Reading Roger Housden: Saved by Beauty, Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran

I no longer remember where I even heard of Roger Housden’s Saved by Beauty: Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran, just that I requested it from the library. I have enjoyed reading about Iran for years, and the title instantly grabbed my attention; before I was halfway through, I knew I would order my own copy and re-read. It is impossible to speak of Iran without including poetry, and Housden does a marvelous job of talking (not just “telling”) about Rumi, Hafez, and poetic message, weaving it within and without the people and places he visits, his, and perhaps your, understanding of the world, and those understandings of the Iranian people’s. He meets with artists, writers, filmmakers, religious scholars, whirling dervishes, explores beauty, truth, evil, and comes up close to history as well as current events.

Apart from his encounters, one thing I also appreciated about the narrative is its willingness to praise where praise is due, but be critical, questioning, or skeptical as well. He also details the closing episode of his trip, several days of captivity (cold comfort, but in a hotel, at least, not Evin) and interrogation, and his feelings of raw and utter loneliness in the world in a manner that it brutal in its poetic truthfulness. I say “poetic” not because he translates the experience into a flow of poetry, but rather because his words are neither harsh nor softly new age-y. He does not display open anger (though it was there) or bravado, and his words translate to us perhaps in a dual manner as well: we feel a sense of muted horror and peaceful acceptance. But he leaves us with overwhelmingly positive feelings about the people of Iran, the real focus. The horrible government apparatus forces its way into the story because it is impossible to talk about Iran without bringing up the government they currently live under. Poetry and tyranny.

At a later date I hope this changes, as, I’m sure, does Housden. He mourns that he cannot go back to Iran, and in my small way I can appreciate this. I would love to visit this land and come close to the history, the places, the people who grew up breathing in poets such as Rumi and Hafez, the average one of whom could recite a few lines of either one, or perhaps Ferdowsi, were you to stop them on the street to ask the time. I’m sure there are some not inclined to poetry, but there is a very strong current of survival amongst the Iranian people. They are not, after all, Arabs, and Islam is a foreign religion, even though it has conquered the nation and, centuries ago, made their own Zoroastrianism religion a minority one. But they don’t forget their culture and in this manner remind me a little bit of Americans, who consistently thwart attempts to make them like Europeans. The pathway traveled to get to this point isn’t, for Americans, the same as that of Iranians, but it does have its similarities. It is also interesting to note that Rumi is the most widely read poet in America.

It also happens that I’ve admired Rumi for years, though only recently began to look into his life a bit more deeply. I’m not very far along, but reading Housden’s account deepened my desire, what with its – well, I might say philosophical –discussions or summations, but his do not alienate the reader in the manner philosophy often does people. The reality is, indeed, very real, but he immerses us into his observations in a manner graceful and beautiful, the end result being not only that we want more, but we also wish to be a part of it.

In the chapter titled “Paradise and Poetry,” Housden journeys to Shiraz, capital of Fars Province. Above, illustration of Shiraz by French scholar Jean Chardin while traveling through the Safavid empire in the 1670s. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons; click for more info)

This is not an alien concept to me: as a teenager I wanted to live in a Welsh forest and, not unlike Housden’s own ambition in his twenties, “live a contemplative life of reflection.” Well, I also wanted to write poetry and practice healing, both of which come from my mother, I suppose, who was a nurse by profession and, throughout my childhood, recited Poe continuously. I wasn’t a big fan, but for years after recalled “Annabel Lee” and, naturally, “The Raven,” in their entirety. Also, my father had a history bent and I was often tasked with writing essays about events he’d discussed with me. It was from him I garnered my initial knowledge of and perhaps affinity for Iran, and surely the inclination to discuss, dig deeper.

You must be set on fire the inner sun.
You have to live your Love or else
You’ll only end in words.

For better or worse, I never made it to that forest. I know it’s unquestionably better, for I cannot imagine life without my wonderful son, who in many ways has also brought poetry and contemplation to my life and still does. Teenagers have naturally poetic souls, and Turtle has listened patiently and compassionately as I talked about Saved by Beauty, Iran, Rumi. Even more magnificently, he doesn’t just listen, as I am blessed to have a child who thrives on engagement. Asperger’s drives a bit of the nitpickiness, but it too has a dual nature, and his digging helps keep me connected to the lower layers in a world of paying bills, dentist appointments and being on time for work.

Panoramic view of Shiraz at night including moon & Jupiter conjunction, July 2005. (Image courtesy Mehdi Maleknia via Wikimedia Commons; click image for more info)

Now, before my re-read (when I can mark up the book, a practice I picked up by necessity in university and one Turtle loathes), I cannot exactly place my favorite passage or chapter, but I do recall a few dripping tears. As I recall, this portion was not necessarily one of great sorrow (or was it?), because I remember a sort of detached wonder at my emotion. Perhaps I will recognize it next time and be able to understand more of why I responded in the manner I did.

Reading not unlike a memoir, Saved by Beauty also weaves Rumi (and other poets) throughout, undoubtedly one of the work’s best elements, though by far not the only. Housden unapologetically invites us into his world, as well as one he yearned for since childhood, a culture of more than three thousand years. His perspective is truthful and sober, though not without levity, and both he and Rumi invite all into his journey. As Housden writes of Rumi’s funeral, “no one is turned away.”

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.

Movies by the Minute: Jurassic World: Dominion

Just in from watching the third in the Jurassic World franchise and – hey, it’s just what you thought it was. But read all of the review before you agree with any assessments I make at the start, because it’s a mixed bag.

First of all, let me tell you that Chris Pratt could be tasked to read aloud the most boring book in the world, say The Alchemist* (Coelho) or The Old Man and the Sea** (Hemingway), and still manage to keep my rapt attention. So the movie right there has something going for it, along with Jeff Goldblum’s appearance, which actually took me by surprise. I had thought Ian Malcolm was done with these moronic experiments by people whose lows plumb the depth of low and still don’t manage to hit bottom. But there he was in the trailer, and you’ll see that his re-emergence makes some sense.

I hate to say this, but from start to finish the film suffers from poor or lazy writing: take your choice. It opens up with a “news report” filled with expository information spoon fed to us and continues with arc-less characters, snippets of conversation that have no place in the story, and even a repeat of the deus ex machina that irritated me in the very first Jurassic Park: the dinosaurs fighting at the end, enabling the characters left alive to escape.

A word about that last angle: it wasn’t exactly unexpected that two dinosaurs would meet up and get into a scuffle; it was just super convenient. How else would the survivors make it from visitor center to helo pad to effect their escape? For Jurassic World: Dominion, the screenwriters did seem to have given this some thought, because they set up a vicious dinosaur rivalry as soon as we arrive at that portion of the tale: a therizinosaurus and a pyroraptor (names I had to look up) fight each other and the Edward Scissorhands one pursues Claire in a slow-speed chase that brings us to more (yes, more!) of some really thrilling dinosaur-human encounters. Well, they all are pretty thrilling, but some are more engaging than others and I really found myself sucked in. I should add that by this portion you’re already pumping up the adrenaline because we’ve just left – escaped – a city scene with hairpin-turn chases and snapping jaws that, while exceedingly unlikely because the atrociraptors have to be, as Turtle declared, the most incompetent predator-chasers, is nevertheless a wild ride that is probably very easy to get addicted to. I saw the film last weekend, for instance, and this portion is one I was eagerly looking forward to watching again this evening, derivative as some scenes may be. I was even given the choice of another flick I had also liked but insisted upon this one.

