16 September 2014

Wonders and Marvels: Tiny Orkney Yields Its Big Secret

Theories change over time in archaeology as with other disciplines. The 19th century emphasis on the Mediterranean and Egypt as the cradle-of-everything, given that was the region where most early digs occurred, is shifting as more digs are conducted in northern Europe relative to exploration in the 18th and 19th century. Sometimes it is easier to dig in your own back yard, for various reasons beyond the scope of this piece.

A remote corner of Scotland provides the latest major discovery.  First, some background. In the Isles, experts like Cunliffe at Oxford had already emphasized the importance of pre-Roman culture. For example, the Isles' natives knew how to survey and build straight roads between two points, and they had organized settlements with defensive walls, and all happened well before the southern area of Prydain (Britain) was forcefully annexed to Rome's Iron Age empire. It is also accepted that the Newgrange or Bru na Boinne complex in Ireland predates the Pyramids (and Stonehenge).

The Isles were not a cultural backwater waiting for rescue by Rome or anyone. The Neolithic cultures who built great passage tombs had connected very early (well prior to 3000 BCE) by marine trade to many areas of the Continent. Irish gold jewelry set the fashion from ca. 2500 BCE onward as attested by pieces found all over northern Europe. The Isles' early smelting of copper in southwest Ireland radically changed the megalithic culture along the Atlantic coasts. This change is portrayed in Bending The Boyne. With bronze smelting (1 part tin, 9 parts copper) from tin in Wales and Cornwall, the Isles became the innovators in weapons and bronze metallurgy for over a thousand years, roughly 2000 BCE to 600 BCE when iron weapons and tools took over. During this time frame and up to what is considered recorded history* the Isles supplied tin for bronze to the Continent and made superior finished metal goods. Cornish tin may have equipped warriors at Troy with bronze spearhead and helmets, and formed Achilles' famed shield.

Now comes a further, major shift from a massive new dig on Orkney off the northeast corner of Scotland.  Over prior decades, Orkney had yielded the remarkable stone dwellings clustered at Skara Brae, the massive passage tomb of Maes Howe roughly contemporaneous with Bru na Boinne in Ireland, and the Eagles' Tomb burial site along with stone circles like Stennes. All this could be seen, touched, evaluated. Much has been dated to the Neolithic. But the biggest discovery lay buried underneath a long hill, a ceremonial complex that archaeologists literally drove past without giving it a second thought. Then one professional living on Orkney decided to dig at the Ness of Brodgar, a finger of land holding the hill barrow. The size of the complex, the skilled masonry of its walls and flagged paths, and varied artifacts coming to light, are all supporting Orkney as a major cultural center. Bits of painted wall and rock, and a small anthropomorphic statue, are a first in the Isles' Neolithic. The cultural center for Prydain was at Orkney, not Wessex, and lasted around a thousand years.  Its demise is thought to have happened around 2300 BCE ( see Bending The Boyne).  http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/oct/06/orkney-temple-centre-ancient-britainalso http://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com/2012/01/orkney-temple-predates-stonehenge-by.html#.U_YsMvldWAk

What has been found overturns the view that Stonehenge represents the cultural apogee for ancient Prydain. A corollary is that the meaning of Orkney's huge sacral landscape must be newly evaluated by archaeologists, then translated for the public in various media of film and books. Must we then endure more recycled, mumbling Druids?  Will Merlin and Arthur be dragged to Orkney? More damsels in distress defying the laws of physics to time travel? This might seem a rant, but not without justification.

Archaeology's theoretical shift over the past decade has yet to be fully explored in historical fiction. Native Gaelic-speaking clans in the Isles, Iberia, and Gaul, are still portrayed in fiction as having less sophistication or intelligence than the militaristic Romans who arrived fairly late on the scene and wearing sandals despite the climate! Any skills the Gaels do exhibit in certain fiction tend unfortunately to be vague or based on occult practices by mythical “Druids” hunting mistletoe who rule over an unskilled, unwashed populace.  This is like using the imagery of Grimm's fairy tales to portray medieval Europe's culture. This is as offensive as calling native Americans Indians.

There's plenty of room for different styles in fiction, yes. But less fantasy, and a lot more accuracy, would greatly benefit readers seeking historical fiction about the ancient Gaels. This is an instance of truth being stranger than fiction, that little Orkney holds the remains of the largest ceremonial center found to date in northern Europe. See also :  http://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/news/neolithic-temples-of-the-northern-isles.htm

*Linguist John Koch's work on Tartessian script in southwest Iberia is pushing back the time frame for written Gaelic. See Celtic From The West, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Oxbow Books (2012 and 2014).
About The Author

J.S. Dunn lived in Ireland during the past decade, on 12 lovely acres fronting a salmon river. The author continues to research and travel the Atlantic coasts and is helping to shift the old paradigm of “Celts” with a second novel set at 1600 BCE.

