Book Review: Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Keener

Title: Strangers in Budapest

Author: Jessica Keener

Publisher: Algonquin Books

Release Date: November 14, 2017

Genre: General, Literary 

GoodReads: “Jessica Keener has written a gorgeous, lyrical, and sweeping novel about the tangled web of past and present. Suspenseful, perceptive, fast-paced, and ultimately restorative.” —Susan Henderson, author of Up from the Blue

Budapest: gorgeous city of secrets, with ties to a shadowy, bloody past.  It is to this enigmatic European capital that a young American couple, Annie and Will, move from Boston with their infant son shortly after the fall of the Communist regime. For Annie, it is an effort to escape the ghosts that haunt her past, and Will wants simply to seize the chance to build a new future for his family.

Eight months after their move, their efforts to assimilate are thrown into turmoil when they receive a message from friends in the US asking that they check up on an elderly man, a fiercely independent Jewish American WWII veteran who helped free Hungarian Jews from a Nazi prison camp. They soon learn that the man, Edward Weiss, has come to Hungary to exact revenge on someone he is convinced seduced, married, and then murdered his daughter.

Annie, unable to resist anyone’s call for help, recklessly joins in the old man’s plan to track down his former son-in-law and confront him, while Will, pragmatic and cautious by nature, insists they have nothing to do with Weiss and his vendetta. What Annie does not anticipate is that in helping Edward she will become enmeshed in a dark and deadly conflict that will end in tragedy and a stunning loss of innocence.

Review: What a great premise and setting but, sadly, so badly done.  There was nothing literary about this, either. The main character was dense and overwrought and the prose repetitious enough that I nearly didn’t finish it.  My own stubbornness and the question of how the author was going to tie everything up were the only things that keep me going but again I was disappointed in the mishandling of an interesting concept. A lot of the writing felt like filler and felt distant, though conversely the husband was one of the most one-dimensional characters I’ve read this year.  I wish the author had invested as much in her characters as she did in the setting.

thanks NetGalley and Algonquin Books


Tuesday Book Review: No Safe Anchorage by Liz MacRae Shaw

Title: No Safe Anchorage

Author: Liz MacRae Shaw

Publisher: Top Hat Books

Release Date: October 27, 2017

From Good Reads: Tom Masters, a nineteenth century naval officer, is a round peg in a square hole. A tantalizing glimpse of a stranger leads him to jump ship on a quest to find her. His adventures, interwoven with the life of a young Robert Louis Stevenson, take Tom from the Isle of Skye to Canada. There he encounters others who have been jettisoned by society, including Silent Owl, a Native American who becomes his soulmate. But, danger and exposure threaten Tom’s every move as he is forced to continue on his journey…

My Review: I resisted the story, at first—the disparate points of view in the beginning threw me off.  Then, finally, came Tom and the story took off.  Well written and well researched. I find that I liked the type of narrative, though it was a little more like “telling” than I prefer, but for some reason it works for the scope of the novel. It was hard to put down once I got used to the style.


Monday Book Review: An Unsuitable Heir by KJ Charles (Sins of the City #3)

Publisher: Loveswept/Penguin Random House

Release Date: October 3, 2017

Genre: Romance

Setting: Victorian London

Series: Sins of the City #3

From Good Reads:  A private detective finds passion, danger, and the love of a lifetime when he hunts down a lost earl in Victorian London.

On the trail of an aristocrat’s secret son, enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz finds his quarry in a music hall, performing as a trapeze artist with his twin sister. Graceful, beautiful, elusive, and strong, Pen Starling is like nobody Mark’s ever met—and everything he’s ever wanted. But the long-haired acrobat has an earldom and a fortune to claim.

Pen doesn’t want to live as any sort of man, least of all a nobleman. The thought of being wealthy, titled, and always in the public eye is horrifying. He likes his life now—his days on the trapeze, his nights with Mark. And he won’t be pushed into taking a title that would destroy his soul.

But there’s a killer stalking London’s foggy streets, and more lives than just Pen’s are at risk. Mark decides he must force the reluctant heir from music hall to manor house, to save Pen’s neck. Betrayed by the one man he thought he could trust, Pen never wants to see his lover again. But when the killer comes after him, Pen must find a way to forgive—or he might not live long enough for Mark to make amends.

My Review: I love the novels of KJ Charles, from Magpie Lords to Green Men. I’ve read everything but the last book released and Last Stop Tokyo.  The author knows her history, and her writing style is crisp and clear.

This third novel is the conclusion to the ensemble series, the characters passing the spotlight on as their involvement in the continuing story, a murder mystery that evolves into the frantic search for a missing heir.

