

In The Market For Murder by T. E. Kinsey

Oh, Lady Hardcastle! I think of this series and feel a thrill. Not since Harry Potter have I found a set of characters I am so fond of! In The Market For Murder can be enjoyed as a stand-alone, though I recommend you read the first installment so that you can appreciate why these characters are so great.

Lady Hardcastle and her ladies-maid Flo are not sit-on-your-hands Downton types who avoid trouble (or murder). In book one it is hinted that Lady Hardcastle and Flo were stranded somewhere in Asia where they escaped murderers, a deserted island, and other such atrocities after Lord Hardcastle’s death.

The first book, called A Quiet Life In The Country, is exactly that: Lady Hardcastle’s attempt to be a proper lady and find a quiet life in the country. There is murder in the country as well, disrupting her plans.

Lady Hardcastle and Flo are not damsels in distress. In book one, there is a scene where a drunken man touches Flo inappropriately. She ‘accidentally’ trips on the recently waxed floor and ‘accidentally’ hits him in the groin with her elbow. Then she warns him to be careful or she might ‘accidentally’ hit him again.

Read this series on purpose. You need these heroines in your life.

The Particular Charm Of Miss Jane Austen by Ada Bright & Cass Grafton

What would become of the world if Jane Austen had never written her books? What would a bookstore look like without Pride and Prejudice, in all its different editions, entire shelves? This comedy/romance, the first of a duo of books, insists that life without Mr. Darcy would be tragic.

The character of Jane in this book has the ability to travel in time. She is enjoying the costumes, tributes, and merriment at the annual Jane Austen festival in Bath, one of the cities where she once lived, when the necklace that lets her travel in time is lost.

Following its loss, her work disappears. There is no longer a Jane Austen festival. The main character, Rose Wallace, is frantic that she will never read about Mr. Darcy’s dysfunctional courtship again.

This book is a comedy, so I try not to be cynical that Rose’s first worry is not about Jane Austen being trapped in a century not her own. Instead, she’s going berserk about the fact that Mr. Wickham is no more.

I often wanted to scream at Rose that she was being a selfish entitled little—er, bookworm.

Because of all of these things, the book is hilarious. It’s a great twist on Jane Austen fan fiction, and it’s well worth the read. I won’t soon forget it!

The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood

I have just finished reading The Hidden People today. I might have written this update post because I needed a space to gush. The book is often compared to my other all-time favorite, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and rightly so. The setting is impeccable; I have literally had a dream in which I was staying at a bleak house exactly like the one described in Littlewood’s book.

It’s the second book that influenced my dream world with its magical setting and description. The first book to do so was Piranesi; I’ll talk about that sometime soon!

Halfoak is a little village in the English countryside where the people swear that Changelings are not only real, but they live in an oddly shaped hill and steal children. When main character Alfie’s cousin Lizzie is killed on suspicion of being a Changeling, he goes to investigate this murder and ensure that she is given a Christian funeral—which few of the superstitious villagers attend.

The magic in this book is that the ending doesn’t steal the wonder. Was it all a result of the villagers’ superstition, or are there really Changelings in Halfoak stealing children and corrupting wives?

It is not a happy ending for Alfie, but I consider it happy that the reader can ask themselves while unable to sleep, Could it be?


The Hidden People is a perfect Halloween read if you need something a bit lighter than Dracula. It’s also good for people who like fairy stories.

All of these books are ‘family friendly,’ though Littlewood’s book is Gothic and that is the magic of it. In The Market For Murder is a cozy mystery; there is a crime committed, but you spend more time laughing at Lady Hardcastle’s antics than dreading pools of blood. Miss Jane Austen is pure fun—if you want a light read, this is it!

What have you read this month? Please tell me!

The Tragic Life of L.M. Montgomery


I often find authors’ lives more fascinating than the novels they write. I’ve written posts about Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott; in the process, I discovered there was more to these ladies than happy endings.

To make it as a writer all those years ago, you needed resilience and character—especially if you were female. Women so feared the ill repute of being a writer that they used pen names.

L.M. Montgomery, writer of Anne of Green Gables, is a woman whose life was not what I had expected. Her life was marred by tragedy, yet she pressed on with her books.

Here are five facts about L.M. Montgomery.

She Didn’t Like Her Name

An author is often connected to their character in personal ways. In Anne of Green Gables, Anne begs Marilla to call her Cordelia. She does not like her name, which is actually Ann, to which she added the e at the end.

