Sunday, July 31, 2016

Through the Shadows by Karen Barnett

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: June 3, 2016

The devastating earthquake is just two years past, but the city of San Francisco is still trying to recover. Destruction of this magnitude is not so easy to overcome-and neither are the past regrets shadowing Elizabeth King's hopeful future. Hoping to right her wrongs, Elizabeth dedicates herself to helping girls rescued from slavery in Chinatown brothels, even if it means putting her own life at risk to sneak through the gloomy alleys and rooftops where dangers lurk. Putting her life on the line for a worthy cause is admirable. But opening her heart is even more terrifying. So when Elizabeth meets attorney, Charles McKinley--a man who dreams of reforming San Francisco's crooked politics--Elizabeth begins to doubt: Can she maintain her pretense and hide her past? Or will her secret jeopardize both their futures?

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Donaldina Cameron
I'm a well-known cover slut, so it should come as no surprise that the first thing I noticed about Karen Barnett's Through the Shadows was the jacket. I was excited enough to see a model with their head intact, but a male model? Flying solo? Fully clothed? No one does that! I want to award the Abingdon Press artist who designed this image a gold star, but that said, I've mixed feelings about the story itself. When push comes to shove I liked the idea, but the execution missed its mark.

Before the angry mob of ardent fans arrives with their torches and pitchforks, I'd like to go on record and say that there is nothing inherently wrong with Barnett's writing. It didn't suit my tastes and there's nothing wrong with that so let's all play nice and leave the ugly accusations about how I shouldn't be reading Christian fiction out of the comments section okay? I like grit, tension, and genuine ambiguity and while I felt Barnett's story touched on some very compelling material, I can't deny that the presentation never led me to believe the characters wouldn't find their happily ever after. I greatly admire the author's imagination and intent, but I found her tone too soft for my liking.

Aside from that, I was both surprised and impressed with the author's highlighting of Donaldina Cameron. I was not familiar with the Angry Angel of Chinatown prior to encountering her fictional counterpart, but the character fascinated me and I caught myself doing quite a bit of sideline research into the life and work of the Presbyterian missionary who rescued more than three thousand Chinese and Japanese immigrant women and girls from indentured servitude and sex trafficking. Historically speaking, I think this material incredibly important and I applaud Barnett for integrating into her fiction.

Charles and Elizabeth didn't do it for me, but I found their story pleasant enough for other reasons. The series is written in standalone installments, but I'd recommend reading the books in order as Barnett includes cameo scenes and follow-ups on characters featured earlier in the Golden Gate Chronicles. The series incorporates heavy religious themes and might not be the best choice for those readers who struggle with nonsecular material, but I'd certainly recommend Through the Shadows to those who don't.

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The function of 920 is to rescue girls and women from sin and suffering. I don’t believe our duty is to the Chinese people, alone, but to all of God’s children. And who can better understand than one who has walked through the shadows of sin and been redeemed?”
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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Lost Destiny: Joe Kennedy Jr. and the Doomed WWII Mission to Save London by Alan Axelrod

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: July 30, 2016

On August 12, 1944, Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., heir to one of America's most glamorous fortunes, son of the disgraced former ambassador to Great Britain, and big brother to freshly minted PT-109 hero JFK, hoisted himself up into a highly modified B-24 Liberator bomber. The munitions he was carrying that day were fifty percent more powerful than TNT. Kennedy's mission was part of Operation Aphrodite/Project Anvil, a desperate American effort to rescue London from a rain of German V-1 and V-2 missiles. The decision to use these bold but crude precursors to modern-day drones against German V-weapon launch sites came from Air Corps high command. Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle, daring leader of the spectacular 1942 Tokyo Raid, and others concocted a plan to install radio control equipment in "war-weary" bombers, pack them with a dozen tons of high explosives, and fly them by remote control directly into the concrete German launch sites—targets too hard to be destroyed by conventional bombs. The catch was that live pilots were needed to get these flying bombs off the ground and headed toward their targets. Joe Jr. was the first naval aviator to fly such a mission. And—in the biggest manmade explosion before Hiroshima—it killed him. Alan Axelrod's Lost Destiny is a rare exploration of the origin of today's controversial military drones as well as a searing and unforgettable story of heroism, WWII, and the Kennedy dynasty that might have been.

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I'm not gonna beat around the bush here and I'm not going to apologize for my bluntness either. I was hugely disappointed with Alan Axelrod's Lost Destiny: Joe Kennedy Jr. and the Doomed WWII Mission to Save London and feel the eleven and half hours I spent listening to the audio largely wasted.

Axelrod did a marvelous job chronicling Operations Anvil and Aphrodite, but his coverage of the famous face that graces the jacket is nothing short of laughable. The mission, it's purpose and development are illustrated in minute detail, but the man himself features in less than 30% of the text. Looking back, I wish the author had written solely about the operations and listed Kennedy as little more than a tragic pilot, but it's also occurred to me that Joe Jr. was tacked on to this manuscript to capitalize on name recognition and artificially inflate sale numbers.

I'll grant the book has merit for those interested in exhaustive detail regarding WWII aviation, developing technologies, weaponry, and bomb testing, but those looking for information on Kennedy's war experience best look elsewhere.

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But there was no way to know all this as the V-1s rained down and as London, among other cities, waited in dread for assault by the even deadlier V-2s. So the Allied bombers flew, and so Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. and the other men of Aphrodite and Anvil prepared to lay down theirs lives to save the citizens of London and the other English towns.
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Friday, July 29, 2016

Days of Sun and Glory by Anna Belfrage

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: June 14, 2016

Adam de Guirande has barely survived the aftermath of Roger Mortimer’s rebellion in 1321. When Mortimer manages to escape the Tower and flee to France, anyone who has ever served Mortimer becomes a potential traitor – at least in the eyes of King Edward II and his royal chancellor, Hugh Despenser. Adam must conduct a careful balancing act to keep himself and his family alive. Fortunately, he has two formidable allies: Queen Isabella and his wife, Kit. England late in 1323 is a place afflicted by fear. Now that the king’s greatest traitor, Roger Mortimer, has managed to evade royal justice, the king and his beloved Despenser see dissidents and rebels everywhere – among Mortimer’s former men, but also in the queen, Isabella of France. Their suspicions are not unfounded. Tired of being relegated to the background by the king’s grasping favourite, Isabella has decided it is time to act – to safeguard her own position, but also that of her son, Edward of Windsor. As Adam de Guirande has pledged himself to Prince Edward he is automatically drawn into the queen’s plans – whether he likes it or not. Yet again, Kit and Adam are forced to take part in a complicated game of intrigue and politics. Yet again, they risk their lives – and that of those they hold dear – as the king and Mortimer face off. Once again, England is plunged into war – and this time it will not end until either Despenser or Mortimer is dead. Days of Sun and Glory is the second in Anna Belfrage’s series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, the story of a man torn apart by his loyalties to his lord, his king, and his wife.

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I didn’t think twice about picking up Anna Belfrage’s Days of Sun and Glory. I’ve read all of Blefrage’s other books and I enjoy her style and tone a great deal. I feel that her stories strike a nice balance between fact and fiction and the depth of her research shows an obvious passion for the history on which her work is based, but it is her representation of people that always stands out in my mind. As an author, she puts a lot of effort into illustrating individuals and the relationships they share with others and I think that brings something very special to her books.

