YA Cover Reveal: The Saffron Crocus by Alison McMahan
The cover is the work of fabulous artist Mishi Bellamy. Mishi divides her time between India and France, where she has her own art gallery, the Atelier des Colombes.
One of the best things about attending the RWA national conference in San Antonio last summer was the opportunity to befriend so many talented authors. One of those that I was fortunate to meet is Alison McMahan, the author of The Saffron Crocus, a historical mystery for young adults. Alison and I met through our publisher, Black Opal Books, and we spent a lot of time chatting it up at the conference. She’s a fun and intelligent lady, and I enjoyed hearing about her soon-to-be released YA novel. Then last week I saw the cover and flipped. It is beautiful and classy, just like Alison herself. I immediately shot her a message to squeal and shout my congratulations, and now I’m even more pleased to have the opportunity to introduce you to Alison and her wonderful book. The Saffron Crocus is the winner of the 2014 Rosemary Award for Best Historical for Young Adults. (The Saffron Crocus is due for release in just a few days—December 13th. It’s available for order now through Black Opal Books, Amazon US, and Amazon UK.)
Another perk of befriending authors is the occasional good fortune to read books before they hit the shelves. I can tell you from personal experience that The Saffron Crocus is a delightful read. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing and the story, and especially the total saturation of life in 17th century Venice. Alison didn’t skimp on details as she wove historical facts into this beautiful work of young adult mystery.
And now I’ll shut up (mostly) and let you read about this wonderful book. My interview with Alison follows.
The Saffron Crocus
A historical mystery for young adults
Venice, 1643. Isabella, fifteen, longs to sing in Monteverdi’s Choir, but only boys (and castrati) can do that. Her singing teacher, Margherita, introduces her to a new wonder: opera! Then Isabella finds Margherita murdered. Now people keep trying to kill Margherita’s handsome rogue of a son, Rafaele.
Was Margherita killed so someone could steal her saffron business? Or was it a disgruntled lover, as Margherita—unbeknownst to Isabella—was one of Venice’s wealthiest courtesans?
Or will Isabella and Rafaele find the answer deep in Margherita’s past, buried in the Jewish Ghetto?
Isabella has to solve the mystery of the Saffron Crocus before Rafaele hangs for a murder he didn’t commit, though she fears the truth will drive her and the man she loves irrevocably apart.
Who knew a singing career would be this much trouble?
“Rafaele!” She flew into the garret. “Piero, it was so wonderful, wait until I tell you!”
The stool next to the bed was knocked over. The tray with the genepy bottle was on the floor, one of the cups broken. The fat candle that had been burning next to Rafaele’s bed had been flung to the other side of the room. Canvases were strewn all over the floor, some of them slashed, and many of Master Strozzi’s jars of paint elements were broken.
Did Piero and Rafaele have a fight? She quickly suppressed the thought. Who would get into a fight with a man who was already injured?
Something else must have happened.
She walked across the garret. “Piero? Rafaele, are you here?”
Rafaele was not in the bed. The sheets and blankets she had piled on top of him were strewn everywhere. Blood-stained sheets spilled over the edge of the pallet. There was a pile of clothes on the floor.
She walked around to get a closer look.
Not clothes. It was Piero. Face down, one arm stretched out before him, as if in supplication.
A puddle of blood under him.
ALISON MCMAHAN BIO
Alison McMahan chased footage for her documentaries through jungles in Honduras and Cambodia, favelas in Brazil and racetracks in the U.S. She brings the same sense of adventure to her award-winning books of mystery and romantic adventure for teens and adults.
Me: Thanks for hanging out with me Alison. 🙂 The first thing I’m curious about is what made you decide to write a YA historical?
Alison: I grew up reading books like The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Door in the Wall. When my daughter was growing up there weren’t too many books like that, except for the fabulous books of Karen Cushman (Midwife’s Apprentice, A Girl Called Birdy). I’m glad to see the genre making a comeback with books like Code Name Verity and The Book Thief, but I’ve also noticed not much is being written for young people that is set in the Middle Ages or even the Baroque, as The Saffron Crocus is.