14 September 2014

Author Interview & Ebook Giveaway: Kim Rendfeld on THE ASHES OF HEAVEN’S PILLAR

This week, we're pleased to welcome author and Unusual Historicals contributor Kim Rendfeld with her newest release THE ASHES OF HEAVEN’S PILLAR. One lucky blog visitor will receive an ebook. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

Can love triumph over war?

772 AD: Charlemagne’s battles in Saxony have left Leova with nothing but her two children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn. Her beloved husband died in combat. Her faith lies shattered in the ashes of the Irminsul, the Pillar of Heaven. The relatives obligated to defend her and her family instead sell them into slavery.

In Francia, Leova is resolved to protect her son and daughter, even if it means sacrificing her own honor. Her determination only grows stronger as Sunwynn blossoms into a beautiful young woman attracting the lust of a cruel master and Deorlaf becomes a headstrong man willing to brave starvation and demons to free his family. Yet Leova’s most difficult dilemma comes in the form of a Frankish friend, Hugh. He saves Deorlaf from a fanatical Saxon and is Sunwynn’s champion - but he is the warrior who slew Leova’s husband.

Set against a backdrop of historic events, including the destruction of the Irminsul, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar explores faith, friendship, and justice. This companion to Kim Rendfeld’s acclaimed The Cross and the Dragon tells the story of an ordinary family in extraordinary circumstances.

**Q&A with Kim Rendfeld, author of The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar**

Your first book, The Cross and the Dragon, was also set in eighth century Europe. Why write in this time period again?

After I finished writing The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press), a tale of love amid wars and blood feuds, I went through an odd form of grief. I missed my characters, and the only way to deal with that feeling of loss was to write another book. I chose this era again because it fascinates me. It’s a society where the king’s decision on whom to wed can mean the difference between peace and war, where medicine, magic, and religion intersect, and where real-life gutsy women tried to shape the events around them. I simply couldn’t fit them all in one book.

In particular, two pieces of information rattled in my mind:
·         In 772, Frankish King Charles destroyed the Irminsul, a pillar holy to the pagan Saxon peoples.
·         Slavery was alive and well in this era, and war captives often ended up in servitude.

I wondered what it would be like to have your faith literally go up in smoke and what it would be like to be a freewoman one moment and a slave the next.

Why did you make a pagan, peasant woman your heroine?

At first, I was going to feature a couple of nuns I met in The Cross and the Dragon, but I couldn’t quite get a plot together, and the Saxon family with their back story of loss and betrayal captivated me. I surrendered to them and made that back story the main story.

My interest in featuring a common woman also stems from spending almost two decades in Indiana newsrooms. When I was a journalist, I believed one of my duties was to give a voice to people who did not have a lot of influence otherwise, and that instinct has followed me as I write historical fiction.

Early medieval sources, written when few people could read and even fewer could write, mainly concern themselves with the wars (of which there were many), affairs of royalty, and the lives of saints. They are not objective accounts – there simply was no such thing. To them, pagans are oath-breakers and brutes, and captives, if mentioned at all, are spoils of war. So medieval peasants and slaves rarely have a voice in history. With the pagan Continental Saxons, it gets even more complicated. They had no written language as we know it.

Fiction is one avenue to show what their lives might have been like.

What was the most surprising or fun fact you found in your research for this book?

Cabbage was not the same 1,200 years ago - it did not form heads. When I started writing fiction, I knew not to include New World foods such as potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers, but I took for granted that vegetables stayed the same over the centuries. Was I wrong on that! I was surprised to learn that heading cabbages are not mentioned until the 13th century. If you are researching food history, check out foodtimeline.org.

Many of the historical events in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar are the same as The Cross and the Dragon. Did that make it easier to write?

Surprisingly, no. The basic facts remain, but the characters’ perceptions yield a very different story.

King Charles is a hero to Alda, the protagonist of The Cross and the Dragon, but a monster to Leova and her children.

Another example comes from three emirs’ visiting the Frankish assembly in Paderborn in 777 to secure an alliance with Charles to conquer territories in Hispania. Alda has a premonition of disaster. But Leova’s son, Deorlaf, sees an opportunity for his people to retake Saxony, and he ponders that if he had even a fraction of the emirs’ riches he could buy his family’s freedom.

