A Mighty Masterpiece on the Move

If every picture tells a story, then a masterpiece, one by Leonardo Da Vinci, must be full of stories that make for an epic, and Eden Collinsworth serves them up in grand style in her thrilling new book What the Ermine Saw.

The painting is the seductive, engrossing, and enigmatic portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, a Renaissance Duke’s mistress, holding, of all things, an ermine. It’s the strangest lapdog you’ve ever seen and has sometimes actually been misidentified over the years as just that, a dog. An ugly dog, too. But there’s nothing ugly about the painter’s execution, his delicacy, his tones that seem as fresh and magical as when they were painted over 500 years ago.

What is she looking at?  And why is she holding an ermine?  The author deftly explores both mysteries.

The painting in modern times has traveled from its base in a Polish museum around the world on loan and been transported with almost unimaginable security given its worth and rarity, one of only fifteen of Leonard’s paintings to survive.  Reading about the security around its movements, you feel like you’re in the middle of an amazing heist movie–though luckily the painting survived intact wherever it went.

How it got to Poland is somewhat mysterious as there’s a gap of almost 250 years in its history, but what’s more mysterious than that is its having survived wars, revolutions and every kind of disaster you can imagine–with only some minor damage to an upper corner.

Along the way and crossing one border after another in Europe, we get stories of love, lust, greed, cruelty, family feuds–plus Nazi madness and obsession.  There are capsule portraits of individuals you’re unlikely to have heard about, some of them heroines like Rosa Valland at the Louvre, who kept track of the vast stores of art the Nazis looted from Jews in France.  Her secret records aided restitution to the original owners and museums after WWII.

The book is a fast, stunning read as we whirl from one century and country to the next, from palaces to hovels, and all the while the small painting shines at the center, a jewel of jewels, a magnet for the very best of humanity and also the very worst.

Collinsworth has written a book that will delight art and history buffs and yes, even fans of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.  Because hovering over everything is the spirit of one of the world’s greatest artistic geniuses, a man whose legacy has affected and inspired countless millions.  To turn these pages is to feel connected to his genius, however tangentially, to be graced and possibly even changed.

Lev Raphael has been an art lover since he was very young and has visited dozens of art museums across the U.S., Canada, and Europe.  The author of 27 books, he taught creative writing at Michigan State University and currently coaches, mentors, and edits writers in all genres at writewithoutborders.com.

Review: “Sword of Kings” is Another Bernard Cornwell Triumph

The best historical novels create a world so immersive that you don’t just live inside of it while read the book, you carry that world with you for days or weeks afterward, and see everything around you through new eyes. That’s the genius of Bernard Cornwell’s Anglo-Saxon tales set in early medieval England, books that make him the king of this genre.

England in fact does not exist as a country in the period he explores.  The land is divided into rival kingdoms and they themselves are split between Christians and Danes.  Standing athwart two very different religious and political cultures is a hero who knows both of them intimately: Uhtred, Lord of Bebbannburg, which is a redoutable fortress in Northumbria, the last Kingdom ruled by a pagan king.

Each of these books is epic in scope but as intimate as a confession, thanks to that unforgettable narrator in a series with a cast of thousands: priests, lords, soldiers, slaves, wives, peasants, children, traitors, spies, royalty, raiders, lords, thugs, runaways, starvelings, sailors, witches. All of them are as real as your neighbors, thanks to Cornwell’s quick brush strokes and his sly humor.

His prose is brisk but never mechanical. He can find poetry in the rush of water under a bridge or the changing light at dusk, and even in the gory slide of a sword into a man’s guts. Cornwell doesn’t hold anything back in portraying the brutality of this period which he evokes through its sites and sights, sounds, and smell and the way people dwell on the importance of dreams and find omens at every turn.

Uhtred was born Christian but raised by Danes and his heart is pagan.  Despite that reality, he’s served Christian kings through sometimes bizarre twists of fate he hasn’t been able to escape.  Fate is inexorable he keeps saying, and events keep proving him right.

