Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best Reads of 2015

I almost made it to my goal of reading 35 novels by the end of 2015... if I finish THE NIGHTINGALE by midnight tonight, I will have completed 33. If I include the completed but not yet published manuscripts I've read and critiqued for fellow writers, then I easily met my mark. I read many great books this year, some old, some new, and many written by friends (which makes compiling a list of favorites even more difficult and, frankly, rather awkward). In compiling my list of standout reads for 2015, I decided to exclude novels written by authors with whom I have a personal connection. I list those novels, along with links to reviews I wrote for them, below.  They were all wonderful books, and I encourage readers to pick them up, if they haven't already.

From among the remaining books I read, these were my favorites of 2015, in no particular order:

THE RED NOTEBOOK (LA FEMME AU CARNET ROUGE) 
by Antoine Laurain, translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce
(2014; translated 2015)


A delightful story of a Parisian bookseller who finds a lost handbag on the street and puzzles together the owner's identity from the jumble of possessions inside it. A red notebook that contains the anonymous woman's jottings spurs the bookseller's desire to find her. Witty and romantic without being the least bit sappy, this beautifully translated novel examines the notions of nostalgia, regret, and serendipity with flair and charm.

THE MOOR'S ACCOUNT
by Laila Lalami
(2014)

The Moor's Account

The imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of  America, a Moroccan slave named Estebanico, this compelling novel recounts the doomed Narvaez expedition to Florida in 1527-28. Only four men out of an original 600 survived the series of disasters that befell the Spanish party. Estabanico was one of the lucky ones, yet he received only one line, a mention of his name and origin, in the official account of the group's adventures. This Pulitzer Prize-listed novel gives Estebanico a voice and offers a new perspective on the European drive to colonize the New World.

THE CRAZED
by Ha Jin
(2002)

The Crazed

In the months surrounding the Tiananmen Square massacre, student Jian Wan cares for his mentor Professor Yang, a respected teacher of literature who suffers a debilitating stroke. Are the professor's wild ravings the product of his diseased mind, or does his disability provide him cover to speak truths too dangerous to articulate? Exposed to disturbing ideas that he had trained himself not to contemplate, Jian Wan is forced to question his predetermined path. This remarkable portrait of late twentieth century Chinese society exposes the political pressures that oppressed an entire generation of scholars and activists.

THE LAST PILOT
by Benjamin Johncock
(2015)

The Last Pilot

This stark novel recreates the early days of the U.S. space program through the eyes of Jim Harrison, an Air Force test pilot. Used to cheating death on a daily basis, Jim finds his courage and authority challenged when unexpected tragedy blindsides his young family. With his marriage and career on the line, Jim must come to terms with loss, grief, and the realization that the traits that make him an ace pilot are not necessarily those of a successful father and husband. A beautiful, emotionally intense novel of hope, courage, and forgiveness.

SISTERS OF SHILOH
by Kathy and Becky Hepinstall
(2015)

Sisters of Shiloh

When her husband is killed in the battle of Antietam, Libby vows to kill one Union soldier for every year of his too-short life. Disguised in her husband's clothes, she enlists in the Confederate army. Josephine, desperate to protect her grief-crazed sister, joins her. As Thomas and Joseph, the two sisters battle through the final days of the war, with Libby falling into madness and Josephine falling in love with a fellow soldier who thinks she's a man. A beautiful tribute to the tie that binds sisters and the hope that sustains victims of war.

THE STORY OF LAND AND SEA
by Katy Simpson Smith
(2014)

The Story of Land and Sea

An intricate, poetic novel about the love between parent and child set in a small coastal town at the end of the American Revolution. Told in three parts, the novel explores several generations of a family forced to endure the difficult circumstances of war, kidnapping, and slavery. A quiet novel that pays rich dividends to the reader who savors it to the end.

THE THING ABOUT DECEMBER
by Donal Ryan
(2013)

The Thing About December

Set in Ireland, this novel recounts a year in the life of Johnsey Cunliffe, an innocent, simple young man who, after the death of his overprotective parents, becomes the victim of greed as avaricious townsfolk attempt to cheat him of his valuable farm. Deeply moving and at times unsettling, this novel celebrates the resilience of the human spirit as a lonely, limited man struggles to make sense of the world.

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Friends and colleagues published the following novels, all of which I read and greatly enjoyed this year. Please click on the links provided to read the reviews I wrote for them at the time of publication.

by Heather Webb (2015)
Rodin's Lover

by Susan Spann (2015)

Flask of the Drunken Master: A Shinobi Mystery (Shinobi Mystery, #3)

by Marci Jefferson (2015)

Enchantress of Paris: A Novel of the Sun King’s Court

by Michelle Moran (2015)


by C.W. Gortner (2015)

Mademoiselle Chanel

THE TAPESTRY
by Nancy Bilyeau (2015)

The Tapestry (Joanna Stafford, #3)

by Patricia Bracewell (2015)

The Price of Blood (The Emma of Normandy Trilogy, #2)

MÉDICIS DAUGHTER
by Sophie Perinot (2015)

Médicis Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois

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That wraps up 2015! Here's to more good reading in 2016. Happy New Year!


