Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Guest Post from Christy English, author of TO BE QUEEN

I'm honored to welcome Christy English, author of THE QUEEN'S PAWN and her new novel TO BE QUEEN (Pub date: April 5, 2011; NAL Trade, 400 pages, $15.00) about the tumultuous early years of that most fascinating of medieval queens, Eleanor of Aquitaine. It seems we never tire of this original independent lady, whose feisty attitude and zest for life, as well as enormous celebrity quotient, blazed a trail of scandal across her world; in other words, in today's world, she would have had paparazzi chasing her on motorcycles! Though she's most famous for her tempestuous marriage to Henry II, with whom she loved, battled and ended up imprisoned by, for a time, her early life is my favorite - full of the dramatic tumult that shaped her into the queen she became. Christy's novel promises a riveting, fresh account of how Eleanor grew into her crown.

Please join me in welcoming Christy English.

Eleanor of Aquitaine and The Search for Charlemagne by Christy English

Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, King of the Franks, united all the lands of modern day France and Germany under his rule. His empire only lasted one generation after his death, but it lived on in the minds of the people he left behind. Eleanor’s Ancestor Charlemagne founded the Duchy of Aquitaine, which was passed down through the centuries in Eleanor’s family, finally coming through her father’s hands to her in 1137. Charlemagne and all he achieved loomed large in Eleanor’s imagination, and with her marriage to Louis VII of France, she saw how she might regain some of Charlemagne’s former glory by uniting France and the Aquitaine, as well as Gascony, Poitou and all of her other holdings.

Eleanor hoped to put her son on the throne after Louis and make him a second Charlemagne. Her unborn son would rule fairly under the law, would render justice, and all importantly, keep the power of the Church in check. Eleanor discovered only one problem with this plan. She and Louis did not have a son. Louis VII was perfectly happy to accept what he considered to be “God’s will” in his youth, to accept the fact that he and Eleanor did not have a son and would not until God sent the boy. Louis constantly prayed for such a son to come to them, but neglected Eleanor’s bed, the only way a son would ever be born to France. After the Crusade in 1148, Eleanor knew with all certainty that her dreams for a united France under her son’s rule were in vain. She worked for an annulment for her marriage in Rome, and once Abbot Suger, Louis’ spiritual father, the largest obstacle to their annulment, died in 1151, Louis began to work with her. Rome granted their annulment, and in March, 1152, Eleanor rode home to her capital at Poitiers.

Eleanor did not retire to her lands and marry one of her own barons. Instead, she united in alliance and in marriage to Henry, Duke of Normandy. Henry was a young man when she married him, nineteen years old, eleven years younger than herself. Eleanor and Henry were married for less than two years when Henry won the throne of England, and she and her new husband were crowned King and Queen of England. Eleanor and Henry’s first son, William, had already been born and she was pregnant with their second son, Henry the Younger, when they were crowned.

Their empire stretched from Scotland and Ireland to Wales and England, and in France they controlled the territories of Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Aquitaine, Poitou and Gascony. Between Henry and Eleanor, both with their inheritances and with what Henry had re-conquered at the point of the sword, they ruled a larger empire than had been seen in France since the time of Charlemagne. Though time would divide Henry and Eleanor from each other, and their sons from their father in countless rebellions and struggles for power, at the time of her marriage to Henry, Eleanor had realized her dream of a large empire that she might one day pass on to her son. After Henry II’s death, her favorite son, Richard the Lionhearted, ruled all the lands of his father.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Christy. We wish you all the best of success! TO BE QUEEN: A Novel of The Early Years of Eleanor of Aquitaine is available for pre-order and will be in bookstores on April 5. If you want to learn more about Christy and Eleanor’s adventures, please find visit her at her website.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Farewell, Elizabeth

When I was growing up in Spain during the last years of Franco’s regime, the local movie theatre in the seaside town where I lived played older movies. Censorship was part of Spain’s society in those days, even as Franco’s grip weakened. Films like The Exorcist were heavily edited or never shown; the result is that I grew up watching movies from the gilded age of Hollywood, like Young Bess; My Cousin Rachel; Rebecca; Scaramoche; Portrait of Jenny; and many others. The stars of the 1940s and '50s were as real to me as those of my own era, often more so, because theirs were the films I was most exposed to.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. The town theatre showed it in its entirety, as they did Gone With The Wind, with 20-minute intermissions. Amidst the crunching of popcorn, perched on worn creaky seats, with the drone of the projector running in the background, I sat, mesmerized, as the screen revealed a world of hot sand and lustrous gold, the likes of which I’d never seen. And when she rolled out of the carpet, her white sheath clinging to those voluptuous curves, her arresting eyes sparking in defiance at Rex Harrison’s equally smitten Caesar, I was hers. I sat utterly still, captivated by the unique combination of beauty, ferocity, and fragility that made Ms Taylor the first true superstar.

