Sunday, November 14, 2021

Review: DOWN A DARK RIVER by Karen Odden

Any novel that quoted Victorian poet Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" would be a favorite of mine, but when one of the victims in Karen Odden's just-released mystery DOWN A DARK RIVER (Crooked Lane) offers the poet's famous admonition--"Ah, love, let us be true / To one another! for the world /... / Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain"-- as a message of hope, it's icing on an already delectable cake. Odden's fourth novel, the first installment of her new Inspector Corravan series, links matter and message together so profoundly readers will find themselves musing on the fundamental questions the novel poses long after they close the cover on this thoroughly satisfying read.

An expert in Victorian literature and culture, Odden conjures a vividly convincing setting populated with memorable characters that reverberate with historical and psychological authenticity. An emotionally scarred Irishman who grew up on the docks in the seedy Whitechapel district of London, protagonist Michael Corravan has traded the boxing ring for the neighborhood precinct. He now works for Scotland Yard at a time when the agency is under intense scrutiny for corruption. When a dead young woman in a ball gown is discovered floating down the Thames in a boat à la Lady of Shalott, Corravan must apprehend her murderer before newspaper coverage sparks panic among London's upper crust. Concurrently working on the case of a runaway wife, Corravan suspects the two cases might be connected, but all too soon another body comes floating down the river, then another.... Abrasive and irregular in his methods, Corravan incurs the censure of his superiors just as his investigation begins to bear fruit. With his career, the reputation of the Yard, the safety of his lover, and the lives of future victims on the line, Corravan pieces together the clues, only to face a soul-wrenching question--can justice be served in the face of horrendous injustice? Corravan's answer and actions to this dilemma upends the mystery genre's traditional norms and provides plenty of fodder for thought on the meaning of justice in an unjust world of stark class and economic disparities. 

Odden's intricate plot merits praise for its keen execution, but the completeness and particularity of her characters endows this novel deep emotional resonance. No cardboard characters populate these pages; the reader can sense the detailed backstory Odden has imagined for each and every player. Issues in the characters' pasts complicate their present, and the author reveals just enough in just the right places to elucidate the characters' motivations. Corravan's traumatic past shapes his effectiveness as an inspector in strong yet subtle ways, and readers will be pleased to discover a man of broad generosity and deep compassion behind his prickly exterior.

Though the novel's action takes place in the kitchens, gentlemen's clubs, and grimy streets of Victorian London, the issue at the heart of DOWN A DARK RIVER--whether the powerless can ever receive justice from the hands of the powerful who have wronged them--remains relevant, and just as thorny, today. Now, as then, the silenced need a voice to bring injustice to light. Through the efforts and humanity of Inspector Michael Corravan, a welcome addition to the ranks of fictional police inspectors, Karen Odden gives them one.


Karen Odden earned her Ph.D. in English from New York University and subsequently taught literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has contributed essays to numerous books and journals, written introductions for Victorian novels in the Barnes & Noble classics series, and edited for the journal Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge UP). Her previous novels, also set in 1870s London, have won awards for historical fiction and mystery. A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and the recipient of a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, Karen lives in Arizona with her family and her rescue beagle Rosy.

Visit her website to learn more about Karen and her novels.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Diane de Poitiers: Big Stars on the Small Screen

Fans of sixteenth century France, rejoice! A new miniseries about Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of King Henri II, is currently under production for France 2. Filmed on location at the Château de Septmonts near Soissons and various châteaux of the Loire, the cast features superstars of the French silver screen.

Photo credit: Georges Biard

Isabelle Adjani, who played Marguerite de Valois in the 1994 film La Reine Margot, stars in the title role as Diane de Poitiers.

Photo credit: Siebbi

Gérard Depardieu, a fixture of French historical drama (Germinal, Vatel, Le Retour de Martin Guerre) plays the seer Nostredamus.

Photo credit: Georges Biard

Samuel Labarthe (De Gaulle, La Forêt) portrays François I;

Photo credit: L.helas

Hugo Becker (Leonardo, Osmosis), François's son Henri II.

Photo credit: Georges Biard

Virginie Ledoyen (Les Misérables, Notre Dame) plays the part of François's mistress, Anne de Pisseleu, Duchesse d'Étampes.