L.M. Montgomery did not like her name, either. It was Lucy, but she always preferred to be called Maud—without the e, ironically. She combined these names in her pen name. In her journal she wrote, “I never liked Lucy as a name. I always liked Maud—spelled not ‘with an e’ if you please.”

Here we have a woman who took a pen name, not because she was afraid of what society would think, but because she didn’t like her name!

Her Family Wasn’t Supportive

One thing that doesn’t change over time is how writing is seldom considered a ‘productive’ career. I am fortunate to have a supportive family for my work, but I have many friends who don’t. L.M. Montgomery didn’t, either.

Montgomery’s family thought so disdainfully of her writing that she resorted to working at night by the flickering light of a candle. She did not let their opinions dissuade her from pursuing her passion, for which we are all grateful.

This passage from Lantern Hill is telling: “I struggled on alone, in secrecy and silence. I never told my ambitions and efforts and failures to any one. Down, deep down, under all discouragement and rebuff, I knew I would ‘arrive’ some day.”

Anne Was Inspired By An Old Journal

Many authors keep journals in which they store ideas. So did Montgomery. She was paging through one of her old notebooks when she came across a note she made a decade before: “Elderly couple apply to orphan asylum for a boy. By mistake a girl is sent them.”

Montgomery breathed life into her old idea. Her intention was to write it as a serial and submit it to a newspaper, but things did not go as she planned, and Anne took on life as a novel.

Her manuscript for Anne of Green Gables was rejected by every publisher she sent it to, so she put it away in a hatbox for a while. In 1908 she gave Anne another chance, and the book was published.

No Stranger To Tragedy

Montgomery was among the hundreds who caught the Spanish Flu in 1918. Though she survived and went on to write novels, she lost her best friend Frederica Campbell MacFarlane to the illness.

The Spanish Flu was one of many dark times she survived. She also lived through the First and Second World Wars. Every writer and artist knows how tragedy affects our stories.

L.M. Montgomery used her writing to cope with the darkness of war. This is evident in Rilla of Ingleside, my personal favorite in the series. We think of Anne’s world as one of comfort and meadows; in this book Anne’s family is torn apart by war.

She Had A Dark End

On April 24, 1942, L.M. Montgomery died in her Toronto home. Her body was laid to rest in her beloved Prince Edward Island, and a wake was had at the Green Gables House. The certificate blamed her death on coronary thrombosis, but that was not the end of the story.

In 2008, Montgomery’s granddaughter revealed a shocking truth. She believed that her grandmother had not died of thrombosis; she had ended her own life with a drug overdose. The beloved author had left a note apologizing to her family for what she was going to do.

The family decided to reveal this in 2008 to open up dialogue about mental health. It’s important to talk about our struggles, because life has no shortage of challenges to throw us. We should never feel alone.


L.M. Montgomery and her character Anne Shirley hold beloved places in our hearts. I did not read her books until last year; her description and storytelling made me believe in magic. If you want to see these stories from a different angle, learn more about the creator of Anne Shirley.

Are you doing Annetober this year? It’s a challenge in which we read the Anne books in the month of October. I did it last year (reviewing each as I finished) and might try again this year.

In my opinion, there is no better time to read about Anne than in the fall, when the leaves make golden carpets on the grass!

Books I’m Reading in September


Autumn is kicking in—the best time to get reading done! Chilly weather, a cup of tea, and a warm blanket set the mood, making your journey into a story somehow more tangible. As the world outside begins to settle into its slumber, we find in the pages of books a way by which we can live even more.

Do you know what you’re reading this month? My September TBR includes:

Stonehenge: A New Understanding by Mike Parker Pearson

I started reading this in late August. It’s not the sort of thing to speed-read; you’d lose a lot of interesting information! I’ve been interested in Stonehenge since I was very young, but the shows on television—at least at the time—seemed to focus on the ‘spooky’ reputation Stonehenge has, especially around Halloween.

While I love ghost stories, in this case it is more interesting to learn about the archaeological aspect of Stonehenge. With October near, I get the best of both worlds this year!

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I want to make two resolutions: First, to read a classic every month. I keep meaning to read all of the best known classics but keep getting distracted. Second, to reread a favorite every month. Dracula falls into both of those categories. I’ve read it twice and enjoyed both times; this was almost a decade ago, so I’d be going into it now almost as if it were a new book.

