Review+Giveaway: “The Secret of the Abbey” by Kathleen C. Perrin #FranceBT

17 Aug

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My Review

The Secret of the Abbey is the third book in Kathleen C. Perrin’s impressive series of historical romances, The Watchmen Saga, set in medieval France. All these books have gorgeous covers displaying on-site photography; Perrin acknowledges her daughter Christine for their design. Book III has perhaps the most beautiful cover so far. The young woman’s face mirrors the alert intelligence and strength of purpose of the book’s heroine, Katelyn Michaels, and the red gown will figure in the plot.

In each installment of the saga, Katelyn travels back in time to three key moments in the history of France, when the outcome of events will determine the fate of Mont-Saint-Michel and its survival as a stronghold of faith. In The Keys of the Watchmen, Katelyn receives her unexpected calling as a Watchman and discovers her first mission defending the Mount in 1424 against an attack by English forces during the 100 Years’ War. In The Sword of the Maiden, Katelyn returns to a point five years later when her mission takes her to meet Joan of Arc. Katelyn proves to be the perfect counselor and friend for La Pucelle, the Maiden, who must overcome serious obstacles–opposition from her countrymen and struggles within herself–before she can fulfill her own calling to save France. Katelyn knows that history must take its course, because securing the French throne will also safeguard Mont-Saint-Michel, but it is agonizing to watch her friend, Jehanne, the courageous maiden, suffer her cruel destiny as a martyr.

Ultimately, it is the Archangel Michael who is the defender of Mont-Saint-Michel. The Watchmen receive their calling and their instructions through his spiritually intimated instructions. Jean Le Vieux (his name means ‘the old one”) passes along his wisdom as he trains Katelyn, young Nicolas le Breton, and the middle-aged, retired Brother Thibault, all of whom will play key roles in protecting The Secret of the Abbey. They are needed because the most dangerous foe of the Mount is not earthly at all but rather a fallen angel named Abdon who inhabits a series of bodies of wicked men with the aim of discovering the secret of the ancient stones that are hidden deep within the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel. Abdon and his master hope to usurp the power of the stones in service of cosmic evil.

At the end of Book II, Nicolas was gravely injured in a battle with Abdon’s host, whom he killed, and he was still in a coma. Katelyn was herself near despair. Brother Thibault sent her back to the future (without her consent), to her home and family in America, hoping to spare her months, perhaps years, of anguish. That is where The Secret of the Abbey takes up the thread of all their lives. Unable to share her feelings with anyone in her time, Katelyn resumed her life, finished high school, and wrote an account of her adventures with Joan of Arc, disguised as a historical novel. Presumably, this was Book II, The Sword of the Maiden. This novel turns out to be a surprise publishing success, and she receives a sizeable advance to write a prequel. She will use this money to travel back to France and hopefully return to her beloved Nicolas, provided the Archangel lays the groundwork. She inherits an inn on the Mount, not so fortuitously called L’Auberge de l’Archange (the inn of the Archangel), and it seems she has been provided with the means to stay in France and provide for herself and her family to join her there. She promptly takes up this opportunity and begins managing the inn, while she waits for her next mission from the Archangel to be communicated to her.

Meanwhile, back in the 15th century, Nicolas wakes from his coma, but with amnesia for the last several years.  He does not remember Katelyn or their missions together. Nor does he remember the death of their beloved mentor, Jean Le Vieux. Brother Thibault, who has been faithfully caring for him, fills him in on events as best he can, but he hesitates to reveal to Nicolas his relationship with Katelyn in his present state of mind. A time-traveling Jean Le Vieux pays Nicolas a visit, and tries to quiet his indignation over his amnesia.

Oh, my dear Nicolas. This is not a new teaching for you. We have spoken of it many times, my son. Life is not just. Indeed, it is a necessary condition of mortality. For us to be truly tested, to see whether we will choose good over evil, there must be opposition in all things. If there were no opposition, ‘twould not be a test. The power of evil is real, and God cannot shelter you from the consequences of your own choices, or from the evil acts of others that may affect you, even when you stand blameless.

Jean Le Vieux also brings Nicolas news of his next mission, which will take him 150 years into the future, and shares the Archangel’s plans for Brother Thibault, who is instructed to marry! No one is more surprised at this than Thibault himself, and he wonders who would want to marry him? Only an exceptional woman who could see his heart. Thibault had learned a great deal from Katelyn about sanitary practices and caring for the sick effectively; she also left him with some medicines.  One day, a girl comes to the abbey imploring his help as healer for her gravely ill sister. It is the sister, Amée, who will become his future wife.  The scene in which Thibault administers life-saving treatment to Amée brought tears to my eyes–and this was only page 97!  Perrin’s beautiful writing drew me in to care about Amée as Thibault did and to marvel at Thibault’s own depth of feeling for this woman–a new experience for him.

His marriage was crucially important because Nicolas, traveling to the year 1577, would lodge in Jean Le Vieux’s old cottage–so familiar to him–but now owned by one Thomas Thibault, a descendant of Nicolas’s old friend. Thomas was himself an appointed Guardian of Mont-Saint-Michel and a trustworthy keeper of the family papers and the covert business of the Watchmen. He carefully explained to Nicolas the political situation of the times, pitting Catholics and Huguenots (French Protestants) against each other in the French Wars of Religion. The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) was a bloody precursor of the hatreds rampant at the time of Nicolas’s arrival. Perrin provides ample historical endnotes to clarify some of the political and religious rivalries, along with family trees of the Catholic Valois and the Huguenot Bourbons.

But don’t worry that you need to memorize all this background to follow the adventure to come. As soon as Katelyn travels with Nicolas back to Thomas Thibault’s cottage and begins to share his mission, the story takes off at a gallop and all the necessary history is seamlessly introduced by Katelyn where needed to advance the plot. Katelyn’s personality continues to leap off the page in this third installment of the saga, and Perrin’s writing is strongest when she is writing in the voice of this marvelously alive young woman. She and Nicolas must re-learn how to communicate in several languages–French, English, and Katelyn’s frank and colloquial American speech–to bridge the cultural gap of centuries between them, when he comes to fetch her in the 21st century.

“Look, I know you don’t remember me,” she continued, switching from French to English, “but it’s okay. We’ll take this slowly.”

He had forgotten that he spoke English so well, and yet he understood her perfectly…except for that odd word. Okay, okay. He tumbled the word around in his mind. He knew it meant something, but he couldn’t remember. However, at least she knew he suffered from memory loss, and she did not reproach him for it.

“I apologize, Mademoiselle Michaels, but ’tis true. I do not remember you or anything about you,” he replied. He saw what he judged to be a glimmer of sadness in her eyes as he said these words. “But I assure you, it will not prevent us from working together as the Archangel has instructed. You are to return with me as quickly as you can prepare yourself.”

“First of all, we have to get this straight,” she said as she met his gaze again. “You are to call me Katelyn, not Mademoiselle, and not Mademoiselle Michaels. We’ve been through this before, so don’t fight me on it. Okay?”

“It…it,” he muttered like an idiot, “it feels so uncomfortable for me to call someone I don’t know by her given name.”

“I know, I know,” she said. “I get it, but get over it because you do know me, and like I say, we’ve been through it all before. Just humor me on this, won’t you please? It’s Katelyn.”

“Katelyn,” he said. “And what is this ‘okay’ you keep using?”

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” she said, and he could sense she was frustrated. “Déjà vu. Like I said, we’ve been through all of this before. As you will soon find out, I can’t speak without using the word ‘okay,’ so you’d better learn it fast….” (pp. 220-221)

Katelyn was warned that Nicolas would not remember their relationship–neither their romance nor their marriage in the 15th century. But Abdon and the French Huguenots are on the move and that is their first priority. There is a wonderful moment when Katelyn wins over the French governor of the Mount to her plan, using a combination of assertive argument and subtle threats. Nicolas is enormously proud of her abilities, and yet confused by the strength of his feelings for her. As usual for them, there is “no time” for them to work this out before being separated; Nicolas and Katelyn each go undercover with prominent French Huguenot families to learn their plans vis-à-vis Mont-Saint-Michel. The unfolding of events is beautifully plotted. I admire Perrin’s skill in working out all the complex details to contribute to the big picture, consistently and meaningfully.

