Monday, March 16, 2020

#AuthorInterview: We All Fall Down - Stories of Plague and Resilience by David Blixt, Jean Gill, Kristin Gleeson, Jessica Knauss, Laura Morelli, Katherine Pym, Deborah Swift, Melodie Winawer, & Lisa J. Yarde


Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader. It’s a pleasure to have you all with us. To start things off, please tell us about WE ALL FALL DOWN. 

LISA YARDE: Thank you for the opportunity to share news of our anthology with your readers. The anthology began with an intent to create inspirational stories about characters who faced the Black Death. Perhaps until the HIV/AIDS pandemic, there had not been a health crisis that tested people more than the plague. The Black Death cut across cultures, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds to decimate societies. In writing the anthology, we wanted to show how people in varied walks of life responded to this calamity. We each wrote about characters who chose to hope, love, and ultimately survive, even when bitter losses made it feel as if their world was ending.
Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about each of your narrators? Are these characters you’d written before or are they unique to the story you submitted to this collection? 

KRISTIN GLEESON: Maeve is a young fourteenth-century Irish woman who is on the brink of becoming a nun in a convent in County Cork near the Kerry border. She’s uncertain about her faith and feels the pull of the world outside. Maeve is a new character, a descendant of a character in a previous novel, In Praise of the Bees, set in sixth-century Ireland in West Cork.

YARDE: Ibn al-Khatib is a historical figure from the fourteenth century who served the Moorish monarchs of the last Muslim dynasty to rule in southern Spain. He came from a family of courtiers, studied medicine, and wrote a treatise on the Black Death that has survived more for almost 700 years. I’ve written about him before in two novels set in Moorish Spain, focused on his role as a courtier like his forefathers. The anthology was my first opportunity to chronicle his theory about contagion during the plague.

LAURA MORELLI: The town of Siena, a renowned fresco painter, the famous Palio horse race, the 1348 Great Mortality, and, at the center of the drama, a young girl with a remarkable gift… Those are the elements that I knew I wanted to incorporate into my short tale, “Little Bird.” In 1348, Little Bird travels on a wagon across Tuscany with a band of fraudster “cure sellers,” hawking their wares from town to town. In Siena, she seizes an opportunity to grind pigments for the renowned painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti, seeking a path out of her dubious vocation. But as the Black Death takes the lives of increasing numbers of Sienese, Little Bird finds herself at the center of the townspeople’s wrath. The characters in this tale are all new, and I had such fun bringing them to life!

J. K. KNAUSS: I normally write about the Middle Ages before the Black Death because I’ve been more interested in times longer ago, a world that looked less like our own. But when Lisa proposed the idea for this anthology, I immediately thought of Alfonso XI. The idea of the only reigning monarch to succumb to the disease during its first attack on Europe had always fascinated me. When I looked into the aftermath of his early death, his beloved Leonor stood out as a strong woman facing immense challenges, the kind of story I think we all need to read more of.

DAVID BLIXT: This was a homecoming of sorts. I’ve been writing about Dante’s son Pietro for twenty years. He was the lead in my first novel, The Master Of Verona, and is the heart of my entire Star-Cross’d series. This story, “On All Our Houses,” afforded me the chance to step outside my overall arc and jump ahead in Pietro’s life. The events of Romeo and Juliet have passed, Ser Pietro has retired from the judicial bench, and is living on his vineyard in the Veronese hills when two old friends come to visit. One is the poet, Petrarch. The other is Death.

JEAN GILL: I was worried that a story about plague would be too depressing to write, never mind read, so I thought the omniscient narrator would add perspective. And yes, you can have an omniscient narrator in the first person. “Some call me the Great Leveller. You know who I am.”

DEBORAH SWIFT: My narrator, Finn, is a young Irish immigrant to Scotland. His family have come to Scotland in search of a better, more prosperous life, with more work for his big family. This is a story written specially for this collection, and I grew fond of Finn, though I may never see him again!

KATHERINE PYM: My story, “Arrows That Fly in the Dark,”, is a time slip where two young adults come together in seventeenth-century London to assist a doctor in his daily rounds. It is based on an actual physician’s account when he remained in London during the 1665 plague and lived to tell about it.

