Friday, November 30, 2012

Off the Beaten Track: The Lost World of Archangels

This week’s Off the Beaten Track contributor is the wonderful Christina Ashcroft. Christina Ashcroft is an ex-pat Brit who now lives in Western Australia with her husband and three children. She is owned by three cats who graciously allow her the occasional spare moment to write hot paranormal romance for Penguin/Berkley Heat. Christina also writes hot historical romances as Christina Phillips for Berkley Heat and Ellora’s Cave.

Thank you Alli and the lovely ladies here at Novel Adventurers for allowing me to take over your blog today!

There are so many places in the world that I’d love to explore – the Pyramids of Egypt, the Roman Colosseum, the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula to name just a few. History has always fascinated me and I get ridiculously excited when archaeologists unearth another long buried secret from ancient times.

I’ve also always been fascinated by the myths and legends of a lost continent. What’s not to love about the idea of an ancient civilization that we know next to nothing about? This fascination was fed more than twenty years ago when I read something that pointed to evidence that the pyramids and Sphinx are thousands of years older than we’ve been led to believe.

But is it just a myth? Is it possible that back in the mists of time there really was a technologically advanced civilization, one that could rival our own today, one that had studied the movement of the heavens for countless generations and possessed an understanding of mathematics that we’ve believed was only relatively recently acquired?

And if such a culturally rich civilization did once exist, what happened to it?

When my awesome editor encouraged me to write a new series about sinfully sexy archangels, I was thrilled. I’d had this Alpha Archangel lurking in the back of my mind for years, being all moody and smokily silent and I was dying to discover his secrets. It took a while, but eventually he opened up enough so I could learn of the world of his wild, untroubled youth.

And I discovered that he had lived and loved millennia ago, when a vast and technologically advanced civilization had flourished.

I was delighted that, at last, I would get the chance to explore this mythical world that had haunted my imagination for so many years. I discovered this advanced civilization was inhabited not only by human scholars and archangels but also gods and goddesses and their numerous offspring. But it was a civilization that, for all their great learning and understanding of the celestial cycle of the heavens, carried a devastating burden.

This world of the Archangel Gabriel, where he met and fell in love with his soul mate, vanished long ago. But to me it’s as real as the world I see when I look outside my window. I guess that might seem strange, but to me it’s perfectly normal. I’ve lived inside my imagination ever since I can remember, and sometimes I must admit it’s hard to leave (As my poor family will attest, I am ace at burning dinner because I forgot I put something in the oven!!)

So while I have yet to visit all the wonderful places in the world that are on my never-ending To Do list, the worlds I explore with the help of my muse keep me on my virtual toes. There’s no knowing where I might end up next, such as a decadent sex club in a dodgy sector of the Sextans Galaxy!!!

Archangel of Mercy is the first book in a new series of fallen Archangels and the women who capture their hearts, coming from Berkley Heat on 4th December.

Destined to fall… destined to love

When Aurora Robinson attempts to open a rift between dimensions to embrace her true heritage, an arrogant Archangel is the only one who can save her from the jaws of hell. And while she owes Gabriel her life, she’s determined not to fall at his feet-despite the desire she feels whenever they’re together.

After his wings were brutally destroyed millennia ago, Gabriel has no compassion for humans like those who ruined him and betrayed the ones he loved. But when he inexplicably finds himself defying ancient protocols to rescue a woman from a fate worse than death, he is shocked by the searing attraction he feels for a mortal.
As the ancient forces that seek to punish Aurora for her actions close in, Gabriel offers the tempting woman protection at his private sanctuary. But as they both succumb to their desires, they discover an even deeper connection-one that threatens to consume them.

You can find Christina and her books at:  Christina Ashcroft’s Website, The Book Depository, Barnes & Noble

And now for the giveaway! I have an e-copy of my erotic paranormal romance, FORETASTE OF FOREVER (w/a Christina Phillips) and some gorgeous Archangel swag to giveaway to one lucky commenter. Just leave a comment or let me know what’s your favourite place in the world (or the universe!) and why?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

An Italian Garden in Washington, DC

By Patricia Winton

Meridian Hill Park Fountain
For the last ten years I lived in Washington, DC, Meridian Hill Park stretched below my window. The park has a fascinating history. It stands on the point where higher terrains reach sea level. Plans to build the park emerged at the turn of the 20th century, led by Mary Foote Henderson, wife of a senator from Missouri. The park’s name comes from a plan, supported by Thomas Jefferson, to have the official prime meridian (now in Greenwich, England) run from the top of Meridian Hill.

