Review – The Venice Conspiracy

I read Christer’s first novel, The Stonehenge Legacy and liked it. When the opportunity to review his second book fell in my lap, I took it. I was in the mood for a thriller and already being familiar with this author, I knew this would be a good match.

Tom Shaman is an ex-priest from Los Angeles trying to escape his former life and anyone who knew him. A few months before, while still a priest, he happened upon an assault and intervened to stop a woman from being raped. While fighting off the attackers, he accidentally killed one of the men. Cleared of the crime, but unable to let his conscience rest, he decides to trade California for Italy and his life of a priest for that of a layman. Upon arriving in watery Venice, he finds himself drawn into the case of a murdered girl and what seems to be a devil worshiping cult that is planning an attack with world-wide ramifications. Throw in a pseudo-romance and a kidnapping, and Tom isn’t getting the escape from life he was hoping for in Italy.

There are several stories and timelines taking place in The Venice Conspiracy — the present following the ex-priest Tom, a 666 BC timeline featuring a netvis (an ancient priest of sorts) who may have inadvertently created the demon now known as Satan, and a 1778 timeframe concerning the theft of a little known but very valuable sculpture. This might sound confusing, but each specific time plays out without hindering the others. I was interested in seeing how each story would work out but I found the 666 BC timeframe the most interesting. It was set in what would be considered Etruia, a part of ancient Italy that is considered the home of Etruscan civilization. I’m always fascinated by this time period, and for me, this timeline held the most interest which of course means I would have liked more about these characters.

I should also say this — as I often do with thrillers — forget reality and roll with it. Tom’s an ex-priest who ends up investigating what look like ritual murders with the Italian police force shortly after arriving in the city and being found at the scene of the first murder. I don’t mean this to sound critical but this police force really moves fast. If you’ve ever been to Italy, you know nothing moves fast. I just felt wrong considering the police wanted to lock him up shortly before employing him. It’s hard to buy, but, ignore that. Go with it and you won’t be disappointed. You see, this is one of those stories that builds; each new character and timeframe adding something new, each story within a story advancing things along. Honestly, that’s what I want a thriller to do. I want it to move, and move fast. The Venice Conspiracy does just that.

If you’re looking for a book that will keep you up reading, give this one a try.

The publisher sent me a copy of The Venice Conspiracy for review.

The Venice Conspiracy
By Sam Christer
Overlook Press
ISBN: 978-1468300499
3.5 stars


Review – Blood, Bones & Butter

This book has been on my radar for a while but I never quite got around to it for no other reason than I just didn’t. This happens to me sometimes. So, when it arrived in the mail it was fate, I guess.

Gabrielle Hamilton is a chef but not one that’s been classically trained; in fact, you can probably argue that she hasn’t really been trained at all. Her mother, a woman of French decent, instilled in her a love of all food and the ability to cook it. Up until the age of 12, she had an ideal life growing up in a rural area of Pennsylvania punctuated by summer blowout parties and family memories. When her parents decide to divorce, she ends up taking care of herself and finding it not so easy a project. She’s smart but barely finishes high school. She is able to work but can’t seem to hold down a job without getting in trouble. And even though she manages to get into college, she can’t manage to stay there. She takes on catering jobs in all the places she lands, and along the way, realizes this is what she knows, what she can do, and what she wants to do. She wants to feed people and share her food experiences with them.

I was skeptical at first — really the first chapter of this book is setup so sweet that you’re pretty sure she was walking around with rainbows streaming out of her ass. That might sound harsh, but I put this one down a few times only a few pages in wondering exactly what was going on. No one’s life is like that and then it all came to a crashing halt, and not that I felt better, but it felt like a better book. Hamilton is a trained writer, MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan, so she knows the tricks and she used them in that first chapter. My favorite parts were the rougher ones though. When she moves to New York for college she takes a job as a waitress and then gets on the night shift where she finds she can make a ton of money. When she ends up in trouble, legal this time, her brother pulls in a few favors to get her out and you see where all of this might go.

The best parts of this book have to do with her time in Italy. Hamilton marries an Italian professor in need of wife to stay in the country, and for whatever reason, she marries him (there is talk of several girlfriends in this book but her sexuality is not explicitly talked about and I don’t feel the need to address it here either other than note this for the sake of non-confusion) and accompanies him back home to Italy every year. She doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t know his family at all, but manages to find a place in the kitchen and share her love of food with people she doesn’t know but very much wants to. I didn’t necessarily relate to the family issues though; for me it was the food. We went to Italy on our honeymoon and there are still dishes that I remember so fondly, and yes, I’m sure my recollection is cloudy with wine and love but I wanted to go to those places all over again.