“Oh, Wendy, I’m home.” Prehistory meets The Shining, 007 and Jason Bourne

I also have to say that I find the whole animal rescue angle, introduced in the second film, perhaps the stupidest, most non-sensical of all angles, and it’s got some stiff competition (e.g. the locusts). The only reason I could possibly believe that anyone could say something such as, “We can learn to depend upon each other, trust each other, co-exist,” is one that bears witness to the absurd and irrational world we currently inhabit. The mosasaurus that leaps from the Bering Sea and takes a giant chunk from a fishing vessel? Does anyone really think that thing actually gives any kind of consideration to the value of its relationship with humans? Sure, Blue and Owen seem to have some sort of connection, and she is kind enough not to eat him, but the vast majority of people on the planet – actually, that would be all of them – didn’t spend years with a velociraptor developing “a relationship based on mutual respect.” Sorry not sorry; these people are deranged and unhinged if they think populations can “learn to live” with random attacks and lives of terror over wild roaming prehistoric creatures that scoop you up like bald eagles scoop up poodles, or gouge eyes out with their feet-long beaks. What about that ginormous bird’s nest on top of Freedom Tower? Really, dude? This occupant isn’t a magnificent goshawk that we are wise to maintain distance from or respect in its place in nature. (Also, it was a little weird to go there; images of that tower being destroyed by pterodactyls and the mayhem that would produce doesn’t constitute my idea of a poorly executed but still-fun film.) Wouldn’t the public demand something be done to put an end to this? Certainly, that point might be one of no return, but a rising body count seems likely to result in a public unsympathetic – nay, actively hostile – to animal saviors who act as if they’re rescuing kittens.

There’s a lot to unpack regarding what’s wrong with this awful movie, my own personal ire going back to the previous film’s ending, a mere excuse to set the stage for this disaster. The first film was not as tightly written and executed as the first Jurassic Park, but it was enjoyable. But to be honest, so was this one, which is a bit of a departure for me, because usually movies with this much (and more) wrong with them would never even get a review from me, not even a bad one. Perhaps it serves a purpose people need right now: the world currently is a shit-show and the unreality of this story removes us from that for a little while. Chris Pratt is a favorite and DeWanda Wise, whom I’d never heard of before, not only plays a badass character I was really drawn to, but also has a nice range of facial and other gesticulations and, generally speaking, I like her personality. Given that I’d wanted, at age six, to be a spy, had I seen her back then, I’d probably want to be Kayla when I grew up.

Sure, Jurassic World: Dominion is a terrible film, but it’s fun. Every single dinosaur that ever existed seems to be in it and it definitely has more teeth. And if I haven’t already mentioned the underwater escape scene: I loved that. The action scenes are fantastic (if jiggly at times) to watch on a giant screen, especially if you’re willing to let go for a while of nitpicks about editing and so forth, and maybe embrace a spot of “it’s in the script.” It’s also surpassed $600 million globally, so the filmmakers must have done something right. Whether it’s something to distract audiences or keep in mind for a Friday night flick even years on down the road, I’d say go watch it.

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You may have heard of or read not a few bad reviews of Jurassic World: Dominion. Here’s one that does a good job of pointing out what’s nice about it.

Assessment: A must-see on the big screen

(Also a must-own Blu Ray)

Click the title below to see our previous 

“Movies by the Minute” review for Stalker

*my son’s vote
**mine

Book Review: The Colour of Rubies by Toni Mount

About the Book

Murder lurks at the heart of the royal court in the rabbit warren of the Palace of Westminster. The year is 1480. Treason is afoot amongst the squalid grandeur and opulent filth of this medieval world of contrasts. Even the Office of the King’s Secretary hides a dangerous secret.

Meeting with lords and lackeys, clerks, courtiers and the mighty King Edward himself, can Seb Foxley decipher the encoded messages and name the spy?

Will Seb be able to prevent the murder of the most important heir in England?

All will be revealed as we join Seb Foxley and his abrasive brother Jude in the latest intriguing adventure amid the sordid shadows of fifteenth-century London.

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As it happens, when recently writing a review for one of author Toni Mount’s previous publications, How to Survive in Medieval England, I happened upon the portion of her website focused on a “Medieval Artist,” whose introductory words beckon us in: “Dear reader, I am Sebastian Foxley, scrivener of London and the creation of Toni Mount.” It’s true about characters: they can take on a life of their own, which has often led me to musings about how these figures and authors connect. So when I see such introductions or “interviews” with characters, I am sure to be drawn in, as I was here. Just beneath was the cover image of the latest book Foxley appears in, The Colour of Rubies, tenth in Mount’s medieval murder mystery series. There was no hesitation; I wanted to check this series out. So when the opportunity to review this latest arose, I knew Foxley had expertly captured my attention.

Following an opening scene with a mysterious foreigner, we are introduced first to Jude Foxley, which came as a surprise that I found I quite liked; that this brother of Sebastian reveals himself to be such a curmudgeon only added to my intrigue of how this novel was to play out. As it moves forward, numerous characters are introduced, and I was further relieved and delighted to realize I was having no difficulty remembering who they were or their places within the plot. For me this is fairly huge because I have found that some novels lose their appeal following a cast of characters too numerous to be supported by the story. Mount’s skilfull management of her personalities, however, keeps the focus where it needs to be, even with those of necessarily limited dimension playing their required roles, lesser though they are.

With precision and fluidity, Mount’s tale marches forward, and we start to see a connection between the mysterious Italian of the novel’s opening, though who he is remains a mystery, as does the identity behind the murderer of one of Jude Foxley’s colleagues. His brother, Seb, is brought to work in an undercover capacity, writing out summonses, as does Jude, in a workroom that freezes feet and ink alike, deterring production and raising the unjust ire of Secretary Oliver, who oversees the Scriptorium and suffers none of its ill effects. Escaping in the evening to the dormitory provides little relief: it is just as cold, privacy is nonexistent and personal valuables are never safe, as the married Jude, ineligible to reside in the dorm, warns his brother: ‘I’ll take your cloak home with me later. It’ll not be safe in the clerk’s dormitory. As I told you, the clerks are all bloody thieves.’ Whether this is true or not, we do not at this point know, but there is the sense Jude issues the warning for true benefit as well as to stand apart from his brother’s shadow. As the youngest of numerous siblings myself, I remember compensatory bossiness quite well, and the wonderful realism of the brotherly exchanges, harsh as they often were, was exceedingly satisfying in its complexity. Humans can be strange creatures, and brothers can be so different it astounds.