Meridian Hill’s vista is the inspiration for Washington’s building height restrictions. Mrs. Henderson also put her finger in this pie. The construction of the Cairo apartment building on Q Street NW, an 11-story building, put Meridian Hill’s view at risk if other tall buildings rose along side the Cairo.

The park is divided into two levels. The upper level is a flat expanse with a broad field surrounded by trees providing space for picnics and impromptu soccer games. At the end of this expanse is a terrace overlooking the lower level and providing a breathtaking view of the city with the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol spread out below. It’s also a great place to watch 4th of July fireworks.

It’s a favorite neighborhood hangout. From my eighth floor apartment, I watched a man carry a toy sailboat under his arm every Sunday. He would place the boat in the reflecting pool on the park’s lower level and sail it among the lily pads via remote control. Many mornings I watched a person—I never was sure if it was a man or a woman—dressed in black. S/he would perform graceful tai chi moves in the early morning light while I looked down from my perch above.

Joan of Arc Statue
The smaller lower level features a large reflecting pool with a couple of water spouts sending streams of water about ten feet into the air. The two levels are joined by a cascading waterfall comprising thirteen semi-circular basins. The thirteen represent the original American colonies. This waterfall is clasped between a pair of curving stairways. I once watched a man put a group of six-month-old puppies in the upper basin and walk down the stairs alongside as the pups frolicked in water, floating over each vessel into the next. I don’t know who had more fun, the man or the dogs. I certainly had fun watching them.

A number of statues grace the park. My favorites are Dante, who stands near the upper end of the right stairway. The other is Joan of Arc, the only female equestrian among Washington’s many statues of men on horseback. She sits on her horse in the plaza on the upper level, looking out over Washington.

Fountain in Rome's Botanic Gardens
The park has not been without controversy. Following the 1968 riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it became a meeting place for people most affected by the violence. A movement to rename the park for Malcolm X emerged but that idea was never officially adopted. Gradually, the park fell into decline, a haven for drug buyers and strung-out users.

But the neighborhood citizenry reclaimed the park, establishing Friends of Meridian Hill in 1990, which worked to restore the gardens and evict the druggers.

Their work was so successful that President Clinton gave his 1994 Earth Day remarks from the upper plaza overlooking the city. Today, it’s a place for families and kids and lovers. It reminds me of an Italian piazza where neighbors gather.

The garden’s magnificent cascading waterway is based on a waterfall in Rome’s 700-year-old Orto Botanico. If I ever find myself homesick for my old Washington home, I can visit the waterfall at the botanic gardens where I can enjoy its mist.

I blog on alternate weeks at Italian Intrigues.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Garden in Flight

By Beth Green
Changi Butterfly Garden,
Photo by Beth Green

Downy wings fluttering, tiny legs trembling on neon tropical flowers: There’s something soothing about watching butterflies flit around.

And, traveler, where do you most need to feel calm?

Maybe in the middle of your next intercontinental trip.

Visit the butterfly garden at Changi International Airport in Singapore (airport code: SIN) to momentarily forget the stresses of air travel. Lost luggage, stiff-lipped security guards, and the ubiquitous crying baby three seats in front of you will all seem like part of a far-away world after spending time watching a garden in flight.

Located in Terminal Three, the Changi Butterfly Garden has almost 50 kinds of butterflies. The insects swoop, glide, and dart freely among the flowers and plants of this airport grotto. And, unlike most things associated with air travel these days, entrance to the garden doesn’t even cost one shiny Singapore dollar.
The garden from the upper level.

The garden is two-tiered, with a waterfall and a staircase connecting the levels. On the top, visitors get a bird’s-eye (or is it butterfly’s-eye?) view of the downstairs and a real feel for how amazingly many butterflies are loose in the garden. If you stand still enough, one of the thousand or so free-flying butterflies might perch on something of yours that’s brightly colored for a moment or two. Of course, that makes a long visit by butterfly standards, as most butterflies have a lifespan of less than two (human) weeks.

