Friday, March 30, 2018

Descent from the Cross, Rosso Fiorentino

Ross Fiorentino (1494-1540)
Descent from the Cross (1521)
Oil on Panel

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Review and Giveaway: THE PHANTOM'S APPRENTICE by Heather Webb

Experience the magic of music--and the music of magic!--in Heather Webb's latest novel, THE PHANTOM'S APPRENTICE (Sonnet Press). With the finesse and skill of a master conjuror, Webb transmutes the familiar substance of the Phantom of the Opera tradition into a haunting tale of love, loss, and rebirth. Combining newly-imagined elements of magic and hidden family secrets with a substrate that draws from both Gaston Leroux's original 1910 novel and Andrew Lloyd Webber's famed 1986 Broadway musical, Webb reinvigorates familiar Phantom tradition with an edgy novelty that will appeal to devoted Phantom fans and unschooled initiates alike.

Webb's version focuses on the transformational journey of protagonist Christine Daaé, victim of circumstance and obedient pawn in the hands of powerful men, to full agency in determining her own fate. The orphaned daughter of an itinerant musician, Christine wins a coveted spot in the chorus of the Nouvel Opéra in Paris through the kindness of a benefactor's friend. At the Opéra, the beautiful, gifted singer snares the attention of the mysterious "Opera Ghost," who trains her voice and, through means that range from coercion to murder, positions her to displace the reigning diva. As Christine's emotions waver between gratefulness and fear towards this demanding ghost so devoted to her advancement, she becomes reacquainted with her childhood sweetheart, the Vicomte de Chagny. Raoul revives not only Christine's dormant heart but her interest in illusions, which she had set aside following her father's death. As Christine rededicates herself to mastering illusion in the hope of performing magic onstage, she uncovers secrets that involve her deceased parents in the ghost's shady past. Determined to slip the Phantom's obsessive grasp once and for all, she sets into motion an elaborate plan to flee the opera house. Only by outwitting and outperforming her accomplished adversary--a Master Conjuror himself--can Christine hope to fulfill her dreams and embrace a new life with Raoul.

Webb's deft weaving of innovative material within the framework of a familiar, revered narrative speaks to her skills as a storyteller. The tale moves at a brisk pace, with Christine's confidence and courage growing in equal measure. Interconnected backstories, slowly revealed, enrich the plot and deepen character development. Webb's firm grip on the culture of Belle Époque Paris, developed during the writing of her earlier novel RODIN'S LOVER (2015), displays itself in her luscious descriptions of the opulent Palais Garnier and its glamorous visitors, as well as in her portrayals of the daily grind of its performer's rehearsals and aspirations. Of particular strength is the novel's immersion in the spiritualist movement of the time. Eager to believe the spirits of her dead parents ever with her, even as she learns the tricks conjurors use to dupe the bereaved, Christine becomes the unwilling link between the conjuror and the scientist bent on exposing him. Her individual story of loss and enlightenment enacts on a personal level the struggles of a society caught in the death throes of superstition.

A thoroughly entertaining foray into a glamorous world of magic and music, where dreams bloom with thrill and transience of illusion, THE PHANTOM'S APPRENTICE proves there is more to the story of Christine and the Phantom than meets the eye.

During the Blog Tour Heather is giving away two paperback copies of The Phantom’s Apprentice! Enter via the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on February 26th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US & Canada residents only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at their discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

The Phantom's Apprentice


HEATHER WEBB is the author of historical novels BECOMING JOSEPHINE, RODIN'S LOVER, the anthology FALL OF POPPIES, and LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS, which have been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, Elle, and France Magazine and have received national starred reviews. To date, her novels have sold in ten countries. Heather is also a professional freelance editor, foodie, and travel fiend. For more information, please visit Heather’s website. You can also find her on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, February 5
Review at The Maiden’s Court
Tuesday, February 6
Review at The Lit Bitch
Feature at A Bookaholic Swede
Wednesday, February 7
Review at Just One More Chapter
Review at History From a Woman’s Perspective
Thursday, February 8
Review at A Bookish Affair
Friday, February 9
Review at Trisha Jenn Reads
Saturday, February 10
Review at Bookish
Monday, February 12
Review at Creating Herstory
Tuesday, February 13
Review at Linda’s Book Obsession
Wednesday, February 14
Review at Clarissa Reads it All
Thursday, February 15
Review at 100 Pages a Day
Friday, February 16
Review at Baer Books
Monday, February 19
Review at Cup of Sensibility
Review at Let Them Read Books
Review at Bookworms Anonymous
Tuesday, February 20
Feature at Passages to the Past
Wednesday, February 21
Review at Writing the Renaissance
Monday, February 26
Interview at Jorie Loves a Story

Friday, February 2, 2018

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

Louise Labé in 1555, Engraving by Pierre Woeiriot (1532-1596)
"Estant le tems venu, Madamoiselle, que les severes loix des hommes n'empeschent plus les femmes de s'apliquer aux sciences et disciplines: il me semble que celles qui ont la commodité, doivent employer cette honneste liberté que notre sexe ha autre fois tant desiree, à icelles aprendre: et montrer aus hommes le tort qu'ils nous faisoient en nous privant du bien et de l'honneur qui nous en pouvoit venir: Et si quelcune parvient en tel degré que de pouvoir mettre ses concepcions par escrit, le faire songneusement et non dédaigner la gloire, et s'en parer plustot que de chaines, anneaus, et somptueus habits: lesquels ne pouvons vrayement estimer notres, que par usage. Mais l'honneur que la science nous procurera, sera entierement notre: et ne nous pourra estre oté, ne par finesse de larron, ne force d'ennemis, ne longueur du temps."

