The Owl Service by Alan Garner

It’s here! The first-ever, Wales Readathon! The event is hosted by Paula Bardell-Hedley at Book Jotter. The focus for this reading event is to read and blog about Welsh writers and their works: fiction, non-fiction, plays, poetry or any other form of writing with a connection to Wales. Her official 2019 Dewithon book is The Autobiography of a Super-tramp by W.H. Davies. You are welcome to read along with her and others or choose something else. Be sure to stop by her blog throughout the month to read more and to see what others are contributing to this event. The master post for link ups and comments is here.

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The book I selected for the event is The Owl Service by Alan Garner.

The Owl Service

Alison hears scratching in the attic and the assumption is that it’s rats, but when her friend Gwyn goes to investigate he finds only a set of dinner dishes. He brings one down to Alison who cleans it and notices an owl pattern behind the floral pattern. She traces the owl pattern from the plate and makes cut–out owls. Later, the pattern has vanished, leaving behind a white plate and the cut–outs have disappeared, too! So begins the mystery of the plates, the pattern and the story behind it.

This book is a retelling / re–enactment of the Welsh story of Blodeuwedd: a woman made from flowers for Lleu Llaw Gyffes who was cursed that he would not marry a human woman. Later, when Bloeuwedd falls in love with another man, Gronw Pebr, she is turned into an owl as a punishment.

I had never heard of this story before. This story of Blodeuwedd comes from The Mabinogion, which is a collection of stories from Welsh mythology (some of the stories feature an Arthur before the King Arthur we know and love today). If you wanted to read about Welsh Mythology, The Mabinogion is the place to start. This story of Blodeuwedd may very well be one of the oldest stories in Welsh mythology coming to us from oral tradition.

The Owl Service, however, was a very unusual book. It’s is a children’s book, or young adult book, written in 1967. And, let me just say that this is not a straight forward retelling of a legend. It is very unusual and even a bit creepy. There is a supernatural element at work and at various times I was reminded of The Yellow Wallpaper.

There are three teenagers who are trying to figure out the mystery and are pulled into the story so that they become a part of it. Alison, her step–brother Roger and friend Gwyn whose mother runs the house and knows things about the plates–and possibly more– that she won’t share. Why? Is there a secret everyone is in on but the kids? This book is filled with mystery, and when not focused on what is happening with the plates, you are still drawn into the story of Blodeuwedd through the lives of these three people and the constant wondering of who–knows–what–that–they–are–not–telling. Everything points to the legend but it’s unfolding today!

Aside from the story of Blodeuwedd, in the present day, the book taps into the differences in social class. Alison is surprised by the choices Gwyn has to make; the sacrifices he has planned to make in order to continue his education. Alison realizes how easy everything is for her and the options that are available to her are simply not there for Gwyn. Roger, on the other hand, can be rude and insensitive; he doesn’t seem to consider Gwyn’s struggles. Then again, Alison and Roger plan to do what is expected of them and don’t really consider what they want to do where Gwyn is making choices and plans to make sacrifices to pursue what he wants. Gwyn is Welsh, but his mother doesn’t want him speaking Welsh which she considers the language of a laborer (but then, she has her own unique story). Gwyn is smart and is the primary one of the three who puts the pieces of the mystery together. All of this tension and conflict between these three characters though ties into the unfolding story of Blodeuwedd.

I don’t think I would have gotten much out of this book had I read it as a kid. It is a complex novel with many layers. In many ways I feel like I need to read it again so I can dig in a little deeper. I’m glad I read this book, though, and I’m glad to now know about this story of Blodeuwedd: a woman made of flowers who was turned into an owl. There is a lot that can be explored in this myth and the book touches briefly on some of this, but the book is primarily a retelling of the story in the lives of three modern (at that time) teenagers. For me, it will always be this book that introduced me to the story of Bloeuwedd.

Thank you, Paula, for hosting this event! I’ve enjoyed reading and becoming acquainted with some Welsh Mythology. I don’t think I have read anything specifically about Welsh Mythology prior to this and I plan to read one more book about women in Celtic myth for this event. It is just another example of the way the book blogging community encourages one another to read more widely and to have fun in the process. πŸ™‚

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A Wizard Of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

I read my first Ursula K. Le Guin book in October when I read The Other Wind for Witch Week 2018. I started this series by reading the final book first, and although the book can be read as a stand alone book, I knew that I wanted to start at the beginning because there was obviously a lot that I was missing out on.

So, for 2019, my goal is to read through this series. I just finished reading the first book, A Wizard Of Earthsea, and enjoyed it!

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Here we are introduced to a young Ged who is full of pride and arrogance. Add to the mix anger and jealousy and when he summons someone from the dead, a shadow comes along with it, scarring and almost killing Ged, who must then figure out how to confront and defeat this evil thing.

This story is about learning and growing for Ged: learning both who he is and more about the shadow. A thing is released, not a spirit, not a being, but a creature belonging to Ged and only he can defeat it. I must say that the way this was done totally surprised me. I did not expect the story to end the way it did.

It was clear pretty early on that there is power in knowing someone’s name– one’s name is to be protected. Our protagonist is known as Sparrowhawk and only reveals his true name to those he trusts. Knowing a person’s true name gives one power over them. A few observations related to the power of a persons true name:

  • Ged was allowed to enter the school doors because of his name
  • Friendship deepened when Vetch shared his true name
  • Ged had power over a dragon by knowing his name
  • The shadow had power over Ged because it knew his name

Is the power in sorcery related to knowing the name of something? It was interesting that the sea creatures in the deep, vast unknown part of the ocean didn’t know their name and so sorcery didn’t work very well on them. Is knowing the name of something or someone the way to understand them more fully? I think so– it speaks of identity. After all, Ged believed he could defeat the shadow if he knew it’s name– if he knew it’s identity and nature he could equip himself for the battle. Knowledge is power, but understanding is key.

This was a wonderful story not only of discovery but also of friendship and the way it strengthens and restores hope when all seems lost. I look forward to reading more about Ged’s adventures and finding out where life takes him next!

2019 Reading Goals

Happy New Year!

This is the time, when the year is so young, that many sign up for reading challenges and set reading goals for the year ahead.

I am terrible with reading challenges, though. I have the best of intentions at the beginning of the year but then I tend to lose discipline and just follow my own reading interests. It’s not that this is a bad thing. In fact, it’s good to give yourself the freedom to freely read whatever strikes your interest, but it’s also good to set goals and try to challenge yourself. The key here is balance.

I didn’t do very well in completing my reading goals for 2018… hey, these things happen, but I was reading. πŸ™‚ Looking forward, I have a few ideas of what I would like to read, but I’m going to keep it pretty open.

The only reading challenge, or event, I plan on participating in this year is the Wales Readathon. And, I’m considering joining Nick’s 2019 Chapter-a-Day Read-Along. I don’t think I will commit to all four books, but I would like to read Don Quixote and The Count of Monte Cristo. Aside from these events, there are a few reading goals I’d like to aim for in 2019:

  • I’d like to read through the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis
  • I’d like to read the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin (This was inspired by Witch Week 2018’s read along book of The Other Wind. I would like to start at the beginning.)
  • I’d like to start reading Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII
  • I would like to read more Native American History
  • I would also like to try to read more fantasy (besides the Earthsea series and Narnia)

We will see how this plan unfolds. The key is to have fun, discover some new authors, enjoy a series or two that I missed out on as a kid and learn some new things along the way.

Happy Reading in 2019!

Witch Week 2018

It’s Witch Week! Last year was the first year I participated in this event and I loved it!

This is a yearly event that runs from October 30th to November 6th focusing on fantasy authors and books and is named after the book Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones.

It was originally created by Lory at Emerald City Book Review but this year it is co-hosted by Calmgrove and Lizzie Ross. The theme this year is Feminism and Fantasy and the read along book is The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin. Be sure to stop by both their blogs to see what they have planned for the week and to participate in the read along discussion!

My fantasy read for this event is The Bear And The Nightingale by Katherine Arden.

