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11 Dec Book Shopping, Day Eleven

A Contemplation Upon Flowers by Bobby J. WardBecause I’ve been working out an original system of floromancy for The Silver Casket’s main character Rinette, I’ve been collecting books on the folklore, mythology and literature of flowers. This one is so gorgeous! I could stare at the cover for hours (it’s a detail from a painting called In the Bey’s Garden by John Frederick Lewis) before even opening the book up to savor the pleasures within.

And such pleasures! A Contemplation upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature by Bobby J. Ward traces the flowering history of the natural world, from the everyday to the mystical, as expressed in literature, myth and folklore. Quotations from poems, myths, novels, and plays from ancient Greece to the nineteenth century are used illustrate the literary history of eighty garden plants. Ward also incorporates each plant’s mythological and religious contexts, symbolism in the arts, and traditional medicinal uses, and unusual uses of flowers as food.

Gardeners, history-lovers, literature-lovers, will all open this beautiful book with delight.

A Contemplation upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature by Bobby J. Ward is available from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Books-a-Million, Timber Press, and of course your favorite independent bookstore.

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10 Dec Book Shopping, Day Ten

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana FranklinFor day ten of our holiday book-shopping adventure, I’m going back to my own favorite, historical fiction, in this case with a twist of historical mystery. Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin is the first of three books featuring Adelia Aguilar, trained in the medical school of Salerno, a foundling raised by two Salernitan doctors, one a Jewish man, one a Christian woman. Both her background and her education as a doctor to the dead—a mistress of the art of death—make her an exotic curiosity in twelfth-century England—a Ruth, as she puts it, among the alien corn.

Sent to England by the King of Sicily, at the request of Henry II (Henry actually asked for a “master of the art of death,” so imagine his surprise at receiving a mistress), Adelia’s task is to find out the truth behind a series of grisly child murders in medieval Cambridge. The details are not for the faint of heart, although Adelia’s brusque but heartfelt sympathy as she pursues the truth mitigate some of the horror. As the Washington Post says, Mistress of the Art of Death is “a historical mystery that succeeds brilliantly as both historical fiction and crime-thriller.”

The two subsequent books in this series are The Serpent’s Tale (featuring Rosamund Clifford, the “fair Rosamund” of the legendary labyrinthine bower—I am a complete sucker for any tale of fair Rosamund) and Grave Goods (set in the holy town of Glastonbury and centered upon Adelia’s examination of the putative bones of Arthur and Guinevere). But I always like to read series of books like this in order, so I urge you to start with Mistress of the Art of Death. And I do envy you the pleasures you have in store.

All of Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death books are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, and of course your favorite independent bookstore.

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09 Dec Book Shopping, Day Nine

The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto KasperWhat holiday book-shopping list is complete without a few fabulous cookbooks? The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper is one of my own favorites—I’ve scanned the well-worn jacket, with its frayed stickers proclaiming the book to be a James Beard Award winner and the Julia Child Cookbook Awards Book of the Year. It was originally published in 1992 and is still going strong. My copy is a first edition and was purchased long before I had any inkling I was going to write The Second Duchess—but I must have had a moment of prescience because this book is focused on the Emilia-Romagna and simply crammed with tidbits (in all senses of the world) about cooking in the sixteenth century in Ferrara. I turned to it again and again as I imagined the sumptuous banquets and intimate suppers my Barbara and Alfonso enjoyed.

If you like Italian food, you simply must have this gorgeous book in your collection. Not only does it offer recipes—and what recipes!—it is full of historical notes, sketches, mini-biographies, folklore (did you know that hollow maccheroni like penne were served to celebrate the birth of a male child?) and whole sections on the historical background and making of northern Italian specialties like Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Proscuito di Parma, and of course the queen of vinegars, Modena’s famous aceto balsamico. There’s a slew of beautiful color plates, but I have to confess I like the line drawings and reproductions of Renaissance engravings and woodcuts better. How I pored over the chapter entitled “The Sweet Pastas of the Renaissance”! Barbara and Alfonso enjoy a few of the treats from this chapter, particularly the Torta di Tagliarini Ferrarese, or Sweet Tagliarini Tart of Ferrara. Legend holds this dish was created by court cooks of Ferrara for the wedding of Lucrezia Borgia to Ercole II d’Este, as an homage to Lucrezia’s glorious golden hair. (Lucrezia was my Alfonso’s grandmother.)

