Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Girl From Berlin: A Legal Thriller Dealing With A Woman Violinist and Holocaust Survival

I was approached by the publisher to review The Girl From Berlin because I reviewed Karolina's Twins, the third volume in the Liam Taggart and Catherine Lockhart legal thriller series.  That review can be found on this blog here. The Girl From Berlin is #5 in the same series.  I received a free copy for review from the publisher via Net Galley.

                     

In most dual period books, I prefer one of the narratives more than the other, but in the Ronald Balson  Liam Taggart and Catherine Lockhart books I've read both continuities feel equally exciting and significant.

The Girl From Berlin has a contemporary story line that focuses on an elderly woman with an award winning vineyard in Tuscany who is being outmaneuvered legally by a large corporation that wants her land.   I was definitely rooting for Gabriella Vincenzo to get justice.  There is also a mystery in Gabriella's history and the history of her estate's ownership.  That's where the memoir of  musician Ada Baumgarten comes in.  We eventually learn about the connection between Gabriella and a German Jewish violinist.  We also discover the truth about the struggle over this Italian vineyard through the mesmerizing story that Ada tells about her life.

This post belongs on Flying High Reviews because at its heart The Girl From Berlin is about strong women.  It's about Gabriella Vincenzo who refuses to surrender her land.  It's about two equally determined woman lawyers--one of whom is Catherine Lockhart.  The other is the Italian lawyer who is found to represent Gabriella in court.  Then there is the magnificent Ada Baumgarten whose talent was regarded so highly that she received standing ovations in Hitler's Germany.  Yet Ada had Nazi enemies that threatened her survival.  She remains in jeopardy during the climax of the World War II portion of her narrative.  Finding out what happened to Ada kept me at the edge of my seat through horrific dangers and amazing triumphs over adversity.

There were also courageous men who played supportive roles in the lives of these women. Mentioning all of them would be too much of a spoiler, but I have to give plaudits to at least one. As a PI who is Catherine's husband, Liam Taggart is the ongoing male protagonist of the series. Liam and Catherine worked as a team in this novel.    He did whatever was necessary to bring the Gabriella Vincenzo case to a successful conclusion.

The historical story line about Ada Baumgarten was intense, and I found her musical achievements inspiring.  At the end of the contemporary narrative, I wanted to applaud.   You will not want to miss out on reading The Girl From Berlin. 

                          

Friday, July 13, 2018

The Painter's Apprentice--A Woman's Steadfast Courage in Standing By Her Choices

I won The Painter's Apprentice by Laura Morelli on Goodreads as a result of an error.  The publisher accidentally offered too many copies for their print giveaway.  So the author generously agreed to give away free digital copies via Book Funnel.   That's the format in which I acquired my review copy, and this is my honest review.

                         


Venice is a unique city that has an aura of magic.  I enjoy visiting Venice through the pages of a book.  Several years ago I reviewed a rather unusual mystery with a memorable perspective on 16th century Venice called The Aquatic Labyrinth by Alastair Fontana  here. The last book I reviewed on this blog was the Laurie R. King mystery, Island of the Mad which brought me to  Fascist Venice in the 1920's.  You can find out more about King's novel here.  Morelli's book took me to an earlier dark era in Venice's past when the city was afflicted by plague.

 I primarily wanted to read this book because I have a special interest in woman protagonists who are artists.  Since Laura Morelli is an art historian, I thought she would have insights to share about the world of artists in Renaissance Venice which would provide context for the story of her fictional protagonist, Maria Bartolini.

Maria played a role in the creation of works of art that I normally don't even think about.  She was a gilder.   Gilding is a decorative aspect of art.  Frames were often gilded with gold leaf, but gold leaf was also added to portraits and other types of paintings to display  the wealth of the subjects or a luxurious environment.   There were also fancy gilded boxes that were made as gifts.  Maria used molds to shape the gold in a variety of designs. It was unusual for a woman to become a gilder.  Maria was trained by her father who was himself a gilder.  Her father's reputation and Maria's skill gained her the respect of painters and wealthy clients.

