Saturday, October 3, 2020

Josephine Baker's Last Dance: The Story of A 20th Century African American Performer

I won Josephine Baker's Last Dance by Sherry Jones about two years ago through Goodreads Giveaways and I recently finished reading it.  Yes, I know.  I'm a disgrace.  It's just that I tend to prioritize blog tours because I need to post on a definite date. Then there's the authors, publishers and publicists who contact me directly about a book asking me to review it within a certain time frame.  Having a specific deadline works best for me.   Goodreads Giveaways don't even require reviews.  I still like to post reviews of those I won from that source when I have the time.  The last time I reviewed a Goodreads Giveaway win, it was 2019, and I reviewed it only on Goodreads. That's what I tend to do when the review is going to be relatively short, and I haven't been asked to review the book on a blog.

I've read three novels by Sherry Jones previously.  The first two were the books devoted to Mohammed's daughter, Aisha.  They were The Jewel of Medina and The Sword of Medina which I reviewed on Goodreads.  I participated in the blog tour for Jones' Heloise and Abelard novel, The Sharp Hook of Love. That post appeared on this blog here .   I didn't expect that it would take this long for a review of a  fourth Sherry Jones book to appear.



I've never read a novel about Josephine Baker.  In fact, the only other one that I found online is a graphic novel that can be found on Goodreads  here.  So Josephine Baker is an unusual subject for a novel.  I had heard of her, and wanted to know more about her life.  That's the reason I entered the Goodreads giveaway.

 Although Josephine Baker was born in the U.S., as a Black woman she couldn't be a great star in  America during the first half of the 20th century, as she was in Paris.  This is why she lived in Paris for almost her entire adult life.  The French song that is most associated with her,  "J'ai Deux Amours" expressed her affection for her two loves, her country and Paris.  As a narrator, Sherry Jones commented that her country didn't love her back.  When she was in the U.S. , Josephine had to contend with race prejudice and segregation.   She wasn't immune to them because of her success in Paris.  She came back to the United States at one point with the purpose of organizing a campaign against segregation.  I had no idea that Josephine Baker had briefly been a civil rights activist during the 1950's.  I considered that aspect of her life, the biggest revelation in Josephine Baker's Last Dance.

I tried to understand Josephine Baker's orientation toward marriage. On the one hand, she seemed to believe that she ought to marry a man if she was in love with him.  This happened a number of times.  On the other hand, she didn't want a man to control her life.  Husbands and men who aspired to be her husband were likely to try to make decisions for her.  One man who wasn't legally married to her actually pulled off a masterful effort to keep Josephine under his thumb that I  thought was only possible for husbands.  I could only imagine that she was too involved in her career to notice what he had done.   I am happy to say that she extricated herself from that adverse situation without the help of a man. 

My only disappointment with this book is that Sherry Jones tantalized me with the idea of Josephine Baker as a pilot, but never gave me any more than two bare mentions of it.  I love reading about women in the history of aviation, and in fact woman pilots is a major focus of this blog.   So don't tell me that Josephine owned a plane and had flying skills, but never give me even one scene of her flying.  I felt deprived.   I would have given this book five stars on Goodreads if  there had been piloting sequences during the period of Josephine's life when I thought it most likely that this could have happened. 

I could have loved Josephine Baker's Last Dance, though I did like what we were given very much.  Josephine was really an extraordinary woman with great gifts that have lived on in the history of performing artists. Yet I did want to have more detail about her contributions in other areas.   Perhaps another author will one day write that Josephine Baker novel.  On that day, I will celebrate.


Friday, September 25, 2020

The Night Portrait: Two Women in the History of a Da Vinci Painting

I found out about The Night Portrait  by novelist and art historian Laura Morelli, when her assistant asked me to do a Q&A with the author on both of her 2020 historical fiction releases.  

The first was The Giant, a novel of Michelangelo's David which I reviewed on Shomeret: Masked Reviewer here.  That review is so far my most viewed post of 2020 on that other blog.

 I was gifted with a PDF of The Night Portrait well in advance of publication, but was unable to read it because I couldn't adjust the miniscule font on my Kindle e-reader.  So I had to wait until my pre-ordered copy arrived from Amazon.  I dived into The Night Portrait after I finished and reviewed the title I was reading for a blog tour with a post that had to appear on September 20th.  This is why it took me longer to get to this dual period novel dealing with the creation of Leonardo Da Vinci's Lady With An Ermine and its later history during World War II.


