Friday, August 31, 2012

Book review: Bride of New France, by Suzanne Desrochers

Suzanne Desrochers' Bride of New France takes an unvarnished look at the lives of the filles du roi ("king's daughters"), young women sent from France to populate its colony in Canada in the 1660s and 1670s. While not easy to like, heroine Laure Beauséjour embodies the determination and self-interest required of those who found themselves forced to endure a harsh, unforgiving land. She learns from childhood on that if she doesn't put herself first, nobody else will.

As a girl, Laure is torn from her street-performer father's arms by Louis XIV's officials, an episode which gains her immediate sympathy points. The next scene, set some years later, shows her distrust of another person's obvious suffering and steals those points right back from her. Desrochers illuminates both sides of Laure’s character throughout the book, making readers wary but fascinated observers of her fate.

Growing up in the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, a notorious home for destitute, criminal, insane, and loose women, Laure is fortunate to find herself in the Sainte-Claire dormitory, where she and other "bijoux" (jewels) are trained in lace-making. After she makes the mistake of complaining to the king about their poor conditions and bad food, her dreams of becoming a seamstress to the nobility are dashed. She is told she’ll be one of 100 orphans and widows sent to New France in Canada to marry a colonist, become his helpmate, and bear French children for the realm. What she feels about this is unimportant.

Laure’s tale is spliced into three segments, organized in essence as follows: Paris and the traumatic ocean voyage to Québec; her journey to the primitive town of Ville-Marie, “the last settlement before forest completely takes over”; and her marriage to an ill-mannered coureur de bois who leaves her behind in their cabin during a rough winter with only a pig for company. While the novel isn’t quite 300 pages long, Laure's constantly changing experiences give it almost the feel of an epic.

Unlike at the Salpêtrière, Laure isn’t a prisoner in her new home, but as midwife/innkeeper Madame Rouillard tells her, “The price we pay for freedom is that we have to live here.” This beautifully described country, ruled by the fur trade and the seasons, abounds with wildlife, and members of the Algonquin and Iroquois tribes both support and threaten the colonists. Laure had already attracted unwanted attention by her unorthodox behavior aboard ship, which didn't endear her to the other women. (Given what happens to those closest to her, the distance they keep from one another is probably to their benefit.)  Her friendship and more with an Iroquois man who helps her survive makes her even more of an outcast. She is strong-minded, though, even in her impracticality. She insists on embroidering elegant Parisian-style dresses even after being told how useless they are in New France.

Although it may not be the best choice for those who need to emotionally connect with their protagonists, Bride of New France reveals an important chapter in the history of North America, especially from the female viewpoint, and is full of absorbing social history. It’s easy to see why it became a Canadian bestseller. The ramshackle town of Ville-Marie would later become known as Montréal, and the stories of its earliest pioneers are worth knowing. The conclusion demands a sequel, and fortunately, per Publishers Marketplace, one is in the works.

Bride of New France was published by Norton in the US in August at $24.95 (hardcover, 293pp, including author's note).  Penguin Canada reprinted it in trade paperback at $16.00 Canadian in January.

A contest in honor of my 700th post!  I had already bought the Canadian edition when an ARC arrived unsolicited from Norton, so I have an extra copy up for grabs.  If you'd like this practically new ARC to be yours, leave a comment on this post for a chance to win it.  Open internationally; deadline Friday, September 7th.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Guest post from Jenny Barden: Drake's First Great Enterprise - the Tragedy behind the Triumph

I'm happy to welcome Jenny Barden to the blog. Her debut novel Mistress of the Sea, published on Thursday by Ebury/Random House UK, is described as "an epic, romantic swash-buckling adventure set at the time of Francis Drake." It begins in Plymouth, England, in the year 1570, as Ellyn Cooksley stows away aboard Drake's expedition ship the Swan, disguised as a cabin boy, and begins an adventurous and life-changing journey to the New World.

Jenny is also the coordinator of the 2012 Historical Novel Society conference, to be held in London in a month's time, and I'm pleased she was able to take time from her schedule to compose such a detailed and informative post!  The photographs included below are Jenny's, taken on her travels, and the map of the region is her composition as well.


Drake's First Great Enterprise - the Tragedy behind the Triumph
by Jenny Barden

It's easy to think of a daring escapade such as Drake's attack on the Spanish 'Silver Train' in 1573 as a rip-roaring adventure and overlook the suffering which lay behind it and the cost in lives lost. But Drake's success came at a heavy price, indeed it was born of tragedy, and tragedy dogged the enterprise right up until the moment he left Panama for Plymouth with his fabulous haul in booty.

What motivated Drake in his first venture against the Spanish, and for the rest of his life right up until the defeat of the Spanish Armada and beyond, was a desire for vengeance for what he saw as the treachery which led to the rout of John Hawkins' fleet at San Juan de Ulúa in 1568. Hundreds of English mariners were killed in this fiasco when the Spanish reneged on their truce and launched a surprise attack on Hawkins' ships while they were at anchor undergoing repairs following a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Also lost were the hostages held by the Spanish as surety for the truce, and the Master of the Queen's flagship, Robert Barrett, a brilliant seaman and Drake's cousin, who was seized after a parley. Most of the English ships were destroyed or overrun, including the flagship along with those left on her, amongst them was Hawkins' nephew, Paul, who was only a boy. 

Map of the Spanish Sea and Spanish Main, 1570.  Click to see larger version

All these captives were destined for long imprisonment, some for forced labour, and others for cruel death after examination by the Inquisition. Robert Barrett was eventually burnt at the stake. Many more men died later of starvation or at the hands of Indians when they were put ashore from the overcrowded Minion, the largest of only two ships to escape, and even then, when the Minion eventually limped back home, most of the men left aboard were desperately sick, those who had not died of thirst or hunger on the way. The other ship to escape was the tiny Judith and that was captained by a young seaman called Francis Drake. It was his first command of any significance.