Monday, December 21, 2015

16th Century Christmas Trees

In 1521, the town clerk of Sélestat, a city in the Alsace region of France, made the following entry in the account register:

photo credit: Sélestat.fr

...de même 4 schillings aux gardes forestiers pour surveiller les mais à partir de la Saint Thomas

...likewise 4 shillings to the forest wardens for guarding the fir trees from St. Thomas's Day on

Historians now consider these words to be the first written mention of the Christmas tree. In the old liturgical cycle, St. Thomas's Day was celebrated on December 21, the night of the winter solstice. The fact that the town paid wardens to watch over the forest's trees from this night through Christmas indicates the trees were in danger of being cut down for decoration. Evidence of payment to the wardens for this period has also been found in the registers for 1546, 1555, and 1557, as well a schedule of fines set for those caught stealing a tree.

photo credit
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the faithful erected fir trees outside churches for use in Christmas mystery plays. The story of Adam and Eve required Eve to pluck fruit from a tree, and as fruit trees were bare at this time of year, fir trees stood substitute. Red apples adorned the green branches along with white unconsecrated hosts, representing the cycle of temptation and redemption. Given that the town needed to provide special protection to the forest trees during the Christmas season, it is not unreasonable to conclude that individuals might wish to decorate their own trees at home.

photo credit: www.best-of-upper-rhine.com
By 1600, city fathers erected a Christmas tree at the Hôtel de Ville. In a chronicle preserved with the account registers at Sélestat's Bibliothèque humaniste, the master of ceremonies of the time describes the ceremony surrounding the transport and presentation of the tree by the forest wardens, the process of its decoration, and the custom whereby the children of municipal employees would shake the tree's branches in order to dislodge sweet treats.

Each Christmas season, Sélestat organizes an exhibition in the nave of the Église Saint-Georges entitled "Christmas Tree Decorations Since 1521." Ten fir trees hang suspended from the ceiling, each displaying a different step in the evolution of the Christmas tree from the sixteenth century to the present day. The town celebrates the season with elaborate festivities: a Christmas village, special concerts, and, not surprisingly, a Christmas tree decorating contest.

I just finished decorating my own tree:


At least now I understand the significance of those red plastic apples I hung upon it!

Merry Christmas!

(This post originally appeared in December 2014.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Interview: Sophie Perinot, author of MÉDICIS DAUGHTER

Today I welcome Sophie Perinot, whose novel MÉDICIS DAUGHTER has just been published by St. Martin's Press. The novel (which I reviewed yesterday) recounts the story of Marguerite, the Valois princess who comes of age during the turmoil of the French Wars of Religion. Here, Sophie sheds some light on the writing of the book and the history it portrays.


1. What inspired you to write about Marguerite de Valois and how does your portrayal of her flow from or differ from previous fictional portrayals, be they literary (Alexandre Dumas), film (Patrice Chéreau), or television (Reign)? How difficult was it to work in the shadow of these other depictions?

My desire to explore the Valois court and Marguerite specifically actually originates with Dumas. I am a devotee of this grandfather of historical fiction. I can still remember the first time I read his work and how his ability to write fast-paced compelling stories of adventure and romance captivated me. When I read MARGUERITE DE VALOIS (more popularly known as LA REINE MARGOT) the novel made a special connection. The more times that I re-read it, the more convinced I became that Marguerite deserved a fuller depiction and a more historically based (Dumas was quite open about playing fast and loose with history) exploration. MÉDICIS DAUGHTER is the direct result of that conviction.

Although my desire to tell Margot’s story flows from Dumas, I never felt burdened by him or by any other portrayal of the Valois Court. I never felt in anyone’s shadow. My fiction reflects two primary things: my research and my personal sense of theme and story. So I don’t think of my depiction of the Valois court as competing with Chéreau’s, Dumas’ or anyone else’s. That is one of the wonderful things about historical dramas (whether in books, on TV or in film), they allow each creator to filter and to form—to not just recount history, but to shape narrative in a manner that is meaningful to them personally, as well as to audiences.

I’d like to think my results can stand up to the creations of others though. I recently got a review that thrilled me to the bone when it said: “Dumas's LA REINE MARGOT may have been the first novel to immortalize this indomitable French Queen, but the version of the queen in MÉDICIS DAUGHTER is the most realistic and believable I've yet come across."


2. The relationship between Marguerite and her mother Catherine de Médicis sits at the center of the book--why? What, specifically, about their relationship intrigued you the most?

I chose to focus on the Margot-Catherine relationship because the mother-daughter bond is such a seminal one in the lives of most women. I mean, doesn’t every daughter desire both to please her mother and find a separate existence from that powerful influencer? Margot is certainly no exception. Early on I wrote the following on my desk blotter: “The mother-daughter relationship is always perilous. Now imagine your mother was Catherine de Médicis.” That’s a pretty scary thought—and a very creatively inspiring one!

The most intriguing thing about this particular relationship is that of all Catherine’s children, Margot may have the most like her. Margot was certainly the strongest. Yet despite Margot’s intellect, her strong health and the gift of premonition that she shared with her mother, Catherine never really seemed to like this youngest daughter much. In fact it is reported that Catherine once told Margot she was “born in an evil day."

