Llywelyn the Great

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Yesterday was the 776th anniversary of the death of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, also known as Llywelyn the Great. Born in 1173, he began to take control of North Wales when he was about 14 years old. By the time he was about 28, he was effectively the ruler of all Wales. He unified Wales, historically a nation often divided by war and clan fighting, and held the land in peace. Even during the difficult years when he was at odds with King John, Llywelyn eventually managed to regain lands he lost, and he held the respect of his retainers and the nobles. He is one of only two Welsh kings to be given the title Fawr, “the Great.”

As a lover of historical fiction, in particular, medieval historical fiction, some of my favorite novels feature Llywelyn Fawr or his contemporaries. The best novels bring his time to life in the most vivid ways, transport me to his castles at Dolwyddelan, on his campaign trail, at his feast table. It takes a special kind of talent to make history come alive and not turn it into a dry, boring textbook. I’ve ready plenty of historical fiction novels that read like straight history textbooks, and it was awful. All I could think of while reading those was that I hoped other readers didn’t pick those particular books up as their first exposure to the time period. Otherwise, I just couldn’t see how they would ever be intrigued enough to want to learn more about it, and that makes me sad. For those who have not yet discovered good historical fiction based on Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, below are some of the very best.

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Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. Rich not only in (highly accurate) historical detail, but also in the complexities of medieval politics, kingship, and interpersonal relationships, Here Be Dragons is my favorite novel of medieval Wales. One of my favorite scenes in the whole book was the wedding night of Llywelyn and Joanna, the daughter of King John. She was young and scared, and Llywelyn, wanting to earn her trust, offered to delay consummating their wedding and opted instead to cut his arm so that she could show a bloodstained sheet to those wanting proof of her viginity.

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The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet by Edith Pargeter. This series is about the grandson of Llywelyn Fawr, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, also called Llywelyn the Last. It is a first person narrative told from the point of view of Llywelyn’s scribe and friend Samson. I rather like the first person account since it gives an immediacy to the story and an intimacy into just one aspect that we might not otherwise get to see. After all, we only can see life from our own perspective.

What others have you read?

Story By A Line

I don’t know how the brains of all reading addicts work. But for my own brain, we will often read a story together, my brain and I, then go on a tangent, and make up a new story about something it just saw in the book we’re reading. I’m not talking about writing fanfiction, though that has often happened as well. I’m talking about reading a scene, or even a single line, and wanting an entirely new story completely separate from the novel as a whole, totally unrelated to the story, based just on that singular line. Maybe there is a proper term for it, but in my head I’ve always referred to it as a story by a line.Read More »

Book Perfumery, please

If you’re anything like me, books and scent go hand in hand. There is nothing like the smell of a new book, the crispness of the pages and the sharpness of the ink. I take a deep breath every time I enter a bookstore and instantly feel better about everything, no matter what. There is a special way new books smell, and it’s the same no matter where you go, and it is a comfort to me. If I am traveling and get homesick, a bookstore will still smell the same wherever I am as it would at home, and I feel more steady.

I’ve always associated places with scents, as well, and used books, too, have their own scent. Some, like ones I order from England, smell of old musty buildings and flowers, reminding me of centuries of people walking over the same stone floors and seeing much the same view as perhaps I have seen when I have visited. One, and I don’t remember where it came from except that I ordered it from one of the sellers on Amazon and it was listed as “very good condition,” reeked of cigarettes and smelled up my entire house in a matter of hours. Even setting it out directly in the heat of the desert sun didn’t kill the stink of it and I had to throw it away. That bookseller got a strongly worded email regarding the definition of “very good condition.” If only it was as strong as the stench emanating from the book they sent to me. Holy shit.

My point, of course, is that books and scent are inextricably linked for many of us. But to take it further, for me, books often make me wish I could distill the scents from the story and bottle them as a perfume. As a bit of a perfume junkie – I have dozens of bottles of perfume from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab – I would just love to be part of a project to translate some books into scents. BPAL already is literary in the extreme, and has entire lines of scents devoted to books and characters from them, so this isn’t an unrealistic dream. Maybe I should hone my networking skills…

Some books that are simply begging to be made into perfumes right now are:

The Night Circus. Rose, ice, and sugar. Caramel and autumn leaves. Roses, dew, moss, and dirt. The language of the book was full of scent-filled imagery.

