Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Wedding Shroud by Elisabeth Storrs

The Wedding Shroud

Review by Tracy Falbe

Elisabeth Storrs resurrects the lost world of the Etruscans in her masterful novel The Wedding Shroud set in 407 B.C. Long overshadowed by the Romans, the earlier Etruscan culture of ancient Italy is brilliantly revealed through the eyes of the novel's heroine, a young Roman woman named Caecilia. The daughter of an awkward plebian and patrician union, Caecilia is used to seal a peace treaty between Rome and Veii, a nearby Etruscan city. Her scheming male relatives force her to marry Vel Mastarna, a powerful and wealthy Veientane, and Caecilia is carried away to her new home. Veii is only twelve miles from Rome, but it is a world away for Caecilia. The author convincingly illustrates how small an individual's personal world could be in earlier times, especially a girl raised within the confining patriarchy of Rome. Although the ancient Mediterranean world was cosmopolitan and some people were well traveled, most were like Caecilia, who finds herself within an utterly foreign culture a mere dozen miles from her native home.

Once Caecilia arrives in Veii, the informative historical contrasts between Roman and Etruscan cultures are revealed through detail-rich prose. Caecilia has been raised within the austere and outwardly puritan Roman culture that values sacrifice, duty, and war. In Rome, women are nearly cloistered within their homes. They wear plain wool clothes, are forbidden to drink wine, and are not allowed to join the serious conversations of men. With such a background, Caecilia immediately finds Veii to be a constant moral outrage. Men and women mingle. They wear flamboyant and immodest clothes. They eat rich fancy food. Women can drink and debauch at banquets right alongside their men.

But some things are a pleasant surprise for Caecilia in her new household. She is given a slave, Cythergis. Never was such a luxury granted to Caecilia in Rome. And Caecilia is expected to hold audiences with her husband as his tenants and other guests petition him. In Veii, women have status and respect and are allowed to indulge in the luxuries of life. They might even be worthy of a funeral banquet and honorary games, which astounds Caecilia. She welcomes some of the nice things about life in Veii and is gradually tempted by darker forces in a society where most anything goes.

Despite her elevated status, Caecilia is not a truly liberated woman. The differences in female oppression between Romans and Etruscans are a matter of degree. Although Caecilia is free of the mind-numbing denial and drudgery of a Roman matron, she is still the possession of her husband and her paramount purpose is to produce an heir for Mastarna. This fictional study of female status is carefully crafted by Elisabeth Storrs. Delicate comparisons are presented through the characters of Erene, the courtesan, Caecilia, the proper wife, and Cythergis, the slave woman. All three types are dependent on men and under their control. Erene is strictly for pleasure. She is more than a slave but less than a wife. As a wife, Caecilia is allowed sexual pleasure by Etruscan culture with her husband with the great purpose of procreation looming above all. Most miserable is the slave woman Cythergis, who has endured having her children sold. Although Cythergis enjoys men, she hopes to avoid more pregnancies so she can stop breeding slaves. The nuances of the difficult lives of these three ancient women are touchingly revealed.

Complex relationships in The Wedding Shroud are the ships upon which the story flows. Caecilia struggles to adapt to her new and foreign household where Val Mastarna and his brother Artile, a powerful priest, vie for the affection and approval of their mother, Larthia. The adopted son of Mastarna, Tarchon, is also embroiled in an inappropriate sexual relationship with Artile. The priest is a constant source of meddling within the family, and he soon sinks his painted claws into the vulnerable Caecilia and begins to control her with religion and addictive drugs.

The character of Artile serves to educate the reader about the practices and corruptions of ancient religions. His power is great and even the educated elites are swayed by his interpretations of signs, with the notable exception of his brother Mastarna. Although the Etruscan culture has technology and fine artistry, it remains like all ancient cultures steeped in superstition. The imprint of the primitive world remains deep and fresh despite the presence of architecture, music, metallurgy, writing, and mathematics. Animal sacrifice is commonplace with the most horrifying example shown in wild rites that culminate with the tearing up and eating of fawns. And then as part of a funeral rite, a criminal is savagely executed by having a maddened dog set loose on him.

All of this assaults the sensibilities of Caecilia, whose sheltered upbringing as a female among joyless Romans, leaves her reeling with disgust. Amid the carnal abandon of Veii, Caecilia's husband Mastarna represents a rare force of rationality and affection. Frustratingly Caecilia too often rebuffs his attempts to help her adjust. As the reader, I often wanted her to be more accepting of Mastarna because he really was a relatively nice person, but Caecilia's turmoil and many mistakes are understandable. She is young, inexperienced, and alone in an alien culture. This formula usually adds up to poor choices.

