Sunday, July 6, 2014

Book review: Saving Vegetable Seeds by Fern Marshall Bradley

Like many gardeners, I have been growing vegetables for years but never have experimented seriously with saving seeds. The only plant from which I have regularly saved seeds is molokhia, a green leafy vegetable related to okra. The seed-containing pods hang so prominently on the molokhia plant, practically begging to be picked. For any other plant, saving seeds just seemed to be more trouble than it is worth.

 Saving Vegetable Seeds by Fern Marshall Bradley takes the mystery out of seed saving. The author starts with a brief overview of why you would want to consider saving seeds, along with the basics of plant reproduction so that you can understand why the process is somewhat different for various types of plants. The overview is followed by a section on general techniques for seed-saving. The text is accompanied by very clear and helpful illustrations that show exactly how to do such things as hand pollination of squash flowers and winnowing to separate collected seeds from chaff.

The final main section consists of detailed advice on specific vegetable crops. The author does not cover every single obscure vegetable but focuses instead on the most popular vegetable crops that account for the majority of what is grown in most home gardens in temperate climes. Bradley includes both “easy” and “challenging” plants, so a gardener can choose to start with the easier plants for seed saving and move on in subsequent years to those that are more difficult.

The book is short enough that you can quickly read it cover to cover. I read most of it during a single short plane ride. Despite the short length, the book contains plenty of content and detail that will call you to pick up the book frequently for reference as you start on your first seed saving project. Reading the book will motivate you to do exactly that; the book makes seed saving seem to be a very reasonable project rather than an esoteric art. I recommend Saving Vegetable Seed for anyone who has been interested in saving seeds but has thought that it would be too bothersome. It is available in both paperback and electronic formats from retailers including Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

I received an advanced reading copy from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Baptism of tayac Kittamaquund, July 5, 1640

Today is the 374th anniversary of the baptism of tayac (“chief”) Kittamaquund of the Piscataway tribe of southern Maryland. He met Jesuit missionary Fr. Andrew White in 1639 and had some discussions with him. The tayac became ill with a disease that the tribal healers could not cure, and Fr. White treated him successfully with English medicine powders and blood-letting.

Stained glass window at St. Ignatius Church in Port Tobacco, Maryland. Photo by Aly Abell.

Not long after the cure, Kittamaquund agreed to receive instruction in the Christian faith and he was baptized on July 5, 1640. His family including his wife and daughter were baptized along with him, and other Piscataway soon decided to become Christians as well.

The Baptism of Kittamaquund, charcoal drawing by Edwin Tunis, from the Tunis Collection in the Maryland State Archives. The Maryland State Archives presented this image to the public domain for fair use.

Having recently read Edwin: High King of Britain, there are some similarities in these two conversion stories though they are separated by more than 1000 years. In both cases, a key precipitating event was a cure by a missionary cleric.

Although my heritage is almost entirely English, it appears that I may be a direct descendant of Kittamaquund. A recent analysis discussed at DNAeXplained concluded that Katherine Brent, wife of Richard Marsham, was indeed the daughter of Giles Brent and Mary Kittamaquund. Mary was the daughter of tayac Kittamaquund, and according to the best genealogical information I have at the moment, she would be my 8G grandmother. Apparently I am not the first descendant to mark the anniversary of Kittamaquund’s baptism; see also the posting by Richard Browne.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Author and guest blogger: Heather Day Gilbert


It is an honor to host author Heather Day Gilbert today for a blog interview. Heather just released her second book yesterday, a mystery novel called Miranda Warning. Her first book, God’s Daughter, is based on the Icelandic sagas and was released last October.

Aly: How did you learn the craft of creative writing? Did you study English or other writing intensive subjects in college? Did you participate in creative writing workshops? Or did you learn by writing over and over until you liked what you wrote enough to share with others?

