Tuesday, 25 June 2013

When Did Reading Become Such Hard Work?

I have a question to ask you all; when did reading become such hard work?

I have always loved reading and even as a small child my mother would find me sitting in a corner immersed in a book rather than being out playing with my friends.  I was a devourer of books; getting them from the local library, as birthday and Christmas presents and from jumble sales.  I started off on Enid Blyton, progressed to pony books and then started reading my mother’s romances. Some of my favourite books I read multiple times, until the pages were dog-eared and the covers battered.  Now I read a fairly eclectic mix of non-fiction, thrillers and horror with the very occasional chick-lit romance thrown in.

Book Stack Waiting to be Read
Book Stack Waiting to be Read

But reading has always been easy; you just pick up a book you like the look of and read it.  If you don’t finish it, it’s no biggie.  But I don’t know whether this has been a knock-on effect of the internet, but for a lot of folks out there reading is now hard work and a serious business.  People are compiling reading lists, setting themselves targets about how many books they want to read in a given time and then talking about it on the net.  It makes my ten minutes reading a day just before I switch the light off at night look very inadequate and I have had to ask myself a very hard question – am I a lazy reader?  Am I just not disciplined enough?  After all, there are millions of books out there and how am I ever going to get through them all unless I have a plan?

Of course I could blame the Kindle.  With the electronic e-readers that are now available, people can have hundreds of books sitting there waiting for them to dive in.  I still use the local library, so my queue is based on how many they let me take out and how many I can carry home.  Buying books poses some of the same problems, along with the big question of storage.  I have at least twelve packing cases full of books stored away, as well as the ones I have out on the shelves.  I shudder to think how many I have taken to the charity shops over the years, although parting with any book is always a wrench.  I mean how do I know whether or not I may want to read it again in fifteen years and tie-dyeing tights may well come back into fashion?

One of the things that I loved about travelling in Australia was that they have book exchange shops, where you can take your old books and they will give you a few dollars for them or exchange them for some different titles.  Some of these places are like Aladdin’s cave, piled high with a huge assortment of reading material, some of it many years old.  I found a lot of books that I had read and loved years ago, so had some nostalgic moments as I dived into stories that I remembered from my teens and twenties.

But if being a disciplined, goal driven reader is right up your street, where can you go to achieve your aims?

Book Clubs: 

Book clubs have become very popular.  They can be as simple as a few friends getting together, choosing a novel they are all interested in reading (not always so easy!) and meeting up at each other’s houses for tea and cake (or wine and pizza), to discuss the book.  There are also several high profile TV book clubs you can join, which generally seem to pick a different title every month or week.  In the US, Oprah has a book club, with lots of different articles and a book of the week suggestion and here in the UK Richard and Judy still have a book club on the internet.  Otherwise, if you can’t cajole your friends into giving up an evening a month to discuss literature and share snacks, just do a web search and you are bound to find a book club in your area or on the net that is right for you.

Reading Lists and Goals: 

Now if you are a really organised, motivated person you can create your own lists of books you want to read, set a time frame and keep tally of how you are doing.  But if you want some company, there are now plenty of places on the internet where you can hang out and do all this, with the added bonus of being able to interact with a group of like-minded avid readers while you are doing it.  Perhaps, one of the best known sites is Goodreads, where you can set up our profile, add books you have read to your shelves, post reviews and join in the discussions and groups. There are even book clubs on Goodreads you can join.  Of course, we authors love readers that post reviews of our books.  Good ones are great, but even a less than glowing review that gives constructive criticism can be very helpful for the future.  Shelfari is a similar site and there are also sites like Wattpad where you can post your own stories as well as read and comment on stories written by others.

So Gentle Reader, if you want to take your reading habits to the next level and set yourself some serious goals and you do not want to do it alone, then there are now many resources you can tap into to help you get there.  As for me, I might get around to that pile of books that have been sitting on the shelf for over a year once I’ve made a cup of tea, but then I’ve always got the excuse that I’m supposed to be writing them!

