Currently Reading – Book Tags

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.

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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!” 

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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.

Two Dollar Radio – blind date unboxing

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

The Best Books about Anne Boleyn

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.

668,Anne Boleyn,by Unknown artist Unknown artist

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.

Nonfiction:

31088The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (Canto) by Retha Warnicke. Warnicke was one of my college professors. She is a little crazy, and some of her theories about Anne are not really mainstream. But she is a fierce defender of Anne and for that, I have a soft spot for Warnicke.

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives. Ives and Warnicke had disagreements. A lot of them. I approve of academic nerdrage.

Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession by Elizabeth Norton. This is a relatively short, accessible scholarly work by one of my favorite historians.

18111981In 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.

Fiction:

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.

10108The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers: A Novel by Margaret George. Not about Anne Boleyn, per se, but she featured prominently, of course, and Margaret George is awesome. There are few authors who can tell such a terrific story while also being accurate.

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.

13540943The 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?

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Ancient Rites and Sexy Flowers: Discussing the Research Behind Historical Fantasy with Judith Starkston

 

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Book cover: Priestess of Ishana
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Author Judith Starkston. Image retrieved from author website

 

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 queen Puduhepa, 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.

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The Great Temple in Hattusa

 

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.

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Cuneiform tablet

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?

42865572Buy the Book

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Find out more about Judith Starkston

Website: https://www.judithstarkston.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/judy.starkston

Twitter: @JudithStarkston

Anthony Bourdain Remembered

43884234Anthony Bourdain Remembered* by CNN

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Edelweiss

Length: 208 pp

Publisher: CNN

Year: 2019

Sometimes when I cook, I have the voice of chef Anne Burrell in my head, telling me I’m using my knife wrong or I need to do something differently. Over the years, though, another voice has been added to hers, overwriting it to tell me that it doesn’t matter if I do it perfectly so long as I’m trying something new, and “screwups are good. Screwups – and bouncing back from screwups – help you conquer fear. … Do not be afraid” (Les Halles). As long as my mise en place is in order (and it had better be or he will yell at me), then everything will be fine. That distinctive voice belongs to Anthony Bourdain.

Probably it’s not normal to have the voices of anyone in your head, but I’ve always been one to have conversations with people I only meet in books, or on TV, or from studying history. I’m not ashamed to admit that some of the best life lessons were ones I’ve received from people I’ve never met in person, some of them fictional. This is far more a tribute to him than is it a book review, so I am going to talk about the late, greatly missed Tony Bourdain. From Tony, watching his shows and reading his books, I’ve learned so many things. Now I know that you should always try a dish twice in case it wasn’t prepared well the first time. Borders don’t matter because we have far more similarities than differences. You’ll never know what you like until you try it. The one truly universal connection between people is food and breaking bread together over a meal, prepared with love and served in a spirit of generosity and openness, is something that transcends religion and politics and language. Traveling to new places and seeing how people in different cultures live is something everyone should do; there is no education in any hallowed institution on earth that can compare with this.

Most of us never got to meet Tony in real life; nevertheless, he had a tremendous impact on our lives all the same. I never met him, but that doesn’t change the fact that I look up to him as a mentor, or that his death left a wound that will always be tender. I know this isn’t how depression works, but I can’t help but wonder if he knew how very many people would be affected by his death, if it would have made a difference. Probably not. I’ll save my rant about the need for better mental health care for a more appropriate place.

As I said, I never got the chance to meet Tony in person. The closest I ever got was a random encounter in London, on opposite sides of a busy street in Soho. That sardonic smile was plainly visible through traffic and crowds and will be a sight I’ll cherish dearly. Nevertheless, I can say that I feel lucky that I was alive and shared the earth at the same time he did. I think the best way to remember him will be to try to approach life like he did – with curiosity and openness and a hunger that can only be satiated by going and seeing and experiencing it for myself.