Heather: Great question! I did indeed take many English/Creative Writing classes in college, one of which was Novel Writing. Let's just say the novel I thought I'd write then probably had a pretty lame plotline! I also wrote for two newspapers, so that helped me hone my writing "on the job," as it were. Also, I had an agent who was also an editor, and he opened my eyes to ways I could make my writing stronger. I have read a couple books on the craft of writing, but it seems like advice in that regard varies. The key is to know the writing "rules," learn how to work within them, and then learn to change them up and even break them as necessary to develop your own voice. I'm not talking about basic grammar rules, just stylistic things. :)

Aly: Miranda Warning is your first mystery novel, and budding detective Tess Spencer has great natural instincts for sleuthing. Did you grow up reading children’s books like Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, or did you discover the mystery genre as an older reader?

Heather: Yes! I did indeed grow up imbibing mysteries. Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew...then I graduated to Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, and others. Agatha is still one of my favorites and it's a wonder I didn't name one of my daughters after her...

Aly: Plants play a fairly prominent role in both of your books, though Tess is not an herbalist like fictional detectives Brother Cadfael or China Bayles. Do you enjoy gardening or herb craft?

Heather: I do enjoy flower gardening. I wouldn't say I'm an expert in any regard, but finding out how herbs/plants were used for healing in Viking times (with my first novel, God's Daughter) and how they can be used for nefarious purposes (as in Miranda Warning) is such an enlightening process. I think poisoners are pretty scary enemies...I'm picturing the poisoner wife in The Count of Monte Cristo, in particular. Chilling.

Aly: Both of your books convey a strong sense of place, through the setting are very different. Writing about Vinland and Greenland of a thousand years ago clearly required a great deal or research, but I am also wondering if you encountered any special challenges in writing about a very familiar place and time – in your case, present-day West Virginia? Do you have to be careful not to make a place or a person too much like the real version? Do neighbors and friends get upset if they think they are written in as an unflattering character, or not written in at all?

Heather: Insightful far, no one has asked me if I've written a character based on him/her. Most of my characters are composites of people I've known, not just one person in particular. And as far as was difficult to wrap my mind around Iceland/Greenland/Vinland in AD 1000; however, I knew the climate was different (warmer) than what it is now, given the trees they used to build homes, etc. I've lived in upstate New York, so I know a bit about that colder northern climate. It's the burning desire of my heart to visit L'anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland someday, to see where Vikings came to North America.

I think forests are a linking theme in all my books, and I know quite a bit about those, since I hung out in the woods every chance I got as a child/teen. As far as challenges writing about the West Virginia setting, the main one I have is that Tess Spencer lives in a different area of the state than I do, so I do want to make another research trip up that way and make sure I'm describing the topography correctly. I've already visited Point Pleasant, the town near Tess, since I knew I eventually wanted to write a book dealing with the legend of the Mothman (famous in that town). So I do have a basic grasp of that town and outlying areas. I do think many cultural things are the same throughout the state, however.

Aly: Conversion is a sub-plot in both of your books. In God’s Daughter we see Gudrid learning her new faith at the same time the Icelandic people generally are undergoing conversion to Christianity from their traditional pagan beliefs. In Miranda Warning, Tess is starting to show signs of a personal conversion towards a more active Christian life as she interacts with those around her. Are you inspired by conversion stories from your own life?

Heather: Yes, definitely, my Christianity plays a part in everything I write and how I view the world in general. I do love to show characters that are struggling with their beliefs, because I know we all wrestle with spiritual things at some point in our lives. Usually those struggles either draw us closer to God or we pull away from Him. For me to be honest in my writing, my characters have to ask those hard questions and they don't always find the answers easily. I think most classics wrestle with these larger themes, as well--the problem of evil, what role God plays in our lives, our purpose for living, etc.

Thank you so much for letting me visit your blog today!

Author Bio:
Heather Day Gilbert enjoys writing stories about authentic, believable marriages. Seventeen years of marriage to her sweet Yankee husband have given her some perspective, as well as eleven years spent homeschooling. Heather regularly posts on Novel Rocket about self-publishing.