Sunday, 23 June 2013

What Happened to the Three Youngest Amarna Princesses?

The heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten and his beautiful wife Queen Nefertiti had six daughters, who were often shown with them on their monuments and in tomb decorations.  Before this time at the end of the 18th dynasty it was rare for Pharaoh’s to be shown with their offspring or even alongside their royal wives, and there are probably many royal children who have not made it onto the pages of history from Ancient Egypt. But from these illustrations from Amarna it would appear that these little girls lived a privileged life of luxury and ease in the royal palace and also that they were loved and included in both the public and private lives of their parents.  But life expectancy was not very long in Ancient Egypt, even for the cosseted children of royalty, so what did happen to the three youngest Amarna princesses Neferneferuaten Tasherit, Neferneferure and Setepenre?

Amarna Princesses - Neferneferuaten and Neferneferure
Amarna Princesses - Neferneferuaten and Neferneferure

What draws many people to the Amarna period of Ancient Egypt is the innovative, more realistic style of the art and statuary.  For the first time in Ancient Egypt’s long history the palaces were decorated with colourful scenes from nature, such as flying birds, fish in ponds, gambolling calves and plants.  The royal family were also shown in a more natural guise for the first time.  No longer were the Pharaoh and his Great Royal Wife shown in the perfect, formal poses of earlier reigns; they were drawn or carved with pot bellies and long, spindly limbs, doing the kind of things that ordinary families do, such as playing with the children and showing affection to one another. Some of the most charming scenes from this time depict the young Amarna princesses playing with each other, cuddling with their parents or even being naughty by poking a chariot horse with a stick.  But, as well as being attractive images, these carvings and wall paintings provide us with most of the evidence we have regarding the lives of these royal children.

Their royal father Akhenaten abandoned the traditional capital and religion of Egypt and built an entirely new city called Akhetaten, based on the worship of the Aten or sun disk, for his family and to be the principle royal administrative centre.  It is very likely that Neferneferuaten Tasherit (Beauty of the Beauties of Aten’ – Tasherit means ‘the younger one’ or ‘little’) was the first of the royal sisters to have been born in the new city, followed by Neferneferure (‘Most Beautiful One of Re’) shortly after and then the youngest princess, Setepenre (‘Chosen of Re’).  The very first image we have of them all dates to around year 9 and is a wall painting from the King’s House in Amarna. It shows the entire royal family relaxing, with Neferneferuaten Tasherit painted sitting with her sister Neferneferure on a cushion.  The fresco is very badly damaged unfortunately and all that is left of the picture of the youngest daughter, Setepenre, is her tiny hand.

The three youngest Amarna princesses are also shown in the decorations on the walls of the noble’s tombs at Amarna.  It is in these tombs that we see the last scenes that show Nefertiti surrounded by all six of her daughters.  In year 12 of Akhenaten a ‘Great Durbar’ was held at Amarna where foreign rulers and vassals came from all corners of the Empire to pay tribute and give offerings to the Pharaoh.  The three little princesses are shown with their elder sisters standing behind Akhenaten and Nefertiti as they receive tribute in the tombs of Meryre II and Huya, the Chief Steward of their grandmother Queen Tiye, and in one of the registers Neferneferure is shown holding a pet gazelle, which her youngest sister Setepenre leans forward to pet.  This ‘Great Durbar’ seems to be the nadir of Akhenaten’s reign, as after this glittering event things seem to start falling apart at Akhetaten and many members of the royal family slip away into the shadows of history.

There is evidence from the Amarna letters that a great plague was sweeping through the Middle East at that time and that unwittingly the coming together of so many people from different countries could have helped it to spread.  It is thought that the three youngest Amarna princesses may have been victims of whatever disease it was that was ravaging the population of Egypt.  The tiny Setepenre may have been the first to die, as there is no evidence of her after years 13-14.  Her name does appear on Wall C in the Royal Tomb, along with that of four of her sisters. She is also not shown on a wall in another chamber of the tomb that shows her parents and family mourning the death of her older sister Princess Meketaten.  No evidence of her burial has been found, although she was very likely interred in the Royal Tomb and, heartbreakingly, the little girl was probably not even six years old when she died.