Drake later wrote of the scars this episode left:

Fort San Lorenzo at Portobelo, built after Drake's
raid on Nombre de Dios and his attack on the
Silver Train
'As there is a general vengeance which secretly pursueth the doers of wrong and suffereth them not to prosper, albeit no man of purpose empeach them, so is there a particular indignation, engrafted in the bosom of all that are wronged, which ceaseth not seeking by all means possible to redress or remedy the wrong received.'

This is how Drake described the desire for vengeance which drove him in his enterprise to seize the Silver Train. He later presented this account to Queen Elizabeth I on New Year's Day, 1593.* He never forgot the men who were lost at San Juan de Ulúa, and as reports of the fate of the captives filtered back to England, his bitterness only intensified.**

Drake was a driven man when he embarked on his plan to strike at the Spanish bullion supply from the New World as it was conveyed overland across the isthmus of Panama. He had undertaken two reconnaissance voyages and he had determined that the weak link in Spain's source of wealth from Peru was the point at which the treasure could not be protected by an armada, when it was on land at the poorly defended Caribbean port of Nombre de Dios, or in transit by mule train from the City of Panama through the rainforest clad mountains. But pinpointing the treasure while it was being moved about proved to be a mission fraught with difficulty.

The Las Cruces Trail - an extension of
the Camino Real, the Royal Road
Drake's first raid on Nombre de Dios in July 1572 left him seriously injured with a ball in his leg and without any spoils. His men took the town but could not break into the treasure house before a tropical storm, and heavy bleeding from Drake's wound, put an end to the attempt. Most probably there was no bullion in the city at that time because the treasure was only shipped overland from Panama after the armada from Seville had arrived in Cartagena, and only in the dry season (December to April) when the Royal Road was passable.*** But Drake did not know this - not then.

Months of frustration followed. Drake attacked shipping and settlements along the north coast of Panama all the way from the Chagres river to Cartagena but captured nothing of any great value. In one of the skirmishes his younger brother, John, was killed, shot in the stomach and no doubt dying in agony. Drake had achieved little apart from stirring up a hornets' nest. The Spanish were hot on his heels when he holed up at a secret island base in the 'Cativas', in what is now the San Blas archipelago.

A coral island in the San Blas Archipelago, known as 'the Cativas' in Drake's time
Here, Drake's men had built a stronghold on a coral island which they named Fort Diego after the Cimaroon (a runaway African slave) who had joined Drake as his ally (and was to serve him for much of his life). Months later, this place was renamed Slaughter Island because over a third of Drake's men lost their lives there - struck down by a mysterious disease they could not name or understand. Almost certainly that disease was the 'black vomit' or yellow fever. Amongst the victims was another of Drake's younger brothers, Joseph, who died in Drake's arms.

At this point Drake must have been close to despair, but he rallied his men (reduced from seventy-three to just over thirty) and, with the help of the Cimaroons, set out across county to attack the Silver Train near the City of Panama along the Royal Road. This also ended in failure when a Spanish outrider spotted one of Drake's men (reportedly drunk) and sounded the alarm causing the bulk of the convoy to double back. When Drake led his weary men back across the isthmus this was probably his lowest point. For all the ordeals he and his men had been through, for the loss of so many, including the death of his two brothers, he had nothing to show but cargoes of little worth and a catalogue of near misses and failures. His career thus far had been close to disastrous.

A view of the Panama shore near Nombre de Dios

To their fellow crewmen who had been left behind, those returning empty handed with Drake seemed 'as men strangely changed,' they recounted later*, '...and indeed our long fasting and sore travail might somewhat forepine and waste us; but the grief we drew inwardly, for that we returned without that gold and treasure we hoped for did no doubt show her print and footseps in our faces.' These were broken men; but Drake never gave up. The fortuitous arrival of French Huguenot privateers led by Guillaume Le Testu, a distinguished cartographer and explorer, provided Drake with the manpower he needed to have one final attempt on the Silver Train and seizing a fortune, this time near Nombre de Dios.

The masts of the Golden Hinde
In the critical foray only fifteen Englishmen took part, along with twenty Frenchmen and around forty Cimaroons - but what a triumph those men achieved! On 1st April 1573, Drake and his followers managed to capture a Silver Train of around 190 mules carrying almost 30 tons in silver and around half a ton of gold. Their difficulty then was carrying such a weight in treasure away, but eventually they managed to get back to their ships with most of the gold.****

Yet tragedy struck again at the very moment of Drake's victory. Captain Le Testu was felled by a blast of hailshot into his stomach, and his injuries were so severe he could not hope to make an escape. After burying most of the treasure, Drake had little choice but to leave Le Testu behind. The Spanish later found the French captain and exhibited his decapitated head in the market place in Nombre de Dios. They also tortured one of the mariners that Drake had left with Le Testu into revealing where the bulk of the treasure was buried. Drake must have mourned Le Testu's end; he was a man of singular talents who had become Drake's firm friend.

When Drake finally returned with a fortune to a hero's welcome in Plymouth, he left many brave men behind.

In my book, Mistress of the Sea, I have tried not to forget them.


Jenny Barden's Mistress of the Sea will be published tomorrow, 30 August 2012, by Ebury Press, Random House. It will be released first in hardback and trade paperback in the UK with the traditional paperback to follow.

The book is available through Amazon UK and other online bookshops, as well as bookstores throughout the UK.  Find it on Goodreads as well.

More about Jenny can be found on her website:



* compiled from the reports of the crew by Drake's preacher, Philip Nichols, later published as Sir Francis Drake Revived in 1626

** remarkably, some of these captives escaped or won their freedom and eventually returned to England with amazing stories of endurance and fortitude. Job Hortop, gunner, was marooned, marched to the City of Mexico, tried, imprisoned, sent to Seville to answer the Inquisition, condemned to serve as a galley slave for 12 years, survived to be sold into servitude, escaped, and finally returned to England after 23 years

*** there's a piece about the Royal Road, el Camino Real, here:

**** for more about Drake's escape with the booty there's an article here:

Saturday, August 25, 2012

From Southeast Asia to South America...

