Saturday, May 19, 2018

Cover Reveal: THE BLUE by Nancy Bilyeau

It is my privilege today to host the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours THE BLUE Cover Reveal. The latest novel from Nancy Bilyeau, author of the popular Joanna Stafford Tudor series THE CROWN, THE CHALICE, and THE TAPESTRY, will hit the shelves this autumn.

The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau

Publication: Fall 2018
Endeavour Quill
Genre: Historical Fiction

What would you do to possess the most coveted color in the world? The year is 1758, and a headstrong woman artist, 24-year-old Genevieve Planche, is caught up in a high-stakes race to discover the ultimate color, one that threatens to become as deadly as it is lucrative. When Genevieve’s mission is complicated by her falling in love with the chemist behind the formula, she discovers the world of blue is filled with ruthless men and women and how high the stakes really are. The story sweeps readers from the worlds of the silk-weaving refugees of London’s Spitalfields and the luxury-obsessed drawing rooms of Grosvenor Square to the porcelain factory of Derby and, finally, magnificent Sevres Porcelain in the shadow of Versailles. And running through it all: the dangerous allure of the color blue.

"Bilyeau’s sumptuous tale of mystery and intrigue transports the reader into the heart of the 18th century porcelain trade—where the price of beauty was death” E.M. Powell, author of the Stanton & Barling medieval mystery series. 

Praise for Nancy Bilyeau’s Fiction

“Bilyeau deftly weaves extensive historical detail throughout, but the real draw of this suspenseful novel is its juicy blend of lust, murder, conspiracy, and betrayal.” —Review of The Crown published in Oprah, which made the book a pick of the month.

“English history buffs and mystery fans alike will revel in Nancy Bilyeau’s richly detailed sequel to The Crown.” —Parade magazine review of The Chalice

“The story in The Tapestry is fiction, but it is a sheer joy to have Henry’s court recreated with an eye to the reality of its venality, rather than the trendy Wolf Hall airbrushing of its violence and rapacity. The tone is always modern and light, but with none of the clumsy thigh-slapping faux period language. Bilyeau’s writing is effortless, vivid, gripping and poignant, bringing Tudor England to life with sparkling zest. If you want to see the Reformation from the side of the English people rather than the self-serving court, it is tough to do better than this trilogy.” —Review of The Tapestry by Dominic Selwood, published in The Catholic Herald

“As always, Bilyeau has done her historical homework, bringing the drama, and details of Henry VIII’s court to life. You’re basically watching the rise and fall of Catherine Howard, Thomas Cromwell, Walter Hungerford and Thomas Culpepper through Joanna’s eyes. Her private moments with the king were among my favorites in this book. This a true historical thriller. It’s a Tudor novel full of suspense, intrigue, brutality, and death. It’s a well researched page turner. If you’re looking for an exciting historical read, this will be on your list.” —Review of The Tapestry by Sandra Alvarez for

“Nancy Bilyeau’s passion for history infuses her books and transports us back to the dangerous world of Tudor England. Vivid characters and gripping plots are at the heart of this wonderful trilogy. Warmly recommended!” —Alison Weir, author of The Marriage Game: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth I and many bestsellers

“Nancy Bilyeau’s polished, inventive debut has all the ingredients of the best historical fiction: a broad cast of characters, well-imagined settings, and vivid story-telling… In Joanna Stafford, Bilyeau has given us a memorable character who is prepared to risk her life to save what she most values, while Stafford’s desperate search for a lost religious relic will satisfy even the most ardent mystery fans.” —Deborah Harkness, author of A Discovery of Witches

About the Author 
Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, DuJour, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. She is currently a regular contributor to Town & Country and the editor of the digital magazine The Big Thrill. Her screenplays have placed in several prominent industry competitions. Two scripts reached the semi-finalist round of the Nicholl Fellowships of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. THE CROWN, her first novel and an Oprah pick, was published in 2012; the sequel, THE CHALICE, followed in 2013. The third in the trilogy, THE TAPESTRY, was published by Touchstone in 2015. The books have also been published by Orion in the UK and seven other countries. Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

For more information, please visit Nancy Bilyeau’s website. You can also find her on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

To view the other stops on the Cover Reveal Tour, visit the HFVBT website.

If, like me, you can't wait to read THE BLUE, please add the book to your Goodreads shelf! Here's the link. Let's stir up some buzz about the book!

