Celebrating Friendships!

Toy storyNicola here. Today I’m celebrating the power of friendship as yesterday was International Friendship Day. The value of friendship has been recognised since people first walked the earth – and it’s pretty strong between some animals too and between humans and animals. Greek philosopher Herodotus wrote “Of all possessions, a friend is the most precious.” More recently, the lyrics of the song is the Toy Story movie say “We stick together and can see it through, ‘Cause you've got a friend in me.”

What is friendship, really? A dictionary definition calls it “a state of mutual trust and support” but it’s so much more complicated than that sounds. Some of Friends us are lucky enough to have friends we have known since childhood, others from school or college. I’m part of a group of college friends who first came together almost 40 years ago and we still meet up twice a year as a group. It's lovely to have such enduring relationships with people I know so well and feel I can pick up with so easily. Then there are the other friends we make at different stages of our lives. You don’t even have to see each other that much, though when you do, it’s special. The Wenches are an amazing group of friends scattered across three continents; we don’t get the chance to see each other much but we’re so supportive of each other through the thick and thin of writing and life. In fact, being an author is a wonderful way to meet friends across the world, through readers’ and writers’ groups.

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Ask A Wench – One Special Book

Stencil.blog-post-image (1)Nicola here, introducing the July Ask A Wench. This month we’re talking about a book that is special to each of us, whether it’s something that was recommended to us, or a book that was given to us a child, or something we came across on our own that sparked a new reading interest. The results are fascinating and varied, funny and poignant, and we hope you will enjoy them and contribute a special book of your own to the discussion! As you might imagine, choosing just one book was a real challenge to such a bunch of avid readers and the horrified response was "One book only?" We hope you don't find the task as hard as we did but we think you just might…

Mary Jo writes:

Georgette Heyer, the gateway drug

When Regency addicts gather, the topic of "My First Heyer!" often comes up. I found my first Sylvester 1 Heyer when I was in college and browsing for cheap books in the bargain basement of the Economy Bookstore in downtown Syracuse, NY.  I didn't know it was illegal to sell stripped books, but as a poor student, five cent books were appealing and they had a lot by this Heyer person.

 After much perusing, I walked out with Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle, which looked like an interesting parody of the Gothic romances. 

 And that day, I changed my future, because that led me to fall in love with Regency romances.  Heyer's voice and wit and characterizations and plotting appealed to me in a way that the historical romances of the day didn't. I read and reread my favorites, and in the process developed something of a Regency voice myself.

Which is why years later, when I got my first computer and learned how to use the word processing program and decided to find if I could write the stories that were always jumbling in my head, I started writing the book that became The Diabolical Baron

 By sheer chance, I'd found the genre niche where I fit during a time when the romance genre was expanding and editors were looking for new voices. And in the process, I found a career as a writer that had once been only the vaguest of dreams.

 I've written a whole lot of books since then, including fantasy, Georgian, Victorian, contemporaries, fantasy, and Regency fantasy YA.  But by and large, I've stayed true to Regencies because it's such a great period to work in.

 And it all started with a five cent stripped novel by Georgette Heyer…

Pride and prejudice Andrea:

I was a senior in high school, and I don’t remember how the topic came up, but my Mother and I began discussing books. Now, my mother was an avid reader, but her tastes ran to The New Yorker and non-fiction books. She didn’t read a lot of novels. However, she had once told me that she polished her English when she first came to this country (she was from Switzerland and came to NYC to attend Pratt Institute, an art college) by going to the public library and asking the librarian to give her some of the classic works in English literature. So, when I started talking about books we were reading in English class and what I was really enjoying, she asked in an offhand sort of way what I thought of Pride and Prejudice.

I paused for a moment and said, “Umm, I’ve never read that." Her eyebrows shot up in shock. “You’ve never read Austen?” (I was ashamed to say I hadn’t.) “You must!” she intoned, in a tone that was more of an order than a suggestion. “Get it tomorrow at the library. I think you’ll like it.”

