Tag Archives: book reviews

Port of No Return – A Book Review

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Historical fiction novels about Italy during World War II always seem to fascinate me – probably because the stories hit pretty close to home since my parents lived through this horrible time in Italy.  Neither one of my parents, though, remembers it as being really terrible – I guess they were the lucky ones.  But after reading several accounts of the atrocities that occurred in Italy, I am devastated to learn that so many innocent people lost their lives – and if they survived, they lived through some pretty horrible experiences.  My parents speak about the poverty, but their stories tend to be more human interest stories rather than accounts of despair and fear.  My mother tells a great story of her and her sister going to collect the rationed jam, of which each family was only allowed one jar per month. The two little girls, aged 8 & 7, were sent by their parents to go and pick it up.  On the way home, they decided to sample some. One spoonful for one, another spoonful for the other, and by the time they got home, the jam was all gone! My mom says that it tasted so good that they just couldn’t stop!

Michelle Saftich’s novel, Port of No Return, speaks of life in Fiume, a town now a part of Croatia.

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Back before the war, it was a part of Italy, and during the war, it was occupied by the Germans. Towards the end of the war and even afterwards, it became a hotbed of political tensions between the Yugoslav Communists (or Partisans) and those who worked for the Germans. Families were just trying to eek out a living to support themselves and therefore found work wherever there were jobs.  Many of those jobs involved working on German projects.Tensions became so high that the Partisans fought everyone they felt supported the Germans. Families had to split up and flee their homes, taking refuge in refugee camps.  This story tells the story of the Sartoro family – mother, father, nonna and 5 children.  Ettore, the father, had worked in the naval yards run by the Germans, even though his allegiances were always to Italy. Word got out that the Yugoslav’s were coming to even the score with the Germans, and everyone involved with working for them was fair game. Ettore ran for his life, leaving behind his entire family. Months passed and the family had to escape Fiume as well.  They had to leave everything they had ever known.

The story tells of the hardships that both Ettore and his family faced, and their struggle to find each other.Even after the war was over, life was still unbearable – they were living in horrendous conditions in refugee camps – but their spirit remained strong and their commitment to family was beautiful.

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They were determined to create a better life, and this meant leaving the world they knew and venture to unknown lands. The end of the book finds the family embarking on a voyage to Australia and to the new life awaiting them there.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and I hope that a sequel will follow that tells of their new life in Australia.

Turning to Stone – Part 4 of the Roma, Underground Series

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The series continues with our friends Bianca, Dante, Ferrugia, Gennaro, Silvio and Alessandro as they head to Naples. This time their work involves solving counterfeit money and bond crimes associated with the biggest crime organizations in Italy.  Ferrugia goes undercover as a member of the Camorra, while everyone else is trying to solve who is responsible for a high ranking official’s death.  This official’s nephew joins the group and turns out to be a big asset to the team. Secret meetings take place between the different crime families, but someone is leaking the information of these meetings to a band of ruthless Sicilian women on motorcycles.  Once these women appear at these meetings, automatic gunfire and death occur.

Bianca continues to consult her online “friend” Loki for advice and clues.Loki responds with riddles and anagrams to solve.  How Loki has all this information is beyond me, though, and at times I’m left wondering who this person can be.  During the story, though, we are enlightened as to who a possibility might be, but it still doesn’t make much sense to me.

This book was tedious to get through.  I felt like the same scenarios kept getting replayed time and time again without any real resolution.  I’m still just as confused to the identity of Loki and why Loki would have the answer to everything. As at the end of Threading the Needle, I still feel lost and without answers to any of the questions that I have conjured up in my head.  Perhaps that’s the author’s purpose and that’s what keeps you wanting to read the next book in the series. We’ll see if I have the energy 😦

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Here are a few words from the series author, Gabriel Valjan!

A culinary sampling table: Italian style

“Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Boticellis and Berlusconis.”

