Throughout this blog, I have tried to help bring diversity to my own (and hopefully others’) reading practices, to show new ways reading diversely can enrich your life, and teach how readers can do their part to try to influence publishing to stimulate diversity in the industry. Studies show that reading literary fiction helps to hone empathy and compassion by seeing the world from the point of view of people unlike ourselves. However, there is another side to this in addition to honing empathy. Many books set in different countries or even different communities within our own country offer a unique perspective of the world and can give readers the sense of having traveled to a new place from the comfort of our own chair. Enter: book tourism, or armchair traveling.
One of my favorite forms of armchair traveling is through food writing or food tourism. My very favorite food tourism writer is the late, greatly-missed Anthony Bourdain. He summed it up wonderfully in his book Medium Raw when he said, “Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go” (Bourdain 56). Food writing encompasses the best of both worlds, showing readers a new part of the world geographically as well as introducing them to new foods and the cultures that cook them. In addition to the canon of Bourdain’s writing, which is elegant, witty, and achingly poignant, the works of Bill Buford, Fuchsia Dunlop, and Fergus Henderson are also well worth a read. One of the best I have read is Climbing the Mango Tree by Madhur Jaffrey, which introduces readers to the influences of spice, dining al fresco under the mango trees, and learning to cook surrounded by your family matriarchs while growing up in the Indian Himalayan foothills. Who wouldn’t want to grow up climbing mango trees?
Fiction that prominently features food in some way also inspires wanderlust. A vivid scene over a meal or in a kitchen evokes the sights and aromas that truly bring a setting to life. The kitchen is the heart of the home for a reason, and it is over a meal where we can learn the most about people and cultures. Breaking bread is a traditional way to meet new friends and to make peace with enemies. When reading a book like Chocolat by Joanne Harris, you can taste the chocolate as well as feel the cool air of the small French village, smell the bakery up the road, see the cobblestones of the ancient streets. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel gives readers a taste – pun intended – of life in turn of the century Mexico along with characters who can imbue their food with their emotions. One of my favorite novels of recent years is Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King, a historical fiction set in ancient Rome about Marcus Gavius Apicius, the author of the oldest cookbook in the world. This not only makes readers want to travel to Rome and see all the places referred to in the novel, but many passages from Apicius’s cookbook are included in the text as well. Ancient Roman cooking at its finest!
Below are some books, fiction and nonfiction alike, which have inspired wanderlust and food cravings in one way or another. What books would you recommend to instill wanderlust?
2020 is finally coming to an end. This was one of the most miserable fucking years ever and it can piss right off. While my life wasn’t really impacted all that much by any kind of quarantine – I’m practically a shut-in in my daily life anyway – I did miss traveling. I am incredibly lucky and grateful that I have a job that allows me to work from home and that my daughter and I have remained healthy. So has my mom, though the rest of my family didn’t come through the pandemic unscathed. Everyone is doing ok so far, though, and I am happy for that. I feel terrible for the many millions of people who have lost their jobs, for the over 300,000 Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19 (and the more than 1.6 million worldwide), and everyone who is struggling in ways large and small during this very strange and awful time. My grandmother would have said, “This, too, shall pass,” and I know she is right. Sometimes it is hard to see that, though, in the middle of events.
Of course, even the worst times have some bright points. Or, as Emperor Georgiou quoted in “Terra Firma part 2,” “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” The BEST thing has to be Biden kicking Idiot Hitler’s fat ass. A related bright point to Biden’s election is that we also get Kamala Harris as our first Madam Vice President. I can’t wait! Having a compassionate, intelligent, engaged, literate President and Vice President in office will surely be a sea change after the past obscene four years of the sub-literate, cruel, anti-science, racist, misogynist, corrupt excrescence currently squatting in the Oval Office. Can’t wait for that creature to become irrelevant again, and likely imprisoned.
Image credit CBS All Access
For me, books and reading are always a refuge and solace. I can travel by way of books, even if I am physically stuck in Arizona. I can go to other parts of the world or to new worlds entirely. I can encounter people who are facing the same struggles I face, or I can learn more about others who face completely different challenges in their life. I always aim to read 100 books a year. According to my Goodreads Year in Books, I didn’t get to 100 this year, though if I were to add up all the articles I read for research, I would probably get to 100 books total easily. But I didn’t count articles. I’m done researching now, though, and my manuscript is in to the publisher and I hopefully never have to think much on it again! Never thought I would be sick of medieval Europe, but here we are.