"Since the time has now come, Mademoiselle, when men’s harsh laws no longer prevent women from applying themselves to study and learning, it seems to me that those who have the means should take advantage of this well-deserved freedom — so fervently desired by our sex in the past — to pursue them, and to show men how wrong they were to deprive us of the benefit and recognition these things might have given us. And if any of us succeeds to the point where she can put her ideas down in writing, she should do it seriously and not disdain fame, but adorn herself with it, rather than with chains, rings, and lavish clothing, all of which we cannot truly consider our own except by social custom.But the honor that education brings us will be entirely our own, and cannot be taken away from us — neither by a thief’s trickery, nor by an enemy’s force, nor by the passage of time."

Louise Labé (1524-1566)
Poet, Evvres de Louize Labé Lionnoise (1555)
Dedicatory Epistle to Clémence de Bourges
Translated by Deborah Lesko Baker (2006)

Monday, January 29, 2018

Operating a Renaissance Printing Press

Renaissance era printing presses required a team of skilled workers for operation. Each press was manned by two journeymen, aided by an apprentice. One journeyman would fit a forme of type set by the compositor into the press bed and ink the forme with sheepskin dabbers. A second journeyman would attach a sheet of damp paper to a frame that folded over the inked forme, slide the tray under the screw, and yank the bar to lower a heavy plate onto the paper, pressing it against the inked type. Once the puller raised the plate, the apprentice would remove the wet page and hang it to dry, allowing the journeymen to begin the process anew. A seasoned team could pull upwards of three thousand pages a day. An average sized printing shop had three presses in operation; a large enterprise, five to six.

Compositors, or typesetters, sat before staggered bins of type filling the formes for each press. As soon as the initial page was drawn from a new forme, a proofreader would read and correct it. Following the proofreader's marks, the compositors would remove and replace erroneous letters before the final draw. The duties of both compositor and proofreader demanded a thorough familiarity with classical languages and literatures. Noted scholars often served a "guest stint" as corrector at a printing house. The contribution of their expertise to the production of texts elevated the shop's reputation.

Much of my novel takes place in a printing shop in Lyon, a center of the French book trade. Jollande Carlet, a spirited young widow who dreams of publishing her own poems, proofreads at the Sign of the Fountain, the small but esteemed establishment owned by her godfather. When Gabriel Orland, a court poet commissioned by the queen to investigate the Fountain's rumored role in the distribution of banned books, arrives to assume Jollande's position, sparks fly. Good thing the paper's damp, because these two spar over far more than spelling.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Review: THE BRETHREN by Robert Merle

Hankering for fiction set in sixteenth century France? I recently discovered THE FORTUNES OF FRANCE by Robert Merle, a series of thirteen historical novels that span the years 1547 to 1661. Written in French from 1977 to 2003, the books follow the Siorac family of Périgord through the tumultous Wars of Religion and into the reign of the Bourbon kings. The first three novels (THE BRETHREN, CITY OF WISDOM AND BLOOD, and HERETIC DAWN) have recently been translated into English by Professor T. Jefferson Kline and published by Pushkin Press. Having just ripped through the first volume, I fully understand why this captivating series has sold over five million copies in France.

Pierre de Siorac, a Huguenot doctor turned spy, narrates the first six books; his son picks up the thread in the remaining volumes. In Book I, THE BRETHREN, Pierre recounts the establishment of the Siorac family in remote southwestern France. Consulting his father’s Book of Reason, a combination diary and account book, for information on events that occured before his own birth, Pierre describes the arrival of his father Jean de Siorac and his comrade in arms, Jean de Sauveterre, in Périgord after successful service in the French army. The pair, close as real brothers (hence, “The Brethren”), pool their plunder to buy the castle of Mespech, a neglected property they soon coax into a thriving estate. Staunch Protestants, they work to establish Mespech as a reformed stronghold, but the resistance of Jean’s wife Isabelle, a devout and unwavering Catholic, complicates their plans and threatens their allegiances. Furthermore, as soldiers and wealthy landowners, the two Jeans must constantly weigh their loyalty to Catholic king and country against steadfast devotion to their new faith.

The clash between Catholicism and Calvinism--strife that plunges France into an era of long and bloody wars--not only defines the novel's political landscape but colors the characters' interactions. The religious impasse between Pierre's parents affects their children’s relationships with them and with each other, as well as the servants’ and retainers’ relationships with their overlords. Many of the servants continue their Catholic practices in private, and the two Jeans often disagree on how strictly to punish infractions against the Protestantism they impose on family and estate. Moreover, Mespech’s adherence to the Reform, long undeclared, causes friction with neighbors and municipal authorities. In recounting the events of his childhood, Pierre finds his loyalty torn between respect and admiration for his Protestant father and attachment to his Catholic mother and the female servants who raise him. His engaging voices captures the tone of a difficult era, one which forced people to make difficult choices between the demands of heart and mind and soul. With great finesse, author Robert Merle chanels the religious strife fracturing the kingdom into the specific personal conflicts that power the narrative, showing how the abstractions of competing religious philosophies play out in concrete fashion within intimate circles of family and friends.

