Monday, August 18, 2014

The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar by Kim Rendfeld and a Chance to Win a Copy

Can love triumph over war?

772 AD: Charlemagne’s battles in Saxony have left Leova with nothing but her two children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn. Her beloved husband died in combat. Her faith lies shattered in the ashes of Irminsul, the Pillar of Heaven. The relatives obligated to defend her and her family sell them into slavery instead.
In Francia, Leova is resolved to protect her son and daughter, even if it means sacrificing her own honor. Her determination only grows stronger as Sunwynn blossoms into a beautiful young woman, attracting the lust of a cruel master, and Deorlaf becomes a headstrong man willing to brave starvation and demons to free his family. Yet Leova’s most difficult dilemma comes in the form of a Frankish friend, Hugh. He saves Deorlaf from a fanatical Saxon and is Sunwynn’s champion — but he is the warrior who slew Leova’s husband.

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

* * *

The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar brings Kim Rendfeld's painstaking research and sensitive psychological drama to some people we never hear about in the history books. Not only are the main characters the losers in Charlemagne's campaigns, but they also start out in a hardscrabble life and spend most of the book under horrifying conditions of servitude. As in Rendfeld’s first novel, the emotional impact of the story slowly builds to epic proportions as the plot becomes more complex, but it never dips into the realm of fantasy. The situations and characters are relentlessly real, with hard choices and terrible villains who are, if we stop and think about it, products of their time. I’m also impressed with the depictions of travel in Ashes: it’s hard and sometimes boring for the characters, but for the reader it’s never dull. This novel is a true immersion into a foreign time and place. When you’ve finished reading, you’ll be able to remember the houses, castles, markets, and bathhouses (yes, medieval people bathed regularly!) as if you had been there yourself.

The reader will sympathize with Leova and her family. The author throws tremendous obstacles at them, but they persevere and come to satisfying conclusions with family, living conditions, and even a little romance.

The Cross and the Dragon, Rendfeld's strong debut, illuminated a “dark age” for readers with a wonderful story, and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar manages to surpass it. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar debuted on August 28. See it here!

Advance Praise for The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar
“Carolingian Europe comes alive in Kim Rendfeld’s sweeping story of family and hope, set against the Saxon Wars. Her transportive and triumphant novel immerses us in an eighth century world that feels both mystical and starkly real.”  —Jessica Brockmole, author of Letters from Skye

“A captivating historical filled with rich detail, compelling characters, and a well-paced plot that keeps the pages turning to its very satisfying end. A true delight for fans of historical fiction. I couldn’t put it down.” —Susan Spann, author of the Shinobi Mysteries

The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar is refreshingly set in a less familiar medieval period – soon after Charlemagne has conquered a portion of today’s Germany and its people. The characters are refreshing also, common folk instead of the lords and ladies who are the usual inhabitants of historical novels, and how they adjust to their new condition is fascinating. Altogether, this book was absorbing from start to finish.” —Roberta Gellis, author of The Roselynde Chronicles

The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar is having a Goodreads giveaway! Enter now for your chance!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Vote for Your Favorite Rhinos!

If any of you have the 2014 International Rhino Foundation calendar, this month you'll be enjoying the above photo in the lower right corner. I took this picture of two feisty juvenile Indian rhinos in 2011. I'm so proud to have a picture in this amazing calendar, which raises funds for the only place in the world where Javan rhinos live.

Voting is on now for the 2015 calendar! Anyone may vote by going to this link. I encourage you vote for photos number 23 and 24:

23 is my photo of Thelma and Louise, the sweet young rhinos at Southwick's Zoo. Find out more about them here. If this photo gets enough votes, its title will be something like "Reflection at the Scratching Post."

24 is my husband's holiday-friendly picture of the Christmas lights zoo, part of the Winterhaven display in Tucson, Arizona. Wouldn't it make a great December?

Whichever ones are your favorite, VOTE before August 25! The calendar will be available for purchase September first and is sold at a discount before World Rhino Day (September 22). They sell out fast!

