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Review of Emeralds and Shadows for Medievally Speaking by Julia Baumgardt

 Medieval Muslim Spain  Comments Off on Review of Emeralds and Shadows for Medievally Speaking by Julia Baumgardt
Nov 012017

A review of both Emeralds of the Alhambra and Shadows in the Shining City, by Julia Baumgardt, a medievalist scholar. Review and indepth interview can be found on Medievally Speaking, an open access medievalist journal. Links below. My third novel in the series, Fortune’s Lament, is done! Soon to flow to early readers. Expect it spring 2018!




First Page of my new novel, Shadows in the Shining City

 Shadows in the Shining City  Comments Off on First Page of my new novel, Shadows in the Shining City
May 122014

My new novel, Shadows in the Shining City, book two in the Anthems of al-Andalus Series, was just typeset by Sunbury Press, printed and bound, and is presently in endorser review for a late June 2014 release. Exciting! Care to read the first page? Sure you do! Here goes …


Excerpt from Cressler’s forthcoming novel, Shadows in the Shining City

 Shadows in the Shining City  Comments Off on Excerpt from Cressler’s forthcoming novel, Shadows in the Shining City
Mar 242014

Excerpt from Shadows in the Shining City

by John D. Cressler

Copyright © 2014 John D. Cressler


The single-mindedness of his search propels him through the door before he realizes the room is occupied, his sudden surprise jerking him to a sliding, awkward stop. His startled exhale of “Ahhh!” skips across only three heartbeats before settling into irritation at the interruption of his hunt.

Her eyes are white with terror as they leap from the page to join the explosion of curls launched by the recoil of her head. Her quick, muted gasp suggests a child caught red-handed in some calculated act of willful disobedience. Unnerved, she rises from her floor pillow, then involuntarily takes a step back.

    The strained silence of guarded appraisal stretches out.

    Finally, his accusatory, “Who are you?”

    She straightens her back. “Who are you?”

    He frowns, lifts his chin a notch, then announces, “I am Zafir Saffar, Royal Translator. I work for the Royal Librarian.” A honed edge of conceit lies loosely buried somewhere under these last words. He widens his eyes into a mocking query.

    The flare of her nostrils is barely perceptible. Her eyes narrow. “I am Rayhana Abi Amir.” She lacquers on her own conceit. “My father is Muhammad ibn Abi Amir. Of the Caliph’s Vizier Council. I was told I would not be disturbed.”

    His frown returns. “Not disturbed? What are you doing here? The Rare Books Library is forbidden to visitors.”

    Her expression hardens. “I have permission to be here.”

    An incredulous, “Permission? From whom?”

    Her stare is challenging. “Master al-Tayyib, of course.”

    Intense skepticism. “I was just with him. He made no mention of you.”

    She shrugs with a fake casualness. “Nevertheless, he brought me here.”

    An impatient, “Why would he bring you here?”

    She quizzically tilts her head just so, her half-smirk somehow unmistakably questioning his intelligence. “To read?”

    The line of his exaggerated sigh precisely marks the standoff. As he considers his options, his eyes track to the table and the two splayed codices. Decision made, he adjusts his tone to be more welcoming. “I am sorry to have startled you.” She nods her acceptance. “What is it that you are reading?”

    Satisfied, she matches his tone. “Master al-Tayyib started me on the Ambrosian Iliad.”

    In spite of himself, he smiles. “I love the Iliad.”

    The dam inexplicably breaks, the water streaming through the thin cleft with a mighty gush. “I have only just started, but it is a complete joy!” Her enthusiasm is instantaneous and contagious, her Arabian beauty magically flaming up as if lit by a thousand candles. He is struck dumb, mesmerized by her transformation. His emerald eyes cling desperately to her lovely face in a feeble attempt to steady his legs. She is running full-stride now. “Homer’s poetry is so different from anything I have ever read! Exquisite! Nothing in Persian compares.” She grows more animated, her hands beginning to adorably lift and dance in time to her accelerating words. “The Muses! How clever! And how interesting that the Greek gods enter the plot and mold events to suit their whims. And Achilles … I love the way he stands up to Agamemnon to end the plague. But poor Briseis!” She stops for a breath, and as her grin widens dimples suddenly dive into her cheeks, completely unanticipated, taking his breath away. His eyes have not left her face, but he hasn’t heard a word she has said.

    He shakes his head to clear the cobwebs. “Sorry … Achilles?”

    She shakes her head, confused, oblivious of the hex she flings about so casually. A second later her dimples return. She waits for him to catch up.