Well, I did . . . and I did (like it, that is—or rather, loved it.)  Of course I immediately ran out and read all the others, and fell in love with the Regency romance. it took me a little longer to discover Heyer, and then the Signet Regencies, so it was P&P that ultimately changed my life.  That I was drawn into writing by the classc Regency romance tropes is all because of Austen. And as footnote, our local library has a well-known summer sale of used books (it’s huge, and people come from all around New England to browse through the huge tents set up on the lawns) and next time it came around, my Mother bought me a lovely multi- volume set from the 1920s of Austen’s novels. I still have it, and it's one of my special book treasures.


I get very fed up/bored/annoyed with people who denigrate romantic fiction, as if it’s some kind of lesser type of reading material, IMG_0906 so I retaliate by being biased against so called literary fiction. That means I don’t normally buy Booker Prize winners or anything recommended by the posh literary reviewers in papers like the Sunday Times. However, a friend once gave me Possession by A S Byatt (which had just won the Booker Prize) and told me I had to read it. I said thank you, of course, without actually having any intention to do so, but eventually I figured I’d better in case my friend asked me what I thought of it. And OMG, I was completely blown away! Yes, it was very literary, with incredible prose and long Victorian style poems, but the actual story (or stories plural as it’s a dual timeline novel) were fantastic. I was totally spellbound and later watched the film of the same name as well, which I thought was a wonderful adaptation of the book. So I guess this taught me to be less judgemental in my choice of reading material and that you never know where your next great read is going to come from. I would recommend Possession to anyone who wants a truly epic love story. Here is a photo of my copy – I bought myself the first edition as a treat.


PigletThis is such a hard question — I have so many special books that I simply can't make up my mind. But if I narrowed it down to childhood beloved books, I'd have to say The House at Pooh Corner and Winnie the Pooh, by AA Milne, which I knew chunks of by heart, well before I could even read. My parents and older siblings used to read the stories aloud, and it taught me that books could make me laugh. Those books are full of wonderful humor and gentle wisdom. I've never grown out of reading them — they speak to adults as well as children.

Many years later, when I was teaching adults how to read, I remembered the lesson of those AA Milne books — that reading could be fun. So much of the curriculum was about serious practical reading and writing, and it never occurred to my adult students that books and reading could be anything other than work. So I did my best to find things to make them laugh, or take their breath away, so that reading was not just something hard and boring they had to do, but was something that could also be a pleasure. Thank you AA Milne, and Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore and Wol and all the rest of the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood. And thank you to my family who read those stories aloud, over and over.

Pat here:

Since I’m normally surrounded by less experienced readers, I spend more time recommending books than having people mentioning Flame and flower them to me. Although, I once had an elderly neighbor recommend the Pollyanna books. She brought me a stack of them when I was twelve. By that time, I was reading the likes of ATLAS SHRUGGED, and Pollyanna was more than a wee bit twee for cynical me. But I was desperate for reading material back then and would read cereal boxes if handed one.

 My one great story recommendation—which was great at the time and wouldn’t be so great now—was way back in the late 70s. I was a young mother, a fan of literary and historical fiction, with a limited book budget. The library generally provided what I needed, but I liked having a paperback when we traveled. So as I stared at the array of colorful covers at our local Kmart, a little blue-haired old lady pointed at one historical, but slightly spicy cover, and whispered, “Get this one. It’s really good.” So I bought it. That book was the FLAME AND THE FLOWER.

 I had never read anything other than classic literary romance before, so I was captivated—and a bit wide-eyed at the graphic scenes. I went on from there to grab every historical romance I could find, learned which ones I liked, and when I couldn’t find them—started writing them for myself. There was no turning back after that. So there was one recommendation that made a difference!

(and the image is of that original copy that set my career in motion!)