Princess Neferneferure is also missing from the death scene of Meketaten in the royal tomb at Amarna, so may also have died by years 13-14.  However, it is important to remember that we do not know that much about the protocol surrounding royal burial ceremonies; these two princesses may simply have been too young to have been mourners in the scene.  However, Neferneferure’s name is plastered over on Wall C in another chamber in the tomb.  She could also have been buried in the Royal Tomb, although there is some evidence she could have been buried in another tomb at Amarna, Tomb 29, based on an inscription that was discovered on the handle of a pot that refers to the ‘inner (burial) chamber of Neferneferure’.  If she was indeed interred in this other tomb, it could be that she died after her father Akhenaten and the Royal Tomb was already sealed and could not be opened for another burial.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters
Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters
Again we cannot be certain what happened to Neferneferuaten; when she died or what was the cause of her death.  She is shown on the walls of the royal tomb mourning the death of her elder sister Meketaten accompanied by Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten, so was presumably still alive at this time, which was around year 14.  There has been speculation that Neferneferuaten could have been married to a foreign ruler, one of her father Pharaoh Akhenaten’s vassals, and sent abroad but this has never been proved and would have been highly unusual. Egyptian princesses were married within the royal family or to prominent courtiers, and not married off into foreign royal families as diplomatic bargaining pieces. There is also a theory that she could have been her father’s mysterious co-regent, a shadowy figure who may have been either male or female. However, it is thought that she died before Tutankhamun and her sister Ankhesenpaaten (Ankhesenamun) came to the throne, as there is no evidence of her during their reign that has so far come to light.

Perhaps we will never know what the ultimate fate of these three young Amarna princesses was, but the sands of Egypt still hold many secrets and new evidence may be found during future excavations. So hopefully there are artefacts out there still waiting to be found that might give us more clues and further glimpses into the extraordinary royal lives of these three little girls.

Image Amarna PrincessesNeferneferuaten and Neferneferure Wikimedia Commons Any Purpose
Image Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Introducing ‘Hall of the Golden Crocodiles – The Aten Sequence 2’

It always felt a little strange talking about a series of books when there was only one available, but at last there is actually an Aten Sequence!  It feels like it has been a long time coming, but the second book in the series ‘Hall of the Golden Crocodiles – The Aten Sequence 2’ has now been self published and is available as an ebook on Amazon Kindle, ibookstore, Barnes & Noble, Reader Store (Sony), Kobo, Copia, Gardners, Baker & Taylor, eBookPie, eSentral, and Scribd.

The Temple of Karnak
The Temple of Karnak

In this second book in the series, we find our immortal friend Aten getting ever more desperate.  He is very close to running out of fuel and, now that the High Priest Neferhotep is even more suspicious of him, it looks like his chances of getting at the gold stored in the vaults beneath the Temple of Karnak are even slimmer. As taking responsibility is not his style, he blames his travelling companions the half man/half basset hound Druitt, the tempestuous Galasian cocktail waitress Tuy and Luke the rebel teenager from the 21st century for all his troubles.

So he sends Luke and Neferptah back to the palace to be educated in the Kap, a military training school for the royal princes and nobles, with Prince Dhutmose and his pals, in the hope that they will be able to find a way into the temple for him. Of course he neglects to tell the boys that’s why they are there and eventually has to blackmail Luke into going in search of the Princess Merytamen, in the hope that she will be able to lead him to his goal.

So once again the two boys find themselves stealing through the palace corridors in the middle of the night, desperately hoping they will not be caught.  But their pursuit of Merytamen sets off a chain of events that eventually leads them deep into the tunnels and halls beneath Karnak, on a dangerous quest to find the princess.  As their friends from the palace try and find them before they are missed and Aten follows them in hot pursuit of the gold, can the two boys survive the dangers that lie before them?

