Friday, November 9, 2018

Temptation Rag: Music, Class, Race and Feminism in a Historical Novel

When Joelle Speranza from Smith Publicity requested that I become an early reader of Temptation Rag by Elizabeth Hutchison Barnard, she pitched it to me as dealing with a number of different themes that made it sound both complex and of particular interest to the readers of this blog.  So I accepted a paperback ARC from the publisher and this is my honest review.

                           
    

Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard originally intended to write a book focused on male protagonist Mike Bernard who was a prominent ragtime musician and the grandfather of the author's husband.  She decided to expand her focus by creating a fictional life for Mike Bernard's first wife, May Convery, about whom almost nothing is known.

This fictionalized May Convery became a published poet and a women's suffrage activist.  Her struggle to achieve the independence that allowed her to pursue the life she wanted for herself is important to this novel.  Yet I have to say that the critical factor that allowed her to succeed was having been born into a wealthy family.   If that hadn't been the case, May's dreams would have died.

  I have seen reviews that call May the real protagonist of Temptation Rag.  If this were true, there would have been a great deal more about May's career.   While there is some content about her career activities that appears relatively late in the narrative,  I feel that this is still primarily a novel about Mike Bernard and ragtime music.

Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard shows us through the life of Mike Bernard how and why the history of ragtime was re-written.  This book allows readers to understand that the cultural appropriation of ragtime music was all about racism.  Racists could not enjoy this music unless they could claim it for themselves.  Mike Bernard is depicted as trying to be fair minded because of his own Jewish heritage. Mike didn't want to owe his success to racism.  The suppression of African American musicians is very much a part of Temptation Rag.

I applaud the honest characterization in this book.  Mike Barnard is portrayed as a flawed character who mistreated people thoughtlessly and falsified his history. May also became reluctant to share her true self as a result of her experience with Mike. It was difficult for these characters to form meaningful relationships. They were both very self-protective individuals.

Don't read this book if you're looking for a romance novel.  There is no HEA. This book is recommended for people who want to know what life was like for women and minorities at the turn of the 20th century in the U.S., and for those who are interested in the history of music.






           

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Witch of Willow Hall: The Coming of Age of a Witch

Although I read a great many novels involving paranormal elements, I usually don't blog about them on Flying High Reviews even when they have female protagonists that could be considered strong. There are several reasons why I decided that this review belongs here.  One is that The Witch of Willow Hall is historical, another is that it's primarily a romance and finally October is the month of Halloween.  So I thought the readers of this blog might be interested in a seasonal historical romance about a witch.  I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher via Net Galley.

                          
   
 
I tend to be inclined to try out new writers.  Every year I find debut novels that show potential.  I hoped that The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox would be one of them.

The best aspect of this novel is the protagonist's character growth.  Lydia is the middle daughter in a family with a heritage of witchcraft.  Despite taking place in 19th century Massachusetts, this initially seemed to have a great deal in common with the TV series Charmed about  three sisters who were witches from a long line of magical practitioners which takes place in a contemporary context.  Charmed just rebooted with a very current approach and a new set of sisters on the CW network.  There are some major differences between The Witch of Willow Hall and Charmed. In the book that is the subject of this review, there weren't three paranormally gifted sisters, and there was no one to train those who did have gifts. Lydia was pretty much on her own coming to grips with her powers, and the ghosts at Willow Hall.   This meant that she needed to become very strong and independent, and that's exactly the direction in which she evolved over the course of the narrative.

Since Hester Fox's book is a romance, it focused on the impact that being a witch had on Lydia's relationships--particularly her relationships with the men in her life, and the poisoned relationship with her elder sister Catherine who apparently had no powers, and perceived herself as being in competition with Lydia. It seemed to me that Catherine wasn't sufficiently developed, but Lydia herself and the man who emerged as the romantic hero more than made up for Catherine's deficiencies in character development.

I think it's possible that Hester Fox will write better books in the future, and that The Witch of Willow Hall certainly works for historical romance fans who are looking for a Halloween read.

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.