Over the years I continued to follow her, even as I fell in thrall to other leading ladies, such as Jacqueline Bisset and Jane Fonda. But whenever I was sick, the first thing I’d do was brew a cup of hot tea, snuggle under the covers, and pop into my VCR my double-tape of Cleopatra. I must have seen that movie over a dozen times; I knew the dialogue by heart; I recognized the inaccuracies and bloated production values; yet I never tired of her. She of course made other wonderful films, of which I was a fan; films in which her acting earned her Oscars and her talent was channeled in unexpected ways, but in that one movie about Egypt’s last pharaoh, she appears as she never would again— a once-in-a-lifetime role for the perfect actress.

Perhaps it’s my memory of seeing it as a boy, the impact of watching it unfold in all its epic Technicolor glory on the big screen, cementing its iconic imagery in me. Whatever the case, my admiration for Ms Taylor never diminished. Indeed, it only grew as the dark days of the '80s exposed a terrifying foe which killed countless friends. As everyone but the afflicted and warriors fled, she stood up and proclaimed now was the time to join together, instead of seeking someone to blame. The AIDS pandemic changed my life and it changed hers: though we never met, I felt as though I knew her.

Of course, we all feel like that when it comes to movie stars. It’s what they do: they reflect our yearnings. But Elizabeth Taylor was more than a celebrity; in her tumultuous private life and bold humanitarian stance, she demonstrated a quest to live as she thought fit, even if it came at a price. She learned from her mistakes but wasn’t afraid to make them again. She once said, “I don't entirely approve of some of the things I have done, or am, or have been. But I'm me. God knows, I'm me.”

For a boy who once struggled to find out who he was in the world, hers were words to live by.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Guest Post and Giveaway from Holly Tucker, author of BLOODWORK

I'm delighted to welcome Holly Tucker, whose debut BLOODWORK: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution [W.W. Norton & Company; $25.95] will be published on March 21. This non-fiction narrative account of the first transfusion experiments of 1665-68 reads like the best suspense, a riveting, often terrifying, tale of the fierce rivalries that erupted between scientists in Paris and London, including the notorious doctor, Jean Baptise Denis, who performed the first successful blood transfusion only to be framed for murder in a shocking case that scandalized Europe. Through Denis's case, Ms Tucker offers a portrait of a medical and scientific culture on the edge of history, yet overcome by superstition and fear; and in the process, holds up a mirror to our own modern-day research controversies.

Please join me in welcoming Holly Tucker!

Detective Work, 17th century style
by Holly Tucker

Blood Work is a nonfiction murder mystery set in the scientific revolution. It centers around the first blood transfusions, which were animal-to-human and which took place over 150 years before the discovery of anesthesia and antisepsis. In December 1667, the renegade doctor Jean-Baptiste Denis transfused several ounces of calf’s blood into the veins of the best known men in Paris: Antoine Mauroy. Mauroy, a mental ill man, regularly roamed the streets of the elite Marais quarter. The idea was that blood transfusion would cool the vapors that were rising to Mauroy’s brain—and thereby relieve him of his symptoms.

Denis’ experiments met with failure. Mauroy died. And in one of the history of medicine’s first malpractice cases, Denis was put on trial for the man’s murder. The courts eventually exonerated Denis of all charges—but they nonetheless ruled that Mauroy had been indeed murdered…by several other physicians. Blood transfusion was banned not long after and fell off the medical radar for nearly two more centuries.

To be honest, I felt a lot like Sherlock Holmes. I knew there had been a murder. But why? What was it about blood transfusion that would lead someone to kill? In the first year or two of research, I had my sights set on a single man. I can’t name him here—because he still figures prominently in the book. I spent weeks in the archives of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris pouring over case reports and experiment records. Nothing. I found nothing that would allow me to say with certainty that he did it.

I spent the months that followed feeling dejected. Maybe no one had ever revealed the names of the murderer or murderers because their identities were simply unrecoverable. Still, I refused to give up. I headed back to France, three more times. I worked in the archives of the Paris Faculty of Medicine and the French National Library, as well as in the special collections at the Méjanes Library in Aix-en-Provence. Nothing.