Katelyn is the only one of the Watchmen who doesn’t know the Secret of the Mount, the one she’s nevertheless been protecting through all their battles and trials. This was decided for her protection, and in foresight of some of the attempts Abdon would make to wring the secret from her.  In Book III, she will finally learn the secret, along with some surprising revelations about herself and her family. The secret the Watchmen have been protecting for centuries is–well, of course, I can’t say. But it is worth waiting, along with Katelyn, for the perfect moment to reveal it. It is an interesting mix of theology and cosmology extrapolated imaginatively into the world of this story. I suspect it is influenced by the author’s personal beliefs and faith tradition–which is her right. My one objection might be to some of the anticlericalism voiced by Nicolas and Jean Le Vieux, which sounded a bit anachronistic for 15th-century Catholics immersed in the pervasive piety of a place like Mont-Saint-Michel.

At the end of this highly enjoyable reading journey, I can highly recommend this book and the whole Watchmen Saga. Kathleen Perrin is equally strong in creating engaging, believable characters and in managing complex plots, transforming them into well-paced, suspenseful, and romantic fiction.  And she does her research! I have to say that Katelyn and Nicolas are people I’d want to meet in any century, and I feel that special fondness for them that only a gifted writer can inspire.

***

Kathleen C. Perrin

on tour

August 14-25, 2017

the secret-of-the-abbey cover

The Secret of the Abbey

(historical fiction)

Release date: June 3, 2017
Self-published at Langon House

565 pages

ISBN: 978-0692877975

Website | Goodreads

SYNOPSIS

After unwillingly leaving a comatose Nicolas behind on Mont Saint Michel in 1429, Katelyn Michaels is distraught to be back in the United States in modern times. When a series of remarkable events facilitates her taking up residence on the Mount and reveals why Katelyn was called as a Watchman, her fondest hope is to be reunited with Nicolas, regardless of the circumstances. However, when Nicolas unexpectedly arrives with a new mission for her, Katelyn is devastated to learn that his head injury has deprived him of any memories of their relationship. Nonetheless, she is determined to once again save the Mount—this time in sixteenth-century France amidst violent religious turmoil—and rekindle Nicolas’s feelings for her. The couple’s love and loyalty is tested as she and Nicolas attempt to unmask the true source of the threat¬—their adversary Abdon—sort out their conflicting emotions, and deal with the consequences of an astounding age-old secret.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kathleen C. PerrinKathleen C. Perrin
holds bachelor’s degrees in French and Humanities
from Brigham Young University and is a certified French translator. Besides being the author of The Watchmen Saga, she has published several non-fiction articles, academic papers, and a religious history about Tahiti.
Kathleen has lived in Utah, New York City, France, and French Polynesia. She and her French husband have spent years investigating the mysteries and beauties of his native country—where they have a cottage—and have taken tourist groups to France. The Perrins have three children and currently reside in Utah.

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*Note*: I received a copy of the title from the publisher for purpose of honest review.  I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.

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Review: “A Very French Christmas: The Greatest French Holiday Stories of All Time” #FranceBT

8 Aug

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My Review

A Very French Christmas: The Greatest French Holiday Stories of All Time is a joy to hold and page through, as it is beautifully produced–not surprising since it comes from New Vessel Press. This collection of fourteen stories derives primarily from the late nineteenth century, the heyday of Christmas stories, one might say, given the popularity of annual Christmas tales from Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and others. But A Very French Christmas feels very French, and also very fresh, owing to the inclusion of a long story by twentieth-century writer Irène Némirovsky and new stories by contemporary writers Jean-Philippe Blondel and Dominique Fabre, commissioned expressly for this book. Although these stories can be sentimental and heartwarming at times, many of them have a bracing quality, taking an ironic view of holiday celebrations, and exploring the way people’s desires and expectations for the season can be confounded.  This is equally true of the older stories.

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The collection opens with a new story, “The Gift,” by Jean-Philippe Blondel, who is known for his recent, well-received novel, The 6:41 to Paris.  Like that novel, this story presents another unexpected meeting between a man and woman, this time at a Christmas luncheon. Thomas, age 79 and divorced, is inwardly lamenting his feeling of abstraction from his family, gathered for their annual holiday meal at his son’s restaurant. They don’t really know him, he believes, but have erected a new identity for him as “grandpa.” Perhaps he doesn’t truly know them either, fitting each of them into his own pigeonholes.  While he is musing in this rather self-absorbed way, he is brought back to life by spotting a woman he knows seated at another table.

It’s at this moment she turns her head slightly toward me and our eyes meet.

I hear a faint explosion far away. It’s like a summer storm in the middle of winter, or the start of fireworks whose noise is muffled by the distance. I can’t take myself away from her gaze. My memory has turned into a crazy machine, searching all my internal libraries for the relevant novel, and in this heap of cards and photographs that we store inside ourselves, the information that I need is right there. Because I know her.

I’m sure I know her.

His reaction is nearly physical panic–blushing, heart palpitations, that feeling that one might die from the intensity of the moment–the reactions of a much younger man, and he is thrown back in memory to four decades ago when he made her intimate acquaintance. She was a co-worker in his company, but one night she became more than that to him. And here they are meeting again. Was it chance? The answer is surprising in this well-crafted story.

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After this fine start, we move back a century and a half to “St. Anthony and His Pig” (1880) by Paul Arène. But in reality, the story takes us back to the early centuries of the Christian era when St. Anthony lived alone in the Egyptian desert, fighting the battle for sanctity, with his only company being the devils who tormented him and his faithful pig Barrabas. Flaubert had recently written his novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), so it was an opportune time for a Christmas story about the great saint’s trials. In Arène’s story, Anthony has just had six months respite from his regular temptations and prickings by a host of insidious devils. It was near Christmas, when who should visit him but a peddler of spits to roast pigs! The sly man suggests to Anthony how succulent Barrabas would be for Christmas dinner. O the torment! The mind’s imaginings are the greatest temptations, as the life of Saint Anthony abundantly proves. It is well worth following Arène’s delectable tale to the end to see what happens.

Portrait_of_Mr_Francois_CoppeeThere are three stories by François Coppée, all of the heartwarming variety and very pleasing. My favorite was “The Lost Child,” which begins with a portrait of its main character, a “millionaire banker” named M. Godefroy:

On that morning, which was the morning before Christmas, two important events happened simultaneously–the sun rose, and so did M. Jean-Baptiste Godefroy.

… And whatever opinion the sun may have about himself, he certainly has not a higher opinion than M. Jean-Baptiste Godefroy has of himself.

As director of a large bank and administrator of assorted companies, he also enjoyed the possession of many honors, including the Légion d’Honneur. This prosperous, important fellow had one son, Raoul, and no wife, because Raoul’s mother had died in childbirth. Each day, M. Godefroy devoted 15 minutes of his precious business day to a visit with his son, who spent the rest of the day with servants. Nevertheless, he loved his son and looked forward to this time with him. On this Christmas Eve morning, the son used his audience with the great man to ask, “will Father Christmas put anything in my shoe tonight?” His father answered, “Yes, if you are a good child.

After his business concluded for the day, he remembered his son’s words, and went to a toy dealer, where he bought a passel of costly presents, including a rocking horse and a box of leaden toy soldiers. But when he arrived home, the house was in an uproar and the boy’s governess was in tears because Raoul had gone missing. The story unfolds from there in a manner worthy of Dickens, and while M. Godefroy is not as miserly as Scrooge, events of this night will effect a Scrooge-like awakening.

Guy_de_Maupassant_fotograferad_av_Félix_Nadar_1888Two stories by the short story master, Guy de Maupassant, are both definitely of the confounding type, describing rather bizarre Christmas happenings. In “Christmas Eve,” a man explains to his friends his horror of Christmas Eve suppers. He recalled a night two years earlier when he went searching on the streets of Paris for a lady companion to share his supper. He preferred women with plenty of curves “a female colossus,” if possible, and he settled on a very curvaceous young woman who caught his eye. (Inevitably, this reminded me of de Maupassant’s famous story “Boule de Suif,” likewise concerning the misfortunes of a young lady of ample figure, and published just two years before this one.) By the end of the evening, the bewildered man would get a great surprise, and his reaction didn’t say much for his character! The other selection by de Maupassant, “A Miracle,” is a Christmas horror story about a strange blizzard and a woman’s possession by an evil spirit.

Anatole_France_young_yearsIn “The Juggler of Notre Dame,” by 1921’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Anatole France, an itinerant juggler named Barnabé was blessed with enough talent at his art to earn a shower of coins from the locals wherever he performed, but this was still insufficient to live on, and he often went to sleep hungry.

