Monday, December 27, 2010

Book review: The Wedding Shroud, by Elisabeth Storrs

Few authors have fictionalized the Etruscan civilization, especially when compared with the many who write about Rome. Though separated from the Roman Republic by a mere twelve miles of river and forest, Etruria was seen as alien and hostile by its neighbor to the south. Much remains unknown about its people, though numerous sculptures from this ancient land reside in museums today. In her absorbing first novel The Wedding Shroud, Elisabeth Storrs takes us up close and personal with the Etruscans, situating us in a vibrant, complex society ruled by elected magistrates and divine portents.

Caecilia, a well-educated Roman maiden, is adopted by her patrician uncle after her beloved father dies in 407 BC. Soon after, she is forcibly wed to Vel Mastarna, a wealthy aristocrat from the Etruscan city of Veii, as a means of establishing an alliance. The Romans are dying from starvation and need the Veientanes’ corn to survive.

Shocked by the loose morality expected of her as an Etruscan nobleman’s wife – elaborate hairstyles, sheer embroidered gowns, gambling, wine-drinking, and socializing with men – Caecilia dons her rough linen stola and tunic and vows to remain true to Rome. Her unwillingness to adapt doesn’t earn her any admirers. Neither does her status as a member of the hated Aemilian family.

Caecilia is quickly seduced by her husband’s teachings in the bedroom, although Mastarna’s heart still belongs to another woman - at least at first. As the political climate shifts within Veii, and tensions heat up on many fronts, she makes a desperate and dangerous attempt to forestall her predicted fate.

Storrs writes in the third person, but the tone is unexpectedly intimate as we experience Caecilia’s isolation and culture shock as she lives amongst the enemy. Her stubbornness in clinging to Rome may lose her some sympathy points early on, but her path from innocence to maturity is believably rendered, and her futile goal of retaining her so-called dignity makes her even more human. Caecilia’s interactions with three others of her sex – her caring mother-in-law, her Greek slave, and a proud Cretan hetaera – provide further insight into her personality and women’s roles in ancient Italy.

Special attention has been paid to the Etruscans’ belief system. We may think of ancient religions as mythology, supernatural fables of a sort, but the gods have a very real presence in the lives of these characters. While Mastarna follows the Cult of Fulfluns, which celebrates the exuberant pleasures of life, his brother Artile oversees worship among the Cult of Calu, the god of the underworld. The wedding shroud of the title, a transparent veil draped over a newly married couple that will also cover them at death, conveys the theme that death and life are opposing but connected forces. It’s also illuminating to observe the two nations at this pivotal point in their history; many elements thought of as classical Roman traditions were in fact imported from the Etruscans.

By the novel’s end, only a year has passed, but Caecilia has been profoundly changed by her experiences. Over this time, Etruscan society has become more familiar, but it still hasn’t lost its strangeness. With her page-turning story, Storrs revivifies a long-ago past while reminding us that it’s a place utterly unlike the world we know: the mark of a skilled historical novelist.

The Wedding Shroud was published by Pier 9/Murdoch Books in September at $32.95 Australian (489pp, trade paperback).  Converted to US$, the price is about $25.  Overseas readers interested in buying a copy might try Dymocks in Oz or The Nile in NZ; both ship internationally.  I'm an occasional customer of both.  Other suggestions welcome!  Per the author's website, a sequel is in the works, which is great news.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Best wishes for the season

For those readers near and far who are celebrating Christmas, I wish you and yours a very happy holiday. 

NUC Christmas Tree @ Gleeson Library, photo by Shawn Calhoun
About the above: Many university libraries own the National Union Catalog (NUC), a 754-volume set which served as a catalog of printed books in American and Canadian library collections beginning in the '50s.  It's mostly a relic now, though places keep it around for historical significance (and because nobody else would want it, really).  Around the holidays, several creatively-minded libraries, including the one at University of San Francisco, find a more decorative purpose for it. 

For the first time in eight years, Mark and I are spending Christmas at home in Illinois, and from the looks of things (snow is coming down outside as I write...) it was a good decision.

On the left, below, is my current read, the only Kate Morton novel I haven't read yet.  I figured it was a perfect choice for a snowy winter day when I wanted to lose myself in a book.  So far so good.  On the right is my latest purchase, which showed up in the mail from Book Depository this afternoon.  When I put the two side by side, the resemblance was unmistakable.  It's not a duplicate, but the fonts and scenic backdrops are very similar.

