Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Mazarinette and the Musketeer-- Lesbian Swordswomen in Historical Adventure Novelette

This is a review of a book I read at the end of February and didn't have a chance to review in that short month.

So I came to a point when I really wanted ESCAPISM.  The news was terrifying, and the last book I read was so dispiriting that I didn't want to promote it by putting my review on a blog.  Fortunately, I had recently downloaded a free book from the author's website that was just the thing I needed. It was The Mazarinette and the Musketeer by Heather Rose Jones.  Jones says on her website that she wrote it in response to  a challenge to create a musketeer story containing only female characters.  I just love sword wielding women.

As a fan of Alexandre Dumas' musketeer novels, I already figured out that the Mazarinette must be one of the seven actual nieces of a real historical personage, the powerful minister of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, Cardinal Mazarin.  See their Wikipedia article  for further information.   Jones says in her historical notes that the Mazarinettes really did wear the uniforms of their uncle's musketeers. The Mazarinette in this novelette was Hortense Mancini.  I have copied a public domain painting of Hortense from her own Wikipedia article below.

There were other real women among the characters in The Mazarinette and the Musketeer.  It does seem likely that Anne Lennard, Countess of Sussex, did have a lesbian relationship with Hortense Mancini as portrayed in Jones' tale.  Julie d'Aubigny, who appears in The Mazarinette and the Musketeer as a teenager, was the subject of a number of fictional accounts about her during her lifetime.  It's difficult to know what's true and what isn't.   She was supposed to have traveled with her fencing master doing sword fighting exhibitions.  Finally,  Aphra Behn  was the first woman to have earned her living writing plays.  She also really was a spy for King Charles II of England as shown by Jones in this novelette.  She's one of my favorite historical personages and I find it impossible to pass up a book that contains her as a character.

The Mazarinette and the Musketeer was as entertaining as I expected with lots of sword fights and women disguised as men. I thought that the female characters were all delightful. This is my idea of a fun read.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Girl Puzzle: A Very Humanized Nellie Bly

When the Goodreads group Historical Fictionistas decided to allow authors that are active members of the group to nominate their own novels for the March Book of the Month, it had been some time since they had last allowed author members to do this.  The normal rule of the group is that authors can't nominate their own books.  This is a common rule among Goodreads groups.

 I was delighted when Kate Braithwaite nominated her Nellie Bly novel, The Girl Puzzle.  I quickly seconded the nomination, and it won.  I had already purchased it on Amazon a while back, but hadn't had an opportunity to get to it. It's nice to be able to read more historical fiction with strong woman protagonists during Women's History Month.  This means I can  provide more reviews than usual for Flying High Reviews.


I had actually read a novel focusing on patients at the asylum where journalist Nellie Bly did a ten day undercover investigation pretending to have amnesia in 1887.  That book was A Different Kind of Angel by Paulette Mahurin.  It was the best historical fiction that I read in 2018 and I reviewed it here.

The asylum was located on what was then called Blackwell's Island  which is in New York's East River.  It was re-named Roosevelt Island in 1973.  If you're interested in more information about the island's history, see its Wikipedia article here.

In comparing the two books I've read dealing with this late 19th century asylum, I feel that Mahurin's novel was very different in its orientation toward the patients. The fictional protagonist in A Different Kind of Angel was a refugee who was committed to that institution for not being able to speak English.  She clearly didn't belong there.  She encountered other patients who were also unjustly consigned to the asylum.  This protagonist  brought definitions of "sanity" into question. In The Girl Puzzle, Nellie Bly thought that a couple of patients didn't belong there, but the behavior of one patient and the history of the other caused Nellie to doubt her judgment.  So it was unclear whether any of these women were committed without justification.  It seemed to me that Braithwaite was coming down on the side of  compassionate Dr. Ingram who said it was "a complicated issue".  This positively portrayed asylum staff member commented to Nellie that patients could appear sane when they weren't.

