Historical Novelists Spring Book Fair

Here’s a fine idea I came across overnight – Francine Howarth (http://francinehowarth.blogspot.co.uk/) is organising an online Historical Novelists Spring Book Fair at http://tgunwriter.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/on-line-spring-book-fair-historical.html.

So I have signed on with In a Milk and Honeyed Land to join all the other folk there (at the time of writing, there are 40 other people listed). The book fair badge looks like this:
Historical Novelists Spring Book Fair badge

So, for all new readers… In a Milk and Honeyed Land is a full-length novel which explores events in the Egyptian province of Canaan at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200BC. It follows the life, loves, and struggles of a priest Damariel in the small hill town of Kephrath. The large-scale actions and military campaigns of the Egyptian pharaoh and other great kings are nowhere in sight; this is a story of the resources and people available within four small allied communities.

it is available as physical or ebook formats from online retailers and some bookshops. Amazon links for the kindle edition are
http://www.amazon.co.uk/In-Milk-Honeyed-Land-ebook/dp/B008T8HGRA/
and
http://www.amazon.com/In-Milk-Honeyed-Land-ebook/dp/B008T8HGRA/

Damariel is apprenticed as a young man by the village priest, whose reckless actions lead to his disgrace. Damariel manages to avoid becoming implicated in the matter and carries on his training, marrying his childhood friend Qetirah shortly before they begin their shared ministry in the town. Feeling ashamed of their continuing inability to have children, Qetirah becomes pregnant by the chief of the four towns, but the pregnancy is difficult. Damariel’s anger and outrage spills over into the marriage. He holds the chief responsible for the situation but cannot see how to get either justice or revenge…

Here’s an extract from the middle of the book, at an emotionally charged central point where Damariel has just got back from a pilgrimage to the northerly city of Hatsor and its temple. On his return, his friend Kothar has to tell him that Qetirah has died while he was away.

Damariel felt icy blood pound in his head and leaned back against the doorframe. He shook his head.

“No, no, don’t say things like that. Just tell me where she is. Is she alright?”

Kothar took a step towards him and gripped his shoulders.

“Damariel, listen. She’s not alright, not at all. She’s not with me, nor Kinreth, nor your mother, nor Saniyahu. No-one. Not at Giybon. She’s—”. He stopped as Damariel put a hand over his lips to stop him. He was shaking his head again and again.

“Kothar, what are you saying? This can’t be. No, surely not. Where is she?”

Kothar closed his eyes for a second, then gripped Damariel’s hand to take it away from his mouth and looked directly into his eyes.

“Where is she? Damariel, she’s in the tomb of her ancestors. She’s not with us any more, brother. She’s gone across to the other side. Damariel, forgive me, and may all the gods forgive me for saying it, but, Damariel, she is dead.” He gripped Damariel’s arms as he staggered away from the doorway. The chill in Damariel’s body had spread out, and he felt a cold pain in his heart, in his throat. He was still shaking his head. “Look, Damariel, I’d cut my own heart out if it would help, but nothing will help. I wasn’t there when she died, but I saw her afterwards.”

Damari knocked the stool over as he stood up abruptly and ranged around the room from end to end. He suddenly turned on Kothar and shouted.

“Why didn’t you wait for me?”

Kothar was silent for a few moments, facing towards him.

“Why did you put her down into the earth, Kothar? With the others. I didn’t see her as she went across to the other side. Now I’ll never see her. Not in this life.”

Kothar stepped close to him and looked very directly at him.

“Look, Damari, this was four days ago. We didn’t know when you were back, and we couldn’t just keep her body out. Not right, not fair on anyone, least of all Ketty herself. Saniyahu and Halith came down that same day as soon as they heard, laid her in Kinreth’s family tomb the next morning. Even if we’d known where you were we could not have waited four days. You know how it is.”

Damariel nodded, and, at a whisper, replied, “Yes, I know.”

There was a long silence.