Adam de Guirande is one half of Belfrage’s leading couple, but if I’m entirely honest, I enjoyed his arc more than any other. He suffers a crisis of divided loyalties and his sentiments and allegiances place both himself and his family in politically precarious positions. He is forced to make hard choices and his actions have rippling consequences that are most often shared by his wife, Kit. Maybe it’s just me, but I find something very authentic in that and I appreciate Belfrage for capturing it as she does on the page.

Isabella also stood out to me. I’ve seen Isabella of France portrayed many ways, but I feel that Belfrage’s interpretation really capitalizes on Isabella’s she-wolf reputation. The is a fundamental fire and innate ferocity in Isabella that sets her apart from other women in the narrative and while I appreciate the historical parallel this illustration creates, I love the idea that Isabella’s nature was as challenging for her allies and it was her enemies. Here again, I recognized a very realistic association and reveled in the genuine conflict it created within the fabric of the novel.

The last character I want to mention is Cassandra. She enjoys a smaller supporting role, but she intrigued me nonetheless. Like Isabella, she boasts an abundance of confidence and daring, but her application of those strengths lead her to a very different end and I thought that contrast incredibly interesting. That said, she is a remarkably self-serving creature without compunction of any kind and her lack of scruples makes her incredibly dangerous. She exemplifies a darker reality and I think there is a lot of merit in exploring those concepts and motivations as there is in emphasizing the good.

I don’t mean to downplay the historic context of the narrative as I feel Belfrage’s recreation of the political conflicts that plagued Edward II’s reign truly impressive. I simply appreciate the human qualities her characterizations bring that conflict and how her presentation and approach guides her readers through turmoil of the era. Her style gives depth and emotion to the dramatic power struggle and invites her audience to experience it in a truly unique way.

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“… with his jaw set, his eyes narrowed into piercing blue shards, her prince no longer looked like an untried youth – he looked like the future king he was destined to be. A king coerced into taking part in a venture he did not approve of, and someday those that forced him would pay. She crossed herself, praying that she would be nowhere close to either the queen or Lord Mortimer when that happened.” 
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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Local library
Read: July 19, 2016

Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it's barely begun. When "Verity" is arrested by the Gestapo, she's sure she doesn't stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she's living a spy's worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution. As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy? 

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Phenomenal. There's a word I don't use lightly, but there is no other way to describe Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity. I hate sounding like a gushing fan girl, but the young adult surprised me in the best possible way. There are light notes, but the story itself is tempered by the dark realities of WWII and the end result truly remarkable.

Much has been said about the 2012 release, but few reviewers have mentioned Wein's characterizations. Verity, Maddie, Engel, and Millitrette are all strong in different ways. These women defy convention, but not one among them rejects their femininity and I think that an incredibly powerful message. I often see woman painted as homemakers or tomboys and I was profoundly moved to see an author reject conventional tropes in favor of something genuine, multidimensional, and authentic.

That said, Verity stands as a very special character. In contrast to most authors, Wein doesn't shove her headliner's savvy down the throats of her audience in some Sherlock Holmes inspired expositional display of pseudo-intellectualism. In a rather ingenious move, Wein puts everything on the table from the very beginning, hiding Verity's intellect and brass in plain sight while she directs attention toward other elements of the narrative. The end result is subtle, but indisputably brilliant.

Historically speaking... well, I'm not sure I want to go into too much detail on that account. Suffice it to say Wein doesn't hold back. I'm not sure that the description of torture, execution, and death are appropriate for every reader, but I personally thought the author's decision not to hold back intensely admirable considering the subject matter. History loses its value when we downplay the parts we don't care to consider and I think novels like this help those lessons alive through honest and unfiltered illustration of human history.

I didn't know what to expect when I picked up Code Name Verity, but the title proved an intense and complex narrative that vividly recreates the intensity of the era. An absolute must read for one and all.

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“But I have told the truth. Isn't that ironic? They sent me because I am so good at telling lies. But I have told the truth.”
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The Other Daughter by Lauren Willig

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: July 24, 2016

Raised in a poor yet genteel household, Rachel Woodley is working in France as a governess when she receives news that her mother has died, suddenly. Grief-stricken, she returns to the small town in England where she was raised to clear out the cottage...and finds a cutting from a London society magazine, with a photograph of her supposedly deceased father dated all of three month before. He's an earl, respected and influential, and he is standing with another daughter-his legitimate daughter. Which makes Rachel...not legitimate. Everything she thought she knew about herself and her past-even her very name-is a lie. Still reeling from the death of her mother, and furious at this betrayal, Rachel sets herself up in London under a new identity. There she insinuates herself into the party-going crowd of Bright Young Things, with a steely determination to unveil her father's perfidy and bring his-and her half-sister's-charmed world crashing down. Very soon, however, Rachel faces two unexpected snags: she finds she genuinely likes her half-sister, Olivia, whose situation isn't as simple it appears; and she might just be falling for her sister's fiancé...

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I've eyed Lauren Willig's novels for a long time, but The Other Daughter marks my first real experience with her work. I read The Record Set Right, the short Willig contributed to Fall of Poppies, but there's a world of difference between an anthology submission and a full length narrative. It's apples to oranges really, but that's neither here nor there.

I listened to the audio edition of The Other Daughter and I think it safe to say the format colored my experience. Nicola Barber's voice isn't poor, but I wasn't thrilled with her performance. The inflections she employed for each individual character drove me up the wall. The male cast members suffered more than their female counterparts, but I felt led and I didn't like how Barber's interpretations pigeonholed each of Willig's characters.

The plot itself also challenged me. I prefer meatier stories and the trials faced by Miss Rachael Woodley lacked the sort of intrigue that captures my imagination. Don't misunderstand, it's a fun narrative, overflowing with lighthearted humor and smart literary references, but Willig's London is dressed to the nines, encrusted in jewels, and positively drowning in champagne. The mysteries at the heart of the novel felt petty and the motivations behind them vague and coincidental. The reveal lacked the punch I craved and I ultimately felt rather indifferent over the lack of deliberate antagonism in the story. 

Perhaps I picked the wrong novel or selected the wrong format, but The Other Daughter didn't work as well as I hoped and while I'm happy to have sampled it, I am not chomping at the bit to get into the Pink Carnation series. 

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"No sin is original, no matter what the bright young things may hope. We're all merely playing to a theme."
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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Rosa's Gold by Ray Kingfisher

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: July 11, 2016

Nicole Sutton’s world has been turned upside down. Sixteen and suffering the fallout of a devastating family tragedy, she is forced to move away from her London home to the quiet town of Henley—and a new life she never wanted nor expected. In the dusty cellar of her strange new house, Nicole stumbles upon a worn old journal left behind by a previous occupant. Inside, through the eyes of a soldier named Mac, she finds herself drawn into a brutally honest memoir of the horrors of war and Auschwitz—and of the life and love Mac had to leave behind. The more Nicole reads, the more she is able to make sense of her own troubles. Because Mac’s story is so much more than a journal: it is the story of a family fighting for survival in the darkest days of humanity, of hope in the face of persecution. And then there’s the buried gold...