Same historical event, but vastly different reactions.

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press). To read the first chapters of either novel or learn more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, connect with her on Goodreads at www.goodreads.com/Kim_Rendfeld, check out her Amazon page at www.amazon.com/author/kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

11 September 2014

Excerpt Thursday: THE ASHES OF HEAVEN’S PILLAR by Kim Rendfeld

This week, we're pleased to welcome author and Unusual Historicals contributor Kim Rendfeld with her latest release, THE ASHES OF HEAVEN’S PILLAR. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a free e-copy of The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

Can love triumph over war?

772 AD: Charlemagne’s battles in Saxony have left Leova with nothing but her two children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn. Her beloved husband died in combat. Her faith lies shattered in the ashes of the Irminsul, the Pillar of Heaven. The relatives obligated to defend her and her family instead sell them into slavery.

In Francia, Leova is resolved to protect her son and daughter, even if it means sacrificing her own honor. Her determination only grows stronger as Sunwynn blossoms into a beautiful young woman attracting the lust of a cruel master and Deorlaf becomes a headstrong man willing to brave starvation and demons to free his family. Yet Leova’s most difficult dilemma comes in the form of a Frankish friend, Hugh. He saves Deorlaf from a fanatical Saxon and is Sunwynn’s champion - but he is the warrior who slew Leova’s husband.

Set against a backdrop of historic events, including the destruction of the Irminsul, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar explores faith, friendship, and justice. This companion to Kim Rendfeld’s acclaimed The Cross and the Dragon tells the story of an ordinary family in extraordinary circumstances.

**An Excerpt from The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar**

Author’s note: I was thinking of September 11, 2001, when I wrote this scene, which takes place after Eresburg is conquered. Leova and other Saxons agree to a bargain with the Christian priests: safe conduct to the village for anyone who accepts baptism.

When the group reached their village at the hilltop, cries shuddered through the crowd. 
Longhouses were nothing more than scorched beams, and the earth on the farms was torn. The fortress’s great wooden gate looked as if a giant had ripped it asunder.

What they didn’t steal, they burned, Leova thought, stiff with fury, afraid to look to her right where the Irminsul had once stood near the river.

But she could not ignore the keening of the other Saxons. She turned, beholding the chunks of charred wood and the huge black splotch. She crossed her arms and rocked back and forth, sobbing, “All for naught, all for naught.”

“May the Earth Mother curse the Franks,” Deorlaf said through clenched teeth.

Shaken from her sadness, Leova looked up toward the Christian priests. Father Osbald’s lips were thinned and pressed together as if he was stopping himself from saying something. 

Some priests were leaning toward their fellows, gossiping perhaps, while other tapped their hands against their thighs. Apparently waiting for the Saxons to expend their grief, none had heard her son.

Leaning down toward Deorlaf, she said in his ear, “I hate them as much as you do, but do not say such things until after those priests leave. I do not want them to keep us from your father.”

Deorlaf glowered but nodded his assent.

After the laments quieted to moans and sighs, the Christian priests led the group past the ruined homes, which smelled of stale smoke. When the first Saxons entered the fortress, a raucous murder of crows flew over the stone walls. Leova hesitated at the broken gate, grimacing at the stench. She glanced at the bowl in Ealdgyth’s hands. She should be with Leodwulf when Ealdgyth placed his ashes in the barrow, but to have Derwine unattended another moment sickened her.

“Leova,” Ealdgyth said, “go look for Derwine. That’s what Leodwulf would want.”

Astounded by Ealdgyth’s kindness, Leova nodded as her sister-by-marriage and her nephews headed toward the barrows. She did not want to enter the fortress. She did not want to see Derwine’s body.

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press). To read the first chapters of either novel or learn more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, connect with her on Goodreads at www.goodreads.com/Kim_Rendfeld, check out her Amazon page at www.amazon.com/author/kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

03 September 2014

Wonders and Marvels: The Cantigas de Santa Maria

By Jessica Knauss

King Alfonso directs his subjects to worship Jesus through the Virgin Mary
and the angel Gabriel in the F manuscript of the Cantigas de Santa Maria
A poor woman takes her baby with her to the wheat fields — she has no alternative. While his mother works, the boy swallows a head of wheat and his belly swells to alarming proportions. His mother, believing he’s been poisoned or bitten by a spider, frets over him for several days. When she despairs for his life, there’s only one person — or supernatural being — she can turn to. She lays him before the altar of Our Lady of Atocha. The boy’s clothes are removed, and no one can find a spider bite, but they do find an intact head of wheat coming out the boy’s side. The boy recovers immediately. Everyone gives praise to the Virgin Mary for such a beautiful miracle.