“I’m so sorry, Damari.”

Damariel nodded, setting the stool on its feet again and sitting on it. He leaned back against the wall, pulled his kef off and tore it in half. Then he took the collars of his tunic and ripped that in half down from neck to waist. A single tear ran down one cheek, and he wiped it absently with one half of the kef.

“I wasn’t here, Kothar. Why did I go away?”

Very much later, after Kothar had gone, Damariel sat in the porch under his vine for a long time, looking across the stones of the high place, before gathering the torn halves of his kef and walking the slow path to the tomb of Kinreth’s family. Sitting in front of her resting place he took the knife he used for sacrifices and cut two long gashes down his arms and another across his chest.

He stayed by the great stone that sealed up the tomb most of the night, lying full-length with his face down on the flat stony space in front of it. The night went very slowly, and the chill in his heart swallowed up the chill from the cold, damp ground below as the blood from his arms soaked into the soil. At one point, when the stars had wheeled above him for some hours, he found himself so racked with uncontrollable shivers that his own life seemed to be clinging only by a thread to the world on this side. For a little while it seemed best just to give in to the desire to let himself slip across the boundary. It was only a little step: how well he knew that. Ketty would be waiting just the other side. It was not far to go.

He wondered, in the slow, heavy way his icy thoughts allowed, if she would be angry about the extra time in Hatsor.

I hope you have enjoyed the extract and might want to follow the rest of the book!

In a Milk and Honeye Land cover

Overhauling

Another short post today as much of my time this week has gone into overhauling bits and pieces of my online writing presence! For one thing, the information pages of this blog are now much more comprehensive than they used to be. My Shelfari listing got dusted off and improved, and both the Kephrath and Matteh Publications sites have had minor tweaks.

My last remaining endeavour for this round is to set up a timeline indicating where each piece of writing fits into place, and what was going on in the wider world at the time. That should be fun, and the whole issue of timelines and chronology was one of the main things that started me on the PhD in the first place. It ended up being quite a minor part in the end, with issues of literary style taking the foreground, but the interest has never entirely left me.

By way of introduction, here is a rather simple version of the end results (all dates are approximate)…

1500
Egyptian New Kingdom starts, Egypt begins expanding into Canaan.

1400
Vigorous expansion of Egyptian territory in Canaan. The basic policy of leaving loyal city rulers in place and discouraging regional alliances is set up and never significantly changed.

1350
Amarna period in Egypt
The Lady of the Lions

1250
Reign of Rameses II, provincial conquests retained but not extended. Military activity declines through this reign.

1200
In a Milk and Honeyed Land
Egyptian foreign policy focuses increasingly on the richer and better defended coastal lands.

1190
The Man in the Cistern

1180
Scenes from a Life

1150
Egyptian military presence disappears from Canaan for the better part of two centuries, but strong trade and cultural influence continues. Internally Egypt splits into several competing regional factions. In the province of Canaan local rival kingdoms (including the Israelites) establish themselves.

c. 1100
New Kingdom ends, Third Intermediate Period begins.

A couple of book reviews

While I have been away I have been using the opportunity to catch up on my reading pile – both fiction and non-fiction – and have successfully completed several books. Just to round off the complete reading experience (!) I have uploaded two reviews to both Amazon and Goodreads. Of course, with the news that broke a few days ago about Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads, it is quite possible that sometime in the future I would only have to upload once!

The two reviews are:

  1. Pyg, by Russell Potter, a rather delightful tale of Toby The Learned Pig who lived around the time of the Napoleonic Wars and entertained the intelligentsia of the era – see Amazon or Goodreads for my thoughts, and
  2. Living the Lunar Calendar, edited by Ben-Dov, Horowitz and Steele, a geekily academic exploration of the social and cultural implications of using a lunar-based calendar – see Amazon or Goodreads.