MELODIE WINAWER: Kadri bin Ahmed is a young Turkish man living comfortably in seventeenth-century Greece, during the time of its occupation by the Ottoman Empire. His father died when he was young, but otherwise he hasn’t lost much. He has a loving marriage, a healthy baby son, an excellent job with prospects for advancement, and a deferential and obedient Greek servant. Everything has gone well for him… until suddenly, it doesn’t. That comfort and certainty is shattered when, in quick succession, the Venetian fleet invades Ottoman-occupied Greece, and plague strikes his homeland. He thinks he has everything until he loses it all, and then has to relearn what truly matters. Kadri is a new character for me, but he came from a fundamental problem I’ve been thinking about for a long time, both personally and professionally as a writer. I wanted to portray that moment, which for some reason is particularly common in twenty-something-year-olds (it was for me!), when you go from thinking you know everything to experiencing profound doubt. I wanted to capture that painful but critical moment of transformation, the coming of age into self-questioning adulthood.
I felt the location and culture of each story had significance to each of you. Can you tell us a little about the setting and why they appealed to you? 

GLEESON: The location is very dear to me since it’s close to where I live and is an important feature of the community, being centered around the ancient community of St. Gobnait, who is the patron saint of the area as well as bees. There is an ancient well and ruins from the time period around the shrine, an ancient statue they bring out on her feast day and her burial site, and people come from all over still to practice various rituals. A wonderful place that I wanted to evoke once again, though in a different time period with such a powerful concept as the plague.

YARDE: Moorish Spain’s history fascinates me because of how it is has impacted the character of the peninsula and its people as we see them today. In particular, religious fervor has long been associated with Spain, where Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities lived side by side and interacted at times in both peaceable and violent ways. Islam’s first principle is the idea of surrender before God, acceptance of one’s fate. But in his theory about contagion, Ibn al-Khatib contradicted that principle, with great consequence to his livelihood and future. He just knew he was right and remained willing to take the risk.

MORELLI: Siena is such a wonderful and evocative town in central Italy. For an art historian, it’s a true playground! The 1348 Black Death hit Siena particularly hard. Siena’s residents struggled long after the horror of the Black Death came to an end. The city never fully regained its political and economic dominance. Its ambitious cathedral construction project was halted and never finished. Ambrogio Lorenzetti, who was working with his brother Pietro on several important painting commissions in the city at the time, hastily scrawled his last testament to his wife and daughters on a piece of parchment on June 9, 1348, and then disappeared from the historical record.

KNAUSS: I’ve spent long summer afternoons at the royal palace in Sevilla, feeling very much at home and imagining the people who lived there and all the things they did. King Pedro I built some of the most beautiful chambers in the palace right around the time of “Footsteps.” I was thrilled to have the opportunity to describe the sensation of richness and relaxation that pervades the historic stones—as contrasted with the strife and intrigue that took place there!

BLIXT: Verona is my heart. I’ve spent so much time there, have so many friends, I know the city better than I know most people. In this case, I got to reference a fact that falls outside the narrative bounds of the Star-Cross’d series. In 1353, Pietro Alighieri bought a vineyard in the Valpolicella region to the north of Verona, looking over Lake Garda. The family still lives there, making wine. My wife and I first visited the Count Serego-Alighieri in 2002, and he had us back to stay in 2014. The sights and sounds of this story, right down to the lemon tree, are based on that latter stay. Just walking the grounds, living there, hearing the stories of how the villa was saved from the Nazis, seeing the fifteenth-century carriage that carried the Count’s ancestors—all of it conspired to build the walk Pietro takes through the story, alongside his old friend, as he counts his losses and faces his grief.

GILL: I don’t usually start with a set theme, so I sat thinking “Black Death” and waiting for inspiration. Venice immediately came to mind, a place where I’ve lingered in the mist, taking photos of a cormorant by a palace while moored gondolas clunk together in the backwash of a vaporetto. But it wasn’t the iconic plague doctor’s mask or the seventeenth century that drew me. It was the mystery in 1576 surrounding an artist famous for a certain shade of red.

SWIFT: Many people have heard of the Great Plague in London in 1665, but few have heard of the seventeenth-century plague that decimated Edinburgh in 1645, twenty years earlier. It was the worst plague to ever hit Scotland; tens of thousands died, almost fifty percent of the population.

PYM: Most of my stories are based in London 1660s, from the start of the restoration to the fire of London. Seventeenth-century England is not very popular with the current reader, even as it included exciting elements of other centuries, but maybe the civil wars, the beheading of a king, fire, and plague gave the reader grief. Thinking further… if Guy Fawkes had been successful, he would have blown up most of Westminster. That in itself could cause a fine lady to swoon. There was Titus Oates (think McCarthyism) where so many were accused of being Catholics—many executed—which had a negative impact on the populace. Two Anglo/Dutch wars, men and boys pressganged into service may turn readers away. Piracy on the high seas could give the most stalwart heart palpitations. Then don’t forget when Parliament exiled James II and brought in William of Orange and Mary, true Protestants, to England. Maybe, that, in the end, made the reader fear madness and death, so for sanity’s sake, they turned to the Elizabethan or Georgian periods. But for me, this period in history has it all. There’s a vast amount of story fodder to play with, in almost every decade of the century. That’s why I love it.