Butterfly lunch.
The bottom level of the garden is surrounded by greenery and tinted glass so that you feel completely immersed in a jungle. From the top of the stairs, however, you get a glimpse of the outside airstrip and airport workings—a truly a unique chance to contemplate the world of flight by comparing delicate butterflies and behemoth jetliners.

Downstairs, curious travelers can watch butterflies feeding on sticky sweet pineapple rounds, peek into hutches where pupae cocoon and morph, and read educational signboards about their fluttering friends.

Taking flight.
It’s also downstairs that you can see examples of jungle noir—carnivorous “monkey cups,” the dipper-shaped, insect-eating plants native to SE Asia. If it seems a bit “Little Shop of Horrors” to put these hungry flora in with the swirling cloud of resident butterflies, don’t think about the fact that in the wild some of these plants also consume vertebrates. 

The Butterfly Garden is one reason why Changi Airport is one of my favorite airports to route through. Other reasons include the airport’s orchid garden, koi pond, interactive art exhibits and entertainment deck—all free of charge to enter.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Garden of the Tsars

By Kelly Raftery

I was seventeen the first time I traveled to the Soviet Union. It was the late 1980s and I had just graduated high school with a load of Russian classes under my belt. My class trip flew to West Berlin then took the train to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg.)  When we arrived, it was late June and that magical time of year they call “White Nights” was just starting. During this time of year, the sun never really sets and Russia’s Venice of the North is bathed in an ethereal glow. It was my first time abroad and predictably, I fell in love.

But I fell in love not with a boy, or even a girl, but with a place.  That love has endured for all these years and I will, unhesitatingly tell anyone who asks that my favorite place in the whole wide world is Peterhof. 

Overview of Peterhof from Chess Mountain.

Peter the Great created his Northern capital out of swampland and sheer stubbornness. Once he was done laying out the street plan and forcing his nobles to relocate, he then looked to developing sites further away from the city. In the early 1700s, Peter chose a site across the Gulf of Finland to build his Monplaisir Palace. Over the years, Peter’s ancestors continued to develop the site and today, the 250 acre grounds include multiple palaces, almost two hundred fountains and an incredible number of statues. The palace interiors are spectacular in their own right, having been lovingly recreated after the Nazis destroyed Peterhof, but my true love lies with the gardens and fountains. 

The spectacular centerpiece of the park is the Grand Cascade, which celebrates a Russian victory over the Swedes. This enormous fountain tumbles down from the Grand Palace to the Sea Canal consists of 64 different fountains and 200 statues and other decorations.  The focal point of the entire ensemble is a statue of Samson prizing open the jaws of a lion, from which a 20 foot fountain of water shoots skyward.

Topmost part of the Grand Cascade Fountain.

Detail of Samson and Lion, 
center of the Grand Cascade.
As spectacular as Samson is, I must admit that it was the trick fountains that I found the most interesting my first visit. In the older, Lower Park, trick fountains of various kinds were constructed to entertain (and soak) unsuspecting royal guests. In one fountain, water sprays out of harmless looking trees and eternally blooming flowers.  

Water sprays from fir trees, drenching passers-by.

Another fountain consists of giant umbrellas surrounded by rings of stones. When the water stops flowing over the top, people dash under cover, delighted when the water begins to fall all around them. But then, they are trapped until someone outside finds the proper stone that when depressed, will  stop the water again, enabling a dry escape. 

Umbrella fountains keep running, 
until someone finds the trick.

As I grew older, on subsequent visits, I became interested in the other fountains. I developed a certain fondness for Chess Mountain and the dragon that perches at the top. In a clash of symbols, a sun fountain competes with a pyramid not far from the Roman fountains. I learned more about all the statues that people the park, from Adam and Eve to Neptune, Bacchus and Narcissus. 

