Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Light Over London: A WWII Novel of Romance, Secrets and Women's Autonomy

When a publicist pitches a book to me, the content of that pitch matters very much.   I want it to pique my interest, but I also want it to accurately reflect the book.  I should be made aware of what kind of book I'll be reading.  I try to do that in my blog review titles, so that the book will find its audience.

It seems to me that advance publicity for The Light Over London by Julia Kelly is trying to appeal to the sort of reader who is interested in the combat aspect of WWII.  There is an emphasis on the female historical protagonist joining an anti-aircraft unit and becoming a Gunner Girl.  The sort of reader who is interested in reading about Gunner Girls will expect that a high percentage of the book will contain action scenes or will at least take place in a military context. I requested this book for review on the strength of that publicity and received a copy from the publisher via Net Galley.


As I read Light Over London, I realized that I had to adjust my expectations.  It was a good book, just not the one that I thought it would be.   There was a combat sequence. There were also descriptions of training.  Julia Kelly captured the bonding between the women in the anti-aircraft unit very well. Yet I'd estimate that the Gunner Girl experience represented about 10% of the book.

I think that the other 90% was what the novel really focused on.   It was about the struggle of women to define themselves as individuals and live out their dreams.   It was also about how family, or the men in their lives supported or hindered them.   There were a number of  female characters in The Light Over London who were strong women.  They all went on to live the lives they chose for themselves.   There were no  relationships that involved a conventional romance genre HEA, but I think all these truly autonomous women found their own form of happiness.

There were a couple of major secrets.  One was a devastating scandal that infested the heart of a romantic relationship.   The other was a character building mistake that a family member made when she was young.   Both women moved on, and didn't allow themselves to be crushed by circumstances. I have to say that I was able to predict the nature of these secrets before they were revealed based on what I knew about the people involved.  So there were no surprises for me, but it was satisfying that I understood the characters so well.

I was glad to learn about the existence of Gunner Girls, and was delighted to find a novel like The Light Over London where all the major female characters were an inspiration. 


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Nexus: How Does A Strong Woman Deal With A Broken Man?

Nexus is a novella in the alternate history Roma Nova series by Alison Morton in which there is a matriarchal country whose citizens are the descendants of Pagan Romans that left Rome in ancient times. See my reviews of previous Roma Nova books InceptioCarina and Perfiditas which focus on the altered 21st century adventures of the maverick praetorian, Carina.  The protagonist of Nexus is Carina's formidable grandmother, Aurelia.   It takes place in the alternate 20th century between Aurelia and Insurrectio. My reviews of these Aurelia books are at the links I've provided.  You can also find my review of Retalio, the sequel of Insurrectio on this blog here. The most recent book in this series that I've reviewed is Roma Nova Extra, an anthology of short stories taking place during a variety of historical periods.

Let's move on to the current review. Since Aurelia is my favorite of the two Roma Nova novel protagonists, I was delighted to be in her company again.  This time it was in the newly written 1970's adventure, Nexus, provided by Alison Morton in advance of publication.


I'd like to emphasize that all the Roma Nova books are heavily plotted thrillers, but characterization is also an aspect of these books.  Aurelia investigates a series of crimes in Nexus.  Yet I feel that the central theme of this novella is character centered.

The broken man appears in several Roma Nova books.  He's especially heart-wrenching to deal with when a protagonist has fallen in love with him.   Yet there are other circumstances that may make a strong woman want to fix him.  If he's young, she may feel protective toward him.  Aurelia finds herself in this situation in Nexus.  

 Aurelia is a compassionate human being.    People who run rough shod over others are usually insecure.  It's only individuals who have a strong sense of themselves  like Aurelia who can afford to be compassionate.  This is a character trait that she shares with Miklos, the man she loves.  Miklos and Aurelia's relationship with him play an important role in Nexus.  Aurelia's choice of Miklos and the kind of relationship she has with him is another reason why I prefer her as a protagonist.  I really like that Aurelia and Miklos respect each other's independence, and share the same values.

The ending of Nexus is tragic, but there is also a redemptive aspect that made it feel emotionally satisfying.   I hope that Alison Morton will find other opportunities to write more Aurelia prequels.   