Hothouse Flower
takes place in Britain and Thailand during World War II and the present day, and reviewers have compared it to Kate Morton's novels, so I'm hoping this holds true.

I'll return on Monday, with a review of a novel set in ancient Etruria.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A visual preview of the spring season, part two

As usual I'm a little late getting these posted, but here are some more upcoming titles to look forward to.  The good thing is you won't have long to wait for them, especially if you find any monetary gifts in your Christmas stocking.

This is the US appearance of Sarita Mandanna's debut novel, a historical epic that plays out amidst the undulating hills, coffee plantations, and picturesque local villages of Coorg in southern India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I reviewed it from the UK edition in May.  Which cover do you prefer?  Grand Central, March.

This one sounds right up my alley: a multi-period novel about an Englishwoman determined to unravel the mysteries in her family's past.  Per her website, the author based Larkswood House on a place in the Hampshire countryside that was the setting for two devastating tragedies, years apart.  Set in the late 19th century and in the pre-WWII years.  Dutton, May.

Michelle Moran moves from the ancient world to the French Revolution with her biographical novel about a strong-willed woman whose talent for creating wax masks helped save her life.  Great expression on the part of the cover model... I wouldn't want to mess with her.  Crown, February.

Unlike her previous meaty historical epics, this is a slim yet haunting time-slip set in the French Pyrenees in the 1920s.  An Englishman still troubled by his brother's death in the Great War hopes the fresh, clean air of southern France will help him recuperate. Then he meets a mysterious young woman who understands all too well his feelings of loss.  Putnam, February.

Second in the series following The Witch Doctor's Wife (see my earlier review), The Headhunter's Daughter is set deep in the Belgian Congo.  In 1945, a Belgian infant girl found abandoned in the jungle is raised by a Bashilele tribesman.  Thirteen years later, American missionary Amanda Brown begins investigating the truth behind the story.  This leads everyone involved into danger.  Avon A, January.

Great title, great cover.  No surprise this one's set in France - during both World Wars and in the present day, to be specific.  When an American academic discovers a box of decades-old artifacts in the office he's renting in Paris, he begins imagining what its owner's life may have been like. The author, who grew up in Paris, presents a fictionalized story about the real-life Louise Brunet.  Reagan Arthur (Little, Brown), February; also Headline Review, Sept 2011.

Edinburgh-based novelist Sheridan's latest takes place against the backdrop of the Arabian Peninsula in 1833, as a young Abyssinian girl finds herself sold to a British naval officer and fortune seeker.  Historical adventure with a touch of romance in an exotic land.  Avon UK, February.

The deep blue waters of Lake Superior connect three distinct stories across the centuries: that of an Ojibwe woman in 1622, a Norwegian fishing couple in the early 20th century, and a female bar owner in the present day.  A debut novel of literary fiction for this Minnesota-based writer.  Milkweed Editions, May.

Andrew Taylor's latest (previously out in the UK) is literary suspense set in Cambridge, England, in 1786. A bookseller hired to catalog a wealthy family's extensive library is drawn into a mystery involving a mentally incapacitated man, the mysterious death of a young woman, a secret society, and quite possibly a ghost or two.  Hyperion, January.

Although two years have passed since Alfred Dreyfus's conviction as a traitorous spy and subsequent deportation from France, one family believes him innocent.  They hire civil lawyer François Dubon to prove their case.  A tense and evocative thriller set in late 19th-century Paris.  Crown, January; published by Doubleday Canada in August 2010.

Vreeland's first American-set novel brings to light a woman whose artistic talent was concealed behind the name of her successful male employer: Clara Driscoll, the lead designer in Louis Comfort Tiffany's New York art studio at the turn of the 20th century.  I look forward to learning more about the art of stained glass and seeing the Gilded Age through Clara's eyes.  Viking, January.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Y is for Yellowstone

Based on the cover and title, does this look like women's historical adventure fiction to you?  Me neither, and this dissuaded me from giving the book a second glance until recently.  Maybe I shouldn't pigeonhole it to such a degree, but it's one of the better examples in the subgenre.

Linda Jacobs' Lake of Fire takes place in and around Yellowstone National Park in June of 1900.  It's the beginning of tourist season, and Laura Fielding, a banking heiress from Chicago, defies her father's wishes by traveling alone to Yellowstone by stagecoach.  After Cord Sutton rescues her from a violent robbery in which her driver is killed, the two make their way together from Jackson Hole to the park, a three-day journey.

