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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Karolina's Twins: The Secret of a Holocaust Survivor

This is a review that I wrote for the other blog where I post regularly.  That blog used to be called Book Babe, but is now known as Flying High Reviews.  It's an attempt at re-branding, and I'm hoping that it's successful.  I copied the review of Karolina's Twins to this blog because I thought that my readers here would be interested in the themes discussed. 

Novels dealing with WWII have been extremely popular.  I think they have replaced Tudor themed books as the most published type of historical fiction.  When they focus on Holocaust themes, they are very emotionally intense.  Unfortunately, because of their intensity readers tend to burn out on them eventually.  So I predict that there will be another shift in the historical fiction market in the near future.

As someone whose family was severely impacted by the  WWII Holocaust, I actually avoided Holocaust themed novels for a long time.   I felt that they would be too painful for me to read.   I'm not sure what changed for me, but I started to read Holocaust fiction a few years ago.   At this point, I have begun to burn out.  I don't think that it's a good thing for anyone to read too much about genocide because it blunts the feelings of horror and outrage that should be the normal response to these events.  Yet I am still open to reading Holocaust novels that are unusual in their focus, or which educate me about an aspect of the WWII Holocaust that was previously unknown to me.

Karolina's Twins by Ronald Balson is a different sort of Holocaust novel. It is a contemporary/historical legal thriller.  It is also the third in a series dealing with the cases of private investigator Liam Taggart and lawyer Catherine Lockhart.  It centers on locating a pair of twins who have been missing since WWII.  I received a request to review this book through the publisher and downloaded it from Net Galley in return for this honest review.


I knew that the Jewish community in pre-WWII Poland located in the cities and larger towns was very different from that of my own shtetl ancestors.  A shtetl is a small insular village composed entirely of Jews.  They were isolated from the outside world, and had very little knowledge of Polish society.  Their way of life was eradicated by the Nazis.  The contemporary Haredi, who are more commonly known as Hasidim, have done their best to preserve it. Yet it's difficult to duplicate the culture of a rural village in an urban environment.

Lena Woodward, the fictional client in Karolina's Twins, came from a Polish town that still exists.  Her father was a tailor who was also a WWI hero. Due to his military background, he was highly regarded by local Poles.  The family was Polish speaking rather than Yiddish speaking, and was very much integrated into Polish society.  I had actually never read about Polish Jews who were so identified with Poland.  They reminded me of what I've read about German Jews.  So it didn't surprise me to learn that Lena's father had business and family ties in Berlin.  Through research I discovered a Jewish memorial website which stated that Jewish tailors who emigrated to Germany from Lena's town of  Chrzanow were an important factor in the establishment of the German clothing industry in the early 20th century.

Lena's story was told to Catherine Lockhart as part of the investigation in the present.  Normally, I would be very critical of a novel whose structure was so expository because it usually lacks immediacy.   Yet Lena's narrative contained dialogue and other characteristics of flashbacks that made it more engaging, and lent it dramatic power.  It allowed me to visualize events.  This is a key difference that made expository storytelling more successful in Karolina's Twins. Ronald Balson also handled suspense very well.   The plot was organized so that both the investigation and Lena's account reached a climax at the same time.

Lena was a courageous woman who was willing to take risks that most people would consider unthinkable, but her circumstances called for bold action.   In the present, this Holocaust survivor retained her mental acuity and vitality.  Yet she had regrets which caused her to conceal a crucial aspect of her past.  It's  this secret that brings her into a painfully distressing legal conflict with her son.  It lies at the heart of the narrative. Catherine's empathy and consistent supportive attitude toward Lena eventually allows the truth to surface.

Catherine impressed me with her willingness to place her career in jeopardy out of loyalty to her client.  Although the danger to Catherine in the contemporary storyline wasn't equivalent to Lena's traumatic experiences, there were suspenseful elements.  Catherine had the mental toughness to rise to the occasion.   So this book had two strong female protagonists.  This makes Karolina's Twins a novel that I can recommend to the audience for this blog.



Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Book of Harlan: Ambivalence = Depth

I thought I knew what I'd be getting with The Book of Harlan  by Bernice L. McFadden, and in some ways I was right, but in others I was wrong.  Yes, this is a novel about an African American musician who is sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis.  It's also about a number of other significant issues.   When a book attempts to address so much, can it be successful?  My feeling is that some aspects of  The Book of Harlan were more successful than others.

The equation in the title of my review shows the standard that I'm using to determine what I thought was really good about this book, and what I thought could be improved.


The portrayal of Harlan was the best thing about this book. He was the character who had the most depth.   I didn't always find him sympathetic, but he did feel like a genuine human being.   At one point I thought that Harlan did the unforgivable, but I was reconciled to the character because it seemed to me that he never forgave himself.   Doing the unforgivable ended up being something he had to live with.  McFadden movingly depicts how Harlan deals with this reality. She doesn't clobber us over the head with explicit angst in which he tells us directly how he feels.   Instead she shows us how Harlan was impacted through his actions.  His reticence was powerfully expressive.

This is a historical novel that covers a long period of time.   Since this is also a relatively short book, McFadden briefly mentions some names and events which leads readers inclined to do research to discover more about them.  I usually find opportunities for research really wonderful.  Yet sometimes McFadden's references weren't as meaningful as they could have been.

 For example, being employed in an all-African American dance company might have been financially beneficial for a dancer character, but was it psychologically beneficial?  She performed in African American dance shows for the World's Fair produced by Mike Todd.  I ran searches about the all-African American Mikado, The Hot Mikado, which Mike Todd also produced.  I learned that it has been analyzed in terms of racist representation.  In fact, you can find the poster for The Hot Mikado at The Jim Crow Museum  which is a collection of materials that display racist images.  So the African American character involved might have been conflicted about participating in a production that was probably rife with humiliating stereotypes.  I think that portraying that ambivalence would have made for a more complex characterization. The entire sub-plot involving her seemed under-developed.  I would call it a missed opportunity.

On the other hand, I was delighted to discover Eugene Bullard, the owner of the Paris club where Harlan performed.  He was a real historical personage with a fascinating life.   Bullard was the first African American military pilot.  To find out more see the article devoted to him on  Wikipedia.  I would very much like to read the biography Eugene Bullard:  Black Expatriate in Jazz Age Paris, and I have located it in a local library system.

Because I do research about historical personages mentioned in novels, I wondered a great deal about the incident at the end of the book.   I think that Harlan was definitely suffering from PTSD which is an understandable consequence of his experiences.  He wasn't entirely sane.  Bernice McFadden used indirect references and implications, so we can imagine what Harlan was thinking and feeling at the time. I thought that was very well-handled.  It provided a moving conclusion to The Book of Harlan

I still wanted to see more depth in characters other than Harlan--particularly the female characters.   It was a good book.  I learned about people and events in African American history that I hadn't heard about previously, and even an eye opening story about the well known musician, Louis Armstrong that led me to conduct hours of research.   Yet there were missing aspects.  Maybe The Book of Harlan should have been much longer.





Saturday, June 11, 2016

Dragon Charmer: The Chinese Princess Matures

Dragon Charmer by J.C. Kang  is the second book in a YA alternate history fantasy series.  I reviewed the first novel, Dragon Scale Lute, here .   In the first book, I thought that the protagonist Princess Kaiya was too inexperienced to have good judgment.   Her impulsiveness moved the plot in unexpected directions.   The author assured me that this would change in Dragon Charmer.  So I looked forward to learning how Kaiya would develop.  I received this book from the author in return for an honest review.


In Dragon Charmer,  the people and situations that Kaiya encounters often aren't what they seem to be.  They are the unpredictable factors that drive the plot rather than Kaiya's behavior. Kaiya has become more cautious, but still idealistic and devoted to the interests of  Cathay, which is the formal name for alternate China in this series.   It is also called Hua.  Both Cathay and Hua have been names by which China has been called in our universe at different points in history.    

A good portion of this book takes place in alternate India where Kaiya has been sent on a diplomatic mission.  She hopes to reunite with Prince Hardeep, the man with whom she fell in love in the first book.  What Kaiya learns about Prince Hardeep is completely unexpected.  Her hopes and goals change during the course of her mission.  There were times when the alternate India section of the novel seemed like a cross between a Buddhist spiritual journey and an epic fantasy quest.   There was an oracle making pronouncements about Kaiya's future, a lotus jewel that needed to be found, and dwarves who hum while they forge objects of power.  

