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?

Friday, April 21, 2017

And the Winner Is...



You have won a paperback copy of Mary Sharratt's


I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Thanks to all who entered!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review and Giveaway: THE DARK LADY'S MASK by Mary Sharratt

Once again, Mary Sharratt captivates readers with a compelling tale of an extraordinary woman carving a place for herself in a man's world. THE DARK LADY'S MASK (available in paperback April 11) fictionalizes the life of Aemilia Bassano Lanier, the first Englishwoman to claim the title of professional poet. Lanier was also, according to many scholars, the "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets. Sharratt's Aemilia is, however, no mute object of the male poet's desire, but a full-fledged collaborator in the writing of his comedies. In fact, it is Aemilia's education, talent, and connections that secure Shakespeare the break that leads him to fame and literary immortality, even as he serves as her "mask,"  the cover conventions of the time require her to adopt in order to shepherd her work to stage without scandal.

Masks are a constant theme in this novel of self-discovery. Aemilia's relationship with Shakespeare, important as it is, occupies only half the book's pages. The novel's early sections dramatize Aemilia's childhood, the revelation of her Jewish roots, her humanist education, and her years at court as mistress to one of England's most powerful noblemen. Once she meets Shakespeare and begins writing in earnest, Aemilia realizes that she has only ever been "a mask with nothing behind it. An empty shell. A player in a tragicomedy uttering lines written by someone else." Her creative collaboration with Shakespeare moves her ever closer to her core, but inconvenient facts about her personal situation, her family background, and her gender still require disguise. It is only in the last quarter of the book, after her relationship with Shakespeare ends and she takes refuge in the company of learned women, that Aemelia discards her masks and reveals to the world her true self.

That self is, despite years of cross-dressing in search of freedom, wholly and unapologetically female. The theme of sisterhood, a favorite of Sharratt's, finds full expression in this novel. No matter their station, the female characters all suffer at the hands of men, and only by banding together in friendship do they overcome their oppression. It is through the affection and support of like-minded women that Aemilia achieves her dream of publication, and she uses that dream to advance women's cause. Spurred by the advice she received as a child from the humanist Anne Locke--"Remember this, my dear, you must cherish your own sex"--and by the experience of deep female friendships, Aemilia pens a poetic apology in defense of women, a proto-feminist religious poem that establishes her place in the cannon of English letters.

photo credit

Drawing on her meticulous research, keen psychological insight, and deep familiarity with Shakespearean drama, Sharratt crafts an immensely readable and deeply satisfying portrait of an early modern woman who challenged boundaries and expanded the spectrum of acceptable female roles. Ironically, in Sharratt's hands Shakespeare continues to serve as Aemilia's mask--the Shakespearean angle of the story not only broadens the novel's appeal but provides some of its cleverest and most moving pages. Yet Sharratt never makes Aemilia's success dependent on her involvement with the Bard; Aemilia succeeds in spite of it. In its imaginative and emotionally convincing interweaving of the two poets' lives, THE DARK LADY'S MASK serves as an exquisite tribute to Aemilia Bassano Lanier and her courageous contribution to the world of letters.


To celebrate the publication of the paperback edition of THE DARK LADY'S MASK, available April 11, 2017, the author has generously offered to send a free copy to one lucky reader of this review. To enter the random drawing, please comment below with the title of your favorite Shakespearean play by eleven pm PST Tuesday, April 18, 2017. Winner will be announced Friday, April 21, 2017. US residents only. Good luck!


The author of five critically acclaimed novels, Mary Sharratt is an American who has lived in Germany and England for more than two decades. A passionate Shakespeare enthusiast, her explorations into the hidden histories of Renaissance women compelled her to write this book. She lives in Lancashire, England. Learn more about Mary's novels at her website.  

Friday, January 6, 2017

Royal Frolics: Choosing the "Queen of the Bean" at Epiphany

The Feast of the Epiphany occasioned much merriment--and expense--at the French court during the Renaissance. The tradition of sharing a galette des rois--a cake containing a concealed bean--traces back to early sixteenth century celebrations of Twelfth Night. The person who found the bean in his or her piece of cake became the de facto ruler for the duration of the festivities. Whereas in England the choice of a "king," or Lord of Misrule, predominated, across the channel it was the election of the "Queen of the Bean" that evolved into an elaborate ritual.

According to Robert Knecht in his book The French Renaissance Court (p. 75-76), it was custom at the court of François I to chose not only a Queen of the Bean, but a bevy of eighteen ladies to attend her. The women wore beautiful new clothes, which the King provided: undergarments of crimson velvet with slashed sleeves held together by gold clasps and outer garments of grey satin fringed with velvet and lined with mink. Matching belts, necklaces and bracelets complemented the attire; the Queen wore a plumed bonnet atop a long golden or silver snood adorned with precious stones. When it was time for supper, the Queen of the Bean rose from her seat next to the true queen, Eléanore, and took the King's hand. The monarch led her and her ladies into the hall where two tables had been set. The Queen of the Bean sat above Queen Eléanore, the dauphin's wife Catherine de' Medici, and the King's sister Marguerite de Navarre at the shorter table; the King joined the eighteen attendants at the second table. During the meal, the Bean Queen was served with the ceremony normally reserved for the real queen, who surrendered any precedence during the twenty-four hours of her rival's reign.

One wonders just how random the choice of the Queen of the Bean was, especially since at the court of François's son, Henri, the king himself chose her name. In 1550, the Venetian ambassador describes how Henri II came into the queen's chamber to pick a name out of a hat. However, Henri discarded several names before announcing that of a "young, really beautiful and most charming" lady who belonged to the circle of his sister Marguerite. The young lady touched his hand and retired to dress "honorably." At dinner, Henri sat in the middle of the shorter table, flanked on his right by the Queen of the Bean and on his left by his mistress Diane de Poitiers. The real queen, Catherine de' Medici, sat next to the Queen of the Bean, along with the king's sister; the cardinal of Lorraine, the duchesse de Guise, and the Constable of Montmorency sat beside Diane. A ball followed the banquet. The next day, the King escorted the Queen of the Bean into Mass before the real queen; after Mass, everyone dined in the same order as on the previous evening, then watched a joust in the palace courtyard. The feast concluded with another banquet and a final ball, which brought the Queen of the Bean's short reign to a memorable end.

[Photograph courtesy of Gorrk, Wikimedia Commons.]

This article was originally posted on January 6, 2010.