Monday, March 31, 2008

A little blatant self promotion

Okay, a little blatant self-promotion:
My cover art for Ballantine Books (US) of THE LAST QUEEN has arrived. I must say, I love it. I think it evokes Juana of Castile's mystery perfectly. I also have my UK cover art - well, actually a draft of it, on the left. I'm told it will undergo some PhotoShop magic, but the image is there. The contrast between the publisher approaches is fascinating: for different reasons, I like both. THE LAST QUEEN will be released on July 29, 2008 in the US and in October (tentative date) in the UK. I don't have Spanish, Italian or German cover art yet, but when I do, I'll post it. Hope you enjoy!

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Pharaoh Reborn

It's not easy to take on a well-known historical figure. Some are so familiar to readers - and often so over-written - it would seem there's nothing new anyone can say about them. In some cases, new books about such figures rely on subtle - and not so subtle! - shifts in the telling or reinterpret events through another's eyes, the "witness to history" point of view. In others, such as Karen Essex's KLEOPATRA and PHARAOH, new life is breathed into the story itself.
I've been a fan of Ms Essex's since I reviewed her third novel LEONARDO'S SWANS for the Historical Novel Society, yet when I came across used copies of her debut as a fiction writer, a two-volume set about arguably Egypt's most famous queen, I must admit I hesitated. I love historical fiction set in ancient Egypt; but I've read several novels on Cleopatra (including Margaret George's epic) and wasn't sure I cared to read another. I mean, how much more is there to know? The headdress, the grandeur, the asp: she's practically a cliche.
Fortunately, my ignorance didn't prevail over my insatiable curiosity and need to own every historical novel ever published. I bought both volumes in Ms Essex's series - KLEOPATRA and PHARAOH -and started the first one in the evening after dinner. By midnight, I had to tear myself away to brush my teeth and go to bed. And still, despite the fact that I had to work in the morning, I read for another half-hour. I finished the first volume in a week and couldn't sink my teeth into the second one fast enough. I carried these books with me everywhere. I missed a bus stop. I stole time at work to read. I didn't finish my website. I was obsessed.
Ms Essex is a marvelous writer by any standard. Her prose is luminous and precise; she structures her sentences with consummate style and her wit fits her subject matter perfectly. There were lines in these books I read over and over, simply for their beauty, such as the opening line to KLEOPATRA: "There is something about the air in Alexandria. It is said the sea-god Poseidon, who lived near the Isle of Pharos, blew a divine whisper over the town." Now, when a book starts like that, I'm all yours.
KLEOPATRA (spelled the way she herself did, according to her Greek origins) tells the story of Kleopatra's childhood to the time she inherits her throne. Her relationship with her eccentric father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, and her ruthless siblings; her fascination with Rome and keen awareness of her blood ties to Alexander the Great and to Egypt, as well as her awakening to the dangers and euphorias of power are gorgeously rendered. Even more importantly, this is a Kleopatra we haven't met. Not the adventuress, the siren, the scheming manipulative seductress - roles she's been forced into by later historians; roles so often allotted to women in history and, to this day, still perpetuated by even our allegedly enlightened society. No, here she is keenly observant, cunning, vital, bold, curious and handsome - but not beautiful: an intelligent, often narcissistic princess who learns the price she must pay for survival. The brutality of court life is not glossed over or exaggerated; it's simply there, a fact, sometimes swift and shockingly cruel. The pleasures of court life are depicted with heady aromatic sensousness and an erudite knowledge of the pagan glories that fueled the ancient world; as Kleopatra matures into the extraordinary woman she will become, we mature with her.
In PHARAOH, the story becomes more familiar as Kleopatra forges her alliances with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and grows all too intimate with the chaotic savagery and hypocritical refinements of Rome. Yet again, the unexpected reigns: Caesar is world-weary and set apart by his divine attributes, even as he recognizes Rome's unworthiness. Marc Antony, on the other hand, is an eager Herculean boy - pummeling his way through life with a meaty grin and ultimately fragile self-worth. As she binds herself, and the future of Egypt, to these very different men, Kleopatra herself evolves into an astute ruler whose one terrifying caveat is her dependence on the very civilization that seeks her downfall. Her myth, her courage, her lust, her mistakes: these are all here, too, portrayed with sensibility and an astonishing lack of sentimentality.
In this era, when the history is so often downplayed, oversimplified, distorted or romanticized to suit the fiction, these novels are, in my opinion, sublime examples of what a writer dedicated to authenticity can achieve, even with a character as maligned and exploited as Egypt's last pharoah. Ms Essex's new novel STEALING ATHENA will be released June 17. I can't wait.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Another exciting giveaway at

My friend Kelly Hewitt has announced another exciting giveaway at Read an interview with Catherine Delors, debut author of the highly anticipated MISTRESS OF THE REVOLUTION, and sign up to win one of five free copies. Follow this link and good luck!