Indeed, one huge angle I loved about the author’s presentation of the tale is linked to my overall view of medieval people, and that is her true representation of them. That is to say, we do not see merely one long narrative of aristocrats performing exalted tasks. The ordinary is also given its due: soggy socks; worries about rent; having to perform tasks or errands on a break and not getting to eat lunch; not enough sleep; petty work supervisors; and the like are real-world problems that existed then as they do today, breaking down some of the barriers between modern readers and the real people of flesh and blood that we too often view as so distant as to not really need or deserve our consideration. That Mount includes these characters’ woes adds to the authenticity and overall enjoyment of the story.

We also get to see the greed, sibling disputes, lust, promiscuity, selfishness and other negative character traits that plague this world (just like ours), as opposed to presenting the era as only one of sharp morality and stilted English. At the same time, Mount does not eliminate that reality from Sebastian Foxley’s era and we see a multi-dimensional period less easy to define than is often asserted.

Seb and Jude climbed the stair to the dormitory but their hopes of a little wine left from last night to cleanse Jude’s cheek were dashed.

‘I fear the servants have cleared all away,’ Seb said when they saw the sideboard was bare of any remnants of yesterday’s payday feast.

‘Drunk it, more like,’ Jude said, ‘No matter. It doesn’t need bathing. Where’s that salve you said you have?’

‘In my scrip. I put it in the coffer by my bed.’ Seb lifted the coffer lid and stared, dismayed, at what lay within. ‘Oh, Jude. Look. My belongings … See what has come to pass.’

‘I warned you not to leave anything of worth in this bloody place. Why did you bring your damned scrip? You should’ve left it at home, as I told you, but do you ever listen to me?’

 

This is one of many passages that stood out to me because it speaks of character complexity and the questioning of what we really know, or think we do. When Jude says, ‘Drunk it, more like,’ it is easy to write the retort off as one reflecting anger of Jude himself not having any of the remnants, or perhaps at the thought of using it medicinally instead of as refreshment. Perhaps he even makes the statement in a complimentary fashion, noting that they had the good sense to drink the wine rather than waste it on such an act as his brother now proposes. After all, Jude has previously asserted, ‘Wine’s for drinking, not for wasting on a little nick.’ However, as we saw previously, Jude’s assessment of the king’s clerks is not always so generous. He disapproves of their behavior and warns his brother. Jude tends to swim upstream, but he is also a product of his time, so it might not be all that surprising for him to hold to some of the day’s prevailing mores, even in a small amount, or when assessing others.

Given the ruby’s association with raw emotion, we see its reflection throughout the book, in many forms, as implied by the title’s umbrella-like nature. The shades of emotive signals and secrecy, retreats and revelations, such as Jude’s attempts to talk himself into more sensible behavior, bursting into rages or setting himself in opposition to his brother are just the beginning. There is an undercurrent that flows throughout the book, keeping the reader always a little on edge, especially as the pace moves somewhat fast, making one simply not want to set the book down. The intrigue and twists contribute to this, and the curveballs come in fast and swift, bringing us to realize there is much more beyond the book.

Though there are details and events that happen in prior volumes, and those occurring apart from the books entirely (see the wonderful looking The Foxley Letters here), The Colour of Rubies most definitely can stand on its own.

However, with the ongoing strife and Seb’s overarching desire to see peace between himself and his brother – not to mention amongst other family members interacting with the two – I know I won’t stop here. I cannot deny I recommend that neither do you!

About the Author

Toni Mount is a history teacher and a best-selling author of historical non-fiction and fiction. She’s a member of the Richard III Society’s Research Committee, a regular speaker to groups and societies and belongs to the Crime Writers’ Association. She writes regularly for Tudor Life magazine, has written several online courses for www.MedievalCourses.com and the Sebastian Foxley series of medieval murder mysteries. Toni has a First class honours degree in history, a Masters Degree in Medieval History, a Diploma in English Literature with Creative Writing, a Diploma in European Humanities and a PGCE. She lives in Kent, England with her husband and has two grown-up sons.

The Colour of Rubies, along with her many other books, is available at Amazon and Amazon UK. You can also find Toni Mount at Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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The blogger received a complimentary copy of The Colour of Rubies
from the publisher in order to provide an honest review.

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Note from the blogger: I highly recommend you check out SebastianFoxley.com and scroll down a bit ~ amongst other items on the entire page, you will see some more introduction in Seb’s own words and a lovely small video about how his visage comes to life. The layout of all the delicious book covers probably will stir you as well! ~ Lisl

Saturday Stream of Consciousness

My son wants me to finish watching A Taste of Cherry or take in one of five other films he left on the coffee table for me to choose from while he’s at the cinema taking in Lightyear. I’m down for it, except it’s early afternoon and this seems not quite the right time for movie watching. Very early morning for a limited time and evening seems to be the province of the screen, though matinee go-ers surely would disagree with me.

Is that an odd assessment? Maybe it’s because, until recently, I used to fall asleep watching movies or TV. For better or worse, I tended to cook, clean and look after children when movies played. It’s no secret that, like many mothers, I operated on tired, and taking a seat threatened to overcome that. I’ve gotten better about all that more recently though, it being early evening (in the 14:00 hour) as I type, it seems like I ought to be doing something else, even though I decided to designate today to just letting happen what may, combined with the promise to myself to stay steady in the activity side of things. In other words, there are a few things I want to do, but I’ve left the when of these tasks to whatever force guides me to each one today.

Perhaps that means I’m resisting the forces, or maybe not. I went out to the deck for a spot of reading and it started to rain. I did aim to put one disk into the video, but it wasn’t in the case. Sitting down to read at the dining table, I contemplated how indoor darkness often doesn’t seem to have changed much from Victorian times. Without any lighting on, it’s pretty dark in the areas away from the window. I’m loathe to move away from it because it’s lovely, and perhaps my association of movies with sleep, itself associating with evening, is not the beckoning I want to follow.

My curtains don’t look quite as beautifully designed as in this image, but I’m ok with them.

To be honest, I’ve been thinking lately about a vest I was gifted after a surgery I had last year, quite a nice vest except for the stitching on the back of the collar with the clinic’s logo. I thought I might perhaps stitch over it; the fact that I really have no clue how exactly to do this didn’t really put me off much, because the desire kept growing within me all week. So what if it looks weird or is badly stitched? I can undo it all and start over, right? I think I don’t seem to mind this because I’ve been wanting to learn to knit or crochet; I don’t care which because I don’t know enough to have a preference. I did used to do counted cross stitch at the hospital where I worked at that time; at first it was super awkward until one of the nurses showed me to turn it upside down, and it all made sense. I found it to be quite relaxing and even recently saw some CCS with the likeness of Richard III, which really delighted me. Where I live I don’t really get to see too many items bearing Richard, so when Turtle presented me – I think he was around 10 – with a coloring page of the king, it was quite wonderful.

I find coloring also to be very relaxing: I have Outlander and Harry Potter books, plus another with patterns from India. A Richard III coloring book would be all that! All that – our way of saying It’s the shit. Every time I hear that phrase I remember the Russian who asked me why shit sometimes means something is great, while other times it refers to something you loathe. “How to tell difference?” Well, the the is key.