Narcissus stares at his own beauty in the water's reflection.
One of the facts I found most interesting was that all the fountains are run without a single pump. Originally built with wooden pipes, all the fountains are supplied by a gravity-based system that can operate up to ten hours a day. One very memorable late afternoon visit, I was wandering the gardens alone and hidden behind  a hedge I found a stooped old man, hunched over what looked like a large key he was screwing into the ground. As I stood there, watching him curiously, I realized that what he was doing was turning off the flow of water to the fountains, in the same way it had been done for hundreds of years. It struck me as a moment of continuity in a quickly changing world. 

Just once in your life, you must visit Peterhof during White Nights and let yourself get carried away by the magic. Permit your imagination to supply royal ladies adorned in powdered wigs and layers of petticoats flitting through the gardens. And when you are there, stand under an umbrella fountain once for me. Someone will eventually find the right stone, I promise.

A virtual walking tour of Peterhof can be found at this link:
An incredible gallery of photos can be found here:

Monday, November 26, 2012

An Earthly Paradise

By Heidi Noroozy

Fin Garden in Kashan
Picture yourself strolling through a lovely garden. In the center, water tumbles from a fountain and bubbles merrily through clear, blue channels. At one end stands a raised pavilion built around a tranquil pool. You pluck a juicy orange from a nearby tree, bend to smell fragrant roses, or rest on a bench in the leafy shade of a sycamore. Sound like paradise? Not quite. What I’ve just described is a traditional Persian garden.

Or maybe the two are really the same thing. The ancient Persians, who invented these oases of nature in a desert landscape, called them paradaeza (walled space), from which our word, paradise, is derived. And it is even said that the descriptions of Eden in the Koran and Bible are based on these pieces of heaven on earth.

The earliest known Persian garden is in Pasargadae, the Persian capital founded by Cyrus the Great, who ruled Persia in the sixth century B.C. The stone walls that once enclosed it are long gone, but with a bit of imagination you can still make out the places where a central pool and four water channels divided the space into geometric quadrants, symbolizing the Zoroastrian elements of sky, earth, water, and plants. Another interpretation is that this layout represents the ancient Persian view of the universe as four fields divided by four rivers.

Narenjestan, Shiraz
This design is typical of modern Persian gardens, and today it’s a style known as chahar bagh (four gardens). Some of the most beautiful examples are the Hasht Behesht (Eight Heavens) in Isfahan and the Fin Garden in Kashan. These gardens are works of art, combining nature and architecture into a harmonious whole. The landscape designers made good use of light and shadow to create tranquil environments that encourage contemplation, perhaps a much needed thing in Iran’s turbulent and often violent history. Water is always present in the form of running streams and still pools, not only as nourishment for the living plants but also as a Zoroastrian symbol of life.

These patches of green in the brown desert are well adapted to Iran’s arid climate. Irrigation comes from a system of qanats, or underground aqueducts, that channel water from natural springs or distant mountains. The walls protect the garden from desert winds and help retain moisture, while leafy trees provide shade from the burning sun. When you pass through the gate and into the garden, the air inside is fresher and cooler than the dry desert heat outside.

Persian gardens are a central element in Iranian culture. They feature prominently in music, art, literature, and carpet design. As symbols of the Zoroastrian belief that civilization and nature are intertwined, they also form part of holiday rituals. On the thirteenth day of the Persian New Year, which takes place in March, people leave their homes and share picnics in nearby parks and gardens. Many city dwellers maintain a bagh on the outskirts of town—a private, walled garden used for quiet contemplation, socializing, and growing fruit, which is harvested and brought back to town for sharing with family and friends.

Garden carpet from Isfahan
Last year, UNESCO added the Persian Garden to its World Heritage list as a collective property that includes nine gardens selected from all over Iran. They range from the Eram Garden in Shiraz to Abbasabad in Mazandaran Province. One of the criteria for inclusion on the list is that these gardens represent an interchange of human values, since they have served as a model for garden designs all over the world, from India to Europe.