Photo credit: Georges Biard

French rapper and actor JoeyStarr participates as the comte de Kervannes;

Photo credit: Georges Biard

Guillaume Gallienne (Cézanne et moi) has been cast as the famous surgeon Ambroise Paré.

Didier Ducoin, author of major television movies including Les Misérables, The Count of Monte Cristo, Balzac, and Napoléon, has penned the screenplay. Josée Dayan, of blockbuster TV series Dix Pour Cent fame, directs the miniseries. Anne Holmes, director of French fiction at France Télévisions, sees Diane de Poitiers as a "free, modern, feminist woman" who "incarnates certain of today's values." Although knowledge of the details of Diane's life remains limited, power, love, drama and jealousy--elements TV audiences gobble up--combined to produce her "exceptional destiny." The story of Diane's decades-long hold over the much younger king and her rivalry with his wily wife Catherine de Medici is sure to be a crowd pleaser.

Filming runs through October, with broadcast planned for next year. Let's hope a streaming service quickly picks it up for diffusion to English-speaking audiences.

(Information for this post comes from Le Point, "Isabelle Adjani dans la peau de Diane de Poitiers.")

Thursday, July 22, 2021

A Snapshot in Time: Clouet Portraits on Display at Azay-le-Rideau

Like any author, I love it when characters I have written about come into the public eye. Artist duo Jean and François Clouet, featured in my second novel, worked as portraitists at the courts of François I, Henri II, and Henri's sons. I posted previously about their work here and here. This summer, the Clouets take the spotlight in an exposition of Renaissance portraiture at the Château d'Azay-le-Rideau in the Loire Valley.

A notable group of thirty-six French Renaissance portraits are on display at the château through September 19, 2021. The collection demonstrates the unique formula developed by Jean Clouet (c. 1485-c. 1541) and his son François (c. 1505-1572) over the course of their long careers. Working in modest dimensions against a neutral background at three-quarters view, the Clouets paired their truthfulness to the sitter's physical traits with an acute expression of psychology. Their exquisitely rendered portraits capture the personalities as well as the appearances of the French Renaissance's most compelling figures. Taken as a whole, the hundreds of chalk sketches and formal paintings the two Clouets produced provide a fascinating "who's who" of nearly a century's worth of French nobility.

In addition to presenting the Clouets and the individuals they painted, the exposition at Azay-le-Rideau explores the workings of a Renaissance portrait studio and the diplomatic, dynastic, and historical uses of portraits during the era. "Le retour des portraits de la Renaissance" is an exhibit not to miss if you're in the area before mid-September. Armchair travelers like me can enjoy scribeaccroupi's informative video, narrated by Mathieu Deldicque, curator of the Musée Condé: 

I can only imagine how awed contemporaries were at the Clouets' ability to capture their subjects so vividly on paper and canvas long before the advent of photography.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Cover Reveal: THE COLLECTOR'S DAUGHTER by Gill Paul

I'm excited to share with you today the cover of Gill Paul's new novel, THE COLLECTOR'S DAUGHTER: A Novel of the Discovery of Tutankhamun's Tomb. Gill is a masterful storyteller, and this novel promises to be a gripping read:

Bestselling author Gill Paul returns with a brilliant novel about Lady Evelyn Herbert, who grew up in Highclere Castle—the real Downton Abbey—and became the first person in modern times to enter the tomb of Ancient Egyptian king Tutankhamun. 


She is the daughter of the Earl of Carnarvon, brought up to make her society debut and follow it with a prestigious marriage. But popular and pretty Lady Evelyn Herbert has other ideas. First she falls for a man her mother doesn’t approve of, then she accompanies her father to Egypt, leaving behind the world of etiquette and chaperones to work alongside archeologist Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings.


In November 1922 the extraordinary happens when they discover the burial place of Tutankhamun, packed full of gold and inconceivable riches. Eve is the first to crawl inside, the first person to see the treasures in three thousand years. She calls it the “greatest moment” of her life—but soon afterwards a string of tragedies leaves her world a darker, sadder place.


Newspapers claim it is “the curse of Tutankhamun.” Howard Carter says no rational person would entertain such nonsense. Fifty years later, an Egyptian academic comes asking questions about what really happened in the tomb in 1922. And that visit unleashes a new chain of events threatening Eve’s happy life, and making her wonder if there could be some truth behind the stories of an ancient curse.