Sunday, March 2, 2008


Last week, I had a life-altering experience that put my life into perspective.
I've been distracted of late, focused on getting my new website ready for its debut in mid-March, to coincide with the mailing of the galleys (Advance Reading Copies) of THE LAST QUEEN. Last week, I also turned in the manuscript for my Catherine de Medici novel, after a feverish four months of editing following my agent's wonderfully insightful comments. It's all been quite exciting, but I've been rushing to work and to home, walking my dog Paris in between, and not very attuned to the moment, as they say.

I love going up to the park after work with Paris because it reminds me that the best things in life are, to quote a cliche, free -- fun, laughter and love. My dog has been with me for almost eight years; I got her when she was nine weeks old. I'd been inconsolable over the recent loss of my previous pet and Paris was so beautiful with her tricolored markings and milky puppy eyes, I felt she'd come to me just when I needed her.

Last Tuesday night at around 6:45, we were in the park with friends and their dogs when out of nowhere Paris let out a terrified sound unlike anything I'd heard before. I saw her being attacked by a small pitbull. It had Paris by the back of her throat, at her ruff, only two or three paces from where I stood. As my dog started screaming, I threw myself on top of the pit. I knew instinctually that unlike other scuffles we've had over the years with other dogs, this one might cost Paris her life. I straddled the pit (by now, it was dark outside, so my friends were rushing to secure their pets and try to help me) and shoved my hands into its mouth to pry its jaws off my dog. It didn't take more than half a minute to get the pit loose but it felt like eternity. My adrenaline was pumping so hard I couldn't hear my own screams, though later my friends said I was wailing, hitting the pit in the face and thrusting my hands between its jaws.

When it finally let go, its jaws snapped shut on my hand. The pain shot right up my arm into my shoulder and back, paralyzing in its intensity. I yanked my hand out as the pit lunged after Paris again. I slammed it in the face with my knee and saw it bite me, but I didn't feel anything. I scrambled to Paris, grabbed her up in my arms and went racing to my car. I could see lots of blood and she was panting hard as I put her in the car and my friends started assisting me. My hand had gone numb and was starting to swell; when I happened to glance up as one of my friends went running to her house to fetch towels, I saw the owner had leashed the pit and was staring at me with a stunned look on his face. He said, "My dog has never done this before."

One of my friends cornered him to get his information, while another called my partner and then rushed Paris and me to the emergency vet. There, they kept Paris under observation for five hours, in fear her trachea had been ruptured. Her ear was lacerated badly (part of the lower lobe was torn off) and it bled a lot, plus she had two deep punctures on her upper back where the pit grabbed her. Fortunately, she showed no trachea problems and the vets let me take her home after dosing her with antibiotics and pain meds. They didn't want to perform any surgery because they said she was too traumatized and needed to rest overnight, so the next day I took her to my regular vet where they stitched up her ear and her back. They put a shunt in her back to drain away the infection, and told me to hot compress the area four times a day.

Yesterday, the shunt came out. She appears to be healing well, physically and emotionally. My vet told me that I saved her life, as the angle of her wounds indicate to him that the pit was, in fact, trying to get her by the throat to kill her. We have no idea what provoked the pit but when I reported the attack to Animal Care and Control they said pits can do this, for no apparent reason. It was off leash and so was Paris, but my dog isn't aggressive, and I suspect the pit came after her ball. Whatever the case, all I know is that one minute we were tossing the ball and the next the pit had barreled into her.

I had to get a tetanus shot and I'm taking a 10-day course of antibiotics (the same as Paris's, only the human grade). One of my legs is punctured from the bite and the other leg is badly scraped from fighting with the pit on my knees on asphalt, near where Paris and I were playing. Oddly enough, my hand wasn't wounded save for a tooth graze from the pit's incisor on my ring finger but moving my fingers hurt for days. My doc says the tendons are inflamed and will slowly heal. I was totally freaked out, of course; the next day when it all sank in, I broke down in tears at the vet's while waiting to pick up Paris after her surgery.

The pit's owner paid the vet fees and surrendered his dog to be destroyed. He reiterated that his dog had never attacked another dog before, but then he added, "She's almost four years old and if a pit is going to turn, that's the age when they do it." I replied that he was totally irresponsible for knowing this and still letting his pit run off leash in a public park where there are other dogs, especially smaller dogs. But in the end, I mostly felt sad that the event had caused my dog so much pain and taken the life of another dog. Though I believe that after such an attack, the animal can't be trusted, I've always been a strong advocate that when things go wrong, it's not the animal's fault but rather the owner's. And it was clear to me that this guy had no idea of the type of his danger his dog might pose. Animal Care and Control informed me that every month in San Francisco there are two to three serious pitbull attacks on animals.

While it's been the most terrifying thing I've ever been through, it has put life into perspective. I feel like one of those moms who's lifted a car off her trapped child. My entire body was so sore when I woke up the next day, I knew I'd used muscles that I didn't even know I had! More importantly when I woke up, I saw Paris asleep between my partner and me, and I realized how close I'd come to losing her. Life can turn on us like a pit bull, fast and unexpected. I promised myself that henceforth I'll be super vigiliant in the park, but even more so, I'll be more aware of the importance of living every day in the moment.