Reminders of Kephrath near to home…

I thought this week I would post up some images taken over the weekend from in and around home, which have some sort of loose connection with the world of Kephrath. The first is a bee-and-flower picture – nowhere near as sharp as the real book cover, but this one was just at the back of the garden with our own bee!

Bee and Flower

The second is our fig tree, which is now (after a slow cold start) coming into leaf. Back in Southampton our fig tree there produced some fruit each year, the amount varying considerably with the season. This little one is only last year’s planting and so is some way away from fruiting yet… but great to see the leaves emerging.

Fig leaves

Qetirah poured them each a little red wine from a stoppered jar. They drank it very solemnly, eyes fixed on one another. She took one of the figs and pulled it in two, giving half to Damariel. He held the fruit in his hand briefly, caught by the dark flesh speckled with seeds. When they had finished he took another fig and did the same, this time keeping hold of it for her to eat, feeling her lips against his fingers.

Finally here is a view of a corner nearby. The connection here is quite tenuous but made through the name Gilgal – the name of the first encampment of the Israelites across the Jordan.

Garden corner

The camp itself was roughly square, insofar as the arc of the River and a few encroaching outcrops of rock allowed, and was divided into unequal regions of tents by interior paths. Nepheret supposed that, like islands in the inundation that she remembered from childhood, the tent groups were occupied by different families. The people she could see wore a range of brightly coloured kefs, and for a moment she was reminded of the flower fields that filled the hill country in the spring time.

Other news – it’s nearly a year since In a Milk and Honeyed Land reached the market, and to mark the anniversary I am planning some sort of promotion for the end of this month. More details next week…

Flowering plants around the doors

I thought today I’d talk a bit about one of my prevailing images of Kephrath – the women’s plants beside the doors of their households. Back in September last year I dwelt on the matrilineal nature of the society there – inheritance of the house passes down the line of daughters rather than sons.

Syros - in the Cyclades, Greece

Today I want to remember one of the major sources of inspiration for the household plants – a trip we took around the Greek Cyclades Islands several years ago now. The streets in most of these islands are extremely striking – bright white walls, pale stone… and vividly coloured plants growing up the walls and stretching overhead. Now, I don’t think they carry the same symbolic value as the household plants do in Kephrath, but they are certainly a spectacular sight that has stayed with me. So when I was looking for something that would neatly represent the beauty and fertility of a household, these Greek island plants came to mind.

Antiparos - in the Cyclades, Greece

Other news this week – I finally got around to writing up my review of Iain M Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata, which can be found on Amazon and Goodreads now. I actually read this over the Easter holiday but the sad news of his terminal illness broke just after I had finished it, and it seemed appropriate to hold off for a while. The review manages to get a quick mention of a Star Trek TNG episode (Night Terrors, for keen and curious fans) as well as a few other bits and pieces…

Naxos - in the Cyclades, Greece

Spring things and a celebration of geeks

Spring has finally well and truly sprung here in north London, and leaf and blossom are everywhere. Quite a spectacular change. Not only that, but the public holiday yesterday featured bright sunshine and heat all day. Here’s the vine by (and above) our front door celebrating Spring…

The household vine coming into leaf

So what with that and lots of work on a web programming project I have been working away at, there is no book review this week! I have, however, been finally making good progress on the last remaining chapter of Scenes from a Life. In terms of the plotline this fits about 3/4 of the way through, and is a flashback scene to an event that took place some ten years or so before the main sequence. So far I’m happy with progress, though it’s some way away from finishing yet. More news later in the summer…

Also, over the weekend, my faith in geeks was confirmed. For reasons unknown, large numbers of my bookmarks / favourites disappeared from Chrome – not sure when, or how, since I only realised when I went to pick one and it wasn’t there! The normally wonderful feature of Chrome that it synchronises across several devices happened, in this case, to work against me… the missing bookmarks were cheerfully missing from all the different gadgets I tried, since Chrome could synch much quicker than I could stop it… A swift internet search showed me that I was far from being alone in this, and happily there are several geek sites which tell you how to recover them… provided you realise soon enough and don’t panic…

It did occur to me that this was a blind spot for me – and obviously a lot of other people – I happily backup in one way or another my writing, computer code, accounts etc, but it never occurred to me to back up bookmarks. A happy end, on this occasion, though having read other accounts it is clear that some people have not had such good fortune. A triumph for the determination of geekly characters to document such things.

Review – ‘Let us not live in ignorance’ – Anastasia Abboud

Let us not live in ignorance is a quite fascinating book for anyone wanting to get a sense for the cultural diversity and conflicts which arise out of today’s Middle East in other countries, in particular the USA. In this book, those conflicts are explored not through violence and terror, but the more everyday and lasting areas of friendship and love. The two central relationships in the book cross different kinds of social and personal boundaries – one in a much harder and more profoundly radical way than the other – and Anastasia does not avoid the difficulties that arise from all that.
Cover - 'Let us not live in ignorance'
My own knowledge of the Middle East is largely rooted in the ancient world, but issues of cultural difference have always been important there. So when I came across Anastasia’s book, and realised what the subject matter was, it was a must-read. However, contemporary romance books are not my normal fare, so I had to get myself used to the conventions of the genre. The central characters are described as total paragons of physical perfection, with intellect and ethics to match. It took me a little while to realise that these descriptions are simply part of the literary style of this form, and that I didn’t have to feel inadequate or out of place myself! Nor that Anastasia was necessarily describing real Americans, Lebanese, etc – from my albeit slightly distant knowledge of the US I am pretty sure she is not! She is thinking about what might happen when idealised representatives of these cultures encounter one another, with a sincere desire to meet on a deep and intimate, rather than superficial and prejudicial level. Seen in that way, the profound difficulties in both of the relationships stand out all the more, since they are placed in a context of being open to relationship rather than closed to it.