The Cantigas de Santa Maria tell of the wonders of the Virgin Mary in a way that still makes people marvel.

Alfonso X of Castile and León is called el Sabio because he loved learning. He made it possible for a team of scholars to record the latest scientific advances for future generations. He carried this compulsion for compilation through to the Cantigas, which are a collection of nearly 400 songs with words, music, and illustrations.

Many of the miracles involve a dramatic recovery, as in Cantiga 315 above, or theatrical leaps of faith, as in the story about the good wife whose husband was so jealous of her that he mistreated her terribly. She asks him if he would believe she’s faithful to him if she underwent a trial by fire. He responds that he doesn’t think that’s necessary, but she can jump off a cliff! If she comes out alive, that will be proof of her fidelity. The woman comes to the edge of the highest, scariest cliff for miles around.

She commends herself to the Virgin Mary and throws herself over. With the entire town as witness, she lands feet first on ground that seems soft and smooth to her, although for non-believers, it would have been rocky — and deadly.

In the style of a rosary, the Cantigas punctuate the miracle stories with songs in praise of the Virgin Mary’s own wondrous nature at every tenth cantiga.

Even these most spiritual of the Cantigas display a down-to-earth quality. One of Alfonso’s main objectives with these songs was to show how wonder could reach absolutely everyone in his realm through Mary, from the poor lady in the wheat field, through nobles, sheriffs, monks, nuns, and warriors, to the king himself. Because they so accurately portray real life, the Cantigas don’t limit Alfonso’s realm to people, but also include the animals that cohabited with his subjects, such as horses, cattle, sheep, dogs, ermines, and silk worms!

A woman who makes her living with silk has trouble: her silk worms are dying. She goes to the Virgin Mary’s altar and promises that if Mary revives her silk worms, she will make an altar cloth to honor the Queen of Heaven. Soon enough, the silk worms are hard at work again, but the woman forgets her promise — until, one day, she comes home to find that the worms have taken her promise upon themselves. They make not one, but two altar cloths, and in the illustrations we see the added miracle that they already have a beautiful lacy design. The fame of the miracle spreads, and since there are two of them, King Alfonso takes one for his own altar to the Virgin Mary.

Most of the lower-numbered cantigas take stories from all over Europe’s Marian repertoire, but as the king’s demand for more and more miracles increased (the goal may have been 500), the poets searched closer to home and in more recent history. As Cantiga 18 shows, some feature Alfonso himself, and 22 take place during the reconstruction of El Puerto de Santa María in the south, one of the king’s pet projects.

Cantiga 371 tells how a large ship headed for El Puerto was laden with flour and people. Some of them were coming for the land grants, some to work as masons, some to form part of the new religious community. El Puerto’s fame was already widespread, as the refrain reports: “Holy Mary performs so many miracles in her Port that we poets can’t describe the least part of them.”

Unfortunately, the ship in this cantiga hits a rock and sinks, killing everyone on board except one woman. She cries out to the Virgin, “I’m coming to you, so save my life with your great power.” In that instant, one of the sacks of flour emerges from the ship, and even though it’s heavy, it floats as if it were very light. The woman floats along atop it, calling, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, Emmanuel,” until she arrives at El Puerto to be welcomed by the residents.

Not all the miracles are so outwardly spectacular. In one of my favorites, the miracle consists of a violent, lustful knight deciding to change his ways.

As you can see in the illustrations, he’s already got an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The Virgin Mary appears to him with a beautiful silver platter filled with rotten food — a metaphor for the knight’s outward loveliness and evil interior. He gets the message loud and clear. Even though the knight’s life is never threatened in this cantiga, his soul is in danger of eternal damnation, which, to medieval thinking, is the most dramatic story of all.

It’s said that the Cantigas were the king’s favorite project, as they incurred the most labor, expense, and time. The compilation may have begun before Alfonso ascended to the throne in 1252 and ended only upon his death in 1284. In his will, Alfonso instructed that the Cantigas manuscripts should be kept in the chapel where he was buried (in the cathedral in Sevilla) and sung on high feast days. None of the four extant manuscripts reside there now: an early draft without illustrations known as To is in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid; King Felipe II had three deluxe manuscripts (including E and T) removed to the Escorial in the sixteenth century; and somehow one of those deluxe manuscripts (F) came to be at the Italian National Library in Florence today.