Because there are ancient spells protecting the darkened corridors and vaults of the temple; powerful magic that can only too easily be awakened by unwary trespassers in this most sacred part of Karnak.  There is also the little matter of an irate High Priest, who is a powerful magician in his own right and who would do anything to keep them away from the princess, to contend with.

The Temple of Karnak
The Temple of Karnak

Hall of the Golden Crocodiles is a light hearted science fantasy novel suitable for both young adults and older readers, featuring all of your favourite characters from Pharaoh’s Gold. There are also some exciting new characters for you to meet such as the talking royal cat Ta-miu, Prince Amenophis’s creepy new friend Mahu and the tomb robber Parneb.  But it is someone from Aten’s past that causes the biggest surprise; a new arrival that could make his life even more complicated.

So will Aten get the gold he so badly needs and manage to make enough fuel to leave Earth and join his Uncle Lucie at last?  Or will all his plans just fall apart again, leaving him stuck forever?  Whatever happens, you can bet that none of it will be his fault and that there will be plenty of adventures along the way.

Download your copy today to find out!

Authors: What Type of Social Media User Are You?

Being a successful author used to be a lot easier.  You sat in a freezing cold attic with little food, scratched away with your quill pen long into the night, abjuring all human contact in order to follow your muse. And then, after you died in misery and penury, your manuscript would be discovered, become a bestseller and you would be hailed as a genius. Simple.

But now, oh the horror of it, {cue dramatic drum rolls} we indie authors have to do our own marketing!  That’s right, those books don’t sell themselves and as more authors choose to self-publish it becomes even more imperative to make your books stand out from the crowd and be noticed.

Jane Austen - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Jane Austen 

Now, as you might have gathered from my earlier post ‘WritingSuccess’, I’m not a great fan of rigidly following other writer’s paths to success and it is important that you find a way of promoting your books or articles that works for you.  It’s more of a buffet approach, where you can read what has worked for others, appreciate the success they have achieved and then pick out the bits that resonate with you.  But there is one thing that is getting increasingly hard to avoid and that is social media.

Now many of us authors are shy, introverted creatures who feel much safer tucked up behind our laptops dunking chocolate digestives in our tea, but if we want our work to be noticed in the big wide world, we have to be brave and dip our toes into the churning ocean that is now social media. ‘Write and they will come’ is a nice idea, but your stories and characters will probably get a bit lonely and your light will remain firmly stuck under the bushel if you don’t get on with choosing your profile picture and writing your blurb.

I know that it can seem daunting and, to be quite honest, you will probably have to develop a thicker skin, as at some stage you will probably encounter a few internet trolls, jealousy or nastiness.  Just let it go and do not respond is probably the best policy.  Some people just cannot help themselves and if you feed a troll they will just keep coming back for more.

Probably the two most important resources that authors use are Facebook and Twitter.  Setting up accounts on both is a straight forward exercise and there is plenty of help on the internet to get you started.  With Facebook you can set up a page as an author or you can set up pages for your individual books, although you will need a personal account in order to do this.  With Twitter, you just set up your account and happily start tweeting.

Now this is not a ‘how to’ article, as there are already thousands of them out there written by experts who know a lot more than I do about the technical stuff.  I just wanted to ask you what type of social media user are you?  What are you hoping to gain by using these tools?  It might seem like a strange question, but many social media newbies can scupper their chances of success and becoming popular, by only focussing on what they can gain.  They view it as a simple marketing exercise and, probably with the very best of intentions, plaster the social media networks with their links and promotions. This is known as spamming and is very much frowned on and can even get your account terminated.

But why is this spammy approach regarded as such a bad thing you may be asking?  Isn’t getting my book links out there what I am giving up some of my precious writing time to do? Well, it is because being overly promotional is simply not how social media works.  The clue is in the word ‘social’.  These tools were set up so that people could socialise and communicate with each other, places where they could build up online communities.  View it more like a real world conference or party.  Would you just go barrelling in there, thrusting your business cards into people’s hands, not even waiting for them to respond before you moved on to the next person? No you would not.  You would take some time to introduce yourself and let others introduce themselves also.  You would chat and establish some common interests and only then, when you have made a connection with the other person, would you give them your contact details or promotional material.  One of the simple things that we can forget when we are online is that we are still dealing with real, live people, not just a faceless computer, so treat them the way you do the folks you meet in your offline life.