Beppe Severgnini, the author of La Bella Figura, said that. Although he is what Italians call a furbo – someone who is crafty, clever, and astute, with an undercurrent of guile – he speaks a truth. He would also tell you that his Italy is not postcards of Tuscan hills, or the E.M. Forester novel and James Ivory’s film A Room with a View. Italy is, to my mind, the comeback kid of Europe, and with it comes backhanded comments, such as Napoleon was French when he won, Italian when he lost. The di Buonaparte family hailed from Tuscany.

I’d advise readers to read John Hooper’s The Italians for a comprehensive portrait of Italy, but let’s evaluate Beppe’s comment. When Goethe visited Italy, the imperial city of Rome was overgrown, in ruination, a literal cow pasture, and yet he romanticized what he had seen; he prefaced his diaries with a German translation of the Latin phrase: “Et in Arcadia ego,” a death-haunted phrase of nostalgia that readers would find again in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. The Imperium Romanum had been brought low, but it would bounce back as a dominant forza in fashion, manufacturing, and technological innovator in engineering and the sciences during the Italian Miracle. History shows that Italy, the small kid in the European playground, had anticipated the totalitarian governments of the 30s as early as 1922 with Fascism; foreign interference through the ‘strategia della tensione’ for decades after World War II; wholesale corruption throughout the 90s; and the ‘post-democracy’ seen now in most western countries, including the United States.

It is easy to become bewitched by the history, as I did when I first visited Italy as a second-year Latin student, visiting the northern shore of Lake Trasimene, knowing exactly what happened there between Hannibal and Gaius Flaminius in 218 BCE, or when I stood at twilight at the Benedictine abbey of Montecassino that overlooked the cemeteries in the valley below, knowing what happened there in 1944. In a later visit, I would stand sickened and transfixed as I heard the news of the assassination of the anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino.

What then? How does one know Italy?

Food. Even here, though, there are delicious deceptions, for the food that most Americans call Italian is descended from immigrants from southern Italy and those regional foods have been heavily Americanized. Case in point: the New York pizza is a distant cousin of the Neapolitan pizza, and while Chicago-style deep-dish pizza does exist in Italy, it’s usually reserved for take-out only (pizza da asporto). No sane Italian would order cappuccino after 11am or after dinner; consume a venti at Starbucks; or eat fettuccine Alfredo or Caesar salad because these are considered American dishes. From heel to toe and to the top of the boot, Italians are aghast at American portion sizes. And another thing: it is lasagnE (plural), and not lasagnA (singular). Lasagna is a single layer of pasta. It is like saying ‘new’ instead of ‘news.’ Prego.

In writing the Roma Series, I incorporated food to lure readers into trying some of the regional foods and to encourage them to indulge their senses. My hope is that I’ve corrected some gustatory misunderstandings. Roma, Underground offers the sights and sounds of Roma, as well as meals in restaurants and some street food. Chef Michael Schlow was the inspiration for Chef in Wasp’s Nest. Pasta e fagioli, pasta and beans, often heard in America as pasta fazool, makes an appearance in the first chapter. Chef Schlow had made the dish from scratch for me (and others) at the Boston Wine Expo in 2011. In the same chapter, I poked fun at Americanized Italian words, but please know that I had meant no offense. While Dante literally minted thousands of words in Italian like Shakespeare did in English, Baby Boomers in Italy may well be the first generation that actually thinks in Italian and not in their local dialect. Until the late 19th century, everybody spoke their local dialect, including educated people. Alessandro Manzoni, author of The Betrothed, had to learn to speak proper Italian in Florence before he wrote his novel. His native languages were French and Lombard. Spoken Italian was not standardized until the mid-twentieth century. Written Italian has been stable for centuries.

Wasp introduces some Calabrese cuisine. In Threading the Needle, the third installment, readers will savor both northern dishes and homemade Campanian dishes since Gennaro, the resident curmudgeon, is from Naples, which he visits with his friends in the fourth book, Turning To Stone. Threading explores the ‘strategy of tension’ and Turning meditates on the sociology of organized crime and financial terrorism.

