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This post originally appeared on the blog Mystery Fanfare, a website of Mystery Readers.org, thanks to the support of Janet Rudolph

The Winery of His Dreams

Pinch me: Just like that, the Bennett Sisters Mystery series has been going strong for thirteen years already, starting in 2009 with Blackbird Fly. Sometimes it’s hard to believe. It’s humbling that readers still want to explore the world with the five sisters and their partners— and for me to come up with new and delicious adventures for them. It’s not always easy, which may explain why I’ve written two stories now featuring Pascal d’Onscon. He is middle sister Merle’s partner. As a member of law enforcement in France, he has access to the best things. 

By which I mean criminals, of course.

I am writing fiction, I tell myself. Anything goes, as long as you can sell it properly to the reader. I can involve my five lawyers in any and all sorts of legal issues, secrets and lies and sketchy characters. But I do try to keep things on a somewhat realistic level. So far I have dealt with squatters, wine scams, drug deals, art theft, runaway dogs, and of course a bit of bloody murder. Stumbling over dead bodies in every book stretches credulity at times, especially if your characters are civilians. The five sisters are in various stages of midlife and are professional women, attorneys, not detectives. 

Are my books cozies? Yes and no. They aren’t the typical cozy and yet they aren’t gritty either. I have been known to call them ‘women’s suspense’ which doesn’t actually exist as a sub-genre. International crime? Sure… but… You decide, reader. And, please, tell me your verdict.

The problem I faced with the latest novel, Château des Corbeaux (Castle of Ravens— #17 in the series), is that I have given my wine fraud detective, Pascal, an office job in Bordeaux. (What was I thinking? That this would create tension for him, what he needs to do versus what he wants to do? So that worked.) He works for the Republic’s agency that keeps wineries honest, assures that the grapes are from the proper AOC, honoring all rules and regulations the French have for their sacred nectar. Plenty of money in French wine, thus plenty of wine crime to go around.

In the 2020 book, the first starring Pascal, he is summoned to the Champagne region to investigate a bottle of still white wine with a Champagne producer’s label, a vigneron travesty. (There is no point in still wine if you have grapes growing in the proper Champagne AOC. Make bubbly and make money is the implied motto.) That book, Dead Flat, also chronicled Pascal’s dilemma about whether to accept a promotion in the agency. By Château he is out of field work and into the office, renting a smelly apartment, and hating every minute of that illustrious French invention called bureaucracy.

His dissatisfaction with office work bubbles up in his mind as the idea emerges of owning a vineyard of his own. The desire grabs Pascal— being back on the soil, feeling the terroir, the grape on his tongue, the sun on his face. Although he has never been a farmer and in the past disparaged them as being prey to the whims of weather, markets, and a hundred other things, the idea blossoms into an obsession when he spies an abandoned vineyard seemingly waiting for his loving attention. 

Thus begins his struggle to become a vintner. Not an easy one for Pascal— one day discouragement and resignation that it will never come to pass because he is too poor to buy a Bordeaux vineyard. (They are often priced in the multi-millions and he is, as he often says, a simple public servant.) The next day a glimmer of hope with strapped owners needing a cash infusion. And then, a death in the vineyard to upset all dreams. 

The beautiful countryside of France is again a character in the story, providing spectacular imagery, delicious recipes, and rich history. The rolling hillsides planted with undulating rows of vines, dotted with the turrets of châteaux. Wide rivers flowing to the sea. Quaint villages hiding their secrets behind the intoxicating smell of baking bread and the piety of charming churches. I love the long, bloody history of France and have managed to wind the prehistoric age into this book. There are archeological sites all over France but we tend to hear about Viking ships unearthed in England. France too had its ancient tribes and lost settlements. Iron Age and early Roman finds figure in the tale. 

Will Pascal get his vineyard? Will Merle buy her cottages? What is ailing Francie? How did the man come to die in the vineyard? 

After those questions, the main events of the mystery, are resolved a few loose ends remained. So I wrote a free bonus epilogue that you can link to at the end of the e-book. (Use the QR code in the paperback.) 

Some secret treasures to be revealed… Enjoy! 

 

What makes a novel?