Friday, May 11, 2018

Guest Post by Mary Sharratt, Author of ECSTASY

by Mary Sharratt
Women who stand out and dare to seize their power have been maligned throughout history. Even today many people are uncomfortable about the very idea of a powerful woman. Witness how Hillary Clinton was demonized in the 2016 presidential campaign. What other U.S. presidential candidate has been called “nasty” by their opponent or had their opponent literally looming over them during a live televised debate? Even women who would never dream of running for political office face every day misogyny and threats of violence for daring to speak out on the internet. It doesn’t matter what the woman has to say—the fact that she has spoken out at all has made her a target.  

I certainly encountered the “such a nasty woman” phenomenon while researching Alma Schindler Mahler, the protagonist of my new novel Ecstasy. Born in Vienna in 1879, Alma Maria Schindler was an accomplished pianist and aspiring composer who gave up her own music as a condition for her marriage to the great composer, Gustav Mahler. Later, after a marital crisis, she returned to composing and published three collections of her songs. She was married to—or had affairs with—some of the greatest creative geniuses of her time, including Gustav Klimt, Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka, and Franz Werfel. She was also a pioneer in the field we now call artistic management and her networking skills benefitted the men she loved. But one would hardly know about her talents and gifts to read the biographies written about her.

Most of the Alma biographies are what Susanne Rode-Breymann, co-editor of the German edition of Alma’s diaries, has called “moralizing scandal biographies.” They focus almost exclusively on the sensationalistic aspects of Alma’s life—namely the fact that she dared to rewrite the feminine life script and claim her sexual freedom. Even the more “scholarly” of these tomes tend to read in places like trashy, voyeuristic novels. The biographers use Alma’s sexuality as a selling point for their books while standing in stern moral judgement of her and having nothing good to say about Alma as a human being, much less as a composer. This lurid focus on Alma’s sexuality, at the expense of all other areas of her life, demeans and degrades her. Alma is reduced to the men she was involved with and how she failed to be the ideal woman for them. Can you even imagine a biographer doing this to a “great man” like Picasso—ignoring his art to condemn him as a terrible husband and serial womanizer?
In my humble opinion, novelists have a much more difficult vocation than biographers. Unlike biographers, I must make Alma compelling and inspire the reader’s empathy. I must offer insight as to why Alma made the choices she did. I must show her in her full humanity. 
At least I know Alma is in good company. Here is a short history of “nasty women” and some excellent books that portray them in all their nuanced, multi-faceted glory.

Mary Magdalene, 1st century CE 

The most influential woman in early Christianity has been distorted beyond recognition as a weeping, humiliated ex-prostitute, despite there being no scriptural evidence to support this depiction. If that were not enough, we have the Da Vinci Code to thank for the most recent flood of new age conspiracy theories surrounding her. All of this obscures Mary’s key importance in the canonical Gospels. As one of Jesus’s closest disciples, she stood by him at the foot of the cross—after his male disciples fled. Present at his tomb, she was first witness to the resurrection. The risen Christ then bade Mary to tell the others the good news. And so she became Apostle to the Apostles. The noncanonical Gospel of Mary reveals her influence in early Christianity when her importance rivaled that of Peter’s. Whether or not she wrote the gospel attributed to her, this document certainly recognizes her authority. However in 590, Pope Gregory I decided to downgrade her by officially proclaiming her a whore. The Catholic Church didn’t recant this position until 1969.
Must read: Mary, Called Magdalene by Margaret George

Empress Wu Zetian, 624 – 705 CE 

The only female emperor in the history of China, Wu rose from humble beginnings as the fourteen-year-old concubine of Emperor Taizong, who was so captivated by her intelligence, he made her his secretary. After his death, Wu should have bowed to social expectation, shaved her head, and disappeared inside a Buddhist nunnery. Instead she married Taizong’s son Gaozong and ruled as empress consort, the true power behind her ineffectual husband’s throne. After Gaozong’s death, Wu ruled as empress dowager and placed first her eldest son and then her second-born son on the throne. When their leadership skills failed to impress her, she forced them to abdicate. From 690 to her death in 705 Wu ruled as emperor in her own name. She founded the Zhou Dynasty, introduced sweeping reforms to benefit her people, and declared herself an incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha. Ever uncomfortable with female leadership, her enemies spread many rumors about her, accusing her of all manner of treachery, including murdering her own baby daughter. After Wu’s death, they tried to erase her legacy, but all in vain. She is now remembered as one of the greatest leaders in Chinese history.