 Maria fell in love with Cristiano who is called a Moor.  In practice, 16th century Venetians didn't really distinguish between Africans and Arabs.  Both were subject to prejudice.  See Laura Morelli's brief article on the subject here.  Maria showed courage in standing by this relationship despite all obstacles.  She also showed a great deal of fortitude in enduring losses due to the plague.

Another female character that I would have liked to know better was Cristiano's mother, Zenobia.   Given my association of that name with the Syrian Warrior Queen, I wonder if she came from Syria where the name Zenobia was popular.  One of Laura Morelli's questions for book clubs was which character's viewpoint I would choose for this novel other than Maria's.  My choice is definitely Zenobia.   I would like to find out more about her history and how she brought up her son to rise above Venetian prejudice.

The Painter's Apprentice contains a great deal of drama and tragedy, but it ends on a heartwarming note that leaves readers with a feeling of optimism for the future.   Although I wondered if all of Maria's choices were wise, I ended up respecting Maria for her determination.



                              

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King

Island of the Mad is the second book in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series by Laurie R. King that I'm reviewing on this blog.  The first was Dreaming Spies whose review can be found here.  In Island of the Mad,  Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes conduct their investigations in Venice which is under the rule of Mussolini.   I received a digital ARC from the publisher via Net Galley and this is my honest review.

                             


The cover of this novel is lovely.  Some readers have mistaken the elegant woman on the cover for Mary Russell herself, but I've been reliably informed that the author denies that this is an image of her heroine.

For Mary Russell, this is a missing person case that begins in England.   She is searching for a college friend's aunt who had been consigned to Bedlam.  Holmes accompanies Russell, but he is on a mission for his brother, Mycroft.  Holmes' investigation brings an espionage element into the book.  The involvement of American musician Cole Porter adds extra interest.

Yet it was the disappeared Aunt Vivian who really held my attention.  She is an independent minded woman.  Desiring independence was still considered enough of a sin against convention that she might well be committed to an institution for that alone, but there are secrets motivating the missing woman that Mary Russell will uncover as part of the process of finding her. Aunt Vivian's sketches provide clues. I thought it was fascinating that Vivian used her sketchbook as a sort of diary.

Although there is a slow section, the dramatic resolution of  Island of the Mad more than makes up for it.  There are some feminist themes and the fascist environment provides relevant political commentary for our contemporary times.  I think that Island of the Mad should be considered one of the best books in Laurie R. King's Russell/Holmes series.






                                 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Burning Fields: Australian Historical Romance Deals With Important Issues

I was approached by author Alli Sinclair to review her latest novel,  Burning Fields.  My co-blogger Tara had reviewed Alli Sinclair's Luna Tango on this blog here.  I was interested in reading about Rosie, Alli Sinclair's independent heroine in Burning Fields.  So I requested an ARC which was sent to me by the publisher via Net Galley.

                           

As the novel opens  in the post-WWII era, Australian Rosie Stanton has been living on her own in Brisbane and is accustomed to making her own decisions, but harassment at her job has forced her to return to the family farm.  I found her situation very relatable from the outset. Other American readers may have a similar reaction since the MeToo movement has increased awareness of workplace harassment.

Rosie brought useful skills to her family, but her father's traditionalism made him unreceptive. Sexist attitudes were pervasive during this period. Rosie had to fight for respect from her father and the surrounding community.

Some wonderful exceptions to the denigration of women were the hero, Tomas Conti, and his family who owned the farm next door to the Stantons.   As Italians, they were victims of prejudice mainly resulting from Italy having been an enemy during WWII. Yet Rosie's father had more personal reasons for his animus against Italians.  This anti-Italian bigotry was one of the obstacles in the path of HEA for Rosie and Tomas.

Tomas' grandmother, known as Nonna, was an unwavering source of support.  She became a friend and mentor for Rosie.  Nonna was both strong-minded and wise.   I loved Nonna's relationship with the often beleaguered female protagonist.