But I couldn’t really color or do much stitching if I were to watch Taste of Cherry or any other foreign film because I need to pay attention to the subtitles. Which is fine, partly because I want to pay attention to them, but also because maybe sometimes I just need to give my mind a one thing at a time permission. Focus on the taxi driver and what he says makes me think about; what do I think it all means? The area he drives to, away from the city, I feel I’ve seen it before, which is strange because I’ve never been to Iran, where it is set. I remember when I first heard the title a few months back, I felt I recognized it, and straight away thought I’d seen it with a friend in college: we used to go watch foreign films in a strip mall theater that only played foreign. But nothing looked familiar when Turtle and I started to watch it. Terra incognita. For both of us, the taxi driver as well as myself. Perhaps afternoon viewing is actually the right time for this film, given its subject matter.

Damavand from Abbasabad, courtesy Hansueli Krapf via Wikimedia Commons (click for more details)

Mythical Monday: Are Seagulls Enraged by the Color Red?

It’s hot and sunny here today, just like it was yesterday, though not quite as bad as the weekend before when the temp was even higher – to a degree when most of us here start to melt. But I was fed up with the way yesterday turned out, not a bad day, just sort of boring because I didn’t want to engage with the heat. So, I just spent a lot of time on my spring cleaning/house content purging project.

Today, though, I wanted out. So, I walked to the library – a bit of a hike, though not godawful – to return a book and then headed to a store for a backpack. My plan was also to restock on salad-making stash and used the newly purchased backpack to carry it all. Unfortunately, they only had the “regular” sort of pack, while I wanted the type that collapses in on itself when it’s empty (easier storage). I didn’t want to carry anything in my hands, so ended up skipping it and headed home.

En route, I thought about the seagulls (which might not actually be the correct name, but who cares?) I’d encountered on the way. When rounding a particular corner that leads to an open grassy area with a large pond, I heard their raucous company engaged in whatever they were doing behind a walled area. Quickly they shot up and one flew just above me, hovering and, it seemed, looking right at me. I didn’t even bother to consciously articulate in my mind that surely this guy wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing. I was nowhere near them and not making any predatory or threatening moves.

Seagull in Flight, image courtesy Jiyang Chen. Click for more details

Then he shot down closer, and I whistled in surprise. “What the – “ and down he shot again, getting nearer each time, close enough for me to see what looked like anger in his face. I don’t know much about birds, so I couldn’t say why I think he had the appearance of an immature critter, and the behavior of one as well. They were all shrieking, but he was the only one dive-bombing. I waved my book in the air and shouted, this time definitely threateningly, but in a defensive manner. He seemed cowed by the book, but when I lowered it he, perhaps, perceiving it to be gone, came again, swooping so close I wondered if his beak might scratch me.

“What have I ever done to you, you little brat!?” I yelled upward. By now I was far enough away that maybe he finally was convinced I wasn’t out to get him, though I wondered what I’d do on the way back, having lost my defensive “weapon” to the return slot. I remembered the ravens, who come in winter. They’re smart as whips and will indeed tell all their friends if you somehow wrong them, and then next time they see you all of them will get in on the scolding. Yes, they recognize faces! Seagulls engage in some intelligent behavior, maybe even remembering faces, I don’t know. But they’re rude.

I also thought about my son, who used to often take this same road to the library when he was younger. He came home several times with stories of dive-bombing magpies. I felt for him then, but now I really had a deeper sense of it. Poor kid.

It wasn’t until I was having all these thoughts again on the return journey that it suddenly occurred to me that maybe he didn’t like my red hat. Sure, it has a hawk on it, but it’s just an outline and I’m pretty sure seagulls don’t recognize this sort of likeness. Besides, it was just the one with the bad attitude who seemed perturbed. I didn’t end up finding out because I decided to go straight home, rather than the roundabout route, which means I didn’t even go near the thug on the corner.

But I was a little curious about the red thing, so I looked it up. Could my red hat have enraged this seagull, sort of how bulls are said to be set off by the color? (Though the truth is, bulls are color blind.) And wow, what else I found! Not only am I not alone in my negative attitude, but I found that I practically love them compared to some others! First, let me show you the first thing I found re: red, which actually kills my “theory,” but it’s kind of cool anyway. Ian Watson of Arbroath in Scotland tossed the remnants of his Man United-loving daughter’s crimson birthday cake, thinking the seagulls would have a go, but they ended up avoiding it like the plague. Seagulls turning down free food? Check out his experiment here.

Now for some anti-seagull ranting and then some more, and then someone who actually loves these creatures, or at least claims they are “just misunderstood.” Whatever! Check out this report on a series of attacks from the poor, misunderstood creatures. (This link may not work on Safari.) For birds that are supposed to be so smart, they sure have bad manners!


Nine Fascinating Facts You May Not Know About Seagulls

Book Review: The Strife of Camlann: The Arthurian Age (Book II) by Sean Poage

BOOK GIVEAWAYS SOON TO COME, STAY TUNED!

Arthur’s Men have returned to Britain to keep the peace between fractious allies. Gawain wants only to raise his family and forget the war, yet he carries a heavy burden: an oath to maintain a lie.

But is it a lie?

Looming conflicts threaten more than any border or throne. The course of history, the future of the Britons, will be decided at Camlann.

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Many readers are familiar with and enjoy Arthurian legend, and there indeed are many versions, and perspectives within such, to choose from. One that came to my attention in recent years was Sean Poage’s series, The Arthurian Age, the first of which, The Retreat to Avalon, I read and reviewed. Told from Gawain’s point of view, it is gritty and gripping and brings us into an individual world we don’t usually get to see. The Strife of Camlann carries on with this angle while moving more deeply into events that frame Gawain’s world and understanding of it. As Gawain remembers and moves forward, layers are peeled away; we begin to better comprehend his burden as Poage’s narrator leads us further in, toward social encounters and violent skirmishes that test the warrior, to conversations, such as one with Myrddin (Merlin), that both confuse and enlighten him. There are small teasers along the way, but so authentically stated and placed that none elicit a mere “I just want to find out what happens in the end.” Each one, for better or worse, is a crucial ingredient to the outcome that we both see coming and don’t.

As with his debut novel, the author’s research is in great evidence in this installment, all of it also contributing to our thirst, not just for the “what happens,” but also for the people who lived it all. His characters come to life in a manner that penetrates us; whether this is because so many of them are like us may be a factor. Also contributing is Poage’s attention to detail and the dimension within which he provides it. Rather than just doling out specifics, he leads us into their labyrinthian world and we have to make our way just as many of the book’s people do. We see the material manner in which they lived, the connections that bound them together but were also cause for concern owing to various individual and group agendas. Jealousy, indifference, attachment, fear—these and other motivations inform their actions and within all this we become witness to the shaping of a nation.