The Cantigas de Santa Maria deal with people’s interior lives as well as the most unexpected details of their exterior lives, and include everyone from every social class, from Spain to Europe to Northern Africa and the Middle East. Some of these songs are masterpieces of lyricism, others are solid narratives from a time before short stories existed, and still others take humor to new heights. Each of the thousands of illustrations offers delights to appreciate from any point of view. They constitute the largest collection of medieval music ever amassed and contain every imaginable Western musical style.

In their time, the Cantigas celebrated marvels and wonders, and today they have become a marvel in themselves because of the sense of wonder they convey in greater measure as time goes on.

Jessica Knauss earned her PhD in Medieval Spanish with a dissertation on the portrayal of Alfonso X’s laws in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which has been published as the five-star-rated Law and Order in Medieval Spain. A driven fiction writer, Jessica Knauss has edited many fine historical novels and is currently a bilingual copyeditor at an educational publisher. Find out more about her historical novel, Seven Noble Knightshere, and her other writing and bookish activities here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too!

29 August 2014

Everyday Fashions: Dressing a Trojan or Hittite Queen

By Judith Starkston

One of the appeals of historical fiction to many readers is the depiction of elaborate clothes. This put me in a bit of a jam when I worked on my novel, Hand of Fire (out Sept 10, 2014), set in the Trojan War, and now as I develop my historical mystery about Queen Puduhepa of the Hittites (cultural cousins and near neighbors to Troy). I am dressing women in the Late Bronze Age, about 1200 BCE, in what is now Turkey, but I have no lovely oil portraits or written accounts of what these women wore. I have to be a fashion designer on a shoestring of evidence.

So what do I have to work with?

Fabrics were woven of wool or linen. We know that noble women, who could afford to spend extravagant amounts of time weaving fine fabrics as opposed to survival-wear, created both elaborate pictorial/geometric patterns and super fine weaves. Homer shows Helen depicting whole mythological scenes on her loom and spinning a golden spindle with precious purple wool (dyed by laboriously milking single drops of ink from each sea snail). We have evidence from Egypt that translucent fabric almost like silk could be woven if a single thickness of twisted linen fiber was used, producing two hundred threads per inch, finer than you typically find modern fabrics. No need to imagine the Trojan and Hittite princesses looking primitive or dowdy.

But what did they do with those fabrics? From rock carvings, pictorial vases and seal impressions we have a rough idea of the shape of the dresses and that part isn’t so sexy.

Here’s Queen Puduhepa herself on the Fraktin rock carving on the Old Hittite Road in south central Turkey. 
Shown are two female figures. The seated one is a goddess and the standing one is Puduhepa pouring a libation to the goddess. They are similarly dressed, which is interesting. They both wear long dresses with what appear to be fairly loose sleeves. They have conical hats that look like they are covered with a veil or mantle that flows down the back and around the shoulders. The standing woman’s garment seems pulled in at the waist but not dramatically so. This is modest garb. The conical hat, by the way, is a feature shared by most gods and kings. Apparently a clear sign of importance either royal or divine was a cone-head. We do have many gorgeous gold diadems from the period, so it isn’t a stretch to imagine that a crown-like diadem could also act as a signifier of wealth or status.

Here's Queen Puduhepa on her own personal seal.
She has the same hat with veil. Her skirt is definitely belted at the waist and her skirt has a diagonal design or fold to it.

Her son, by the way, is on the opposite side of her seal under the protective arm of a god. They both wear short kilts with edging and conical hats. Their hats have horns on them.

Can we add more detail to these depictions?

There’s an intriguing find at Troy that helps. Around the remains of a warp-weighted loom scattered in the dirt, archaeologists discovered hundreds of tiny gold beads. These beads must have been already woven into a partially done piece and fell to the ground when the fabric burned, as we know this layer of Troy did. So you can imagine shimmering gold finely worked into a queen’s dress.
Interestingly, the only significant part of that wooden loom that would survive to show us that a loom had been there would be the stone weights fallen in a tell-tale row. The loom style of ancient Anatolia and Greece is upright and looks quite different from what you’re expecting if you’ve got in your mind one of the modern sit-down looms with foot pedals to change the sheds. Here’s a somewhat rough version of a loom but the line drawing makes the mechanisms clear.

Another detail we can add is that we know there were also special band looms that made brightly colored edgings or braiding. Such edgings are hinted at on some Hittite vases. Here are some musicians and dancers on a vase in the Corum Museum. The lines on their skirts may also indicate pleating. 