One night he met a monk on the road and they fell to talking and comparing their respective work. Barnabé was grateful for what he had, and declared, “I am a juggler by trade. It would be the best trade in the world if only one had something to eat every day.” The monk gently but firmly disagreed, warning his new friend to take care, asserting instead that being a monk was the most beautiful thing in the world, “for he celebrates the praises of God, the Virgin, and the saints, and religious life is a perpetual song to the Lord.”

Barnabé was a humble man and quickly confessed his mistake. Furthermore, he said that although he liked being a juggler, he would like nothing better than to the sing the daily office, especially to the Blessed Virgin, to whom he was specially devoted. The monk held the office of Prior at his monastery and he took the former juggler under his wing. In this way, Barnabé became a monk. His only regret was his lack of education and skills such as the other monks had, because he wanted to offer worthy service to the Holy Virgin.

The biography of Anatole France at the end of this collection compares this tale to “The Little Drummer Boy.” It reminded me of “A Simple Heart” in Gustave Flaubert’s Trois Contes. Both Flaubert’s story and this tale portray the emergence of unlikely saints.

The collection ends with a long story by Irène Némirovsky, who died in Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of 39. Her major fiction Suite Française was not published until 2004. “Noël,” the story included here, is written as a screenplay, giving directions for an opening montage of photographs, “the most conventional and unsophisticated images that accompany the idea of the Christmas holidays“–heavy snow, holly and mistletoe, a yule log, bright lights, voices of children, dinner parties. Snatches of song lyrics suggest the atmosphere: “Childhood…Innocence…Dawn of the world…Dawn of love…The most wonderful days...”

Although the older generation of parents is introduced, it soon becomes clear that the story will be about two sisters, Claudine and Marie-Laure, and the men pursuing them, or discarding them, at a Christmas party. A Christmas of love affairs and heartbreak and, as improbable as it might seem in this gathering of bright young things, perhaps real love? The modernity of Némirovsky’s approach sets this story apart from the tales of the previous century.

I have described so many stories, because they were all so fascinating, just as the book’s subtitle promises.  The Christmas themes are treated with a refreshing originality and variety, and I can imagine returning to reread this collection for many Christmases to come.

Stories discussed in this review:

“The Gift” (2017) by Jean-Philippe Blondel.

“St. Anthony and His Pig” (1880) by Paul Arène (trans. by J. M. Lancaster).

“The Lost Child” (1892) by François Coppée (trans. by J. Matthewman).

“Christmas Eve” (1882) by Guy de Maupassant (trans. by Frederick Caesar de Sumichrast).

“A Miracle” (1882) by Guy de Maupassant (translator unknown).

“The Juggler of Notre Dame” (1892) by Anatole France (trans. by Anna C. Brackett).

“Noël” (1932) by Irène Némirovsky (trans. by Sandra Smith, 2017).

******

A Very French Christmas:
The Greatest French Holiday Stories
of All Time

on Tour

August 8-14

***

Very French Christmas Cover

A Very French Christmas:
The Greatest French Holiday Stories
of All Time

(short story collection)

Release date: October 10, 2017
at New Vessel Press

ISBN: 978-1939931504
142 pages

Website
Goodreads

SYNOPSIS

A continuation of the very popular Very Christmas Series from New Vessel Press, this collection brings together the best French Christmas stories of all time in an elegant and vibrant collection featuring classics by Guy de Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet, plus stories by the esteemed twentieth century author Irène Némirovsky and contemporary writers Dominique Fabre and Jean-Philippe Blondel.

With a holiday spirit conveyed through sparkling Paris streets, opulent feasts, wandering orphans, kindly monks, homesick soldiers, oysters, crayfish, ham, bonbons, flickering desire, and more than a little wine, this collection encapsulates the holiday spirit and proves that the French have mastered Christmas. This is Christmas à la française—delicious, intense and unexpected, proving that nobody does Christmas like the French.

THE AUTHORS

Alphonse Daudet, Guy de Maupassant, Anatole France
Irène Némirovsky, Jean-Philippe Blondel, Dominique Fabre,
Paul Arene, Francois Coppee, Antoine Gustave Droz, Anatole La Braz

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What I’m Reading in April — #TTWIB, #ReadNobels, and a little mystery

9 Apr

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This month, two long-term reading challenges, Travel the World in Books (which I host along with Tanya of Mom’s Small Victories and Aloi of Guiltless Reading) and Read the Nobels hosted by Aloi, are joining forces again for a fun combined reading event. I am so grateful for the abundant creative energies of these women.

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I will be reading The Axe, an epic tale of passion, faith, and moral struggle, set in medieval Norway. It is the first volume of The Master of Hestviken by Sigrid Undset, who is best known for Kristin Lavransdatter. Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928; she was only 46 years old. For more about The Axe, visit my Northern Lights Reading Project, where I have begun writing about Sigrid Undset’s Other Masterpiece.

The Axe cover

For TuesBookTalk Read-Alongs and for Spring Into Horror Readathon, both of which thrive due to the dedication of Michelle Miller, I am reading My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier.

If possible during the Readathon, I would also like to start The Sun-King Conspiracy by Yves Jégo and Denis Lépée. I was most intrigued by the review of it by Emma at Words and Peace.

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Please join us for any or all of these occasions for more reading (as if we needed a special occasion!). It is great to read with friends, old and new.

Review+Giveaway: “Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days” by Will Bashor #FranceBT

24 Mar

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My Review

In Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days, author Will Bashor offers the reader a gripping narrative history, unremitting in its gaze on the horrors of imprisonment and the mockery of justice that was the Revolutionary tribunal in the years of the Reign of Terror, principally 1793-1794. This is a book about the revenge exacted by the winners against the losers, a phenomenon which, in Marie Antoinette’s case, magnified and distorted her acknowledged faults, laying the whole burden of the nation’s anger upon her shoulders. She carried this burden with a dignity that would have surprised and confounded her detractors.  Bashor’s clearly stated objective is to be nonjudgmental, but his moving account of the facts of the former queen’s 76 days in the Conciergerie, along with the extracts from her interrogations and trial, cannot help but draw the reader in, exciting compassion for the “Widow Capet” and her unfortunate children.

Bashor’s book provides a clear Chronology to accompany his narrative, which helps to orient the reader toward the complex sequence of events that engulfed Marie Antoinette. After the storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, which marked the beginning of the French Revolution, the royal family continued to live at Versailles until October when revolutionary forces brought them back to Paris. King Louis XVI, his wife Marie Antoinette, their children Louis Charles and Marie-Thérèse, and the king’s sister Élisabeth were among those who attempted to escape the country in June 1791 with help from supporters who arranged their transport and disguises as bourgeois citizens. This “flight to Varennes” ended the next day when the royal family was arrested at Varennes (near Verdun) near the border of France with the Austrian Netherlands (present day Belgium).

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The arrest of Louis XVI and his family at the house of the registrar of passports, at Varennes in June, 1791. Thomas Falcon Marshall, 1854. Wikimedia Commons.

They were brought back to Paris and kept under guard at the Tuileries palace. By August 1792, all concessions and attempts to stay in power having failed, the king was overthrown, ending the monarchy, and the family fled to the Assembly building but they were apprehended and imprisoned in the Temple, where their daily existence, though not lavish, was relatively comfortable. By December, however, Louis XVI was tried for treason, and a month later, he was convicted and guillotined on January 21, 1793.

In a state of profound grief and anxiety, Louis’s family remained at the Temple prison. It was said that they treated 8-year-old Louis Charles as if he were now Louis XVII, placing him at the head of the table during their meals, and deferring to him in other ways. This aroused anger and fear of the monarchy returning. In July 1793 the child was taken from his mother and confined to a separate cell in the Temple, in solitary confinement for the greater part of the next two years until his death in June of 1795 (age 10 years) of disease and deliberate neglect. I found this the most horrifying passage in the book, as it detailed what he endured:

The true heir to the throne of France perhaps suffered the most during the social convulsions of the French Revolution. During his fifteen months of solitary confinement in the Temple, his food was pushed through an opening in the cell door: ‘No one entered the cell; it was never aired or cleaned, and nothing was ever removed from it. His bedding was never changed during all this time, nor was his person cared for in any manner!’

The cell was overrun with rats and mice attracted by decaying food and human waste. The scabies-infected child also became prey to insects before dying. (pp. 265-266)

During his imprisonment, he would also be plied with liquor, beaten and induced to falsely testify that he was the victim of incest from his mother and aunt. Shocked by these accusations, during her own trial Marie Antoinette rose to her feet to deny them, appealing to “the hearts of all mothers” in the courtroom.