The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food, by Lynne Rossetto Kasper, is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Books-a-Million, and of course from your favorite independent bookseller.

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08 Dec Book Shopping, Day Eight

Flight of the Phoenix by R.E. LaFevers (Nathaniel Fludd: Beastologist, Book One)I just love this book’s cover. I’d pick it up for the cover alone. And then when I’d leaf through the pages and see the wonderful illustrations and discover the story featuring a plucky ten-year-old boy whose “family business” is mapmaking and beastology, I’d really be hooked.

I have a seven-year-old boy on my own holiday gift list who may be a wee skosh young for this, but I know he’ll love the story and the sketches and the beasts (particularly the beasts) and he has a wonderful teacher mom who will help him through this first book. I think he’ll quickly grow into the rest of the series.

The Flight of the Phoenix (Nathanial Fludd: Beastologist, Book One) is a Junior Literary Guild Selection. School Library Journal calls it “a quick and enriching read” and notes “children who love fantasy, myth, exotic settings, and even a little dose of history will relate to Nate as he discovers his inner hero and carries on the Fludd family tradition. The characters are strongly developed and the period illustrations done in line, including some of Nate’s own sketches, enhance the tale.”

The author R.L. LaFevers will send a personalized bookplate to anyone who purchases this book in December, as a way to give your gift that special touch. Yay, Robin! Just go to her website and click the “Contact” tab for her email address.

The Flight of the Phoenix (Nathanial Fludd: Beastologist, Book One) by R.L. LaFevers is available at Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Amazon, and of course from your favorite independent bookstore.

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07 Dec Book Shopping, Day Seven

The Peruvian Pigeon by Dana FredstiI love mysteries. All kinds of mysteries. Historical mysteries, of course. Contemporary mysteries, from cozy to noir. I love the classics—Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham—and I also love the edgy and quirky books of today. And speaking of quirky, here’s a book-gift idea for the mystery fan on your list.

Dana Fredsti’s Murder for Hire: The Peruvian Pigeon is, of course, a riff on The Maltese Falcon. (Oh, Dashiell Hammett! The Thin Man is another huge favorite.) The story centers on Murder for Hire, Inc., a theatrical troupe which has “pastiched, parodied and lampooned everything from gothics to Sherlock Holmes.” Unfortunately, when MFH is hired to perform at a weekend festival celebrating the life and works of a legendary mystery writer, real murder muscles its way in. MFH impresario (impresaria?) Connie Garrett finds herself knee-deep in fictional detectives, real detectives, and dead bodies. Will one of them be her own? Will the show go on?

This is a delightful tale, twisty and funny, crammed with an insider’s knowledge of acting and the entertainment industry. A perfect stocking stuffer for your favorite mystery fan.

Order Murder for Hire: The Peruvian Pigeon from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Yellowback Mysteries, or your favorite independent bookstore.

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06 Dec Adventures in Poetry

The BBC Radio 4 Adventures in Poetry program on “My Last Duchess” is now available online! It’s a fabulous in-depth look at the poem, at the history behind the story, and at dear Mr. Browning. Take a little break from your holiday shopping and listen—the link is here:

BBC Radio 4 Adventures in Poetry “My Last Duchess”

My little segment is about twenty minutes in, and I do have to admit it’s a bit of a shock to suddenly hear my own very Texan-sounding voice after twenty minutes of British voices. But it’s a huge honor to be included, and I’m very excited and pleased.

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06 Dec Book Shopping, Day Six

The Art of IlluminationBecause I live my alternative life in the sixteenth century, I love reproductions of fabulous books of hours. Whether or not one takes the content to heart, the sheer glory of the artwork and minuscule magnificence of the illuminations and borders are enough to touch anyone’s heart.

This book, The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, is just such a beautiful art object. The Belles Heures is not the same as the more famous Très Riches Heures, although it was painted by the same artists, the three Limbourg brothers, Paul, Hermann and Jean. Perhaps the “Beautiful Hours” was for everyday, and the “Very Rich Hours” was for high holidays! Out of curiosity I traced the relationship between Jean, Duc de Berry, and Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara—my Alfonso. It turns out Alfonso is doubly related to Jean—Jean is his fourth great uncle through his father Ercole II d’Este, and his fifth great uncle through his mother, Renée of France. As I keep finding out, medieval and Renaissance Europe was very much a family affair.

