Book Review: The Way Back to Florence by Glenn Haybittle


I gave this story 5 stars on Good Reads, and if I could I would double it to 10. 

Good Reads:

“In 1937 Freddie (English), Isabella (Italian) and Oskar (a German Jew) become friends at an art school in Florence where they are taught by the dictatorial but magus-like Maestro and his sinister fascist assistant Fosco. When war arrives Freddie returns to England to become the pilot of a Lancaster bomber. Oskar, now a dancer, has moved to Paris where he escapes the 1942 roundup of Jews and arrives in Italy with his young daughter Esme. Isabella remains in Florence where she continues to paint. Until she is called upon by Maestro to forge an old master painting, apparently at the behest of the Führer himself, and as a result is seen as a Nazi collaborator by her neighbours. The murderous skies over Germany and a war-torn Italy in the grip of Nazi occupation provide the setting for this novel about the love of a separated husband and his wife and the love of a man for his young daughter. Freddie and Oskar both hope to find their way back to Florence. But Florence’s heritage of preserving the identity and continuity of the past has never before been so under threat.”

This beautiful and tragic story is told in alternating viewpoints and with gorgeous language. The author’s level of detail is so deep, there are times I feel the vibrating of the Freddie’s Lancaster bombers and smell the paint on Isabella’s palette. 

 The opening chapters had me in tears, not so much for the separated lovers, but Freddie’s feelings as he prepares to bomb his beloved Florence are exquisitely—can you tell I love Florence?—and vividly detailed.

So the story broke my heart at the very start and continued to stomp it into little pieces as I continued to read.  The writing held the story up, like the music of a cello, if you follow me, deeply sad yet uplifting at the same time.

The narrative returns to when Isabella and Freddie met in 1937 in art school as Mussolini rose to power, along with Oskar, a German Jew, and Francesco, the Maestro and his assistant, the evil Fosco. From there, we follow the ensemble cast at they navigate Nazi occupied Italy.

While I read, and many times when I read stories from this era of Nazi-occupied Europe, I’m always struck by how neighbors turn on neighbors or how some become partisans and fight.  Isabella just wants to paint, to create, while all she knows is being destroyed from within and from above. She loves Freddie, but her fatalist attitude won’t let her see past today and the occupation, the war. When a German officer takes an interest in her, her fear of what her neighbors think conflicts with her fears of reprisal in not going along with the occupiers. Survival for Oskar is centered on his young daughter, Esme, and returning to Florence, where he knows Isabella will help him, and Francesco, after the truly foolish mistake of losing his crush Marina’s diary, and which eventually leads him to join the partisans.

This is a dark story, though, like the cello, there are moments of joy. Torture and escape. Starvation and a generous stranger. Terror and wonder.

An historical aside:  The Allied bombers had maps with X’s on them where the art treasures of Florence were and with pinpoint accuracy, managed only to hit their targets–usually train depots.  The retreating Germans mined the bridges of Florence, all but the Ponte Vecchio, and blow them up to slow the advancing Allies.

More here, where I got the photograph:


WWW Wednesday at coffee and ink

Sam at Taking on a World of Words is the host of WWW Wednesday.  To participate, all you have to do is answer the three W questions and post in the comments section at Sam’s blog:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading?

I just finished the book below this morning and jumped out of bed right afterwards, so I haven’t started anything new. I did get a call from the local library that some books I’d requested had come in, so those will have to be considered.

What did you recently finish reading?

I just finished Persona Non Grata the third in the Medicus series by Ruth Downie, a series I had abandoned for no good reason a few years ago. I’m glad to have picked it up again.  Ruso is a Roman Medicus stationed in Britannica taking care of the wounded and sick legionnaires, the locals, and his girlfriend Tilla. They also solves murders. The author manages to get quite a bit of detail in, for both setting and family, and at the same time pretty much staying on point as they, Ruso and Tilla, investigate. In this story, Ruso is mysteriously called home to Gaul. The tone is humorous, not quite as comedic as Lindsey Davis (I just can’t look at olive oil the same way since the last book of hers I read) and the story events pulled me right along.