I was also going to write a review of Iain M Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata but delayed owing to the untimely news of said author’s terminal illness. So that will follow in a little while rather than be rushed. So just another short blog today…

Pyg cover image

Living the Lunar Calendar cover image

Exploration in narrative

Only a short blog today as I am out and about at the moment. But I had cause earlier in the week to contemplate the different ways that people approach their writing. I emphasise that I am not at all talking about whether an author has published many or few books, or whether they make a good living or not, or any of those tangible markers of success. The thing that struck me is whether people approach writing from the point of view of “playing by the rules” of their own culture and/or personal preference, or exploring alternative points of view.

Personally I don’t think that there is any one ideal narrative style (still less that narrative style is in some way written into our DNA) but rather that particular cultures tend to throw up styles that suit them. The dominant cultures in North America and Europe have settled on a particular way to tell stories – you see it perhaps in its most obvious form in Hollywood films which self-consciously set out to follow the pattern, often as a kind of in joke overtly signalling the transition points to knowledgable audience members.

My own studies have convinced me that not all cultures have chosen to do this, and I cannot persuade myself that the current US/European paradigm is automatically the best! I have written a number of times before about chiasmus as a structural feature – key events and plot themes are placed at the centre of the work, with successive envelopes forming outer layers around that. You see this a lot within Middle Eastern writing, especially pre-Christian writings. It is perhaps striking that the Hebrew parts of the Bible (the Old Testament) display this structural habit of thinking much more than the Greek parts (the New Testament), which tend to be more in keeping with our modern expectation of linear progression through difficulty to triumph.

I know much less about far eastern writing but have just finished reading “A Pair of Jade Frogs” by a contemporary author from Shanghai. A Pair of Jade Frogs cover Here, by contemporary western standards the book seems to rather trail off. Key events and tensions are resolved earlier in the story. Only one narrative theme is pursued to the end, and that one is not closed off triumphantly but dissolves into uncertainty. I appreciated the different approach to writing, but I did wonder if the book would be criticised for not adhering to western standards of narrative form? Certainly some of the opinions I come across online would be very critical of this form, and certainly would not want to imitate it in their own writing. As for me, I really enjoy getting to grips with the many and varied ways that people have structured meaning over the years!

Guest review over at The Bookworm’s Fancy blog

This week I have written another guest article for Erin Eymard’s interesting and wide-ranging blog, The Bookworm’s Fancy. This time it is about a book I have just finished reading, The Bone Thief by V.M. Whitworth. It’s a tale set in tenth century England, and to read what I thought about it you can hop over to https://bookwormsfancy.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/the-bone-thief-by-v-m-whitworth-guest-book-review-by-richard-abbott/ and find out! You’ll also discover why this picture has been included…
LIndisfarne

Erin has also kindly agreed to write something for this blog in a little while, so keep a look out for a different contributing voice…

Other news… I am gradually going around all of the various sites where my books are listed, and filling in details about The Lady of the Lions. This could not be described as the most interesting thing to do, but it does provide a sense of completion.

I am still grappling with epub format, having briefly experimented with several stand-alone or online converters, and not been happy with any of them. So far as I can tell they all do something that I don’t want. Either the cover is messed up, or the html contents table, or the built in ncx navigation. One of them carefully included all my images as hugely long blocks of text, presumably deciding that they were media type text/html rather than image/jpeg or image/png. Not what I wanted at all… So when the time comes to distribute in this format I think that I shall just go back to first principles and do it from scratch.

