Sunday, December 16, 2018

Roma Nova Extra: Stories on the Matriarchy's Alternate Timeline

I've been reviewing the novels of Roma Nova on this blog.  These are alternate history books dealing with a matriarchal society written by Alison Morton. I'm going to list them in chronological order. You can find the reviews of  the 20th century Roma Nova novels Aurelia, Insurrectio and Retalio at their hyperlinks. Three 21st century Roma Nova novels have been reviewed at Inceptio, Carina and Perfiditas. If you read these reviews, you will find out about the series premise, protagonists and story lines.

Roma Nova's origins go back to ancient times. I'd been hoping that Alison Morton would one day reveal the details of Roma Nova's founding.   She has chosen to deal with how Roma Nova was established in the format of  short stories within an anthology that spans Roma Nova's history called Roma Nova Extra. I can't say that the entire history of Roma Nova is covered in this collection.  There could conceivably be Roma Nova stories set in the Renaissance or the 18th and 19th centuries, but for now I will be content with what we've been given.

I pre-ordered this anthology on Amazon, but had to wait until I had sufficient time to read it between review commitments.


The tales that took place in ancient times more than fulfilled my expectations.

 I loved  the independence of Julia in "The Woman in the Market" and her commitment to her Celtic heritage. These beliefs stiffened her opposition to demands for submission from her husband and the local Christian bishop.

Yet my favorite story in the anthology was "Victory Speaks" which was from the perspective of the statue of the Goddess Victory which stood in the Senate of ancient Rome.  It was slated for destruction by Christians.   Perhaps the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was caused by the Goddess Victory withdrawing her support.  I considered this a powerful story and was very moved by the ending.

I normally don't read every story in an anthology, but the only story I skipped in Roma Nova Extra was one I'd already read in the alternate history anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down which I reviewed here .  All the remaining stories held my attention which makes Roma Nova Extra a superior collection.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Widows of Malabar Hill: A Pioneering Lawyer in 1920's India

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey was nominated in the mystery category in the earliest phase of this year's Goodreads Choice Awards. Since I had a copy from the F2F mystery group that I attend, I decided to prioritize it.  I am reviewing it on Thanksgiving because I am thankful for this book.


 I  read some of the books in Sujata Massey's  mystery series about Japanese American Rei Shimura and found them entertaining.  Yet I've always wondered if she could produce more riveting mysteries if they were more related to her own heritage.   I don't believe that authors should be forbidden from writing books that have nothing to do with their heritage. What I do think is that Own Voices work is important and should be encouraged. Sujata Massey is partly Indian.  So I rejoiced when I saw that she had written a mystery taking place in India.  Not only this, but her fictional protagonist was based on real women who were among the first to practice law in India.

I reviewed a mystery about the real woman who was the first to practice law in California here. I hoped that The Widows of Malabar Hill would be better written and more authentic. My expectations were definitely fulfilled. 

The main character of this novel, Perveen Mistry, belongs to a religious and ethnic minority in India.  She is a Parsi.  The Parsis originated in Persia, and continue to practice Zoroastrianism which is an ancient religion that influenced Judaism, the faith of my own ancestors.   I read about this influence in Rav Hisda's Daughter by Maggie Anton which I reviewed here.

Some very traditional Zoroastrians had customs that were abusive to women.  Perveen had some horrifying experiences that many readers will find very troubling. I feel that I have a duty to warn that some readers who are survivors of domestic abuse may find that this section about Perveen's past in The Widows of Malabar Hill triggers flashbacks for them.  So this isn't a book for everyone.

 Perveen had the strength to emerge from the shadow of abuse, but it's important for me to say that she couldn't have done this alone.  As I mentioned in the last review I posted to this blog here , class can be an important factor in women's lives. Without the support of her wealthy and influential lawyer father, Perveen would have had nowhere to go and couldn't have become a lawyer herself.

As a result of the British Raj, India had two types of lawyers--barristers and solicitors. Barristers argue cases in court.  Solicitors write documents and briefs.  They also give advice to clients.  Both types of lawyers are very necessary to the practice of  law. Since both the British and Indian traditionalists didn't believe that it was proper for women to have occupations that required high profile public appearances, it was initially very difficult for a woman to become a barrister.  So the first woman lawyers in India were solicitors.  Perveen became a solicitor at her father's law firm.

The case in The Widows of Malabar Hill illustrates an important role for woman solicitors.  There were devout Muslim women who needed to consult a lawyer and couldn't speak to a man.  So Perveen helps women with their legal difficulties.  The Parsi female lawyer who is the main basis for Perveen, Cornelia Sorabji also began as a solicitor for women.