A very good way to approach social media is not to think about what you might gain, but to concentrate on what value you can give. You know the Law of Attraction even works in cyberspace; the more love you give out, the more love you will get back.  Think about it.  If all you ever tweet is promotional links to your books or blog posts, are you offering your followers value?  If you have a Facebook page that again is full of links to your books or only talks about you, are you really engaging with your followers?  Now there is nothing wrong about promoting yourself, talking about your achievements and books, but that is what your website is for. It is all about achieving that crucial balance between not losing sight of what you are really there for, which is promoting your books, and wasting long hours chatting, arguing or commenting that doesn’t bring you any tangible reward for your time.

Be disciplined, create a plan and, if you know that you can easily get off track, set yourself a time limit.  Remember though that social media is about sharing.  Social media is about connecting and being generous.  Make your Facebook page interesting to your followers by sharing resources, articles or links from other authors or experts.  ‘Like’ and share stuff that your fans have posted if you think that it is interesting and gives value.  Engage directly with the people who have generously given their time to like your page, start a conversation and have some fun.  Make you page a fun and interesting place to visit.

On Twitter, it also pays to be generous and offer value.  Just don’t tweet your stuff, spend some time retweeting other posts that you have found interesting or helpful.  If you have read an interesting article written by another author, tweet it for them.  Twitter was also designed to talk to other users, which is something that is easy to forget when we are in marketing mode.  Start a conversation, join an interesting thread, but keep it polite and respect the views of others.  It is too easy to get carried away in the anonymity that is the internet, but the words we post are potentially out there forever and it is hard to take them back.

Another thing to think about with Twitter and Facebook is what type of followers do you want to have?.  The people you really want to connect with are your readers and potential readers, the people who are going to buy your books.  But I see author after author Twitter account, including my own, where all the followers are other authors or people working in publishing. Now I’m not knocking this as it is great and very helpful to connect and build relationships with other people in your industry, but are they going to buy your books?  It is well worth taking the time to identify your readership and making the effort to encourage more of them to follow your account.

If we are honest we would all love to create that tweet or post that goes viral, that is shared by hundreds if not thousands of other social media users, potentially putting our book into the hands of millions of people. But this is far more likely to happen for you if you have taken the time to create a strong network of online friends that you communicate and share with regularly. What you give out comes back to you, so go and have some fun out there in cyberspace.  Maybe don’t take your marketing and promotion so seriously; go and connect with some like-minded people and organically grow your online presence over time.

Jane Austen Image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Sunday, 2 June 2013

In Search of the Historical Prince Dhutmose

The Aten Sequence Books are set in Ancient Egypt and although many of the characters are purely fictional, I have ‘borrowed’ some real historical characters and woven them into my stories.

One of these characters is Prince Dhutmose; Crown Prince and eldest son of Pharaoh Amenophis III.  In the books he is a young prince undergoing his military training in the Kap, a training school for the young boys of royal and noble blood.  At the beginning of the story line he is just a young prince having a good time hunting, racing his chariot, wrestling and having fun with his friends before Aten shows up and embroils him in his schemes to steal the gold from the vaults of the temple of Karnak.  In the second book, ‘Hall of the Golden Crocodiles’, we also meet Dhutmose’s beloved pet, the cat Ta-miu who, being a royal cat, can talk, do magic and is much more than she seems. So what can history tell us about the real Prince Dhutmose?

Sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose's cat Ta-miu - Egyptian Museum Cairo
Sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose's cat Ta-miu

Although we do not know a great deal about the historical Prince Dhutmose, isn’t it amazing that we do know that just over 3,000 years ago a young prince loved his cat?

For all our knowledge of ancient civilisations, we rarely catch even the faintest whispers of the personal, intimate lives that these people once led.  Even for royalty, beyond the formal inscriptions that rulers used to trumpet their achievements or show their reverence to their gods, we usually know very little about the real characters beneath the glittering regalia and formality of court life.