Posted by on 4-04-18 in Authors, writing | 0 comments

Taking a break from springtime French cooking (ha!) to enjoy this interview with John le Carré, done by the BBC in 1974.

One of my favorite writers, le Carré’s real name is David Cornwell. He’s now 86 and still going strong. His third George Smiley novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, published in 1963, established his worldwide reputation. The books were based on his own experiences in Britain’s intelligence service MI6. He’s never tried to hide his real name all these years and I don’t know if he ever explained why he chose a French name. [Carré in French can mean square, straight, or outspoken. Maybe that’s a clue.]

In his 2016 autobiography he dishes on all the “greats” he’s met, including film directors, prime ministers, and just the filthy rich. His father and mother don’t fare too well. His mother abandoned him at five; his father was a con man, often in prison. Some of his father’s characteristics no doubt served le Carré well in intelligence work.

His works have translated well into film and audiobooks. Many good memories of seeing the movie, The Constant Gardener, with Ralph Fiennes, then listening to the audiobook. Set in Kenya, it is a brutal love story, and vintage le Carré.

 

My last book of his to read is The Night Manager, about a man working in a Swiss hotel who is not exactly as he seems– ever.

What have you been reading? Love to hear your recommendations.

 

Happy April!

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The Joys of Celeriac

Posted by on 2-02-18 in Bennett Sisters French Cookbook, France | 0 comments

Celeriac, or celery root– céleri in French– is a bit of a mystery to most Americans. It’s simply the root of celery, the stalks of which we usually eat. It’s round, and white, and surprisingly tasty. Yes, it tastes like celery! Refreshingly light and crunchy.

Here are two French recipes using celeriac. The first, Cèleri Rémoulade, is a coleslaw-like salad, very common everywhere in France. Thanks to Helen Mulroney for making this with me.

Cèleri RémouladeIMG_0648-2648136242-1519505725393.jpg

Grate a medium-sized peeled celery root. Medium means 12 oz. or so, the size of large softball. Toss with 2 tbsp lemon juice immediately to keep it fresh.

Whisk together 1/3 c. mayonnaise, 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard, salt, pepper, and (optional) 1 tbsp snipped chives.

Add the dressing to the grated celery root and toss to coat. Add more pepper to taste.

Makes a refreshing starter or salad course.

 


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Another way to use Celeriac is in this baked celery root mash with eggs.

Thanks again to master tester and food photographer, Judy Williams.

Celery Root Bake

  • 1 medium celery root, about 12 ounces
  • 5 tbsp butter
  • a handful of celery leaves or 1 green onion
  • 4 – 6 eggs
  • salt

Peel the celery root- it peels easily with a peeler or paring knife. Cube it into 1-inch cubes, then boil the celery root in salted water for about five minutes, until tender.

Mash celery root with as much butter as looks tasty. Chop the celery leaves or green onion and stir into mash.

celerymashPut the mash into a baking dish or four ramekins and make 4 (or more) indentations. (Amount of mash will differ depending on size of celery root.) Fill each one with an egg.  Season each egg with salt and top with a dab of butter. If using ramekins, place on a baking sheet.

Bake in a 475 F oven until the eggs set but the yolks are still runny, about 12-15 minutes.

cookedcelerymash

Garish with green onions or chopped celery leaves

For a special dish add shaved truffles to the mash.

Bon appetit!

 

 

 

 

 

adapted from Fergus Henderson in Nose to Tail Eating

Quatre Quarts : French Pound Cake

Posted by on 1-01-18 in Bennett Sisters French Cookbook, France | 0 comments

The name ‘Quatre Quarts’ translates as four fourths, to make up one whole, in this case one pound cake.

The Quatre Quarts cake is something French housewives throw together for afternoon tea, or in case a neighbor drops by. It would be impolite not to have something to serve. The ingredients here are so simple: eggs, butter, sugar, and flour, that anyone can keep them on hand. Merle Bennett is exposed to this cake on her first visit to Malcouziac, the fictional village in the Dordogne in Blackbird Fly. 

Because I live at high altitude I had to experiment with this cake. Also the fact that only the small oven in my range is working made me a little nervous. Experiment with it yourself. There are other recipes out there, like Eugenie’s and Jacques Pepin’s. 