I could write another thousand words exploring the subtleties of this novel without giving away any spoilers. Storrs presents a tremendous amount of research in a gripping story with characters that all feel genuine. Her writing has a literary quality packed with artistic descriptions and intelligent metaphors. For example, from page 79: "It was as though she had kicked the top off an ants' nest and found another world of industry and intricacy and purpose foreign to her own, exposing herself also to the danger of being bitten." The whole novel flows like a coastal Mediterranean wind and supports an unfolding narrative with the strong reach of a thick grape vine. I was drawn in completely to the emotional edginess of Caecilia and pined for her to accept her unwanted love of Mastarna. The Wedding Shroud is not purely a psychological journey. Episodes of visceral action punctuate the unfolding drama, like the breathtaking chapter in which Mastarna recklessly wrestles an Olympic champion. I highly recommend The Wedding Shroud to historical fiction readers. Elisabeth Storrs has created a wonderful novel from a willing marriage of her historical research and writing talent. 

The Wedding Shroud is available in the Australian market. Hopefully the publisher will make it available in North America soon.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

To Serve a King by Donna Russo Morin

Reviewed by Mirella Sichirollo Patzer

To Serve a King by Donna Russo Morin is a novel of 16th century France. The heroine, Genevieve Gravois, believes she is the sole survivor of a fire that killed both her parents. Her aunt and King Henry VIII of England both tell her the fire had been set by the King of France, Francois I, and from that moment on, a deep hatred for the French king takes root inside the young girl’s soul. As she grows to womanhood, she swears fealty to King Henry, and in return, he educates and trains her to one day become his spy. Genevieve learns to cipher and decipher secret codes and learns to skilfully arm and defend her life with various weapons. Finally, Genevieve is sent to take her place in the court of her enemy, King Francois. There, she immerses herself into the highest levels of the French court, and begins her secret duties as a spy for the English king, sending him secret missives about politics and the actions of the French king. As her life becomes more and more immersed into the opulence and intrigues of the court nobility, Genevieve slowly comes to the realization that all is not as it seems – those who she believes are enemies are not always adversaries and her friends cannot always be trusted.

In the novel, To Serve A King, Donna Russo Morin brings to life the affluence and magnificence of the 16th century French court. Important persons of the era make appearances in the story; from Nostradamus and the infamous Diane de Poitiers, to Catherine de Medici and Anne d'Heilly, lending credibility and historical detail to the story. As the tale unfolds, the heroine progresses from a determined young woman obsessed at revenge, to one who begins to question her own values and beliefs as loyalties are tested and secrets revealed. Numerous interesting character interactions and intrigues hold the reader's interest throughout the story. The chapter endings are exquisite, and hook the reader to turn the page to read more.

This novel sweeps readers into a turbulent time and takes us into the court of King Francois of France who surrounded himself with the best art, music, and artists of the time.  What I enjoyed is although the Tudors are part of the story, they, for once, are not the focus.  I liked the author's portrayal of the King of France's portrayal, for even though he is the heroine's nemesis, he comes across as kind hearted, heroic, and magnaimous, which is how I believe he truly was viewed by his people.

Impeccably researched, and strewn with delightful descriptions of clothing, furniture, and the aromatic foods of the period, one cannot help but truly enjoy the experience that comes from reading this novel. The reader is drawn by the strength and determination of the affable heroine. From laughter and joy, to sadness and fear, the reader experiences a realm of emotions as the heroine outwits her adversaries and dodges danger as she learns the real truth about her past. For anyone who loves historical fiction with feisty heroines set in majestic surroundings, this make a very satisfying, enjoyable read. Like all of Donna Russo Morin’s novels, this one is sure to entertain.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Thou Shalt ‘Get Kings by Mercedes Rochelle

In Thou Shalt ‘Get Kings, author Mercedes Rochelle examines the legendary origins of the Stuart Kings of Scotland and England, with her protagonist Walter. From the pages of William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, a father and son, Banquo and Fleance are late to King Macbeth’s banquet. On their journey, Banquo meets a treacherous end but Fleance escapes into Wales with the help of a boyhood friend. He settles into the court of the Welsh King Gruffydd ap Llywelyn at Rhuddlan. An illicit relationship with Gruffydd’s daughter Nesta results in the birth of their only child, Walter.

Despite the circumstances of his birth, Walter has an impressive heritage on his mother’s side, with the Welsh King as his grandfather and Aelfgar, the Earl of East Anglia as his great-grandfather. Still, Gruffydd shuns him and the boy grows into a warlike young man who struggles to control difficult emotions. When anger gets the better of him and culminates in murder, Walter flees to England, looking for Malcolm, rightful heir to the Scottish throne. He finds the man but also has a chance encounter with an enigmatic Harold Godwinson, destined to be the last Anglo-Saxon King. Walter’s journeys take him north to Scotland before a quick return to Wales. He also visits northern France, for life-changing encounters in Brittany and Normandy that will bring him back full circle to the past, and lead him to his destiny.