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I was optimistic going into Ray Kingfisher’s Rosa’s Gold, but the reality didn’t live up to my expectations. I don’t mean to imply that my opinion trumps anyone else’s because it doesn’t, but I’m not gonna lie, I expected more from a book with one hundred four and five star ratings. A lot more.

The lack of character development grated my nerves and I was bitterly disappointed with the passionless relationship between Mac and Rosa. I’m sorry, but a couple of chaste kisses does not an epic romance make. Structurally speaking, the novel was all over the place and the plot really doesn’t get around to the gold until the final fourth of the narrative. That’s right folks, the novel’s primary plot point is tagged on like an afterthought in the final chapters. Why? I don’t know, the decision made as much sense as introducing a third narrator, one Mrs. Belotti, in the thirty-seventh of thirty-nine chapters, but that’s just my opinion. 

I’m not gonna get on my soapbox about Nicole’s annoyingly infantile parents, but I will stay that I didn’t care for the contemporary story line. Nicole’s experience hardly qualifies as a compelling arc and I don’t consider her an active participant in the narrative. I suppose one could argue, that much like Bastian in The Neverending Story, but while Nicole bears witness, she doesn’t stand up to anything in the end, she merely stands up and I don’t think that’s quite the same thing. 

My last issue, or at least the last I feel the need to mention, is continuity. In the jacket description and on pages eight, twenty-eight, and thirty, Nicole is sixteen years of age. On page sixteen, one hundred nine, two seventy-one, two seventy-two, and two seventy-eight, she is seventeen. I’ll grant it’s a minor detail, but I noticed it just the same and I can’t help wondering how many other continuity issues I’d have found I’d been actively hunting them. I mean no offense, but how is the reader supposed to keep the details straight if the narrative contracts itself? And yes, I checked my ARC edition from Lake Union against the one currently available through Amazon Digital Services, and the same errors exist in both. My ARC also lacks the usual disclaimer for unedited manuscripts which leads me to believe the book is ready for release and any comment on the editing failures is fair game.

At the end of the day, Rosa’s Gold simply didn’t suit my tastes. I’m happy to have tried it, but I don’t see myself recommending it to other readers down the road. 

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I wonder whether they took that idea and twisted it into ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – the words erected across those dark, threatening gates like a mantra to the suffering masses. Was it a mantra? Was it prayer? Or was it there merely to taunt those people that little bit more? Either way, ‘twisted’ is the correct word; everything in that horrid place in those horrid times was twisted in one way or another.
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Monday, July 18, 2016

The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach by Pam Jenoff

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: May 24, 2016

Young Adelia Monteforte flees fascist Italy for America, where she is whisked away to the shore by her well-meaning aunt and uncle. Here, she meets and falls for Charlie Connally, the eldest of the four Irish-Catholic boys next door. But all hopes for a future together are soon throttled by the war and a tragedy that hits much closer to home. Grief-stricken, Addie flees—first to Washington and then to war-torn London—and finds a position at a prestigious newspaper, as well as a chance to redeem lost time, lost family…and lost love. But the past always nips at her heels, demanding to be reckoned with. And in a final, fateful choice, Addie discovers that the way home may be a path she never suspected.

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Pam Jenoff has been one of my go-to writers for a while. I always enjoy the time I spend with her stories and I think that is why I put off reading The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach for as long as I did. I’d flagged it as a comfort read and kept it in my back pocket to distract me when I found myself in rough patch.

The story surprised me in many ways. I found it slower than Jenoff's other novels, but it is a story of self-discovery so the pacing was actually quite appropriate to the action. Adelia Monteforte is a young girl when Jenoff introduces her and it takes years for her to experience the events that shape the woman she becomes. It is a process that unfolds as she enters each new phase of her life and I liked how Jenoff structured the story to emphasize that idea. 

Another thing I like about this piece was how it highlighted America’s pre-war years. Europe was a world away and the United States didn’t really understand the magnitude or fear experienced by those on the other side of the Atlantic. I know the era through my own research, but I appreciated Jenoff’s effort at illustrating the naivety that existed in America and showing her audience how blissfully unaffected the average American was prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 

The heart of the story, however, is the idea of family, the roles each individual plays in it, how those roles change over time, and how they play into the choices we make as adults. It’s a subtle idea with no flashy bells and whistles, but it’s elegant and moving nonetheless. It takes a while to get there of course, the narrative spans a handful of countries over a period of years, but there a sense that it comes full circle in the end and I liked how everything came into focus in the final chapters. 

The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach is a heartfelt coming of age novel of love and renewal. It’s not the heaviest historical I ever read, but I’d definitely recommend it to readers of period romance and/or women’s fiction. 

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“Running doesn’t make the pain stop. You take it with you.”
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Friday, July 15, 2016

The Secrets of a Vatican Cardina by Celso Costantini

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: June 15, 2016

On 19 April 1940 Celso Costantini prophetically wrote in his diary that if Italy followed Hitler into war, it would be allying itself with the "Anti-Christ." Within weeks, Mussolini's fascist regime plunged Italy into the destructive maelstrom of global military conflict. The ensuing years brought world war, the fall of fascism, occupation, liberation, and the emergence of a new political order. The Secrets of a Vatican Cardinal is an extraordinary and detailed behind-the-scenes account of crucial episodes in Europe's wartime history from a unique vantage point: the Vatican and the Eternal City. Costantini, a close advisor to Pope Pius XII, possessed a perspective few of his contemporaries could match. His diaries offer new insights into the great issues of the time - the Nazi occupation, the fall of Mussolini, the tumultuous end of the Italian monarchy, the birth of republican democracy in Italy, and the emergence of a new international order - while also recounting heartbreaking stories of the suffering, perseverance, and heroism of ordinary people. Less than a century later, with the world's attention gripped by the first papal resignation in six hundred years, The Secrets of a Vatican Cardinal presents a clear-eyed, fascinating, and complex portrait of the Roman Catholic Church's recent history.

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I picked up The Secrets of a Vatican Cardinal by Celso Costantini on a whim. WWII is my thing and simply I couldn’t resist the temptation of wartime diaries written by a senior official living inside the Vatican during the conflict. I’m not sure what I anticipated, to be honest I’m usually sold on anything relating to WWII before I’ve a chance to formulate much of an opinion, but the reality of the diaries blew me away.

Costantini’s prose is powerful to say the least. He writes with unfiltered passion about both religion and politics and I found his insights and perspective fascinating. I was further captivating by his command of language. Simply put, contemporary authors don’t write like this anymore. Somewhere along the way we’ve sacrificed linguistic elegance for base exposition, but I suppose that’s neither here nor there when assessing the qualities of Constantini’s work.

The book is packed to the brim with footnotes, which is great if you need to reference something, but I personally felt the sheer volume of additional information distracting. At five hundred and twenty-four pages, The Secrets of a Vatican Cardinal is not a quick read, but I felt it unnecessarily weighted by an overabundance of surplus description.

Minor complaint aside, I have to say that I loved this volume and am happy to have added it to my personal reference library. I’m not sure I’ll be recommending it very often as I don’t know many other enthusiasts, but it is definitely something I’d commend to anyone interested in Italian policy and social affairs between 1938 and 1947.