Here is the one I used.

3 large eggs

1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup butter, salted or unsalted (1 1/2 sticks).

Pour the sugar in a bowl. Add the melted butter and blend it in with a wooden spoon until smooth. Separate the egg yolks from the whites. Set the whites aside. Add the egg yolks to the sugar-butter mix. Stir well. The more you beat, the lighter the cake. Slowly add the sifted flour and incorporate it gradually Add some salt (up to a whole teaspoon) if you’re using unsalted butter only. Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat until stiff. If the egg whites have been beaten enough you should be able to flip the bowl upside down, in other words, very stiff peaks.

Incorporate the egg whites to the batter, a big spoonful at a time, carefully making under-and-over motions until evenly blended. The foam of the meringue should stay intact. This is important in getting a fluffy cake. Pour the batter in a buttered 9-inch round metallic cake pan.

Bake at 350F for about 45 minutes or until golden (if you stick a knife in the center of the cake it should come out dry).

how it should look!

I won’t show you the photo of my cake as it was rather sad. I decided to use the labor-saving, baking powder method instead of beating the egg whites: NOT recommended. It did not rise at all and began to over-bake by 35 minutes. It still tasted pretty good though (we ate it for breakfast) and I will try it again with my mixer to beat those egg whites! No short-cuts allowed.

Do you make pound cake, French or otherwise? Do you add almonds or fruits? Love to hear in comments about your successes!

 

January is definitely cruel

Posted by on 1-01-18 in Authors, Bennett Sisters, France, Mysteries | 0 comments

To say that I hate January is an understatement. It is long, cold, and dark in Montana, and I often go a little bit crazy inside the house! This year we’ve flown south, as snowbirds do, and seem to be managing the month with a daily dose of sunshine. January isn’t the cruelest month… they are all variously cruel, especially when you lose favorite authors and longtime friends.

Today I heard about my pal, Bill Moody, who began publishing mysteries with me at Walker & Company Publishing, back in the early ’90s, has passed away. We each published about four books in our series (me starting with The Bluejay Shaman and Bill with Solo Hand, about his jazz pianist who loses use of one hand so begins sleuthing.) We shared an editor and publisher, as well as two different agents for a time. Bill was an accomplished jazz drummer who worked all over the world with Lou Rawls and many others. He introduced me to people at conventions, and vice versa, and we became convention buddies.

In 1996 at Left Coast Crime in Boulder, Colorado, he  played drums unrehearsed as I recited my little tone-poem, Rides a Black and White Horse, told from the point of view of a mystery novel.

John Harvey, Lise, Jerry Healy, Alan Russell

One of the highlights of my life, that night, and Bill just did it, impromptu and without an anxious moment. (Bill is in the back, out of sight, in this photo. Jerry Healy in the red shirt is also sadly gone.) John Harvey, a fellow jazz aficionado with Bill, played tambourine for me and Alan Russell did his finger-snapping.

Bill taught creative writing at Sonoma State in Santa Rosa, California. My last contact with him was last fall, when I asked on Facebook if anybody knew if he was out of harm’s way of the raging fires there. He sent me a friend request, said he was fine, then disappeared again… Bill could be irascible but he had a big heart. He once told me that our editor was saying things about me at a convention, which you might find cruel, but it was actually something I really needed to know. He didn’t pull punches, he told it like it was. Bill was 76 (and a heavy smoker… We traveled to Nottingham Bouchercon in the UK together about the time smoking was banned on all flights, and I remember how pissed off he was! I mention this just to show you that smokers do sometimes beat the odds.)

He died in his sleep on January 14, and was found when he didn’t show up for a gig. I will miss you, Bill. We all will. Rest in peace.

•••

Another author who recently passed away is Peter Mayle, author of the hilarious memoirs and crime capers set in southern France. His success with A Year in Provence was unexpected and huge, creating problems for Mayle and his wife, Jennie, especially when the BBC created a television series based on their lives. They decamped to the US for awhile then relocated in a secret location in Provence. My friend Helen and I hiked through the Luberon last spring near where they lived and missed our chance to meet Mr. Mayle! (Not that we tried, but it would have been fun.) I loved his books, read them all, especially his later novels like Hotel Pastis and A Good Year, made into a delicious film with Russell Crowe. The closest we came was drinking a bottle of wine from the real vineyard where A Good Year was filmed. (Very good!)

