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.

Death at Scarclaw Fell: SIX STORIES by Matt Wesolowski


Have you ever wondered what would happen if you examined a situation from multiple angles? Round up all of the people involved and ask them about what happened. You’d watch their opinions differ and their accounts mix and match.

Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories follows this premise. It is the written transcript of Scott King’s podcast. Scott’s goal is to rake up old graves. He takes cold cases and looks at them, not as a detective or reporter. He gives people involved a space to talk, and they are drawn to him because of this perspective.

The characters interviewed felt so real that it might have been a true story. I appreciated how people with disabilities were given compassion. It was refreshing to read a piece where the narrator (in this case, Scott King) takes into account the status of a vulnerable adult.

The six points-of-view were flawless to me. Motives were clear, backgrounds separate. While they all lived through the same tragedy, they approached it in distinct ways. Some were ashamed by it; others were almost indifferent. Everyone who knew the murdered kid was affected by him in distinct ways. This affected how much sympathy they showed for him later.

I have to admit it: their stories made it easy to single out who was “it.” I wasn’t surprised when the big reveal happened. I don’t know if the author did this on purpose, focusing on the different voices and how they lead to the same conclusion. It did not take away from my enjoyment of the novel.

Perhaps what was creepiest about the situation was how normal it felt. These teenagers were behaving like teenagers. The trouble they got into with smoking and drinking was what you would expect from angsty teens.

Right until the end, when we learn of the horrific, we struggle to believe they are being interviewed about a murder. It might have been an intervention.

This well-written thriller has a wonderful mythical, horror flavoring. I sometimes wondered if there could be spirits and monsters in the marsh. It is bleak, detailed, and–in my opinion–a great idea for a mystery book.

A heads up for those who mind: the novel has strong language. It wasn’t bad enough to distract me from the plot. If you want a good thriller, I encourage anyone reading this to give Six Stories a try.

Top Three Books – Week 2


It’s been a year of experimenting with different genres. For example, I hadn’t in the past enjoyed any mystery books. Now I’ve done some research and am excited to give the genre a second chance. I can find the hook in a mystery novel–if it is well written!

I haven’t posted about any of the books featured here. There are reasons–for example, Marigolds for Malice is part three of a series. I didn’t feel comfortable reviewing it having dropped in so late. That’s why, instead of a long blog post, I’ll limit my thoughts to a few sentences.

1- Marigolds for Malice by Bailey Cattrell

Marigolds for Malice is a cozy mystery. It’s the sort of mystery you can read when you’re awake at night with insomnia–nothing disturbing or terrifying disrupts the sense of who did it?

Cozy mysteries are good in small doses. They’re essentially fairy tale mysteries, mysteries without the alarm or thrill. If I read too many, would I become accustomed to not being alarmed? Isn’t that important in the mystery genre? It’s only an opinion, though, from a newbie. I do plan on reading more cozies!

The main character Ellie is a young woman who, recently divorced, makes a living with her perfume store. Magic is a thing in this book: she knows which herbs to mix into potions to soothe any malady. This reference to the language of plants and flowers charmed me. As a gardener, I believe that different plants have different purposes–though I don’t see myself putting together healing potions!

2- Like You Love Me by Adriana Locke

Like You Love Me is a romance. I had just finished an intense murder mystery and my mind was reeling; I wanted to read something light and entertaining. This was the right choice. There aren’t complicated mysteries or love triangles. It’s straightforward, sweet, and everything you expect a romance to be.

For a romance, the characters are well done. They have goals other than falling in love, they make mistakes and feel sorry. The story might be simple for a reader, but it isn’t simple for the characters at all. How do you pretend to be married for a week–and what do you do if you actually fall in love?

I breezed through this charming story in a day. Setting was also painted for us carefully and with great detail: by the time it was over, I wished I could visit Honey Creek. The place itself has a character to it that I haven’t found in other books.

3- Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

The online description of Excellent Women summarizes this book quite well:

Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman’s daughter and a spinster in the England of the 1950s, one of those ‘excellent women’ who tend to get involved in other people’s lives – such as those of her new neighbor, Rockingham, and the vicar next door.

