Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Book review: The Serpent Garden, by Judith Merkle Riley

Riley, Judith Merkle. The Serpent Garden. NY: Three Rivers, 2008 (c1996). 449pp. $14.95/C$16.95. Paper, 978-0-307-39536-8.

"… Then I thought, well, maybe this is what happens to people who think unkind thoughts about husbands and then take money for lewd Bible pictures from wicked monks. It all catches up with one." (p.294)

Susanna Dallet's droll, irreverent narration is just one of the reasons to pick up Judith Merkle Riley's The Serpent Garden, even if you read it in its original hardcover release in 1996. I haven’t read one of Riley's novels for the past decade, but in reading this reissue, I'm glad I remedied that omission. It begins in 1514, as Susanna, daughter of a Flemish portraitist living in England, is about to be widowed. After her husband Rowland, a philandering painter who wed her to learn her father's techniques, assists in uncovering a long-buried manuscript, Susanna becomes the unwitting target of dangerous conspirators.

When Dallet is sadly (not really) murdered by the jealous husband of his mistress, Susanna is forced to fend for herself in a land not welcoming to independent women. She finds a lucrative trade in creating, anonymously of course, the hilariously vulgar Bible paintings mentioned above, and, later, becoming a paintrix of miniatures at the court of Henry VIII – which piques the attention of Archbishop Wolsey. At Wolsey’s suggestion, she accompanies Mary Tudor, the king's beautiful, spoiled younger sister, to France, where Mary's arranged marriage to the decrepit Louis XII is vigorously protested by rival claimants to the throne.

While at the French court, Susanna paints miniatures for the French royals and sends others, small cryptograms in watercolor, across the Channel to Wolsey – who uses them to determine their subjects’ true character. Meanwhile, a demon named Belphagor, a creature from hell magically set free during the manuscript’s discovery, manipulates the humans around him into obeying his wishes. His ultimate aim: to eliminate all members of the Valois dynasty, and there are a lot of them around. Because a missing portion of the manuscript may have ended up in Susanna’s unknowing possession, she attracts the attention of said demon, as well as that of other unsavory men.

There's no denying it, the novel has a lot going on. It takes a while to adjust to the multiple plotlines, particularly when the viewpoint switches several times within a chapter. Susanna's first-person narration alternates with third-person accounts of the conspirators (two groups of them); the demon and his imps; and several other parties, including Robert Ashton, Wolsey's guileless young secretary, attracted to Susanna against his better judgment. Furthermore, although the novel boasts a large cast of characters, many of those appearing early on fall by the wayside as the story continues. This lengthy novel is not easily skimmed, especially in the beginning. Yet just as Susanna skillfully paints "portraits in small" without revealing individual brushstrokes, so does Riley develop, with no excess verbiage, her secondary characters. These range from Master Dallet's selfish mistress, to crafty Marguerite d'Alençon, to the angel Hadriel, a heavenly being with a soft spot for Susanna’s predicament.

Riley's wry humor is one of the novel's strong points; it takes skill to elicit grins (even laughs) in readers without it feeling forced. Susanna's chatty, unselfconscious observations about herself and her world are extremely funny, as are Riley's tongue-in-cheek portrayals of the French and English royals and their coterie. Yet there are also many touching moments, such as Susanna's interpretation-in-paints of loyal, sweet-tempered Princess Claude. In addition, there is one distinct advantage to reading the novel now, one which has to do with an ancient secret society hell-bent on destroying the Valois monarchy. If I name this group as the Priory of Sion, as Riley does early on, chances are you'll know exactly where one thread of this novel is heading, but it doesn't matter. Reading The Serpent Garden, on one level, as an alternative to a certain religious thriller (one published eight years later) actually heightened my enjoyment, because Susanna's final pronouncements on the reality of that novel's premise make perfect sense. The earlier novel is also better written, needless to say.

In sum: this is a delightful, intricately written historical novel, with more than a dash of fantasy, which stands out amidst the glut of Tudor-era novels on the market.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Books I'm watching for in 2008 - UK edition

Since I posted about upcoming historical novels from American publishers last month, I figured it was only fair to look at UK-published titles over the next six months as well. In contrast, I haven't read any of these novels myself, yet, so am relying purely on publisher descriptions and/or past experiences with these authors' books.

Given that I enjoyed Vanora Bennett's Portrait of an Unknown Woman so much, her forthcoming Figures in Silk (May) is high on my wishlist. Like its predecessor, it falls into the realm of fictional biography. This time the protagonists are the two daughters of silk merchant John Lambert: Jane, who became the mistress of Edward IV, and Isabel, who became a silkweaver at court. I'm not familiar enough with the family to have heard about Isabel, but you may recognize Jane's married name (Shore). Among other novels about royalty - one of my main interests - Philippa Gregory's The Other Queen will be out in September in the US, but in April in the UK. Its focus is Mary, Queen of Scots, during the years she spent as a "guest" of the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury. I have an ARC in my hands and will be reading it next. Margaret Irwin's The Gay Galliard, subtitled "The Love Story of Mary Queen of Scots," originally came out in 1941. I don't think the title of the reissued version, The Galliard (Mar.) has quite the same historical ring to it, but you'll remember the same thing happened with Jean Plaidy's Gay Lord Robert last year.