Despite its theological underpinnings, however, THE BRETHREN reads like a swashbuckling novel reminiscent of an Alexandre Dumas. A master at creating original and memorable characters, from defiant gypsies to doting wetnurses to disabled veterans to blustering butcher-barons, Merle embroils his large cast in an endless series of entertaining and cleverly interwoven escapades. Quick-paced and wide-ranging, the novel unfolds with delightful Rabelaisian exuberance. At the end of this first volume, with Mespech secure and flourishing, young Pierre, as second son, sets out for Montpellier to take up medical studies. Ready and eager to follow, I look forward to his continued adventures. With twelve more volumes to read, I'm certain to be busy for quite some time!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Merle (1908-2004) was born in French Algeria and moved to Paris at the age of eight after the death of his interpreter father. He graduated from the Sorbonne and served as a professor of English Literature at several universities. During World War II, he was conscripted as an interpreter in the British Expeditionary Force and was captured by the Germans. After the war, he won the Prix Goncourt for a novel based on his experiences at Dunkirk. Another of his novels was translated into English and filmed as The Day of the Dolphin (1973) starring George C. Scott. He wrote numerous novels, a biography of Oscar Wilde, and several translations, including one of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. His major achievement was the thirteen volumes of the Fortune de France (1977-2003), whose popularity have made him a household name. The first three books of the series have recently been translated into English by T. Jefferson Kline. For further information, see this article in The Guardian.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Review: LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

If, as Audrey Hepburn reminds us, "Paris is always a good idea," then Paris at Christmas is an even better one! Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb take full advantage of the possibilities in LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS: A Novel of World War I, out today from William Morrow. In this co-written epistolary novel, Londoners Evelyn Elliott and Tom Harding, separated by the hardships and horrors of the Great War, hold fast to their dream of reuniting in Paris to celebrate Christmas at war's end. As their comfortable world crumbles around them, the pair searches valiantly for meaning in the chaos--meaning that comes, necessarily and irrevocably, to include the other. Their letters, begun as a cordial exchange between friends, document the deepening of the couple's attachment as it shapes and informs their personal journeys of self-discovery.

The strength of LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS lies in the distinctiveness of its voices. In crafting the novel as a team, each author adopted one protagonist as her own. Gaynor wrote as Evie, a young society girl who yearns to do more for the war effort than pour tea and knit socks. Webb wrote as Tom, Evie's brother's best friend, a dreamy academic more than happy to leave the oversight of the family newspaper to others. This strategy results in two voices that sound genuinely different and remain engagingly fresh the length of the novel. The letters read as true responses one to the next, the heartfelt testimony of characters striving to make sense of upheaval. Sprinkled among them are telegrams, reproduced on a gray background suggestive of crinkled paper--a design detail that visually contributes to the communications' aura of authenticity. Occassional letters between the protagonists and secondary characters round the correspondence into a convincing, compelling narrative, one that smoothly and successfully blends the creative input of two gifted storytellers into a harmonious whole.

Evie and Tom, rather stereotypical upper-crust British twenty-somethings at the outset of the novel, quickly belie conventional depiction. Dashing, patriotic Tom, eager to defeat the Germans and return home by Christmas, winds up shattered and suffering, his mental health compromised by trauma. As he becomes dangerously withdrawn, sheltered Evie finds her voice as a newspaper columnist, documenting the war from a woman's perspective. Convinced journalism must serve truth, she exposes the lies and misinformation behind official propaganda. This subtle role reversal adds an intriguing angle to the dynamics of the love relationship. Each character, supported and challenged by the other, breaks free of old habits and ways of thinking to forge a new role in a suddenly unfamiliar world. The love story resonates on the broader level of a society forced to rethink itself as it rises from the ruins of the past to confront an uncertain future.

Yet despite its larger resonances, the authors never stray far from the novel's central question: Will Evie and Tom weather separation and hardship to enjoy the happiness they realize can be found only in the other? Obstacles and misunderstandings abound, keeping the reader on tenterhooks until the last satisfying page. Like the birds Evie sketches on her letters to Tom, LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS sings and soars as it unabashedly affirms the power of love to dispel the shadows of a dark and threatening world.

Read a sample of LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS here.
LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS is best-selling author Hazel Gaynor's fifth published novel and Heather Webb's third. Click on their names to visit their websites and learn more about the authors and their books.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Historical Novels Set in Sixteenth-Century France

Tired of Tudors and Borgias? If you enjoy historical fiction set in sixteenth century France, here are some novels to seek out:


The Princesse de Cleves (1678) by Madame de Lafayette (various translations). Set during the reign of Henri II, the story of married noblewoman Mme de Cleves' unrequited love for the dashing Duc de Nemours and the tragic consequences her confession of this love entails.

Queen Margot (1845) by Alexandre Dumas (various translations). The 1572 St. Bartholomew's massacre serves as the backdrop for the political machinations of Catherine de Medici.

Heinrich Mann (translated from the German)

Young Henry of Navarre (1935). Life of Henri of Navarre from his childhood in the Pyrenees to claiming the throne of France.