And I shall also be getting back to grips with Scenes from a Life – one chapter is completely unstarted, and my target for April is to have a first draft ready. Then there’s “just” (haha) the process of finding out where things are ragged around the edges, and then the process of editing…

The Lady of the Lions – now available through Amazon

The Lady of the Lions - cover image

Well, Amazon have duly done their bit and this short story is now on sale on Amazon .co.uk and .com, though not so far as I can tell on the other international sites. Links are:
Amazon.co.uk and
Amazon.com

I have also updated the links on the main kephrath site and the Matteh Publications site. Phew…

Feeling truly geeky, I also started preparing the epub files for uploading to other ebook vendor sites once the Amazon KDP Select exclusive period is over. This turned out to be more of a trial than I had expected. First go – just use the auto-convert feature in the excellent Calibre program. But that turned out to mess up all of the contents links. So I turned to the internet, and the first web page I looked at was breezily confident. Seemingly, all you had to do was put files in the right folders, use the same metadata specification file as you had with kindle, add a couple of extra config files, and compress the result. Well, the steps were easy, but the result omitted the cover art and had a number of other annoyances. Eventually I solved the problem with the help of a handy tool called Sigil which did a nice job of disentangling the various bits and pieces. A few tests on various epub apps were (broadly) successful so now I have the basic principles OK. When epub distribution time comes I feel in a much better place now than I did last night.

Talking of being geeky, my next plan is to add a timeline feature to the Kephrath site to clarify when the different bits occur, and what was happening in terms of near eastern history…

The Lady of the Lions – now uploaded to Amazon

The Lady of the Lions - cover image

Last weekend I talked about the remaining steps of the process for this short story – today I went through the process of uploading to Amazon. The Lady of the Lions will be part of Amazon’s KDP Select program for the first three months at least. After that I will probably distribute through other channels as well as Amazon. It will be ebook only at this stage. According to Amazon’s estimate, it should be live on the UK and US sites within 12 hours or so, and worldwide within the next two working days.

The Lady of the Lions will sell at around $0.99, £0.75, or equivalents in other currencies – some regions also incur a download fee over which I have no control. Even so, it’s an economical purchase, especially for readers with an Amazon Prime account.

The story is set around 150 years before In a Milk and Honeyed Land, in the same small Canaanite hill country town of Kephrath. Of course none of the characters overlap but the culture is not very different from that of the full length novel. Anyone who has read the book will recognise the town.

The story was inspired by two letters which are part of the Amarna correspondence, a large archive of clay tablets which are mostly from one or other city-state ruler to the Egyptian pharaoh of the time (Amenhotep III or Akhenaten, depending on when exactly the specific letter was written). These two particular letters may have been written from the town of Kephrath – they were certainly written by a woman and so are a rare and exciting insight into female participation in both literacy and politics. The story seeks to put some flesh onto the bare bones of these two letters.

As soon as I know more details, I shall be updating the purchase links on the Kephrath and Matteh Publications web sites – and of course posting the information here!

The Lady of the Lions – out in about a week’s time

'The Lady of the Lions' - cover image

I have been talking about this short story for a little while now, and it has finally come to be time for its appearance on the online marketplace. I now have the ISBN registered (978-0-9545-5353-1) with Nielsen bookdata, and finally have to go through the process of one last edit, then the upload to Amazon. The Lady of the Lions will be part of Amazon’s KDP Select program for the first three months at least, so anyone on an Amazon Prime account will have very easy access. It will be ebook only at this stage.

The Lady of the Lions will sell at around $1-£1 depending on the final details, so it will certainly not break the bank! It is set around 150 years before In a Milk and Honeyed Land, in the same small Canaanite hill country town of Kephrath. Of course none of the characters overlap but the culture is not very different from that of the full length novel. Anyone who has read the book will recognise the town.

The story was inspired by two letters which are part of the Amarna correspondence, a large archive of clay tablets which are mostly from one or other city-state ruler to the Egyptian pharaoh of the time (Amenhotep III or Akhenaten, depending on when exactly the specific letter was written). These two particular letters may have been written from the town of Kephrath – they were certainly written by a woman and so are a rare and exciting insight into female participation in both literacy and politics. The story seeks to put some flesh onto the bare bones of these two letters.

