Book Review: The Tarnished Chalice by Susanna Gregory

cover for Susanna Gregory's The Tarnished Chalice shows an old chalice tipped across a background of a cathedral interior printed in shades of red. The Tarnished Chalice
By Susanna Gregory
Little, Brown Book Group, 2006

What the book’s about:

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the series, the Matthew Bartholomew mysteries are set in the mid-1300s in various towns across England and France.

Matthew Bartholomew is a scholar at Cambridge whose logical mind gives him a leg up on his contemporaries when it comes to solving mysteries.

Although many of his scholarly friends are monks, Matthew himself is not. In fact, Matthew is in love with a woman named Mathilde. Unfortunately, by the time he worked up the nerve to propose to her, she had lost patience with him and left town. He’s been looking for her ever since.

The Tarnished Chalice takes place in the town of Lincoln in the winter of 1356. Matthew, his friend Brother Michael, and his book-bearer and bodyguard Cynric are traveling to Lincoln, where Brother Michael is due to be installed as a canon in the local cathedral. Matthew is doubly interested in making the trip because Mathilde spent some time in Lincoln before her move to Cambridge. Matthew hopes to find someone in Lincoln who might know where Mathilde is now.

The night they arrive, they learn that someone has been murdered in the very monastery where they are staying. Naturally, Matthew, Cynric, and Brother Michael decide to solve this mystery. The installation isn’t for another two weeks, and solving a murder will give them something to do while they wait.

What I thought about it:

Gregory has a sly humor that sneaks up on you. I laughed out loud at more than one point, prompting my husband to ask what was so funny. “I’d read you the joke, dear, but the set up for this one started 93 pages ago.”

Despite the regular doses of dry fun, Gregory’s story line starts to sag about halfway through. There were a lot of characters to meet in the town of Lincoln, but for the most part, meeting them didn’t feel like it advanced the crime-solving portion of the mystery very much. Nor did any of them have much to say on the subject of Mathilde beyond agreeing that pretty much everyone who knew her loved her.

I began to wonder if Matthew and Brother Michael were simply going to wander around town chatting with people until a solution to one or both problems presented itself.

What I learned about writing from reading this book:

Most likely, Susanna Gregory intended to use the installation as a way to cap the story and build tension as time ran out. But keeping Brother Michael and Matthew in Lincoln until Brother Michael’s installation two weeks later ended up trapping Gregory as much as it did her protagonists.

Especially in the saggy middle, where it felt like Gregory was purposefully dragging her heels with the various investigations because there were still several days to go until the installation, and Gregory needed to fill that time somehow. The fact that Matthew’s hunt for Mathilde in Lincoln yields almost nothing by way of real clues doesn’t help.  At the end of The Tarnished Chalice, Matthew is essentially no closer to finding Mathilde than he was before the trip, making that entire storyline feel like so much filler.

As a reader, I would have preferred Gregory not to tie the murder mystery to the timing of the installation at all. Allowing the murder to be solved at its own pace would have let Gregory pepper the clues more densely through the story, eliminated the need for us to tag along while Matthew did so much fruitless searching, and improved the pacing of the novel overall. Who cares if the story magically skips over a few empty days between the unmasking of the murderer and the morning of the installation? Writers do that all the time.

This is Book 12 in the Matthew Bartholomew series. Do I have to read the others first? 

No. This was the first Matthew Bartholomew mystery I’d read, and I did fine. It’s entirely possible that I would have cared more about Matthew’s hunt for Mathilde if I’d read the other books in the series first, but for the most part, this is a self-contained story.

So, would you read another book in this series? 

Absolutely. For all my complaining about saggy middles, I enjoyed meeting most of Gregory’s characters and I definitely appreciated her sense of humor. In the end, the murder mystery itself proved to be a satisfactory puzzle.

Since I like novels set in the Middle Ages in general, it’s very likely I’ll pick up another Matthew Bartholomew mystery before the year is out. But this time I’ll look for one with Mathilde in it, so that I can see what all that fuss was about.

