Friday, December 27, 2013

Book review: The Mountain of Light, by Indu Sundaresan

Indu Sundaresan’s newest novel opens with an author’s note on the events surrounding the 186-carat Kohinoor diamond’s controversial journey from India to England. It’s an unusual choice to include this information up front, but to her credit, the story isn’t any less dramatic for knowing its outline in advance.

What the author’s note tells, the rest of the novel shows. Gracefully written with an underlying somber tone, The Mountain of Light details the personalities, social concerns, and deeply felt emotions behind the politics.

Five distinct episodes are related in chronological order. In the first, set in 1817, Shah Shuja, the former ruler of Afghanistan, lives in Lahore’s lush Shalimar Gardens as a “guest” of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who sets the Kohinoor as the price of Shuja’s freedom. The last, set in a Paris apartment in 1893, focuses on Dalip Singh, Ranjit’s son, the deposed last ruler of the Punjab. As an elderly man, he looks back on his arrival in England nearly forty years earlier when, as a 16-year-old boy, he was forced to watch his empire being dismantled and the Kohinoor taken away. Tying all of the strands together are the glorious diamond and the tightening grip of the British and their East India Company on India.

Seen from the viewpoints of individuals from both countries, the stories are full of both great and foolish men; intelligent, forceful women; cross-cultural romances that don’t pan out; and promises that aren’t kept. While many of the British are sympathetic to the Indian people and realize the destructive effects of their presence (“We’re not a very friendly people, are we?” remarks Fanny Eden, sister of Governor-General Lord Auckland), the tragedy of their situation is laid bare. Even the guardians of young Dalip Singh, as kind and loving as they are to him, are left powerless against the forces of imperialism.

Along the way, the Kohinoor changes hands multiple times, by means of deception and theft or as a gift given under pressure. One suspenseful chapter takes the form of an adventurous mystery in which the diamond is stolen aboard ship as it’s secretly transported to England. The writing is lush yet focused, with vibrant descriptions of India’s beautiful landscapes and sumptuous treasures.

With its wide-scale historical perspective, The Mountain of Light may not be the best choice for readers who like attaching themselves to a single protagonist; as literary fiction, also, it deserves to be read slowly and carefully. Most of the characters once lived, which makes the reading an enjoyable educational experience. All in all, it’s an insightful and enlightening look at historical change and how one of the world’s largest diamonds came to take its place in the British crown jewels, a status that’s still contentious today.

The Mountain of Light was published by Washington Square Press/Simon & Schuster in trade paperback in October ($16.00 / $18.99 Canada, 314pp, plus detailed afterword, glossary, and readers' guide).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.  See also Indu Sundaresan's guest post on this site: The Journey of the Kohinoor Diamond.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My year-end wrap-up: 15 memorable reads of 2013

Over the past few weeks, I've enjoyed reading other bloggers' list of notable 2013 reads but have hesitated to write up my own list until nowmainly because December wasn't yet over, and I still had plenty of reading time ahead over the holiday break!  Now, as Christmas is nearly upon us and the year is truly winding down, I figured this was a good time for a year-end wrap-up post.

Here's a list of historical novels I read over the last year that I highly recommend and which stood out for one reason or another. I read many very good novels last year, so choosing them wasn't easy.  I decided to expand the list to 15 titles since narrowing it down to 10 left out too many I wanted to include.  I'll have more to say on a few of these books once the full reviews are published elsewhere.

Wishing all of you a happy holiday season and another good year of reading in 2014!

Susan Wittig Albert, A Wilder Rose - A meticulously researched, insightful look at a fascinating woman, Rose Wilder Lane, that grants her her rightful place as the ghostwriter for her mother's Little House books.

Patricia Bracewell, Shadow on the Crown - The author's skilled use of language and fine sense of dramatic timing brings to life the little-known story of Emma of Normandy, the “peaceweaver” bride of Æthelred II, King of England.

Jessica Brockmole, Letters from Skye - A romantic read set during both world wars that evokes the immediacy and intimacy to be found in the lost art of letter-writing.

Emma Donoghue, Frog Music - The seedy side of 1870s San Francisco features in this original literary mystery in which a French burlesque dancer pursues the killer of her only real friend, pants-wearing frog catcher Jenny Bonnet.  Watch for it next April.

Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, The Tilted World - A suspenseful, emotionally moving novel about the Great Flood of 1927 that resurrects this nearly forgotten natural disaster and showcases the talents of both authors, who have won awards for their fiction and poetry, respectively.

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things - A wonderfully old-fashioned epic, embodying the spirit of the transformative 19th century, that never tones down the intelligence of its scientifically-minded heroine.

Nancy Horan, Under the Wide and Starry Sky - Brimming with the same artistic verve that drives her complicated protagonists, this spectacular literary epic follows the loving, tumultuous partnership of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his Indiana-born wife, Fanny Osbourne.

Dorothy Love, Carolina Gold - A beautiful evocation of the life of a female rice planter in Reconstruction-era South Carolina who gradually comes to terms with her changing world; based on a true story.  Full review to come.

Henning Mankell, A Treacherous Paradise - The unique historical setting (1905 Mozambique) and courageous heroine distinguish Mankell's suspenseful standalone novel, which depicts the tragic effects of colonialism.

Mary Miley, The Impersonator - In her debut mystery, Miley takes a world that has vanished into the shadows of nearly a century ago 1920s-era vaudeville and pulls it back onto center stage.

Shona Patel, Teatime for the Firefly - In this immersive, romantic historical novel, the author's warm storytelling invites readers to the tea plantations of Assam in 1940s India.

Timothy Schaffert, The Swan Gondola - Magical wonders abound in the former frontier town of Omaha as it welcomes visitors to the 1898 World's Fair, and a ventriloquist falls in love with a beautiful traveling actress  Look for it next February.

Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan - A longtime book club favorite in which See consummately re-creates the inner lives, relationships, and rituals of women living in a remote province of 19th-century China.

Elisabeth Storrs, The Golden Dice - Recounting the perspective of three women of the warring lands of ancient Etruria and Rome, this second novel in a series (following the excellent The Wedding Shroud) offers a much wider view of the era than the first, and is an even stronger book as a result.

Victoria Wilcox, Inheritance: Southern Son, Book 1, The Saga of Doc Holliday - This first volume in a series reveals John Henry Holliday's little-known origins as a son of the Old South: a sensitive yet hot-tempered young man whose early life, in the hands of this talented storyteller, proves every bit as fascinating as his legend.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Book review: Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan

Horan’s spectacular second novel (following book-club favorite Loving Frank, 2007) has been worth the wait. Brimming with the same artistic verve that drives her complicated protagonists, it follows the loving, tumultuous partnership of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his Indiana-born wife, Fanny Osbourne.

Fanny, an aspiring artist still tied to her unfaithful first husband when they meet in 1875, is fiery, courageous, and the mother of two living children. Louis, a younger man whose frailty belies a joyous, energetic spirit, dreams of writing full-time. While he perfects his craft, she becomes his protector and editor-collaborator, accompanying him across Europe and America and finally to Samoa in hopes of healing his weak lungs.

This is more than just another novel designed to honor the unsung accomplishments of a famous man’s spouse, though. Equally adventurous and colorful, Louis and Fanny could each command the story singlehandedly. Together, they are riveting and insightfully envisioned, with moving depictions of how their relationship transforms over time. Horan also explores relevant social concerns, such as cultural imperialism and xenophobia, and how Stevenson’s life influenced his literary themes.

An exhilarating epic about a free-spirited couple who traveled the world yet found home only in one another.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky will be published by Ballantine in January (hb, $26.00, 496pp). I wrote up this starred review for Booklist's October 1st issue, then I reread the novel a second time in order to interview the author for next February's Historical Novels Review.  This is a long book, and it took me a good week and a half to read initially, time very well spent; I discovered many additional nuances upon a second reading.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Revolutionary Fiction: A Gallery of New and Forthcoming Titles about America's Founding

A story should, to please, at least seem true,
Be apropos, well told, concise, and new:
And whenso'er it deviates from these rules,
The wise will sleep, and leave applause to fools. 
Benjamin Stillingfleet, uncredited quote in 
Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack (1757)

A few years ago, when my library hosted a traveling exhibit entitled "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World," I put together a smaller exhibit on historical novels set around the time of the American Revolution.  To set off the display, which I called Revolutionary Fiction, I found a witty, relevant quote from Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack and included it on a placard alongside.  (As I discovered this week when trying to find the quote again, Franklin had actually borrowed the words of an English poet without crediting him, as many of his contemporaries did, but I hadn't known that!  I do like the quote regardless.) 