I came to believe that if Catherine had invested the type of time and energy in Margot that she did in Anjou, the Queen would have been richly rewarded. Even without her mother’s attentions Margot turned out to be a pretty savvy political operator.

3. The Valois, as a waning royal house, was slandered by its political adversaries and suffered a certain degree of prejudice in historical accounts of the time. What measures do you take in your novel to temper this bias? Was it difficult to judge the truthfulness of your historical sources? 

I don’t think this problem is limited to situations where there is an overt bias. In fact knowing there was one—that the Valois had many enemies who created contemporary sources with a particular agenda—was helpful because at least then I, as researcher, knew exactly what I was dealing with. Everyone, whether propagandist, memoirist or historian, comes at the “facts” and the “truths” of history with baggage. For many generations objectivity wasn’t even the goal of “H”istorians. Sometimes patronage drove perspective. For example, Catherine de Médicis had favorite chroniclers of the Court (like Brantôme), and you can bet Catherine wasn’t looking for an unbiased account. Sometimes the perspective of a historian is less overtly driven. It may come from their life experiences, opinions or, and this is still true today, from the desire to make a point or intellectual argument that will put him/her into the spotlight in their his/her discipline. So no matter what source we are reading—primary or secondary—it behooves us to be aware of possible filters.

Fortunately as writers of historical fiction (as opposed to academic historians) we are allowed to filter things as well—through our narrative structure, the points-of-view of our characters, etc. Ultimately story drives historical fiction. And author’s notes exist so we can own the decisions and judgments we make in weaving those stories.


4. What insights did you glean into Marguerite or her family from her memoir, published in 1628? Did the existence of this memoir help or hinder you? 

I find memoirs fascinating. I mean knowing how someone choses to curate their own life is as interesting as the life itself. That is particularly true when you are writing from a character’s point of view in the first person. I needed to be Margot, to see the world as Margot saw it. Her memoir was invaluable to me in this.

Margot was not attempting to provide a “just the facts” story of her history in the “letters” that comprise her memoir. By the time she sat down to write of her life, this last-of-the-Valois had very specific needs. She was being held at the Château d’Usson, and, after 1592, the annulment of her marriage to Henri of Navarre, now Henri IV King of France, was under negotiation. So what Margot included and excluded would have been purposeful. She clearly does not include everything she remembered. For example, she claims to have no recollection of much of the court’s Grand Progress in the 1560s—a claim that is hardly credible given that the trip lasted more than two years and involved the sort of sights and events that would surely have impacted an impressionable young woman. In addition, many of the key players from the early years of her life were dead. Margot had the opportunity to portray them without rebuttal. Yet in a number of cases she was quite charitable. For example, Margot called her brother Charles “the only stay and support of my life; a brother from whose hands I never received anything but good.” That is absolutely revisionist history. Trust me. So Margot’s decisions in constructing her memoir illuminated not only her actions and the actions of those around her but her thought process and political judgments. They gave me something that no secondary source could have.


5. Which scene was the most difficult to write? Which scene was the most fun to concoct?

My novel includes the infamous and bloody Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. In many ways those scenes were the most difficult to craft. Not because of the violence—but because we are a society that has largely become insensible to violence. I ultimately decided that the best way to convey the horror and despair that the massacre must have inspired in someone of conscience witnessing it first hand was to keep my images small and personal. Margot is encountering slaughter in the halls of the palace she calls home. She is observing it at close range, involving individuals she recognizes—people she has dined with, perhaps even danced with—in the roles of both victims and perpetrators. I think sometimes in most overwhelming moments of our lives we become focused, even fixated, on very small details. We remember what was on the radio the day we took the call saying someone we cared for had been killed in an accident for example. So I worked hard to distill Margot’s experiences, especially the next day when she is forced to ride out into the streets while they are still choked with the bodies of the dead.

When it came to fun, nothing beat the scenes between Margot and her cousin Henri of Navarre. They are so wrong together, such opposites, that something very right comes of it. There is always repartee when they are together. And later there is camaraderie, a chemistry touched by exasperation, which I really enjoyed.


6. If you could write a novel about one of the other characters in the book, who would you choose and why?

The Valois court offers an embarrassment of riches—so many fascinating individuals and so many years of violence and conflict yet to come. I’d love to write more about the entire cast of characters. If I did a sequel to MÉDICIS DAUGHTER, the POV I’d most like to add would be Margot’s cousin/husband, Henri of Navarre. Henri’s philosophy and perspective is so very different than that of his wife that he would add a marvelous counterpoint. But why stop at two voices? A royal court is an ensemble cast waiting to take the stage, so if I approached the Valois again it would be a riot to do TV mini-series style treatment—multiple points of view, serpentine subplots.

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Sophie Perinot is the author of THE SISTER QUEENS and one of six contributing authors of A DAY OF FIRE: A NOVEL OF POMPEII. A former attorney, Perinot is now a full-time writer. She lives in Great Falls, Virginia with her three children, three cats, one dog and one husband.

