Monday, March 31, 2014

History as seen by peasants and pagans, a guest essay by Kim Rendfeld

For the final post in this year's Small Press Month focus, Kim Rendfeld (who was interviewed here in September 2012) talks about the different perspectives offered by her two historical novels, both set in 8th-century Francia. 

History as Seen by Peasants and Pagans
By Kim Rendfeld

What would it be like if everything you believed literally went up in smoke? And what would it be like if one minute you were a freewoman and the next sold into slavery?

Those two questions arose in my mind during my research for my debut novel, The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press), a tale of love amid the wars and blood feuds of Charlemagne’s reign. As I looked into the history of this era, two things caught my attention:

• In 772, Frankish King Charles destroyed the Irminsul, a pillar holy to the pagan Saxon peoples. The location and what the pillar was made of – or even if there was only one – are uncertain. Charles’s act was reminiscent of deeds by Saints Boniface and Willibrord. 

Charlemagne's destruction of the Irminsul, Hermann Wislicenus (ca 1880).
Source: Wikimedia Commons

• Slavery was alive and well in this era. War captives often ended up in servitude.

I had to let this information rest in the back of my mind while I wrote a novel from the perspective of Frankish Christian aristocrats who had their own difficulties to contend with. Novels by their very nature immerse readers in the world of the characters. For the story to feel real, readers must see events through people with their own virtues and flaws, beliefs and biases.

But that also means excluding other points of view. This causes a bit of tension for me. During my nearly two decades in journalism, I valued fairness and telling all sides of the story, especially from people not in power.

The pagan Continental Saxons fit the definition of underdog. They are history’s loser. After more than 30 years of war off and on and brutality on both sides, Charlemagne’s Franks subjugated them. In addition, the Church did everything it could to obliterate the religion, which it considered devil worship, and the Continental Saxons did not have a written language as we know it.

Even on the Frankish side, literacy was limited. The annals, letters, and other documents concern themselves mainly with the affairs of royalty and saints. Pagans are depicted as brutes, war captives are treated like war booty, and peasants are rarely mentioned at all.

That urge for fairness is one reason an imaginary Saxon peasant family sold into slavery insisted I tell their story as I was trying to figure out my second novel. Originally secondary characters, they hijacked my plot.

The result: The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (forthcoming 2014, Fireship Press), which depicts many of the same historical events as my debut but from the views of a pagan mother and her two children. My heroine, Leova, must grapple with why the gods let the Irminsul burn and how to protect her children when she’s lost everything – her husband, her home, her faith, even her freedom.

Here, historical fiction fills a gap. It might be the only way to see early medieval history through the eyes of pagans and peasants.


A former journalist and current copy editor for a university marketing and communications office, Kim Rendfeld has a lifelong fascination with fairy tales and legends, which set her on her quest to write The Cross and the Dragon and its companion, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar.

For more about Kim, visit or her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist. If you’d like to receive an e-mail from Kim when The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar is available, contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Small press spotlight: new & upcoming historical novels from international publishers

And, for my final gallery of small press titles, here are a dozen new and forthcoming titles from small presses based outside the United States.  Putting this list together was both fun and challenging, since I aimed to include a variety of countries, publisher-wise, as well as historical settings.  And for American readers, many of these titles won't be as hard to obtain as you'd think: most have US distribution either in print or on Kindle.

An epic, multicultural love story set in the Middle East in 1914, a new direction from a prolific Welsh novelist best known for her sagas.  Accent Press (UK), August 2013.

A new time-slip novel about a star-crossed 18th-century romance linked to the present day through a portrait, written by the recent winner of the Romantic Novelists' Association RoNA award in the historical category.  Choc Lit (UK), February 2014.

Biographical fiction about Sofonisba Anguissola, renowned Italian portrait painter at the court of Spain's Philip II.  Inanna Publications (Canada), November 2013.

More lively social drama set in the countryside of Regency England; this is a sequel of sorts to The Death of Lyndon Wilder, which I reviewed last year.  Corsair (UK), May 2014.

A fictional biography of an Australian woman ("musician, octagenarian, junkie") who becomes a modernist theremin player as her performing career takes her from 1920s Perth to locations around the world.  Fremantle Press (Australia), 2013.

First in a series of historical thrillers set in Singapore in 1892 which follows a police detective as he tries to solve a visiting American's murder in Chinatown.  Monsoon Books (Singapore), October 2013.

This YA novel set in the WWI years features a teenaged orphan with precognitive abilities who, after her parents' deaths on the Titanic, is sent to India, a land rife with unrest and conspiracies.  Thistledown Press (Canada), March 2014.

Downton Abbey meets The Fugitive in post-WWI Western Australia: "An English heiress has just given birth and unleashed hell. Weakened and grieving, she realises her life is in danger, and flees into the desert with her Aboriginal maid. One of them is running from a murderer; the other is accused of murder."  Sounds like a wild ride.  Allen & Unwin (Australia), March 2014.

A historical novel set in 17th-century Hartford!  For some reason, historicals set in my home state of Connecticut are exceedingly rare.  Anne Yale Hopkins (a historical character) marries and hopes to settle happily into her new life only to have it turn out other than she envisioned.  Inanna Publications (Canada), November 2013.