WINAWER: When Lisa Yarde asked me to contribute to this anthology about the plague, I had three reactions. The first was being flattered. I’d just published my first novel, The Scribe of Siena (not coincidentally about the plague in medieval Italy), and loved having the opportunity to work on a collaborative project with a group of seasoned and talented writers.  The second was…NO WAY I CAN DO THIS. I’d just sold my second novel as a partial manuscript to my publisher, and was on a tight deadline to produce. That book, which is about to go back to my publisher after first round edits this week (!), is about Mystras, a city in the southern Peloponnesus of Greece, which is now almost completely in ruins, but was once the capital of the late Byzantine empire after the fall of Constantinople. Mystras is a magical, romantic, powerful place, a whole ghost city echoing with 800 years of history. Just to add perspective, I have another full-time job (which is still extremely full-time) as a doctor and research scientist, and I have three kids. So adding something seemed absolutely impossible, maybe even insane. I didn’t answer Lisa right away. But then the idea grew on me. I’d never written a short story and I wanted to try. I actually couldn’t let the idea go, even though I tried! I wanted to join these other amazing authors in this collaboration. And then I decided, since I was writing about Mystras already, deep in research and falling in love with the place and its history, then if I could learn more and write about Mystras for this story, I would do it. My second novel is told from the Greek perspective, and doesn’t cover the seventeenth century directly at all. So I decided to tell part of the story I hadn’t told, when plague struck Mystras. And I decided to tell it from the point of view of a Turk. It was an amazing exercise to force myself to take both sides of the story of Greece’s occupation at once, and deepened my understanding.
Hope and resilience resonate in different ways through each story. Did you find it challenging to highlight these emotions against the realities of plague? 

GLEESON: Resilience was the watchword for the Gaels in that time period, especially in certain areas where the Anglo-Normans were holding sway. To introduce the element of plague was an extra opportunity to put my characters in challenging positions that could highlight their strengths and their weaknesses. What writer couldn’t love that?

YARDE: Desperation can bring out the worst and best in people. It’s easy to imagine the sufferers of the Black Death might have given in to their baser instincts, shut themselves away, and shunned their communities. But the medical practitioners of the day in Islamic Spain sought ways to mitigate the effects of the disease. It was not hard to imagine what Ibn al-Khatib as a doctor would have done to try to save the Moorish people and his family.

MORELLI: I think few of us take the time to truly imagine what it would be like to live in a time of pre-modern medicine. Writing and reading a story like this helps us appreciate the treatments we now have available.

KNAUSS: I believe “Footsteps” is the least obviously optimistic story in the whole anthology. Because Leonor didn’t live to see the fruits of her efforts, readers might think the story is a downer. But knowing that Leonor’s legacy was far-reaching, even into the present day, I tried to infuse her character with an indomitable spirit. She wouldn’t have been a woman to give up easily, and coupled with her devotion to Alfonso XI and her children, I think she presents an inspiring figure.

BLIXT: There is a sadness I carry, one I do not share often. This story allowed me to write about it, in a way.

GILL: It wasn’t deliberate, but as the story told itself, I became aware of how much the outcome mattered to me and how much was at stake in the sweep of history.

SWIFT: What fascinated me was to write a child’s-eye view. There is something about looking at the pain of it all through innocent eyes. The child sees the reality, but also has his own rich fantasy world where the reasons for tragic events can be explained by latching onto the snippets of an adult world he doesn’t fully understand.

PYM: It is hard for anyone to understand an epidemic until they are in it, and especially so for young adults. But they had their exit strategy. When they realized death was imminent, they flew into the future and modern medicine.

WINAWER: It was incredibly challenging, but in the best way. This kind of challenge is exactly what makes writing so exhilarating, and also so transformative (both to read and to write). I found myself relying on personal experience, as many writers do. Twenty years ago, my mother was diagnosed with what should have been a fatal illness. In fact, she survived it, but at that moment I did not think she would. I was walking home from the hospital when I looked up at the sky to see sun glinting through the trees. And the sight was beautiful. I could not imagine how it was possible see beauty in the middle of such misery. That experience, the impossible coexistence of my own despair and my joy in the beauty of the world, lies at the heart of “778.”
If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a film adaptation of WE ALL FALL DOWN, who would you cast? 

