Book Bio – Independent Author Index

I had a very pleasant surprise over the weekend. I was invited to do a book bio on the Independent Author Index site for In a Milk and Honeyed Land by Faydra, who runs that site.. This is a bit like an author interview, and has a few questions in common with that – such as “What did you like most about writing this book?”. But it’s more about the book than it is about the author. So faced with such an offer, naturally I put a bit of time into replying!

The result can be seen at http://indaindex.com/book-bio-in-a-milk-and-honeyed-land-by-richard-abbott/, and I am really pleased with the appearance. Just to be clear, the look and feel is chosen as part of the site design, but responsibility for the content (and any typos) is mine. I had a lot of fun wondering what, in fact, I had most liked about writing it!

The single thing that took most thought was one of a series of checkboxes on the web form. Most were easy – there are no descriptions of how to make weapons of terror, or such like, for example. But then I got to a difficult one – “are there descriptions of sexual acts between consenting adults?” The question (and associated age rating) makes perfect sense since the site lists all manner of books, from young children’s through to decidedly adult, and part of the purpose of the bio is to help potential readers choose something suitable.

Now, on one level the answer is easy – yes there are, in particular when Damariel and his childhood sweetheart Qetirah consummate their relationship.

But inevitably things aren’t that easy. When I was looking at the preview of how my responses would appear online, I realised that the answer needed some clarification. After all, if someone read that and then rushed off to buy the book expecting to enjoy erotica, then they would be sadly disappointed! So I talked it over with Faydra – who must be kept very busy running this site – and she came up with a compromise. A very pleasing minor change that – hopefully – will alert parents wondering whether to get the book for their children, without unduly raising the expectations of those looking for something explicit. The end result is at at http://indaindex.com/book-bio-in-a-milk-and-honeyed-land-by-richard-abbott/. Everyone should be happy…

In passing, if you are a writer or reader, the Independent Author Index site (http://indaindex.com/) is full of great resources and contacts and is well worth checking out.

Finally, looking ahead a little, don’t forget the book signing event for In a Milk and Honeyed Land coming up in a few weeks now – Saturday November 17th at Cornerstone Books, from 10:30 or so until 3:30 or so. Cornerstone’s contact details are: Cornerstone Books, 45-51 Woodhouse Road, London N12 9ET, 020 8446 3056, http://www.cornerstone.co.uk/pages/1648.htm

Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian

I am very happy to say that the ebook version of my PhD thesis, Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian, has now made it to the Amazon.com and .co.uk sites as part of the KDP program. As you might guess from the title, the book is unashamedly geeky, although at around £2 / $3 for a copy I reckon it’s pretty good value for money. A whole lot cheaper than A Brief History of Time, and that seemed to do alright a few years ago! The ebook conversion had its own times of excitement, as I worked away at converting odd fonts (Hebrew and Egyptian for a start) and diagrams from word processor format into kindle format. It was an educational experience.

Before I forget, links to the book are:
Amazon.com – http://www.amazon.com/Triumphal-accounts-Hebrew-Egyptian-ebook/dp/B009UETQD4/
Amazon.co.uk – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Triumphal-accounts-Hebrew-Egyptian-ebook/dp/B009UETQD4/

Cover image, Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian

Quite apart from the book’s own inherent interest – on the assumption that issues of poetry and cross-cultural contact near the end of the Late Bronze Age interest you – the thesis provides some justification for plot themes used in In a Milk and Honeyed Land. For example, the relationship between Damariel and Nepheret begins with an exchange of songs over a meal – repeating in microcosm a process which the evidence suggests was also going on at a national level. Of course, their relationship ends up going well beyond the recitation of poetry, but it’s a place to start.

How much of the book is really accessible to the interested but non-academic reader? Well, I certainly would not recommend the appendices. They are densely packed with tables of supporting evidence. They are very dull, which is why they ended up in an appendix where even the PhD examiners need not plough through them unless they really wanted to. But the introduction and conclusions are very accessible, and for a first read it would be well worth just reading through those two sections. One of the joys of the ebook format is that I could very easily insert hyperlinks so that the casual browser could skip all of the interior if they wanted! The main six chapters are in pairs – the first two look at issues of poetry in general, the middle two focus on one representative piece of Egyptian and one of archaic Hebrew poetry, and the last two explore the wider historical setting. Different readers may well that they prefer to explore different sections.

