Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Mazarinette and the Musketeer-- Lesbian Swordswomen in Historical Adventure Novelette

This is a review of a book I read at the end of February and didn't have a chance to review in that short month.

So I came to a point when I really wanted ESCAPISM.  The news was terrifying, and the last book I read was so dispiriting that I didn't want to promote it by putting my review on a blog.  Fortunately, I had recently downloaded a free book from the author's website that was just the thing I needed. It was The Mazarinette and the Musketeer by Heather Rose Jones.  Jones says on her website that she wrote it in response to  a challenge to create a musketeer story containing only female characters.  I just love sword wielding women.

                               
As a fan of Alexandre Dumas' musketeer novels, I already figured out that the Mazarinette must be one of the seven actual daughters of a real historical personage, the powerful minister of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, Cardinal Mazarin.  See their Wikipedia article  for further information.   Jones says in her historical notes that the Mazarinettes really did wear the uniforms of their father's musketeers. The Mazarinette in this novelette was Hortense Mancini.  I have copied a public domain painting of Hortense from her own Wikipedia article below.

                            
                              
There were other real women among the characters in The Mazarinette and the Musketeer.  It does seem likely that Anne Lennard, Countess of Sussex, did have a lesbian relationship with Hortense Mancini as portrayed in Jones' tale.  Julie d'Aubigny, who appears in The Mazarinette and the Musketeer as a teenager, was the subject of a number of fictional accounts about her during her lifetime.  It's difficult to know what's true and what isn't.   She was supposed to have traveled with her fencing master doing sword fighting exhibitions.  Finally,  Aphra Behn  was the first woman to have earned her living writing plays.  She also really was a spy for King Charles II of England as shown by Jones in this novelette.  She's one of my favorite historical personages and I find it impossible to pass up a book that contains her as a character.

The Mazarinette and the Musketeer was as entertaining as I expected with lots of sword fights and women disguised as men. I thought that the female characters were all delightful. This is my idea of a fun read.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Girl Puzzle: A Very Humanized Nellie Bly

When the Goodreads group Historical Fictionistas decided to allow authors that are active members of the group to nominate their own novels for the March Book of the Month, it had been some time since they had last allowed author members to do this.  The normal rule of the group is that authors can't nominate their own books.  This is a common rule among Goodreads groups.

 I was delighted when Kate Braithwaite nominated her Nellie Bly novel, The Girl Puzzle.  I quickly seconded the nomination, and it won.  I had already purchased it on Amazon a while back, but hadn't had an opportunity to get to it. It's nice to be able to read more historical fiction with strong woman protagonists during Women's History Month.  This means I can  provide more reviews than usual for Flying High Reviews.

                              


I had actually read a novel focusing on patients at the asylum where journalist Nellie Bly did a ten day undercover investigation pretending to have amnesia in 1887.  That book was A Different Kind of Angel by Paulette Mahurin.  It was the best historical fiction that I read in 2018 and I reviewed it here.

The asylum was located on what was then called Blackwell's Island  which is in New York's East River.  It was re-named Roosevelt Island in 1973.  If you're interested in more information about the island's history, see its Wikipedia article here.

In comparing the two books I've read dealing with this late 19th century asylum, I feel that Mahurin's novel was very different in its orientation toward the patients. The fictional protagonist in A Different Kind of Angel was a refugee who was committed to that institution for not being able to speak English.  She clearly didn't belong there.  She encountered other patients who were also unjustly consigned to the asylum.  This protagonist  brought definitions of "sanity" into question. In The Girl Puzzle, Nellie Bly thought that a couple of patients didn't belong there, but the behavior of one patient and the history of the other caused Nellie to doubt her judgment.  So it was unclear whether any of these women were committed without justification.  It seemed to me that Braithwaite was coming down on the side of  compassionate Dr. Ingram who said it was "a complicated issue".  This positively portrayed asylum staff member commented to Nellie that patients could appear sane when they weren't.

It's important for me to add that all the rest of the asylum staff other than Dr. Ingram were portrayed by Braithwaite as either extremely abusive, or  arrogant and uncaring. In her author's note called "Fact and Fiction in The Girl Puzzle" she reveals that the staff  shown in her novel are all real individuals given their actual names, and that their behavior toward the patients is based on fact.  There was a grand jury investigation of this institution after the Nellie Bly exposé , and this too is in the public record.

