DampPebbles Blog Tour Spotlight

Historical fiction: WWI

Pages: 228

Publisher: Brigand London

Advance Reading Copy provided by DampPebbles

From the publisher

1917: with her father in the British secret service and her brother Alfie in the trenches, under-age Poppy Loveday volunteers against her parents’ wishes to drive ambulances in France. We follow her adventures, racing to save wounded men driven to the Casualty Clearing Station, and back to the Base Hospital.

“Jon Wilkins gets to the very heart of the mud and the blood of the battlefields and then with the same ease the gaiety of the ballroom in a thriller that will keep you entertained for hours.” Stuart Hill, author of The Icemark Trilogy.

During one battle she finds Élodie Proux, a French nurse, at a roadside clutching a dead soldier. Poppy rescues her. Élodie becomes her dearest girl as they fall in love.

Poppy and Élodie encounter frightening adversaries at the Western Front as well as away from it during the closing weeks of World War One.


From the author

Jonathan loves to write. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstones’ bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for 20 years and coached women’s basketball for over 30 years. 

He regularly teaches creative writing workshops in and around Leicester.

You can follow him on social media at:


Survival, banditry, and a little magic

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

r/suggestmeabook: I want a wuxia-inspired novella about bandits trying to deal with the outcome of temple desecration in a fantasy mid-20th century Malay.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 155

Publisher: Tordotcom

From the publisher: A bandit walks into a coffeehouse, and it all goes downhill from there. Guet Imm, a young votary of the Order of the Pure Moon, joins up with an eclectic group of thieves (whether they like it or not) in order to protect a sacred object, and finds herself in a far more complicated situation than she could have ever imagined.

This novella has plenty to love: combat, deceit, trans rep, a corner of history largely unknown in the US, and lots of little mysteries. The writing is lucid as mountain spring water, and the characters are intriguing where not sympathetic, and mostly sympathetic (if occasionally annoying).

It was of course safest to avoid bandits, but since most looked like ordinary people—indeed, if you were unlucky, some of them were your cousin, your uncle, your brother—this was not always possible.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

There’s the bandit with the pretty face, Lau Fung Cheung, also known as Ah Sang, who could be Aramis of The Three Musketeers in a different life. There’s the solid and dependable Tet Sang, Lau Fung Cheung’s second, who finds himself drawn into conflicts he’d prefer to avoid. Then there’s the woman they made the mistake of helping, Guet Imm, a former votary of the tokong of the Pure Moon, a temple which has been destroyed.

Either she was on of those happy persons whose periods gave them little trouble, or her stoicism over her blistered feet extended to cramps and cold sweats.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The novel is based on the Emergency, a conflict in the former Malay Colony of Britain, which was perceived as a communist insurrection by the Chinese ethnic population in the postwar period (1948-1960) by the British colonial powers. Taking a chapter from Stalin, the British relocated approximately one million Chinese “squatters” who lived on the fringes of the jungle and were supporting the insurrectionists, who saw themselves as a liberation army. In most of the British official summaries found by a quick Google search, the relocation was benign, giving them housing and infrastructure. The truth is more complex: these “squatters” were first moved to emptied prisons and, when those grew too full, to concentration and detention camps. It was only when the British realized this was not going to be a workable solution (and the more economically advantaged ethnic Chinese began to unite to protect the squatters), that the new villages were created.

“Of course I knew there were problems. But even when I went to town and got a job, nobody talked about a war.”

“Nobody talks about it. It’s not that kind of war.”

“What kind of war is it, then?”

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The spark was racially motivated: the British were about to offer full citizenship to the Chinese Malays, but there was a popular backlash from the rest of the Malay population, and the British retracted the offer. This lead to members of the Chinese population responding more violently. This reaction didn’t come around as quickly as it sounds from this context: the Chinese in Malay had dealt with Chinese exclusion laws much like those in the US, from persecution during the Japanese occupation, and lack of adequate recourse to justice before and after the Japanese took Malay.

A bespectacled man with slick hair and alert lidless eyes of a gecko, he seemed cleanly and decent, like a clerk. At the same time, there was something off-putting about him—one would not be surprised to hear that he had embezzled funds or slapped his mother-in-law.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

At any rate, this novella of a fantasy Malay during that time partakes of aspects of the actual history. Cho uses the term “Tang” to refer to the ethnic Chinese (although it’s actually a dynasty), and it’s clear throughout the story that these are a people being singled out for persecution. The protagonists are not guerrillas; they are just displaced poor people who ran out of options for anything better.