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Book Review: Pride and Prometheus

Book cover for Pride & Prometheus by John Kessel

Pride and Prometheus
By John Kessel
New York: Saga Press, 2018

What the book’s about: 

As even a quick glance at the cover will tell you, John Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus is a blend of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Set thirteen years after the events of Pride and Prejudice and three years after Victor Frankenstein first brings his Creature to life, Kessel’s novel tosses Mary and Kitty Bennet into the heart of the struggle between Victor Frankenstein and his creation, Adam.

Mary, who has taken up fossil-collecting and reading about naturalism in her spinsterhood, meets Victor Frankenstein by chance while at a ball in London. She is intrigued by his remarkable ability to both be handsome and not put off by her scholarly pursuits and exceedingly plain face.

Adam impatiently watches the relationship between Mary and Victor develop from civilization’s shadows. He is tired of being rejected and alone. He pressures Victor to create a bride for him to ease his loneliness and give him a family at last. Of course, to do this, Victor must find a suitable female body.

Wherever will he get that?

What I learned from reading this book: 

Earlier this summer, I saw a stray tweet from Fonda Lee on character development: FondaLeeChars

I’ve been thinking about it on and off ever since.

Mary Bennet is not a likable character in Pride and Prejudice. She’s moralistic, judgmental, and, as far as I can tell, utterly blind to her own faults. I confess, I was more than a little worried about reading a book written from her point of view.

John Kessel deftly did away with that in his first few sentences.

“When she was nineteen, Miss Mary Bennet had believed three things that were not true. She believes that, despite her awkwardness, she might become interesting through her accomplishments. She believed that, because she paid strict attention to all that she had been taught about right and wrong, she was wise in the ways of the world. And she believed that God, who took note of every moment of one’s life, would answer prayers, even foolish ones.”

Like most of us, Kessel’s Mary is a much wiser person in her thirties than she was as a teenager. Just as Kessel convinced me to give this older and wiser Mary a chance, he did a remarkable thing. He set overlooked and rejected Mary Bennet up as a foil for the shunned and repulsive Creature.

In her first meeting with the Creature, Mary warns him that his desperately longed for bride may not turn out to be the gift he’s expecting.

“You think that having a female of your own kind will ensure that she will accept you?” Mary laughed. “Wait until you are rejected, for the most trivial of reasons, by one who ought to have been made for you.”

Yes, this is a very relatable Mary indeed. She is courageous, outspoken, and bitter. She’s also excessively practical and views her inevitable spinsterhood as a chance to shape her life however she wishes.

The interplay between Mary and the Creature becomes the foundation for an unlikely friendship that illuminates the second half of the book. In many ways, the friendship between Mary and Adam, as she renames the Creature, is far more satisfying than any possible romance between Mary and Victor could be. Mary’s experiences with Adam reveal her self-reliance and courage. In his interactions with her, we catch a glimpse of completely different man, one capable of loyalty, honor, and–dare we say it–gentlemanly behavior.

By the end of the book, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have been if Mary had been present at Adam’s awakening, and not simply the scientifically advanced, but emotionally inadequate Victor.

 

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20 quirks of famous writers and one very patient blogger

By Jack Milgram

Readers, I’d like to say a few words about writer and blogger, Jack Milgram.

Several months ago, Jack sent me a polite note asking if his infographic, 20 Quirks & Strange Habits: The Weird Side of Famous Writers, would be of interest to me or my readers.

It was of interest to me, so I checked it out.

Wait, this isn’t just good organization? (Illustration: Jack Milgram)

Why yes, I told him. I think my readers would like to see that.

I promised to share it on BostonWriters, but then life happened. Family stuff broke out and publishing deadlines started to pile up, and before I knew it, months had gone by.

Despite my writing a reminder to myself every week in my planner to post Jack’s infographic, I just never found time to actually do it.