But I am getting ahead of the story. It is difficult not to view the suspenseful tale of imprisonment and trial, which Bashor deftly spins out in historical order, from the hindsight perspective, as we all know that Marie Antoinette will be guillotined. Yet, while the book gains impetus and drama from this knowledge, the fascinating detail and sureness of the narrative carried me along with page-turning rapidity.

Shortly after being separated from her son, Marie Antoinette herself was moved to the Conciergerie prison, where she would spend two and a half months. Her time there is the meat of Bashor’s account, since it is less well known and much less written about than other aspects of her life. While her confinement at the Conciergerie cannot compare in brutality to what her son suffered (unbeknownst to her), the conditions of this prison were certainly much worse for her than at the Temple. Her cells (she was moved once) were damp and dungeonlike, cold, dirty, and lacking in privacy or comfort. She was ill and weak most of the time and hemorrhaged from the uterus. Her wardens attempted to bring her palatable food and water, and they would ultimately suffer for this considerate behavior toward her.

In fact, chapter 4, “Kindhearted Souls,” was one of the most interesting to me, for the specific incidents of compassion it described.  There was a servant named Rosalie who agreed to attend the queen at considerable sacrifice to her own comfort. Another woman, a Mademoiselle Fouché, visited Marie, attempting to console her.  At first, Marie was wary of her, unsure of whether she could be trusted, but when the lady offered to find her an “unsworn” priest–that is, a priest who had not sworn an oath of allegiance to the Republic–her reaction “was immediate and profound. The queen threw herself into Mademoiselle Fouché’s arms and embraced her tenderly” (p. 56). Such a priest would have to hear Marie’s confession and offer her the sacraments secretly. The lady was as good as her word and returned with a priest on several occasions. The warden’s acquiescence to these visits also showed his mercy toward the former queen.

One visitor caused Marie Antoinette great trouble, which became known as the “Carnation Plot.” The chevalier de Rougeville visited her on August 28, 1793 and dropped a carnation containing a small folded note between its petals suggesting that there were those who were ready and able to effect her escape. Her efforts to reply to this note would be a recurring bone of contention. At first she denied noticing the carnation or even recognizing Rougeville as someone known to her from the royal court. Eventually, she would acknowledge some of the facts but never any part in a plot. Moreover, after her husband’s execution, she had vigorously declined any efforts to free her personally, since she refused to leave her children. However, the Carnation Plot angered her captors and swayed public opinion against her.

At this point, one must ask: Why did the Revolutionary leaders keep her alive for so long? Why wasn’t she executed along with her husband? Surrounding countries had declared war on France once the Revolution began. As Bashor explains, she was treated as a hostage, an important foreign captive who could perhaps be exchanged with the belligerent Austrian government in exchange for peace. Recall that she came to France at age 14 as an Austrian princess, the daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, and it was a dynastic marriage. Her acceptance as a foreign queen had long been tenuous. During the Terror, her foreign connections easily lent themselves to charges of disloyalty and outright conspiracy. Bashor gives an intriguing account of the evidence for any conspiracy with foreign powers, most of which did not come to light until centuries later, and could not have served as material evidence in her trial.

Although her position as a hostage made exchange possible, the tide of public opinion went against her and within the government itself, calls for her trial and execution increased. One prominent citizen who suggested she be exiled back to Austria soon found himself in the Conciergerie, denounced as well. In the popular press, she was called an “ogress,” a “murderess,” a “tigress”–and worse obscenities–as garish cartoons appeared depicting her as the dragonish beast they imagined. The feverish demand for her head increased. Her trial began on October 14, 1793 with a guilty verdict, sentence, and execution only two days later, on October 16.

Bashor reproduces the back-and-forth testimony of witnesses and Marie herself with the prosecutors in excerpts that read like a steady march toward injustice. Her two appointed counsels were themselves arrested after the trial, but later released. They defended her bravely, but didn’t dare speak out against her sentence.

This book is a fine achievement indeed, enhanced with a large number of period illustrations, many of them original lithographs from La dernière année de Marie-Antoinette published in 1907. Marie Antoinette’s time in the Conciergerie, her interrogations and trial, her last hours, the way she went to the guillotine, and the story of her final resting place all make for indispensable reading for anyone curious about the true end of this remarkably controversial woman, who has left an indelible stamp on the history of France.

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Last portrait of Marie Antoinette. Bashor describes that her official portrait artist, Alexander Kucharsky, visited her either at the Temple or the Conciergerie, and later painted her from memory in her mourning garb. Wikimedia Commons.

***

Will Bashor

on Tour

March 13-24

with

MARIE ANTOINETTE’S DARKEST DAYS

Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days:
Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie

(history – nonfiction)

Release date: December 1, 2016
at Rowman & Littlefield

392 pages

ISBN: 978-1442254992

Website | Goodreads

SYNOPSIS

This compelling book begins on the 2nd of August 1793, the day Marie Antoinette was torn from her family’s arms and escorted from the Temple to the Conciergerie, a thick-walled fortress turned prison. It was also known as the waiting room for the guillotine because prisoners only spent a day or two here before their conviction and subsequent execution. The ex-queen surely knew her days were numbered, but she could never have known that two and a half months would pass before she would finally stand trial and be convicted of the most ungodly charges.

Will Bashor traces the final days of the prisoner registered only as Widow Capet, No. 280, a time that was a cruel mixture of grandeur, humiliation, and terror. Marie Antoinette’s reign amidst the splendors of the court of Versailles is a familiar story, but her final imprisonment in a fetid, dank dungeon is a little-known coda to a once-charmed life. Her seventy-six days in this terrifying prison can only be described as the darkest and most horrific of the fallen queen’s life, vividly recaptured in this richly researched history.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marie-Antoinette_Will Bashor pictureWill Bashor
earned his M.A. degree in French literature
from Ohio University
and his Ph.D. in International Studies
from the American Graduate School in Paris
where he gathered letters, newspapers, and journals
during his research for the award-winning
Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution.
Now living in Albi, France,
and a member of the Society for French Historical Studies,
his latest work, Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergeriewas released in December 2016.
He is currently working on the final part of his historical trilogy,
Marie Antoinette’s World: The Labyrinth to the Queen’s Psyche.

Visit him on his website
and here are many ways to follow him:

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Follow Rowman & Littefield on Twitter and Facebook

***

You can enter the global giveaway here
or on any other book blogs participating in this tour.
Be sure to follow each participant on Twitter/Facebook,
they are listed in the entry form below
.

ENTER HERE

Visit each blogger on the tour:
tweeting about the giveaway everyday
of the Tour will give you 5 extra entries each time!
[just follow the directions on the entry-form]

Global giveaway – international:
1 winner will receive a copy of this book

***

CLICK ON THE BANNER
TO READ REVIEWS AND EXCERPTS

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*Note:*  I received this book free of charge from the publisher.

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Travel the World in Books in March: North Africa #TTWIB

25 Feb

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This month in Travel the World in Books, along with my co-hosts Tanya of Mom’s Small Victories (who made our lovely banner and hosts the perpetual #TTWIB challenge) and Aloi of Guiltless Reading (who also hosts a Read the Nobels challenge), we are featuring books by North African authors, set in North Africa and elsewhere. This is a free-choice read, so here are some suggestions to help get you started.

I am particularly featuring: Leila Aboulela, a Sudanese writer who sets her books mainly in Sudan and in Scotland, where she lives now; and Naguib Mahfouz, the renowned Egyptian writer and foremost representative of contemporary Arabic fiction, who won his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988.

319px-leila_aboulela_2010Leila Aboulela (b. 1964) was born in Cairo, Egypt but spent her first 23 years living with her parents in Khartoum, Sudan where she received her education, first at the Khartoum American Academy, then at a private Catholic high school, and at the University of Khartoum, with a degree in economics. She also took an MPhil degree in statistics at the London School of Economics. Notwithstanding these impressive mathematical credentials, her literary gifts are even more impressive. She has won or been short-listed for numerous national and international writing prizes. She won the first Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story, “Museum,” which appears in her collection Coloured Lights (2005). She writes in English. Although she was educated at a Catholic High School, she is a devout Muslim and often writes about the Muslim immigrant experience. In 1990 she moved to Aberdeen, Scotland, and this was the setting for her first novel, The Translator (1999), the story of a Sudanese widow who translates for an Islamic scholar at a Scottish University.