I seek out novels set in distant, unfamiliar places.  If I read about a new work of historical fiction that takes place in a locale few others have written about, I'm greatly encouraged to pick it up.

After spending the last week visiting Shanghai, Vietnam, and Cambodia with The Map of Lost Memories, I decided to turn to Annamaria Alfieri's Invisible Country, a historical mystery set in the landlocked South American country of Paraguay in 1868.

If you know nothing about the War of the Triple Alliance, in which the combined forces of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil nearly destroyed Paraguay in the mid-19th century, you won't be alone.  I hadn't either.  No worries for potential readers, though, because Alfieri fills in the historical background with confidence and authority.  This devastating military conflict seeps through every page of her novel and affects the choices made by her characters, from impoverished villagers to their well-meaning priest to the cruel, half-mad dictator Francisco Solano López himself.

With only seven of its men left living, the village of Santa Caterina is at risk of dying out. Concerned about its future, Padre Gregorio gives his congregation some shocking advice in his Sunday sermon.  To repopulate the country, he grants the women permission to get pregnant outside of marriage.  The thoughts of several excited females turn immediately to Ricardo Yotté, who is handsome, wealthy, and a close ally of López. Alas, unfortunately for their hopes, the padre finds Yotté's body in the belfry shortly thereafter.

López's beautiful mistress Eliza Lynch, an Irish-born adventuress and former Parisian courtesan, had requested that Yotté hide Paraguay's national treasure, and his death may relate to that. The gold and jewels have mysteriously gone missing.  Also, the villagers know that López's local comandante will want a scapegoat for Yotté's murder. Nearly everyone hated Yotté, and it's up to them to find the killer before one of them gets the blame.  As the search proceeds, romantic liaisons develop and secrets abound, some of which would be more dangerous than others if discovered.

The perspective moves among the varied cast, including the village midwife, her maimed husband, their attractive daughter, a devout parishioner, and even the woman known as La Lynch.  While privileged, selfish, and comfortably distant from her people's suffering, she is depicted not as a malicious political mastermind but as an intelligent woman who knows exactly where her power lies, and who aims to keep herself and her children safe from her increasingly paranoid consort.  (Charismatic Eliza could easily command a historical novel on her own, and has... to mixed reviews.)

This isn't a traditional amateur detective novel, since no one person takes the lead in the investigations. The atmosphere feels realistically tense, as the murder mystery subplot has wider repercussions.  The suspense driving the story lies in whether Santa Caterina's likeable and peaceable people will be able to save themselves and prevent even more tragedy.  Their determination to rise above their losses invites readers' sympathy and admiration from the very start.

Annamaria Alfieri's Invisible Country was published by Minotaur in July at $25.99 (hardcover, 302pp + historical note).

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

An interview with Kim Fay, author of The Map of Lost Memories

A few months after I'd read and reviewed Kim Fay's The Map of Lost Memories for Booklist, we connected through Goodreads.  Since I enjoyed the novel so much (here's my review if you missed it), I was especially pleased that she was willing to do an interview for my site.

In addition to providing more details on her inspiration for the novel and her travels throughout Southeast Asia, Kim sent along some great images I'm including below:  a vintage photo from her grandfather's travels in Shanghai and postcards of temple ruins from her personal collection. 

And some more good news... she's working on a new novel set in the region, and she also has plans for a sequel to The Map of Lost Memories.  A former independent bookseller, Kim lives in Los Angeles and makes frequent trips to the region she writes about.  Her website is

I hope you'll enjoy the interview!

How did you choose the timeframe for The Map of Lost Memories? Why 1925?

I’d love to take credit for choosing that time period, but I really feel that it chose me! When I was a young girl, my grandpa would tell my sister and me about his life as a sailor on the South China Sea in the early 1930s. My grandpa and I were extremely close, and as I grew up, his stories anchored that time and faraway places such as Shanghai in my imagination.

Then, when I was twenty-nine, I read Silk Roads about Andre and Clara Malraux, a young French couple who looted a Cambodian temple in the mid-1920s. Their story provided the first spark for the plot of The Map of Lost Memories. While I researched their experiences further, I realized that 1925 (rather than my grandpa’s early 1930s) perfectly suited the novel. Colonialism was at its heyday in Asia; China’s fledgling Communist party was experiencing a pivotal moment with the death of Sun Yat-sen; just to travel in a foreign land was an adventure in and of itself; and the ethics of art acquisition and ownership were murky, at best.

The novel takes place in a kind of golden era (at least for a certain group of people), before the Great Depression, the atrocities of WWII, and the Communist takeover of China. Given all of these elements, I can’t see another time period in which the book could have taken place.   

Old Shanghai, photo taken by the author's grandfather

One of the things that struck me while reading is that it's not your typical exotic treasure hunt, with the depth it provides into the Khmer civilization, both ancient and 20th century.  What drew you into learning more about Cambodia's history?

When I began writing The Map of Lost Memories, exploring Cambodia’s complex Khmer civilization was secondary to telling the story of Irene Blum searching for a set of scrolls believed to contain the lost history of the Khmer. But I knew that I couldn’t just read a book and throw out a few facts and be done with it. And as often happens when I’m researching, one divine nugget of information leads to another, which leads to another, and so on. The more I read, the more fascinated I became.

While the lost scrolls in my novel are fictional, the premise they support is not—in 1925 very little was known about the rise and demise of the ancient Khmer civilization. Even now there are conflicting theories and missing pieces of information. But back then, the fate of the Khmer was a genuine mystery. This was intriguing in and of itself. Then I visited the Angkor Wat temples for the first time. I was blown away, and I knew I wanted to share as much as I could about the Khmer civilization with readers.

A deserted hallway in Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple in the 1920s.