GLEESON: Well if were my own particular story, I guess I would have Christina Balfe (Outlander fame) or Saoirse Ronan to play Maeve. Christina Balfe creates such great chemistry with Sam Heughan in Outlander, and that’s exactly what I would go for, though she may be a bit old for it. As for the male protagonist, Diarmuid, I think Sam Heughan would win out, though Cillian Murphy is from Cork and is getting nicely rugged in his appearance and would do nicely too. Hard choices all around.

YARDE: When I was writing, I had a small picture of the French actor of Moroccan descent, Said Taghmaoui, taped at the corner of my monitor, because I imagined Ibn al-Khatib might have looked like him. Now that I’m asked to think of it, I’d also like the actress Zuleikha Robinson in the role of Ibn al-Khatib’s wife Iqbal. The Moors were of Arabian, Berber, and Negro descent, and they came to the Iberian Peninsula in the 700s. While they intermarried or had children with Christians in Spain, I’ve long imagined that they must have retained features of their Middle Eastern and North African heritages.

MORELLI: I would love the character of Zio, the surly, ne’er-do-well “uncle” of Little Bird, to be played by Jeff Bridges!

KNAUSS: “Footsteps” is a great opportunity to cast handsome young actors in the roles of young King Pedro and his half-brothers. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis at their most femme fatale could bring their explosive chemistry to the showdown between Queen María and Leonor.

BLIXT: Oof. Young Pietro would have plenty of choices. Old Pietro? I don’t know. Colin Firth, perhaps. With Stanley Tucci as Petrarch.

GILL: I would love to see the much-missed Alan Rickman as my narrator.

PYM: Gary Oldman as the old curmudgeon physician, but I don’t know any truly young actors/actresses to play the parts. I’ll let the casting department decide that one.

WINAWER: Rami Malek, the actor who played Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, as Kadri, Salma Hayek as his wife Malike, and Elias Koteas, the Canadian actor of Greek descent, to play Makharios, the Greek initially deferential servant whose own role in Kadri’s life changes as Greeks regain power over their Turkish oppressors during the Venetian occupation.
What do you hope readers take from their experience of WE ALL FALL DOWN? 

GLEESON: I’d say if I needed to sum it up, how to value the invincibility of the human spirit when under greatest pressure.

YARDE: Not only that they enjoyed the range of characters and settings, but they learned something they might not have otherwise known about the effects of the Black Death, and they found inspiration in the stories to meet adversities within their own lives. The survivors of plague sometimes took great risks and showed courage and resilience by the very act of survival against terrible odds. We can, too, in our modern-day struggles.

MORELLI: I hope that readers will appreciate the hopeful ending—and connect it to their own sense of hope in dark times. I also hope they’ll Google pictures of the Lorenzetti brothers’ incredible art in Siena!

KNAUSS: I hope readers will come away understanding a little of what fascinates me about medieval Spain. Reading all the stories together, I don’t think readers can avoid being inspired. The hope portrayed in these pages gives us that same hope today.

BLIXT: Seeing what’s happening right now? Resilience. Resolve. This too shall pass.

GILL: I want them to stay up late, unable to sleep, reading and wondering. An occasional tear is allowed, or even a shiver, but above all I want readers to marvel at human nature throughout history. As I read the other authors’ stories, I asked myself, “What would I do?” and, with a pandemic in the news, some of us might find out.

SWIFT: That every era has its disasters, but the human spirit is resilient, and stories celebrating courage in adversity are important.

PYM: A good reading experience that will stay with them when they turn out the light at night.

WINAWER: Without being told to, somehow all of the writers who contributed to this story did the same thing. We all told stories about a terrible disease and its devastating effects on peoples’ lives, but we also wrote about the resilience of the human spirit that allows us to transcend and survive grief and loss. None of us could have known that this anthology would be published just as COVID-19 was sweeping around the globe, but the timing is eerily perfect—such resilience is a lifeline for all of us, especially now.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

