Friday, 17 September 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Muskrat Ramble by Mim Eichmann

Fictional Drama / Jazz
early 20th century 
United States

The second and final installment in Mim Eichmann's saga of before-her-time free spirit, Hannah Owens, Muskrat Ramble is a tour of (a ramble through) 20th-century America, commencing on the eve of the First World War. This meticulously researched novel takes us from New Orleans on the cusp of the Jazz Age to Prohibition-era Chicago to the Front Range of Colorado. It's a breathtaking travelogue, to be sure.

Eichmann has remarkable skill with historical setting and a musician's easy fluency with the intricacies of the early development of American jazz. It's an immersive experience for readers, surrounding us with the rich sounds and smells of New Orleans, the languid sultriness of Louisiana's sugar plantations, and the bone-chilling cold of Chicago winters. The author paints with a refined brush that renders her settings in lush and textured colors. The book is probably worth the price for the author's settings alone.

I didn't find the protagonist, Hannah, particularly likable. And I don't necessarily count this a negative. It was frankly refreshing to encounter a female protagonist in a historical novel that wasn't immediately likable. Hannah is self-indulgent, with a recurrent indifference to the effects on others of her often selfish decisions. This includes Hannah's blithely entering into a sexual relationship with Edouard "Kid" Ory, the great New Orleans jazz trombonist who Eichmann co-opts as the lover of Hannah's teenage daughter whom he subsequently impregnates. This was irresistibly tawdry and rollicking good fun. Rather than rooting for Hannah, I found myself awaiting her next train-wreck life choice, which included ending up cross-wise with Al Capone's Southside Gang. In the end, Hannah does right (no spoilers), but it's a circuitous route getting there.

The primary weakness of this book lies with the unevenness and herky-jerky pacing of the storyline. Much of this is a result of the author's impulse to show too much of her extraordinary research, forgetting that in historical novels research should, like an iceberg, remain 90% below the surface. This is most manifest in the final chapters, wherein the story moves across three decades recounting the development of jazz and the subsequent lives of the too-many musicians introduced earlier in the book, stitched together with the thinnest connections to the aging protagonist. Indeed, the book would have been improved by ending earlier. However, Ms Eichmann has the mechanics, and talent, to become a fine historical novelist, with discipline gained through experience for her future books.

Readers interested in jazz and its development will enjoy the detail in this novel.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Jeffrey K. Walker
 e-version reviewed

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Thursday, 16 September 2021

Fiery Girls: a novel of the 1911 Triangle Waist Company Fire by Heather Wardell

New York

Seamstresses Rosie, a Jewish girl from Russia, and Maria, a Catholic girl from Italy, are sent to New York to financially assist their families. Their individual stories run parallel until eventually the two girls meet. They become best friends, united by their concern about the working conditions of female workers in the garment industry. Excitable Maria becomes a powerful speaker for the unions; Rosie wishes to be like her friend but speaking in public terrifies her. Instead, she works tirelessly in quiet ways to help fellow immigrants and fellow workers.

Very cleverly, we follow the development of the girls’ identities in this new land. How they coped with the freedoms they never would have known in their home countries. How they managed their money. How they found work and friends. The entertainments they enjoyed. All is very skilfully portrayed through the eyes of the girls and their friends.

The author paints a vivid picture of the unsafe and abusive conditions suffered by workers in pre–union days, told through the eyes and experiences of the two young women. The description of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire (when 146 people died) is terrifying and deeply moving. The historical details never intrude but a skilfully woven into the story, and the fictional central characters are well-developed and believable. 

It’s a powerful story and reminds us not to take for granted the freedoms and safety standards we now expect as of right. Very well researched and a gripping page-turner. I highly recommend it.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Robyn Pearce
 e-version reviewed

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Wednesday, 15 September 2021

The Fort byAdrien Goldsworthy

shortlisted for Book of the Month

AD 105
#City of Victory #1

This is war – the Romans vs. the Dacians. And it took three goes to settle it. The first was by Domitian in AD 87-8 and second and third under Emperor Trajan. The conflicts were triggered by the constant Dacian threat to the Danubian province of Moesia plus the increasing need for the Romans’ need for economic resources.

Truces were made and broken by the Dacians. Trajan recommenced hostilities against Dacia and eventually defeated the Dacian king, Decebalus, at the second battle of Tapae in AD 101. But as we see in The Fort, Decebalus’s resentment grew and simmered. This is where the story starts, in AD 105, inside the head of Brasus, who will become one of the secondary level Dacian war leaders. 

When I took on reviewing The Fort, I was rather nervous. Adrian Goldsworthy is an eminent historian of the Roman world; his Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor is the definitive history of Rome’s first emperor and sits in a prominent place on my bookshelf. But this anxiety evaporated as I quickly became absorbed in the story.

I knew I didn’t need to worry about the authenticity of the period detail, especially every aspect of Roman military life of which Goldsworthy is a master. But it’s not a dry rehearsal of battle tactics and ‘bash and clash' scenes. Here, we live the day-to-day, logical and tough life of Roman military, and the sheer courage of the Brigante troops. Goldsworthy is a master of using the scarce information available to us and filling the rest in intelligently and vividly.

His characterisation is sharp, from the aptly named main character Centurion Ferox to historical figures such as Hadrian and Lepidina (she of the Vindolanda tablets). He cleverly mixes the known historical figures with Ferox, Claudia Enica, a Romanised Brigante queen descended from Cartimandua (and who is Ferox’s wife), Romans desperate to be relieved and go home once Ferox arrives, loyal veterans and treacherous deserters. 

Hadrian is drawn as clever and ambitious, a successful manipulator of men who has no compunction about sacrificing others for the good of the res publica of Rome.

Brasus the Dacian is dedicated to his king and to the holy task of ridding his country of the sacrilege of the presence of the ‘unbelievers’, the Romans. In between the scenes featuring Ferox, Hadrian, and occasionally other characters, we return to Brasus and see his beliefs change and his faith waver.

The author gives us no illusions about the brutality and directness of life at the start of the second century AD. We see the Roman world in tooth and claw, especially the hierarchical power plays. Yet there is wit and banter between the characters, even when under terrifying siege; anybody military will recognise this gallows humour.

My only constructive comment would be that maybe a map and a character list would be helpful for readers who might not know exactly where Dacia was, or might get confused about the large list of characters with unfamiliar names. (Although maps and character lists are not always easily accessible in e-versions.)

The Fort builds slowly but inexorably and is laced with foreboding from the beginning. The climax is inevitable, but the tension never ceases.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Alison Morton
 e-version reviewed

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