Where The Gulls Fall Silent, by Lelita Baldock: A Review

In a Cornish coastal village in the 19th century, the sea is both a source of livelihood and a source of fear, the ever-present power that can give or take. When the fish are abundant, life, although laborious,  is good; when they are few, life is hard. Superstition is never abandoned in a community so tied to the rhythms and vagaries of nature.

Kerensa and her mother live, physically and socially, at the edge of the village, never quite part of the community. The reasons for this slowly unfold in this beautifully described novel, revealed both as understood through a child’s eyes and then, as she grows to maturity, through a deeper comprehension. Not all is what Kerensa has thought, nor is it as one-sided as she believed. As she matures, she overcomes both the village’s concerns and her own sense of not belonging, finding love and acceptance – only to have the tides of time and change threaten the village and their way of life.

Image by Prawny from Pixabay 

Author Lelita Baldock’s writing is evocative of place and time, the details of life in fishing village brought into being by a deft hand and an eye for what matters: the sound of the sea, the smells of fish and blood and sweat, the rock of a small boat on the waves. Where the Gulls Fall Silent has no events of national importance, no battles with sword or guns, but the story told is one of both defeat and victory on a small scale, a human scale; social history revealed through the lives of ordinary men and women. Men and women who both dream and are pragmatic; who have strict precepts for living but also a deep capacity for forgiveness; who can ride the peaks and troughs of a life tied to the sea and the land.

Where the Gulls Fall Silent is not a romanticized view of life in a fishing village: life is hard, death always close, moments of peace and security rare and fleeting. A difficult life, one that leaves its mark on people, as Kerensa learns – but one not easy to leave behind. The beating of waves can merge permanently with the beating of a heart, the sea always calling.

If I had any quibble with Where the Gulls Fall Silent, it was in its last few chapters, which are perhaps an unnecessary epilogue to the true story. Leaving the future after a certain point to the reader’s imagination would have been my preference, but regardless, the book is one that will stay with me for some time.

Recommended. No star rating, because I don’t give stars in most cases. Wondering why? My reasoning is here.

The Medium and The Message

Moby-Dick was the first assigned book I never finished. It was part of our American Literature focus in my last year of high school, back in the day when Canadian high schools were still ignoring Canadian literature. I was, and am, a voracious reader. But I just couldn’t read Moby-Dick. The prose was dense, meandering, sometimes unclear. And yet I kept thinking about it.

Fast-forward about thirty years, and a long-haul flight to New Zealand. Seventeen hours plus. I’d started listening to a lot of books: family circumstances meant I was driving eight hours every second or third weekend, and my job also entailed a lot of driving. Audiobooks helped pass the time. So, I decided to listen to Moby-Dick on that trip to New Zealand and Australia.

And fell in love with a magnificent book, a symphony of language and philosophy, of style and story. Whether it was my tendency to skim-read, or a symptom of my ADHD, or just maturity, I don’t know – but this book I couldn’t read is now one of my favourites: one I needed to hear to appreciate it.

Since then, I have learned that I appreciate almost all 18th and 19th century writers better when I listen rather than read. I wonder sometimes if it was that these books were expected to be read aloud, an on-going evening’s entertainment, or if a slower pace of life (for the privileged few, anyhow) meant reading was perhaps more leisurely. Regardless, when I want George Eliot or Tolstoy or Cervantes, I reach for my phone and earbuds, not a physical book.

Which brings me to the actual subject of this ramble: a reconsideration of a recent review. A book I had difficulty reading: P.L. Stuart’s A Drowned Kingdom. It has, actually, a few things in common with Moby-Dick: a dislikable central character driven by hubris, and long expositions on the reasons for actions, to name a couple.  I read it, wrote a neutral and unstarred review (some of you reading this will know I rarely star reviews, for reasons given here), and moved on. And yet I kept thinking about it.

Then one day I was listening to Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, which is slow, and definitely not cheery (well, it’s Hardy, what do I expect?) and something clicked. I should listen to A Drowned Kingdom (which coincidentally had just come out in audiobook format.) So I did.