I have to admit to being very pleased that this has now made it through to publication. The work itself was very satisfying to carry out, and the ebook conversion had its own lessons. Getting this out of the door, so to speak, also means that I can put more time back into writing…

Of course, if you want to skip straight to reading In a Milk and Honeyed Land, then copies can be obtained at a variety of online and London retailers. Check out http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx

Book signing at Cornerstone Books

Here’s some exciting news! On Saturday November 17th I have been invited to do a book signing event of In a Milk and Honeyed Land at Cornerstone Books, just up the road from me in North Finchley. Should be a good time – I shall be there from 10:30 or so until 3:30 or so, and Cornerstone say that they will put on cake and coffee!

A few weeks to get myself ready for this…

Cornerstone’s contact details are:
Cornerstone Books, 45-51 Woodhouse Road, London N12 9ET, 020 8446 3056,
http://www.cornerstone.co.uk/pages/1648.htm

The Man in the Cistern

The Man in the Cistern is the title of a short story now available on Amazon, in ebook format only. Currently it is enrolled in the Amazon KDP program, which means that it is available for loan for the next few months. It also means that from time to time there will be special offers, such as this weekend (Saturday Oct 20th to Sunday Oct 21st) when it is scheduled to be absolutely free to download. Don’t get too excited though – it is a short story rather than a full-length novel, so wil only cost you 77 pence in the UK (99 cents in the US), so even if you miss the promotion it will not set you back too much. Over time I shall add more short stories to the collection, ranging back and forward in time rather than trying to fit everything in strict sequence.

Cover - The Man in the Cistern
Cover - The Man in the Cistern

The Man in the Cistern is set in the same town as In a Milk and Honeyed Land but about a decade later. Most of the characters will be familiar from the novel, although you do not have to have read it to follow events in the story. We follow Damariel and Nepheret, priests and seers of Kephrath, as they juggle the conflicting possibilities that have arisen from newcomers in the region. The story begins as follows:
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The Mitsriy were withdrawing from their outpost up at Ramoth Hurriy. Damariel the seer had first caught rumour of the move nearly a year ago, but had waited to see if there was real substance in it before taking the news seriously. These days, there were always stories of this place or that being abandoned, and so many of them were either scare-mongering or wishful thinking, depending on who was talking.

Now, for sure there would be little impact on Kephrath and her three sister communities, the four towns Damariel cared for. Ramoth Hurriy was south of Shalem, up on the heights overlooking the southern edge of that town, and Damariel was not sure he had ever met anyone who lived there. So far as he knew, there was only a shrine to the goddess Hathor served by a few Mitsriy priestesses overseeing a training centre for Kinahny girls who had been given over by their families to her service, a small garrison of bowmen, and a straggle of traders adhering to the slight wealth as best they could. At a guess, only the Mitsriy would actually return home, and the temple novices and acolytes, as well as the traders and their families, would be left to reintegrate as best they could into Shalem itself, or maybe down into the lowlands.

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Find out how it continues at Amazon.com – http://www.amazon.com/Cistern-Short-Stories-Kephrath-ebook/dp/B009QM4GQM/ – or Amazon UK – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cistern-Short-Stories-Kephrath-ebook/dp/B009QM4GQM/. Don’t forget – this coming weekend The Man in the Cistern it is scheduled to be free to download. If you like the short story, follow it up with the novel.

As always, more information can be found at the web site http://www.kephrath.com.

The task of writing in Kephrath

This blog post was partly inspired because I got annoyed watching an otherwise quite informative BBC documentary, in which the presenter gave the Phoenicians around 750BC all the credit for developing and distributing the alphabet. Well, the Phoenicians were certainly a key factor in spreading alphabetic writing far and wide, but the actual invention goes back about a thousand years before then! There is intense debate as to whether the very earliest examples are from the Sinai or from Egypt a little north-west of Luxor, but either way we are talking around 1800BC or so. The presenter was (I suspect) repeating a seriously out of date view in which alphabetic writing was seen as the immediate precursor to universal literacy and general social transformation. However, this old romantic view that “every urchin would be able to read” shortly after the invention of the alphabet was soon dashed by the observation that large fractions of the Roman and Greek world remained illiterate, despite having a well-defined alphabet to work with!