The plight of Queen Charlotte and her daughters, beset from all sides when her husband, England's King George III, goes mad.  There are so few biographical novels about the Georgian kings and queens (aside from Jean Plaidy's, of course) that I'm eagerly awaiting this one; I'll be reviewing it later this year.  (Edited to add:  A previous version of this novel was titled God Save the King.)  Myrmidon Books (UK), June 2014.

The stories of a Welsh couple, trapped in war-torn Hong Kong in the 1940s as the Japanese overtake the city, intertwine with those of their Chinese servant and their young daughter.  Seren (Wales/UK), July 2013.

This literary work depicts the harmony between Muslims, Jews, and Christians that existed in old Cairo before the Arab-Israeli Wars, as seen through the eyes of a boy with a mixed religious background.  American University in Cairo Press (Egypt), September 2014.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Feminist women of 4000 years ago: the naditu women, an essay by Shirley Graetz

Today's guest post comes from Shirley Graetz, author of She Wrote On Clay (Hadley Rille, 2013).  Here she describes her academic research into the naditu women of ancient Mesopotamia, and how their stories refused to let her go...


Feminist Women of Four Thousand Years Ago:
The Naditu Women
Shirley Graetz 

People tend to think of nuns as women from the Middle Ages who devoted their lives to the church, living in abstinence, mostly modest and impoverished lives.

This may have been true of medieval times, but as it turns out, a kind of monastic class of women existed long before Christianity was born, and they were anything but poor. We learn about them from the thousands of documents inscribed in cuneiform script on clay tablets, written in the ancient language of Akkadian.

During the second millennium BCE, in the land of Mesopotamia (Ancient Iraq), lived a group of women, the naditu women, who were consecrated to the god Shamash (the god of justice) and to his consort, Aja.

These women entered the secluded gagu, a walled compound within the city, at marrying age (around 17 or 18 years old). They lived in the gagu in their own house or room, which their family bought them. Most of these women came from wealthy families who supplied the young naditu with a generous "dowry" or inheritance, which included real estate, fields, orchards and sometimes even servants.

Once in the gagu, the father or brothers of the naditu would see to it that she would receive her share of the family property in the form of oil, clothing, barley and food rations. From letters we learn that as long as the father was alive, there were no problems; however, once the fathers died, the responsibility passed on to the brothers. Surprisingly (or not), the brothers did not always fulfill their responsibilities towards their sister. Thus in many letters naditu complained about negligence, and starvation. From documents we know that some naditu even took their brothers to court.

But, on the other side, many of these women were engaged in business transactions, selling or buying property, leasing out fields or orchards for a profit, becoming successful businesswomen in a usually male dominated field.

So after reading hundreds of documents about the naditu women, I was more than fascinated. I was captured by their story.

However, in all the texts, the women's feelings were not discussed, and it got me wondering. Were they happy in the gagu? Did they want to be there? Did they even have a say in the matter? Were they, perhaps, miserable? These questions kept me up until one day, I sat down and started to write a story about a girl called Iltani. All Iltani ever wanted was to become a scribe (a profession dominated by men). Her best way to achieve that goal was to join the naditu women. However once in the gagu, she had to undergo a long and hard path until she succeeded in becoming a scribe.

author Shirley Graetz
The words of the story kept gushing out of me, and I was amazed by the outcome. I hadn't planned any of this, as I was in the midst of my PhD in Assyriology.

But the idea for the book was born. However, reading only documents about the naditu was not enough. I started to do general research about that period: how people lived, how they ate, in what they believed.

I looked at archeological artifacts from that period to get a sense of their lives. I learned about the architecture of that time and drew up a map of the various places I used in the book: Iltani's house, the Shamash Temple, the gagu.

Slowly, very slowly, not only the plot was coming alive, but also Sippar of 4000 years ago. It took me another eight months after I completed my PhD to finish writing the novel and send it to the publisher, Hadley Rille Books. Before publishing the book, I gave the manuscript to some a fellow Assyriologist who was kind enough to comment and give me great suggestions.

I found writing the story very stimulating and enhancing. It connected me to the time period in a different way than my academic research. Both researches supplemented each other very nicely.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Shirley Graetz

Shirley Graetz was born in Düsseldorf, Germany. In her early twenties she went to Israel to study and stayed for good. In 2013 she received her Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern studies from the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. She teaches about the history of Ancient Israel and the Ancient Near East and is a licensed tour guide. She is married and is a mother of three young children.

Writing books combines both things she loves very much: researching history and telling stories.

She Wrote on Clay was published by Hadley Rille Books in October 2013 as part of their Archaeology Series ($12.00 trade pb / $3.99 ebook, 200pp).  For more information, see the book's page on Amazon and Goodreads.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

In which I read Unmentionables, by Laurie Loewenstein

Living here in small-town Illinois, I knew I had to read Laurie Loewenstein's Unmentionables when I first came across the book description. It's set in the fictional hamlet of Emporia, one of many small towns founded by hardy pioneers which were springing up across the state during the 19th century. When the novel opens in 1917, war is being fought in Europe, and social changes are sweeping through the nation's heartland. While some citizens of Emporia are ready to meet them head on, others are happy to keep things as they are, thank you very much.

Loewenstein has the scenery and temperament of the rural Midwest down perfectly: the dairy farms, the storefronts lining each side of Main Street, the minutiae reported in the local newspapers, and the strong sense of community within a small place where everyone knows each other's background and business. In addition, she brings forth the sense of insularity, the wariness about outsiders, the long-entrenched bigotry which has no place in the modern age but refuses to go away.