As for my interest in the 20th-century Khmer, this grew out of the four years I spent living in Vietnam. It shocked me, a certain expatriate sense of entitlement that existed in the region even in the 1990s, and I found myself wondering about the effect this attitude must have had in the 1920s when the colonialists held all the power and the locals held none—a local population, in Cambodia’s case, that was once one of the world’s greatest civilizations. I wish I could give a more succinct answer to this question. I can only finish by saying that the more my characters’ stories became enmeshed in their journey to discover the lost history of Cambodia, the more Cambodia rose up as its own character asking that I tell its story too.

Simone Merlin is a mass of contradictions; her knowledge of the Khmer is impressive and valuable, but between her fragility, drug addiction, and sympathy for the Communists, among other things, she brings trouble with her everywhere.  I wasn't sure if I admired her or felt sorry for her, or even liked her much at times, but she intrigued me, and that's the most important thing.  Where did her character originate?

It’s interesting how strongly readers react to Simone. No one—and I do mean no one—likes her, and she has even stood in the way of some people liking the novel. She was inspired by Clara Malraux, even though after reading Clara’s memoirs I had the impression that she was a woman along for the ride, standing by her man. I wanted Simone to be more than that, but a spark is all it takes for a character to ignite and take on a life of her own. Simone definitely had a life of her own. No matter how I tried to corral her and write her as a character who was, to put it nicely, somewhat reasonable, she constantly defied me by taking drugs, lying, and manipulating, often just because it suited her at the time. There were so many moments in the book when I wanted to shake her and tell her to get her act together. But if she had done that, then she wouldn’t have been Simone Merlin.

How do you go about researching things like illegal art trafficking and temple-robbing, especially from the viewpoint of would-be robbers?

My research on this aspect of the novel began before I realized I was researching. After reading Silk Roads, I tracked down Clara Malraux’s memoirs and Andre Malraux’s The Royal Way, a fictitious account of an expedition to find a lost temple in Cambodia. Because Clara and Andre had actually looted a temple, they both offered authentic perspectives. What was most interesting to me was how justified they both felt in taking a seven-piece bas relief (weighing approximately a thousand pounds) from the temple of Banteay Srei.

From the Malraux’s accounts I felt that I had a basic foundation for my characters’ attitudes, and I began in-depth research, reading everything I could online from museum archives and old art and archaeology magazines, and checking out books from the library. There are some terrific volumes on the subject, including Pillaging Cambodia: The Illicit Traffic in Khmer Art; Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft; Loot! The Heritage of Plunder; and Plundered Past.

An abandoned Khmer temple in the Cambodian jungle in the 1920s.

This was one of those research paths that sucked me in and sidetracked me for a long time, because I felt that I needed to understand more than just illegal art trafficking; I needed to understand the art world in general, especially in the post-WWI 1920s. So the aforementioned research led me to books such as Merchants of Art: 1880-1960 Eighty Years of Professional Collecting, which led me to subcategories such as Russian Art & American Money and The Lost Fortune of the Tsars. One particular treasure of a book that I discovered in all of this was An Illuminated Life, the story of Belle da Costa Greene, who was J.P. Morgan’s librarian and a formidable art expert at a time when art was simply not a woman’s world. With all of this swirling around in my head, I wrote pages and pages on art and plunder that never made it into the novel, but I feel all of the research and tucked-away-in-a-drawer writing was invaluable because it gave me a foundation on which I could build my characters’ motives

One of the memorable pieces of advice that Irene's mentor Henry Simms tells her is that "The one thing to remember about an adventure is that if it turns out the way you expect it to, it has not been an adventure at all."  This could, of course, be a tagline for the novel itself, with its unexpected twists.  During your travels through Asia, what unplanned adventures did you run into?

Although I started traveling to Southeast Asia (trips to Thailand, Singapore, Bali, and Borneo) when I was twenty-two, my first unplanned adventure was moving there when I was twenty-nine. It had never once crossed my mind to move to Vietnam. But in 1995, after I graduated from a course on teaching English as a foreign language, I was offered a job there.

Without thinking about it, I took it, and then came the next surprise—the moment I stepped off the plane, I fell madly in love with the country. I still can’t explain that instantaneous flare of passion I felt, but it has not wavered in the past seventeen years.

The third notable “unplanned adventure” was writing The Map of Lost Memories. I already had a novel in the works when I moved to Vietnam—a satire inspired by my recent reading of British fiction—but after living in Vietnam for a few months, I knew in my heart that this was the part of the world I wanted to write about. I dumped the novel-in-progress and started writing The Map of Lost Memories, discovering not only the first story I felt meant to tell, but also, finally, finding my own voice. When I first got on that plane to Vietnam, I could not have imagined that Southeast Asia would give me my vocation and provide me with the opportunity to have my dreams of being a published novelist come true.

Did working as an independent bookseller give you insight into the writing or publication process for your own novel?

Author Kim Fay
During the five years that I worked at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, I read every book I could get my hands on, and it was here that I discovered how many different ways a story could be told. Because I had access not only to books, but to the collective wealth of knowledge that is one of the greatest values of an indie bookstore, I was introduced to books that taught me how to achieve specific results in my own writing. Of particular influence were Graham Greene, Michael Ondaatje, and Penelope Lively, all of whom are incredible craftspeople.

As for learning about the publishing side of the process, I worked at Elliott Bay before the rise of chain bookstores and the birth of Amazon, so the publishing world was very different from how it is today. It was smaller and more personal. Of course publishing houses were businesses, but the overall attitude was less corporate. Because of that, (and because of my work as an editor for the small independent publisher ThingsAsian Press), I was expecting a fairly impersonal experience when my agent sold my novel to Random House in 2011. But I got lucky with an editor whose roots in the publishing world are as deep as mine are in the bookselling world. My editor/writer relationship was wonderfully old school, right down to my editor’s notes—not typed into “track changes” in email documents, but written in pencil on manuscript pages that would arrive at my house by way of good old-fashioned U.S. mail.