The first of the two women protagonists to appear in the narrative is fictional  museum art conservator Edith Becker who is introduced to us during 1939 in Munich.  The museum staff are poring over the records Edith had created about the great paintings by Old Masters in private hands in Poland. The Nazis were stealing art from every nation in Europe where they had a presence.  The Chairman of the Board at the museum where Edith worked was justifying German theft of these paintings with a conspiracy theory about Americans seizing them for Jewish museums in the United States. I have visited Jewish museums.  They only contain works by Jewish artists.  There's no possibility that you would ever have found a portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci hanging on the wall in a Jewish museum. 

I sincerely doubt that Edith took the Jewish Museum conspiracy seriously.  She was much more concerned about her life being hijacked.  She was being sent to Poland in order to assist with the largest art theft in history. Edith felt that these paintings  "had been cast like dice into a game that had spiraled out of her control."  This is a direct quote from Laura Morelli's narration.

It seemed to me that the Nazis were taking advantage of Edith's love of  art.  If a painting was given into her hands, she had to preserve it.  She would clean it and ameliorate any damage that had occurred during its travel from the home where it had been kept by its owner. Edith was portrayed as a consummate professional who was inwardly horrified to be conscripted into participation in a criminal enterprise.  Yet she wasn't helpless either.  Could Edith find a way to disrupt the Nazi plan to own all of Europe's great art? 

 The second female protagonist in The Night Portrait  is chronologically first because she is the woman that Leonardo Da Vinci painted when Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, commissioned what became known as  Lady With An Ermine.  She was Cecilia Gallerani, the sixteen year old mistress of Ludovico Sforza.  So history remembers Cecilia as a perpetual sixteen year old.  Here is a public domain image of the painting from Wikipedia.


                                Lady With An Ermine by Leonardo Da Vinci

Cecilia might not be regarded as a feminist in the modern sense of the word, but she knew what kind of life would make her happy, and it wasn't becoming a nun as her family intended.  She wanted to be surrounded by the beautiful things that you would find in a ducal court, and to become a celebrated singer.  Ludovico Sforza fell in love with her, and she got everything she wanted.   Cecilia had beauty. She was also a musician and a gifted singer. The Night Portrait also tells us what happened to Cecilia after her relationship with Ludovico Sforza was over.  I will tell you only that Cecilia Gallerani's life was not a story of  victimhood.   Cecilia had a strong will, and she was able to charm people.

There were also significant male characters including Leonardo Da Vinci and participants in the Monuments Men.  The Monuments Men were officially known as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program.  I am linking to its Wikipedia article. They were a military organization run by the Allies of World War II to protect European art and return stolen art.  Stolen art was returned to the family that owned it when possible, or to the government of the place of origin.

I was most interested in the character of Edith.  Her inner conflict between her passion for preserving art, and her opposition to Nazi art theft gave her a fascinating level of complexity.  I was reminded of Hanna, the protagonist in The Woman Who Heard Color by Kelly Jones.  Hanna was an art dealer who facilitated Nazi art theft.  The main difference between Edith and Hanna is that it seemed to me that Hanna was a voluntary collaborator with the Nazis.  See my Goodreads review  of The Woman Who Heard Color. I admired Edith, but I thoroughly despised Hanna.

I was also interested in finding out more about the life of Da Vinci.  I was surprised by Laura Morelli's portrayal of Da Vinci's attitude toward the role of art in his life.  I knew that Da Vinci had a great many interests other than art.  In The Night Portrait Da Vinci was shown to have priorities that appeared to be far more important to him than being an artist.

The bibliography that Laura Morelli has included shows the depth of her research, but it also provided me with a number of really awesome candidates for further reading on the topics covered in The Night Portrait.  Among the volumes that I intend to obtain soon,  Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation and Identity by Paola Tinagli might be of particular interest to the readers of this blog.

The Night Portrait combines accuracy with narrative power.   Those who love books with moving characters and a plot with impact will want to read it for those aspects along with the compelling history and themes.  Laura Morelli seems to have built to a crescendo with her novels of 2020.   I anticipate her future fiction with enthusiasm.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Sinister Sisterhood: A Crime Thriller With Amazing Women Protecting Animals

Publicist Wiley Saichek asked me about reviewing crime thriller Sinister Sisterhood by Jane Badrock when I told him I'd posted my review of  my last read for this blog, Ambush.  He said that it would contain the strong women characters that I wanted to see when I read for Flying High Reviews. So I accepted the review copy that he sent me.


Wiley was definitely on the money when he said that there would be strong women in Sinister Sisterhood.  I was very pleased with some of these characters.

Sinister Sisterhood centers on an employment agency named Elle's Belles.  Owner Elle Scarlett donates part of her profits to organizations that help animals.  She became committed to animals due to the influence of her Aunt Pat who lives near a tiger sanctuary in India and volunteers there.  I loved Aunt Pat. 