An active member of the Historical Novel Society, Sophie has attended all of the group's North American Conferences and served as a panelist multiple times. Find her among the literary Twitterati as @Lit_gal or on Facebook.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Review: MÉDICIS DAUGHTER by Sophie Perinot

It’s about time! Time to give the Tudors some competition. Time to show that the history of sixteenth century France is just as, if not more, gripping than that of Henry’s and Elizabeth’s England. Time to bring to vivid life the historical players who stalked the halls of the Louvre and Fontainebleau pursuing goals as grandiose, hatching plots as intricate, and delighting in loves as passionate as those of any of Henry’s wives or Elizabeth’s courtiers.


In MÉDICIS DAUGHTER (St. Martin’s Press), Sophie Perinot rises to the challenge, offering a glimpse into the spectacular, turbulent years of the waning Valois dynasty. The novel’s namesake, unmarried princess Marguerite of Valois, comes of age as the Catholic monarchy’s uneasy toleration of the reformed religion dissolves and war breaks out between Protestants and Catholics. Raised in the full knowledge that her marriage must ultimately serve the politics of France, Marguerite expects her marriage to bolster one of France’s traditional alliances against the growing religious threat. But plans to wed her to a Catholic monarch fail, and Marguerite's mother Catherine de Médicis, the true power behind the unstable king, decides upon another course: Marguerite will marry Henri, King of Navarre, leader of the Protestant faction. Marguerite has little respect and even less inclination for her unsophisticated, heretical cousin, especially since she has given her heart to the dashing Henri, duc de Guise, scion of the powerful Catholic House of Lorraine. But she has little say in the matter, and when the occasion of her marriage results in one of the bloodiest religious massacres of French history, Marguerite must choose between betraying a man of principle in order to win her own happiness or freeing herself of her mother's pernicious dominion once and for all.


Told in the first person from Marguerite's perspective, the story covers about a decade of her life, from the age of ten through the early weeks of her marriage at nineteen. It is, in many respects, a standard coming-of-age story. Marguerite seeks to define herself within the parameters of her family and her station as she matures from obedient daughter to independent woman. Focus falls intently on her relationship with her despotic mother, the widowed Catherine de Médicis, who favors her sons and schemes to retain power over them and the kingdom. Marguerite's singular relationship with her brother the duc d'Anjou takes center stage for a good while and flirts closely enough with the salacious to justify the characters' actions and motivations later in the book. As in any good coming-of-age story, friendship features prominently, as Marguerite learns both to trust and to serve her closest confidantes. These friends in turn facilitate her ardent, dangerous affair with Henri de Guise, who schools her in the arts of love and deception.

These coming-of-age elements are well-handled and engaging, but the story picks up steam and increases in emotional complexity once Marguerite finds herself engaged to Henri of Navarre. Forced into marriage with a man whose manners and appearance she scorned and whose commitment to the reform offends her faith, Marguerite must draw on all she has learned to determine her course. As her relationship with the king evolves in unforeseen ways, she takes full and total ownership of the person she becomes. The incredible horror and ongoing violence of the times demand she take a stand against injustice and display the courage, wisdom, and integrity her previous experiences have helped to refine.

Though the era's religious history is a central and inextricable element of the novel's plot, details and doctrine never hamper the dramatic action of MÉDICIS DAUGHTER. Perinot escorts the reader with confidence and aplomb through the unfamiliar landscape of the Wars of Religion and the late Valois court, ably teasing from its rich soil nuggets of story with universal significance and appeal. Readers will be swept up in the challenges and choices Marguerite faces as she defines the roles of daughter, sister, wife, woman, and queen on her own terms. A compelling and thoroughly satisfying read sure to ignite interest in the era, MÉDICIS DAUGHTER depicts the pageantry and ugliness of sixteenth century court life in all its gritty glory.

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Return tomorrow to read my interview with Sophie about the novel and the history it depicts.

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Sophie Perinot is the author of THE SISTER QUEENS and one of six contributing authors of A DAY OF FIRE: A NOVEL OF POMPEII. A former attorney, Perinot is now a full-time writer. She lives in Great Falls, Virginia with her three children, three cats, one dog and one husband.

An active member of the Historical Novel Society, Sophie has attended all of the group's North American Conferences and served as a panelist multiple times. Find her among the literary twitterati as @Lit_gal or on Facebook.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

"François Ier, l'empreinte d'un roi" on France 24


Francis1-1.jpg

FABULOUS video celebrating François I on France 24. It's the 500th anniversary of François' birth this year, and there have been innumerable expositions and special events regarding his life and reign throughout France. This video includes gorgeous footage of Fontainebleau. Worth a watch even if you don't speak French!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Weaving Witcheries

Researching a new novel today, I came across this poem. It featured in the February 1892 issue of The Californian Illustrated Magazine.


My Library
by J.W. Wood

Within these covers, homely tho' some be,
     Life's kaleidoscope is writ in varying stage,---
The tragedies of war and poets' melody,
     The mimicry of love, philosophy of sage.
Here warrior tells his deeds of valor o'er,
     With gallant knight who poised his lance for fame;
The antiquary fraught with mystic lore,
     The pensive lover sighing forth his flame,
'Tis here most strange and pleasant company;---
     The sparkling wit, the weirdly muttering crone,
A rondeau neat, a dismal threnody,
     Compose this mimic world in calf-bound tome.
__________

Here let me muse in silent reverie
     Amidst these mystic scenes of by-gone age,
And with the aeons past and aeons yet to be
     Weave witcheries for yet unlettered page.