Some people don’t want to get involved in the affairs of the person next door–but it happens anyway. Mildred is content with her uneventful life. She’s involved at church, organizes rummage sales, and always seems to be making a cup of tea for someone who needs it.

I laughed when, at one point, she asked herself why she always seemed to be making tea for people.

It’s a simple book, but the beauty is in that simplicity. When Mildred’s new neighbor brings problems with her that Mildred isn’t accustomed to, she finds herself in a series of awkward situations. Will these situations shake her out of her comfort zone?


Of these three, I enjoyed Excellent Women most. Barbara Pym’s comedy is subtle; you want to pat Mildred’s hand and tell her it will be okay, but you also giggle each time she reaches for the teapot. I thought it the best written of the three.

Have you read any of these? Do you have a cozy mystery to recommend? I hope July brought you happy reading!

Evils We Seek: NORTHANGER ABBEY by Jane Austen


Though Jane Austen never married, she’s known for being vocal about her society’s obsession with marriage and romance. Her novels feature parodies of love-matches, foolish matches, and matches of convenience. We all know the first line of Pride and Prejudice.

Fewer people think of the messages woven into the lines of Northanger Abbey. Though it is one of Austen’s first novels, it was published posthumously in 1817 (Persuasion was also published posthumously.) Northanger Abbey is a coming-of-age story which follows Catherine Morland.

Catherine’s childhood is summed up in the opening sentence, which packs as humorous a punch as that of Pride and Prejudice:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.

Does anyone ever see themselves born to be an heroine?

Catherine was an unremarkable child. She has no talent with the skills young ladies were taught at the time; she is a poor artist, her looks are mediocre, and she prefers playing cricket to dolls. Austen mentions that Catherine is the fourth of ten children, which can account in some way for the way she behaved.

I could relate to Catherine in a specific way: she loves to read. She enjoys the Gothic novels that were popular in Austen’s day. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho appears to be Catherine’s favorite story. She will talk about it with anyone who will listen.

It’s difficult to find someone who’ll take it seriously because it’s a novel. Austen also pokes fun at society’s aversion to novels, making her opinion on this known in chapter five. She mentions that Catherine and her friend Isabella Thorpe read novels together–

(emphasis is mine)

Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.

Northanger Abbey is a parody, taking elements of Gothic literature and exaggerating them. However, I could not help thinking when reading the above that Jane let her own frustration slip. 

In a previous post about the book Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWees, I mention a similar theme. Women wrote a great majority of novels in that time; many chose to publish with the alias By a Lady to avoid shame if discovered.

Jane Austen never saw Northanger Abbey in print, though she tried many times. This must have been a source of great frustration. Jane was constantly editing Northanger while alive, so it is possible that she added that rant after many failed attempts with the publisher.

I wonder if she chose to make Northanger and its heroine a reflection of herself. Catherine Morland isn’t very interesting and shows little promise (Jane was not very good at simple things such as chores–I heard in one biography that her family seemed to keep her away from the household tasks!) Morland wasn’t surrounded by suitors growing up. Friendship doesn’t come easily to her, either.

She sees the world through the eyes of a reader, as did Jane. Visiting the Abbey, Catherine’s imagination gets the better of her. She imagines a murder and a cruel husband and all sorts of dark common in Gothic books.

The real monsters in Northanger Abbey are greedy people with charming tongues who cheat and double-cross. This is not interesting enough for Catherine, nor is it for us.

In real life, the monsters we face are rude bosses, traffic jams, and math equations. Seldom do we write novels about these problems; like Catherine, we search for more dramatic beasts in the books we read.

Jonathan Gottschall’s excellent book The Storytelling Animal points out our human tendency to seek dramatic problems in story. We ignore the piling bills on the table, looking instead at the murder in a mystery novel. We like trouble–we like drama–just not the sort that we actually deal with.

