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.
                                           

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Guilty of a Mother's Love: Hanging Mary by @S_Higginbotham

Hanging MaryA very well-told tale of the circus that ensued after the killing of Lincoln, the incompetence and hasty actions of the government, and two women in the middle of it all.

I knew little about Mrs. Surratt but after reading this novel feel as though I knew her intimately--her hopes, dreams, love for her children, fears, faith. This woman's tale is told through two different narratives: her own and that of one of her lady boarders. Readers will come to their own conclusions as to Mary's involvement in what was an appalling crime.

Mary is guilty of a mother's love more than anything. Wrong place, wrong time. During the Civil War her son begins bringing home questionable characters. She runs a boarding house. What is she to do? Turn them all away? But while turning the other cheek may be one thing, aiding is another, and she ends up doing just that without realizing what exactly she's aiding. There's an innocence mixed in with her guilt, conflicting readers' opinions. One minute she guilty, the next she's not.

Her boarder Nora shows us the goings-on in the house through impartial eyes. We meet a young motherless lady who fears she'll be a spinster. We fall in love with a wounded Union soldier alongside her and get excited about her getting her photo done for her. We smile when she sits with John Wilkes Booth and does little acting skits with him. We see that there was more to him than a monster with rage in his heart.

The world at this time comes alive--the celebrations, the mourning, the captitol, the politics. And oh, what incompetence the investigation yields!! How glad I am that laws have changed since then. People are arrested for merely being related to Mr. Booth, for having known him, for having gone to a show with him at some point. People are arrested with no warning, no "phone call" aka letter for that period.

 And yet Mrs. Surratt faces her demise with such dignity.

Was she guilty? Somewhat, to a point, of a mother's love more than anything. Did she deserve to die? One must read this and decide for themselves.


Monday, July 11, 2016

Valley of the Moon by @MelanieGideon: Quite Possibly Best Story Ever

Valley of the MoonI think I just read the best book ever...and it was this. I'm giving it 5 start because it was utterly unique. I've never read a tale like it. It was suspenseful. I could not for the life of me figure out what was going to happen from one page to the next. What time zone was she going back to? Would she ever make up with her dad? Would Benno forgive her? Would Joseph ever be able to leave? Why can't they go through the fog? And as the tale unfolded and answers to those questions came, other questions rose. There's a constant feeling of suspense. My own heartbeat increased every time Lux went from her time to Greengage's time.

There are all kinds of dilemmas and personal character growth. The characters are also extremely relate-able. They make the tale even more engaging. I felt as though they were becoming my friends...from Fancy to Magnussun to Martha.

I felt the existence of Greengage itself held a moral, about people living peacefully together...how there were fewer problems and no hate. Is being cut off from the outside such a bad thing?

The romance is beautiful. The love between mother and child is beautiful.

I'm not going to unveil the entire story line as there is no way really to do so without giving too much away. It's about a woman constantly torn between what she wants in one world and her obligations in another. Until the dilemma is taken from her hands.

It's extremely well written and the kind of story you tell at least 3 people about. Amazing. I was left feeling desolate when I closed the last page. I didn't want it to end.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Muse by Jesse Burton--The Uncovering of a Lost Artist

I hadn't read The Miniaturist by Jesse Burton because  a couple of my Goodreads friends had negative comments in their reviews that made it sound like a book that I wouldn't enjoy.  Yet I will give an author more of a chance when the novel sounds like it will be of special interest to me.  I received a free print format ARC of Burton's second novel, The Muse, from the publisher in return for this honest review.   The ARC's cover is very different, but I have to say that the official release cover below is beautifully designed and more intriguing.

                                   


                                   
The Muse is a dual period historical fiction novel dealing with artists and art galleries, but I was particularly drawn to it by the fact that the 1960's POV character, Odelle Bastien, was an Afro-Caribbean woman who worked in a London art gallery.   I thought this was an unusual choice, and that Jessie Burton should be applauded for her inclusiveness. I was also interested in the fact that the other period was Spain in the 1930's, and that it dealt with a family of Jews who had fled German occupied Austria.  The 1930's POV character is 19 year old Olive Schloss, a young painter with great potential, who very unfortunately has an art dealer father that doesn't take women seriously.