Must read: The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel

Malinche 1501-1551

The most hated woman in Mexican history, Malinche was Hernandez Cortés’s indigenous lover and chief strategist during his annihilation of Muctezuma’s Aztec Empire. Caught between clashing worlds, Malinche was one of twenty women that Tabascan chieftan Potonchan offered Cortés. Regarded initially as nothing more than a sex slave, Malinche soon distinguished herself by her negotiating skills. Fluent in both the Nahuatal languages of the interior and the Mayan languages of the coast, Malinche quickly learned Spanish and became Cortés’s main translator and guide. A complex figure, she played a pivotal role in history, bearing Cortés’s son Martin, the first mestizo of note, and later marrying the Castillian nobleman, Don Juan Xamarmillo. Has Malinche been unfairly slated? Pre-colonial indigenous Mexicans were not one unified people, but a collection of distinct cultures. To many of these people, the Aztec Empire was the hated enemy because it demanded tribute in the form of human sacrifice from subjugated tribes. What if Malinche, a woman of non-Aztec origin, was not a traitor so much as a warrior within her own context?

Must read: Malinche by Laura Esquivel

Mary I of England 1516 - 1558

The first woman to successfully claim the throne of England was the most reviled British monarch of all time. The fact that she burned 283 Protestants as heretics earned her the moniker “Bloody Mary” and history remembers her as the evil foil to her celebrated sister, “Good Queen Bess.” Yet Mary was no bloodier or more brutal than other rulers of her time. As the violence of the Reformation and Counter Reformation swept Europe, countless Catholics and Protestants on the “wrong” side of the sectarian divide were put to death—as were Jews and accused witches. On the plus side, Mary built up the British navy and reformed the militia, paving the way for Elizabeth I’s victory against the Spanish Armada. Used first by her father, Henry VIII, and later by her husband, Philip II of Spain, as a political pawn, Mary had no easy life and died in her forties. If anything, Elizabeth I was such an effective leader because she learned from her sister’s misfortune—Elizabeth made the radical choice to remain a “Virgin Queen” lest some man try to steal away her sovereignty.  

Must read: Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock

Catherine the Great 1729 - 1796

In the 34 years that she ruled the massive Russian Empire, Catherine the Great was the most powerful woman in the world. Born to a Prussian prince, she married into the Romanov family and became the unhappy wife of the unpopular Tsar Peter III. Catherine soon found herself involved in a coup to unseat her husband and install herself as empress. Eight days after abdicating, her husband was assassinated. Contrary to dark rumors, there’s no evidence Catherine was responsible. A highly educated polymath who corresponded with Voltaire and wrote an opera in her spare time, Catherine dragged a country still mired in a medieval mindset into the Enlightenment. Her lovers were many and she made one such paramour the King of Poland. A formidable military leader, she quelled more than a dozen uprisings. But most of her brave deeds have been forgotten—the average person on the street is more likely to know the urban myth that Catherine died having sex with a horse. She actually passed away after suffering a stroke.

Must read: The Winter Queen by Eva Stachniak

Billie Holiday 1915 - 1959 

Despite the fact that she never learned to read music and despite her struggles against racism, misogyny, and poverty, Billie Holiday triumphed to become one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. Over fifty years after her death, her voice remains distinctive and unforgettable. Her 1939 song “Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of an African American man, was so controversial, it couldn’t be played on the radio. A powerful indictment of racism, “Strange Fruit” would become the first protest song of the 20th century. Yet for all her achievements, Holiday’s reputation remains steeped in sensationalism, especially regarding the heroin and alcohol abuse that eventually killed her at the age of 44. Why is she primarily remembered for her addiction and not her ground-breaking brilliance? “You don’t do the same thing when you talk about Sigmund Freud,” contemporary jazz musician Cassandra Wilson has pointed out. “Everyone knows he was a coke addict . . . but we don’t talk about that. We talk about him being the father of psychoanalysis.” (Link to Wilson quote: )

Must read: Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday and William Dufty

Ethel Rosenberg 1915 – 1953 

In 1953 Ethel Rosenberg and her husband Julius were executed by electric chair for betraying U.S. nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Both Rosenbergs protested their innocence up until their deaths. In the 1930s, Ethel had joined the Young Communist League, which did not help her case. While on trial for espionage in 1951, Ethel endured the heartbreak of having her own brother, himself an admitted spy, testify against her. Her refusal to burst into tears in court was interpreted to prove that she was an unwomanly monster who cared more about communism than her two young children. After the Rosenbergs’ execution, their sons, Michael and Robert, were adopted by Abel Meeropol, activist and writer of the song, “Strange Fruit.” Michael and Robert spent years trying to prove their parents’ innocence until they discovered declassified documents which indicated that their father was indeed involved in espionage. But Ethel’s role in any conspiracy seemed negligible. Her sons unsuccessfully petitioned President Obama to have their mother exonerated.