    He focuses. “Yes. The Iliad is … uhh … an ancient … mmm … story.” He clears his throat. Never once has he been at a loss for words. He takes a deep breath and searches for footing. “But its many themes are so remarkably contemporary. It is as if it were written yesterday.” Thankfully, some solid ground. He presses on, his words carefully meted. “Homer explores the nature of glory and respect and wrath; and the ultimate tragedy of war. He speaks of homecomings, and man’s fate in the world. Homer has much to teach us about living. Samuel may have told you that the Iliad comes from an oral tradition. Homer’s recited version predates by hundreds of years the written version. And as you say, his verse is exquisite …”

    He stops as he becomes acutely aware that she has been studying him. They share strained smiles, locking eyes for an instant longer than necessary.

    He clears his throat again, something he never does. “When I … interrupted your reading, I was searching for a book for Samuel. Master al-Tayyib. Theon of Alexandria. A book on geometry and optics. I was not able to find it in the mathematics room or the Egyptian collection. I think it may be here …” She nods, amused. “Samuel is waiting for it …”

    “I see. Please, continue your search. I will rejoin Achilles.” They both try for casual smiles, but don’t quite get there.

    As he steps past her, the hint of citrus spice presents itself. Her perfume is subtle but impossible to ignore; regal somehow, yet utterly feminine, his beloved bitter orange blossoms buried somewhere beneath her clothes, dabbed upon her warm olive skin. Sublime, weak-kneed intoxication. He swallows hard, inexplicably woozy as his heart begins to race. He slows to steady himself then methodically slides the ladder toward the center of the bookcase, directly behind her. He begins to climb, ridiculously self-conscious, wondering if she is watching, but afraid to turn around. He forces himself to begin perusing the bindings, resuming the search for his elusive quarry.

    She has taken her seat on the floor pillow and leans in over the codex, elbows on the table, chin glued to her folded hands. She finds her place. Five minutes later she is still on the same sentence.

    “Ahhh … Found you!”

    She stands and turns to watch as he descends, codex in hand. She is beaming.

    He laughs as he shows her the book. “An Egyptian caught hiding among the Greeks.”

    “I am glad you were able to find it.”

    “Yes. Samuel will be pleased.”

    Silence. They each hold their positions, seemingly afraid to break the trance.

    “Well, I should be going. It was nice to meet you … Rayhana.” He offers a warm smile.

    “The pleasure was mine … Zafir.” She blushes.

With a pleased nod, he turns.

    As the door snaps shut she stands motionless for several moments, the quick exchange of expressions almost comical; amused grin to confused grimace to satisfied smile, then back again. She sighs deeply then takes her place on her pillow once more, elbows on the table, chin on her folded hands. But this time she stares straight into space, ignoring the siren’s call of the ancient codex.


Review of Cressler’s Emeralds of the Alhambra

 Author John D. Cressler  Comments Off on Review of Cressler’s Emeralds of the Alhambra
May 072013

Having just come to the end of the review cycle by the endorsers of Emeralds of the Alhambra, I have discovered something new in the process. Placing your ‘baby’ into the hands of a diverse set of very well-known people can be incredibly anxiety producing! Thankfully, the results have been truly gratifying. I thought Professor Susan Abraham’s review of Emeralds was particularly insightful. She “got” the broad themes of the book that I was striving for when I wrote it, and codified my message beautifully. I am including her review below. Enjoy!

Emeralds of the Alhambra, by John D. Cressler, to be released by Sunbury Press, June 15, 2013.

“John D. Cressler’s debut novel reveals the infinite artistic capacity of a polymath whose diverse interests create a vivid and gorgeous world of romance, intrigue, murder and negotiations between multiple religions in medieval Spain. Emeralds of the Alhambra is a fascinating and historically realistic portrayal of life in Muslim Spain in the 14th century. Cressler has woven an imaginative and intricately persuasive story that successfully does two things. One, the historical details provide for absorbing reading in the depiction of medieval Islamic, Jewish and Christian cultures and religious identities living side by side. Here, conflict, war, assassinations and cooperation for religious, cultural and political survival translate into lessons from history for our contemporary time. Second, a model for interreligious life emerges in these pages: one that is nurtured in the context of intimate, covenanted and familial relationality. Interreligious marriages have been in many parts of the world a prime vehicle for interreligious convivial life. The possibility of intimate love sprouting in the context of multiple religious identities is one that reveals the true meaning of “conversion” to the human and Divine Other. Cressler deftly presents his characters as multidimensional; Jews, Muslims and Christians are not Westernized caricatures of good and evil. The novel prods us to note that there never was a monolithic Christianity, Judaism or Islam in human history, a compelling lesson gleaned through Cressler’s artistic vision. The difference between the Muslim Maghreb and Muslim Granada are meticulously sketched in an imaginative frame to reveal its influence still being played out in our time.