Friday, July 19, 2019

Dead Man's Jazz--Speakeasy Musicians Are Murdered in YA Mystery

Dead Man's Jazz is the second in a mystery series by Connie B. Dowell.  I reviewed The Poison in All of Us, the first book in the series, here. I was looking forward to finding out how the small town Georgia teen investigators, Emmie and Dessa, would deal with crimes in the city of Savannah in 1919.  So I pre-ordered it on Amazon and have finally gotten a chance to review it.

My main impetus for reading The Poison In All of Us was that the case dealt with suffragettes.   There are suffragettes in this novel as well.  I would have to say that this is necessarily so because Emmie's mother, Irene, is a dedicated suffragette.  She decided to make the trip to Savannah in order to network with a Savannah suffragette leader.  Emmie and Dessa came along because they were on summer vacation from school.

I feel that it's important to note that Dead Man's Jazz takes place during the Red Summer of 1919.  This  was exactly a hundred years ago, and involved a nationwide intensification of white supremacist violence in the United States.  I found a relatively recent article about it from Teen Vogue here.  Connie Dowell also discusses it in her Author's Note.  Racism is a theme in  Dead Man's Jazz, but it isn't the primary focus of the novel.  Dowell says in the Author's Note that she didn't feel that she was the right person to write a book about Red Summer, but neither could she ignore the issue. Both Dessa and Irene take affirmative roles in trying to connect with and later assist the local African American Women's Club.  (Though I do think it likely that it would have been called the Colored Women's Club in 1919. "Serial killer" was another example of anachronistic vocabulary in this novel.  See Origin of the Term "Serial Killer" from Psychology Today.) The attitude of the white Savannah suffragette leader toward African American women seemed to imply that she firmly believed in segregation.

The case focused more on the band at a Savannah speakeasy.  It was mentioned that though there was no national prohibition of alcohol at that point, Georgia was a dry state where alcohol was illegal.   There were characters involved in bootlegging.

Another prominent issue was one involving the personal lives of a couple of the characters.  In reviewing The Poison in All of Us, Dessa's sexual identity was a spoiler, but Dowell outs Dessa in the description for this book.  So I guess it's appropriate for me to say in this review that there's lots of focus on lesbian relationship issues.  Theresa, Dessa's former lover, is the catalyst for Dessa and Emmie to be involved in this case since Theresa is a musician in the speakeasy's band.  I found Theresa very sympathetic.  Her inner strength made her my favorite character in this book.

It did seem to me that Dessa was far more dramatically prominent in Dead Man's Jazz than Emmie.  She was motivated by Theresa's involvement to take a more active role in the case and was going through a period of transition.  Emmie seemed to me to be a relatively marginal character.  I also found her less interesting than Theresa and Dessa, though I also very much liked Emmie's mother, Irene. There's a free prequel short story available to subscribers to Connie Dowell's newsletter in which Irene and her brother Charlie investigated a case when they were teens.  It's called "Unwound" and there's a download link for it after the Author's Note.   I think there's potential for an entire series about Irene and Charlie, but there's also potential for books focusing primarily on Dessa.

I was hoping for more focus on jazz  in Dead Man's Jazz since so many of the characters were musicians, but music was relegated to the background.   There were aspects of this book that I liked very much, but there were also parts of the narrative that I didn't find engaging. Yet I would definitely like to read more about some of these characters. 


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Death in a Desert Land--Blog Tour Review of Novel With Agatha Christie as a Detective

Death in a Desert Land by Andrew Wilson is the third book in Wilson's mystery series in which mystery author Agatha Christie is an investigator.  I applied for the blog tour and received a free copy for review from Stephanie Mendoza of Atria Books, the publisher of this novel.

I have a content warning for those who care about animals.   If you strongly object to reading about any incidents of violence against pets, this book isn't for you.


The main reason why I wanted to read this novel is because it begins with Agatha Christie being asked to investigate the  death of Gertrude Bell by British intelligence which sent Christie to the archaeological site in Ur located in Iraq. Gertrude Bell was a fascinating woman who was a major factor in shaping the Middle East as we currently know it.  For more information, readers should see her Wikipedia article that I've linked.  I also knew that Agatha Christie had been to Ur because she met her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, there in 1930.  One of her books, Murder in Mesopotamia, was drawn from her experiences in Iraq.  So Death in a Desert Land did seem historically feasible as well as being of particular interest to me.