I was truly ready to throw in the towel and actually began to box up my research materials. One by one, I skimmed through the hundreds of documents and manuscript reproductions that I had collected. One by one, they went into the box.

The last days of any trip to archives are always frenzied. So many documents to look at—and no time left. I usually end up spending a fortune in reproduction fees just so I can keep working when I return back to the States. As I flipped through the documents, I recognized a stack of copies that I remembered from a much earlier trip to France. When they arrived by mail weeks after the trip, I had simply tossed them in with the rest.

A few turns of the pages, and there it was. The smoking gun: a single letter written by a lawyer who was not directly involved in the transfusion trial but who was apparently outraged by the conspiracy. He named the murderous physicians—and once I had those names, I was stunned by how many clues they had left out in the open just waiting, almost proudly it seemed, to be discovered.

I remember vividly the day I knew for sure who did it. I called my husband in tears. At first, he was worried that something was horribly wrong…until he heard me whisper: “I found them.” It only took a few 300 years, but I had found them.

GIVEAWAY! One lucky reader will win a free copy of Bloodwork! To qualify, you must be located in the US or Canada, and be a follower of this blog. Enter by leaving a comment below. The winner will be announced on April 5.
To learn more about Holly Tucker and her book, please visit her at her website.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review of Elizabeth Redfern's THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES

Published several years ago and recently re-issued in a brand new trade paperback format, THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES is a thinking person's historical thriller, a vivid account of a man's search for his daughter's killer and the quest for a lost planet among refugees from the French Revolution.

The sights, sounds and smells of 18th century London permeate this tale of Jonathan Absey, a calcifying civil servant whose family and personal life have crumbled following the death of his daughter, who was strangled by a serial killer preying on red-haired prostitutes. While the premise sounds reminiscent of countless other thrillers, echoing the later horrors and panic of the infamous Ripper spree, this is where the similarities end.

Rather than settle for the usual stop-the-murderer-before-he-kills-again scenario, Ms Redfern instead has crafted a compelling rumination on the forces that our beliefs exert on us, and the effect of one seemingly random event upon an entire life. She adds to her lead character a fascinating cast of supporting roles, including Jonathan’s sensitive gay brother, Alexander, an amateur astronomy aficionado who falls in thrall to a tormented French refugee brother and sister. In a time when homosexuality was persecuted, Redfern’s choice to tell part of her story through Alexander’s eyes is a bold one, elevating the narrative into one of eloquent complexity.
While Jonathan chases clues that appear to link the enigmatic French refugee society to a renewed bout of murders horrifyingly similiar to his daughter's, and Alexander becomes increasingly involved with the mysterious and glamorous Comtesse Auguste and her beautiful, terminally ill brother— who may, in fact, be the very killer Jonathan Absey seeks— the world around them is being shaken by the ongoing war in France and ruthless suspicions of the English government, which avidly hunts down French spies. The descriptions of France’s struggles and the suffering of those forced to leave their country are poignant; rarely do we read about the ones who fled abroad, only to encounter another country’s hostility.

While the occasional digressions into battles abroad dilute the immediate plot, this is still a book rich in atmosphere and suspense— a heady excursion into an era when astronomy was a burgeoning, imperfect science; war was as haunting a presence as the murderer in London’s midst; and one man’s dogged search to bring a killer to justice unravels a myriad of deadly secrets.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


In celebration of the US trade paperback of my friend Sarah Bower's gorgeous novel, SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA, I'm re-posting a previous, wonderful guest post from Sarah on history, the importance of dogs, and that bad boy of Renaissance Italy, Cesare Borgia.

Set in early 16th century Italy during the dangerous reign of the Borgias, SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA tells the story of Esther, a young Jewess who escapes with her family from Isabel of Castile's Spain, only to find herself enraptured by, and ensnared in, the intrigues and lethal attractions of Cesare Borgia and his sister, Lucrezia. Readers will be enthralled by this mesmerizing tale of an innocent's journey into the dark secret heart of one of Italy's most infamous papal dynasties.

One Man and His Dog
by Sarah Bower

In the beginning of the Powell and Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death (1946), a wartime airman is washed up on a beach after his aircraft is shot down over the sea. He believes he is dead and has gone to heaven. As he walks up the beach, he encounters a black Labrador.
‘I always hoped there’d be dogs,’ he says as he pats the animal’s head.