Also, as anyone who spends any time with me at all knows, I love reading challenges because they stretch my comfort zone. I love learning about authors and cultures I’ve never been exposed to before. I am passionate about supporting and amplifying the voices of women and authors of color. So to try to do all of these things, I always participate in Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge. I don’t always get through the whole list, depending on what all is happening, but I did this year! I even reviewed almost all of them. I try hard to write a review for every book I read, but sometimes I don’t get around to doing it. But at least I finished it, even WITH all the research and work I was doing to write my own book. I’m pretty proud of me. How did you do on your various reading goals this year? Mine are below the cut.
Heyyyy, this year I decided also to outline what I might read for the Reading Women challenge. I tend to complete that challenge most years, too, but rarely write about it. I don’t know why, especially considering how hard I try to amplify women’s voices, work, and literature. Probably it’s because many of the tasks here overlap a little with the Book Riot Read Harder challenge so I don’t focus a lot on this one in its own right. Here’s what I’m thinking of. Where possible, of course, I am going to overlap with the Read Harder tasks. Every book listed is written by a woman, which makes sense because it’s the Reading Women Challenge.
An Author from Eastern Europe: Maybe Seeing People Off by Jana Beňová. Or There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Eastern European literature seems really fucking long, depressing, and boring from what I can tell. These two seem tolerable. There is a reason I’ve never read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, or The Brothers Karamazov. Is it just because it’s frigid winter for like 10 months out of the year there? Is there not enough vodka? Too much vodka? I mean, FFS, I could hardly get through The Death of Ivan Ilyich and that wasn’t too bad, relatively speaking. But by the end of it, I wanted to swim in a barrel of vodka. Is vodka made in barrels? Whatever the fuck it’s made in, I wanted to swim in it.
A Book About Incarceration: Affinity by Sarah Waters! That should be awesome. Sarah Waters is awesome.
A Cookbook by a Woman of Color: Caribbean Potluck by Suzanne and Michelle Rousseau. I will need to track down a Caribbean restaurant near me so I can also eat all the food.
A Book with a Protagonist Older than 50: Illumination Night by Alice Hoffman. I love Alice Hoffman.
A Book by a South American Author in Translation: Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac.
Reread a Favorite Book: Jeez. So many could go here.
A Memoir by an Indigenous, First Nations, Native, or Aboriginal Woman: Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot. This has been on my radar forever.
A Book by a Neurodivergent Author: Maybe Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis (autism) or All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Sensory Integration Disorder). I think I own the Anders book, so probably I’ll read that.
Dana is a modern young Black woman, married to a white man called Kevin, and they are both authors. They have recently purchased their first real home together and are in the middle of unpacking when Dana feels dizzy and falls to the ground. When the dizziness passes, she finds herself outside and hears a child yelling for help. Since Dana isn’t a dick, she rushes to help and ends up saving a young boy named Rufus from drowning. The boy’s father comes across them and, thinking Dana is trying to harm his son, aims a rifle at her. Dana is then transported back to her home, soaking wet and covered in mud from her rescue efforts.
Over the next few weeks, Dana finds herself inexplicably called back to what she learns is the antebellum South, to a plantation with slaves. Somehow, anytime Rufus is in mortal danger, he pulls her back in time to him, completely unintentionally. Dana learns that Rufus is one of her ancestors and she has to keep saving him until he is able to father the child who is her direct ancestor. Each time Dana goes back, she stays longer and the trip is more dangerous for her. She eventually figures out that when she herself fears for her life, she is able to return to her own time, which is moving more slowly than the past. Dana spends hours, days, and months in the past and yet her own time period only moves forward by a few minutes or days even for her longest period spent in the past. Dana has to learn how to survive in a harsh past, retain Rufus’s trust enough that he doesn’t harm her himself just because he can, and keep her husband Kevin safe during her travels as well.