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What bitterness. What moral debasement. One must not forget that genuine liberty is an element of human dignity; although masters sustained their slaves, the latter were still slaves: they were treated as objects, not men. “Paucis vivit genus humanum,” Tacitus wrote. The human genus was a minority compared with the great mass of slaves. This was a monstrous situation and was abolished. How is it that Mussolini did not understand this – he who fought and suffered for freedom? Is he acting in good faith? Has he a logical pattern of thought?
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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Cover Crush: The Tears of Dark Water by Corban Addison

We all know we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but in today's increasingly competitive market, a memorable jacket can make or break sales.

I am not a professional, but I am a consumer and much as I loath admitting it, jacket design is one of the first things I notice when browsing the shelves at Goodreads and Amazon. My love of cover art is what inspired Cover Crush, a weekly post dedicated to those prints that have captured my attention and/or piqued my interest. Enjoy!

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Corban Addison's The Tears of Dark Water isn't something I'd typically pick up, but the jacket stopped me dead in my tracks. I love the layer in the embellishments and how the designer used the sun to draw the eye and illuminate the whole of the design and offset the rich tones of the water below. 

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Did this week's cover catch your eye? Do you have an opinion you'd like to share? Please leave a comment below. I'd love to hear from you!

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Interview with Susan Hughes, author of A Kiss From France

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Susan Hughes to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her novel, A Kiss from France.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Susan. It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about A Kiss from France.
The story is set during the latter part of WW1, and follows the lives of two British female munitions workers whose expectations are shattered by that war. One decides to make the best of it in spite of the hardships and looks to the future; the other is haunted by past failures and struggles to break free. Each woman must contemplate making a personal sacrifice so that when peace comes, they are able to exert some control over their lives.

Where did the idea for this story come from? 
After my grandmother died, I found half a dozen WW1 silk postcards in a box. They’d been sent from the western front one hundred years ago. With them was a black and white photograph of some prisoners of war. I had no luck finding out more information about the identities of the senders and recipient (although I suspect they were my great grandfather and great grandmother) but the cards continued to fascinate me. I decided to research the period and came across the female munitions workers’ stories. I knew I’d found my heroines for a story about the brave women left behind on the Home Front.

Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about Lizzie Fenwick? What kind of woman is she? 
Lizzie is nineteen and single when the novel starts in 1917. She is intelligent but, in line with the times, wasn’t formally educated beyond age 14. Nevertheless, she is quietly ambitious and wants to make something of herself beyond the confines of domestic service. The outbreak of war gives her the opportunity to work in a munitions factory where the better wages and greater social freedoms fuel her dreams of betterment. Of course, this being an era when spinsterhood was considered the cardinal sin and the death and casualty rate from the war was reducing the pool of possible suitors horribly, Lizzie feels the pressure to find a husband. The war complicates matters in the most grievous way, but ultimately she has to decide where her true future fulfilment lies. 

What about Eunice Wilson, how is she different from Lizzie? 
Eunice is married and finally a mother after four miscarriages. By WW1 standards (female life expectancy 50 years), she is middle aged at 32. The war has fractured her marriage and being a mother becomes all consuming. Unlike Lizzie she doesn’t expect the jobs women fill while the war rages to be continued once peace returns. Eunice is quite content in the domestic sphere and the social and economic freedoms Lizzie relishes are far less important to her. In the end it’s her heartfelt maternal instincts that inform her character and lead her to a decision which will come back to haunt her.

With the men off fighting the war, women had to step outside their traditional roles. Taking on these responsibilities is kind of a double edged sword isn’t it? Freedom and independence is not free of consequence and/or temptation. Do Eunice or Lizzie struggle to find balance in their new existence?
Lizzie is quite naïve and when we first meet her she is daydreaming about an idealised war-hero she is writing to, but hasn’t yet met. She is also reeling from the memory of being verbally abused at a dance by a soldier because she refused to sleep with him. She doesn’t see herself as ‘that sort of girl’. When Lizzie is caught in a horrific bombing raid it changes her outlook: if she might be dead tomorrow, she might as well live a bit first.  Soon enough she has to deal with the consequences of that decision, and she comes to realise that freedom and independence is indeed a double edged sword, particularly if your moral compass has been skewed by accepted wartime behavior.

Eunice, in charge of the household in her husband’s absence and earning good money, quite enjoys a degree of freedom and independence. But when the war brings grief, she succumbs to a temptation different from Lizzie’s. It doesn’t bring her the relief or joy she hoped for, rather it exacerbates her torment. Unlike Lizzie, balance in her new existence eludes Eunice. 

As a novelist, what drew you to this particular period?
Ever since I read Wilfred Owen’s war poems at school and, later, classic WW1 fiction, I have been drawn to that cataclysmic conflict. However, it was probably finding the WW1 postcards that really ignited my imagination. There’s something about a big conflict, life and death, with all its extremes - horror and grief at one end and love and kindness at the other - that spoke to something in me. Maybe it was knowing my relatives endured it? It was also a period when women stepped out of the shadows of their traditional roles and stood up to be counted, filling the men’s shoes. It might have only been ‘for the duration’, but there would be no going back from that.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?  
I agonized over the ending. Lizzie has to make a choice. Given what she experiences, the times she lives through and the point at which I end the story, I think she makes the right decision. However, I’ve had some requests for a sequel to see how her decision pans out. Maybe I’ll do that.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on?
I really enjoyed imagining the character of Peggy Wood – a foundling whose confined, loveless upbringing fuels her desire to cast caution to the wind, have a good time and deny herself nothing. She is the link between Lizzie and Eunice and is the catalyst that encourages both women’s wartime behavior. Her approach to life can be encapsulated in her motto: “There’ll be plenty of time for regrets after the war – if you live that long.” Peggy is amoral – although her conscience does prick her occasionally – and I could have almost written an entire novel about her (note to self: write a book about Peggy!)

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing A Kiss from France and if so, what did you alter? 
My munitions factory is based on an actual place but I altered one particular historical fact about it to suit the plotline. So I don’t give anything away, I’ll only say I changed the date of an event by a few months. That’s the only historical fact I altered, all other things are in accordance with the actual WW1 timeline.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
Eunice’s husband, Jack Wilson. We only see him through Eunice and Lizzie’s eyes but his actions have a key impact on their lives. However, I think I’d prefer to meet him before the war changes everything. See him when he’s in his pomp as a professional boxer, handsome and attractive, winning trophies and female hearts. I might even flirt with him a little bit…

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of A Kiss from France, who would you hire? 
Because my story is set in Britain, all but one of my leads are British. (I hope Amy Adams can master a British accent!)
Lizzie Fenwick: Amy Adams (fresh-faced beautiful redhead, has a certain naivety about her but behind the eyes there’s a determination to win!)
Eunice Wilson: Kelly Macdonald (physically, her particular features lend themselves to an old-fashioned look and would suit my period drama; but I like that there is an aura of fragility and vulnerablility about her)
Lizzie’s soldier-lover: James MacEvoy (Attractive without being classically handsome, he has the right balance of masculinity and sensitivity)
Edmund Fawcett: Richard Armitage (Tall, dark and commanding but compassionate – rather as he appeared in Mrs Gaskell’s ‘North and South’ British TV adaptation)
(Check out my Pinterest board for ‘A Kiss from France’ to see them https://uk.pinterest.com/hughes7584/a-kiss-from-france)

Finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works?
I’m sticking with the twentieth century. I’ve been immersed in the 1930s for my current project, which is almost finished: a suspense novel set in London, with a romantic element. I really love that period – the extremism in politics; the glamorous fashions; the class divisions – and I have another story set in that same era percolating in my head. 