C.S. Lewis said, ‘I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.’ While it’s true that there are many books to read, I’d like to revisit some favorites and remember why they’re favorites. Dracula is also fitting for the season!

Meadowlands by Elizabeth Jeffrey

I’ve become a big fan of historical fiction. It’s the genre lean to when writing. Though I’ve dabbled a bit in mystery/crime fiction, it doesn’t come naturally. Investigating the fine points of crime is not as fun as researching the past!

Meadowlands by Elizabeth Jeffrey is one of the books I most look forward to. It’s set during the years of WWI and was in a list of books to read if you enjoy Downton Abbey (which I do—I’ve been rewatching the first season and it never gets old!)

In the Market for Murder by T.E. Kinsey

I read A Quiet Life in the Country, the first Lady Hardcastle mystery, last month. The clever characters and witty writing style has me hooked! Combining mystery with historical fiction, it’s perfect–those are the two things I enjoy most in a book!

If you’re looking for a good series to get hooked on, I’m a huge fan of Lady Hardcastle and plan to read all of the books!


What are you reading this month? Do you have any go-to books that set the mood for Halloween? Let me know in the comments!

5 Amazing Facts About Louisa May Alcott


Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is one of those books that every child knows. The antics of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy stay with us long after we reach adulthood. It reminds us that a good life has its hardships, even in fiction. The resilience of the March sisters gives us hope that we can survive our trials.

This book has been made into movies and continues to inspire readers. Its characters live on as readers pass it down to their children. What do we know about the author, though?

Alcott was a unique woman for her time. A defender of women’s rights and fiercely independent, her life can inspire us as much as her book has done. Here are five amazing facts about Louisa May Alcott.

1- She Turned Down A Marriage

Many female writers of the time chose writing over marriage (even if it marred their social stance). Like Jane Austen years before, Louisa May Alcott turned down a marriage proposal.

Mr. Condit was a prosperous manufacturer of silk hats. He proposed to Louisa in 1860. Her family was in a hard place financially, making it difficult to refuse, but she did not love him.

What was more, she feared that her career as a writer would vanish if she took a husband. In the end, she chose her writing over a loveless union.

2- She Was A Civil War Nurse

In 1861, the Civil War hit. Alcott was not the sort of woman to be idle in dire times. First, she volunteered to sew uniforms for the soldiers. Itching to become more involved, she became a nurse, going straight into the chaos.

Alcott saw horrible things while tending to wounded soldiers. In a Washington D.C. tent-hospital, she comforted wounded men as they died. These events left profound scars from which she found solace in writing.

Alcott recorded her experiences in journals and letters to family. She published Hospital Sketches in 1863. It is a fictionalized account based on her letters. The book became massively popular and was reprinted with more material.

3- She Didn’t Want To Write Little Women

Alcott wrote her most famous book, Little Women, after much resistance.

Her father was asked by an editor at a publishing house if she would write a novel for little girls. Louisa was not keen on the idea of writing for children. She refused and a year passed.

When her father was trying to publish his own book on philosophy, the editor once more requested a book for little girls. He would publish the philosophy book if Louisa agreed.

Giving in, she used her childhood with her sisters as a topic for the book. The first part of Little Women was published in 1868. It became a huge success—perhaps to her chagrin–and she went on to write the sequels, Jo’s Boys and Little Men.

4- She Adopted Her Niece

Alcott never had children, but was able to experience motherhood at the age of forty-seven. In 1879, her sister May died after giving birth to a daughter. On her deathbed, May told her husband that she wanted the child to go to Louisa.

He honored his wife’s last wish and trusted the baby to Alcott. She was named Louisa after her aunt and nicknamed LuLu. Alcott raised the girl during the final years of her own life.

Alcott died of a stroke when LuLu was 8 years old, and LuLu was sent back to Switzerland with her father. Though they were together for a short time, Lulu carried fond memories of her aunt Louisa.

5- She Was A Suffragette

Alcott advocated for women’s rights when the movement was in its infancy. She wrote for a women’s periodical in the 1870s and went door-to-door, encouraging women in Massachusetts to vote.

In 1869, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote on any issue involving education and children. Alcott registered and became the first woman in Concord to vote.

She and nineteen other women voted that year, initiating a great change. Alcott was passionate about making sure that women’s voices were heard. The Nineteenth Amendment was cast in 1890—decades after Alcott’s death.