And, as with Moby-Dick, I liked it a whole lot more. Listening doesn’t change the arrogant hubris of the MC, Othrun, but that was never an issue for me. I still believe Stuart is brave, both for creating a dislikable main character and for writing in a style somewhat at odds with much modern fantasy writing. But the lack of enjoyment in my first reading of the book wasn’t due to a fault in the writing, but my own limitations in interacting with the prose.

Story is at the heart of what we as writers do, and stories can be told – and absorbed – in many ways: through poetry, through prose, through oral storytelling, through plays, through visual media. Sometimes, as the audience, we need to find the form that is right for us. I’m glad I could for A Drowned Kingdom.

And yes, I’ll be revising the review.

Hag of the Hills, by J.T.T. Ryder: A Review

Complex and detailed. Hag of the Hills is a hero’s journey with a difference. In the second century BCE, Brennus of Skye is a warrior’s son who isn’t allowed to be a warrior, until invasion changes that fate. But his journey to heroic status spirals around the geology and mythology of his island. His forward momentum is inexorable, driven by the words of a local deity and his own conviction that he must honour both his oaths and the visions granted to him – but with many mistakes, fears, denials and reversals.

Hag of the Hills is not a conventional Celtic-based fantasy book. I’d hesitate to call it fantasy, rather than a form of magic realism. The Sidhe are a real part of Brennus’s world, whether is it is the Cailleach or giants or the shape-shifter who speaks in words later attributed to the bard Taliesin. But they are not earthly beings, as often in fantasy, but remain other-worldly, real but inhabiting a different realm to which Brennus is given occasional access.  

Ethnobotanist Wade Davis has written:

 “The world can only appear monochromatic to those who persist in interpreting what they experience through the lens of a single cultural paradigm, their own. For those with the eyes to see and the heart to feel, it remains a rich and complex topography of the spirit.” 

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in The Modern World

And this is what J.T.T. Ryder, an archaeologist specializing in Iron Age northern European cultures, has attempted to show us: that rich and complex topography experienced through a different cultural paradigm. Is it successful?  In my opinion, yes, for the most part.

Brennus’s world is one in which Cuchulainn walks in memory and stories are told of war-elephants crossing the Alps; where men leave Skye to fight in Thrace, where the stone tools found in caves are left by the Sidhe and the bronze sword in a barrow belongs to an ancestor: a world both intensely rooted in its geography and conscious of a wider world beyond, known through trade and commerce in soldiers and slaves. This duality is echoed in others: as well as the Sidhe and the everyday world, there are few shades of grey in Brennus’s world: he is either an oath-keeper or an oath-breaker, a free man or a slave, a warrior or a coward.

Whether purposely or not, this sense of duality is echoed in Ryder’s prose, which frequently changes tenses within a paragraph, creating for this reader a feeling of dislocation. Jarring at first, as the novel progressed I found it added to the veracity of Brennus’s experiences. Unconventional to 21st century prose, perhaps, but echoing the blending of past and present that Brennus’s cultural paradigms encompass. Time is a construct not experienced by all cultures in the same way.

(What was less effective for me was the use of modern words and terms, which took me out of the immersive and different world I was experiencing and returned me to ours. ‘Fetal position’ is one example.)

We are used to epic hero’s journeys, from Odysseus onward. Brennus’s is not epic; it is extremely local, both in geography and psychologically. Much of what he works towards may make readers uncomfortable: honour, revenge, a glorious death – and while there is near-constant action, the real journey is in Brennus’s mind – not a comfortable or familiar place to be, but one I found worth experiencing.

Lady, In Waiting, by Karen Heenan: A release day review.

Robin Lewis – a man who can handle the intrigue and diplomacy of the Tudor courts but prefers his books to people, is skilled enough with words to weave a web with them to save his life but can’t express his feelings, and is no one’s idea of either graceful or handsome – is by far my favourite fictional character from all the books I’ve read in the last few years. Robin is also a man for whom marriage is an unlikely union, especially in middle age, solitary and set in his ways.

