Monday, 30 May 2022

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The Notes of Change by Susan Grossey

Murder mystery
London, England

This is, I believe, the last in the Constable Sam Plank Series, and it's the second that I have read. Sam Plank is an engaging character and a jovial narrator. He takes his job as magistrate's constable in early nineteenth-century London very seriously, but he is very much not full of his own importance and he knows that if he ever gets too puffed up with pride, his sensible wife Martha will soon prick his pomposity. The plot in this latest - and last - outing for him revolves around a murder, and the passing of counterfeit notes. Are the two connected? It's Sam's job to find out, assisted by the 'young' Wilson who, having worked alongside Sam for many years, is now applying to become a member of the newly-formed Metropolitan Police.

I mentioned that this is the second book I've read, and I think it's pertinent to say that the first one I read was #4 of #7. I say this is relevant because whilst this is a series, the books can definitely be read as standalones. Ms Grossey gives just enough background information for those meeting Sam, Martha, Wilson and all their colleagues and friends for the first time to feel they've not missed anything vital. The books are beautifully written and London in the post-Napoleonic era is vividly portrayed.

Inevitably, with the conclusion of a long-running series, there are threads to be tied, and this has slightly less murder/mystery/crime-solving content than the previous book I read, simply because there's a sense of change: Wilson is considering his future, and so, in a way, is Sam. In what I imagine is a slight departure from the norm, it is not only Sam's colleagues and friends who make reappearances, something which will no doubt delight readers who've devoured all the books from the very first, but newer readers are given enough information that they won't be confused.

I thought it very fitting that the author chose to end the series at a point in Sam's life when the very nature of the job is about to change (and the title, in that regard, is brilliant). Luckily for the reader, even in this last adventure, the nature of crime remains the same.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Annie Whitehead
 e-version reviewed

Friday, 27 May 2022

Sharpe's Assassin: by Bernard Cornwell

Fictional Drama / Series / Military
Paris, France

Richard Sharpe and the Occupation of Paris, 1815
“Sharpe is back.
And the one man you want on your side.
Sharpe's assassin is the brand-new novel in the bestselling historical series that has sold more than twenty million copies worldwide.”

The blurb [above] on  Amazon is brief, but readers, and lovers of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series do not need much more information – to know there is another, new, adventure for our derring-do hero is all we need to know.

Sharpe fans have followed him from the lowest depths to the highest rank through most of the British Empire’s important battles. Through fights in India and Spain and France during the Napoleonic Wars. Sharpe and his motley crew of Rifles with their famous green jackets. 

With Napoleon defeated, what more is there for Sharpe to do? It seems – plenty!

Sharpe has a wife and child and is enjoying the peace of his Normandy farm, but Duke Wellington has not forgotten him, and does not hesitate to make use of him when he is needed – this time, in Paris.

The aftermath of war leaves upheaval, Paris is restless. Sharpe’s task is to find those of Napoleon’s supporters, the determined assassins who are bent on taking revenge. And all Sharpe has to do is stay alive. If he can.

Cornwell, as always, recreates his locations with utmost authority. We steal along the fouled, stinking streets of the underbelly of Paris with Sharpe and his men. We are there, feeling the despair of the defeated, ever alert for  the dangers, fighting step-by-step along with our hero who must use all his skill and knowledge to win through. Of course, as you read, you know that he is going to survive. This is Richard Sharpe after all; you would not expect anything else. But Cornwell writes so well, so vividly, that you cannot take anything for granted, you have your doubts. Maybe this time Richard’s luck will run out...

I enjoyed Cornwell’s other various series, but I do have to say that what he does best is Sharpe. And this one is no exception.

My only grumble, as always, is the high price of the e-book. £7.99 (at the time of writing this) while the hardback on Amazon is £10. £2 difference, yet there is no paper or printing involved with e-books. So what are we paying for? The editing is the same, the formatting is a one-off task as is the uploading to the buying platforms. E-books should not cost almost as much as their paper equivalents. It really is time that mainstream publishers started realising this fact. So 5 stars, but not a reviewer's choice because of this.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Helen Hollick
 e-version reviewed

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

The Bee and the Fly: The Improbable Correspondence of Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson by Lorraine Tosiello & Jane Cavolina


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Fictional Drama

Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson were contemporaries, but two more different women would be difficult to find. Alcott, brought up in an idealistic, Transcendental home, her father concerned more with philosophy than earning a living, was both independent and pragmatic, a prolific writer with many published works, both under her own name and pseudonyms. 