The New York Times said:

As the British newspaper The Telegraph noted in revisiting its success in a 2006 article, the book [A Year in Provence] “somehow tapped deep into a slumbering, latent, hitherto unknown British desire for sunshine and fine wine, for peeling shutters and croissants, for distressed armoires and saucisson and the good life in the French countryside.”

My Bennett Sisters Mysteries owe a huge debt of gratitude for Mayle, who not only kindled that desire in the British but also Americans, Australians, and just about everyone else. No more of that delectable, dry British wit. ? Mayle was 78.

Blanquette de veau

Posted by on 1-01-18 in Bennett Sisters French Cookbook, France | 0 comments

What could be more warming and satisfying on a cold winter’s night than this delicious French veal stew? Blanquette de veau is a classic dish that is served all over France.  Blanquette is the French term for a ragout of white meat (veal, lamb or poultry) cooked in a white stock or water with aromatic flavorings, without browning in butter thus keeping it “white.” It requires some time… as my friend and fellow francophile Judy Williams discovered when she made it recently but will be appreciated by your friends and family. Thank you, Judy, and thanks to your tasters, Malcolm and Ainsley too.

NOTE: This recipe has been edited for clarification… If you copied it, please check it out again! Sorry about that.

Blanquette de veau

IMG_4735

Ingredients (serves 4-6):

2-1/2 lbs. veal shoulder (cut into 2-inch cubes) NOTE: To save time have the butcher cube the veal for you. You will need to get this from a specialty butcher anyway.

2 carrots (sliced into chunky sticks)

2 leeks (sliced, white part only)

1 small onion

2 garlic cloves (sliced)

2 small shallots (sliced – keep one half uncut)

1 celery stalk (sliced)

4 cloves

1/2 pound white mushrooms

IMG_4732

1/3 pound pearl onions (peeled)

4 tbsp white wine (optional)

2 tbsp butter (or olive oil, for frying the mushrooms)

Salt and pepper, for seasoning

For the bouquet garni:

A bunch of thyme

One bay leaf

A few sprigs of parsley

For the sauce:

A few squeezes of fresh lemon juice

2/3 cup crème fraîche

1/3 cup flour

1/4 cup butter

2 egg yolks

Chop the carrots into chunky sticks, coarsely slice the onion, shallots, leeks, celery, and garlic.  (Tip to peel pearl onions: trim the root and put in a heat-proof dish, pour boiling water over them and let stand about 4-5 minutes, then plunge into cold water. The skins will peel right off.) Keep half a shallot and stick the cloves in.

Make a simple bouquet garni with a few sprigs of thyme, parsley and bay leaf (tie with some twine or wrap in cheesecloth).

Blanch the cubed veal in about 8 cups of boiling salted water for 1-2 minutes. Add the onion, shallots, garlic, bouquet garni and all the other vegetables– except mushrooms and pearl onions but including the half shallot with cloves. Add the wine.  Bring to a soft boil for 2 minutes. Season with salt. Cover and cook on a low heat for 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Remove all the meat, bouquet garni, vegetables and set aside.  Cover to keep them warm. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve, reserving four cups of broth. Then boil down the broth to 2 cups for the sauce.

In a saucepan melt ¼ c. butter and add 1/3 c. flour, cooking over low heat until smooth and golden. Add the stock from the pot and cream. Pour the roux sauce into the blanquette pot.  Mix well with a whisk and cook for 5 minutes on a low heat, until the stew sauce starts to slightly thicken. Return the veal and strained veggies to the pot and simmer about 15 minutes.

IMG_4734At the same time, sauté the sliced mushrooms and peeled pearl onions in 2 T butter. Drizzle with Lemon juice and add to blanquette.

In a separate bowl combine the crème fraiche, lemon juice, and 2 egg yolks. Add 1 – 2 ladles of blanquette sauce to the bowl – you don’t want to curdle the eggs. Stir well, then add to the blanquette. Warm through and serve immediately with rice. Garnish with parsley.