(Illustration: Jack Milgram)

Jack checked in once or twice. Always super politely, because he’s a polite sort of guy.

The reminders from Jack stopped eventually, but he was generous to the end.

Today, at long last, I’m posting clips from his infographic.

You didn’t really expect me to skip the part about Jane Austen, did you? (Illustration: Jack Milgram)

It’s full of fun facts about the various tricks famous writers used to keep themselves writing day-in and day-out, despite the obstacles life throws at them.

Hmm… maybe I should take a second look at it myself.

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Boston-area folks: Come to my first book event!

I’m headed back to Dedham, Massachusetts for my first book signing on Saturday June 16th from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m., and I couldn’t be more excited about it!

Event Details

What: 

  • My first book signing! It’s for What’s That, Mom?: How to use public art to engage your children with the world around them… without being an artist yourself.
  • The debut of my new public art journal, What’s That, Mom?: Field Notes from Your Encounters with Public Art out in the Wild. 

Where:
Mother Brook Art Center’s 5th Anniversary Festival
Mother Brook Arts & Community Center
123 High Street, Dedham, MA 02026

When:
Saturday, June 16th from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. (I’ll be there all day.)

My Hosts:
The Blue Bunny Bookstore (Dedham, MA)

Rain or shine:
If it’s sunny, we will be on the lawn.
If it rains, come look for us inside. 

Festival Highlights

As of this writing, other events of the festival will include:

  • The return of two of the original Dedham bunnies from the 2012 Public Art Project
  • A visit by best-selling children’s book author and illustrator Peter Reynolds (author of The Dot), who will be painting another bunny on site
  • The results of the community-wide competition to design and paint a brand new bunny
  • The latest news on the GuitArts public art project happening in Norwood, MA this summer to raise money for Norwood music programs

And of course, I’ll have a little something to keep the kiddos entertained while you and I catch up.

Hope to see you there!

BONUS: Cover reveal for my new book

Sculpture: Isis (c) 2009 Simon Gudgeon. Photograph: Michael Howell. Sketch: The Eleven-Year-Old Howell.

Cross-posted to my other blog, Caterpickles, of course. 

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Do you write in your books?

The cover of Francine Prose's Reading Like a WriterLast time, I talked about how reading Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer made me rethink my principled stance against rereading books. As you may remember, I had stopped rereading books after my daughter was born so that I could focus my precious reading time on new-to-me books. Prose, however, has convinced that some rereading is necessary if I want to use my reading to become a better writer.

That’s not the only reading habit Prose has made me reconsider. I used to have a firm stance against writing in my books as well. Prose is making me rethink that one too.

On page 7, Prose writes:

“I still have my old copy of Sophocles, heavily underlined, covered with sweet, embarrassing notes-to-self (‘irony?’ ‘recognition of fate?’) written in my rounded, heartbreakingly neat schoolgirl print. Like seeing a photograph of yourself as a child, encountering handwriting that you know was once yours but that now seems only dimly familiar can inspire a confrontation with the mystery of time.”

People used to write in their books all the time. Mark Twain’s copy of “The Pen and the Book” is prized by the Newberry Library which houses it not for the publishing advice it contains, but for the marginalia Twain scribbled throughout its pages. In the margins, Twain berated the author, Walter Besant, for daring to suggest that advertising could be used to sell books as if they were “essential goods” like salt or tobacco. He was apparently also irritated by the amount of money people threw at Mary Baker Eddy to write about Christian Science.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Darwin, Nelson Mandela, Jane Austen, and Thomas Jefferson all wrote freely in their books.

In an 2014 editorial for the Sunday New York Times, Andrew Scrimgeour makes a compelling argument that writing in the margins is one of the highest compliments we non-famous author types can pay — as long as we only write in our own books and aren’t defacing library books, of course.

“The jottings we make in the books we own may well be among the highest tributes we pay to authors. They are signs of respect, signs of engagement. What more could a writer hope for?”