It is clear that Anastasia is writing out of direct experience, especially in passages where people react in ignorance, naively clumping together quite different groups of people and ideas. She has a passionate desire that her readers would understand the diversity of culture within any one of the countries she speaks of, wanting to move away from simplistic stereotypes which tend to dominate the media. We like to think that here in the UK we are a little more aware of this, and most likely the average Briton has more personal interaction with this diversity than the average American. But it is, I think, a line of thought that is well worth revisiting, and there are plenty of people and families in this country and others, who grapple with cross-cultural issues on a daily basis.

For my part, this book has helped renew the sense that the diversity issues I like to explore in the ancient world are still active and vivid today. I shall return to my own writing with a renewed sense that these things are well worth exploring in any era, and that many of the same situations recur over and over again.

The book kept me reading eagerly right to the end, especially as it was unclear how – or even if – one particular situation was going to be resolved. I don’t have the experience to say whether it is a good book purely as a contemporary romance, and I don’t think that that genre is one which I am especially drawn to. All things considered, I prefer to read and write about other times than our own. So on those grounds I am giving Let us not live in ignorance four stars rather than five, but the lack might well be in me rather than the book. If the exploration of friendship and love across cultural and religious divides interests you, or if you enjoy contemporary romances, then this is a book to be read.

I’ll be posting the review as usual to Amazon, Goodreads etc before too long…

epub and Leanpub

As I have mentioned before, I have been delving into epub format for the last month or two, so as to extend the number of places where I can offer some of my writing. Kindle is great, and has been a very good place to start, but a little while ago I decided it was time to branch out.

The Man in the Cistern epub cover

So following a recommendation from the Finnish author Petteri Hannila, I went to the Leanpub site and got to grips with that. They accept a variety of original formats, of which the most interesting to me was html, since I already had that!

Leanpub was originally geared up to present books on computer languages and coding. So parts of their site were not relevant to my project, but the level of help and support is excellent. Whatever input format you choose, it is internally converted to a text layout they call “markdown” (by way of a rather geeky joke on the computer term “markup”, I think). It looks a bit like Wiki formatting for those who have met that. From markdown it goes straight into an epub file. Kindle and pdf versions are thrown in for good measure, though I did not in fact need them.

The Man in the Cistern ended up at https://leanpub.com/TheManInTheCistern. This is the first place this story is available in epub format, though I’m sure I will add more places in time.

You have a whole bunch of settings to grapple with, some of which go into the book file itself and some into the web site listing. Along the way you even get to specify a section as a short sample preview. The link for this goes onto your page listing. I must admit that this bit caught me out slightly, as I had expected it to be optional. As a result, my first attempt ended up with the default sample, which has standard text having nothing to do with your own book. But one of the very cool features of Leanpub came to my rescue – you can upload a revised version whenever you like. Previous buyers are notified and get the update for free, just like an update to a mobile phone app. So last night I hastily put together a quick sample version – if it turns out I don’t like it I can just rework the sample and leave the main content as is.

All very handy, and once you get your head around their terminology it is easy to use. I’m happy to recommend this site as an alternative point of sale. They are totally non-exclusive in their approach so don’t mind where else you sell your books – though other arrangements you might have made like Kindle Select might interfere with this. The terms and conditions are very straightforward and not at all hard to find. Great stuff.

After the Historical Novelist Book Fair is over…

First, a big thank you to Francine for arranging last weekend’s historical fiction online book fair. In the end nearly 60 authors participated, and it is clear from comments left at the various sites that people were “making the rounds” of the different sites concerned. I certainly visited all of the blogs I could find, read the articles, left comments, and signed up for regular updates from a few of them.

Historical novelists book fair logo

One of the fascinating features was to see the huge diversity of time periods and styles represented. So far as I recall, noone was writing longer ago in the past than me, but there was a very wide spread onwards from then.

Great work, and thanks again to Francine.

Then today I wrote a review of Automaton, by Cheryl Davies. I first came across this book via the excellent Bookworm’s Fancy blog (https://bookwormsfancy.wordpress.com/). The review there caught my attention, so out I went and downloaded a kindle copy, and then read it over a few days commuting on the Northern Line.

Automaton book cover

The review itself can be found on Amazon and Goodreads – suffice it to say here that I felt it was good, and definitely worth four stars, but there were a few things that weakened the book as a whole for me. To find it more, follow the links…

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!

Writing, ancient and modern