You cannot stay rich in times like these without eating sin. If you don’t dare to do wrong, then you will suffer.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The attitude toward trans people is refreshing. It appears that during this period, transgender people were generally accepted in Malay; it wasn’t until a Muslim resurgence in the 1980s that attitudes started to change. A culture with matter-of-fact acceptance and lack of stigma is a pleasure to imagine yourself into.

Tet Sang had known members of her Order who had been dedicated to the Pure Moon at a young age but then decided they could not endure to be called sister. They had departed to join male orders or start other lives. Conversely, he had no doubt that some of the Pure Moon’s nuns had lived as men before they joined her Order. Once they entered the deity’s light, no one was particularly interested in what they had been before.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

Possible spoiler here forward–no specifics, but you might find it to be one: My only real complaint about the novella is the ending; it feels as though it simply stops, rather than having a conclusion. It’s something I like about fiction; unlike real life, resolutions are almost always possible. Like most readers, an ending I dislike tends to color my opinion of the entire story. Cho has said she may return to these characters; I hope this ends up as a first part of a longer story, but even so, I’d have liked a better resting place.

He knew how dangerous it could be to assume that either women or mystics were harmless.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

All in all, it’s a book I recommend, although be warned that you may be ready to turn the last page to another chapter, and find that you’ve been left in the Malay jungle to wonder.


Doctor knows best

Review of a classic: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

r/suggestmeabook: I want a classic murder mystery narrated by a whimsical doctor with Hercule Poirot investigating.

Movie rating: G

Pages: 256

Available through Kindle Unlimited

From the publisher: Roger Ackroyd knew too much. He knew that the woman he loved had poisoned her brutal first husband. He suspected also that someone had been blackmailing her. Then, tragically, came the news that she had taken her own life with an apparent drug overdose.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a murder mystery classic from the indisputable master Agatha Christie. The irritating but brilliant Hercule Poirot discloses facts, but never illuminates why they matter until the end, giving the reader tantalizing clues that rarely disclose the ending.

The chains of habit. We work to attain an object, and the object gained, we find that what we miss is the daily toil.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The narrator of this mystery is the primary reason for it being singled out from among Christie’s 82 mystery novels as a standout. For me, the best parts of the novel were the interaction between the narrator, Dr. Sheppard, and his sister, Caroline. He’s constantly exasperated by her nosy attitude and superior attitude. She’s an inveterate gossip, always looking through the windows to monitor the comings and goings of everyone around her.

The motto of the mongoose family, so Mr. Kipling tells us, is: “Go and find out.” If Caroline ever adapts a crest, I should certainly suggest a mongoose rampant.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

As is often the case for Christie, the murder takes place in an estate where there are a limited number of suspects holed up together. The doctor was there for dinner and met most of the suspects there: The grasping sister-in-law, the blushing ingenue and niece, the big game hunter, the personal finance manager, the housekeeper, and the butler. Off-screen is the main suspect, the nephew and heir of the victim.

It is odd, when you have a secret belief of your own which you do not wish to acknowledge, the voicing of it by someone else will rouse you to a fury of denial.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The novel is mostly charming, although there is a moment that stands out as an unpleasant reminder of the period. While the narrator is interviewing the sister-in-law, the sister-in-law describes the bill collectors. Trying to strike a sympathetic note, the narrator derides the bill collectors as having a “Semitic strain in their ancestry.” This casual antisemitism is a cruel reminder of just how commonplace it was in 1926. Sadly, almost 100 years later, this stereotypical gibe has not complete disappeared.

I don’t know exactly what a “proper place” constitutes—it sounds chilly and unpleasant—but I know that Miss Russell goes about with pinched lips, and what I can only describe as an acid smile.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Another stock character of the past is in place: a big game hunter. Christie’s depiction of him is ambiguous. On the one hand, the narrator makes a rather snarky reference to the trophies he’s provided; on the other, he is presented as a relatively honorable man. I get the impression that she’d think of him as roughly equivalent to any other sports fanatic: the activity isn’t objectionable so much as the obsessive response to it.

I am sorry to say I detest Mrs. Ackroyd. She is all chains ad teeth and bones. A most unpleasant woman. She has small pale flinty blue eyes, and how ever gushing her words may be, those eyes of hers always remain coldly speculative.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

As a woman writing in the twenties, Christie isn’t particularly feminist to our eyes. She offers many different characterizations of women, but no one seems to be particularly keen to change their power relationship with men. Class is challenged slightly more, with some women looking outside the class of their birth for mates, but that particular type of challenge is long-standing and not about to threaten anyone’s outlook,

Women observe subconsciously a thousand little details, without knowing they are doing so. Their subconscious mind adds these little things together—and they call the result intuition.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

All in all, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a solid example of Christie’s finesse at writing an enjoyable puzzle that keeps you guessing, so try to avoid the numerous spoilers out there which will come up quickly if as part of the explanation as to why this particular novel is significant for her. Best to find out after you’ve read it.