They grow steadily closer as they cross treacherous waters, face dangers from local wildlife, and camp out in Wyoming's magnificent high country, but both are keeping secrets.  Cord claims to be a rancher, which is true, but he also has plans to purchase Yellowstone's elegant Lake Hotel - an ambitious scenario for a man whose grandmother was Nez Perce.  Laura's rich father is backing a different buyer.  Hank Falls has been managing the hotel for the Northern Pacific Railroad, and now that the railroad has decided to sell, he wants to own it outright.

Jacobs doesn't make the mistake of dragging out the misunderstanding between Laura and Cord.  Although they're forced to see one another in a new light, they don't suddenly change their personalities once they arrive at the park.  It's a foregone conclusion that they'll fall in love, but many obstacles stand in their way, including Cord's previous attachment and Forrest Fielding's intent to make a match between his daughter and Hank.

There's a lot more going on than just Laura and Cord's growing love story. While this aspect is emotionally gripping, the novel's much meatier than that, and the richness of the background makes the romance even more poignant and real. Subplots reveal the park's complex history and the U.S. government's shameful treatment of the Nez Perce, or the Nimiipuu as they called themselves.

Although I can appreciate the author's attempt to provide a panorama of regional history, she sacrifices some clarity in the process. The sheer number of viewpoints and flashbacks to past events is disorienting at times. One thing that remains clear, however, is the author's deep love for Yellowstone.  She vividly recreates its breathtaking imagery: the bountiful forests, the surprising geologic formations, and the beauty of the sunrise as it tints the snow-capped mountains in rose.

Lake of Fire is an exciting glimpse into how refined society adapted to the park's rugged wilderness in the early 20th century.  It also serves as a reminder of the brave Western women, both white and native, who dared to live against the grain.

Lake of Fire, a finalist for the WILLA Literary Award from Women Writing the West, was published by Medallion Press in 2007 in mass market paperback (540pp, $6.99 US/$9.99 Canada).  Quite a bargain, in my opinion.  This is my pick for the letter Y in Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge.  Incidentally, the title fits the pattern of the author's previous books, which are set in modern-day Yellowstone.  It does have a connection to the story, though it's a slim one, imho, and you'd have to read it to see why.

Monday, December 13, 2010

X is for Xenia

“Two offenses ruined me,” wrote Ovid, “a poem and an error.”

Using the technique of many successful historical novelists, Jane Alison takes a mystery that has remained unsolved through the ages and provides an intriguing solution. Ovid, the Roman poet best known for his masterwork The Metamorphoses, was exiled to the remote island of Tomis in 8 AD for reasons unknown. In Alison’s haunting interpretation, the poem is Medea, of which only two lines remain, and the error involves a witch and mystic from the far reaches of the Empire who becomes Ovid’s tragic muse.

After incurring the wrath of Emperor Augustus, who was upset by the indecency of his recently published erotic book, The Art of Love, Ovid travels to the Black Sea’s eastern shores for respite and inspiration. There he meets Xenia, a young woman with yellow-grey eyes and wild, glassy hair who seems to personify his most heartfelt fictional creations. Xenia, who lives apart from the native Phasians in this already isolated country, has the ability to glimpse the future, and what she foresees for Ovid’s legacy is extraordinary.

Enraptured by his poetry as well as by the man himself, Xenia wonders what it might be like to be “loved by the love-artist,” to be the woman who inspires his next masterpiece. She’ll soon get her wish. Ovid, craving the immortality that Xenia seems to promise, brings her back with him to Rome. There he'll craft his new work under the secret patronage of the emperor’s granddaughter, Julia, who hates Augustus for forcing her into an unwanted marriage. Ovid has never written a tragedy before.  But with Julia’s vengeful ambition urging him on, and Xenia’s apparent willingness to serve his interests, he believes he may have what it takes…

Ovid has the name recognition to attract readers to the story, but the novel as a whole belongs to Xenia. Trapped in a web of mutual obsession, she finds herself led towards a devastating finale -- unless she can use her mystical talents and innate intelligence to break away and save herself. Her journey, as she slowly awakens to Ovid’s plans, is suspenseful and engrossing. The atmosphere is dark, eerie, and electrically charged.

Alison shapes her language in ways that create striking and sensual impressions in the mind. Her carefully chosen images brilliantly illustrate Ovid’s hunger for the theatre of Rome: “The stage would be glowing saffron red, and there would be the murmur of all the voices, and the intricate hairstyles, and the bare shoulders, and the messages flying, and the swift, appreciative glances, and the limb-weakening applause, which has often been for him…”

In exploring the dangerous intersections between art and life, between the poem and the poet, Alison has created a highly original work that evokes the majesty of the imperial Roman world and the price exacted in the quest for literary fame.