NOTES: Two-and-a-half pounds of veal shoulder before trimming was plenty for 6 people. The ancient version of this recipe recommends pasta instead of rice. Sometimes even potatoes are used as a base.

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Judy says: This was time-consuming, but OMG so good!

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For more French recipes included in and inspired by the Bennett Sisters Mysteries, follow this blog or sign up for Lise’s newsletter HERE

 

 

Book Giveaway

Posted by on 1-01-18 in Bennett Sisters, Giveaways, Kindle | 0 comments

Just a quick update… I’m giving away two ebook copies of ‘The Things We Said Today’– the fourth book in the Bennett Sisters series. This is the story where the whole family goes to Scotland for Annie and Callum’s wedding. The sisters (and Pascal) stay in the family’s hunting lodge in the Highlands. When a torrential storm hits they end up cut off from the rest of the wedding party. Mayhem ensues! And rain, lots of very Scottish rain.

Check out the giveaway on Amazon

Yes, there are Highland cows! And whisky, romance, and intrigue.

Good luck!

When the blackbird flies to France

Posted by on 1-01-18 in Bennett Sisters, France | 0 comments

a-vol-de-merle

The French translation of ‘Blackbird Fly,’ first in the Bennett Sisters Mystery series, is now available. Woo hoo! Or, excuse me, Ooh-la-la! Emma Cazabonne translated the novel and Gaelle Davis proofread the translation. Both native French speakers, Emma lives in the Chicago area now while Gaelle lives in France.

The title in French, À Vol de Merle, translates to ‘As the blackbird flies.’ One of the issues we had to deal with was of course a French title, and how to capitalize it. The French don’t use capitals as much as we do in English, generally only capitalizing the first word in a title. I overruled my native French speakers however after reading that often the first important noun in a title is also capitalized. (In this case ‘vol’ is the noun ‘flight.’) We also capitalized ‘Merle,’ which means blackbird in French, because it is a proper name in the book. Merle Bennett is unaware of the meaning of her name until late in the book. (That aspect of the story may be a bit awkward.)

I am not fluent in French myself, although I took a number of years in high school. So I’m going to read À Vol de Merle as a way to brush up on my French. I know the story but I will keep my dictionary close at hand (along with a glass of wine of course.)

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À Vol de Merle is on sale on Amazon & KOBO. Coming soon to Nook and iTunes.

Bennett Sisters French Cookbook Preview

Posted by on 12-12-17 in Bennett Sisters French Cookbook, France | 0 comments

I have a simple new year’s resolution for 2018: blog more!

So in that vein I have resolved to post recipes from the Bennett Sisters mysteries. Some are only mentioned in passing, something Merle or her friends make in France, a dish eaten at a restaurant, or a classic recipe from the region. Most will be French recipes; many will be tested by me or my friends– but not all! Use your own judgment. Myself, I rarely follow a recipe to the letter. Because I live 40 miles from the nearest grocery I make do with what’s in the freezer or the pantry sometimes. I have tried to be true to the spirit of French country cooking though, and hope you will share some of your favorite recipes with me.

2ChickenRouladeProvencalew-WholeGrainMustardBearnaise1_RyanScottTonight, New Year’s Eve, I am not quite ready to start my resolution. Instead of using a Bennett Sisters-inspired recipe, I am making a dish from the movie, The Hundred-Foot Journey, the delightful Helen Mirren film about a classic restauranteur in France. During the promotions for the movie, Cost Plus World Market paired up with them, offering this recipe using some ingredients from the retailer.

IMG_1470In my own variation I will be using Edmond Fallot Dijon mustard, leaving out tomatoes, and using prosecco vinegar and Sauvignon Blanc wine. Enjoy, and happy new year! Bonne année!

Chicken Roulade Provençale with Mustard Bearnaise

INGREDIENTS

1/4 cup Maille Dijon Whole-Grain Mustard (or other French mustard)
1/4 cup Louis Jadot Macon Chardonnay (or other buttery white Chardonnay)
1/4 cup white wine vinegar (or champagne vinegar)
3 egg yolks
1 stick butter, melted
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Chicken breasts
2 tbsp of Maille Dijon Mustard (or other French mustard)
3 tbsp Herbs de Provence
8 slices of Un Mondo Herbes de Provence Salami
2 slices of Provolone cheese, halved
2 tbsps Cornichons, thinly sliced
2 tbsp French blend olives, sliced
1/4 cup Cherry tomatoes, halved

METHOD

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with foil.