Me: Music is a central theme in this book. Why did you incorporate music the way you did?
Alison: I’m an opera fan, and I deliberately set the story in 1643 because opera was really getting established in Venice then. And Monteverdi, who is a character in the story, as well as a historical figure, was composing operas and choir music for the choir in San Marco’s Basilica, which also is featured in the story. What I love about music from this time is that it is all about the human voice. We’ve lost touch with that, I think. The music of Salamone Rossi, the Jewish composer, also appears briefly in the book. I wanted to do more with him. I may write a prequel so that I can write more about him and his music.
Me: Is music, specifically opera, the only reason you targeted the year 1643?
Alison: Not the only reason, no. I also set the story in 1643 because it was ten years after the Black Plague, and Venice was still recovering, and because gentlemen walked around with swords on their hips. There were lots of sword fights. I have two in my book, which I researched carefully. I even took three months of fencing lessons!
Me: Okay, your cool factor, which I already rated a solid 10, just shot off the scale. Fencing lessons?!
Alison: Yes! The fencing started like this. I went to the conference for the Historical Novel Society in 2013, which took place in St. Petersburg, Florida. A historical writer named David Blixt, who is also an actor and a fine specimen of gladiatorial humanity, taught a class on stage combat. I was instantly in love. With the fencing, that is. So when I got home, I signed up for a fencing class and took it for three months (all my travel schedule would allow). At the same time I was reading 17th to 19th century manuals on fencing, like Nicoletto Giganti’s 1606 Rapier Fencing curriculum entitled “Venetian Rapier.” It has such gems as “parry and counterattack against a cut to the head, ” and “full intent thrust above the dagger.” After I wrote the two sword fight scenes I ran them by fencers and sword fighters I know. They helped me a lot, because modern day fencing has a lot of civilized rules, but the characters in my book are quite serious about killing each other.
Me: Burial rituals are also important in your story. What’s up with that?
Alison: I was very surprised to discover that Venetians didn’t bury their dead in consecrated ground until the 19th century. They cremated them and scattered the ashes in the lagoons, or buried them under the streets. They had no room to do otherwise. The only exception to this were the Jews, who had their own cemetery on the Lido and buried their dead in the ground. As soon as I learned that, a whole new aspect of the plot just fell into place.
Me: Last question. What are your favorite characteristics of your hero and heroine, and were you constricted in these in any way by the customs and mores of the 17th century?
Alison: This is a tough one. Isabella, my protagonist, wants to sing in public, is an orphan, and the aunt that is raising her is running out of money. Luckily Isabella can sing like a goddess and she knows it. I think it’s actually unusual for a teenager, even today, to be sure about something like that about themselves. So basically I had my 17th century girl modeling behavior for today’s girl: Claim your gifts. Don’t let anyone take them away from you. For her love interest, Rafaele, who is actually the second main character, the moral is “don’t let rage and resentment ruin your life.” He is a young man who quite takes his mother for granted. Then his mother is murdered and he is sorry he wasted the time he had with her being surly. I think young people today take their parents for granted. It’s true a lot of parents are completely dysfunctional, I don’t deny it, but still, what would you do if your parent was suddenly taken away from you? Would you regret the things not said? So, my message is, live fully today, appreciate your parents and anyone else who does you a kindness. You don’t know if they will be there tomorrow.
Thanks for answering my questions, Alison. Your book may be set in the distant past, but its themes are strong and relevant to young readers today.
If you have more questions for Alison, you can contact her through any one of these social media platforms. Here’s the list:
Alison’s webpage: http://www.AlisonMcMahan.com
As always, thanks to everyone for visiting Writing in the Buff. I appreciate you spending time here, and I hope you enjoyed meeting Alison. Enjoy your Wednesday! I’ll see you next week for more of the Naked Truth.
Have a great week –