You can find Heather at her website, Heather Day Gilbert--Author, and at her Facebook Author Page, as well as Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, and Goodreads. Her Viking novel, God's Daughter, is an Amazon bestseller. You can find it on Amazon and Her Appalachian mystery, Miranda Warning, released June 20th and you can find it here.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Covers, part 3: What makes a book cover good?

After reviewing more than 130 recent book covers from adult historical fiction works set in medieval times, I was able to come up with a list of common characteristics of the best book covers. Here is the list, shown as a set of seven recommendations:

(1) Make the image large enough that it is clear at the small size potential readers will see when browsing at online bookstores.
Images with small figures and lots of detail may work well for print books. Some readers will enjoy examining the fine details on a print copy, but electronic books are usually viewed first as small images at online bookstores such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Readers might not want to click to see if an image is interesting.

(2) Keep in mind that some visual motifs are very frequently used.
When I see a book cover with a picture of the Sutton Hoo helmet, I can rest assured that it is most likely set in Anglo-Saxon times and will include scenes with shield walls in action. While it is useful to clearly mark what kind of book it is, using very common motifs may make it difficult for the reader to distinguish one book from another. My review suggests that images of helmets, swords, axes, longships,  silhouetted horsemen, and hooded or cloaked figures are common enough to merit a close look before using them in a cover. If you do choose to use such images, try to present them in a fresh way that will stand out from the rest of the books using similar artwork.

(3) Depict the time period accurately.
Anachronism is anathema to writers of historical fiction. Many writers work very hard to keep anachronisms out of the text, only to present a cover with something that does not fit the time of the novel. This can be a particular problem when stock images are used. Flagrant violations would be the use of modern clothing styles, hair styles, or make-up on models. Less obvious violations include the use of images that are old, but not from the correct time period. The Middle Ages span many centuries and fashions did not remain the same throughout that whole time. A knight from the 1300s would look out of place in sixth-century Kent.

(4) Choose an art style that provides an accurate clue to the genre and target audience.
Some artwork has a distinct look associated with a particular genre. If you use the “wrong” style of art, your traditional historical fiction may be confused with historical romance or fantasy and may thereby miss a segment of the audience that is looking for historical fiction. Also, fantasy fans may be disappointed if they buy a book expecting sword and sorcery and instead find a traditional historical fiction novel.

(5) Place the cover text on its own plain background or on a non-central portion of the image.
Many book covers place the front cover text within designated spaces with a plain background. Some amount of writing on less critical portions of the cover artwork is acceptable, but readers may be annoyed if the artwork is so covered with words that they cannot see the details of the image.

(6) Choose attractive and legible fonts and nicely balanced color schemes.
The fonts that look the best tend to be something different from what we ordinarily see on business documents, yet still clear and legible. The font should also be reasonable for the place and time period. You would not want to use a font resembling runes on a novel set in the19th-century American west, and it would also be best to avoid an Art Deco style font on a novel set in ancient Rome. Color schemes should be visually pleasing. Sometimes it may be necessary to use colors that are not traditionally beautiful, but there should always be good contract between font colors and their background so that the text is easy to read.

(7) Learn the proper ways to edit and manipulate images and combine them with text, or engage a skilled graphic artist to do it.
Covers might still work well with violations of one of the recommendations in #1-6 above, but there is really no way to recover from poor image editing and manipulation.

More of the best covers

My previous posting (Covers, part 2) presented some of the best recent book covers in historical fiction for adults. Those book covers generally comply very well with the recommendations above; any violations are so small as to be barely noticeable. In this post, I will not present the worst offenders. Bad covers are easy enough to find. Instead, I will show covers that disregard one or more of the "rules" and yet are still excellent covers. Thus, these seven recommendations should be regarded as general guidelines for which there may be some flexibility.