Just in the last year, many historical novelists have jumped onto the early American bandwagon.  While some have often made their home in this setting, such as Sally Cabot and Sharyn McCrumb, others are newcomers whose passion for their chosen period comes through on the pages.  I was also thrilled to see that Stephanie Dray, whose 3rd novel about Cleopatra's daughter Selene was published this month, will be coauthoring a novel about Patsy Jefferson, America's First Daughter, with novelist-historian Laura Kamoie.

If this is a new trend, it's a most welcome one in my view.  American settings often suffer from the perception that they're dreary and unexciting compared to those taking place in England or Europe, but nothing could be further from the truth!  Below is a gallery of nine new and forthcoming novels set during the Revolutionary years, and all present fresh angles on this iconic period.  If you enjoy this era, consider adding them to your reading list.

Benjamin Franklin – American patriot, diplomat, politician, writer, inventor – had an eye for the ladies.  In her fourth work of historical fiction set in early America (after three written as Sally Gunning), Cabot brings to life the little-known story of his illegitimate son William, who was raised by his stepmother, Franklin's common-law wife Deborah, and who took the Loyalists' side in the War of Independence.  William Morrow, May 2013.

Gabaldon's immensely popular historical fiction series needs no introduction, but the later volumes have served to introduce many new readers to the personalities and politics of the American Revolution.  The eagerly awaited 8th novel in her Outlander saga, a thousand-page doorstopper, opens in the year 1778, right in the middle of the war, as Jamie Fraser learns that his beloved wife Claire married another man during the time she thought he was dead.  From the blurb, Benedict Arnold is a major character here, too.  Delacorte, June 2014.

In Massachusetts in 1763, as revolution looms on the horizon, a learned young woman from a well-off background defies her family to pursue a relationship with a country lawyer with patriotic leanings.  I understand the plot is loosely based on the courtship of Abigail and John Adams.  Hedlund writes detail-rich romantic stories for the inspirational market, though mainstream readers can enjoy them too.  Bethany House, September 2013.

In her Ballad Novels, McCrumb has always delved deeply into the resonant folklore of the people from the Appalachian Mountains, but this is her first set during the Revolutionary era.  Here she recounts the heroic story of the Carolina Overmountain Men and of their leader, John Sevier, one of her ancestors.  Thomas Dunne, September 2013.

This debut novel imagines the life story of Deborah Samson, a strapping young woman from Middleboro, Massachusetts, who escapes her dreary life of toil in 1782 by disguising herself as a man and running away to join the Continental Army.  Myers' insightful novel is based on the extraordinary service of the real-life Deborah; I've read it and can recommend it.  Simon & Schuster, January 2014.

The name Peggy Shippen may not ring a bell for any but dedicated American history fans, but the name Benedict Arnold is another story.  Pataki's debut novel aims to change that; it reveals Peggy's role as the orchestrator of the plot that turned her decorated war hero husband into America's greatest traitor.  The publisher has been promoting the author's family connections (she's the daughter of former NY governor George Pataki).  Howard Books/S&S, January 2014.

This is the only Revolutionary-era novel in the bunch that isn't for sale in the US, which I find more than passing strange, especially considering it won the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger for 2013.  Andrew Taylor's historical thriller is set in Manhattan, a haven for British Loyalists whose lives were upended by American rebels.  Harper UK, July 2013 (this is the hardback cover).

In this romantic adventure novel set in Boston of 1775, a pirate's daughter takes her future into her own hands when she takes a British naval officer hostage on her family's ship in Boston Harbor.  Second in the Renegades of the Revolution series after The Turncoat.  NAL, March 2014.

Turner's new historical epic steps further back in time to the year 1729, when Resolute Talbot is stolen away from her Jamaican family and sold into slavery in Massachusetts.  As a talented weaver in the town of Lexington, she is ideally placed to play a major role in the coming revolutionary tumult.  The author's The Water and the Blood, set in '40s East Texas, is one of my favorite historicals, so my anticipation for this one is running high!  Thomas Dunne, February 2014.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Victoria Patterson's The Peerless Four, an inspiring look at sports and women's history

“I pulled a novel from my purse. Always, I had a book to read... I read to find out what it was like to be a man. To be Russian, Spanish, and French, to be a different race, to be royalty, dirt-poor, a wealthy New Yorker, a homesteader or a gold miner in the pioneer West… I read to find out what it was like in another’s skin.”

This may seem an odd way to begin a review of a sports novel. However, the wise words of Marybelle Eloise Lee “Mel” Ross, the tough yet perceptive woman who chaperones the Canadian women’s track team on their trip to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, explain why I wanted to read Victoria Patterson’s The Peerless Four. Competitive sports have only ever interested me as a spectator, so I wanted this novel to take me somewhere I’d never been: into the mindset of a group of young women whose determination and physical prowess took their world by storm.

It should be said up front that this work is more thoughtful than action-oriented. It celebrates the women’s accomplishments and provides glimpses of them in practice and competition, but it also succeeds in illustrating the social expectations for women in the '20s. The era didn’t treat its female athletes kindly.  They were seen by many as unnatural creatures who might damage their uteri through vigorous exercise, destroying their chances of motherhood. Five track events at the 1928 Olympics were opened to women on a trial basis, so the future of the sport rested on their young shoulders. That they developed the mental stamina that let them thrive in these controversial circumstances is, quite simply, amazing.

Mel, who narrates most of the story, is a great character, a former runner and sports reporter who reads novels and keeps a personal journal – and who also keeps a flask of whisky hitched to her garter for the times when she needs it. She relates well to her charges and helps keep them focused as they train for victory and make their way by ship from Toronto to Amsterdam. Mel has her own gender-based expectations to surmount, since her husband, a bigwig in Canadian amateur athletics, would have preferred her to stay home.

The young women, dubbed the “Peerless Four” by the media, travel in a group that also includes Jack Grapes, their cigarette-smoking, Cadillac-driving sponsor, an ex-hockey player himself, and their team coach. Each of the four speaks in a short biographical segment in the beginning, providing background details on her life.

There’s Muriel Ziegler, nicknamed “Farmer,” the popular team captain who gets dinged by the press for her “masculine” attributes but is the most independent and grounded of the four. She has a terrific outlook on life, and I just loved her. Ginger Hadley is the team’s star high jumper, the enigmatic “Dream Girl” whose gorgeous looks attract swarms of admirers but who hates their misplaced attention and withdraws into herself as a consequence. High school student Bonnie Brody is a runner whose love for her married coach nearly crushes her, and Flo Smith is a single-minded athlete and good team player who hates academics but adores sports.

How everyone copes with the immense competitive and social pressures they all face is the novel’s main theme. For these groundbreaking women, as Muriel puts it, “We had to work things out for ourselves. We were the first ones to try, so there was no one to copy.” As their inspiring tale unfolds, Patterson’s spare, concentrated writing contains many subtle yet unmissable touches of irony. In her account, Mel shares relevant newspaper clippings she'd collected – such as an 1886 article about a race for women in which the prize was a silver dinner service! She also retells an instructive story about a distant relative which, at 16 pages, is unnecessarily lengthy, but nothing else in this short work feels out of place.

I found The Peerless Four well worth reading for its convincing characterizations and its eye-opening look at what early women athletes had to overcome, and the paths they blazed for their present-day successors. That said, it's never stated that the characters are fictitious.  The 1928 Canadian women’s track team was actually called “The Matchless Six,” and Ginger Hadley is obviously based on Ethel Catherwood, the pretty “Saskatoon Lily” whose gold medal-winning high jump is shown on the cover (the photo description on the jacket gives her name).

This technique may have been ethically liberating for its author, and it doesn’t diminish the power of the writing, but the real Olympians whose lives are borrowed for the story deserve to be acknowledged in it. An author’s note would have gone far in preventing confusion between fact and fiction.

The Peerless Four was published by Counterpoint in October ($23.00, hb, 212pp).  Thanks to the author's publicist for sending me a copy at my request.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Bits and pieces: Staycation edition

Happy December!  Today's the last day in a five-day stretch where I did very little except read, sleep, eat, and go shopping a break I seriously needed. I don't normally get the chance to get this much reading done, but I've finished a book for every day I've been home.

First up was Mary-Rose MacColl's In Falling Snow, set at the Royaumont field hospital in France during WWI and in 1970s Australia. I wrote up my thoughts for the Historical Novels Review and will post them here later.

Next was Lynn Shepherd's A Treacherous Likeness, a twisting literary mystery in which London private detective Charles Maddox is asked by Sir Percy Shelley, son of the poet, and his wife Jane to investigate a case of blackmail.  This sets him into looking closely at members of the Shelley Circle and into his own family history.  The plot held my attention to the end, and the author was very clever in inserting her mystery into known events. All the same, I found some revelations historically unconvincing and the depiction of one real-life character ethically troubling.