Her novel Lyrics Alley (2010) is a major work of historical fiction set in the Sudan of the 1950s at the watershed time just before independence was achieved in 1956. It has been compared to Chinua Achebe’s modern classic Things Fall Apart, for its attention to the wrenching stresses of modernization on families in a traditional society.  This family saga follows Mahmoud Abuzeid, who is head of a large trading firm, his two wives, and their children, especially his son Nur, who suffers a debilitating accident that changes all their destinies; meanwhile, their country grapples with its place in the modern world. I plan to read this book for my own March TTWIB challenge.

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Her other books are Minaret (2005) and The Kindness of Enemies (2015). You can find out more about all her books at her website.

naguib-mahfouz-1911-2006Naguib Mahfouz is probably the best known North African writer worldwide. This is especially true since 1988 when he was recognized by the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here is how M. A. Orthofer describes him in his wonderful book, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction:

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) remains the towering figure of Arabic fiction, especially when considered from an outside vantage point. Extensively translated, the breadth of his work is remarkable and ranges from historical fiction of the Pharaonic age to realistic novels of twentieth-century Cairo life such as The Cairo Trilogy (1956-1957, English 1989-1992) to more experimental fiction. His work is truly representative of an astonishing variety of Arabic fiction.” (p. 251)

Mahfouz wrote 34 novels, 350 short stories, and many film scripts and plays. But the best place to start in English is his Cairo Trilogy consisting of Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street. These are definitely on my lifetime TTWIB list, and I plan to begin with Palace Walk if Aloi (Guiltless Reading) does a #ReadNobels challenge for us again this year.

The Cairo Trilogy is also available complete in one volume in an Everyman’s Library edition.  It is a quintessential family saga, covering three generations of the family of Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, during the first half of the twentieth century.  It probes the dynamics of family and city life during the colonial decades from 1917 through Nasser’s Egypt of the 1950s. Readers will enlarge their perspective on such seminal events as the rise of Communism in Russia, two World Wars, and the social and economic changes of modern times.

Children of the Alley and Midaq Alley are also very popular among Mahfouz’s works.  In a different vein, I highly recommend his retelling of some of the Arabian Nights tales in Arabian Nights and Days. Here is my review of it.

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Of course, there are many other books set in North Africa that would be excellent choices to explore this month. Abraham Verghese’s bestseller Cutting for Stone has been recommended to me for its poignant story of conjoined twin brothers, separated at birth and left without parents to raise them. The story shifts between Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (where Verghese grew up) and New York.

cutting-for-stone

If you have other authors or books to suggest, please leave your thoughts in the comments!

I plan the following Twitter chats with hashtag #TTWIB:

  • Thursday, March 30 at 9 pm EST
  • Saturday, April 1 (no fooling!) at 3 pm EST

Find me @Fictional100 on Twitter anytime!

Hope you will join us in reading our way to North Africa, and stop by to Tweet chat or comment at our Goodreads group.  Tell us what you are reading!

******

Just a quick reminder that we are soon having Twitter chats for our February themed read of Classics and Historical Fiction:

  • Tuesday, February 28 at 3pm EST
  • Wednesday, March 1 at 9pm EST

Follow @momsvictories and use the #TTWIB hashtag so you don’t miss out on the conversation. 

 

 

Review+Interview+Giveaway–“A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes” by Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney

14 Jan

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My Review

Anyone who has come anywhere near the world of the illustrious Sherlock Holmes knows that, especially for his many admirers, it is a world both deep and wide: deep, because of the riches that may be uncovered by paying close attention, digging beneath the surface of the Canon (the 56 stories and 4 novels penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle–with the help of Dr. John Watson); and wide, because of the breadth of Holmes’s active career, which has stretched from his home base in 221B Baker Street to the mountains of Tibet, and has created enormous, unflagging interest, worldwide, from the 1890s to the present. If anything, the fascination with Holmes has grown over the years. The places and situations where his services as consulting detective are needed have multiplied beyond counting in the industry of creative pastiches. To paraphrase Shakespeare (something Holmes himself did on occasion*), “Banish Sherlock Holmes, and banish all the world.”**

I cannot think of two more ardent or astute admirers of Holmes and his world than Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney, who are known for their impeccable research and attention to craft, not to mention their wit and warmth, at their blogs, The Well-Read Sherlockian (Guinn) and Better Holmes & Gardens (Mahoney). In their remarkable Sherlockian book of days, A Curious Collection of Dates, they have delivered something notable to read about for each day of the year. In fact, their knowledge is itself so deep and so wide that many times they provide two, three, four, or even more events (March 24 has six!) that fall on a particular date. One need go no farther than January 1 to discover: “that fateful meeting” of Holmes and Watson, recorded in “A Study in Scarlet” [STUD]; the founding of the paper that would become the Times of London, so essential to Holmes in his work; and the premiere of “A Scandal in Belgravia,” to open Season 2 of the BBC’s popular series, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as the inseparable colleagues in detection. This last entry signals that one need not blow the dust off this very engaging collection–while its display of learning among the Victorians is breathtaking, A Curious Collection of Dates brings the noteworthy Holmesian people, facts, and events right up to the present.

I heartily recommend exploring this fascinating book for yourself, but I cannot resist sharing a selection of some of the types of entries you will find when you do.

As befitting a book of days, there are many birthdays. These include actors who have played key characters in the adaptations of the stories, for stage, film, radio, and television. You can be sure to discover the birthdays of Jeremy Brett (November 3); Basil Rathbone (June 13), who shares a birthday with mystery writer and devoted Sherlockian Dorothy Sayers; and Benedict Cumberbatch (July 19), who shares a birthday with Russian actor Vasily Livanov, whose portrayal of Holmes in Russian productions earned him the Order of the British Empire in 2006 and a statue near the British embassy in Moscow (we learn all this from his entry). The legion of actors taking on the character of Holmes makes for numerous enlightening instances during the year. For example, of Peter Cushing (b. May 26, 1933), we learn:

Peter Cushing once famously proclaimed that “…he would rather sweep Paddington station for a living than go through the experience [of being Sherlock Holmes] again.” More than anyone, Cushing had certainly had enough turns at the characters to know whereof he spoke. Starring as the Great Detective on three separate occasions, Cushing appeared in the 1959 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles by Hammer Films,  the BBC’s 1968 Sherlock Holmes series, and in 1984, the made-for-television movie Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death.

Cushing was not always so antagonistic towards the Great Detective, and had been, in fact, a fan of Sherlock Holmes since his childhood: “I love all the stories. It’s the atmosphere I love so much, and they’ve all got that. I love the way they start: it is always foggy and there were those equinoctial gales.”

I love the way the entries are seasoned with personal quotes such as these, revealing so much about the personalities involved. One can also enjoy the host of photographs and period illustrations that enhance the text. It is especially helpful to see the photos of the variety of actors who have remade themselves, for a time, into a living image of Holmes.

Of course, acting is only one occupation held by people relevant to the Holmesian canon. Besides such indispensable figures as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and many other writers, one finds the collector Richard Lancelyn Green; the naturalist Charles Darwin; the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus; the scientist, Sir Francis Galton; the American detective, Charles Pinkerton; the inventor of one style of shorthand, Sir Isaac Pitman; the magician, Harry Houdini; the violin virtuoso and composer, Pablo de Sarasate; the engineer and architect, Isambard Kingdom Brunel; the psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud; and many, many more–all with their connection to the world of Sherlock Holmes explained and documented in compelling fashion.

Many of the people profiled would be classed by some as “fictional” (I use this term cautiously). For example, we find birthdays for Mary Russell (January 2, 1900; wife of Holmes in his retirement, as reported by Laurie R. King, her literary agent), Mycroft Holmes (February 12, 1847; elder brother), and of course, Sherlock Holmes himself, whose actual birthday is believed to be January 6, 1854.

Anniversaries, such as the first publication of particular stories and the premieres of adaptations, are another kind of birthday. The book includes helpful appendices for the publication of the stories in The Strand or in Collier’s. Many entries make excellent use of such anniversaries to offer insightful commentary.

Historical events, such as the Queen’s (i.e., Victoria’s) Diamond Jubilee (June 22), the Battle of Marengo (June 14, 1800), and the Indian Mutiny (May 10, 1857), merit inclusion because of story references, but probably the most intriguing historical entries are those that date events originating within the story world. Some of these are given in Watson’s own account, as in “The Scandal of Bohemia” where Watson chances to meet the King of Bohemia who is consulting Holmes about a very delicate personal matter; the date given is “the twentieth of March, 1888” but it is pointed out by the authors that this apparently straightforward date poses some chronology conumdrums for careful observers of the canon. In other cases, Watson may give indications of the timing without a precise date, or include very little information to fix a date. Then it is the happy task of intrepid scholars to reason from the evidence to deduce the correct date, usually with much debate ensuing. Entries such as “‘The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge’ Begins” (March 24) and “‘The Adventure of the Three Gables’ Begins” (May 26) show the results of such scholarly efforts and the chief arguments backing them up. Some events originating in the story world–I’m thinking of Holmes’s plunge over the Reichenbach Falls on May 4, 1891–were so profoundly significant that they spurred an outcry in the world at large, and led to his return to both the story world and the waiting reading public.