Downton Abbey? Egypt? A female archeologist? King Tut? What more could a reader ask for?

THE COLLECTOR'S DAUGHTER will be published on September 7th in the US and Canada and September 30 in the UK. You can preorder the book here in the US and here in the UK. In the meantime, sign up for Gill Paul's newsletter.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Happy Birthday, Rosso!

Today is the 527th anniversary of the birth of the artist Giovanni Battista da Jacopo, known as Il Rosso Fiorentino (the Red-headed Florentine). Born on March 8, 1494, and trained in Florence, Rosso is considered a leading proponent of the Mannerist movement. Having made a name for himself in Rome, he was invited to France by François I in 1530 and spent the next decade as the French king's Director of Artistic Work. Rosso created numerous masterpieces for the king, as well as designing and staging the elaborate pageants and festivals François so loved. Rosso's artistic vision guided the expansion and decoration of the Château of Fontainebleau, François's favorite palace, culminating in the creation of the grande galerie, now known as the galerie François I. Rosso's best known extant work, the gallery boasts an ornate interplay of fresco, stucco statues and garlands, and carved wood paneling. The allegorical and mythological iconography of the frescoes, thought to extol the virtues of the king, still defies definitive interpretation even to this day. What is never questioned, however, is the fecund beauty of the gallery's exuberant abundance.  

Well-read and richly rewarded by King François, Rosso lived as a wealthy gentleman at Fontainebleau until his mysterious death, assumed to be a suicide, in 1540 at the age of 46. Together, Rosso and his chief rival, fellow Italian Francesco Primaticcio, transformed a once-decrepit hunting lodge into the showplace of France, a dwelling not only fit for kings but worthy of comparison with the most sumptuous Italian palazzos

Friday, February 26, 2021

Daphne du Maurier's THE GLASSBLOWERS: A Novel of the French Revolution

Did you know that Daphne du Maurier, of REBECCA fame, wrote a novel set during the French Revolution? My discovery of THE GLASSBLOWERS was a lovely surprise. The novel, published in 1963, recounts the story of a family of glass makers in the Sarthe region, about 100 miles southwest of Paris, during the years 1749-1844. Written as the memoir of Sophie Duval, one of five siblings, the novel recounts the family's struggles during the Revolution, as societal upheaval changed not only the economy, but the very fabric of society. The five siblings embrace the new ideas to varying degrees and participate in the Revolution in various ways. Robert, the eldest, throws his lot with the Duc d'Orléans and winds up emigrating to England; Pierre, a devoted adherent of Rousseau, serves as a notary for the poor; Michel wholeheartedly--and cold-heartedly--embraces the revolution, becoming regional leader of the National Guard; sister Edmé, like Michel, sustains the fight for radical causes even after Napoléon assumes power. Sophie, the narrator, remains fluid, vacillating at various times to either extreme, mirroring, in many ways, the emotional swings of the nation as a whole. Through her eyes, the reader witnesses both the promise and the atrocities of the country's attempt to ensure equal rights for all citizens; her conflicts capture the struggles individuals faced in reconciling personal morality with the demands of imposing a supposedly superior political system. The novel's provincial setting offers an interesting perspective on the Revolution, revealing how, far from the central events taking place in Paris, the populaces of small towns had little but rumor and old news to guide their actions as they fended off counter-revolutionary forces sweeping into central France from the western provinces. If you can find a copy, THE GLASSBLOWERS is well worth a read and provides a perspective that both counters and completes better-known Revolution novels like A TALE OF TWO CITIES and THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Q & A with Patricia Bracewell, Author of THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK

The final volume of Patricia Bracewell's trilogy on Emma of Normandy, Queen of England, publishes on March 2, 2021 from Bellastoria Press. Yesterday, I reviewed this marvelous book; today, Patricia answers a few questions about her novel.

1. Why Emma? How is the saga of an 11th century queen of Anglo-Saxon England relevant to today’s readers? What aspects of her actions and personality do you think speak most strongly to modern women?

I think that women of today will find Emma inspirational. In our time women are breaking glass ceilings; in Emma’s time that ceiling was made of marble. The Anglo-Saxons were wary of the very concept of queenship, and Emma was only the second queen of all England. She was burdened by her youth and by the fact that she was a foreigner. She had to learn about England’s history, language and cultural norms, probably as an adolescent, and then figure out how to use them to her advantage. That took courage, but Emma has another kind of courage, as well. She is willing to speak truth to power, and although she is rarely thanked for it, that doesn’t stop her. So I think that courage and tenacity are two qualities that speak to women today, as well as Emma’s willingness to recognize the limits of her power and reach out to those who can help her get whatever she is after.

2. While writing, did you ever fear that Emma might teeter on the brink of "the perfect queen" stereotype? How did you try to humanize her? What faults define her and how does she suffer for them? 

I am not a fan of novels in which the heroine is adored by everybody else in the book. So I’ve given Emma plenty of enemies who despise her, or don’t trust her, or who misinterpret her actions. Æthelred, Edmund, Edyth, Elgiva, even Emma’s own son are definitely not fans of the queen. Their opinions of her, right or wrong, throw some shade on her character. Emma herself, as clever as she is, does not have all the answers to the problems that she faces. She has to turn to others for help. Sometimes she makes bad decisions. On one occasion she acquires important information but doesn’t do anything with it, and that leads to catastrophe. On another occasion she makes a decision that leads to anguish when she realizes that she’s put her children at risk. Emma is courageous, yes, but that means, too, that she’s a risk-taker. She weighs the risks and makes a choice, but sometimes it turns out to be the wrong choice and she is not the only one who pays the price. 

3. Æthelred,  Athelstan, Cnut, Elgiva, Thorkell, Edmund, Edward, Edyth, Richard of Normandy—Emma has personal and political relationships with so many characters over the course of the trilogy, and these relationships all had to be tied up in this final volume. Which relationship was the hardest to get “right”? Is there any relationship you wished you could have spent more time wrapping up? Which relationship did you most enjoy exploring?

The relationship between Emma and Cnut was the most difficult to get “right” especially because I wanted anyone who had not read the earlier books to be able to understand it; and that is the relationship I most enjoyed exploring. They had a few scenes together in Shadow on the Crown when we saw Cnut through Emma’s eyes, and of course as I wrote that first book I was already thinking about what would happen in this one. But when I began writing The Steel Beneath the Silk I had to figure out a way for each of them to recall that first meeting which had happened ten years earlier. When I finally brought them together again towards the end of the book, I had to design some scenes that would allow them to interact and would reveal in a very short time how their relationship was evolving on both sides. It meant a lot of revisions. I think I was successful. I hope so. I wish I could have found a way to wrap up the relationship between Emma and Thorkell—have some sort of dialogue between them. But I had to focus on Emma and Cnut. Thorkell would have gotten in the way!

Winchester's Norman Great Hall, which is evocative of Anglo-Saxon great halls

4. How did you manage to keep the setting fresh over the course of three novels? Which location in the book did you most enjoy visiting in real life during your extensive research?

The first novel opens in Normandy, but almost all of it is set in Wessex, mostly Winchester, with side trips to Exeter and to the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. The second novel is split between various royal estates in southern England and manors located in the northeast. All of these estates and manors were based on places I found mentioned in the Domesday Book, but I actually visited those areas if not the sites themselves. This third book goes much further afield, to Jorvik (York), Denmark, and Normandy as well as to numerous sites all over England. Of course, the scenes themselves are set in the great hall, or a church, or a bed-chamber or an abbey. There are several that are set on ships and one in the tower of one of the gates of London. I tried very hard to vary the setting as much as possible. I suppose the place I enjoyed visiting the most was Winchester. It was the Anglo-Saxon royal city; it was where Emma had a manor named Godbegot, the site of which you can still see today; and it is where Emma and Cnut are buried. It was, for me, the most evocative of that Anglo-Saxon world, and I’m longing to go back.

Godbegot House in Winchester, which dates back to the 11th c

5. Emma has occupied your thoughts and hours for so many years now—how will your own life change now that you have completed your task and made her known to new readers? What did you learn about yourself as you researched and imagined her life and captured it in the pages of three books?

Well, I expect that I will have more time to pursue other activities like gardening and, unfortunately, dealing with piles of books and papers that need sorting, closets and drawers that need cleaning out, and a garage that resembles an industrial waste site. But I already have a list of books that I want to read or study, and I might find myself pondering ideas for a new novel—although not a trilogy! What I’ve learned about myself is that I love research; that I’m not interested in travel unless there is an element of education involved; and that I have more determination than I ever realized. Also, now, when I run up against some difficulty or hardship, I tend to ask myself “What would Emma do?”


Many thanks to Patricia for offering this behind-the scenes look at her novel.

THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK can be purchased from AmazonBarnes and Noble, and Indiebound.


Patricia Bracewell's love of reading led to college degrees in Literature, a career as a high school English teacher, and an  unquenchable desire to write. Shadow on the Crown, the first book in her trilogy about the 11th century queen Emma of Normandy, was published in 2013 in the U.S. and England, and has been translated into Italian, German, Portuguese and Russian. Her second novel, The Price of Blood, published in 2015, continues the gripping tale of a queen whose marriage to an English king set in motion a series of events that would culminate in the Norman Conquest of 1066. In 2014 Patricia was honored to serve as Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone's Library in Wales where she conducted research for The Steel Beneath the Silk, the third book in her trilogy about Queen Emma. Patricia and her husband live in Oakland, California. Visit her at her website.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Review: THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK by Patricia Bracewell

The wait was definitely worth it.

THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK (Bellastoria Press, March 2) caps off Patricia Bracewell's trilogy on eleventh-century Emma of Normandy, Queen of England, with all the drama, emotion, and skill that fans of the series have come to expect. With consummate ease, Bracewell plunges her readers back into a perilous, war-torn England ravaged by marauding Danish raiders from without and crumbling from treachery within. As King Swein of Denmark and his ambitious son Cnut penetrate ever farther into England, suborning English lords and capturing city after city, Emma's raddled husband, King Æthelred, alienates allies and squanders the loyalty of his people. Calling upon her wits, her faith, and the counsel of a trusted few, Emma must discern rumor from fact, friend from foe, solid hope from fleeting fancy as she strives to hold the besieged country together and make her dream of a united, peaceful England an enduring reality.

The story moves at a rapid and entertaining clip, thanks to Bracewell's strong command of the historical material and her intimate familiarity with her characters. Readers, even ones new to the series, will never lose their bearings. Customized maps of England and London detail the physical setting; chapter headings provide locations and dates to set the scene. The author takes care, especially in the opening chapters, to weave in accounts of past events that bear on the present action, keeping these flashbacks fresh by recounting them from a new perspective or shading them with recent insight. Both to control the pacing and to introduce important historical events tangential to Emma's narrative arc, Bracewell inserts snippets from the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This historical scaffolding plays an additional role: the contrast between these brief, factual passages and Bracewell's emotionally rich, internalized narration demonstrates the power of historical fiction to transform the dry bones of history into a compelling reflection on the human spirit, wholly relevant to modern readers.

Readers of the previous installments will recognize and welcome the reappearance of favorite characters who continue to evolve. Although the main story arc focuses on Emma and her efforts to foster a united England, the journeys of these other characters deservedly vie for attention. The narrative point-of-view shifts when circumstance requires; Bracewell hands these shifts of perspective with finesse and a keen sense of what another viewpoint can contribute to a given situation. Æthelred, Athelstan, Edmund, Elgiva, and Cnut all take turns as viewpoint characters, experiencing events beyond Emma's purview and fueling the conflicts and passions that motivate the central action.

The strongest aspect of THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK is precisely the psychological richness of its characters. Even if the reader knows the historical trajectory of Emma's life, this imagined, emotionally nuanced account of her struggle to reconcile her personal desires with the strategic needs of her kingdom will nonetheless appeal and intrigue. As Bracewell admits in her Author Note, although the events that she portrays are factual, "Emma's role in them is my own invention. Although we know that she was there and must have played some part in all that occurred, we simply cannot be certain about what that was." Having thought long and hard about Emma's participation in these critical events in England's history, Bracewell fashions a main character with whom the reader can identify as well as admire. The trilogy as a whole presents Emma as a poignantly complex, achingly real woman whose actions not only define her individuality, but serve as the point of departure for broader contemplation of the very notion of queenship. 