Readers who are familiar with Welsh history should keep in mind that the premise of Thou Shalt ‘Get Kings is primarily based on Stuart legend, interwoven with factual events of the time. What began as the story of Walter’s origins quickly becomes a view of the medieval world from varying historical perspectives, including the kings Gruffydd ap Llywelyn and Malcolm III of Scotland. The story takes the reader on a journey through a tumultuous period with varying stakeholders. Walter’s heritage and random circumstances grants him cachet for a personal interaction with several of these individuals. The author’s use of the omniscient POV allows a glimpse into the potential motivations of each character.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An Interview with Bo Caldwell, author of City of Tranquil Light

I'm delighted to say I was allowed to interview Bo Caldwell, author of "City of Tranquil Light."

1. I know you based the novel on the experiences of your relatives, but I noticed you also referred to other missional memoirs like "The Small Woman," so I wondered throughout the novel if you used true events that were related to you. If so, what events were real? 

It's very hard to go back and recall exactly what was fictional and what was true.  That said, even when I made up characters and events, I worked at keeping them true in spirit to what happened to the missionaries I read about.  For example, the threat of bandits was very  real, and although I made up "my" bandit, he was based on individuals I read about.

2.  What suggestions would you give to those interested in entering the missions field?

I really don't feel that I'm an expert on missionaries or the mission field -- I would only say what I would say to anyone about pursuing such a demanding commitment:  to do all they can to be sure that God is calling them to the work, and  not their egos or pride.

3. Have you done any other books on this topic or in this setting?

My first novel, The Distant Land of My Father, was based on the life of an uncle of mine, who lived much of his life in Shanghai.  The novel takes place in Shanghai and Los Angeles from 1937 to 1961, and in that respect, it's a prequel to City of Tranquil Light, though it's not based on the same characters.

4. If you had one hope to express for this book, what might it be? 

If you mean one hope about what comes from the book, I would say that it would mean a great deal to me if the book gave people hope -- hope that joy is always possible, even after great loss, and even late in life.  I believe that it's always possible that the best is yet to come.

Thanks so much for the inspiration and joy I received from your book, Ms. Caldwell and for the opportunity to chat.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Winner of Stephanie Dray's Lily of the Nile is...

Reiloh! Congratulations, and thanks for stopping by the blog last week to leave your comment on Stephanie Dray's Lily of the Nile. Please contact Stephanie to receive your free, signed copy of the book.

The Spurned Viscountess by Shelley Munro

Reviewed by Mirella Sichirollo Patzer

Take a gothic castle, a dark mysterious viscount, and a mystery surrounding a murder, and some paranoral elements, and you've got a fun romantic who-dunnit. 

This light-hearted gothic romance is set in Georgian England in the year 1720. Rosalind is a young woman blessed with a second sight. As she travels to wed her future husband, Lucien Viscount Hastings, a brooding widower, she experiences flashes of his previous life with another woman. Upon arriving at her destination, she meets Lucien, a mysterious man who offers to release her from their impending marriage.  Yet she is determined to marry him and build a family with him.  

As Rosalind begins to piece together the puzzle of Lucien’s secret past and tries to unravel the mystery of who murdered his first wife and unborn child, she faces a round of strange accidents and disturbing circumstances, including the sudden disappearance of her maid. All the while, not only is Lucien concerned with protecting Rosalind, but he struggles to overcome the amnesia that blocks his memory so he can find a man named Hawk whom he suspects is the killer. Together the couple confront dire situations, risking their lives time and time again, until they reveal the secrets of the past.

If you are looking for something easy, this is a very straightforward, enjoyable read, ideally suited for adolescents into the world of historical romance or for adults who simply want to indulge in pure escapism.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell

City of Tranquil Light: A Novel     City of Tranquil Light is a novel based on the lives of the author’s maternal Aunt and Uncle. The fictional story of Will and Katherine Kiehn is so moving that I devoured the first 111 pages in a single sitting. After that, I continued to read, but many times with the greatest agony.
     Not because the writing turned to a lesser quality, but because the characters' little girl died. As the couple work through their grief, there are questions raised with such honest poignancy that I could not read more than one paragraph at a time because I wept so hard. Anyone who has ever grieved deeply will feel the depth of Katherine’s despair in her talk with God:

     “We buried our daughter yesterday, and I am brought up short by the harshness of Your ways. I have given my all for You and in return you have taken the gift I love most – my sweet child. But perhaps I loved her too much I am mistaken; perhaps I haven’t given my all, but have held something back. Did I love her more than You? I know you are a jealous God, but are You that jealous, that You would take the other object of my devotion? I feel broken, as though there is a great gash inside of me, and my only prayer is a question: ‘What have You done?’ I ask not from anger, but from confusion, for I truly do not understand.
     Perhaps You are a flawed God, imperfect as we are. We are, after all, made in your image. Perhaps it was not Your intention to take Lily, but your inattention. Did You look away for a moment?  Was your mind elsewhere? Many times a day I ask myself what else I could have done and search for some mistake I made.  But perhaps You are at fault, not I. It seems there is so much You could have done.”