Another aspect of The Girl Puzzle that makes it dis-similar to A Different Kind of Angel is that it's dual period.  There is a narrator in Braithwaite's book who was Nellie Bly's secretary toward the end of her life.  This narrative displays the elderly Nellie Bly as having poor judgment.   Nellie Bly's secretary admired her employer for her courage and past achievements, but she acknowledged that this feminist heroine had flaws. In the 1887 narrative, Nellie Bly herself experienced moments of angst in which she wondered if she had taken too great a risk when she accepted her undercover assignment.

 I would consider Braithwaite's approach to her protagonist realistic.  She shows us a Nellie  Bly who is strong when the situation calls for it, but is also very human.  This makes The Girl Puzzle vastly superior to a Nellie Bly mystery that I DNFed because she never doubted herself , and kept on repeating the same errors.  Mystery fans call such characters TSTL (Too Stupid To Live).  That's why I recommend this novel by Braithwaite to readers who want believable female protagonists.







                             

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Tubman Command: "I Got An Insurrection To Plan." Harriet Tubman

When I read She Came to Slay, Erica Armstrong Dunbar's biography of Harriet Tubman for Black History Month, I learned about Tubman's great military achievement, the Combahee River Raid (1863).  There is a non-fiction book about it listed in Dunbar's bibliography, but I was unable to obtain it through libraries, and purchasing it was beyond my current means.  So when I was asked to list books that I'm reading for Women's History Month on a Goodreads group called Read Women, I selected a historical novel about the Combahee River Raid, The Tubman Command by Elizabeth Cobbs, as one of them.

I am particularly pleased to be reviewing a book about Harriet Tubman today because March 10 is the day assigned to Tubman in The Little Book of Feminist Saints by Julia Pierpont.

I read both history and historical fiction.  I feel that each of them have their strengths.  I was looking forward to getting a window into the mind of Harriet Tubman, and feeling the impact of her leadership role in a Civil War military operation through the pages of  The Tubman Command.

                        

Harriet Tubman was clearly a born leader who had a talent for planning and was a gifted speaker.  She was also determined to achieve her goals, had tremendous courage and believed strongly that the visions she received were messages from God. Elizabeth Cobbs portrays her as a character with these traits, but also shows us her vulnerable side as a woman who wanted a relationship with a man.  Her Tubman seemed wary of trusting men on an intimate level.  Based on what I read about her in She Came To Slay, I think she had good reason to be untrusting.

A romantic possibility for Tubman is a sub-plot in The Tubman Command, but it isn't a major focus of the narrative. So I wouldn't call this a romance.  It's mainly about a historic military operation that resulted in the rescue of 750 slaves.

The quote from Harriet Tubman in the title of this review is a fictional one from this novel.  Harriet Tubman was illiterate.  So she herself wrote no accounts of her life.  

The Combahee River Raid was made possible because of Harriet Tubman's status as the leader of a team of Black scouts for the Union Army.  The Tubman Command shows how Tubman persuaded the officers involved in decision making to support her plan.  I felt that there was a great deal of suspense involved in its implementation even though I already knew the result.

In the midst of  all this drama, there was also comic relief in the form of an unexpectedly funny scene involving the antics of Tubman's cat, who was appropriately named Trouble. I was charmed by this scene and was glad it was there.

The fictional elements of The Tubman Command didn't cause me to lose confidence in Cobbs' accuracy.  There is a back cover blurb praising this book from Edda L. Fields-Black, an African American academic who has been working on a scholarly book about the Combahee River Raid that is forthcoming.

I found The Tubman Command moving, insightful and well-written.  I thought it was also original because I had never read a novel dealing with this significant event. This is my first five star read of 2020.  It will certainly be a candidate for my top ten of the year.





                     



Saturday, February 22, 2020

Silhouette of a Sparrow: YA Lesbian Historical Novel About Following Dreams

I don't know what led me to Silhouette of a Sparrow, the only YA novel by children's fiction writer, Molly Beth Griffin. It is a book that I needed to read.  So whatever the source was, I'm grateful to have discovered it.

                        

I must have been drawn to this book by the cover which is quite extraordinary resembling some prehistorical image of a bird woman rooted in nature.  Then I must have read the description which identified it as taking place in the Roaring 1920's, a favorite period of mine which began exactly a hundred years ago.  The fact that Garnet Richardson, the 16 year old female protagonist, loves birds and wants to become an ornithologist made the novel seem unusual and intriguing.  This aspect of the book also was appealing to me as someone who is concerned about the non-human species with which we share our planet.