It's important for me to add that all the rest of the asylum staff other than Dr. Ingram were portrayed by Braithwaite as either extremely abusive, or  arrogant and uncaring. In her author's note called "Fact and Fiction in The Girl Puzzle" she reveals that the staff  shown in her novel are all real individuals given their actual names, and that their behavior toward the patients is based on fact.  There was a grand jury investigation of this institution after the Nellie Bly exposé , and this too is in the public record.

Another aspect of The Girl Puzzle that makes it dis-similar to A Different Kind of Angel is that it's dual period.  There is a narrator in Braithwaite's book who was Nellie Bly's secretary toward the end of her life.  This narrative displays the elderly Nellie Bly as having poor judgment.   Nellie Bly's secretary admired her employer for her courage and past achievements, but she acknowledged that this feminist heroine had flaws. In the 1887 narrative, Nellie Bly herself experienced moments of angst in which she wondered if she had taken too great a risk when she accepted her undercover assignment.

 I would consider Braithwaite's approach to her protagonist realistic.  She shows us a Nellie  Bly who is strong when the situation calls for it, but is also very human.  This makes The Girl Puzzle vastly superior to a Nellie Bly mystery that I DNFed because she never doubted herself , and kept on repeating the same errors.  Mystery fans call such characters TSTL (Too Stupid To Live).  That's why I recommend this novel by Braithwaite to readers who want believable female protagonists.


Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Tubman Command: "I Got An Insurrection To Plan." Harriet Tubman

When I read She Came to Slay, Erica Armstrong Dunbar's biography of Harriet Tubman for Black History Month, I learned about Tubman's great military achievement, the Combahee River Raid (1863).  There is a non-fiction book about it listed in Dunbar's bibliography, but I was unable to obtain it through libraries, and purchasing it was beyond my current means.  So when I was asked to list books that I'm reading for Women's History Month on a Goodreads group called Read Women, I selected a historical novel about the Combahee River Raid, The Tubman Command by Elizabeth Cobbs, as one of them.

I am particularly pleased to be reviewing a book about Harriet Tubman today because March 10 is the day assigned to Tubman in The Little Book of Feminist Saints by Julia Pierpont.

I read both history and historical fiction.  I feel that each of them have their strengths.  I was looking forward to getting a window into the mind of Harriet Tubman, and feeling the impact of her leadership role in a Civil War military operation through the pages of  The Tubman Command.


Harriet Tubman was clearly a born leader who had a talent for planning and was a gifted speaker.  She was also determined to achieve her goals, had tremendous courage and believed strongly that the visions she received were messages from God. Elizabeth Cobbs portrays her as a character with these traits, but also shows us her vulnerable side as a woman who wanted a relationship with a man.  Her Tubman seemed wary of trusting men on an intimate level.  Based on what I read about her in She Came To Slay, I think she had good reason to be untrusting.

A romantic possibility for Tubman is a sub-plot in The Tubman Command, but it isn't a major focus of the narrative. So I wouldn't call this a romance.  It's mainly about a historic military operation that resulted in the rescue of 750 slaves.

The quote from Harriet Tubman in the title of this review is a fictional one from this novel.  Harriet Tubman was illiterate.  So she herself wrote no accounts of her life.  

The Combahee River Raid was made possible because of Harriet Tubman's status as the leader of a team of Black scouts for the Union Army.  The Tubman Command shows how Tubman persuaded the officers involved in decision making to support her plan.  I felt that there was a great deal of suspense involved in its implementation even though I already knew the result.

In the midst of  all this drama, there was also comic relief in the form of an unexpectedly funny scene involving the antics of Tubman's cat, who was appropriately named Trouble. I was charmed by this scene and was glad it was there.

The fictional elements of The Tubman Command didn't cause me to lose confidence in Cobbs' accuracy.  There is a back cover blurb praising this book from Edda L. Fields-Black, an African American academic who has been working on a scholarly book about the Combahee River Raid that is forthcoming.

I found The Tubman Command moving, insightful and well-written.  I thought it was also original because I had never read a novel dealing with this significant event. This is my first five star read of 2020.  It will certainly be a candidate for my top ten of the year.