Wednesday, July 29, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Lilianne Milgrom, author of L’Origine: The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic Masterpiece

Genre
Literary Historical

Social Media
 Official Website
Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader, Lilianne. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about L’ORIGINE. 
In 1866, maverick French artist Gustave Courbet painted one of the most iconic images in the history of art: a sexually explicit portrait of a woman’s exposed genitals – no head, no arms, no legs. Audaciously titled L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World), the scandalous painting was kept hidden for a century and a half. Today, it hangs in the world-renowned Orsay Museum in Paris, viewed by millions of visitors a year.

L’ORIGINE is an entertaining and deeply researched work of historical fiction that traces the painting’s extraordinary odyssey, replete with French revolutionaries, Turkish pashas, and nefarious Nazi captains. But L’ORIGINE is more than a riveting romp through history—it also highlights society’s complex relationship with the female body.

What drew you to this painting and why did you feel its story needed to be told?  
As an artist, I was vaguely familiar with this controversial work, but it played no role in my art practice in any way. In 2010 I was in Paris for an extended stay (I am Paris-born but live in the US) and when I laid eyes on the painting, I experienced a powerful kaleidoscope of emotions. I was at a point in my life when I was questioning my sexuality as a woman of ‘a certain age’.  The Origin of the World cast a spell on me! Courbet and his infamous painting are part of French lore and I was very motivated to expose English-speaking readers who operate outside of the confines of the academic art world. There’s a lot more to this painting than meets the eye, so to speak!

You had a special and unique experience with Courbet’s L'Origine du monde. Can you tell us a bit about that? 
Through a series of serendipitous events, I became the first artist authorized by the Orsay Museum to re-create Courbet’s The Origin of the World. As its copyist, I was thrust into the painting’s intimate orbit, spending six weeks replicating every fold, crevice, and pubic hair. The experience was so profound that it inspired me to share my story and recount the painting’s riveting clandestine history. 

Courbet’s approach to feminine sexuality has challenged private and public viewers of the painting throughout its history. Did this legacy shadow or influence your writing process?  
The painting was kept hidden for close to a century and a half. It was actually first publicly exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1988, and ever since it has sparked contentious debate surrounding the female body. Modern art criticism has largely vilified this controversial painting as the very symbol of the exploitative male gaze so prevalent in art history. But after copying Courbet’s painting and immersing myself in its remarkable history, I think my book throws new light on the painting, leaving the door open to fresh dialogue on constructs such as feminine identity, sexuality, beauty, and empowerment. What I kept in mind all through the writing process was the fact that it’s essential to put the work in context before judging it. 

Do you have a favorite scene in L’ORIGINE? 
Some chapters just write themselves while others take time to take shape. I read a lot of books and primary sources on both Gustave Courbet and the painting itself, but it was still hard to get into Courbet’s head and understand what led up to his own eureka moment – the moment when he actually visualized the painting and why he chose such a taboo subject. When I came across a few sources that compared the painting of L’Origine du monde with a number of paintings Courbet did around that time of the dark cave near his home in Ornans that is the source of the Loue River, it seemed clear that he was smitten with the idea of origins and sources and the idea of a woman’s body as the source of all creation seemed like a natural progression. That’s when I was able to write the chapter and scene of his aha moment.

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing L’ORIGINE? 
What a great question!!! The first manuscript took the form of alternating chapters between Courbet’s arrival in Paris and his trajectory, and my own arrival in Paris as a mature artist. Part of me still likes that idea, but the further I went, the clearer it became that I actually wanted to write about the painting itself. I had to pivot for the sake of the story. The painting became the protagonist.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of L’ORIGINE?
I hope they will discover a painter and a painting they were unfamiliar with and would perhaps never have come across. If they were familiar with Courbet’s Origin of the World I hope they come away with an understanding of how context shapes artwork – we can’t make rash conclusions through the lens of our contemporary mindset and societies. I studied French History at university in Melbourne, Australia, and I have been an artist all my life, so my book brings all these pieces together. But ultimately, I hope readers enjoy the book without realizing how much they learned about history and art and artists!!