We do have two glossaries to aid us in keeping in order the myriad names of people and places involved, which I highly encourage readers to utilize. They are a bit on the extensive side but let not disquiet enter our reading realm, for there is a singular joy in discovery that links events and our understanding. Sometimes, admittedly, there isn’t, owing to the tragedies that touch our people’s lives, but that we—our people and us—share our grief helps us to move forward to the rebuilding of lives and goals, and Poage’s narrative helps us to believe that these characters somehow know that they matter to us.

I expected the flow of writing here to be fluid, as in The Retreat to Avalon, and was not disappointed. We are rewarded with even better this time: the author’s ability to smooth his writing, to create a narrative flow that billows like silk in a gentle wind, has noticeably increased. Knowing when to sweep over minor events is also a valuable skill, and this author does it with grace. There are numerous passages that display this nimble quality, though one in particular stood out for the manner in which Poage retains the undercurrent of trauma even while displaying Merlin’s signature mordant sense of humor and breezing through time.

“Myrddin, I. . .” Gawain felt his sense of hope drain away. “I know it’s pointless to ask you to stay. But thank you.”

“You may thank me by not squandering what I have saved.” He opened the door and wrapped his cloak against the chill.

Before he could close the door, Gawain called out, “Myrddin! How did you know to be here at all? You, I mean . . .Did you know?”

Myrddin paused, looked back. From the shadow within his cloak, his eyes twinkled, and his lips curled into a lopsided smile. “We talked of this before. Do they not say I’m a seer?” And he was gone.

Gawain smiled a moment. It faded with the crunch of Myrddin’s footsteps on the frosted earth. He has never felt so alone in all his life. When Neas came, offering pleasant small talk as she tended his injuries, he barely responded. After she left, he dozed uneasily.

The creak of the door woke him. The room had dimmed to late afternoon’s light. “Neas, I need nothing but peace.” There was no reply, but a presence drew his eyes to the door. His breath caught. I’m dreaming again. Oh, dear God, let me be dreaming. Don’t let it be her shade now, too!

There do remain some of the action beats and speech tags used interchangeably that I complained of last time, but their instances are far fewer and go further in providing a narrative diversity. That the author has grown as a writer is without doubt, as is the care he takes in the consideration of his characters. Also grown is my anticipation for the next installment, which he addresses in his author’s note. It was exciting to read his words that reflected many of the thoughts I had had, including the idea as to where the next and final chapter will take us.

I can’t help but look back at The Retreat to Avalon, which I’d skimmed through, re-reading certain passages, before beginning the second book. The Strife of Camlann retains its predecessor’s true-to-the-period detail and strong character development. As the passage above hints at, Arthurian mysticism does not go unacknowledged, but reality has a firm grip, much as in Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy. Poage’s Arthurian era dispenses with magic and dragons, while we still see the glory, which strengthens the epigraph he chose that in part states, “There is more here than nostalgia for a glory that no longer exists.” Stripped of the décor, Gawain’s world within Arthurian legend, as told by Sean Poage, remains solid and real as history, revealed to us not via legend borne of a vacuum, but rather merging facts with fiction to capture the reader’s imagination and help set the stage for the next 1,500 years.

About the Author

Historical fiction author Sean Poage has had an exciting and varied
life as a laborer, salesman, soldier, police officer, investigator,
computer geek and author. A history buff his entire life, he is most
drawn to the eras of the ancient Greeks and Dark Ages Britain. Traveling
the world to see history up close is his passion.

These days he works in the tech world, writes when he can, and spends
the rest of the time with his family, which usually means chores and
home improvement projects, with occasional time for a motorcycle ride,
scuba dive, or a hike in the beautiful Maine outdoors.

The Retreat to Avalon and The Strife of Camlann may both be purchased at Amazon, here and here, respectively.

Sean Poage may be found at his website here. I strongly encourage you to check out the Free Stuff tab, which includes info on how to obtain an autographed book plate from the chapter of your choice. There are other goodies as well, so have a gander!

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The blogger received a free copy of The Strife of Camlann
in order to provide an honest review.

Blog Tour: The Stone Rose by Carol McGrath – An Excerpt That Will Make You Want the Entire Trilogy

The Stone Rose: The sweeping third installment of Carol McGrath’s acclaimed She-Wolves Trilogy, the gripping series exploring the tumultuous lives and loves of three queens of England – and of three women who lived in their shadow, in an era shaped by powerful women.

Based on the extraordinary true story of the female stonemason who carved a queen’s tomb, The Stone Rose traces the life of fierce, self-destructive Isabella of France. Wife to a weak king, Isabella finds herself facing enemies from the wild north, in a war with Scotland, and from within her own family: her uncle Lancaster, whose attempts to rein in royal power cause a rift between them.

But Isabella soon comes to realise that this is a love story. And the threat to the kingdom is a threat to her marriage – and to her own life . . .

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Chapter One

Isabella – August 1311

 A fox darted from the woodland verge across the path with a flash of russet. Isabella’s palfrey shied. She tugged hard on her reins. The horse pawed the ground, trying to rise up. It would have thrown her, if her companion had not speedily edged closer to her side and seized the palfrey’s head straps. Her saviour bent his dark head and spoke in a soft tone to the creature, gentling it. Within moments, Juno was calm and stilled. Sitting firm in her saddle, Isabella leaned down to thank him.

The Stone Rose is available for pre-order (click image), and while you await release, you can read the first two Roses in the series. All three books are stand-alone works.

‘If you had not been so quick, Piers, the mare would have thrown me.’

‘Near shave,’ Piers Gaveston gasped, his beautiful dark eyes filled with concern.

King Edward came trotting forward, followed by his pretty green-eyed niece, Margaret de Clare, Piers’ sixteen-year-old wife.

‘Isabella, praise Saint Thomas, you are safe, my sweeting,’ Edward said. He turned to Piers, leaned over and patted his arm. ‘Thank you, my friend. Praise God’s grace, you were right by her side.’

‘Gabriel held fast,’ Piers said, patting his horse’s neck. ‘It was a fox that flashed by in front of the Queen’s horse. I saw its bushy tail.’

Edward began to laugh. ‘You saved my Queen from a nasty fall. You protected her like a devoted knight.’

Piers grinned at Edward, then at Isabella. ‘A pleasure for this knight to protect his Queen.’

Isabella glanced over her shoulder to where the others crowded onto the narrow woodland path; they were led by the extremely well-connected Earl of Warwick, a frowning, dark, sardonic, proud and powerful noble, one of the King’s awkward council, who had been privy to Piers’ previous exile to Ireland. Hunting dogs with their keepers were snapping, barking and straining on leads. Following her nervous glance towards Warwick, Piers muttered, ‘Pity it wasn’t the Black Dog taking a tumble. That fox had unfortunate mistiming.’