It belongs on this blog because there are strong women who assist Garnet in recognizing that she has the right to claim a future for herself.

The most significant of these women is 18 year old Isabella, the courageous dance hall performer labeled as a "harlot".  Isabella knew that she had to dance, and that if she had to break society's rules to do that, so be it.

Other women who helped to change the way Garnet thought about her life were Miss Maple, her summer employer, and her unconventional Aunt Rachel who never actually appears in the narrative.  Both of them served as examples that caused Garnet to realize that a woman could choose not to marry.

This is also a lesbian romance, but not one with a traditional HEA ending. I felt that the relationship between Garnet and Isabella had emotional intensity despite its brevity.  Would they ever come back together?  It's a possibility.  The future of these fictional characters is unknown unless Molly Beth Griffin chooses to revisit their lives in another book. Without that sequel, Garnet and Isabella remain frozen for us at the point where the author left them behind in the summer of 1926.

The advantage of never advancing this narrative beyond 1926 is that Garnet can retain the optimism for which the Roaring Twenties are known in order to inspire other readers of Silhouette of a Sparrow as I have been. 


Monday, January 27, 2020

The Girls With No Names: Historical Novel About Wayward Girls

The Girls With No Names by Serena Burdick is the first book I've read that was published in 2020.  It's also my first digital review copy from Net Galley of the year.   I noticed a similarity to Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate which I liked very much and reviewed here. I was also drawn to Burdick's novel because it takes place in Inwood, a Manhattan neighborhood where I lived for four years in the late 20th century (though I should point out that the book takes place in the early 20th century.) Yet it was the reference to suffragettes  in the Goodreads description and the reference to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the publisher's publicity which caused me to decide that I needed to review it for this blog.  It sounded like this novel could be a locus for intersecting feminist concerns.   So I accepted the publisher's request.  My honest reactions to The Girls With No Names can be found in this review.

                           

Although the main protagonists are teens, I wouldn't describe The Girls With No Names as a YA novel.  This book deals with the girls' coming of age under dire circumstances which involve mature themes that may be disturbing to some readers.

I found thirteen year old Effie remarkably brave when she comes to believe that she needs to rescue her sister from an institution with a rather horrific reputation called the House of Mercy.

I was also impressed with a girl that Effie encounters at the House of Mercy known as Mable.  Mable's tragic experiences  before her arrival at this home for wayward girls are portrayed movingly in flashback chapters.

 The Girls With No Names turned out not to have a primary focus on women's suffrage. Still,  the book does include a real suffragette who is a minor character playing a pivotal role.  Her name is Inez Milholland.  I've linked her Wikipedia article because I think readers might want to know more about this woman activist. Milholland's Wikipedia article includes a public domain photo of her which I am reproducing below:

                          

 There are Romanii characters in The Girls With No Names.  Burdick tells us in her Afterword that they are called gypsies in the first person narratives taking place in 1913 in order to be consistent with usage in that period.  She is aware that Romani consider "gypsy" offensive, but Burdick isn't trying to offend. She just wants to be historically accurate. I was fascinated to learn from the Afterword that Burdick had discovered from her research that Romani really had camped in the Inwood area during this period.

 I mostly liked the way the Romani were shown, but I did think that one element in their portrayal was anachronistic.  Effie got a Tarot reading at their camp which she regarded as significant.  The interpretation of the cards that appeared in the reading was similar to current day Neo Pagan Tarot readers.  So I considered it doubtful that an early 20th century Romani would approach the cards that way.

Despite the critical comment in the above paragraph,  I identified with both Effie and Mable and considered The Girls With No Names a powerful work of fiction.                 

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Kill Club: Blog Tour and Review

I'd read a description of The Kill Club by Wendy Heard before the publisher offered  me the opportunity to join the blog tour for this highly immersive crime thriller.  I'm not someone who enjoys books that are terrifying.  Yet an organization devoted to providing justice for victims of abuse is right up my alley even though a journey down that alley could haunt my nights.  Was I ready for this?  I wasn't entirely certain when I downloaded my review copy from Net Galley.

                            

All doubts vanished when I was introduced to the protagonist, Jasmine Benavides.  I'd read that Wendy Heard is the co-host of  a podcast called Unlikeable Female Characters. If the author intended Jasmine to be such a character, I have to say that she failed completely.  I absolutely loved Jasmine from the start--long before I really got to know her.  I had to discover more about this brave survivor of abuse who will not rest until her thirteen year old brother is also freed from the domination of their nightmarish foster mother, Carol Coleman.