When noted lecturer Marian Elliot Adams drives her dusty Packard into Emporia as part of the traveling Chautauqua assembly, she intends to educate and startle her audience with her keynote speech about how women's corsets are holding them back socially and economically. After she sprains her ankle stepping off the stage and is forced to recuperate in Emporia for a week, both she and many of its citizens are horrified. She doesn't for a minute think this nondescript, backward town has anything to teach her. However, narrow-mindedness runs both ways.

The plot begins with Marian but spreads out to encompass the individual, unique stories of the townspeople whose lives she touches. Widowed newspaper editor Deuce Garland needs some of Marian's courage; his gut tells him he needs to expose a local wrong, but he fears backlash. His stepdaughter Helen, an admirer of Marian's, wants to move to Chicago but is held back by her domineering grandfather, the paper's owner.

Emmett Shang, Marian's black driver, opens her eyes to the racism underlying the supposedly close-knit town. And Tula Lake, Deuce's next-door neighbor, who has been waiting for him to ask her out her story is among the most gratifying. She may seem to be a secondary character, so it's a joyful surprise to see her blossom into the star of her own late-in-life romance.

In the second part, the focus shifts to Picardy, where Marian volunteers with a relief unit delivering supplies to villagers whose lives and homes were upended by the war. Here she continues her personal journey of self-discovery, developing close friendships with other women who don't know or care about her background. There are casualties both at home and abroad, and several especially poignant losses. Although novels about the Great War have become as common as Illinois cornfields these days, Loewenstein presents a new slant on the wartime experience.

This warmhearted, involving work, situated gracefully in its era, depicts a wide range of social concerns as people's minds are opened to new, previously hidden possibilities. What I appreciated most about Unmentionables is its determination to look deeply into issues and push beyond what readers and its characters expect. It offers a lot to think about, since many of the issues addressed are pertinent today. The title is perfect. I can see the book working very well as a discussion choice, both here in the Midwest and elsewhere.

Unmentionables was published by Akashic/Kaylie Jones Books in January ($15.95, trade pb, 320pp).  Thanks to the author for giving me a review copy.  You can also check out her earlier guest post about Circuit Chautauqua on this site.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

My 8th anniversary small press giveaway

Eight years ago today, this blog first came into being.  It started out as a rather chatty site, with random personal observations about historical fiction, notices of publishing deals, a few book reviews here and there, and the occasional cat photo.

Since then, I've been concentrating even more on reviews, as well as guest posts and upcoming title previews, but the overall focus hasn't changed.  It's still All Historical Fiction, All the Time.  Thanks to all of my readers for hanging around this corner of the online historical fiction universe!

Since I'm celebrating my 8th anniversary in the middle of Small Press Month, I thought I'd offer a giveaway similar to last year.  Up for grabs is your choice of any novel mentioned in a post here during March 2014.

The month isn't yet over, so no need to name your prize now... I'll draw the winner(s) a week from now and ask them for the name of the book they'd like to win.  I'll give away one book for every 50 entries received.  (One entry per person, please.)

Fill out the form below for a chance to win. Deadline March 31, 2014; open internationally.  If you have any thoughts for future features on the blog, too, I'd love to hear them.

Good luck!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Honoring the Nameless: An essay by Laurel Corona, author of The Mapmaker's Daughter

I've been celebrating small press titles here on Reading the Past, but March is even better known as Women's History Month.  Laurel Corona's historical novels incorporate a variety of settings: ancient Greece, Enlightenment-era Europe, 18th-century Venice, and now, with her new release The Mapmaker's Daughter, 1490s Spain during the expulsion of the Jews.  All of them tell the stories of important but little-known women.  In the following essay, Laurel explores this theme, revealing how her writing and research permit her and us to rediscover them and their contributions.


Honoring the Nameless
Laurel Corona

“Where do you get your ideas?” This is one of the questions historical novelists are most frequently asked. It always makes me smile because getting ideas is the easy part. Whenever I hear an amazing true story about someone in the past, my first thought is always whether there might be a novel in it. Still, to give up nearly everything but writing for a year or more of my life, I have to be more than intrigued. I have to be compelled. If I’m not burning to tell a story, it’s hard to see why you might burn to read it.

I know, to quote Diane Ackerman, that I am “coming down with a book” when I start working up a case of righteous indignation about a woman or women whose story greatly deserves to be honored, but has been completely forgotten. In The Four Seasons it’s the female orchestra and choir who were central to Vivaldi’s development as a composer. In Penelope's Daughter, it’s all the women who had fallen out of the story before Homer wrote it down. In Finding Emilie, it’s the brilliant Enlightenment mathematician and physicist Emilie du Châtelet, who usually receives no more than casual mention, if that, for having been Voltaire’s lover.

I knew from the time I became a historical novelist that I wanted to write about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Usually when I start with an idea this general, I flounder around for a while trying to find the characters and the story. In this case, it became apparent that several men in one of Iberia’s most prominent Jewish families were at the center of events in this terrible time, but I couldn’t find any colorful Jewish women around whom to build a plot, and since for me the central character(s) must be female, I couldn’t find my way into the story.

Early in my research I read a biography of Isaac Abravanel, one of these men, and a comment therein provided the passion that got me going on The Mapmaker's Daughter (Sourcebooks, March 2014). It said that Isaac had once remarked that he could not have hoped to accomplish all he had as a writer, philosopher, and leader of the Jewish community, if he hadn’t had such a strong and capable wife.