Little Meg frowned at her husband, but Isabella’s lips twitched. Piers had amusing names for all the earls he considered enemies. She knew the powerful older men – Warwick and her wealthy uncle Thomas – were both jealous of the young King’s love for Piers, whom Edward called ‘brother’. Her father, King Philip the Fair of France, she mused, would never stand for his barons ordering his friends into exile, as the English barons had poor Piers. Edward had, only a month earlier, called Piers back from exile in Ireland, where, to satisfy the nobles, he had sent Piers as Lord Lieutenant. Now, Warwick, Lancaster and their allies were determined to exile Piers again, just as viciously as they had done a year previously. She liked Piers. He was kind, fun and witty. She had first met him after she arrived in England following her marriage ceremony. Piers had led her to the Privy Council to sit beside her new husband, who blushed and stared straight past her. With a smile, Piers had taken her damp hand and placed it in Edward’s clenched one. ‘I hope we can be friends, my pretty Queen,’ he had whispered in her ear.

The earls had no right to complain that Piers encouraged Edward to be extravagant and inattentive to great matters of state.

Isabella shook her head. These were silly thoughts. The earls had no power to do anything other than what Edward said. Edward was King, she was Queen, and they ruled England by God’s holy grace, not by the permission of people like Warwick, whose role was to help and serve. Warwick and his allies were always complaining about Piers – and now they were threatening another banishment and the withdrawal of Edward’s income. In Parliament, they loudly insisted that Piers was a bad influence and too close to King Edward – far too close. At this thought, Isabella felt her stomach grow so tight, it felt fastened to her ribs. What did they mean by these words, ‘too close’?

‘Your Grace, are you affrighted?’ Meg’s gentle voice broke into her thoughts. She had ridden to Isabella’s side and was offering a vial of infused mint, rosemary and lavender for her to smell. To please Meg, Isabella inhaled and passed it back. She felt better afterwards.

‘Thank you, dear Meg, the Queen seems quite recovered,’ Edward said smoothly, speaking for Isabella, as he liked to do. It had been different, some years earlier, when she was a child bride and unsure. Now, she could speak for herself, so she said, without hesitation, ‘I am well. Do not fuss so, Edward.’

‘Then, my love, it’s time to break our fast. We’ll eat in that meadow.’ Edward waved his jewelled hand towards a sunlit clearing ringed with beeches. He turned and shouted along the path towards the wiry figure of Warwick. ‘Dog—I mean, Warwick! Tell them to set up the pavilion in that glade, over there. We’ll resume the hunt after we break meats.’

Riding up to them, Warwick nodded. ‘Sire, as you wish.’ He threw a malevolent look at Piers, who sat on his horse watching him with an insolent grin on his face.

Piers does invite enmity, Isabella thought. Such impertinence is not doing his cause any favours. It does Edward no favours either.

‘As well you requested a competent organiser today, sire,’ Warwick said, turning his dark expression into a pleasant smile for Edward. ‘Ride on, sire, and it will be done.’ He kicked his heels against his horse’s flanks and the brown hunter trotted back along the track.

Almost at once, their crowd of followers had a silken pavilion erected in the meadow, with a linen-covered low table, cushions and carpets spread out under the shade of a stand of beech trees. Bowing low, servants placed baskets filled with pears and apples on the table and set out dishes of breads, cheeses and meats. Isabella paused and looked about her, feeling how lucky she was. Their court was all young men and women; they loved each other like brothers and sisters. As well as herself and Edward, there was Piers, of course, who was not from a great noble family, but had served Edward since they were two boys learning to be squires in Wales and Gascony. And her dear friend Isa Beaumont, and her French nurse Thea, and Edward’s red-haired niece, Meg, one of the younger daughters of Edward’s most powerful Welsh lord, Gilbert deClare. Meg’s sisters, Eleanor and Elizabeth, were often at court, too, though Isabella was less fond of beautiful, cold Eleanor, and knew fiery little Elizabeth not at all. Delicate Meg, however, was her dearest friend. And Edward had married Meg to his dearest friend, Piers. Isabella smiled to see Meg, at this moment, pulling her skirts around herself to sit down on cushions close to the king.

‘Has this forest a name?’ Meg said, turning to Edward.  ‘Boarstall Wood. Do you like staying here, at the old palace at Brill, Meg? My ancestor, the first King Henry, built the hunting palace. My mother loved it. She made improvements – a bathing room and new tiles on the floors, with lions and crowns.’

‘I do, very much so, Uncle. Much better than London. The views over the fields, the air, the country lanes . . . I can see how Grandmother Eleanor liked it so well.’

‘And lush hedgerows.’ Edward turned to Piers. ‘Do you know, here, they weave young hawthorn and beech together to make a strong barrier that their sheep cannot penetrate?’ He twisted imaginary boughs in his hands. ‘We’ll get the villagers to show us how, Piers. A new skill to learn.’

Isabella felt herself frowning. Edward was always happier away from the castle and his royal duties. Why must he insist on mixing with peasants the very moment he found an opportunity? It was beneath him. Their job was to rule over the poor, not to associate with them. She popped a grape into her mouth. No, she must not criticise. It was not for her to gainsay her husband. Her duty was to provide him with an heir. And that, she smiled to herself, was sure to happen soon. She had just passed her fifteenth birthday. Edward had only this month bedded her for the first time since their wedding, three years earlier, and now this was happening more often.

It had not been the unpleasant experience she had feared. In fact, it had been delightful. She had enjoyed their lovemaking after the first time – though, even then, he had been gentle and considerate, caressing her in places she would never touch herself. She glanced with admiration at his great height, her eyes appreciating his lean figure and strong muscular arms, glinting with blond hairs. As they had lain naked, thigh to naked thigh, he had told her she was one of the loveliest creatures he had ever beheld.

‘Who are the others?’ she’d dared ask. He’d snorted, and not answered.

He clearly admired Piers’ handsome looks. She shivered slightly. And there was, too, the unknown woman whom Edward confessed had given him an illegitimate son named Adam, only two years ago. But that woman was no threat, having died giving birth to Adam. The child was growing up on a manor set deep in the Kent countryside. Edward had won Isabella’s approval when he admitted that he would always care for Adam, since it spoke well of his kindness and reassured her that he would always feel responsibility towards his own. He had looked at her with adoring eyes when he said he hoped she would accept the boy when, one day, he joined their court.

‘Edward,’ she had said dutifully, ‘I shall always be kind to the boy.’ Even so, the sooner she had her own son in her arms, the better.

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The Silken RoseThe Damask Rose and The Stone Rose may be ordered from Amazon or Amazon UK. See below for additional dates and blog addresses in Carol McGrath’s fabulous blog tour. Keep up with the author and her other works at her website, where you can sign up for her wonderful newsletter, check out her previous books and more. And don’t miss “The Sexy Weasel in Renaissance Art,” an entry for her Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England blog tour. It’s pretty fantastic!

 

The 2022 Winter Reading Challenge for Grownups

Good morning and a happy Sunday to you all! I know, I know, Sundays aren’t known for people being bright eyed and bushy tailed, as we all like a late lie, but if we talk about books, maybe we can shake this up a bit! If nothing else, we can get a little excited about some weekend reading, no? The books I have in mind at the moment are those I read for a recent library book challenge called the Winter Reading Challenge for Grownups – and it was intense! I am also participating in another, year-long challenge that entails one book per month, so this one won’t be complete for quite a while, but I will write about it before too long, especially given the perspective angle involved.