Such fancy trims and pleating are much more visible on the Minoan and Mycenaean frescoes, but it’s best to remember these ladies are from a somewhat different period and place than my Trojans and Hittites. They do provide the only color vision, so it’s worth comparing. Here is a Minoan fresco from Akrotiri, island of  Thera, with a beautifully dressed lady of the court:

 We also know they polished fabrics with smooth stones to make them shine.

So what did I do in Hand of Fire to dress my young lady, the future queen of Lyrnessos, an ally of Troy? Briseis doesn’t always find herself in dress-up circumstances, to say the least, but here are two examples when she does.

Briseis is betrothed to the king’s son. In his first formal courting visit, Briseis wears “her best russet skirt, the pleats picked out with multicolored braid and a cream linen veil to cover her bright hair.” Her future groom gives her, among other things a necklace of amber beads.

Here is an excerpt from her wedding day, the grandest occasion I had to dress her up for:
Briseis put on her linen tunic and swirling skirt, bleached a brilliant white and rubbed with an oiled stone until the fabric glistened. Eurome reached underneath the pleated skirt to pull the tunic snugly over her breasts so that the fabric curved and swelled around her body. Briseis ran her hand over the smoothness of the tunic and then spun in a circle to feel the heavy skirt fly out. Eurome laughed and then made her hold still while she tied on a linen belt decorated with gold sun discs. Briseis slid on the matched bracelets that Antiope had received from Glaukos for her wedding day—two wide bands of gold set with cornelian.
            Eurome brushed Briseis’s hair until it glowed, a long red-gold cascade. She wove the front strands into a crown and attached the diadem Milos had fashioned of golden sprays of lilies intertwined with tiny pomegranates. Traceries of flowers and leaves wound down from it, gleaming against the deeper gold of Briseis’s hair. Eurome clasped a matching necklace around Briseis’s neck.
            As Eurome lifted the saffron-colored veil out of its chest, they heard the king, queen and Mynes announced and her father’s greeting.
            “Your husband is here to claim you. Lucky we’re almost ready,” said Eurome. The breath caught in Briseis’s chest.
            Eurome covered her from head to toe in the translucent veil, holding it in place with a golden pin shaped like Kamrusepa’s bee and arranging it so the delicate fabric clung to Briseis’s form and suggested the beauty that it only partially concealed. Her hair, the jewels, and shimmering fabrics glinted through the golden cloud surrounding her.

28 August 2014

Excerpt Thursday: WAYFARING STRANGER by James Lee Burke

This week, we're pleased to welcome author JAMES LEE BURKE with his latest novel, WAYFARING STRANGER. The author will offer a free copy of Wayfaring Stranger to a lucky blog visitor.  Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

In his most ambitious novel, master storyteller James Lee Burke tells a classic American story through one man’s unforgettable life—connecting a fateful encounter with Bonnie and Clyde to the Battle of the Bulge to the merciless frontier justice of the Wild West. 

It is 1934 and the Depression is bearing down when sixteen-year-old Weldon Avery Holland happens upon infamous criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow after one of their notorious armed robberies. A confrontation with the outlaws ends as Weldon puts a bullet through the rear window of Clyde’s stolen automobile. 

Ten years later, Second Lieutenant Weldon Holland and his sergeant, Hershel Pine, escape certain death in the Battle of the Bulge and encounter a beautiful young woman named Rosita Lowenstein hiding in a deserted extermination camp. Eventually, Weldon and Rosita fall in love and marry and, with Hershel, return to Texas to seek their fortunes. There, they enter the domain of jackals known as the oil business. 

They meet Roy Wiseheart—a former Marine aviator haunted with guilt for deserting his squadron leader over the South Pacific—and Roy’s wife Clara, a vicious anti-Semite who is determined to make Weldon and Rosita’s life a nightmare. It will be the frontier justice upheld by Weldon’s grandfather, Texas lawman Hackberry Holland, and the legendary antics of Bonnie and Clyde that shape Weldon’s plans for saving his family from the evil forces that lurk in peacetime America and threaten to destroy them all. 

**An Excerpt from Wayfaring Stranger**

Chapter 1 

IT WAS THE year none of the seasons followed their own dictates. The days were warm and the air hard to breathe without a kerchief, and the nights cold and damp, the wet burlap we nailed over the windows stiff with grit that blew in clouds out of the west amid sounds like a train grinding across the prairie. The moon was orange, or sometimes brown, as big as a planet, the way it is at harvest time, and the sun never more than a smudge, like a lightbulb flickering in the socket or a lucifer match burning inside its own smoke. In better times, our family would have been sitting together on the porch, in wicker chairs or on the glider, with glasses of lemonade and bowls of peach ice cream. 