The Love-Artist was published by Farrar, Straux, & Giroux in 2001 (currently out of print).  This is my pick for the letter X in Historical Tapestry's Alphabet in Historical Fiction challenge.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Winners of the Lady's Slipper giveaway

Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway for Deborah Swift's The Lady's Slipper.  I've enjoyed reading all of your comments, and I agree with what many of you said; the setting for this one is different than the usual, and I'd love to see more novels along the same lines.

The two winners, chosen by the random number generator at, are Avid_Reader and Mystica... so it looks like these copies will be heading out soon to Canada and Sri Lanka.

I'll be in touch to obtain your mailing addresses.  Congratulations, and I hope you'll enjoy the book as much as I did!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Book review: The True Memoirs of Little K, by Adrienne Sharp

How much room is there for truth in a fictional memoir with an unreliable narrator? The answer to this complex question sits at the heart of Adrienne Sharp's provocative new novel. The True Memoirs of Little K is written as a first-person, no-holds-barred account of the life of Mathilde Kschessinska, the petite star of the Russian Imperial Ballet who became mistress to the last tsar, Nicholas II. In 1971, as a longtime émigrée living in Paris, Mathilde records her story for posterity, proving that even at age ninety-nine she can still command an audience.

The younger daughter of a Polish Catholic family of dancers in St. Petersburg, young Mathilde grows up knowing her ticket to success, artistically and personally, hinges on finding a rich nobleman to be her patron. It becomes her great fortune to attract, at seventeen, the most eligible bachelor of all, the handsome tsarevich.  “Niki" is a shy young man who needs persuading, at first, to take her to his bed.

Several years later, after he sets her aside to marry the woman he's loved since childhood, Alix of Hesse, “Mala” takes up with two of his cousins, the Grand Dukes Sergei and Andrei. She remains mostly faithful to both until – in this tale, if not in history – Niki seeks her out again, disappointed after Alix produces her fourth daughter in a row. The parentage of Mathilde's son, Vova, remains a mystery to this day.

Tsarist Russia honors its artists “with ceremony and treasure,” she writes, and the novel overflows with vivid portraits of each, from glittering receptions following performances to the delicate Fabergé eggs presented to the tsar. Most captivating are her descriptions of the politics of ballet, both on the Maryinsky Stage and off. Mathilde lights up every scene she's in, a statement that would no doubt please her, but the narrative loses that spark of immediacy when she digresses at length about more distant events.

A dancer whose talent is matched (and more) by her high opinion of herself, Mathilde resorts to childish pranks and more devious schemes when she fails to get her way. But with time and hard-won experience comes wisdom. What feels almost intolerably arrogant in a young, ambitious diva becomes admirable and even charming in an aging retiree who, as the Russian empire crumbles during the Bolshevik Revolution, risks everything she has left for the sake of a loved one.

Adrienne Sharp sticks to the format of an imagined memoir; the text is pure narrative, with conversations related only in brief through Mathilde’s assured voice. (This takes some getting used to, as does the woman herself.)  However, in the hidden spaces between her words, "Little K" unwittingly shows as much as she tells. The tender romance of Nicholas and Alexandra plays out behind her jealous rages, as does the story – actually two separate stories – of a mother’s fierce, protective love for her only son.

The real Mathilde Kschessinska wrote her own autobiography in 1960 (Dancing in Petersburg), a version our narrator calls “full of fiction and lies.”  In exploring the details of her life story, the author stimulates discussion about what people set down as their legacy, and why. Though reading Little K's “true memoirs” doesn't require prior knowledge of its subject, those more familiar with her life may take away from it a deeper message than those who haven't. The triumphant ending is a stirring tribute to a bygone age and a determined woman who knew, above all, how to survive.

The True Memoirs of Little K was published in November by Farrar Straus & Giroux ($25.00, 378pp, hardbound).

Saturday, December 04, 2010

In which I decide to challenge myself

Before I get into the main topic of today's post, I need to choose the winner of Anna Elliott's Dark Moon of Avalon. has selected commenter #1, which is Linda.  Congratulations, Linda, and I hope you'll enjoy the book!  I'll be in touch to obtain your address.