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PRAISE FOR A KISS FROM FRANCE

"I was impressed by the way it deals with the trauma and desperation of those who return home from war, and the emptiness and pain of those who stayed behind and witnessed the return of men whose minds and lives were irrevocably broken. It’s about how exceptional and extreme situations, like wars, affect the lives of ordinary people in their daily lives, and influence their perception of life and love." - Luccia Gray, Goodreads Reviwer

"I really couldn't put this book down and as I reached the end I was sure how it was all going to finish. I have to say I was surprised when I'd reached the last page and the outcome was quite different. I'm not sure what the author's plans are but I would love to see a sequel." - Joanna Lambert, Goodreads Reviewer

"Beautifully written & I thoroughly enjoyed it .. the only thing I would say is it seemed to finish a bit too quickly for me, nevertheless I would happily recommend it & look forward to the authors’ next novel in the Spring. I hereby award it 4 stars." - Allison, Goodreads Reviewer

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I grew up north of the River Tyne but then I heard the siren call of London and left, never to live in the North East again.  As a child, I had little interest in dolls – I preferred climbing trees and catching water boatmen in a jam jar; my best ever toys were a go-kart and a scalextric. My grandmother’s home cooking fed my body but books nourished my soul.  All my meagre pocket money went on 3/6 paperbacks from T&G Allen in North Shields.

I live near the North Devon coast, where long walks and bracing
West Country air give me space and thinking time.  Around me swirl the ghosts of King Arthur at Tintagel, Lorna Doone on Exmoor and the denizens of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Jamaica Inn’ on Bodmin Moor.

A Kiss from France is my debut novel.


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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Cover Cliché: White Repose

Sometimes, while browsing the virtual shelves on Amazon and Goodreads, I see an image that gives me an oddly disconcerting sense of deja vu. I could swear I've never read the book, but I know I've seen the jacket image somewhere before.

This phenomenon is what inspired Cover Clichés. Images are often recycled because cover artists are often forced to work from a limited pool of stock images and copyright free material. That said, I find comparing their finished designs quite interesting.  

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The more he tries to stay away from her, the more his obsession grows…

What if…
Elizabeth Bennet was more unsuitable for Mr. Darcy than ever…

Mr. Darcy is determined to find a more suitable bride. But then he learns that Elizabeth is living in London in reduced circumstances, after her father’s death robs her of her family home…

What if…
Mr. Darcy can’t help himself from seeking her out…

He just wants to make sure she’s alright. But once he’s seen her, he feels compelled to talk to her, and from there he’s unable to fight the overwhelming desire to be near her, or the ever-growing mutual attraction that is between them…

What if…
Mr. Darcy’s intentions were shockingly dishonorable…




A tale of time travel, true love, and Jane Austen

New York actress C.J. Welles, a die-hard Jane Austen fan, is on the verge of landing her dream role: portraying her idol in a Broadway play. But during her final audition, she is mysteriously transported to Bath, England, in the year 1801. And Georgian England, with its rigid and unforgiving social structure and limited hygienic facilities, is not quite the picturesque costume drama C.J. had always imagined.

Just as she wishes she could click her heels together and return to Manhattan, C.J. meets the delightfully eccentric Lady Dalrymple, a widowed countess who takes C.J. into her home, introducing her as a poor relation to Georgian society—including the dashing Earl of Darlington and his cousin, Jane Austen!

When a crisis develops, C.J.—in a race against time—becomes torn between two centuries. An attempt to return to her own era might mean forfeiting her blossoming romance with the irresistible Darlington and her growing friendship with Jane Austen, but it’s a risk she must take. And in the midst of this remarkable series of events, C.J. discovers something even more startling—a secret from her own past that may explain how she wound up in Bath in the first place.




A Tale of Uncharted Love on the Open Seas 

In this enchanting and highly original retelling of Jane Austen'sPride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet sets out for the new world aboard the grand ship Pemberley's Promise. She's prepared for an uneventful voyage until a chance encounter with the handsome, taciturn Mr. Darcy turns her world upside down.

When Elizabeth falls ill, Darcy throws convention overboard in a plan that will bind them to each other more deeply than he ever could have imagined. But the perils of their ocean voyage pale in comparison to the harsh reality of society's rules that threaten their chance at happiness. When they return to the lavish halls of England, will their love survive?





The stunning, massively bestselling story of Napoleon's first fiancé

< First published in 1953, this riveting true-life tale comes to life in diary form, giving readers an inside glimpse at the young Napoleon and his family. Désirée is enchanted by the young officer, and he asks her to marry him. But he must leave for Paris, where he meets his eventual wife Josephine. A heartbroken Désirée is unsure she'll ever find anyone again. A love story, but so much more, Désirée is the tale of a simple merchant's daughter who ends up with a kind of royalty she never expected: an unforgettable story just waiting to be reborn.





As a spirit of change overturns Europe’s old order, strong-willed Elzelina Versfelt enters her own age of revolution. Married as a romantic young girl to a man who wanted only her money, but neither loves nor desires her, Elza refuses to be chained any longer. Leaving Amsterdam, her marriage, and her home, she flees to France—where the old rules no longer apply, debauchery is not a sin...and nothing is forbidden.

Yet Elza finds herself bound in a new way, to the ambitious General Moreau. And while they share pleasure, pain, and carnal adventures, she dreams of another man, an unruly red-haired soldier she first saw in the promise of a Tarot card. Drawn by this half-real, half-imagined hero, Elza defies her relationship with Moreau, and begins a perilous search across war-torn Europe. But will this woman with the instincts of a survivor, the passion of a courtesan, and the gift of second sight ever find the destiny for which she has risked it all?

This stunning novel blends history with the language of the heart to tell a sensual story of an era of upheaval...and of the clamoring, dangerous desires of a woman’s soul.




When Martha Dandridge Custis marries her second husband, George, she never suspects that the soft-spoken Virginia planter is destined to command the founding of a nation—or that she is to be “Lady Washington,” the woman at the first President’s side. Only a select inner circle of women will know the cost of sharing a beloved man with history . . . and each will draw strength from the unique treasure given to them by a doomed queen.

Seeing farm and family through each harsh New England season, Abigail Adams is sustained only by the fervent reunions stolen between John’s journeys abroad. She will face the terror of an ocean crossing to join her husband in France—and write her own page in history. And there she will cross paths with kings, commoners—and young Sally Hemings.

Just as Sally had grown from a clever child to a beautiful woman, so had her relationship with Thomas Jefferson grown from a friendship between slave and master to one entangled in the complexities of black and white, decorum and desire. It is a relationship that will leave Sally to face an agonizingly wrenching choice.

Dolley Madison, too, must live with the repercussions of a forbidden love affair—although she will confront even greater trials as a President’s wife. But Dolley will become one of the best-loved ladies of the White House—and leave an extraordinary legacy of her own.

A lushly written novel that traces the marriages tested by the demands of love and loyalty, Patriot Hearts offers readers a dazzling glimpse behind the scenes of a revolution, from adversity and treachery to teatime strategies, as four magnificent women shape a nation’s future.