But marry he has, to Margaery Preston, an unconventional young woman of intelligence and learning, at her proposal. A marriage of convenience, a compromise that allows Winterset, Margaery’s family estate in Yorkshire, to return to her while allowing Robin, who has rented it for some years, to continue to live there among his books and the isolation he craves.

Written in Heenan’s impeccable prose, Lady, in Waiting is told through Margaery’s eyes – and what a narrator she is!  Robin, many years older than his bride, has one idea of what this marriage should be: in name only. Margaery has another: she wants to be Robin’s wife in all ways. But this is far from the only tension between them: Robin is called back to the court to work for Queen Elizabeth’s principal secretary, William Cecil, and Margaery is to be one of her women, a chamberer, spending her days in the queen’s presence to do her – or her ladies-in-waiting’s – bidding. Neither should speak to the other of what they learn, but which vow takes precedence: the oath to the Queen, or the bonds of marriage?

Margaery’s doubts and fears, her determination, her joys, and her sometimes wry sense of humour: ‘my virginity lingered like a bad cough’ as she grows into both her roles make for compelling reading. As she comes to both understand and love the complex man she has married, she comes to understand herself, as well. As the years progress, Margaery’s life is not always easy. Trauma, loss and grief shape her life as certainly as love and politics, and growth and acceptance are sometimes very hard. Heenan neither glosses over this nor over-dramatizes it, but expresses Margaery’s reactions in a sensitive, realistic way.

The personal story  of Margaery and Robin’s marriage provides the window through which we see the politics of the day: Elizabeth’s possible (or impossible) marriage options ; the unwise, dangerous secret marriage of another Tudor descendent; the implications of Mary, Queen of Scots’ marriage to Lord Darnley. These were important decisions, choices made that had repercussions both personal and political.  The combination of the story that Margaery tells of her marriage and private life, contrasted with these acts on a larger stage, sets the story fully in its time, without robbing it of its intimacy and universality. Highly recommended.

Purchase link: http://Books2read.com/tudorlady

FebruarySheWrote Review Roundup 1

Historical Fiction Reviews (Feb 1 – 12)

A round up of the reviews I’ve reposted for the social media promotion #FebruarySheWrote, highlighting women writers. I’ve focused on historical fiction authors for this month (primarily), and these are all reviews I’ve written, either for this website, or for Discovering Diamonds.

The War In Our Hearts: WWI fiction. ‘The depiction of {Jamie’s} troubled, doubting soul and the courage and resilience of Aveline are the centrepieces of this debut novel’

Discerning Grace: 19th C High Seas adventure. ‘an admirable debut novel, and a beguiling blend of historical fiction and women’s fiction.’

Summer Warrior: 12th C Scotland. ‘both entertaining and informative; a book to be enjoyed.’

Dear Comrade Novak: 20th C Romania. ‘one of the most devastatingly honest and brutal books I have ever read, yet I could not put it down. ‘

The Unseen/The Jealous: ‘mystics and mysteries in 10th-century Baghdad’

A Wider World: Tudor.  ‘prose as close to perfect as it comes, and settings and history thoroughly researched but conveyed with a light touch,’

Reviews Without Stars

With a very few exceptions, I’ve stopped giving stars on book reviews. Why?

Some books I read entirely for entertainment. Some books I read and discover there are deeper themes, viewpoints that make me think, and may have a lasting impact on how I see the world. Some books I read and fall in love with the author’s writing: how they use words, the grace and precision of their sentences, their images, their skill with the craft. Some authors are journeymen, shall we say, conveying a good story competently, but without a master’s touch. In my eyes.

