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…

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

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.

Second historical fiction blog hop

This post is for the second of Jessica Knauss’ historical fiction blog hops – once again huge thanks to Jessica for coordinating this. Her blog post lists the other participants – please hop over to them and read through the other extracts which people have chosen to post.

This time around I am posting a section from work in progress. The novel has working title Scenes from a Life, and is set some twenty years after In a Milk and Honeyed Land, so shortly after 1200BC. There is some overlap of characters, but this will not be obvious until some way through the book.

The central character is Makty, an Egyptian scribe who specialises in decorating non-royal tombs in the area we now call Luxor. Anyone who visits the so-called “tombs of the nobles” a little way outside the Valley of the Kings might hope to see some of his work (had he really lived). As an aside, I have imagined the scribal culture he works in as similar to the world of IT contractors that I inhabit in my day job… with no mobile phones, and stone tablets rather than electronic ones, of course, but with quite similar attitudes and relationships.

The start of the book sees Makty largely ignorant about his upbringing, and content with that. The subsequent story then combines the physical journey he takes along the Nile river, with the interior metaphorical journey he takes as he uncovers his own origins.

The ten sentence extract I have chosen is from about 2/3 of the way through. Makty is now in the Nile Delta, and has arrived at a temple to the goddess Hekhet – in modern terms a convent. He remembers growing up here as an orphan, and thinks that this will be the last stage of his journey… Some of his initial hardness of attitude has worn off, and he has become more open and vulnerable. Senenptah, who is casually mentioned in the middle of the extract, is a very old priest in Luxor, and his former employer.

The chantress, a considerably older woman who walked slowly with the help of a long stick, limped heavily as she came towards them. Both her feet were turned in on themselves, and her gait was very awkward.

Makty realised that she had been one of the many crippled babies who were turned over to the temples by families or owners who did not want the burden of raising them. He watched her come towards them, proud in her difficulty. He wondered suddenly if his heart limped in just this way as it passed through life, if only one had eyes to see the shapes of the inner world? What had Senenptah seen as he looked at him?

The lady came into the room. Moved by years of boyish habit, Makty moved across to her and knelt at her feet on the dusty floor. She put one hand on the crown of his head in blessing and he felt old memories of homeliness flood his body. He had been a very long time away from home, and he put his arms carefully around her twisted legs and clung on to her.

Of course this is not the final stage of his journey, but the information he gains here allows him to take the next step. I am hoping to finish the book this year, but was rather alarmed to find that January has already been and gone! Comments and general feedback are very welcome…

Thanks again to Jessica; please remember to check out the other participants in this, accessible from her blog entry.

Writing and reviews

This week I got back to some writing – specifically some more work on a short story, of which more below – and also had the opportunity to catch up on reviewing the next two episodes in Petteri Hannila’s Fargoer series. This brings me to numbers 5 and 6 in the series, and brings the central character Vierra well on her way back towards her homeland – though not there yet. The reviews can be found on Goodreads (http://www.goodreads.com/review/list/8796846-richard-abbott) or Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/pdp/profile/A2BRVREN5PWOZW) so I do not propose repeating them here! Suffice it to say that I am most thoroughly enjoying them, am happy to give 5* reviews, and am greatly looking forward to further instalments.

The short story I mentioned – The Lady of the Lions is the working title at present – is based around a real letter preserved in Egypt that was written by a woman who may have lived in what I call the four towns. Naturally I am slightly bending the details in my favour to assert that she actually lived in Kephrath, but it is a reasonable possibility. This letter was briefly referred to in a conversation between Damariel and his younger brother Baruk in In a Milk and Honeyed Land, and was a request for help from the Egyptian authorities. There are two of these letters, and the first reads (approximately) as follows:

A message for my lord the king, my god, who is my Sun:
This is a message from Belita-Labiya your maid-servant, who is like the dirt on which you tread. I prostrate myself at the feet of my lord the king, seven times twice over.
May my lord the king save all the land which is his from the power of lawless men, or else it will be lost. Sapuna has been taken. May my lord the king be aware of all these things.

The name Belita-Labiy is a rough translation into Canaanite of the name she gives herself in the letter, Nin-Ur-Maḥ-Meš, or in English ‘The Lady of the Lions’. The story is set something like 150 years before In a Milk and Honeyed Land, so none of the same characters overlap. In historical terms we know nothing about what happened after this letter (and another of broadly similar content) was written. We do know, however, that the land was not lost to the Egyptians at this stage, not until several decades after Damariel’s lifetime, so presumably at some stage there was a response. The story explores how the provincial governor and his army officers might have done acted. More will, of course, be revealed in time…

Writing, both historical and speculative