It seemed to me that Catherine Morland’s greatest character flaw was her preference for Gothic monsters and skeletons in the closet. A mysterious chest and a locked cabinet are more exciting than her backstabbing friends.

Catherine appears to finally grow up when she realizes that fiction is exaggeration. The real monsters in life are people who make decisions to benefit themselves, who discriminate based on social status, who don’t think twice about breaking a heart.

Truthfully, heartbreak is the worst tragedy I can think of.

Life is not a novel. Jane Austen knew that people become addicted to the thrill of fiction. She was more clever than Pride and Prejudice; she understood humans and how they behave. Northanger Abbey was more relatable to me than Pride and Prejudice.

If you haven’t read it yet, I invite you to do so. You might also decide that Catherine Morland represents bookworms and their habits over the centuries.

Top Three Books – Week 1


This year I decided to start a reading journal and practice intentional reading–which involves taking note of character names and ages. I also record sentences that are powerful or elements that will shape my own writing.

This has helped give my blog renewed purpose–book reviews, thoughts on literature, and history. It’s also a journal as I explore genres such as mystery or thriller. Reading an average of ten books a month (I’m a fast reader) and not having reviewed them all, I’m going to have a weekly feature called Top Three Books.

Some posts will echo praise for titles I’ve written about; others will be special mention for novels I enjoyed but didn’t earn blog post glory. I’m excited to track my journey this way. I hope it will make me a better writer and thinker.

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

One of my greatest pet peeves is the claim that literature is somehow in danger.

It’s a complicated topic, but pinning the blame on eBooks or audiobooks simplifies the matter too much. We should not be afraid for the future of books, and Gottschall makes a fantastic argument as to why.

Story comes from the human mind. Humans were telling stories before there were ways to write them. Even if in another universe, paper books vanished–we will never be without story.

I love the smell of ink on paper, but isn’t story the most important aspect of a book?

The Seine by Elaine Sciolino

I love history. This explains my preference for classic novels–I often find more in an old book that was published as a serial than a hastily written novel penned to earn numbers on Amazon.

Elaine Sciolino went to extraordinary lengths to learn the history of the Seine river in Paris. The Seine is a diva, moody and vengeful. Sometimes she’ll save a life, but sometimes she’ll take it.

This quote from The Seine forever changed how I see Paris:

Without the Eiffel Tower, Paris would still exist; without the Seine, there would never have been a Paris.

If you want to learn French history without plunging into complicated details, Sciolino’s account is written in a language that’s easy to follow. It’s absolutely gripping.

You might not be able to travel this year, but let a book take you to Paris.

All The Good Girls by Willow Rose

I did not review All The Good Girls for the simple reason that it’s a quick read. I didn’t take many notes; it’s so fast-paced that I couldn’t have found the time to set it aside and jot down quotes.

It’s a murder mystery which in my humble opinion (I’m new to the mystery genre) was worth the time. As a writer, I thought some plot twists could have been handled better. The characters might have been written with more depth.

I liked All The Good Girls; I’ll read the rest of the series. There is a focus on God and prayer in this novel, so Christians would enjoy it. There are no “skippable” scenes, if you’re looking for a clean read.

I wonder if the focus on writing a clean book took away from what it could have been. All The Good Girls still deserves mention for its breakneck pace and the sheer fact that it was a page-turner.

Conclusion

Where I wrote blog posts reviewing a book, I linked to it in the title. Click on them and read for more thoughts.

This was a fun selection to make. Do you have comments on any of these books? I would love to hear your opinion!

River of Life: THE SEINE by Elaine Sciolino


If we made a list of the magical properties found in literature, we would have to include that of transporting us to a different place. When a person can’t afford vacation, a good book can take them to streets far away.

Before visiting Paris with my mother and brother, it was a dream of mine to know her streets. They are works of art; the city was designed over the centuries by her leaders to be aesthetically pleasing. You can call the Louvre a museum, but the streets are mesmerizing. Statues and bridges provide wonders to gaze upon.