I'm eager to learn more about your novel-in-progress, which you wrote is about "an American culinary anthropologist born in Vietnam in 1937."   How did you get interested in exploring Vietnamese culture through its cuisine?  Can you reveal any more about how this novel will connect up with The Map of Lost Memories?

I lived in Vietnam for four years without having a deep interest in the cuisine, other than loving to eat it. I was absorbed by other aspects of my life then, and it wasn’t until I moved back to the U.S. that I began to realize how much the food meant to my relationship with the country and its people. The more I thought about it while going about my life in Los Angeles—which included a growing interest in food and cooking in general—the more I spent time reading about Vietnamese food. As with my research for my novel, one thing led to another, and I emailed my publisher at ThingsAsian Press and told him I wanted to take a five-week culinary tour of the country and write a book about it. I didn’t know what would result, and had no idea that I would become so consumed by the subject of how food affects and reflects the culture and history of Vietnam. After the trip, I spent three more years writing and doing additional in-depth research before finally publishing Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam.

Because of my interest in Vietnamese food, I’ve been asked why food does not play a role in The Map of Lost Memories. The first reason is that the main character, Irene, is obsessed with one thing: finding the lost history of the Khmer. I felt that anything I wrote about food—because once I start I can’t stop—would derail scenes and take away from the momentum of the plot. The second reason is that I knew I could incorporate my love of food into my next book, an untitled novel about an American woman who is born in Vietnam in 1937; raised in the country, she becomes a culinary anthropologist, and along with studying Vietnam’s imperial cuisine, she also feeds homesick soldiers. This, though, is the backdrop for the suspense storyline, based on the murder of the American woman’s best Vietnamese friend. As in The Map of Lost Memories, this new novel will twine all of the characters’ together, and there will be plenty of secrets unveiled along the way.

As for its relationship to The Map of Lost Memories, there will be only passing mentions of characters. But I want those small threads to be there, because I hope that with these two books and the next (a true sequel to The Map of Lost Memories), I will be able to give readers a comprehensive picture of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (formerly Indochina) in the pre-1975 twentieth century.


The Map of Lost Memories was published on August 21st by Ballantine at $26.00 (hb, 336pp).  In the UK, the publisher is Hodder & Stoughton (£13.99, hb, 336pp). 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Book review: The Map of Lost Memories, by Kim Fay

Kim Fay’s extraordinary first novel has everything great historical adventure fiction should—a strikingly original setting, exhilarating plot twists, and a near-impossible quest. It stands out even more with its one-of-a-kind characters and sensitivity to colonialism’s harsh effects on the local populace, although its gutsy protagonist doesn’t initially share this concern.

In 1925, Irene Blum arrives in Shanghai with a map and a mission: to venture deep into Cambodia to find ten copper scrolls containing the as-yet-unknown history of the vanished Khmer civilization. Upset after losing a museum curatorship to a male colleague, Irene needs the scrolls to fulfill her ambitions in the art world.

On her mentor’s advice, she recruits the help of Simone Merlin, whose linguistic and temple-robbing knowledge is counterbalanced by her drug addiction and abusive, Communist-supporting husband. Others join them, and their quest becomes an odyssey of personal discovery that tests Irene’s physical and psychological endurance.

Every word of this evocative literary expedition feels deliberately chosen, each phrase full of meaning. From the murky Shanghai underworld, in which information is traded like currency, to the isolated Cambodian jungle, whose overheated air is thick with mistrust, Fay brilliantly imagines a singular heroine who forges her own path through unfamiliar country.

The Map of Lost Memories is published tomorrow by Ballantine at $26.00 (hb, 336pp).  In the UK, the publisher is Hodder & Stoughton (£13.99, hb, 336pp).  This is one of three starred reviews I wrote up for Booklist recently, and it appeared in their August issue.  

Coming on Wednesday: An interview with Kim Fay.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

An interview with Elizabeth Caulfield Felt, author of Syncopation: A Memoir of Adèle Hugo

Musically gifted and passionate, yet born into an era that grants women few opportunities, Victor Hugo's daughter Adèle chooses to pursue life on her own terms... and meets a world that isn't ready for her.

Elizabeth Caulfield Felt's Syncopation is a fictional autobiography written in a nontraditional style.  Adèle Hugo tells her story in the third person, mingling true events with imagined reminiscences and occasional wishful thinking.  In a less creative writer's hands, the deliberate blurring of history and fiction might be confusing or off-putting, but here it's the perfect vehicle for imagining a character like Adèle, a woman who delights in sparking outrage.  The snippets in which she breaks away from her account to speak with her sister, Didine, explain her reasons for wanting to reinterpret parts of her life.

As Adèle grows to adulthood in mid-19th-century Paris and Guernsey, she has several love affairs, ones that would shock her family if they knew.  She refuses to marry any of her suitors, though, because it would mean giving up her freedom.

Readers who have seen François Truffaut's well-known 1975 film The Story of Adèle H. (L'Histoire d'Adèle H.) may think of Adèle Hugo as a beautiful, intense woman whose mind became unhinged due to unrequited love.  I won't give away more of the plot of Syncopation, other than that her depiction here is somewhat different but just as psychologically complex.  In the following interview, I asked Elizabeth Caulfield Felt about her writing inspiration, research, and characterizations.  Please read on!

You write in the acknowledgments that your starting point was Victor Hugo's poem "Demain dès l'Aube," which he wrote for his elder daughter, Léopoldine ("Didine" in the novel). What drew you away from their story and on to Adèle's?

Quite simply, Adèle's story is much more interesting. But without the poem, I never would have discovered Adèle.

I first read "Demain dès l'Aube" as a teenager. I hadn't known the history behind the poem, and so the end came as a complete surprise to me. Admittedly, this may have been because I struggled a little with the French and didn't pick up on clues for how the poem would end. "Demain dès l'Aube" led me to other works by Victor Hugo, and I fell in love with him—he wrote so beautifully; his work was so romantic. My senior year in college, I took a French class that required a research paper, and I chose Victor Hugo as my subject. Unfortunately, when I dug deeper into his life, I discovered his infidelities and his generally poor view of the abilities and intellect of women. I was left with a bad taste in my mouth for Victor Hugo. As for "Demain dès l'Aube," I still loved it but wished it had been written by someone else.