The Last King by M.J. Porter

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours: Spotlight

From the publisher:

They sent three hundred warriors to kill one man. It wasn’t enough.

Mercia lies broken but not beaten, her alliance with Wessex in tatters.

Coelwulf, a fierce and bloody warrior, hears whispers that Mercia has been betrayed from his home in the west. He fears no man, especially not the Vikings sent to hunt him down.

To discover the truth of the rumours he hears, Coelwulf must travel to the heart of Mercia, and what he finds there will determine the fate of Mercia, as well as his own.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 316

Publisher: Self

Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of The Last King by M.J. Porter. Two paperbacks are up for grabs. The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on January 22nd. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the Author

I’m an author of fantasy (Viking age/dragon-themed) and historical fiction (Early English, Vikings and the British Isles as a whole before the Norman Conquest). I was born in the old Mercian kingdom at some point since 1066. Raised in the shadow of a strange little building, told from a very young age that it housed the bones of long-dead Kings of Mercia and that our garden was littered with old pieces of pottery from a long-ago battle, it’s little wonder that my curiosity in Early England ran riot. I can only blame my parents!

I write A LOT. You’ve been warned!

Not sure where to start your journey through Early England? Here are some pointers.

If you like action-adventure, with a heavy dose of violence, foul language and good old camaraderie – The Ninth Century series is for you, starting with The Last King, or The Seventh Century, starting with Pagan Warrior, has a little more politics to go with the set-piece battles.

If you like stories about the forgotten women of history, then the Tenth Century series, starting with The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter, is a good place to begin. Or, The First Queen of England, with a little more romance.

If you’re interested in the last century of Early England (before 1066) then The Earls of Mercia series is for you.

If you want to read it all, then you can read in chronological order, or mix it up. The series weren’t written in chronological order.

 


Three girls dreaming of better lives

A Rachel’s Random Resources Blog Tour for The Tobacco Girls by Lizzie Lane

r/suggestmeabook: I want a familiar tale of three friends facing adulthood tinged with the imminent onset of WWII.

Movie rating: PG

Publisher: Boldwood Books

ARC courtesy of Rachel’s Random Resources

From the publisher: Bristol 1939. School leaver Maisie Miles suspects her father, a small-time crook, has an ulterior motive for insisting she gets a job at the W. D. & H. O. Wills tobacco factory but keeps it to herself.

She’s befriended by effervescent Phyllis Mason and kind-hearted Bridget Milligan who take pity on her and take Maisie under their wing.

But beneath their happy go lucky exteriors they all harbor dreams and worries about what the future holds. Engaged to be married, Phyllis dreams of romance and passion but when it comes there are dire consequences.

Bridget, seemingly the level-headed one, harbors a horror of something unspeakable that she cannot easily come to terms with. There’s great comradeship at the tobacco factory, and with the advent of war everything is about to change, and even the closest friendships are likely to be strained.


Excerpt

Slight of stature, dark-haired and dark-eyed, fifteen-year-old Maisie Miles was currently engrossed in a world of her own. Though the newspaper sellers and the wireless shouted warnings of war to come, it meant nothing to her.


The world, her surroundings and everything else, was blanked out by the letter she’d almost snatched from the postman’s hand. She’d bobbed out of that front door ten times at least that morning, waiting for him to come so she could grab the letter before he had chance to shove it through the letter box. Hopefully it would be her ticket out of York Street, the Dings and the larger area that was St Phillips’ Marsh.

The envelope was blue, the paper of a quality she’d never encountered before. The letter inside matched the envelope both in colour and quality.

Her brown eyes glowed and her creamy complexion burst into pinkness as she read the letter for the third time.

Dear Miss Miles,
In response to the reference I received from your teacher Miss Smith, and the fact that since leaving school you have experienced some domestic work in the kitchen of the Royal Hotel, in Bristol, I am delighted to offer you the position of kitchen maid at Priory House, Long Ashton, which, as I am sure you know, is just outside the city of Bristol and not far from Ashton Court…

Feeling sublimely happy, Maisie closed her eyes and held the letter to her heart. Bliss. Green fields and trees. She’d never been to Ashton Court, but the redoubtable Miss Smith had told her that the sumptuous mansion had been built with the proceeds of a vast sugar plantation on the island of Jamaica.

The letter had come from the housekeeper who was known personally to Miss Smith.

‘A much respected acquaintance,’ she had told Maisie. ‘It’s a private house, so only glimpsed through the gates.’