When a visit to Paris was still but a dream, I satisfied my wanderlust reading books set in the City of Light. They were written in different time periods and different genres. It might have been ink on a page, but each time I finished a book set in Paris, I felt that I knew France a little better.

This was true in a way; I learned about Paris in the way you know a place after reading about it. If a book is well-written, it can be a powerful tour guide.

The reality is that you never know a country until you’ve been there. The vision of Paris I built in my head with each novel was lovely–but it cannot compare to the reality.

The City of Light is a marvel of human artistry. It’s a testament to development as a civilization as time passed. France boasts of a rich history that most never learn of. There’s more to France than the guillotine during the French Revolution.

I learned so much history in the pages of The Seine by reporter Elaine Sciolino. This book is not heavy like a textbook; Sciolino’s writing style is light and talkative. I never once felt that I was dragging through boring events or struggling with names I couldn’t pronounce. This is history that anyone can appreciate.

Sciolino paints a different perspective of Paris. This perspective is from the river, that ancient body of water pulsing through Paris like a vein. Sciolino has traveled far and wide in search of Seine lore, learning about the river goddess Sequana. She even lived on the Seine during a great flood, when water spilled over the banks.

Elaine Sciolino has witnessed many of the Seine’s moods.

I didn’t have enough time to see all of Paris; it’s bigger in person than you probably think! One thing I remember was the sparkling water of the Seine. I remember how the water shimmered as the sun set. The Seine was the first thing I saw when we arrived; before I had a clear view of the Eiffel Tower, I saw the Seine, dark and mysterious in the moonlight.

The Seine is a treat for the history lover and travel junkie. Sciolino has painted for us a panoramic view of this river. She hiked to its “origin,” a stream way up north. She visited places where the Impressionists painted their works of art, capturing the nature of France in all of her elegance.

The Seine takes us on a fascinating ride through the history of the country, following the course of her famous river. It ends with a sobering chapter about the fire which destroyed Notre Dame in 2019. Sciolino us how water from the Seine was used to help stop the fire.

I will continue to read books about Paris until I can visit her again. I hope that, when the time comes, I will know more about this city. The Seine is one of my favorite books; let it take you across oceans to the place where art and history was made.

Classics By Women: NOT JUST JANE by Shelley DeWees


What are the greatest powers to be found in books? There are many, but let’s think about the history behind each piece. People have been writing for centuries, some to inform and others to entertain. There’s a title about everything for everyone.

For more on this, check out my post about Jonathan Gottschall’s book The Storytelling Animal.

Once you start digging into classic literature, you will run into obscure authors and discover the roots of your favorite fairy tales. It’s like Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

Ponder for a moment how the ability to write empowers. Reading and writing have a great influence in the direction that our world takes. Literature makes such a mark on society that it wasn’t always open to everyone.

Women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were discouraged from writing.  It went against the gender roles that society had preset for them. Women were only taught what was necessary for marriage and raising children. If they thought about writing a book (at least, one that wasn’t on the topic of good housekeeping), they risked becoming outcasts.

“Proper” men and women alike mocked ladies who wanted to write. If their tales were indeed written, they were never published. If they were published, most authoresses so feared the condemnation of society that they didn’t publish with their names. Instead they chose the appellation By a Lady.

There are too many women with such a history to celebrate in one blog post or even in a whole book. Shelley DeWees’ Not Just Jane introduces us to seven authoresses aside from Austen who broke the rules. Some were forced into writing to make a living because their husbands could not provide, or–in the case of Sara Coleridge–forced into marriage that tore her away from her passion.

While some of these women wrote about politics, especially during the Great Terror of the French Revolution, others just had stories to tell. Some of them survived because of questionable friends in upper ranks of society. Others were taken “under the wing” of important gentleman (one had a flirtation with the Prince of Wales).

Things like this kept them fed, but didn’t change how they were perceived by the ton. It was a point of no return.

The choice to become a female writer in the eighteenth century was one of strength and bravery. Could I have taken that path when there was so much at stake? I’m glad I don’t have to balance these things now in making that decision; times have changed.

I’m glad the world is full of room for women and their stories.

