Saturday, September 24, 2016

This Above All---A Girl Portrays Shakespeare's Romeo

This Above All by Lindsey Roth Culli is a  contemporary YA novel which is a potent stew of Shakespeare, gender, sexuality, religion and growing up in the American Midwest.   I received a free copy from the indie publisher, Curiosity Quills, in return for this honest review.

I have previously reviewed two other Curiosity Quills releases Alice Takes Back Wonderland, a rather wonderful fairy tale mashup and The Heartless City , an alternate history dystopia based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which I found compelling and enjoyable.  I expected This Above All to be more conventional compared to those previous outings.  In some ways, it was very much like a standard YA novel, but in others it very definitely wasn't.


The conventional aspect of this book was high school.   I tend to avoid YA novels that take place in high school.   Most of these have predictable character types, dynamics and plots.   This Above All contained those elements.  There were false rumors, bullying and relationships plagued by miscommunication.  Juliet was played by a stereotypical popular mean girl.  It seems that the director of this Romeo and Juliet didn't prioritize chemistry between the leads.

Sexuality was a theme, but This Above All didn't really focus on sexual relationships as is appropriate in a YA novel. While the specter of lesbianism fueled controversy, there was no actual lesbianism. Heterosexual romance played a role in the plot of this novel, but it wasn't predominant.   There was a gay character named Tony, but his life wasn't front and center either.  I read a review on Goodreads that was disappointed that we didn't find out more about Tony's family interactions.   Tony played Mercutio.  If it's true that Shakespeare needed to kill off Mercutio to prevent him from taking over the play, as is stated in this book, it's probably also true that Culli wanted to make certain that Tony didn't upstage Piper, her protagonist.

I felt that the way Piper deals with her real female identity while portraying a male role is the most interesting aspect of this book.  She initially had her doubts whether she could or should be Romeo.  Yet once she became accustomed to the idea, she threw herself into her fictive male identity.   I wouldn't say that Piper is a transgender character.   It seemed to me that Culli wanted to show that it's possible for a girl to play with masculine gender traits in a theatrical context while still retaining a core self-concept of being female.  Piper has more in common with historical women who dressed as men to achieve career goals than with individuals who seek to transition to another gender.

Piper's fundamentalist Christian family brings religion into the mix of themes.  It is they who stir the cauldron of outrage over Piper playing a male role.  Her pastor father is shown as being sincerely concerned about Piper's spiritual well being.   As I am not a Christian myself, I wouldn't presume to make statements about the true nature of Christianity.   Over the course of the narrative, Piper changes her own views about religion.  She ponders how she can maintain a relationship with God, and comes to her own independent conclusions.   It seems to me that for Piper developing a personal approach to religion is part of the process of becoming an adult.

This Above All is a book that will cause readers to reflect on a number of topics, but I think they will also be moved by the courage of Piper and Tony, and the  chosen family they found in the cast of Romeo and Juliet.   As we have seen in the TV series, Glee, communities of performers can be powerful support systems for teens who feel like outsiders in a hostile world.  Anyone who has felt at odds with their families, or with society in general will be able to relate to Piper.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Renting Silence: A Roaring Twenties Mystery

Renting Silence by Mary MileyI read the first book in this series and loved it. Due to the high price, I never did get around to book two. However, I didn't feel as if I'd missed a beat as I happily engrossed myself in book three.

Our heroine, former vaudeville star, is now working for Mary Pickford and husband. When Mary asks her to investigate a possible false arrest and prove a fellow actress's innocence, this gal is on the case, funded by the suspect's lover.

Everything points to the suspect having done it, despite what gut instinct says. The heroine hits vaudeville again to find some answers, therefore the story gives us a view of life on the road as the circuit tours town to town, even having a run-in with the KKK in Indiana. The author very skillfully brought real-life historical problems into the tale.