Another favorite of mine was the professional cleaner Chloe May Chopra who could clean absolutely anything.   You might call her a ninja cleaner if a ninja had cleaning skills.  She also has what might be considered a paranormal power if this were a fantasy novel.  Since it isn't, let's say that her intuition is very well developed.  Some readers might consider Chloe improbable, but I loved seeing a woman who cleans rooms in hotels becoming a major hero.

Elle's Belles wander into dangerous territory.  Women are trafficked, and there is a conspiracy to bomb hotels, in addition to their animal activist activities of investigating the hunting of endangered animals and the smuggling of their body parts. Buckle your seat belts, readers. It gets rather wild out there.

Yet it's also fun.   There are some great lines.  Author Jane Badrock must have an advanced degree in witty description.  During a flashback dealing with the background of the Elle's Belles computer expert we learn that she "took to Chicago the way Al Capone took to tax evasion".

If the reference to Al Capone leaves you with the impression that some of these woman characters aren't exactly girl scouts, you'd be right.  There are those who skate over the border between the law abiding citizen and the criminal on a regular basis.  There are also those whose ideas of ethics are very situational.  Badrock likes the idea of her heroines being badass.  Her philosophy is that "women can be as capable and as horrible as men".  I wouldn't have said that I'd be up for that before I read Sinister Sisterhood, but Badrock made me like it by always being entertaining.


Monday, June 15, 2020

Ambush: The Third in a Series About A Female Marine

Publicist Wiley Saichek gifted me with the mystery/thriller Ambush by Barbara Nickless via Amazon.  I had not read the previous two books in this series, but I read a Goodreads review that assured me that this book can stand alone.  It resolves a major ongoing issue in the female protagonist's life that relates to her military service in the Iraq War, and contains all the background necessary for understanding it.

I was interested in the fact that protagonist Sydney Rose Parnell is a Marine.  I'm pretty sure that I'd never previously read a novel about a female Marine.  I believed that she would definitely be a strong female protagonist.  I was also intrigued by Sydney going to Mexico to find an Iraqi child in this book.


Regular readers of this blog will notice that the protagonist of the last book I read was also named Sydney.  This could be considered a coincidence, but it could also be possible that what was previously an unusual name for a woman is becoming more popular. 

The first person perspective of Sydney Parnell is a very intimate one.  We are exposed to her doubts and fears, but she never hesitates to act quickly when it's called for.   Being a Marine calls for courage.  I have always believed that courage isn't really about never being afraid.  It's about overcoming those fears.  When I first started reading Ambush, I questioned the risks that Sydney took.  Yet over the course of the narrative, I recognized that she was smart, resourceful and very well trained.   I particularly liked her alternate version of the Marine by-word, Semper Gumby , which Sydney translated as "always flexible".   Flexibility allows for quick improvisation of a new plan when the old one isn't working.   It increases the odds of surviving dangerous situations.

Sydney is no longer in the Marines.  She is now a railroad detective.  Yet she has a K9 partner in her investigations who is military trained. His name is Clyde, and he is a very good dog. Sydney and Clyde work well together, and have a great bond of affection between them.  I enjoyed this aspect of the book.

Ambush isn't a romance, but there is a romantic relationship in this book that I considered emotionally intense.  I have loved some romance novels because they had great characters, but none have moved me to tears.  I cried when I read about a certain relationship in Ambush.  I found it heart rending.  This testifies to the power of Barbara Nickless' writing.  For me, this was a two handkerchief book when it came to the romance.

The case that began with a traumatic experience for Sydney that took place in Iraq was difficult to resolve, and involved a great many murders perpetrated in Iraq, Mexico and the U.S.  All the characters were well developed including the individual who was behind all the killings. I was impressed by the characterization, and thought that the resolution was satisfying.  I recommend  Ambush and its author to fans of mysteries and thrillers. 


Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Talking Drum: Blog Tour and Review

  Book Summary

It is 1971. The fictional city of Bellport, Massachusetts, is in decline with an urban redevelopment project on the horizon expected to transform this dying factory town into a thriving economic center. This planned transformation has a profound effect on the residents who live in Bellport as their own personal transformations take place.

Sydney Stallworth steps away from her fellowship and law studies at an elite university to support husband Malachi’s dream of opening a business in the heart of the black community of his hometown, Bellport.

For Omar Bassari, an immigrant from Senegal, Bellport is where he will establish his drumming career and the launching pad from which he will spread African culture across the world, while trying to hold onto his marriage.

Della Tolliver has built a fragile sanctuary in Bellport for herself, boyfriend Kwamé Rodriguez, and daughter Jasmine, a troubled child prone to nightmares and outbursts.

