Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Guest post from Stephanie Dray: How Cleopatra Selene Saved Isis

Today Stephanie Dray, author of the forthcoming Lily of the Nile, is stopping by as part of her blog tour.  She offers a fascinating guest post about religion and politics during the lifetime of her heroine, Cleopatra Selene.  Her novel will be out in January from Berkley, and I'll be posting a review around the publication date.

How Cleopatra Selene Saved Isis
Stephanie Dray

The heroine of my forthcoming debut novel, Lily of the Nile, is Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the much more famous Cleopatra VII of Egypt. Only ten years old when her parents committed suicide, Selene was taken prisoner by the Romans and marched through the streets in chains. Her life was spared, however, and Augustus, Rome’s first emperor[1], took her into his household, where she had to curry favor to survive.

Like her mother before her, Selene was a worshipper of Isis, the all-powerful sorceress and mother-goddess of the Nile. Unlike her mother, however, Selene practiced her faith in a time during which it was politically disadvantageous, and perhaps dangerous, for her to do so.

Generally speaking, the Romans employed a liberal philosophy when it came to religion. If a conquered nation submitted to Roman civil authority, they were free to worship their native gods. There were notable exceptions to this policy, however. The early Roman hostility towards Christianity is well-documented. Druids were persecuted and effectively wiped out. During the Augustan Age, Rome was also particularly antagonistic to the worshippers of Isis.

Augustus had a special enmity for the Isiac faith, no doubt owing to the fact that Isis was the patron deity of his arch rival, Cleopatra. Like the Ptolemaic queens before her, Cleopatra embraced Isis, presenting herself as a veritable living incarnation of the powerful mother-goddess. The worship of Isis often eclipsed that of her husband Osiris and her son Horus, such that she made a perfect symbol for queens seeking to rule on their own. Cleopatra knew this and made great political use of the Isiac priesthood to further her political aims.

By the time Rome declared war upon Cleopatra, Isis worship had spread throughout the Mediterranean world, so Cleopatra’s religious influence was a genuine threat. However, Augustus remained hostile towards Isiacism even after Cleopatra’s death[2].

This was almost certainly because the Isiac temples promoted values antithetical to the “back to family values” political campaign that Augustus was waging to consolidate his power base. In short, Isiacism wasn’t simply the worship of some foreign goddess, nor even simply posthumous support for his conquered enemy, but the promotion of a set of political and religious philosophies that Augustus did not want to spread.

For the Romans, religion was typically public business. Roman temples were generally open and visible to the street, and their private chambers were generally limited to an inner sanctum for the cult statue. By contrast, Isiac temples typically fostered a more intimate atmosphere by enclosing the temple by walls so as to preserve the privacy of the worshippers. This sense of privacy was greeted with mistrust by some Romans who considered Isiac temples a hotbed of conspiracy where the disaffected could gather and secretly plot against the state.

Perhaps they were not entirely wrong. Isiac temples admitted freedmen, women, and even slaves to their community, not just to foster a more personal relationship with the goddess, but also to help promote the cause of social justice. That Isis was a goddess of mercy who allegedly frowned upon slavery and other social ills may not have been half as dangerous as the notion that a great goddess like Isis might take the part of a lowly slave over the cause of his master. Or that she might take interest in a slave at all. After all, this was still an age of orthopraxy versus orthodoxy, where the emphasis was upon correct ritual toward the gods rather than any intense personal relationship with the realm of the divine. As a forerunner of Christianity, Isiacism was starting to change the very idea of religion.

Moreover, during the Augustan Age, Isis worship promoted a more egalitarian relationship between the sexes and admitted both men and women into the priesthood. While there is evidence that Isiacism promoted chastity and periods of abstinence, Isis was a great favorite amongst prostitutes and was also associated with sexual license and mysterious fertility rites.

All this ran counter to Augustus’ policy of preserving the social hierarchy and his place as the religious leader of the state. At a time when he was regulating sex, marriage, and the role of women[3] to conform with traditional values--or what he imagined those traditional values to be--Isiacism was an obstacle. That it was a popular religion made it only worse; he closed Isiac temples, forbade the worship of Isis within the old sacred boundary of Rome, and eventually sent his second-in-command, Agrippa, to put down an Isiac rebellion of some sort[4] and prohibit the worship of Isis in Rome and her surrounds.

That this assault on Isis worship happened during Selene’s lifetime--much of it while she was actually living in Rome--is nothing short of astonishing when we recall that she was, like her mother, an important figure to Isiacs. For her mother’s partisans, she represented a chance to return to power and for Isis worship to flourish where Augustus tried to stamp it out. As Cleopatra’s daughter, a surviving Ptolemy, and an heir to that dynasty, Selene was also, undoubtedly, the faith’s most prominent adherent.