     Who among us who has met with loss hasn’t asked these questions?  It is the first of many tragedies they live through, but Mrs. Caldwell allows us to see the glory and wonder of how God can work. The man who stole the medicine that might have saved Lily’s life comes to Will Kiehn and demands – at gun point – that Will treat his son.
     Will knows what this man’s banditry has cost him and I’m sure many of us might tell this bandit where he and his murderous son could go. Will doesn’t. He heals the son and the bandit’s men and earns their trust and gratitude before he’s allowed to return to his wife. Before he does so, he shares the Lord’s Good News with his captors both through the bible and through his actions, but Will's forgiveness is a long way away.
     Time continues and the bandit’s son goes on a murderous rampage, after which he is captured, tortured and executed. The bandit returns to Will and in an amazing scene filled with the bereft father’s sorrow and humiliation, the bandit chief turns himself in as justice for having raised a shameful son. He is beaten and awaiting trial when Will brings him food and medical treatment. Neither man expects the bandit to survive, but God's ways are mysterious and wonderful.
     Their lives intertwine throughout the novel, which is a must read for anyone interested in China, missional history or the mission field. If the tremendous losses and beauty in City of Tranquil Light kept me by my tissue box, the heroism, faith and selflessness displayed by Caldwell’s characters kept me reading. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Interview: Stephanie Dray, Lily of the Nile

We are pleased to welcome Stephanie Dray, author of the upcoming Lily of the Nile.

Please tell readers about yourself and your background.

If you walked in my front door, the first thing you'd see is a pair of pillars. Then you might notice some Roman paintings on my walls. Downstairs there’s a room dominated by an Egyptian carpet and a statue of Isis. In short, I’m serious about my passions and immerse myself in them. I’m a feminist, a lover of history, and a collector of cats. I think all that shows through in my writing.

What inspired your interest in Egypt’s Ptolemaic period?

The Ptolemaic period was a time of transition, a period in which women reached unprecedented levels of power. While Cleopatra is the best known example, her ancestresses were extraordinary, too. In fact, recent research suggests that Arsinoe II may have been a female pharaoh in her own right. I think it's important for women to remember how far we've come, but also, that there have been setbacks in the past and there may be again.

Lily of the Nile is your most recent release. Please tell us about the story.

Cleopatra is the most famous woman in the history of the world so it baffled me to learn that almost no one had ever heard of her daughter, Selene. At the age of ten, when Selene’s famous parents committed suicide, she was taken prisoner in her mother’s stead. She was marched through the streets of Rome in chains. Her life was spared by Rome’s first emperor, Augustus and she soon became his favorite, surviving on her charms in a dangerous political world. My story imagines the inner life of this little orphaned girl, brought up in the household of her enemies, a worshipper of Isis in a time when the cult was banned. This novel attempts to answer the question of how she became the most powerful client queen in the empire.

How long did it take you to research and write Lily of the Nile?

I wrote and researched for about three years. Then I spent the next two years editing and refining. However, I admit that I wasn’t writing full-time back then and I drew out the pleasure for myself because I really loved learning about this fascinating princess of Egypt.

With a setting in the ancient world, how did you go about re-creating that past for your readers?

Fortunately, we know quite a bit about Augustan Age Rome. Because Augustus was a master propagandist, much of the poetry he commissioned for his regime survives. We have fairly detailed historical accounts of his life, and because Selene was constantly in the emperor’s orbit, I could recreate her past by recreating his. On the other hand, I didn’t want my novel to get bogged down in long descriptions of historical detail and superfluous use of foreign words, so I think modern readers will find it quite accessible!

Have you been able to travel to any of the locations in Lily of the Nile?

I visited Rome when I was eleven years old--the same age Selene was when she arrived on the shores of the Tiber. Even though I was young, I have very vivid memories of Rome! I’d love to go back and walk where Selene walked.

Do you have a favorite character in the story?

The novel is about Selene because her story truly moved me. I’m not sure how many people would have the strength of character to survive what she did. However, my favorite character to write was Augustus. Though he is the villain of my work, I have a soft spot for him, and it was a guilty pleasure to try to unravel his ruthless psyche.

How do you develop your plots and characters?