Learn about seven authoresses who shaped literary history. When you finish Not Just Jane, read a book by one of these women. What can we do to honor their memories? We read the stories they must have doubted could survive.

Paper or eBook? THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL by Jonathan Gottschall


Is the paper book becoming extinct?

This is a question that keeps surfacing, and it divides the community of readers in a manner that is not always pleasant. Debates rise that are unfriendly in nature. If you say that you prefer eBooks or audiobooks, someone feels the need to be judgmental.

We need to remember what a story really is. A story isn’t confined to paper, or an audiobook’s voice, or the screen of your Kindle. A story is something else difficult to describe, and we don’t do it justice by saying it belongs on paper alone.

Are we addicted to books, or to the stories recorded on pages? When the cliche Kindle-versus-paper-book debate surfaces, how many of us stop to think that it is not the paper which keeps us entertained, but the words on it?

The Storytelling Animal is a short book about our natural addiction to fiction, to the escape we have craved for centuries. Gottschall reminds us that, as our world changes, we find stories in different forms.

His insight was fascinating, and it made me question why so many of us participate in the Kindle-versus-paper debate at all. Some like to collect paper books (I’m certainly one of them) but if I can find the story I want on my Kindle for a smaller price, I won’t say no to that. 

It’s the story that eases the banality of day-to-day life. It isn’t paper that plays a story like television screens do, but my own imagination.

Ancient cultures told stories orally. Generations memorized them and passed them down. Now they may be found recorded in books, but were they not stories when they were spoken to attentive crowds? Consider epics like Beowulf; they were not written but spoken by bards. Are they disqualified from being called stories because they did not originate on paper?

One chapter spoke about dreams, how our brains are never through telling stories, even when we sleep. In dreams, the mind goes to a place where bizarre things are ordinary. Later we remember snatches of what we have dreamt, and only in this waking hour do any of these things seem odd, because in the dream it was quite natural.

I’ve always been of the opinion that what humans want is the story. We like to see the titles on our shelves grow; there is certainly satisfaction in watching the line of black Penguin classics increase. What we will carry with us when we aren’t reading are the scenes we visited, the words of poetry planted into our memories like wildflowers.

This doesn’t take the excellence from the paperback or leatherbound book–it only reminds us of what our memories can do. We don’t need to hold paper in our hands to revisit a place we loved. 

The stories that capture our imaginations will live in us after we finish reading. I sometimes wonder what plotline I’ll revisit in my final hours. Will my tired mind wander to a Jane Austen romance, or will it echo verses of poetry?

The eBook did strike a pet peeve when it ended at 60%, only to be followed by promotional features. I wanted more insight on the nature of story and how it affects us as humans. When 40% of a book is promotional, you feel cheated and rather mocked. This book is, therefore, very short.

I enjoyed reading it, but I hope that the paper edition is not like this!

Overrated? THE FOUR WINDS by Kristin Hannah


When a novel is labelled overrated, this creates a temptation for me to read it. Books I have enjoyed have been called so in threads by other readers, books such as The Book Thief and The Couple Next Door.

I’m skeptical when a book is called overrated. What exactly does that mean? Does the person posting know of a similar book they enjoyed better? Are they listing novels people like and labelling them, simply to annoy?

Everyone has their own reading style, of course.

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah was the subject of many such discussions before it was released. I had an ARC, so I was going to read it anyway, but one of the forums had a thread titled “Reasons Why I’m Not Reading The Four Winds”–with hundreds of people commenting.

I am stubborn. This upset me. I decided to read the book without paying attention to the comments.

I’ve never read a book by this author, though I know she is famous. My first impression of The Four Winds was that the woman described on page one, the young lady who grew up finding friends in books, sounded like me. Plenty of readers can relate to Elsinore as a young girl in the introduction.

I can agree with some critics that the novel started slowly. If I wasn’t so determined to brush off the naysayers, I might have started reading a side book to fill in the gaps (it’s a bad habit I’m developing). I don’t want to feed this habit, so I turned the pages and became hooked on the story four chapters in.