Books I love, others don’t. Books I dislike, others love. That’s a given for all art. But here’s my first reason not to give stars: my opinions change. A book I disliked (or didn’t understand) in its first reading – The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s dream-like story about the mutability of time and memory – refused to remove itself from my mind. On its second reading, I was entranced. It remains a difficult book, hard to categorize, allegoric, but if the purpose of art is to change the way we see or think about the world, it’s succeeded for me. But if I’d rated it back in 2015, I’d have given it 3 stars, or less.

That leads me into the second reason: how people perceive a star rating. Three stars to me says ‘it’s ok, an average book.’ And that’s fine. Not every book (or movie, or painting, or meal, or hotel) is a masterpiece, even within its genre. But more and more I see authors thinking their work automatically deserves five stars. I see some authors being upset with four-star ratings, focusing on the stars, not the words in the review. I’d much rather my review was read as meaningful critique. So: no stars. Take the time to absorb what I say – that’s what matters.

The third reason is one of respect. In today’s interconnected world, very often I know – at least through social media – the author whose work I’m reviewing. Writers reviewing other writers know how much blood, toil, tears and sweat goes into writing a book, and we are loathe to undermine that effort. Overall, I think perhaps we’re a little too nice to each other, because of that. But a review without a star rating, one written with skill and thought – a proper critique, not a criticism – should indicate to other readers – and the writer – what I thought the strengths, and perhaps the weaknesses, of the book are.

Will I ever give another star rating?  Yes, sometimes. I will star-rate a book for a debut author, especially if they have next to no reviews and if I can write an overall positive review. I will star-rate an exceptional book, one that a decade from now I’m pretty sure I’ll still be thinking about. But otherwise, no. Not any longer.

The Bright Ages: A Conversation with David M. Perry

I was extremely pleased (to put it mildly) to have a chance to talk to David M. Perry, one of the authors of the brilliant new book The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. I’m focusing on just a tiny part of what the book covers – it would be impossible to discuss all its themes.

David, my first stop at the British Museum is always the Sutton Hoo treasure. As an amateur historian of the period previously known as the dark ages, it has, to me, always represented the conundrum of the times for a researcher. It presents us with evidence of the interconnectedness of the world: the Sri Lankan garnets, the Byzantine silver, the lyre now suggested to share features with those of steppe cultures far to the east. The burial itself appears to follow traditions outside Christian practice: the ship itself, the grave goods—but some of those grave goods are specifically Christian. And at the same time, we don’t know for certain whose burial this is, because of the lack of written records. 

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Sutton Hoo shoulder clasp. British Museum, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

In reading The Bright Ages, I was struck by something I hadn’t been able to articulate before, although it is important in my own fictional, alternative early-medieval world: the conception of places like Rome and Byzantium as cities of more than political importance, but occupying a space best described as sacred, or at least revered, in the mental geography of people who had (perhaps) never been there. The Byzantine silver in the 7th century Sutton Hoo burial would then be not just an offering to whatever gods there were to receive the dead king, but a direct and purposeful link to Byzantium as a concept. A connection to the holy. So, after that long-winded preamble, my first question is simply: is that a valid interpretation? Can you explain a bit further why or why not?

So in my formal academic career, I began as a historian not only of medieval Venice, but of narratives about the movement of objects (first relics, then other things) into and out of Venice, and the ways that people found and created meaning in things that came from elsewhere. People connect themselves in their current moment to places that are in fact far away, but are always present in their imaginary geography, through things (and through images, but often images of things!). I do think that the use of garnets, of Byzantine silver, of silks, of beautiful things from ELSEWHERE, and elsewheres associated with important positions in imaginary sacred geographies, is not an accident.

And in the places I know best, like high medieval Venice, or as in 6th-century Byzantium as we discuss in the book, or in the creation of Ste. Chapelle, again and again, we see that this re-ordering of the imaginary geography isn’t just something that happens, but something people do with great intention.

What interests me always is when people try to reorder the imagination but fail, because failures leave few records.