Looking back further into the past... Gillian Bradshaw's The Sun's Bride (May) takes place off the coast of Lycia (in modern Turkey) in 266 BC. The publisher describes it as a historical adventure that begins as the Rhodian warship Atalanta encounters a pirate ship upon which a beautiful woman, mistress to a king, has been held captive. The US publication date is August, and from past experience, if you want this novel, you should order it early, as it won't be in bookshops and may sell out fast. Severn House is one of those hardcover library publishers we talked about in the comment trail a while back. Paul Waters' Of Merchants and Heroes (Feb.) will be an editors' choice selection in the Feb issue of HNR, which is enough in itself to convince me to read it, but there are also four 5-star reviews on Amazon as of today. It's described as a story of love, loss, and redemption set in Greece and Rome at the end of the 3rd century BC, and is being compared to works by Robert Graves and Mary Renault. Also in the comment trail of a past post, Sarah C pointed out Helen Dunmore's Counting the Stars (Feb.), which she described as "about the Roman poet Catullus and his affair with Lesbia." It's not on the US version of Amazon, which may mean I won't see it locally. Lord Leighton's Flaming June is on the cover, which is not exactly unique, but it's actually appropriate in this case.

Some shorter takes:
I always enjoy out-of-the-way settings in my fiction, so I have my eye on three more: Lesley Downer's The Last Concubine (Feb., an epic love story set during Japan's civil war of 1865); Linda Holeman's In a Far Country (Mar., 3rd in the author's trilogy set in 19th century India and the Middle East); and Betsy Tobin's Ice Land (Feb., a "gripping mythic love story set in Iceland a thousand years ago"). I've read and enjoyed Tobin's Bone House but haven't read anything by her since. Carina Burman's The Streets of Babylon (also Feb.), which from its Amazon description sounds morbidly quirky - click on the link to see why - could be intriguing.

My former editorial colleague Sarah Bower will have a new novel out in early May, The Book of Love, about a young Jewish girl from Isabella and Ferdinand's Spain who joins the court of Ferrara as an attendant to Lucrezia Borgia. I know little about Nerys Jones' Godiva (Jan.) besides the subject matter, which you can guess from the title. No Amazon reviews yet, though a sarcastic reviewer from The Telegraph didn't like it. Oh well. There are so few novels about the American frontier published in the UK that I'm curious about Peggy Elliott's A Small Part of History, especially as it doesn't appear to have a US publisher. It's about Rebecca, the 27-year-old third wife of John Springer, and her experience along the Oregon Trail in 1845. Lastly, the plot of Barbara Erskine's The Warrior's Princess (Jul.) sounds familiar, perhaps because it's a classic time-slip plot - a young teacher from London investigates the story of the Celtic princess Eigon, daughter of Caractacus, and finds that the present and the past begin merging.

I seem to have had an attack of blogorrhea while typing this, so I'll stop now before Blogger quits on me, and before I'm tempted to spend more money at Book Depository.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Weekend update

An emailed overdue notice reminded me that I still had the 1/28 issue of Publishers Weekly in my tote bag (bad librarian), and that I'd better post some info on new deals while I remembered.

If you want to know more about my exciting Saturday, read more here. Otherwise, on with the book news.

David Robbins is moving to Simon & Schuster from Bantam with his new novel, The Comfort Woman, which is "the story of a 19-year-old Korean girl forced into sexual slavery ... during WWII and her love for a young American internee at Los Banos, the Japanese internment camp in the Philippines." The sale was arranged through agent Tracy Fisher at William Morris.

Lynn Cullen's first two historical novels (for adults, I presume, as she's written for the YA market) were sold to Peternelle van Arsdale at Putnam via agent Emma Sweeney. The first of these, The Black Legend, is a biographical novel of Sofonisba Anguissola (ca 1532-1625), an Italian mannerist painter who joined the Spanish court of Felipe II (the husband of England's Mary I). Cullen has also written the YA historical I Am Rembrandt's Daughter, which I have not read, but am wondering if anyone else has.

While working on my time-slip chapter (done as of this afternoon, yeah!) I browsed through author Julianne Lee's website and noticed that her novel A Question of Guilt: A Novel of Mary Stuart and the Murder of Lord Darnley is listed as being published this fall. I am guessing that Berkley will be the publisher.