This story was a difficult and yet un-put-downable read. Difficult because of the subject matter but a very fast and engaging read. Even though it was written in 1979, there was not actually much reference to technology so it didn’t feel dated. In fact, it could have been written this year and would have been hailed as a timely discussion on race relations and equality, given the ongoing protests surrounding police brutality towards Black people. It was a horrifying read as well because it explores topics such as slavery, which is to be expected from the book’s premise. What was worst, though, was Dana’s thoughts on how easy it can be to become accustomed to injustice. The discussion of racism was deep and explored some of the ways in which it has become institutionalized in America even today. Some scenes reminded me of part of Angie Thomas’s novel The Hate U Give where Starr and her brothers received “the talk” from their parents. Not the sex talk, but the talk about what to do and how to act if and when they are stopped by a police officer. The fact that such talks are considered a necessary part of parenting for so many people is heartbreaking, and Butler’s novel shows readers partly why that has come to be.
Dana adapted fairly quickly to her new environment, not because she was somehow weak or didn’t resist hard enough, but because she had to adapt or die. Part of the discussion on how quickly Dana had to adapt to slavery conditions was also the sense of mutual obligation between many of the characters. They all tried to look out for each other and take everyone’s well being into consideration, even if it was sometimes to their own detriment. But parents, for example, would do whatever was necessary to spare their children and to keep them with them rather than being sold to different places far away. I can understand that; there is nothing I wouldn’t do to keep my daughter safe with me in those conditions. Despite Dana’s ability to adapt quickly to her new circumstances, she was not spared from being on the receiving end of some awful abuse, and she lived in constant fear of being sold to a plantation further south that was notorious for its truly brutal conditions. A modern person worrying about being sold – if that doesn’t absolutely horrify you, then you must be part of the problem.
Part of the discussion on adapting is, I think, the ways Dana and the other Black characters view Tom Weylin and Rufus. Tom initially appears to be brutal, every bit the worst of the stereotypical slave owner. As the novel progresses, how he is viewed doesn’t change so much to liking him as to seeing how he is more or less a fair man operating within the social constructs of his time period. He is a hard man and sometimes does cruel things, but he is doing what is allowed for him to do and doesn’t really step out of those bounds, as disgusting as they are to our modern sensibilities. Similarly, with Rufus, he seems to grow up to take after his father in most ways, except that he is in love with Alice, and his father never would have loved a slave. Use her body, yes, but love her, no. Dana is able to forgive Rufus for so many wrongs, and he actually seems to do worse things than his father ever did. He makes overt threats to Dana, lies about sending her letters to Kevin when he got trapped in the past, and is a volatile drunk. His father at least never seemed to let himself get out of control like Rufus does. In many ways, Rufus is a pitiable character, largely lacking in understanding, empathy, or willpower. To be fair, though, I’d probably be blind fucking drunk all the time if I had to live in the South at that time of history. In any case, the way Dana and the other Black characters view the Weylins very much makes me think of Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe they were just as awful as one thinks they were but the effect was lessened over the course of the novel by the psychological impact of being held against their will, malnourished, beaten and whipped, and worked until they dropped.
Normally, I don’t care much for first-person perspective in novels. But I think first-person is the only way this novel could be as powerful as it was. If Dana hadn’t been the narrator, if we had a third-person POV instead, it would have created a distance between the characters, events they went through, and the reader; the situations she went through would not have been as visceral an experience for readers and thus the discussions on various issues would not have been as effective.
The title itself is a stark reminder that being related to a person doesn’t always mean they are your family. There’s a big difference between relatives and family. Rufus and Dana are related to one another. They have a sense of mutual obligation to each other, though an admittedly lop-sided one. But they are in no way family as I would define it. So that makes an interesting contrast throughout the book, especially when you consider Dana and her husband’s relationship, and her relationship with the slaves. She seems much closer to them than to Rufus, her actual relative. Similarly, her marriage to Kevin is illegal in the past and, I would imagine, is seen as at least odd in 1976. I don’t think interracial marriages were very well tolerated at the time.
In any case, this was a terrific read, if difficult at times because of the things that happened to people. I definitely recommend it to any fans of timeslip, sci-fi, magical realism, or antebellum history.
Yay, it’s here! Read Harder 2020 is here! I look forward to this list every year. In part, I just like to see what the brains at Book Riot have come up with, and in part, I love to put together a plan for myself for how to cover the tasks. Additionally, I try to make it more feminist by finding books to cover each task that are written by women or authors who identify as women. For various reasons, this doesn’t always happen, but I try hard to make it so. #RequisiteStarTrekReference
So, what do we have this year? How will this pan out? I am thinking of the following:
Read a retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, or myth by an author of color: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi OR One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh. Probably the 1st one since I’ve owned it forever and haven’t got round to reading it yet.