He never mentioned her name.

Oh, and the biography goes on to name his sons and provide information about each. It adds that he might have had a daughter, but it isn’t known for certain. With a loud ringing in my brain, I set out to give names and lives to the women of the Abravanel family.

I am not making them up. They are real people, but even so, they must be entirely reinvented. For all my novels, I begin to fill in the gaps by reading biographies of as many real-life characters in the book as possible. For The Mapmaker's Daughter, this included Henry the Navigator, Isaac Abravanel, Torquemada, and Isabella. I pored into every cranny of Dolores Sloan’s The Sephardic Jews of Spain and Portugal, and spot read the relevant portions of many histories. I even found a book of men’s and women’s fashions from this era, and discovered that there were hundreds of names for slight variations not just of major items like dresses or jackets, but the details of sleeves, cuffs, collars, and bodices.

I was lucky with this book, because I found treasure in some unlikely places. For the National Jewish Book Award-winning cookbook A Drizzle of Honey, David Gitlitz and Linda Davidson combed the archives of the Inquisition to find references to food preparations used to convict actual women of “Judaizing.” It’s a wonderful mix of history, recipes, and honoring of women who held to their faith during horrific times, and my characters partake of several meals from these recipes. I have too, by the way!

I also hit gold with a book about folk medicine as still practiced among Sephardic women of Romania and the Middle East. This was the closest I could get to knowledge of the practices at the time of my book, but since these incantations and potions are viewed as a timeless part of Sephardic history, I used them extensively to give a feel for the state of medicine at the time, and the superstitions that governed so much of medieval life.

A true story of the expulsion of the Jews, or any other piece of history, cannot be truthfully and accurately told without including the women, and in the absence of facts we have to substitute the twin powers of research and imagination. Women have never just been standing by, and we need to stop allowing history to be told that way.

I listen to the whispered voices of the forgotten women of the past, and words pour through my fingers onto the screen. Somewhere over my shoulder comes a disembodied sigh of relief that someone is finally listening. Historical fiction is in some cases the only way women have to reclaim our past, and I am thrilled to be part of that.



A sweeping novel of 15th-century Spain explores the forgotten women of the Spanish Inquisition

In 1492, Amalia Riba sits in an empty room, waiting for soldiers to take her away. A converso forced to hide her religion from the outside world, She is the last in a long line of Jewish mapmakers, whose services to the court were so valuable that their religion had been tolerated by Muslims and Christians alike.

But times have changed. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella conquer Granada, the last holdout of Muslim rule in Spain, they issue an order expelling all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. As Amalia looks back on her eventful life, we witness history in the making—the bustling court of Henry the Navigator, great discoveries in science and art, the fall of Muslim Granada, the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. And we watch as Amalia decides whether to relinquish what’s left of her true self, or risk her life preserving it.

Exploring an under-published period in history, The Mapmaker’s Daughter is a sweeping saga of faith, family and identity that shows how the past shapes our map of life.


Laurel Corona is the author of three historical novels, including Finding Emilie (Gallery Books, 2011), which won the 2012 Theodore S. Geisel Award for Book of the Year, San Diego Book Awards. She has taught at San Diego State University, the University of California at San Diego, and San Diego City College, where she is a professor of English and Humanities.

Corona is a member of the Brandeis National Committee, the National Council of Jewish Women, and Hadassah. She has written over a dozen nonfiction Young Adult books for school library programs, primarily on Jewish topics. She lives in San Diego. Website:

Friday, March 21, 2014

Small press spotlight: new and forthcoming historicals from university presses

If you believe that university presses produce only scholarly academic tomes, you may be surprised to learn that many of them also publish original works of literature including historical novels whose settings reflect the history of their region, or other areas of specialty. Many of them undergo peer-review as part of the publishing process, just as other works from the same press do.

Here's a selection of eight historical novels offered by a variety of university presses in the US and Canada.  I don't know about you, but selecting and typing out these lists means trouble for me, since I ended up putting several of the books in my Amazon cart this afternoon.

Lace-making, the creation of literature, and burgeoning religious conflict feature in this literary novel set in a convent in Granada during Spain's 16th-century Golden Age.  Texas Tech University Press, December 2013.

Biographical fiction featuring Jeanne Dugas, one of the earliest settlers of Chéticamp in Acadia in the late 18th century, when families of French origin such as hers lived under threat from the British.  The author, who specializes in Acadian history, is a descendant of her subject; read more at her website.  Cape Breton University Press, June 2013.

The disaster known as the Great Flood overwhelmed and devastated the industrial city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on May 31, 1889.  George frames this tragic event around the story of two reporters who interview a 103-year-old survivor about her memories and the plight of her missing twin sister over a century later. University of Pittsburgh Press, April 2014.

In the tradition of current historical novels which bring the wives and lovers of celebrated men into the spotlight comes this new entry set in 1940s California; it centers on Bea Franco, who was immortalized in fiction as Jack Kerouac's "Mexican Girl."  Based on the author's determined research, according to this story from Public Radio International.  University of Arizona Press, August 2013.

The star-crossed love story between an aristocratic spinster and a European-educated physician, a couple of disparate social classes and religious beliefs, plays out in Mexico City just prior to and during the country's revolution.  University of Wisconsin Press, April 2014.