Under the circumstances, especially considering that her survival depended upon Augustus’ good will, one might have expected Selene to renounce her patron’s least favorite goddess. But if the numismatic evidence of her reign is any indication, Selene never wavered in her faith. This little captive princess eventually became Queen of Mauretania where she explicitly adopted Isis as her goddess. Selene’s coins--the currency of her realm, all but guaranteed to be seen by Augustus himself--repeatedly would display Isis symbols. Moreover, Selene and her husband Juba II would go on to establish in Mauretania a giant temple of Isis where sacred crocodiles were kept.

As the most prominent client queen of the Augustan Age, Selene’s actions would have made her an influential religious dissident. Whether she paid a political price for this is unknown, but if Augustus ever considered returning her to the throne of Egypt, this may have tipped the scales against the idea. With apparent determination, Selene expanded the reach of Isiacism into Western Africa[5] and created a safe-haven for Isis worshippers at a time when their cult was imperiled. What’s more, Selene’s spiritual influence may have reached into Augustus’ own household.

Though Augustus’ successor, Tiberius, was also hostile toward the Isiacs to the point of crucifying some of them, the other emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty gave Isis an elevated status in the Roman world that would last for hundreds of years. Claudius, Nero, and Caligula all descended from Selene’s half sisters, the Antonias, leading one to speculate whether or not these women were receptive to Selene’s religious ideas and passed them on to their sons. Moreover, Selene’s beliefs may have influenced Augustus’ daughter, Julia, whose villa featured a painting of flamboyant priestesses of Isis wearing high headdresses and shaking rattles. One can only speculate what her father may have thought of that.

It is possible that the persecution of Isiacs only made her worshippers stronger in their faith and that the religion would have grown even without Selene’s active participation. However, the Queen of Mauretania’s unambiguous support of Isiacism must have encouraged worshippers throughout the Mediterranean and may well have protected the faith during the Augustan Age so that it could later flourish. This is especially relevant since Isis is a living faith even today and Cleopatra Selene is one of its unsung heroines.


Stephanie Dray is the author of a forthcoming trilogy of historical fiction novels set in the Augustan Age, starting with Lily of the Nile: A Novel of Cleopatra's Daughter. Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has–to the consternation of her devoted husband–collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.

She is currently sponsoring the Cleopatra Literary Contest for Young Women, the deadline for which is March 1, 2011, but join her newsletter now for updates and a chance to win a free copy of Lily of the Nile and additional prizes.


[1]Some might argue that Augustus was not Rome’s first emperor, but given the outcome of his climb to power ended the Roman Republic, I always refer to him as such.

[2]In spite of this hostility, he appears to have allowed himself to be portrayed in reverence to Isis in carvings throughout Egypt. Historian Diana E. E. Kleiner suggests that this is because the power of Isis iconography was so influential in Egypt that it was easier for Augustus to portray himself as Cleopatra’s successor in Egypt than her conqueror. In the rest of the empire, the political situation differed, and Augustus marked the Isiacs as his enemies accordingly.

[3]One of the ironies of the Augustan Age is that while Rome’s first emperor apparently held deeply misogynistic ideas that would be used to oppress women for the next two thousand years, his wife Livia was one of the most powerful women in history.

[4]Why Agrippa needed to restore order by suppressing the Isiacs isn’t well understood. Whether Isiacs were protesting their treatment or involving themselves in intrigues against the state isn’t known, but it is significant to note that this occurred in 22 B.C. following a period of famine and food riots. Perhaps the Isiacs were agitating for charity. Or perhaps they had involved themselves in the Murena-Caepio conspiracies surrounding Augustus’ new regime. They may even have been angry or emboldened by the invasion of Egypt that year by the Kandake of Meroe.

[5]While the worship of Isis was not unknown in the amorphous area then known as “Libya,” the dominant goddess was Carthaginian Tanit. That Selene clung to Egyptian Isis even while trying to win over her new Mauretanian subjects is a testament both to her faith and her intention to re-found her mother’s dynasty.

Friday, November 26, 2010

W is for Wishnia

Kenneth Wishnia's historical mystery takes place in late 16th-century Prague, a setting that has inspired several other novelists (Frances Sherwood's The Book of Splendor and Lisa Goldstein's The Alchemist's Door are also set there).  Perhaps the fascination is thanks to its ruler, Kaiser Rudolf II, whose support of fine art and scientific discoveries led his empire into the scientific revolution.  He also took an interest in alchemy and astrology and experimented with both - some may say too much.