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings? 
As you know, I am primarily an artist and I do miss being back in the studio. However, I have several ideas floating around in my head – one of them is a children’s book called ‘Monsieur Pourquoi Pas’ (Mister Why Not?) based on a real-life character I met in France last year….

Sunday, July 26, 2020

#BookReview: The Stringbags by Garth Ennis & P.J. Holden

Genre
Historical Graphic Novel
War Era Historical


DESCRIPTION: 
If you do the incredible often enough, they’ll want you to do the impossible.

Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Fascist Italy began World War II with aircraft that could devastate enemy warships and merchantmen at will. Britain’s Royal Navy squadrons went to war equipped with the Fairey Swordfish. A biplane torpedo bomber in an age of monoplanes, the Swordfish was underpowered and undergunned; an obsolete museum piece, an embarrassment. Its crews fully expected to be shot from the skies. Instead, they flew the ancient “Stringbag” into legend.

Writer Garth Ennis (Preacher, The Boys, War Stories) and artist PJ Holden (Battlefields, World of Tanks: Citadel) present the story of the men who crewed the Swordfish: from their triumphs against the Italian Fleet at Taranto and the mighty German battleship Bismarck in the Atlantic, to the deadly challenge of the Channel Dash in the bleak winter waters of their homeland. They lived as they flew, without a second to lose—and the greatest tributes to their courage would come from the enemy who strove to kill them.

Based on the true story of the Royal Navy’s Swordfish crews, The Stringbags is an epic tale of young men facing death in an aircraft almost out of time.

REVIEW: 
Garth Ennis’ The Stringbags arrived on my doorstep as part of an unsolicited care package from the Naval Institute and Dead Reckoning Press. I confess that I’m not sure I’d have picked it up on my own, but the story struck a chord in me, and I’m immensely grateful to the publisher for bringing it to my attention. 

The story is broken into three parts: To Your Lads In Their Enterprise, Our Belief in You, My Fuhrer, and By Either Side That Day. The events of each chronicle the attack on Taranto, the sinking of the Bismarck, and the Channel Dash, through the eyes of a three-person Fairey Swordfish crew. I was not familiar with this particular aircraft before picking up Ennis’ work, but I loved the insight the book afforded regarding both these biplane torpedo bombers and the engagements in which they were utilized. 

Archie, Ollie, and Pops prove delightful protagonists, and I liked how their diverse personalities and perspectives shaped their individual opinions of the Second World War. I found their collective desire to offer meaningfully to the cause endearing and was moved beyond words with the story’s conclusion. The novel did not end as I expected it to, but I found something beautifully poetic in the final panel and feel it a powerful reminder of the realities faced by their real-life counterparts. 

Though regulated to a supporting role, I also admired Captain Shanks. He begins the story as a stereotypical war hero, but his wartime experiences are anything but. I admit his arrogance held little appeal for me in the initial pages of the narrative, but he worked his way under my skin as the novel progressed, and I ultimately enjoyed his role as foil for the novel’s heroes. 

The Stringbags is heavy on both combat and operational history, but I found it wonderfully diverting and have no trouble recommending it to fans of war fiction and graphic novels alike.  


Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Publisher
Read: July 19, 2020
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#BookReview: L’Origine: The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic Masterpiece by Lilianne Milgrom

Genre
Literary Historical

Social Media
 Official Website

DESCRIPTION: 
The riveting odyssey of one of the world's most scandalous works of art.

In 1866, maverick French artist Gustave Courbet painted one of the most iconic images in the history of art: a sexually explicit portrait of a woman's exposed genitals. Audaciously titled L'Origine du monde (The Origin of the World), the scandalous painting was kept hidden for a century and a half. Today, it hangs in the world-renowned Orsay Museum in Paris, viewed by millions of visitors a year.

As the first artist authorized by the Orsay Museum to re-create Courbet's The Origin of the World, author Lilianne Milgrom was thrust into the painting's intimate orbit, spending six weeks replicating every fold, crevice, and pubic hair. The experience inspired her to share her story and the painting's riveting clandestine history with readers beyond the confines of the art world.