Read a play by an author of color and/or queer author: Angels in America by Tony Kushner. Mostly because I know Jason Isaacs (Twitter) was in this play at one point. Carrying on with my hardcore Jason Isaacs (Insta) crush.
Read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII: The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Kay Penman. Also, this task is funny to me, as ALL the HF I read is set in a time other than WWII. Is there really that much WWII HF? LOL. I’m already reading this one, so I might as well use it for this task; I won’t get it finished before the new year, so I reckon it counts.
Read the LAST book in a series: Big Sky by Kate Atkinson (don’t know if it is the LAST, last, but it is the most recent one out in the Jackson Brodie series). Also, DID YOU KNOW that there is a TV series of these books called Case Histories? It stars… wait for it… Jason Isaacs! Dear god, that man’s eyes…
Read a memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack of religious tradition) that is not your own: Muslim Girlby Amani Al-Khatanahtbeh OR Educatedby Tara Westover. Every religion is different for me. Hardcore atheist…
Read a romance starring a single parent: Maybe Home Againby Kristin Hannah, mostly because someone gave it to me and so I don’t have to look for something else. I really don’t know yet since I am definitely not a romance reader. I might pick one from this list because it’s awesomely comprehensive: Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Read a middle grade book that doesn’t take place in the U.S. or the UK: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (double dipper!) OR Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb. Probably the 1st since the 2nd seems a little older than middle grade.
Read a book with a main character or protagonist with a disability (fiction or non): House Rules by Jodi Picoult or maybe Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
I did it! Here are the books I ended up reading for the 2019 Read Harder challenge. I am trying to write reviews for every book I read as well, although I didn’t manage to do so this year. Where I could, I linked to my review of the book.
I wasn’t tagged but I came across this post on Feed the Crime and thought it looked like fun. It is hard to resist a book survey kind of post, especially when it comes to books! So here goes…
How many books do you usually read at once?
I usually have at least two going – a book to eyeball read and an audiobook. Sometimes I will have a couple different eyeball books, depending on the genre, so like a fiction and a nonfiction. Usually, though, I can only handle two at once, unless you count the book I always have going with my daughter that we read together at bedtime. Then it’s always at least three.
How do you decide when to switch between multiple reads?
Depends mostly on my mood or on what I need to get done. Right now, I really want to read for fun but I need to get some research done for my book I’m writing, so I am doing a lot of nonfiction reading. I reward myself with tidbits of fiction everyday.
Do you ever switch bookmarks partway through a book?
No. Why would I switch them? Is this a thing people do? I guess it must be. I don’t even always use a bookmark at all. I obviously don’t need a bookmark for audio or kindle books, but for physical books, a bookmark is just a tool to hold my spot, not something I give any actual thought to. I don’t care what I use. That said, I have a whole huge mug full of bookmarks, and I do use them when I use bookmarks.
Where do you keep the book(s) you’re currently reading?
All. Over. The house. In my purse. On the nightstand. Sometimes in my car, though those are my daughter’s since I can’t read and drive at the same time, with the exception of listening to audiobooks. This is just my TBR pile. My library is in a separate room. It’s a little ridiculous.
What time of day do you read the most?
Mostly in the afternoon or evening. I work for a living and have no time in the morning during the week. I am also my daughter’s sole parent, so when I get home, she wants to do stuff with me. Sometimes she lets me read while she’s doing her homework. Mostly, I read after she’s gone to bed. Sometimes, I get to read in the morning on weekends before she gets up.
How long do you typically read in one session?
This depends entirely on how tired I am. It can be anywhere from two minutes to “holy shit! The sun is coming up!”
Do you read hardbacks with the dust jacket off?
Yes, it gets in my way and I tend to rip them no matter how careful I am with them. Dustjacket definitely comes off.
What position do you mainly use to read?
I tend to sit in my chair with my feet tucked up under me and my legs all curled up. Sometimes I sit cross legged, or sometimes I actually sit like a human with my feet on the ground or my legs crossed, but mostly I perch.
Do you take your current read with you everywhere you go?
Yes. How else am I supposed to get through the day? What would happen if my car breaks down and I have to wait and I have nothing to read? Or if I decide to go to lunch somewhere and I don’t have my book? I take at least one book everywhere – to the store, the movies, social functions. You never know when you’ll get to escape from humans and read by yourself somewhere.
