It’s like Darwin wrote steampunk.

The Voyage of the Basilisk (Memoir by Lady Trent, #3)The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

Even better than the first two in this series, and what a beautiful production–wonderful wrap-around cover art, deckle edges, a map, beautiful illustrations, the Dickensian chapter headings change at the top of the page to reflect the action below, and, good lord, blue ink. Lady Trent, excuse me, Dame Isabella I should say, never looked this good, certainly never on expedition.

Oh yeah, the story. A delightful third outing, in which as usual naturalist Lady Trent’s obsession with dragons is yet again sidetracked by political events beyond her control, and this time featuring a sort of zeppelin. It’s like Darwin wrote steampunk. Fun.

View all my reviews

“…occasional women-only orgies (not that the men don’t benefit thereby).”

EuphoriaEuphoria by Lily King

Anthropologist Nell (pretty obviously based on the character of Margaret Mead) studies a tribe in New Guinea where the women have achieved a remarkable level of equality in the running of their lives and the tribe’s life and even in sex to the point of having occasional women-only orgies (not that the men don’t benefit thereby). Her husband Fen, also an anthropologist and burning with envy over Nell’s bestseller book written about a previous study, naturally poo-poo’s all of her findings and then conceives the excellent notion to steal an artifact from a neighboring and much more warlike tribe. This endangers his life, her life, the life of their visiting friend and fellow anthropologist Andrew, not to mention the lives of their entire host tribe.

But Nell stays. I know too many women like Nell, we all know too many women like Nell, who obstinately refuse to look directly at the mirror being held in front of them to see clearly the life they are living. Here, even Nell’s discovery of a primitive Guinean tribe which has achieved virtual gender equality isn’t enough to show her how much better, not to mention safer, their women’s lives are than her own. It is left to one of the tribal members to warn Andrew, “He [Fen] will break her. And he has already, and he will again, but goddammit! Why is she so willfully blind to the risk? Especially when an object lesson is staring her directly in the face? Is it because they’re brown and she’s white and they’re savages and she’s civilized and so ipso facto they cannot possibly have anything to teach her? Stupid, stupid, stupid. She draws no parallels, and her a scientist. Fen is a scientist, too, but ambition and jealousy and laziness and pretty much sheer assholery have equally blinded him to his own realities. Nell’s right when she says that Fen doesn’t want to study the Wokup, he wants to become one. If ever a guy deserved to be killed and eaten and have his head shrunk, Fen was him.

This book rang several different bells hard with me, domestic abuse, professional jealousy, primitive society versus civilized society, the subjective nature of the study of anthropology. Heisenberg was so right, anthropologists cannot help but change the living, breathing entities they choose to observe, because the only way to observe them is to interact with them, and that changes them.

It doesn’t help when you steal from them, either. A great book for a book club. Recommended.

View all my reviews

Words to time travel by.

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth CenturyThe Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer

A wealth of detail in this you-are-there look at life in medieval England. Just dipping in at random:

When you draw closer to the city walls you will see the great gatehouse…And then you notice the smell. Four hundred yards from the city gate, the muddy road you are folowing crosses a brook. As you look along the banks you see piles of refuse, broken crockery, animal bones, entrails, human feces, and rotting meat strewn in and around the bushes. In some places the muddy banks slide into thick quagmires whhere townsmen have hauled out their refuse and pitched it into the stream. In others, rich green grasses, reeds, and undergrowth spring from the highly fertilized earth. As you watch, two seminaked men lift another barrel of excrement from the back of a cart and empty it into the water. A small brown pig roots around in the garbage. It is not called Shitbrook for nothing.


Medieval society thinks of itself like this: there are three sections of society, or “estates,” created by God–those who fight [the aristocracy], those who pray [the clergy], and those work the land [the peasantry]…Between 1333 and 1346 it is systematically shredded by the English longbowmen, who, although ranked among “those who work,” show that they are a far more potent military force than the massed charging ranks of “those who fight.”


…women are blamed for all the physical, intellectual, and moral weaknesses of society.

and, delightfully

If you find yourself speaking English with the locals do not be surprised if their language gets a little rough around the edges. Just as fourteenth-century place names are direct descriptions of localities (for instance: “Shitbrook Street,” Pissing Alley”), so daily speech is equally straightforward and ribald…So if someone slaps you on the back in a hearty way and exclaims, “Your breeches and your very balls be blessed” do not take it amiss. It is a compliment.

Words to time travel by.

View all my reviews



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 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