Scrimgeour runs through a roster of literary types–each with their own marginalia rules. Some never write in any book. Others write only in nonfiction ones. Still others write freely in every book they’ve ever read.

Reading this I realized that even my principled stance against writing in books, isn’t actually all that principled. After all, I write in cookbooks all the time — notes to my future self about what I’ve tried, how it turned out, and what I might like better. It increases the value of the cookbook for me. I don’t think twice about it. What are cookbooks for, if not to make me a better cook?

Writing in other types of books used to feel disrespectful to me. But that stance isn’t logically consistent. Just as I use cookbooks to become a better cook, I’m reading Prose’s book in an effort to become a better writer and other nonfiction books to become a more informed citizen. I should feel just as free to comment in those books about my reactions to what I’m reading, as I do in noting the precise mix of flours, yeast, and vital wheat gluten I need to keep my wheat bread soft and fluffy. Undoubtedly Prose’s book would be more valuable to me in the future if I could skip straight to those notes, instead of having to spend hours flipping through the book looking for a quote I only half-remembered.

In the past, I have tried to using cards to note passages that resonate with me while I’m reading.  When I fill a card, I tuck it in the pages of the book which inspired it for safe-keeping. The spine of Dinosaur Odyssey by Scott Sampson has cracked from all the cards I’ve crammed into it. The cards scattered like snowflakes when I pulled the book off the shelf to pack it for our recent move to California. I must have spent half an hour figuring out where  all those cards belonged. I wouldn’t have had that particular problem if I’d simply written in the book itself.

Prose’s text threatens to be another book whose spine will crack from all the cards. Surely, if the spine would be at risk anyway, it would be better to hold my one-sided conversation with Prose on the pages themselves?

I still feel guilty about it. But Prose writes in her own books, so I’m going to give it a try.

Marginalia in Francine Prose's Reading like a Writer

I’m only on page 66 and I’ve run out of cards. But there’s more I’d like my future self to remember. Marginalia to the rescue. (Photo: Shala Howell)

What about you? Do you write in your books?

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Do you reread books?

The cover of Francine Prose's Reading Like a WriterI purchased Francine Prose’s book, Reading like a Writer, at least eight years and three moves ago. I finally read it over the holidays, after having faithfully carted her book from Boston to San Francisco, via Chicago.

In Reading Like a Writer, Prose talks about how essential it is for writers to reread books. Prose herself rereads constantly. For her, the first reading reveals plot, and if she’s lucky, character. The second and third readings are when the narrative arc reveals itself and she begins to understand how the fictional world is held together. For Prose, rereading is when she really starts to appreciate how the best writers build their stories.

This struck me because with few exceptions, I stopped rereading when my daughter was born ten years ago. With so many great books out there and so little time to read, how could I justify taking time to reread a book I’d already finished?

My daughter doesn’t understand how I can’t. She discovers something new in the books she rereads with each and every telling. I suspect that in her case, it isn’t simply appreciating foreshadowing and other narrative tricks, but also that she herself is maturing at such an accelerated rate, she brings something new to the book/reader partnership with every reread.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet tells Mr. Darcy “People themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever.”

I have read Pride and Prejudice so often that I can still quote passages from it, but the truth is it’s been years since I last spent an afternoon with it. Pride and Prejudice itself may not have changed over the last decade, but it’s possible that I have changed so much I don’t know quite what I will discover when I reread it.

Lately I’ve been wondering if I have been avoiding rereading Austen and my other favorite writers not to conserve time, but because I am frightened of the reflection of myself that I will find in those familiar pages. Am I too old to take pleasure in Austen’s commitment to marry off her characters whenever it is required? Too irritated by the constant barrage of bad news to find humor in P.G. Wodehouse’s silly tales of Bertie Wooster and his addle-pated friends in the Drones Club? Have I become too wrapped up in the logistics of my life to immerse myself in Hogwarts?