About twenty years later, I was asked if I had memorized any poems as a student, and, to my surprise, "Demain dès l'Aube" fell from my lips. I still wished it had been written by someone else, and I began pondering this question. What if someone else had written it? Who would that person be? I knew a little about Adèle, having researched Victor and having seen François Truffaut's film about her. Once I started looking into the story of her life, I was blown away. Why aren't there hundreds of historical novels about her, like there are about Anne Boleyn? I was afraid someone would publish her story before I got a chance—but, as far as I know, Syncopation is the first historical novel about Adèle Hugo.

What sources did you find the most useful or persuasive in helping you flesh out Adèle's character?

Leslie Smith Dow's wonderful biography of Adèle called Adèle Hugo: La Misérable, gave me the details of Adèle's life and an idea for her personality. After reading Dow, I discovered that Adèle's personal journals were published in 1968, edited/translated by Frances Vernor Guille. Adèle kept a journal for most of her life, and she wrote it in code—talk about fodder for a novelist! Once I began reading her diary, her character became real to me. I found every detail of her life fascinating and took piles of notes and attempted to drop all this enchanting minutiae into my novel. Finally, I realized that these details were messing up the story. Adèle's character had come to me. I knew what happened to her, so it was time to put the journals to the side and let the fictional Adèle talk.

The novel shows a wonderful sensitivity to the importance of music in Adèle's life; her talent for the piano is beautifully described. What is your own musical training? How does music influence your writing, or what you choose to write about?

I played the flute poorly for several years as a child, so I can read music, but I am not musical. I cannot sing in tune or clap to a beat. My husband grew up in a musical family, and we decided that the same would be true for our children. When our first child turned three, we registered him for Suzuki violin lessons, changing my life and forming his. The Suzuki method for learning music is a way of life—the child practices every day, the parent helps, and specific musical pieces are listened to constantly. For the past thirteen years, I've been swimming in music.

My inability to be musical has given me a fascination with music and musicians, and so it is a topic I enjoy exploring. My other published novel is The Stolen Goldin Violin, a children's mystery (co-written with my family) about four Suzuki musicians.

The sections at the end of many chapters in which Adèle converses with her sister were fabulous. They transformed the book from a traditional historical novel into something much more complex; they had me thinking about the nature of fiction and memoir and the choices that writers make. How did you come up with this technique?

Adèle Hugo (1830-1915)
credit: Philippe Landru
To be honest, I can't remember making the decision to create those Adèle and Didine conversations. I do know that when I first started writing Syncopation, I was thinking about how two people can experience the same event and remember it differently. One of the first scenes I wrote described a childhood event from three points of view: how Adèle remembered it, how Didine remembered it, and how her brother Toto remembered it. Their three memories were similar but different; each person understood what happened from their own egocentric point of view, noticing what was important to them as a child and ignoring the details that they didn't care about. The facts were the same, but the interpretations were vastly different. That scene didn't make the final version of Syncopation, but it helped to lay a thematic foundation for me.

I always knew that in my novel, Adèle's version of her life story was not going to be the one history gave her, but at the same time I wanted to remain true to the facts of her life, realizing that different interpretations are possible. When I began writing, and the character Adèle moved into my head, I found her very argumentative. She had a strong personality, and I found that she didn't care so much about the truth. I struggled with how much imagination I could use in a historical novel, and I wanted the reader to understand this struggle. I believe that the conversations between Didine and Adèle illustrate this. They help create a balance between fiction and fact, truth and memory.

Additionally, the conversations work as a sort of barometer of Adèle's sanity. In a way, the conversations became the backbone of the entire novel, something I hadn't planned in the beginning.

Adèle writes about the frustrating difference between her father's public persona and what he's truly like to live with. Did your own opinion about Victor Hugo change in the course of your research?

As I explained above, my early research gave me a strong negative opinion of him long before I wrote this book. Adèle and her father had a complicated relationship (as all family relationships are), and as Syncopation is Adèle's story, it gives readers a one-sided look at a difficult relationship. Strangely, as I wrote this story I found that I felt a little sorry for Victor and how negatively Adèle portrayed him. Still, I felt more sorry for Adèle. Victor Hugo was a great man in many ways, but he was not perfect, and his treatment of women, and Adèle in particular, shows this.

Cornerstone is a unique type of publishing house, and from what I've seen, the student staff have some really creative ideas. What were some of the most exciting or memorable parts of the publication process?

Elizabeth Caulfield Felt
For readers who don't know, Cornerstone Press is both a small press and a university course (English 349) offered at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. At the beginning of the semester, students read through the submitted manuscripts and vote on the one they will publish. The editing, design, marketing, sales strategy, etc, all happen in about four months.

Cornerstone was fabulous to work with. Because I was the only author, all of their energy was spent on me and my book. Not many authors get that kind of attention from a publisher. I'll admit I was skeptical about how much help students would be as editors. I teach part-time at the university, and I've seen the quality (or lack thereof) of student writing. I couldn't have been more wrong. The content editors caught some very embarrassing mistakes, and the line-editing was amazing. I feel like every awkward sentence I'd submitted was turned into poetry by the editing team. And the cover art! The design team's work is gorgeous. I couldn't be more pleased with the final result.


Thank you, Elizabeth!

Syncopation: A Memoir of Adèle Hugo was published by Cornerstone Press in April in trade paperback ($13.00, 235pp, including author's note).  To purchase, see the University Store at UW-Stevens Point (they will ship internationally).

Monday, August 13, 2012

Book review: Cascade, by Maryanne O'Hara

Have I mentioned the number of standout debut historicals appearing this August? Maryanne O'Hara's Cascade can be added to this growing list. Set primarily in small-town New England during the 1930s, it tells a gripping story about art; the impermanence of earthly things; and the importance, nonetheless, of creating a meaningful, memorable life.