I became somewhat bored with the vaudeville. It got a tad repetitive. The train incident felt out of place and somewhat frustrating too. It didn't tie in enough with the rest of the tale. Those are my only quibbles. I enjoyed the heroine, her humor, the mystery and trying to guess whodunit as clues slowly unfolded.

All in all, a good addition to the series. I'm sorry I missed book two.

I received a digital ARC of this via Netgalley. Thank you.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Madame Presidentess by Nicole Evalina--The First Woman To Run For U.S. President

Feminist Victoria Woodhull is one of the irresistible historical personages for me.  She was the first woman to run a brokerage on Wall Street as well as being the first woman to run for President. Tara and I joint reviewed Seance in Sepia, a book that contained Woodhull as a side character, on this blog here.  I admit to not having been enthusiastic about the last book I reviewed by Nicole Evalina, Daughter of Destiny . Yet all the aspects of Victoria Woodhull's life that got short shrift in Seance in Sepia  are fully realized in Madame Presidentess by Nicole Evalina.  I obtained this book for free from the author in return for this honest review.


We find out about Victoria's childhood as the daughter of Buck Claflin, an abusive and self-destructive con man.  Earlier this year, I read a mystery called The Saints of the Lost and Found in which the central character came from a family very much like Victoria's.   I wouldn't be surprised if the author loosely  based her protagonist's childhood on Victoria's because her parents were so outrageous that they'd be more believable as fictional characters.
In  Madame Presidentess we get the full story about Victoria's spiritualism including her visions and how they impacted her life.  For Evalina's Victoria, spiritualism was not the widely promoted fakery of her day.  It was a deeply felt religious practice. She was absolutely convinced that the ancient Greek historical personage Demosthenes  was guiding her life.   I am not so convinced.  There is no indication that Demosthenes ever advocated for women's rights during his lifetime.  The playwright Euripides would have been a more believable spirit ally from the ancient Greek world.  Euripides wrote powerful plays that centered on women.  He might conceivably have encouraged Victoria in her feminist political activity.   I am willing to believe that Victoria was a sincere practitioner who was duped by a spirit pretending to be Demosthenes for unknown purposes.

Yet Victoria wasn't always above pretending to receive messages from the spirits.  I suspect that she was deceiving herself about having escaped completely from her family's influence.  Evalina  depicted Victoria as capable of being a grifter like her father, and a blackmailer like her mother.   These tendencies eventually wrecked her Wall Street career, and her campaign for President.  In Madame Presidentess Victoria thought that her family betrayed her, but she also made some poor choices from an ethical perspective.  My conclusion is that Victoria was largely responsible for her own downfall.  Like many male Wall Streeters and the overwhelming majority of politicians, she probably felt that the ends justified the means.   Her more idealistic allies in the suffrage and labor movements probably felt that she had used them.

Victoria Woodhull is shown to be a complex individual in Madame Presidentess.  Whether Victoria inspired me or disappointed me, she always engaged me as a character even when I didn't agree with her choices.  I liked the thoroughness of this biographical novel and particularly appreciated the spiritualist content.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Troublesome Fun Suspense Abounds in Lady Kop Makes Trouble @Amy_Stewart

Lady Cop Makes Trouble (Kopp Sisters, #2)"Last year I threw a man against a wall when he made me angry. I'd been trying not to do that anymore."

This is a terrific, fun historical mystery novel. I regret that I missed out on reading the first one. I'd had a digital ARC on a Kindle that was unfortunately stolen.

We have a really spunky heroine here, not without her flaws, as she does let a criminal get away. She's one of the New Jersey's first lady deputies--only there's a hold up with her actual badge. She's a jail matron when she's not chasing down sham German doctors in the subway station.

Her sisters are entertaining as well though not as prominent.

There's more than one case going on here--not just the escaped convict. There's a situation with a woman who shot her boarder. There's a look at life in the jail and different criminals' situations. There's a problem with the sheriff's wife and this shows us the attitudes at the time and how difficult it was for women to break career barriers.