With historical fiction, people say that most of the plot is already written for you. This is true, but only to an extent. With antiquity especially, the records have gaps in them. Things happen with no clear explanation. Plotting comes into play as an author tries to explain how the puzzle pieces fit together in a coherent narrative, and I did that with a little bit of magic and by simply imagining Augustus’ obsessions.

A common complaint among aspiring writers is about the struggle to find an agent. What challenges did you find in pursuing an agent? What lessons have you learned?

Actually, I had an embarrassingly easy time of finding an agent for Lily of the Nile once I decided that I needed one. I accepted an offer of representation from my dream agent about a week or two after I queried her.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Enter my contest. I am currently sponsoring the Cleopatra Literary Award for Young Women and it’s an extraordinary opportunity for writers.

What are your future writing plans?

Lily of the Nile will be followed by its sequel in the coming year, Song of the Nile, which will follow Selene into womanhood as Queen of Mauretania and her struggle for independence from Augustus and from her husband.

Please provide your website and blogs where readers can learn more about you.

I love for folks to visit my website because I have a lot of great little tidbits and FAQs for Cleophiles:
Any closing thoughts you would like to share.

If you’d like to win a free copy of Lily of the Nile, there’s a quick and easy way on my website.

Thanks for your time, Stephanie, and best of luck with Lily of the Nile.

Don't forget; leave a comment on our review of Lily of the Nile this week. Tell Stephanie Dray what fascinates you about Cleopatra and ancient Egypt to win a FREE signed copy of the book.

Monday, December 13, 2010

My Name is Mary Sutter

 Reviewed by Ginger Simpson

If you’re used to short reads, this 300 plus page book might frighten you, but be assured that you’ll finish much sooner than expected because you can’t put it down.  My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira is touted as a courageous epic, a captivating love story, and stars a fearless heroine.  All claims are true.  The novel is filled with historical facts brought to life in vivid details by a talented author.  If you appreciate reading about the American Civil War, then this is an outstanding selection to make. Even if you aren’t a civil war buff, you’ll enjoy this engrossing story.

Mary Sutter is determined to become a physician during a time when women weren’t allowed such a distinguished status.  The stronger of two twins, Mary follows the tradition of her mother and grandmother and becomes a practicing midwife.  Who better to tend to the ‘laying up’ of women than another female?  However, limiting herself to birthing babies isn’t fulfilling enough.

Mary is determined to learn about the entire human body.  When the man she loves falls for and weds her sister, Mary becomes even more determined to immerse herself in medicine.  If it takes shadowing someone on the battlefield, she’s resolved to do just that.

Reading this book is like watching an epic television movie, and you are front and center during the action.  The horrible loss of life and limb are a very real part of history during this time period, and Ms. Oliveira paints her written picture with a broad and colorful brush.  You’ll appreciate the unwavering determination of the heroine and appreciate every aspect of My Name is Mary Sutter.

This cover is the hardcover.  The one featured above is for the paperback version.

This publication is presented by the Penguin Group.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Giveaway: Lily of the Nile by Stephanie Dray

“You are Cleopatra’s daughter,” he finally said. “But will you be mine, Selene. That’s the question, isn’t it?”

I could see it then, for the first time, as I had never seen it: he needed a protégé. He wanted me to belong to him, in spite of himself. My mother had also played this game with dangerous Romans. I must learn to play too. – Selene, Lily of the Nile

The saying "History is written by the victors" seems especially appropriate when applied to the late Ptolemaic period of Egypt, in which Cleopatra VII lost her ancient kingdom to the Romans under Octavian Caesar. History records a great deal about one of the most famous of Egyptian queens, including her liaison with Julius Caesar, and the son she bore him, as well as her love for Marc Antony. Less detail is available about the children Cleopatra gave Marc Antony. Now, author Stephanie Dray has researched the past and delved into the mysterious lives of the young children left behind when Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide.

The twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene are born to privilege in the great city of Alexandria, where their mother is queen of Egypt and their father a celebrated Roman triumvir. At their births, the Egyptians hail them as saviors. It is not long before their mother calls upon the twins to do just that. Both bear a heavy burden in a struggle to preserve Egypt and their own lives against the rapacious intent of the conqueror Octavian Caesar.

Shackled with Helios and her younger brother Ptolemy, Selene publicly submits to Octavian in Rome, but she cannot forget the past in which she was destined to be a queen and inherit her mother’s mantle of power. Strange markings appear at random on her body, leaving her weak and bloodied, but also defiant. Now a political prisoner, she dwells with Octavia, Caesar’s sister, and the estranged wife of her father Marc Antony. Life in the household of her enemies is uneasy, as Antony’s other children look on Selene as an interloper and a threat to their positions with Octavian. A budding relationship with Juba, the deposed prince of Numidia and a close friendship with Julia, Octavian’s only daughter, offers Selene some comfort. Yet, Octavian’s obsession with the image he has cultivated of her mother continually endangers Selene, as does her brother’s determined struggle against their captors. One choice remains for her: to win or die.