But for now, challenge for grownups.

As some of you know, my son, now 19, has been going to the library since he was two weeks old – it’s practically been his second home. He doesn’t go now as often as he used to, trying as he is to figure out how to juggle his more adult responsibilities (university, work, friends and associated activities, etc.). But I was a little excited to see him get into the choices I’d been working through for this library reading challenge, which is set up in the form of a bingo card.

With five rows of five columns per, each box has a category, and participants choose a book that fits. For example, the first row and my choices:

Poetry or Book in Verse

The Spiritual Poems of Rumi

Book to Movie

 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Alaskana

 

The Year of Miss Agnes

Set/About Somewhere You Want to Visit

The Printer’s Apprentice

Book You Were Assigned for School

The Cricket in Times Square

Each time you finish a row, you mark it complete, write down your titles and submit to the librarian, who gives you a small prize, which for me was a bookmark each time. Naturally, your bingo can be horizontal, vertical or diagonal. Additionally, each completed bingo row acts as an entry to a prize drawing. If you complete all twenty-five squares, you are also entered into the Blackout Drawing.

Oh, did I mention that this was for books read in between January 24 and March 7? Ha ha! Yeah, I had most of my choices picked out, but this changed a few times as I went along, planning what to read according to day of the week (e.g. evenings only), what was left, how overwhelmed I felt at any given moment, even with some of my selections being young adult (YA) books. For example, I wanted to re-read Emil and the Detectives, a book recommended to me years ago and that I had read a few times before. But I also had a work of Arthurian fiction on deck, and that was nearly 400 pages. Being somewhat organizationally obsessive as I am, I had a tendency to go over my choices nearly every day, which may or may not have been helpful.

I only learned about the contest, by the way, about a week into it, so I had that slight disadvantage, but also had something going for me because, having then recently been sick, I was spending a lot of time at home resting after work, so the reading gave me something to do. “Maybe I can pull this off after all,” I often thought. I did manage to get two books to do double duty, one also read for my year-long challenge and another as part of re-reading the Harry Potter series with my son. We also re-read it in 2020, which was something we turned to when the world was pretty much shut down.

Speaking of the world being shut down: I think most of us would agree it was not fun at all. With rare exception, people really need people, if on varying levels, and the shutdowns have really cast a pall over societies across the globe. They did a lot of damage short- and long-term. Our own library was closed for I think over a year. (I forget exactly how long, but it was a very long time.) So, I was really glad for this particular contest because, as I reasoned, it’s a fun way to get re-involved in a community activity at a pace – reading and meeting up – that works for each person.

To be honest, I really had no business attempting to read 25 books in about 35 days. That’s roughly a book a day and, like my son, I already have too much other stuff to juggle. Why voluntarily add this to my already-full plate? I’m not sure what I was thinking, though it may be that at first I thought I might do only one or two bingo rows. Then it started to seem possible to do it all, which may actually have been me taking leave of my senses!

Looking back, I ponder the idea that I really did need to work my mind a bit, having recently spent so much time sleeping and not much else. I don’t think otherwise I would have been able to participate in such an activity unless I stuck to YA for all 25, which I don’t necessarily wish to do – there are too many other books on my TBR that I want to get to. In the last couple of weeks, it wasn’t so much fun sitting to read for such long periods of time as I did but, having started and made my commitment, I absurdly forced myself to keep to it. So, I guess I’m glad I did it, because I did reach a number – 32 – by March 7 that in other years took me much longer to achieve. For example, in 2019, I read 37 books but only finished my first, with less than 100 pages, on March 6. In all of 2020 I ready only 18 books. That was a new low for me, especially given the expectations everyone seemed to be placing on themselves related to having so much extra time. (I still went to work every day, so never gained any of this spare and wonderful time.)

But these are just numbers, and I’d scolded myself before about this. What do numbers really mean, anyway? Are they meaningful in and of themselves? For me, they aren’t enough, which is why I’d been excited to discover, some years ago, challenges that led to trying out new genres or entire series, tackle some of your TBR, maybe re-read some old favorites. You know, quality over quantity. It’s a cliché, I suppose, but at least some clichés become so because they have value and meaning and are worth repeating. It isn’t accurate to say there was no quality in this reading, but the final determination would be in weighing what I got out of it all and whether it was worth the time spent focused on these particular books and what else was involved in getting them all read.

Box cover showing the 1,000-piece puzzle’s colorful picture. See below for how far I have progressed.
This boy reminds me of my son, with his thick, curly, wild hair – and a book in his hand!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In coming weeks, I will be having a look at these titles and engaging in some brief discussion about them or the time surrounding when I read them, one row at a time, where they are in my history and where they might lead me moving forward. For now, a quick mention about the prizes I referenced above. I did end up winning one, a 1,000-piece puzzle that has already been showing me who’s boss. But it’s fun to look at, with its crowd of people (and one cat) reading books such as The Great Catsby, The Cranberry Tales and Moby Richard. Whether it was a prize from a single-row drawing or the Blackout (a term I’d never heard until this), I have absolutely no idea!

Stay tuned for my first row discussion ~

  This puzzle is boss.

Book Review: Hauntings (Anthology)

“Fear is as old as life itself.”

I’ve said it dozens of times: I believe it is coded into our very DNA to want to be told stories. For very many of us, this craving additionally comes wrapped with a bit of thrill seeking—not necessarily a desire to be wholly terrified, but perhaps to experience a bit of a spine-tingling sensation, that love of the tingle on various levels, which would explain why ghost stories, when they began to be told for entertainment’s sake, were such a great hit with a diverse public.

Though there were particular masters—M.R. James, for example—the genre contains perhaps as many styles as there are readers, from the Senecan tragedies mirrored in Shakespeare and Pliny the Younger’s description of a ghost bound in chains that birthed an archetype, used to humorous effect in Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” to the modern-day possessions of people and places, event imprints and ghostly re-enactments of horrific bloodbaths, to name just a very few.

Historical tales of ghostly events have been and remain quite popular, an intriguing angle being that this sub-genre seems to be as in-demand amongst those not considering themselves history buffs as those who do. Perhaps this is because mixed within are both recognizable historical figures (of numerous eras) and those who, in life, were more of the ordinary set, such as ourselves, with relatability as an added factor. This is no small achievement, given the sheer variability of perspectives amongst readerships.

Illustration by James McBryde for M. R. James’s story “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad.” (Image courtesy Wikimedia. Click for further details.)

Yet this is precisely what Stephanie Churchill and nine other authors from the Historical Writers Forum have achieved here with their compilation of Hauntings: A Collection of Ghostly Encounters. Opening with Simon Turney’s tale of a tormented Roman general and proceeding through time, these stories “that take you through a labyrinth of historical horror” indeed weave through the years, echoing events and imprinting in our minds the concerns of the living and the dead. Some of the backgrounds are recognizable, others not; all are followed with historical notes for additional background. One of the best finds I encountered in my own reading is that even eras and cultures I was unfamiliar with or didn’t generally care for before nevertheless drew me in. These are powerful yarns that weave a pathway through the imagination, creating a fascination for the traditions or superstitions behind the events for greater appreciation of what those in the stories endure.