Monday, August 4, 2014

What a Rhino Feels Like

When my wonderful husband saw that a certain amazing zoo in our area was doing "rhino encounters," in which the visitor "gets up close and personal" with two beautiful, healthy, good tempered white rhinos, he did the right thing and scheduled it for us. We saved up our money, because a life-changing experience like this isn't cheap. That's okay, because half the money goes toward upkeep and half toward International Rhino Foundation programs. We weren't sure what "up close and personal" really meant, but we dared to hope that we could touch them. My husband and I have seen many YouTube videos that confirm the idea that most rhinos love to be petted and scratched, but were sure the zoo would only allow it if it was okay with these particular rhinos (and the insurance companies!).

We Bowled for Rhinos at Franklin Park! 
Shortly after making these arrangements, we went to a great talk at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston by Bill Konstant of the IRF. Bill's passion for rhinos was inspiring, and when we spoke with him about this impending "encounter," he showed us pictures of the first people who had done it... and Yes! They got to pet the rhinos! From then on, we referred to our August 2 reservation as when "we get to pet the rhinos."

This experience was so much more than I could have dreamed. Both my husband and I were moved to tears. We were so close that our pictures don't look very artsy, but Betsey Brewer, zoo co-owner and coordinator of this event, kindly stepped back and got pictures of us looking as if we were in a zoo and rhinos were visiting us!

The bars are for the protection of keepers and, now, the visitors, because happy rhinos like to show their affection by bumping into each other. Little humans couldn't take much of that kind of love. The rhinos also rub up against the posts and give themselves a good scratch, as you can see by the flaking paint.

It had been raining hard earlier in the day and other visitors had cancelled their rhino encounters. We were joined only by people who worked at the zoo. Betsey brought some of their nutritious hay with her, but as soon as they heard people inside the bars, both rhinos came out of the barn where they had been resting, just to get some attention. There was no preamble. They came right to us, like sailing ships with a smooth and premeditated gait. We had been informed where they liked to be touched, but I was so amazed at being so close to these giant beauties that I had to take a moment to collect myself.

The rain was kind to us that day. Not only did it let up in time for our encounter, but the damp and cool temperature meant that the rhinos had not been rolling in mud all day. They don't have sweat glands, so that's how they keep cool on a hot day. I had wondered if I would get dirty doing this, but these were the cleanest rhinos I've probably ever been in the presence of.

The two rhinos, Thelma and Louise, came to the zoo directly from South Africa three years ago, when the previous longtime rhino residents had passed away of old age. They are now about six years old, so the zoo board is in discussions about how and when to breed them.

Betsey told an interesting story. When Louise was in transit at the port authority in New York, she was spooked by the inspectors and got her horn caught in one of the vent holes in her container. She was so riled that she ripped her horn right out! It would be like a human ripping out a fingernail. Her face looked rather concave for some time, but now the horn has grown back stronger than ever. It seems to be more sturdily in place than her companion's horn now.

What does a rhino feel like? Good. Here, on the back, the skin is inches thick and a little bit rough. We were told we could slap them pretty hard back there because they don't feel it otherwise, but I'm sure I was too gentle. It seemed too disrespectful to hit them!

The back has interestingly invisible bristly hairs that contributed to the rugged texture.

Behind the ears, on the other hand, the skin is much thinner and more sensitive. It feels like it has a dry outside, but just underneath, it's soft and warm!

Watch the flicking action! 
Back there, you also get a sense of how stiff their ears are. They flip back and forth on a hinge, but above that, it's all cartilage, no muscle.

The horns are compacted strands of keratin (a biomatter found in most mammals, and in human hair and fingernails). Rhinos like to rub their horns on rocks to shape them, and Thelma had been sharpening hers to a nice point. The rubbing is why you can see hairlike strands puffing out around the middle in these pictures. The horns don't feel like anything special. Touching the horn, you might never know there was such a wonderful creature attached to it. I emphasize: a rhino's horn is of no use to anyone but a rhino.