Perhaps the thing I enjoyed second to the heroine herself and her determination is the secondary characters. They are memorable and each one is unique. The reporter in the ladies' hotel. The mother in her sick bed. The jailed woman afraid of her husband. Each has her own story showing something dealt with during this time.

Only a few things bothered me. Why was Rathbone paying for Von What'sHisFaces escape if Von owed him money? Seems like throwing good money after bad. And why did Constance show up for her reporter portrait attired as she was if she'd had time to go home and talk to her sisters? I'd think she'd have cleaned up while there.

But I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and plan to read the third installment. This is going on my list of favorite historical mystery series.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton: A Jewish Joan of Arc In An Alternate WWII

The best excuse for an alternate history is that it makes a good story.  There are two types of alternate histories that I enjoy.  One type is an improvement on history.   I really wish that history had gone the way the author describes in the novel.   Some alternate histories that I've come across are dystopias.   These are good stories if they provide a meaningful conflict with some insight into problems that we are wrestling with in our own timeline.   I've reviewed a number of alternate history dystopias recently on Shomeret: Masked Reviewer.  

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton is an alternate history of the first type.   It would be wonderful if history had gone this way.   Once upon a time there was a Jewish kingdom on the steppes bordering with Russia.  It was called Khazaria.  This kingdom actually existed, but in our universe it was overrun and destroyed during the medieval period.   Its inhabitants scattered throughout Eastern Europe.  Occasionally, you see Jews born with red hair.  They probably have Khazar genes, but the culture of the Khazars has vanished.  Now imagine that the Kingdom of the Khazars was still in existence during WWII and that Jewish refugees fled there.  I was intrigued by this concept and received a digital galley for free from Edelweiss.


The Germans are poised to invade Khazaria.  Esther, the protagonist, doesn't want to stand on the sidelines.  She wants to help save Khazaria from the Nazis. The problem is that the Khazars are Orthodox Jews who expect women to aspire only to marriage and motherhood.   She has an arranged engagement to a childhood friend.  She would be happy to marry him under normal circumstances, but the situation for Khazars is far from normal.  So Esther sets out for the legendary village of the Kabalists ,who are Jewish mystics and magicians.  She hopes to ask them  to change her into a man.   Nothing happens as Esther expects, but she does discover that she can play an important role in saving Khazaria.    This is definitely the sort of female central character that fans of this blog want to hear about.  

Since I am one of the ideal readers for The Book of Esther, I loved it.  It's obviously intended for readers who are very well-educated in Judaism.   Jewish customs and religious terminology aren't explained.   Neither is the structure of Khazar society.   So if you've read about the Khazars, as I have, you will also have a leg up in understanding who is who in this novel.   A glossary and recommended bibliography would have been very useful for many readers who have professed themselves mystified in their Goodreads reviews of this novel.  I'm not sure why Barton would have purposely narrowed her audience.

If you're inclined to research the books you read,  I think that Barton's book will reward you for this effort.   Esther is a courageous and intelligent heroine, and there is one rather surprising character that she encounters among the Kabalists. I highly recommend this book.


Saturday, July 23, 2016

Mata Hari's Last Dance by Michelle Moran

I have been reading everything about Mata Hari that I could get my hands on for years.   So I actually know quite a bit about her life, but that didn't prevent me from leaping at the chance to get a review copy of Mata Hari's Last Dance by Michelle Moran.  I requested it on both Net Galley and Edelweiss in an excess of enthusiasm.  Both came through.  So I would like to thank the publisher for approving me twice for this book in return for this honest review.

I had recently read and reviewed The Rebel Queen at Shomeret: Masked Reviewer  here.  I appreciated the fact that Michelle Moran had written about such an unexpected subject as the Rani of Jhansi.  I liked a number of the characters in that book very much.   This increased my anticipation for Mata Hari's  Last Dance which has a very lovely cover.   