The first novel, An Unseen Attraction, involves Clem and Rowley, who are friends whose passion for each other remains locked under their skin as they share tea and conversation in Clem’s quiet boarding house. Until a murdered lodger is dumped on the doorstep…Not only is this a gay romance, but Clem is half East Indian (long story) and has an invisible disability, which always made him a target of his bullying family. Rowley, too, enjoys a quiet life as a taxidermist—his own history reveals another reason why these two have such a lovely affinity between them. A slow burn romance.

The second novel, An Unnatural Vice, is completely opposite, pitting Justin, the Seer of London, and Nathaniel, an investigative journalist, against each other.  Enemies to lovers, opposites attract—I think KJ really shines the more complicated the sexual and emotional tangles are (re: “Wednesday to Wednesday”). Justin and Nathaniel have picked up the next thread of the murder and the search for the missing heir.

These men are of a small group of friends who often meet at tavern that caters to men like them, a safe refuge where they can be themselves, and where they share this story.

In the third novel, Mark, a private inquiry agent, is on the trail of the missing heir, who is also related to Clem. The existence in the heir has Clem’s aristocratic family in an uproar, and has put Clem and his friends in danger. Pen and his sister are completely happy working as acrobats. Pen is nonbinary and the inner workings of his heart and identity are fascinating as they are revealed to both himself and to Mark through the days of a thick London fog and working out the tangles of the mystery.

Seriously satisfying resolutions to the romances and the murder mystery.  Top-notch writing and plotting.  Charles always leaves me hungry for more, in a good way.

Thank you NetGalley and Loveswept 😀


Sunday Book Review: The Library of Light and Shadow by MJ Rose

Publisher:  Atria Publishing

Release date: July 18, 2017

This novel has a long and complex plot that, coupled with the evocative descriptions, kept me reading.  Set in the overindulgent 1920s of New York City and the shadow of the Belle Epoque in southern France, Delphine, a painter who has the magical ability to paint her sitter’s deepest secrets, reveals a secret that ends in tragedy and sends her into a spiraling depression. The back story and subplot are woven in well and flow right along with the major plot which becomes the search for an alchemical book that holds the secret of immortality.

Delphine doesn’t always understand what she sees and paints.  She struggles to resolve her inner turmoil brought on by her secret knowledge because of the consequences—she lost the love of her life because of a vision she had of the future.  If she doesn’t work out what her gift is telling her now, she knows, at least, that the consequences may very well be deadly. 

I really liked this story—though the prose felt a little heavy-handed at times. I wanted to cut out an extra sentence here and there. Overall, entertaining and engrossing, and highly recommended. It’s the third in a series, but I didn’t feel left out of what had already happened.  I’m definitely going to read more MJ Rose.

Hot Topic: Got Manuscript? Pitch Wars is Nigh!

Update:  The new website for Pitch Wars is but they seem to be having a little trouble with the new site. Check out #pitchwars for more info 😀

I’m not ready for this year’s Pitch War, but it’s given me a goal for next year…I went to Brenda Drake’s site with the intention of cutting and pasting the info here for you all, but the site is undergoing a bit of maintenance at the moment.  Here’s a link to a Writer’s Digest post about why you should find out more if you are looking for an agent/editorial feedback on your finished manuscript, query letters and synopses…I’ll check back later and update the post…

Sunday Book Review–or not….

How can I not have finished a single book this week? I’m halfway through…everything. Maybe I’m overtired and a little overwrought about work issues and my brain just won’t settle. I’m enjoying everything, especially Julia Sutton’s Sea of Straw. I think I’ll finish that one first, anyway, so look for the review next Sunday 😀



The Angels Bridge

We (a couple of history geeks) went to Rome in the spring of 2016 and loved it!

by Alberto Manodori Sagredo

“The Aelian Bridge – known as Ponte Sant’Angelo since the Middle Ages for its connection to the history of the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo – was built between 133 and 134 AD by Emperor Hadrian, to link the left bank of the Tiber with his mausoleum, the monumental and majestic tomb he had built, emulating the mausoleum Augustus had erected along the Via Flaminia (now Via del Corso). It was a bridge fit for an imperial funeral!

During the Middle Ages the bridge became particularly important because it was the only controlled passageway for pilgrims going to Saint Peter’s Basilica – first the one built by Constantine I, and then the current, 16th-century one – to visit the apostle’s grave.

Dante mentions the bridge in his “Inferno” (Canto 18, 25-33), describing the two flows of pilgrims who, on the occasion of the first Jubilee convoked by Pope Boniface VIII in the year 1300, walked in parallel queues, coming and going.

Ponte Sant’Angelo is to this day the most beautiful bridge in the world. Its regularity, symmetry, openness to light, and perfect distance between arches and water surface make it unique… not to mention the precious materials it is made of, and the monumental impact it has altogether. Last but not least, it is the bridge that connects the Eternal City to Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, where the mortal remains of the first Vicar of Christ were laid to rest, and where the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church resides.

The highlight of the structure are the statues of the angels flanking the marble parapets, which seem to frame the river as it flows, visible through the elegant wrought iron grating.