I’m a bit late to The Bear And The Nightingale party. It seems that everyone was reading this book last year. It is Katherine Arden’ s debut novel and the first book in her Winternight Trilogy. This book beautifully transports the reader into another world in far away Russia, or Rus’ in this story. It’s more fairytale than fantasy, but it has fantasy aspects within the fairytale. It has talking horses, homes you need imagination to see clearly and fantastic spirit beings that only those with special abilities can see. Do fairytale and fantasy overlap in some areas? I think so. It also fits into the theme this year because the protagonist, Vasya, is determined to make her own way and live her own life.

Vasilisa Petrovna (Vasya) is special and before she was even born, her mother knew she would be born with abilities and she would be like her grandmother. Vasya has a gift: she can see her household spirits and the spirits of her nearby forest. Her mother died shortly after she was born and her family believes she would benefit from a mother’s presence to soften and control her independent nature. When her father remarries it’s not quite the change the family expected. However, when the village gets a new priest and her stepmother, Anna, makes a startling confession, old ways are challenged and changes begin to occur.

I enjoyed this book. It is an amazing debut novel! The setting and the storytelling drew me in from the very beginning. I loved being transported to far away Rus’. I liked the fairytale aspect and I enjoyed being introduced to characters such as the Domovoi, Rusalka and the frost-demon, Morozko. These characters are such a huge part of the story and not just because Vasya can see and interact with them. It is because of who they are; they are so real with distinct personalities. I didn’t realize they were part of Slavic mythology until I read this book and they were very interesting characters worth taking the time to learn more about. I loved Vasya and how this stubborn, willful girl loved her family and cared about others. It is clear from the beginning that she is special not because she has abilities but because she is such an individual! In the beginning of the novel, we saw Vasya as a free-spirited little girl. She made it very clear later on in the book that a dutiful and obedient wife she would never be…with a spectacular display of bravery and skill to boot. I enjoyed watching her grow and begin to come into her own.

Father Konstantin was a horrible priest! Cleary, he is intended to be an unlikable character. Proud and arrogant– and ultimately cruel– he wanted power, but Vasya saw through him and called him on his cruelty.

I thought it was sad that Vasya and Anna didn’t connect more. They were similar in some ways: they could both see the spirits that inhabit their home, but they were so unlike each other in every other way. Vasya could see and interact with the spirits but was confident and lived in harmony with the natural world, which included the spirits. Anna, on the other hand, saw the spirits as demons, and considered herself “mad” because of it; she lived in fear, especially of the spirits she saw. If they had connected, they could have given each other support and friendship. In Anna, I do not see an evil stepmother, though. It’s true that she was far from kind to Vasya, but Anna didn’t understand her gift and it caused her to withdraw in fear rather than reach out in compassion and kindness. I felt sorry for Anna. Life could have been very different for her.

There was very little I disliked about this book, but, in general, I don’t care for stories involving the undead. That’s just me and others may not feel the same way. That was only a part of the story though and I saw that even this creature, the upyr, plays a part in Russian folklore. This storyline also showed Vasya defying logic and taking a risk to reach someone she loved.

This book is more than a fairytale, though, it’s a story of a girl who yearns for more. Vasya doesn’t fit into her society and she wants more out of life than that allotted to women. Her gifting and her individuality caused her to be misunderstood, but it was also the way that she helped her family and community. Now, she will make her own way and I am looking forward to reading what happens next in The Girl In The Tower!

“Unnatural thing,” said her brother, but he was more sad than angry. “Can you not be content? Men will forget about all this in time, and what you call cages is the lot of women.”

“It is not mine,” said Vasya. “I love you, Lyoshka. I love you both. But I cannot.”

Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton

Back when I was in high school I loved it when we studied Greek Mythology. It’s been a while since I took the time to read any sort of mythology…that is, until recently.

I understand that this book is often required reading for many high school students as an introduction to mythology. I’m sad to say that it was never required reading for me; however, I recently had the good fortune to pick this up second hand and discovered Edith Hamilton’s Mythology for the first time.