The book is about hard times. Hard times–this phrase is invoked often in The Four Winds, and it means something different for everyone, character and reader alike. Some people during hard times lose the desire to fight, choosing to wilt away. Some lose their minds under the strain to survive. Then there are some, like the main character, Elsa, who become stronger when the going gets rough.

No one ever believed in Elsa. She suffered from the yellow fever as a child, and her mother feared the illness had made her weak for the rest of her life. This prevented her from doing anything that involved work, like playing with friends. She spent most of her time at home, reading books and sewing.

It wasn’t until her twenty-fifth year that she chose to be daring. She made herself a red dress, cut her hair into a bob, and climbed out the window. One night, she decided to be bad; that night would change the course of her life.

Ironically, this storm helped Elsa find herself. When her mother and father tossed her out as a consequence of her poor choices, she found herself living with the Martinelli family as a wife–and soon a mother.

We might call it the first blessing Elsa ever received–because with the Martinellis, she found strength. She had something to fight for. She learned that she was not as weak as her parents made her believe. No longer dragged by the wind, Elsa became a woman with the Martinellis.

Then came the Depression and the disaster of the Dust Bowl. Hard times became infernal.

When someone has already fought to become a stronger person, how much will it take for them to buckle under strain? The land that fed and maintained the Martinellis is dying, becoming sand under their feet.

Elsa packs her children into the car and leaves for California. It’s rumored that they will find relief in California–but rumors so often let us down.

The most powerful element in The Four Winds was Elsa’s relationship with her daughter, Loreda. At some point in her adolescence, Loreda started to behave like a teenager, embarrassed by her mother and blaming Mom for everything. The Four Winds made me cry, though, when this turbulent relationship was set to rest…at a great cost to Loreda.

This is one of the few books that did make me tear up.

Ignore the naysayers and read The Four Winds if you want a story packed with drama and a struggle to survive. There are proud moments; there are fearful moments. There are also moments in which you’ll be thankful that you weren’t alive during the Depression.

Survival and hard times look different for every generation. Read this book to find out how people waded through hard times, long ago–but so long ago.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas


Though I did enjoy reading this masterpiece of French literature, The Three Musketeers was not exactly the story that I had expected. To begin with, not once in the book did the famous phrase appear: “All for one, and one for all!” Neither did there appear to be a single overarching plot. It’s a book written for people with different attention spans; it had been published in serial form over the course of two months, so it was designed to keep readers hooked like a television show.

I like books written in serial form. They require commitment to read, though; I’ve been working on The Three Musketeers for almost a month, and I’m a fast reader.

Something still felt rather off about the whole story. I blame all of the cartoon adaptations that have popped up over the years. These adaptations present children with a softened version of the story, so it is a surprise when one opens the long novel and discovers elements of darkness or sketchy behavior. Adaptations did this book no justice.

It’s about four men, sword-wielding Musketeers loyal to the King, who are willing to fight and duel almost anyone over anything (many of these things are trivial.) It features gambling, murder, infidelity, mistresses, and a great deal of bloodshed (because of trivial things.) Honor is the big virtue the book touts, but it is often portrayed in a trivial manner–comical.

We might hesitate, these days, to call such men heroes, but they are indeed the heroes of this novel. D’Artagnan, Porthos, Athos and Artemis live to protect the King and Queen, no matter what that might involve. They also protect one another, helping avenge a person who insulted a friend. Loyalty is an admirable quality, too, but some instances I felt could have been let slip.

That’s the point of this book, though–it lauds bravery, fearlessness, loyalty and honor. It perhaps goes a little too far, but I understand that, at the time it was published, readers might have been in need of characters like these. It was published in 1844; not long before that, people had experienced the Bourbon Restoration, the fall of the first Napoleon–a time of great fear, in which wars were waged and many people were killed. Escapism has always been necessary to heal a society from a difficult time period. Maybe the French of the 1840s needed reckless, brave, outspoken heroes, people who would fight for their honor, leaders.