There are ten statues, full of movement and lightness, both in their position and gestures and in the way their clothes are animated by the wind, symbolizing their participation in the Passion of Christ. The ten angels stand on tall bases, which originally supported the wooden columns of the bridge’s roofing.

Some of them look serene, in their certainty that Christ will resurrect; others seem to hardly contain the compassion and pity for his suffering.

Each of the ten, candid white, marble angels holds an instrument of the Passion: they present them to passersby, as if along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, or a Via Crucis like the one on the Sacred Mountain of Varallo.

This was one of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s most insightful ideas: to create a Via Crucis where the instruments of the Passion could be contemplated, to repent, to prepare for the Confession as one walked towards the Vatican Basilica, towards the first of Christ’s disciples, the Holy See, Corpus Domini, and salvation.

In 1667, Clement IX entrusted Bernini with the task of sculpting the angels for Ponte Sant’Angelo, for which the Pope had already purchased ten blocks of marble.

By 1668, Bernini had decided that the angels would forma a “living” Via Crucis – with spectators participating in the suspension of disbelief that makes art become a real part of life, like in theater. He then ordered that eight of the large marble blocks be delivered to some of the sculptors who shared his style and vision. He kept two of them for himself, which he would transform into the angel holding the INRI superscription and the one holding the crown of thorns.

In 1669, before dying in December, Clement IX saw the statues by Bernini and decided they were too magnificent for the bridge: he had them replaced by copies by the master’s collaborators, and the originals were eventually placed in the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, a stone’s throw from Piazza di Spagna.

By 1670, all the sculptures were completed and placed on the bridge, where to this day the angels with the instruments of the Passion of Christ accompany those directed to Saint Peter’s Basilica along the ancient jubilar road.

At the end of the bridge on the bank opposite the Castle, the statues of Saint Peter holding the keys of heaven (by Il Lorenzetto, 1534) and Saint Paul holding the sward (by Paolo Romano, 1464) stand on bases inscribed with the words “Hinc humilibus venia” and “Hinc retributio superbis”, making the bridge a symbolic passageway where the humble and the proud are reminded of what they respectively deserve.

The bases on which the angels were erected are also inscribed with verses from the Bible, transforming the instruments of the Passion into instances of Christ’s majesty, overturning their material function to the point they become symbols of divine glory. At the same time, each quotation prompts the repentant to consider their sins, and to conform to the teachings of Jesus in the spirit of the famous De imitatione Christi.

The first angel, by Antonio Raggi, holds up the flogging column to which Jesus was tied. The inscription reads: “My throne is upon a column”.

The second angel, by Lazzaro Morelli, contemplates with obvious sadness the whips that wounded the Lord. The inscription reads: “I am ready for the scourge”.

The third angel, sculpted by Paolo Naldini and perfected by Bernini himself, presents the crown of thorns, a symbol of the vane blindness of the men who were unable to recognize Christ’s authority. The inscription reads: “The thorn is fastened upon me”.

The fourth angel, by Cosimo Fancelli, observes with pity the face of Christ impressed in blood on the Veil of Veronica. The inscription reads: “Look upon the face of your Christ”.

The fifth angel, by Paolo Naldini, carries the garment and dice. The inscription reads: “For my clothing they cast lots”.

The sixth angel, by Girolamo Lucenti, holds the nails that pierced the hands and feet of Jesus. The inscription reads: “They will look upon me whom they have pierced”.

The seventh angel, by Ercole Ferrata, holds the cross, as the strongest symbol of the Passion as well as an icon of faith in Him. The inscription reads: “Dominion rests on his shoulders”.

The eight angel – which was officially entrusted to Giulio Cartari, but has recently been established was the work of Bernini himself, replicating the work he had done for the original in Sant’Andrea delle Fratte – uncurls the INRI superscription, casting his gaze to the skies, the Kingdom of Christ. The inscription reads: “God has reigned from the tree” (referencing the wood of the cross).

The ninth angel, by Antonio Giorgetti, observes with an expression of deep sorrow the sponge attached to the end of his stick, so real you expect sour wine to drip from it. The inscription reads: “They gave me vinegar to drink”.

The tenth and last angel, by Domenico Guidi, stares in misery at the point of the lance he carries, lifting it as if to mimic the moment when the spear wounded the heart of Jesus. The inscription reads: “You have ravished my heart”, reminding pilgrims of the pain men’s sins caused Jesus.

All the angels stand, faithful to tradition, on marble clouds of varying degrees of fullness. Let’s not forget that, since the statues are set on high pedestals, passersby see them from below, against the Roman sky.

Thus the devotional, painful journey along the Via Crucis respects and evokes, through the symbology of these instruments, the chronological and narrative succession of the moments in the Passion of Christ.”

Happy Fourth of July…

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? 
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

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: