When does a “book” become “literature”?

I wrote this response in an Amazon forum: “I believe that true literature elevates writing as a craft such that the language refracts the light like a diamond, or like a lump of clay that is sculpted into a beautiful form to captivate the onlooker. Frankly anyone can write a book if they have a reasonable command of the language, but to hone it and wordsmith it and respect self-editing guidelines requires discipline and an understanding of the craft. Literature is perhaps the perfect meeting of art, linguistics and music – music, because the flow of the narrative needs to sound like a symphony if read aloud. To become a classic, I believe that literature should touch the heart, mind and soul, transcend the prosaic and leave its mark on the deepest part of our consciousness, even to shape who we are.”  – Any comments?

Modern-day Scotland Yard page-turner – 5-star reader review

‘Death Before Breakfast’ is a modern English police crime novel with all of the craftsmanship of Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Mrs. Gwyneth Bledsoe constructs her sentences and paragraphs in such a way as to simultaneously give English police procedure, brilliantly advance characterization and drop clues.

This novel is a true piece of English literature. It is the kind of book one curls up with at the quiet end of a long day. The book is an escape into the mystery at hand. It is difficult to compare this book to another writer. She is that good! I would buy any book that this writer wrote and I would expect it to be as good as this one is. The writer has a bright future ahead, if she wants it. Gwyneth Bledsoe draws one into her story. The reader becomes a part of the story.

Buy ‘Death Before Breakfast’ for a fantastic piece of cozy literature.

***** Review by Joseph C. McHale, author of “Slope: A Colorado Mystery”

An Amazon Reader’s Comments

“I’m 75% through Death Before Breakfast. I’m loving the way the story melds it’s way into the streets of London and then takes me to Paris with memories of my time spent there.  The characterization of the Scotland Yard Inspector and his Sergeant, Rodney, who he mentors, is well placed. I like reading and writing story lines set in Europe.  Gwyneth, your writing is professional, well crafted with realistic plotting. My opinion…back 25 years ago before the world was inundated with the written word by way of the word processor into ebooks and such, DEATH BEFORE BREAKFAST would be up in the ranks of a best selling novel. Congratulations and thanks for a rewarding read.” Bill Flynn, Author and Reviewer

The Heart of Headingley

Shire Oak pub, site of the Saxon Shire Oak
Shire Oak pub, site of the Saxon Shire Oak

Some things are quite inexplicable and serendipitous, but this is what happened when I visited the local Starbucks in Headingley at Christmas, the historical suburb where I grew up and where my mother still lives. It’s across the street from a plaque that marks the spot where the old Shire Oak used to be, an ancient tree that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, under whose limbs the “thing” or governing assembly would meet. The plaque was in such a state of disrepair that the words could no longer be made out. Disappointed and somewhat surprised that this historic spot was going unrecognized, I emailed the local council on my return to the States, not really expecting to hear back. To my delight, a gentleman responded, and gave me the appropriate contact information. In the process, he told me about a new enterprise in Headingley, called the HEART project. The school where my mother had taught music some 20 years ago had closed down and was now to be reopened as the “Headingley enterprise and arts centre.” What’s more, they had scheduled an event to launch a book about the school, in which the school song appeared with both lyrics and music. This piqued my interest as the composer of this song was my mother. I was able to tell her about the event, and she walked down there on the Friday evening in the cold February air, to be reunited with former teachers and pupils. They urged her to play the song for everyone to sing along to as they closed out the evening, and “quite a few people were in tears,” said  the man who had connected the dots and made all this possible. Thank you, Mike, and thank you to the old Shire Oak plaque which I hope will be restored some day to its former glory.

Shire Oak plaque in better days
Shire Oak plaque in better days

Old York, Cradle of Civilization

A Bishop's Cathedra
A Bishop's Cathedra

One place I hold dear is York, Old York of the Old Country after which it’s antithetical cousin, New York, is named. As altogether 21st century as American New York is, the English York would more comfortably be situated in Roman times with its original name Eboracum. The city was founded in AD 71, which, to place it in context, was a year after those empire-building Romans burned down the Temple in Jerusalem, massacring thousands and enslaving thousands more; and about 40 years after Jesus Christ’s Roman crucifixion. The Romans were not the only ones to occupy York, as a few hundred years later it was captured by the Vikings in 866 AD.  I have visited the city many times as a tourist, it being a convenient 45 minute drive from my hometown of Leeds, and I have to admit that those cruel and repressive Romans left impressive  edifices of civilization in this great city that endure to this day. Their architectural masterpieces include an intact wall that surrounds most of the city, several beautiful gates and no doubt many other artifacts in the local museum. There is a great deal to see for many visits and I am drawn back year after year in a quest to uncover layer upon layer of history – Roman, Viking, Middle Ages, industrial, and the architectural tour de force – York Minster. In “Death Before Breakfast,” the Inspector and his Sergeant pay a visit to York, and the Minster makes a brief appearance. York is to play a larger role in the sequel “Death at the Races,” such is its fascination to me. My early fascination with York probably coincided with my first romantic attachment, which faded into history soon after that young man from York returned to college. Today’s memories conjure up a frigid night last December when we lined up outside York Minster waiting for the annual service of nine lessons and carols to begin. Inside it was still below freezing but choral voices soared to the rafters as we rubbed our hands and kept our hats on, except for the men who reverently removed theirs for the prayers. The Archbishop of York infused the service with his own African-Christian brand of faith and we were reminded that York is and always has been a melting pot for all cultures.