Louisa May Alcott was a devoted writer. Though she is best known for Little Women, her collection of complete works is staggering. More attention should be given to this impressive and fearless woman.

Behind every great story is a greater story; in the case of Little Women, it is the writer’s life. She valued her independence, worked to support her family, and fought for the woman’s vote.

We miss out on a great deal when we don’t look at an author’s background. Timeless stories don’t come out of the blue; there is always a fascinating chain of events forming the foundation of a classic.

5 Surprising Facts About Jane Austen


Despite having such a devoted fan base, Jane Austen’s life is shrouded in mystery. She was an unusual woman for her time, holding firm to her values. She believed in love matches; her stories are full of unlikely couples, yet she remained unmarried.

We don’t have much correspondence from which to learn her thoughts. Following the custom of the time, Jane’s sister Cassandra burned many letters after the author’s death.

Fortunately, not all was lost with those yellowing pages. Enough history remains to offer us a satisfying portrait.

Here are five surprising facts about Jane Austen.

1- She Enjoyed Gothic Novels

It’s not surprising that Jane Austen was well-read. She spent hours in the family library immersed in classics such as Shakespeare.

As always, literary tastes at the time were changing; she also enjoyed reading then-popular Gothic novels.

Her favorite authors included Frances Burney, Ann Radcliffe, and Maria Edgeworth. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho was mentioned in Jane’s novel Northanger Abbey as one of Catherine Morland’s favorite books.

Want to learn more about which books Jane read? Here is a list!

Portrait of Author Frances Burney

2- Jane Austen Hated School

The Austens were unique in their belief that education was important for all children, not only boys.

Jane and her sister Cassandra attended boarding school as young girls. Jane was only seven when she first left home to study. There is speculation about why she left at such a tender age. Some think it was because she could not bear separation from her sister.

They attended Mrs. Cawley’s boarding school for girls, where they were taught sewing and French. Jane would later write about her time at school as a torment.

3- She Was Engaged—for a Night

On December 2, 1802, Jane accepted a marriage proposal from family friend Harris Bigg-Wither. The Bigg-Wither family owned a large estate; marriage to him would ensure Jane’s happy retirement.

The following morning, she’d changed her mind. She called off the engagement, a choice that perplexed everybody–she wasn’t getting any younger.

Why did Jane choose spinsterhood over a comfortable home? We know that she believed people ought to marry for love; perhaps that was her reason.

I found this article about Harris Bigg-Wither interesting.

Drawing of Harris Bigg-Wither

4- Charlotte Brontë Wasn’t a Fan

There has been a rumor circulating that Charlotte Brontë’s classic Jane Eyre was inspired Austen’s character Jane Fairfax in Emma. This article criticizes the rumor, but it doesn’t deny that Brontë wasn’t a fan.

One can hardly blame her, seeing the big picture. Rare were female authors brave enough to publish with their names. They were generalized as lady authors, and Brontë was tired of being lumped in with Austen when their novels were so different.

I’m thankful that there is now room for different kinds of lady authors. It’s possible for us to write light-hearted romance or Gothic pieces–whatever we please!

5- Austen’s Last Piece was a Poem

Many famous authors have died and left novels unfinished. Jane Austen left two books unfinished—Sanditon and The Watsons—but her last complete work seems to have been a poem.

Titled Venta, it was dictated to Cassandra three days before Jane’s death. It’s a satirical piece about the people of Winchester, poking fun at their fervor for horse races. Jane wrote that they cared more for the races than they did for their patron saint, St. Swithin.

Various poems by Jane Austen can be found here.


It’s always fascinating to do research about the lives of famous authors. This little post does not begin to cover Jane Austen’s life, but I hope it taught you something new!

Learning to Teach History: Interview with Phillip Campbell


In recent years I have discovered a new interest in history. My motto for this blog is that behind every great story is an even greater story.

This refers to three things. First, it speaks of the effort going on behind the scenes when an author writes a book. Secondly, think of a painting. It’s easy to admire as an image, but often is so much more. If you’ve studied art, you know that very few immortal paintings exist for the sake of existing. Great works of art tend to have stories woven in between brushstrokes.

The third and broadest type of ‘story’ I refer to with my motto is history.

When we see the fireworks on Independence Day, we celebrate our freedom. How often do we set aside the hot dogs and ponder those men who, centuries ago, stood up in defense of their rights?

We idolize Vincent van Gogh for his story and his poignant art, make jokes about the ear incident. Do we know why he cut off his ear? Behind every great (and I mean great in the sense of huge, not always good, as in the case of van Gogh) story is a greater story.