I suppose there’s really only one way to find out.

What about you? Do you reread your books? If so, how do you choose which ones to visit again?

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Merry Christmas!

May your holidays be peaceful and your 2018 productive in all of the ways you would wish it to be.

Thank you for spending another year with us.

2017XmasCard

Vintage Christmas Card via Winter Blue Music (Public Domain)

 

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My most recent Twitter crop of #writing angst

It took me a long time to come to terms with Twitter’s weird blend of watercooler/cocktail party/retail culture. But now I find it to be a fairly useful source of #writing tips and news. Here’s what I found most helpful this week.

A couple of writing tidbits

firsttimemarketingplan.jpg

Hands down the most helpful tip I found this week was a link to Jane Friedman’s Book Launch Plan for First-Time Authors Without an Online Presence. In her post, she presents a simple, logical approach to marketing effectively, one person at a time, without breaking your budget.

My second favorite tip of the week came from Alexandria Constantinova Szeman, who described in loving detail how to turn your favorite movie into a master writing class. Just in time for winter break. 🙂

movieclass

A wee bit of encouragement

encouragement

A dash of writerly angst

WritingAvoidance

Been there. Done that.  #WritingSoulMates

And finally, my favorite writing tweet of the week

Love

What about you? Do you use Twitter to become a better writer? What were some gems you found this week?

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What happened when I stopped wearing my Apple Watch for a week

Here’s what you need to know to put this in context. I write while my daughter’s at school. Because I typically write from home or from a location close to home, I’m the first responder if stuff comes up at school.

This means I write with one eye on the phone at all times. A few years ago, I complained to my husband that it was really hard for me to concentrate with part of my mind always worried about missing a phone call from our daughter or her school.

At the time, technology didn’t exist to address this issue. I had to keep the phone in sight so I wouldn’t miss a call. That meant peeking at it whenever it beeped or buzzed or dinged to make sure that whatever that notification was, it didn’t affect my daughter.

My husband remembered this conversation, and one Mother’s Day he gave me an Apple Watch.

At first, having an Apple Watch was fabulous.

To be fair, that fabulous stage lasted about two years.

When the Apple Watch first came out, I read a lot of reviews bemoaning its limited abilities. But all I wanted from the Watch was for it to keep me from missing calls from my daughter’s school, so I could feel free to focus on my writing. And it did that very well. I didn’t miss any calls or texts, except the ones it was ok to.

I also appreciated the cheery reminders from the Watch’s activity tracker to stand every hour or take that brisk 7-minute walk which would close my exercise circle for the day.

As I began using my Apple Watch for more things, its helpfulness decreased. 

After a while, I began sending my calendar notifications to the Watch. Then I decided that since I was using my Watch to keep me focused on work, it made sense to have my task manager send alerts to it as well.

Then it occurred to me that it would be really useful to get weather updates too, so that I could know whether to take an umbrella with me when I left to pick up my daughter.

About a year ago, I got into the habit of always enabling the Watch component of whatever new iPhone app I downloaded, so that I could see whether those alerts would be useful to me as well. Some were, some weren’t. I began spending a lot of time calibrating the notification settings on my iPhone and Watch.

That’s when it all began falling apart.

Just as I settled into a task, something on my Watch would ding to pull me out of it.

All these distractions took a toll on my stamina. If I wrote for 45 minutes without my Watch distracting me, I felt exhausted. I couldn’t read a book for more than 10 minutes without pausing to check the news. I even lost the ability to watch TV without also monitoring Twitter or playing a Match-3 game on my iPhone.

Earlier this year, my Watch, perhaps noticing how stressed out I was becoming over all these alerts, began advising me to breathe. Take a minute. Just breathe.

Spoiler alert: I ignored it.

At first I fought the distractions by leaving my phone in another room and limiting the applications that were allowed to talk to me through my Watch. 

That helped, but not a lot. The dings were still happening. My Watch was still forcing me to choose at random moments whether to address whatever it was dinging about or simply ignore it.