What do you think you’ll read next?

For fiction, I have two books from Net Galley queued up:

Watch the Wall, My Darling, which looks like an old-fashioned Gothic.


Only a deathbed promise to her dying father could force Christina Tretton to travel to Tretteign Grange, the ‘Dark House’, and meet her estranged family for the first time. Having to fast-talk her way out of an encounter with smugglers on the way is only the beginning. Waiting for her is flighty aunt Verity, her two very different cousins – the stoic Ross and fawning Richard – and her formidable grandfather, who changes his Will every few days.
Taking the neglectful servants in hand, Christina is soon managing the house, proving herself invaluable in her grandfather’s eyes. This backfires when he decides he wants her as his heir, and only on the condition that she marries Ross or Richard. Outraged, she swears she will marry neither, but her cousins have different ideas. Should she marry the cousin she is drawn to, even if he appears to have no true feelings for her?
Hanging over them is the constant threat of invasion, as Dark House looks over the sea to France, and Napoleon. When cousin Ross disappears, it is up to Christina to stand in his stead and take on the running of the estate — amongst some of his more disreputable duties. For as soldiers work to fortify the coast, Christina finds herself in the twisted intrigues of smugglers and spies.

Watch the Wall, My Darling first published in 1966, is another great historical romance from the master of the genre – Jane Aiken Hodge.

Annnd…The Address


Fiona Davis, author of The Dollhouse, returns with a compelling novel about the thin lines between love and loss, success and ruin, passion and madness, all hidden behind the walls of The Dakota, New York City’s most famous residence.

After a failed apprenticeship, working her way up to head housekeeper of a posh London hotel is more than Sara Smythe ever thought she’d make of herself. But when a chance encounter with Theodore Camden, one of the architects of the grand New York apartment house The Dakota, leads to a job offer, her world is suddenly awash in possibility—no mean feat for a servant in 1884. The opportunity to move to America, where a person can rise above one’s station. The opportunity to be the female manager of The Dakota, which promises to be the greatest apartment house in the world. And the opportunity to see more of Theo, who understands Sara like no one else . . . and is living in The Dakota with his wife and three young children.

In 1985, Bailey Camden is desperate for new opportunities. Fresh out of rehab, the former party girl and interior designer is homeless, jobless, and penniless. Two generations ago, Bailey’s grandfather was the ward of famed architect Theodore Camden. But the absence of a genetic connection means Bailey won’t see a dime of the Camden family’s substantial estate. Instead, her “cousin” Melinda—Camden’s biological great-granddaughter—will inherit almost everything. So when Melinda offers to let Bailey oversee the renovation of her lavish Dakota apartment, Bailey jumps at the chance, despite her dislike of Melinda’s vision. The renovation will take away all the character and history of the apartment Theodore Camden himself lived in . . . and died in, after suffering multiple stab wounds by a madwoman named Sara Smythe, a former Dakota employee who had previously spent seven months in an insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

One hundred years apart, Sara and Bailey are both tempted by and struggle against the golden excess of their respective ages—for Sara, the opulence of a world ruled by the Astors and Vanderbilts; for Bailey, the free-flowing drinks and cocaine in the nightclubs of New York City—and take refuge and solace in the Upper West Side’s gilded fortress. But a building with a history as rich—and often tragic—as The Dakota’s can’t hold its secrets forever, and what Bailey discovers in its basement could turn everything she thought she knew about Theodore Camden—and the woman who killed him—on its head.

With rich historical detail, nuanced characters, and gorgeous prose, Fiona Davis once again delivers a compulsively readable novel that peels back the layers of not only a famed institution, but the lives —and lies—of the beating hearts within.