From Publishers Marketplace:

International Herald Tribune reporter Doreen Carvajal's SHARP NOTES, chronicling her search for her Sephardic roots in a small Andalusian town whose charming facade hides a history of violence and oppression, probing both her own family's past as well as the larger history of Spanish Jews during the Inquisition, to Jake Morrissey at Riverhead, for six figures, by Todd Shuster and Rachel Sussman at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency (world English).

[This is nonfiction, but I've been interested in the story of the Sephardic Jews ever since reading Kathryn Lasky's Blood Secret, which I highly recommend if you haven't read it.]

Louis Maistros's THE SOUND OF BUILDING COFFINS, a dark, beautifully written tale, shot through with flashes of magic realism, about New Orleans at the birth of the jazz age, to Matthew Miller at Toby Press, for publication in Fall 2009, by Barbara Braun at Barbara Braun Associates (World).

Manuel de Lope's BLOOD OF ANOTHER, in which two women are united and saved by a terrible secret during the Spanish Civil War, to Judith Gurewich at Other Press, in a nice deal, by Gloria Gutierrez at Agencia Literaria Carmen Balcells (World English).

[The Spanish Civil War seems to be a popular setting these days - anyone else noticed?]

Eugenia Kim's NAJIN, following a young woman through the turbulent years of Korea's subjugation by the Japanese and its emergence into the modern world in the first half of the 20th century, to Helen Atsma at Holt, in a very nice deal, for publication in April 2009, by Judith Weber at Sobel Weber Associates (NA).

Author of non-fiction books including A THOUSAND DAYS IN VENICE, A THOUSAND DAYS IN TUSCANY, and A TASTE OF SOUTHERN ITALY Marlena de Blasi's first work of fiction AMANDINE, set in World War II-era France and Poland, about a young orphan girl whose birth has been kept a secret by a grandmother who has arranged for her care who goes in search of the truth, and the unknown mother whom she loves and feels she must protect, to Ballantine, with Pamela Cannon editing, by Rosalie Siegel of Rosalie Siegel, International Literary Agent (world).

And thanks to everyone who participated in the drawing. We'll probably do it again, at a later time, and with a different book, of course.

Friday, February 08, 2008

And the winners are...

Since the sun's gone down here in Charleston, I thought I'd go ahead and draw the winning entries - with the help of a web-based random number generator.

The copies of Harriet and Isabella will go to: blog readers Donna, Lisa, and Troy!

I'll be in touch via email to get your full mailing addresses. Hope you enjoy the novel!

Monday, February 04, 2008

An interview with Patricia O'Brien

Patricia O'Brien's Harriet and Isabella (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, Jan. 2008, $25.00) dramatizes a sex scandal that preoccupied the nation in the late 19th century. It begins in Brooklyn Heights in 1887, as Henry Ward Beecher, a charismatic preacher known for his oratorical skill, lies on his deathbed. As reporters gathered around his brownstone begin their vigil, two of his sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Isabella Beecher Hooker, are forced to revisit the cause of their long estrangement. Twelve years earlier, Henry had been put on trial for adultery with Elizabeth Tilton, one of his parishioners. While Harriet stood by him, striving to present the Beechers as a strong family unit, Isabella publicly urged him to admit his guilt.

Flashbacks lead readers back to the days of the trial, in 1875, and to earlier moments in both sisters' lives. As Harriet slowly comes to terms with the fame and responsibility that writing Uncle Tom's Cabin has laid at her feet, Isabella forges her own path away from her stiflingly close-knit family, becoming an ardent supporter for women's suffrage. The novel is a dramatic account of how one famous American family's private conflicts played out in a very public sphere, posing questions on the importance of loyalty versus truth. It also provides insight into women's lives, the role of slavery, and the nature of celebrity in the post-Civil War years. (As a sidenote, as a native of the Hartford suburbs, I particularly enjoyed "visiting" with the former residents of Hartford's Nook Farm, a neighborhood I'd often seen on grade school field trips!)

For more information, see the book's website at http://www.harrietandisabella.com/.

I hope you enjoy the following interview with Patricia O'Brien. Also, in Reading the Past's first giveaway, Simon and Schuster will be sending copies of Harriet and Isabella to three randomly selected readers; details are at the end of the post.

How did your interest in the social and political history of 19th-century America originally develop?

Before starting to write historical fiction, much of the 19th century seemed like dusty history to me. When I began exploring the lives of Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton for my earlier novel, The Glory Cloak, I quickly became immersed in the history of the Civil War. And when I began reading the letters and diaries of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher for Harriet and Isabella, I was drawn even deeper into the color and tumult of the late 19th century. I guess you could say I was led there by the people I was writing about. I hated leaving, even after finishing my book.

Do you have a special interest in illuminating women’s lives from the period?