Third was Barbara Davis' The Secrets She Carried, a family saga/mystery in which secrets (as you can guess from the title) from a small town in 1930s North Carolina emerge in the present day.  Just my type of thing.  This was a Kindle purchase; I hadn't requested a review copy for the HNR since I hadn't known the historical component was so prevalent, but since it was, I decided I should review it.

Finally, and to mark the halfway point in my TBR Pile Challenge, I read Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  By far it was my favorite choice out of the five I've read so far. It's the type of book that left me feeling somewhat dazed after I finished because I was so immersed in the story of Lily, her laotong bond of friendship with Snow Flower, and the author's consummate re-creation of the inner lives, relationships, and rituals of women in their remote province of 19th-century China.  It's easy to see why it was a bestseller and book club favorite. See has taken a place and time that very few outsiders know and made it not only accessible but movingly real. 

Now I'm on to a fifth book in five days, Victoria Patterson's The Peerless Four, about the Canadian women's track and field team in the 1928 Olympic Games, and hope to have a review up soon.

Some other news updates:

I learned some sad news via Facebook recently.  T.D. (Tim) Griggs, who contributed a guest post here in April ("The Boer War: Britain's Vietnam"), passed away suddenly in October.  Tim was the author of numerous works of fiction, most recently Distant Thunder, set in India, Britain, and the Sudan during Victorian times.  He had won a book in my giveaway for Small Press Month and, in the course of our correspondence, kindly offered to write a post for my site.  My sympathies to his wife and family.

I've been debating whether to commemorate Small Press Month again next March. If I do, I'll include some reviews of non-small press books during that time because removing an entire month from my blog schedule created a backlog, but I'm unsure how much effort to put into it otherwise.  Any thoughts?

On this topic, one of my more popular small press giveaways was for Sarah Kennedy's The Altarpiece, about a nun living through Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries; the author contributed a guest post in May.  Her book came out in paperback ($14.00) in October.

Finally, since I've gotten questions about this here and elsewhere on social media I did send a note to the Library of Congress via their website comment form about the "Puritan maiden's diary," with a citation and link to Mary Beth Norton's article.  It may be a little while until it reaches the right person and gets investigated by their staff, but I've found LC quick to respond to questions and comments in other instances and am hopeful that will be the case here too.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Puritan Maiden's Diary: The Early American Primary Source that Wasn't

As part of the requirements for the Plagues, Witches, and War historical fiction MOOC I've been participating in this fall, students were asked to complete an archival assignment.  We were to choose and describe a primary source new to us that we'd found in an online or bricks-and-mortar archive, then write a short descriptive essay about it – including, if we liked, details on how we might use it as the basis for a work of historical fiction.

The following essay isn't what I turned in for the class.  However, I found the background research for one archival item that I examined so startling and enlightening that I wanted to write it up for inclusion here anyway.  And so we have...

A Puritan Maiden's Diary:
The Early American Primary Source that Wasn't

The primary source I had initially selected for the assignment is entitled “A Puritan Maiden's Diary.” One of the education departments at Eastern Illinois University, where I work as a librarian, has a web page that links out to several online archives whose contents were judged useful for teaching purposes. One of them is the website of the Library of Congress, which has a section entitled Pages from Her Story that contains the text of women’s historical diaries, letters, and memoirs.

The first example in their list of resources, a diary written by a 15-year-old girl from Rhode Island in 1675-77, fit my interests perfectly. I’m originally from New England and especially enjoy reading about life in the colonial period. In addition, this particular diary called to mind Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing, one of my favorite novels about the era. Both recount culture clashes in Puritan times from the viewpoint of an educated young woman.

When I read the text of the diary, hosted at the Library of Congress’ American Memory Project, I was fascinated by the illustrative details this unnamed girl recorded, as well as her eloquence. Here’s the first paragraph, dated December 5, 1675:

I am fifteen years old to-day, and while sitting with my stitchery in my hand, there came a man in all wet with the salt spray. He had just landed by the boat from Sandwich, which had difficulty landing because of the surf. I myself had been down to the shore and saw the great waves breaking, and the high tide running up as far as the hillocks of dead grass. The man, George, an Indian, brings word of much sickness in Boston, and great trouble with the Quakers and Baptists; that many of the children throughout the country be not baptized, and without that, religion comes to nothing. My mother has bid me this day put on a fresh kirtle and wimple, though it not be the Lord's day, and my Aunt Alice coming in did chide me and say that to pay attention to a birthday was putting myself with the world's people. It happens from this that my kirtle and wimple are no longer pleasing me, and what with this and the bad news from Boston my birthday has ended in sorrow. (Slicer, 1894, p. 20)

King Philip, as interpreted by a later artist

In particular, the girl was a keen observer of King Philip’s War (the bloody Native American uprising against the English colonists in 1675-78, named after the Wampanoag chief Metacomet, who was called “King Philip” by the English). In her journal, she documented her family’s reactions to her uncle Benjamin’s (“Captain Church”) involvement in the fighting; her internal struggle between observing proper Puritan behavior and her desire to enjoy life; repairs to her family’s house; day-to-day events like preparing meals; and the contrast between her humble life in Rhode Island and that in Boston, where she was sent for her safety.

An excerpt from her words on the latter:

Through all my life I have never seen such an array of fashion and splendor as I have seen here in Boston. Silken hoods, scarlet petticoats, with silver lace, white sarconett plaited gowns, bone lace and silken scarfs. The men with periwigs, ruffles and ribbons. (p. 24)

The diary is presented by Adeline E. H. Slicer, a 19th-century historian, who wrote that she came across it in her travels. She published the contents in New England Magazine in September 1894. (Cornell University has the scanned images of Slicer’s article in their Making of America journal archive.) In her article, Slicer added her own editorial commentary and clarifications on what the girl wrote so her contemporaries would understand the historical background. To my mind, this “Puritan maiden’s diary” perfectly exemplified one of the themes Geraldine Brooks spoke about in her MOOC course lecture: that although customs change, human nature remains constant despite the passage of time.

I was also thrilled to see that Slicer, in her historical asides, mentioned the name of a colonial-era relative of mine, the Rev. James Keith of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, who felt sorry for the son of King Philip, a young boy who would likely be enslaved after his father was killed. (Rev. Keith was married to the sister of my direct ancestor, Samuel Edson of Bridgewater.) A search that began at my university’s website eventually ended at a resource that cited a member – albeit a distant one – of my family. How’s that for synchronicity? 

The Rev. James Keith Parsonage, West Bridgewater, Mass. 
When I worked at Bridgewater State College, I drove by this house all the time.

And yet... the diary somehow seemed too perfect. Over the next few hours, I began to have uneasy feelings about its provenance, even though its presence on the LoC website seemed to verify its authenticity. Basically, the girl helpfully noted so many things which later generations would likely want to know about that place and time, such as clothing, food and drink, religion, and larger events happening all around her but which she didn’t personally take part in. She seemed all too aware that she was writing for posterity.

She also described many situations that would make it easy for modern, secular readers to relate to her. As in: she told of how she wanted to fall asleep during a lengthy church sermon one afternoon. Slicer listed the diarist's name as "Hetty Shepard" in passing at the very end of her article, but with no details on how she found this information. She also never indicated where and how she found the journal, its physical description, or where it was kept. I also began to wonder whether a teenage girl from Puritan America would have written a diary in the first place.

So I began googling around for more information… and found, alas, just what I was looking for.

A message on a history discussion list from Brigham Young University’s Jenny Hale Pulsipher (2003) expressed her doubts about the diary, despite finding it in an online primary source database. “I am convinced that it is a 19th century invention,” Pulsipher wrote. “It is riddled with anachronisms, one of the most glaring of which is the diarist’s exact quotation of Benjamin Church’s description of Philip (Metacom) years before Church's account was written or published… [but] the few mentions of it that showed up on a general internet search seem to accept it as genuine.”

However, conclusive proof of the diary’s fabrication came from Mary Beth Norton, Professor of American History at Cornell – an award-winning scholar, incidentally, whose In the Devil’s Snare has the most persuasive argument I’ve read for the reasons behind the Salem witchcraft accusations. In an article for the Journal of Women’s History (1998), Norton demonstrates that the “so-called Puritan Maiden’s Diary” is unquestionably a fake written by Adeline Slicer herself.