How often do you update your Goodreads reading progress?
For sure when I’m finished. Sometimes I enter a book in as “currently reading” when I start it, but not always. I never update my progress. No one cares about the progress I make while reading.
What book(s) are you currently reading?
I’m eyeball reading Medieval Queenship, edited by John Carmi Parsons, A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling (with my daughter). I am also listening to The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi, narrated by Gin Hammond.
So this is something different. I had actually intended to try my hand at doing a video and starting some video book reviews and such, and this would have been the first of those. But…I am fundamentally lazy and haven’t got round to it yet. I still plan to do that, but just haven’t managed to get over the fear of technologies yet.
But! I did come across the Blind Date Book Sale that Two Dollar Radio was having a while back. Actually, it looks like they always run it? Or it’s just still running? I don’t know, but as of this writing, it is still up on their sales page. As I am a big fan of supporting small and independent publishers, especially ones that have a tattoo club, I had been interested in this publisher for some time. But I didn’t know what books to get! So many looked so good, but I had several reasons for not just getting all of the ones that piqued my interest. Enter the Blind Date sale, a delightful way to discover new books.* This sale lets you get two random, pre-2017 books from their backlist, which the staff at Two Dollar Radio picks for you, for $9.99. That is an excellent deal, so I went for it.
This came out a little blurry, but I love that someone took the time to actually draw the little boombox on the envelope. It’s the little things like that wot make me keep coming back to a place. I’m just saying.
Inside the envelope, I discovered Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley Nahm and Radio Iris by Anne-Marie Kinney.
They are a really nice size as well, these books are. They, um, feel good in the hand. I mean, they’re not too big or heavy or too little and hard to hold or… hell. You know what I’m saying, get your mind out of the gutter. Since these are the first books I’ve gotten from this publisher, I don’t know if they are all this size or not, but I hope so. I like it.
It also came with a bookmark bearing a coupon code and a Two Dollar Radio sticker, which my daughter promptly stole, but then was confused because she didn’t know what a boombox was. “Is it like an iPod, Mama? But big?” *facedesk* Yes, baby, it is like an iPod but bigger. “They didn’t draw it very good. Where is the screen?” I give up.
End result: I would definitely recommend giving the Blind Date Sale from Two Dollar Radio a try. Even though I have not yet finished the books they sent me, I have started them and they are both high quality writing. Supporting indie and small presses is always a good thing, as is helping spread the word about talented new authors.
*N.B.: This is also a great way to discover new foods. I like to go to restaurants whenever I go to new places and ask the server to bring me whatever their favorite dish is. They probably hate it when people do that, but I like to try new things and so, unless their favorite thing is, like, salad with dressing on the side and everything extra bland, I am game to try just about anything. Lessons from Tony, know what I mean?
On May 19, 1536, an English queen was executed. She really hadn’t done anything wrong, other than failing to give her king the son he craved. So, in order to get rid of her, some trumped up charges of adultery – treason at the time – were thrown at her and she was executed by beheading. The queen was, of course, Anne Boleyn.
People may think of many different things when they think of Anne Boleyn. I tend to think primarily “mother of Elizabeth I” and “she was framed.” Others may see her as a victim (yes, indeed), as a homewrecker (no, read more history), an advocate for Protestantism (certainly, and likely the catalyst for Anglicanism, having owned copies of Tyndale and showing them to Henry at the right moment), generous to the poor (yes), and many, many other things. She was a skilled musician, dancer, and linguist. She was a genuine Renaissance woman. I think her full impact on history may never be fully understood.
Anne was born at her family home in Blickling probably in 1507 (some scholars say 1501) and grew up at Hever Castle in Kent. When she was about 7 years old, she went to Austria at the invitation of Margaret of Austria to study with her wards. In 1514, she went to the court of Queen Claude of France, where she stayed for several years. In early 1522, she returned to England, where she became a lady in waiting to Katherine of Aragon and caught the eye of Henry VIII. The rest, as they say, is history.
There remains a fascination with Anne Boleyn, and rightly so, in my opinion. By most accounts, she dazzled. She was witty and enjoyed dancing, riding, and hunting. She enthralled a king, and then she died for it. It’s hard not to be fascinated by her. Other people would seem to agree, if we take the many books written about Anne as evidence. Below are a few of my favorites.