Must read: The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor

Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history in their full nasty glory. Her novel, Ecstasy, about celebrated bad girl Alma Mahler, was an Amazon Best Book of the Month for April, a Chicago Review of Books Book of the Month, and a New York Post Must Read Book. Visit her website:

Visit all the stops on the ECSTASY by Mary Sharratt Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Review and Giveaway: ECSTASY by Mary Sharratt

Seeking to supplement a famous man's public persona with intimate detail, authors of historical fiction often choose the man's wife to narrate his story. It's not often that the woman herself has the potential to rival her husband's brilliance, but such is the situation Mary Sharratt explores in her latest novel, ECSTASY (HMHBooks, April 2018). Written from the close third-person perspective of Alma Schindler Mahler, wife of composer Gustav Mahler and a gifted composer in her own right, ECSTASY examines Alma's difficult position in turn-of-the-twentienth-century Vienna. In an era and locale where women were still expected to surrender their own aspirations to the duties of marriage and motherhood, Alma suffers tremendous anguish as she attempts to reconcile her musical ambitions with her awe of her husband's genius.

The novel covers the years 1899 to 1911, from Alma's nineteenth summer through the year of Mahler's death. Though Alma would outlive her husband by half a century to lead a colorful, liberated existence in Austria and New York, it is the years she spends in Mahler's shadow that determine the future course of her life. Daughter of a noted painter, Albert Schindler, and stepdaughter of Carl Moll, one of the founding artists of the Vienna Secession, Alma grows up surrounded by artists and intellectuals. Encouraged by her parents, she studies piano and composition and has composed a series of lieder for piano and voice by the time she meets Mahler in 1901. After a whirlwind courtship, she marries the much-older conductor in 1902, only to abandon her studies when Mahler insists there be only one composer in the family. The bulk of the novel details Alma's struggle to subjugate her ambition and desires to the dictates of her husband's artistic life and marital expectations. The demands of motherhood, tragedy, and her husband's work schedule and frequent touring sap Alma of her mental and physical strength until she finds herself at the brink of a breakdown. Only then, having lost her grip on her true self, does she find the courage to engage in behavior that forces Mahler to reevaluate their relationship and the validity of his wife's talent and dreams.

Sharratt faces a difficult task in capturing the essence of this contradictory woman, by turns meek and courageous, passive and pioneering. A fundamental ambivalence defines Alma: she relishes her role as helpmate and muse, facilitator of her husband's genius, even as she increasingly resents how catering to his needs forces her to deny her own. At times, this ambivalence renders her frustratingly submissive; at others, she commits rash, impulsive actions that almost defy explanation. The thread that binds Alma's warring selves together, that creates a whole from contradictory parts, is ecstasy: the ecstasy she experiences listening to her husband's glorious music crash over the concert hall; the elation she finds in furtive composing and amorous dalliance; the rapture she and Mahler share at intimate moments of their difficult but enduring relationship. Just as Mahler incorporates cowbells and hammerblows into symphonies of voice and instrument, to stunning effect, Sharratt probes the limitations and frustrations of Alma's marriage in order to better celebrate the ecstasy of life lived in unbounded appreciation of creative beauty.

Luscious in language and beautiful in execution, ECSTASY is a novel to savor. Though the belle époque world it evokes in brilliant detail might be distant in time, the challenge Alma faces--that of extracting her self from the confines of duty and expectation to relish the fullness of life--is one that women continue to face today. Alma Schindler Mahler--muse, mother, and musician--can help them triumph.

During the Blog Tour we will be giving away a paperback copy of ECSTASY. To enter, please follow the link below.