I could easily cite a further torrent of examples. In fact, the more I attempted to list and classify the entries in this book, the more I realized that they defy any simple classification–they seem to share Holmes’s “infinite variety.”  A Curious Collection of Dates gathers informative and entertaining accounts, in one place, that touch on formative events and influential people for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for Sherlock Holmes, or for both of them. It also pays tribute to famous Sherlockians such as William Gillette, Christopher Morley, William S. Baring-Gould, and Vincent Starrett. Above all, it records milestones in the life of Sherlock Holmes, a towering figure who continues to draw us from our world into his.***

♦♦♦♦

My Interview with

Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney

I am delighted to welcome Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney, who have kindly agreed to disclose some of their methods and reflect on a life led with Sherlock Holmes never far from view.

Q1. When did you first encounter Sherlock Holmes? Can you recall the first story you read? When did the urge to become a student of all things Holmes first take hold?

Leah: Because Sherlock Holmes has become so ubiquitous, I’m not sure that I was ever completely unaware of him. But we “met” a few times before things “took.” In 2nd grade, for instance, I bought Eve Titus’ Basil and the Pygmy Cats  at the book fair. I loved it, but basically I was more about the talking mice. Later, in 4th grade (again at a book fair), I bought a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. The very first one was The Sign of Four,  and I was absolutely shocked at the fact that Sherlock Holmes took cocaine! Obviously this was not a book or a hero for me! I put it away and didn’t bother with Holmes again until sometime in college, where I tried The Hound of the Baskervilles. Again, I was disappointed, because there was (I thought) far too much Watson and not enough Holmes—which is why I don’t recommend it for one’s first Holmes story.

Finally…I had just come off a major reading binge—Preston and Child’s Pendergast series, and was absolutely lost. I read online that their hero, Agent Pendergast, was inspired, in part, by Sherlock Holmes, so I thought I’d give him (yet another) try. I first read two pastiches—Edward Hanna’s The Whitechapel Horror, then Lyndsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow. I then moved on to the Canon itself and it was all over. I don’t think I read anything non-Holmesian for the entirety of 2011.

Jaime: The first time I ever encountered Sherlock Holmes was through a pastiche, even though I wasn’t familiar with the term at the time. When I was twelve-years-old, my mother gave me a copy of The Canary Trainer by Nicholas Meyer because I had developed an interest in opera and singing, and I think she was hoping I would develop an interest in something… not so loud. My singing voice has always been a bit… shrill. She had The Canary Trainer on her shelf because she was writing a novel about King Arthur, and her writing group had suggested Meyer as an author who had successfully captured an iconic figure. I certainly think they were right.

As for the first canonical story I read – is it terrible that I don’t remember? Deduction tells me that it was probably either A Study in Scarlet or – ironically, to those who know me best – “A Scandal in Bohemia,” simply because those stories tend to come first in collections and I was a somewhat orderly child. I think I’ve wanted to be a student of all things Holmes since I first read The Canary Trainer (if you aren’t familiar with the Canon, it’s a pretty confusing book and I spent a lot of time in the library looking things up when I was done with it), but it was around 2009 that I first realized that there were other people like me. People who wrote things, and analyzed, and researched, and devoted their time to this very specific topic – it was a tremendous relief!

Q2. If you are willing to reveal your methods, I am very interested in your process. With such a wealth of possible material, how did you select the types of events you wanted to include?

Leah: We decided that we would each play to our strengths. I am a history person. In the end, I want to know “what really happened.”  Jaime is much more literary, and far better at understanding the artistry in film and other media. We put everything we could think of on a spreadsheet, and went from there, trimming as we went—and as time grew short!

Jaime: At first, we weren’t very particular at all. Everything was going to get included (we thought, naively)! Every birthday, death, the original premiere date of every movie and television episode, every historical figure and significant event, every canonical moment. We soon realized that if we did that, the book would be unending. It would never be finished. Eventually we decided to just be consistent: every birthday was included, but only the deaths of significant figures. We included the premiere of every movie, but only the pilot episodes of television shows. Even then, some dates were overwhelmed with material (there is so much going on in May, it borders on ridiculous) and still had empty spots in others.

I can honestly say we clashed over very little, except for Louise Brealey (the actress who plays Molly Hooper in the BBC series). Leah was adamant that she be included, and I was equally adamant that she shouldn’t be. Molly Hooper isn’t canon, I argued! Not because I didn’t like Molly Hooper (I do, very much), but because I saw the door opening on writing a bunch of entries for other non-canonical characters. Suddenly I was metaphorically standing on top of St. Bart’s screaming that the book was never going to get done. I forget how we compromised on this one, but Ms. Brealey is in the book (March 27).

Q3. As you began mapping out events and dates, how did you go about filling gaps? How did you do research for specific dates, since, apart from birthdays, dates are not always that readily available?

Leah: We started out with the [William S.] Baring-Gould chronology. Even though it has some issues, it’s the one most people are familiar with, and it’s also very easy to find online. I would then back that up with Zeisler (whom I often like better), or use Dakin’s A Sherlock Holmes Commentary, in which he plays referee between chronologists. Another good source for that is Brad Keefauver’s online “Sherlock Holmes Timeline,” where you can see what the major players think in one place.

After that, I went through [Leslie S.] Klinger’s Annotated, page by page, to make a list of Canon events, historical events, people, works of art, places, crimes, actors, etc. Some of them had dates already—the Battle of Maiwand, for example. Others took some more digging. My favorite resources were online newspaper archives, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Ancestry.com. You would not believe what you can get out of Ancestry if you think creatively and are willing to do hours of sorting. Towards the very end, we still had some dates without entries, and for those I turned to Chris Redmond, who was able to very quickly find Sherlockian connections for each one. When you do work like this, you should never think that you are all-sufficient. Sometimes you need fresh eyes, and fresh minds, and the Sherlockian community is full of people who are willing and eager to offer both.

Jaime: Hope, prayer and Leah’s exceptional research skills. When we finished our initial calendar, I remember there being only a small handful of dates that had nothing to mark them. In some ways, those dates became very easy to fill, as they were a very specific and narrow target. We were able to think in terms of just that date, instead of mapping out a specific group of material (actors or premiere dates, for example) in its entirety. Sometimes we had to think outside the Sherlockian box for material (events that weren’t necessarily tied directly to Sherlock Holmes, but had interesting links instead).

In the end, I’d say there is still one date in the entire book where the entry is only somewhat tenuously Sherlockian. It was a tough date (but I won’t say which one, in case you haven’t spotted it). [I haven’t!~LPG]

Q4. Can you talk about some of your favorite discoveries? Some a-ha moments that might have sent Holmes leaping over his couch or waking up Watson in the middle of the night?

Leah: My very favorites were dates that took a good deal of detective work. For example, I found Herbert Greenhough Smith’s birthday on Ancestry, in an online record of Cambridge alumni. Another was Daniel Rudge, one of the inventors of the Rudge-Whitworth bicycle which left those famous tire tracks in “The Adventure of the Priory School.” He was very elusive, but I finally managed to track him down, and obtain his vital records via mail.

Jaime: Ah, waking Watson up in the middle of the night – there’s a fine Sherlockian tradition! I’m not sure this revelation is worth waking up someone in the middle of the night (I rarely think things are – like Watson, I treasure my sleep), but I was astounded at how often Sherlockian actors crossover, and how their lives overlap. There are Watsons who have played the character two, three, four times or more – to different actors playing the Great Detective! Or an actor would play Holmes in one series and Watson (or Moriarty) in another.

Most of all, I enjoyed learning how the actors’ personal lives would intersect. Not just that Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke were friends off-screen, but that Jeremy Brett and Robert Stephens knew each other before they had even heard of Sherlock Holmes. Or that Brett’s former brother-in-law, Daniel Massey, appeared in Granada’s adaptation of “The Problem of Thor Bridge.” Or that his former father-in-law, Raymond Massey, also once played Sherlock Holmes.

