The Heaven Tree Trilogy

You will know Ellis Peters for her Brother Cadfael series, all twenty of which occupy a permanent place on my bookshelf, too. They are comfort reads, books I reach for at random to curl up with in front of a fire in the wood stove on a dark winter night.

But. Under her real name, Edith Pargeter, she wrote three novels published in omnibus format called The Heaven Tree Trilogy, which she considered the best novels she ever wrote. So do I.

The Heaven Tree Trilogy is set on the Welsh border a century before the Brother Cadfael novels, during the tumultuous reign of King John. In Volume One, The Heaven Tree, we meet Harry Talvace, an aristocrat-turned-stonemason who rebels against his father and flees to France to save his friend, Adam, where they met the mysterious Lord of Parfois. Volume Two, The Green Branch, jumps ahead to the story of Harry’s son, across the border in the court of Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, and in Volume Three, The Scarlet Seed, young Harry’s story concludes in a civil war and the siege of Parfois, with big surprises and a thoroughly satisfying resolution.

The Heaven Tree Trilogy is a marvel of an historical novel with great characters, a riveting plot and that vivid, matchless setting, the border between Wales and England that Pargeter wrote about better than anyone else.

How do I know that Pargeter considered The Heaven Tree Trilogy her best work? Because after I read it, I wrote her to accuse her of having stock in Kleenex (just you wait, after you read it at my instigation you’ll be accusing me of the same thing).

Amazingly, she wrote back, a short note with the loveliest little twinkle in it.



Dear Ms. Stabenow,

I’m sorry to have caused you so much expense in tissues, and yet I take it as a compliment. I still regard the trilogy as the best thing I have done, and prefer it to all the other books, and I’m glad when readers feel the same.

With all best wishes,

Edith Pargeter

She died four months later. I will be forever glad I dared to write to her to tell her how much I loved her books.

After her death Jack Adrian wrote that

Her Cadfael books will be recognised by genre historians as pioneering works. Perhaps she pulled her punches when it came to describing the real muck and blood and stench of the Middle Ages…and perhaps too, latterly, her emphasis on the goodness of her characters was overdone. Even so, she redefined the form by avoiding irony in her work…and concentrating on the alien quality of the past…while at the same time pointing up the essential continuity of the human condition. And she always wrote, whatever the genre, with absolute conviction.

She sure did. (You can read the full obituary here.)

Her card is tucked inside the pages of my copy of The Heaven Tree Trilogy, so I can moon over it every time I reread the book. I like to think that someday, after I head off to that Great Library in the Sky, my heirs will release all my comfort reads into the wild and another reader will stumble across that card, and be as charmed as I was upon reading it.

But I think Edith Pargeter would like the idea that I was still encouraging people to read her favorite of all her novels even more.

You will be relieved to know that I didn’t send you on yet another wild goose chase for an out of print book, because there are a ton of copies available for as little as $4 on Bookfinder.com. Believe me, it’s a book worthy of any extra effort to acquire.

Slithy Toves and Wabes

I love P.J. O’Rourke‘s writing, and I love Antoni Gaudi‘s architecture, and when the first wrote about the second in the September 2011 issue of the Atlantic Monthly I nearly expired from delight.

This is Gaudi’s Casa Battlo.

Casa Battlo, designed by Antoni Gaudi

This is O’Rourke, writing about Gaudi’s Casa Battlo:

What is admired as whimsy could be awful as fact—real slithy toves in an actual wabe. The shapes of 21st-century architecture are increasingly whimsical. (Two words—Frank Gehry—suffice to describe the trend.) I’ve been looking at flighty modern buildings in Los Angeles, Shanghai, London, and Dubai. They put me in mind of the Barcelona architect of a hundred years ago, Antoni Gaudí. And they remind me why, although I am entranced by Gaudí’s work, I’ve always been reluctant to go see it. Finally I give in. Maybe an inspection of Gaudí will help me understand the new oddball global cityscapes.

The exemplarily fantastical Casa Batlló, from 1906, is a six-story townhouse on Passeig de Gràcia, which is very much Barcelona’s Park Avenue. The roof is an ocean swell thickly rippled with ceramic tiles that undulate in colors as well as curves. Vertical waves, gentle rollers, shape a facade encrusted with the mosaic technique Gaudí developed, trencadís. Hundreds of thousands of bright bits of china and glass are splayed in clumps and bunches: flotsam and jetsam (or a bad sun rash) as ornament. Interspersed in the trencadís, decorating the decor, is a picnic litter of plates splashed in motley glazes. Columns on the lower floors are modeled on human bones. Each props open a whale-jaw rictus of cast concrete. The upper-floor balconies are sheet metal hammered into pelvic girdles with strips of twisted steel like seaweed fluttering from each hip. The effect should be Casa Davy Jones’s Locker. But Casa Batlló is beautiful. And it fits right into the neighborhood. Only a genius could have pulled this off.

