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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

I get pitched a lot of books. I usually accept about one a month. I like most of them and write a paragraph or two on GoodReads.com, LibraryThing.com or Amazon.com. A very few get the full blog treatment. Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston is one of those I want to enthusiastically share with my fellow readers. Her novel has all the elements I look for in historical fiction: compelling characters, engaging plot, and fascinating setting.

About the book:

Hand-of-Fire-Cover-Large-203x300The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god; will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.

I have a weakness for stories that shine a light on little known women or give silenced women a voice in the way Anita Diamant spoke for the biblical Dina (Joseph’s only sister) in her wildly popular The Red Tent. Starkston takes a similar approach through the story of Briseis. In the Iliad Briseis has only a handful of lines, yet she is a pivotal character in the narrative arc of the classic poem, sparking a rift between Achilles and Agamemnon that almost brings the Greek war against Troy to ruin. In the poem she expresses her love for Achilles in spite of the fact that he killed her brothers and husband, sacked her city, and reduced her status from princess to slave. A tall order to build a believable scenario where that could happen! Starkston does a beautiful job taking the slender clues about Briseis’ life and times and building believable characters. Briseis matures from an uncertain girl to a woman capable of determining her own destiny in this engaging story. (more…)

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Reconstruction of Lindow Man

Reconstruction of the “Lindow Man” bog body. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Samhain–the night of the dead. Yevetha knew from the ice around her heart there was one more ghost to walk the night and haunt her dreams. She clutched a tiny fur blanket to her sunken chest and rocked back and forth, keening. Sixteen summers ago she had ripped a bloody baby from the womb of her dying daughter and had wrapped him in the fur.

Yevetha had searched in the bogs for the rare herbs that would bring on her milk and had endured the pain caused to an aging body as it prepared to nurse the tiny infant. Her love had been rewarded as Bohumil grew into a fine strong young man with his mother’s blue eyes.

At the waning of the last full moon, Bohumil had come of an age to marry. He had packed for the hand of days it would take him to travel to the ocean tribes and set out through the forest to trade for a bride price.  The full moon returned.  Bohumil did not.

Yevetha pulled her worn skin cloak tighter about her shoulders and turned to the fire pit at the back of the hut.  The cramped space reeked of peat smoke and the herbs drying in the thatch ceiling. She pushed at a tangle of coarse gray hair, leaving a smudge of soot across one cheek.

Yevetha had seen forty-six winters. She was weary and there was no one to replace her as healer now that the Sun priests had outlawed the worship of the Great Mother and all Her arts. She spat on the fire. For twenty years the Sun priests had cursed her life. They had converted the village men to their Sun worship and fewer and fewer women met in the secret glade to keep the covenant with the Mother Goddess.

Yevetha pulled a bronze knife from her belt and stretched to cut several herbs from the store in the ceiling. Bitter rue for grief, sweet rosemary for remembrance and rough hemp for dreams. She took a figure made of twigs from a plain reed basket and tied the tear-stained fur around its waist with a twist of straw. (more…)

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I’m back from New Zealand and–totally by coincidence–I’m hosting a New Zealand author. As readers of this blog know, I’m a Dickens fan. I can’t get enough of his quirky characters, dark settings, twisty plots and–yes!–even his social preaching. One of my favorites, Little Dorritt (reviewed here) features a debtor’s prison which is just as much a character as its human inhabitants. That’s why I was so pleased to score a copy of The Raven’s Seal a historical mystery written in the style of Dickens. The author Andrei Baltakmens is a Dickens scholar and plants an eighteenth-century prison in the heart of his novel. The gaol (jail for us in the US) broods over the prose and lurks in the background infusing the story with its dark presence. From the first paragraph:

The Old Bellstrom Gaol crouched above the fine city of Airenchester like a black spider on a heap of spoils. It presided over The Steps, a ramshackle pile of cramped yards and tenements teeming about rambling stairs, and glared across the River Pentlow towards Battens Hill, where the sombre courts and city halls stood. From Cracksheart Hill, the Bellstrom loomed on every prospect and was glimpsed at the end of every lane.

Many thanks to Andrei for providing a guest post on eighteenth-century crime and punishment and to his publisher Top Five Books for providing a giveaway copy (details at the end of the post.)

Early-Modern Crime (and Punishment) in The Raven’s Seal

by Andrei Baltakmens

My novel, The Raven’s Seal, is a historical mystery set in and around a fictional eighteenth-century prison, the Bellstrom Gaol. The gaol is a commanding presence in the novel, presiding over the equally fictional city of Airenchester. But of course there would be no gaol, and no mystery, without crime and punishment, and though the Bellstrom dominated my imagination for a long time, the history of crime in the early-modern period (roughly 1500 to 1800), particularly under the Black Act, makes for a fascinating background which occasionally peeks through into the mystery. (more…)

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The Twelve Rooms of the Nile CoverI just finished The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, a novel about the imagined meeting of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert when they both traveled the fabled river–before they became famous. It’s a lovely literary effort with wonderful insights into two intriguing characters. I’m pleased to host a guest post by the  author Enid Shomer where she tells us how she came to know both these remarkable people and write about them. Ms. Shomer’s short fiction and poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Paris Review among other publications. This is her first novel. Thanks to her publisher Simon and Schuster for providing two copies of this book for a giveaway (details at the end of the post.) If you want to learn more about Ms. Shomer and her writing, please visit her website. Enjoy!