In Wishnia's The Fifth Servant, the Jews of Prague find the city a contradictory mix of tolerance and repression.  While Rudolf has granted them his protection, they're forced to live in a walled ghetto and wear yellow badges whenever they leave it.  Rumors of their wealth and magical practices are pervasive, causing Christians to eye them with suspicion.  And this, in a crowded, multiethnic capital still reeling from the Reformation. While Catholics view the Jews as misguided, they see Protestants as heretics.

The entire plot spans a three-day period, from Passover to Easter Sunday, in the year 1592.  Benyamin Ben-Akiva, a Talmudic scholar, has just arrived in Prague from rural Poland. An outsider with no connections, he's very grateful to be offered a post as shammes, or sexton, at the Klaus Shul (synagogue) under the great Rabbi Loew.  He also hopes to reunite with his estranged wife, who has returned to join her family in the ghetto.

After the butchered body of a young Christian girl turns up in a Jewish merchant's shop, Christian mobs accuse the shopkeeper of killing her for her blood - the classic lie, the blood libel, that has followed Jews for centuries. Benyamin believes him innocent. The sheriff allows him three days to uncover the killer, or else everyone in the Yidnshtot (Jewish town) will be held responsible.

Benyamin approaches his task with intelligence, wry humor, and chutzpah, and he'll need all three.  His down-to-earth, slang-filled voice enlivens the narrative; that, plus his knowledge of Christian doctrine, surprises officials who are all too ready to dismiss him.  Key to his investigations is the help of other freethinkers like himself: a Christian butcher's daughter who works as a Sabbath maid to the ghetto's mayor; a Bohemian herb-woman; and his supervisor Rabbi Loew.

The novel is a sometimes uneasy balance of entertainment, enlightenment, and erudition. Wishnia's knowledge of the city, its geography, and the literature and beliefs of its 16th-century residents gives his book a strong sense of period. All the content on Talmudic scholarship, Jewish folklore, and German and Yiddish vocabulary can be hard to work through, but I felt the effort paid off.  The map at the beginning helps, as does the glossary at the end.

Benyamin's can-do attitude and amusing remarks keep the pages turning, and the way he and Rabbi Loew use the words of appropriate Jewish sages to justify unorthodox decisions (it's their bad luck to have to work on the Sabbath) is a clever touch. Finally, the themes of religious tolerance, the courage to explore others' beliefs, and the importance of opposing censorship - which are all interlinked - have clear relevance for today. 

I started The Fifth Servant wondering if it would be a book I admired more than I liked, but came away feeling sincerely impressed by the way it was all put together.  The ending was satisfying and appropriate. Well done.

The Fifth Servant was published by Morrow in March 2010 ($25.99, 387pp).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book review: Heidegger's Glasses, by Thaisa Frank

The theme of illusion versus truth is woven throughout Thaisa Frank's debut novel, which examines the Holocaust and its aftermath from a new and intriguing perspective. Within Heidegger's Glasses, many of the deceptions are absurd, while others are necessary for survival, and some are both at once.

The surreal premise, while fictional, feels bizarrely compatible with the paranoia and supernatural beliefs of the Nazi regime. Ten meters beneath the woods of northern Germany sits an oversize compound, a converted mineshaft populated by sixty or so scribes: multilingual men and women who were recruited from among those waiting to be transported to concentration camps.

Their sole purpose is to reply to letters written to people already in the camps, in order to reassure anxious relatives and others that their loved ones are fine and healthy. In reality, though, both the original writers and the recipients are likely no longer alive. The ruse not only conceals the truth about Hitler's Final Solution, it's also meant to ensure (in the minds of the occult-obsessed Nazis) that the dead will lie quietly, knowing their letters were answered.

Although the war isn’t going well for Germany, its leaders pretend otherwise. The Compound of Scribes is another elaborate fiction: a large underground chamber built with cobblestone streets, gaslights, artificial pear trees, and false ceilings made to resemble day and night. But even though its residents' task is pointless – the letters they write will never be read by anyone – and their hideaway a monotonous prison, the existence of the program has saved their lives.

Gerhardt Lodenstein and his lover Elie Schacten supervise the project, but both secretly work for the Resistance. Elie, an attractive woman admired by the others for her ability to sweet-talk SS officers and perform covert rescues, has a past she hides even from the man she's closest to. Then the lives of everyone in the Compound are thrown into disarray when philosopher Martin Heidegger's letter to his friend and optometrist Asher Engelhardt – a man he doesn’t know has been deported to Auschwitz – ends up in the hands of Goebbels, who orders that an answer be sent. How will the scribes craft a convincing response?

Frank writes with clarity and compassion about the individuals given no choice but to live (and die) under the shadow of the Third Reich. She avoids the overarching grimness one might expect from the subject without minimizing its unavoidably tragic nature. The prose flows well; its tone becomes melancholy, dark, thoughtful, and hopeful in turn, and sometimes all of these simultaneously.