My father was looking for work on a pipeline in East Texas. Maybe he would come back one day. Or maybe not. Back then, people had a way of walking down a tar road and crossing through a pool of heat and disappearing forever. I ascribed the signs of my mother’s mental deterioration to my father’s absence and his difficulties with alcohol. She wore out the rug in her bedroom walking in circles, squeezing her nails into the heels of her hands, talking to her- self, her eyes watery with levels of fear and confusion that nobody could dispel. Ordinary people no longer visited our home. 

As a lawman, Grandfather had gone up against the likes of Bill Dalton and John Wesley Hardin, and in 1916, with a group of rogue Texas Rangers, he had helped ambush a train loaded with Pancho Villa’s soldiers. The point is, he wasn’t given to studying on the complexities of mental illness. That didn’t mean he was an ill-natured or entirely uncharitable man, just one who seemed to have a hole in his thinking. He had not been a good father to his children. Through either selfishness or ineptitude, he often left them to their own de- vices, even when they foundered on the wayside. I had never under- stood this obvious character defect in him. I sometimes wondered if the blood he had shed had made him incapable of love. 

He hid behind flippancy and cynicism. He rated all politicians “somewhere between mediocre and piss-poor.” His first wife had “a face that could make a freight train turn on a dirt road.” WPA stood for We Piddle Around. If he hadn’t been a Christian, he would have fired the hired help (we no longer had any) and “replaced them with sloths.” The local banker had a big nose because the air was free. Who was my grandfather in actuality? I didn’t have a clue. 

It was right at sunset when I looked through the back screen and saw a black automobile, coated with dust and shaped like a shoe box, detour off the road and drive into the woods behind our house. A man wearing a fedora and a white shirt without a tie got out and urinated in front of the headlights. I thought I could hear laughter inside the car. While he relieved himself, he removed his fedora and combed his hair. It was wavy and thick and brown and shiny as polished walnut. His trousers were notched tightly into his ribs, and his cheeks looked like they had been rubbed with soot. These were not uncommon characteristics in the men who drifted here and yon through the American West during the first administration of President Roosevelt. 

“Some people must have wandered off the highway onto our road,” I said. “The driver is taking a leak in front of his headlights. His passengers seem to be enjoying themselves.” 

Grandfather was sitting at the kitchen table, an encyclopedia open in front of him, his reading glasses on his nose. “He deliberately stood in front of his headlights to make water, so others could watch?” 

“I can’t speak with authority about his thought process, since I’m not inside the man’s head,” I replied. I picked up the German binoculars my uncle had brought back from the trenches and focused them on the car. “There’s a woman in the front seat. A second man and another woman are in back. They’re passing a bottle around.” 

“Are they wets?” 

I removed the binoculars from my eyes. “If wets drive four-door cars.” 

“My first wife had a sense of humor like yours. The only time I ever saw her laugh was when she realized I’d developed shingles.” 

I focused the binoculars back on the driver. I thought I had seen his face before. I heard Grandfather get up heavily from his chair. He was over six and a half feet tall, and his ankles were swollen from hypertension and caused him to sway back and forth, as though he were on board a ship. Sometimes he used a walking cane, sometimes not. One day he seemed to teeter on the edge of eternity; the next day he was ready to resume his old habits down at the saloon. He had gin roses in his cheeks and skin like a baby’s and narrow eyes that were the palest blue I had ever seen. Sometimes his eyes did not go with his face or his voice; the intense light in them could make other men glance away. “Let’s take a walk, Satchel Ass,” he said. 

“I wish you wouldn’t call me that name.” 

“You’ve got a butt on you like a washtub.” 

“There’s a bullet hole in the rear window of the car,” I said, looking through the binoculars again. “My butt doesn’t resemble a washtub. I don’t like you talking to me like that, Grandfather.” 

“Wide butts and big hips run in the Holland family. That’s just something to keep in mind as you get older. It’s a family trait, not an insult. Would you marry a woman who looks like a sack of Irish potatoes?”

24 August 2014

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: Ian Lipke on NARGUN

This week, we're pleased to welcome author Ian Lipke with his latest novel, NARGUN. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. The author will offer a free print copy of Nargun to a lucky blog visitor from Australia.  Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

For many the turbulent history that shaped early Australia has been forgotten. The victorious wrote the history books, and the voices of the vanquished were silenced. The invasion and conquest of the land and the near genocide of the indigenous people were events that rarely receive mention.