In all the excitement, I never managed to touch around the nose, but my husband says it's similar to behind the ears. Bigger wrinkles, for sure!

They have strong neck muscles to hold up those big heads! 
White rhinos have a unique way of eating. With no front teeth, they suck the food back with their wide lips and grind it with their molars. Near the end, Betsey put the hay out for Thelma and Louise to eat and we got to listen to them slurping and enjoying their meal for a while.

And then it was over.

We left with a profound sense of peace. I'm not sure how long we were with Thelma and Louise because time stopped and nothing else was important. It was a joyful meditation that made us both effortlessly arrive at what matters most in the world. Anyone with stress issues should pet a nice rhino. Thelma and Louise produced only two anxieties in us: 1. What can we ever do for the rest of our lives that is so fulfilling? 2. How can we save all the beautiful species of rhino from human greed and stupidity?

So I look at my hands now, these hands that have been privileged to touch two lovely creatures with timeless souls. I ask, what can these hands do to make the world better?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Most Adventuresome Author Today at Unusual Historicals

Today at Unusual Historicals, I try to capture some of the adventure of the life of Miguel de Cervantes in a post about a trip he took in 1575, with unexpected and life-changing results. Enjoy!

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Reader's Guide to Waterfire, Providence's Signature Public Art

All photos in this post taken 2014 by Jessica Knauss 
It was a hot summer night. After a delicious dinner at one of the fine establishments at Providence Place (the best mall I've ever been in and more outstanding for being smack in the middle of things instead of in some dusty suburb), my husband and I headed over to the one event that defines Providence even more than the mall: Waterfire.

As my blog readers know, I've written a novella entitled Waterfire, in which this inexplicably essential art installation plays an inspirational role. When I returned to New England, I was keen to visit the real-life event as soon as possible.

Waterplace Park before lighting.
Large numbers of people were gathering long before sunset, ready for the magic. In the photo, you can see the pyres jutting from the water, well stocked with cedar firewood.

The mystical circle at Waterplace, with DownCity in the background.
And then they were lit! After a ceremony we couldn't really see, a special delegation of sponsors got to sail around the pyres and get them going with the help of a gas jet.

This may not be the best picture of the night, but for me it captures the sense of fascination people have with the fire and the water. It's a magical combination.

Looking back at the mystic circle with Providence Place in the background.
We took a route opposite to the one my characters, Kelly and Brian, take in the novella. When they see this view, they're close to the end of their night and the height of first-date giddiness.

Here the fire throws glimmering light onto a gondola, an essential part of Waterfire and so popular I wanted to do it to celebrate my PhD, but you had to have made reservations a year in advance.

The stokers add cedar planks — quickly as they sail by — to keep the flames alight. In my story, the stokers can start and stoke the fires with their minds — and with the uninvited help of Kelly and Brian, my teenage firestarters.

The gondoliers show off their authentic costumes at the gondola dock.

Waterfire passes along the foot of College Hill.
This is the quieter part of the exhibit. The single-row layout is where Kelly and Brian first come upon the crackling energy and incense-like smells.

And then we heard what Kelly and Brian heard: her favorite piece of music, "The Prayer of St. Gregory" by Alan Hovhaness. In these videos, you can't distinguish the music quite as well as the snaps and pops of the fire, which is how it should be.


Monday, June 30, 2014

"Sin of Omission" by Ana María Matute

2014 is shaping up to be a terrible year for the literary world in Spanish. I learned last week that the world has lost Ana María Matute, master of realism and pithy short stories as well as longer works that expose all the ironies of society.

What better way to honor her memory than with one of her stories? This is my humble translation of perhaps her most famous. Enjoy.