Each character has a story that’s revealed only in part, in keeping with the heightened fear of the era. At the same time, the reader gets to experience their poignancy of their individual lives – their loves, worries, interactions, dreams, and secrets, all the seemingly little things that stand out as human in a world refracted from reality. Elements of Heidegger’s philosophy make their way into the story, though prior knowledge of his work isn’t necessary.

Because of its delicate approach, Heidegger’s Glasses would be a good choice for those who wouldn’t normally opt for Holocaust fiction. Its pages echo the question: what responsibility do we, the living, have towards the dead, and towards history? It’s a complex, emotionally moving work that leaves a haunting message at the end, and it does so with imaginative skill and subtlety.

Heidegger's Glasses was published by Counterpoint in November at $25.00 (hb, 337pp).

Monday, November 22, 2010

A visual preview of the spring season, part one

Here's the first of several visual previews of historical novels for winter/spring 2011.  These are some personal picks, with my usual eclectic mix of settings and timeframes.  Most of these also appear on the HNS forthcoming books list I posted about last week, but as several of you pointed out (and I agree), seeing the covers can really amp up the interest level!

Carol Carr's debut is a hilarious, exciting, and sometimes naughty romp through the grimy lanes and elegant boardrooms of Victorian London, as seen through the eyes of India Black, proprietor of the Lotus House brothel.  India gets drawn into an international mystery when a high-profile civil servant drops dead while visiting her place of business.  Review forthcoming.  Berkley Prime Crime, Jan.

The novels of Chiaverini's Elm Creek Quilts series - some contemporary, some historical - are slices of Americana that celebrate women's friendships and neighborly ties.  Her latest is set in Water's Ford, Pennsylvania, in 1862, and follows the women of Elm Creek Valley as they cope with their changing roles.  Meanwhile, letters from the men in their lives, off fighting for the Union, are read aloud at their quilting circle.  Dutton, Feb.

The astute observations of Miss Dido Kent, spinster aunt and talented detective in early 19th-century England, were a highlight for me in Anna Dean's Bellfield HallIn her followup investigation, the sudden death of her cousin Flora's neighbor turns out to be murder -- just as Dido suspected all along.  Minotaur, Feb.

Margaret George takes her time in researching and writing her biographical novels (like the others, this one's nearly 700pp long), but  they're worth waiting for.  This is the historical epic that even those weary of Tudormania will want to read:  the story of the later years of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, as told by her flame-haired cousin and rival, Lettice Knollys.  And did you know the author has a new blog?  Viking, April.

Hart's fifth novel presents the deep and mysterious relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and Sissy Clemm, his cousin, child bride, and the love of his life, the woman whose death haunted his writings and nearly destroyed him. The blurb promises hints of the fantastic in its exploration of Sissy's innermost self in this world and the one that lies beyond.  St. Martin's Griffin, Feb.

Following the international success of the Otori series, historical fantasy set in an alternate feudal Japan, Lian Hearn turns to mainstream historical fiction with an epic set in 1857, as Western powers begin pounding at the gates of isolationist Japan.  Amid the tumult, a young woman prepares for marriage and studies medicine, yet the changing times lead her into an uncertain future.  The cover is too frilly for my taste (too many blossoms, too few shadows?) but I've got this one on preorder from Book Depository.  No US deal as yet.  Quercus (UK), April; it's already out in Australia.

The Salem Witch trials are an event that historical novelists return to again and again.  Hill is a British writer who's written several nonfiction works on the tragedies of Salem Village, and she's sure to bring a unique perspective to her fiction.  A dark cover for this dark portrait of how a children's game sparks a town's rapid descent into madness.  Overlook, March, and Duckworth (UK), June.

Cobbs Hoffman's self-published novel, In the Lion's Den, garnered a Director's Mention for the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction in 2009; it also won a San Diego Book Award.  This is a reissue under the new title Broken Promises (see a related article from the SDSU News).   A tale of loyalty and love, it reveals the little-known story of Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams and father of novelist Henry Adams, and his involvement in the US Civil War.  Ballantine, April.

Elizabeth Loupas's debut novel is many things at once: a magnificent portrait of an Italian city during the glorious Renaissance; a memorable depiction of Barbara of Austria, the intelligent second wife of Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara; and a creative retelling of Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess," as well as what might have come before and after the events in the poem.  I've just finished reading a galley and will be hosting Elizabeth here for an interview next spring.  NAL, March.