The room where I write contains two desks, two computers, an inexplicably large number of books (do they breed, I wonder, while my back is turned? Should I worry about leaving my Freud next to my Austen..?), and two golden retrievers. These retrievers – Clarence and Floyd (named after two characters from the same movie) – are apparently inert. To the uninitiated they might seem to be rugs, moth-eaten leftovers from a golden age of big game hunting, or possibly evidence of a bizarre taste for taxidermy. Yet despite the fact that they sleep away my working hours, only snapping into a flurry of dancing, whimpering and tail wagging when I rise from my desk and intone the word, ‘walk’, or possibly, ‘tea’, they make an invaluable contribution to my fiction.Walking is itself a great spur to creativity, of course. Keats, it is said, composed verses in his head while walking on Hampstead Heath and committed them, fully formed, to paper when he arrived home.
He took
In his knapsack
A book
Full of vowels
And a shirt
With some towels –(From John Keats, A Song About Myself: The Complete Poems, Penguin Classics 3rd edition 1988)

You can almost hear the rhythm of his feet, can’t you? History does not relate ( I don’t think) if he walked with a dog, but I’m certain many authors do. Among the many memorable characters in J. G. Farrell’s novel, The Singapore Grip, set in the period just before the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, is a mangy, half-blind King Charles spaniel, nicknamed The Human Condition. The Human Condition survives bombing and shelling, several attempts to take him to the vet to be put down, and beats most of the human characters on to the last ship away from the island before the invading force arrives. He left me suspecting that Farrell, like me, wrote in the presence of dogs.

The decision to give Bishop Odo in The Needle in the Blood a favourite dog was straightforward. One of the themes of that book is – perversely – the Englishness of the Normans, the fact that William the Conqueror and those who accompanied him on his great adventure are as much the ancestors of P. G. Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth as they are the proto-Nazis much beloved of the champions of Harold Godwinson and his Anglo Saxon kingdom. English gentlemen – just like Powell and Pressburger’s gallant bomber pilot, played by that quintessential English actor, David Niven – have dogs. Much as J. G. Farrell’s lamentable King Charles spaniel acquired his Human Condition, however, I found that Bishop Odo’s dog, Juno, developed a role and character of her own and began to make interventions in the narrative as a kind of interpreter of human emotions, a channel of communication between human characters bent on misunderstanding one another.

So, by the time I came to plan my latest book, Sins of the House of Borgia, which looks at the lives of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia through the eyes of a young Jewish conversa, I was very conscious of the need to add dogs to the mix. There are two dogs of importance in the book - Alfonsino, a lap dog given to Lucrezia as a betrothal gift by her last husband, Alfonso d’Este, and Tiresias, a blind hound belonging to Cesare. A theme of the novel is doubling: Esther, the Jewess, and Lucrezia are very similar in appearance, a fact which has enormous consequences for Esther. One way in which I chose to signify this was to set up a rapport between Esther and the dog. She becomes its principal carer, and this in turn leads her into certain circumstances which change her life. Lucrezia begins by disliking the dog but shifts towards affection for it as she settles into a marriage which was, if not an idyllic love affair, a long and successful one which eventually enabled her to escape the lurid reputation she had acquired as a girl in Rome. In Ferrara, where the Este were the ruling family, she is remembered with great fondness for her cultivated court and her gallantry in defending the city during the War of the League of Cambrai.
Tiresias was a late addition to the novel. He didn’t appear in the first draft at all and it was only while I was proof reading The Needle in the Blood it occurred to me that Cesare Borgia needed a dog every bit as much as Bishop Odo, perhaps more so, as my initial motivation in giving him Tiresias was quite shamelessly manipulative. I wanted to make my readers like him more. Cesare Borgia has been fictionalised in many ways, from the wonderfully subtle portrayal by Nigel Balchin in The Borgia Testament, in my view the best of all novels about the Borgias, to the wicked and clever comedy of Somerset Maugham’s Then and Now to the gloriously predatory ogre of Gregory Maguire’s Mirror, Mirror. He is a godsend to the novelist in many ways, having led a life which his biographer, Sarah Bradford , describes as having all the ingredients of a Greek tragedy. He is also (and I suspect, wherever he is now, with or without dogs, this must be a source of great satisfaction to him) impossible. As many headed as the hydra that was his emblem, every time you think you’ve got a grasp on his character, he slips away. The atheist son of a Pope, the womaniser who took no account of any woman other than his mother and his sister, possibly the greatest military and political genius of his age who nevertheless ended in complete failure, the inspiration for Machiavelli’s Prince – but then we have to ask ourselves, what is The Prince? Is it a serious treatise on government or a deeply ironical joke levelled at the tyrannical Medici by a dyed-in-the-wool republican?