But just occasionally we do get a small glimpse into these past lives and loves, and one of these rare glimpses comes from a young boy’s love for his cat. Prince Dhutmose was so fond of his cat that he had a fine limestone sarcophagus carved for her, had her body mummified and then carefully buried. The limestone sarcophagus is now on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and shows the cat sitting before an offering table heaped with goodies for the afterlife.  It seems that her owner wanted her to enjoy her time after death as much as she had appreciated being a cosseted royal pet in life.  We know from the inscriptions that she was called Ta-miu, which literally meant ‘she-cat’ and that her owner was Crown Prince Dhutmose, or Thutmose, the eldest son of the mighty Pharaoh Amenophis III and his great royal wife, Queen Tiye.

Living in the 21st century, where Prince William and Prince Harry have practically every moment of their lives captured on film and the details of their day-to-day lives endlessly scrutinised and pored over, it may seem strange to us that back in Ancient Egypt it was actually very rare for there to be any mention of royal children or even their queens, on a Pharaoh’s monuments. What we do know about the Egyptian royal families over the thousands of years of Egyptian history tends to have been pieced together from titles and inscriptions found in tombs or on statues or funerary equipment. Even today there is much speculation about some of the relationships in the Egyptian royal family and how they fitted together. However, this started to change towards the end of the 18th dynasty and Amenophis III had his wife Queen Tiye shown alongside him on statues and had the names and titles of his children carved onto some of his monuments.  However, it was still usually only the royal princesses who were mentioned and during the ensuing Amarna period the famous heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten and his beautiful wife Queen Nefertiti were often shown with their six daughters.

So the fact that we know that Prince Dhutmose even existed is a miracle, as he did not outlive his father and become Pharaoh.  Although we do not know many details of his life, he seems to have been born between years 16-19 of his father’s reign and have died young sometime between years 25-30.  His titles were listed on Ta-miu’s sarcophagus as ‘Crown Prince, Overseer of the Priests of Upper and Lower Egypt, High Priest of Ptah in Memphis and Sm-Priest (of Ptah)’, so he could well have spent much of his short life in Egypt’s ancient capital Memphis.  As he was young, we also do not know whether these titles were purely honorary or whether he did undertake priestly duties in the temple of Ptah.  However, there is evidence that he officiated at the burial of one of the first Apis bulls at Saqqara, the large royal necropolis over on the west bank of the Nile from Memphis.  He may also have had connections to the military as an ivory whip found in the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun is inscribed with the titles ‘The King’s son, the troop commander, Thutmose, repeating of births’, although again we cannot really be sure that the whip’s owner was our Dhutmose and not another royal prince with the same name.

How Prince Dhutmose died or his exact age at death is unknown, but his demise paved the way for the emergence of his younger brother Prince Amenophis onto the political scene.  It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if the young prince had lived and had succeeded to his father’s throne.  Would he have led Egypt away from the worship of Amen and the traditional gods as his brother was to do, or did he share Akhenaten’s beliefs in the pre-eminence of the Aten?  Prince Dhutmose’s tomb has never been discovered, but there is a mummy that was discovered in the KV35 cache in the tomb of Amenophis II that has been identified by some as his remains, although others think that it may be Prince Webensenu, a son of Amenophis II, as some of his canopic jars were also found in the tomb.  The mummy is of a young boy of around 11 years of age, who still wears the sidelock of youth, and his identification as Prince Dhutmose comes from the proximity of the remains to another mummy known as the ‘elder lady’ who has been identified through DNA analysis as being Queen Tiye, his mother.

Maybe there is more evidence of Prince Dhutmose still to be excavated from beneath the shifting sands off Egypt and we will be able to piece together some more of the details of his life?  Maybe even his tomb is still out there somewhere in the hills of Thebes or in the necropolis of Saqqara waiting to be found?  But the one thing we do know is that the young prince dearly loved his cat.

Sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose's cat Ta-miu image, Larazoni Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic