Friday, November 30, 2012

Review: Michelle Moran, THE SECOND EMPRESS

First she wrote three novels about ancient Egypt. Then she set a novel in revolutionary France. For her fifth novel, bestselling author Michelle Moran combines elements of both milieux to create a lavish tale of love, duty and alterity: THE SECOND EMPRESS, A Novel of Napoleon's Court (Crown 2012).

In 1809, Napoleon is at the height of his power but desperate for an heir. He divorces his beloved wife Josephine and demands the hand of young Maria Luisa of Austria, scion of the Hapsburg line that has ruled for centuries. The princess has little choice: if she refuses to wed Napoleon, she will subject her homeland to another bloody campaign and further humiliations. Torn from her family and the man she loves, Maria travels to France to bind herself in a marriage that the Pope refuses to recognize. At Napoleon's court, she lives as a stranger, detested by the Emperor's family, subjected to his cruel tongue and savage caprices, and regarded with suspicion by a populace who beheaded her great-aunt, Marie-Antoinette, little more than a decade before. Grit, pride, and love for the son she bears sustain her and earn her Napoleon's grudging respect. Departing on his ill-fated conquest of Russia, the Emperor appoints her regent; as the French army falters and Austria threatens certain defeat, Marie-Louise must determine where her true duty lies.

Moran sets Marie-Louise at the center of a triptych, flanked on one side by Napoleon's beautiful sister Pauline, and on the other by Pauline's Haitian chamberlain, Paul Moreau. Pauline is as corrupt as Marie-Louise is virtuous, as weak as she is strong. Luscious and alluring as an over-ripe fruit, Pauline is  rotten at the core, riddled by venereal disease and unhealthy desire for her brother. Obsessed with Egyptian history and art, she yearns to marry Napoleon and rule with him as brother-sister couples did along the Nile. Jealousy towards Marie-Louise consumes her, especially once the second empress becomes pregnant with Napoleon's child. Pauline's willful selfishness leads to the death of one lover and makes life an exquisite torture for devoted and dependable Paul, who has adored her--or at least his dream of her--since the two met as young adults in Haiti.

A man of mixed race, Paul finds himself caught between the white and black cultures of Haiti and flees with Pauline during the slave revolt, traveling with her to France as her chamberlain. An educated idealist who earns Napoleon's trust, Paul debates political philosophy with the Emperor, but can never convince him to abolish slavery on the island colony. Paul's "otherness," his limbo-like existence between two worlds, two Paulines (the ingenue of the Haitian idyll and the depraved European courtesan), allows him to forge a link of sympathy with Marie-Louise. Just as the Empress must decide which of her duties to follow, Paul must choose which of his lives to embrace. But whereas Marie-Louise's decision leads her back to family and the love she left behind, Paul finds himself alone, a new man in a strange land, free to forge his way in a place that, paradoxically, has become more of a home for all its changing.

The themes of duty, love and otherness that link Marie-Louise, Pauline and Paul crystallize in the person of Napoleon. A perpetual outsider, a Corsican outcast, Napoleon imposes his will not only on France but the whole of Europe. Duty forces him to abandon Josephine, yet his unquenchable love for her distorts all his other relationships. A volatile, controlling, often despicable tyrant, Moran's Napoleon nevertheless evokes a measure of sympathy. Ever defensive and uncomfortable in his own skin, always seeking but never finding balance, he lashes out at the very people who might heal him, and like them, continues to chase dreams that remain forever out of reach.

Moran's strong characterizations and nuanced themes overcome some confusing politics and uneven pacing towards the end of the novel. Fans of her books will savor this latest offering, while new readers will be happy to learn that she has four other novels for them to read.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"God Almighty first planted a garden; and indeed it is the purest of human pleasures."

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
English philosopher, statesman, and scientist
"On Gardens" in The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral, by Francis ld. Verulam Viscount St. Albans (1625)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Whereas before, sugar was only available in the shops of apothecaries, who kept it exclusively for invalids, today people devour it out of gluttony [...] What used to be a medicine is nowadays eaten as food."

Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598)
Flemish cartographer and geographer
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1572)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

CLAWS OF THE CAT Cover Reveal Tour

Ready for a mystery? Here's the clue:

Did you guess tea? Tea is the second clue in the cover reveal tour for CLAWS OF THE CAT, Susan Spann's debut Shinobi Mystery novel, coming from St. Martin's/Minotaur Books on July 16, 2013. A teahouse features prominently in this novel, set in sixteenth century Kyoto, Japan:

When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, master ninja Hiro Hattori has just three days to find the killer before the dea man's vengeful son kills both the beautiful geisha accused of the crime and Father Mateo, the Jesuit priest that Hiro has pledged his own life to protect. The investigation plunges Hiro and Father Mateo into the dangerous waters of Kyoto's floating world, where they quickly learn that everyone from an elusive teahouse owner to the dead man's dishonored brother has a motive to keep the samurai's death a mystery.