Of the ten books with great covers listed in this post, I have only read Hild as of right now. My review for Hild is on this blog.

Some covers have relatively small figures in the images yet nonetheless tantalize you to click and see what is there. The two covers below are examples for which I was eager to click to a larger image to see what was happening in the scene:

Sinful Folk by Ned Hayes (2014)

Grundesburh by C.P Burrage (2014)

Longships and silhouetted horses are examples of images very common on historical fiction set in the Middle Ages. The following books have covers on which these well-used motifs remain fresh:

Offa: Rise of the Englisc Warrior by S. A. Swaffington (2013)

The Last Runemaster by Maurice Price (2013)

Woad is capable of producing a variety of shades of blue, but the woman on the cover of The Song of Heledd has a bright blue dress in a shade that I do not believe would have been achievable at the time of the novel. The novel also has about the upper limit of an acceptable amount of writing on the figure. The cover remains good because the overall look is believable as a seventh-century scene.

The Song of Heledd by Judith Arnopp (2012)

The US edition of Hild has a strikingly beautiful image of the main character on the cover, but she is clothed in chainmail that would not have been known in seventh-century Northumbria:

Hild by Nicola Griffith (2013)

Despite the anachronism, the cover remains appealing due to the high quality of the portrait created by Anna and Elena Balbusso. For some reason, the publishers decided to print the UK cover with a similar background but without the image of Hild. I’m not sure why they thought that UK readers would prefer the background without the human figure – does anyone have any insight into that?

Hild by Nicola Griffith (2014) – UK edition

With such a young protagonist, the cover of Hild sometimes leads a potential reader into thinking that the book is for young adults, but it is actually written for adults. This may not have been much of an issue since the book appears to have been reviewed many times, so potential readers may generally be aware of its target audience.

Many historical works in other genres have amazing covers. For example, see the covers of the young adult work Mark of The Mercians and the graphic novel Vinland Saga 1:

Mark Of The Mercians by Andy Winfield (2012)

Vinland Saga 1 by Makoto Yukimura (2013)

It is possible to borrow a style of another genre and still create an impressive cover for adult historical fiction. The cover of The Norseman has a fantasy vibe, but the beautiful art by Michael Calandra nonetheless feels at home on this work of historical fiction.

The Norseman by Jason Born (2012)

I am not sure at this point how far you can go with using artwork that appears to be targeted for a different audience. The manga style drawing shown above on Vinland Saga 1 looks great, but could you get away with using something like that for traditional historical fiction for adults?

The yellow font on light green background does not provide the best contrast on the cover of The Field of Crows, but the attractive artwork makes up for the deficiency and it is still a good cover.

The Field of Crows by Robert Garrod (2013)

This post has shown several covers that don’t play by all the rules, but that are still great covers to my eyes. In the final installment of my book covers series of postings, I will ask your help in identifying the best artwork for my novel cover. Do I need to follow all the rules, or is there room for some creative license?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Covers, part 2: The best recent book covers in adult historical fiction set in medieval times

While thinking about book covers, I decided to survey recent book covers in adult historical fiction. I wanted to see which ones most caught my eye and try to figure out what made them good covers.

I went through more than 130 recent covers by searching on Amazon and Barnes and Noble using keywords such as "historical fiction" plus "Anglo Saxon", "medieval", or "Viking". I was surprised to find so many recent books depicting the early medieval years; when I searched about two years ago, I found relatively few works of fiction based in Anglo-Saxon times. I noticed that most covers for such works of historical fiction fell in one or more of the following categories:

Person – drawing
Person – photo
Animal – photo or naturalistic drawing
Object – photo  or realistic drawing
Symbol or abstract representation (of person, animal, object, idea, etc)
Building or other built structures in the landscape
Natural landscape

I will show the recent book covers I liked best in each of these categories. There were more good covers than what I include in this posting; a few more good covers will be discussed in my next posting (part 3 on book covers). The covers highlighted in these postings are ones that I like, but they don’t necessarily follow all the standard “rules” of good cover design. For example, some articles suggest that pictures of persons should be avoided on book covers unless the face is hidden. The face can be obscured when the person is facing away, when only part of the body such as the torso is shown, when the figure is shown in silhouette, or when hoods or other articles of clothing hide the face. However, as mentioned in part 1 on book covers, I like to see people with faces on book covers, so I have included some examples here.