Sin of Omission
Ana María Matute

His mother, who had been all that was left him, died when he was thirteen. When he became an orphan it had already been at least three years since he’d last gone to school, because he had to make a living here and there, wherever he could. His only relative was his mother’s cousin, called Emeterio Ruiz Heredia. Emeterio was the mayor and had a two-story house on the town square, round and reddish under the August sun. Emeterio had two hundred head of cattle grazing along the slopes of Sagrado, and a beautiful daughter nearing twenty, brunette, robust, laughing and a bit dim-witted. His wife, thin and as hard a black poplar, did not speak gently and knew how to take charge. Emeterio Ruiz hadn’t gotten along well with that distant cousin, but he helped the widow out of a sense of obligation by finding her odd jobs. Then, although the mayor took the son in once he was an orphan, with no money or job, he did not look on him with sympathy, and everyone else in the house felt the same way.

The first night Lope slept at Emeterio’s house, it was under the grain loft. They gave him dinner and a glass of wine. The next day, while Ementerio was tucking in his shirt and the sun had barely risen to the roosters’ crowing, he called down the stairs, startling the chickens that had been sleeping on the risers.


Lope came over barefoot with sleep in his eyes. He wasn’t very big for thirteen but he had a head that looked even bigger for being close-shaven.

“You’re going to be Sagrado’s shepherd.”

Lope found his boots and put them on. In the kitchen, the daughter, Francisca, had made potatoes with paprika. Lope wolfed them down, his aluminum spoon dripping with every bite.

“You know how it’s done. I think you walked the hills of Santa Áurea with Aurelio Bernal’s goats.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You won’t go by yourself. Roque the Medium shepherds around there, too. You’ll go together.”

“Yes, sir.”

Francisca put a loaf of bread in his knapsack, along with a small aluminum flask, goat fat, and cured meat.

“Get going,” said Emeterio Ruiz Heredia.

Lope looked at him. Lope had round black eyes that shone.

“What are you looking at? Go on!”

Lope left, knapsack on his shoulders. He picked up the crook, thick and shiny with use, that he kept leaning against the wall like a dog.

He was climbing Sagrado’s hill when Don Lorenzo, the teacher, saw him. That afternoon, in the tavern, Don Lorenzo lit a cigarette with Emeterio, who was throwing back a glass of anisette.

“I saw Lope,” he said. “He was heading up Sagrado Hill. Such a shame.”

“Yes,” said Emeterio, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. “He’s a shepherd. He already knows he has to earn his own living. Life is hard. That poor bastard Pericote didn’t even leave him a wall to lean on or a place to drop dead.”

“The bad thing,” said Don Lorenzo, scratching an ear with a long yellow nail, “is that the kid could be something. If he had the means, someone could make something out of him. He’s smart, very smart. At school…”

Emeterio cut him off with his hand in front of his eyes. “Yes, yes. I’m not saying he’s not. But one must earn one’s own living. Life gets worse with every passing day.”

He ordered another glass of anisette. The teacher nodded in agreement.

Lope arrived at Sagrado and found Roque the Medium by calling for him. Roque was a bit slow and had been Emeterio’s shepherd for about 15 years. He was almost 50 and barely ever spoke. They slept in the same mud hut, under the oaks, taking advantage of the shelter under the branches. They could only fit into the hut bending over and they had to go in on all fours, half crawling, but it was cool in the summer and warm enough in the winter.

Summer went by. Then autumn and winter. The shepherds didn’t go to town except on festival days. Every two weeks, a young lad brought up “rations”: bread, jerky, lard, garlic. Sometimes, a wine pouch. The summits of Sagrado were beautiful, profound blue, terrible, blinding. The sun, high and round, like an unmoving eye, reigned over the land. In the early morning fog, when he couldn’t hear the buzzing of flies or any rustling, Lope would wake up with the mud roof before his eyes. He would stay quiet for a while, feeling the body of Roque the Medium by his side, like a breathing log. Then, he would crawl towards the corral. His shouts were lost, useless and grandiose in the sky, mixed in with runaway stars. Only God knew where they would eventually land. Like rocks. Like the years. One year. Two. Five.