#BookReview: Madam in Silk by Gini Grossenbacher

Genre
Biographic Fiction

Buy Links
Amazon US
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Social Media
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DESCRIPTION: 
San Francisco, 1849. Despite her objections, Ah Toy and servant Chen arrive in San Francisco from Hong Kong after her husband dies aboard ship. With little cash and bound feet, she opens a "Lookee Shop," catering to men who pay in gold dust to see her exotic beauty. Among them policeman John Clark finds her captivating and they form a strong attraction for one another. Yet should she place her trust in this one man? Will their love survive despite her frightening encounter with Sydney Ducks? After she opens a brothel, she and her girls face threats from rival madam Li Fan, the lure of opium dens, and a tempting offer of wealth and security from importer Henry Conrad. Armed with her mystical beliefs of the inner dragon and Goddess Mazu, Ah Toy faces much more than the journey from the ancient Chinese ways to the new American world. In fact, she must find the true source of courage in a life or death struggle for her own fate, justice, and dignity. Based on page-turning accounts from the life of one of San Francisco's most legendary madams. 
REVIEW: 
Gini Grossenbacher’s Madam in Silk takes its inspiration from the life of Ah Toy, America’s first Chinese Madam. It’s fascinating subject matter, especially for those encountering it for the first time, but the delivery of this fictionalized version of her life fell a measure short of my expectations.

To be fair, my middling assessment of Madam in Silk is not entirely Grossenbacher’s fault. Reviews and ratings are intensely subjective and the more one knows of a subject, the more opinions they have on how it should be approached. I admit I found elements of Grossenbacher’s work underdeveloped, but the root of my opinion rests in the omission of details I wanted to see utilized. It is, of course, ridiculous to expect an author to tell a story in any particular way, but it is equally ridiculous for me to pretend my perspective didn’t color my experience of this novel. All things considered, I ask those reading this to accept my comments with a healthy measure of salt.

Getting back to the story at hand, I felt the presentation lacking in emotional and contextual complexity. Ah, for the sake of example, decides to open a “Lookee Shop” after overhearing a group of sailors discussing girls who pose and parade nude. Twelve paragraphs later, the shop is open and boasting a thriving trade. Pardon my candor, but where does Ah’s business acumen come from? We are told she meant to perform translations for her husband’s porcelain factory, but translation is a world away from full-time management of any business. How did she, a lone woman with no experience in an intensely misogynistic environment even acquire the real estate for this venture? And why is the prospect of parading about in little to nothing not explored? I understand the driving need to eat, but I felt the gear shift from a respectable merchant’s wife to peep show performer deserved more than a shrug of Ah’s shoulders.

I also felt Grossenbacher missed an opportunity in failing to utilize Norman Assing (aka Yuen Shen), a prominent Chinese businessman who wanted Ah Toy out of his way. Court records and news reports indicate he tried and failed to have the madame deported in April/March 1851.


The fact that he appealed to the Committee of Vigilance to arrest two men and two unnamed women a mere four months later suggests he was not above aligning himself with the vigilante group (Papers Of The San Francisco Committee Of Vigilance Of 1851). The meeting minutes do not link Assing and Toy by name, but one could argue she was involved in the investigation as her name appears in a narration of the subsequent investigation only two years later (Holinski, La Californie Et Les Routes Interocéaniques).

Why am I hooked on Assing? Probably because traditional Chinese culture is male-dominated, and I like the idea of a woman using the American courtroom as a mechanism to thematically unbind herself from the rule of norms that imposed both physical and social limitations on her person, but that’s just me. I find this sort of arc far more interesting than fictional rivalries and romantic storylines, even when historical figures like John Clark offer such tantalizing opportunities.

When all is said and done, I feel Grossenbacher possesses an eye for subject matter and I enjoyed both her exploration of the experiences of female Chinese immigrants and illustration of California’s 19th-century sex trade. I'd have obviously preferred she framed the narrative differently but aside from that, I'd have little trouble recommending her work and look forward to reading her again.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Kindle Unlimited
Read: March 6, 2020
RECOMMENDATIONS: RELATED READING