In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Sarah Morris and Natalie Greuninger. This is a really cool book which informs readers not only about Anne, but also about the places she lived and traveled. It tells about each home, manor house, church, chapel, castle, abbey, and so on that Anne ever went to. It shows each room of those places, as much as is possible to do so now. It really helps bring Anne to life in ways that simply writing about her cannot, because it shows up the places where she lived and laughed and grieved. An absolute must-have. I wish more books like this existed for other historical figures.
The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell. It’s been years since I read this one, but I still remember it as the one that really sparked my interest in the Tudors.
The Last Boleyn: A Novel by Karen Harper, about Mary Boleyn, the other one. Published about 20 years before the other book about Mary Boleyn that most people seem to know about, and which I’m not mentioning because it was awful, this one is nice because it gives readers the big events but entirely through the POV of Mary. None of the major characters we know – Anne, Henry, Katherine of Aragon, Cromwell, etc – appear unless it is when Mary encounters them. I liked it, too, for its more optimistic tone.
Brief Gaudy Hour: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Margaret Campbell Barnes. One of the older books, but still super interesting. This is not one of the most accurate books you’ll ever read, but it does do a fantastic job of giving Anne a rich internal life, something that not all historical novels really do, oddly. Well worth a read despite the quibbles with the accuracy.
The Queen’s Promise: A fresh and gripping take on Anne Boleyn’s story by Lyn Andrews. This one focuses on Anne before she met Henry, and the love affair she may have had with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. Told primarily from Percy’s perspective, readers get a version of this familiar story from an entirely different angle than we usually do.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I’m a little torn at including this one. Too many people use this as an example of how things really were, but Mantel herself has said no, it is her perception of how Cromwell might have viewed things, which makes sense since it’s from his POV. But it is a terrific read and it’s my blog, so I’m adding it because I liked the book and I want it on the list.
There are sooooooooooooo many other books, both fiction and nonfiction, I could have added here, but I had to rein it in or this would just get out of control. These are just a small handful of my favorites. Are there any others you would recommend?
A couple of months ago, I sat down to chat with author Judith Starkston about her new book, Priestess of Ishana. With deepest apologies to Judith about the delay in writing this article, especially as she was so gracious about giving me the interview – and feeding me in her own home, no less! – I want to talk a little bit about the awesome lady and the research behind a truly unique new series of books.
The series, which begins with Priestess… and will carry on with a forthcoming book (yay!) is based on Starkston’s research of the Hittite culture. I touched on this a little bit in my initial review of the book both on my blog and the historical novel review site, Discovering Diamonds. Her research is deep and accurate, and I would expect nothing less of her since she is a Classicist who is committed to providing detailed information about the ancient world in a fun and accessible way.
One of the overarching themes I noted in the book involve politics and shows men trying to keep women submissive. Starkston comments, “There are a lot of correlations between the politics of then and now. We like to think of history as progressing, but that isn’t always the case.” She goes on to explain about Hittite culture and how women like Tesha, her main character who is based on the real-life Hittite queenPuduhepa, were allowed to stay queens after their husband died. Often, if they had a son, they would navigate their power to get their sons on the throne, because there was always a king, unlike, for example, in Tudor England with Elizabeth I. But generally speaking, Hittite women had more power and freedom than Victorian women – they had property, could keep children even after a divorce, and they were allowed to initiate a divorce. Priestesses in particular had a key business and financial role as well as religious. The temples are sometimes referred to by scholars as “Little Vaticans” since they held so much power and influence over other non-religious institutions.
The rites and rituals portrayed in Starkston’s book are fascinating and full of magic. They also come directly from existing Hittite records; none of them are made up. While this might seem unbelievable to modern readers, Starkston explains that the Hittite culture is imminently well-suited for a fantasy novel.
She says, “When I decided to change the series from straight historical fiction to fantasy, it was actually really liberating. There is so much about how they view the world that is hardwired for magic.” For example, there is a detailed scene where Tesha performs a rite in a cave to banish an evil spirit, which they believed was lingering because a man was burnt to death. The entire ritual comes directly from cuneiform records. Similarly, another ritual, not used in the book but which Starkston discovered about Hittite culture, deals with disputes within a family. When such instances occur, the family would call in a priestess to heal them, believing it was an illness. The priestess would make wax tongues, the family would say the words of the argument, then spit on the wax and burn it. Based on court records, Starkston explains that this ritual and other similar ones showed that the Hittites believed words were the most powerful thing, curses were believed to be real and were feared, and correcting bad words is written into the culture. Such belief is woven into the fabric of Priestess of Ishana at every level.