Henry, King of France (1938). Sequel describing the two decades of chaos and war leading up to the King's assassination.

Jean Plaidy

The Catherine de' Medici Trilogy: Madame Serpent (1951), The Italian Woman (1952), Queen Jezebel (1953), all reissued in 2013.

Royal Road to Fotheringay (1955). Young Mary Queen of Scots at the French court.

Evergreen Gallant (1963). King Henri IV.

Dorothy Dunnett

Queen's Play (1964). The second volume of the Lymond Chronicles; Lymond travels to France to protect young Mary Queen of Scots.

Checkmate (1975). The last volume of the Lymond Chronicles; Lymond is back in France, haunted by his past as he leads an army against England.

Robert Merle

Fortunes of France series (13 novels, 3 of which have been translated): The Brethren (1977), City of Wisdom and Blood (1979), Heretic Dawn (1980). The sixteenth century seen through the eyes of a Protestant doctor turned spy.

Various authors

The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941) by Janet Lewis. The story of Bertrande de Rols, whose husband Martin deserts her, then suddenly reappears after eight years. But is it really Martin who returns, or an impostor trying to usurp his place?

The King's Cavalier (1950) by Samuel Shellabarger. A young Frenchman and a young Englishwoman caught up in the wild plots and counterplots surrounding the Bourbon conspiracy against François I.

Blade of Honor (1955) by John Pugh. Cloak and dagger tale about the son of Catherine de' Medici's chief Italian advisor and the horrors of St. Bartholomew's Eve.

The Virgin Blue (1997) by Tracy Chevalier. A dual timeline story of an American midwife and her Huguenot midwife ancestor.

The Master of All Desires (1999) by Judith Merkle Riley. Catherine de' Medici, the prophet Nostradamus, and a bluestocking female poet battle to obtain an accursed object against a backdrop of religious civil war.

Courtesan (2006) by Diane Haeger. Romance of King Henri II and Diane de Poitiers.

Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007) by Robin Maxwell. Anne Boleyn's formation at the court of François I.

Apology for the Woman Writing (2009) by Jenny Diski. The story of Montaigne and his adopted daughter and editor, Marie de Gournay.

The Devil's Queen (2010) by Jeanne Kalogridis. Catherine de' Medici barters her soul to produce heirs.

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici (2011) by Christopher Gortner. Catherine de' Medici narrates the story of her reign. My review here.

To Serve a King (2011) by Donna Russo Morin. A female spy and assassin infiltrates François I's court.

Médicis Daughter (2015) by Sophie Perinot. Coming of age story of Marguerite, daughter of Catherine de' Medici during violent Wars of Religion. My review here.

And if you read French...

La Cour des Dames series by Frank Ferrand: La Régente noire (2008), Les Fils de France (2009), Madame Catherine (2010). The story of François I's reign, focusing on the women in his court: his mother Louise de Savoye, his mistress Anne de Pisseleu, and his daughter-in-law, Catherine de' Medici.

Enjoy! I'm about to plunge into The Brethren myself. And if I've missed any novels set in Renaissance France, please add them in the comments below!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

King François I, "Père des arts, des armes et des lois"

Bon vivant. Ladies' man. Humanist scholar. Patron of the arts. Warrior. King.

In true Renaissance fashion, François I of France, born this day in 1497, was all those things and more. Guided by a single dream--to make of France a new Italy, a center of art and culture as well as commerce--François expanded the intellectual and geographical boundaries of France, transforming the medieval kingdom into a modern state that vied with England and Spain for dominance over the European continent and the New World.

And he certainly had a good time doing so.

Scion of a minor branch of the Valois line, François was never expected to become king. His son-less cousin Louis XII named him heir presumptive in 1498. In 1514, François married Louis's only daughter, Claude; the couple ascended the throne the next year, the start of a thirty-two year reign. After Claude died in 1524, having given birth to seven children in nine years, François married Eleanor of Austria, sister of Emperor Charles V. Throughout his second marriage, Anne d'Heilly, Duchess d'Étampes, wielded power at court and over François's heart as his official mistress. François died of illness in 1547 on the twenty-eighth birthday of his son and successor, Henri II.

Jovial, athletic, and charming, François fostered chivalric ideals at a court that soon became known for its culture and sophistication. He loved to hunt and wrestle, and recreated the glory of his early military victories in Italy in frequent jousts and tournaments. His need for physical activity--both sportive and amorous--vied with his ardent intellectual curiosity. Having espoused the humanist ideals to which his tutors exposed him, François supported writers and scholars in many disciplines and invited them to court to discuss their work. He avidly collected books and manuscripts, amassing what would serve as the seed kernel of France's eventual national library.

François nurtured a similar passion for art and architecture. He invited prominent Italian artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Rosso Fiorentino, as well as skilled artisans and craftsmen, to France. Together, these gifted men constructed and beautified the many châteaux that dotted the kingdom, transforming dreary fortifications and decrepit hunting lodges into dazzling pleasure palaces. François collected works of art like he did books, sending agents into Italy to purchase or copy works and displaying in his châteaux canvasses and statues sent to him as gifts or produced by the artists he supported.