Noted Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat wrote the foreword to her fellow countrywoman's new novel about the early history of Haiti, an island with strong undercurrents of unrest in the mid-18th century. The Rosalie is a slave ship which figures in the personal history of the main character's grandmother, a slave who survived the Middle Passage.  University of Nebraska Press, October 2013.

Washburn, director of graduate studies in the American Indian Studies department at the University of Arizona, situates her third novel on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation in 1969, where Sissy, the sharply intelligent singer and guitar-picker for a band on tour, gets pulled into helping solve a local's murder. University of Arizona Press, February 2014.

Atmospheric and character-centered, this debut novel recounts the trials of a young mother from rural Appalachia in the '40s who has grown up hearing voices; the narrative also loops in the viewpoints of the people who love her.  Mercer University Press, September 2013.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Early Hawaiian Islands in Blackwell's Paradise, a guest post by V.E. Ulett

Today, for my 900th post on the blog, we're traveling across the Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  V.E. Ulett, author of the seafaring adventure novel Blackwell's Paradise, newly out from Old Salt Press, is our guide to the islands' colorful political and cultural history.


The Early Hawaiian Islands in Blackwell's Paradise
V.E. Ulett

Royal Navy Captain James Blackwell’s experiences in the Hawaiian Islands in Blackwell’s Paradise are an amalgamation from various 19th-century Pacific island cultures and societies. In this post I’d like to share a few details concerning the actual Hawaiian Islands of the late 18th and early 19th centuries: an island paradise or a place of danger, warfare, and cannibalism?

Kamehameha (c. 1758 - 1819) had conquered all of the Hawaiian islands except Kauai by 1795, and is recognized as the most noteworthy of the Hawaiian monarchs. He is reputed to have been a giant of a man, nearly seven feet tall, full of martial ability. Kamehameha came to manhood during a time of constant warfare between tribes of the Hawaiian Islands. By 1778, when Cook arrived with the ships Resolution and Discovery, Kamehameha was a seasoned warrior, said to have exuded power and violence. He observed and appreciated guns, iron tools, and weapons when European and American ships began to frequent the islands as a place of refreshment in the Canton and Northwest trade routes. Later, when supreme ruler of the Sandwich Islands, Kamehameha would insist on receiving arms and ammunition, tools, and naval stores and expertise in trade with other nations.

Tammeamea, roi des iles Sandwich par Louis Choris, 1816

Pacific island tribes of Kamehameha’s era practiced a fierce and brutal hand-to-hand warfare. In the last battle before dominating the entire island chain, Kamehameha put down a rebellion on his home island of Hawaii, afterwards sacrificing the rebel chief at a heiau in Piiho-nua, Hilo. Human sacrifice formed part of ancient tradition, demanded by Hawaiian gods and their priests. The victims were captured enemies, slaves, or violators of kapu. The kapu system kept the Hawaiian gods constantly before the country people, the kama’āina, and by extension as the descendants of the gods, the ruling class of ali’i. This was a system of governance that touched every aspect of Hawaiian life, including agriculture and fishing, land management and husbandry, trade and social interactions.

Cannibalism appears to have been a ceremonial practice for the Hawaiians, associated with veneration for the dead, and the traditional preserving of the bones of chiefs. Portions of Captain Cook’s body were delivered to Lieutenant James King after his death at Kealakekua in 1779. This gesture was likely honorably meant, other portions having been allotted to important chiefs and priests. Kamehameha was rumored to have claimed Cook’s hair, the possession of which would have increased his own mana, or power and prestige.

Following the conquest period, Kamehameha was held to be a good and great chief, who restored order and prosperity to the land. He encouraged agriculture, putting a great seven mile swath of land in his home district of Kona under cultivation himself, which was to his advantage in trade and the provisioning of foreign ships. The kapu system, that helped Kamehameha maintain order and the continuance of chiefly rights and privileges, was abandoned after the great king’s death in 1819.

Queen Ka’ahumanu with her servant on rug, lithograph by Jean-Pierre Norblin
de la Gourdaine after painting by Louis Choris, the artist
aboard the Russian ship Rurick, which visited Hawai'i in 1816

In 1804, when Captain Blackwell’s Pacific island adventures take place, Kamehameha was at the height of his power — the ali’i nui ai moku, the high chief who eats the islands (land districts). The king of Hawaii, Maui, and Oahu, Kamehameha at that period was amassing a force of invasion in Honolulu against Kauai. Kauai was a tough island to invade, a 75-mile channel of rough sea separating it from neighboring Oahu. Kamehameha’s favorite wife, Ka’ahumanu (c. 1768 - 1832), is nevertheless said to have successfully fled Kamehameha’s ill-treatment, alone in a canoe across this difficult channel, and reached Kauai.

Captain Blackwell negotiations that same treacherous channel, and the disparate civilizations and cultures of Europe and Oceania. He discovers similarities between the two maritime nations; England as embodied in the Royal Navy and the Hawaiian nation in the hierarchy of the ali’i and the kapu system; each with strict prohibitions, violent retaliations, and a strong sense of honor and duty. Captain Blackwell and Mercedes venture into a fictional version of Kamehameha’s magnificent and complex Hawaiian kingdom in Blackwell’s Paradise.