Once, five years later, Emeterio sent the lad for Lope. He had the doctor examine Lope, who had grown healthy and strong, like a tree.

“What an oak!” said the doctor, who was new. Lope blushed and didn’t know what to say.

Francisca had married and had three small sons who were playing in the town square. A dog approached Lope with its tongue hanging out. Maybe it remembered him. Then he saw Manuel Enríquez, a schoolmate of his who had always been behind in his studies. Manuel was wearing a grey suit and a tie. He passed by Lope and waved.

Francisca commented, “Good career, that one. His father sent him off to study and now he’s a lawyer.”

When he got to the fountain, Lope saw him again. Suddenly, he wanted to talk to him. But his shout stayed in his throat like a ball.

“Eh,” he said. Or something like that.

Manuel turned around to look at him and recognized him. It didn’t seem possible: he knew Lope. He smiled.

“Lope! Hey man, Lope…!”

Who could understand what he was saying? What strange accents men have, what strange words come out of the dark holes of their mouths! A thick blood was filling his veins while he listened to Manuel Enríquez.

Manuel opened a flat, silver case filled with the whitest, most perfect cigarettes Lope had ever seen in his life. Manuel handed one to him, smiling.

Lope held out his hand. Then he realized how rough, how coarse, it was. Like a piece of cured meat. His fingers weren’t flexible, they wouldn’t play along. How strange the other’s hand: a refined hand, with fingers like big worms, agile, white, flexible. What a hand, wax-colored, with shining, polished nails. What a strange hand: not even women had hands like that. Lope’s hand fumbled. At last, he took the cigarette, white and fragile, strange, in his hard, heavy fingers: useless, absurd, in his fingers. Lope’s blood stopped between his eyebrows. A blood clot crowded quietly, fermenting between his eyebrows. He crushed the cigarette with his fingers and turned around. He couldn’t stay there, not even with Manuelito following him in surprise, calling, “Lope! Lope!”

Emeterio was sitting on his porch in short sleeves, watching his grandchildren play. He was smiling at his oldest grandson and resting from work with a bottle of wine within reach. Lope went directly to Emeterio and saw his grey eyes, questioning.

“Go on, boy, it’s time you go back to Sagrado.”

In the town plaza there was a square, reddish rock. One of those rocks as big as melons that the boys take from some fallen-down wall. Slowly, Lope took it in his hands. Emeterio looked at him comfortably, with a mild curiosity. His right hand rested between his belt and his stomach. He didn’t even have time to take it out: a muffled thud, the splattering of his own blood on his chest, death and surprise, like two sisters, came upon him just like that.

When they took him away handcuffed, Lope cried. And the women, howling like wolves, wanted to hit him and followed him with their veils raised over their heads, outraged.

“My God, the one who took you in. My God, the one who made you a man. My God, you would have died of hunger if he hadn’t taken you in…”

Lope only cried and said, “Yes, yes, yes…”

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Review: The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas

The Illusionists invites comparisons to the two magician films that came out ten years ago, The Prestige and The Illusionist. Like those films, this book delves into the behind-the-scenes lives and competitions between magicians and maintains an air of mysterious romance. From the beginning, the author finds magic and wonder in the sooty, hungry streets of Victorian London.

The descriptions for this book tend to focus on Eliza. However, Eliza is not the first character we meet. It takes quite a few pages to get to her, and she remains aloof for some time. This story is really an ensemble piece, with each character as unusual and well developed as the others. It's not long before the performing dwarf Carlo and the haunted magician Devil fall in love with Eliza. She's already being pursued by Devil's childhood friend Jasper, but the triangle is treated so subtly, it doesn't get stale. Perhaps the saving grace is that Eliza clearly favors Devil, but doesn't veer from her stubborn intention to take care of herself.

The reader roots for Devil's schemes and Eliza's goals and boos the bad guys off the stage. The author has done her research and has a talent for evocative detail. This is sure to be a favorite for any reader with a passing interest in Victorian England or the golden age of magicians.