I think a lot about Jeremy Brett, obviously.

Q5. I know that Leah marks the year’s end with her annual Twelfth Night Giveaway, and I suspect that, like me, Jaime does not let November 3 go by without a grateful nod to the memory of Jeremy Brett. Are there other dates that you personally celebrate, as devoted Sherlockians?

Leah: I love doing this, because it gives me a chance to share Holmes with my kids. We celebrate Holmes’ birthday, “Reichenbach Day,” Conan Doyle’s Birthday, and “Watson’s Birthday,” always with cake, and sometimes with action figures and movies.

Jaime: The Master’s birthday – January 6 – of course! The perfect occasion to raise a glass to Sherlock Holmes, for all he has done and for all those whom he has saved. My non-Sherlockian friends are baffled that I take the time to celebrate Holmes’s birthday. They want to know if I celebrate the birthdays of Harry Potter, Bilbo Baggins, or Hamlet. I tell them, “Of course not. They weren’t real.”

Of course, in addition to Jeremy Brett’s birthday, we included the day of his death [September 12, 1995] in the book. I adore Jeremy Brett, and this was a particularly difficult entry to write. When it was done, I remember I told Leah, “You’d be proud of me. I only cried a little bit.”

Q6. Given the immortal partnership of Holmes and Watson, it seems wonderful that you chose to write this book as a team. As friends and colleagues, could you each say a few words about what the other brought to the project? Any stories you would like to share?

Leah: Not only did Jaime bring her superior literary and media skills, she also brought a sense of balance and proportion to the whole thing. I don’t know how to stop, pretty much. Without Jaime, the entries would be longer, there would be about one hundred more of them, and the book might not be done!  Plus, Jaime is such a wonderful person and so great to talk to. I think that working on (and occasionally suffering through) this book cemented our friendship.

Jaime: If I had walked into a shop and asked for a co-author custom built to my specifications, I still wouldn’t have received a better co-author than Leah. She is a tireless researcher, a gifted writer, and really just one of my very best friends. I was always astounded when she would look at a topic and see a 3,000 word essay, where I had only seen a 150 word entry. She has a way of cutting right to the heart of things, which I’ll never be able to do in all my days.

About a month after Wessex Press accepted our book for publication, I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. I was worried about telling Leah. I thought for sure that she would be annoyed, worried about the future of the book, and concerned about working with a pregnant co-author. I shouldn’t have been concerned. Outside of my husband and me, Leah was probably the most excited for Morrigan’s arrival. This story shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows her, but I’ll always remember how grateful I was to her.

My deepest thanks to Leah and Jaime for their marvelous responses to my questions. Their joy in the subject of Sherlock Holmes, in all its myriad facets, is only matched by their very evident dedication to careful research and thoughtful writing. They have given us a sublime book of days to stimulate the mind and imagination throughout the year. Such excellence of craft can touch the heart as well, something expressed so movingly in the closing scene of “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.” Inspired by the words of Inspector Lestrade, I would like to say thank you to these authors–there is not a Sherlockian among us, from the oldest to the youngest, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you both by the hand.

♦♦♦♦

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Buy the Book

The Well-Read Sherlockian  ♦   Leah on Twitter  ♦  Leah on Facebook

Better Holmes & Gardens  ♦  Jaime on Twitter  ♦  Jaime on Facebook

♦♦♦♦

Giveaway!

I am very pleased to offer 2 paperback copies of A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes which will go to two lucky winners of the giveaway linked below. The winners will be chosen at random from the total entries. Follow the instructions to increase your number of entries.  The giveaway will be open for about one week and will end at 11:59 pm on Sunday, January 22, 2017. Open to residents of the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., 18 years of age and older.

Entry-Form

I will notify the winners by email. If you are chosen as a winner, please reply with your physical mailing address within 48 hours. If I can’t reach you by email, the prize will go to another entrant.

Good luck, and thank you for participating!


*Following the lead of author Leah Guinn’s practice at The Well-Read Sherlockian, I shall provide footnotes. In “The Adventure of the Empty House” [EMPT], Holmes paraphrased a line from Antony and Cleopatra (“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety,” Act II, scene 2) when he said, “I trust that age doth not wither nor custom stale my infinite variety.” Scott Monty (I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere) chose this quote to title his birthday post in 2008, and Jaime N. Mahoney used it to delightful effect, while musing on EMPT and the difficulty of Holmes’ return, to cap off her own return from hiatus in January 2015 .

**See Henry IV, Part 1, Act II, scene 4: “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

***In The Fictional 100, I emphasized how fluidly Sherlock Holmes has migrated beyond the page to engage with us in our everyday world. This book reminds me that it is a two-way street: that he continually calls on us to pay him a visit and immerse ourselves in his world, the way he saw it. Sherlock Holmes ranks 9th on the Fictional 100.

13 Ways of Looking at the Lifetime Reading Plan: My List for 2017

9 Jan

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The pleasure of choosing books for this 2017 challenge comes from perusing two different long lists of excellent books, Jane Smiley’s list and Clifton Fadiman’s list. These lists include classics and moderns, from many genres, fiction and nonfiction, all with a wide geographic and cultural range. Together these lists constitute a rich universe of choices for Michelle Stockard Miller’s inventive perpetual challenge, 13 Ways of Looking at the Lifetime Reading Plan (#13WLRP).

For this year, I’m making these picks:

  1. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
  2. Egilssaga – Snorri Sturluson
  3. The Saga of the People of Laxardal – Author unknown

Vanity Fair is a reread for me, however, I read it a long time ago, and this novel in particular is notorious for improving with age (my age, that is). Pick a random sample of reader reviews online and you will likely find many people saying something like, ‘I didn’t like this book at all the first time I read it, but the second time around, it is SO brilliant.’ I did happen to like it the first time, but I’m hoping to appreciate it in new ways this time, to see more of what my youthful self might have overlooked. I’ll be reading the Norton Critical Edition, which has all of Thackeray’s original drawings, which are brilliant in themselves.  Vanity Fair is on both Smiley’s and Fadiman’s reading lists.

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Thackeray’s famous closing illustration, showing two little girls putting dolls (the characters) back in the toy box

From Smiley’s list, I am also picking two Icelandic sagas. As the author of The Greenlanders, Smiley clearly immersed herself in the saga world, reproducing its tone and drama so effectively. Egilssaga and The Saga of the People of Laxardal are two of the most important sagas, and I look forward to giving them a good close read and reviewing them over at my Northern Lights Reading Project, devoted to Scandinavian and Icelandic literature and culture.

Sign-ups for the 2017 #13WLRP Challenge are at Gather Together and Read. Join us!

Read Your (Book) Shelf Challenge: The Oz Series by L. Frank Baum

8 Jan

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For dedicated readers, and the book bloggers among us, it is quite literally a challenge to put away the library card, refrain from browsing online or in one’s favorite bookshop, and simply read what we have already collected over the years.  But often the question is, where to begin? Michelle of the True Book Addict and Gather Together and Read offers us a neat and easy method for choosing what to read next.

In her Read Your (Book) Shelf Challenge, she asks that we

  • pick one of our shelves (presumably bulging with books yet to be read)
  • pick one book from that shelf (or pile)
  • start from that book and continue along the shelf until you have picked out a total of 12 books, one to read each month in the coming year.
  • the order of reading is up to you–read in order, or pick at random
  • check her challenge post for more details and sign-ups

Here is what I came up with. I picked a pile with these appealing books.

 

But, you say, there are only three books, not twelve! Not to worry, these are omnibus editions (published by Fall River Press) collecting all 15 of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. I have wanted to read them in order and this challenge presents a lovely framework for doing so. Although I have read some of these beyond The Wizard of Oz, most will be new to me, and reading them in order certainly will be.

I watched the premiere of Emerald City on NBC last Friday, and I will probably keep watching its Game of Thrones-style take on Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Glinda, and the other “cardinal” witches. So far it mixes story elements from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and from its sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), which features the gender-switching Tip and the old witch Mombi who had kept him/her a prisoner. I will read this book in January, and then continue my adventures through the whole series, meeting Baum’s imaginative cast of characters inhabiting the Land of Oz.

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Map of Oz, from Baum’s  Tik-Tok of Oz (1914), illus. John R. Neill.