"Long live the queen"--Bracewell closes her monumental endeavor with this resounding and devoted cheer. It is precisely thanks to Bracewell's meticulous research, keen insight into human nature, and first-rate narrative skills that Emma of Normandy, Queen of England, will live long and vividly in the minds and hearts of the trilogy's readers. THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK, along with its companion volumes, merits a prominent place in the canon of exemplary historical fiction.

Patricia Bracewell's love of reading led to college degrees in Literature, a career as a high school English teacher, and an  unquenchable desire to write. Shadow on the Crown, the first book in her trilogy about the 11th century queen Emma of Normandy, was published in 2013 in the U.S. and England, and has been translated into Italian, German, Portuguese and Russian. Her second novel, The Price of Blood, published in 2015, continues the gripping tale of a queen whose marriage to an English king set in motion a series of events that would culminate in the Norman Conquest of 1066. In 2014 Patricia was honored to serve as Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone's Library in Wales where she conducted research for The Steel Beneath the Silk, the third book in her trilogy about Queen Emma. Patricia and her husband live in Oakland, California. Visit her at her website.

THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK can be purchased from AmazonBarnes and Noble, and Indiebound.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Jacques du Fouilloux's Treatise on Hunting

While researching hunting dogs in sixteenth century France, I discovered Jacques du Fouilloux's treatise, LA VÉNERIE, online at Gallica. This work, first published in 1561, served as the preeminent reference work on hunting for almost two centuries. Du Fouilloux discusses not only methods and techniques for hunting deer, boar, wolf, and other game, but provides astute observations on the habits of forest animals that have since been corroborated by naturalists. Written in clear and engaging sixteenth-century prose, the work offers a fascinating insight into the hunting culture of the time. Amply illustrated with contemporary woodcuts, LA VÉNERIE is a joy to peruse.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Ten Favorite Reads of 2020

Despite the trauma of the pandemic (or maybe because of it), 2020 turned out to be an amazing year of reading for me. I managed to finish 44 books by the end of December, a personal record since I began keeping track in 2012 (you can see my yearly lists in the sidebar). I've been an avid reader my entire life, and I can hardly remember a year during which book after book not only entertained but impressed me. As a reader, it was exhilarating to read so many great novels; as a writer, it was both inspiring and somewhat daunting to encounter such craft. Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullogh, a powerful novel in verse about the seventeenth century artist Artemisia Gentileschi, was far and away my favorite of the year, but nine other books stood out as particular gems:

Parrot & Olivier in America (2010) by Peter Carey
Hamnet (2020) by Maggie O'Farrell
Call Upon the Water (2019) by Stella Tillyard
Beheld (2020) by TaraShea Nesbit
Sugar Money (2018) by Jane Harris
Light Changes Everything (2020) by Nancy E. Turner
The Blood of Flowers (2007) by Anita Amirrezvani
Varina (2018) by Charles Frazier
How Much of These Hills Is Gold (2020) by C Pam Zhang

Several other books wanted to sneak onto this list, but what good is a list if it includes everything? Among the contenders were books written by writers I know personally: Revelations (coming in 2021) and The Vanishing Point (2006) by Mary Sharratt, A Trace of Deceit (2019) and A Dangerous Duet (2018) by Karen Odden, Drowning with Others (2019) by Linda Keir, The Giant (2020) by Laura Morelli, and Dreamland (2020) by Nancy Bilyeau. Since I could never choose among the babies of my friends, I make it a rule not to include their books on my yearly list of favorites. All of their books, however, are excellent reads that I highly recommend.

Over the holidays, I rearranged furniture in my house, which entailed reorganizing my bookshelves and rediscovering the many books I've bought but never yet read. I'm looking forward to tackling some of them this year, along with books yet to be published. I've already almost finished Diane Setterfield's intriguing The Thirteenth Tale (2006) as I aim to hit my goal of 50 books for 2021. Having resolved to spend less time on the internet and more time with my nose in a book, I'm excited to see what the new year brings.

What was your favorite novel of 2020? Did you set and reach a reading goal? 

In any case, I wish you many happy reading adventures during the coming year!