I could find no information about the poet, but he or she perfectly captures (albeit in the hyperbolic language of the time) the task of the historical novelist--connecting past and future by "weaving witcheries" in the present. A wonderful image, especially with Halloween upon us. But whereas Wood's writer is trapped in "silent reverie" facing the "yet unlettered page"--suffering, in other words, from writer's block--I am about to embark on that curiously crazy endeavor known as NaNoWriMo, or drafting 50,000 words of a new novel in thirty days.  I'll be jumping four centuries and a continent for this new project and will need every bit of witchery-weaving skill I possess. Wish me luck!

Happy Halloween


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Winner of ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS Giveaway

And the winner of a hardback copy of Marci Jefferson's ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS, courtesy of Thomas Dunne Books, is....

KimberlyV !


Thank you to all who entered.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Interview: Marci Jefferson, author of ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS

Today I welcome Marci Jefferson, author of the newly released historical novel ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS (St. Martin's Press), to answer some questions about her characters and seventeenth century France.

Marie Mancini is a fascinating character. Where did you first encounter her and why did you decide to write about her? 

I actually learned about Marie Mancini while doing research for GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN. In most sources Marie is mentioned as King Louis’ first love, someone he might have married if not for his duty to his country. But a deeper study revealed a story far more complex.

Marie Mancini, author and date unknown
You cite Marie’s memoirs as one of your sources. What was it like reading about Marie’s life in her own words? What insights did you glean that you might not have found in secondary sources? Were there instances where the Memoirs complicated the path you envisioned for your narrative and how did you resolve the conflict?

Marie’s memoir is pure enjoyment. I’ve read it over and over! She lays out events in an orderly way, which is useful because biographers sometimes don’t provide details chronologically. Her narrative never complicated the novel - quite the opposite - I try to allow historical facts to structure my plots. The one complication in using her memoir as a source is that one must remember *why* she wrote a memoir in the first place. She had scandalized her family by leaving her high-born husband, fleeing Italy for refuge in France in defiance of the Pope. She needed to defend herself without offending the world powers. She set her memoir to paper to justify her actions, and it is evident in her writing that she took pains not to insult the men she had defied. She also avoids telling the whole story, respecting King Louis’ privacy and leaving researchers to read between the lines. Those fine areas between the lines - that is where the historical novelist steps in to provide answers!

Did the historical Marie truly believe she had a valid chance at becoming Queen of France? Why would she think the King would—or ever could—put his personal wishes above the needs of the nation?

King Louis told Marie he would make her his queen, and Marie believed him because she needed to believe in love. There is no other explanation for her behavior and for the severity with which her uncle, Cardinal Mazarin, treated her. I believe Mazarin suppressed her, exiled her, and may have even tried to kill her because she was doing everything she could to convince King Louis that he was strong enough to act without Mazarin’s approval. Though Cardinal Mazarin won the battle, it cost him dearly. Mazarin’s health deteriorated so badly during the ordeal, he died shortly after. I wrote the novel exactly as I believe things happened.

Cardinal Mazarin, c. 1660 by Pierre Mignard
You portray Cardinal Mazarin as a cruel, thoroughly self-serving character. Did he have any redeeming qualities? Did his influence over King Louis and the queen mother yield any benefit for France?

Cardinal Mazarin is a rare example of a seventeenth century commoner bettering themselves. In his era, men and women remained within the station to which they were born. Mazarin’s father had been a commoner, raised to a position of service in the powerful Colona family in Rome. A bright young man, Mazarin impressed the right people in the Catholic Church. He became protege to Cardinal Richelieu, securing his own future in France. Mazarin used his connections to marry his common-born sisters into noble Italian families. He then moved his extended family to France, marrying his nieces into French noble families. I tried to highlight this generosity in the novel, because a villain that is all bad quickly becomes boring. But the truth is, he did these “generous” things to improve his own power connections. He employed men who were “creative” about making him money. It’s true he brought the Fronde wars to an end, but those wars started in part because of his abuse of power. One thing he did that benefited France was orchestrate a peace treaty with Spain. This damaged his income streams, as the war was one of his biggest sources of “creative” money making, and some believe he had the power to stop that war whenever he wanted. Incidentally, this peace was sealed with King Louis’ marriage to the Spanish princess, which ended Louis’ relationship with Marie, causing both his niece and the king a great deal of pain. I try to be objective when studying historical figures, but in the case of Cardinal Mazarin, the best I can say of him is that he was a political mastermind.

The numerous Mancini siblings all led interesting, unconventional lives. How do you explain their courage and/or recklessness? Which sibling intrigues you most after Marie?

The Mancini’s were bold and unconventional because they were brought up by an unconventional man: Cardinal Mazarin. None of the Mancini’s respected him, but they all strove to change their lot in life much as he had done. I almost cannot pick a favorite Mancini sister, but Hortense is certainly as remarkable as Marie.

ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS covers roughly the same time period as GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN. Did your research unearth any interesting differences between the French and the English court cultures of the mid-seventeenth century?