Some might say that I'm perpetrating a spoiler when I reveal that Jasmine is a lesbian.  Other reviewers have already outed Jasmine, and I feel that mentioning her sexuality is helping the book reach its audience--the readers who need to see bold lesbian action heroes in their thrillers.

 Jasmine is also very human.  She makes mistakes.  A few of them have had terrible consequences, and she doesn't forgive herself  for them. Admittedly, Jasmine has an overly active conscience.  So she also blames herself for  disasters that weren't her fault.  Yes, Jasmine is an angst queen.   I actually admire angsty characters.  Protagonists who take responsibility for their actions are far more worthy of respect than those who self-righteously refuse to accept that they've ever harmed anyone.  People in the second category are usually villains.  Carol Coleman would be an example of that type of individual.

There were surprising twists in The Kill Club, but there were also a few that I found predictable.  Even though I sometimes knew what was going to happen next, I was still totally involved in the plot.   I was so invested in Jasmine as a character that I felt that I had become part of her world.  I would find myself thinking about where the narrative was headed when I was doing other things. This doesn't happen to me very often.

I did have one problem.  I felt that a police detective was portrayed  in a pivotal scene as being less competent with a gun than I would expect of an experienced officer.  That character's credibility as a detective was compromised. This wasn't a minor glitch, and it's the reason why I can't give The Kill Club five stars on Goodreads.

Despite the above criticism, the suspense was first rate and the characterization of Jasmine as a powerful yet vulnerable protagonist is what really makes The Kill Club by Wendy Heard well worth reading.

                             
                                                      Wendy Heard
                                              photo courtesy of MIRA












Friday, November 29, 2019

The Mozart Conspiracy: A Girl Violinist Investigates in 18th Century Vienna

The Mozart Conspiracy by Susanne Dunlap is the sequel to a YA historical mystery that I really liked called The Musician's Daughter in which fictional fifteen year old violinist Theresa Schurman investigated her father's death in 18th century Vienna.   I wasn't aware that there was a sequel when The Mozart Conspiracy was originally published in 2010.  I only found out about it now because the new Kindle edition is available on Net Galley.  I snapped up the free digital review copy, and decided to read this mystery during Thanksgiving week because I felt thankful for it.

                          

The first thing that readers considering a sequel generally want to know is whether it can stand alone.  My answer is that you can start with The Mozart Conspiracy, but why would you want to do that?  The Musician's Daughter is wonderful.
 
As my readers will know, women in the 18th century who had careers in the arts were rebelling against established conventions. Theresa was fortunate in having a violinist father who taught her and believed in her gift. This is believable because some prominent historical women in the arts and sciences of earlier eras were trained by their fathers.  The ancient mathematician Hypatia and the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi spring to mind as examples. Theresa was even more fortunate in having the composer Joseph Haydn as her godfather and mentor.  He is a significant character in The Musician's Daughter.

 A Romani woman named Mirela played an important role in both the books that center on Theresa.  Theresa relied on Mirela's insight and assistance.  Theresa also had connections to Romani musicians that Haydn knew.  (I found a section of the Wikipedia article on Haydn and Folk Music  that deals with Haydn's relationship with the Romani and their influence on his music for those who are interested in this subject.)

Another female character in The Mozart Conspiracy that I wanted to bring up in this review was Constanze Weber, who later married Mozart.  I've seen Constanze portrayed as self-centered, greedy and manipulative elsewhere.  Dunlap shows her in a much more positive light.   It seemed possible that Theresa and Constanze could become friends in the future. 

The Theresa Schurman mysteries contain themes that are relevant to me.  In The Mozart Conspiracy gender inequality and anti-semitism were the ones that I found most noteworthy.  I felt Theresa's distress when she was viewed as anti-semitic by some of the Jewish characters.

The mystery aspect of the book was handled very suspensefully.  The conspiracy referred to in the title of the novel remained unclear until the final reveal. Until then, it was difficult for Theresa to discover whodunit since it transpired that she couldn't be entirely certain about what was done.

Although I didn't like The Mozart Conspiracy nearly as much as The Musician's Daughter, I did enjoy reading it.  Yet one area of disappointment was the absence of Haydn.  If there is a third book in this series,  I'd love to see Haydn resume his mentor role in Theresa's life.