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01 Dec The 24 Days of Christmas (Shopping)

Art and Love in Renaissance ItalyI’m going to devote the month of December to featuring some wonderful books that are on my own Christmas gift lists (some to give, some to receive, some both). Maybe you’ll get some ideas as well.

Leading off, Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, the catalogue of the magnificent exhibition organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. I saw this when it was in Fort Worth and it leaves me at a loss for words—it was simply extraordinary. This gorgeous book is a worthy companion to the exhibition—it’s crammed with illustrations of paintings and artifacts connected with love and marriage in the Renaissance—vases, books, jewelry, panels, glass vessels, musical instruments, and much more. The scholarly and fascinating essays accompanying the illustrations include snippets of historical documents—letters, lists of dowry items, marriage negotiations—and wonderful, insightful (and occasionally deliciously bawdy) discussion. Anyone interested in history, art or love (isn’t everyone interested in love?) will be delighted to receive this beautiful book. A paperback edition is also available.

Art and Love in Renaissance Italy is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Kimbell Art Museum, and your favorite independent bookseller.

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26 Nov Happy Thanksgiving!

A Puritan Mother. Long before the invention of baby monitors, pop-up wipes and Pampers.My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they were not far behind on one of the voyages of the Abigail, which sailed from London April to July 1635, arriving in Massachusetts Bay. Henry Collins, my ninth great-grandfather, a starchmaker (all those ruffs and caps had to be starched by someone, you know) from Stepney, Middlesex, brought his wife Ann and his three young children Henry, John and Margery. I’m descended from John (who was only three at the time of the voyage), through the Motts, Rhodeses, Sarjents, McConnells and Flemings.

So although they weren’t Pilgrims but ordinary Puritan tradesmen, here’s to the Collins family, who sailed to the New World and settled in Lynn, Massachusetts. Here’s to Ann Collins, who undertook a two-month-plus voyage across the Atlantic in cramped shipboard quarters with three children, ages five, three and two! Men may have gotten all the credit for bravery in those days, but a woman who could manage that is a woman I’m proud to be descended from.

Happy Thanksgiving wishes to everyone—because even if you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving Day as a holiday, it’s always good to be thankful.

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25 Nov Barbara Goes to Germany

Barbara of Austria by Francesco Terzio. In the collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.The central character of The Second Duchess is Barbara of Austria, a Habsburg archduchess, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I and his wife Anna Jagellonica, princess of Bohemia and Hungary. So you can imagine my delight to learn that German rights to The Second Duchess have been sold to Rowohlt. Ich bin sehr aufgeregt und glücklich! (German translation courtesy of my sister’s co-worker Kerry.) And of course as always, compliments to my stellar agent Diana Fox, and also to Betty Anne Crawford of Books Crossing Borders.

In the US, The Second Duchess is scheduled for February 2011 from Penguin/NAL.

I would love to visit Germany one day. The roots of my father’s family are deep in Schleswig-Holstein and Bavaria, and one line of my mother’s family comes from villages in the Kassel district of Hesse. How wonderful it would be to visit some of the towns and places that up to this point have been just faint, smudged names on old documents.

Some day. Some day.

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24 Nov The BBC and Me

BBC Radio 4I had the most delightful experience this morning—I was interviewed by Mark Smalley of the BBC for a program in the “Adventures in Poetry” series, focusing on my beloved “My Last Duchess.” My first interview! The Second Duchess isn’t scheduled until February 2011, but even so, it’s a great honor and a keen pleasure to be included (among many others, of course) in this program. I talked about my interpretations of the poem and how they drove my writing of the book, how Browning and I had fictionalized the same material but from different points of view, and how the reality of the historical personages behind the poem affected one’s reading of the poem and my writing of the book. I enjoyed myself tremendously and can’t wait to find out which snippets are chosen to actually be part of the program.

“Adventures in Poetry: ‘My Last Duchess'” is presently scheduled for Sunday, December 6th, on BBC Radio 4, with a repeat on Saturday, December 12th. After that it will be available online via iPlayer for a couple of weeks. Watch this space for further links!

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20 Nov Roses Roses

Antique roses on the kitchen counter, filling the whole house with their rose-y citrus-y fragranceOur antique roses are blooming like mad in these last weeks of the season (in Texas, anyway). We keep cutting them and bringing them inside, and as you can see we have half a dozen vases lined up on the kitchen counter. These are “St. Cecilia” and “Eglantyne” (the pinker ones) and “Jude the Obscure” (the gorgeous golden-pink-apricot one). The fragrances are simply stunning. There is nothing like an old-fashioned English rose for fragrance.