We cannot let these stories become lost in time; they are relevant as the marble statues in front of the Capital building. Maybe we can’t see the stitches in that old quilt Grandma gave us; it doesn’t make the effort of perfecting those stitches less meaningful.

I believe history should be taught thoroughly, and so does my good friend Phillip Campbell. A history teacher, he’s published a book about how to teach history.

How do you present events with the dignity they deserve? How can you see the stitches in the quilt? What can we do to help those we are teaching to appreciate those stitches, too?


The Catholic Educator’s Guide to Teaching History, Phillip Campbell

I asked him a few questions about the past and its significance. I’m excited to read his book, The Catholic Educator’s Guide to Teaching History. My quest for this blog, digging up those small stitches and presenting them to you, will benefit from his wisdom.

It’s not only our duty to learn history–we must also pass it on. Purchase his book today.


Tell us your goal in writing this book. How will it change the way readers think of the past?

I wrote The Catholic Educator’s Guide to Teaching History to be a summary of my 15+ years experience teaching history in Catholic educational environments. This book is for parents or teachers who are trying to teach history in various settings: classroom, homeschool, or co-op. I’m hoping this book will help these people to teach history in a way that is engaging and memorable. 

Too many people complain that they found history classes in school to be boring and uninspiring. This is a true shame, as history is full of the greatest stories one will ever encounter. History is ultimately just the story of the human race! It’s unfortunate that it is often made dull by people who teach it poorly. Hopefully my book will contribute in some small way to turning that around.

There’s a lot to say about how to handle the past as a subject of study, but the crux of my method (at least when dealing with children) is capturing the narrative arc of history. In other words, returning the story to history. Everybody loves a good story, especially children. 

If we can really present our historical content as a story—complete with characters, plot, climax, and resolution—it becomes immensely more accessible. And the best part is we don’t have to create the story ourselves; it’s already there, we merely need to tailor our approach in such a way that the narrative structure of history is highlighted for young minds. This is what makes history “come alive” for people.  

Why is it important to teach and study history?

That is a very broad question, to which many answers have been given over the years. For most people, this question immediately brings to mind the famous quote of philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

I have always disliked it as a comprehensive explanation of why we ought to study history. It takes a very pessimistic view of human civilization, essentially viewing history as nothing but an embarrassing burden we are “condemned” to deal with. Human nature is capable of great darkness, to be sure, but also great beauty. 

I, for one, prefer not to view history as something that only dooms us, something we must constantly be struggling to escape. But beyond this, we could also critique Santayana’s maxim for being too utilitarian. While building a more peaceful society for all humanity is certainly a worthy goal, doesn’t the study of history have some rationale more intrinsic to our own character development? Something more personal?

Traditionally, history has been a core part of the so-called “liberal arts” curriculum. The liberal arts are those studies whose purpose is to develop our own intellectual capacity and character (as opposed to professional or vocational skills). One does not study literature, poetry, or art because this knowledge keeps the electricity running or helps us make a buck. We study them because they form our character by ennobling our individual potential. They elevate our minds. They teach us to think. They make us more human. 

The ancients viewed history in this manner. Cicero said, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” Understanding the things that came before our own life experience is essential to understanding not only the world we live in, but our very selves. 

A person unfortunate enough to suffer complete amnesia loses their identity entirely, for a person who doesn’t know where they have been does not know who they are. Similarly, to the degree we live without knowledge of where we have been, to that degree we remain stunted in our understanding of ourselves. In the words of Cicero, we are still, in some sense, a “child.”

Did any authors or historical figures influence this book?

I was deeply influenced by the classical approach to history as exemplified by the Greeks and Romans. The Greeks assigned history its own muse, Clio, the “Proclaimer”, the inspirational goddess of history. That history should be numbered amongst the Nine Muses—with such subjects as poetry and dance—gives us profound insight into the real value of historical study. 

The Muses were goddesses of inspiration; that is, the arts of the Muses are those that inspire and require inspiration. They help us transcend the workaday world and find value in life in an existential manner, connecting with things bigger than ourselves. That was part of my vision, to enable people to be inspired by history in a way that helps them connect with their own existence in a more meaningful way.