Ellie Matthews' academic research drew her to the culture and history of the first inhabitants of Southeast Queensland. One day she receives a poorly written letter that causes her to drive over rough roads to meet with an old aboriginal man who tells her the story of Nargun, a man of the forgotten Galanga people, one of the greatest aboriginal warriors of his day, a war chief caught up in the collision between two cultures and two worlds. In Garunna's tale, we hear of an almost forgotten race…the awful clash of white and black cultures…the story of the spirited leader and his fight for his people. We hear about the women who loved him and the men who followed him.

In Garunna’s story, Nargun, a prince among men, once more leads his people into battle while, at the same time, revealing the path of forbidden love that rewrites Ellie’s own history. 

**Q & A with Ian Lipke**

What was your motivation for writing this story?

It all began as a short story that friends overseas thought should be turned into a novel. Very little has been written that delves into the vast knowledge of our country which the indigenous aborigines possessed. Certainly no novel before mine tries to tell a story based on their lives as nomads. Their culture goes back 40 000 years but its richness has been sidelined by white Australians.

At what period of time and in what geographical area is this story set. Why there?

The location needed to be a dramatic one that I could exploit for story-telling purposes. I chose the Glasshouse Mountains area of South East Queensland, Australia for that reason and because I lived in the area as a boy.
The time was fixed by the years when white settlers moved into that area viz. the 1820s to 1830s. My book is set at the very beginning of the period. I tied the story to the cruel Captain Logan (killed by convicts in 1824).

What made you feel you could write a novel about these people?

Having grown up in the country I have always admired the aboriginal respect for the land and, as a teacher, I realized that all history books and novels are written from a white perspective. When I wrote this book, no white person in my part of Queensland showed the slightest interest in aboriginal culture. I wanted a more inclusive Australia and I wanted to stir up debate.

What response have you had from readers of your book?
I’ve actually been very pleased. No matter how often or how loudly I protest that my story is fiction, readers congratulate me on the apparent authenticity of the aboriginal customs and events described within the covers. I published the book late last year and have already sold more copies than I ever thought possible. What’s more, none of the anticipated criticism has surfaced. People who have bought Nargun include university academics, teachers, administrators in adult education institutions in Queensland and overseas. The book has been reviewed positively at the following addresses:

Is there any dispute among authorities about the facts of your story?

Yes. Martin Knox alludes to a different interpretation in his review. He says that most authorities believe that the Australian aborigines as a race were a peace-loving people, very different from my warriors. There is some support for my view in academic circles, and in all fairness, Knox brings this support to the fore. However, I maintain in a prominent spot at the front of the book that I set out to tell a story. The needs of the tale-telling would always be what is important.

Why did you select that particular passage from your book for blog readers and other participants to read?

I could have selected a passage that featured a large number of skills at which the aborigines excelled. That would have run the risk of blurring the detail. I chose this particular passage because of its narrow focus on a specific skill, that of tracking. This has always been perceived as a particularly aboriginal skill.

Have you published any other works?

Yes. Back in the 1970s I co-wrote two history textbooks for junior high school students. Since Nargun, I have self-published a crime novel called Lest Evil Prevail, also set on the Sunshine Coast, and I am working on another crime novel at present which is set in Brisbane.
Nargun may be purchased at www.booklocker.com/books/7462.html

Lest Evil Prevail at www.booklocker.com/books/7512.html as print books for $USD22.99 or as eBooks for $USD2.99.

About the Author

Ian Lipke became a teacher of primary children in 1958, transferring to secondary schools in 1964. He has taught in schools in remote and metropolitan areas of Queensland, Australia. He left school teaching in 1977 to lecture at the University of Queensland and at Queensland University of Technology. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, he was a deputy principal at several high schools, before retiring to manage his own tutoring business. In 2006, he returned to postgraduate studies through research at the University of Queensland. His whole life has been devoted to academic studies, which he very much enjoys.

He has co-written two textbooks for older school children, a novel called Nargun that depicts aboriginal-white confrontation in early nineteenth century Queensland, and at the time of writing was president of the University of the Third Age, Brisbane. While carrying out his administrative duties, he has written and published a crime novel called Lest Evil Prevail. A third novel, Family Matters, has been accepted for publication. His books are available for purchase at www.booklocker.com.

In addition to his administrative responsibilities he coordinates the ‘words’ section of M/C Reviews, a highly commended online journal that is the brain-child of Dr Axel Bruns of Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. In 2014, he conducted a seminar on the self-publishing industry, an area that he has made his own.

Ian has a wife, two children, and two grandchildren.