Italy celebrates regional differences, but its northern and southern divide mirrors the prejudices of our North and South. It’s a decent analogy as real as Italy’s north-to-south highway, the Autostrada 1. The north considers itself industrial and progressive, seeing its southern neighbors as retrograde, indolent, and corrupt. Southern Italians complain that their northern brethren are elitist, wield too much power, and are corrupt. While these are broad generalizations, the antagonism is real. The common theme to both regions, however, is foreign footprints. Lombardy has had both the French and Germans on their roofs. Italy and, particularly Sicily, has been the doorstep for just about every world power since antiquity: Carthaginians, Greeks, Muslims, Normans, Spanish and so on. All these “guests” have influenced the local cuisine. If the Thirty Years War altered Germany and the course of Europe, I encourage readers to research The Italian Wars (1494-1594), which, like The Hundred Years War between England and France and our war in Vietnam, forever altered the Italian psyche, especially The Sack of Rome in 1527.

I invite readers of the Roma Series to consult the cookbooks in my home: Luca Manfè’s My Italian Kitchen (he is from Friuli, northeastern Italy); Rosetta Constantino’s (with Janet Fletcher) My Calabria; Polpo, a Venetian cookbook; Marc Vetri’s (with David Joachim) Rustic Italian Food (Bergamese influence); and for wine-lovers, Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch’s Vino Italiano. Italy has a rich wine-with-food-pairing tradition (they use the compound word enogastronomia) and for creating grape varietals (incrocio, in Italian), which is a booming industry because the country’s peculiar geography, climate, minerals or water change significantly every 30 or 40 miles. The northernmost limit of grapevines is creeping more and more north every season. Brace yourself for British Cabernet and Danish Pinot….

Homemade Bruschetta

Part I

I never measure anything. I go by ‘taste.’

Cut up Roma tomatoes; deseed them if you dislike the seeds.

  1. In a nonreactive bowl, place in cut-up tomatoes, seasoned with kosher salt, some pepper and oregano, and add slices of garlic. Beppe reminds me that rubbing bread with garlic is “actionable.”
  2. Pour in balsamic vinegar and whisk in olive oil.
  3. Cover with foil and let sit overnight either on the counter or in refrigerator (it does affect taste).

Part II

  1. Slice baguette slices at an angle.
  2. Grill or broiler bread until light shade of brown, about 1-2 minutes.
  3. Top with marinated tomatoes and grill/broil for another minute. Go by ‘feel’ for degree of crunchiness.
  4. Top with fresh basil, or if you like, grate a small amount of Parmesan cheese.

Threading the Needle – Book 3 of the Roma Underground Series

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51LbKc8yJjL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]This 3rd book in the Roma Underground series finds the characters all back in Italy – this time in Milan.  While there, they investigate the murder of a young American student, Charlie Brooks.  He is murdered right after he meets Bianca at a restaurant and hands her some secret files regarding details of a tank being built by Adastra, a USA defense contractor.  What about this tank makes it so secret that Charlie and his assassins are killed?  That is the answer that Bianca wants to find out, and this involves delving into government secrets and conspiracies.  Loki, Bianca’s online “friend” tells her to stay away from this case, but Bianca doesn’t heed her warnings! Meanwhile this is happening, an aspiring Italian political figure is found dead.  The two cases seem so different, but clues surface which make it seem like the two may be related.

I enjoyed this book more than the other books in the series, and I think it’s because I am now familiar with the characters and know each of their personalities.  This story moved quickly and I liked the descriptions of the locations in Milan…I also liked the history lesson about the terrorism that plagued Italy from the 1960’s to the 1980’s.

 

Roma, Underground (Part 1 of the Series) – A Book Review

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This suspenseful novel follows Alabaster Black, a.k.a. Bianca Nerini, a forensic accountant, as she tries to hide in Rome from her former “mysterious” employer, Rendition, after one of her contacts disappears and is presumed dead.   While in Rome, she meets Dante and gets involved with his archaeological hobby of exploring Rome’s underground.