I wish I could say that I loved the book.  I certainly wanted to love it.  I have to say that it's Mata Hari's life in Java that most interests me.   This is where she learned to dance in the tradition of  Hindu temple dancers.  This is also where her marriage nearly destroyed her.  It's a very dramatic time in her life, but Michelle Moran doesn't show us very much of it.  There are a few flashbacks that are very powerful, but I wanted to see more.

I feel that this is a serious structural problem.  It seems to me that without seeing Mata Hari's life in Java as she experienced it many readers will find her so unsympathetic that they will abandon Mata Hari's Last Dance without finishing it.   It was knowing what had come before Paris that allowed me to understand why she came to Paris, and why she behaved the way she did.  She may have no credibility for some readers.  They may believe that she is being as dishonest in her narrative as she was toward most of the people in her life,  or they may stop caring about her.  The strongest flashbacks to Java come far too late in her story.    Mata Hari cultivated an air of mystery to increase her audience as a dancer, but the readers of a biographical novel expect to be rewarded by being told the truth about the protagonist from the beginning,  or at least the truth as interpreted by the writer.   I wonder if Michelle Moran was too ambivalent about Mata Hari to allow her readers to like her.

I should say that I was reading Marlene by C. W. Gortner at the same time as I was reading Mata Hari's Last Dance.   I reviewed Marlene on this blog here.  Mata Hari and Marlene Dietrich had some similarities.  They both built careers on pushing beyond the boundaries of what was considered acceptable.  The main difference between these books is that Gortner told Marlene's tale chronologically.  I felt drawn into the narrative, and that Marlene was sharing confidences with readers.   Like every other human being, Marlene could deceive herself, but I felt that made her realistic not untrustworthy.  I wanted to believe in Moran's Mata Hari the same way, but I felt shut out by the withholding of crucial background information.  I think that others may also have that reaction.

In the opening of the novel when Mata Hari was establishing herself as a dancer, I enjoyed reading the descriptions of her performances and her interaction with the audience.   Yet the book's focus wandered away from Mata Hari as a dancer into a long series of relationships where she behaved herself very badly.  I found this tiresome and unengaging.  As a result, I can't recommend Mata Hari's Last Dance.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Marlene by C.W. Gortner--Strong Was Never Sexier

Marlene Dietrich wasn't an icon for me until I saw her in Destry Rides Again, and then I wanted to see all her movies.  I knew that she first had success in Weimar Germany. My concept of Weimar Germany is based on Berlin Stories, a short story collection by Christopher Isherwood which is best known for its musical adaptation, Cabaret.  I imagined Marlene Dietrich within that environment which was so unconventional and so free.  This was the Marlene Dietrich that I expected to see in Marlene by C. W. Gortner, and he met my expectations in spades.  I received my copy of Marlene from Edelweiss in return for this honest review.


As I read C.W. Gortner's vision of Marlene Dietrich, I felt that she represented Weimar Germany's zeitgeist ( a German word that means the spirit of the time), and she never really became part of Hollywood.  Hollywood studios tried to dictate what sort of life she led, but she carved out an existence for herself that was independent of Hollywood expectations.  She always looked for ways to get around rules in order to do as she pleased. 

I feel that Marlene was also emblematic of an important meme of this blog, Strong is Sexy.  Marlene was all about Strong is Sexy.  She made dressing like a man sexy by being both bold and elegant.  She flaunted her male attire in Paris where transvestism was illegal.  She flouted that law and seemed to be daring the police to arrest her.  She is even better known for her principled refusal of the Nazis when they asked her to perform in Germany.

Gortner revealed aspects of Marlene's life that I'd never heard about in detail. For example, I knew that she entertained U.S. troops during WWII, but I never knew that she risked her life on her second USO tour, or that General Patton taught her how to shoot.

Readers who are uncomfortable with a protagonist who has a great deal of sex with both genders should not read this book.   Neither should readers who are upset by adultery.   Marlene was bisexual, and had unconventional views about relationships.

I found this novel very entertaining and I would definitely read another book by C.W. Gortner.