Ms. Dray’s debut is vibrant, well researched and an easy read. I finished it in less than 24 hours. The ancient world comes to life with her excellent characterizations. Selene and Helios are two sides of the same coin, an equal match in varying strengths, but she stands out for her ability to play Octavian’s games and even master them. Octavian truly stands out as the villain of this novel, and Ms. Dray summarizes his personality well. His misogynistic attitudes toward Roman women lie at the heart of his obsession with Cleopatra, and later, her daughter. The fact that Selene is able to contend with his machinations is a true testament to her personal strength.

We hope you enjoyed this review of Lily of the Nile. Please leave a comment to win a FREE signed copy of the book. Tell Stephanie Dray what fascinates you about Cleopatra and ancient Egypt for your chance to win.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Greek Maiden and the English Lord

By Patty Apostolides

Reviewed by Kristina Emmons

The Greek Maiden and the English Lord is a story of a girl who is half English, half Greek, who, as a small girl, is lost to her family during the brutal Ottoman invasion in Greece in 1821 while visiting there with her mother. Found by a gypsy woman, who is a fortune-teller by trade, Lily is in turn raised as a gypsy, needing to wear a black wig to conceal her naturally blonde hair.

When Lily is sixteen she is told by her guardian, Mirela, of her true identity.  Mirela uses her friendship with a wealthy English woman to have Lily secretly escorted to England to find her father before the leader of the gypsies can take Lily as his wife.  In England Lily is passed through various hands, as her father is out to sea and cannot claim her, nor can they reach him with the news of her return.  Until he can return she is sent by a cousin to a preparatory boarding school for girls, where she learns all that is necessary to become game for well-bred suitors who are looking to marry.

In a twist, a handsome English Lord who crossed paths with Lily while she was with the gypsies is encountered again through the school, and he shows himself to be a perfect gentleman.  But he is engaged to be married.  Meanwhile Lily receives word that her father has died in a shipwreck, and with no way to confirm she is his daughter, she is left on her own, the debt of her expensive studies on her shoulders.  Lily’s struggle to find identity and grasp her heart’s desire spurs the reader to continue on to a satisfying conclusion.

The Greek Maiden and the English Lord is an enjoyable story with a romantic early nineteenth century backdrop. The author was thoughtfully well-rounded in the writing to make the reader feel a part of each scene.  I did find the conversations in the book to be clumsy at times, but the fate of the heroine and the burgeoning romance between Lily and Mr. Grant were compelling enough to wade through to the end.

The Greek Maiden and the English Lord can be purchased at,, or through Ms. Apostolides’ webpage at:

Friday, December 10, 2010

Arsenic and Clam Chowder by James D. Livingston

Mary Alice Fleming Livingston

Reviewed by Mirella Sichirollo Patzer

The gilded age of New York City was a most exciting era; a time of horseless carriages, the first moving pictures, the rising popularity of bicycles, and new electric street lights; a time for theatre and high society and millionaires. And in this exciting time, an unassuming young mother named Mary Alice Livingston managed to thrust herself into fame and notoriety – and all because of a bizarre murder.

Much to Evelina Bliss' mortification, her daughter, Mary Alice, bore not one, not two, but three children out of wedlock – all with different fathers - a most scandalous situation indeed in those days. Despite the fact that Mary Alice was a "Livingston" and descended from one of the most prominent and wealthiest New York families at the time, she and her children lived in near poverty in the Colonial Hotel, several blocks away from her mother. But Mary Alice knew that upon her mother's death, she stood to inherit $85,000.

On the afternoon of August 30, 1895, Mary Alice ordered a pail of clam chowder and a piece of lemon meringue pie from the Colonial Hotel and signed the receipt. She then handed the food to her 10 year old daughter Grace and asked her to deliver it to her mother. Grace's friend accompanied her there and back.

Grateful for her daughter's kindness, poor Evelina Bliss ate the chowder late that afternoon. She fell sick a few minutes later. A concerned neighbour called the doctor. Evelina told the doctor she suspected she had been poisoned by her daughter. One hour before midnight, Evelina was dead.

Tests revealed the cause of death to be arsenic. The clam chowder had been laced with a tremendously lethal amount of the poison. All the evidence pointed to Mary Alice. While at her mother's funeral, Mary Alice was arrested in her mourning clothes and charged with her murder, then incarcerated in New York's Tombs prison. Oh, yes, and at the time, she was pregnant with her fourth illegitimate child too, who would be born during her custody there while she awaited trial. If convicted, she would become the first female victim of New York's electric chair. As one can expect, such unusual and shameful details, coupled with Mary Alice's shadowed past, generated immense media interest and sales of Joseph Pulitzer’s World and William Randolph Hearst’s Journal soared. Mary Alice became known as the strangest woman ever charged with crime in the courts of New York. Throughout her trial, Mary Alice appeared calm and confident. However, on the day her sentence was handed down, she visibly shook with fear and needed to be propped up by a matron.