Little Compton, RI (formerly Saconet), the supposed residence of "Hetty Shepard"
(and where her real-life uncle, Captain Benjamin Church, is buried)

The evidence is considerable: lack of genealogical connections between the family members included in the diary; the unlikely possibility that clerics named in the journal would have traveled to “preach to a tiny congregation in the wilds of Plymouth Colony” (p. 147); the surprising insider knowledge about events not widely known at the time; and several anachronisms, “the clincher” being the diarist’s citing of the date of an infamous Indian massacre using the Gregorian-style calendar – which wasn’t in use in the British colonies until 1752 (p. 148). Therefore, per Norton, the diary must have been composed after that year.

What was presented to me as a primary source dating from the 1670s turned out to be a primary source of a different kind from the 1890s – and a very convincing piece of historical fiction at that! Works of historical fiction not only evoke the period they describe, but also the time at which they’re written, and, as Norton has uncovered (and others have suspected), this one betrayed many clues to its true late 19th-century origins.

In conclusion, although the class's archival assignment didn’t turn out at all as I intended, it was still an instructive and eye-opening exercise. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that researchers, historical fiction writers included, need to be skeptical of the historical sources they find. Rather than taking them at face value, we need to trust our gut if they seem suspicious and thoroughly investigate the circumstances behind their creation.

Note: The original version of this essay stated that Slicer didn't include the purported diarist's name.  In fact, she does mention a "Hetty Shepard" in her final two paragraphs, but because the name was mentioned there in passing and nowhere else, I didn't immediately catch that she was referring to the supposed diarist there.


Norton, M. B. (1998). Getting to the source: Hetty Shepard, Dorothy Dudley, and other fictional colonial women I have come to know altogether too well. Journal of Women’s History, 10, 141-54. doi:10.1353/jowh.2010.0311

Pulsipher, J. H. (2003, Oct. 14). “A Puritan Maiden's Diary” by Hety Shepard. Message posted to

Slicer, A. E. H. (1894). A Puritan maiden’s diary. The New England Magazine, 17, 20-25. Retrieved from

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Book review: The Emperor's Agent, by Jo Graham

This invigorating follow-up to The General’s Mistress finds its heroine, Dutch courtesan-actress Elzelina Ringeling, aka Ida St. Elme, in a tough spot. It’s 1805 in Paris, and she’s being blackmailed by Fouché, the Minister of Police, into informing on people from her past. A crucial choice on her part brings her to Napoleon, who charges her with flushing out a spy who’s been feeding his invasion plans to England. Arriving in the coastal city of Boulogne, she finds herself in way over her head. There are many highly-placed suspects, and as she tries to scout for the traitor, she’s forced into the company of Michel Ney, her soul mate, who had previously left her to marry someone else.

Elza is one of the most distinctive characters in Napoleonic-era fiction. She is based on a real person whose provocative journals (Mémoires d’une Contemporaine) gained her considerable renown, and through her eyes, we observe both the feminine demi-monde as well as the camaraderie and banter among officers in the Grande Armée. A woman of her times, Elza acknowledges gender constraints while boldly fashioning her own way of life within them. Dressed as her alter ego Charles van Aylde – or in shedding her male garb when slipping into bed with an understanding lover – she can embrace the other side of her nature.

With this sequel, Graham brings readers fully into the realm of historical fantasy as her reincarnation themes become more prominent, and Elza comes to accept her clairvoyant abilities. One of the most enjoyable aspects is that the novel’s mystical tone isn’t limited to these scenes; the descriptive language simply glows as it awakens us to the realization that all around us is a place of marvels. Not only a beguiling story of political espionage, self-discovery, and deeply felt love in early 19th-century Europe, it also gives us a creative and enchanting way of envisioning these characters’ world.

The Emperor's Agent was published by Crossroad Press in September (290pp, $15.99 pb / $27.99 hb / $4.99 ebook).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

For the TBR Pile Challenge: The Betrayal of Maggie Blair, by Elizabeth Laird

Entry in the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge:  #4 out of 12

Years on TBR: 2

Edition owned: Houghton Mifflin, 2011 (hb, 423pp)

I haven't been keeping up well with the TBR Pile Challenge, with only four books read so far in 2013.  (I made an attempt with a fifth, Diana Norman's Daughter of Lir, but have put it aside.)  On my original list of twelve, I noted the following for Elizabeth Laird's The Betrayal of Maggie Blair: "YA historical about an accused witch in 17th-century Scotland... adventure, religious repression, and so forth.  I don't read much YA but should."

A brief synopsis: Maggie Blair, a sixteen-year-old orphan living in a ramshackle cottage with her sharp-tongued Granny on Scotland's Isle of Bute in the 1680s, narrowly escapes to the Scottish mainland after she and her grandmother are condemned as witches.  After reaching safety at her uncle Hugh's wealthy estate of Ladymuir, Maggie learns about her relatives' religious beliefs and political stance Hugh is a Covenanter who rejects the king's interference in the Presbyterian Church and unwittingly brings danger to their doorstep.

What impressed me:  The Scottish Lowlands in the late 17th century is a setting virtually untouched in fiction, and The Betrayal of Maggie Blair presents the reign of Charles II from a less familiar, revelatory perspective.  Here the king is a distant figure living in sinful splendor in London while denying his Presbyterian subjects the freedom to select their own bishops and worship as they choose.  Hugh Blair is a man of deep religious principles (he's a historical character based on the author's ancestor) who's willing to martyr himself for his cause.

I admired how Laird depicts her characters' strong faith and the moral conflicts it engenders.  Through Maggie's eyes, readers see how her uncle's choices, while they may be justified, negatively affect his wife and children. There are no simple answers, and other mature themes are presented as well, but Laird doesn't talk down to her readers at any point.  I also appreciated the book's dark, moody tone and the descriptions of the heather-covered hillocks and other aspects of the landscape as Maggie travels over land and water.

Maggie is an engaging and courageous protagonist who stays true to herself even when it costs her. She longs to be a wife and mother someday but knows her circumstances won't allow it so accepts it and gets on with her life.  Her conflicted relationship with her Granny feels realistic, and although Maggie finds one itinerant preacher attractive and charismatic, no romantic subplot is forced upon readers, something I found refreshing.

I was less enamored of some characters' actions (I underlined "really stupid behavior" twice in my notes). Nobody deserves to be accused or convicted of witchcraft, but with her habit of placing curses on people who make her mad, Maggie's spiteful Granny goes out of her way to attract her neighbors' suspicions.  Also, Maggie's aunt is extremely gullible, taking the side of a pretty, young stranger over Maggie's and not realizing she's nurturing a viper in her own household.
The jacket design evokes a fantastical atmosphere (and the girl's curvy, slender silhouette resembles a historical Bond girl more than a flesh-and-blood teenager), but there are no supernatural elements here, just a detailed exploration of Scottish folk customs and beliefs at this time and place.  Also, the plot is paced more slowly than other YAs I've read; it's not quite an exciting adventure but thoughtful and character-centered, which suits the storyline.

Finally, for me personally, there was one amusing glitch: one minor character is alternately called both Sarah and Susan.  This happens to me all the time!

Despite some frustrating moments, I recommend the novel for YAs and adults as a thought-provoking look at women's roles and people's complicated relationships with each other and with God in late 17th-century Scotland.  A note that in the UK its title is The Witching Hour.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Shona Patel's Teatime for the Firefly, a transporting novel of 1940s India

Looking at an unopened copy of Teatime for the Firefly, you may take it to be a delicate work of women's literature, something involving tea-drinking and love letters, perhaps with an international flair.  This is only partly accurate; while the cover reflects some of its subjects, it just barely hints at the vibrancy to be found inside.

Immersive and deeply romantic, Shona Patel's debut novel is a passport into the rich culture of Assam in northeast India, beginning in 1943 and continuing through the Hindu-Muslim conflicts.

Our guide is Layla Roy, who begins by telling us she was born under an unlucky star.  "Marriages in our society are arranged by astrology and nobody wants a warlike bride," she explains.  Thankfully, though, this is no cautionary tale about the dangers of avoiding one's fate.  Layla is raised by her enlightened grandfather, Dadamoshai, who believes in women's education and gives her the liberty to pursue her future which, to her surprise, includes Manik Deb, a handsome British-educated civil servant who is already engaged to another woman.  Just like Layla, Manik has a talent for directing his own destiny.

With a voice filled with honesty, warmth, and gentle humor, Layla speaks about her secret correspondence with Manik, her amazement at the marriage she never expected to have, and her adjustments to life as the only Indian memsahib on an immense tea plantation in the remote jungles of Assam. Patel seamlessly incorporates many details on the geography and traditions of her homeland to enrich the story, from the politics of leopard hunts to the garish makeup Layla's Spinster Aunt makes her wear at her wedding this was hilarious! to the tea crowd's denigrating treatment of a Scottish planter's Bangladeshi concubine.  The choices Layla makes for herself aren't without risk, but such is the nature of freedom, and of life.