Once in, I want to move in—aspirationally and kinetically. The hall streams. The stairs surge. There are no edges, no corners. Walls glide into ceilings. Rooms flow into rooms. It is a peristalsis house. But light, cheer, air, and comfortable proportions are everyplace. The design is meant fully for people and, what with all the tourists, is full of them. They are in good spirits, as the spirit of the house demands. Every detail is crafted to delight. Even the air shaft is a masterpiece, tiled in shades of azure, deep-tinted at the top and gradually lightening to spread sun evenly to all floors.

I, too, have been to the Casa Battlo, and I, too, wanted immediately to move in. O’Rourke is right, it is impossible to be anything but delighted and cheerful in one of Gaudi’s houses, or even just happening on one on the street, as you are prone to do in Barcelona.

This is Gaudi’s La Mila, known better as La Perdrera.


My favorite keepsake from my visit to Barcelona was a little drawing of La Perdrera I bought from a street artist.

The first time I saw La Perdrera was at night. My jaw dropped and I stopped dead in my tracks, as the Barceloni detoured tolerantly around me. They’re used to it.

You should definitely read this piece.

And you should definitely go to Barcelona and allow Gaudi to seduce you in person.

And if you can’t get to Barcelona just yet, check out this online Gaudi shop. Come on, how can you not love the bull?

The History of Kate Shugak in 20 Objects – 5

WARNING: Spoilers spoken here.

Play With Fire cover

5 – The hunter’s tunic

The votes are in, and although there was a strong minority in favor of the morel mushroom, in the end Arlene’s comment made the case for this fifth object.

…It was made of caribou hide, tanned to ivory. Red, white and blue beads were worked around the collar in a pattern that sort of resembled the Russian Orthodox cross, or maybe those were birds, Kate wasn’t sure. The seams at shoulder, armhole and underarms were heavily fringed and hung with dyed porcupine quills. Dentalium shells gleamed from a sort of a breastplate, and something in the order in which they were sewn to the hide hinted at the shape of a fish. You could see the fish better if you didn’t look straight at the design.

In 1988 the Smithsonian mounted an exhibit called “Crossroads of Continents,” a collection of old and new artifacts from Native life from Siberia and Alaska. They brought it to the Anchorage Museum, and I went back to see it I don’t know how many times. I bought the book, too, which you will pry from my cold, dead hands. It’s the best written and best illustrated exhibit book I’ve ever seen.

Crossroads of Continents

Regalia, harpoons, visors, grease bowls, blankets, baskets, drums, masks, and the stories behind them all–it was the class in Native art and technology they should have taught us in school and never did. And yes, it’s where I saw my first hunter’s tunic, which was the inspiration for the hunter’s tunic in Play With Fire.

hunter's tunic

Next month, an object from Blood Will Tell, the fifth Kate Shugak mystery. Please put your suggestions for said object in the comments below, and thanks!

Blood Will Tell cover

Song of the Day

Three guesses why.

Everything Under the Heavens

By the Shores of the Middle Sea cover art

The Land Beyond

Book III in the Silk & Song Trilogy

Coming soon to an e-emporium near you…

Definitely a book that will keep you out of the woods.

Wisp of a Thing: A Novel of the TufaWisp of a Thing: A Novel of the Tufa by Alex Bledsoe

I enjoyed this outing into the present-day world of the Appalachian Fae. Singer-songwriter Rob travels to Needsville (love the name), Tennessee, looking for a song that will sing away his grief at the loss of his girlfriend. Guy that told him about the song was wearing sequins but they were backstage at the Opry at the time, so never mind. In Needsville he finds what he needs and then some, at considerable personal risk.

Strong sense of place and some solid characters, starting with Rob, who has unexpected depths, and the part-Fae, part not population of Cloud County. There is Doyle the mechanic and his Fae-lovestruck wife, Berklee. There is the truly icky Rockhouse Hicks and his wounded daughter/slash/lover Curnen (more ick, Bledsoe’s really pulling out all the stops on putting a new twist on that old marrying-their-sister back country trope). Especially there is Bliss Overbay, the I have to say pretty laissez-faire guardian of this motley crew, as in she’s ready to kill Rob before the night winds tell her not to (just roll with it). Some good lines, too, like

The building’s interior seemed bigger inside than it had appeared outside, like a hillbilly TARDIS.


“Germs and Jesus, that’s all I ever hear about,” the boy said in a voice too weary for his age. “Germs and Jesus. And you know something? You can’t see neither one of them.”

Definitely a book that will keep you out of the woods. At least these woods. Worth reading.

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