A sumptuous gift for anyone interested in Renaissance art, the particular art of illumination, the French royal family, or the collection of books of hours.

The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry is available from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Books-a-Million, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (check the home page for a discount code good for 20% off, effective through December 13th), and of course your favorite independent bookseller.

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05 Dec Book Shopping, Day Five

A Genius for Deception by Nicholas RankinI’ve invited the Broadcasting Legend™ to suggest a holiday gift book that might appeal to the man on your list. He came up with A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars, by Nicholas Rankin. Need I add that the Broadcasting Legend™ is a great fan of the History Channel, the Military Channel, and pretty much anything to do with war?

But this, according to Michael Bywater of the Daily Telegraph, “is a book of marvellous yarns, which will appeal to a far wider readership than the sombre consumers of standard military history.” “It is all here,” writes Simon Winchester, author of The Man Who Loved China and A Crack in the Edge of the World, “colonels in drag, midget submarines, corpses with stashed secrets, a black radio station called Aspidistra and more inventions than James Bond’s Q could ever conceive—and is endlessly fascinating in consequence. No better book about the mad arcana of belligerence has ever been written.” Now who could resist that?

This is definitely going to be in the Broadcasting Legend™’s stocking come Christmas morning. He may have to fight me for it.

A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars by Nicholas Rankin is available from Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Amazon, and your favorite independent bookstore.

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04 Dec Book Shopping, Day Four

Murder of a Medici Princess, by Caroline P. MurphyThis book looks like a novel but it’s actually a biography, and a very good one at that. I gobbled it up because its subject Isabella de’ Medici was an older sister of my Lucrezia, and my fictionalized vision of Isabella actually plays a key peripheral (albeit offstage) role in The Second Duchess.

Isabella was Duke Cosimo de’ Medici’s third child and second daughter, and a great favorite of her ambitious, powerful, and sometimes violent father. Caroline P. Murphy uses painstaking research and the extensive extant correspondence by and about the Medici to characterize Isabella, her family, her friends, and the courtiers that surrounded her. Much of the focus is on women and women’s lives, on delicious details about food, clothing, art, music, sport, daily living, the roles of servants, and the dazzling spectacles and entertainments a girl like Isabella took as a matter of course.

Most readers won’t really like Isabella—she was a woman of her time and place and position, cruel, arrogant, self-centered and sensual. But in her context—as a Renaissance princess, a patron of the arts, fluent in five languages—she is certainly fascinating. I won’t spoil the suspense with all the lurid details of her death, but I will say her beautiful ghost supposedly appears periodically in the Medici mansion where she was murdered, and at Castello Orsini Odescalchi in Bracciano, where she supposedly entertained many of her lovers.

Murder of a Medici Princess would be a wonderful gift for anyone interested in the Renaissance or women’s history. I think it would also appeal to readers of mysteries and thrillers.

Murder of a Medici Princess by Caroline P. Murphy is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, and your favorite independent bookstore. Hardcover and paperback editions are available.

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03 Dec Book Shopping, Day Three

Find the Constellations by H.A. ReyFind the Constellations is a treasured book from my own childhood, and it’s been consistently in print ever since, with updated editions from time to time. This most recent edition (2008) is freshened up yet again, even addressing the de-planet-ization of poor little Pluto.

H.A. Rey’s connect-the-dot diagrams for the major constellations are unique and memorable. At the time the book was first published, they were startlingly different—even I had been taught to visualize the constellation Gemini as a sort of set of giant legs with long feet, and I was amazed and charmed to see the same stars re-connected to create an actual pair of twins. Since this book, and its more young-adult companion The Stars: A New Way to See Them, came out, Rey’s constellation diagrams have become much more commonly used.

If you have grade-school children on your holiday shopping list, Find the Constellations is a gift idea that could spark a lifelong love of stargazing. It certainly worked for me!

Find the Constellations is available at Books-a-Million, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and of course from your favorite independent bookseller. Hardcover and paperback editions are available.