The real mystery, now that more of the true history of alphabetic development is known, is why this seemingly liberating tool sat around for the better part of a thousand years without being used for anything much more than odd bits of graffiti and the occasional short dedicatory text. The first real piece of extended narrative that we have written in alphabetic script is called the Moabite Stone, dating from around about 850BC and giving a broadly parallel account (but from the opposite perspective) of an event recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Rather earlier, and further north in Ugarit, a large collection of religious material has been found written in an alphabetic script, but this uses poetry rather than prose to achieve its purpose.

As regards the time I write about, around 1200BC, the job of a scribe was interesting, varied, and very complex. Someone like Damariel in the hill country would at minimum have to be adept at reading and writing the “new” alphabetic signs – and writing them meant doing it neatly and consistently, not just scrawling them. But to make contact with the major authorities he (or possibly she – we have little evidence either way) would also need to be competent in cuneiform writing (wedge marks in clay). Damariel is quite disparaging about cuneiform to his friend Kothar – “of course no-one writes this stuff any more, this wedge and clay work is all finished” – but the reality was that it would continue for many more centuries, and Damariel himself would need to draft a crucial letter using the script later on. Egyptian writing is another story – and another day’s blog.

We do know from archaeology that works of fiction that were considered great classics – such as the story of Gilgamesh – were copied and enjoyed in cuneiform versions in the Levant area and not just far out to the east in Mesopotamia. Analysis of the clay used for these shows that they are local copies, not imported ones, and one particular fragment originates from southern Israel – perhaps even the tablet that Kothar acquired in the market at Bayth Shamsh! We also know that much early alphabetic writing was produced on materials which by nature are perishable – wood, wax, cloth etc. So it is possible, although not certain, that Damariel and his fellow seers were writing alphabetic stories and prose accounts themselves, but that these have simply not survived. Some scholars think that the use of local alphabetic scripts was a deliberate challenge to the older, established nations such as Egypt – a sort of very early example of using social media to spread a slightly subversive message!

Writing in various forms colours large parts of In a Milk and Honeyed Land – why not see how many examples you can find! Your local bookshop should be able to order copies – in case of difficulty see http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx

Some forthcoming plans

Today I’m going to talk about a couple of forthcoming pieces of writing. I’m hoping that the first of these will be ready for release before the end of October. The second is lagging behind a bit, but should be ready by the end of the year.

Both are being published under the banner of Matteh Publications (http://mattehpublications.datascenesdev.com/). Matteh is the ebook publishing wing of DataScenes Development, based in north London. DataScenes is also responsible for some mobile and tablet applications relating to the ancient world (http://apps.datascenesdev.com/). So far the most popular of these is a version of the ancient Egyptian game of Senet. This is considered by many people nowadays as an ancestor of backgammon, but in Egypt seems to have had a religious dimension as well as just entertainment.

Back to the forthcoming books. The first is a short story called The Man in the Cistern, set in the same community as In a Milk and Honeyed Land but about ten years on. It describes how Damariel and Nepheret have to tackle the arrival nearby of a group of migrants trying to settle near the town of Kephrath. For those who know a little of the archaeology of the region, it also proposes an explanation of the occupancy of a particular village.

The second item is the long-awaited PhD thesis Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian. Turning this into ebook format has taught me a great deal about how (and how not) to handle complex matters of layout and font display! Issues that word processing packages handle very easily turn out to be rather more fiddly when you are producing an ebook. This thesis explores cross-cultural issues of poetry in the earliest parts of the Hebrew Bible, and provides an academic foundation for the romantic spark of creativity enjoyed by Damariel and Nepheret.

More news about both of these in the coming weeks. In the meantime, whet your appetite – or that of a friend – with a copy of In a Milk and Honeyed Land! To find out where to buy it online or in the real world, check out http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx.