Tensions rise as the demolition date moves closer, plans for gentrification are laid out, and the pace of suspicious fires picks up. The residents find themselves at odds with a political system manipulating their lives and question the future of their relationships.



Publicist Laura Marie asked me to join this blog tour for The Talking Drum, the debut novel of Lisa Braxton.  I accepted the free review copy that she supplied because I was interested in the issues involving race, class, immigration and urban culture conflict that Braxton raises.

The summary may lead readers to believe that female protagonist Sydney Stallworth is a character who solely plays a support role to others.  It's true that she's supportive, but I thought she genuinely believed in her husband's business.  The potential of The Talking Drum to become a center for African American culture was important to her.  Yet she also  pursued her own goals as well by becoming a local journalist.  If it weren't for her dedication in following the protests of the African immigrants in Petite Africa against the "urban redevelopment" that would shatter their lives, the truth about the fires in that neighborhood might never have been discovered.  I admired Sydney.   Because she cared so deeply, I felt that she inspired everyone around her to follow their own dreams.

Della Tolliver  is an example of someone who clearly benefited from the presence of Sydney in her life, though Della would never have believed it at the outset.  When we first meet Della, she's a very unhappy woman.  I didn't like her very much at that point, but she improves her life over the course of the narrative with Sydney's help.

Just as in real life, there is no permanent victory against the forces of "urban re-development" in The Talking Drum.  Let us hope that there will always be those like Lisa Braxton who will lift up the voices of the marginalized communities that could be impacted before it's too late.

                                   Lisa Braxton
Lisa Braxton Bio 

Lisa Braxton is an Emmy-nominated former television journalist, an essayist, short story writer, and novelist. She is a fellow of the Kimbilio Fiction Writers Program and was a finalist in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. She is the former president of the Boston Chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. Her stories and essays have been published in anthologies, magazines, and literary journals including Vermont Literary Review, Black Lives Have Always Mattered, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Northwestern University Magazine and The Book of Hope. She received Honorable Mention in Writer’s Digest magazine’s 84th and 86th annual writing contests in the inspirational essay category and was a finalist for the “Still I Rise” grant for Black Women Writers. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in mass media from Hampton University, her Master of Science degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University. She lives in the Boston, Massachusetts area. 

Talking Drum Buy Links

Monday, May 25, 2020

Hello Summer--Contemporary Woman Journalist Investigates Congressman's Death

I've never read mysteries by either Mary Kay Andrews or Kathy Hogan Trochek. Mary Kay Andrews is a pseudonym for Trochek.  Her Goodreads profile says that she established the pen name for books that would be more Southern oriented. Trochek lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

I was approached by publicist Meg Walker with a review request for Hello, Summer, the most recent Mary Kay Andrews novel.  The female journalist protagonist was what drew my interest. I appreciated that Trochek had been a journalist herself before beginning her career as a novelist. This meant that I could expect an authentic portrayal of the protagonist. The author gave her protagonist her own journalistic background.  They both had worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  I think that these shared circumstances increases the reader's confidence in the book's realism.

On this blog, I recently reviewed a book dealing with the real historical journalist, Nellie Bly here but I also reviewed The Suffragette Scandal, a romance by Courtney Milan in which the heroine was a fictional historical journalist  here.

Journalists play an important role in society. So I like to highlight them.  That's why I decided to accept the review request.  I received two print copies from the exceedingly generous publisher, St. Martin's Press.  My review is below.


From a mystery perspective, readers will need to be patient. There is a great deal of development of the characters and their relationships before the case gets going.  The mystery does get solved though the resolution isn't conventional.

Although there is a romance element in this novel,  it doesn't dominate the plot.  I read a review on Goodreads that complained that there was too little romance and too much politics.  I personally liked the balance of all the various aspects in  Hello, Summer within the narrative.

Readers of this blog will want to know that there were two wonderful woman characters in this novel in addition to protagonist Conley Hawkins.

 My personal favorite was her grandmother's housekeeper, Winnie.  Her strength in the face of  environmental injustice impressed me tremendously. I would have loved a novel in which Winnie was the protagonist in which we got to see her entire history as she experienced it. I suppose it would have been an environmental thriller.

Conley's eccentric grandmother was incredibly supportive of Conley's insistence on investigating stories regardless of who they offended.  She had inherited the ownership of a local newspaper, and it was she who upheld its journalistic standards.

 Conley brought valuable experience to her family's newspaper, The Silver Bay Beacon, from her work at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  She had reason to believe that the risks she was taking could make The Silver Bay Beacon more successful despite her sister's skepticism.

 I'm hoping that there will be another novel taking place in Silver Bay in which we get to see whether Conley's strategy paid off in the long run. Do local print newspapers have a future?  I'd like to think that they do.



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.