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 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.


Saturday, March 31, 2018

Megge of Bury Down: A Family of Healers and Seers in 13th Century Cornwall

Megge of Bury Down is a historical fantasy.  It's the first novel by Rebecca Kightlinger who writes reviews for the Historical Novel Society. The focus is on a young girl in medieval Cornwall whose mother is a healer/midwife.  Most of her mother's work involves no magic.  Megge's aunt is a seer.   Her family does do magical rituals and they are believed to have been cursed.  Beliefs about magic and witchcraft play a major role, and so do the books about healing and prophecy that have been passed down in Megge's family.  Reincarnation and messages from the spirits of ancestors could be considered the most fantastical elements for readers who prefer their books more grounded in the world of the five senses.  I chose to read this book because I like paranormal content, but if you are one of those who like your historical fiction without such elements, Megge of Bury Down probably won't be for you.

   I received a review copy from the publisher via Net Galley in return for this review.


The historical aspect of Megge of Bury Down is very well-developed.  We are constantly aware that we are in the 13th century through the vivid descriptions of Megge's experiences, and the attitudes of the villagers.  Megge is thoroughly medieval and so are her neighbors.  The fear of a witch hysteria is palpable.  It hovers over Megge's family.

In the medieval period children were expected to follow in the footsteps of their parents.  Megge's reluctance to become a healer like her mother alienates her from family and heritage.  It seemed to me that Megge sensed things that others in her family didn't sense.   She had a destiny of her own.  Over the course of the narrative, both the past and the future become clearer to Megge.  This knowledge shapes her perception of herself, and  I could finally see her as a strong protagonist.

I noticed that the lore that was handed down in Megge's family was syncretic which means that it came from a variety of cultures.  I identified Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Norse elements.  There may be others.  Since the voices of this tradition were numerous and their history reaches back a thousand years, syncretism seems more authentic to me than a culturally pure unitary transmission. Through Megge of Bury Down Rebecca Kightlinger honors multicultural diversity while still staying true to the period in which her novel was situated.


Thursday, February 22, 2018

Chinawoman's Chance: First In A Series About A Pioneering Woman Lawyer

When I nominated Chinawoman's Chance on Kindle Scout for an opportunity to be published by Kindle Press, I hadn't heard of its real historical protagonist Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first woman admitted to the bar in California in 1884.   This historical mystery novel wasn't selected by Amazon.  So author James Musgrave self-published and offered all those who had nominated his book a free copy.  I eagerly accepted one, and I am now posting my honest review.


My original intention was to praise this cover's illustrations for drawing my attention to the book.  Yet when I copied and pasted the cover to this blog, I noticed for the first time that the title isn't very legible.  If I hadn't already known that the title was Chinawoman's Chance, I wouldn't have learned it from this cover.   Is the legibility of the title on the cover important for a self-published book?  I would argue that it is important. Readers often look at the cover before anything else on a  book vendor site.  Not being able to read the title creates a bad first impression for a reader deciding whether or not to buy the book.

Next I turn to the series title which is Portia of the Pacific. Yes, titles are very important to me.  They influence me more than cover illustrations.   I have an attraction/repulsion relationship with Shakespeare's Portia.   So  I was attracted by the series title because I love a woman taking a professional role that was forbidden to women in Shakespeare's day.  I love Portia's speech.  Yet  I am repelled by the bigotry toward Shylock that motivated her.  I see Shylock as the victim in Merchant of Venice.   His feelings of outrage over having no rights are used against him.  Portia is clever, but she is supporting a system in which Jews can't get justice.

 The fictional Clara Shortridge Foltz isn't bigoted toward the Chinese.   Not only does she have a Chinese client,  but she helps to thwart a plot against the Chinese community. Yet I learned from Musgrave's acknowledgements that the real Clara Foltz was actually prejudiced against the Chinese and would never have had a Chinese client as she did in Chinawoman's Chance. For me, there is a tension between the real Clara and the fictional Clara.  I ended up feeling as ambivalently toward the protagonist as I do toward Shakespeare's Portia.  