Five-star review of ‘Asenath’ by Anna Patricio

Here is the text of a review I wrote for Anna Patricio’s Asenath – the name of the Egyptian wife given to Joseph according to the biblical book of Genesis. The review itself may be found on Amazon (UK and com) and Goodreads. As you will see, I enjoyed the book, once I had appreciated its young-adult target, and hope to read other books by Anna in time.

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An unreserved five stars for Asenath so far as I am concerned! Anna Patricio has done a great job at imagining and describing a possible reality behind the scanty details given in the biblical book of Genesis regarding Joseph’s Egyptian wife.
I started this book not quite realising that it was aimed at a young adult audience, and so after a chapter or two had to readjust my thinking. That done, it was easy to slip into the swing of the narrative and enjoy the reconstruction. Others who begin reading with the right expectation will not have to carry out this internal switch – but you will need to be aware of the target audience in order to have the right expectations.
Anyone writing around a biblical episode faces the problem that, to a degree, readers already know the ending. Anna is aware of this, and in my view does a great job of instilling a sense of ‘so that’s how it happened’ when you get to items already known from the source materials. The points at which the storyline intersects with the biblical context come over as natural rather than forced, and one feels that Anna did not feel blocked or constrained by these boundaries to her writing.
It’s a while since I read young adult rather than adult material, and it did not take long to appreciate the differences. Obviously sex is toned down substantially from the last novel I reviewed (Michal’s Window (A Novel: King David’s First Wife)), and from my own writing (In a Milk and Honeyed Land). Even within those constraints, Anna manages to show that human intimacy can be pitched anywhere from tender and loving to violent and brutal.
Also, the characters tend to be more easily pigeonholed for character and motive, and the issues and moral problems they face are simpler. There are few people about whom one is in doubt about their intentions. Writing for a more adult audience, I would personally have been inclined to write more moral ambiguity into the characters, especially Joseph’s family who are presented in Genesis as a very dubious collection of individuals, but here seem uniformly attractive. But I think the simpler depictions are appropriate for, and consistent with, the overall standpoint of Asenath.
Having said that, one of the great themes of the book is to see how men and women can be transformed, and redeemed, by the contagious power of moral courage. Here, as in so much of the Hebrew Bible material from which the story is drawn, real change is effected by prolonged personal contact with lives lived out by consistent moral principles, not by listening to speeches or reading texts. So the characters definitely change and grow through the book, mostly but not entirely from bad to good. Prior events, experiences and traumas are not glossed over, but frequently return to haunt, be confronted by, and (typically in the end) overcome by the participants. This narrative theme can resonate equally well in both ancient Israel and Egypt.
From a technical background the details are reasonably well researched. Anna makes a brave choice to select a specific year to start her book (1554 BC), where I would be a little more vague! A range of proper Egyptian terms are used, typically words for rank or items used in worship. Place names are given in modern forms (for example Karnak), which the geeky part of me regretted – but since there is no map, those who are not geeks will therefore be able to look them up on a regular map and orient themselves! Some rituals and key life events which we do not have actual source material for (such as the wedding ceremony) are invented in a rich and consistent manner that does not disrupt the sense of immersion in ancient Egypt.
All in all, a most enjoyable and compelling read, and I look forward to other books by Anna, including a follow-up novel based in ancient Egypt that she mentions at the end of this book.
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To track down Asenath, Michal’s Window, or indeed In a Milk and Honeyed Land, search on Amazon or other online retailers. All three are available in both electronic and physical formats.

5* Review for ‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’ by Marsha Randolph

Late yesterday evening I had some good news. I discovered an email telling me that that Marsha Randolph had uploaded a 5* review of In a Milk and Honeyed Land to Amazon as well as her own blog.

Her review title and some extracts follow:
A great book to sit by the fireplace and read
This novel is both intellectually and spiritually challenging… In a nutshell this book is about change. It is the growth and development (or lack thereof) of one community particularly as it relates to one of the characters; Damariel… aids the reader in developing a better understanding of 1200 BC history thus a better appreciation of Old Testament scripture…

Marsha’s blog article may be found at
http://marsharandolph.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/book-review-in-a-milk-and-honeyed-land-by-richard-abbott/, and the Amazon review is at
http://www.amazon.com/review/R3FK2FIQN352HQ/ref=cm_cr_dp_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=1466921668&channel=detail-glance&nodeID=283155&store=books

It will also appear on Goodreads within the next few days.