This book is a collection of memories, left by people who feel as I do. This is not great literature. It isn’t going to move mountains or bring about world peace. It is simply the heartfelt notes of people given in their grief to express a love for a deeply flawed, deeply compassionate, curious, creative, soulful man, someone who touched us all profoundly in some way, and whose loss we feel acutely. People who also learned from Tony that “there is less to fear about the world than we think” or that we should “listen, rather than speak.” We know, because of him, that “it is a privilege to sit at someone’s table” and that we should “go to the place. Eat the thing. Talk to the person.” When we travel, he taught us how to be “less of an observer and more of a participant…”, that we should “offend no one, appreciate the simplest things, and absorb it all”, that “food was a tool through which to understand a place, to broaden your own understanding of the world…”, and that there is “beauty in the sad, and the poignant, and even in the mundane, every day.” He taught us new ways to see, how to be better listeners, and how to find the interesting experiences. I think he’d get a kick out of one comment in particular, written by Amy P, who said, “Tripe. I didn’t enjoy it, but Tony was 100 percent the reason I tried it.” Yes, girl! I have tried things, culinary and otherwise, that I never would have thought to do because of something I learned from Tony. Just try the food. If you don’t like it, then try it again somewhere else, in case the first time wasn’t the best. If you don’t like it after that, well, at least you tried it. But then again, you may discover your new favorite food. You might learn about your new favorite activity. I learned about black pudding in London’s old east end butcher district, and the next time I am there, I’m absolutely going to try some, because that’s what Tony would do. Because the real lesson he left us with is not to be afraid. Go out and try things and see where they take you.

“Travel isn’t often pretty. It isn’t often comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind” (No Reservations). Anthony Bourdain left something good behind, and his presence will continue to be missed. Let’s all go out, have an adventure, and make our own mark on the world. 

RIP, Anthony Bourdain. We still miss you.

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Image retrieved from Anthony Bourdain’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bourdain/status/993005310611619840

Bourdain, Anthony. Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Technique of Classic Bistro Cooking. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004.

—-. No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

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Arthurian Novels Round-Up!

It’s been a while since I did any kind of round-up post, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Arthurian novels. Arthurian legend is probably my absolute go-to favorite for fantasy literature. I love a ton of different kinds of sci-fi and fantasy, of course, but if I had to pick one specific subgenre that really blows my skirt up, it has to be Arthurian. I’ll take it in just about any setting, I’ll read it without forgetting, I’ll read it at school, I’ll read it in the pool, I love stories of Arthur the King… I’ll stop. Ahem. Sorry.

Anyway, in no particular order, below are some of my favorites and I hope some are new to you!

51itaibuaqlOur Man On Earth (The Swithen Book 1) by Scott Tilek. An account based on some of the oldest extant manuscripts describing Merlin.

Black Horses for the King (Magic Carpet Books) by Anne McCaffrey. My beloved author wrote an Arthurian novel (yay!) about horses (winning!!), which is even better. All about the quest to find the perfect breed of warhorse for Arthur and his knights.

51ln1vvcazl._sx331_bo1204203200_The Kingmaking: Book One of the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy by Helen Hollick. An historic retelling, stripped of magic and placed in a realistic medieval setting. One of the best, on par with Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian Trilogy (The Warlord Chronicles: Books 1, 2 & 3: Excalibur / Enemy of God / The Winter King), which is also legit.

The Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy (Daughter of Destiny, Camelot’s Queen, and Mistress of Legend) by Nicole Evelina. The Arthurian legends told from Guinevere’s perspective. The tales get a fresh, feminist revision with a fierce new look at Camelot’s queen.

Child of the Northern Spring: Book One of the Guinevere Trilogy by Persia Wooley. Guinevere is a Welsh princess tomboy who was raised to become a queen.

Knight Life by Peter David. Arthur and Morgan in modern Manhattan, as told by the hilarious Peter David, whose Star Trek books I have universally loved. Especially Imzadi.

51gzvucvqfl._sx354_bo1204203200_Song Of The Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell. Actually, this is the story of the Lady of Shallott, told in verse, and it is lovely.

The Excalibur Murders: A Merlin Investigation by JMC Blair. Excalibur is stolen and a squire is murdered, so Merlin has to use his magic to solve the crime.