The novel kept my attention from the first engaging sentence through the finale, which had me holding my breath during the more frightening moments.  And although I've never personally set foot in Assam or anywhere in India, it's a testament to Patel's generous storytelling that I felt completely welcomed into Layla's world.

Teatime for the Firefly was published by Harlequin/MIRA in October at $15.95 US/$18.95 Can (trade pb, 422pp).  I picked up an ARC at the publisher's booth at ALA this summer.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Thanksgiving by Ellen Cooney, a bountiful feast of historical holiday sketches

Ellen Cooney's new e-book release centers on the members of a single family, how they relate to one another and the world around them, and the changing modes of daily life in Dedham, Massachusetts, over a period of 350 years. Each chapter focuses on one woman or girl, bringing readers into her thoughts at a particular moment in late November as she helps prepare part of the Thanksgiving meal at the family home.  Its slices-of-history structure is Micheneresque in a way, although Thanksgiving is more domestically oriented and saga-like. 

Named after a holiday, and with chapter titles reflecting different years and the ingredients that make up a traditional New England Thanksgiving "1801: Cranberries," for example it could have come off feeling formulaic and gimmicky.  It isn't at all.

In the second segment, set in 1673, young Hester Morley would much rather be spending time drawing or watching her father whittling than picking seeds out from pumpkins before they're dried, cooked, or sold.  Over three centuries later, in 2012, another young Hester, visiting from Boston with her techie parents, thinks about her favorite movies, her iPod, and her diverse group of relatives while looking out at the kitchen window at her ancestors' graves.

In between, many other Morley women grow up, fall in love, marry, and mature into the matriarchal role that awaits them. The novel is full of memorable moments, and some funny ones, too.  For example, Lydia Morley hates that her husband has bought a box of new dinner plates from Worcester, England, at the height of revolutionary fervor in 1778.  Her curious and hungry children, being children, don't care.

Nothing has ever displaced supper before.

"Horrible battles were happening while that thing," says Lydia, pointing to the box, "was sitting in Boston.  Do you understand where it came from?  It came from the same people who killed Americans."

"Bunker Hill!" cries little Ira, clapping his plump hands together.  He's thrilled about standing on a chair in this extraordinary situation.  Then he nearly topples over when he screams at the top of his lungs, "CAN WE LOOK IN THE BOX NOW CAN WE CAN WE CAN WE?" 

The viewpoint characters in one chapter may become secondary characters in the next, and after they're gone they turn into memories which their descendants recall fondly.  This creates an image of the Morleys over time as a solidly woven, unbroken braid.  Cooney ensures that the Morley name continues over the ages even though some lines of descent pass through daughters rather than sons, and she presents these scenarios in ways that reflect the social concerns of each era.

Sparely told and replete with sensitive descriptions of relationships, including grandmotherly affection and the occasional awkwardness between mothers and daughters-in-law, the novel shows how family stories like the shooting of the original Morley turkey and the discovery of one woman's lost spectacles transform over decades, and centuries.  Each woman has only a short amount of time on the page (or e-reader screen, in this case), which may leave readers wanting more, but the character sketches are deft, with illustrative details packed into every sentence.

If you enjoy literary historical fiction, consider adding Thanksgiving to your e-bookstore shopping basket and curling up with it as the end-of-year holidays approach.  A caution against reading it when you're hungry, or you may find yourself heading to the store in search of pumpkin pie and warm, yeasty bread.

It can just as easily be read at other times of year, though, as its themes and images are universal.  "Tell me a story, he'd say, as if the past weren't the past, but something to enter the little space around them, as real as an object he could hold in his hands," reminisces Eliza Morley in 1726 about her son Caleb, now an adolescent who's grown apart from her... or so she thinks.  In Thanksgiving, these personal stories derived from history become as tangible and fresh as those of today.

Ellen Cooney's Thanksgiving was published in September by Publerati as an ebook in various formats ($4.99; see options at Publerati's website).  Thanks to the publisher for granting me access via NetGalley.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Scenes from the life of a wannabe artist, 1812: a guest post by Nathaniel Popkin

Today's guest essay is from Nathaniel Popkin, author of Lion & Leopard, who discusses one of his main characters, the duplicitous would-be painter Pavel Svinin, as well as the combination of creativity and truth involved in transforming historical personages into fiction.


Scenes from the life of a wannabe artist, 1812
Nathaniel Popkin

At the age of twenty-three in 1811, Pavel Petrovitch Svinin, a distant relative of the poet Lermontov, arrived in Philadelphia a minor official in the Russian consulate. Svinin, who imagined himself a painter from the Russian Academy, could speak English, which made him one of the few people suitable for the job. Almost immediately, he offered to a Philadelphia publisher some essays and pictures he claimed were his own, “taken from nature,” for a book on Moscow and St. Petersburg. The pictures were poorly executed copies, “exceedingly uneven stylistically,” as art historian Anneliese Harding, with herculean restraint, points out. In spring 1812, he exhibited a few of them at the annual show of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

In that same show, the painter Rembrandt Peale presented his much anticipated painting The Roman Daughter, based on an ancient story of a girl who allows her imprisoned father to suckle from her breast to save him from starvation. Rembrandt was the second son of the American art progenitor Charles Willson Peale, who made a habit of naming his children for European masters with the idea that his American copies would live up to their names (Rembrandt certainly believed the hype). Standing in the gallery, the flippant Svinin, already with a reputation as a braggart and windbag, offhandedly claimed that Rembrandt’s painting was no more than a plagiarism of a painting by Gérard, humiliating him in broad view. When forced to justify his statement, Svinin retreated.

Later that year, Svinin purchased fourteen watercolor sketches from another artist on the Philadelphia scene, the German immigrant John Lewis Krimmel. Svinin intended to use the pictures in a book he would go on to publish in Russia in 1815 called A Picturesque Voyage in North America. In the book, Svinin presents Krimmel’s pictures as his own (now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, these pictures, despite ample proof otherwise, remain assigned to Svinin). Moreover, in the same book, Svinin, who had left the U.S. to join French pro-royalists in battle against Napoleon, is withering in his attack on a Rembrandt painting of Napoleon on horseback, painted “as though to demonstrate that he had neither art, nor taste nor knowledge!” He continues, “There is nothing in this picture that is above censure. Yet the author of it is so vainglorious that he considers it a model of the art.” A sentence later, however, our insouciant Svinin reverses course on The Roman Daughter, calling it “a very good picture.”

All this takes place in my book Lion and Leopard, a work of literary historical fiction released this week by The Head & The Hand Press. My fictional Svinin, Rembrandt, and Krimmel are semblances, assuredly, of the historical figures as gleaned from the available record, perhaps as Rembrandt himself was a semblance of a lauded master.

But my interest in Svinin continues beyond his time in Philadelphia to his misadventures later on in Russia (indeed, I grant him a return to the U.S.). This period, as it turns out, was, fictionalized by the writer Nicolai Gogol in the 1835 drama The Government Inspector. It’s this fictional portrayal that came to color the Svinin of Lion and Leopard.

The year he published his rather fraudulent A Picturesque Voyage in North America, Svinin, still a minor bureaucrat, was sent to Bessarabia to observe village life (one wonders if it wasn’t an excuse to get the annoying man out of the capital). Thinking he was sent there on a military or political mission of some importance, the villagers plied Svinin with gifts and treated him to banquets, which he was more than happy to accept, as proof to himself of his outsized importance. Svinin played the naïve villagers for money and treats as he promised them advantages he could never deliver.

In 1821, having heard of Svinin’s misadventures, Pushkin sought him out for an explanation. Now Svinin claimed his own naïveté. Pushkin passed the story along to Gogol, who turned Svinin into Khlestakov, the title character of his first overtly serious work, The Government Inspector. Meaning “to lash” or “to prattle” or “to lie,” “Khlestakov’s very name is a stroke of genius,” says Nabokov, “for it conveys to the Russian reader an effect of lightness and rashness, a prattling tongue, the swish of a slim walking cane, the slapping sound of playing cards, the braggadocio of a nincompoop and the dashing ways of a lady-killer.” From scene eight of The Government Inspector (Penguin Classics edition, in translation from the Russian by Ronald Wilks):

Mayor: If it’s not too presumptuous… well, there’s an excellent room at my home, so cheerful, so quiet… But no—the honor would be too great! Please don’t be offended, I merely offered it all in sincerity, from the purist motives.

Khlestakov: On the contrary! I’d be delighted! I’d be far better off in a private home than in this dosshouse.

Mayor: It will make me so happy! My wife will be overjoyed. Yes, that’s the way I am. Ever since I was a child I’ve always tried to be hospitable—especially if the guest is a cultured gentleman like yourself. Please don’t think I’m saying this to flatter you. No: that’s not one of my vices. I speak from the bottom of my heart!

