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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Song For A Lost Kingdom #3: The Last Book of a Time Travel, Music and Jacobites Science Fantasy Trilogy

I have reviewed the first two books in the Song For A Lost Kingdom (SFLK)  trilogy by Canadian author Steve Moretti.  The first novel's review is posted here and the second novel's review is  here. I am now reviewing an ARC of the third SFLK book which I received for free from the author.  The current publication date for book #3 is August 15, 2020.



Like the previous volumes,  music and Jacobites are strong focuses in this novel. Yet the central dilemma of the plot in the third book is displacement in time.  Female protagonists Adeena  and Katharine  are unable to return  to the time periods where they belong.  It will seem to the reader that this is much more of a problem for 18th century Katharine Carnegie who is totally baffled by the 21st century.  Yet as the story line hurtles towards its climax, there are urgent family reasons why Adeena Stuart should return from the 18th century to 21st century Canada. 

Both women have inner conflicts that are well-portrayed.   Steve Moretti ably ramps up the turmoil in their lives.  It seemed as if every plot element and each relationship reached a state of crisis over the course of the narrative.

Another thematic strand from the earlier books, is the continuing 21st century attempt to find a scientific explanation for what has been happening to Adeena.  In Book 2 Adeena's mother Jacqueline fastens on epigenetics as the field that will hold the key to Adeena's  strange experiences.  In Book 3 Jacqueline has developed another theory also based in the riddle of DNA. 

 I continued to believe that this wasn't a problem that science could solve. For me, the connection between Adeena and Katharine was woven  across time by the power of music.  While DNA may have played a role in their finding each other,  it was their love of a special musical instrument that really bound them together. 

The resolution was a bittersweet one.  It was both heartrending and cathartic.  It also seemed inevitable.   This is what needed to happen to set everything right.  As I've been saying in my reviews of each SFLK book,  this isn't Outlander.  Happily ever after takes a very different form for Adeena and Katharine than it would for Gabaldon's protagonists, Jamie and Claire.   In the end of the SFLK trilogy, there is loss but there is also rebirth.  This strikes the chord of truth for me.  It's what happens in so many real lives.   I was satisfied by SFLK #3.  I will never forget the music at the heart of these novels, but I am ready to move on to Steve Moretti's next project.







Friday, August 7, 2020

Pelosi: A Biography of Nancy Pelosi Focusing On Women Having A Seat At The Table

The publisher distributed copies of Pelosi by Molly Ball to members of a feminist group on Goodreads who are discussing it this month.  I'm late to the discussion though I read the book early because my computer died in late July and I only got a new one on August 3rd.  At that point I had to work on a blog tour review first, and put writing about Pelosi aside.  Better late with this review than never. I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Net Galley.

When someone writes a political biography, particularly in these partisan times, we need to be wary of bias.  I feel that Molly Ball is inclined to portray Nancy Pelosi in a positive light, though she doesn't omit controversies and discusses the reasons why Pelosi has opponents among progressives. 
As a Bay Area resident, I knew that the  very progressive San Francisco Bay Guardian has always endorsed a primary opponent of Nancy Pelosi every time she has run, but I didn't know why.  I learned from Ball's biography that Pelosi had made certain that a former military base in San Francisco become a park rather than allowing it to be converted into public housing.  San Francisco community activists and San Francisco politicians were all opposed to Pelosi's decision at the time.  In retrospect, I feel that this was a serious error on Pelosi's part.   It didn't do any lasting damage to Pelosi's career, but I think it did do lasting damage to San Francisco's racial and economic diversity.    
 I was interested in Ball's claim that the approval of Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice despite the accusation of sexual harassment leveled by Anita Hill, led to the election of a record number of women in 1992.  This wasn't something that I noticed at the time.  I suspected that the improvement in women's representation was much more modest than what occurred in 2018. So I examined the Congressional election results for 1992 on Wikipedia.  I found four new woman Senators including both California Senators.  California became the first state to be represented in the Senate by two women. This was the year that Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer first became Senators.    I also counted 22 new woman members of the House of Representatives.  These are indeed noteworthy results even though that record was smashed in 2018, the election soon after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice under similar circumstances.
The phrase about women having a "seat at the table" in the title of this review comes from a passage in Pelosi's memoir, Know Your Power which Ball quotes in her end notesPelosi tells us in that memoir that she envisioned suffragettes and others in American history who had worked for the cause of women saying about her becoming the Speaker of the House that "At last we have a seat at the table." 
There is no doubt in my mind that Pelosi has had a feminist impact.  I didn't really need to read Ball's biography to be persuaded on that point.  What surprised me in this book was Pelosi's long period of hesitation about running for office.  It seems to me that Nancy Pelosi had to grow into the feminist role that she eventually played.  Looking back on how much Pelosi has accomplished for women through the pages of Molly Ball's biography felt very worthwhile to me.  It will be a strong candidate for the best biography I read in 2020.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Once and Future Witches: An Alternate Historical Fantasy

