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?

The Nest

By Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Ecco 2016

The word “dysfunctional” has been overused in reviews about the fictional Plumb family of this wryly amusing tale. Would that word describe Jane Austen’s Bennet family? No. I think humanly flawed would be a more apt description. Not that this book rivals Austen’s in any way. But this story is a contemporary American take on the British comedy of manners. Or what happens when members of an upper middle-class family aspire to careers that offer artistic fulfillment but little steady income – all in the expectation that an inheritance will take care of their financial needs. The Nest is the nickname given to the trust fund that the four Plumb siblings will receive when the youngest of them, Melody, turns forty. That’s a few months away when the book begins, but the oldest sibling, Leo, a man-child at forty-six, has involved himself in an expensive divorce precipitated when he left a wedding with a waitress and caused a car crash. As in the classic British melodrama, the financial needs of the younger siblings are ignored as the nest egg is drained because of the misdeeds of the eldest. Not that the Great Recession helped. Leo’s sisters and brother are mired in mortgage payments, equity lines of credit, looming college expenses for their offspring, and the fact that the fortune may have been diminished since 2007. This is great social satire with a large cast of characters, all satisfyingly drawn. How ironic that this debut novel reportedly received a million-dollar advance, when several of its main characters work in the world of New York publishing, described as chaotic and financially unstable. Like its characters, this book’s author might have toiled for years in obscurity, all in the hopes of a fortune that might or might not happen. Nope. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney was a copywriter who completed an MFA when she was fifty years old, and only four years later published this book to great acclaim. In awe of this writer, I read interviews in which she revealed that she tried writing a novel in her twenties and because she failed at the attempt, put it off while life in the form of family and work got in the way. But there it was, percolating away until the right time came. Kudos to Sweeney for giving us a delightful romp through her fictional world, and for waiting till she was ready to write it.

For Love of Libraries

Saturday morning has always been my favorite time of the week. That’s because when I was a kid, this was my special time with my father. I’d accompany him on his errands, and one of our favorites was going to the Library. It was Dad who intervened when the librarian said I could not take books out from the general fiction area because I was only a child. I protested that I’d read most of the kids’ books and found the grown up books more interesting. Note that I don’t say “adult” books because that has a different meaning in today’s culture, and besides, our municipal library’s selection was on the tame side. These memories surfaced this week because National Library Week occurs April 9-15. April is School Library Month, and the 12th of April celebrates National Library Workers and National Bookmobile Day. Finally, April 23rd, the day of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564 and his death in 1616 was chosen in 1995 to be UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day. It’s a month to celebrate writers and readers everywhere. In his wonderful book, The View from the Cheap Seats, the British writer Neil Gaiman describes how he spent his school vacations at the local library. His parents dropped him off on their way to work and he happily spent his days in the children’s section, working through the card catalogue. Neil Gaiman, one of my very favorite authors, now has rock-star status with his fans. This week he’s doing a multi-city book tour throughout the United States. I was thrilled to go to his packed-out presentation Saturday night. Every one of the 1,600 seats was filled, there were calls of “we love you!” from the audience, and the line to purchase his books after his talk snaked out into the parking lot. Gaiman read from his latest book, Norse Mythology. His genius is to make the fantastic believable. His empathy for his characters, his humor, and his gorgeous cadences make his work spell-binding. This is a writer who clearly became intoxicated with the English language through deep immersion in children’s literature. That’s what libraries do for children. For all of us. And they’re free.

Lilac Girls

By Martha Hall Kelly
Ballantine Books 2017

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. It brings to novelistic life the true story of Caroline Ferriday, an American socialite who helped bring to the United States Polish survivors of the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. The author gives fictional names to two of these women, in the book the sisters Kasia and Zuzanna Kuzmerick, but leaves for all to see the real name of the Nazi woman doctor who worked at Ravensbruck, Herta Oberheuser. Told in three voices, that of Caroline, Kasia and Herta, the alternating chapters end on cliff-hangers, leading the reader on, compulsively. I am squeamish, yet I admire the author’s insistence on showing exactly what went on in that camp, in the medical experiments conducted on the inmates by Dr. Oberheuser and her fellow traitors to the medical profession. It is quite a feat to make such an unsympathetic character into someone we want to read about. Yet Kelly has done this remarkably well. She shows how Oberheuser just went along, not so much “obeying orders” (which was the usual defense at the Nuremburg trials) as numbing her conscience by degrees. It is no accident, perhaps, that Kelly first shows this gradual acquiescence to evil in her portrayal of Oberheuser honing her surgical skills in a butcher’s shop at the beginning of the war. A former journalist, Kelly based the book on interviews with survivors in Poland, France and Germany, as well as the United States and on two memoirs she found in Caroline Ferriday’s archives. Caroline had submitted these memoirs to publishers. They were rejected on the grounds that they were of no interest to the public. Seventy years after these terrible events, we know that these stories must be told. We must never forget.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos/The Scientist and the Forger

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
By Dominic Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