About V.E. Ulett's Blackwell's Paradise:  The repercussions of a court martial and the ill-will of powerful men at the Admiralty pursue Royal Navy captain James Blackwell into the Pacific, where danger lurks around every coral reef. Even if Captain Blackwell and Mercedes survive the venture into the world of early 19th-century exploration, can they emerge unchanged with their love intact? Blackwell’s Paradise takes Captain Blackwell and Mercedes to the far side of the world, on a new personal, and cultural adventure.

A longtime resident of California, V.E. Ulett is an avid reader as well as writer of historical fiction.

Proud to be an Old Salt Press author, V.E. is also a member of the National Books Critics Circle and an active member and reviewer for the Historical Novel Society.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Smoky Eyes and Ruby Lips: Cosmetics in the World’s First Civilizations, an essay by Shauna Roberts

Historical novelist Shauna Roberts, an expert on daily life in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, is here today with an intriguing and informative essay on early cosmetics—showing, with many examples, that the pursuit of beauty and good health has been a constant over many millennia.  Her novel Like Mayflies in a Stream is published by Hadley Rille Books as part of its Archaeology Series, a set of historical novels of ancient times which are grounded in archaeological research.  Welcome, Shauna!


Smoky Eyes and Ruby Lips:
Cosmetics in the World’s First Civilizations
By Shauna Roberts

If you were to meet a woman from one of the earliest civilizations on the street today, it wouldn’t be her makeup that gave her away. Archaeologists have discovered that women of ancient times wore eyeliner, eyeshadow, lip color, and cheek color and used potions to soften their skin, both to look beautiful and for good health.

Eye makeup. In ancient Sumer (now southern Iraq) and ancient Egypt, everyone—men, women, children, babies—wore kohl eyeliner. Kohl dates back to at least 3500 B.C.E., and the formula has remained much the same for 5500 years. Kohl is composed of finely ground-up galena (lead sulfide), sometimes with additives such as finely powdered herbs, pearls, gemstones, charred organic materials (such as frankincense, a tree resin), or other lead compounds.

The Sumerians and Egyptians wore kohl for two reasons: They believed kohl protected their eyes from disease and themselves from the evil eye. Today, fear of the evil eye is founded in the belief that some people have the power to harm others just by looking at them.

Canopic lid jar showing Tutankamun with
heavily kohled eyes and reddened lips
In prehistoric Sumer, though, the evil eye was at first an actual eye disease—conjunctivitis (“pink eye”). Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the cover of the eyeball and can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or even an irritation. Only later did the evil eye become the subject of superstition.

Ancient people believed that kohl protected the eyes in a second way, by reducing the harsh glare common in the deserts of Sumer and Egypt. Today, baseball and football players sometimes wear a greasy dark substance called “eye black” under their eyes, believing it will reduce glare.

Kohl became a beauty aid, serving triple duty as eyeliner, mascara, and dark eyeshadow. The Sumerians and Egyptians made green eyeshadow as well by grinding up malachite or another copper oxide and mixing the powder with water or a sticky gum, which was then applied with a stick. Among the Egyptians, men and women of all socioeconomic levels wore a heavy coating of color around the eyes.

Ancient Egyptian makeup containers and applicators

Judging from archaeological remains, the Sumerians used many colors of cosmetics—white, black, yellow, red, and blue. Archaeologists have found many shells with pigments still in them. Among the riches in the tomb of Pu-abi, Queen of Ur, were “shells” made of gold and a cosmetics container made of ivory inlaid with lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone.

Lip and cheek color. “Ruby lips” were not a metaphor in ancient Sumer. Five thousand years ago, wealthy Sumerian women started using crushed semiprecious stones to color their lips. The lip color found in Queen Pu-abi’s tomb was composed of red rocks ground to a powder mixed with poisonous white lead to make it spreadable.

Dried, ground henna leaves
Henna (the processed, powdered leaves of the shrub Lawsonia inermis) was also used to stain the lips.

In the Indus Valley (today’s western India), women painted their lips red. Archaeologists do not yet know what the paint was made of.

Naturally reddish materials such as iron oxide (rust) and red and orange clays were probably used in many places in the ancient world to color lips and sometimes cheeks. Today, some cosmetic companies still use iron oxide and clay in some of their products.

Bust of Nefertiti, showing her with heavily
kohled eyes and slightly reddened lips
In ancient Egypt, women (and sometimes men) colored their lips in a variety of ways. As in Sumer, some used henna.

A lip color used in Egypt contained iodine and bromine mannite, both extracted from seaweed. Iodine is a component of the hospital antiseptic Betadine, whose staining, brownish-red color may give us an idea of what Egyptian lips looked like. Both iodine and bromine mannite can be poisonous when taken by mouth. Some women who used this mixture on their lips likely died...and possibly so did some of the men who kissed them.

Other Egyptians used a crimson or scarlet dye that was extracted from pregnant female scale insects (such as insects from the genus Kermes) by crushing them. Only the wealthy could afford this extract: Tens of thousands of insects had to be crushed to produce a pound of extract. If you find the use of crushed insects for beautification unsettling, read the ingredients on your lipsticks and any processed pink, purple, or red foods in your pantry. “Carmine” and “cochineal extract” are made from crushed New World scale insects called cochineal (Dactylopius coccus).

Modern woman's hand,
stained with henna

Other cosmetics, briefly. In Egypt, henna was used to temporarily color hair and to stain fingernails. Surprisingly, henna seems not to have been used as body art in ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt. Only in the late Bronze Age do archaeologists find evidence for women painting designs on their palms and soles with henna; the custom was widespread around the Mediterranean. Much later, about 700 C.E., body decoration with henna spread to India, where it remains tremendously popular today.