It was obvious from her tone that Miss Smith herself had never been into the house but would very much like to.

For her part, Maisie wasn’t interested in the house. It was the prospect of fresh air far away from the stink of York Street which attracted her.

The house she’d grown up in was situated in the Dings, a subdistrict of St Phillips, a less than salubrious area of Bristol, where the air was thick with the stench of bone yards, soap works and slaughter houses.

Added to the cloying stench was the deafening rattle from the marshalling yards stretching from Midland Road to Lawrence Hill, a sprawling expanse of glistening rails linking the Great Western Railway with the Midland Railway. Like the smell, the railway never ceased: the goods trucks shunting backwards and forwards, chains clanking, metal rails squealing beneath metal wheels. Of late it had been busier and nosier than usual. The old man, the old sod, her father, declared it was all to do with impending war because it said so in the papers. As if he would know! She’d never seen him read anything. It was more likely he’d heard the newspaper vendor shouting out the news from his pitch outside the Kings’ Cinema in Old Market.

Maisie didn’t care. All she wanted was to get away to something better.

There was nothing attractive about number five, York Street. It had a yard at the back, a patch of dusty dirt between the back of the house and the brick privy that lurched against the far wall. It was a place of mouldy walls and cramped rooms, packed with shabby furniture and a cold hearth that even when lit did little to warm one room, let alone the whole house.

‘What you got there?’ Suddenly the very air was ripe with menace.


Lizzie Lane is the author of over 50 books, a number of which have been bestsellers. She was born and bred in Bristol where many of her family worked in the cigarette and cigar factories. This has inspired her new saga series for Boldwood, The Tobacco Girls, the first part of which will be published in January 2021.


The sins of the fathers

Haze by Rachel Crunden

r/suggestmeabook: I want a contemporary thriller with a young couple trying to overcome their past tragedies.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 267

Publisher: Self

From the publisher: When Eliza Owens gets a phone call in the middle of the night from a girl she’s never met, she doesn’t know what to think. The girl introduces herself as Paige, and says she used to date Erik Stern, Eliza’s fiancé. What’s more, she has something important to discuss. The only problem? Paige has been dead for years.

This absorbing thriller spools off one tragedy after anther before it settles in to solve the mysteries behind them. Rebecca Crunden does a great job of sketching characters quickly so that you become invested early. I was debating whether to call this YA, and after chatting with mavens, will say it’s “adult with YA crossover appeal.”*

The dead don’t care if you’re religious.

Rebecca Crunden, Haze

Eliza and Erik are the protagonists, and they both have demons aplenty. How they deal with them (not well, for the most part) is a large part of the story. Erik wins the worst dad contest, but Eliza’s, although more likable, becomes problematic. Be prepared to read about various addictions, and, if you’ve had panic attacks, you’ll know that Crunden’s descriptions are so good that they almost provoke one.

We talk shit. We talk about Eliza, we talk about this ghost, we talk about the past and the present. We don’t ever talk about you.

Rebecca Crunden, Haze

The pace is rapid enough that it’s easy to overlook that there’s not as much background and development that I usually prefer. My biggest gripe was the ending, which suffers from the Lord of the Rings syndrome: it felt like multiple endings, rather than one. I think it would have been more satisfying to skip the last chapter and go straight to the epilogue; I’d say more, but I don’t want to give anything away.

One of the greatest conspiracies of life is the how and why of the tax system. Right up there with cauliflower and the purpose of wisdom teeth.

Rebecca Crunden, Haze

I don’t read enough thrillers to venture many other comments, but for someone who doesn’t generally gravitate toward them, this was a fun ride.

*Thanks to Fabienne and Eriophora for the genre classification assist, although they should be absolved for any error on my part. Check out their websites for more YA and other goodies.


Still trying to live up to dad

Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames

r/suggestmeabook: I want to go adventuring with a young female bard who latches on to a group with daddy issues.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 479

Publisher: Orbit

Series: The Band

From the publisher: Tam Hashford is tired of working at her local pub, slinging drinks for world-famous mercenaries and listening to the bards sing of adventure and glory in the world beyond her sleepy hometown. When the biggest mercenary band of all rolls into town, led by the infamous Bloody Rose, Tam jumps at the chance to sign on as their bard.

It’s more difficult to gauge a sequel to a book that you loved—or, for that matter, any book you approach with higher expectations than usual. I think this is a better than average book, but my initial response was to downgrade it because it wasn’t nearly as absorbing as the first in the series, Kings of the Wyld. Luckily, this is one of the few books my husband read first, and, although he agreed with the comparative rating, he supported a higher rating when comparing it to books overall.