Olive's story resonated tremendously for me.  The family circumstances were familiar.   I remembered reading and reviewing a novel about the real 19th century Viennese Jewish feminist Bertha Pappenheim some time ago on this blog.  The book was Guises of Desire by Hilda Reilly.  You can find the review here.  The extremely constrictive Victorian attitudes toward women had a much more destructive impact on Bertha Pappenheim.   Yet Olive's father's refusal to recognize that his daughter had a gift might have crushed her spirit if a very supportive influence hadn't entered her life, a half-Romany Spanish woman by the name of Teresa Robles.  Since Olive didn't believe in her work, Teresa makes a fateful decision that changes the lives of everyone in the Schloss family as well as the life of her half-brother, Isaac Robles.

Odelle Bastien in the sixties has a parallel relationship.   She has no confidence in her ability as a writer until she meets Quick, the mystery woman who hires Odelle as a typist at the gallery.   Quick supports and encourages Odelle as a writer just as Teresa supported and encouraged Olive as an artist.   So I feel that The Muse is very centrally concerned with why women don't pursue their dreams, and how they can overcome their barriers to success with the help of other women.  This makes it a very feminist narrative.

I have to say that I had a problem with the resolution of the 1930's Spain storyline.   I thought I knew how it all ended and I turned out to be wrong.  I realized how emotionally invested I'd become in my theory about what happened to these characters when I became upset about the final twist in the plot.  This means that the author did her job very well.  I wouldn't have been so broken up if Jesse Burton hadn't made me care about these fictional creations caught up in the savagery of the Spanish Civil War.

Other reviews have compared this book to The Last Painting of Sara de Vos which I recently reviewed on this blog here.   They do have a number of commonalities. Both books have dual plot threads taking place in different periods, focus on the causes for the lack of recognition for woman artists and on the tremendous gulf between the rich and poor.  Both books also led me to reflect on whether the entire truth about anyone can ever be known, or only the truth as filtered through one perspective or another.   On the other hand, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos left me feeling that a kind of justice had been achieved, but The Muse just made me feel sad.   Another reader who identified more with Odelle than I did might have felt uplifted.

I have to conclude that any book, like The Muse, that has the power to move people and cause them to think, is definitely worth reading.   
  



    

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

@jabrockmole is a Master with Character Banter and Romantic Development in At the Edge of Summer

At the Edge of SummerI didn't jump on the Letters from Skye bandwagon. Thus, I didn't realize that Jessica Brockmole was such an excellent writer until I read her short story Something Worth Landing For in Fall of Poppies. In that same anthology, I learned of the Red Cross clinic that made life-like masks for soldiers with destroyed faces. After reading those tales, I wanted to read this one. I've also ordered Letters from Skye because Ms. Brockmole is a master with romance and character banter. The connection she forms between her heroes and heroines is amazing.

The summer these two spend together--the teenage boy who loves tennis and the young orphan girl just entering the confused stages of adulthood--is magical. The telling of it is magical. We are planted right there in the scenes. We feel their love, hope, confusion, dream their dreams. Then they are split. And this is where the story loses something. It felt to me that the magic was only there when the characters were together. Apart, living separate lives that really have nothing to do with each other, the story lost its interest somewhat. This could be due to Ms. Brockmole's excellent writing of character dialogue and connection and banter. I believe the readers enjoy those bits so much that we feel deprived of them when the characters are apart.

Claire's parts COULD have been intriguing. She was off traveling the world, learning many things, but her life away from him is summed up so quickly, in a few memories, conversations with her grandfather, and letters to Luc. Luc's war parts were gritty and sad, as to be expected. He learns lessons the hard way--through traumatic life experiences.