Because both Sumer and Egypt were deserts, people needed to use oils and balms to protect their lips and skin from drying out. Honey softened dry skin. Egyptians made concoctions containing beeswax; goose fat and other animal fats; and vegetable oils such as castor oil and olive oil. The Sumerians likely used flaxseed oil early on; later in Mesopotamia, people began growing sesame and extracting the oil from the seeds.

The cosmetics discussed so far are not so different from what we’re used to. Some of them are still in use today. However, one Egyptian custom would turn heads if practiced today: the perfumed head cone. The Egyptians made cleanliness and smelling good a high priority. They bathed daily, and perfumes were big business. Ancient paintings show guests, musicians, and servants wearing white cones of perfumed wax or grease on top of their heads at parties. Archaeologists believe these cones slowly melted over the course of the party and dripped down the face and body. The wearer ended up with a glowing face and perfumed skin as well as, presumably, a wig and clothes that needed thorough cleaning the next day. Thank goodness that custom has gone out of practice.


Shauna Roberts has a Ph.D. in anthropology and has taught classes on ancient Mesopotamia at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of California at Riverside. Her historical novel Like Mayflies in a Stream (Hadley Rille, 2010) takes place in ancient Sumer in the time of Gilgamesh, and her historical romance Claimed by the Enemy, forthcoming in April, is set in ancient Sumer and Susa in the time of Sargon the Great. She is currently working on another historical novel set in ancient Mesopotamia. Her website and blog can be found at

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Burnt Norton by Caroline Sandon, a real-life Downton-style saga of Georgian England

Readers who think Downton-style drama could never happen in reality should look at Caroline Sandon’s Georgian soap opera, a tale of jealousy, passion, extravagance, and revenge based on the lives of the former residents of her husband’s family’s longtime home. Burnt Norton is a large manor house in Gloucestershire, and its unusual name didn’t come about by accident. While the English country scene on the novel’s jacket appears peaceful and coolly elegant, the chronicle within is anything but.

For the family of Sir William Keyt, MP for Warwick in the year 1731, the tragedies begin immediately and run downhill from there. After a horrible carriage accident that kills his youngest son and leaves his eldest daughter paralyzed, Sir William loses himself in drink, neglecting his wife, ignoring his heir, Thomas, and firing the governess. When he brings Molly Johnson, an innkeeper’s pretty daughter, back to Norton House to be Lady Keyt’s maid, the scene is set for calamities on a grand scale. Over time, obsessed by having Molly for himself, Sir William builds her a brand new, lavishly decorated mansion, heedless of the cost to his finances or to his wife and children. Although Molly loves Thomas, and he loves her, she is powerless to fight her fate. Meanwhile, Sir William’s younger daughter Dorothy, who starts out as a sympathetic figure, grows progressively more unpleasant as she plans the downfall of the woman who she believes tore her family apart.

The emphasis here is the eventful plot, which is spiced up with even more sordid shenanigans than happened in history. Aside from the easy-to-root-for Molly, the characterization can be thin and inconsistent, but the story has a can’t-look-away quality that exerts a strong pull nonetheless.

Burnt Norton was published in 2013 by Head of Zeus, a UK-based independent publisher (£16.99, hb, 320pp).  The paperback edition was published last month (£7.99) with a much more dramatic cover.  This review first appeared in February's Historical Novels Review and was based on a personal purchase.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Demarcation, Risk, Renewal: Finding the Bridge Separating Fact and Fiction, an essay by Brian Walter Budzynski (plus giveaway)

Today's guest writer is Brian Walter Budzynski, who speaks about his experience in constructing his novella The Remark (Main Street Rag, 2013) and offers some wise words on the reasons why authors choose to write historical fiction.  There's a giveaway opportunity at the end, too.


Demarcation, Risk, Renewal: 
Finding the Bridge Separating Fact and Fiction
Brian Walter Budzynski

Readers are in the habit of seeking verifiable fact, which is often unfairly threaded to truth, in works of fiction. I, myself, was for a long time in the habit of doing this, desperate both for some semblance of authenticity and a subtle means of self-education—until I began to wonder why it was I felt it so important. Not the search for fact itself, but the search for it in products of imagination, in fiction.

In a recent interview, the novelist Howard Norman said that fact is useful to him in the construction of a narrative story with an historical setting until it begins to trespass upon the imagination, upon the truth sought through creation. These wise and useful words pretty well stand up for my working philosophy in writing my novella, The Remark. The story, set in the Stalinist Poland of the 1950s, does exist within the stricture of quantifiable history, while simultaneously acting on a wholly made-up premise, namely that five men are secreted away from the usual order of Soviet military justice and “imprisoned” in a rural area near the coast of the Baltic Sea, and there made to perform a work detail that is at once dehumanizing and unspeakable in nature.

I knew going into the writing of the story that I had no desire to rehash the myriad accounts of internment and forced labor I had read; to do so would have been cheap and unfair to the dignity of those records. It would have been, simply, obscene in a way that what those records described, though the stuff of horror, was not. I did, however, wish to capture the machinations of such records, the emotional tolls they spoke of, and hopefully, in my own way, illumine what seemed to me the triumph of human will and dignity in the face of an inhuman system of punishment.