The White Raven by Diana Paxson. An historical setting of the Tristan and Iseult story, placed in medieval Cornwall. It is told from the perspective of Branwen, Iseult’s cousin and lady in waiting. Alas, I think this one is out of print, but I know you can get it from used bookstores and Amazon, because that’s how I got my copy. Just sayin’… 

In the Shadow of the Enemy

42070912In the Shadow of the Enemy (A Christine de Pizan Mystery) by Tania Bayard

I read it as an: ARC

Source: HNS*

Length: 224 pp

Publisher: Severn House

Year: 2019

In late-14th century France, Charles VI “the Mad,” rules. Probably a lot of people would like for France not to be ruled by a guy who is off his rocker, including his brother, the Duke of Orleans. Then, at a masquerade ball, the king and several of his friends decide to cause some mayhem and dress up like wildmen. To do so, they stick fur and leaves to themselves using pitch. This turns out to be a spectacularly bad idea, because a spark, presumably from the Duke of Orleans’s torch, catches on one of their outfits, causing four of the men to burn to death and the king to narrowly escape the same fate. Everyone suspects the Duke. However, some other people attending, including Christine de Pizan (yes, that Christine de Pizan) see something others didn’t – another torch, which was thrown from a spot far away from the Duke’s location. He still had both of his torches and yet there was a third torch on the floor, in the middle of the burning men. The Queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, asks Christine to find out who wants the king dead, for she is certain that he was the target of an attempted assassination. Aided by a colorful array of sidekicks, including a prostitute who actually makes her living at embroidery, a dwarf who works for the Queen, and a deaf girl who takes care of the King’s lions, Christine undertakes an investigation. It leads her from the twisted politics of the court, to various potential targets and culprits with different reasons to want the victims dead, and straight into the sights of a killer.

In the Shadow of the Enemy is actually the second in the Christine de Pizan series, but it was the first one I’ve read. That made no difference to my utter enjoyment of the book, though, as this story is a standalone. The first book was referenced enough that it filled in any gaps there might have been, sometimes a little too thoroughly – there are totally spoilers for the first book, so I didn’t think that was very well done at all. I’m still going to read the first book, though, and just hope that I’ve forgotten what the spoilers are by the time I actually get around to it.

I adore the fact that Christine de Pizan, author of The Book of the City of Ladies (Penguin Classics), is the protagonist here. I love it when real women from history are the stars in literature interesting new ways. She is a complex character, and all the secondary characters are multifaceted as well. Marion the prostitute was my second favorite, with her big personality and capacity for warmth and generosity and her inexplicable reluctance to tell people she isn’t actually a prostitute anymore. Christine’s mother, Francesca, was also a fun, minor addition. She reminds me of my grandmother in a lot of ways. The one thing I thought was weird was Klara’s utter and sudden change of heart regarding her husband Martin and her views on her brother, Willem. Those both seemed too convenient for me, but in the scheme of things, I can overlook this minor quibble.

The mix of medieval attitudes towards people, including those deemed “defective”, such as dwarves or deaf people, and even towards Christine herself, is so realistic. People thought Loyse, the deaf girl, had demons because they didn’t understand that she acted as she did simply because she couldn’t hear or understand others. The dwarf, Alips, was viewed with deep suspicion and hatred because it was thought that dwarves bring bad luck, or that the way they look on the outside reflected a corrupt soul.  And, of course, women were viewed as second class citizens and were treated as such. So much religious bullshit. The research that clearly went into the novel is apparent and appreciated. The imagery brings to life medieval France in an immediate way, from the descriptions of the court and its kitchens and gardens to the streets and their various inhabitants. The plot was pleasingly complex and included a lot of history about French warfare, or at least one battle in particular. Overall, this was a fast, fairly light read and I happily recommend it. I even went to the library and got the first one in the series. I’ll read a few other books before I read that one, though, to see if I forget the spoilers for it that were in this book. Hmph.

*This is a much longer and more detailed review of the one which was originally published by the Historical Novel Society.

Best lines from Circe

It’s been a loooooooooooong time since I wrote a ‘favorite lines from…’ kind of post. I can’t think of a better one to start back up with than Madeline Miller’s CIRCE. Miller’s prose is simply magical. Every pun intended. Assume there will be spoilers below.