Giveaway Rules

--Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on May 18, 2018. You must be 18 or older to enter.
--Giveaway is open to US 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 the blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
--Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

MARY SHARRATT is an American writer who has lived in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, for the past seven years. Her critically-acclaimed novels include SUMMIT AVENUE, THE REAL MINERVA, THE VANISHING POINT, THE DAUGHTERS OF WITCHING HILL (reviewed here), ILLUMINATIONS, and THE DARK LADY'S MASK (reviewed here). Sharratt is also co-editor of the subversive fiction anthology Bitch Lit, a celebration of female antiheroes, strong women who break all the rules. For more information, please visit Mary's website. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads

To follow the ECSTASY blog tour, click here.






Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Theft of a Queen's Heart

On Friday, April 13, 2018, a reliquary containing the heart of Anne de Bretagne, queen consort of France, was stolen from the Dobrée Museum in Nantes. Four masked intruders forced their way into the museum, smashed the glass case with an ax, and absconded with the suspended golden reliquary, dating from 1514, along with a statue and dozens of gold coins. Thankfully, only a week later, several of the perpetrators were apprehended and the items recovered in good condition. The reliquary, worth millions of Euros, holds inestimable sentimental and historical importance not only to the citizens of the Nantais region, but to the entire nation.

Anne de Bretagne (1477-1514) is the only woman to have been queen consort of France twice. As heir to the duchy of Brittany, she spent her entire life fighting to preserve the western duchy's independence from the territorial aspirations of the kingdom of France. Forced to marry King Charles VIII of France in 1491 after defeat in battle, her marriage contract expressly stated that the marriage was concluded to ensure peace between the two regions. After Charles died of an accident in 1498, Anne took personal charge of the administration of Brittany. Pressured to marry Charles's successor Louis XII, who was already married, Anne agreed on the unlikely condition that Louis receive an annulment from Rome within one year. Unfortunately for her, the Pope came through, and Anne wed Louis in 1499. Unlike Charles, however, Louis respected Anne's rights as sovereign Duchess and issued decisions in her name. For the rest of her life, Anne strove vigorously to maintain Brittany's independence, for which she earned the love and devotion of the Breton people. Despite her valiant efforts, the duchy passed permanently into French hands when Anne and Louis's eldest daughter, Claude, married Louis's successor, François I, in 1515, the year after Anne's death.

Anne died of a kidney-stone attack at the age of thirty-seven (following sixteen pregnancies between her two husbands). Royal funerary customs of the time called for the partition of the body, allowing the heart, entrails, and bones to be buried in multiple locations. Though her body was to be entombed in the royal necropolis at Saint-Denis, Anne stipulated in her will that her heart be transported to Nantes, her beloved Breton birthplace, and deposited in her parents' tomb. A hinged reliquary was fashioned of fine gold to contain it. The inscription visible in the photograph above reads:

         Ce cueur fut si tres hault 
         Que de la terre aux cieux
         Sa vertu liberalle 
         Acroissoit mieux et mieux.
         Mais Dieu en a reprins
         Sa portion meilleure
         Et ceste part terrestre
         En grand deuil nous demeure.

         This heart was so exalted
         That from Earth to the heavens
         Its bountiful virtue
         Only increased.
         But God took back
         Its best portion
         And this terrestrial part
         Remains with us, in great sorrow.
                    (Translation mine)

The reliquary was delivered to Nantes in March 1514, where it remained until 1792, when it was emptied and sent to Paris to be melted down to fund the Revolution. Miraculously, it escaped this fate, and was returned to Nantes in 1819. It has been housed at the Dobrée Museum, currently undergoing extensive renovation, since 1886.

Fearful that last week's thieves, ignorant of the reliquary's significance, would melt it down for its monetary value, police moved quickly. Using surveillance tapes, they captured two of the four suspects and recovered the reliquary intact. Great is the relief surrounding this quick resolution, for the reliquary is an irreplaceable piece of France's cultural heritage. Anne de Bretagne was not only an astute politician dedicated to preserving the rights of the Breton people, but a generous patron of the arts. She supported writers, including Jean LeMaire de Belges and Jean Marot; musicians like Johannes Ockeghem and Jean Mouton; illuminators like Jean Bourdichon; and tapestry makers, including the weaver of the famous unicorn panels now on display at The Cloisters. Anne's descendants ruled France until 1589. How tragically ironic it would have been if her reliquary, having escaped the melting pot during the republican upheavals of 1789, had succumbed to it now, only to line the pockets of thieves who had little idea of what they had stolen.


You can read more about the theft at The Telegraph (in English) and Franceinfo and Le Point (in French). Wikipedia and Pinterest have a variety of information and images of Anne de Bretagne.

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?