Things I decided to address, I often still needed my phone for, which meant getting up and going to the room where I’d stashed it. Sure, I could technically talk into my Watch to respond to a text or take a call from my daughter’s school, but that felt weird. I preferred to just use the phone.

Meanwhile, I was becoming increasingly cranky about my inability to hold a simple conversation without being interrupted, to say nothing of the lost productivity during my work day.

Last Friday, I left my Watch on my nightstand instead of putting it on in the morning.

At the same time, I continued to treat my smartphone like a landline — at least while I was home. Instead of using my Watch as a filter, I turned my ringer on so that I could hear if a call came through, but otherwise I ignored it.

That first day, I really missed knowing what time it was. So over the weekend, I dug up one of my old analog watches and took it to a jeweler to get a new battery for it.

This week, I realized I missing knowing how many steps I’d taken in a day. Before I had an Apple Watch, I had a Fitbit. I put the Fitbit away after a while, because the Watch was tracking my steps adequately and wearing one step tracker at a time seemed sufficient. But once I realized I missed knowing my step count, I dug out the Fitbit, charged it, and began wearing it again.

After a week of Watchlessness, I wish I could say my productivity has soared. It hasn’t.

But I have been a lot more present in whatever it is I am doing at the time, and that has been really helpful.

As I had allowed myself to become more distracted by my Watch and iPhone, I had forgotten about all lovely little details that a more mindful life offers.  Having them back has been pretty great.

I’m immersed in the books I’m reading in a way I haven’t been for a couple of years, so reading is more enjoyable. And I’m able to sustain it for longer.

While I haven’t made much headway in my work-in-progress, I have been writing in my journal more, which is a step in the right direction.

I’ve been practicing piano more, too. Learning new songs has been a lot easier this week. I’m not distracted by the taps and flickering notifications on my Watch, so instead I’m noticing musical patterns in the pieces I’m playing, which makes them a lot easier to learn. That cuts down on my frustration, which makes playing piano fun again.

I’m even enjoying TV more because I’m actually watching it, and not just listening to it while I do something else. I’m not missing the nuances as much. I’m getting the jokes the first time, people–all of the jokes–even the ones that rely on body language. The entire experience is richer. Watching TV this week feels more like something I’m doing by choice, and less like something I’m doing to mark time until I can call it a day and go to bed.

Sure, I still have my cranky moments and my productivity isn’t what I wish it were yet, but my baseline mood is better. I’m spiraling into sadness less.

Not bad for the first week.

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So I did NaNoWriMo this year — was it worth it?

Every November, I debate whether or not to participate in NaNoWriMo. Most years, I end up doing it, but I try to only do NaNoWriMo if I have a project that would benefit from its word-count driven format.

I skipped NaNoWriMo last year because I was working on book one of the Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom? Since one of my goals for that book was to keep it short so that parents would actually be able to use it, a contest that would encourage me to write 50,000 words when 12,000 would do wasn’t a good idea.

This year, my goal was to jumpstart book two of the Caterpickles Parenting Series. Since this one focuses on helping parents nurture their child’s curiosity across a number of areas, not just art, it’s going to be a bit longer. 50,000 words sounded about right, frankly.

What with the move this past fall, I had fallen months behind my self-imposed schedule for writing book two. I thought NaNoWriMo would be an excellent way to catch up.

The good thing about having to churn out 50,000 words in a month is that it forced me to sit and write every day on the same project, so I’m not feeling stuck any more. The bad thing about having a 50,000-word goal is that I will do whatever it takes to meet it, even if it means using twelve words when I only needed two.

As a result, while I technically won NaNoWriMo this year, I think I would have been better off if I’d lost. My 50,000 words need so much editing that I still feel months behind on this project. If I could do the month over, if I could have the time back, I would spend it writing on the book without thinking about word count at all.

How about you? Did you do NaNoWriMo? Why or why not?

 

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