I mentioned Cicero above. Another inspiration is Livy, the ancient Roman author who compiled a history of Rome from the founding of the city to his own day. Livy stressed the moral value of history as a lesson in human nature—we are edified by the deeds of the righteous and horrified by the evils of the wicked. I just think the ancients were so much more in tune with the character building aspect of history than modern people.

If a person decided to study history, which three books would you recommend to them?

It depends on what era of history you want to study, and one’s level of cognition. 

Assuming we are talking to adults, I have a few recommendations: an excellent book that gives a solid introduction to the Middle Ages is Norman Cantor’s book The Civilization of the Middle Ages. My go-to book for ancient Rome is Michael Grant’s 1978 masterpiece History of Rome. It gets so much more fragmented when you get into modern history, and American history especially. 

It’s challenging to recommend a single comprehensive book. I guess I will take the opportunity to make a shameless plug for my own two texts on modern Europe and American history: Story of Civilization Volume 3: The Making of the Modern World, and Story of Civilization Volume 4: The History of the United States. These books are meant for younger readers, but adults enjoy them as well because, as I said, everyone loves a story!

It’s important to read lots of books to obtain a well-rounded view of history. For example, no one would say, “If you want to appreciate literature, what three books would you read?” Because the reality is, we develop our literary taste by reading a great variety of books. 

Obviously we have to start somewhere, and I think that’s what your question is getting at. But ultimately if we want to be historically literate, we need to get our history from a diversity of sources as well. I don’t have just one book about a given period. Incidentally, this also helps inoculate you against historical bias, because the more history you read the more discerning your historical sense becomes.

END


The Bookworm’s Bible: FOR THE LOVE OF BOOKS by Graham Tarrant


For The Love Of Books is the perfect gift for your picky book-loving friend. It’s the sort they’ll read over and over–for fun, as well as to learn.

It was there in my Kindle for months before I started to read. At once I realized that it was the perfect match for me! I had already been doing my own research on writers, book series, and events that triggered classic stories. This work opened a treasure chest of details to keep me going.

Graham Tarrant has gathered priceless facts and ‘did-you-know’ bits. I finished reading with the sense that I’d been given a crash course on literary history. 

You finish reading this book with the sense that you’ve gone through volumes of classics, biographies, and newspaper articles. The only downside is realizing there are so many books we’ve yet to read.

Why can’t I skip bedtime for reading time?

Which Tasty Morsels?

For The Love Of Books features everything to hook the bibliophile. It talks about authors’ disputes and the (mostly) indirect swings they aimed at each other. These were done via interviews–but sometimes their books featured characters suspiciously similar to their rivals.

It provides juicy details on literary romances. If you want to learn about husband-wife cowriters, there are such romantic duos. If you prefer the dangerous, there are love affairs that authors carried out with colleagues. You’ll also find that some of them preferred the writer-hermit lifestyle to a family setup.

Are you curious about the origin of the mystery novel? A chapter has been dedicated to mysteries and thrillers. There are many famous female mystery writers, Agatha Christie being the best known. You’ll read about spy novels that were based on the authors’ experiences.

Of course, there is the melancholy: there are some authors who passed away before they could finish their work. I’m not talking about Dickens with Edward Drood or Jane Austen with Sanditon. No, this is a threat that all authors face! I can’t imagine anything sadder than an unfinished manuscript on my bedside when my last day comes.

Fellow bookworm, you’ll find everything here to satisfy your appetite.

“What Do I Read Next?”

For The Love Of Books will make you feel enlightened. You’ll fall in love with the literary world and its history–but you might also find yourself in a panic. You won’t know what to read next! There are so many titles mentioned; it might depend on which category you’d like to explore. 

Do you want to read the first detective story by Edgar Allen Poe? Called The Murders in the Rue Morgue, it’s said to have inspired future “career” mystery writers. Maybe you’d like to know which writers produced their best work under the influence of alcohol. If you dedicate yourself to the It’s A Fact tidbits, you will still learn much. In two or three sentences, Tarrant delights us with history to mull over and laugh at.

Behind every great story is an even greater story. That is my motto, and Graham Tarrant has written the book to feed my obsessions: books and history, history and books. I am grateful for this gem, this must-have for book lovers, and the material it has given me to continue my research in these realms I adore.

The Waltz of Song & Poetry: CHAMBER MUSIC by James Joyce


There’s music along the river
For Love wanders there.

– James Joyce, Chamber Music

The Waltz of Song & Poetry

It is common for well-loved songs to find their inspiration in poetry. Some are written with the goal of being transformed into music, including Chamber Music by James Joyce.