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  • When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.
  • That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures. In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride.
  • Nothing is empty void, while air is what fills all else. It is breath and life and spirit, the words we speak.
  • What was I truly? In the end, I could not bear to know.
  • It was not a word I knew. It was not a word anyone knew, then. Pharmakis,’ I said. Witch.
  • I thought: this is how Zeus felt when he first lifted the thunderbolt.
  • ‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘who gives better offerings, a miserable man or a happy one?’ ‘A happy one, of course.’ ‘Wrong,’ he said. ‘A happy man is too occupied with his life. He thinks he is beholden to no one. But make him shiver, kill his wife, cripple his child, then you will hear from him. He will starve his family for a month to buy you a pure-white yearling calf. If he can afford it, he will buy you a hundred.’

Fear of failure was the worst thing for any spell.

  • My sister might be twice the goddess I was, but I was twice the witch.
  • This was how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practise and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun.
  • Whatever you do, I wanted to say, do not be too happy. It will bring down fire on your head.
  • But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation he was to me.
  • As it turned out, I did kill pigs that night after all.
  • When there is rot in the walls, there is only one remedy. …Tear down, I thought. Tear down and build again.
  • Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away.
  • They never listened. The truth is, men make terrible pigs.
  • War has always seemed to me a foolish choice for men. Whatever they win from it, they will have only a handful of years to enjoy before they die. More likely they will perish trying.

Witches are not so delicate.

  • Most men, in my experience, are fools.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

  • Would I be skimmed milk or a harpy? A foolish gull or a villainous monster? Those could not still be the only choices.
  • When Achilles puts on his helmet and cleaves his red path through the field, the hearts of common men swell in their chests. They think of the stories that will be told, and they long to be in them. I fought beside Achilles. I stood shield to shield with Ajax. I felt the wind and fan of their great spears.
  • I was a golden witch, who had no past at all.
  • They have wrinkles, but no wisdom. I took  them to war before they could do any of those things that steady a man. … I fear I have robbed them not only of their youth, but their age as well.
  • Heroes are fools.

When you are in Egypt you worship Isis, when in Anatolia you kill a lamb for Cybele. It does not trespass on your Athena still at home.

  • I washed him and rubbed oils into his skin, as carefully as if he could still feel my fingers. I sang as I worked, a melody to keep his soul company while he waited to cross the great river to the underworld.
  • I touched the thought like a bruise, testing its ache.
  • He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend I had none.
  • I would look at him and feel a love so sharp it seemed my flesh lay open. I made a list of all the things I would do for him. Scald off my skin. Tear out my eyes. Walk my feet to bones, if only he would be happy and well.
  • Her only love was reason. And that has never been the same as wisdom.
  • Gods and mortals do not last together happily.
  • Witchcraft transforms the world. He wanted only to join it.

‘…I cannot say how I knew. It was as if…as is all this while, my eyes had been waiting for just that shape.’ I knew the feeling. It is how I had felt first looking down at him in my arms.

  • But perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults.
  • ‘It is strange to think of a goddess needing friends.’ ‘All creatures that are not mad need them.’

I remembered what Odysseus had said about her once. That she never went astray, never made an error. I had been jealous then. Now I thought: what a burden. What an ugly weight upon your back.

  • ‘I warned her once that grief would come of her marriage. There is no pleasure in hearing I was right.’ ‘There seldom is.’
  • Penelope said, ‘What makes a witch, then? If it is not divinity?’ ‘I do not know for certain. …I have come to believe it is mostly will.’ She nodded. I did not have to explain. We knew what will was.
  • That is how things go. You fix them, and they go awry, and then you fix them again.

Life is not so simple as a loom. What you weave, you cannot unravel with a tug.

  • …some people are like constellations who only touch the earth for a season.
  • One of us must grieve. I would not let it be him.
  • ‘You have always been the worst of my children,’ he said. ‘Be sure you do not dishonor me.’ ‘I have a better idea. I will do as I please, and when you count your children, leave me out.’
  • Do not try to take my regret from me.
  • ‘We are not our blood,’ he answered. ‘A witch once told me that.’