Why the disappointment? First, the first two-thirds of the book are more serious in tone than the first book ever was. The tone of Bloody Rose isn’t as tongue-in-cheek until it gets closer to resolution, at which point the silly allusions start flying fairly thick, and even then, it still feels more grim than its predecessor. Not that grim is an issue; it’s a matter of expectations.

Funny, Tam thought, how different a thing could seem at a distance—how beautiful, despite the ugly truth. Was it worth it, she wondered, to look closer? To examine something, or someone, if doing so risked changing your perception of them forever after?

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

The second major difference, for me, was the protagonist point of view. Both books are written in close third. Clay Cooper, the character followed in Kings of the Wyld, is a retired mercenary who’s seen it all and done it all and really has not interest in doing it again, which is a far cry from Tam Hashford’s ingenue bard point of view. I assumed Clay would be the protagonist again (bad reader), and going back to a more conventional coming of age POV was not as interesting to me as the world weary Clay.

Shadrach had controlled them through fear, and, although fear bred subservience, it did not beget loyalty.

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

So both of my major gripes with the book have nothing to do with it if treated as a standalone—and it could be read as one. When I approach it from that angle, it’s quite a good book. The characters are all fully realized and distinctive, and the plot is well executed. The world building is still well done, although the difference in overall tone made the referential humor feel a little more out of place—things like the line on the cover, “Girls just want to have fun,” dropped in the middle of a battle sequence, are more likely to get an eye roll than a chortle.

“You’re a legend now, girl, and legends are like rolling stones: Once they get going, it’s best to stay out of their way.”

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

Let’s talk about the cast. The daddy issues of the eponymous Rose, still dealing with the problem of being a celebrity’s child and Tam, whose dad was also in the biz, just not as famous as Rose’s dad Gabe, are evident from the outset, but the majority of the rest of the band will prove to have problems with their dads as well, but I feel like going any further is spoilery enough to leave it at that.

Fuck her, Tam thought. Everyone suffers. We’ve all lost people we love, and it’s not always—or ever—fair. But only a monster paints everyone with the same bloody brush. And only a madwoman wants the world to suffer with her.

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

Rose’s love, the Druin Freecloud, is cool and efficient, a great match for Rose’s fire, and probably the most reserved member of the band. Brune, the shaman, takes the shape of a bear in fights, but is a teddy outside of battle. Roderick, the manager, is a fast-talking, insecure satyr, but ultimately the manager you want. Cura the ink witch is an injured soul who tries to keep everyone away but will do anything to help her bandmates. I didn’t love all of them, but I enjoyed reading about them.

Some people knew how to kill a conversation. Cura, on the other hand, could make it wish it had never been born.

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

The theme of “what makes a bad guy” is intriguing, and is an interesting development for this world’s history, illustrating how time can reframe your perspective. Other themes explored are the notion of what constitutes family and how to grapple with childhood trauma as a young adult. (See, I told you it was more serious than the first one.)

Glory fades. Gold slips through our fingers like water, or sand. Love is the only thing worth fighting for.

Nicholas Eames, Bloody Rose

My first thought is to recommend reading Bloody Rose first, then Kings of the Wyld as a prequel, but you’d still have the problem of expectations because of the mismatch in tone. Reversing the reading order might not fix a sense of disappointment with the second book; it’s probably best to say they’re simply set in the same world.


On a personal note, let’s talk about VESTIBULAR migraines

Why, yes, I am shouting

A big thank you to the folks at the Vestibular Migraine Community on Facebook for providing the words and weight to generate the word cloud.

After two days in the hospital waiting for the neurologists to decide whether my imaging studies meant my head was going to blow up, I was released without a firm diagnosis, but the attending neurologist shrugged and said “It could have been a migraine.”

I rolled my eyes hard every time I had to tell someone about it. I knew what a migraine was, dammit. I’d had 3-5 per week for at least seven years before they’d stopped about five years before. This was no migraine. I was right and wrong: it wasn’t the common, classical migraine I’d become so intimately acquainted with. It took five months for me to find out that it was probably the first big moment of the vestibular migraines that would become my daily life.

Last March, after other, less drastic symptoms, I started having a vestibular migraine which, for all intents and purposes, hasn’t stopped. I have fluctuations in the intensity and mix of the symptoms, but it never really ends.

It took six weeks to get a diagnosis, because when you hear that dizziness is the primary symptom, “migraine” is not the first thing you jump to. Like me, most people hear “migraine” and have a completely different idea about what’s happening. A VESTIBULAR migraine is a different animal, but, even though I’ve explained it multiple times to people, they still ask me, “How are your headaches?” It’s upsetting and frustrating because it feels as though my struggles to explain were completely ignored—and it is now a struggle to explain.