Politically, François solidified the evolving concept of the absolute monarch and pursued the formation of a nation-state. Throughout his reign, he defended France against the designs of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain. Bitter rivals since Charles narrowly beat him out for the elected position, the two became sworn enemies once Charles's forces captured François at the battle of Pavia in Italy in 1525. The French king spent a year in Spain as Charles's prisoner, and was only released in exchange for his two sons and his marriage to Charles's sister Eléanor. After several years, François raised the money to ransom his sons, their relationship with him forever damaged by the grueling separation. In his perpetual effort to thwart Charles, François made alliances with Henry VIII of England and Suleiman, sultan of the Ottoman empire. He was still engaged in battle with Charles at the time of his death.

François I both fostered and personified the fruits of Renaissance endeavor. With unbounded energy and relentless enthusiasm, he led his kingdom on a voyage of discovery and smoothed the rougher edges of late medieval culture into a close facsimile of the Italian splendor he so admired. If France was the "mother of arts, arms, and laws," as the poet Joachim du Bellay would soon describe her, François I was their uncontested father.

Happy Birthday, sire!

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Interspace: The Writer's Limbo

I'm giving it a name and a formal definition.

Interspace (n): the turbulent time between turning in a completed revision to a beta reader, agent, or editor and hearing back from said recipient; an unsettled period of waiting during which a writer's emotions fluctuate hourly between exhilaration and dread.   

Having entered interspace, I rejoice over finishing a project I labored over for years--even as I find myself lost without my familiar preoccupation.

I'm confident of having addressed all the points in the editorial letter, correcting things that didn't work, excising redundancies, adding new material to enrich plot and deepen characterization--even as I wonder if my efforts only uncovered further deficiences or fatal flaws.

I pride myself on having read every word aloud to check rhythm, flow, and precision--even as I imagine those words now echoing hollowly in other ears.

I congratulate myself for having pushed my craft to its limits and achieving things I never thought I could do--even as I recognize that true artistry (or even mere proficiency) stands more distant than ever.

I'm pleased with both the process and the product of my effort...

...but was it enough? Will the manuscript satisfy my reader's concerns, or has it only reached a futher stage of "almost-but-not-quite"? If more work remains, will I have the courage and strength to do it?

Until I hear back, I try to distract myself with neglected household chores, a teetering To-Be-Read pile, and friends I ignored during the intensity of the final push. I try to immerse myself in The Next Project, knowing how foolish it is to waste precious time. Yet it's hard to switch gears and settle into a new story when I don't know if I'm truly done with this one.

So I fret and I stew, amazed and grateful that anyone is willing to spend time with my words in the first place.

And no matter what the judgment ultimately is, I realize I'm one step closer to my dream.

How do you experience interspace?

Friday, April 21, 2017

And the Winner Is...



You have won a paperback copy of Mary Sharratt's


I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Thanks to all who entered!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review and Giveaway: THE DARK LADY'S MASK by Mary Sharratt

Once again, Mary Sharratt captivates readers with a compelling tale of an extraordinary woman carving a place for herself in a man's world. THE DARK LADY'S MASK (available in paperback April 11) fictionalizes the life of Aemilia Bassano Lanier, the first Englishwoman to claim the title of professional poet. Lanier was also, according to many scholars, the "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets. Sharratt's Aemilia is, however, no mute object of the male poet's desire, but a full-fledged collaborator in the writing of his comedies. In fact, it is Aemilia's education, talent, and connections that secure Shakespeare the break that leads him to fame and literary immortality, even as he serves as her "mask,"  the cover conventions of the time require her to adopt in order to shepherd her work to stage without scandal.

Masks are a constant theme in this novel of self-discovery. Aemilia's relationship with Shakespeare, important as it is, occupies only half the book's pages. The novel's early sections dramatize Aemilia's childhood, the revelation of her Jewish roots, her humanist education, and her years at court as mistress to one of England's most powerful noblemen. Once she meets Shakespeare and begins writing in earnest, Aemilia realizes that she has only ever been "a mask with nothing behind it. An empty shell. A player in a tragicomedy uttering lines written by someone else." Her creative collaboration with Shakespeare moves her ever closer to her core, but inconvenient facts about her personal situation, her family background, and her gender still require disguise. It is only in the last quarter of the book, after her relationship with Shakespeare ends and she takes refuge in the company of learned women, that Aemelia discards her masks and reveals to the world her true self.

That self is, despite years of cross-dressing in search of freedom, wholly and unapologetically female. The theme of sisterhood, a favorite of Sharratt's, finds full expression in this novel. No matter their station, the female characters all suffer at the hands of men, and only by banding together in friendship do they overcome their oppression. It is through the affection and support of like-minded women that Aemilia achieves her dream of publication, and she uses that dream to advance women's cause. Spurred by the advice she received as a child from the humanist Anne Locke--"Remember this, my dear, you must cherish your own sex"--and by the experience of deep female friendships, Aemilia pens a poetic apology in defense of women, a proto-feminist religious poem that establishes her place in the cannon of English letters.

photo credit

Drawing on her meticulous research, keen psychological insight, and deep familiarity with Shakespearean drama, Sharratt crafts an immensely readable and deeply satisfying portrait of an early modern woman who challenged boundaries and expanded the spectrum of acceptable female roles. Ironically, in Sharratt's hands Shakespeare continues to serve as Aemilia's mask--the Shakespearean angle of the story not only broadens the novel's appeal but provides some of its cleverest and most moving pages. Yet Sharratt never makes Aemilia's success dependent on her involvement with the Bard; Aemilia succeeds in spite of it. In its imaginative and emotionally convincing interweaving of the two poets' lives, THE DARK LADY'S MASK serves as an exquisite tribute to Aemilia Bassano Lanier and her courageous contribution to the world of letters.