L'Origine is an entertaining and superbly researched work of historical fiction that traces the true story of the painting's unlikely tale of survival, replete with French revolutionaries, Turkish pashas, and nefarious Nazi captains. But L'Origine is more than a riveting romp through history-it also sheds light on society's complex relationship with the female body.

REVIEW: 
Historical fiction is a niche genre that is heavily influenced by market trends. I appreciate this reality, but as a devoted genre reader, I crave diverse subject matter and often find myself drawn to off-trend novels. Books with unique content get under my skin and pique my imagination every time, a fact which likely explains my interest in Lilianne Milgrom’s L’Origine: The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic Masterpiece.

This debut novel is told in a series of vignettes featuring individuals who played a part in the creation of Gustave Courbet’s L'Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) or served as its guardian from 1866 through the present day. This structuring took some getting used to, but I ultimately loved how the formatting allowed the painting itself to become a character in its own story. The provocative nature of the piece elicits a wide range of responses, and I quickly fell in love with the way Milgrom chose to explore these ideas and emotions through the eyes of the painting’s creators and custodians.

That said, I admit to struggling with the novel’s Prologue This section is autobiographical, and I appreciated the technical insights it afforded, but it reads like nonfiction and is so long that I developed a sense of confusion regarding the nature of the narrative. I love what this section represents and feel it gives unique insight to the author’s relationship with L'Origine du monde, but I think I’d have enjoyed it more if it’d been presented in the same style and context as the rest of the narrative.

Minor hiccups aside, L’Origine scratched my itch for innovative and thought-provoking lit. Milgrom is a creative storyteller, and despite my initial uncertainty, I found I truly enjoyed the time I spent with this illuminating and intellectually arousing novel.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Author
Read: July 26, 2020
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Sunday, July 19, 2020

#BookReview: The Giant: A Novel of Michelangelo's David by Laura Morelli

Genre
Biographic Fiction

Social Media
 Official Website

DESCRIPTION: 
As a colossal statue takes shape in Renaissance Florence, the lives of a master sculptor and a struggling painter become stunningly intertwined.

Florence, 1500. Fresco painter Jacopo Torni longs to make his mark in the world. But while his peers enjoy prestigious commissions, his meager painting jobs are all earmarked to pay down gambling debts.

When Jacopo hears of a competition to create Florence's greatest sculpture, he pins all his hopes on a collaboration with his boyhood companion, Michelangelo Buonarroti. But will the frustrated artist ever emerge from the shadow of his singularly gifted friend?

From the author of THE PAINTER'S APPRENTICE and THE GONDOLA MAKER comes a gorgeously crafted, immersive tale of Renaissance Italy.

Based on a true story.

REVIEW: 
Laura Morelli’s The Giant reads like a love letter to all fans of Renaissance art and the myriad of artists who produced it.

I am not well-versed in the subject matter and had not heard of Jacopo Torni before picking up Morelli’s work. That said, I quickly fell in love with Morelli's flawed characterization of the fresco painter and his quest to succeed despite his personal shortcomings. In a genre littered with heroines who fear to let their families down, I felt Jacopo a breath of fresh air and thoroughly enjoyed Morelli’s depiction of the societal pressures he faced as a man at the dawn of the sixteenth century.

I also enjoyed the relationship Jacopo shares with Michelangelo and how their bond is complicated by their longstanding history and Jacopo’s professional jealousy. The sculpting of David frames the novel and while the narrative offers brilliant insight to the creation of the iconic statue, the story boils down to the bond between these two artists and the human emotion they take and subsequently channel into their work.