Khlestakov: Much obliged, I’m sure. And I’m like you—I’ve no time for two-faced people. I find your frankness and cordiality most gratifying. I do confess that I ask for nothing more out of life than devotion and respect, respect and devotion.

The Svinin of Lion and Leopard, a book whose central themes are originality and duplicity, naturally had to quote from Gogol’s Khlestakov. There’s a certain historical justification for this: Gogol’s 1835 version of Svinin is close to contemporary (Svinin died in 1839). But a work of literary historical fiction has three masters: history, fiction, and literature. As a version of history, it has to acknowledge a distant past that may not, as the Norwegian writer Karl O. Knausgaard has posited, be readily understandable. So it has to recreate that world and also pay heed to the distance between, say 1813, when Svinin left Philadelphia, and 2013. (In A Time for Everything, Knausgaard does so by having his biblical-era characters wear sneakers.) As fiction, of course, it has to conform to the narrative rules of conflict, reversal, and denouement.

As literature—or art, really—which grants the work certain cover from the necessarily specific pursuit of history, it must engage in the ancient conversation about letters—about man’s relationship to each other and the earth. One enters that conversation by quoting, riffing, devouring, plunging into the vast impossible library that came before and that will go on forever. This is an ancient practice. “An artist would adapt a pose or even an entire composition to his own story requirements, sometimes in the expectation that the theme of the earlier painting would help to explain the current meaning,” says Rembrandt Peale biographer Lillian Miller, in explaining the context of Svinin’s outburst at the Pennsylvania Academy show. Notably, Miller goes on to say that this act of quoting is the seed of creativity. Svinin, she says, “was attacking the very heart of the artistic process—the artist’s claim to inventiveness, to originality.” My Svinin, petulant and fatuous, tries to tear it all down.


Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press, November 12). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily, the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for the “Bookmarked” column for Art Attack/ and The Smart Set. Lion and Leopard is available from the publisher and via Amazon ($18.00, trade pb, 360pp).

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Book review: A Divided Inheritance, by Deborah Swift

This is the third work by historical novelist Deborah Swift that I've covered on the blog, and by now I know what to expect: consummate details on daily life and artisanship in 17th-century England, rounded characters, and sensitive evocations of faith, all wound together into a steadily paced plot about honor and redemption.

This isn't to say the books are otherwise similar, though, because they aren't. The distinctive characters grow and change throughout the course of each one, and her plots offer plenty of surprises.

This last holds true especially for Swift’s newest release, A Divided Inheritance. It begins in early Jacobean London but wanders down to Seville partway through – which adds an exciting new dimension to the story.

Elspet Leviston is the principal heroine. A loyal daughter and smart businesswoman, she’s an indispensable part of her father Nathaniel’s lacemaking operation, but he doesn’t recognize her worth. She also has to put up with threadbare carpets in their home and overly worn gowns; despite the success of Leviston’s Lace, her father is a skinflint. Then, when a man claiming to be her cousin insinuates his way into their household, Elspet's life begins heading downhill. Zachary Deane is a cloak-snatcher and general troublemaker who has an insatiable desire to become a master swordsman, and the training he wants isn’t cheap.

Nathaniel, thrilled to have a male heir to carry on his business, has good reason to believe that Zachary is his relative. He accepts him into the family and, after Zachary gets into one too many fights, sends him on a Grand Tour across Europe. Unfortunately for all concerned, Nathaniel passes away suddenly, and the will he leaves behind favors Zachary. This sets Elspet and Zachary against one another and forces her to travel south in hopes of confronting him and regaining in full the inheritance that’s rightfully hers.

One of the taglines on the cover is “a country divided by faith,” a phrase with a double meaning. In England of 1609, four years after the Gunpowder Plot, the Catholic Levistons must conceal a priest in their home as he travels from place to place. And in Philip III’s Spain, where Elspet rejoices that she can attend mass without censure, members of the Ortega family, conversos of Muslim heritage, see their neighbors carted away for cooking meat on Friday. During these troubled times, one person’s religious liberty is another person’s oppression, and this is just one of the subtle yet effective ways this concept is illustrated.

As the novel moves along, what seems at first to be a straightforward plot turns into something much richer and deeper. A story of familial strife and deceit becomes a multifaceted tale about the consequences of religious intolerance, the expiation of guilt, the importance of family, and the appearance of unexpected love. And swordplay! The action sequences are as sharp and dazzling as Zachary’s hand-forged blade. But I’ll say no more. The unpredictable nature of the second half in particular is another strength of the book, so I’ll save the full experience for others to discover.

A Divided Inheritance was published by Pan Macmillan in October at £7.99 (pb, 528pp).  This review forms part of the author's virtual book tour; thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.  See also my earlier reviews for Deborah Swift's The Lady's Slipper and The Gilded Lily.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Recent contest winners, and a note on cheating

Congratulations to the winners of the last two giveaways:

Daniel Kalla's Rising Sun, Falling Shadow has gone out to Lynn P.
Jenny Barden's The Lost Duchess will be going out to Katherine G.

Hope you'll enjoy the books!

Also: for the last few contests I've run, at least, it appears there's been some cheating going on.  Someone who uses multiple names and owns multiple email addresses and uses them to game the system has gotten careless, entering one of my giveaways with the same email but three different names.  I don't get such a huge number of entries that this isn't immediately obvious.  I also noticed these same names showing up with different emails for previous contests I've run.  Then when I googled one of those emails and found confirmation of the multiple aliases plus a heads-up from another blogger, well, it adds weight to the conclusions I've already drawn.  This is irritating, not to mention unfair to the other entrants. Accordingly, I've removed the offender's names from the pool and will be watching closely for others in future contests.

That's all for this public service announcement; back to more book reviews tomorrow.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Book review: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Brimming with verve, wit, and intellectual curiosity, Gilbert’s absorbing epic embodies the spirit of the transformative 19th century: an age of exploration, industrial expansion, and scientific discoveries which saw people pondering the links between religion and nature. Carrying readers through this sweeping novel of ideas is a singular heroine whose life suits these big themes perfectly.

Alma Whittaker is born in 1800, the daughter of Henry, a self-made English entrepreneur whose botanical import-export firm makes him “blisteringly rich,” and his practical Dutch-born wife, Beatrix. Growing up on her father’s large, isolated Philadelphia estate, Alma spends her days studying plants, which are described in loving detail. A brilliant scholar, yet unattractive and overly tall, she abandons hope for romance until, in late middle age, she meets Ambrose Pike, a talented orchid illustrator who shifts her life’s course.

The language delights from the get-go. “His penmanship was shamefully crabbed. Each sentence was a crowded village of capital letters and small letters, living side by side in tight misery,” it says of Henry Whittaker, scribbling his account of Alma’s birth in his ledger. Likewise, its structure is refreshingly old-fashioned. As the setting moves from England to America to Tahiti and elsewhere, the author narrates Alma’s lifelong coming-of-age journey in a sprightly voice full of compassionate wisdom. Some secondary characters’ personalities are beyond eccentric, but they certainly keep things entertaining.

Without getting preachy, Gilbert reveals much that readers can take away from Alma’s experiences. Everything Alma encounters has something to teach her, from the quiet strength of mosses to her surprising realizations about family members to her own body’s desires. Over the years, she adjusts her views as needed and always soaks up new opportunities. Her story honors scientifically-minded women while demonstrating that it’s possible to create a full life despite personal disappointments. The result is a novel that’s both edifying and very satisfying.

The Signature of All Things was published by Viking in October ($28.95, hb, 512pp).  The UK publisher is Bloomsbury (£18.99).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review; it was an Editors' Choice title.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Tomb Raider: Napoleon's Fascination with Egypt, a guest post by Anne Cleeland

Novelist Anne Cleeland is here today with an essay that explores the phenomenon of Egyptomania during the early 19th century and how it came about.  Her new novel Daughter of the God-King, just out from Sourcebooks, unites mystery, adventure, and romance in the story of Miss Hattie Blackhouse, a young woman who travels from Regency England to Egypt in search of her parents and turns up a trail of secrets.  Thanks to the author, I'm able to offer a giveaway at the end (US readers).


Tomb Raider: Napoleon's Fascination with Egypt
Anne Cleeland

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Europe in general and England in particular went through a craze for all things Egyptian. Regency drawing rooms featured crocodile-legged settees and lotus blossom wallpaper, while drawing room hostesses sported jewelry that imitated the geometrical designs worn by ancient Egyptian women.