Even when I had the “regular” migraines, the headache part was never the worst part of it. For me, it was always the photophobia and phonophobia that made it worse. When every noise has the same effect as fingernails on a blackboard, and light feels like someone has thrown a dagger into your eye, it’s just as debilitating as an extremely painful headache. I had a hard time talking, because my own voice hurt. It was a period of isolation and darkness, and when I wasn’t actively having a migraine, I was having a migraine hangover.

In some ways, vestibular migraine (VM) is worse, although arguably, it’s also what I’m experiencing now, so that could account for it seeming worse. It’s always dangerous to compare suffering, so don’t take this as saying my vestibular migraines are worse than your regular ones. All I’m saying is that, for me, VM has some features that I have more difficulty with.

I can probably sum it up with this: The persistent symptoms of VM that are most troublesome for me, and have lead to an inability to work, are ones that go to the very heart of my identity: the ones that make up “transient aphasia.” I have always feared Alzheimer’s, which runs in my family, because of the way it eats away at the sum of who the sufferer is. The vestibular migraines are not in any way the same as Alzheimer’s, but that erosion of your cognitive self is there, albeit in a less dramatic way. And the lack of drama in itself is part of the problem.

Here’s the deal: Although dizziness is the hallmark of the vestibular versus the common migraine, it’s by no means the only one. When the VM first started, yes, the dizziness was the most salient symptom. It was constant, and I was always sure I was on the verge of falling over–my shorthand description was that I felt like I’d slammed a couple of margaritas all the time. So I thought that it was the dizziness itself that made reading and writing impossible. But when the dizziness was banked down to a low level of instability most of the time subsequent to botox treatment, I still found issues with reading and writing—transient aphasia.

I read about aphasia for the first time in a linguistics survey course in undergrad. I remember thinking it sounded horrifying—to have the words in your head but not be able to force them out of your mouth. It’s no fun, although, like most things, the reality isn’t quite as awful as imagining it (and it’s mitigated by the fact that it comes and goes). But while it’s going on, it’s extraordinarily frustrating to be trapped in your head with the words that literally will not make the trip from the brain through your mouth and into the air.

Even when fluency is less of an issue, I still misspeak. I write something and later realize I’ve said what I meant backwards, or said something baseless or inane that wasn’t what I was trying to say, or had an episode of non-sequitur theatre. I struggle to spell words that never gave me problems before (for some reason, for example, “female” is always “femail” on the first try now.) I feel like I need a warning label on everything I write to say “It may be social awkwardness, or it may just be my VM acting up.” But the need to engage in some kind of conversation coupled with my ADHD pressure to say something RIGHT NOW because, well, impulse control, makes me continue to try to talk or write and then repent later.

That’s the outgoing version. There’s also the incoming version, where words stop making sense. It’s as though the words start dancing around, text devoid of meaning. I don’t know if it’s true of everyone, but for some reason, it happens more frequently for me on electronic devices, and is worse reading on a laptop than on my phone. My guess is that it has something to do with the lighting and with the amount of eye movement involved, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

I also start having trouble processing what someone is saying to me if a phone conversation goes too long. It happens some in live conversation, but, again, for some reason it’s worse when it’s purely a telephone call.

The ability to make sense of text is also dependent on the complexity of text. For some kind of context, my husband has always referred to me as his mentat, and I’m trained as a lawyer. But now, I have been having difficulty figuring out if I’m eligible for Social Security Disability or if it’s only SSI that has a need component (like the Medicare/Medicaid distinction) because it’s all situated in more difficult texts and I cannot get it to stay still long enough to puzzle it out.

A novel that’s too oblique—the kind I used to enjoy hugely—now baffles me. One with too many characters is too hard to keep track of. Nonfiction is down to a page or two at a time (on a good day). Magazine articles of any length have to be taken at several sessions.

Given that the constant in all my various careers has been the ability to process language, it’s unsettling that this disease attacks that particular faculty. I’ve never been athletic, so a disability that would limit my physical speed wouldn’t affect my sense of self in the same way that the limitations on my language abilities have. Thanksgiving was almost comical because of the mistakes I made in preparing the dishes I’ve done every year for decades—substituting two sticks of butter for two tablespoons, for example, more than once.

You may read this and think, well, but you’ve written this post. But what isn’t readily apparent is the number of times I’ve had to come to the computer and write a little, revise a little, write a little more, for a document that I could have done at one sitting a year ago. I can’t write, edit, and proof effectively for hours at a time now, and I have to take the times I’m relatively clear to work on it.