For those who want to see what Clara Shortridge Foltz looked like, I found a public domain photo on Wikipedia.

I admired the role played by the fictional Clara Foltz, but I felt that the novel fell short as a mystery.  There was a plot twist that I didn't find credible from a police procedural perspective.   I also felt that the resolution was formulaic.  I had seen it before a number of times, so it didn't surprise me.

I also had a problem with a Chinese character's name.  Musgrave said in his acknowledgements that he researched Chinese culture.  If so, I don't understand why he didn't seem to know that Guan Shi Yin, also known as Kwan Yin, is a Bodhisattva.  A Bodhisattva is someone who has reached Buddhist enlightenment and decided to help others achieve it.   Kwan Yin is also known as the Goddess of Compassion.  I was taught a mantra for Kwan Yin "Namo Guan Shi Yin pusa."  The English translation would be: Homage to Kwan Yin, compassionate and wise person.  The character in Chinawoman's Chance who was given this name was the reverse of compassionate.   I therefore considered it culturally inappropriate.

I actually did like most of  Chinawoman's Chance. Musgrave's version of Clara Foltz  has so much potential as a protagonist. Her developing friendship with a Chinese woman who escaped prostitution and encouraged independence for other women was also wonderful.   Yet as a mystery it didn't quite measure up, and the instance of cultural inauthenticity that I mentioned really bothered me.



Sunday, February 11, 2018

Aurelia: Serving Roma Nova in the 1960's

I have reviewed three of the alternate history Roma Nova books by Alison Morton on this blog.  The titles are linked to their reviews.  They were Inceptio, Perfiditas and Carina.  All three feature Carina Mitela as the protagonist.  With Aurelia , I begin a prequel trilogy taking place in the 20th century and centering on Carina's grandmother, Aurelia Mitela.  I liked what I saw of Aurelia in Carina's books.  So I was happy to receive the first book focusing on her as a gift from the author via Book Funnel, and this is my honest review.


When I compare the two protagonists in the Roma Nova series, I have to say that I prefer Aurelia.   I feel that Aurelia is more level headed, and that she has better judgment than Carina.

 I saw a review of this novel on Goodreads that questions Aurelia's romantic judgment.  Frankly, I thought Aurelia's romantic judgment was much better than Carina's.   I won't get into specifics because those would be spoilers,  but I believe that your mate should be the person who you can always count on to stand by you.  Carina forgave far too much.  It seems to me that Aurelia was able to put her life in perspective when it came to romance, and made a decision that was healthier for her in the long run.

Another major difference between Aurelia and Carina is that Aurelia necessarily had a more powerful support system because she was born into a privileged position in Roma Nova.   She didn't have to learn the ropes. She didn't have to try to fit into a culture that was alien to her as Carina did when she unexpectedly had to start a new life in Roma Nova.  It's a good thing that Carina is so adaptable because she needed that flexibility.  She didn't have Aurelia's advantages.   She had to invent a support system of her own, though Aurelia herself was always someone she could rely on.  In a crisis, Carina transforms herself and finds new options, but Aurelia is as constant as the North Star.  I perceive both of them as strong women with differing approaches that were shaped by their experiences.

I was interested in the opportunity we had to explore a new setting in Aurelia.  Aurelia was sent to Prussia on an assignment that was ostensibly diplomatic, but really involved the collection of intelligence.  In the Roma Nova alternate continuity, Germany was partitioned into a number of sovereign nations in the aftermath of the Great War.  Prussia was one of them. This was apparently a lasting solution to the threat of German militarism. There was no World War II.

In Prussia, Aurelia was faced for the first time with institutionalized sexism.  Respectable Prussian women were restricted to the domestic sphere.  Prussian men seemed incapable of understanding the matriarchal culture of Roma Nova.  I wondered if attitudes in Prussia might have changed over time.  Would Carina have been met with the same uncomprehending prejudice if she visited Prussia in the 21st century in the course of her duties?

I look forward to continuing to explore the differences between the way Carina responded to situations, and how Aurelia reacted to similar circumstances in the two remaining books of the Aurelia trilogy.