Of the more evocative perceptions the reader is left with at the end of the novel is Cressler’s loving attention to the unparalleled beauty of the Alhambra and the manner that Muslim architecture presents the occasion for glorifying the divine in its sumptuous materiality. Cressler’s engineering reflexes, inflected with a deep love of beauty, are in full view in the various descriptions of the palaces and mosques of the Alhambra. In one exquisite passage describing the Hall of the Abencerrages within the Palace of the Lions, he writes: ‘The mocárabes coalesce into an elaborate eight-pointed star, the heavens, resting upon the cubic hall below, the earth, inviting the visitor’s gaze upwards to the divine….The calculus of the ceiling produces a meditative sculpture on the nature of time, the separation of heaven and earth, Allah and man.’

Emeralds of the Alhambra is a coruscant story of love between human beings, for God, and for the creation so graciously bestowed on us. A thoroughly gripping and engaging first novel.”

─Professor Susan Abraham, Harvard Divinity School

Tips on How to Sell Your Novel

 Publishing Your Novel  Comments Off on Tips on How to Sell Your Novel
Feb 222013

I thought it might interesting to share my experiences between finishing my debut novel, Emeralds of the Alhambra, and actually selling it to Sunbury Press. The process took…gulp…nearly one full year.

First things first. Publishing non-fiction and publishing fiction are completely different propositions. As a professor, most of my non-fiction (5 books and counting) happened like this. For technical non-fiction (i.e., textbooks), Publisher X approaches me, not vice versa, and says, “Hey, we would like you to consider writing a book on topic Y. You write it, and then we will take care of everything else.” Read: mighty easy.

Fiction is a whole ‘nother story! Let me elaborate. With a novel, the “classical” path to publication is the following. First roadblock: major publishing houses (Random house, Simon and Schuster, Scribners, etc.) do not, and will not, talk to authors directly, unless you have some serious network connection and can pull strings behind the scenes. For the debut novelist like myself, even though already published, no dice. The path from manuscript to large publishing house is gated. And locked. Instead, authors must find an agent, sign a contract with the agent, and then the agent is authorized to speak directly with publishing houses (for a fee, of course, typically 10% of your royalties).

Lession #1? When your manuscript is done and you are satisfied with it, forget getting a publisher, and instead focus on getting an agent!

Sounds simple, BUT, the trick is that you first have to convince an agent, any agent, that it is worth their time/energy to represent you. Read: they need to see that they can make money on you. So you go to some source for listings of literary agencies, either on-line or printed (e.g., Writer’s Market), spend hours sifting to get a short list of agencies that: a) seem to fit your goals/vision (right size, right location, the vibe is good, etc.), and b) handle your genre (for me, historical fiction). Then you go to their web site, check them out, find which agent in the agency handles your genre and their contact point (usually an email address, often manned not by the agent, but by their assistant).

Fine. The next step “classically” proceeds by you submitting a single page (no more!) “elevator pitch,” called a “query letter” to the agent, and if they are sold on your idea, you have “hooked them,” then a dance will commence, typically along these lines. Gate 1 is passed – you got an “interested” response not an outright rejection. Gate 2) Agent emails back saying, “liked your query, send me a synopsis, bio, and the first 3 chapters of the book” (this is called a “partial” request). You send this in and wait. A long while. Gate 3) Agents emails back. “I liked this, send me the full manuscript.” You send this in and wait. A longer while. Gate 4) Agent emails back. “I like this and think I can sell it. Let’s talk.” Hopefully that culminates in a signed agent contract. Then, and only then, does your manuscript begin to move forward to being published. Whew! Exhausting just to think about, right? At that stage the agent does the sales work, and hopefully a publishing house loves your book and agrees to publish it. How long do you wait while the agent works their magic? It may be a long while! No timelines are short in this business.

In my case, I went through this agent process 4 separate times, over about 9 months, and in each cycle I contacted about 15 agents (each time with a modified query letter to try and strike gold). I got decent (though not stellar) responses to Gate 1. About 15-20% of my submissions got an “I’m interested” response. Most, however, were numbing rejection form letters. Trust me, that gets old real quick. So I sent my partials. Gate 2. Some agents bailed there for really weird reasons. Examples: 1) “You write really well, but there is just too much history going on here (reminder: it is a historical novel); 2) “Interesting idea, but I have a pet peeve against expository dialogue (look it up, I had to!). I write back. “I have a pet peeve against expository dialogue, too! Can you point to an example, I don’t see any instances in what I sent you?” No response. “I love this, but it just doesn’t jazz me enough to take it on.” You get the idea.

I ended up at Gate 3 with 4 agents who asked for the whole beast, from 4 respectable NY agencies. Some impressions from that process: 1) It took FOREVER to hear back from them. Many months. 2) When I did hear back the responses were again all over the map: “Much to commend it but just does not give the spark I need to move forward. And there were some ‘intangibles’ too.” No comment other than that. Done. Door closed. Hmmm. BUT there was a universal thread in these Gate 3 responses. As an agent, no way, no how do you ever give substantive feedback to the author or respond to an author’s email response to your rejection. “I am sorry to hear that. Intangibles? Can you explain what you mean by that? I would be happy to revise the manuscript.” Universal silence. And it was very clear from the agent’s comments that they in fact had not read the book to its end (“I like it a lot, but the pacing feels slow” – trust me, the last 150 pages are a roller coaster ride). It was amply clear they had not read to the end of the book. After having kept it for several months before rejecting it.