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Why Read Historical Fiction Set in Sixteenth Century France? Reason #10

Over the past few weeks, we've examined ESCAPE, RELEVANCE, DRAMA, EMOTION, GLITZ, HISTORY, FRANCE, CHATEAUX and LITERARY LINEAGE as reasons to read historical fiction set in sixteenth century France. All of these contribute, in their own way, to our culminating reason...

Reason #10--DIFFERENCE

Trends arise in historical fiction, as they do with most cultural phenomena. A particular book will capture the attention of a significant number of readers, who, having enjoyed what they just read, want more. They start looking for other books that share a similar setting or topic or structure. Writers (who, of course, are readers, too) participate in the trend by creating what the public wants; agents and editors (whose job is to sell books) actively seek out manuscripts that meet those criteria. Within a couple of years (remember, it takes 18+ months from the sale of a manuscript to the appearance of the published book on the shelves), a trend has been established. A significant number of newly published works will feed the craze, even to the point of rehashing characters and plotlines. Eventually, however, readers do tire of the trend and authors run out of material to sustain it. At that point, a new book or topic garners attention and the cycle recommences. Trends are not necessarily sequential; they overlap, differ in length, and vary in detail and emphasis depending on audience and genre. One truth holds, however: it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to predict what the public will desire next, once they've had their fill.

Since I began writing historical fiction, I've witnessed several trends in the genre. Back in the early 2000's, Tudor fiction was all the rage. Inspired by Philippa Gregory's THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, published in 2001 and filmed in 2008, this trend focused on marital machinations at Henry VIII's court.

Anne Boleyn was by far the favorite protagonist, but the trend produced countless novels about all of Henry's wives. It expanded to include the Elizabethan court

as well as peripheral characters like Thomas Cromwell.

Eventually, however, writers exhausted the historical material and satiated their readers. Although Tudor-era fiction continues to draw a devoted subset of readers, its widespread appeal dampened and new trends came to the fore. 

Overlapping the Tudor trend was that of "marquee characters." This was essentially the writing of fictionalized biographies of historical personages immediately recognizable to the reading public. This trend included novels about Marie Antoinette,

Thomas Jefferson,

and Nefertiti, to name only a few.

For many years, few editors would consider novels featuring fictional characters in a historical setting. They felt that readers wanted both the thrill of recognizing the portrait/name on the cover and the satisfaction of learning more about these famous men and women. Novels that relied on fictional characters as protagonists, no matter how accurate the depiction of historical events in the novel or the historical backdrop against which fictional events played out, were considered less appealing to readers. Biographical fiction can be challenging to write, as the sequence of events in a person's life does not always follow a particularly engaging dramatic arc. Many authors addressed this problem by narrating the famous subject's story from the perspective of a fictional servant or friend. Although biographical fiction will always enjoy a prominent place in the range of historical fiction, readers and publishers have in recent years given warmer reception to fictional protagonists inserted into well-research historical settings.

The most current trend in historical fiction is that of fiction set during World War II. This trend began in the mid-2000's with the publication novels like Marcus Zusak's THE BOOK THIEF.

The trend has since exploded with such titles as:

Goodreads registers over 1100 titles on a list of books set during World War II; another list features 132 World War II novels published in 2020 alone. Several factors contribute to the popularity of this trend: the events occured during the lifetime of many readers; women played an active role in the war, both on the home front and in battle; the worldwide nature of the conflict allows for a multiplicity of settings and narratives. World War II fiction still sells well, although some readers are beginning to complain at the glut of titles. Editors at a historical fiction conference last year admitted it is becoming increasingly difficult for a WWII title to stand out in the crowded field. Perhaps the rumblings and grumblings of readers and editors indicate it might be time for a new trend to emerge?

Historical fiction set in sixteenth century France might just fill the bill. It offers plenty of marquee characters whose lives have not been exhaustively mined--François I, Marguerite de Navarre, Catherine de Medici, Louise Labé, the Duchesse d'Étampes, Gabrielle d'Éstrées, Nostredamus. It features an era during which women were breaking free and coming into their own, making names for themselves as writers and artists, printers and political players. Most importantly, fiction set in sixteenth century France will appeal to readers who enjoyed Tudor fiction, offering them a familiar era spiced with enough of a twist to render stories new and appealing. No one can predict with certainty what the next trend in historical fiction will be, but as this series of posts has attempted to prove, Renaissance France has the drama, depth, and DIFFERENCE to stand as a viable candidate!