Courtesy of Argiletum Tour Italy

Courtesy of Argiletum Tour Italy

Dante is also an investigator who is trying to figure out who is stealing and selling Rome’s ancient artifacts.

Courtesy of The History Blog

Courtesy of The History Blog

The two of them devise a scheme to trap the thieves by making up a fake discovery.  Meanwhile, while they are trying to figure out who these players are, Bianca learns that she has been found hiding in Rome. Lots of characters are presented, each with lots of personality, as we’re led around Rome, both above and below ground.

The story is fast moving, but at times, I found that I was getting lost trying to keep all the characters straight.  Also, some things were explained in really technical terms and I wasn’t that interested in the details.  But that’s just me, that sort of stuff doesn’t really appeal to me.  I’m sure others will appreciate the technicality of the descriptions!  All in all, it was a fun read and kept me hooked all the way through.

 

The Inheritance – A Book Review

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Marianne Perry has successfully written a wonderful book set in my favorite place, Italy. This story of love and betrayal follows the Marino Family during the early 1900’s when lines were clearly drawn in Italian society between the wealthy and powerful, and the servants and the laborers. It’s the story of good versus evil : the goodness of Anna Marino, the matriarch of the family, with her beautiful eyes which revealed her kindness towards all those who knew her; and the evil and cold heart of her husband, Santo, who sold his soul to that devil called organized crime.  Power was all consuming to him and the ultimate means to an end.  He didn’t care who he betrayed, killed or harmed if it was to his benefit.  Lorenzo, their son, inherited his mother’s kind eyes and that same good heart. He was an artist and looked at the world through different eyes.  His mother was the only one who encouraged him to follow his passions and from her he learned to love, even if it meant he would love someone that his father disapproved of.  Unfortunately, his brothers followed in their father’s footsteps and ultimately would make life unbearable for Lorenzo

The storyline was great and kept me enthralled throughout.  This could have been a GREAT book except for a few distractions that got in the way.  My first criticism was the over abundance of characters – there were way too many presented to keep them all straight and to remember how they all related to each other.  Many were irrelevant and only created a distraction to the real story. In fact, at times, I couldn’t remember who a certain character was after they became important because they had been originally presented quickly and without much more than just their name.  The other distraction was the incorrect use of Italian.  In my humble opinion, if the author was going to use Italian to give her story more depth and credibility, perhaps it would have been best to consult someone proficient in Italian and who would guide her in using the correct words.  It was almost as if she used google translate for the translations (and we all know what happens when we rely solely on that….)  It may have been safer to leave out those Italian words altogether – the book would have been just as good!

Despite these small criticisms, the author had a good story to tell and she made this time in Italy’s past come alive.  We were able to feel the pain, hardship, and passions of the main characters and their lives.  I would highly recommend this book, even knowing that some real Italophiles may flinch at the incorrect use of those Italian words!

Here is an interesting interview with Marianne Perry, the author of The Inheritance –

and I’ll be looking forward to her new books!

Why did you write The Inheritance?

Family mysteries intrigue me. I wanted to understand why my paternal grandmother, Nana Caterina left Calabria, southern Italy in 1913 as a young woman; sailed on a steamship across the Atlantic Ocean; landed at Ellis Island, New York; settled in Canada and never returned to her homeland. Our large family knew scant about Nana’s early life so I started genealogical research to investigate her history, which eventually inspired The Inheritance.

Why did you select “Caterina” as the protagonist’s name?

The Inheritance is set in Calabria, southern Italy from 1897 to 1913.Names help create authenticity and I reviewed Italian genealogical documents to determine those appropriate for this era. As a result, I chose Mafalda, Fortunata and Armida for minor characters. St. Catherine of Siena is a joint Patron Saint of Italy along with Saint Francis of Assisi. The name is a perennial favourite in Italian families plus honours my late Nana Caterina and Catherine Rose, an older sister who died in infancy.

Tell me about the cameo brooch Caterina inherits.