These contradictions, the evasiveness and trickery of the man even 500 years beyond the grave (he died in 1507), challenges the novelist to transform him into either hero or villain with any conviction. He forces her to do what, of course, she should be doing, to recreate out of the facts and the myths an authentic human being. All human beings have their loveable side, even if only their own mothers can see it. Unfortunately, my plot dictated that Cesare’s relationship with his mother would not show his best side. If we’re lucky, we get unconditional love from our mothers, but everyone gets unconditional love from their dog. How better to show Cesare to advantage than by giving him a dog? Of course, like any other gentleman of his age, he would have owned a lot of dogs, hounds of various kinds for hunting (though hunting with leopards was one of his favourite pastimes – how wonderfully over-the-top Renaissance of him) and would have put considerable resources into breeding them. What, then, would he do with a puppy born blind? Well, have it destroyed, of course.

An exercise I often set my students is to turn a convention on its head and see where it takes you. What, for example, happens to the story if you turn Cinderella into a boy or give Don Juan a conscience? With Tiresias, I did exactly the same thing – instead of putting him down, Cesare keeps him. He says it’s because, being blind, he will have a good nose for truffles, but you kind of know that’s just an excuse, a pragmatic front put up to shield the sentimental streak in his nature. So, Tiresias stands for the goodness in Cesare, for the side of him that is capable of love and loyalty and straight dealing. His lifespan is also exactly that of the papacy of Alexander VI, Cesare’s father, and thus, by his untimely, violent and avoidable death, he foreshadows his master’s own end. Oh, and he gives Cesare the idea for the chestnut orgy. Chestnut orgy? Well, if you want to know more, you’ll have to read Sins of the House of Borgia, which explores many different kinds of love, not least that of a man for his dog and vice versa.

Sarah Bower is the author of two historical novels. The Needle in the Blood was Susan Hill’s Book of the Year 2007. The Sins of the House of Borgia, first published as Book of Love, is now released in the US in trade paperback from SourceBooks. Thank you, Sarah. We wish you much success in your latest US debut!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review of Karen Maitland's THE OWL KILLERS

Karen Maitland's THE OWL KILLERS is a compelling and often unsettling exploration of the clash between the pagan undercurrents in medieval England and the growing strength of the Christian faith. Set in a backwater town plagued by a despotic overlord and group of masked men who call themselves the Owl Masters —dedicated to preserving their power at any costs by exacting tribute from the downtrodden villagers and enacting terrifying nightly rites— the novel follows a number of characters from their points of view, each of whom has his or her reasons for liking or resenting a group of foreign women who have come to settle outside in the village.

Part of a medieval phenomenon called a beguinage, these woman hail from different sections of society, united in their commitment to an ascetic lifestyle that includes caring for the less fortunate. However, not all is as it seems under the hard-working, disciplined exterior of the beguinage and it is precisely here where Ms Maitland deftly weaves the strands of discord, suspicion, resentment, and eventual fear that thrust the women into the heart of a horrific plot hatched by the Owl Masters.

The characters are finely wrought and include a vengeful priest with a secret; an ancient cunning woman who lives like a wild thing on the hill; her feral granddaughter; and various women of the beguinage, including the stalwart leader, Servant Martha, and an unbalanced acolyte, Beatrice. The arrival of the manor lord’s disgraced daughter, who has witnessed a terrifying rite in the forest where a demon allegedly was unleashed, sets off a chain of events that will ensnare each of these characters in a deadly struggle to preserve his or her way of life— a struggle that foreshadows the crumbling of the foundations of a much older, matriarchal system of belief under the onslaught of a virile and aggressive Church. While the changing viewpoints within Ms Maitland’s narrative may prove confounding to some readers, those who persist will find unexpected moments of transcendent beauty, as Ms Maitland excels in depicting not only the people of her savage, rarely explored world but also the shifting landscape which they inhabit.

From a catastrophic flood to the beatific sufferings of a starving anchorite to a heart-stopping chase through the forest as a winged beast flies overhead, THE OWL KILLERS is not for the faint of heart, evoking a medieval vision that offers stark contrast to our often overly-romantic imaginings. Ms Maitland's latest novel, THE GALLOW'S CURSE will be released this month. For more about her and her work, visit