Our culture is laden with songs that underwent this transformation. We’ve all heard some of them–classics such as “Auld Lang Syne,” a traditional Scottish song derived from a poem by Robert Burns (1759-1796). “America the Beautiful” was the work of Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929).

Secular music has also been touched by poetry. A collection of songs exist based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. (Listen to Annabel Lee by Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac fame). We can’t forget songs inspired by novels or poems about music and its power.

Seeking the link between music and poetry sends a person down a literary and musical rabbit hole.


The Words of James Joyce

Joyce himself was not very romantic when he spoke of the title Chamber Music. He said of it that he referred to the sound made by a lady using a chamber pot. Most literary experts consider this mere off-color humor.

When composer Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer (1882-1957) composed a tune for Chamber Music, Joyce was pleased with the outcome. Palmer was not the only one who gave a tune to Joyce’s verses, though Palmer’s was Joyce’s favorite attempt. Other composers took up the challenge, including Moeran, Bliss, and Charlotte Milligan Fox.

Joyce said in a letter to Palmer regarding the work, “(…) you may set all of Chamber Music in time. This was indeed partly my idea in writing it. The book is in fact a suite of songs and if I were a musician I suppose I should have set them myself.”

While casual readers can enjoy Chamber Music and the imagery within, it was not received with enthusiasm on its publication in 1907. Joyce was criticized for using many styles and forms, making the piece difficult to label.

What’s more, Chamber Music was published during a year of political turmoil in his native country of Ireland. Fellow Irish writers scorned that it did not “serve the cause.” Compatriot poet Yeats complained that Joyce had no interest in Irish politics.


What Happened in Ireland?

I wondered while researching why it was such an issue to Yeats that Chamber Music was not political. What was this strife in Ireland capable of turning talented writers against each other? IrishRep summed up nicely:

After nearly eight centuries under forced British rule, the late 1800s brought a wave of Irish nationalism in the form of The Gaelic Revival, which encouraged the reemergence of the Irish language, and the Irish Literary Renaissance, which revived Irish folklore and other storytelling tradition through new works by famed authors including W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, John Millington Synge, Lady Gregory, and more.

read more

We then understand that it was a literary issue. Joyce’s apparent indifference in Chamber Music may have been labelled treason. We can’t forget that he was unique with his writing–anyone who has glanced at Finnegan’s Wake knows what I mean.

Ponder for a moment that this poem can be linked to pop-culture today as well as old political spats. A poem is never just a poem, a book never only a book! The poem’s troubled history is part of its legacy. All things considered, the imagery remains beautiful.

I’ve read a few literary essays by professors, but cannot agree that there is a flaw in Chamber Music. It makes me want to try my own hand at composing music for a few stanzas.

Enriched by the history of Chamber Music, we can enjoy it in all its depth. I live to dig up the “story behind the story.”

How do music and poetry mingle in your life? The two have waltzed for centuries as if in a forbidden romance. Search your Spotify playlist for tracks where they embrace for three magical minutes.

The Creators of CARMEN: Prosper Mérimée and Georges Bizet


My recent recommitment to learning the piano led me to a passion for classical music. I have a book of simplified classic songs my late grandmother gave me. It is one of my most treasured gifts from Grandma Colleen.

I’ve been working through the pieces for a little over a month. To my delight, I came across one of my favorite songs: Habanera from the opera Carmen.

Habanera is not a difficult song to play. It’s packed with energy that keeps me awake as I’m practicing it. It makes me want to dance in a frilly skirt and sing off-key. I would venture to say Habanera is one of the songs that most people have heard in passing, even if they do not know where it is from.

There is no such thing as a coincidence, but something delightful happened last month, after I had begun practicing Habanera. I was reading the spectacular memoir The Seine by Elaine Sciolino, and she brought up composer Georges Bizet. He wrote the songs for Carmen’s opera adaptation.

Sciolino told the story of the opera’s premiere. With its sensuality and suggestive language, Carmen scandalized crowds, so its first reviews were heavy with outrage.

Those were different times, indeed.

Depressed by this cold reception of Carmen, Bizet fell victim to depression. It became so crippling that when he died, people speculated he had taken his own life. Carmen was the labor of his hard work and tears; any artist could understand the effect of scathing reviews.