In the book, Arsenic and Clam Chowder, James D. Livingston, a cousin thrice removed of Mary Alice, has written a factual book about the trial of one of New York's most notorious women. Drawing from actual testimony, evidence, and people involved in the trial, he presents the facts to the reader, allowing each to make up their own mind as to the results. The reader is pulled into the story, the outcome of which is not known until the very end. Livingston did an outstanding job of organizing then presenting the facts, keeping suspense high throughout.

Nothing fascinates more than a "bad girl" story, and this had plenty to keep me enthralled throughout. The author presented Mary Alice in such a way, that I was equally as suspicious as I was empathetic with her. By including details about New York life before the turn of the century, he helped paint the mood and portrayed the life and times most vividly. In the middle of the book, numerous photos of the hotel, a court drawing of Mary Alice, and the actual receipt for the chowder and pie with Mary Alice's signature were included.

Mary Alice's $85,000 inheritance allowed her to hire a top lawyer who confounded the jury with all types of plausible explanations for Mary Alice's innocence and Evelina's death. Mary Alice's behaviour throughout the trial was intriguing, and at times, chilling. Was this woman a saint or sinner? A victim or a villain? And how can a woman become popular as well as hated? I leave it up to you to read the book, Arsenic and Clam Chowder by James D. Livingston, and decide for yourself and see if true justice was done or not.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Troubled Water: Race, Muting, and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk

Troubled Water

Race, Mutiny, and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk

Author: Gregory A. Freeman

Reviewed by: L. Gregory Graham

Imagine sitting in your bunk in a labyrinth of decks, passageways, and work areas that make up the underbelly of an aircraft carrier as gang warfare rages out of control around you. You know nothing for sure, but you hear that black radicals in the crew have taken over the ship and killed the captain. You’ve read news stories where reporters claim the Black Panthers are looking for ways to sabotage the war effort. Shouts echo up and down the corridor, and you sweat in the tropical heat wondering who is in charge of the ship and if rampaging blacks will choose to storm your compartment next.

This is not a techno-thriller dreamed up by a writer; this is historical fact. It happened aboard the USS Kitty Hawk at the shank end of the Vietnam War. Gregory Freeman does a masterful job of allowing the reader to walk beside the captain, the executive officer, and crewmembers as an aircraft carrier, the pride of the modern Navy, is overwhelmed with a race riot, and possibly a mutiny.

Troubled Water is a blow by blow description of how bad things can get when a perfect storm of bad policy, an unpopular war, extended deployments, and the Civil Rights movement turn a ship into a crucible mirroring the unrest in civilian society.

The narration is well balanced, a difficult task when your subject is race and the Vietnam War. There is ample opportunity to take sides, but the author does not. Was institutional discrimination against blacks a problem in the Navy at that time? Yes. Were recruiters lying to black and white kids alike about career opportunities in the Navy? Yes. Had the Navy set its standards too low to get warm bodies aboard ship? Yes. Was the Navy allowing blacks, whites, and Chicanos to self-segregate aboard ship? Yes. Did the blacks avail themselves to the proper channels to get their grievances out? No. Would it have ameliorated the situation? Questionable. Did the rampaging blacks go after the wrong people? Yes.

We see the captain’s side of events. He knows his job is to keep the ship on line and launching aircraft on missions over North Vietnam. He takes steps to protect the planes and to break up the rioters. We see the executive officer’s side of the event. He quickly decides that this is a race riot, and that it must be stopped at all costs before there is loss of life or aircraft. He takes radical, decidedly unnavy steps to quell the riots. We also see the black enlisted men’s side. The Navy lied to them to get them aboard the carrier, gave them the worst jobs on the ship, did not explain to them that all seamen spent their first tour on the mess deck, and denied them advancement on the basis of their lack of education, and low test scores. In addition, the Navy keeps delaying the Kitty Hawk’s deployment home because, you guessed it, other aircraft carriers are having racial problems.

You cannot read the narration without feeling sympathy for the captain who is white and the executive officer who is black. They both do what they can with the information they have available facing a unique situation. There is no section in any of their procedure manuals marked ‘Race Riots’. Unfortunately, two excellent careers are ruined as a result. Both careers grind to a halt in the face of a Congressional Investigation by congressmen with staffs who criticize their actions on the basis of hindsight and complete knowledge of the situation. One cannot help but wonder how the Navy manages to prosper when it is so determined to rid itself of such good men.