The main focus of the case was on archaeologist Leonard Woolley, his wife Katherine, and events at the Ur excavation.  The Woolleys were also real individuals.  People may want to research them after finishing this book.  Wikipedia articles about them contain serious spoilers that would ruin your experience of reading Death in a Desert Land.

This is a tightly plotted mystery with all the requisite twists and a great deal of suspense.  Armchair archaeologists will love all the details about how archaeology was conducted during this period and the environment in which they worked.

A number of the characters are provided with intriguing backgrounds.  Determined women are significant to the story line though I wouldn't really consider this a feminist novel.   There are valid historical reasons why many women during this period could be primarily motivated by their relationships with men.  Agatha Christie, the protagonist, was more independent minded than other women in this book.  I felt that the characters were realistically portrayed.

I thought that Death in a Desert Land was a well-written mystery.  I also liked the opportunities it gave me to find out more about the real people who appeared in the novel. 

                                  Andrew Wilson

                                  photo by Johnny Ring

For more information about Andrew Wilson see his website at

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Things You Save In A Fire: Let's Talk About Feminist Romance

 I usually only read about a handful of romances each year.  I have to believe that there is a strong possibility that a particular title is going to sustain my feminist world view.  There was a time when I didn't read romances at all.  I believed that a feminist romance was an impossibility.  When I finally tried romance, I noticed that there had been a shift in the way romance authors were writing about women.  Heroines were stronger and had more agency.   Romance publishers had become aware that their audience wanted to see these more independent heroines.   Yet there are other factors that can still make a romance seem inimical to feminist values.  I'm going to discuss one of those factors in this review.

I received a print format ARC of  Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center from St. Martin's Press.  I was eager to read about a courageous and determined 21st century woman who felt called to be a firefighter.  I thought this was an unusual focus for a romance, and I was favorably inclined toward this kind of heroine.  After I finished the book, I was more ambivalent toward the central character than I had expected.  I have decided to write an honest review that explains my ambivalence.


 I know that there are still relatively few woman firefighters.  This is a challenging profession for anyone regardless of gender, but there are particular obstacles placed in the way of women who are trying to succeed as firefighters.   Male firefighters may have preconceptions about women that prevent their acceptance as firefighters.  There may be problems with sexual harassment.  Sometimes the culture of a particular fire station may be the issue.  The Captain is the one who sets the tone.  If there were more female Captains who could mentor new women in their companies,  women would have an easier time in this field.  Cassie Hanwell, Center's protagonist, faces multiple difficulties, but she does have a great deal of inner strength and commitment. She is also remarkably well suited to being a firefighter.

The book's dedication reveals that Center's husband is a firefighter.  There are numerous authentic details in Things You Save From A Fire, but such a source can provide more than information.  He could give Center a window into the lived experience of firefighters that can't be duplicated through research.  This is one of the reasons why this novel felt so genuine to me.

In addition, Cassie's portrayal was very truthful.  This doesn't mean that she has no secrets.   This is a character with some serious hidden baggage, but she also has motivations for concealment that are consistent with her circumstances.   Her decision to hide significant events in her past impacts all her relationships, but being a firefighter had made openness and vulnerability seem outlawed for her.

For the purposes of  the plot, the hero and heroine always need to overcome barriers to their romance.  One of the standard barriers is that one or both partners feel that they need to prove their love.  Most readers were brought up with the idea that proving love requires major sacrifices, and that burden often falls on the woman.  As a feminist, I have always believed that the expectation that women must be the ones to sacrifice for a relationship is both unhealthy and one of the cornerstones of  male domination.   Yet I know that many romance readers consider scenes in which the heroine is the one who has to prove her love through sacrifice very romantic.

When writing a feminist romance, the urge to provide the readers with such a dramatic moment  undermines all the efforts that the author has made up until then to present the protagonist as a feminist.  On the other hand, feminists are also brought up to believe in self-sacrifice.  So a feminist may find herself acting in accordance with romance traditions in an emergency without thinking about it.  People aren't always consistent with their principles--particularly when they are under stress in a crisis situation.  There was a point when I perceived Cassie as having succombed to non-feminist ideals of true love. I thought it was believable that she acted that way, but  I still didn't like it.  I wish that a feminist heroine could promote a better model for relationships.