The restorative power of the ocean brings Jane Austen and her beloved brother Henry, to Brighton after Henry’s wife is lost to a long illness. But the crowded, glittering resort is far from peaceful, especially when the lifeless body of a beautiful young society miss is discovered in the bedchamber of none other than George Gordon—otherwise known as Lord Byron. As a poet and a seducer of women, Byron has carved out a shocking reputation for himself—but no one would ever accuse him of being capable of murder. Now it falls to Jane to pursue this puzzling investigation and discover just how “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Byron truly is. And she must do so without falling victim to the charming versifier’s legendary charisma, lest she, too, become a cautionary example for the ages.




"Woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights," declared Olympe de Gouges in 1791. Throughout the French Revolution, women, inspired by a longing for liberty and equality, played a vital role in stoking the fervor and idealism of those years. In her compelling history of the Revolution, Lucy Moore paints a vivid portrait of six extraordinary women who risked everything for the chance to exercise their ambition and make their mark on history.

At the heart of Paris's intellectual movement, Germaine de Staël was a figure like no other. Passionate, fiercely intelligent and as consumed by love affairs as she was by politics, she helped write the 1791 Constitution at the salon in which she entertained the great thinkers of the age. At the other end of the social scale, her working-class counterparts patrolled the streets of Paris with pistols in their belts. Théroigne de Méricourt was an unhappy courtesan when she fell in love with revolutionary ideals. Denied a political role because of her sex, she nevertheless campaigned tirelessly until a mob beating left her broken in both mind and body. Later came the glittering merveilleuses, whose glamour, beauty and propensity for revealing outfits propelled them to the top of post-revolutionary society. Exuberant, decadent Thérésia Tallien reportedly helped engineer Robespierre's downfall. In so doing, she and her fellow "sans-chemises" ushered in a new world that combined sexual license with the amorality of the new Republic.




Beautiful, dark-haired Marianne d'Asslenat fled England, leaving her dastardly husband for dead in the blazing ruins of what had been their home. In France her beauty and wit won the heart of the Emperor himself, Napoleon Bonaporte, and under his patronage she found a place high in Parisian society and a new career as an opera singer. But on the very night of her debut, she is terrified by a face in the audience - the scarred visage of Francis Cranmere, the husband she believed dead.

In desperation Marianne seeks someone to protect her from Francis' insane lust for revenge. But there is no one. Even Napoleon seems to slip away from her after his marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria.

So Marianne must once more venture into the unknown: to Italy and the magnificent villa of the Tuscan prince whose face no one has ever seen; a villa haunted by some strange, nameless evil...

English Title: Marianne and the Masked Prince




Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent older cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir, a man who will love his grand home as much as he does himself. But the cosy world the two construct is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries - and there he dies suddenly. Jealous of his marriage, racked by suspicion at the hints in Ambrose's letters, and grief-stricken by his death, Philip prepares to meet his cousin's widow with hatred in his heart. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to this beautiful, sophisticated, mysterious Rachel like a moth to the flame. And yet... might she have had a hand in Ambrose's death?





Although it was illegal, secret, and against the express commands of his famously mad father, King George IV of England married twice--once for duty and once for love. While Caroline of Brunswick eventually became his lawful queen, it was the beautiful Maria Fitzherbert, recognized as his wife by the Catholic Church but not by the laws of England, who claimed his heart. In the hands of author Diane Haeger, their relationship becomes a mesmerizing love story, filled with intrigue and passion. The characters and drawing rooms of 18th Century England come alive to create a portrait of the age that is colorful and resonant with historical detail.





The task had taken shape thanks to the inconvenient way secrets had of bubbling to the surface. It went without saying that it was going to be difficult. But then, murder always was…

The London docks, 1817.

Beneath a silent moon, a mysterious exile slips back into the city to complete a nefarious mission that began decades before.

On that same night, London's titled, wealthy and beautiful waltz the night away at Glenister House. Among the guests aristocratic Charles Fraser, a former spy recently returned from the Napoleonic Wars, and his bride Mélanie, who has charmed London society but hides her own secrets. In the brilliance of Mayfair, a visitor from their past pulls Charles and Mélanie back into the world of danger and espionage they thought they had left behind. But this time, the intrigues are rooted in Charles's complex and troubled family.

An assassination, a secret society, and the dangerous liaisons of the Fraser family lead Charles and Mélanie from the glittering ballrooms and shadowy streets of London to the Fraser estate on the Scottish coast. This is a deadly game that could shake the fate of nations: but for Charles, the stakes are the lives of those he holds most dear, and the love of the enigmatic woman who shares his name...and his bed.




The Time Baroness is the story of Dr. Cassandra Reilly, a scientist from the year 2120 who embarks upon a time travel journey to England of 1820. Her purpose is to conduct an experiment: living for a year in the guise of a wealthy widow and interacting within the Regency world. Though she has painstakingly prepared for the experience, her new neighbors in Hampshire County sense something strange about her, and though most embrace her for her kindness and charm, some are shocked by her odd ways. Ultimately though, her beauty attracts a handsome violinist, also new to the neighborhood, and they begin an affair, which further endangers her reputation in the community.

As she is struggling to fit in, her grown son, James, suddenly arrives on her doorstep, popping in from the future. His presence is one more component that could cause her masquerade to unravel. James becomes a popular addition to the Hampshire society, but he makes a terrible mistake. He brings with him a device from the future and shows it to a young woman with whom he is smitten. She is terrified and creates an uproar. James is arrested for possessing a dangerous and subversive object and it is up to his mother to free him from a London prison and return him to the future before her enemies succeed in convicting him. Help comes from a surprising source, and ultimately Cassandra realizes that people, and love, are not always what they seem to be.


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Which cover strikes your fancy and why? What colors draw your eye? Do you think the image appropriate next to the jacket description? Leave your comments below!

Have you seen this image elsewhere? Shoot me an email or leave a comment and let me know. 


Monday, July 11, 2016

Character Conversations: Catherine de' Medici, from Médicis Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois by Sophie Perinot

The stone ruins and remnants of Château de Montceaux were hauntingly beautiful. Mother nature was slowly reclaiming parts of the site, but it was a subtle process and the remaining structures seemed peacefully content to be slowly enveloped in nature's green embrace.

I'd arrived early to wander the site before my interview as I didn't want to be gaping at the architecture during my Q&A, but time had run away from me and despite my best efforts, there I was, rushing to collect myself at the very last minute.

I slipped my pack off, knelt and began digging through my things for my voice recorder. I generally prefer my notebook, but I didn't trust myself to take handwritten notes while interviewing a Queen of France. The damned thing was naturally nestled at the very bottom of my bag and I must have been very focused on digging it out because I failed to register the dramatic shift in my surroundings until I'd rearranged my belongings.


I slipped the recorder into my pocket and spun round a few times. The mechanics of falling through time elude me, but it's nothing like what you see in the movies. There is no flash of light or physical sensation and it isn't a complete shift. I can see my rental car on the other side of the gate, but everything on this side of the barrier is pure sixteenth century.