There is a sense of carpe diem from the outset: the author establishes her characters and premise within the first few pages. By late 1934, the heyday of Cascade, Massachusetts, has passed. Formerly a classy summer resort town whose Shakespeare theater attracted Hollywood's brightest stars, it has fallen victim to the Depression. The crowds have dispersed, having moved on to Lenox in the Berkshires, and rumors spread that Cascade may be flooded to create a water source for distant Boston.

Desdemona Hart Spaulding, an up-and-coming artist who had studied in Boston and Paris, was forced to return to Cascade when her family's fortunes vanished. She has married dull but reliable Asa, a man desperate to have children, to provide her and her ailing father with a place to live. Dez passes her time in a state of numbing sameness: cooking Asa's meals, dreaming about reopening her father's playhouse, and reminiscing about the past while secretly tracking her fertile days to avoid getting pregnant. Like her art-school friend Abby advises her, "No babies means you can leave."

Her father dies months into her marriage, leaving Dez feeling desolate and stuck... until Jacob Solomon, a traveling salesman, starts stopping by to chat. Jacob is a fellow artist for whom Dez feels an instant attraction, but Asa doesn't like him hanging around his wife.

The cast has been assembled; the scene is set. From this initial arrangement, one might expect a classic love triangle to play out amidst village drama. There is some of that, but it doesn't take into account the complexity of these characters – Dez in particular. She is hardly faultless (Jacob is Jewish, and despite their growing closeness, she doesn’t show much interest in his religion) but her desire to escape and join the New York art scene is palpable, especially knowing the roadblocks she faces.

Happily, Cascade doesn’t follow a predictable route.  The plot moves with the authenticity of real life.  Big cities have a habit of muscling in on the affairs of smaller places – this is universal – and when a Massachusetts Water Authority representative arrives to scope out Cascade for a possible reservoir site, tensions rise, and its residents start feeling the reverberations of anti-Semitism as it spreads throughout Europe and America. Dez’s talent gets noticed in a big way, too, leaving her with a moral dilemma. (Not a spoiler; the jacket blurb reveals more than this.)

The 1930s ambiance is re-created perfectly, with its drugstore soda fountain, nosy phone operators, pin-curl hairstyles, and the stifling environment for women who resist the wifely ideal. Dez knows she couldn’t obtain a divorce without Asa’s permission.

O’Hara’s prose has a beautiful melancholy air:

Their once-fashionable resort town with its pleasant waters was looking more and more like the ghost valley that was invading dreams and even the pages of her sketchpad. She had done half a dozen studies: the drowning person’s blurred upward view from the bottom of a flooded place. The bleary, uncertain light. The smooth stones, long grasses, and someone struggling through thick river mud, Ophelia-like, trying to find a place to breathe. 

Dez’s nostalgia for a bygone era vies with her strong desire for independence. When she finds a way of combining both with her paintings, the story truly begins to soar.

Cascade is framed around a historical incident, which lends it even more poignancy. When the Quabbin Reservoir was created in the 1930s, several central Massachusetts towns were disincorporated and flooded. For those people who can’t ever go home again, art and memory take on a critical significance – one of many themes explored in this excellent first novel.

Cascade is published by Viking in hardback on August 20th ($25.95 or $27.50 in Canada, 353pp). If the novel sounds like it might intrigue you, take a look at the trailer for Cascade. It’s among the best I've seen, combining images from the plot with an on-site author interview.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction for 2012: Shortlist announced

The Langum Charitable Trust has announced a shortlist for the 2012 Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction. 

For the first half of 2012, the shortlisted titles are:

The Cove by Ron Rash, about a doomed love affair between a lonely young woman and a mysterious stranger in the North Carolina Appalachians during the World War I years; and

A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe, about a man living in the borderlands between the American and Canadian West in the late 19th century as tensions between the U.S. government and Indians reach the boiling point.

The final shortlist, to be announced later this year, will cover novels published in July through December.

For more on the prize see the Langum Charitable Trust.  To submit a novel for consideration, view the directions available at the site.

The prize is awarded annually to the "best book in American historical fiction that is both excellent fiction and excellent history."  Past years' winners include Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic, Ann Weisgarber's The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, Edward Rutherfurd's New York, and Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Book review: The House of Serenades, by Lina Simoni

Based on the title and elegant cover, you may expect to find a quiet and unassuming tale of literary fiction, perhaps with an Italian lilt, within the pages of Lina Simoni's newest novel.  If so, you'd have the setting right, but the message is far from gentle.  Many scenes of high drama and class struggles unfold before the palazzina on Corso Solferino becomes known as the House of Serenades.

In 1910 in the hills of the bustling port city of Genoa, a disturbing scandal has just hit one of its wealthiest, most prominent families.  When lawyer Giuseppe Berilli begins receiving anonymous poison-pen letters, not even a painful back injury stops him from tracking down the sender.  But strangely, in this place where everybody knows everyone else's dirty business, nobody seems to be talking.

Giuseppe's suspicions fall on several men from his past who he thinks would see him ruined, given the chance.  He shares his thoughts with the police, which leads to the revelation of many unpleasant secrets which he, his family, and his associates had hoped were carefully concealed.

It takes gumption to give these people starring roles Giuseppe and his elderly sister are both disagreeable snobs but all of the characters, even the seemingly minor ones, have important tales to contribute as well.  Despite her faults, it's hard not to root for Giuseppe's long-suffering wife, Matilda, who had been trapped into marriage because of a presumed indiscretion.  The story's emotional center is the star-crossed romance between baker's son Ivano Bo, a talented mandolin player, and Caterina, the Berillis' golden-haired daughter, whose life had been cut tragically short.