Karen Maitland's Company of Liars is a book I've come to appreciate more over time, for both its creepily twisting plot and the authentic-seeming worldview of its medieval characters.  The Gallows Curse looks to evoke the same grim, strange atmosphere.  In 1210, all of England has been placed under interdict, thanks to the religious schemings of King John.  And in the village of Gastmere, a servant girl is dragged into a conspiracy to absolve the lord of the manor's sins.  Penguin UK, March (no US details as yet).

Friday, November 19, 2010

Guest post from Anna Elliott: Ghostly Voices, Faith, and the Otherworld

Good morning, everyone!  Anna Elliott is stopping by the blog today with a guest post about her heroine Isolde, Isolde's grandmother Morgan, and the gradual shift from Celtic paganism to Christianity in 6th-century Arthurian Britain.

I thoroughly enjoyed Twilight of Avalon, book 1 of Anna's trilogy, when I read and reviewed it a year ago.  It's become one of my favorite renditions of the Tristan and Isolde legend, both for the gritty, authentic feel of the setting as well as her powerfully rendered characters.  And so I was pleased to be asked to participate in the blog tour for book 2, Dark Moon of Avalon, in which Trystan and Isolde unite once more to protect Britain's throne from the cunning Lord Marche and his Saxon allies.

Thanks to Anna and her publisher, we also have a giveaway opportunity.  Details can be found at the end of the post.  In addition, should you have any questions for or comments to share with Anna, please leave them below.  Welcome, Anna!

Ghostly Voices, Faith, and the Otherworld

The prologues to all three books of my Twilight of Avalon trilogy are narrated by my protagonist Isolde's grandmother Morgan. (Morgan le Fay, for those familiar with Arthurian legend.) Morgan is dead before my story begins, but she's still a very real force in Isolde's life. In hard times, Isolde often tries to imagine her grandmother there, to picture what advice or comfort Morgan might have given.

Morgan was one of my favorite characters to write, and judging by the response I get from readers, her voice and personality seem to come across equally strongly on the page. But I've also been asked whether she's 'real'. Are the conversations between her and Isolde actually happening? Is Morgan a ghost? Or just a figment of Isolde's imagination?

The sixth century, when Dark Moon of Avalon is set, was a time of religious change in Britain, a time when the old nature-centered pagan beliefs were being absorbed into the new Christian faith. One of my favorite parts of writing the books was exploring the intersection of those beliefs, the ways in which the Christian and the pagan belief systems could be seen to worship a single unified Divine, albeit in very different ways.

Morgan, for me, represents the old pagan faith and the Celtic belief system in which the Otherworld was no far distant heaven up in the sky, but a place separated from our own world by the thinnest of veils. A cave, a lake, a river, all could be portals to this Otherworld in the Celtic worldview. I think Isolde herself stands very much at the crossroads of the old ways and the new, and part of her journey through Twilight of Avalon and Dark Moon is to find her own faith system, to understand both the Christian and Pagan beliefs and see the wisdom in each.

So whether Morgan is part of the Celtic Otherworld or an answer to a more Christianized version of prayer, my answer to the question of, "is Morgan real?" is: She is absolutely very real to Isolde.

And for any readers who enjoy Morgan and would like a peek at her when she was young, I've written a free short story prologue to the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, which centers on Morgan as a young woman. It's available for free download in various e-reader/printer friendly forms here:

A longtime devotee of historical fiction and fantasy, Anna Elliott lives in the DC Metro area with her husband and two daughters. She is the author of Twilight of Avalon and Dark Moon of Avalon, the first two books in the Twilight of Avalon trilogy. For more information, visit her official website.

Dark Moon of Avalon was published in September by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster at $16.00 in paperback.  To enter to win a copy (US and Canada residents only), please leave a comment with your email address.  Deadline is Friday, December 3rd.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Siobhán Parkinson's Painted Ladies: A review with illustrations

I came across Siobhán Parkinson's Painted Ladies while browsing the historical fiction listings at Book Depository and purchased it on impulse.  It turned out to be a wonderful decision.

The novel centers on a community of artists who lived and worked in Skagen, a small fishing village on the northern tip of Denmark, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I had never heard of the Skagen Painters before, and I'm grateful to the novel for introducing me to them.  Reading it is like stepping into an Impressionist painting: full of light and color, and enhanced with sophisticated touches that bring the characters and era to life.

Fishermen Hauling Nets, P.S. Krøyer (1883)
Painted Ladies also possesses a strong historical framework, although the author states up front that she's taken some license with regard to names, dates, events, and interpretations of characters' emotions and motives.

Sewing Fisherman's Wife
Anna Ancher (1890)
At top, on the book's cover, is Marie Triepke Krøyer Alfvén, the novel's central figure.  The story opens in 1888, when Marie first arrives in Paris from Copenhagen as a young and enthusiastic art student, and ends with her second marriage in 1905.  (Not a spoiler; this event is hinted at in the prologue.)  While in Paris, she meets up with other Danish artists gathered there, most notably Michael and Anna Ancher, and becomes part of their circle.  Uncommonly beautiful, Marie struggles to be noticed for her talent rather than her looks.