Standalone Sunday Book Review: Black Teeth by Zane Lovitt


Publisher: Text Publishing

From NetGalley:


Review: This is my first Aussie Noir, and, wow, I could not put it down. Told in the first person, for the most part, by millennial computer geek Jason, the prose is rife with slang singular to Australia and Jason’s generation. I found the author’s wonderful writing style enhanced by this–keeping in mind the original Noir authors pioneered the use of 1930s and 1940s slang in their dark stories, so this really worked for me. It’s a story of a weird kind of multigenerational revenge plot that keeps sucking Jason in, pitting him against criminal machinations past and present. I think he wanted to stop what was going to be happen, but can’t be sure—he’s the more honest of the group of morally decrepit folks, but what keeps him involved? A week later the story still resonates with me, and I’ve been recommending it to anyone who will listen. This is like nothing I’ve read before, and I can’t wait to go back and read the author’s first book, and his next.

Book Review: Paradox Forged In Blood by Mary Frances Fisher

Publisher: Cambron Press 

From NetGalley:


From Mary Frances Fisher comes her debut novel, PARADOX FORGED IN BLOOD, a compelling work of historical fiction based on true events and stories passed down from the author’s family.

A murder on Millionaire’s Row. A killer’s chilling words, “Shh. I know where you live.” A woman tormented by her guilt-ridden past.

A historical murder mystery, Paradox Forged in Blood is set in Cleveland, Ohio, during the late 1930s. Four decades after the murder of socialite Louis Sheridan, the cold case is resurrected with receipt of new evidence that transports detectives back to Nazi Germany. The only living witness, Ellen O’Malley, must confront a haunting secret and her complicit actions.

Review:  Despite the fact the novel is well proofread and the plot moves along quickly, I’m really turned away by the abundance of clichés and over-used descriptions. A historical mystery based on true events and apparently the family legend—it reads too much at times like fiction and not enough like true crime. The fictional narrative is bumped around by the true crime narrative and visa versa, meaning it’s hard to get a grip on what’s happening. Too many characters have brief point of views, though I think the author is trying for an omniscient view. I found the whole thing hard to wrap my head around.

Conversations abound whose only purpose is to give the reader an info-dump and much of what’s reported is told through the hazy lens of nostalgia.

 I’m sure there are readers out there who appreciate this type of family history storytelling, but it’s not for me.  I’m an avid reader of both fictional historical and contemporary mysteries and true crime, but this fell short of the mark with the unexciting prose style and dull, stolid characters.  I think the story would have been better served as one or the other, but as it is, it’s neither fish nor fowl and left me cold.


Daily Word: Create

create (v.)

late 14c., from Latin creatus, past participle of creare “to make, bring forth, produce, beget,” related to crescere “arise, grow” (see crescent). Related: Createdcreating.

The one-word writing prompt today is like dropping a pebble in a pond for me—ripples cascading out endlessly…

My mother is an artist, and I so I grew up surrounded by the smell of paint, jars of paint brushes, conte crayons, charcoal, Bristol paper, gesso—the vocabulary of making something from nothing, the everyday tools of creating.

She tried to fit me into that world, taught me some of the tricks and techniques of the craft she herself was learning. I only came away with a love for art and art history and some small desire to paint. The desire only comes through me standing in far-off cities in sunsets stained with colors we don’t see at home…

The creative tool I eventually picked up wasn’t a paintbrush but a pen and words the tools I use to create word pictures, something from nothing, every day.

More blog posts here: Create

Book Review: The Ghosts of Galway by Ken Bruen

Mysterious Press

Release Date: November 17, 2017

I have to admit, I fell for the cover, but it’s the synopsis that pulled me in (from NetGalley):