Hamilton is a good writer and she’s able to capture something that we all have memories of, in one way or another, and elevate them to something you want to know more about. Yes, I looked up her restaurant in New York to see what was on the menu because I wondered what a writer talking about food was actually cooking.

I don’t read memoirs, generally, but when I do I tend to prefer ones dealing with food because I think I can relate. I’ve never had aspirations of being a chef, and frankly after watching too many food shows, know I would never be able to even think about it. But this book did make think about food differently and the way it’s intertwined with our lives. This book is not always about cooking and food. In some ways, that comes later to this author, but it’s an interesting look in on a life definitely lived.

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

By Gabrielle Hamilton

Random House
ISBN: 9780812980882

3.5 stars


Review – My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel

By Daphne Du Maurier

Sourcebooks Landmark

ISBN: 9781402217098

4 stars

The House on the Strand and Rebecca were truly wonderful books full of atmosphere with dark characters and deep emotional triggers that had me holding my breath till the end of the book. I wasn’t disappointed by My Cousin Rachel but I didn’t feel the same emotional response as I did with the others. Yet I was still happy to see the somewhat ambiguous ending. Hmmm… No worries. I’m not telling. Honestly, I think Du Maurier is the only author that can do that and leave me feeling OK with it. Wonder why that is?

Ambrose Ashley and his heir, Philip, are two men leading bachelor lives on their estate in Cornwall, England. When Ambrose’s health begins to fail, he goes off to Italy for the weather and health benefits and finds a wife in Rachel, a recent widower and countess. When Ambrose sends Philip a strange letter saying his wife may be poisoning him, Philip goes to Italy to help Ambrose but doesn’t arrive in time. Sullenly, Philip returns home to find out Ambrose’s widow will soon be landing in England. Philip has no love, and only a slight respect, for this woman but he welcomes her reluctantly. Somehow, this mysterious woman finds a way into his life.

Philip is so naïve that Rachel’s actions seem perfectly normal to him but all the time you’re wondering why he doesn’t stay true to his original assessment of Rachel. You want him to go on mistrusting her and when he doesn’t, it’s infuriating and there’s nothing to do but stand back and watch the wreck happen. And you know it’s going to happen.

Rachel begins wrapping Philip around her finger. He becomes more possessive and somewhat deranged. Very much like Ambrose which has you wondering who and what Rachel is. He keeps finding letters from Ambrose accusing his wife of poisoning him and warning Philip of her abuse of money. But Philip heeds none of them. He ignores all the signs Ambrose sends him from the grave.

This was a very satisfying read but it didn’t have the same intrigue, buildup, or emotional pull. The notes and Philip’s feelings just aren’t the same here but they do add an otherworldly element, persistent but ignored though they are. If I had read this one before Rebecca, I may have felt differently about it. I keep trying to stop myself from making comparisons but I can’t. That happens with me when I start reading an author’s backlist. I have Frenchman’s Creek on my list and know my library has a copy and I’ll try to keep an open mind while reading that one.

All in all, a good read and I’m glad I’m working my way through Du Maurier’s books. It’s a fun little challenge.

Today’s Book – Non-Fiction & Travelogues

Today, I’m highlighting three books on my TBR.  I’ve said before that I want to read more non-fiction this year and while I haven’t stuck with my one non-fiction book a month idea, I have added several to my list.  Let’s take a look.

Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World’s Greatest Empire by JC McKeown – I love strange facts about ancient Rome and this one promises to provide me with facts for days about Roman life, superstitions, and customs.

Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach – This one appealed to me because her travels are centered in Europe.  It’s also got a bit of the finding yourself theme that I don’t so much like but I think I can look past that to enjoy the travel part.

Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams – We live near the Peruvian embassy in DC.  Right now they have banners up celebrating the discovery of Machu Picchu and the photos on the banners make me want to get on a plane.  I also have a friend that hiked the trail this year so there are many reasons this one appeals.

Anything interesting on your list?