Around two years ago, I started seeing mention of reading challenges on book blogs.  It took me a while to catch on to what they were, as well as what their appeal was.  They hadn't really penetrated to the historical fiction corner of the blogosphere until recently, it seemed.  Later, I finally understood - they're about setting reading goals for yourself while participating in an online community of readers with similar goals and interests.

During 2010, I've been participating in Historical Tapestry's Alphabet in Historical Fiction challenge and having a great time, both picking out the books that fit the letter of the fortnight as well as seeing what all the other participants had chosen.  I'm eagerly anticipating seeing what the possibilities are for the letter X!  (I have a good one...)

For 2011, I've chosen two new challenges that look both interesting and doable - plus they cover topics with which I'd like to become more familiar.

Audra from Unabridged Chick is hosting the Nautical Fiction Reading Challenge.  The criteria: "If the book involves a boat, or sailing, or sailors, or Navy life -- it counts!"  I'm aiming for Dinghy level, which is up to 5 books, though if I find my sea legs easily, I may make it up to Sloop or higher.

The YA Historical Fiction Challenge is hosted by Sabrina at YA Bliss, a blog that's new to me.  Young adult historicals have been growing in popularity over the last few years; I haven't reviewed any here before, though that's not for lack of interest.  Participating in the challenge should help me focus on my ever-growing TBR of YA historicals and help me get to know the genre a little better.  The library where I work has a sizable collection, too, so I shouldn't lack for choices.  I'm aiming for Level 1, five books.

I've got a large shelf of review books to cover for Jan and Feb already,  but these two challenges should be both manageable and fun.  I look forward to meeting my fellow participants!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Book review and giveaway: The Lady's Slipper, by Deborah Swift

The title of Deborah Swift's eloquent debut novel refers to two things: a beautiful orchid all too rarely found in England, and the delicate embroidered footwear worn by Alice Ibbetson when she sneaks out at night to uproot it from her neighbor’s lands. The losses of both prove to have fateful consequences.

The year is 1660, in the old county of Westmorland in northern England. Although the Civil War is over, and Charles II is restored to his throne, animosity continues to rankle between the country's Royalist and Puritan factions. Mistress Alice, a young wife from the village of Netherbarrow still in mourning for her younger sister, spends her days growing plants in her summerhouse and capturing their beauty in art.

When Richard Wheeler first shows Alice the lady's slipper, growing in an isolated wood on his property, she feels she must remove it for its own protection and paint it before the flower fades. Richard, a former officer in Cromwell's army who found peace among the Quakers, knows she has taken the orchid but can't prove it. As Alice continues to deny the theft, Ella, the Ibbetsons’ crafty maidservant, finds Alice’s discarded slippers, ruined after her late-night expedition, and steals them for herself.

Two others are drawn to the orchid: Sir Geoffrey Fisk, the hard-nosed local squire, who hopes its roots will cure his skin condition, and Margaret Poulter, a pagan wise-woman. "There was an odd scent about it, as if it was half in this world and half in some other darker world," thinks Margaret, knowing Alice’s obsession with the plant will bring her more than she intends.

The plot moves along smoothly as it speaks to universal themes such as honor, redemption, and finding a place to belong in a land marked by class inequities and religious intolerance. In a work that displays such a strong love for its regional setting, perhaps it's no mistake that the most sympathetic and rounded characters are those with their eyes open to nature’s wonders and mysteries. Their surroundings, both outdoors and in, are described with remarkable clarity of detail.

It takes talent to write about characters' spiritual beliefs without sounding preachy. Alice is a skillful creation, and her troubled path to understanding is realistic and heartfelt, but Richard's inner conflicts concerning his faith ring especially true to the time. Those who might be tempted to dismiss this as a women's novel should reconsider, for the novel shifts easily between male and female viewpoints. Only one brief scene towards the end seems oddly out of place.

A dark and gripping tale deeply rooted in rural English history, The Lady's Slipper reads at times like a 17th-century folk ballad come to life. Though neither bawdy nor ostentatious, as novels of the Restoration court in distant London can sometimes be, it stands well on its own merits, a novel as rich and haunting as the setting it evokes.

The Lady's Slipper was published in late November in the US by St. Martin's Griffin (trade pb, $14.99, 464pp; photo at very top).   My copy, which I'd preordered from Book Depository long before I knew a US edition would be available (this happens a lot), was published by Macmillan New Writing in June in hardcover at £12.99.  St. Martin's has generously provided me two copies for a giveaway.  For a chance to win, leave a comment on this post by the end of the day Friday, December 10th.  International entrants welcome.  Good luck!