Description:  “Bruen is a singular voice in crime fiction with his ear for lilting Irish prose and his taste for the kind of gallows humor heard only at the foot of the gallows” (New York Times Book Review). In The Ghosts of Galway, he brings those elegiac talents to bear on a case involving a famously blasphemous red book and Bruen’s equally profane antihero Jack Taylor. As well-versed in politics, pop culture, and crime fiction as he is ill-fated in life, Jack Taylor is recovering from a mistaken medical diagnosis and a failed suicide attempt. In need of money, and with former cop on his resume, Jack has been hired as a night-shift security guard. But his Ukrainian boss has Jack in mind for a bit of off-the-books work. He wants Jack to find what some claim to be the first true book of heresy,The Red Book, currently in the possession of a rogue priest who is hiding out in Galway after fleeing a position at the Vatican. Despite Jack’s distaste for priests of any stripe, the money is too good to turn down. Em, the many-faced woman who has had a vise on Jack’s heart and mind for the past two years, reappears and turns out to be entangled with the story of The Red Book, too, leading Jack down ever more mysterious and lethal pathways. It seems all sides are angling for a piece of Jack Taylor, but as The Ghosts of Galway twists toward a violent end, he is increasingly plagued by ghosts – by the disposable and disposed of in a city filled with as much darkness as the deepest corners of Jack’s own mind.”

This is the 13th novel in the Jack Taylor series from the prolific, award-winning Ken Bruen. I love Noir and crime fiction and ripped through this in a very short time. The first person point of view prose of the rambling, sometimes shambling, Jack Taylor is riveting. The author tips his hat to other crime writers, quoting snips from their novels where appropriate, but I especially loved that the title is homage to James Lee Burke’s “In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead.” James Lee Burke is one of my top favorite authors—though I only read the Robicheaux stories—I never really fell into the Montana or Texas novels. Big plus, Electric Mist is my favorite of his novels.

Apparently, Jack has had a long and harrowing fall from having once been a Garda, and he’s left a lot of violence and hatred in his wake, but new trouble always seems to find him. Also, the story takes place in 2016 where the deaths of music icons Bowie, Prince, and Cohen have an affect on Jack’s inner landscape, as does Trump creeping up America’s skirts…something ugly has crept into Galway dragging with it a fallen priest, a psycho ex, and a long list of innocents.

I’ve never read Ken Bruen before, and I love his short and lilting, yet brutal, style, the near stream-of-consciousness of Jack’s thoughts as he races from pun to pun only he seems to get. He must have a good rep, though, as everyone wants to hire him to get the job done.

My one complaint: Contractions don’t get used enough and the language sometimes feels a little stilted, which takes away, in my opinion, from the casual style.

So, I’m going to go back to the beginning of this series and start reading. You should to, if you like noir and crime fiction 🙂

Book Review: Blackstone by Richard Falkirk


Publisher: Thistle Publishing

Historical Mystery/Regency


Edmund Blackstone, Bow Street Runner, of doubtful parentage and background, the best if far from the most conformist in the force, secretly applauds the robbers he hunts. He is tall, well-built, with a strongly featured face and, despite his elegant and expensive attire, moves with ease among the thieves and cut-throats in the taverns and soup shops, the cockfighting pits and dirty alleys of London. But if Blackstone has a weakness for professional esteem and flattery, for a woman’s touch and for good wine, he is also one of the best shots in London, an expert in almost all areas of crime, a ruthless man with a reputation for courage and persistence, and – first and last – a Bow Street Runner.

In this, the first of the series, Sir Richard Birnie, the Bow Street magistrate, has appointed Blackstone to guard the heir to the throne, the young Princess Alexandrina Victoria. Among the Runners this is considered an honour but Blackstone feels that it is all a waste of time, even a punishment. Then Blackstone himself is attacked outside his lodgings – and there’s something about his assailant that seems oddly familiar…
Richard Falkirk was the pen name of bestselling novelist Derek Lambert, who was also foreign correspondent for the Daily Express. As Richard Falkirk, he wrote this bestselling series of six historical mysteries about Bow Street Runner Edmund Blackstone set in 1820s London.


Review: Blackstone is a re-issue of a novel first published in 1972. It appears there are five in the series, so I’m very excited to have read this one.  I loved this story, a regency mystery featuring Blackstone, one of the best of the Bow Street Runners. The story is set at a time when the Metropolitan Police are struggling to be born, competing with the Runners. Falkirk writes with sophisticated style and wit without a stumble, capturing the tone of the time, his descriptions lavish but not overextended. Halfway through the book, I realized (with great glee) that Blackstone is a Regency Sam Spade; hot gin and hot women are his sustenance when not chasing down the bad guys with a vengeance and swagger. Twisting arms to get cooperation, seduction for information, always well armed and ready to fight his way out of a fix.