My first introduction to the intellectual exchange of ideas during early-medieval times came from reading about Alcuin of York. For readers who may not know much about him, to summarize, Alcuin, who lived about 100 years after the king buried at Sutton Hoo, was an 8th century scholar and teacher, educated at the cathedral of York. Sent to Rome on a diplomatic mission, on his way home he encountered Charlemagne, who persuaded Alcuin to join his group of scholars at Aachen, leading to the reformation of the palace school into a centre of learning, with methods and traditions derived from the schools of Greece and Rome.

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Raban Maur (left), supported by Alcuin (middle), dedicates his work to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz 
Fulda, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Charlemagne, of course, is a hugely important and powerful figure, crowned by the Pope as Roman Emperor in 800. He had betrothed a daughter to the Byzantine heir at one point. Rome and Byzantium were far more than concepts to him; they were real places, centres of power as well as holiness.  Can you speculate – or more than speculate – on the effect Alcuin’s reformation of the palace school might have had on Charlemagne’s self-concept and ambition, and his efforts to create, at Aachen, a mirror of Byzantium’s sacred and secular power in both physical (the cathedral and palace) and intellectual/spiritual form?

For this question, I had to turn to my Carolingianist colleague and co-author, Matt. He said, “I think this is a bit backwards in that Alcuin didn’t really create the palace school, Charlemagne did. Alcuin didn’t transform it so much as accelerate the transformation, but it wasn’t to ape the East; instead it was to ape the late Roman West – Theodosius, Constantine, etc. In other words, Alcuin was not – by a longshot – the only exceptional intellectual in the late 8th-century palace school. people like Theodoulf of Orleans or Paul the Dean who floated around the court were movers and shakers as well.”

(John Julian Norwich said ‘Most British people know practically nothing at all about French history.’ and this is an excellent example of me relying on entirely British sources for my idea of Alcuin. I’m glad to have it corrected, and it’s a good reminder to me to broaden my reading.)


Jumping forward nearly 500 years, to France in the 13th century, Chapter 14 of The Bright Ages tells us about Louis IX of France, and the role the Sainte-Chapelle chapel played in his centralization of both secular and sacred power. But an earlier church – Saint-Denis – also intentionally reimagined Paris – or at least this part of it – into a sacred space in which light is used with purpose and thought to shape and guide what is experienced: a ritual landscape where light represents the true light of Christianity.

The windows of Sainte-Chapelle tell the story of the Crown of Thorns’ travel from Jesus’s head to Constantinople to the king of France – a ‘translatio imperii’ – transfer of imperial power, as you explain. But this isn’t just a transfer of secular power, but of the implied approval and blessing of the Christian god. The Crown of Thorns creates a direct link between Jesus and Louis IX, giving him immense power beyond simply political.

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Sainte-Chapelle.
Stockholm, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This creation of a sacred, ritual landscape is nothing new:  from the first cave paintings that move in flickering light, to the solstice-aligned bronze age monuments and the oculus in the Pantheon, people have consciously set about to create wonder and mystery linked to religious belief—and light. But it appears that in 12th and 13th century France, this was being done quite purposefully, in a way that to 21st century eyes looks almost clinical, like Disney designing an attraction to maximize gasps and awe (and pilgrims exiting through the gift shop?)  Can you expand a little on this – is there a dichotomy here? And secondly, although this might need an entire book to answer, how did Abbot Suger know/learn to design such a ritualized, psychologically-influential landscape?)

This question ties directly in to your first, with Ste. Chappelle crafted as a way to try and create a new center of gravity for world (from the point of view of Louis IX and his supporters) by not just relocating the relics of the Passion, but installing them in grandeur, giving them a site from which to re-order the world. But you’re right, the place to understand how we reach here in 13th century France is to drop back a century and look at Abbot Suger.