I freely admit I found the novel a little slow, but I loved the atmospheric quality of the world Morelli created and the artistic insight her story afforded. The Giant struck me as niche interest fiction, but I feel those with an appreciation for the subject matter will find it a beautifully rendered story of friendship, pride, artistry, and brotherhood.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Scribd
Read: July 13, 2020
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#BookReview: The Third Daughter by Talia Carner

Genre
Jewish Historical

Social Media
 Official Website

DESCRIPTION: 
“In The Third Daughter, Talia Carner ably illuminates a little-known piece of history: the sex trafficking of young women from Russia to South America in the late 19th century. Thoroughly researched and vividly rendered, this is an important and unforgettable story of exploitation and empowerment that will leave you both shaken and inspired.” —Pam Jenoff, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost Girls of Paris

The turn of the 20th century finds fourteen-year-old Batya in the Russian countryside, fleeing with her family endless pogroms. Desperate, her father leaps at the opportunity to marry Batya to a worldly, wealthy stranger who can guarantee his daughter an easy life and passage to America.

Feeling like a princess in a fairytale, Batya leaves her old life behind as she is whisked away to a new world. But soon she discovers that she’s entered a waking nightmare. Her new “husband” does indeed bring her to America: Buenos Aires, a vibrant, growing city in which prostitution is not only legal but deeply embedded in the culture. And now Batya is one of thousands of women tricked and sold into a brothel.

As the years pass, Batya forms deep bonds with her “sisters” in the house as well as some men who are both kind and cruel. Through it all, she holds onto one dream: to bring her family to America, where they will be safe from the anti-Semitism that plagues Russia. Just as Batya is becoming a known tango dancer,  she gets an unexpected but dangerous opportunity—to help bring down the criminal network that has enslaved so many young women and has been instrumental in developing Buenos Aires into   a major metropolis.

A powerful story of finding courage in the face of danger, and hope in the face of despair, The Third Daughter brings to life a dark period of Jewish history and gives a voice to victims whose truth deserves to finally be told.

REVIEW: 
Talia Carner’s The Third Daughter caught me entirely off guard for both its unique historical subject matter and the quality of its telling. I came to the novel expecting something intense and thought-provoking, but I was not prepared for how thoroughly I would lose myself in this story or how it would come to haunt my thoughts after I finished it.

It sounds awkward to admit, but I hold a deep appreciation for the courage Carner exhibited in her approach to this challenging chapter of Argentinian history. Her depictions are intense and, at times, uncomfortable. That said, this subject demanded transparency, and I think there is much to admire in the author’s candid illustration of sex trafficking in Buenos Aires during this period.

The novel, however, is not limited to pimps and prostitution. Carner tackles the brutality of the anti-Jewish pogroms and the sophisticated operations of the Zwi Migdal. Through Batya, Carner illustrates a profound devotion to faith and family in the face of overwhelming hardship and prejudice, themes that touched my heart, and balanced the intensity of the situational circumstances of the narrative.

An illuminating and poignant story of a woman who refused to be broken, The Third Daughter is not to be missed. Highly recommended.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: July 11, 2020
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#BookReview: The Night Witches by Garth Ennis & Russ Braun

Genre
Historical Graphic Novel
War Era Fiction

DESCRIPTION: 
As the German Army smashes deep into the Soviet Union and the defenders of the Motherland retreat in disarray, a new squadron arrives at a Russian forward airbase. Like all night bomber units, they will risk fiery death flying obsolete biplanes against the invader--but unlike the rest, these pilots and navigators are women. In the lethal skies above the Eastern Front, they will become a legend--known to friend and foe alike as the Night Witches.

With casualties mounting and the conflict devouring more and more of her comrades, Lieutenant Anna Kharkova quickly grows from a naive teenager to a hardened combat veteran. The Nazi foe is bad enough, but the terrifying power of her country's secret police makes death in battle almost preferable. Badly wounded and exiled from her own people, Anna begins an odyssey that will take her from the killing fields of World War II to the horrific Soviet punishment camps--and at the top of the world, high above the freezing Arctic Ocean, this Night Witch finds she has one last card to play.

REVIEW: 
My first thought on Garth Ennis’ The Night Witches was a question. Would the story fall closer to Kate Quinn’s The Huntress or Aimie K. Runyan’s Daughters of the Night Sky? My second thought was to chastise myself for assuming the three-volume collection would resemble either, but I suppose such comparison should be expected when one reads as much as I do.