Another element of the book I truly loved were the mouth-watering descriptions of the food. I’m a foodie and I love to learn about new places and foods based on the books I read. Some of the foods in Priestess were made up to reinforce the fantasy elements, but overall, the foods in the book were also based on archaeological records and DNA studies of the residue from around hearths or pots, which can tell us if they contained wine, grains, cheese, and so on.
Starkston says, “Food is core to understanding a culture, so I really wanted to highlight it.” Indeed, she did. One of my favorite scenes involved Tesha and Hattu eating the stamens of large flowers in the temple. Who knew that eating flowers could be so sexy?
The flowers in this scene were made up, but the rest of the food in the same scene was not. I asked Starkston if she had ever tried making any of the recipes she had written about in the book or discovered in the historical record. Not only has she done so, she actually made a cookbook based on them. They are based on ingredients and techniques available at the time. All the recipes mentioned in her books are collected there and if you sign up for her newsletter, she will send it to you for free. I have tried some of them and I have to say, they are GOOD. My favorites are her hummus, lamb and lentil stew with raisins (though I hate raisins so I substituted with dried blueberries and it was delish), and the almond-stuffed dates. Seriously, the recipes are scrumptious and are fancy enough to impress your friends at a dinner party. That they are based on ancient recipes is just a delightful bonus for history nerds.
Starkston’s series will continue with a second novel, which I, for one, am eagerly anticipating. As yet, there is not a release date for the second book, though she says Tesha’s sister Daniti will be a point-of-view character. This will prove fascinating, as Daniti is blind, having lost her sight from chickenpox as a child. The way Starkston approaches illness and physical imperfection in the novel struck a balance between actual beliefs from antiquity. She is doing a lot of research to create as authentic a character as possible in Daniti. She says, “Since I found no evidence of how blindness might have been treated in Hittite society, or how the blind might have been viewed, I worked from close cultures like Sumerians to extrapolate. But there were split ideas toward blindness in ancient world. They were either thought to have inner visions sent by a god, like Homer’s ability, or they were thought to have a deformity or imperfection. Daniti is viewed by her father as cursed. Whatever went wrong was always the fault of the sick person, for example. So I made her an outcast, which was historically accurate, except that she and Tesha are close.”
Daniti is a strong woman, something Starkston excels at crafting. She creates women who can take on an enemy and do it without a sword. Tesha and Daniti are both women of deep strength.
Do magic and fantasy sit well together within historical fiction – indeed can such novels even be counted as historical? Should ‘historical’ be as accurate as possible without the addition of magic or obvious fantasy, or is there leeway for diversification? Should a book that is clearly fantasy in essence, but has its background of characters and general plot set very firmly within an accurately researched historical setting be considered as historical or as a fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world that is very loosely based in history, and therefore have no right to be classed as ‘historical’? What actually constitutes history or fantasy, anyway? Is the merging of fantasy into history acceptable? In short, of course it is! Within the varied genres of historical fiction, is it not this diversity which makes reading novels set in the past so exciting? The accurate biographical type novels of the lives of known people (usually kings and queens, or men and women of note) is one branch of historical fiction where the known facts are imperative to ensure the overall feel of ‘believability’ is ensured. For the other genres, mysteries, thrillers, romance, timeslip, alternative, it is the depth of the background research that creates the feeling of realism. If fantasy is not acceptable for historical fiction we would be sadly deprived of many wonderful novels and series: Mary Stewart, Barbara Erskine, Du Maurier to name just three – and there would be no Outlander!
When I find an author who writes a unique story, and who does it really well, it is a delight. When that story is also based on actual fact, as Judith Starkston’s novel is, it undergoes an alchemical change from just a fun story into a jaw-dropping narrative of women in the ancient world, struggling to gain their own agency, find their strength and bravery, give love to those around them, and fulfil a destiny. It provides an insight into what life was really like and shines a light on the human condition. We can look beyond the elements of fantasy and see the real people behind the magic.
And really, isn’t that what good literature is supposed to do, be it fact or fantasy?