The great historian of the topic is Erwin Panofsky, whose works not only contain the key translations of Suger, but also analysis of the Abbot. What’s amazing about Suger is not only that he built such glorious spaces, but that he articulated a theory of light and beauty, a viewer-response theory, that in gazing about the most glorious sights of earth, the viewer would be transported to the true glory of heaven. I read it – and of course I’m not alone – as neoplatonic in nature, or similar to how St. Augustine told medieval Christians to read scripture (starting at the words themselves, but using them to find one’s way to caritas, to love of God, reading for symbols as needed). Was it cynical? Well, Suger certainly had a political agenda in mind, but I’d be hard pressed to think of anyone working at the scale who didn’t. He wasn’t personally interested in luxury, as far as we know, but rather performatively lived in a simple bare monk’s cell, even as he covered the church in gold.

I grew up a lover of simplicity in sacred spaces. The bare white New England Church. The ruined monasteries in northern England. The writing of St. Francis. So it’s been important for me to immerse myself in the words of Suger in order to find the fully expressed counter theory as to why beauty matters as a pathway to the sacred.


For readers of this interview, I’d like to say there is much more to The Bright Ages than what I’ve focused on here: this was my choice of one small thread within the book to follow, because it’s of personal interest. David, is there anything else you’d like to highlight, either in the book’s content, or why you chose to write The Bright Ages at this particular point in history?

Every professional medievalist that we know sees the intense disconnect between the broad narrative of “the dark ages” and the actual period we study. We all push back against it in our classes, and hopefully most students who leave a medieval history class leave with more complex ideas. But sadly not everyone takes a medieval history class! And so we took the leap to not write the standard 700 page big pop history book, many of which are lovely and I’ve read, but rather to try and write a different kind of book that simultaneously provided a narrative mostly chronological framework, but centered not a succession of facts, popes, kings, men with sticks, queens, etc., but instead centered ideas. Centered humanity, in all its messiness. If it generates even the most miniscule push back against the dark ages, and provides a tiny bit of momentum to the huge community of scholars doing the work, we’ll be content.

David, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. The Bright Ages is a book that’s going to stay on my bookshelves, and I expect readers will see its influence in my own books before long.

Enchanted Ground

London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City, by Tom Chivers

London Clay

All my life I have had recurring dreams of paths, of underground tunnels and caves, of the liminal space between land and water. And so I am drawn to explorations in prose of these places, other writers’ experiences. London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City is one of these books.

But it is more than a record of author Tom Chivers’ experiences in exploring what lies beneath the ever-changing city – the layers of history and prehistory exposed by construction, reimagined from old maps, seen in the lines of minor streets. (This too attracted me to the book, landscape history and archeology, as many of you reading this will know, is an avocation of mine.) London Clay chronicles the author’s experiences in the wastegrounds of London – sometimes literally in sewers, sometimes in the abandoned expanses of what was once the industrial docklands, sometimes in the sterility of modern developments, as he searches for traces of the past.

London Clay kept me both entranced and contemplative, thinking of what lies under other cities I know – York, Seattle, my own. History both visible and invisible, traces left from names we know and names we don’t. Throughout the book, Chivers returns to holes: entrance places into the underground pushed up by geology or dug down by humans through the London Clay of the title. Like Orpheus, he goes down into the dark, returning with only shards and shadows and stories to tell – both of London and himself. In his own words:

London is enchanted ground…a glorious hyperreality: a hundred million possible Londons, present and past, imagined, intended, forgotten and reborn. Time is all around us….

I had set out, armed with a tattered map, to discover what lies beneath the streets. But I have found myself descending deeper into the layers of my own life than I had expected…

As I embark on a modest project on the history of the city on which I live – not a book, simply a collection of articles for our community newsletter, only some of which I will write – I cannot help but think Chivers’ book will influence it. Mine is a much smaller city, and much younger, its visible history easier to find. An intended city, imagined on paper, planned. But it too has the past hidden below what is seen today, and I can’t look at it the same way as I would have before reading London Clay.

Fifteen Memorable Books of 2021

In no order, here are the fifteen books out of all I’ve read this year that have truly stuck in my mind, one way or another.

Fiction

Karen Heenan:  A Wider World. Tudor historical fiction, but not about the royals. A nuanced portrait of a man caught up in the politics and intrigues of the Tudor Court.