Susan tells me tea came to Japan from China during the eighth century, but initially the beverage was a luxury item consumed mostly by priests and nobles. A monk named Eisai, who founded the Zen school of Buddhism, returned from a trip to China during the twelfth century with another tea-related custom: making tea from powdered leaves rather than steeping the tea leaf whole, which gives the tea a rich green color and stronger flavor. The introduction of powdered tea led to the development of the now-famous Japanese tea ceremony, which involves the ritualistic preparation and consumption of powdered matcha tea.

During the Muromachi period (1533-1573), tea's popularity increased substantially. People of all social classes enjoyed the beverage, and the wealthy often gathered for "tea drinking parties" where they passed cups of tea around the room and tried to guess the name, type and location of each variety sampled. Teahouses rose in popularity, and one of the geisha's many talents was proper preparation of tea for her male patrons.

Fascinating facts all woven into the rich setting and enthralling plot of CLAWS OF THE CAT!

Susan is revealing the cover of CLAWS OF THE CAT over three days. The first bit appeared yesterday at Tammy Salyer's blog; the third piece will appear tomorrow on Heather Webb's. On Friday, Susan is hosting a contest on her own blog: leave a comment on the cover reveal and contest post between the time it appears on Friday morning and midnight Friday night for a chance to win a $20 Barnes & Noble gift card!

Now off to brew a nice cup of tea...

CLAWS OF THE CAT is available for pre-order at Barnes &,  Powell's Books  and booksellers near you.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Spoonful of Sugar

When you inspected your child's bag of Halloween sweets, did you find any comfits? Marzipan? Torrone? What about a pennet or some candied lemon rind?

Such were the treats your child might have received on All Soul's Day in Renaissance times.

During the sixteenth century, the sugar industry boomed.  Portuguese and Spanish entrepreneurs planted cane fields and built state-of-the-art refineries in the Caribbean and South America. Sugar flooded onto the European market at a stable price. Though still a luxury item, sugar's ready availability allowed creative cooks to develop it into new and novel treats. Some of the more common ones were:

  • comfits: seeds, spices and nuts coated in sugar. Best-selling varieties included combinations of aniseed, coriander, cinnamon, pine-nuts, pistachios, and hazelnuts. Comfits were manufactured by placing the nuts and spices in a pan and repeatedly coating them with sugar syrup. Each layer had to dry before the next layer was applied; sometimes the comfits were hardened in a stove between coatings.
  • marzipan (or marchpane): a malleable candy dough made from almond paste, confectioner's sugar and rosewater. Marzipan could be sculpted, painted, and trimmed with gold leaf. Nuns often created and sold marzipan fruits and vegetables to support their convents. As a teen, Leonardo da Vinci sculpted figures from marzipan and presented them to the Prince of Milan, whose guests gobbled them up with little appreciation for their artistry. Da Vinci also made marzipan models of cities and military fortifications for Lorenzo de Medici.
  • torrone: a nougat candy made from egg white, honey, sugar and nuts. Layered torrone, challenging and time-consuming to create, became a delicacy of Italian courts.
  • pennets: twisted sticks of pulled sugar mixed with starch and sweet almond oil.
  • candied fruit peel: the chopped rind of citrus fruit preserved in sugar.

In accord with classical teaching, Renaissance healers considered sugar to have medicinal value--it tempered the powerful and often harmful strength of spices and brought them into fuller humoral balance within the body. Most medicines contained sugar, and, being a medicine itself, sugar was sold in various forms and grades at apothecary shops. Apothecaries sold sweet treats as well as plain sugar. Specific treats were prescribed for various ailments: patients with sore throats could suck on chips of damascene sugar, while those with upset stomachs might find relief by eating pennets. To regain their strength after childbirth, women benefited immensely from a healthy intake of marzipan and comfits.

Too bad the reputation of sugar has plummeted in eyes of today's medical community. Imagine feeding your child--or yourself--candy bars and gummy bears without a twinge of guilt!

Now go sneak that Hershey's Kiss from your child's goodie bag. I promise I won't tell!


Encyclopedia of Kitchen History by Mary Snodgrass (Routledge 2004)
Making and Marketing Medicine in Renaissance Florence by James               Shaw and Evelyn S. Welch (Rodopi 2011)
Sweets: A History of Candy by Tim Richardson (Bloomsbury 2002)


Read other posts on the topic of "Candy" by members of my writing group:  Marci Jefferson and Susan Spann.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

photo: Janezdrilc
"I believe no happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise; and day by day this happiness grows as God flows into these souls, more and more as the hindrance to His entrance is consumed."

Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510)
Catholic saint, mystic and nurse

Treatise on Purgatory (1551)
Chapter II