My mother has long suffered from dementia and I cherish a cameo brooch that I inherited from her. It belonged to her Sicilian-born father but she knows nothing about its origin. The clasp is broken and the brooch, fragile. I have long been haunted by the milky carving of the elegant lady depicted and it seemed the perfect gift to symbolize the ailing Anna Marino’s quasi-maternal affection for Caterina.

What is the significance of the crumbling stone cottage on the cover of The Inheritance?

In order to research The Inheritance, I traveled to Calabria in 2004 where I snapped this photograph. The crumbling stone cottage was located in the mountains near my Nana Caterina’s ancestral village. It typified the poverty of my grandmother’s family and is intrinsic to Caterina’s life as a peasant in this novel. I value authenticity as a writer and felt a personal photograph would illustrate this to the reader.

Will your next book be set in Italy?

Yes. To date, I have traveled to Italy seven times. In May 2013, I returned to Calabria for an intensive two week genealogical and writing research trip geared to my next book. It will be set in Calabria with chapters in Rome and Zurich, Switzerland. The time period is modern and the protagonist a Canadian woman of Italian ancestry who inherits a century old deed to property in Calabria plus a holograph will from her deceased godfather under strange circumstances. She travels to Calabria to solve their mysteries but forces attempt to thwart her along the way. My third book will be a sequel to The Inheritance.

Juliet – A Book Review

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I just finished reading this very enjoyable novel by Anne Fortier.  It’s long, but it keeps you hooked the whole way.  It switches back and forth between present day and the “real” story of Romeo & Juliet which dates back to the mid 1300’s.  According to legend, Romeo & Juliet lived in Siena, and not in Verona, so the story takes place there!

Modern day Julie goes back to Siena after her aunt dies to  uncover the mystery surrounding her parents’ deaths and also to find a missing treasure.  She finds manuscripts written in code, and meets up with descendants of the warring families involved with Romeo and Juliet ‘s sad saga.  Those she meets believes that she is the direct descendant of Juliet.  With this, comes danger as well.  Someone is out to get her and steal away the treasures that she is finding.  She doesn’t know whom she can trust, even though she is starting to fall for the handsome Alessandro.

The story takes lots of twists and turns, but it finally comes together at the end.  We are just as confused as to who the good guys are, and it’s interesting to read this new tale of Romeo and Juliet.

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A Summer in Tuscany – a book review

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Elizabeth Adler has done it once more with her fun summer reading book, A Summer in Tuscany! Even though her stories are pretty predictable and the plot isn’t too complicated, this doesn’t detract one bit from their enjoyment! She is a master of portraying the scenery and “feeling” of the locations in which her books take place. She romanticizes the locations, but having been to many of them, she seems to be reading my inner thoughts and how they make me feel inside when I am there. She has the words that I don’t have to describe the locations – not only physically but emotionally.

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A Summer in Tuscany follows the story of awkward Gemma Jericho, an emergency room physician from New York City and her journey to the small Tuscan town of Bella Piacere with her mother (Nonna) and her daughter after they find out that Nonna has become the heiress to the Villa Bella Piacere. Nonna had left the town when she was 13 but arrives back to find that many of her childhood friends still live there and remember her with great affection. Their meanderings into the town and the surrounding countryside are so typical of life in those tiny little towns.

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Gemma meets handsome and rich Ben Rafael and sparks fly between them – both good and bad! At first, they are enemies because of the Villa Bella Piacere due to a “slight” question of ownership! Ben had bought the villa by a lawyer claiming to be the old Count’s lawyer after heirs could not be found, meanwhile Nonna was told the villa was left to her family by the Count himself. The quest to find the real will leads them all over Tuscany and Rome…and eventually to love between Gemma and Ben! Their travels also take them to the gorgeous cliff town of Positano where we are treated to beautiful visual sights through Elizabeth Adler’s words!

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The book actually had me laughing out loud at Gemma’s clumsiness because we’ve all been there with her trips and falls and running into walls when trying to be “cool”! This book is truly fun through and through and I would highly recommend it for a read that touches you inside with the warmth that is Italy.