Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home

Feast of Sorrow

By Crystal King
Touchstone, 2017

Marcus Gavius Apicius was a wealthy patrician who lived in Rome in the time of the Emperor Augustus. Stories about this extravagant epicure have come down to us, and he is said to have published the very first printed cookbook.

Crystal King has taken the love of luxury, the obsession with fine dining and the notion of the chef as a star – themes we recognize in our own time – and mixed them up with history in a fine concoction of a novel.

Since it is a stretch to imagine that a patrician would actually do his own cooking, King has imagined Thrasius, a slave who turned Apicius’ dinner parties into the most sought-after in Rome. In the book, Apicius founds the first-ever cooking school, with Thrasius as its manager.

King shows for us the frescoed halls, the fountains and gardens, the markets, the fine architecture and the slums of ancient Rome. The brutality of this world is made clear in the very first sentence when Thrasius is shown on the auction block awaiting purchase as a slave.

Absolute power being as corrosive as it is known to be, King shows us what happens to slaves and to women who disobey or who are forced to marry men they loathe. Intricate to the plot too, is what happens when the power of Caesar forces men to curry favor with him.

This book was a compulsive page turner for me. I loved the recipes that preceded each chapter, tried to imagine eating them, and realized that Roman tastes differed greatly from our own.

Still, I’m going to try some of them. Although I draw a line at snails cooked in milk.

What Makes A Book Cover Great?

Lipstick on the Strawberry“A truly great jacket is one that captures the book inside it in some fundamental and perhaps unforeseen way,” says writer Kyle Vanhemert in Wired Magazine’s September 23, 2014 article, “What Makes for a Brilliant Book Cover? A Master Explains“.

When my manuscript of Lipstick on the Strawberry was still at the querying stage last year, I learned that it was a finalist in the Author U’s novel competition. As a result, I got to go to the Denver, Colorado, conference put on annually by Judith Briles, the brilliant author mentor and publicist.

The Author U conference is primarily for self-published authors, and among the panel discussions was one on designing a book cover. A writer held up his jacket, which featured a skimpily clad, twenty-something woman brandishing a rifle. A male fantasy, no doubt. Independent publishing expert Amy Collins ( asked the author who this book was written for. He replied, “Soccer moms.”

Ms. Collins asked him if he was open to suggestions on the cover, and the writer said, “Possibly.”

To which Amy Collins replied, “That’s like telling a cancer doctor you’d be open to chemotherapy.” After the nervous laughter died down, she continued, “Authors have no business designing a book cover. Leave that to the professionals.”

I’m pleased to tell you that my book jacket has been designed by a true professional, Debbie Taylor, an artist working for my publisher, The Wild Rose Press. It is exactly what I had in mind, except for one thing.

It is even better than I anticipated.

In my cover, the lipstick and the strawberry dominate, but the addition of a cup with smudged lipstick next to the strawberries and lipstick adds mystery, a sense of something interrupted, and the hint of imperfection to this serene scene.

Which captures the theme of my book. Exactly.

I hope you’ll want to read Lipstick on the Strawberry when it is released in July 2017.

Thank you to The Wild Rose Press.

The Blazing World

By Siri Hustvedt
Simon & Schuster, 2014

To set the world ablaze is what ambitious artists want to do. Looking back over her life, how could Harriet Burden have failed? The artist in this story has ticked all the boxes; luck, hard work, a sense of where the market is going. What she lacks is the right gender.

That’s the premise that starts this satire about the New York art world. Short listed for the Booker Prize, it is at times laugh-out- loud funny, and at times so sad it makes you want to cry.

Gathered together by an “editor” who is writing about the artist, the novel’s chapters consist of parts of Harriet’s diary, the words of her critics, notes by her collaborators, and comments by her children and her friend Rachel.

To the outside world, Harriet has lived the good life. Born to an upper middle class family, she married a wealthy art dealer, had the requisite boy and girl, loved being a mother, has a grandchild and a delightful best friend. When the book begins, both her parents and her beloved husband, Felix Lord, have recently died. After a period of almost demented mourning, Harriet opens her large New York apartment to needy individuals. One is a young man called Phineas Q. Eldridge. Perhaps the Q stands for quirky. He is a sympathetic character. Harriet also attracts an admirer in Bruno, a man her own age who truly loves her.

But Harriet rages inside. She’s created art for years, in solitude. She’s had exhibitions but her work has been dismissed. Rather than giving her a helping hand, her husband’s position as a powerful art dealer delegitimized her work. Critics implied that she only received any notice at all because of his influence.

Harriet plans revenge. She negotiates with three males to pose as her alter ego, to claim as their own work three exhibitions of art she created on her own. Only with Eldridge is this a true collaboration and meeting of the minds. The other two men are basically frauds.

Hustvedt persuades us that the three pieces Harriet attributed to others are by far her best work. But like many women artists before her, Harriet made her point at the cost of her own identity.

Since we know from the beginning that this masked work was lauded and the pretend artists feted, I wondered at times where this story could possibly go.

Still, the climax came as a surprise to me and was as powerful as a sock to the gut. Yet like all good writers, Hustvedt had laid the clues like breadcrumbs throughout the story.

This is extremely skilled writing. I liked Harriet and responded to the other characters as I believe the author intended. I enjoyed the irony of a main character who always lived at the heart of New York cultural life, yet never felt accepted. But I did not quite get “Harry” as she refers to herself. Her behavior to her husband, parents and children is much too sweet and undemanding to convince me that she is really a smoldering volcano of resentment and self-hatred. The portrayal of Harriet’s relationship with her father is an attempt explain her self-defeating actions, her fury at not being truly seen or understood.

Still, Harriet’s vengeful scheme does not quite mesh with the personality her author created for her. Harriet is a cipher rather than a truly convincing literary character.

Could she be a vehicle through which Hustvedt has expressed her own rage? Has she created Harriet as a metaphor for women and for their treatment at the hands of a male-dominated cultural world?