The Scientist and the Forger
By Jehane Ragai
Imperial College Press, 2015
Some books hook you so that, coming to the end, you try to prolong the experience, slowing down to inhale every last word. That’s how I felt when I read The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. Set in three time periods and places, the mid-sixteen hundreds in Holland, the mid -nineteen fifties in New York, and in Sydney in 2000, the novel’s central figure is Sara de Vos, a (fictional) painter who worked in the Dutch Golden Age, the time and place of Vermeer and Rembrandt. One of her paintings is inherited by Martjin de Groot, a New York lawyer. Ellie Shipley, a struggling fine arts graduate student who supports herself by restoring paintings, agrees to copy the painting for a shady art dealer. So clever is her forgery, done entirely from photographs, that after the original painting is stolen and the forgery put in its place, de Groot does not realize it for some time. When he does, he tracks down the forger and exacts his revenge. Last summer I lunched with Jehane Ragai, a professor of chemistry who has written a book on art forgery. The book, The Scientist and the Forger, shows how sophisticated – x-ray techniques and mass spectrometry can detect forgeries. Yet they continue. Jehane is fascinated by the mind of the forger. If someone is so highly skilled that they can execute a magnificent work of art, why would they not spend their energies on developing their own work? Jehane found in her research that money is not the main motivator. And in Dominic Smith’s novel the money is incidental. In fact, Shipley has trouble spending it. As in all good novels, the motivation for this character’s actions is buried deep in her past. One of Smith’s themes is misogyny and its persistence over the centuries. If women artists were overlooked, even denied the opportunity to paint certain subjects in the seventeenth century, they still faced severe career obstacles in the twentieth. De Vos and Shipley are central figures in this book but Rachel de Groot, Marty’s wife, deliberately shown only peripherally, is another victim of society’s contempt for women who fail to bear children. This theme of inheritance and its loss, for children who died, for children not born, for children not even conceived, reverberates through the novel. We imagine immortality through passing on our genes. But it is not the only way. Art, Dominic Smith shows us, survives blood lines. A painting, a physical object, can link us to another mind which lived long ago. Perhaps that is what really motivates the forger, the need to inhabit the brain of a true creator. That’s left unspoken in this novel. But the writing soars in its sections on Sara de Vos. She is a more fully fleshed and understandable character than de Groot or Shipley. And it is in the descriptions of Sara’s paintings and their effect on the viewer that Smith’s writing is at its finest. Recently, I heard Dominic Smith speak at a writers’ conference. I subsequently bought two of his books. I look forward to reading the next one – Bright and Distant Shores. This is a writer of prodigious gifts.

The Dying Beach

By Angela Savage Text Publishing 2013 Jayne Keeney is not your typical detective. As her author so deftly puts it on page 1 of this page-turning book, even her physical description defies the stereotype. Jayne, in her lover and partner Rajiv’s arms, has a moment of narcissistic pleasure when she thinks, “Being soft, white and fat had never felt so good.” People, place and purpose of the story are set in this first chapter. We learn that Jayne, a private investigator based in Thailand, has gone into business with her boyfriend, and they’re now on vacation in the resort area of Krabi, on the Andaman Sea. When they go to book a day trip with their favorite tour guide, they learn she is dead. Bodies pile up, the police aren’t interested, and Jayne’s relationship becomes frayed. That’s all classic detective drama, yet Savage keeps reminding us that Jayne is no typical private eye. With a nod to those of us who find expectations for female dress and behavior suffocating, even in fiction, this author gives us a wonderful picture of Jayne. A man named Paul “expected someone glamorous, not the frump who met him at the guesthouse reception desk…She couldn’t have been more than thirty-five, but her clothes were the sort his grandmother might wear.” Jayne isn’t the slightest bit interested in feminism, or its opposite, glamour, but just gets on with the job. One of the glories of Angela Savage’s writing is her gift for physical description. We see  dazzling beaches, snake farms, orchids, braziers sizzling with barbequed food, mosquito-deterring curtains of stringed shells. Dialogue is interspersed with Thai phrases whose meaning is apparent. Corruption and beauty intermingle. It was in her class on scene and setting that I met the delightful Angela Savage. She was visiting the U.S. for the very first time, she said, as a presenter at the Arizona State University’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference. (See Angela’s blog on the conference and shared on my Facebook post) Angela, a former community aid worker in Asia, started winning awards with her first book, Behind The Night Bazaar, before it was even published. The Dying Beach is her third novel. I hope there will be many more.