So  I appreciated  the realism and authenticity of Things You Save In A Fire , but it wasn't as inspiring to me as a feminist as I'd hoped.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Mistress of the Ritz--An Unlikely World War II French Resistance Figure

Although I have never previously read any books by the author of  Mistress of the Ritz, Melanie Benjamin, I do appreciate that her historical novels have focused on real women. All historical fiction requires research on the period, but a credible novel that deals with actual historical people needs additional research to establish what is known about those individuals.  So I salute writers who take this more difficult path.

I received a digital review copy of Mistress of the Ritz from publicist Ariel McCarter.  I decided to review this book because it deals with the French Resistance during World War II.


Protagonist Blanche Auzello seemed somewhat superficial to me as the novel opened.   She experiences growth as a result of meeting Lily, an eccentric political radical.  Blanche's transformation into a woman who wanted meaning in her life and felt compassion for others less fortunate, increased my interest in Mistress of the Ritz exponentially.

Then there is a scene in which Blanche commits what looks like a very foolish and self-destructive mistake.  A reviewer on Goodreads reacted very negatively to this moment in the plot and called Blanche "too stupid to live".  I had to evaluate this turning point differently when I found out from the Author's Note that Melanie Benjamin didn't imagine a disruptive incident at this point in Blanche's life.  Given the real historical consequences, the actual Blanche Auzello must have done something very similar.   Benjamin implies in a subsequent scene that Blanche had subconscious reasons for her actions.  I find this very likely.  There can be complex underlying motives for self-destructive behavior.   

A later event that seemed too coincidental to be believable was also revealed as something that actually happened in the Author's Note.  Blanche was lucky.   In fact, luck seemed to have played a major role throughout the real Blanche Auzello's life.

My favorite character in Mistress of the Ritz was Lily.  Lily is in the historical record, but almost nothing is known about her.  So she is very nearly a fictional character.  I found Lily's invented personality quite appealing, and would have read an entire novel about her.

I did feel ambivalent about this book mainly because of Blanche's marriage to Claude.  What bothered me most was Claude's need to control Blanche.  I think that his domineering attitude gave the ending of the book, which also came from real life, a certain tragic inevitability.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

A Savage Kultur: The Fictional Story of a Painting Seized by the Nazis

A Savage Kultur by Monique Roy is the second book that I am reviewing by this author.  I participated in the blog tour for her novel Across Great Divides on this blog here back in 2015.  I  received a free review copy of A Savage Kultur from Monique Roy and this is my honest review.


The last time a review on this blog dealt with a book on the theme of the Nazi looting of art it was Stolen Beauty by Laura Lico Albanese which I reviewed here.  That novel involved an actual famous legal suit brought by a descendant of the original owner to recover an iconic Gustav Klimt painting. 

The  painting at the center of A Savage Kultur, "The Lovers: The Poet's Garden IV" by Vincent Van Gogh isn't well-known and has an unknown fate. An image of Van Gogh's sketch of the painting is reproduced on the bottom section of the cover shown above. Yet all the characters in A Savage Kultur are fictional creations.  So Monique Roy has given us a speculative narrative about this missing work.

Contemporary protagonist Ava Goldberg experiences what might have been a favorite fantasy come true for an art history student like her when she inherits an art gallery from her grandfather.  Her love of art and her devotion to her family are the most believable aspects of her character.   Her determination to reclaim the Van Gogh that had been owned by her grandmother's family is admirable.  On the other hand,  I didn't find the romantic aspect of her life very credible, and thought that the book could have dispensed with it entirely.

My favorite character in this book was Ava's grandfather, Karl Engel, who was the protagonist of the historical chapters in this dual period novel.  I consider him the most fully realized character and I think that the entire plot really does revolve around him.  His courage in Nazi Germany preserves the life of the woman he loves.  His decisions in the 21st century motivate Ava and give her life a focus.

The issue of art forgery arises in this book through the perspective of a character who engages in forgery.  Mention is made of the sophisticated techniques he uses to fool the experts.

What most sets apart this novel about Nazis and art is that this one doesn't portray Nazism as a defunct ideology.  There are unnerving survivals of Nazi beliefs and attitudes alive among their 21st century descendants in A Savage Kultur.  I was reminded of a William Faulkner quote.  "The past is never dead.  It's not even past."  So the resolution wasn't nearly as triumphant as other books in this sub-genreInstead there is a dark undertone that could cause readers to wonder when other manifestations of the Third Reich might surface.  One might also wonder whether the entirely too sheltered descendants of Holocaust survivors like Ava will be capable of stopping them.