This, of course, is only my speculation; what is for certain is that the fall of Napoleon would have been felt for a long time after it took place, and it would have affected literature.

Of the four characters, the only Musketeer I had sympathy for from the beginning was Aramis. He is only temporarily a Musketeer; his real desire is to enter a monastery. He took up the sword on a youthful matter of honor, but reading about his theological epiphanies and his genuine conscience provided me with a welcome break from the rash duels.

Athos I also came to like, but only near the end, when more details about his past were given. He was able to keep a level head in the midst of a struggle, as opposed to young hot-blooded D’Artagnan, who does not hesitate to draw his pistol. At the age of twenty-one, D’Artagnan has not lived enough. When a tragedy takes place near the end of the novel, he does show his human side, and I sense this tragedy was the initiative for him to mature.

The brave lackeys who aided these men did not get the credit they deserved; rather, they are often treated as objects, even to be gambled away. The Musketeers are not always people worthy of admiration.

Though it was an enjoyable read, I felt that the story did not fully grip me until the final quarter, in which we see the tale from the antagonist’s point of view. Milady de Winter’s thought process is completely different from the Musketeers. For better or for worse, she is making decisions based on reason and cunning, rather than knee-jerk duels. She is by no means a good person, but her intelligent choices kept me reading. I wanted to know what she would do next.

The Musketeers–and most of the men in this novel–underestimated the clever ways in which a woman under pressure can survive.

Finally, the prose–it was so beautiful that I found myself constantly stopping to jot down a quote or two. I wish that I could read The Three Musketeers in its original French; one day, perhaps.

The Three Musketeers is the first in a series of books published by Alexandre Dumas, known as The D’Artagnan Romances. In order, the series is as follows:

  • The Three Musketeers (serialized between March and July, 1844)
  • Twenty Years After (serialized between January and August, 1845)
  • The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later (serialized between October 1847 and January 1850)

In addition, there have been unofficial sequels:

  • The Son of Porthos (1883) by Paul Mahalin, published under the pen name of Alexandre Dumas
  • D’Artagnan Kingmaker (1900) – supposedly based on one of Dumas’ plays
  • The King’s Passport (1925) by H. Bedford-Jones
  • D’Artagnan, the sequel to The Three Musketeers by H. Bedford-Jones

In addition is a sequel written by Dumas himself but left incomplete after seventy-seven chapters, called The Red Sphinx. This, in particular, interests me–as all unfinished classics do, such as Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood and Austen’s Sanditon. Unfinished novels give a sense of the authors’ being very much alive; I’ll write more on this later.

I will certainly finish The D’Artagnan Romances, but keeping in mind that each of them is an almost month-long commitment. You can’t skim old books like these without losing sight of what makes them timeless. 

Our world is fast-paced; to read a good classic, one must be prepared to slow down.

Review: The Windsor Knot by SJ Bennett


The Queen of England is a mystery to us. It only seems fitting that someone should write her into a mystery novel as The Boss, investigating a gruesome murder. The Windsor Knot shows her in a new, delightful light.

When a famous Russian pianist is found dead in Windsor castle the morning after a lavish party, the police first assume that it was a suicide. Soon, a new theory surfaces involving politics and Russian spies. 

Authorities walk on eggshells around Her Majesty while investigating, assuming that she can’t handle the gruesome details–except they’re wrong. The Queen has been solving mysteries since she was a young girl, and she’s tougher than they give her credit for.

There are guest appearances by public figures that we know, such as Sir David Attenborough and President Obama. It’s a shoot off of Netflix’s The Crown. All of these characters, though, are bland compared to SJ Bennett’s portrayal of Prince Philip. 

Philip is the only character who provides comic relief. Despite his unfiltered behavior, it’s clear that he keeps the Queen balanced. He makes her feel like a human, even when he says things that annoy her, and sometimes you just need someone around who’s not afraid to annoy you.