Monday, March 2, 2020

#CharacterInterview: Victorine by Drēma Drudge

Interviewee: Victorine Meurent / Drēma Drudge
Setting: Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Modern-Day.
Erin: [lost in thought while considering Manet’s Olympia]
Elegant Woman in 19th-Century Gown: Bonjour!
Erin: Oh. Ummm… Je suis désolé. Je ne parle pas francais. Seriously. That’s all I got. I’m one of those stereotypically uncultured Americans and my brain only works in one language. Any chance you speak English?
Elegant Woman in 19th-Century Gown: Bien sûr. I mean, certainly.
Erin: Wonderful! I mean, it’s totally unfair to make you jump the whole of the language barrier, but like I said, I’m not up on my game. High school French didn’t exactly prepare me for actually being here, ya know?
Elegant Woman in 19th-Century Gown: What is so high about your school? Is it on an elevation, perhaps a hillside? Ah, I imagine it’s in Montmartre.
Erin: Never mind. I’m rambling. I do that when I’m nervous. Not that you make me nervous on a personal level or anything. I just suck at small talk… Hey, she looks a bit like you. Olympia I mean.
Elegant Woman in 19th-Century Gown: Yes, it’s a painting of me, Victorine Meurent.
Erin: Wait. This is you?!?! Like you posed for this painting? Nude? For Manet? In 1863?
Victorine: I did. And let me tell you, my parents were so upset with me!
Erin: Ha! I imagine mine would be as well, putting all my assets on display like that. I wont deny having looked into boudoir photography, but this feels a little more intense if you know what I mean. Did you get cold sitting there for so long? Or bored?
Victorine: I was both cold and bored sometimes. And Manet didn’t want me to eat carbs while I modeled, so I was ravenous the whole time. What I hated most, though, was when his artist friends crowded in the studio. The ones who looked at me as just a model were okay, but some of those guys…
Erin: No carbs and creepy groupies… I’m not sure I could handle it. Too fond of cookies and I have a zero-tolerance policy for bull shit. Beyond the jerks hanging round the studio, were you intimidated by posing nude?
Victorine: I wasn’t. By the time I sat for Manet, I had already modeled without clothes for my father.
Erin: You posed for your dad!? Talk about a different time and place…
Victorine: Paris is art. My family was poor, so I began modeling to help pay the rent. Eventually, I saved up enough money to go to art school and I became a painter myself.
Erin: Tenacious and talented... You were a painter too, huh? How do people not know this? What were… are… some of your works?
Victorine: I exhibited at the Paris Salon several times. I showed Bourgeois in Nuremberg in the 16th Century, Cat with a Wasp, and a self-portrait. It meant so much to me to do a portrait of myself after being painted by Manet and other male artists. I got to dress myself however I wanted. And trust me, I definitely put clothes on myself!
Erin: I don’t blame you there. Did you work in oils like Manet?
Victorine: I did. I love the smell of paint drying. And while watercolors have their charm, they are too faint for my tastes.
Erin: Watercolors do have a softer effect. Is it frustrating? Being known as a model rather than an artist?
Victorine: You have no idea. Sometimes I’m not remembered so much as a model, but as that naked woman from those two paintings, (you know – the Luncheon on the Grass is the other one) even though he did so many others of me. Nope, that’s not what they remember.
Erin: Of course not. Sex sells. Substance, on the other hand, is a harder product to peddle. What was he like? Manet, I mean?
Victorine: Eh. I mean, we got along. He called me his favorite model, and we worked together for eleven paintings. However, in the end, our artistic differences sent us our different ways.
Erin: Artistic differences… puts me in mind of Chicago but something tells me you wouldn’t understand the reference. How about Laure? Do you know anything about her?
Victorine: He never had us pose together, so I never even met her. He claimed I was jealous of his time with her. Wouldn’t you be, if you saw he called her “beautiful” in his address book? Anyway, I know he used her in a couple of other paintings, but I know no more of her than she of me.
Erin: No way! So this is like supermarket tabloids that photoshop celebrities into the same shot? That's crazy! Not to shift gears but how do you feel about your image hanging alongside Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Gaugin, and Van Gogh? Do any of the other exhibits appeal to you?
Victorine: My own paintings. They’re what appeal to me. Especially my self-portrait. I do feel fond of Palm Sunday, though that’s such a tame painting of mine. And btw, Degas sketched me too. Did you know --
Erin: [phone rings] My apologies, but I have to take this. My kids…

Epilogue: I’m not entirely sure what happened to Victorine at that point. My kids were arguing over a videogame and it took a few minutes to convince them that despite behind halfway around the world, the wi-fi password could be changed if they didn’t get their butts to bed. My threat eventually won out, but by the time I’d gotten off the phone, my new friend had disappeared into the crowd...
In 1863 Civil War is raging in the United States Victorine Meurent is posing nude, in Paris, for paintings that will be heralded as the beginning of modern art: Manet's Olympia and Picnic on the Grass. However, Victorine's persistent desire is not to be a model but to be a painter herself. In order to live authentically, she finds the strength to flout the expectations of her parents, bourgeois society, and the dominant male artists (whom she knows personally) while never losing her capacity for affection, kindness, and loyalty. Possessing both the incisive mind of a critic and the intuitive and unconventional impulses of an artist, Victorine and her survival instincts are tested in 1870, when the Prussian army lays siege to Paris and rat becomes a culinary delicacy. Drema Drudge's powerful first novel Victorine not only gives this determined and gifted artist back to us but also recreates an era of important transition into the modern world.