Friday, October 23, 2020

Why Read Historical Fiction Set in Sixteenth Century France? Reason #9

Two reasons left! As a literature professor as well as a writer, I hold this one close to my heart.


Current historical fiction set in sixteenth century France participates in a rich tradition stretching back to the seventeenth century. In fact, the novel most scholars consider to be the very first historical novel written in French was set during the sixteenth century--La Princesse de Montpensier by Madame de La Fayette.

Penned in 1662, La Princesse de Montpensier is set a hundred years earlier, during the Wars of Religion. With great psychological depth, it tells the story of Renée d'Anjou-Mézières, a young noblewoman trapped in a loveless marriage, who falls victim to her passion for the Duc de Guise. Guise's friend, the Duc d'Anjou (who will take the throne as Henri III), himself becomes enamored of Renée, with disastrous results. La Fayette's novel is the first to take actual historical personnages as characters and set them in circumstances in which historical tensions and events (the 1572 St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre) are intrinsic to the plot. The novel was made into a successful film by noted director Bernard Tavernier in 2010

and in 2017 became the first book by a female author included on the baccaularéat littéraire, the exam that grants French youth a secondary school diploma. Madame de La Fayette's better-known novel, La Princesse de Clèves (1678), also exploits a sixteenth century setting. A psychological drama that takes place at the court of Henri II, it too explores the theme of love versus duty.

The literary roots of historical fiction set in sixteenth century France push even deeper. The era was a favorite of the prolific French author Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870). Best known for Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844-46) and Les Trois Mousequetaires (1844), Dumas wrote a series of seven "Valois romances." La Reine Margot (1845) tells the story of the politically-motivated marriage between Catholic Marguerite de Valois (daughter of Henri II and Catherine de Médici) and Protestant Henry of Navarre and the bloody St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre that followed it. This novel has been made into film several times, most recently in 1994.

Dumas's Valois romances also include Ascanio (1843), a novel about François I and Benevuto Cellini that became the basis of an opera, as well as novels about Henri II, Catherine de Médici, François II, and Henri III.

The twentieth century saw an explosion of interest in sixteenth century France as a setting for historical fiction. In 1935 and 1938, the German author Heinrich Mann wrote two novels about Henri of Navarre, who ruled as Henri IV.

Eleanor Hibbert, under the pseudonym Jean Plaidy, wrote three novels about Catherine de Medici,  Madame Serpent (1951), The Italian Woman (1952), and Queen Jezebel (1953), recently reissued by Atria. Plaidy's books were the ones that sparked my love for historical fiction as a teenager.

Dorothy Dunnett set two volumes of her excellent and intricate Lymond Chronicles in Renaissance France, Queen's Play (1964) and Checkmate (1975).

Robert Merle, a French author, wrote the Fortune de France series from 1977-2003. These thirteen novels view the second half of the sixteenth century through the eyes and adventures of a Huguenot doctor-turned-spy. Merle's novels have sold over five million copies in France, where he has been called "the modern Dumas." The novels are slowly being translated into English by Pushkin Press; the first four are presently available.

Kate Mosse is currently writing a series set in during the religious conflicts. The Burning Chambers came out in 2018; The City of Tears is set to published this coming January. I believe a third volume is in the works.

Among the writers who have published stand-alone novels set in sixteenth century France are Judith Merkle Riley, The Master of All Desires (1999);

Diane Hager, Courtesan (2006);

Jenny Diski, Apology for the Woman Writing (2009);

Christopher Gortner, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici (2011);

and Sophie Perinot, Médicis Daughter (2015).

Historical fiction set in sixteenth century France has a long history and vibrant future. Many angles, personalities, and events remain to be explored and transformed into compelling, thought-provoking, and entertaining novels readers will be eager to read. 

Be sure to read Reasons #1-8 (ESCAPE, RELEVANCE, DRAMA, EMOTION, GLITZ, HISTORY, FRANCE, and CHATEAUX) before I unveil the final reason next week!