I knew that The Once And Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow wasn't being released until October 2020, but I also knew that I had to read it ASAP as soon as I was approved for a digital ARC from Net Galley.  I wasn't the only one apparently.  There are currently a hundred ratings on Goodreads.
Actually, the reason why this book was so appealing to me is because it was supposed to be about witches who were suffragettes.  These are two of my favorite subjects. The last book with a witch protagonist that I reviewed on this blog was the steampunk novel, Her Majesty's Witch, which I reviewed here. I usually review suffragette novels on Flying High Reviews, my blog for strong female protagonists that aren't in fantasy or science fiction contexts.   I discovered that the women's suffrage movement was not the major focus of this novel though it was very much centered on feminism.   So I was still delighted.

I was surprised that few reviews mentioned the alternate history aspect of  The Once and Future Witches.  My guess is that many readers aren't familiar with the history referenced in the book.

The most important issue in late 19th century America was probably immigration, not witchcraft.  Leaders in late 19th century New England considered themselves scientific though some of the science they believed in was based in racist ideology like eugenics. 

I couldn't find any reference to a witchcraft hysteria during the period, but there is a fascinating Smithsonian article about a vampire hysteria during 1893 in Rhode Island here . While there is indeed a city of New Salem in Massachusetts founded by people from the original Salem, this didn't occur because the Salem where the witch trials took place was burned.  Yet it does seem plausible to me that America could have become permanently obsessed with witchcraft in an alternate timeline. 

The approach to witchcraft in The Once And Future Witches isn't paranormal.  This is unusual within the fantasy genre.  It's stated in this book that anyone can become a witch by knowing the words to the spells.   Having a focus on the intention of the spell is mentioned, but isn't emphasized.  Most current day Wiccans consider magical intent very significant.

As someone who loves fairy tale re-tellings, I was drawn to the alternate versions of fairy tales that are sprinkled throughout the novel. Though of course these are the official versions in this continuity as told by the Sisters Grimm.

I had revolving favorites among the three Eastwood sisters who are the witch protagonists of this book.  Each one was a favorite of mine at various points.  I also loved the African American witch Cleopatra  Quinn who was also a reporter for a local Black newspaper that is described as radical.

I think I can reveal that one of the sisters ends up in a lesbian relationship, but it would be a spoiler to say which one.   There are a few great moments in the development of that relationship that I was glad to see.

I consider The Once and Future Witches really wonderful and a strong contender for best novel of 2020.


Saturday, July 4, 2020

Frederick Douglass' Fourth of July Speech

For this Fourth of July I have only this link to James Earl Jones reading Frederick Douglass' Fourth of July speech which very eloquently speaks for itself.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Of Bitter Herbs And Sweet Confections: A Long Journey To Evade The Holocaust

The author of the novel that is the subject of this review, Of Bitter Herbs and Sweet Confections, approached me on Goodreads and sent me a review copy.  Later I discovered that I had purchased it on Amazon some time ago, and hadn't gotten around to reading it because of all the requests I get from authors, publishers and publicists.   There are books that I recently acquired that aren't being read because my mind is currently engaging with this book by Susan Shalev.   So it's Susan Shalev's turn to get  her novel blogged by me.


This is a coming of age book about a Jewish girl in Poland during the Holocaust which was an existential crisis for Jews.  The central character may never have gotten a university degree as she hoped, but she gets full marks just for surviving. Shalev tells us in the Epilogue that the protagonist, Tanya Anglische, is based on Tamar Englander Shalev, the author's mother in law who is now deceased.

I have read numerous books about the Holocaust.  The most recent was A Bookshop in Berlin at the end of last year which I reviewed here. I also took a Holocaust course at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.   So I can be forgiven for not reading novels that take place in this context very often.

I thought that the most unusual aspect of Shalev's book was that her family spent a good part of World War II in Siberia where they were sent by the Russian military.  They may have endured hard conditions in Siberia, but they were nowhere near as horrific as the camps where the Nazis consigned Polish Jews.  Tanya even got to attend school where a teacher gave her a book that she found inspiring.