I started by trying to forget the details of the research I had done, and at the same time to let the essence of it remain. Basically, I tried to keep a consistent mindset that would allow me to forge a workable outline for my story that was original, that was entirely mine, safe from the accidental forgery of someone else’s work.

Then I wrote. Knocking out the first draft as best I could. Sentence by tough, unsatisfying sentence.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, wrote, roughly, that the first draft is done with the door closed, and that all subsequent drafts are done with the door open. To wit: draft one serves the writer; drafts two through however many it takes to get it right serve the reader. I knew from the get-go that historical accuracy would be one measuring stick of how my book would be judged on merit. It would do no good to introduce blatant falsehoods into a narrative of an era on which there was already such a plethora of incredibly good stuff out there.

By draft three, I had found the line in the sand, the place where I would demarcate (in my own mind, as I worked) where fact would be allowed to wizen, turn gray, and eventually become superseded by the impulse of the story. And simply it was this: the characters, the intimacy of the settings of the story’s action, and the “tasks” these men were indentured to perform would be entirely flights of imagination, which would taste “factual truth” only in the tone in which they were written.

Once I had come to this decision, the next several drafts became much looser; I felt more at ease to focus on language and less on “Oh, but what if this never really happened.” My goal was now, as I suppose it was from the very beginning, to cause a rent in the heart of the reader. The arrow would be small (I knew pretty early on I was writing a novella and not an opus), but I would make it razor sharp.

There is a kind of play that exists in writing historical fiction. We choose a time period because it fascinates; we fictionalize it because we feel we have something to add to it, to amplify or sharpen our singular view of it. To contribute to the general literary conversation. This has always, I imagine, been one of the propellants of writers, no matter their subject, but it might have particular importance for writers of historical fiction. The point is not to rehash recorded fact, but to find the human truth in past experience, and to somehow make that valuable in the eyes of today’s reader. It’s an awfully grand task, but that’s part of the allure. And what’s more it is work of privilege: to be able to write, in the first place; and in the second, to forge a gossamer thread that binds one’s interests and ambitions to an untold sliver of a world not yet forgotten. A world, by the act of fiction, renewed.


Brian Walter Budzynski earned his MFA from Roosevelt University, where he received the university's thesis award. He has worked for Dalkey Archive Press, Fiction Collective 2, Other Voices, American Book Review, and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He is presently edits books for a small publishing firm in suburban Chicago, and is completing a novel set in WWII-era Nova Scotia.

Thanks to the generosity of the author, I have a giveaway opportunity.  Three copies of Brian Walter Budzynski's novella The Remark are up for grabs.  Please fill out the form below for a chance to win.  This contest is open internationally (void where prohibited).  Deadline March 31, 2014.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Small press spotlight: New and forthcoming historical mysteries

Mysteries are published by nearly all publishers, plus there are a number of small and independent presses exclusively devoted to mystery fiction.  Here are ten new and forthcoming novels of historical crime, with settings ranging from ancient Greece, Rome, and Ireland to 1950s England.  Because many fall into existing series, and readers often prefer to read the volumes in order, I've listed the title of the first book when applicable.

In the first century AD, Pliny the Younger takes his fourth case: to clear the name of a friend's husband who was accused of murder.  Pliny's first case featured in All Roads Lead to Murder. Perseverance Press, September 2013.

The latest (sixth) installment of the Robert Carey mysteries set in Elizabethan England, in which Robert is asked by his queen (and cousin) to look into the decades-old death of her former rival, Amy Dudley.  The first series entry was A Famine of Horses.  Poisoned Pen Press, February 2014.

A mystery surrounding the disappearance of young students from their school at the Sanctuary of Artemis absorbs sleuths Nico and Diotima as they return home to Athens for their wedding.  Fourth in a series that began with The Pericles Commission.  Soho, May 2014.

From a renowned academic with degrees in classical philology and Celtic languages and literatures comes a debut mystery set at a convent in ancient Ireland that faces ruin if the theft of St. Brigid's bones comes to light.  Pegasus, October 2014.

Dr. Thomas Silkstone, an American physician in Georgian London, looks into the suspicious disappearance of a botanist who was the only survivor of a recent expedition to Jamaica.  Fourth in series; the first was The Anatomist's Apprentice.  Kensington, August 2014.

In the English countryside during the age of Chaucer, a mother revisits her past as she and her fellow villagers seek justice for the deaths of five children.  Campanile, January 2014.

In an atmospheric, gas-lit Victorian London, two women become unlikely partners as they join forces to uncover a murder.  Crooked Cat, November 2013.

The grandeur and immense wealth in Gilded Age Newport forms the backdrop to this debut mystery set in 1895, when a distant cousin of the Vanderbilts, Emma Cross, tries to save her brother from a murder charge.  Kensington, March 2013.

I reviewed Mary Reed and Eric Mayer's Nine for The Devil here in 2012, and in this 10th in the series in Emperor Justinian's Constantinople, our usual sleuth, John, Lord Chamberlain, has been exiled.  In his absence, Felix, Captain of the Palace Guard, looks into the disappearance of a holy relic.  Poisoned Pen Press, March 2014.

Third in the Mirabelle Bevan mystery series (after Brighton Belle and London Calling), about a retired Secret Service agent in '50s England who finds that her wartime experience comes in handy for crime-solving.  Polygon, April 2014.