So if you come across something in the blog and think, wait, that doesn’t make sense, or see a typo, please feel free to point it out. Odds are I missed it—of course, that could have happened in the past as well, but my frequency of errors is much higher.

If you someone tells you they suffer from vestibular migraines, realize that the modifier “vestibular” is very important to the person who is letting you know: it’s something more than or different than a headache going on. It may have come on quickly with devastating consequences’ almost 89% of the 56 respondents to a question about the onset posted at Vestibular Migraine Community said it did (“Like a lightning strike”). It may be completely different for another VMirate than for me; I have almost all of the symptoms in the cloud (I think I counted five that I’ve never had), but not all of them have affected me as profoundly as others. Different VMirates will have a different cocktail. And it may be a struggle for them to explain, so if they’ve said “vestibular,” or if they’ve described it, that takes an effort, and repeating the song and dance is just that much more frustrating.

VM is poorly understood, but there’s some research to indicate it involves more of the brainstem than classic migraine. It’s also not even all that well known among doctors. I was fortunate that both the ENT and the neurologist I saw the first time for it were aware of the syndrome; there are stories of people taking years to get a diagnosis.

Treatments are pretty much the same as for a classic migraine, and probably will remain that way for a good while, as only about 1% of the populations suffers from VM versus 12% for classic migraine, and not all VMirates had classic migraines before the VM hit (about 17% of 36 respondents). Treatments are like any other drug—some work for many, some work for a few, but all of them take trial and error. There’s not much more than anecdotal data out there, but it’s not uncommon to hear that folks took around three years from the initial onset to getting back to a normal life.

So I’m about a third of the way there; I guess I’ll take that as a glass-half-full observation.

A man among women

The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller

r/suggestmeabook: I want a WWI-era quest by a young man to be part of an elite magical rescue mission group which is only open to women.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 464

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Series: The Philosophers

From the publisher: Eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes is one of the few men who practice empirical philosophy—an arcane, female-dominated branch of science used to summon the wind, heal the injured, and even fly. He’s always dreamed of being the first man to join the US Sigilry Corps’ Rescue and Evacuation Department, an elite team of flying medics, but everyone knows that’s impossible: men can barely get off the ground. When a shocking tragedy puts Robert’s philosophical abilities to the test, he rises to the occasion and wins a scholarship to study philosophy at Radcliffe College—an all-women’s school. 

Tom Miller’s WWI-era world where magic is a gender-linked trait is an intriguing analogue to our own. Women have amazing powers through the exercise of the magic—practical philosophy, in the terms of that world—and yet they are still facing misogyny from a group that is eerily similar to the resurgent far right of our day.

Sigilry only came into widespread use around 1750 and right from the start women were better at it than men. That upset a lot of folks, who thought sigils must be some form of witchcraft. Most people, though, saw the usefulness in empirical philosophy and were content to allow it.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

The hero, Robert, is a talented philosopher, but he keeps bucking the status quo by being a guy. The “feel sorry for the man who’s being discriminated against” vibe got to me every so often, although the book is clearly sympathetic to women’s issues and paints the men who are opposed to the women’s power as irrational and evil. But it still bothered me from time to time to read about a man with discrimination issues. He’s not trans, he’s not BIPOC, he’s not gay—in our world, he’d be privileged as hell (except, perhaps, for the fact he’s from Montana). However, it is an avenue for a person who is usually privileged to look at what it’s like to have the shoe on the other foot.

I sampled scoops of vanilla ice cream with an inner layer of insulated chocolate that protected a hot, molten caramel core. There was a ham smoked to taste like peaches accompanied by peaches smoked to taste like ham—more clever than delicious, but that didn’t prevent me from taking seconds.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

On the other hand, in the context of the novel, he has been raised in a family of women with far more strength in their magic and has been marginalized in his own way. It feels churlish to suggest that a man shouldn’t want to excel in a women’s field or that somehow he didn’t suffer because he is part of a privileged group. Comparing suffering as a form of competition generally doesn’t lead anywhere I want to go, and empathy is always the better choice, so, yes, this guy clearly has endured some harassment within the context of the novel. It bothers me, and it bothers me that it bothers me.

This is the story this author wanted to tell, his point of view is sympathetic, so why am I bitching about the fact that it’s from a man’s point of view? My reaction smacks of the attitudes that TERFs have about someone else discussing issues of exclusion, but this isn’t the same thing. I don’t really know, but I was comforted when I discussed it with my daughter and she could relate to the unease.