Another wonderful woman character in this novel is Perveen's closest friend, Alice, an English feminist who Perveen met when she was studying law at Oxford.  I would like to see Alice continue to assist Perveen with her cases in future novels in this series.

I will be very surprised if The Widows of Malabar Hill doesn't turn out to be my favorite mystery of 2018.   I am very much looking forward to seeing more of Perveen in the future.

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.



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.



Sunday, January 28, 2018

Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions (Kopp Sisters #3)

Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions is the first of Amy Stewart's Kopp Sisters series that I've read, but Tara reviewed the previous volume, Lady Cop Makes Trouble on this blog here.

I didn't feel that I needed an orientation to the Kopp Sisters that wasn't provided by Amy Stewart in this book.   So for me Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions could stand alone.


 When I learned that the Kopp Sisters and other individuals portrayed in this novel really existed, I hoped to be able to find online content freely available that I could link to in this review.  I did find a page on the Library of Congress website devoted to Constance Kopp which included numerous newspaper articles about her.   As the first female sheriff's deputy in the U.S., I thought she would merit a Wikipedia page,  but such a page doesn't exist at this point.  Amy Stewart says that she found the Kopp Sisters on which is a commercial website.  Serious researchers on the Kopp Sisters would need to pay for their content.

There was a woman who was assisted by Constance Kopp who I thought was extraordinary by the name of Edna Heustis.  I wanted to know what happened to her after the events of the novel, but I learned that Amy Stewart had fictionalized her to an important degree.   I wondered if fictionalizing real individuals in ways that contradict the historical record could be justified in historical fiction.  Edna Heustis isn't a well-known individual.  Nor is it likely that she will ever be the subject of a full scale biography.  Some might argue that she is too minor for her portrayal to be the subject of controversy.  I will leave the issue up to my readers who may have their own opinions on this matter.

I really liked  Constance Kopp's intervention to restore freedom to young women who had been condemned as "wayward".  This is based on the concept that women are property who couldn't have aspirations or ambitions of their own.  This idea had persisted for centuries and was widely believed in 1916 when Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions took place.

Readers who are interested in early 20th century law enforcement, and how it impacted women who'd been stigmatized as "wayward" will be interested in reading the latest Kopp Sisters novel.


Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Pearl Sister Blog Tour and Review

The Pearl Sister by Lucinda Riley is the fourth book in Riley's Seven Sisters series.   I haven't read the first three novels, but I am aware of the premise of the series. These books are about seven adopted sisters whose novels reveal the truth of their genetic origins.

 I recently reviewed Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate here .  It dealt with adoptions that were a crime against children which is not at all the same focus as Riley's.   It's important for me to say at this point that I believe that genuine parents are those who care about the children involved.  Based on the portrayal of parenting in this book, it seemed to me that Lucinda Riley agrees with me.  I am happy to say that the Seven Sisters series isn't about proving whether birth parents or adoptive parents are more legitimate.   It's apparently about the journey of the individual sisters, and how each of them are impacted by it.

I was selected by the publisher for the blog tour of The Pearl Sister.  An ARC was provided to me via Net Galley in return for this honest review.


There were two elements in the description that interested me.  The first is that CeCe, the protagonist, is an artist.  I love reading about artists.   Last year I reviewed  a novel that contained a female character who lived in impressionist Claude Monet's village, and aspired to be a great artist like Monet.  It was called Black Water Lilies and I reviewed it here. The other theme in The Pearl Sister which I find fascinating is Australian aborigine history and culture.

I have to say that the opening section of this novel which took place in Thailand didn't impress me.  CeCe seemed to be drifting, and I didn't consider her an example of a strong woman protagonist at that point.  The past to which she wanted to connect was in Australia, not Thailand.  I just wanted her to get on with it.  Other readers may be interested in CeCe's relationship with a male character known to her as Ace. I could have done without it.  I thought it was an irrelevancy.

We are introduced to the Australian background by means of Kitty, an early 20th century British immigrant to Australia.  I considered her an ambivalent character.  She was appealing to me when she made unconventional choices, but became increasingly unsympathetic over time.   Some readers may see her role in business as feminist, but I didn't consider this a positive development in her life because she wasn't fulfilling her own ambitions.  I didn't admire the fact that she was making herself unhappy.

It was at this point that the sections devoted to CeCe's life showed her in a more active phase in which she reclaimed her sense of self, and renewed her own aspirations with the help of Australian aborigine sources of support.  CeCe came into her own as a protagonist at the same time that Kitty receded for me.  It became very much CeCe's story, and I was pleased with the arc of her development as a character.

The final section transitions to the next book in the series which will apparently be focused on Tig who feels strongly connected to animals and is a passionate advocate for their rights.   Since this is a focus that is of great importance to me, I look forward to the fifth Seven Sisters novel.