TWO GENIUSES ON THE NILE

by Enid Shomer

I live in Florida, and was, therefore, surprised to see that Florence Nightingale was running against Thomas Jefferson on my last sample presidential election ballot. While nurses on every continent know that Nightingale invented nursing as a  profession, that before her, nurses were regarded as loose women no better than drunkards, slatterns, or opium addicts, most Americans know little about her. Throughout the old British empire, by contrast,  she is recognized as an iconic heroine, the “Lady with the Lamp.” That epithet derives from the fact that she made rounds at night to tend the wounded soldiers in the hospital at Scutari during the Crimean War, a revolutionary practice at the time. (more…)

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Seven Wonders cover

Gordianus the Finder is back in this prequel to Steven Saylor’s popular series of mysteries set in the Roman Republic of Cicero and Caesar. Gordianus is eighteen and embarks on the First Century BCE equivalent of a “Grand Tour” with his old tutor and famous poet Antipater of Sidon. As the Italian peninsula simmers with rebellion, the pair head east to visit the Seven Wonders of the World encountering murder, mysteries and political intrigues. Over the course of their year+ journey, Gordianus evolves into “the Finder” series readers have come to know and love.

For the record, I am not a Gordianus fan. I very much enjoyed Saylor’s multi-generational epics Roma and Empire, which I reviewed, but didn’t take to the couple of Finder novels I sampled. Not because they were bad books, but because I’m not that into historical mysteries. Every reader has her quirks. This book has a distinctly different structure from the others. Saylor uses the journey to visit the Seven Wonders as a framework for several short stories (many of which were previously published in mystery and fantasy magazines.) Each Wonder gets a story with a few interludes, such as attending the Olympic Games and visiting the ruins of Corinth, resulting in ten chapters dealing with murder, witchcraft, ghosts and gods. As their journey continues, a larger mystery entangles Gordianus and Antipater with spies and other enemies of Rome. (more…)

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Noah's Wife coverFrom the back:

Noah’s wife is Na’amah, a beautiful, brilliant girl with a form of autism (now) known as Asperger’s. She wishes only to be a shepherdess on her beloved hills in ancient Turkey—a desire shattered by her powerful brother’s hatred, the love of two men, and a looming disaster only she knows is coming.

Review:

I got this book in the Historical Novel Society Conference goodie-bag and was intrigued. Asperger Syndrome runs in my family, so I was curious as to how T. K. Thorne would handle that aspect of her debut novel. She states in her “Acknowledgements” and “Postscript” that she doesn’t have AS and relied on research and particularly the writings of Dr. Temple Grandin, a well-known speaker and writer on the topic. (Dr. Grandin is autistic.) For the most part, I felt Thorne got it right. As she notes, this is a neurological condition that runs a vast spectrum of behaviors and can present as a severe disability up to creative genius. Every person with AS presents differently, but they all share a common difficulty with social engagement. They are “clueless” until they figure out, or someone teaches them, the social rules that most children seem to absorb with no instruction. There’s no reason to believe AS didn’t exist in 5500 BCE, but, from a Darwinian point of view, it was probably very rare. Loners, folks who didn’t “belong” or conform to group norms, would have had a significant survival disadvantage. This is how Na’amah describes herself:

My name, Na’amah, means pleasant or beautiful. I am not always pleasant, but I am beautiful. Perhaps that is why I am trundled atop this beast like a roll of hides for market and surrounded by grim-faced men. If my captors had bothered to ask me, I would have told them that their prize is of questionable value because my mind is damaged…Memories appear as images in my mind. Each word-sound I hear has its own color and shape and they fit together with the others in patterns that I can recall as easily as I can name every sheep on my hillside…I speak only truth, unwise as it may be, since lies distress me…my words and manner seem odd to other people. I am more comfortable with animals, who do not expect me to be any way than the way I am. (more…)

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Giveaway information at the bottom.

Alexandria book coverAs anyone knows, who’s stopped by this blog, I’m a sucker for anything set in Alexandria, especially during the Roman period. I’ve studied the city for many years and it’s the setting for my first novel. So I’m continuing my Alexandria series with this book review and giveaway. I’ll post some more history later in the month.

Lindsey Davis is well known for her Marcus Didius Falco historical mysteries and this one is number nineteen in the series. From the back cover:

In A. D. 77 Marcus Didius Falco, private “informer” and stalwart Roman citizen, undertakes one of the most fearsome tasks known to man—he goes on vacation with his somewhat pregnant wife, Helena Justina, and their family. They travel to Alexandria, Egypt, and they aren’t there long before the Librarian of the great library is found dead under suspicious circumstances, in his office with the door locked from the inside.

Falco quickly finds himself on the trail of dodgy doings, malfeasance, deadly professional rivalry, more bodies, and the lowest of the low—book thieves! As the bodies pile up, it’s up to Falco to untangle this horrible mess before the killer begins to strike closer to home. (more…)

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