As you can see, we have a few (!) other plants as well. Sometimes I think it’s a tossup between the number of plants we have outdoors and the number of plants we have indoors!

My central character Rinette Leslie would have known roses somewhat similar to these—”Damascus and “Provence” roses—in the royal gardens at Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse. In her unique (meaning that I’m mostly just making it up) system of floromancy, roses are classifed by scent and number of petals rather than by color as they are in the later Victorian “language of flowers.”

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18 Nov Rituals

“It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behavior—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.”

—Twyla Tharp, in The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.

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16 Nov Golden Oldies

The Summer Queen, by Alice Walworth Graham--worth finding!Seems like everyone is reading Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen, a novel about Elizabeth Woodville, who married (or didn’t, depending on who you believe) Edward IV of England. This made me think of another book I read long ago, and sent me digging through dusty old boxes of books that won’t fit on the six (!) bookcases in my office.

Here it is. The Summer Queen, by Alice Walworth Graham. “The swirling drama of a beautiful commoner who dared marry a king… Luminous and fascinating!” And it is. Long out of print, of course, but worth pursuing at used-book stores and sites. Alice Walworth Graham was (and still is) one of my favorite authors—her Vows of the Peacock is, if anything, even better than The Summer Queen.

My paperbacks are may be crumbling and yellowed (and as you can see from the $1.25 price point on the scan, really really old), but Graham’s crisp, literate style and richly romantic storytelling will never grow old.

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13 Nov Newshound

Boudin chooses a career path as a newshound. All he needs now is a little "Press" card stuck in his collar.

Yesterday morning as I was working I heard the sound of paper rustling and crinkling from somewhere else in the house. I ignored it at first—probably just The Broadcasting Legend™ at work. But the sound continued. And continued. Finally I got up and went to see just who was doing what to what papers.

What I found was Boudin, happily ensconced on our black couch, having made himself a comfy nest of the morning’s newspaper. Now that is a newshound.

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11 Nov The Leonids are Coming!

A medieval illustration of the astrological LeoThe Leonid meteor shower has produced some of the most spectacular meteor displays in history; in fact, the Leonid display of November 1833 was so brilliant it produced the science of meteor astronomy (no pun intended) overnight.

The Leonids generally begin on November 13th and end on November 21st, with the largest numbers of observable meteors generally streaking across the sky during the night of November 17th/18th. This year the new moon falls on the 16th so there will be virtually no moonlight to impede viewing.

Bundle up and plan your Leonid-viewing party now! You can find everything you ever wanted to know (and more) about the Leonids at

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09 Nov Sailing Away into Time

I’ve been devouring a huge stack of historical fiction over the past couple of weeks. How I love boarding a frigate (hat tip to Emily Dickinson) and sailing away to other times and places!

The Queen of Subtleties by Suzannah Dunn, sailing me away to Tudor England. An eye-poppingly different take on Anne Boleyn, plus much delicious play on the word “subtlety.”

To the Tower Born, by Robin Maxwell, sailing back a bit more in time to 1502. Just what did happen to the little princes in the Tower? Ms. Maxwell has her own ideas about the mystery, and very intriguing they are.

The King’s Grace, by Anne Easter Smith, continuing my voyage back in time. It’s now 1485, and who is that mysterious “secret boy” at Margaret of Burgundy’s court? Why, it’s Perkin Warbeck. Is he one of the princes from the Tower, come back to claim his rightful crown?

The Courtesan, by Susan Carroll, tacking off across the Channel to France and 1575. The second book of a trilogy (which I didn’t realize until I started reading it), featuring a beautiful “daughter of the earth” with unusual painting skill, confronting the dark and complex Catherine de’ Medicis. My only question is, why is the woman on the cover wearing a Directoire gown?

Mistress of the Sun, by Sandra Gulland, running before the wind to the France of Louis XIV. This is the tale of Louise de la Vallière, and I gobbled it up, having first met Louise in my beloved Angélique books, many years ago. A lovely, lovely book.

How I’ve enjoyed my travels! Now, I think, it’s time for me to steer my frigate back to Edinburgh…