That Bizet took his life appears to be a Parisian myth. In reality, Bizet had suffered from health problems throughout his life. He made a rash decision that winter to go for a swim in the Seine river. This is a bad decision because the Seine was freezing–but also because it’s dirty! After his swim, he contracted a violent fever. This induced a heart attack which led to his death on 3 June, 1875.

If only he could have known that the play would become timeless. Like Vincent van Gogh, his work was not appreciated in his lifetime.


When I had read about Georges Bizet in that chapter of The Seine, I was struck with curiosity about the man who wrote the story–the novella off of which the opera was based. 

Prosper Mérimée, born in 1805, was a French writer. He pertained to the movement of Romantic literature. Mérimée was one of the pioneers of the novella, which is defined as a short novel or a long short story. Carmen is a novella, and I finished it in a day.

Mérimée learned Russian and went on to translate the works of important writers such as Pushkin and Gogol. From 1830 to 1860, he became an inspector of French historical monuments, overseeing their preservation. This included the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. I can only imagine his heartbreak if he could see what has become of it now!

A Still from Carmen. Source: The Guardian

Mérimée seemed destined for great things, because he also made an important discovery that would forever change the world of visual art.

Along with author George Sand, he discovered the famous tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn. Not only did he write Carmen, a story which become a timeless opera; he also discovered those tapestries that enchant us today!

There is so much more to the story of Carmen and her creators, but it would not fit into a blog post. I’m a history geek and I had a field day reading about these incredible men. When I read Carmen, it dawned on me that a story can take on many forms: written and musical. 

When you read intentionally, you find that underneath every great story is a greater story. History is important because it shows us what humans are capable of. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and the lives of these two remarkable men could pass as yarns of fiction.

Never disbelieve that there is wonder in this world: all you have to do is explore history to find it.

The Writer’s Lifeline: JANE AUSTEN’S BEST FRIEND by Zoe Wheddon


It is also a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a great talent must be in want of a brilliant best friend.

This twist on the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice ushers us into the book Jane Austen’s Best Friend, a touching piece that sheds a new light on the most famous authoress in history. 

We often picture Miss Jane Austen alone at her desk, poring over her manuscripts. Rarely do we remember she was also a woman. She had a human heart that longed for affection and needed friends to keep her sane.

Thankfully for Jane, such a friend existed. Her name was Martha Lloyd. No drawings of her exist, but Austen scholars have managed to piece together a vague description based on snatches from letters.

Martha had the personality of a devout Christian woman; acts of charity were part of her nature. She was not blessed with a lovely face: as a child, she suffered a violent bout of smallpox. Though she survived, it marked her countenance–a fact which played against her chances of finding a husband, and indeed she remained a spinster.

A caring, gentle soul, Martha was always nursing the sick and at the bedsides of the dying. She did this so often that their families left her allowances on which she survived. There were times when the Austens were struggling to get by; they could always count on Martha to help them through hard financial times.

This book humanizes Jane Austen. I can picture her as a teenage girl writing her Juvenilia, giggling with Martha at the scandalous scenarios. The first to read Jane’s work in their rawest form were Jane’s sister, Cassandra, and Martha Lloyd.

What a thing to envy! Many people today would love a glance at Jane’s first drafts. She later became a heavy editor, as is known in the case of her novel Northanger Abbey, which she continued to tweak until her death. As it was published posthumously, Jane Austen never saw Northanger Abbey as a book. It was that story she could never seem to get right; any author knows how that feels.

From my own experience working on novels, I know that writing is difficult when you’re on the journey alone. There is a balance: you want to share your drafts with people, but they’ve got to be the right people. You want feedback as you go, but the thought of sending those pieces to just anyone–it almost causes a physical pain! 

My fresh-off-the-press readers include my brother, a few critique partners, and writing buddies who don’t always read the draft but allow me to bounce ideas off of them. Jane’s version, the people who cheered her on as she wrote some of the most famous novels in history, included Martha. 

I believe Martha deserves the chance to be known. She was a comfort to Jane, a source of inspiration, and much-needed comic relief when life became dark. Even as I type this, I can picture Jane Austen gossiping with her best friend about situations that would later wind up in her books. It makes my heart sing!

Jane Austen was brilliant, but she wasn’t a member of a different species. She became famous after years of hard work, but was not too different from me.

If you want a heartwarming read, Jane Austen’s Best Friend soothes the soul like a cup of tea–with lots of honey in it. It will give you more insight into Jane Austen’s life. It will also help you see more clearly what it means to be someone’s best friend.