The primary difference between the French and English courts in the seventeenth century is religious. France was firmly Catholic, while England had been dealing with the aftermath of their protestant reformation for generations. The difference in religions make the power structures different in each court. Some Catholic aristocrats in the French court still held to a number of superstitious beliefs that drove them to seek the services of an underground ring of witches and renegade priests dabbling in the occult arts. The majority of the English court hated Catholics and were ever on-guard against plots of a Catholic take-over.

Louis XIV of France, 1661 by Charles Le Brun
Which king—Charles II of England or Louis XIV of France—appeals to you more and why? Which woman, Frances Stuart or Marie Mancini, would you trade places with if you could?

King Louis learned to be a powerful man with Marie Mancini’s help, and only seized power of his own kingdom when his corrupt advisor died. After this, Louis was emotionally distant, politically skilled but not particularly pleasant to be around. Charles II inherited his throne while his kingdom was losing a terrible war. After a period of exile, his countrymen restored him to power because they believed in him. Charles was easygoing, witty, and a master at balancing factions. King Louis spent his energy enforcing Catholicism and expanding his boundaries. Charles spent his energy keeping the peace and enforcing the need to be tolerant of other religions. For these reasons, Charles is more appealing.

Though I enjoy writing about heroic seventeenth century women, I wouldn’t dare trade places with Marie or Frances. I appreciate my civil rights too much to go back to a time when women were expected to be subservient.

Hortense and Marie Mancini, c. 1680 by Jacob Ferdinand Voet
You have now written two historical novels. What did you learn, in terms of work habits, research practices, or narrative technique while writing the first that helped you to write the second? What is the most important thing you have learned so far on your journey?

After two novels I’ve learned that all the cliches about writing are true: you have to write every day, read a lot, and cut the parts that people skim. But perhaps most importantly, persistence is just as important as talent in traditional publishing.

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To celebrate the publication of ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS, Marci Jefferson is giving away a lovely faux diamond bracelet like the one below. To enter the random drawing, leave a comment with a contact email address. Entrants must reside within the continental United States. Contest will close at 9 pm Pacific Standard time on Wednesday, August 19. Winner's name will be posted Friday, August 21. Good luck! ***PLEASE NOTE: This giveaway is completely separate from yesterday's book giveaway. If you'd like to enter both contests, you need to leave a comment on each post. Thank you.


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Marci Jefferson, author of GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN (St. Martin's, 2014) and ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS (St. Martin's, 2015) writes about remarkable women in history who dared to defy men. You can learn more about Marci and her books at her website.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Review and Giveaway: ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS by Marci Jefferson


Marci Jefferson's ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS, just released from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, addresses a glaring need in the panoply of historical fiction: novels set during the seventeenth century, and more specifically, in France. The French Revolution and two World Wars draw the lion's share of interest from authors and readers interested in France; huge swaths of fascinating history from earlier eras remain virtually untouched. Tapping into this treasure trove, Jefferson reanimates the personalities and intrigue of the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. With an energetic, skillful flair, she examines the relationship between Marie Mancini, the defiant niece of the powerful Cardinal Mazarin, and young Louis, who wishes, despite all expectations, to marry her. Based on Marie's own memoirs, Jefferson's captivating novel sparkles like the diamonds that grace the beautiful Mazarinette's neck.

One of five daughters of Cardinal Mazarin's sister, Marie has spent most of her life secluded in convents in order to protect her family's political and social aspirations from the threat she embodies. Born under an evil star, she is predicted to disgrace her family in a way no woman had ever done before. Summoned to the palace bid farewell to her dying mother, Marie catches the eye of the serious young king, whose face mirrors her own loneliness. She wins Louis away from her sister Olympia, his current mistress, and by promising to bend the king to her uncle's will, gains her freedom from the convent. Marie's fierce love inspires Louis with a confidence he has never felt; she encourages him to escape his dependence on Mazarin and act as king in his own right. Disgusted by Mazarin's brazen abuse of power and threatened by his unrestrained hostility, Marie searches for ways to thwart her uncle's designs. Mazarin's political hopes center on a peace treaty with Spain that requires Louis to marry the Spanish princess. Desperate to save her future, Marie searches for proof of the long-ago affair between Mazarin and the queen mother that resulted in Louis's birth, and turns to the very black arts that prophesied her downfall. Will her efforts assure her marriage to the king or force her to forsake him? Dare Louis ignore the needs of his nation to satisfy the desires of his heart?

Although at times the focus on the royal romance threatens to overwhelm the novel's plot, the intriguingly unfamiliar history and strong characterizations counter this danger. By examining the early years of Louis's reign, Jefferson humanizes a king who later came to epitomize the absolute monarch, revealing a tender vulnerability that succumbs to both Mazarin's control and Marie's influence. By embracing the possibility that Louis is in fact Mazarin's son, a theory recently suggested by historians, Jefferson provides a motivation for Mazarin's scheming and the means for his undoing. Finally, by casting Marie as a "Mazarinette," one of the bevy of sisters and cousins the Cardinal exploits to further his own schemes, Jefferson cleverly justifies Marie's audacious behavior. Nieces of an exceptional man, the Mazarinettes all exhibit extraordinary tendencies and lead unconventional lives. Marie's boldness, unusual in a young woman of that era, rings true in the context of her family and her upbringing. Forced to rely on no one but herself if she hopes to change her destiny, Marie inspires Louis to look within for the courage he needs to transform from obedient son to authentic king--and make her his bride in the process.