Gregory Norminton. The Devil’s Highway. One landscape. Past, present, future. Spare and challenging.

Jonathan Nevair:  The Wind Tide trilogy.  Space opera at its finest: three interconnected books, with underlying ancient themes of ethics and morality and belonging.

Julie Bozza: Writ in Blood. A retelling of the story of the Earps, Doc Holliday, and Johnny Ringo – but above all about loneliness, love and acceptance.

Laury Silvers:  The Jealous.  The second of Silvers’ trilogy of Sufi mysteries, this – and the first (The Lover) as well – brought 12th C Baghdad, and the lives of working men and women, alive.

Anne Louise Avery:  Reynard the Fox.  Beautifully written retelling of the medieval western European story cycle.

Non-fiction read for pleasure:

Helen MacDonald, Vesper Flights. A collection of observational and philosophical essays on nature, with an underlying sense of both wonder and sorrow.

Charles Foster, The Screaming Sky.  Science and philosophy, once again, this time centred around swifts and their place in the world – and what the way we see them says about us.

Tom Chivers: London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City. Investigations into the lost landscapes of London. Layers of history and ecology and meaning. An urban, non-fiction companion to The Devil’s Highway.

Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris:  The Lost Spells. Beautifully illustrated collection of – poems? incantations? – about the natural world.

Non-fiction read for research and pleasure:

Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry: The Bright Ages:  A New History of Medieval Europe. A survey of early-medieval Europe, discussing change, connection, and continuity, and the contributions of often historically marginalized individuals and events.

Guy de la Bédoyère:  Praetorian, Gladius, and Domina.  All three books have been highly readable yet still scholarly works informing me about the Praetorian guard, the Roman army, and the women who helped shape Rome and Roman politics.

L.J. Trafford: Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome.  How could I not include this?  Both funny and informative, it’s a great resource for writers looking to accurately reflect Roman attitudes, or for anyone who just wants to know what Cicero had to say about sex.

Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome, by L J Trafford: A Review

Many long years ago, I took courses from a Scottish Studies professor who, hands down, was the most entertaining lecturer I ever had. He combined serious scholarship with stories – sometimes scurrilous – that made us howl with laughter. L J Trafford’s Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome fits that model: solid research told in an accessible manner, and it too had me howling with laughter in places.

Divided into sixteen chapters covering everything from ideals of beauty, the sex lives of Emperors, and what constitutes good sex (from the point of view of a Roman male), this is all presented in a fairly light-handed manner. While Trafford does acknowledge that Roman morals and behaviour cannot always be judged by 21st century standards, she also does not shy away from pointing out the inequalities and lack of choice for many Romans, especially those who were enslaved.

I was pleased to see that women’s sexuality was not ignored, as it often is in books on this subject. The information (opinion) still comes from men, who were doing most of the writing at the time, and much of it is as eyebrow-raising as men’s thoughts on women’s sexuality often are…but then we have Ovid, who wrote that mutual pleasure was the goal of sex, and that women’s orgasms were important and desirable. I learned more about women’s sexuality in ancient Rome than any other topic, and for that alone the book was worth reading.

Trafford also shows how some things never change. The sex lives of prominent people, including (maybe particularly) the emperors and their wives, were topics of discussion, and the reputation of many an emperor was dragged in the dirt by the poets, satirists and orators of the day. What we would now view as homophobic slurs were common insults, but this isn’t how the Romans saw it. The gender of your sexual partner was (almost) irrelevant; what position you took – the active or passive partner – was. The passive role was unmanly, and Roman men could not be unmanly. Some of the insults remain the same to this day.

I read Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome as a novelist, judging it for its usefulness in world-building. It is full of tidbits that, judiciously adapted, would certainly add to the verisimilitude of historical fiction set in ancient Rome. That along the way I was entertained, educated, but also made to think reflects Trafford’s grasp of her subject as well as her skill as a writer. Highly recommended.