Uprooted. What does a Heart tree smell like? Sickly sweet and woody? Green leafy? And Agnieszka’s spell she chants with the Dragon? She needs a scent of her own, as does Sarkan himself.

When Christ and His Saints Slept. Eleanor of Aquitaine must have something rich and complex, yet subtle. Maybe something somewhat exotic, jasmine and sandalwood with  a topnote of lemon. Henry would be all male, leather and salt and perhaps a touch of cypress and lavender.

The Mists of AvalonThe Princess Bride. The Dragonriders of Pern. Just about anything written by Holly Black or Francesca Lia Block. I could go on all day long with this.

What perfumes would you make based on books you’ve read?

 

A Morbid Taste For Bones

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As a die hard fan of medieval mysteries, I feel a great deal of gratitude to Ellis Peters for essentially starting the genre with this, the first entry in the Brother Cadfael series.

And what a treat it is! For a tiny book that inexplicably took me an inordinate length of time to read, this was really a fun story. Cadfael is a terrific character, full of quirks and orneriness. Love it! He’d be fun to hang out with.

The secondary characters were nicely developed. Brother John was awesome, and his minor story arc was delightful. Sioned was a strong, wonderful woman and I was glad to see her story have enough twists and turns to give her some adventure during her journey.

I liked that the bad guys weren’t so blatantly bad that Whodunnit was immediately obvious. There were some nice moral dilemmas and grey areas, which are really still relevant today.

Can’t wait to read the rest of the stories in this series.

I Really, Really Hate The Poky Little Puppy

Recently, my daughter needed to cull her books, because, at five years old, she is a very good reader and has long outgrown many of the board books and younger story books that cluttered her bookshelves. So together, we sat down and went through them, using it as a wonderful opportunity to teach about giving to others because not everyone is as fortunate as we are to have a small home library of their own, and that some other child might really love getting her board book versions of Jane Eyre and Dracula or the 48 point font version of Pixar’s Brave. She had long since mastered those. Then we came across a book that she hadn’t read in ages, but could technically have kept but decided she wanted to get a new book instead, so she opted to part with it in return for a new one. It was The Poky Little Puppy. Before it went into the pile for Goodwill, she wanted to read it again one last time because she loves puppies. Fair enough. We settled onto the couch for a reading.

I remembered then why I never read that book to her.Read More »

Mistress of Mourning

Mistress of Mourning was the second novel I have read by Karen Harper. It was set in the earlier days of the Tudor dynasty, in the reign of Henry VII, and focused largely on the death of Arthur, Prince of Wales. The premise was interesting – a widowed chandler, Varina Westcott, is hired by the queen, Elizabeth of York, to carve effigies of her dead children and her missing brothers, the Princes in the Tower. Varina becomes the queen’s confidant and she is hired, along with the king’s man Nick Sutton, to go to Wales to investigate the death of Arthur, whom the queen believes did not die of illness but of foul play. Along the way, of course, are the requisite bad guys, traitors, and love stories.

The idea that Arthur was poisoned is intriguing. I am not sure I believe it myself, but Harper makes a compelling argument in favor of it. Given the prince’s poor health throughout his life, a Yorkist assassin slipping in a deadly herb that would cause symptoms resembling any number of illnesses isn’t too much of a stretch to be unrealistic. I suppose it could happen.

The issue with the Princes in the Tower felt a little rushed in the end. Henry’s confession felt a tad contrived, the explanation for their deaths too convenient. But I liked the homage to Henry II and Thomas Becket’s feud, and how Henry VII’s “confession” was similar to Henry II’s “order” to kill Becket.

In general, I liked the characters, though I felt they all needed more development. I thought that was a little odd since the other book I’d read by Harper had extremely well developed characters. Varina and Nick were, of course, the most thoroughly fleshed-out, though they still lacked some depth and had questions left unanswered. It wasn’t enough to detect from the overall plot, just something that was a bit strange considering the experience I had with her other book, Mistress Shakespeare.

Overall, a quick, fun read. Recommended for fans of Tudor history.

Fangirl

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Fangirl

by Rainbow Rowell

Once in a while, I encounter a book that seems to have been written just for me. Fangirl is one of those books. It had been on my radar for quite some time and I’d just not gotten around to reading it. One of my colleagues is moving house and very kindly gave me her extra copy, and I am very glad she did!Read More »