I especially enjoyed the making of the mask and how Claire helps him heal inside from what has happened to him. There was a moment there I doubted they'd have their HEA. I was kept in suspense. I appreciate this about the novel too--that it wasn't overly predictable. I also love that a physically "flawed" character finds love just the way he is. He doesn't have to be "healed" or "fixed" first as so many authors tend to do when writing about disabled or disfigured characters. They "fix" them (not emotionally but make the deaf hear again, blind see again, or get them new faces somehow) before they find love.

A solid read. I can't wait to read more by this author.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Karolina's Twins-- The Secret of a Holocaust Survivor

Novels dealing with WWII have been extremely popular.  I think they have replaced Tudor themed books as the most published type of historical fiction.  When they focus on Holocaust themes, they are very emotionally intense.  Unfortunately, because of their intensity readers tend to burn out on them eventually.  So I predict that there will be another shift in the historical fiction market in the near future.

As someone whose family was severely impacted by the  WWII Holocaust, I actually avoided Holocaust themed novels for a long time.   I felt that they would be too painful for me to read.   I'm not sure what changed for me, but I started to read Holocaust fiction a few years ago.   At this point, I have begun to burn out.  I don't think that it's a good thing for anyone to read too much about genocide because it blunts the feelings of horror and outrage that should be the normal response to these events.  Yet I am still open to reading Holocaust novels that are unusual in their focus, or which educate me about an aspect of the WWII Holocaust that was previously unknown to me.

Karolina's Twins by Ronald Balson is a different sort of Holocaust novel. It is a contemporary/historical legal thriller.  It is also the third in a series dealing with the cases of private investigator Liam Taggart and lawyer Catherine Lockhart.  It centers on locating a pair of twins who have been missing since WWII.  I received a request to review this book through the publisher and downloaded it from Net Galley in return for this honest review.

                                 


I knew that the Jewish community in pre-WWII Poland located in the cities and larger towns was very different from that of my own shtetl ancestors.  A shtetl is a small insular village composed entirely of Jews.  They were isolated from the outside world, and had very little knowledge of Polish society.  Their way of life was eradicated by the Nazis.  The contemporary Haredi, who are more commonly known as Hasidim, have done their best to preserve it. Yet it's difficult to duplicate the culture of a rural village in an urban environment.

Lena Woodward, the fictional client in Karolina's Twins, came from a Polish town that still exists.  Her father was a tailor who was also a WWI hero. Due to his military background, he was highly regarded by local Poles.  The family was Polish speaking rather than Yiddish speaking, and was very much integrated into Polish society.  I had actually never read about Polish Jews who were so identified with Poland.  They reminded me of what I've read about German Jews.  So it didn't surprise me to learn that Lena's father had business and family ties in Berlin.  Through research I discovered a Jewish memorial website which stated that Jewish tailors who emigrated to Germany from Lena's town of  Chrzanow were an important factor in the establishment of the German clothing industry in the early 20th century.

Lena's story was told to Catherine Lockhart as part of the investigation in the present.  Normally, I would be very critical of a novel whose structure was so expository because it usually lacks immediacy.   Yet Lena's narrative contained dialogue and other characteristics of flashbacks that made it more engaging, and lent it dramatic power.  It allowed me to visualize events.  This is a key difference that made expository storytelling more successful in Karolina's Twins.
Ronald Balson also handled suspense very well.   The plot was organized so that both the investigation and Lena's account reached a climax at the same time.

Lena was a courageous woman who was willing to take risks that most people would consider unthinkable, but her circumstances called for bold action.   In the present, this Holocaust survivor retained her mental acuity and vitality.  Yet she had regrets which caused her to conceal a crucial aspect of her past.  It's  this secret that brings her into a painfully distressing legal conflict with her son.  It lies at the heart of the narrative. Catherine's empathy and consistent supportive attitude toward Lena eventually allows the truth to surface.

Catherine impressed me with her willingness to place her career in jeopardy out of loyalty to her client.  Although the danger to Catherine in the contemporary storyline wasn't equivalent to Lena's traumatic experiences, there were suspenseful elements.  Catherine had the mental toughness to rise to the occasion.   So this book had two strong female protagonists.  This makes Karolina's Twins a novel that I can recommend to the audience for this blog.