To celebrate the publication of the paperback edition of THE DARK LADY'S MASK, available April 11, 2017, the author has generously offered to send a free copy to one lucky reader of this review. To enter the random drawing, please comment below with the title of your favorite Shakespearean play by eleven pm PST Tuesday, April 18, 2017. Winner will be announced Friday, April 21, 2017. US residents only. Good luck!


The author of five critically acclaimed novels, Mary Sharratt is an American who has lived in Germany and England for more than two decades. A passionate Shakespeare enthusiast, her explorations into the hidden histories of Renaissance women compelled her to write this book. She lives in Lancashire, England. Learn more about Mary's novels at her website.  

Friday, January 6, 2017

Royal Frolics: Choosing the "Queen of the Bean" at Epiphany

The Feast of the Epiphany occasioned much merriment--and expense--at the French court during the Renaissance. The tradition of sharing a galette des rois--a cake containing a concealed bean--traces back to early sixteenth century celebrations of Twelfth Night. The person who found the bean in his or her piece of cake became the de facto ruler for the duration of the festivities. Whereas in England the choice of a "king," or Lord of Misrule, predominated, across the channel it was the election of the "Queen of the Bean" that evolved into an elaborate ritual.

According to Robert Knecht in his book The French Renaissance Court (p. 75-76), it was custom at the court of François I to chose not only a Queen of the Bean, but a bevy of eighteen ladies to attend her. The women wore beautiful new clothes, which the King provided: undergarments of crimson velvet with slashed sleeves held together by gold clasps and outer garments of grey satin fringed with velvet and lined with mink. Matching belts, necklaces and bracelets complemented the attire; the Queen wore a plumed bonnet atop a long golden or silver snood adorned with precious stones. When it was time for supper, the Queen of the Bean rose from her seat next to the true queen, Eléanore, and took the King's hand. The monarch led her and her ladies into the hall where two tables had been set. The Queen of the Bean sat above Queen Eléanore, the dauphin's wife Catherine de' Medici, and the King's sister Marguerite de Navarre at the shorter table; the King joined the eighteen attendants at the second table. During the meal, the Bean Queen was served with the ceremony normally reserved for the real queen, who surrendered any precedence during the twenty-four hours of her rival's reign.

One wonders just how random the choice of the Queen of the Bean was, especially since at the court of François's son, Henri, the king himself chose her name. In 1550, the Venetian ambassador describes how Henri II came into the queen's chamber to pick a name out of a hat. However, Henri discarded several names before announcing that of a "young, really beautiful and most charming" lady who belonged to the circle of his sister Marguerite. The young lady touched his hand and retired to dress "honorably." At dinner, Henri sat in the middle of the shorter table, flanked on his right by the Queen of the Bean and on his left by his mistress Diane de Poitiers. The real queen, Catherine de' Medici, sat next to the Queen of the Bean, along with the king's sister; the cardinal of Lorraine, the duchesse de Guise, and the Constable of Montmorency sat beside Diane. A ball followed the banquet. The next day, the King escorted the Queen of the Bean into Mass before the real queen; after Mass, everyone dined in the same order as on the previous evening, then watched a joust in the palace courtyard. The feast concluded with another banquet and a final ball, which brought the Queen of the Bean's short reign to a memorable end.

[Photograph courtesy of Gorrk, Wikimedia Commons.]

This article was originally posted on January 6, 2010.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The First Thanksgiving Feast: Salt Pork, Garbanzo Beans, and Tortoise?

[This post originally appeared on November 27, 2013.]

Tradition--and most history books--teach that the first Thanksgiving feast was held in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, in November of 1621, when Protestant Pilgrims invited their Wampanoag neighbors to share a meal of wildfowl, corn and venison. However, the true "first Thanksgiving" may well have taken place fifty-six years earlier in St. Augustine, Florida.

In 1565, King Philip of Spain sent Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574), a Spanish admiral, to destroy a colony of French Huguenots that had established itself in Florida in territory claimed by Spain. On August 28, the Feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, Menéndez and his men landed near the native Timucua village of Seloy and founded the settlement of St. Augustine. Shortly after, they commemorated their safe passage by celebrating Mass--considered by many to be the first Catholic Mass celebrated on American soil--and invited their Timucuan neighbors to a meal of Thanksgiving.

As the meal took place shortly after the Spaniards' arrival, it would have been comprised of dishes produced from the remaining provisions brought from Spain. The most likely candidate was a stew called cocido, made of garbanzo beans and salt pork flavored with garlic, which would have been served with hardtack biscuits and red wine. The Timucua probably contributed dishes made of corn, venison, and tortoise, staples of their diet.

The battle over the "first Thanksgiving" is in all likelihood a moot point, for as historian Michael Gannon points out, other Europeans in pre-Mayflower days would have marked their arrival with prayers of thanksgiving and perhaps even meals with their Native American neighbors. Gannon does emphasize, however, that the thanksgiving at St. Augustine was the first to take place at a permanent European settlement on the American continent. Sorry, Pilgrims!