The sound of footsteps and rustling skirts proceeded the arrival of a grandly attired woman with bulging eyes. There was no mistaking Catherine de' Medici, but as I turned towards her, I hesitated. Is one supposed to curtsy to dead monarch? Was it appropriate to say a simple hello and shake hands? Should I apologize for my comparatively plain racerback maxi and sandals?A smile played at the corner of her mouth and she gestured an invitation to tour the garden. I'd no idea what sort of impression I made, but she hadn't refused the interview and I determined that was a good sign. I fell into step beside her and while I was never entirely at ease in her presence, I admit that found the rest of that afternoon quite illuminating.


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For you, what does it mean to be a Medici? 
To be a Medici (or Médicis as they spell it in France, my adopted kingdom) is a point of pride. It means being the descendent of the great Cosmo and of the Italian Renaissance. It means being part of a family that did not inherit its wealth or power but built all that from banking and commerce. If that made us “common” in the eyes of the ancient great noble and royal houses of Europe, well, so be it. We ignored such tittering and married into many of those same families.

How did growing up in your family prepare you for your marriage and life in France?
It didn’t. My mother, Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne, Comtesse de Boulogne, may have been a French princess of royal blood, but my father’s family was not royal. Nor did I have the opportunity to know my parents, let alone be shaped by them. Both were dead within a month of my birth. I was taken under the wing of my grandmother. Because of my mother’s connection to the French crown, King Francis I claimed the right to raise me, but Pope Leo told the French King to pound salt. I am not sure that was the best result for me because eventually Francis I became my father-in-law and was more of a father to me than any other man in my life. When I was about 11 I was brought to Rome by my Uncle Pope Clement VII, not because he cared for me, but because he saw me – as Lorenzo de Medici’s legitimate heiress – as a useful pawn. He never gave me much attention and I never cared for him.

When I went to France at age 14 my new “father” King Francis showed me great kindness. This, more than anything before it, helped ease my transition into life as a member of the French royal family. When I married Prince Henri, who was not Dauphin at the time, my father-in-law assigned me the royal device of a rainbow and the motto “she brings light and serenity.” So you can see from that that the King cared for me. The French themselves, however, including courtiers, had many cruel things to say. Yes, I brought their country a valuable alliance with Pope Clement, but they still considered me lowly—of the merchant class—and foreign. Then things got worse: the whole reason for my marriage vanished when Pope Clement died and his replacement was well-disposed to France. Even my dear father-in-law was nonplussed.  I overheard him telling someone, “the girl has been given to me stark naked.” That hurt, but when there was a movement to have my marriage repudiated King Francis did not permit it.

Did your marriage alter your personal identity at all?
My marriage WAS my identity. To be a wife, is that not the role, the identity, of every woman? And then to be a mother—a duty that became more important once my husband became Dauphin upon the unexpected death of his brother in 1536. Yet early in my marriage I felt that I was a failure as both wife and mother. I worried constantly that I would be set aside because for ten long years I bore no children, and I had the love of neither my husband nor my subjects. My marriage did change me yes—it made me doubt myself at first but then the adversity of it made me hard, and fierce and determined, characteristics that later served me, my sons, and France well.

How did your marriage challenge you?
I fell in love with my husband Henri the first moment I saw him. When he went off on military campaigns I would adopt the garb of mourning and insist my ladies do likewise. But for all this Henri did not care for me in a romantic way. His heart belonged to Diane de Poitier. And he elevated Diane so that all knew it. He made her Duchesse de Valentinois, the highest dignity any lady at the French Court could receive who was not a princess, and allowed her to walk among the princesses of the blood at my own coronation! Early in his reign Henri spent a large part of every day with Diane and gave her the political influence I was never permitted. And worse than this he gave her the love of his body in ways he never gave it to me. At the Place of Saint-Germain my bedroom was immediately above Diane’s. I had two holes made in the floor of my room and watched them together in bed—my husband and his whore.  How I remember sobbing in the arms of my friends afterwards and telling them that Henri had not once in our married life used me so well. Still I was courteous to Diane while Henri lived, for his sake and for my own.  What man loves his wife better when she harangues him or does as he would not wish? 

How do you remember Henri II?
After all these years I still miss Henri. Although the traditional color of mourning for a French queen is white, I chose black and I wear it still. I changed my device from the rainbow given me by King Francis to a mound of quicklime with rain falling on it. And I changed my motto to:  “although the flame is extinguished, this testifies that the fire still lives.” I will never be over Henri.

How did your role and status change when he died?
Setting aside for a moment the grief of losing my husband, being the Queen Mother rather than the Queen of France gave me more power. Perhaps not at first, because my son King Francis II was of-age, needed no regent, and he had many seeking to influence him. But once my ten-year-old Charles wore the crown of France it was, at last, my turn to rule.

Did you enjoy being thrust into the spotlight?
I am not about attention; pretty women get looked at for doing nothing. I am interested in POWER.  Did I enjoy power, of course! Only an idiot would not enjoy power.

Francis II inherited his father’s throne, what ambitions did you have for your first born?
What ambition does any queen have for her son? I wanted him to have a long, successful reign. I wanted my husband’s royal line preserved and cemented on the throne of France. Alas, that was not to be, but it was not due to a lack of effort on my part. Even my enemies (sometimes grudgingly) conceded how hard I worked to preserve the Valois line! That peasant Henri of Navarre said of me (only after my death of course), “what could the poor woman do, with five children in her arms, after the death of her husband, and with two families in France—ours and the Guise—attempting to encroach on the Crown? Was she not force to play strange parts to deceive the one and the other and yet, das she did, to protect her children, who reigned in succession by the wisdom of a woman so able?”

You sent his widow, Mary Stuart, home after your son died. Why?
Did I “send” her? I think not!

There have always been these unaccountable rumors that I disliked Mary, or was even jealous of her. Nonsense! When my Henri died and Francis became King, I showed every deference to Mary. When I handed over the Crown jewels (without complaint) I even slipped in a few of my own pieces for her. Of course I was interested in limiting her influence over my son the king—the role of chief advisor to him rightfully belonged with me. Francis was young and needed my experience if he was to rule well and avoid being torn to bits by rival noble houses after his father’s death. But I can honestly say there was no fault or failing in my treatment of Mary while she was Queen of France.

But here is the truth of the matter—a daughter-in-law is not a daughter, she is not a permanent member of a family.  And once Francis died Mary was competition with my youngest daughter, Magot, for the hands of all the best prospective royal grooms. She was also a political distraction at the Court of France, and an expense to the Royal treasury. Still, let me be clear, Mary had the legal right to remain in France under the terms of her marriage contract. That was true even if I found her continued presence vexatious.  Fortunately for me, and for my next son to take the throne, Mary was actually rather anxious to return to Scotland and reclaim her throne from the regents who ruled in her absence. 

Charles IX was ten years old when he inherited his brother’s throne. What hopes did you have for his rule?
Like his brother François before him, I hoped for a long and prosperous reign for Charles. Again those hopes were dashed that by fate. In his death, which was very painful for me, at least I had the solace of my favorite son Henri—“my Alexander” as I often called him—returning to my side from near-exile as King of Poland and taking the throne of France. Oh how I loved ruling beside Henri III!

How do you characterize Marguerite? Do you think she inherited any of your characteristics?
Ah Marguerite . . . if only she had been a boy. She had the best constitution of any of my children, good health largely wasted as she was a girl. People say I did not love her but this is not true. I loved all my children, but they were not merely children, they were ROYALS—and that rank comes with duty to the crown. Margot had a duty to be useful to the House of Valois, and I made decisions for her in line with that duty. But my actions were not necessarily incompatible with a good life for her. Women marry to their family’s advantage *shrug* that is what we do. And then we make the most of it.