Travel the World in Books 2017: My Wintry Read #TTWIB

8 Jan

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We just had our first substantial snowfall of the season, no mere dusting or coating, but one that called for snow plows and shovels, and it was much the same, or more so, for a broad swathe of the US. Therefore, the task of picking a very wintry read from Tanya’s Ultimate Winter Reading List seems appropriate indeed. This is our first event of the year for Travel the World in Books 2017. Tanya of Mom’s Small Victories, Aloi of Guiltless Reading, and I are looking forward to bringing you books on a variety of themes all year that will invite you to visit many places around the world as you read.

For my wintry read, I am choosing Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah, which will take me not only across the globe but back in time to WWII Leningrad, in the memory of Anya, who alluded to her painful past only in the veiled form of a Russian fairy tale told to her daughters when they were little girls. Now, as adult women, the sisters will learn their mother’s full story. I want to know more about this family, and I am bracing for scenes of the cold and desperate hunger suffered by those in besieged Leningrad. This sounds like an important story and it will be the first book by Kristin Hannah I am reading.

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Choose your own wintry read from the Ultimate Winter Reading List, and then join us for a Twitter chat on Thursday, February 2, at 9 pm EST, using the hashtag #TTWIB. Hope to see you then!

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Review + Giveaway: “Fa-La-Llama-La” by Stephanie Dagg #FranceBT

5 Dec

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My Review

In a good romantic comedy, the love between the couple often grows almost unawares in the medium of another love: love for a child in need; love for animals; love for a place, such as a small town, a farm, vineyard, or homestead; love for family and the need to recover or restore relationships. Love nurtured for these things tends to overflow, and a couple fortunate enough to share a common purpose begins to see each other in it. If it is a comedy, they laugh over the mishaps, confusions, and very human stumbles along the way.  If it is Christmas, well, all the better.

In Fa-La-Llama-La, many of these charming ingredients come together with much delight!  We meet the aptly named Noelle, who is living with her parents temporarily (she hopes), after the triple whammy of a broken engagement, the loss of her job, and the death of a dearly loved grandmother–seemingly, the recipe for a Christmas spent licking her wounds. Yet, with so much abruptly snatched away from her, it turns out she has a deep reservoir of love left to give. But llamas? Not at all what she’d imagined for her holidays, until her cousin Joe called with the offer of a last minute pet-sitting job in France, specifically at a farm six hours drive south of Paris, in Creuse, a départment in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. Creuse was known in its rich medieval past as La Marche.

Noelle arrives at her job in a major snowstorm and is pretty shocked to find an empty, unheated house, no electricity, and the erstwhile owners’ twelve llamas out in the thickly snow-covered field.  She manages to camp in the house with her supplies, making sure that the llamas have some food and an open barn to shelter in (if they wish–these are creatures from the Andes mountains). When she finally falls into a shivery sleep, she is confronted by another surprise: the new (rugged, good-looking) owner of the house has arrived unexpectedly to claim his domain. His name is Nick, he’s Australian and a famous novelist, and she wonders what he is doing buying a house in rural France! She has consternation over the lack of electricity and furniture; he has consternation over being swindled during the house transaction by the previous owner (who made off with all the furniture and left the llamas). He is also fuming that both the llamas and their pet-sitter are apparently staying for the duration of the holiday. Their shared frustration slowly turns to amusement and joint problem solving. But before that lovely transformation can happen, they both need coffee and food, and they quite literally trudge to town, but not exactly together.

I’d imagined we have a companionable chat as we walked-cum-waded to the village, I was soon disabused. Nick strode on ahead leaving me to follow in his wake. It made me feel like King Wenceslas’s page, only the king in our case didn’t have the philanthropic intentions of the original. …

I took my mind off my annoyance with Nick and the physical effort of the journey by singing Christmas carols to myself, changing the words of some of them to make them more apt. The chorus of ‘Deck The Halls’ became “Fa-la-llama-la, la-llama-la,” and the first verse of ‘We Three Kings’ became “We three Kings of Les Veragnes are / Taking your furniture off in our car / Leaving you llamas and plenty of dramas / We’ll be spending your cash in a bar.”

When they return, Noelle and Nick have a more pressing crisis than their own comfort. One of the llamas, Gabrielle, is very pregnant and has decided to deliver early. Noelle discovers her lying down in the stable with two little hoofs already emerging! But something seems to be wrong. The rest of the baby is not emerging along with them and the delivery seems to be taking too long, causing Gabrielle more distress. Good thing that Noelle read up on the care and feeding of llamas before she left her home in the UK. Midwifing a llama, however, was going into new uncharted territory. Thankfully, Nick was willing to assist this time, and the result was a spindly llama cria (what llama babies are called), which they named Sir Winter. This whole episode is tense and fascinating and so engenders vicarious llama love–even in someone like me, who has no pets–that I recommend not missing it.

Another challenge for Noelle and Nick arises when they find out that the former owners of the house had promised that one of the llamas, Holly, would appear in the nearby town’s church Christmas pageant. Noelle is determined to make good on this promise and Nick is increasingly determined to stay close to Noelle. But first, which one is Holly? And how does one convince a llama to take a long, nocturnal walk to church? Even if these mysteries can be solved, they know that nothing is really “nearby” in thickly blanketed snow, and this episode has many ankle-twisting turns. Fa-La-Lhama-La really breaks out in the “comedy” part of romantic comedy, when Holly does her star turn in the nativity scene. The fictional audience was laughing, and I heard myself laughing too!

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Lulin (alias Holly) in all her beauty, suitable indeed for Christmas pageant stardom. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Dagg.

Throughout the story, Nick has seemed like the kind who bottles up emotions, but his real reasons for coming to France show otherwise. Apparently, under that rough exterior, there is a lot of love waiting to come out for a family he never knew, for the right woman–even for llamas! This story was hugely enjoyable, perfect for Christmas reading, and a treasure trove of appealing llama lore.

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Photo courtesy of Stephanie Dagg.

******

Stephanie Dagg

on Tour

December 5-16

with

fa-la-llama-la

Fa-La-Llama-La

(Christmas romantic comedy)

Release date: October 21, 2016
Self-published

ASIN: B01MF7F813
165 pages

SYNOPSIS

It’s very nearly Christmas and, temporarily jobless and homeless, Noelle is back at home with her parents. However, a phone call from her cousin Joe, who runs a house-and-pet-sitting service, saves her from a festive season of Whist, boredom, and overindulging. So Noelle is off to France to mind a dozen South American mammals. She arrives amidst a blizzard and quickly discovers that something is definitely wrong at the farm. The animals are there all right, but pretty much nothing else – no power, no furniture and, disastrously, no fee. Add to that a short-tempered intruder in the middle of the night, a premature delivery, long-lost relatives and participation in a living crèche, and this is shaping up to be a noel that Noelle will never forget.
Fa-La-Llama-La is a feel-good, festive, and fun romcom with a resourceful heroine, a hero who’s a bit of a handful, and some right woolly charmers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

fa-la-llama-la-stephanie-dagg

Hi, I’m Stephanie Dagg. I’m an English expat living in France, having moved here with my family in 2006 after fourteen years as an expat in Ireland. I now consider myself a European rather than ‘belonging’ to any particular country. The last ten years have been interesting, to put it mildly. Taking on seventy-five acres with three lakes, two hovels and one  cathedral-sized barn, not to mention an ever increasing menagerie, makes for exciting times.

The current array of animals includes alpacas, llamas, huarizos (alpaca-llama crossbreds, unintended in our case and all of them thanks to one very determined alpaca male), sheep, goats, pigs, ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys, not forgetting our pets of dogs, cats, zebra finches, budgies and Chinese quail. Before we came to France we had was a dog and two chickens, so it’s been a steep learning curve. I’m married to Chris and we have three bilingual TCKs (third culture kids) who are resilient and resourceful and generally wonderful. I’m a traditionally-published author of many children’s books, and and am now self-publishing too. I have worked part-time as a freelance editor for many years after starting out as a desk editor for Hodder & Stoughton. The rest of the time I’m running carp fishing lakes with Chris and inevitably cleaning up some or other animal’s poop.

Visit her website. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter

Buy the book: Amazon.com | Amazon.fr | Amazon.co.uk

***

You can enter the global giveaway here
or on any other book blogs participating in this tour.
Be sure to follow each participant on Twitter/Facebook;
they are listed in the entry form below
.

Enter here

Visit each blogger on the tour:
tweeting about the giveaway everyday
of the Tour will give you 5 extra entries each time!
[just follow the directions on the entry-form]

Global giveaway – international:
1 winner will receive a $10 Amazon gift card

***

CLICK ON THE BANNER
TO READ REVIEWS AND AN EXCERPT

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*Note:*  I received this book free of charge from the author.

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