Book Me Up #4 – KATE MOSSE – New Novel (The Burning Chambers) & the Languedoc Series

burningSo I haven’t been updating our little book club here for a while it seems, which is a real shame as I read well over 50 books in 2019 and some of them were amazing! I’m sure I’ll go back through my goodreads profile and let you know the standout ones.

But I wanted to kick off 2020 with a really nice, relaxed, escapist series, because the world is a crazy place right now in terms of politics, war, and also for me personally health-wise… so I just wanted some good old fashioned novelly-meaty escapism. Nothing heavy. Nothing too literary and deep and existential-crisis-inducing (we’ve got enough of that already!)

Kate Mosse’s newest novel is called The Burning Chambers (The Burning Chambers is available from amazon here) which I picked up because I LOVED her Languedoc series (Labyrinth is book one – available hereSepulchre is book two – available here, and Citadel is book three – available here).

The Burning Chambers

The Burning Chambers is a purely historical novel (unlike the Languedoc series which employ a ‘time slip’ structure, sliding between modern day and a period in the past). It kicks off a planned series about the Huguenot diaspora. The series will chart all the way from the wars of religion in 16th-century France to 19th-century South Africa.

Set in the city of Carcassone, which anyone who has read the Labyrinth series will remember well from those books, and later in Toulouse and Puivert, Mosse writes about a time in history where Catholic and Protestant tensions reached boiling point, sparking a long 35 year French civil war.

Sounds heavy, right? Not so at all. Mosse mentions in many interviews (e.g. here) she begins with a sense of place (e.g. Carcassone) and works to bring the area to life. She manages to do the same with history with the lightness of touch you need from genre fiction. The book might look like a door stop, but it’s hell of a page turner, and what I would classify as a holiday read.

Mosse has a masterful way of foregrounding female stories, so this is perfect for anyone who fancies a herstory with a twist.

It’s a historical novel, sure, but fundamentally it is also an adventure and romance, with Romeo and Juliet-esque star-crossed lovers Minou (a Catholic) and Piet (a Protestant) caught up in the conflicts of their time.

I almost thought there’d be more of a mystical element, as with the grail in Labyrinth or the tarot cards in Sepulchre as the book does feature the Shroud of Antioch, but Mosse sticks to realism this time. I wasn’t sure if I’d like that… but turns out I did.

I’d definitely recommend giving this a read if you like history but want something light-touch, engaging, compassionate, with a strong and nuanced female protagonist who still remains realistically ‘of her time’.

labThe Languedoc Series

This was my introduction to Mosse, as I’m a sucker for an adventure, with some archaeolgical and historical realism thrown in to make something mythical seem plausible.

Labyrinth is a take on the grail legend (a female Da Vinci Code, if you will), and the ‘time slip’ slides between present day 2005, and back to Alaïs, in 1209, a young woman living in the time of the crusade against the Cathars.

Sepulchre‘s time slip dips back to the fin-de-siecle and moves between Paris and Carcassone, and centres around a historical tarot deck and a small church, known as the Sepulchre, in Carcassone, clues to the location of fifth-century Visigoth treasure.

Citadel is set in France in WW2, and Sandrine Vidal, a headstrong 18-year-old girl, and her friends, belong to a group of female resistance fighters called Citadel. The WW2 setting harps back to the central grail of the first book in the series, Labyrinth, as the  idea of “a connection between the story of a secret Cathar treasure and the grail was given substance in the 20th century by the work of Otto Rahn, a German historian and SS officer who believed that the Cathars held the key to the grail mystery, and that the evidence was somewhere beneath the ruins of Montségur. His writings attracted the attention of Himmler, whose own fascination with the occult, and with the possible ancient pedigree of an Aryan race, led to the founding of the Ahnenerbe, a society dedicated to research into proving the historical origins of a master race” (The Guardian).

If you like this kind of mythic-pseudo-archaeological-historical realism and adventure (think Dan Brown Angels and Demons, but less testosterone driven, more nuanced, with location playing a bigger role and the landscape of the novels and personalities of the female protagonists coming much more strongly to the fore!) then I highly recommend this series.

Interviews with the author you may like

The London Magazine

Writers & Artists

Historia Mag

I News

French Living Magazine

Book Me Up #3 – TWO MAYA ANGELOU MEMOIRS

When thinking about the next bookclub pick, I just couldn’t narrow it down any further than these two, so I chose both… but narrowly Mom & Me & Mom is my favourite, though it’s a tough call.

Maya Angelou is, to steal an almost-quote from one of her own poems, a PHENOMENAL woman. She wasn’t just a writer (poetry, memoirs, essays), she was a singer, dancer, civil rights activist… but she is perhaps best known for her series of seven autobiographies, of which the above two novels are volumes. The first in the series, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells the story of her life up to the age of around 17 and is the book that brought her international acclaim.

Mom & Me & Mom (2013) is the last in the seven-book-series, focussing, unlike the other volumes, on Angelou’s relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter, who is an incredibly powerful figure. It  revisits many of the same anecdotes she relates in her previous books, with the first part, ‘Mom & Me‘ looking again, like Caged Bird, at Angelou’s early years (pre-17), and documents Angelou’s journey from distrust of her mother and initial resentement to acceptance, love and support – epitomised by Angelou switching from her first name for her mother ‘Lady’, to calling her ‘Mom’ after Baxter assists with the birth of Maya’s son Guy.  Angelou chronicles the intense and unshakeable bond between them and Baxter’s vitality, along with their mutual support for each other, and tells the story of Baxter helping her navigate through single motherhood, work issues, a failed marriage, and career ups and downs.

Both books touch on Angelou’s sexual abuse as a child, and also deal with race, racism, womanhood, identity, family and travel. 

I love Angelou’s writing for its immediacy and authenticity. There’s a frankness, freshness and honesty in everything she writes, and I think her autobiographies are so powerful because although they tell Angelou’s very personal story, for example growing up and living as a black woman in the American South, she connects those experiences to those of all black women, exploring wider themes of racism, sexism, and isolation.

Click here for Penguin Randomhouse suggestions for book club questions on I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

Below are the LitLovers book club question suggestions for Mom & Me & Mom:

1. Maya says her mother was “irrestible.” What makes her so? How would you describe Vivian Baxter? What did you admire most about her? And what did you not admire?

2. How do you view Vivian’s decision to send her children to live with their father at such a young age? Why did it take her so long, even after the divorce, to call her children back to her?

3. Talk about Maya’s resentment of Vivian…and the halting path toward reconciliation that she followed. The Washington Post reviewer believes this process contains some of the best writing in the book. Do you agree…or not?

4. Discuss Maya’s brother Bailey and his easier path into his mother’s orbit. What can explain his later struggles with drugs?

5. What are some of the episodes in Maya’s life that particularly shocked you?

6. Talk about the society in which Maya grew up and the degree to which it was pervaded with racism. How have we changed…or have we?

7. Reviewers talk about the tone of optimism in this book—the fact that Angelou’s prose lacks bitterness. Do you agree? If so, why do you suppose that is? How has she been able to overcome a resentment that many of us would carry with us for years?

8. Mom and Me and Mom is the seventh book in Maya Angelou’s remarkable autobiographical series, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Have you read any other of the books in this series…or any of her books of poetry? If so, how does this book compare with the others? Can you identify elements of poetic writing in the prose style of this work?