There were some lovely Italian customs mentioned during the narrative including giving women a mimosa flower on Festa de la Donna which is an Italian holiday celebrating women.  For more information, see this article from Italy Magazine  on the subject.

I thought that Burning Fields was a beautiful and moving romance.  Rosie's feminism and the foregrounding of post-WWII antagonism against immigrants from countries that had been Axis Powers may cause readers to think about these issues.






Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Retalio: The Fight to Restore The Matriarchy After Insurrectio

When author Alison Morton sent me Retalio, the last book of the Aurelia trilogy, I thought I would have no problem reading and reviewing it in a timely manner.   This past week has been infernally busy, so it took me far longer to read Retalio than I expected.  Yet it was so suspenseful that I hated having to set my Kindle down.

I have read and reviewed the following books in the alternate history matriarchal Roma Nova series on this blog:  InceptioCarina , Perfiditas, Aurelia and Insurrectio. Since this is the sequel to Insurrectio, I would recommend reading that review for background information.

                             


When I read about the condition of Roma Nova under the rule of fascist dictator Caius Tellus in an alternate version of the 1980's, I was reminded of  accounts dealing with Khmer Rouge Cambodia.  They too had a nationalist ideology involving restoring Cambodia to the way it was in ancient times.  Anyone who had skills or an education was regarded as a threat to this goal and was eliminated.   Caius wasn't as extreme, but he did attempt to do away with any women who had any skills or education.  This was massively genocidal and predictably resulted in societal collapse as it did in Cambodia.  I wonder if Khmer Rouge Cambodia existed in Roma Nova's alternate timeline.  If so, the fall of Pol Pot in 1979 would have been a recent event that should have caused potential followers of Caius to hesitate before committing to his cause.  Unfortunately, relatively few people learn any lessons from the experience of a distant country which usually isn't regarded as relevant.

So the invasion by those Roma Novan leaders and military personnel who had managed to escape into exile did encounter resistance.  Even though I knew the result from having read the 21st century Carina books, I identified with Aurelia who went through an intensely dramatic turnaround at a moment when she was fairly certain of victory.

 Due to the focus on women in aviation on this blog, I was pleased that a rather bold female pilot played a surprise role.

In addition to the tension of plot twists, there was a powerful pagan religious ritual which was integral within the context of the narrative.  Since the founders of Roma Nova had left Christianized Rome because they were devout worshipers of  ancient divinities, I was hoping to see some moments of spiritual depth in their descendants.   I finally saw it in Retalio when the exiles came together for a fervent funeral rite. Silvia, the future ruler of Roma Nova in the Carina trilogy, was still a teenager.  Yet I felt that she came into her own during that ceremony. Ave Imperatrix!

I am hoping that Alison Morton will take a more historical direction when she returns to Roma Nova.  I would love to see novels dealing with the founding of Roma Nova, and the origins of the matriarchy.


                               







                            

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Suffragette Scandal--Some of The Best Romance Dialogue Ever!

I haven't reviewed a suffragette novel in 2018.  It's about time that I did.  Suffragettes are my favorite historical subject. I'm so glad that I had a chance to read The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan.  This historical romance is causing me to revise my Romance Top Ten of All Time list.  I should have redone it when I read the Jewish Regency Miss Jacobson's Journey by Carola Dunn in 2016 (which I reviewed here) but I completely forgot.  This means that the two titles at the bottom of my top ten fall off the list leaving The Black Knave by Patricia Potter, a Scottish version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, rounding out the top ten. 

                             


The Suffragette Scandal was such fun!  The heroine of this romance, Frederica Marshall, known to her friends as Free, is the owner/editor of a woman's newspaper in England in 1877.    One of my favorite moments in the book is when she tells the hero Edward Clark that if he ever needs an exclamation point, he should come to see her because she has a whole box of them. 