Aside from that, Robert’s quest to be a philosopher good enough to be in Rescue and Evacuation is well-structured and peopled with likable characters. It’s refreshing that the romantic interest is not objectified in the ordinary way, but is beautiful to Robert because of her character. There are plenty of strong women with different temperaments and personalities, which is a pleasure to read. On the other hand, there are several characters who seem to be created only to meet a particular plot point and not really developed; it would have been nice to either have them more fully realized or to consolidate them into fewer characters.

[I]f you and I hang back and do what’s comfortable, if philosophers wall themselves off and only associate with other philosophers, then the Zoning Act is going to sneak through and we’ll all shake our heads and say, “How did it happen?”

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

For example, Brock and Addams—I had a hell of a time keeping them straight. They didn’t seem to have much difference in personality, and although they were two different levels of academic authority, there wasn’t enough to make each one memorable in her own way.

A remarkable thing, the human hand. The infinite number of ways it fits together with another. Fingers interlaced, first with my thumb on the outside, and then rewoven so that hers was.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

One of my favorite characters, though, is Freddy Unger (I keep wanting to call him Felix, which is probably an age issue). Freddy is the guy who completely gets the theory behind it all, but can’t do anything practical to save his soul—yet he never seems bitter about it.

It’s never mattered that I can’t do it. What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

Issues of class and race are hinted at, but not fully explored—the former particularly surprising, since the bulk of the action takes place at Radcliffe among the elite, and the hero is a relatively poor Westerner. The allusions to race tend to make me feel as though the early women’s movement in this reality was not as anti-Black as the one in ours, but there are enough racial tensions in it to make it an open question. The hero’s lack of exposure to racial issues because of his childhood in a white enclave could be an explanation for the oblique treatment, but it would have been interesting to see it more explicitly discussed.

We fought the wrong way. We always thought that if we killed enough of them—killed the right ones—that they would leave us in peace. All that got us was one cycle of violence after another.

Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight

The fact that I’m wanting this or that out of the book is, however, testimony to the fact that I enjoyed it, and the book that’s there is worth a read. It would provide excellent fodder for a book club discussion, particularly as it confronts a question that is relevant to our current difficulties: How do you come to a peaceful solution when two sides fundamentally disagree on reality?


When knowing is a burden

The Fire in the Glass by Jacquelyn Benson

r/suggestmeabook: I want a mystery set in Edwardian England focused on a defiantly independent and lonely young woman with precognition.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 494

Publisher: Vaughn Woods Publishing

Series: The Charismatics

From the publisher: For as long as she can remember, Lily has been plagued by psychic visions of the future. Never once has she been able to prevent the horrors she foresees from coming to pass. Now a mysterious fiend is stalking London. The tabloids shriek of vampires, but Lily knows the killer is a different kind of monster, one who could be caught and brought to justice before he strikes again.

The satisfaction at concluding a well told tale never gets old, and Jacquelyn Benson delivers that lovely feeling with this marvelous book. The characters are compelling and well drawn, the plot intriguing, and the prose lively. Even though this is envisioned as the first installment in the series, it feels complete in itself.

As she climbed, she watched for Cat, an enormous beast who did not belong to anyone in the house but was impossible to eradicate. Cat had a penchant for sleeping in places designated to endanger the lives of unsuspecting passersby.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

The details of Lily’s estrangement from her fellows may differ from what you or I may have gone through, but the experience of feeling excluded, of being different because of factors you can’t control—that’s not so different. Lily struggles with doing everything herself, taking on more responsibility than she should, just to protect her heart, to keep from being vulnerable.

She kept trying. She fought to win her lonely battle against fate despite the steely opposition of the nannies and the guilt, grief, and gutting frustration—right up until the day her mother died.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

But those details are what makes the story intriguing, as well as the way in which she begins to face up to her fears. There’s Estelle, the neighbor who has wormed her way into Lily’s heart, making her irreplaceable and any threat to her unthinkable. Estelle introduces her to the mysterious Mr. Ash, who asks for more faith than Lily has. Lily also meets the enigmatic Lord Strangford, who has secrets of his own.

The words resonated. Lily knew that fear. It had lingered at the back of her mind for as long as she could remember. Humanity was not kind to difference.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

The pace builds well over the course of the story, and the anomalies of Lily’s life as an Edwardian woman are dealt with head-on—mostly by her class and background justifying her refusal to act completely within society’s dictates.

The ton was generally happy to presume that a child conceived in sin carried the same loose morals in her blood like some sort of hereditary disease, one they apparently thought contagious.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

The theme of the willingness of powerful men to sacrifice powerless women is explored within the novel, and although most of those men still find themselves justified, there are some who are enlightened in the process. There’s a darkness at the heart of the story, but it’s a darkness which is being fought.

The Fire in the Glass was a pleasure to read, and I look forward to the next installment.