The title and author of this Russian novel certainly caught my attention.  It was The Wizard of the Emerald City by Volkov.  Did this book actually exist?   I wondered if someone had translated The Wonderful Wizard of Oz  into Russian without crediting the author, L. Frank Baum.  My research revealed that Baum's first Oz novel was published in 1900.  Fictional Tanya  tells us that Volkov's book had appeared in 1939.  I found a page devoted to it on Wikipedia, The Wizard of the Emerald City on Wikipedia.  The number of differences between Volkov's version and Baum's  caused me to think of it as transformative. I decided that Volkov's work could be viewed as alternate universe fan fiction.  There were sequels that had no resemblance to Baum's Oz novels.  So it seemed to me that Volkov had his own alternate continuity.  Since I'm fond of both fan fiction and alternate universes,  I was pleased with myself for making this discovery through Shalev's novel. 

I decided to find out more about the history of Hebrew University which Tanya wanted to attend.  In the process I discovered that the Bezalel Academy of  Art and Design (founded 1906) and the Technion (founded 1912) were established even earlier than Hebrew University.  The Technion is considered instrumental in establishing Hebrew as the eventual language of Israel through choosing Hebrew as their language of instruction.  I learned about a Battle of the Languages at the Technion.  German was originally supposed to be the language of instruction there because a German Jewish organization called Ezrah founded the Technion. So reading Shalev's book caused me to educate myself about Israel's educational institutions.  I also discovered a great deal about the war of 1948 in Israel that I hadn't known, and that I will be pursuing by reading history books dealing with this period.

I always feel grateful to books that prompt me to do research.  I give them an additional star on Goodreads for all the information I discover.  Of Bitter Herbs and Sweet Confections was an engaging novel that inspired me to do massive amounts of research.



Monday, June 22, 2020

The Giant: A Historical Novel About A Renaissance Artist With Imposter Syndrome

Jacqueline M. Howard, art historian and author Laura Morelli's assistant, invited me to do a Q&A with Laura Morelli for two of her upcoming novels.   This Q & A will eventually appear on my other blog, Flying High Reviews (FHR).   The first of the 2020 Morelli novels, The Giant,  has already been released at the beginning of June, but I didn't have an opening in my schedule to read and review it until now.

I reviewed Laura Morelli's earlier book, The Painter's Apprentice, on FHR here because that novel is consistent with FHR's  focus on strong female central characters.  The Giant is told from the perspective of a male protagonist.  This is why I am blogging about it on Shomeret: Masked Reviewer where I review anything that interests me.    The Night Portrait is the 2020 Laura Morelli novel that won't be released until September.  I am still awaiting a digital ARC of that book from Net Galley.  I expect to review it on FHR because it has two female protagonists, then follow it up with the Q&A on both books.

  Since I had actually pre-ordered The Giant before Jacqueline Howard contacted me, I received access to all the marvelous bonus materials that Laura Morelli made available to all those who pre-ordered.   After finishing The Giant, I  read through all that additional material which provided me with more topics for this review.

The Giant is the story of how Michelangelo's David came to be.  Creating an image of  a shepherd boy from a huge block of marble appears to be an effort to make David as physically formidable as his giant opponent, Goliath.

In the Master Class video about this novel, Morelli discusses how this statue was meant to be a symbol of the city of Florence which wanted to be considered the equal of giants like Rome. 

My perception of David as a Biblical figure is that he has always been political.  When he became King of Israel, David established a dynasty.  The stories that are told about him are intended to glorify that dynasty descended from the tribe of Judah which became royalty among the Jews from then on.  David represents the people of Israel.   The particular story of David versus Goliath symbolizes the victory of a small powerless people over their enemies.   This is the way Jews have always seen themselves to this day. I am speaking as  someone who grew up being told that I was a descendant of David.  He is at the center of my cultural heritage.  I understand that Christianity adopted David along with all the rest of the figures of the Hebrew Bible.  So he became a hero of the Western world.  Then through the power of Michelangelo's creation Florence claimed him.  Yet David and Goliath was born as a political story in the Bible.

I loved learning from Laura Morelli's Master Class that Michelangelo's David was placed where the ascetic Savonarola's Bonfire of the Vanities took place.  So many works of art were destroyed there.  We will never be able to experience them, but Michelangelo's David can be said to represent the victory of art over Savonarola's fanaticism.