She really does have a box of exclamation points.  Printing was done with moveable type.  So each page in a newspaper had to be set with little replicas of each letter and punctuation mark.  I'm borrowing from Free's box of exclamation points for this review.  I've used two of them.

It's often said that Jane Eyre is the grandmother of historical romance, but I think that The Suffragette Scandal is directly descended from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing where Beatrice and Benedick have some really great dialogue exchanges.  I was thinking of Benedick calling Beatrice "my lady disdain" while I read this book.  Free could easily be a second "my lady disdain".   Her agile tongue can outwit all the other characters.

Aside from the dialogue, there's also a dramatic plot with threats to the newspaper, arrests at a suffragette rally, blackmail and forgery.  Free's background is amazing because it includes all the risks she took to publish exposés of institutions and businesses that were harming women.

  Edward, the hero, is unconventional because he rejects the class driven values of Victorian society.  This makes him an outcast from his aristocratic family.  His life has been a hard one, but he's a survivor with many talents.  I loved him almost as much as Free.

In the Author's Note, Courtney Milan reveals what I suspected about the inspiration of her feminist heroine.  She is modeled on Nellie Bly, the 19th century American investigative reporter.  I've linked a Biography.com article about her life.  The image of her below is a public domain photo from Wikipedia. 

                         

Those who say that historical romances which contain feminist heroines are all inauthentic are wrong.  Nellie Bly really existed.  There were suffragettes.  Romance writers can draw on a rich heritage of strong women throughout history.   I give The Suffragette Scandal high marks for being a feminist romance that is hugely entertaining.

                            

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Insurrectio: Meeting The Challenge of Keeping A Prequel Trilogy Thrilling

Insurrectio  by Alison Morton is the middle book of a prequel trilogy in the alternate history Roma Nova series which deal with an ancient Roman colony that survived as an independent nation in modern times.  It's of particular interest to me that Roma Nova is a matriarchy, and that the books are neither utopias nor dystopias.  They attempt to portray this society realistically with all its strengths and weaknesses.  This is why I have been reviewing books in the Roma Nova series on this blog.  Here are the links to my reviews of  books focusing on the 21st century protagonist Carina Mitela Inceptio, Carina and Perfiditas.  I have also reviewed the first book in a 20th century trilogy about Carina's grandmother Aurelia hereInsurrectio is the sequel to Aurelia.

I was gifted with a copy of Insurrectio by the author via Book Funnel in return for this honest review.

                         



Those who have read the Carina books have seen references to the events of this novel.   So I pretty much knew what would happen in a general way.  Readers will wonder how a prequel in a thriller series can be suspenseful.

 Believe me, nothing in the Carina books can prepare you for Insurrectio.   This was a true catastrophe for Roma Nova as a society and for Aurelia as an individual.   I realized that the endangerment to the matriarchy in  Perfiditas was less severe precisely because of  the calamity that had occurred in the 20th century.   Relatively few people were willing to allow Roma Nova  to go there again.  For women  like Aurelia, having lived through Insurrectio must have functioned like an inoculation against a deadly plague.  It stiffened their resolve in Perfiditas because they were very aware of the potential consequences.

There was no World War II in Alison Morton's alternate timeline but the vicious ideology of fascism was nevertheless percolating through the continent of Europe.  As we see in our 21st century, fascism can emerge and spill across borders in any time of crisis.   Insurrectio can be viewed as a timely warning to the complacent that it can indeed happen in your country. For those of us who are currently experiencing an outbreak of fascism, the intensity of  the narrative may be magnified.

In this novel Aurelia's courage and fitness to lead are questioned.   Since those who judged Aurelia hadn't been through any similar ordeal, none of them could know how they themselves would react in those circumstances.  In my view, Aurelia did what she felt she needed to do in order to protect the Mitela clan.  I considered the situation traumatic, and was impressed that Aurelia managed to come through it and recover from the associated PTSD. 

Insurrectio may be taking place in the 20th century, but I feel that this powerful thriller speaks to our times, and that Aurelia is a strong survivor who can inspire us all.