You may have visited a Persian garden yourself, especially if you’ve ever been to one of these places: the TajMahal, the Alhambra, or Versailles. There may even be one near where you live. So the next time you wander through a public garden, stop for a moment in the shade of a leafy tree near a bubbling fountain and remember the Zoroastrians who first created a piece of paradise on earth.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Off the Beaten Track: Native Traditions of Giving

After living in Alaska for seven years, Leslie Hsu Oh returns to the Washington, D.C., area with a wealth of adventures from the Last Frontier. Her work appears in Cirque, First Alaskans Magazine, Fourth Genre (forthcoming), Kids These Days!, Rosebud Magazine, Stoneboat, and Under the Sun. “Between the Lines” was listed as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2010. She received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she currently teaches, and a master’s from Harvard University. Check out her web site ( or find her on Facebook. 

My four-year-old son runs down the hall wailing, “Jiĕ Jie [Older Sister in Mandarin] ate all the grapes and didn’t share any with me.” My seven-year-old tries to defend herself, but the evidence is bulging in her squirrel cheeks.

“Kyra, what happened?” I shake my head with disappointment. A year living in the Washington, D.C., area and already they had forgotten an important lesson they learned from Alaska Natives since birth.

When we lived in Alaska, we often relaxed on the benches facing seven 56x32-inch plasma screens in the Anchorage Museum’s Living Our Cultures, Sharing our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska exhibit and listened to Elders and youth speak about giving in 10 (Athabascan, Eyak, Haida, Iñupiaq, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Unangan, Sugpiaq, Yup’ik, and Saint Lawrence Island Yup’ik) approximately two-minute video vignettes looping across seven monitors.

Kyra and Ethan share their first harvest
of petrushki, also known
as beach lovage,
with Auntie Rita, a renowned traditional healer
and member of the International Council
of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers.
It was my way of simulating the old days, when daily, children could gather at the foot of an Elder after dinner and listen to his or her stories. At a minimum, I hoped that my children could understand the importance of giving, unmarred by the Western expectation for something in return.

In the Yup’ik video, Alice Rearden (Cucuaq Aluskak) speaks about ella, or awareness. Growing up in Napakiak, her Elders taught her “that if you are out walking and see a piece of driftwood sticking out of the mud, you should pull it out and turn it over so that the muddy part can dry. That piece of wood is alive and aware, and it will feel gratitude for your kindness.”

Her features are delicate, but when she speaks, her voice is laced with the weight of more than 12 years of wisdom, gleaned from serving as lead translator for the Calista Elders Council. The video pans to a scene of fish hanging on a dry rack while Rearden says off screen: “We always grew up with that sense, of not putting yourself first or above others. Giving gifts to people, those kinds of, you know, unselfish gestures that you do for people—it will come back in turn.”

Kyra harvests petrushki on the coast of
Turnagain Arm, Alaska. She learns
not to take too much, so other people
and animals can harvest too.
Working with cultural anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan, Rearden, who is now 35, translates books such as Ellavut: Our Yup’ik World and Weather, the ninth in a series produced by the Calista Elders Council to document Yup’ik oral traditions. Yup’ik Elders explain that "those who are capable must help those less fortunate through sharing food and doing chores for them. We were admonished: ‘Even though an old woman wants to pay you, you do not receive it.’ When an elderly woman or man is given something or helped, she is extremely grateful and thanks you with enthusiasm. And they give the person who helped them something beneficial, thinking of something in their minds that will aid him positively in his life.

“Yup’ik discussions of the ethics of sharing describe its consequences in terms of its nonmaterial return—the grateful thoughts it elicits.…Today, sharing knowledge is as critical as sharing food in both the transfer and transformation of Yup’ik moral standards. Admonitions to act with compassion and restraint remain foundational not only in Yup’ik interpersonal interaction but in their relations
with their environment.”

In Anchorage, the sharing of subsistence foods has become the warp thread weaving together Native and non-Native communities. While dip-netting, I always collected fish heads from non-Native neighboring fishermen and delivered them to Elders whom I worked with in town. During holiday seasons, the post offices are bustling with ice boxes packed with subsistence foods that are being mailed to the Lower 48.

Every summer, we take the kids dip netting at the mouth of the Kenai River.
The kids help us clean, pack, freeze, and ship salmon to relatives in the Lower 48.

As a mother of three, Kyle (13), Kayla (11), and Christopher (4), Rearden trades ideas with me on how to teach our kids tuvqakiyaraq, the custom of sharing, in an urban setting. Rearden grew up “feeling shame to get more than someone else. Whenever I was asked to share, I always gave the other person a bigger piece. I would cut a candy in half and be ashamed to take the bigger piece.”