Anthologies can be a tricky chemistry to master: a variety of authors, with different styles; eras and settings that often are poles apart; ghosts that may or may not show up fairly soon into the tale, or perhaps not at all—these run the risk of becoming the anthologies many readers love only a few of the stories from and indeed read them repeatedly, but the rest gather literary dust. In this case, Hauntings rises above that fate not only with its sheer readability, but also marvelously written accounts that at times cause an appreciative intake of breath ~

The clouds above raced past as if they had somewhere to be[.]

~ or occasional self-awareness and/or conversational style:

I thought they were merely a part of the castle’s memories, you see.

What I love about these and other examples is that the entertainment value is kept company by lovely phrases or a reaching out to readers without stepping out of the roles to which characters are assigned. The gripping narratives engender emotions arisen as well for the sake of others, those whose stories we are in the midst of, forgetting that we came to the story for our own ends, in the process gathering a great deal about our own sensibilities as well as those of past societies and individuals within them. Moreover, there is not a filler tale in the lot. One could read the anthology cover to cover or skip around, but I guarantee you will read them all, likely repeatedly. Dust is not in the future of these tales.

Hauntings is a set of stories that will appeal to lovers of ghosts, but also those enamored of history (and even not a few not so enamored!), so I am quite sure it will bring in many who have never picked up a ghost story in their lives. We are, after all, bred to it. We want to know what came before us. We wish to be thrilled. We are looking for a little fear factor, even the exhilaration, the electrified feeling that passes through us when the unexpected comical comes our way. Truly a collection of craft, this anthology delivers what we have been seeking for millennia, and then some.

Hauntings author contributors (click each name to learn more):

Simon Turney

K.S. Barton

Paula Lofting

Stephanie Churchill

Judith Arnopp

Jennifer C. Wilson

Lynn Bryant

Kate Jewell

Samantha Wilcoxson

D. Apple

The blogger was provided with a courtesy copy of Hauntings in order to provide an honest review. 

Hauntings is available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK.

Lisl is currently working on a novel set in Anglo-Saxon England, and can be found at Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She loves rain, the sea, ghost stories, poetry and Casablanca

The Sexy Weasel in Renaissance Art by Carol McGrath

As part of her blog tour for the forthcoming Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England, author Carol McGrath joins us today to write about a sexy little creature whose symbolism remained a secret many of us really didn’t know much about! Read on to be entertained and enlightened. 

Symbolism abounded in sixteenth-century paintings. One amusing and fascinating symbolic feature was that of the weasel. Weasels covered the whole of the mustelid family. They included ermine, sables, martens, ferrets and mink. Of interest specifically to Renaissance art, a widely-held belief was that weasels conceived though their ears and gave birth through their mouths. This gave rise to a language of hidden sexual symbolism in art with weasels symbolising everything from fertility talismans to phallic symbols. A sixteenth-century portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, The Lady and the Ermine, shows a young bride wearing an ermine, which was thought to bring good luck and help her get pregnant.

Dama con l’ermellino – Oil on walnut panel, da Vinci

In the painting the bride’s hand rests over her lower abdomen and she holds the white ermine close to her womb. White weasels were symbols of sexual purity. The story goes that the ermine would rather give themselves up to a hunter than risk soiling their pristine fur in the chase. Da Vinci’s white ermine attests to the purity of his subject, the pregnant sixteen-year-old mistress of the Duke of Milan. The duke belonged to a knighthood called the Order of the Ermine and a muscular weasel would indicate his virility. Since weasels suggested fertility, weasel paintings became an ideal wedding gift. In a marriage painting by Lavinia Fortana, a young Bolognese noble woman wears a red wedding gown. She pats a little dog which is white, the symbol of marital fidelity. Over her right arm she holds a weasel pelt with a jewelled head. This pelt was known as flea fur since it might distract fleas from the wearer’s pristine skin. However, its inclusion importantly represents the possibility and the hope that the bride will be fertile. Brides touching their wombs in paintings hope that God will bless them with a child. The idea connects with Christ’s miraculous conception which happened when God’s angel whispered into the ear of the Virgin. In the two partnered portraits of Pier Maria Rossi di San Secundo and that of his wife, Camilla Conzago, who is with their three sons, Camilla strokes a weasel. Pier has a codpiece that is prominent, just like Henry VIII in Holbein’s portraits.

Portrait of Pier Maria Rossi di San Secondo – Oil on canvas, Parmigianino
Portrait of Camilla Gonzaga and Her Three Sons – Oil on panel, Parmigianino

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the painting of Camilla’s husband, Camilla is gazing at her husband with extreme pride. She is surrounded by their sons and one son is staring at his father’s codpiece. The symbolism only really works if the portraits are hung side by side. The father’s large codpiece attests to the ideals of masculinity which the child aspires towards in adulthood. A white ermine also appears in a portrait of Elizabeth I who was often referred to as the Virgin Queen. In this later painting a white weasel attests to the Queen’s purity and unmarried status. It becomes a political statement suggesting Elizabeth is married only to her kingdom.

Zibellino, from the Italian word for “sable,” also known as a “flea fur.” Associated with childbirth, increase in fertility and protection during pregnancy.

One folk belief was for a woman to wear a weasel’s testicles around her neck or tie them to her thigh. In this way, a weasel as a symbol of sexual rampancy having been emasculated, might provide a potent counterspell. The weasel represented purity in people’s minds. Readers, choose your weasel. Will it be a fertility weasel, phallic weasel, a purity weasel or a success weasel? Whichever, they all made an appearance on wedding gifts and in paintings during the Tudor period. Including a weasel in a painting on tapestry or on an object would also be a way to indicate your high social status, and as a dual purpose the furry creature might just draw fleas away from your skin as well.

About the Author – Carol McGrath 

Following a first degree in English and History, Carol McGrath completed an MA in Creative Writing from The Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University Belfast, followed by an MPhil in English from University of London. The Handfasted Wife, first in a trilogy about the royal women of 1066 was shortlisted for the RoNAS in 2014. The Swan-Daughter and The Betrothed Sister complete this highly acclaimed trilogy. Mistress Cromwell, a best-selling historical novel about Elizabeth Cromwell, wife of Henry VIII’s statesman, Thomas Cromwell, was republished by Headline in 2020. The Silken Rose, first in a Medieval She-Wolf Queens Trilogy, featuring Ailenor of Provence, saw publication in April 2020. This was followed by The Damask Rose. The Stone Rose will be published April 2022. Carol is writing Historical non-fiction as well as fiction. Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England will be published in February 2022. Carol McGrath lives in Oxfordshire with her husband. Find Carol on her website: www.carolcmcgrath.co.uk

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Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England may be purchased here.

Paintings and zibellino images courtesy Wikimedia Commons; click individual images for more details. Author image courtesy Carol McGrath.