She falls in love with Søren Krøyer, an older man who's the leading light of the Danish art world, and they marry.  Despite her independent spirit, however, Marie's traditional upbringing doesn't fit in with the bohemian ways of her husband's friends. The others have affairs, raise one another's children, and adjust to sudden changes in their unconventional lifestyles with an ease that baffles Marie.  Her inner conflict in this respect is skillfully conveyed.

Summer Evening on Skagen's Beach, P.S. Krøyer (1899); portraits of artist and wife
Anna Ancher becomes Marie's closest female friend, and intervening sections reveal her backstory.  The only one of their close-knit group to be born in Skagen, she grows up the daughter of a large family who owns Brøndums Hotel, and her talent becomes visible at an early age. (I wish the novel had given us more of Anna, as she seemed the most emotionally grounded character.) Both Marie and Anna are fortunate in that their parents support their artistic efforts.

The plot moves between Skagen, Copenhagen, Paris, Sicily, and elsewhere in Europe, following the artists and their extended families as they form romantic connections, have families of their own, and create breathtaking works of art.

Hip, Hip, Hurrah!, Peder Severin Krøyer (1888);
many of the novel's characters are depicted here
Skagen appeals to them not only for its seaside landscapes - the interplay of sunlight, sand, and water is a favorite subject - but for the rustic way of life led by its fishermen, who figure in numerous paintings.  Parkinson adds a touch of irony in this respect, for while the locals willingly serve as models at first, their tolerance grows thin when they have to clean up champagne glasses tossed carelessly onto the beach after a late-night party.

The relationship between art and real life is one of the novel's strongest themes, and Parkinson's literary re-creations of the painters' masterworks are a joy to read.  Some are spontaneous creations, such as Søren Krøyer's depiction of his wife and Anna Ancher taking an evening walk on the beach following their friends' anniversary celebration:

Summer Evening on the Skagen Southern Beach, P.S. Krøyer (1893),
with portraits of Marie Krøyer and Anna Ancher
After the feasting was done and most of the guests had left, Marie took a walk with Anna along the water's edge in the long evening light.  The sea was blue and silver and the sand was silver and blue.  The strolling women in their best party frocks inclined their heads to one another in a gesture of tenderness that excluded the world ... Mystery hung, like the evening star, in the light, silvery air.  

Søren sat with Michael on the beach, amidst the debris of the feast, and watched the slow progress of the women away from them, still conversing, into the blue.

Not all of the poses are so casually arranged, however.  Martha Johansen, Anna's long-suffering cousin, feels very frustrated by the presence of a Christmas tree in her messy house for months after the holiday - all because her husband Viggo can't get his painting to turn out right. 

Merry Christmas, Viggo Johansen (1891)
The novel dips into the viewpoints of many of the artists, as well as those of their wives and lovers (and their wives' lovers, in some cases).  Emmy, third wife of poet/artist Holger Drachmann, is one of several women who discover that romantic involvement with an artist isn't all it's cracked up to be, and their plights are rendered with dexterity.

And the children, shuffled from place to place while their parents journey abroad for inspiration or simple R&R... they bear some of the heaviest burdens of all.

Midsummer's Eve Bonfire on Skagen's Beach, P.S. Krøyer (1906)
Painted Ladies draws to a close not long after a large gathering of the denizens of the Skagen colony at a party on the beach, complete with the lighting of the St. John's Eve bonfire. At first I found the ending overly abrupt and off-putting.  Now that I've had time to reflect, I find it fitting, particularly in how it shows how Marie has weathered the emotional changes in her life.  On that, I'll say no more and suggest you read the book!

If you enjoy how novelists like Susan Vreeland, Tracy Chevalier, and Stephanie Cowell render art into lyrical prose, this is the book for you.  It's best read with images of the paintings within easy access; I found that this enhanced the reading experience for me.  See the Wikipedia page for additional paintings and links to individual artists, or the Skagens Museum for historical background, details on technique, and more images.

Painted Ladies was published by New Island Books (Ireland) in October in paperback (£12.99, 326pp) and is available at Book Depository.  Siobhán Parkinson is the current Laureate na nÓg (Children's Laureate) of Ireland; this is her second novel for adults.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Forthcoming historical novels for 2011

I've just completed the first round of updates to the Historical Novel Society's list of forthcoming titles, with info on historical fiction set to be published in the US through next August.  Head on over there and take a look!  There are many titles I'm especially eager to read (of course), and I'll be highlighting some of them in an upcoming post.