Since this novel is called Dragon Charmer readers may want to know if a dragon plays a role in its events.  The dragon was often mentioned in Dragon Scale Lute, but seemed to be a rather marginal character.  His role is more prominent in this novel.  Kaiya must have been inwardly shocked by what she discovered about the dragon, but she didn't let these revelations unhinge her.  She took them in stride.  She acted decisively as a leader and a hero must act in a crisis.  I was favorably impressed with Kaiya's growth.  





Monday, June 6, 2016

Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran

I like to discover previously unknown books. I have often neglected well-known highly praised authors in favor of obscure indie writers who haven't received recognition.  This is probably why I hadn't read any historical fiction by Michelle Moran.   I did fully intend to read her French revolution novel, Madame Tussaud.  The French Revolution fascinates me. Yet every time I picked up Moran's book on the subject, it seemed like a tome which I'd never have the time to finish.

Rebel Queen, her novel of 19th century India,  really isn't that much shorter.  At a hundred pages less, it would take seven hours of my reading time as opposed to the nine hours that I would need to dedicate to Madame Tussaud.  The truth is that I was much more motivated to read Rebel Queen. I dearly love queens who rebel--particularly Boudica and Zenobia who both rebelled against the Roman Empire.  I had actually never heard of the Rani of Jhansi and was eager to discover her once I had the time to do so.


The interesting surprise was that this book was primarily the story of one of the Rani's female guards.  Sita was from a small village in the kingdom of Jhansi.   It was highly unusual that a village girl would be selected for such an elite corps of women.  They were expected to be companions of the Rani as well as bodyguards.  In order to qualify, Sita needed to be able to read to the Rani as well as being able to fight using a variety of weapons.   Few village girls would have the opportunity to obtain all these skills, but Sita's father was an unusual man.  He made sure his daughter was both well-educated and a superlative warrior.   I enjoyed reading about Sita's training for her future position.

Sita never expected that her Rani would need to rebel against the British.  Neither did the Rani.  Jhansi was still an independent kingdom, and the relationship of the Rani of Jhansi with British officials was fairly cordial for a good part of this novel.  The change in the status of Jhansi was inevitable due to a  new British policy of expansion.  Yet based on Rebel Queen, I believe that the reason why Jhansi was among the first to fall victim to this policy was British prejudice against the Rani's husband, the Raja, who was the official ruler of Jhansi.  Moran depicted him as a transgender individual whose main preoccupation was playing female roles in theatrical productions.  In the publisher's reading group guide Q&A with Michelle Moran, she mentions the contemporary accounts that validate her portrayal of the Raja.

I did feel that Moran's research regarding religious beliefs in India was not as thorough.   My own studies on the subject have shown me that India was and still is extremely diverse religiously.   Adopting a crypto-monotheist approach called Vedantism as the only theological perspective among believers in the set of religious traditions known as Hinduism shows that Moran consulted Western educated urban intellectuals , or sources written by them.  A villager like Sita would never have described her religion that way.  See my review of The Many Many Many Gods of Hinduism on  my former blog.   Crypto-monotheism is the idea that what appears to be a polytheist religion isn't really one.  It's actually a monotheist religion.  All those other Gods are really aspects of the one High God.  You find Western educated intellectuals in India  explaining their religion in crypto-monotheist terms to Westerners.  The overwhelming majority of books in English about Hinduism are Vedantist.   It makes Western monotheists feel more comfortable, but the truth is much more chaotic.   There is no central authority in Hinduism that decides on a single orthodox approach.  To say otherwise is inauthentic and misleading. By the way,  Moran also refers to the Goddess Indra.  Indra is a male God.  It doesn't require much research to find out that this is the case.  

So while I liked some things about Rebel Queen---particularly the original focus of the book, Sita the protagonist and the Rani of  Jhansi, it isn't going to be the best historical fiction that I read in 2016.  

I  am still very much looking forward to Michelle Moran's most recent book, Mata Hari's Last Dance.  I am hoping that she shows us how and why she adopted the name Mati Hari which is my favorite part of her story.