In the vein of 2014's GIRL ON THE GOLD COIN (several of whose characters make cameo appearances here), ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS spotlights a strong, spirited woman who rebels against those who would sacrifice her for their own gain, a woman who, determined to direct the course of her own life, stands to alter the course of a nation. Shining light into the darkest corners of the Sun King's glittering court, ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS examines whether love, grit and will can indeed revise what is written in the stars.

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To celebrate the publication of ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS, St. Martin's Press is providing one hardback copy for giveaway. To enter the drawing, leave a comment with a contact email address by 9 pm Pacific Standard Time on August 18, 2015. Winner's name, chosen at random, will be posted August 20. Entrants must reside in the continental US. Good luck!

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Be sure to return tomorrow for an interview with Marci about Marie and the history behind the novel.
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MARCI JEFFERSON graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical College as a Registered Nurse. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and lives in Indiana with her husband and children. This is her second novel. You can learn more about Marci and her books at her website. ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS can be ordered from all the usual outlets.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Review: FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER by Susan Spann



FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER by Susan Spann (Minotaur, 2015) continues the exciting adventures of ninja spy Hattori Hiro and the Portuguese priest he must protect in sixteenth century Japan. While Kyoto stews in uneasy anticipation as rival warlords plot for control of the city, Hiro and Father Mateo must prove the innocence of their friend Ginjiro, a brewer accused of murdering an indebted colleague. The victim, who had been seeking Ginjiro's sponsorship for admittance into the brewer's guild despite his spendthrift son owing Ginjiro a significant sum, is found felled by violent blows to the head in Ginjiro's alley. The police immediately arrest Ginjiro, assuming he murdered the man over the unpaid debt. Ginjiro faces execution in a matter of days unless Hiro and Father Mateo can find evidence to exonerate him. The duo's shrewd investigation quickly unearths other suspects--a missing merchant, a vicious debt collector, a female moneylender--all with sufficient motive for murder. But can Hiro winnow the possibilities and name the perpetrator before the magistrate pronounces judgment--and before chaos descends upon a city, endangering the foreign priest's life and mission?

As she did in the series' previous installments, CLAWS OF THE CAT (2013) and BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (2014), Spann once again proves herself adept at constructing a compelling, watertight plot that keeps the reader wondering at the murderer's identity up until the very last pages. This meticulous storytelling unfolds against an ever-broadening evocation of sixteenth-century Japanese society. Each book in the Shinobi series concentrates its action in a specific milieu. CLAWS unveils the stylized world of the tea-house and its samurai clientele, while BLADE recreates the offices and interactions of government functionaries. FLASK moves into the commercial stratum of society, evoking the world of rice merchants, brewers, and money-lenders. Other than Hiro, only a single samurai mixes it up with the working class characters who populate this story, which leads the reader deep among the bins of rice warehouses, the vats of sake breweries, and the alleys of the merchant district. It is Father Mateo's mission and status as an outsider that permit him and Hiro to penetrate these different social niches--a pretext the author uses to full advantage. With a unique setting and particular characters, each Shinobi mystery feels fresh, even as it adds another facet to the broader historical world Spann so painstakingly reanimates.

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In any good mystery, the protagonist's quest to solve the murder serves as a crucible in which his own character is tested and transformed. THE FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER is no exception to this rule. The rigors of the investigation strain the fledging friendship between Hiro and Mateo by highlighting the differences in their outlooks and ethics. Mateo's western religion causes Hiro no end of puzzlement, specifically its condemnation of lies. The two men have a falling out over the questioning of a suspect, and Father Mateo's anger at Hiro's flippant approach to the tenets of the Christian faith causes Hiro to realize that he has, indeed, disrespected his friend's beliefs. This incident marks a change in their relationship and addresses the question that ever lurks in the reader's mind as to what degree the ninja will or will not be influenced by his exposure to Christianity. A ruthless act he commits several chapters later reminds the reader that Hiro is still very much a professional assassin, but the earlier incident establishes a precedent for potential religious/ethical questioning in a future book. In any case, it adds an interesting wrinkle to the pair's evolving relationship and proves it to be moving beyond the polite formality of employer and employed, despite Hiro's efforts prevent emotion from complicating--or compromising--his protective mission.


The tightly constructed murder mystery, the detailed look at an unfamiliar segment of Japanese society, and the deepening of Hiro's character satisfy all the more, given the seamless way Spann weaves them into the broader mystery of who has hired Hiro to guard the priest, how the imminent clash of clans might endanger Mateo, and why. The particular mystery of the brewer's murder might be solved, and convincingly so, but these overarching questions continue to tease. FLASK whets the reader's thirst to pursue answers, and Susan Spann's precise pen and vivid imagination have proven more than up to the task of providing them.


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Cover Reveal and Giveaway: FALL OF POPPIES (William Morrow, March 2016)

I'm excited to announce a forthcoming collection of short stories, three of which were written by friends of mine--Heather Webb (RODIN'S LOVER), Marci Jefferson (ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS), and Jessica Brockmole (LETTERS FROM SKYE). The nine short stories that comprise FALL OF POPPIES paint a haunting picture of loss, longing, and hope in the aftermath of World War I.