The Inklings

The Eagle and Child pub
Oxford pub where "The Inklings" met

“Tollers” (J.R.R. Tolkien), as he was known by his fellow writers, was a member of the Oxford University literary group, “The Inklings” who met on Tuesday mornings in “The Eagle and Child” pub (or “The Bird and Baby” as they called it) to read aloud and discuss their unfinished works. How I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when Tollers read “The Lord of the Rings” or C.S. Lewis read “Out of the Silent Planet.” One can only imagine the rich conversation, laughter and fun as they joked and jibed and gave serious thought to weightier matters than the normal ubiquitous topics of English conversation like the weather and cricket. One wonders how much the final compositions were shaped and influenced by other members of this esteemed group, which included lesser known writers like a John Wain (a poet, novelist and critic) for example. How much also did a pint or two at “The Bird and Baby” oil the wheels of literary flights of imagination? As I read aloud my own first novel to record the Audio Book version, I reflected on the influences that had crafted it into what it is: all the detective novels I have ever read, the struggles between good and evil that are the leitmotif of many literary genres, the mysteries and puzzles that have to be solved in various classics, the universal quest for truth. I would be honored if a little of Tollers and Lewis had seeped into my consciousness over the years to shape future writings, if “The Inklings” who “praised the value of narrative in fiction, and encouraged the writing of fantasy” could live on in the 21st century generations of writers’ imaginations and resulting prose.

A Portal into a Parallel Universe

Aslan

So, we were walking past where Tolkien used to live (see earlier Post) and a double-decker bus drives by with a banner ad blazoned across the side advertising the movie release of “Lord of the Rings.” I imagine if Tolkien had looked out of his window, he would have thought he was living in a parallel universe. This other-worldliness is characteristic of the genre of “high fantasy” that his books are so famous for. It appears that he and C.S. Lewis, his close friend and another of my favorite writers, really pioneered this subgenre of “fantasy,” under the inspiration of earlier writers like George MacDonald (of the Clan Donald). I have always been fascinated by the portal into another world aspect of this subgenre, best illustrated by the wardrobe in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in Lewis’s Narnia series. I have opened a few wardrobe doors myself that led into the strange worlds of Paris and Los Angeles where I lived for several years, but none is more strange and wonderful to me than the doorway to heaven, whose Pearly Gates I expect to encounter when the curtain closes on this life. Jesus, the Gandalf or Aslan of our experience, hints many times at there being a door between us and God’s kingdom and specifically mentions that the door is narrow and hard to get through. I am not suggesting that Bible stories are the stuff of fantasy, but rather that the high fantasy writers sourced many of their ideas and allegories from the Bible. The Bible is a book of mysteries that reveals another very real parallel universe often depicted in parables (the Gospels) or visions (Revelation), since common words fail to adequately describe the co-existence of a heavenly kingdom beyond the realm of time and space.  Compare it to the experience of falling in love, where mutual feelings develop that can hardly be expressed in simple words such that poetry or lyrics are the only meaningful attempt at explaining these mysteries of love. All of this inspires me to try my hand at a high fantasy novel one day. There are portals to be opened and worlds that beg to be explored.

Famous Writers from Headingley

Sweet Shop

I was quite unaware growing up that within a square mile or two of where I lived in Headingley, several famous authors had also lived. Headingley is a suburb of Leeds with a rich history going back to Saxon days, but in more recent years it housed authors like J.R.R. Tolkien (“Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit”), Alan Bennett, the playwright (“The Madness of King George”) and Arthur Ransome (children’s classic “Swallows and Amazons“).  While studying at Leeds University, Tolkien lived in a terraced house on Otley Road opposite the sweet (candy) shop on St. Anne’s Parade where I regularly agonized how to spend my weekly pocket money (allowance). Alan Bennett lived over the butcher’s shop where mother used to buy her meat while I dawdled in the other sweet shop opposite the Three Horseshoes Pub, with my sister, gazing at bonbons in glass jars. We would dash home through the ginnel (alley) opposite the butcher’s to read books like the children’s classic “Swallows and Amazons”, little knowing that Arthur Ransome was born in Ash Grove, a stone’s throw from Headingley, in Hyde Park. I still dream of bonbons and perhaps there was something atmospheric that I absorbed while trying to make up my mind between cinder toffee versus those flying saucers that melt in your mouth, something like a writer’s muse that hovered over the sweet shops which one day led to my penning “Death Before Breakfast.” I wonder if Tolkien was in the habit of sauntering across Otley Road in a quest for a bag of striped humbugs to suck on for inspiration when he ran into writers’ block. I’d like to think that the  ‘high fantasy’ worlds he imagined had something to do with a sugar high. Thankfully there is a new sweet shop in Headingley that I discovered on my trip home Christmas 2010.

February Audiobook

The “Death Before Breakfast” Audiobook is now available to order. Click on STORE then on the Audiobooks Tab. Click on the picture and you will see a description and be able to listen to a sample of the recording.

December Book Signing

I’ll be at Hastings Book Store on Fairview and Cole in Boise on Saturday December 11th from Noon-4:00pm signing books, in case you’re in the area. I’d love for you to stop by and say Hi. Stocking stuffer, perhaps?