She raises her children, who were all born in Anchorage, with these ideas: “The more you give, the more you get back. If we are stingy, like if you don’t share your toys, then [they] will break right away. When you give, it will come back to you. Your selfless act is always rewarded. They see that I don’t hold back when it comes to helping in any situation. I hope they [her kids] watch me and observe what I do.”

Kyra thanks the salmon for giving up his life to feed us.

Because it is hard to keep traditions like tuvqakiyaraq in the city, Rearden goes out of her way to share food. She often hosts feasts where she cooks all day, serving her most precious subsistence foods, making sure her kids see that she is serving her last bag of salmonberries. She says, “it’s just enough for them to see. I am always talking to them and explaining the reasons behind sharing, the reason why it’s important to give to others and have compassion for others.”

With the holiday season upon us and this month being Native American Heritage Month, I take an apple out of the refrigerator and cut it in two. I present both pieces to Kyra.

Smiling mischievously at me, she snatches both pieces and presses them to her heart. Ethan starts to stomp his baby feet anxiously. “What will you give me in return?” she asks her pouting brother. Then, seeing the color drain from my face, she says, “I’m just kidding, Mom,” and deposits the largest piece in his little hands.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Feria de Sevilla (the Seville Fair)

By Edith McClintock

Photo by Ed Tarwinski 
I’ll start with a simple opinion: the greatest festival in the world—a bacchanal of eat, drink, dance, ride a horse, kill a bull, and be merry—is the Feria de abril de Sevilla (Feria for short, or the Seville Fair in English). Feria, which was originally created in 1847 as a livestock fair, lasts nearly a week (sometimes more) and follows quickly after the Spanish holy holidays of Semana Santa and Easter.

Semana Santa, which dates from medieval times, is religious and somber when celebrated in Seville. During the holy week leading up to Easter, brotherhoods of men carry pasos (giant wooden floats of “Passion scenes” or the Virgin Mary) from their year-round homes in neighborhood churches to the main Cathedral. The parades are both gorgeous and unnerving because the Ku Klux Klan from the American South based their own tunics and pointed hats with tiny eyeholes on the Semana Santa garments and it’s hard to separate the images.

After Semana Santa and Easter, if you’re a student, comes spring break, followed by the greatest festival of them all: Feria, which is neither religious nor somber. All together, it’s basically a month-long holiday, which also makes Seville an excellent city to spend a semester abroad in college—as I did.

Feria is a week with little sleep. The party starts in the morning at the fairgrounds with parades of Andalusian men and women in their flamenco finery riding decorative carriages and horses past rows of bright casetas (tents) and on to the Plaza de Toros and the bullfighting. The next stage of the fiesta doesn’t begin until ten or eleven at night and ends well past sunrise. The crowds, who gather in casetas organized by families, businesses, and various associations, party past dawn drinking small glasses of local sherry, eating tapas, and dancing Sevillanas (a flamenco style dance for the common man). I was nineteen and I went every night.

Pimientos de Padrón
Many years later…I still love to dance Sevillana, although it’s not so popular in the United States, even in Miami, so that’s a rare event. Sherry? Eh. I never did take to sherry of any kind. But Spanish tapas? Tapas I can eat everyday. Certain friends have even complained that I serve little else at parties. Truthfully, I’ll happily take Spanish olives, Spanish tortilla, fried calamares, gazpacho, Manchego cheese, pimientos de padrón (deep fried hot peppers), patatas bravas (fried potatoes with a spicy aioli sauce) and ensalada Rusa (Russian salad) over traditional Thanksgiving fare—although I’m very appreciative of my relatives cooking the grand meal today while I travel cross-county to join in the festivities this afternoon. Thank you.

And since it’s a holiday and I’m off to spend some time with family, I’ll close with a Happy Thanksgiving to all our American readers. To everyone else, I wish you a wonderful feast of your own. And I’m happy to take recommendations on the best festivals in the world, although I’ll never be nineteen and in Spain again, so Feria will likely remain the greatest of them all. For me anyway.
Entrance to Feria
For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).