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Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War

by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Evangeline Holland, Lauren Willig, Marci Jefferson

William Morrow Trade Paperback; March 1, 2016; $14.99; ISBN: 9780062418548

Top voices in historical fiction deliver an intensely moving collection of short stories about loss, longing, and hope in the aftermath of World War I—featuring bestselling authors such as Hazel Gaynor, Jennifer Robson, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig and edited by Heather Webb.

A squadron commander searches for meaning in the tattered photo of a girl he’s never met…

A Belgian rebel hides from the world, only to find herself nursing the enemy…

A young airman marries a stranger to save her honor—and prays to survive long enough to love her…The peace treaty signed on November 11, 1918, may herald the end of the Great War but for its survivors, the smoke is only beginning to clear. Picking up the pieces of shattered lives will take courage, resilience, and trust.

Within crumbled city walls and scarred souls, war’s echoes linger. But when the fighting ceases, renewal begins…and hope takes root in a fall of poppies.

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Here is an excerpt from Heather Webb's story, "Hour of the Bells":

Beatrix whisked around the showroom, feather duster in hand. Not a speck of dirt could remain or Joseph would be disappointed. The hour struck noon. A chorus of clocks whirred, their birds popping out from hiding to announce midday. Maidens twirled in their frocks with braids down their backs, woodcutters clacked their axes against pine, and the odd sawmill wheel spun in tune to the melody of a nursery rhyme. Two dozen cuckoos warbled and dinged, each crafted with loving detail by the same pair of hands—those with thick fingers and a steady grip.
Beatrix paused in her cleaning. One clock chimed to its own rhythm, apart from the others.
She could turn them off—the tinkling melodies, the incessant clatter of pendulums, wheels, and cogs, with the levers located near the weights—just as their creator had done before bed each evening, but she could not bring herself to do the same. To silence their music was to silence him, her husband, Joseph. The Great War had already done that; ravaged his gentle nature, stolen his final breath, and silenced him forever.
In a rush, Beatrix scurried from one clock to the next, assessing which needed oiling. With the final stroke of twelve, she found the offending clock. Its walnut face, less ornate than the others, had been her favorite, always. A winter scene displayed a cluster of snow-topped evergreens; rabbits and fawns danced in the drifts when the music began, and a scarlet cardinal dipped its head and opened its beak to the beauty of the music. The animals’ simplicity appealed to her now more than ever. With care, she removed the weights and pendulum, and unscrewed the back of the clock. She was grateful she had watched her husband tend to them so often. She could still see Joseph, blue eyes peering over his spectacles, focused on a figurine as he painted detailing on the linden wood. His patient hands had caressed the figures lovingly, as he had caressed her.
The memory of him sliced her open. She laid her head on the table as black pain stole over her body, pooling in every hidden pocket and filling her up until she could scarcely breathe.
“Give it time,” her friend Adelaide had said, as she set a basket of jam and dried sausages on the table; treasures in these times of rations, yet meager condolence for what Beatrix had lost.
“Time?” Beatrix had laughed, a hollow sound, and moved to the window overlooking the grassy patch of yard. The Vosges mountains rose in the distance, lording over the line between France and Germany along the battle front. Time’s passage never escaped her—not for a moment. The clocks made sure of it. There weren’t enough minutes, enough hours, to erase her loss.
         As quickly as the grief came, it fled. Though always powerful, its timing perplexed her. Pain stole through the night, or erupted at unlikely moments, until she feared its onslaught the way others feared death. Death felt easier, somehow.
Beatrix raised her head and pushed herself up from the table to finish her task. Joseph would not want her to mourn, after two long years. He would want to see her strength, her resilience, especially for their son. She pretended Adrien was away at school, though he had enlisted, too. His enlistment had been her fault. A vision of her son cutting barbed wire, sleeping in trenches, and pointing a gun at another man reignited the pain and it began to pool again. She suppressed the horrid thoughts quickly, and locked them away in a corner of her mind.
With a light touch she cleaned the clock’s bellows and dials, and anointed its oil bath with a few glistening drops. Once satisfied with her work, she hung the clock in its rightful place above the phonograph, where a disk waited patiently on the spool. She spun the disk once and watched the printed words on its center blur. Adrien had played Quand Madelon over and over, belting out the patriotic lyrics in time with the music. To him, it was a show of his support for his country. To Beatrix it had been a siren, a warning her only son would soon join the fight. His father’s death was the final push he had needed. The lure of patrimoine, of country, throbbed inside of him as it did in other men. They talked of war as women spoke of tea sets and linens, yearned for it as women yearned for children. Now, the war had seduced her Adrien. She stopped the spinning disk and plucked it from its wheel, the urge to destroy it pulsing in her hands.
She must try to be more optimistic. Surely God would not take all she had left.
Reprinted Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

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To celebrate the publication of FALL OF POPPIES, HarperCollins is giving away print copies of AFTER THE WAR IS OVER, A MEMORY OF VIOLETS, and LAND OF DREAMS. Follow this link to enter the drawing.

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Good luck! FALL OF POPPIES is available for pre-order as of today.