I will add a few comments here on each book cover, and my next posting (part 3) will go into more detail on some attributes that I think make certain book covers more desirable. Most of my examples of excellent covers in this posting are from 2013 or 2014. In this post, I am only commenting on the covers; at this time, I have not yet read most of these recent books with the best covers. I have read two of them – you can find my reviews for Edwin: High King of Britain and God’s Daughter on this blog.

Person – drawing

Badon Hill by F J Atkinson (2014)
The nicely composed image shows a battle-weary warrior against a battleground scene. The main image is detailed enough that I am not sure whether it is a drawing or a photograph.

The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath (2013)
This image is from the Bayeux Tapestry. Sometimes medieval-era illustrations can appear flat and stilted to modern eyes, but the colors and fonts on the cover frame an attractive presentation of this ancient image that helped inspire the book.

1066 The Healer by John Wright (2008)
This book is older than the other books in this posting but is included here due to my special interest in medieval healers. The cover is simple but appealing with the color illustration and the title font that resembles uncial writing.

Person – photo

God's Daughter by Heather Day Gilbert (2013)
I think that photos are incredibly difficult to use well on historical fiction book covers depicting long-ago times. Clothing styles, hair styles, and make-up are very different today from in the distant past. Attempts to replicate older styles often result in a model who resembles a first-timer at a SCA event. However, when a cover designer finds the right model and the right background, the results can be stunning, as is the case for the God’s Daughter cover image. The model conveys just the right balance of beauty and toughness that corresponds very well with the character of Gudrid as described in the novel, and the water in the background also goes well with the setting of the book.

Lady Danger by Glynnis Campbell (2012)
One disadvantage of using stock photos for cover images is that someone else may create a cover using the same model. The model is facing in opposite directions on the covers of God’s Daughter and Lady Danger; both books came up in Amazon searches using the keywords I have indicated.

The Viking's Daughter by Marti Talbott (2013)
This cover appears to feature the same model as God’s Daughter and Lady Danger, but in a different pose so the similarity is not as obvious as for the other two books.

The Northumbrian Saga by A. H. Gray (2013)
This book did not turn up in my keyword searches; I came across it while searching for more information about Edoardo Albert’s book Edwin. I am glad I found this book, with its striking and luminous cover image of a veiled model against a background of Bamburgh Castle along the Northumbrian coast. I’m not sure that either the deep black dye of her dress or sheer veils with such fine (machined-quality) stitching would have been found in 9th century Northumbria, but some have argued that fine silk textiles may have been widely available in late Anglo-Saxon England, so I will not count this image as a definite anachronism! The way in which the veil is draped is consistent with that shown in some Anglo-Saxon drawings.

The Winter Warrior by James Wilde (2013)
The horse and rider going through the snow provide an excellent representation of the title of the book. The image makes me wonder where he is traveling in such weather.

Animal – photo or naturalistic drawing

Shadow of the Raven by Millie Thom (2014)
The raven silhouette is the component that first caught my eye in this image, but it blends in nicely with the photo of the longship on the water.

A Swarming of Bees by Theresa Tomlinson (2013)
One main bee image and several lighter ones are perched on a honeycomb background that resembles the vellum used in manuscripts of the time. Bees were recognized as important in Anglo-Saxon times. Bees make appearances in an Old English metrical charm, in the famed name of Beowulf, and in the Exeter book riddles (according to some widely accepted solutions). Bees also made the honey for mead, an essential beverage at social gatherings of the time. At a time when refined sugars were not available, honey was highly valued as a sweetener and it was also included in many medicinal remedies.