Yes. The Beecher women, for example, were complex and passionate human beings who lived extraordinary lives, given the strictures of their time. In that period, there were many smart women in long dresses – with rich lives for a novelist to explore.

Despite their feud and their very different personalities, I found myself sympathizing with both protagonists and their dilemmas as I read. When you first began your research, did you identify more strongly with either Harriet or Isabella? How did your feelings change as you learned more about both sisters, or did they?

I identified with Isabella first. She took such a hit from her family when she tried to stand up for her values. I sympathized with her yearnings for achievement and her feelings of being left in the shadow of her famous brother and sisters.

Harriet intimidated me somewhat at the beginning. She felt brisk and unapproachable. But the emotion that poured out in her anguished letters after the death of her child drew me to her. I came to see her as an oh-so-human mix of bravery and timidity, with a generous as well as judgmental nature.

Henry’s deathbed scene, in Brooklyn Heights in 1887, frames the novel. Other major sections look back to the trial itself, and there are shorter flashbacks to earlier periods in the sisters’ lives. Despite the number of time-shifts, I never had trouble figuring out where I was. You must have put an immense amount of effort into structuring the novel so that everything read clearly; how did you accomplish this?

It was tricky. I wanted my characters to be looking back on the past, to evaluate themselves, deal with their thoughts and regrets, but I also wanted the immediacy of the early years that shaped them and the immediacy of the trial. Once I framed it around the time of Henry's dying, the rest seemed to flow. A key decision was to use the present tense for the events in 1887, and past tense for all other time frames.

How did your previous career as a newspaper reporter affect your approach to the story, in terms of the research techniques you used and/or the subject matter itself?

I went after original material, just the way I went after original interviews when I was a reporter. This time, I had the luxury of spending much longer on my research than I ever could with a daily deadline. But I felt right at home doing some of the basic research in the archives of the Brooklyn Eagle, which covered at length every day of the trial. I tried to imagine being the reporters writing those stories, and how the voracious national appetite for detail affected the tone of their coverage.

To me, Victoria Woodhull was one of the most compelling secondary characters; she seems almost larger than life, yet before reading the novel, I hadn’t known about her role in the Beecher adultery trial. How did you approach creating her character?

I wanted to show her contradictions, from her reckless sexuality to her visionary skills that made her – for a short while – the heroine of the suffragist movement. I also wanted to be careful not to let her take the reins and gallop away in a direction I didn’t want to go. Victoria had a powerful and colorful personality, and was, in many ways, a woman before her time.

Along with the galley copy of Harriet and Isabella I received at BEA, you’d provided a sheet detailing a self-guided walking tour of Brooklyn Heights. From the descriptions there, I got the impression that you’d walked this route yourself, and imagined scenes as you stopped at important points along the way. How important do you feel it is for historical novelists to physically visit the places where their characters lived and interacted?

Very important, if at all possible. I particularly remember walking the streets of Brooklyn Heights one night right after a snowfall, when it was easy to imagine horse-drawn carriages maneuvering through the snow and gaslight flickering behind the windows of the brownstone mansions. I could imagine Henry striding these same streets, waving to people in these same houses… it cut the distance between past and present almost to nothing.

I felt the same way when I was allowed into the newly-discovered Civil War office of Clara Barton in Washington while writing The Glory Cloak. I could run my hands over the faded wallpaper and bring it into my story, knowing Clara had sat in that same room and gazed at that same wallpaper as she worked.

Were there any historical tidbits you turned up in your research that you would have liked to use in the novel, but were unable to?

I like this question. Yes, indeed there were. One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is not to let historical detail – no matter how fascinating – divert you from your story. For example, Harriet’s husband, Calvin Stowe, had an imaginary friend (into adulthood) whom he named Harvey. This brought to mind the play and 1950 film in which Jimmy Stewart had an imaginary best friend – a six-foot tall rabbit, also named Harvey. Was Calvin’s pal the inspiration? Hmmmm… couldn’t go anywhere with that.

Another small tidbit I tried to place but finally rejected was a newspaper account describing an older man who showed up almost every day at Henry’s trial with a fine wood cane topped with a polished brass knob. He would sit through the testimony, holding his cane in front of him – and chew on the knob. I couldn’t go anywhere with that either unless I gave him some fleshing out; some identity and reason for being there, which would have been a diversion. But I loved the image.

Thank you, Patricia, for taking the time to answer questions for this interview.

Also, thanks to Simon & Schuster, we have three new hardcover copies of Harriet and Isabella to give away to readers. To enter, either leave a comment on this post, or send an email to me at sljohnson2@eiu.edu with "Harriet and Isabella" as the subject. Three entries will be selected randomly at the end of the day Friday, February 8th, after which I'll contact you for your mailing addresses. Good luck!

(Added, in response to a question - this drawing is open to everyone, not only those readers in the USA.)