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Edith Hamilton’s interest in the classics started at a young age. She would later study both Greek and Latin and go on to earn her Masters degree before taking a job at Bryn Mawr. Although primarily an administrator, I understand that she was also a wonderful teacher. When she retired she started writing and this is just one of the books she wrote during her retirement. This book is a collection of various stories from Greek Mythology with a very brief section at the end on Norse Mythology. It has the major epics such as the adventures of Odysseus, the fall of Troy and The Quest of the Golden Fleece as well as minor myths like Midas, even brief myths, most of which I had never heard of, in which someone often turns into something else like an insect! It really is a wonderful introduction to mythology. She provides a list of the gods with a brief bio on them; she points out early heroes; heroes of the Trojan War; love stories and minor myths.

I enjoyed reading this book. I felt like she gave me a good foundation of who the gods were, their powers and their interactions with men and women. Sadly, when a god decided to involve himself or herself into the affairs of mortals, it usually led to pain and difficulty for the mortals.

Ms. Hamilton begins each chapter by telling the reader which poet or poets created the myth. She will often use a few different sources as she retells the story. For example, part of a story may come from Apollonius, another part from Ovid and perhaps a third from Hesiod. She tells the reader which parts of the story she took from which poet. I feel like the end result was a more interesting and complete story than the original…unless of course one has time to read all of the poets mentioned!

I found it interesting the way the stories evolved. For instance, Zeus was originally a rain-god but later became a god with human form and “…protector of the weak.” Later, the Furies become the Benignant Ones. This was also done by creating an alternate ending, such as Agamemnon’s death. She tells us early on that these changes arose “…as men grow continually more conscious of what life demanded of them and what human beings needed in the god they worshipped.” As society’s views changed so did some of the stories.

The stories of Theseus and Hercules show how societies shaped their heroes. Theseus was the Athenian hero and he reflected their ideals. Athens valued intelligence and their hero was brave, compassionate and intelligent. Hercules, however, was different. He is known for his strength, but I was surprised to learn that he was all braun and no brain. Apparently most of Greece admired strength and so Hercules became a popular hero.

There were many stories that I enjoyed reading; some I found troubling and others I will not see the same way again. It was interesting to read the two creation accounts. What was interesting was just how different they were and that there were no women! Apparently Zeus created the first woman, Pandora, as “…a great evil for men…” later on. Well, that speaks volumes about how they viewed half of the human race! Besides this, I thought the story about Dionysus was both interesting and troubling. I was surprised to learn that he was a dying and rising god, but there were also some pretty terrible actions associated with the god of wine. In other stories I learned that burial rites were extremely important to the Greeks.

However, I do have a criticism for this book: the section on Norse Mythology was way too short! I loved everything I read in this section though! Ms. Hamilton chose the poems that best captured the beliefs of the Norse and this is a very different outlook on life. What I did not realize was how depressing Norse Mythology is. I did not realize that the gods lived knowing defeat was inevitable. It does not end well, and there is not much they can do about it, but they will go down fighting against evil and in the process reveal who they are by how they die. Theirs was a harsh reality in which good doesn’t necessarily conquer evil and this sentiment extends to the world of their gods as well.

Why did she include such a short section on Norse Mythology? She concludes her book by saying, “Norse Mythology and Greek Mythology together give a clear picture of what the people were like from whom comes a major part of our spiritual and intellectual inheritance.”

If your interested in reading different stories mostly from Greek Mythology then this book is a good place to start. As for me, I now want to read more about Norse Mythology.

Happy Earth Day

Happy Earth Day! Really, it should be Earth Day everyday! I might be biased, but then again, this is the only home we have. When thinking of Earth Day, or just trying to be more eco-minded, my focus isn’t only on what we can do to protect the environment, but it’s also about learning and realizing just how amazing nature is!

This poem by Walt Whitman seems perfect for today. It reminds us of how the earth creates beauty and life from death and decay. As he says, earth takes our “sour dead” and “It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor”. She gives back life. Beautiful, nourishing and amazing. Nature “grows such sweet things out of such corruptions”.

What a chemistry, indeed!