The House of Serenades will suit readers who enjoy novels filled with passionate feelings and theatrical twists. To its credit, it has a consistently entertaining plot, and the sad plight of women in that day and age is an ever-present theme. Some historical novels take a nostalgic glance back at the past, but you won't find this here.  Instead, it's a colorful, oftentimes heartbreaking look at social conflict, the misfortunes it can engender, and the strength and love required to overcome it.

The House of Serenades appeared from Moonleaf Publishing, a California-based small press, in June 2012 (trade pb, 314pp, $14.99).  Lina Simoni's earlier book The Scent of Rosa's Oil (Kensington, 2008) is a romantic historical novel also set in Genoa of 1910, but among the lower classes.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

On Barbara Wood's The Divining, set in the 1st-century Roman Empire and beyond

Barbara Wood's newest historical, about a woman’s spiritual journey through the 1st-century Roman world, is a mixed effort. The segmented approach impedes the story’s flow, but she succeeds in illuminating a time in which Christianity hasn’t yet taken root and populates it with dynamic characters.

The Divining stands alone yet also works as the sequel to Soul Flame (1987), which followed a Roman healer named Selene. In 54 CE, Ulrika, Selene’s 19-year-old daughter, begins seeing mysterious visions that draw her away from Rome. She joins a caravan to Germania, her father’s homeland, in hopes of saving his people from a Roman ambush and learning more about her heritage. She falls in love with the caravan’s leader, Galician trader Sebastianus Gallus, although their romance must wait until their separate missions are over. As Ulrika travels on to Antioch and Babylon on her quest to control her gift, Sebastianus obtains orders from the despotic new emperor, Nero, to open diplomatic ties with distant China, a trip marked by deception.

Oddly for a novel about a journey, little time is spent on the road; one would expect travel to be more complicated and arduous than it is here. Despite the narrative’s jumpiness, though, it provides a nice panoramic view of the era. “Deities, Ulrika realized, were as diverse and various as the people who worshipped them,” Wood writes, which captures the book’s greatest strength. The cultures Ulrika encounters are fascinating, and her openness to spiritual discovery means the reader approaches their beliefs – some ancient and others newly born – in a similar way at first. Everyone Ulrika meets has a tale worth hearing, and her story creatively intertwines with that of the earliest Christian saints.

For those who share the author’s wide-ranging interest in women’s lives through history, Turner has also reissued sixteen titles from her backlist, all with gorgeous covers (see on Amazon).

The Divining appeared from Turner Publishing in May at $26.95, or $29.95 in Canada (hb, 373pp).  This review appeared first in August's Historical Novels Review. In looking through my review index, I discovered I'd reviewed her Woman of a Thousand Secrets, set in 14th-century Mesoamerica, almost exactly four years ago. 

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Bits and pieces

I've been delinquent in announcing a winner of the giveaway for Kathy Hepinstall's Blue Asylum, which ran through July 31st.  Out of 48 entries, the number generator at selected #34 - Carol Kubala.  Congratulations, Carol!  I'll drop you a note to get your address.  Hope you enjoy the book, and thanks to everyone who entered.

The reviews from August's Historical Novels Review have been posted - all 316 of them, plus a number of indie reviews which appear online only.  Please take a look!  I've been an editor with the HNR for the past dozen years, and August marks a personal anniversary; this is the 50th issue I've worked on.  In addition, the year 2012 is the 15th anniversary for the Historical Novel Society, an event which will be celebrated in the next magazine issue and on the website.

Will anyone else be coming to the London HNS conference in September?  It's selling out quickly, with 30-odd places remaining out of 300 total.  I look forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones there!

In addition, the Historical Novel Society's 5th North American conference, to be held in St. Petersburg, Florida, next June, has posted a call for proposals.  If you're interested in speaking at the event, the deadline is August 15th.

For those of you who track forthcoming titles, if you're not already a fervent reader of Library Journal's Prepub Alert, you should be.  Barbara Hoffert's July 9th post looks at seven historical fiction debuts with buzz which are coming out in January 2013.

Also of note is the Weekly Wishlist feature at Tanzanite's Castle Full of Books, which previews (among other things) Bernard Cornwell's newest Thomas of Hookton medieval adventure, 1356, and Edward Rutherfurd's millennia-spanning historical epic, Paris: The Novel.  I'll be listing my own picks for upcoming seasons in due course.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

A short review of Jennie Fields' The Age of Desire

August is here at last!  Over the last few months, I've been busy reviewing eight historical novels scheduled to come out in August.  While I don't often repost previously published material, I want to highlight some of these books here as their publication dates roll byincluding Jennie Fields' new novel The Age of Desire, literary biographical fiction about Edith Wharton's mid-life love affair, and how it affected her relationship with her closest friend.

The reviews I write for Booklist are exercises in concise writing; I have a limit of 175-200 words.

Edith Wharton lived in the glittering world of the moneyed elite she wrote about, although she never experienced her characters’ lustful motivations herself until she met American journalist Morton Fullerton. Fields bases her perceptive novel on Wharton’s own diaries and letters.  By 1907, Edith is tired of husband Teddy’s gaucheness and depressive episodes and succumbs to the charms of Fullerton, whom she encounters at a French dinner party. It’s hard not to pity herhe is obviously a cadbut she displays a touching vulnerability, opening herself to passion for the first time at 45, and her anguish at Fullerton’s inconstancy is deeply felt.  Readers also observe them from the viewpoint of Anna Bahlmann, the literary secretary and longtime friend Edith sometimes carelessly takes for granted. Gentle Anna doesn’t approve of the affair, which drives her and Edith apart for a time.  While the novel concentrates more on the emotional than the intellectual sphere, it sheds welcome light on the little-known private life of a famous woman and her closest relationships in early-twentieth-century Europe and America.

For two more (slightly longer) takes on the novel, see the Historical Novels Review and Unabridged Chick.

The Age of Desire is published in August 2012 by Pamela Dorman/Viking in hardcover (352pp, $27.95).  In the UK, the publisher is Ebury Press. My review first published in Booklist's July 2012 issue; reprinted with permission.