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CA

Monday, February 10, 2020

#BookReview: The Borgia Confessions by Alyssa Palombo

Genre
Biographic Fiction

Buy Links
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon CA

Social Media
 Official Website
Facebook
Twitter



DESCRIPTION: 
During the sweltering Roman summer of 1492, Rodrigo Borgia has risen to power as pope. Rodrigo’s eldest son Cesare, forced to follow his father into the church and newly made the Archbishop of Valencia, chafes at his ecclesiastical role and fumes with jealousy and resentment at the way that his foolish brother has been chosen for the military greatness he desired.

Maddalena Moretti comes from the countryside, where she has seen how the whims of powerful men wreak havoc on the lives of ordinary people. But now, employed as a servant in the Vatican Palace, she cannot help but be entranced by Cesare Borgia’s handsome face and manner and finds her faith and conviction crumbling in her want of him.

As war rages and shifting alliances challenge the pope’s authority, Maddalena and Cesare's lives grow inexplicably entwined. Maddalena becomes a keeper of dangerous Borgia secrets, and must decide if she is willing to be a pawn in the power games of the man she loves. And as jealousy and betrayal threaten to tear apart the Borgia family from within, Cesare is forced to reckon with his seemingly limitless ambition.

Alyssa Palombo's captivating new novel, The Borgia Confessions, is a story of passion, politics, and class, set against the rise and fall of one of Italy's most infamous families--the Borgias.


REVIEW: 
Alyssa Palombo’s The Borgia Confessions invites readers to explore the halls of the Vatican Palace, peek behind its decadent curtains, and glimpse its most exclusive chambers to understand the rise of notorious Borgia scion, Cesare.

Written as a sort of bad boy origins story, The Borgia Confessions illustrates Cesare’s world as well as the politics and personalities that shaped him into Machiavelli’s quintessential Prince. Palombo understands the complex legacy of her protagonist and the story she presents is a brilliantly imagined chronicle of his individual evolution and the sins he felt forced to commit in the name of both familial and personal ambition.

Politically, I loved how this novel captured the ruthless and manipulative nature of power during this period and the dangerous games played by those at its pinnacle. Palombo’s characters aren’t likable, but they aren’t supposed to be. They are a complicated collection of immoral schemers, deceivers, hypocrites, and rogues. Their lack of scruples and less than holy lifestyles deliberately provoke the reader and in so doing create a boldly memorable novel of conflict, controversy, and corruption.

The only aspect of the story that didn’t work for me was Maddalena. Her relationship with Cesare felt one-sided and her role, while fun to read, didn’t feel intrinsic to the telling. She didn’t detract from the novel by any means, but she felt like something of a late addition to the narrative, a character shoehorned into place to appease industry standards requiring romantic subplots. I love what Maddalena represents and feel she boasts an admirable degree of brass, but at the end of the day, I didn’t feel her at all necessary to Cesare’s journey.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 17, 2020
RECOMMENDATIONS: RELATED READING




Monday, January 13, 2020

#BookReview: The First Mrs. Rothschild by Sara Aharoni

Genre
Biographic Fiction

Buy Links
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon CA



DESCRIPTION: 
In this award-winning historical saga, passionate young lovers in a Jewish ghetto rise to become the foremost financial dynasty in the world.

It is the turn of the eighteenth century in Frankfurt, Germany, and young Gutle and Meir Amschel Rothschild struggle to establish themselves in the cramped and restricted Judengasse. But when Meir’s talents as a novice banker catch the attention of a German prince, Meir is suddenly afforded entrée into the European world of finance and nobility, and the Rothschilds’ lives are changed forever. As proud as Gutle is of her husband’s success, she is also cautious—very much aware of the fact that her husband’s rise is tied to his patrons’ willingness to “see past” his Jewishness. As their family grows, and a dream of fortune comes true, so does their belief that money will ultimately bring the power needed to establish Jewish civil rights.

Told through Gutle’s intimate journals, revealed across decades—from the French Revolution through personal tragedies and triumphs—The First Mrs. Rothschild paints a rich and intimate tapestry of family drama, world-changing history, and one woman’s steadfast strength.


REVIEW: 
I have mixed feelings about Sara Aharoni’s The First Mrs. Rothschild. The novel has a lot going for it, but certain aspects of the telling made it difficult for me to get lost in. 

The story centers on the fictional journals of Gutle, wife of Meir Amschel Rothschild and matriarch of the Rothschild banking dynasty. Portrayed as an intensely introspective woman, Gutle dedicatedly records the details of the life she shares with her husband and the exploits of the children she bore him. 