How Book Club Questions Can Help The Author As She Writes

My experience with book clubs has been enjoyable, but as guides to reading fiction, they’ve tended to go off the point. Depending on the quality of the food, or let’s just blame the wine (both always necessary!), the discussion meanders into participants' marital problems, politics, or neighborhood gossip. Great, bonding evenings. Many book groups have lasted for years. It matters little if participants like the book or pan it, the novel is often just the excuse for getting together. That’s all wonderful, and was for me, too, until a friend suggested me that being a writer must spoil the experience of reading, because it would become too analytical. Not true. I can get swept up in the power of good prose just as much as I ever did. It’s just that now I know that every sentence did not get there by magic – it was planned. Now that I review fiction and try to write it as well as I can, I’ve found that “book club questions” (for those that actually ask them) really help in thinking about a novel. I found these from a site called The most interesting thing for me as a writer, is that these questions sharpened my thinking about how to put a story together, or at an even earlier stage, how to pre-write a novel. questions 1, 4 and 7 are questions only the reader can answer. But as a writer I can see I have to ask questions 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8 before I even put a word to paper. Do these questions help you in figuring out how a novel works? 1. How did you experience the book? Were you engaged immediately, or did it take you a while to “get into it”? How did you feel reading it—amused, sad, disturbed, confused, bored…? 2. Describe the main characters—personality traits, motivations, and inner qualities. • Why do characters do what they do? • Are their actions justified? • Describe the dynamics between characters (in a marriage, family, or friendship). • How has the past shaped their lives? • Do you admire or disapprove of them? • Do they remind you of people you know? 3. Are the main characters dynamic—changing or maturing by the end of the book? Do they learn about themselves, how the world works and their role in it? 4. Discuss the plot: • Is it engaging—do you find the story interesting? • Is this a plot-driven book—a fast-paced page-turner? • Does the plot unfold slowly with a focus on character? • Were you surprised by complications, twists & turns? • Did you find the plot predictable, even formulaic? 5. Talk about the book’s structure. • Is it a continuous story… or interlocking short stories? • Does the time-line move forward chronologically? • Does time shift back & forth from past to present? • Is there a single viewpoint or shifting viewpoints? • Why might the author have chosen to tell the story the way he or she did? • What difference does the structure make in the way  you read or understand the book? 6. What main ideas—themes—does the author explore? (Consider the title, often a clue to a theme.) Does the author use symbols to reinforce the main ideas? (See the free LitCourses on both Symbol and Theme.) 7. What passages strike you as insightful, even profound? Perhaps a bit of dialog that’s funny or poignant or that encapsulates a character? Maybe there’s a particular comment that states the book’s thematic concerns? 8. Is the ending satisfying? If so, why? If not, why not… and how would you change it? Thanks, for putting together this thoughtful list!

Two Novels About Slightly Eccentric Chefs

The Glass Kitchen: A Novel of Sisters by Linda Francis Lee St. Martin’s Press, 2014 Chez Moi by Agnes Desarthe Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter Penguin Books, 2008 Portia Cuthcart senses what other people will want to eat when faced with a life-changing decision. She’s compelled to buy the ingredients and cook the food even before the recipients show up. That’s the quirk that propels this delightful, slightly fantastic novel by Linda Francis Lee. Portia is the youngest of three sisters, and the only one with the “knowing” The Glass Kitchen is the name of her grandmother’s restaurant, and in the end Portia gets her prince, a wealthy businessman named Gabriel Kane. The allusions to the Cinderella story are clear, but this plot deviates from the expected. Portia and her sisters, we are told, grew up in a trailer in Texas, yet each moves easily now in the circles of financiers and politicians. The sisters are nice, not nasty. They all now live in Manhattan, and Portia makes her home in the basement of her late aunt’s brownstone. The other sisters sold their shares of the house to Gabriel Kane, who acts as though Portia should have departed as well. But he and she start an affair, and she can’t leave, basically because in addition to falling in love with the diffident Gabriel, she’s also attached to his twelve-year-old daughter, Ariel. Ariel is the true heart of this story. She’s a perceptive and intrepid little girl, desperate for love and stability following the death of her mother. Her older sister Miranda is rebellious and as unkind as teenagers can be. Ariel and Portia bond as youngest siblings whose mothers died young when Portia is hired as the Kane family cook. It’s Ariel who uncovers this family’s secrets. Lee shines in her ability to convey the world of a child on the edge of adolescence. We’re kept on tenterhooks as Ariel navigates the cabs and trains of New York on her own and secretly to get to the government department where birth records are kept. The book begins with Portia’s awareness of the family’s panic when one of her older sisters goes missing for a few hours, and this theme is continued in Francis’ description of Miranda Gabriel’s teenage behavior. How do we grow up and separate ourselves from our parents to be independent human beings, and how do we do that under the circumstances of a parent’s death, when that caretaker is no longer around? Chez Moi is a charming read. A French woman, Myriam, we learn over the opening pages of this book, is divorced or separated from her husband and son, has not seen them for six years, has lost her job and is penniless, and in desperation, takes out loans to start a restaurant. She’s so poor she sleeps on a banquette in the tiny dining room, bathes in the kitchen sink, and shops, because she has no car, in the mini-mart. From this unpromising position, she produces fabulous meals. At first no one comes to the restaurant. Not surprisingly, because she has been too busy and too poor to put up a sign. But then, two students appear and become regulars. They send her an assistant, a fellow student, Ben. As a novelistic creation Ben seems to have magic powers. He is kind, helpful, generous, takes no salary, and makes the restaurant a success. He seems to have no bad qualities. Normally this would be a set up for a betrayal but that’s not where this story goes. So is he really magical, or is this story about what happens when a woman comes out of a years-long depression caused by a terrible marriage and finds that ordinary people can be kind? There are no recipes in this book but the food descriptions are quite mouth-watering. I read this book in a single sitting.