Monday, January 21, 2019

The Girl from Berlin by Ronald H. Balson

Remember that one time I compromised all my bookish rules and principles and started reading a series at book 5 instead of book 1?  No?  Okay, that's probably because this is the first time I've ever really done it.  However, when a review copy offer came through for a copy of The Girl from Berlin, the fifth installment of Ronald Balson's Liam Taggart and Catherine Lockhart series of mysteries, I couldn't resist.  While I'm not a big mystery reader anymore, I generally can't resist the siren call of a World War II/Holocaust story, so I think Balson's probably got my number with these.

In The Girl from Berlin, Balson introduces the modern story of PI Liam's and lawyer Catherine's response to plea for help from the owner of their favorite Italian restaurant.  Tony's beloved Aunt Gabi is being threatened with eviction from her picturesque villa in Tuscany by the crooked, moneygrubbing VinCo.  It looks like hope is all but lost for Gabi whose deed to the land has been declared invalid, even after having two separate lawyers contest the case.  Without the help of our would-be heroes, Gabi will be forced to vacate the land, leaving her precious award-winning vineyard in the hands of shady VinCo.

In an effort to support her case for ownership of the land, Gabi presents Catherine and Liam the memoir of the mysterious Ada Baumgarten.  Ada, the daughter of famed Berlin Philharmonic concert master Jacob Baumgarten, is an unusually talented violinist growing up in Berlin, performing with the philharmonic's junior orchestra.  Unfortunately, Ada's family is Jewish, and the unimaginable is unfolding in Berlin as the Nazis rise to power.  Even as her prodigious talents attract the attention of even the Nazi elites, Berlin grows more dangerous by the day.  Ultimately, to save her life and while allowing her to pursue her career, Maestro Wilhelm Furtwangler arranges a dream opportunity for Ada to play with the Bologna State Opera orchestra, an orchestra that traditionally allows no women.  Ada's talent opens the way for her to perform all over Italy, but the specter of the Nazis grows ever closer until inevitable tragedy strikes.

Ada's story is fascinating, giving readers a glimpse of living and working in wartime Italy and Germany.  I found the descriptions of the music, and Ada's ascent to fame as a female violinist at a time when most orchestras didn't allow female musicians to be particularly compelling.  That said, the more historical portions of Ada's memoir suffer from a serious info dumping problem where the narration seems less like the memoir of a young woman and more like a direct copy of a modern encyclopedia.  The mystery plays a clear second fiddle to Ada's story, as Liam, Catherine and friends ploddingly "hurry" to connect the dots and save Gabi's land in between eating Italian food, getting into fisticuffs with VinCo's slimy attorney, and "Oh, right, we were looking for the deed to Gabi's land, weren't we?"

While the interweaving of the two plots could probably have been handled a bit more artfully, Balson does deliver an interesting and satisfying historical mystery with a more complicated resolution than I was expecting.  Despite the encyclopedia moments, Balson does a lot of things right in Ada's historical story, including drawing a realistic depiction of that era's musical scene and even portraying the character of Wilhelm Furtwangler, a true historical figure who staunchly refused to let the Nazis' hateful race policies compromise the artistic integrity of his orchestra, using his talent and what power he could to stand up for Jewish musicians in Germany's darkest days.  Ultimately, I'll be looking forward to getting back to those other 4 volumes of this series.

Disclaimer: my copy provided for free in exchange for review consideration.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Dust of 100 Dogs by A.S. King

In the 1600s, Emer Morrissey was a frightful pirate marauding the Caribbean seas in search of treasure to steal and hoping to once again meet her long-lost love.   That is, until the night she is cursed to one hundred lives as a dog.  One hundred dog lifetimes later, Emer is back in the body of Saffron Adams, the hope of her lower middle-class family.  Unfortunately for the Adams family, Emer has no interest in lifting the family out of poverty through higher education, but she may just know where to find the buried treasure she left behind.

I really thought that The Dust of a 100 Dogs had a really fun concept that I would enjoy, but nearly the whole thing didn’t work for me.  The characters are woefully one dimensional.  The good characters are too good, the evil characters too evil, the conflicts too easily begun and resolved, and the reincarnation portrayed poorly.  At the beginning of the novel, Saffron’s thoughts and actions are nearly entirely Emer’s.  If they are not the same person, then Saffron is utterly controlled by Emer, driven by Emer’s desire to have back the treasure denied to her and filled with Emer’s violent pirate thoughts.  By the end of the book, however, it was like King made a last-minute decision that Saffron ought to have a voice too, but it was too little too late to be anything short of a tack on.  
Flashbacks to Emer’s early life in an Ireland being destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s armies are the best and most compelling part of this book, perhaps because it’s the only part that feels genuine.   Once Emer flees the husband her uncle has sold her to in the aftermath of the war, Emer, desperate, decides she’ll board a ship bound for the Caribbean, where other men are looking for wives or worse.  This is where things fell apart for me.  For one, if you ran away from a lousy, rotten husband to be impoverished on the streets of Paris, why would you think you’d make out any better rolling the dice on a mystery husband in the Caribbean?  For two, I just never really managed to buy Emer as a proper pirate.  She kind of dithers her way into the whole thing after fleeing the next d-bag husband in line, and using her pent-up loathing for all the men who took what wasn’t theirs in a battle.  All the sudden, she’s a sea captain with pirate fleet robbing Spanish treasure ships.  There doesn’t seem to be any real reason for it other than she doesn’t want to get married to a French d-bag and she need something to do while she moons over the lost love her of her Irish youth that she hopes against hope to meet again.  She’s supposed to be this feared killer, but it all seems to be a bit of an act, and a poor one.
Maybe I’m expecting too much.  This is, after all, a swashbuckling YA tale of reincarnation and piracy.  I’m probably not supposed to read so much into it.  I’m supposed to appreciate Emer as a strong female character and enjoy her adventures at sea.  However, despite her murderous abilities, she somehow never stopped seeming like victim to me, and The Dust of a 100 Dogs, with its many lifetimes’ worth of stories to tell never came together into the more multi-dimensional story I was hoping for.