Monday, August 22, 2016

Troublesome Fun Suspense Abounds in Lady Kop Makes Trouble @Amy_Stewart

Lady Cop Makes Trouble (Kopp Sisters, #2)"Last year I threw a man against a wall when he made me angry. I'd been trying not to do that anymore."

This is a terrific, fun historical mystery novel. I regret that I missed out on reading the first one. I'd had a digital ARC on a Kindle that was unfortunately stolen.

We have a really spunky heroine here, not without her flaws, as she does let a criminal get away. She's one of the New Jersey's first lady deputies--only there's a hold up with her actual badge. She's a jail matron when she's not chasing down sham German doctors in the subway station.

Her sisters are entertaining as well though not as prominent.

There's more than one case going on here--not just the escaped convict. There's a situation with a woman who shot her boarder. There's a look at life in the jail and different criminals' situations. There's a problem with the sheriff's wife and this shows us the attitudes at the time and how difficult it was for women to break career barriers.

Perhaps the thing I enjoyed second to the heroine herself and her determination is the secondary characters. They are memorable and each one is unique. The reporter in the ladies' hotel. The mother in her sick bed. The jailed woman afraid of her husband. Each has her own story showing something dealt with during this time.

Only a few things bothered me. Why was Rathbone paying for Von What'sHisFaces escape if Von owed him money? Seems like throwing good money after bad. And why did Constance show up for her reporter portrait attired as she was if she'd had time to go home and talk to her sisters? I'd think she'd have cleaned up while there.

But I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and plan to read the third installment. This is going on my list of favorite historical mystery series.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton: A Jewish Joan of Arc In An Alternate WWII

The best excuse for an alternate history is that it makes a good story.  There are two types of alternate histories that I enjoy.  One type is an improvement on history.   I really wish that history had gone the way the author describes in the novel.   Some alternate histories that I've come across are dystopias.   These are good stories if they provide a meaningful conflict with some insight into problems that we are wrestling with in our own timeline.   I've reviewed a number of alternate history dystopias recently on Shomeret: Masked Reviewer.  

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton is an alternate history of the first type.   It would be wonderful if history had gone this way.   Once upon a time there was a Jewish kingdom on the steppes bordering with Russia.  It was called Khazaria.  This kingdom actually existed, but in our universe it was overrun and destroyed during the medieval period.   Its inhabitants scattered throughout Eastern Europe.  Occasionally, you see Jews born with red hair.  They probably have Khazar genes, but the culture of the Khazars has vanished.  Now imagine that the Kingdom of the Khazars was still in existence during WWII and that Jewish refugees fled there.  I was intrigued by this concept and received a digital galley for free from Edelweiss.


The Germans are poised to invade Khazaria.  Esther, the protagonist, doesn't want to stand on the sidelines.  She wants to help save Khazaria from the Nazis. The problem is that the Khazars are Orthodox Jews who expect women to aspire only to marriage and motherhood.   She has an arranged engagement to a childhood friend.  She would be happy to marry him under normal circumstances, but the situation for Khazars is far from normal.  So Esther sets out for the legendary village of the Kabalists ,who are Jewish mystics and magicians.  She hopes to ask them  to change her into a man.   Nothing happens as Esther expects, but she does discover that she can play an important role in saving Khazaria.    This is definitely the sort of female central character that fans of this blog want to hear about.  

Since I am one of the ideal readers for The Book of Esther, I loved it.  It's obviously intended for readers who are very well-educated in Judaism.   Jewish customs and religious terminology aren't explained.   Neither is the structure of Khazar society.   So if you've read about the Khazars, as I have, you will also have a leg up in understanding who is who in this novel.   A glossary and recommended bibliography would have been very useful for many readers who have professed themselves mystified in their Goodreads reviews of this novel.  I'm not sure why Barton would have purposely narrowed her audience.

If you're inclined to research the books you read,  I think that Barton's book will reward you for this effort.   Esther is a courageous and intelligent heroine, and there is one rather surprising character that she encounters among the Kabalists. I highly recommend this book.


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 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.