What did Margot inherit from me? She inherited a gift of second-sight (though mine was stronger and more reliable). And, looking back I can see now, as perhaps I could not at the time, that her intelligence and her political savvy were reminiscent of my own. Of course when she was young that made her more not less aggravating to me, as we were not working towards the same goals.

How did you feel about her relationship with the charismatic Duc de Guise?
It had to be stopped—or at least any foolish talk/thoughts of a marriage did. I knew that from the moment that my darling son Henri brought me rumors of her entanglement with Guise. Margot was flattered into thinking herself in love with the young Duc, but whatever she believed about the Duc’s attachment to her, I saw it as the charade it was—nothing more than power grab and a presumptuous attempt to marry into the Royal family.

In fairness to my foolish daughter, she did not have the advantage of the experience I did. Over the years I’d learned firsthand how power-hungry the Guise family was. After my husband died, when the Guises moved to push the Montmorency out of the government, I did not mind because I never liked the Montmorency. But subsequently the Guises—really the entire House of Lorraine in all its branches—had far too much power over King Francis II, and made every attempt to shut me out. I vowed then that I would never see another Valois King dominated by a member of the House of Lorraine!

I needed, France needed, an equilibrium between the great nobles of the realm or the country would be torn to bits. Already the Guises had done all they could to foment war. Was it not the elder Duc de Guise (Francis) who shattered the Crown’s first agreement with our Protestant subjects (within 6 weeks of its signing no less) by committing the Massacre of Vassy and thus causing the first War of Religion? I certainly was not sorry when he was assassinated, though telling the Venetian ambassador that, “If Monsieur de Guise had perished sooner, peace would have been achieved more quickly” might have been overdoing it.  And despite the old Duc’s death the Guises kept fouling up my efforts at peace—always wanting to wipe out the Protestants rather than work with them.

So no, Guise was not an appropriate husband for my daughter. And really, even if Guise had loved Margot, what foolish woman would take a Duc when she could have a King?

How did her marriage to Henri of Navarre further your ambitions for her, Charles, and France?France had already struggled through THREE costly (both in terms of lives and in terms of damage to the economy) Wars of Religion. Again we had peace, and I wanted that peace to hold so that I could concentrate on other things (like taking Admiral Coligny down a peg and reducing his influence over Charles before the King was talked into a ridiculous war with Spain). Henri of Navarre was next in line for the throne after my own sons, and he and his mother were significant leaders in the Protestant camp. The marriage between the Prince of Navarre and my daughter was meant to provide a seal upon the Paix de Saint-Germain, forging an unbreakable bond between the Catholic and Protestant branches of our family. And to be honest as the marriage was negotiated I even had hopes that the Prince of Navarre might be brought into the Catholic fold—more than one man has made himself over for an attractive, persuasive, wife.

To those who think it was all a plot—a ruse from the beginning to lure the King of Navarre and thousands of Protestants to Paris for a massacre—I say no. I am not a religious zealot like the Guises. I am and always was a pragmatist. Whatever happened after Margot’s wedding, I did not have wholesale death in mind as it took place. For heaven’s sake, we had medals struck, medals distributed at the wedding dinner, bearing a lamb resting against a cross encircled by the phrase “I announce peace to you.” If only the Admiral had been shot dead instead of wounded...

How far would you go to secure the power and legacy of your family?
Further than many people, but not as far as the black legends surrounding my name say. I am first and foremost a mother and a practical ruler. Would I assassinate? Absolutely, all great families have assassins on their payroll. Will I finish a situation once other forces have started it? Yes. But I honestly prefer less death not more, and less disruption to the business of the crown. Unfortunately sometimes things do not work out that way, and I am not above taking credit for events that raise me or my sons in the opinions of the majority of our subjects. 

What do you hope your children take from your example? Do you think any of them has what it takes to wield power as you have?
They do not have to have my strength or my cunning because I am with them, always ready to guide and aid them. I hope that I have instilled in them loyalty to family. Otherwise everything I have done to protect and promote the Valois line will be for nothing.

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Date of Birth: April 13, 1519

Physical Appearance: Catherine, with her bulging eyes, was by no measure an attractive woman. The fact she herself considered her hands to be her best and most beautiful feature suggests she knew as much. 

Education and Job Skills: Life was her teacher. As for skills, many: chief among them political (and religious) pragmatism and sometimes ruthlessness. Catherine had a will of iron and a willingness to do what was necessary (or what she thought was necessary) even when it was unsavory.

Family: All her significant family attachments really came after her marriage. She adored her husband.  She bore ten children, seven of whom lived to adulthood, only 2 of whom outlived her.

Allies: Catherine did not so much have allies as lieutenants. While she formed ties with others to benefit her goals and her sons’ governance of France, Catherine did not tend to view those whose interests corresponded with her own or those she cooperated with as equals.

Enemies: A complete list would be l-o-n-g. Let’s just say that when it came to influence over King Charles IX (relevant to my novel Médicis Daughter) her stand-out enemy was the Protestant leader Admiral Gaspard Coligny (Seigneur de Châtillon). 

Hobbies: The sciences, including particularly astrology (which WAS considered science during her lifetime). For more on Catherine’s involvement with astrology check out my blog at Wonders and Marvels entitled, "Star Struck: Catherine de Médicis and the Science of Supersitiont"  

Most Cherished Possession: No idea, but Catherine was particularly fond of her Château at Montceaux which her husband Henri gave her and where he visited her without his mistress Diane de Poitier.  

Strengths: Fortitude, pragmatism, a willingness to do the dirty-work. Loyalty to her children and to her husband’s royal Valois line.

Weaknesses: Catherine’s largest failing was not so much her penchant for poisoning or her beliefs in astrology and predictions of the future. Rather I believe it was her inability to accept that anyone could do anything as well or better than she could. As a result, Catherine never allowed her kingly sons—even once they were adults—the power and control that ought by rights to have been fully theirs. 

Fictional Appearances: Catherine de Médicis is one of the chief characters in Médicis Daughter (Thomas Dunne/December 2015)


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Sophie Perinot writes historical fiction. Her debut novel, The Sister Queens, (2012 NAL/Penguin) was set in 13th century France and England. The Sister Queens weaves the captivating story of medieval sisters, Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, who both became queens – their lifelong friendship, their rivalry, and their reigns.

Perinot's latest novel, Medicis Daughter , (2015 Thomas Dunne/St. Martin) is set three-hundred years later--at intrigue-riven 16th century French Valois court. Medicis Daughter spins the tale of beautiful princess Marguerite who walks the knife edge between the demands of her serpentine mother, Catherine de Medicis, and those of her own conscience.

Ms. Perinot has both a BA in History and a law degree. She left the law to pursue artistic interests, including writing. An avid reader, especially of classic literature, and life-long student of history, it seemed only natural that Sophie should write historical fiction. As someone who studied French abroad and a devotee of Alexandre Dumas, French history was a logical starting point. An active member of the Historical Novel Society, she has attended all of the group’s North American Conferences and served as a panelist multiple times.

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