One of the questions for book clubs dealing with The Giant asks readers about their favorite character in this book.  Initially, my favorite character was Lucia, the sister of  the  artist protagonist Jacopo Torni.  Jacopo actually existed, but Laura Morelli gave him some pretty serious problems in her novel.  I was angry at Jacopo for causing Lucia so much anxiety, and preventing her from getting on with her life.  She felt she had to take care of Jacopo, and I wondered if he was worth her sacrifice.  Jacopo was actually feeling the same way because he suffered from Imposter Syndrome.  Being a friend of Michelangelo  caused him to think that he could never measure up.  Lucia was certain that Jacopo's problems went much deeper.   After a while, I started seeing a pattern that suggested to me that Jacopo, as portrayed by Laura Morelli, was what we would call bipolar.  After reading the entire book I was no longer sure that he really was bipolar, but he was certainly an addictive personality which led him into repetitive acts of self-destructive behavior.

Laura Morelli  also caused me to examine Michelangelo's psyche as well. If Michelangelo's barrier to working with others  was a psychological limitation,  could it be that this great artist would have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder if he'd lived in our contemporary world?  This seemed to me at least possible.

The historical personage that I felt was portrayed most negatively in The Giant was Leonardo Da Vinci. This true Renaissance Man, in both senses of the term, would have been considered a towering genius in any era.  Yet in this novel he's shown as a cold, arrogant and intolerant individual.  This doesn't offend me at all.   It seemed to me that Laura Morelli's version of Da Vinci condemned sculpture and sculptors as inferior because he didn't have  Michelangelo's supreme skill in that area, and it made him feel insecure.   He probably set extremely high expectations for himself.   If he wasn't able to excel at sculpture by his own standards, then he had to convince himself that sculpture simply wasn't of any real value.  It's sad when someone feels the need to tear down others in order to feel good about himself, but it's very human. 

This leads me to Laura Morelli's video "What's The Difference Between Art and Craft?"that was included in the bonus content. I agree with the idea that this is a false distinction. I would assume that the illumination of books that Jacopo's father and Lucia did was probably considered a decorative craft rather than art by those who established the art versus craft ideology during this time period.  I did get the feeling that Jacopo's father was generally respected.  So perhaps the view that crafts were inferior to art was starting to take hold, but wasn't that well established during the period when The Giant took place.  

My grandmother did crewel embroidery.   Nobody in my family considered her an artist, but I saw her work displayed on the walls of her apartment when I was child. I thought it was absolutely awesome.  I didn't care whether crewel embroidery was an art or a craft.  I just thought it was beautiful.

This review touches on some of the themes that arose from my reading of  The Giant and the supplemental materials that form its background.  If my perspective is in some ways different from Laura Morelli's, it is because Michelangelo's David is an icon with enough depth that it can be variously interpreted.  It is also true that each book is different for every reader.  I hope that readers of this blog who go on to read The Giant will be repaid with their own unique insights on the ideas and characters they encounter in the pages of this book.


Friday, June 19, 2020

Reviewing Current Black Slavery in the United States on Juneteenth 2020

The 19th century abolition of slavery is the reason why Juneteenth is celebrated, but black slavery in the United States still exists.  So I have decided not to sprain my arm patting myself on the back.  As an ally, I would be remiss if  I  didn't point this out.  This is a review blog, so I am describing this situation and evaluating it.

There are two categories of current black slavery in the United States of America that I know about.  There are probably others.  Readers, if you are aware of other types of current black slavery, please comment on this post and let me know.  We all need to know about all the manifestations of systemic racism before we can remedy them.

The first category is slavery in prisons.   Slavery in prisons has become massively profitable for private prisons.   Yes, there are other ethnic groups who are enslaved in prisons.   Yet it's important to realize that an alarmingly high percentage of prisoners are black.   This is due to selective enforcement of laws.  See Michelle Alexander's book,  The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  Why do I say that prison labor is enslavement?  Well, they are paid a pittance, but private prisons charge them for basic services. So prisoners soon find themselves in debt. 

What do we do to end prison enslavement?  We need to end private prisons.  It's abhorrent that there are Americans who are making a business out of profiting from prison labor.  Some suggest incremental reforms that make it illegal for prisons to charge for certain things.  Others suggest that prisoners be allowed to make minimum wage.  Yet the real solution is ending private prisons.  If no one profits from prison labor, the motivation for it vanishes.

The second category is domestic enslavement of African immigrants.   These may well be legal immigrants with visas. Some Americans are taking advantage of them by offering them jobs as domestic servants.  Then they confiscate their passports and visas, neglect to pay them and keep them working under abusive conditions.  Illegal African immigrants are even more vulnerable to this trap.  They are kept working by the threat of being reported to ICE.  I am aware that there are many other ethnic groups that are domestically enslaved or forced to work in other types of situations, but that would be the subject of another essay.

How do we end domestic enslavement of African immigrants?  Awareness is the main tool we have.  Obviously, this practice is already illegal.  So we need to be aware that this situation exists, and report it if we discover it.

I welcome comments on this review.