Although the wonders of ancient Egypt had been known for centuries, this particular craze was largely instigated by General Napoleon Bonaparte, a master strategist and a master propagandist. In 1797, he suggested to France’s post-revolutionary leaders that he should lead a military expedition to seize Egypt, with the treble aim of protecting France’s trade with the Orient, disrupting Britain’s trade, and opening up a sea passage similar to the modern-day Suez Canal. Unspoken was the ambitious general’s desire to be seen walking in the footsteps of Alexander the Great and indeed, one of the reasons the French approved of the expedition was to get the power-hungry and popular general out of the country for a time.

Along with his military forces, Napoleon included nearly two hundred scientists and explorers, who were tasked with cataloguing the ancient monuments and in particular, the Pharaohs’ tombs that had so captivated the public. Among other achievements, this expedition is credited with discovering the western valley in the Valley of the Kings and the famous Rosetta Stone, the key that facilitated translation of the ancient hieroglyphics. Over the next dozen years, Napoleon’s expedition created a catalog of meticulous drawings and descriptions of the monuments, tombs, and treasures—the most ambitious one to date. As a result, Egyptian fashions became all the rage.

During his time in Egypt, Napoleon took every opportunity to cement his image as a great military leader; Alexander the Great was said to have spent time alone in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramids, and therefore Napoleon did, also. Before the Battle of the Pyramids, when the French defeated the native Egyptian forces, Napoleon is said to have exhorted his troops to remember that forty centuries of history looked down upon them.

Napoleon’s plans came crashing down when his navy was defeated by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, and once he realized he didn’t have the forces to conquer the area, he quietly withdrew back to France, to stir up trouble there. The legacy of his ambitions remained, though, and the ultimate irony was that most of the French-catalogued artifacts ended up in the British Museum, after the British established control in Egypt. Unfortunately for the rest of Europe, the undaunted French general then went on to other successes to offset his Egyptian setback, and the rest, as they say, is history.

From Anne Cleeland comes the second book in her Regency adventure series—Daughter of the God-King (Sourcebooks, November 2013).  The daughter of world-famous Egyptologists is living an uneventful life in England until her parents disappear while working their latest find in the Valley of the Kings. Suddenly, the various factions from Napoleon’s last war are pursuing her, and she must travel to Egypt to unravel the mystery. Along the way, she meets her parents’ enigmatic agent, who also appears to be pursuing her—although his reasons may be more personal than professional. What secret is buried in the tomb of the God-King’s daughter? The answer will change her life forever, and could set the world ablaze in yet another war. Please visit, or see on Amazon to order.

Anne Cleeland holds a degree in English from UCLA as well as a degree in law from Pepperdine University, and is a member of the California State Bar. She writes a contemporary mystery series set in New Scotland Yard as well as a historical fiction series set in the Regency period. A member of Mystery Writers of America and the Historical Novel Society, she lives in California and has four children. Her website is


Please fill out the form below for a chance to win a copy of Daughter of the God-King (US only).  Deadline Wednesday, November 13.
This giveaway is now closed.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Book review: Elisabeth Storrs' The Golden Dice, an epic novel of ancient Rome and Etruria

What's it like to be known as your country’s Helen of Troy? For Aemilia Caeciliana, called Caecilia, it means that her native Rome considers her the enemy, while the people of her adopted city of Veii in Etruria, her husband’s homeland, will distrust her no matter how many warrior sons she bears.

With Caecilia, one of three heroines of Elisabeth Storrs’ gripping epic of the ancient world, political matters have always had serious personal consequences, and vice versa. Her loving marriage may be mythologized as the capstone to an adventurous star-crossed romance, but there are two sides to her situation, and her uneasy plight can't help but evoke sympathy.

“The similarity of her own story to the Greek girl's always disturbed her,” Storrs tells us in thoughtful prose. “This morning her son had been enthralled by his parents’ story also. One day, though... he might see her as a traitoress who started a never-ending war.”

Opening in 399 BC, The Golden Dice takes place seven years into the Roman siege of Veii, an event allegedly sparked by Caecilia’s decision to return to her husband, Etruscan general Vel Mastarna. Originally given to Mastarna as a “treaty bride,” an event recounted in The Wedding Shroud, she had fallen in love with him and chose him over Rome even after the truce between their rival lands broke down – a betrayal neither city can accept. In reality, though, Rome has always coveted the abundant grain-producing Veientane lands and uses her defection as an excuse to wage war.

This second volume in the series offers a much wider view of the era than the first, and is an even stronger book as a result. Storrs introduces two intriguing new heroines who share the pages with Caecilia and whose lives come to overlap closely with hers. Semni, a 15-year-old potter in the Mastarna household’s workshop, finds that her promiscuity and poor decisions get in the way of a possible romance. And Pinna, a Roman tomb whore and hired mourner, uses all the tools she has, blackmail included, to escape poverty and become an accepted member of society. Their stories, while captivating in their own right, also present Caecilia and her family from angles not previously seen.

Caecilia and Pinna may be opposites in political allegiance and social status, but the novel makes clear that during these tense, trying circumstances, both women have everything to lose. Political forces are shifting in both Rome and Veii, and the Romans’ decision to wage war in winter increases the level of danger and raises the stakes for all three women and those they love.

Veii no longer feels as much like an alien place as it did in The Wedding Shroud. Caecilia is now a Rasennan matron, to use the adjective the Etruscans use for themselves, and has established a few good friendships. As such, many of its customs have become familiar and even welcome, the freedoms offered to women especially. This stands in contrast to Rome, where, as Pinna notes, “a girl’s existence was only officially recorded on her wedding day.”

However, the horrific rituals of the Calu Death Cult of Veii, to give just one example, mean that its culture will always retain some of its foreignness. Caecilia detests those rites and still misses her cousin Marcus back in Rome, hoping he feels the same way.  (He doesn't.)  While she loves her husband and children, neither civilization is a truly comfortable place.

The novel interweaves scenes of domesticity with those of politics, war, religious observances, and love and brings them all to life beautifully; none of these elements overwhelms the others. There aren’t many novels of the Roman world that provide such a comprehensive picture, which should give The Golden Dice great appeal for a variety of readers.

Whether seen from the viewpoint of soldiers on the field, or by Caecilia glimpsing the bloodshed from atop the high walls of Veii, the battle action is fierce and intense.  It also serves the greater purpose of developing character.  Moreover, Storrs' writing is just as dramatically powerful in its quieter moments.  She creates a haunting picture of a desperate young woman pondering her past and future amidst the Roman tombs at night, to name one memorable instance, as well as many heartfelt images evoking a mother's protectiveness of her child.


The Golden Dice was published in July by Cornelian Press in paperback ($14.00) and on Kindle.  There's a promotion currently running until the end of Monday, November 4th, in which the Kindle version is priced at 99 cents.  For more info, see the author's website at, my earlier review of The Wedding Shroud, and her previous guest posts on feminine power within Etruscan society and approaching Ursula Le Guin for an endorsement via snail mail.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

‘When Eden became Hell’ – the vision and plight of the first ‘Lost’ Colonists of Roanoke, a guest post by Jenny Barden

Jenny Barden, author of The Lost Duchess, is stopping by with an essay centering on what is perhaps the oldest unsolved mystery in American history: the unknown fate of the Roanoke colonists.  Using excerpts from primary sources of the time, she looks even further back to the colony's origins as a "land of plentie" and examines how this most promising of beginnings turned into disaster.  The photos included below were taken by Jenny during her research travels for the book, and the map of Raleigh's Virginia is also of her own design.

Thanks to the generosity of the author, I'm able to offer a giveaway of a signed first edition hardcover to a lucky blog reader - see the entry form at the end of the post. This contest is open worldwide. 

‘When Eden Became Hell’ – 
The Vision and Plight of the First ‘Lost’ Colonists of Roanoke 
Jenny Barden

The east coast of America was described in terms of wonder by Arthur Barlowe when he returned to England after his voyage of discovery in 1584. He wrote about taking possession in the name of Queen Elizabeth of the region now known as the Outer Banks of North Carolina and viewing it as: ‘So full of grapes, as the very beating, and surge of the Sea overflowed them, of which we founde such plenty… on the greene soile on the hils, and in the plaines, as well on every little shrubbe, as also climbing towards the toppes of the high Cedars, that I thinke in all the world the like aboundance is not to be founde.’

Ocracoke Shore - the scene at first arrival.

Barlowe described the native Algonquian Indians he encountered as: ‘most gentle, loving, and faithfull, void of all guile, and treason, and such as lived after the manner of the golden age.’ He was taken to the Island of Roanoke, behind the outer barrier islands, and entertained with every courtesy. Of this place he wrote: ‘The earth bringeth foorth all things in aboundance, as in the first creation, without toile or labour.’