Ennis’ The Night Witches is comprised of three volumes: The Night Witches, Motherland, and The Fall and Rise of Anna Kharkova. These books were initially released as standalone volumes 1, 6, and 8 in Ennis’ Battlefields Series and follow the experiences of their fictional heroine from 1942 to 1964. I am not familiar with the series, but I was delighted to discover Anna’s collective story published in a single release. Graphic novels often appear in segmented installments, but I felt this formatting allowed me to understand and appreciate Anna’s character development in a way I wouldn’t have if I’d been forced to track down each of the stories independently.

That out of the way, I caution readers from assuming the collection centers on the famed female Night Bomber Regiment. The first volume of the collection covers the tactical bombing techniques employed by the unit, as well as the impact of PTSD on both sides of the conflict. It is the most graphic of the collected volumes and presents fascinating questions about retaining humanity amid the carnage and violence of war. That said, it is the only volume to center on the Night Witches as Anna’s story extends beyond the unit’s existence.

Volume two tackles advances in both aircraft technology and warfare as well as sexism in the military. The impact of personal loss and PTSD also played a role in this volume, and I liked how it picked up on the themes of its predecessor. Though the story is very much centered on Anna, I found myself drawn to Colonel Golovyachev, Zoya, and Mouse. The supporting characters of volume one were interesting, but Ennis branches out in this installment, allowing the supporting cast to develop genuinely compelling arcs of their own.

Though I appreciated both volumes one and two of this collection, I admit volume three my favorite. Anna’s capture allowed Ennis to take the story to a Nazi prison camp, a detail I would have liked anyway but loved for its introduction of Chris Cohen, a character who singlehandedly expanded the political scope of the entire collection. Anna’s subsequent treatment by Soviet counterintelligence is equally illuminating, and I liked the political fluidity this episode illustrated between WWII and the Korean War. I admit that Anna’s return to captivity in a Siberian punishment camp during the finale scenes of the volume made hard reading, but even here, I was touched by what this chapter revealed about both Anna and Mouse.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Publisher
Read: July 18, 2020
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Saturday, July 4, 2020

#BookReview: The Photographer of Mauthausen by Salva Rubio, Pedro J. Colombo, and Aintzane Landa

Genre
Historical Graphic Novel
Biographic Fiction
War Era Fiction

DESCRIPTION: 
This is a dramatic retelling of true events in the life of Francisco Boix, a Spanish press photographer and communist who fled to France at the beginning of World War II. But there, he found himself handed over by the French to the Nazis, who sent him to the notorious Mauthausen concentration camp, where he spent the war among thousands of other Spaniards and other prisoners. More than half of them would lose their lives there. Through an odd turn of events, Boix finds himself the confidant of an SS officer who is documenting prisoner deaths at the camp. Boix realizes that he has a chance to prove Nazi war crimes by stealing the negatives of these perverse photos—but only at the risk of his own life, that of a young Spanish boy he has sworn to protect, and, indeed, that of every prisoner in the camp.

REVIEW: 
I was not familiar with Francisco Boix’s story before picking up The Photographer of Mauthausen, but the graphic novel struck such chords that I doubt I will ever forget it.

The book offers insight into the lives of Mauthausen's political prisoners and the protocols designed to exterminate them through hard labor. The artistry of the panels chronicles these realities, and while I found some of the illustrations challenging to absorb, I could not help but appreciate the care and dedicated resolve Rubio, Colombo, and Landa exhibit in their handling of the material.

I am drawn to themes when reading, and more than once lost myself in the ideas this story provoked. I was intrigued by the manufacture of visual propaganda as explored in the early portion of the novel, but I was also moved by the narrative's approach to the transformative effects of desperation, survivor guilt, and the question of how to chronicle experience to individuals who did not share in it.

It would be a crime not to mention supporting characters like Mateu and Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, but their roles are very straightforward. Francisco represents something entirely different. He is a man forced to make hard choices, a man who lives in the shadow of death both before and after the war, and a man forced to navigate a world unready to hear his story. I could not recall seeing this sort of experience fictionalized before, and I liked how the layering of his realities forced me to consider both the handling of war crimes in the post-war years and the varied experiences of Holocaust victims.  

Highly recommended.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: July 4, 2020
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