In any case, I wish you a happy holiday marked by a spirit of genuine thanksgiving for all the blessings we share!

Horowitz, Tony. A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World (Picador, 2008).

Friday, September 2, 2016

Review and Giveaway: TIME AND REGRET by M. K. Tod

In M. K. Tod's third novel, TIME AND REGRET (Lake Union), a ticking-clock mystery provides the link between two narratives set in different eras. In March 1991, Grace Hansen, a just-divorced single mom trying to determine a new course for her life, finds a tackle box in her attic. The box contains mementos gathered by her beloved grandfather, Martin Devlin, over the course of his deployment in France during the First World War. Included among the bullet casings, brass buttons, and photographs are Martin's wartime diaries, accompanied by a curious note: "To my dearest Grace, read carefully. I never should have taken them. Love always, Grandpa." Reading the diaries, however, fails to identify the object of her grandfather's regrets. Intrigued by the puzzle she knows her grandfather is depending on her to solve, Grace decides to retrace his steps in France, certain that visiting the battlefields and cities where Martin was stationed will provide the clues she needs.

Martin's past sets the itinerary for Grace's journey. Tod weaves entries from Martin's diaries into Grace's first person account of her travels in northwestern France. In addition, the author introduces chapters narrated from Martin's unique perspective. This powerful combination of dramatic action and Martin's own musings eloquently depicts the effects of the horrors of war on a conscientious, honorable man. The reader watches Martin spiral into deep depression and unchecked rage as he witnesses the deaths of the men he commands and the friends he loves. Tod channels her extensive research on life in the trenches and the larger objectives of the war into a realistic yet touching portrait of a single psyche struggling to remain true to honor and duty in the face of senseless brutality. By asking Grace to rectify the crime he committed at his lowest point, Martin seeks forgiveness for his failing and offers her the key she needs to understand the family's thorny dynamics.

As she struggles to decipher her grandfather's secret and later, to make amends for his actions, Grace's life becomes increasingly complicated. Martin's secret has far-reaching effects. It becomes a point of contention between Grace and her imperious grandmother, who profited from her husband's actions. It threatens to destroy Grace's burgeoning relationship with charming museum director Pierre Auffret. It places Grace's very life in danger, as third parties trail and threaten her in order to recover the diaries and abscond with prize. The difficulties and dangers Grace faces help her to sort out her future and regain her self-possession after the heartache and uncertainties of her divorce. As Martin spirals downwards, Grace engages in an upward climb, garnering the courage to make difficult choices and acknowledge the validity of her dreams and desires. Her ultimate success in undoing Martin's wrong proves doubly powerful--not only does Grace redeem her beloved grandfather and correct a longstanding injustice, but she saves herself and opens a future she'd never imagined possible.

TIME AND REGRET successfully melds elements of women's fiction, historical fiction, and traditional mystery into an entertaining and satisfying read. A competent historian and skillful storyteller, M. K. Tod should certainly harbor no regrets in sharing this highly engaging tale with a broad audience.


To read other reviews and an excerpt of TIME AND REGRET and an interview with M. K. Tod, please follow this link to the France Book Tours blog tour home page.


To enter the drawing to win one of five print copies of TIME AND REGRET, please follow this link below. Contest open internationally.


M. K. Tod began writing in 2005 while living as an expat in Hong Kong. What started as an interest in her grandparents' lives turned into a full-time occupation writing historical fiction. In addition to writing historical novels, she blogs about reading and writing at, reviews books for the Historical Novel Society and the Washington Independent Review of Books, as has conducted three highly respected reader surveys. She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and is the mother of two adult children.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Interview with Susan Spann, Author of THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER

Today I welcome my friend Susan Spann, author of the popular Shinobi Mystery series set in sixteenth century Japan. Susan has just published the fourth novel in the series. In THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER (which I reviewed yesterday), master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo investigate the murder of an actor's daughter from the Kyoto theater district--an investigation that soon reveals a mysterious golden coin, a forbidden love affair, a missing mask, and a dangerous link to corruption that leaves both Hiro and Father Mateo running for their lives. I hope the following interview with Susan will have you running to your nearest bookstore for a copy of THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER as soon as you reach the end!

THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER is set in the theater district of sixteenth-century Kyoto, with actors as primary characters. What about this milieu particularly appealed to you as a rich setting for a historical mystery?

Medieval Japanese culture was multifaceted, with each social or mercantile group coexisting but also living distinctly separately from the others. I love exploring a different aspect of the culture in every book, and the theater world had such fascinating customs that I wanted to bring it to life. For example, the custom that only men could act on the stage made women far less prominent in the acting guilds than they often were among merchant families. The idea that an actor’s daughter might not accept her societal role—and what might happen to her as a result—intrigued me, and that in turn gave birth to THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER.

What is your favorite scene from THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER and why? Which scene was the most difficult to write?

My favorite scene is one that actually didn’t appear in the original manuscript. My fabulous agent, Sandra Bond, read the completed story before we sent it on to my editor, Dan Mayer, at Seventh Street Books. When she finished reading, she sent me an email that basically said, “it’s great . . . but it needs another death.” Without giving away too much (or any spoilers) I added a scene in which Hiro and Father Mateo have to deal with an unexpected (and unwanted) body.