Susan writes:

51qcMMmazlLI'll pick just one among the many books that I have found unforgettable, books that have had a profound impact on me as a person and as a writer — I could go way back to Pippi Longstocking (hey, I was six, that book turned my life around!) or Jane Eyre (in high school, I read it over and over, literally would close it and start it again). Those and more are on a special keeper shelf that I'll tote around with me until I'm, well, not around anymore. Today I'll choose a more recent read from that shelf: Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers was a profound reading experience for me. It is the story of four women among the 900 Jews on Masada just before the Romans arrived to place them under siege. The power of the story, the characters, the writing, spoke deeply to me–I've rarely been so completely immersed in a novel. The story is vibrant, gritty, whole cloth, the characters walking that landscape so strong and real that the book displaced the world around me. Part of its impact for me is that it not only pulled me in, but demanded something of me, the little reader in her safe little world — I came to love these characters, cared about them, felt dread and hope for them. Hoffman weaves such a tight net of reality with language, image, and historical authenticity that I was in awe–and more than that, I realized the story was asking courage of me. The Dovekeepers is a powerful reading experience and I found it unforgettable. I will one day draw up my courage again and give it another read. It will be worth it. 


Nicola: I've mentioned before that my grandmother had a big collection of romance books hidden away at the back of the wardrobe IMG_2700 in her spare room which I discovered at about the age of eleven. One of the books on the shelf was Madam, Will You Talk, by Mary Stewart. I'd already discovered the Regency genre via Nanna's collection of Georgette Heyer books and now it was the turn of Romantic suspense. As you might imagine, this opened up a whole new world for me. Glamorous and exciting stories with danger and adventure, set in places like the South of France, Corfu and Greece that were impossibly exotic to me! It was amazing! I was transported all over the world through my reading, and the books were so romantic too!

I was lucky enough to find almost all Mary Stewart's books in my local library and grabbed them one after another, detouring from romantic suspense into the Arthurian world of The Crystal Cave and its sequels, which also enchanted me. Eventually I tracked down every one of Mary Stewart's books and created my own collection, but one evaded me – the novella The Wind off the Small Isles which had been published in the UK only in 1968 and never re-published. I looked for that book in every secondhand shop I came across which in the days before the internet and online shopping was a life's work! Eventually I tracked it down to the famous Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland, and couldn't believe it! I snapped it up and here it is. Inside it's inscribed "To Pat, with love and best wishes, Feb 1969, from Eve and James." I hope Pat enjoyed as much as I still do!

So now it's over to you – please share with us the one special book that means a lot to you and tell us how it came into your life!

in which Anne talks about A.A. Milne

Anne here, and in case you're feeling a touch of Mondayitis, here's a little something to cheer you up.

'What day is it?'
'It's today,' squeaked Piglet. Pooh&piglet
'My favorite day,' said Pooh.

And why am I quoting Winnie the Pooh, when I should be talking about something historical? Well, it's almost historical. The other day we wenches were chatting about our anniversary — it's our 6th anniversary next week, and Susan suggested the title "Now We Are Six,"  which is the title of an AA Milne book of poetry for children. This in turn sparked a discussion about much loved books from childhood, and we discovered some of us were passionate AA Milne fans and others had grown up without him. 

AA Milne? He was an English writer and playwright born in 1882 whose writing for children — his poems, and particularly his stories about Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and others— became classics.

I guess the poems are less well known than Winnie the Pooh, so let's start with them. They're wonderful poems for reciting aloud — satisfyingly rhythmical and they rhyme, which as any child knows, a good poem should! 

I had them read to me as a child, often, and I still know many of them by heart. And snatches of them pop up at the oddest times. This one, for instance, had generations of children leaping from square to square on the footpath, because you mustn't ever tread on the lines because then the bears can get you.

The whole poem is here:  Lines and Squares

Here's one that shows how bullies should be dealt with — Bad Sir Brian Botany.

There are more poems here.

And if you like bread with butter… or prefer marmalade, this one is for you. But I have to say, I prefer reading the poems with the drawings.

Many of you will be familiar with the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh, in film and cartoon. But if you haven't read the original stories, especially those with the original line drawings by E.H. Shepard, you're in for a treat. E.H. Shepard was a staff cartoonist for the magazine PUNCH and because of these charming little drawings for children his name will live forever.
I'm not going to get into the argument which is better, the Disney Pooh or the original — both are very sweet and I've found people usually get attached to the first version of Pooh they met. But the Disney versions are not the same as the originals, and if you're someone who likes the clever use of language, and the subtlety and delicacy of line drawings, try reading Winnie The Pooh in the original.