The Queen, of course, never goes to make inquiries herself. She sends her secretary, Rozie Oshodi, to meet people and ask questions. Rozie is a fantastic character. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she represents strength and diversity. She had a humble beginning, but is now the Queen’s confidante. The strong female character trope is often pushed onto readers until it becomes annoying; this did not happen with Rozie. We get to watch her do her job and do it well, never standing over us to announce her presence. I believe this is how the strong woman character should be written: she ought to be admired because of what she is doing, not what she is announced to be. Remember–show, don’t tell.

I don’t know if it’s my fault–sometimes I skim a book–but I never had a solid grasp on what happened to the Russian pianist or why. Descriptions of royal palaces and guests filled my mind with imagery, I suppose. I did not pay enough attention to the clues or the resolution. When I had finished reading, I needed to make a list of events on a separate page. I had to piece them together myself in order to understand what happened.

I cannot say if it was my fault or if there was some flaw in the writing of the mystery; I am, after all, new to the genre. Nonetheless, I can’t ignore the fact that the mystery was lost in the forest of famous locations and people.

In all, I recommend this book to anyone who likes The Crown or is curious to see famous people in novels. It’s well-written, with a crisp writing style that pulls you along. There was never an instance in which I stumbled over word choice. The setting, characters, and portrayal of the Queen made this a light book worth reading. 

I give it three stars only because the mystery aspect was rather lost on me, but again, my mind might have wandered. I’ll figure that out when I reread it one day. If you like royalty or mysteries, you should definitely read The Windsor Knot; it is a charming, entertaining novel, great for lifting the spirits and for escapism.

Entering the Mystery Genre


For the book lover, literature becomes more beautiful over time. With the passing of the years, our tastes in books evolve. We learn about a certain genre, falling for it to an extent that we live in it, and suddenly–another genre whisks us to a new place. We then see the world from a different angle.

I have been immersed in historical fiction for at least three years. I’ve learned a great deal about important events, how life was lived, the way people dressed, and social interactions. This information molded most of my recent manuscripts. Historical fiction continues to be an important part of what I write and will eventually publish.

I didn’t like mysteries when I was younger. Maybe the mysteries that I chose to read were not the best, but I found them tedious and boring. I was more interested in emotional books than the mechanics of building a whodunnit. I never considered reading thrillers–I guess too many of them were overrated? Too many used paperbacks were sent in droves to the thrift store? I can’t account for my aversion to thrillers.

This year, towards the end of May, I was barricaded with ideas for a mystery. I won’t give details, but it is set in the present day (pre-Covid, mind) and it has been delightful to work with characters who have the same advantages that I do. They’re all over my imagination now; I can’t focus on banal tasks without a new scene filling my head. I even find reading difficult to do, since these new characters want to have my attention; they won’t share it with a novel.

Aware that I haven’t the slightest idea of how to write a mystery, I began searching for good ones to read. Ever loyal to the classics, I am reading Agatha Christie–but since what I’m writing is present-day, I’m also looking for modern mysteries. The thrillers that I find present a welcome change in pace from the classics that I had been reading, though Alexandre Dumas still paints better pictures in my imagination.

In short, I am reading things I never thought I would be reading before; is this a sign of maturity in a reader?

The first thriller I’ve read was suggested in a book group. The Couple Next Door was part of a bookhaul I got at a yard sale, and it had been sitting in the back of my closet for three years. It was delightful when I realized that the most popular thriller in that group was already within my reach. I found it and finished it–in one day.

What a change in pace. What a race to an unexpected ending. I definitely want to read more; I’ll be looking for the next book.

The reader’s life involves many forms of growth. Some of them can only be understood by other readers. As I enter the genres of Mystery and Thriller, I want to learn all about them. The first thing I looked up after finishing The Couple Next Door was Which are the first thrillers that were written? Though I did not find a direct answer, I did discover a good list of thrillers here. A couple are good old classics that I was planning to read anyway, including The Moonstone and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.

It feels like I’ve taken an unexpected turn in the road of reading and writing, and I’d like to find people already deep in those genres to share with. Do you have a favorite mystery or thriller book? Do you know of any blogs that might help me on this new path? Please comment and let me know!