To make béarnaise sauce:
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring Maille Dijon Mustard, the Chardonnay, and the white wine vinegar to a simmer. Continue to simmer until liquid is reduced by half. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. In a blender, blend the egg yolks and béarnaise sauce together. With the blender running, slowly add the melted butter until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper and keep sauce warm until ready to use.

Butterfly and flatten each chicken breast to 1/4-inch thickness. On each piece of chicken, spread 1 tbsp of Mustard and half the Herbs de Provence. Top with 4 slices of Un Mondo Herbes de Provence Salami, 1 slice of provolone cheese, and half of the sliced cornichons, olives, and cherry tomatoes.

Tightly roll chicken and secure in 3 places with string or toothpicks. Place on lined baking sheet and bake until chicken is tender, about 25 minutes.

Here is Chef Ryan Scott demonstrating this recipe, with some of his own variations.

UPDATE: January 1. This is a tasty dish! However, I wish I had made it the way the chef in the video did, browning the chicken in a pan then baking for just 10 minutes. When you bake it for 25 minutes or so, all the cheese melts out, along with the spicy mustard inside. I used prosciutto instead of salami; that and pickles and olives are what’s left inside. Still delicious but not exactly what I had in mind so will try it again, using Ryan’s method. Another pro tip: flatten out the breast thoroughly. It makes it much easier to roll.

The Mystery Novel: Halloween All Year Long

Posted by on 10-10-17 in Mysteries, Readers | 0 comments

Rides the Black-and-White Horse

Some years back at a mystery convention in Boulder, Colorado, I performed this tone poem with John Harvey on tambourine, Bill Moody on drums, and a variety of semi-volunteers snapping their fingers to the beat. I wrote this as an homage to the mystery novel. Recently someone quoted snippets of it on Twitter with illustrations, and I liked it so much I’ve added a few of my own.

I’m always amused at reactions of people who don’t read mysteries and thrillers, who don’t know the excitement of entering a frightening world of evil or an everyday town where strangers wait their turn to make mayhem. Got the shivers yet?

Here’s how the book sees you the reader.

I am a book. 

Sheaves pressed from the pulp of oaks and pines
a natural sawdust made dingy from purses, dusty
from shelves.
Steamy and anxious, abused and misused,
kissed and cried over,
smeared, yellowed, and torn,
loved, hated, scorned.

I am a book.

I am a book that remembers,
days when I stood proud in good company
When the children came, I leapt into their arms,
when the women came, they cradled me against their soft breasts,
when the men came, they held me like a lover,
and I smelled the sweet smell of cigars and brandy as we sat together in leather chairs,
next to pool tables, on porch swings, in rocking chairs,
my words hanging in the air like bright gems, dangling,
then forgotten, I crumbled,
dust to dust.

I am a tale of woe and secrets,
a book brand-new, sprung from the loins of ancient fathers clothed in tweed,
born of mothers in lands of heather and coal soot.
A family too close to see the blood on its hands,
too dear to suffering, to poison, to cold steel and revenge,
deaf to the screams of mortal wounding,
amused at decay and torment,
a family bred in the dankest swamp of human desires.

I am a tale of woe and secrets,
I am a mystery.

I am intrigue, anxiety, fear,
I tangle in the night with madmen, spend my days cloaked in black,
hiding from myself, from dark angels,
from the evil that lurks within
and the evil we cannot lurk without.

I am words of adventure,
of faraway places where no one knows my tongue,
of curious cultures in small, back alleys, mean streets,
the crumbling house in each of us.

I am primordial fear, the great unknown,
I am life everlasting.
I touch you and you shiver, I blow in your ear and you follow me,
down foggy lanes, into places you’ve never seen,
to see things no one should see,
to be someone you could only hope to be.