Monday, November 08, 2010

A look at Kate Morton's The Distant Hours

This won't be a lengthy review, because saying too much about the plot of Kate Morton's The Distant Hours might spoil it for readers, and that's the last thing I'd want to do. I received a galley from the publisher a month ago and decided to save it to read as a birthday present to myself. Full of intrigue, period atmosphere, and layers upon layers of carefully hidden secrets, it's an expansive multi-period saga with classic Gothic elements and a multitude of well-developed, intriguing characters.  The plotline had me guessing every step of the way.

Crossing back and forth between 1992 and various dates during the WWII years, the novel opens as the present runs up against the past. A mysterious letter arrives fifty years too late, and Edie Burchill, a thirty-year-old London book editor, wonders why its contents would cause her mother such distress. Perhaps if Juniper Blythe's long-ago missive to Meredith Burchill had reached her in time, Juniper might have been spared the madness that befell her in her youth.

Evacuated out of London with other children during the war in anticipation of German bombings, Meredith had spent a year living at Milderhurst Castle in Kent, where she and brilliant, eccentric Juniper had become the best of friends, despite their slight age difference.  Their friendship was not to last. Persephone and Seraphina Blythe, Juniper's now-elderly twin sisters, have cared for their fragile younger sibling ever since the terrible night in 1941 when Juniper's fiance deserted her, and she lost her mind as a result.

Edie's visit to the castle in search of answers serves as the catalyst for a series of disquieting revelations about the Blythes and further insight into the complicated dynamics within her own family. When Edie learns of Juniper's family connection to Raymond Blythe, the reclusive author who penned the beloved (and intensely creepy) children's novel The True History of the Mud Man, she grows even more intrigued.  No one ever knew what inspired him to write the book; it has remained an unsolved mystery.

The Distant Hours is the type of novel you inhabit rather than simply read, and I found it satisfying on every level. I admired Morton's clever use of point of view and how it illustrated how younger generations view those who came before them. It would be an excellent read-alike choice for anyone who enjoyed Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale, Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger, and others of that ilk. Within its suspenseful plotline, successive aspects of a convoluted mystery lock into place one by one, and the final revelation is a stunner. Most of all, it's a celebration of the power of stories and how they can burrow deeply into our lives. This one certainly had that effect on me.

The Distant Hours is published on November 9th by Atria at $26.00/C$29.99 (672pp, hardbound).

Saturday, November 06, 2010

V is for Victoria

Victoria Hislop's The Island has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for the past few years, for no particular reason, and it caught my eye again while I was considering my letter V pick for the alphabet challenge.  A former Richard & Judy Book Club selection, it hit #1 on British bestseller lists and has recently been made into a miniseries for Greek TV. It even has its own Wikipedia page

Living in the U.S., I missed all the hoopla.  The Island came out here in 2007 to little fanfare, but its broad appeal is understandable.  In many respects, it hits the right notes: a multigenerational saga focusing on women's relationships, its near-400 pages overflow with incident and drama.  Along with the modern-day heroine, readers uncover the painful family history that her mother has kept hidden for decades, an engrossing story gradually revealed. Such are the ingredients for a typical beach read, but it's made notable by its skillful evocation of a previously little-known setting, Spinalonga, an island off the coast of Crete that served as a leper colony for most of the 20th century.

While on a vacation to Greece with her arrogant and annoying fiancé, Alexis Fielding leaves him behind for a few days to visit Plaka, in northwestern Crete, the village where her mother Sofia was born. Here an old family friend, Fortini, spells out for Alexis the reasons behind Sofia's desires to leave her homeland behind and start anew in London.  The majority of the narrative spans from 1939 through the late '60s, explaining how Sofia's family story intertwines with that of Spinalonga.  It begins as Alexis's great-grandmother, Eleni, is banished to the island after contracting leprosy, leaving her great-grandfather, Georgiou, to raise their daughters on his own.  The tale proceeds through World War II, a time when residents of Spinalonga were spared the traumatic occupation by German forces that Cretans were forced to endure, and continues as Eleni's children, Anna and Maria, follow very different paths in romance and in life.

Victoria Hislop writes with warmth and sensitivity about Spinalonga's residents and the self-contained community they build together.  Although few expect to leave - a cure for leprosy seems far distant - the island, with its vibrant flowers and bustling storefronts, is far from the prison most of them envisioned.  The coming of a movie theatre and the founding of a newspaper means their minds are kept occupied and entertained. Georgiou, the boatman who ferries supplies out to the island, never forgets his beloved wife, though many of Plaka's other citizens feel ashamed of their connections with Spinalonga.  The island becomes a place of acceptance for people rejected by their home, and Eleni's determination to give its children a proper education is one of many moving triumphs.