Standalone Sunday Book Review: I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsey McCabe

Cover design:  Alison Forner

Publishing date: 01/2014

Publisher: Crown Publishing Group

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately about “distaff” soldiers during the Civil War and so when this book crossed my path, I jumped for it.

In the afterword, the author speaks about the inspiration for Rosetta, the girl soldier who follows her husband into the Union army. Many women followed husbands and family members into the fighting, despite strict Victorian gender politics, and the author borrowed some of their experiences to create the character and the narrative.  This lent the story a deeply authentic feel, as she also re-created the original Sarah Rosetta Wakeman’s voice from her extant letters (see An Uncommon Soldier by Lauren Cook Burgess). For all that, the prose has a literary feel to it, evocative of the time and place.

The battle scenes are harrowing but over quickly. My own reading and researching into the Civil War have only just begun, but I’ve been to Antietam and have a vivid imagination. I appreciated the depth of the author’s research, well woven into the narrative.

Immersion into the character and her joys and misery worked well in the first person. I don’t usually care for the first person point of view, but the author knows how to handle this technique well, so we don’t feel like we’re on the character’s ego trip (I-I-I). The prose and narrative had the feel of a journal, and the author’s skill kept me close to the character of Rosetta.

The feelings I had as I read, beyond admiration for the author and for distaff soldiers, was of a nearly excruciating dread and anticipation. I think this mirrored the experience of the characters as they learned how to be soldiers, broken up by Rosetta’s domestic issues with her husband Jeremiah. There is a low thrum of tension here as they try to learn how to survive the military life, stay alive, and yet keep the feelings between them, the antidote to their fears about going to war, sweet and real.

There was also a much appreciated character of a gay soldier, a natural inclusion in a story about “uncommon soldiers.” Unacknowledged is more like.

The women who served and were found out, or later revealed themselves as female soldiers (as when some tried to get their pensions) weren’t always treated as heroes, but as loose women, etc.  Some peoples minds only go one way, and that’s too true for the American cousins of the English Victorians. (See also Dr. Mary Walker Wiki ).

The other, real Rosetta didn’t live to see the end of the war, contracting typhoid after the battle of Red River when she was with the Army of the Potomac. I’m glad the author gave her Rosetta a different ending.

I highly recommend this book for lovers of historical fiction.

Want to find more reviews of standalones? Bookslayer originated this meme, and this is where you can find more book reviews. Thursdays Short Story Review: The Night Cyclist

“The Night Cyclist” by Stephen Graham Jones is a horror novelette about a middle-aged chef whose nightly bicycle ride home is interrupted by an unexpected encounter.

 An electrifying story that never misses a beat.

The author had me at cooks and bicycling—I lived two decades in the White Mountains of New Hampshire where biking (when not skiing) and restaurants reign supreme, and I had an immediate affinity for the main character. 

There’s something odd occurring on the bicycling paths, and it appears the lines have been drawn between hikers and cyclists.  Then two hikers turn up dead at the river’s edge…The story hums along like a racer’s tires with spare prose, as the main character gradually learns what exactly is going on. The ending packed a wallop, for me, anyway. It turns on a common horror trope, but there’s nothing new under the sun—it’s all in the telling and the characters.

 If you’re looking for a quick bite, the story is here: The Nigh Cyclist

If you’d like to find out what other reviewers thought about this story, they are here:

Book Reviewing and ARCs

I did it–I finally signed up for NetGalley. My first book requests are in for two ARCs that will be released in November, and there is an ARC sitting in my kindle just waiting for me–a historical fantasy set in Tuscany during the 11th century. Well, okay, I didn’t look closely enough to see that it’s also YA–ah, but what the hell. It’s rare to find any historical fantasy set in middle ages Italy or that isn’t about the Borgias, right?


Professional Reader