Certainly, the reasonable person might legitimately say, “Well, if the agent didn’t bother to finish your book, maybe that is indictment enough of how lousy your book is!” Perhaps. In my own case, I used a diverse audience of 25 readers to give me feedback at the draft stage. I was pretty confident it was a compelling read. In one case, I asked the agent directly. “What did you think of my ending?” That universal silence.

I found out from the web site for one of my agents the kind of numbers you are up against in the hooking an agent in this game. She put them in a presentation she gave. It is sobering, so brace yourself. She personally receives 7000 queries per year (she is one of a dozen agents in that agency). You read that right…a 7 and 3 zeros. Of those she will invite 5% to submit 3 chapters (350). Her assistant weeds these before she sees the final cut. Of those, she will ask 10% (35) for full manuscripts. Her assistant weeds these before the final cut. Of those she typically takes on 10% (3-4) to represent. In her case, I made it to the last round, but was not selected. Heavy sigh. No wonder this is such a slog!

So what to do? In my case, I was so disheartened by the whole numbing process that I took a breather, threw all my agent stuff in a drawer and started on book two in my trilogy. Now THAT was fun!

When I had cooled down (took weeks) I did a bit more researching on the topic and found that some folks actually advise skipping this whole agent mess and going after small traditional publishing houses; importantly, there are some of those that actually encourage authors to directly send their manuscripts directly to them, no agent needed. Imagine?!

Fine. One last shot. I decided that if this didn’t pan out I would just publish the dang thing myself. So I went back to Writer’s Market and researched my top 10 small publishing houses that fit my vision, re-crafted my query letter and shipped them the letter and partials (they typically want more than just the query). Within a week I had heard from editors at 3 (3!) publishers saying that they liked my idea and wanted more. Within two weeks, I had the most welcomed news an author can imagine. “…struck an immediate chord — a very timely novel…  We love the trilogy idea and would like to offer you a contract for all three books.”

May you? MAY YOU?! Are you kidding?! PLEASE!

The rest is history. I signed with Sunbury Press, to whom I will always be indebted, and Emeralds of the Alhambra is due out late spring. And I already have a publisher for books two and three. HOORAY!

There you have it!

Moral #1: This whole agent scene leaves a lot to be desired. I am putting that mildly.

Moral #2: You can get your novel published without an agent.

Moral #3: Publishing novels is a crazy business!


Curious about my query letter that did the trick? See below:


Cressler’s Winning Query Letter:


Dear Mr. Publisher:

How could we forget? We live in a world being torn apart by religious tensions and fanaticism, yet we managed to forget that for hundreds of years Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in peace, sharing languages and customs, embracing a level of tolerance and mutual respect unheard of today. Working together, these three peoples spawned one of the great intellectual and cultural flowerings of history. When and where? Medieval Spain. Our aching world desperately needs to recall this forgotten fact, these rich possibilities.

Emeralds of the Alhambra, a historical novel, reawakens this remarkable era via the relationship between William Chandon, a wounded Christian knight brought to the Sultan’s court in Granada, and the strong-willed Layla al-Khatib, who is on a quest to become the first female Sufi Muslim mystic in a male-dominated society. As Chandon’s influence at court grows, he becomes trapped between his forbidden love for Layla, his Christian heritage, the demands of chivalry, and political expediency. Chandon must make a choice between love and honor, peace and war, life and death, a choice which ultimately will seal Granada’s fate as the last surviving stronghold of Muslim Spain.

Emeralds is set in the resplendent Alhambra Palace in Granada during the Castilian Civil War (1367-1369), a time when, improbably, Muslims took up their swords to fight alongside Christians.

Emeralds of the Alhambra is the first book in the trilogy Anthems of al-Andalus (I am presently 150 pages into book two). I am a professor at Georgia Tech and have won international awards for my writing (George E. Smith Award, 2007), my teaching (Leon Kirchmayer Award, 2011), and my research (elected Fellow of the IEEE, 2001). I am Editor-in-Chief of a leading technical journal (IEEE Transactions on Electron Devices). I have published five non-fiction books (two for general audiences). Emeralds is my debut novel. I am well-versed in the use of web resources and social media for book promotion, I have conducted book signings (which include presentations), and I routinely speak to large crowds on a variety of topics (both technical and nontechnical). I have appeared twice on TV (CNN and AIB-TV).

The completed 126,000 word manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration and I look forward to hearing from you soon.