The Lord of Bebbanburg is a keen strategist and fierce warrior, but first and foremost a man of honor who values keeping an oath even if it takes him into danger, which it does time and again.  Why?  Because he believes that a man leaves nothing behind when he dies but his reputation.  And yet, as he says, “We seek it, we prize it, and then it turns on us like a cornered wolf.”

In this book Uhtred is a grandfather but as a brave as ever and no less determined to fulfill the oaths he’s sworn to keep, which paradoxically bind him to the dead King Alfred who dreamed of one vast English-speaking Christian land uniting all the warring kingdoms.

Uhtred’s first mission seems hopeless amid the turmoil sure to follow the death of King Edward: rescue a queen and kill a king.  That adventure involves unique dangers, amazing hand-to-hand combat, a breathtaking battle at sea and a remarkable chase scene, capped by a humiliation as profound as anything Uhtred has suffered in the previous 11 books.

Though he may be battered and battle-scarred, he’s still remarkably thoughtful, and he’s still a man of bold action.  After a crushing defeat when someone advises rest, his longtime comrade in arms violently disagrees: “He must fight.  He’s Uhtred of Bebbanburg.  He doesn’t lie in a bed feeling sorry for himself.  Uhtred of Bebbanburg puts on his mail, straps on a sword, and takes death to his enemies.”

The stakes here are higher than ever: in the battle between Danes and Christians, should the Christians keep expanding their reach, they will eventually swallow his native Northumbria and change his life and the life of everyone he knows and loves forever.

The prize-winning author of 26 books in many genres, Lev Raphael teaches creative writing and offers editing services at writewithoutborders.com.

Authors: Do You Want To Conquer Kindle?

Bad prose is apparently essential.

I recently got an email about L.J. Ross, the “Queen of Kindle,” an English author I’d never heard of, who’s apparently sold millions of books. So I went to Amazon to check out the first book in her series.  As a newspaper and radio reviewer for many years, I was struck by what the review quotes said, and what they didn’t say:

“LJ Ross is the queen of Kindle” – Sunday Telegraph

“Holy Island is a blockbuster” – Daily Express

“A literary phenomenon” – Evening Chronicle

There was nothing about the books as books–these papers all tout her success, not her writing. It made me wonder if Ross might be a phenomenon like the author of Fifty Shades of Grey. That is, a huge bestseller despite ridiculous characters and laughable prose.

I downloaded a sample of Ross’s Holy Island, her debut novel which is set on Lindisfarne Island off Northumbria.  But I couldn’t make it past the first few pages for a number of reasons.  The clichés of “huddled together for warmth” and “crashing waves” put me off.  The larger cliché is a tired crime fiction trope: the trapped woman.

Lucy wakes up shivering near a famous ruined priory, and “her skin is exposed and helpless.”  Helpless?  A person can be helpless, but her skin itself?  And why not tell us how exposed she is, why make us guess?  Then we learn that she thinks her eyes are open but she’s not sure because it’s so dark.  It’s hard to believe anyone would not know whether their eyes were open or closed–but it turns out the darkness isn’t that deep anyway because she can see an outline of the priory and the sky is only “ink-blue” and “littered with stars.”

A bit further on Lucy tries to “feel her way to the edge.”  What edge?  We never learn.

She calls for help and hears someone approaching: “The footsteps maintained their unhurried gait and followed their inevitable path.”  People maintain a gait, not their footsteps.  But the author separates other things as well when she writes “Her mind struggled to process the words, to believe her ears.”  Is her mind some separate thing unconnected to her?  Wouldn’t just saying “She” be simpler and more accurate?

I read across genres and love good story-telling, but I can’t waste my time on writers whose writing is below par.  Especially writers who have people dying awful deaths suddenly thinking of something pleasant just before they die—in this case it’s “home.”  That’s another tired fiction moment.

Even the Amazon description of the book is poorly written, because it claims that the island of Lindisfarne is  “cut off from the English mainland by a tidal causeway.”  Causeways connect islands, but perhaps whoever wrote that was in the spell of her prose.  Bad writing can sometimes be hypnotic.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.