Where The Island falters is in its characterizations, which aren't exactly nuanced, and its occasionally awkward writing style. The constant point-of-view switches, sometimes within the same paragraph, ensure a well-rounded epic story but startle with their abruptness.  Anna, Eleni's elder daughter, grows from a selfish, hateful child into a gorgeous, vain, and self-absorbed woman; it's a wonder anyone tolerates let alone loves her, but they do. Maria, her polar opposite, is a pure, gentle, and self-sacrificing soul, the epitome of kindness in all situations.  And Alexis's boorish fiancé, Ed... it's clear she'll ditch him in the end, but why would she have stayed with the guy for five years?  Despite the revelation of many family secrets, some mysteries still remain. 

After I settled in with it, the flaws became less noticeable, and I finished it in two days, which says a lot.  Other readers  have objected to the plethora of details on daily life, but I felt they enlivened the plot rather than dragging it down.  Not the tragic, depressing book one might expect with such a somber topic, this is a thoughtful, relaxing, even uplifting read for a lazy weekend.  If you're planning a trip to Greece, I'd definitely recommend it.

The Island appeared from Headline Review (UK) in 2005 and from Harper (US) in 2007.

Monday, November 01, 2010

A look at Rebecca Johns' The Countess

This wasn't a book I ever expected to read. I find most horror novels repellent, and although I'd long known of the infamous legend of Erzsébet Báthory - the Hungarian countess for whom the term "bloodbath" could have been coined - her life story never interested me at all.

Then an ARC of The Countess showed up in the mail unsolicited, and the back cover blurb piqued my curiosity. "Did her accusers create a violent fiction in order to destroy this beautiful, intelligent, and ambitious woman?" Hmm, this was a take I'd never heard before. Could she have been framed, a victim of a political conspiracy? Even Wikipedia, the font of authority that it is, said that it might be true, so maybe it was.

The setting was mighty intriguing, so I decided: If I had to read about the Blood Countess in order to learn more about the life of a powerful woman in 16th-century Hungary, I'd bear up bravely and skim over the gory bits. The authenticity of the character and place names, with their original Hungarian spellings, also impressed me. I opened the book and began reading the first chapter. Erzsébet's first-person life story begins in 1611, as she's being walled up in a room at Csejthe Castle as punishment for her murderous crimes. She addresses her account to her only son, whom she loves dearly. Her manner is proud and defiant; her voice is intelligent, even reasonable, and she denies any wrongdoing. Who wouldn't want to hear her out? And so I was well and truly caught, just like the hapless young noblewomen sent to the Countess's household by their trusting parents. By the time her true nature came to light, it was too late to turn back.

As her narrative continued, Erzsébet's account seemed so forthright and sane that she made me want to believe her. Sure, she exhibits a hint of cruelty early on, when she taunts a gypsy who's being put to death as punishment for selling his daughter to the Turks, but this was a brutal time and place. For example, even in childhood Erzsébet knows the unfairness of a woman's lot. Her mother, a three-time widow, is refused permission to remarry and takes to her bed in despair. Erzsébet's own arranged marriage to Ferenc Nádasdy, a union meant to cement an alliance between two of Hungary's highest-ranking families, is cold at first, and her redoubtable mother-in-law is hard to impress.

Erzsébet's power rises only later, after her unique punishment of a female servant causes her husband to look at her in a new light. They become soul mates of an unusual kind. She raises his children while he's off fighting Hungary's wars, and her beauty, even in middle age, attracts attention at the Viennese court. But after Ferenc's death, Erzsébet's luck turns. She takes lovers, but as a woman alone, without a husband's protection, she risks losing her fortune and lands - her son's inheritance - to whichever man has the ability to take them from her. Besieged from all avenues, she earns the reader's sympathy, an ambitious woman in a world ruled by men. So she establishes a domestic power base, with the help of some loyal women servants... and rumors of the goings-on eventually reach the outside world.

It takes careful reading, at first, to separate the rationality of Erzsébet's statements from the reality of her actions. Thanks to Johns's subtle rendering, readers see the gradual emergence of her character. The isolation of her properties - large castles surrounded by small villages and rolling farmlands, all vividly described - contributes to the starkness of the overall tone.

The Countess has a forbidding creepiness about it. The horror it evokes lies not in graphic depictions of violence (though there are a few) but in her casual attitude toward what she does - her belief that she's acting appropriately for a woman of her station. Which is more dangerous, the evil that makes itself obvious, or the one that appears in an appealing disguise?

I enjoyed her tale immensely, despite myself.

The Countess was published in October by Crown at $25.00/$28.95 Can (hardbound, 285pp). I meant to post this for Halloween, but time got away from me.