I am hoping – depending of course on Amazon’s upload and distribution process – that they will be available next weekend, March 16th/17th. More details nearer the time… Meanwhile here are a couple of extracts:

Belita-Labiy found it difficult to concentrate, though, with the news rippling around the hill country. So far the raids had not been too close, but from all that she had heard, these groups of men were swift to move, and swift to strike, wherever they pleased. Who could say which town they might visit next?

So she knew that her dancing, while apparently as fluent and potent as ever, lacked the whole-hearted commitment that she preferred. It could not be helped, but the distraction nagged at her. So all the while that she danced like Taliy in the earliest garden, and later as her body thrilled and her voice cried out in lovemaking, part of her soul was anxiously flitting around the uplands, trying to guess what would happen next.

* * * * * *

Belita-Labiy realised that she was nearly cut off on her own. He turned his head, suddenly seeing her there. His breath was hot, panting, urgent. The look in his eyes terrified her. She waved the little knife at him and dodged to one side while there was still time. He grasped at her with his free hand, catching at her arm. She pulled free, and the fabric of her sleeve tore in his hand as she ran over to the window.

Kelizzi and Jarrar placed themselves front of her, but they seemed small and frail before the man advancing towards them. He laughed at them as he approached, and Belita-Labiy felt her groin clench tight with anticipatory fear at the expression on his face.

Robert Miller – “Israelite Life Before the Kings”

The magazine Biblical Archaeology Review is currently showcasing an article by Robert Miller entitled Israelite Life Before the Kings. Not having a subscription to this, I have only seen the promotional blurb and not the full article, but it would make a great description of the setting of In a Milk and Honeyed Land.

Their tag line question is “What was life like for the settlers of Canaan during the time of the Biblical Judges”, and Miller is particularly interested in the Iron I period, roughly 1200-1000 BC. He has written on this topic before, typically from an archaeological perspective. I cited his book Chieftains of the Highland Clans – also on the Iron I period – during work in my PhD thesis Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian.

Now, In a Milk and Honeyed Land is set right at the start of this time, before the period of the judges got under way, but of course many of his observations apply equally to that time. For example, he says

villages … were quite small, possibly 400 people in the largest of these — Shiloh or Gibeon, for instance. These towns were mostly unwalled, though they were part of larger political units or regional chiefdoms that provided security…

Israelites lived in nuclear households, often with their relatives in clusters of houses around a common courtyard. Houses were made of mudbrick with a stone foundation and perhaps a second story of wood. The living space of the houses consisted of three or four rooms, often with sleeping space on the roof or in a covered roof loft…

the hills were densely overgrown, covered with a thick scrub of pine, oak and terebinth trees…the early Israelite settlers of Canaan would burn off some of the brush, terrace the hillsides within an hour’s walk of the village, and plant grain, primarily wheat…They had orchards on these terraces as well.

Readers of In a Milk and Honeyed Land will recognise all of these features in the story. BAR’s normal coverage is of popular academic presentations of biblical material, but maybe it’s worth seeing if they would review my book…

The link to the abridged version is http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/daily-life-in-ancient-israel/

Review: Fargoer – On Treacherous Ground

This week I posted up in Goodreads a review of the last full episode in the Fargoer cycle – On Treacherous Ground. There is also an epilogue which closes off the cycle, available as a conclusion to the whole novel but not (so far at least) as a stand-alone item. The review can be found at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/546120191, though not on Amazon yet as the separate story is not yet there.

In exciting news for Fargoer, and its author Petteri Hannila, the collection is being released as a complete novel shortly – on Amazon the paperback version can be found already with a quick search, alongside the separate episodes. Long term blog readers well know that I am very enthusiastic about Fargoer, and so I very much hope that this new move will bring the series wider recognition. There is a Goodreads launch event this weekend.

Other news – well, I am heavily involved in editing The Lady of the Lions, which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. The story itself is not quite finished, though very nearly so, and there is a reasonable chance that it will go live as a kindle download by Eastertime. More news – naturally – as and when it gets closer.

Writing, ancient and modern