One question that I do have is where were the other officers aboard ship? The narration gives the impression that only the captain, the executive officer, and the officer in charge of the Marine attachment responded to the riots. If that is the case, then perhaps the captain should be criticized for not using the resources he had at hand. The other possibility is that the roles of other officers were minimized to keep other careers from crashing and burning on the rocks of the riot. The lack of involvement by other officers makes the narration feel incomplete. The executive officer spends a great deal of time defending the infirmary from attack. Would there be an officer in charge of that area, and would he be down there defending it also?

This book is also a measure of how far things have come since. I am sure that an aircraft carrier is still labyrinth of testosterone crazed nineteen-year-old men of all races, but the Navy has learned how to handle them now. The signs of racial tension are divined early, and steps taken to ameliorate the problem.

The aftermath is nearly as troubling; the congressional hearing concluded that ‘they could find no instances of racial discrimination that could have justified the Kitty Hawk riot’. Although, unofficially, the Navy recognized the ‘simmering discontent among black sailors and showed the some of their anger was justified because of how they were recruited and how they were treated in the Navy.’ Obviously, change did happen, but apparently it was important that the Navy make it look like it was their idea.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is a student of the Vietnam War, race relations, or the Navy. It encapsulates a very difficult time for the Navy and for society in general.

This book is non-fiction and can be purchased from:

Barnes and Noble

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Queen's Daughter by Susan Coventry

Reviewed by Vanitha Sankaran

In her debut YA novel The Queen’s Daughter, Susan Coventry tells the fascinating tale of princess Joan, daughter of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and sister to Richard the Lionhearted. Though this time period has been well explored by other authors, Coventry gives us a new look through the voice of young Joan. A precocious but vulnerable child caught between warring parents and ambitious brothers, Joan struggles to maintain a certain peace with all of them and to express her love for each without hurting the others.

We first meet Joan when she is a young girl worried about whom to trust, what secrets to keep, and which ones to reveal. As she grows up alongside her increasingly ruthless family members, she realizes that her worth, in their eyes, is not measured as an individual but as a political asset. When Joan is married off to a foreign many years her senior, she must learn to navigate court intricacies, as well as personal intimacies, while still maintaining the interests of her family. It is only after her husband’s death that Joan begins to find her own self, along with the chance of a trusting, true love.

Coventry does an amazing job of bringing an old time and place to new life with her settings that range from mainstay European castles to the Sicily countryside and on to the Holy Land. The strength of the novel comes from Joan’s observations of the world around her, first as a naïve young girl and then as an increasingly mature woman. Joan’s words about her warring family shows us a side to the House of Plantagenet not often explored. The reader quickly comes to care for Joan and to root for her to find the trusting love that she so desperately craves.

A fine and unique voice to add to the world of historical fiction!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Solitaria by Genni Gunn

At an abandoned villa in Fregene, Italy, a seaside town on the Adriatic near Bari, a work crew accidentally unearths a body. Tests identified the gun-shot riddled body as that of Vito Santoro, a man presumed immigrated to Argentina decades earlier, and missing since the 1950’s. The news rocks the Santoro family.

As the family gathers from all corners of the world, its matriarch, Piera, locks herself in her room and refuses to speak to anyone other than her nephew, David, from Canada. She is the only one who knows the circumstances surrounding Vit’s death. To David, Piera slowly begins to reveal the family secrets of the past.

With flashbacks to post-war Italy, David learns about the hard luck life of the Santoro family – the unfaithful father, a mother in the throes of depression, and of their children, each of whom struggles towards adulthood desirous of their own needs. Slowly, through Piera and David’s conversation, he learns the darkest of family secrets, about love a love unrequited, and his true bloodlines.

This story captivates the reader from the very first pages. Told, with vividness and emotion, while being rich in its simplicity and ripe with emotion, this dark mystery unfolds slowly, entrancing the reader, luring them to its shocking ending. The novel explores poverty and human failure, vice and love, incest and death. It is a deeply intellectual story, moving and fulfilling.  I highly recommend it.   

The author, Genni Gunn, is of Italian roots, having been born in Trieste and having travelled extensively throughout Italy. Therefore, readers can be assured of the authentic Italian feel within the story concerning cultural and historical issues of the time. Ms. Gunn has been a finalist for the prestigious CBC Literary Awards, has published nine books: three novels, including Tracing Iris, which is being made into a film, and numerous short stories and poetry collections, one of which was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award. But, her talents do not end there. The author has also produced an opera, Alternate Visions, which premiered in Montreal in 2007. Her poem, “Hot Summer Nights,” was turned into classical vocal music and has been widely performed all over the world.

For more about Genni Gunn, I encourage you to visit her website at: Genni Gunn