He does not mean that it does not hurt. He does not mean that we are not frightened. Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.

Black Lily

39305353Black Lily by Philippa Stockley

I read it as an: ARC

Source: HNS*

Length: 253 pp

Publisher:  Pimpernel Press

Year: 2018

**This review very much contains spoilers**

Black Lily is the tale of Zenobia and Lily. Zenobia was born into poverty, the daughter of an impoverished young girl who became the mistress of a shipping mogul. It is possible he was Greek or Middle Eastern but if it ever said, I missed that part. He was surprised when Zenobia was born blonde. Lily is a black woman who was brought to London from the Caribbean on a sugar and slave ship as a toy to a rich lord. She was a kept woman for a rich merchant who ended up being connected to Zenobia in a surprising way. The lives of these women  continue to intertwine in intricate, often horrific, ways, and they both have to learn how to navigate society to her best advantage when her value is entirely decided by the men who control them. Lily ends up being a hidden driving force throughout Zenobia’s entire adult life in ways she never even knows. In turn, Zenobia unwittingly is a savior of sorts to Lily. Another woman, Lily’s maidservant, Agatha, is yet another link between the three women, forging deeper connections and bonds that are strong enough to keep the secrets they all hide from society and the men around them. Read More »

The Winter of the Witch

42082394The Winter of the Witch: A Novel (Winternight Trilogy) by Katherine Arden

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Kathleen Gati

Source: my own collection

Length: 14:00:00

Publisher: Random House Audio

Year: 2019

Picking up right where The Girl in the Tower left off, Vasilisa Petrovna finds herself the focus of the rage of Moscow’s people after inadvertently burning down a large part of the city. Accused of witchcraft, with the mob’s hatred fanned by the insane monk Konstantin, Vasya manages to escape into the realm of Midnight, a place where all midnights of the past, present, and future exist, but not before making a sacrifice that absolutely gutted me. In Midnight, Vasya meets many new characters, some friendly, others not so much. One of the best was the little mushroom spirit who made it a point to tell everyone that he was the first to support her quest. Baba Yaga also makes an important appearance. Vasya also learns that she has some surprising new abilities and the reasons for them, which draw the attention of the winter king Morozko. His twin brother, Medved, is bent on creating chaos in the spirit world and world of men, and Vasya and Morozko have to find a way to stop him. As if that all weren’t enough for her to worry about, Vasya also has to navigate the politics of the secular world to help save Rus from an invading horde of Tatars.

There isn’t really a good way to summarize this book. It is a satisfying end to the trilogy and I loved it, though I do think it is my least favorite of the three. I am not sure if it is simply because I was listening to it on audio (as I did the other two as well) and, because of work and personal schedules and things, I had a lot of days where I wasn’t able to listen at all, or not with my full attention. It felt a little disjointed in places, but that could have been me. In any case, Arden’s writing remains as lush and evocative as ever. I think I have to buy physical copies of this trilogy and eyeball read them all now, I loved this series that much.

Winter of the Witch dealt closely with destiny, identity, and loyalty, and how those influence people and their interactions. Just so many factors come into play – love, lust, fear, hate – and each one leaves its mark on Vasya. She learns hard lessons and makes some horrific sacrifices. She finds the only kind of love she could tolerate. She finds the place she belongs. She’s grown from a wild little girl into a strong and capable woman, with her own skills and secrets and pain and joys. Any woman would be proud to have a daughter such as her.

Favorite quotes:

“There are no monsters in the world, and no saints. Only infinite shades woven into the same tapestry, light and dark.”

“Yesterday she saved your life, slew a wicked magician, set fire to Moscow and then saved it all in a single night. Do you think she will consent to disappear, for the price of a dowry – for any price?’’

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Image courtesy of Pixabay. Maybe it’s Solovey?

“I was asleep but those two woke me up. I missed you.”

“Who is to say, in the end, that the three guardians of Russia are not a witch, a frost-demon, and a chaos-spirit? I find it fitting.”