Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best Reads of 2015

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

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

by Antoine Laurain, translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce
(2014; translated 2015)

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

by Laila Lalami

The Moor's Account

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

by Ha Jin

The Crazed

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

by Benjamin Johncock

The Last Pilot

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

by Kathy and Becky Hepinstall

Sisters of Shiloh

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

by Katy Simpson Smith

The Story of Land and Sea

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

by Donal Ryan

The Thing About December

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


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

by Heather Webb (2015)
Rodin's Lover

by Susan Spann (2015)

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

by Marci Jefferson (2015)

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

by Michelle Moran (2015)

by C.W. Gortner (2015)

Mademoiselle Chanel

by Nancy Bilyeau (2015)

The Tapestry (Joanna Stafford, #3)

by Patricia Bracewell (2015)

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

by Sophie Perinot (2015)

Médicis Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois

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

Monday, December 21, 2015

16th Century Christmas Trees

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

photo credit: Sé même 4 schillings aux gardes forestiers pour surveiller les mais à partir de la Saint Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

I just finished decorating my own tree:

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

Merry Christmas!

(This post originally appeared in December 2014.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Interview: Sophie Perinot, author of MÉDICIS DAUGHTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Review: MÉDICIS DAUGHTER by Sophie Perinot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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