I ride the winds of imagination on a black-and-white horse,
to find the truth inside of me,
to cure the ills inside of you,
to take one passenger at a time over that tall mountain,
across that lonely plain to a place you’ve never been
where the world stops for just one minute
and everything is right.

I am a mystery.

“Rides a Black and White Horse”
Lise McClendon

happy halloween ?

Happy Halloween ?

 

What exactly is a ‘book within a book’?

Posted by on 10-10-17 in Bennett Sisters, France | 0 comments

 

We’re getting ‘meta’ here. Of course there is a book inside those covers, or behind that e-book screen. But what about two books, one inside the other? One that reflects, develops, and deepens the other?

That was the task I set for myself when I wrote ‘The Frenchman.’ In the story, Merle Bennett goes to France for an extended stay to let the beauty of France cure her ills (as we do) and write her gothic romance she alluded to in the previous book, ‘The Things We Said Today.’ In that story she is briefly in France during the time of her sister’s wedding in Scotland. While watching the cherry blossoms at Pascal’s cottage she has an idea: write a gothic romance like she and her sisters loved to read when they were younger. A character came to her, based on the neighbor’s goat farm. Her character would be a goat herder during the French Revolution. It would be a way to incorporate some history, always a bonus for me.

Along the way I read a mystery that includes a book-within-a-book, The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. This classical-style mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie features another puzzle mystery written by a curmudgeon of an author and a Hercule Poirot-type detective. As Janet Maslin said in the New York Times: Magpie Murders is a double puzzle for puzzle fans, who don’t often get the classicism they want from contemporary thrillers.” 

Although there are parallels between the stories — and I admit I do not find puzzle mysteries particularly compelling — in the end they didn’t really reflect on each other. They are separate mysteries, so as Maslin says, double the fun for puzzle fans.

After reading this mystery (I ordered a British edition to get it early!) I realized that, for me, for the inside book to work it had to be close to the main story in some way, either in ideas or plot or something. Without this connection your mind just bounces from story to story, unable to connect the dots. So I worked hard when writing the nine chapters of ‘Odette and the Great Fear’ that are included in ‘The Frenchman,’ to make the stories hang together.

Then there is the issue of history itself. The French Revolution was a rolling nightmare that didn’t begin or end with the beheading of the king and queen. It lasted for ten years, until a short guy named Bonaparte ended it all. Unlike the American Revolution of the same period, there was no happy ending, only more war and deprivation. But the French Revolution did change France– and the world– in remarkable and lasting ways, and I hoped to show some of that in ‘Odette.’

But only some. Because with a scant few chapters and a real story to portray within them, there isn’t a lot of time for exposition about the Committee for Public Safety, or the Commune, or the storming of the Bastille. (If you’re interested in the French Revolution I recommend a fabulous book by Peter McPhee called Liberty or Death.)  With ‘The Frenchman’ done, and the included chapters of ‘Odette’ as seamless and reflective of the main story as I could make them, I then turned back to ‘Odette’ to flesh out her story.

Odette ‘Odette and the Great Fear’ now has nearly 20 chapters, instead of just the nine, and more back-story into the characters and what happens to them. It is such a fascinating time. I wondered what a young merchant’s daughter, radicalized by the Parisian women who marched to Versailles to demand decent wheat prices so their families wouldn’t starve, might do after all that. Odette wanders south by foot, to the Dordogne, and finds a farmer in need of a goat herder. It’s not her favorite job — goats don’t follow directions — and she won’t stay forever, but she’s grateful to the farmer and his wife for taking her in, giving her food and a place to sleep, all the things she took for granted before the Revolution. When she finds a wounded man near the farm, her life changes. But who is Ghislain? Why is he so secretive about his past? Like any good gothic there is a creepy, half-burned chateau, a scarred noble, and a bunch of rabble-rousing villagers.

The Great Fear was a time early in the Revolution when a panic went through French society, a rumor that nobles were trying to starve the peasants by burning wheat stores. Like all good gossip it spread like wildfire and contributed to violence and a general terror in the populace.

I’d love to hear what you think about my success, or lack thereof, of my book-inside-a-book experiment. ‘The Frenchman’ is now available from Thalia Press on all e-book platforms. ‘Odette and the Great Fear’ is available for pre-order.

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