Gutle is an astute people watcher and I admired her unwavering commitment to her home and family. I was also captivated by her faith and the novel’s description of Jewish history and culture. Many stories incorporate this material, but few of my experience chronicle this particular time period or boast the same natural cadence as Aharoni’s.

Having said that, The First Mrs. Rothschild is an exceedingly long and drawn-out narrative. Gutle bears witness to the family’s rise of fortune, but she is a largely passive presence, relaying the movements and achievements of those around her more consistently than her own. I respect what Aharoni was trying to achieve with this approach, but I felt it severely hindered the pacing of the story and ultimately severed my connection to the heroine of the novel.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 5, 2020
RECOMMENDATIONS: RELATED READING




Friday, January 10, 2020

#BookReview: Desert Star - Volume 2 by Stephen Desberg and Enrico Marini

Genre
Historical Graphic Novel

Series
Desert Star #2

Buy Links
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon CA



DESCRIPTION:  
Matthew Montgomery's quest to solve the mystery behind his wife and daughter's brutal murder has led him as far as the train tracks go: Topeka. This cautious, law-abiding man has come to this hub of sex, violence and alcohol in search of a man who goes by the name of Jason Cauldry, from whom he intends to get some answers about the death of his loved ones. And find him he does. Turns out Cauldry is lord and master of the town's brothels, enrolling all the Indian women unfortunate enough to cross his path. Desert Star was one of them. She's dead. Wakita is another, and she decides to help Montgomery find out why an assassin would trek all the way down to Washington to kill two women he'd never laid eyes upon, leaving a strange star engraved on his victim's body...


REVIEW: 
I didn’t have expectations when I picked up Stephen Dresberg Desert Star: Volume 1, but I needed certain points of the story addressed in Volume 2 and am happy to report Desberg didn’t leave me hanging.

Villain Jason Cauldry and hero Matthew Montgomery’s role in the west come into sharper focus in this installment of the series. I needed this development but was surprised to discover both characters out shown by the strength and ingenuity of fiery survivor, Wakita.

I found portions of the story, particularly those related to women, cliched and feel the story resolution rushed, but the philosophical aspects of the narrative worked for me and I’d definitely consider reading more of this author’s work.

゜・。。・゜゜・。。・゜゜・。。・゜゜・。。・゜

Note: Desberg’s Desert Star series has four installments. Volumes 3 & 4 were published several years after Volumes 1 & 2 and serve as a prequel to the events they chronicle. I tried to read Volume 3 but felt the publication lacked stylistic and tonal continuity. As such, I opted to abandon both Volume 3 and my intention to read Volume 4.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 3, 2020
RECOMMENDATIONS: RELATED READING




#BookReview: Desert Star - Volume 1 by Stephen Desberg and Enrico Marini

Genre
Historical Graphic Novel

Series
Desert Star #1

Buy Links
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon CA



DESCRIPTION:  
Our story starts in Washington, 1870. Matthew Montgomery has an important post at the Ministry of Defense. He's rather an inflexible man who always respects the rules, which is why he warned his daughter, Helen, not to leave with that idiot, Glover. Of course, she did it anyway, and now she wants to come back and expects to be pardoned. But when Matthew arrives home the night of his Helen’s return, he opens the door to find his wife and daughter slaughtered in the hallway and a strange star engraved on his daughter's breast. His whole life is turned upside down. Traumatized, he starts out on the trail of the killers, with just one clue to help him on his way: a name - Jason Cauldry, from Topeka. Matthew wants to know why some stranger came such a long way just to etch that damn star onto his daughter's body, so he sets off on a long journey, crossing the Appalachian mountains and the Mid-West, all the way to Topeka. But what will he find there?


REVIEW: 
I picked up Stephen Desberg’s Desert Star: Volume 1 on a whim. I’m not sure what I expected, but it caught me off-guard and proved more than a little diverting.

Desert Star: Volume 1 is definitely on the mature side of the aisle. This western is as cold and hard as the barrel of a Peacemaker. It is a violent story with more than a little nudity, but despite these realities, I found I enjoyed the author’s exploration of pain, loss, regret, and revenge.

The women of this story suffer much, and Montgomery reads a little stiff for my tastes, but I couldn’t help falling for the intrigue at the heart of the story and am curious to see where Desberg takes the Desert Star series moving forward.

゜・。。・゜゜・。。・゜゜・。。・゜゜・。。・゜

Note: I made a point of reading Volume 2 of the Desert Star series on the heels of Volume 1 and feel it important to recommend prospective readers do the same as the decision to read the story in full influenced my opinion in ways it wouldn't have been had I read the books as standalone publications.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 3, 2020
RECOMMENDATIONS: RELATED READING