The Creation of Eve

The Creation of Eve

The Creation of Eve

Lynn Cullen

G. P. Putnam’s Sons

ISBN: 978-0399156106

4.5 stars

In Rome 1559, Sofonisba Anguissola is training to be a painter. Under the tutelage of Michelangelo, she begins to stretch her talent to heights unheard of for a woman at the time. Her father places a lot of faith in her abilities and provides her with the best teachers, but her status as a woman means she cannot study, sketch, or paint the naked body. This leaves her with little understanding of the human form itself and she is told it adds an inhibited quality to her work that she struggles to overcome.

During her time in Rome, she meets and falls in love with another student of Michelangelo’s, Tiberio Calcagni. Their brief affair causes her shame and she leaves the city hoping that what happened between her and Tiberio will not be found out by her father who worked so hard to make sure she would have the chance to learn her craft.

Unaware of what will happen between her and Tiberio as there is no forthcoming proposal of marriage, she takes a position as a lady in waiting to Elisabeth of Valois, the young bride of Felipe II, the King of Spain. She is to teach the young Queen how to draw and paint. Unfortunately, her sad love life, or lack there of, weighs heavily on her. The love trials of the young Queen breaks Sofi’s heart while all this time she wonders silently about Tiberio.

Sofi’s heart suffers while she is at court and the growing attraction she sees between the Queen and the King’s brother, Don Juan, brings her even more heartbreak. Her choices are limited and she struggles with her heart, who she is, and what she must do for the Queen.

Very little action takes place in this novel but the affairs of the heart take center stage and the entire time you’re aware that the story is being told by an artist. The descriptions, colors, and experiences are filtered through an eye that is always looking for shape, texture, and depth.

Told through diary entries, each chapter begins with a painting hint or fact. I loved that the story was told through Sofi’s point of view as it allowed you to get close to the characters. Sofi’s descriptions of the court, the Queen’s dresses, the other ladies in waiting, and the palaces are wonderful and it’s as if you’re watching and hearing the conversations first hand.

Oddly enough this is a book about a painter but very little painting takes place. Somehow that’s a good thing as you come to know the artist behind the easel instead and it’s a good story. For anyone who loves historical fiction, this is a great read. You finish the last page wanting to know more about everyone in the story.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above is a summary of my review, which can be read in full here. The book was provided to me by the publisher for The Book Reporter review.

The Devil’s Queen: A Novel of Catherine de Medici

The Devil's Queen: A Novel of Catherine de Medici

The Devil’s Queen: A Novel of Catherine de Medici

By Jeanne Kalogridis

St. Martin’s Press

ISBN: 978-0-312-36843-2

4 stars

Catherine de Medici was born into Florence’s most powerful family, the de Medicis. An heiress to a family fortune, she learned at an early age that life would be one fight after another. When she is nine years old, her family faces a revolt and she stands with her aunt against the family’s enemies. She soon finds herself imprisoned in a convent. Suffering but still strong, she is rescued by a French cousin and taken to a more friendly convent but her peace doesn’t last long. Once again, enemies of the de Medicis manage to imprison her and threaten her life. When her imprisonment finally comes to an end, she finds herself married off to a French Prince by her uncle Pope Clement.

At 14, she finds married life no easier. While the French King Francois likes her very much, her husband Henry is less enthralled. He does seem to have a genuine regard for her but there is no love at first. Henry takes a mistress and Catherine goes childless for many years knowing that her life in France is tenuous without an heir. Always the student of mathematics and astrology, she turns to a trusted adviser for help. She buys the lives of her children with blood and dark magic and finds the flimsy hold she has on happiness pulled very thin. With the death of her husband, her life becomes one fight after another to keep her promise to her husband — to keep the throne of France in Valois hands.

Catherine’s interest in the occult brings a mystical quality to the story. She very much wants to protect her family and those she loves so much so that she is willing to go to great lengths to buy their doomed happiness. Disgusted by what she has to do, she does feel some remorse but it doesn’t stop her. You see how badly she wants to please others and to be happy but it’s not in her stars, literally. She makes a lot of bad choices along the way but still believes she is only doing what is right for her family.

I enjoyed this book a lot. While I’m not sure if I liked Catherine or not by the end of the book, I do know that every small turn in her life was interesting. I wanted to see how she would handle the next hurdle and what magic she would turn to. I also felt sorry for her. She wanted so badly to be happy and to make those around her happy but her attempts only brought on more hurt. It was a sad life but it made for a good read.

Kalogridis has a way of bringing characters life. The clothing, palaces, and events were done so well that you can imagine each and every detail. It’s historical fiction the way I like it.