They were written in the 1920's by A.A Milne for his son, Christopher Robin. At the time, Milne was a very successful playwright, and he had no idea his serious works would, in the end, be completely overshadowed by his children's poetry and the stories about a bear, a boy and their friends and their adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood.
It's based on the real forest where Christopher Robin played — Ashdown Forest in East Sussex in southwest England. It's still beautiful and these days tourists visit it because of the books, and they stand on this bridge and look down into the stream and play the game called Poohsticks. (You'll have to read the story.) The beautiful pic below is by Paula Pullinger.

Quote: You can't stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.

The characters in the stories were based on Christopher Milne's real toys but for the drawings of Winnie the Pooh, E.H. Shepard used his own son's teddy bear, Growler. Christopher Robin's toys are pictured here and you can see that his teddy is not the model for Pooh Bear. Sadly Growler was eaten by a dog.
The books have sweetness, innocence, humor and also great wisdom. How's this for an example of what modern gurus call "mindfulness" or living in the moment?

'When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,' said Piglet at last, 'what's the first thing you say to yourself?'
'What's for breakfast?' said Pooh. 'What do you say, Piglet?'
'I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today,' said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. 'It's the same thing,' he said.

When I was discussing these books with some others who hadn't ever read them, the comment was made, "Oh, by the time I'd heard of them I was too old for them, and I don't have children, so I never read them."

The thing is, these books are not just for children. One of the secrets of the books' great popularity is that they're just as entertaining to read as an adult, I think.It's the humor, and the characterization. And the little gems of wisdom. For instance, these four quotes on love …

'How do you spell 'love'?' Piglet asked.
'You don't spell it…you feel it,' said Pooh.

'Sometimes,' said Pooh, 'the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.'

Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude. 

'If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.' 

My brother took a copy of The House at Pooh Corner and Winnie the Pooh with him when he went to university. My brother wasn't the literary type: he was a hunter and a bushwalker and a rock climber. He was living in a residential college at the time and got stirred by a few of his mates for having kids' books on his shelf. He read a few bits out. They laughed. They ended up borrowing the books.

It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like 'What about lunch?' 

'People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.'

'Oh Tigger, where are your manners?'
'I don’t know, but I bet they’re having more fun than I am.'

EHShep2lrgThere are also some wonderful life lessons. Christopher Robin says this to Pooh:

'If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together… there is something you must always remember. You're braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart… I'll always be with you.'

In fact, if you put all four books together — the two volumes of poetry and the two collections of stories, you pretty much have a recipe to live by.

For instance, this certainly covers how I feel about my writing sometimes:
'I don't see much sense in that,' said Rabbit.
'No,' said Pooh humbly, 'there isn't. But there was going to be when I began it. It's just that something happened to it along the way.' 

AA Milne even has something to say about being tubby — read this poem and you'll find yourself smiling at the end.

A bear, however hard he tries,
Grows tubby without exercise.
Our Teddy Bear is short and fat,
Which is not to be wondered at;
He gets what exercise he can
By falling off the ottoman,
But generally he seems to lack
The energy to clamber back. (read the rest here)

PoohPerplexAnd if you're the academic type, there are even treatises on Winnie the Pooh — mostly they're very funny spoofs on academic writing. I have this one that I bought many years ago when I was at university. It's still in print today: The Pooh Perplex. The full subtitle is: In Which It is Discovered that the True Meaning of the Pooh Stories is Not as Simple as is Usually Believed, but for Proper Elucidation Requires the Combined Efforts of Several Academicians of Varying Critical Persuasions.

So what about you — are you a devotee of Winnie the Pooh? Do you have a favorite A.A. Milne character or poem? And who did you meet first — the E.H. Shepard versions or the Disney ones? Or have you never read Winnie the Pooh? If you haven't there's a treat in store for you. 

And do you know the next line? James James Morrison Morrison Wetherby George Dupree…