Object – photo or realistic drawing

Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell (2012)
I tend not to be drawn as much to covers depicting objects as to book covers with pictures of people or animals. But the crown on the Cornwall cover is visually compelling. When I saw the title and the image, I immediately started to wonder whose head should be wearing the crown.

The Sutton Hoo helmet and other Anglo-Saxon helmets appear on many book covers about Anglo-Saxon times. In Jim Gardener’s artwork for Wall’s cover, a skull is wearing an Anglo-Saxon style helmet. The image made me curious about why the helmet would be on a skull and not on a living person. Along with the bare trees and ravens at the base of the picture, the overall effect is somewhat eerie. It definitely demands attention and makes you want to find out more about the book and the person who wore the helmet during his life. The author and cover designer elected to have only the image with no text on the book cover. I can understand why they would want to let the image have its maximal effect, but I prefer the usual practice of listing the title and author on the front cover. I considered placing this cover under the next category (symbol or abstract representation), but the helmet is drawn with a realistic level of detail so I left it under the “object” category.

Symbol or abstract representation

Edwin: High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert (2014). Also available here.
The boar on the cover resembles the boar crests on the Pioneer and Benty Grange Anglo-Saxon helmets. Such helm ornaments are described in Beowulf, and Albert places boar crests on the helmets worn by Edwin’s followers.

Boar crest from the seventh-century Pioneer helmet. From the original photo by Nathandbeal, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Boar crest from the Benty Grange helmet, made around 650 AD. Photo copyrighted by Museums Sheffield and used with permission. More information on the helmet and its boar image is available at the Museums Sheffield website (search for “Benty Grange helmet” or for Accession number J93.1189) or at the I Dig Sheffield site for the helmet or the boar ornament.

The boar on the Edwin cover would be at home on a medieval illuminated manuscript. The combination of the boar image with the uncial-like font of the word “Edwin” provides a nice seventh-century feel that is still attractive today.

Lord of the Wolf by Andrew Cook (2014)
The dragon in this image is stylized in a manner typical of Anglo-Saxon design, and the page looks like vellum. In combination with the font, the overall effect evokes a page from a medieval manuscript.

Building or other built structures in the landscape

The Changeling by Sile Rice (2011)

The Loom of Battle by Sile Rice (2011)
These covers are very simple, with a color wash over what appears to be a photo from West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village or a similar reconstructed Anglo-Saxon site. There is nothing fancy to catch the eye, but somehow I kept going back to look at these images when they were among many covers on a page of search results.

The Changeling and The Loom of Battle comprise an expanded version of The Saxon Tapestry, first published in 1991. Although the new covers are attractive and certainly do their job of drawing the potential reader in, I prefer the old covers from Hodder and Stoughton:

Cover from the hardback edition of The Saxon Tapestry, Hodder and Stoughton  (first published in 1991 in the UK)
Cover from the paperback edition of The Saxon Tapestry, Hodder and Stoughton  (first published in 1991 in the UK)

Natural landscape

Natural landscapes play in important role in many covers as backdrop for a person or other feature. For beautiful examples, see the covers above for The Northumbrian Saga, God’s Daughter, and Shadow of the Raven. Although I enjoy looking at pictures of natural landscapes, I do not ordinarily think a landscape alone serves as an effective cover. However, the peaceful shoreline image on the cover of Place of Repose nicely sets the tone expected in a novel with that name. In the acknowledgements, Tiernan mentions that photographer Adam Ward captured the image of light on Lindisfarne, an appropriate place for a novel honoring the final journey of St. Cuthbert.

My next post (part 3 on covers) looks more fully at the usual features of good book covers. In that post I will list about ten more excellent book covers in medieval historical fiction.

Do you agree with my list of the best recent book covers in this genre? Or do you have other favorites?