Friday, March 30, 2012

Fotopedia Magazine: French Châteaux

Check out Fotopedia Magazine's article on Centre, the central region of France around the Loire valley. The collection features stunning photographs of several sixteenth century châteaux, including Chenonceau, Sully-sur-Loire, and Azay-le-Rideau, the creation of François I's wealthy financier, Gilles de Berthelot. Similar photo essays on the Loire Valley, Burgundy, French cathedrals, and Lyon may also be of interest.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Fontainebleau, Then and Now

My work in progress is set at the Château de Fontainebleau, François I's favorite residence, which features in the above image. This depiction comes from one of the eight Valois tapestries woven in Spain in the 1580's. These tapestries portray court festivities from the second half of the sixteenth century during the reigns of François's grandsons. They present an enigma to scholars, in that no one is certain who commissioned the works nor who owned them, thus rendering a definitive "reading" of the tapestries difficult. Catherine de Medici, François's daughter-in-law and the mother of three French kings, figures prominently, dressed in her signature widow's black, in all but one of the tapestries. Other members of the French court, including her daughter Marguerite de Valois and François, the duc d'Anjou, can also be identified. One theory about the tapestries holds that Catherine de Medici, who masterminded the festivities depicted in them, ordered the commemorative series as proof that the courts of her sons were as prestigious and magnificent as those of François and her own husband, Henri II.

The tapestry pictured above shows entertainments staged at Fontainebleau in 1564 during King Charles IX's royal progress. A large lagoon lies along the southern exposure of the château, flanking the grande allée leading to the main entrance, the Porte Dorée (the three story tower-like structure on the far right). This water feature permitted the staging of mock sea battles and other maritime adventures, such as the tapestry's rescue of damsels from an enchanted island. The tapestry captures the wooded ambience of Fontainebleau, where François loved to hunt boar and deer. Despite the countrified setting, however, Fontainebleau became a showcase of French Renaissance art and decoration. It features Francois's breathtaking gallery as well as an immense ballroom completed by Catherine and her husband Henri. Unfortunately, later centuries' renovations destroyed many of the château's sixteenth-century structures and much of its Renaissance decoration. However, the lagoon, now known as the Carp Lake, and the Porte Dorée, as well as the gallery, are still recognizable today.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Review: THE FLOWER READER by Elizabeth Loupas

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?

As I was reading Elizabeth Loupas's new novel, THE FLOWER READER (NAL, April 2012), this verse from the old nursery rhyme kept running through my head, and quite justifiably. For in Loupas's second novel, flowers have the power to foretell the future, and knowing what grows in one's own--and others'--gardens can quite literally be a matter of life and death. In order to heed the flowers' warnings, however, one must know how to read the blossoms. Luckily for Mary, the new Queen of Scots, her attendant, Marina Leslie of Granmuir, does. The flowers share secrets Rinette must use to extricate Mary--and herself--from the web of treachery that surrounds them.

This romantic adventure unfolds as a reverse quest--instead of seeking a sacred object, the heroine must prevent the object from being found. In question is a silver casket owned by Mary of Guise, Scotland's ailing queen regent, which contains ciphered secrets regarding Scotland's most powerful noblemen and personal prophecies penned by Nostradamus himself. Moments before her death, Mary of Guise calls Rinette to her bedside to prophesy, a pretext that allows her to entrust the casket to Rinette, who promises to smuggle it out of the castle and into the hands of the new Queen Mary. Rinette escapes with the casket hidden in an armload of flowers, but soon makes a fatal mistake--she shows the casket and its contents to her adored but power-hungry husband, who proceeds to offer it for sale, without Rinette's knowledge, to interested parties in Scotland, France and England. When her husband is murdered to prevent the transaction, Rinette refuses to surrender the casket to Queen Mary until his murderer is brought to justice. As she works with an unlikely ally to unmask the murderer and unravel the plot that threatens the queen, Rinette must rely on her ability to read the flowers to protect herself, her family and her heart.

I must admit I was a bit wary of the floromancy angle as I started this book. Not particularly drawn to fiction with a supernatural slant, I was afraid the flower reading might be little more than a gimmick that would overshadow the novel's historical content. However, Loupas quickly put my reservations to rest. Even though the sixteenth-century characters accept Rinette's powers unquestioningly, Loupas never forces the modern reader to do so. Rather, she intimates that Rinette's ability to read the future in flowers is little more than an uncanny ability to read people themselves, to intuit their basic moral strengths and character flaws from the slimmest of evidence. Rinette associates people with particular blooms based on what she perceives of their personalities and then devises a probable future for them based on what she has observed. While the early modern mindset of the characters envisions this as a supernatural ability (some see her as a witch), Loupas allows the reader to understand it as a particularly refined psychological acuity, one that waxes and wanes with Rinette's own psychological health. As her circumstances become ever more threatening, Rinette's powers fail; distress renders her confused, unable to make sound judgments about people and their motivations. Rather than being the distraction I feared, Rinette's floromancy provides interesting glimpses into her own and other character's psyches and projects these insights onto the canvas of the novel in a vividly visual way.

THE FLOWER READER is a strongly plotted, well-written novel that evokes a believable sixteenth-century setting replete with details of period dress, food, architecture and manners. The characters are well-drawn, from Rinette, thrust into the world of politics when all she longs for is her daughters and her castle by the sea, to Nicolas de Clérac, the enigmatic, urbane hero who in many ways recalls Dorothy Dunnet's Lymond, to Mary, the high-spirited, impulsive and, yes, often times contrary young queen newly transplanted from France to Scotland. The novel builds suspense to a satisfying conclusion; fully engaged as I read, I was eager to discover how the pieces fit together (Loupas does some interesting things with Catherine de Medici's spy network, the infamous Esquadron volant). Second novels are often harder to write than debuts, for many reasons; Elizabeth Loupas acquits herself quite admirably in this one. I am glad I have not yet read her well-received first novel, THE SECOND DUCHESS, for now I don't have to wait until she writes a third to experience more of her superb storytelling.

THE FLOWER READER will be available on April 3, 2012. In the meantime, you can learn more about Elizabeth Loupas and her books at her website. Elizabeth will visit Writing the Renaissance in early April. Watch for her guest post!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Forthcoming Review

Coming on Monday... my review of Elizabeth Loupas's new novel, THE FLOWER READER, available from NAL on April 3. In sixteenth-century Scotland, Rinette Leslie, able to divine the future from flowers, must use both her gift and her wits to uncover her husband's murderer and protect young Mary, Queen of Scots, from treachery. "[T]he flowers are all she can trust, and only the flowers will lead her safely home..."

No need to de-petal a daisy over this'll love it!