All of the scenes involving the victim’s family were difficult to write, because of their high emotional charge. The victim was a teenaged girl, and portraying that loss realistically was difficult, both in the writing and on an emotional level.

Last year you were able to travel to Japan for research. How have your descriptions benefitted from your sensory experience of Japan? Did cultural or historical discoveries influence the trajectory of your plot?

I adore Japan, and spending time there definitely impacts my novels. The biggest benefit is walking in the footsteps of my characters—seeing the temples and shrines that form the settings of many scenes in the novel helps me set the scenery in a more realistic and accurate way. For example, visiting Fushimi Inari shrine helped me recreate the nō play that takes place near the base of Mt. Inari in THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER.

I spent a lot of time researching nō theater and the performers’ customs, particularly the treatment of the special, often sacred masks the performers wore on stage. Although most of that research did not make it onto the page, my fascination with masks did inspire and influence one of the story’s major subplots.

Since I’ve never written a mystery, I’d love to hear how you construct one. Do you begin from a forward-looking “what if” sort of question or work backwards from a desired end result? Do you layer in different characters’ reactions and alibis in subsequent drafts or do you have most things worked out before you begin? As you write, how do you judge whether misdirection and red herrings are working?

Since I write series mystery, I already have my detectives and their basic world in mind before I start each book. Because of that, I normally start with the setting and work from there. THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER is unusual, because it was originally supposed to be set among the outcaste classes—butchers and tanners—but I switched it to a theater book about halfway through the initial draft when I realized my original setting wouldn’t work for the plot I had in mind. (Fortunately, I already knew I wanted to write a theater book, so it was more a matter of overlaying the theater on the existing skeleton than a total rewrite.)

With most of my mysteries, including next year’s BETRAYAL AT IGA, I start with a setting—for that book, the mountain village that’s home to my detective’s Iga ninja clan—and then decide what kind of death would likely occur in that particular time and place. Since the Iga ninjas were assassins, and Hiro and Father Mateo are traveling there to keep the peace during tense negotiations with the rival Koga clan, the most alarming death I could imagine was the murder of the Koga ambassador, by poison, under conditions that made it look as if the Iga clan was responsible for his death. The rest of the plot, the suspects, and the story grew from there.

I write an 8-10 page outline before I start drafting, and most of the alibis, red herrings, and major clues get figured out at the outline stage. Once I start writing, however, the outline always changes. New characters show up unexpectedly, existing characters act in ways I hadn’t anticipated, and I often discover subplots and additional clues as I go along.

Hiro and Father Mateo have worked together now through four novels. How has their relationship changed since the first book? What obstacle/character flaw/cultural restriction poses the greatest threat to their friendship? Do you foresee a time when their mutual trust might become sorely tested?

Hiro and Father Mateo’s relationship has definitely deepened, and their friendship strengthened substantially, since CLAWS OF THE CAT. They’ve begun to trust one another more, which allows me to share more about them with readers (through their communications). Their different perspectives—Hiro’s pragmatism and Father Mateo’s faith—continue to be stumbling blocks on occasion, but their growing mutual respect allows them to get along despite their differences.

Their mutual trust will absolutely be tested in future books, starting with the next installment, BETRAYAL OF IGA.

Of the numerous secondary characters who populate your novels, which intrigues you the most? Has any character turned out very different from what you first envisioned?

I love writing secondary characters, because they can be so unique and so different—and because I don’t necessarily have to bring them back in every book. Many of them do surprise me, mainly by becoming more important to the story than I originally anticipated. In THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER, my favorite secondary character is the victim’s younger brother, Haru. The scene in which he saves a giant Japanese beetle runs a close second for my favorite scene in the book.

THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER is your fourth published novel. How have you progressed as a writer since penning the first, CLAWS OF THE CAT? How do you challenge yourself to improve and grow, especially within the confines of a series?

I try to improve my craft with every book I write (and hopefully, I succeed!). My dialogue skills have definitely improved since CLAWS OF THE CAT, and I think my characters have more depth now, too. I’ve learned to tap into deeper emotions, which was important for THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER.

From a series perspective, I don’t let myself get away with repeating tricks. Each novel has to involve a different kind of murder, in a different setting, and my ninja detective, Hiro, has to use a different kind of ninja skill or tool in every book. In the future installments, I’ll also be putting my medieval Japanese spin on a few classic mystery tropes, like the “locked room murder”—but presented in a fresh, new way.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers, especially in today’s difficult market?

To quote the movie GALAXY QUEST: “Never give up—Never surrender.” Publishing is difficult, and the journey to publication can be long, hard, and apparently never-ending. It took me ten years and five full manuscripts to find my agent and secure my first publishing deal. Many times, I wondered if the effort was worth it or if I should just give up. The problem is, you never know if the last rejection really was the last one, and the next response you receive might be the “yes” that you’ve been waiting for.

My advice is keep writing, keep believing, and keep pushing forward. As soon as you finish one book, start the next one. Each manuscript you write will make you stronger, and bring you that much closer to fulfillment of your dream.

You can learn more about Susan Spann and her books at her website.