This Compost

By Walt Whitman


Something startles me where I thought I was safest;
I withdraw from the still woods I loved;
I will not go now on the pastures to walk;
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea;
I will not touch my flesh to the earth, as to other flesh, to renew me.

O how can it be that the ground does not sicken?
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health, you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?

Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations;
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day or perhaps I am deceiv’d;
I will run a furrow with my plough I will press my spade through the sod, and turn it up underneath;
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.
Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person Yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noislessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings, while the she-birds sit on their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,
The new-born of animals appear the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk the lilacs bloom in the door-yards;
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.
What chemistry!
That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea, which is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever.
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard, and of the orange-orchard that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.
Now I am terrified at the Earth! it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

Ocean Echoes by Sheila Hurst

I rarely win things, but when I do, they’re worth mentioning! Last November, I won a signed copy of Ocean Echoes by Sheila Hurst, author and fellow blogger. This is her debut novel and her book was a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Way to go, Sheila!

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As she watched and filmed, she felt the amazement grow within her, that amazement that came through whenever she observed life in all its forms and sizes and colors. Here is an animal hidden within the sea, pulsing with life and light. It is its own entity, yet it is part of the ocean, while all other species living within the ocean are also part of it. The ocean hummed with life. So many forms of life, so much variety, there was so much life everywhere creeping and crawling, swimming and flying. Ellen could only watch and wonder.

The story is about Ellen Upton, a marine biologist who studies Jellyfish, who needs to make a significant discovery in order to keep her funding. So, she sets out on a research cruise to the Atoll Islands to see what she can find. There, she makes an amazing discovery, but this discovery is troubling and, ultimately, leads to even more questions.

I enjoyed this book. It was well-written with some beautiful descriptions of marine life. I would describe this story as a good ocean mystery, with some history mixed in and a dash of science fiction added to get your attention. It also ties in Ellen’s own personal journey of discovery and offers a look at the life of our oceans that has me wanting to read and learn more about it.

It opens with a mystery and as the story progresses, it taps into that mix of curiosity, fear and excitement scientists must feel at possibly discovering something new.

The story seemed to really move once they set sail on the cruise ship. I liked her developing friendship with fellow scientist Michael Holbrook, and, as intellectual equals, they could really challenge one another, especially on the topic of climate change. These two characters saw climate change differently and often debated the issue.

For a while there, I thought Ellen was being illogical and irrational as she was trying to figure things out. She may have simply been overwhelmed, but it may also reflect her need to break out of her mold and open herself up to new ways of seeing the world. She did eventually see things more clearly and I liked how the scientific pieces came together along with some interesting history.

This book focuses on ocean life and there was a figurative view of the ocean portrayed. It was interesting to read about some of the local legends as well such as calling the sea turtles with song and there was a magical butterfly experience that many people would treasure. I was pretty certain that her drink was spiked in order to create such a moment, but Sheila didn’t take it in that direction. Instead, she makes way to appreciate the magic and mystery of the ocean, and with it, respect for nature. It was interesting that Ellen would come back to the song of the sea turtles and wondered if the people of the islands had more respect for nature because of their belief in the magic and mystery. It’s an interesting question and for the most part I agree. There is mystery in the vastness of the ocean and that so much is still undiscovered and unknown. And the more we learn the more in awe we are. There is also magic and mystery in the very miracle of life. Look at the ecosystems that exist and flourish without human intervention. In the book she mentioned a type of jellyfish that survives by allowing algae to live in its tentacles. Or the fact that some species of eels start out as males and later become female. Weird, yet fascinating! There is a great deal of mystery and magic in life which encourages curiosity and respect. However, sadly, this is not always the case.

The author is concerned about the state of our oceans and is doing her part to raise awareness. In her Author’s Note, at the end, she shares some headlines from 2010 (when the story takes place) that were both cause for concern and that showed hope for the future. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book will go towards non-profit groups working to protect the ocean and it has made me want to learn more about ocean advocacy.

Thank you, Sheila! Winning a copy of Ocean Echoes was a good thing worth mentioning. πŸ™‚