Some new places to browse ‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’

The last few days have seen some more opportunities opening up for In a Milk and Honeyed Land, both online and in the real world.

First we have kindlemojo (http://www.kindlemojo.com/2012/09/12/milk-honeyed-land/) who have placed it in their ‘Historical Fiction’ collection.

Then Daunt Books (http://www.dauntbooks.co.uk/) have taken copies in their Hampstead and Belsize Park branches, which are the two nearest to where I live here in north London.

Let’s hope they both do well…

Personal names and In a Milk and Honeyed Land

Names are odd things. Nowadays – at least in the UK – we give names for a variety of more-or-less sentimental reasons. Perhaps they remind us of relatives or friends, or there is a family tradition. Or we think about how the future adult’s first name would sound when run up against their family name. We usually do look up the meaning of a name, either online or in a suitable book, but for most of us the name’s meaning is a secondary thing, not the primary one. Still less often, I suspect, do we think of the name as in some way a prophecy over the new infant’s life. At most, we hope that the example of some famous person of the same name might serve as an inspiration. For many people, at the other extreme, a name is simply an arbitrary label of convenience.

In much of the ancient world, however, the giving of a name was a much more weighty matter. The meaning of the name was crucially important. It could act as a reminder of gratitude for safe delivery, or perhaps the gift of life after a period of barrenness. It could act as a prophetic word intended to steer the direction of the new life for many years to come. Even those many names which are based on the natural world – typically animals and plants – can probably best be seen as an expressed wish that the primary quality of the object, such as strength, grace or beauty, would be transferred in some way to the new child. And of course, whether ancient or modern, names often give clues as to the ancestry or birth-culture of the baby.

In a Milk and Honeyed Land follows this principle quite thoroughly. Many of the names are directly copied from, or else strongly based on, actual names recorded in ancient literature. Even allowing for the accidents of preservation of clay tablets, pieces of stone, papyrus sheets and so forth we have a rather bewildering variety of names to choose from. Some of the names I have used are nature-names. So Damariel’s sister, Sosanneth, is “Lily” – the same name as modern Susan, which comes ultimately from Egypt via the Levant and is one of the oldest continuously used names in history. The old chief at the start of the story, Yad-Nesherim, is “eagle’s hand” – no longer in common use!

Many of the names are based on wishes, hopes, or prayers. Damariel’s brothers, Baruk and Bashur, are “blessing” and “good news”. His uncle, Adonilanu, is “my Lord favours us”. In a few cases I made the name overtly related to the person’s role in the story. So Damariel is “my song is El”, El being the name of the chief Canaanite god. Aliyna, who we first meet as a subjugated captive and gradually see her assert a place in Kephrath, is “victorious”.

Some of the townspeople retain the older northern names, often identified by scholars as of Hurrian origin, arising originally from what is now the border regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – roughly the same extent as the Kurdish people. These have names like Pirigalla and Putiheba, Tagi and Dadua – recognisably different even to a modern reader, and in the ancient culture these names would advertise their remote ethnicity. Over time this distinction was eroded, and by the time of the book, “the clan islands were no longer so distinct, but extended encroaching swirls into one another like cream being stirred into porridge”.

When Damariel goes down to Gedjet (Gaza) he meets Egyptians with Egyptian names, most importantly Nepheret er-sefet Tefnut, which as his friend and fellow scribe Gilem tells him, means “beautiful like the fragrance of Tefnut”. The name of Damariel’s first wife, Qetirah, means “incense” or “perfume”, a seemingly accidental connection that Damariel never forgot, and reflects on in his final soliloquy.

So when you’re reading In a Milk and Honeyed Land, take a moment to think about the names that are being used. Just like real names from the world of the Late Bronze Age, none of them are accidental.

To buy In a Milk and Honeyed Land in kindle and other ebook formats, or in soft-cover and hard-cover, check out http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx.

Writing, ancient and modern