Abundance - beach evening primrose on Hatteras Island

Inspired by this report, and motivated by a desire to emulate and curb Spain’s New World expansion, seize commercial advantage for England, as well as spread Christian enlightenment of the Protestant kind, Richard Hakluyt the younger wrote his ‘Discourse of Western Planting’ (meaning ‘planting’ English colonies) in which he extolled the wisdom of royal investment in another expedition and promised that ‘this westerne voyadge will yelde unto us all the commodities of Europe, Affrica, and Asia.’ He encouraged Walter Raleigh to lead the drive to establish English settlements in America for the glory of God and the Queen, and though Raleigh failed to extract the hoped for financial support, the Virgin Queen honoured him with a knighthood for championing her cause in the newly named ‘Virginia’. Two more voyages followed, with the aim of establishing a stronghold in the region, one which Hakluyt described as: ‘This paradise of the worlde.’

So when Raleigh’s colonists were recruited to form a permanent English settlement in Virginia under the governorship of John White (former expedition observer and a talented artist) they were charmed with the promise of going to a Garden of Delights – a new Eden where the living would be easy. Women and children were enlisted too, and men with the practical skills to create an enduring community, many of them tempted by the prospect of owning 500 acres of prime farmland. For a novelist, the resonance of this is compelling – these were people expecting to find a Promised Land; they were to be cruelly disappointed. Virginia was the Paradise that was to become Paradise Lost.

Grim reality only dawned on the settlers gradually. At first, on arrival in the summer of 1587, they were confronted with no more than a mystery, one of many mysteries that swept over Roanoke with successive attempts to put down English roots there, as if the landscape was periodically swept clean of invaders as effectively as by one of the hurricanes that are an ever present threat, leaving only sand and a few tantalising traces. We ‘walked to the North ende of the Island,’ wrote John White, ‘where Master Ralfe Lane had his forte, with sundry necessarie and decent dwelling houses, made by his men about it the yeere before, where wee hoped to finde some signes, or certaine knowledge of our fifteene men’ (meaning the men subsequently left by Sir Richard Grenville). ‘When we came thither, wee found the forte rased downe, but all the houses standing unhurt, saving the neather roomes of them, and also of the forte, were overgrowen with Melons of divers sortes, and Deere within them, feeding on those Mellons.’

Reconstruction at Roanoke Island Festival Park

That stark description brings the scene to life: the image of tranquillity overlaying signs of disaster – deer feeding on melons which had overgrown a ruined fort and abandoned houses. What had happened? White only began to find out after the bones of ‘one of those fifteene’ were discovered, ‘which the Savages had slaine long before,’ and one of the colonists was brutally murdered a few days later. The man’s body was found shot through with arrows with his head beaten ‘in peeces’ by wooden swords. He had been wading alone in the shallows not long after arrival, ‘almost naked’ equipped only with a forked stick for crabbing: a picture of someone relaxed and oblivious to danger who encountered horrific violence without any warning. The friendly Croatan tribe eventually provided an explanation by accusing the Roanoke tribe and others led by Wanchese for both crimes.

Here the mystery within a mystery becomes even more intriguing because Wanchese was one of two Indians brought back to England by the Barlowe expedition; the other was Manteo, who returned to England twice and became a loyal ally. But as much as Manteo’s love for the English grew, Wanchese’s hatred deepened, and his knowledge of English ways only made him more effective as an enemy. If Virginia was once an Eden, in these two, perhaps, we can see a mirror of Cain and Abel: two brothers in race, one murderously turning on the other with catastrophic consequences.

The Elizabeth at Roanoke

The true story has endless fascination for its parallels and significance, and it provides rich material for a novelist not least because the real conclusion remains unknown. This is the larger mystery. White left Virginia less than six weeks after arriving and was unable to return for three years; when he did, he found Roanoke Island deserted and bad weather curtailed any attempt at widening the search. The fate of the ‘Lost Colony’ has remained an enigma ever since. White returned to England and died never knowing what had become of his daughter, Eleanor, or his grand-daughter, Virginia Dare, the first child of English parents to be born in America. ‘My last voyage to Virginia… was no less unfortunately ended than forwardly begun,’ he wrote to Richard Hakluyt in February 1593, ‘I leave off from prosecuting that whereunto I would to God my wealth were answerable to my will.’

For the colonists left on Roanoke their predicament must have been truly terrifying. Short of food and surrounded by hostile native tribes, they would have faced a dire dilemma – to remain behind their defences, in their houses, and try to fend off likely Indian attack whilst eking out an existence through the winter with the supplies that remained to them – or relocate to another area where they would have had to start from scratch, improvising shelters, and face even greater uncertainty in finding sustenance and friendship with other native tribes. Perhaps they went to Croatoan, which was where the signs found by White suggested they had fled (though their allies were known to have no food to spare). Perhaps they crammed into the pinnace and the few boats left to them and made for Chesapeake Bay area (which was their intended destination before the expedition pilot insisted that they disembark at Roanoke). Possibly they made for some other site inland, such as the base marked with a cryptic fort symbol for centuries hidden under a patch on White’s Virginea Pars map.* They might even have tried to sail back to England. We’ll probably never know for certain which course of action they took.

Bald Cypress
What had happened to turn the ‘gentle, loving’ Indians into fearsome enemies? The Lost Colonists seem to have been unaware of what Ralph Lane’s men had done to alienate Wanchese and his followers, but there is little doubt that the Roanoke and Choanoke tribes had good cause to feel bitter. Problems began with the constant demands for food from Lane’s garrison, manageable at first, but not so easily dealt with after the poor harvest that followed Lane’s arrival – his men were soldiers, unused to providing for themselves. The Indians were also upset that the English (whom many believed to be dead men reincarnated) appeared to have the power to wipe out whole villages by magic (the Indians began to die after contracting mysterious diseases – probably measles and smallpox that the newcomers brought with them).

Eventually, the chief of the Roanoke tribe, Wingina, took his base from the island to the mainland, severed communications, and destroyed the Indian fishtraps that the English had come to depend upon. In the ‘land of plentie’, Lane’s men were reduced to scavenging for shellfish and berries. Fearing attack while in a weakened state, Lane decided to strike first. He claimed to have discovered a plot to annihilate the English from the son of the king of the Choanokes whom Lane held as a prisoner.

Lane took control of all the boats and canoes on Roanoke, killed as many of the island Indians as he could find, rowed across to the mainland and asked for a council with Wingina, then fired on the unsuspecting chief and his elders. Though wounded, Wingina escaped into the forest, but was tracked, captured and decapitated. Lane later wrote: ‘Others were busie that none of the rest should escape.’

A few days after the massacre, Sir Francis Drake arrived on his way back from the sacking of Santo Domingo and raiding Spanish forts in Florida. Drake offered relief, then, after a wrecking storm blew up, evacuated Lane’s entire garrison. Lane was spared having to face the wrath of the Indians intent on vengeance for his depredations – that burden was to fall on Grenville’s fifteen and the Lost Colonists. The ‘paradise of the worlde’ had effectively been poisoned – Eden had become Hell.

Roanoke mud flats

* This patch came to media attention on both sides of the Atlantic last year when it was found to mask a fort-like icon: see articles in the New York Times and Telegraph.

** Quotations are from the original accounts as reproduced in The First Colonists: Documents on the Planting of the First Settlements in North America 1584-1590, edited by DB Quinn and AM Quinn

*** All pictures copyright Jenny Barden


Jenny Barden's second novel, The Lost Duchess (Ebury Press/Random House UK), an epic Elizabethan adventure-love story set against the backdrop of Raleigh's 'Lost Colony' of Roanoke, will be released on 7 November and can be pre-ordered from Amazon UK.

Emme Fifield has fallen about as far as a gentlewoman can.

Once a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, her only hope of surviving the scandal that threatens to engulf her is to escape England for a fresh start in the new America where nobody has ever heard of the Duchess of Somerset.

Emme joins Kit Doonan's rag-tag band of idealists, desperados and misfits bound for Virginia. But such a voyage will be far from easy and Emme finds her attraction to the mysterious Doonan inconvenient to say the least.

As for Kit, the handsome mariner has spent years imprisoned by the Spanish, and living as an outlaw with a band of escaped slaves; he has his own inner demons to confront, and his own dark secrets to keep...

Ever since Sir Walter Raleigh's settlement in Virginia was abandoned in 1587 its fate has remained a mystery; The Lost Duchess explores what might have happened to the ill-starred 'Lost Colony' of Roanoke.

More about Jenny and her books can be found on her website:


Please fill out the following form for a chance to win a signed first edition hardcover of The Lost Duchess.  Open worldwide.  Deadline Saturday, November 10th.  Good luck!

(This giveaway is now closed.)