Dickinson, from a prominent New England family, also wrote prolifically, but only a handful of her poems were published while she was alive. Thought eccentric by her community, Dickinson shunned any publicity or even human contact outside of letters in her later life. The two women never met, although their social circles overlapped.

In The Bee and the Fly: The Improbable Correspondence of Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson, author Lorraine Tosiello has imagined an exchange of letters between the two women that begins in 1861 and continues to Emily’s death in 1886. Bookended by a plausible prologue and epilogue, outlining how the (fictional) correspondence is found, the letters serve both as a glimpse into the lives of both women, and an account of some of the social and political concerns during the American Civil War and the post-war era. 

The contrast between the housebound, timid Emily and the adventurous, strong Louisa begins the relationship, when Emily writes to Louisa for advice and encouragement. But over the course of the letters, similarities begin to appear: their frustrations with the men who act as both mentors and gatekeepers to publishing; the burden of the demands of family; their own declining health.

Misunderstandings, too: Louisa, who pushes herself through her own illnesses to live an active, socially useful life, occasionally expresses irritation at Emily’s withdrawal from any public interaction, but over the years the two women accept their differences and find solace and sisterhood in their commonalities.

Detailed research and strong writing make The Bee and the Fly entirely convincing. The authors have captured both Alcott’s and Dickinson’s distinctive and disparate written voices, a significant achievement. As most of Dickinson’s correspondence was destroyed on her death, her prose style in her letters matches the style of her poetry, with many incomplete sentences punctuated by dashes, expressive but comprehensible. Alcott’s letters and journals were preserved and have been published; her voice here may be the stronger, or perhaps only more familiar to this reviewer.

As with most epistolary novels, I began by reading pairs of letters, then leaving the book for a while, but as the correspondence progressed, I was more and more engrossed, and read continuously. For anyone interested in the lives of these two women whose work has had a profound influence on American literature, I strongly recommend The Bee and the Fly

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Marian L. Thorpe
 e-version reviewed

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Monday, 23 May 2022

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Siege: Edge of Empire by Alistair Tosh

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Fictional drama
AD 139
Roman Britain

"Lucius Faenius Felix arrives in Britannia to command the First Nervana, a renowned cohort drawn from the homelands of the fierce Nervii tribe. The soldier has been recently cheated out of his ancestral estates - and is still grieving from the mysterious murder of his father.
Along with Cai Martis, a veteran cavalry Prefect, the young officer uncovers news of a conspiracy. The resurgent Novantae, a ferocious tribe led by the determined war-chief, Barra, aim to put the Romans to the sword and win back the province.
Surrounded and cut off by their enemies, Lucius and Cai must lead their cohort through hostile territory. Conquer or be conquered.
The Romans attempt to send a message through enemy lines.
The First Nervana make a desperate final stand behind the walls of their fort.
Did the message get through? Lucius and Cai know all too well what is at stake. Victory or death."

The reader is plunged straight into the hard life of a Roman solder via a detailed and vivid depiction of military life recognisable to anybody who has served in a modern military unit. Of course, this is not the era of digitally assisted warfare, but the author shows us exactly how effectively the technology and tactics of the time are used by the Roman military. The emphasis on training and discipline, camaraderie, gallows humour and colourful language reinforces the whole narrative.  

The character of Lucius matures under battle. The author does not make the error of going from incompetent newbie to battle-hardened hero, but starts his character’s journey at a reasonable level. Lucius is inexperienced, but intelligent and quick-witted by nature – characteristics essential for a young officer posted to a hostile environment. Relationships such as with Cai develop at a natural pace, as does our knowledge of the range of characters. The personal stories of soldiers and civilians, and their emotional engagement, both round out the characters themselves and increase the stakes (and up the tension for the reader!)

Talking of pace, this varies nicely; sometimes ferocious, other times more relaxed giving the reader breathing space, yet still with an underlying anxiety. The plot is inevitable; the tribes will crash down on our heroes. How they deal with it provides much of the tension.

The richness of detail in this story makes it an alluring read. There are few, if any, historical sources describing the Antonine invasion, so any attempted reconstruction would not be easy. Governor Urbicus must have campaigned against the Votadini and the Selgovae of the Scottish Borders region, the Damnonii of Strathclyde and the Novantae of Dumfries and Galloway. All three of the legions of Britain would have taken part (Legio II Augusta based at Caerleon, the Sixth Victrix based at York and the Twentieth Valeria Victrix based at Chester), as they are all mentioned on the inscriptions recording building work along the Antonine Wall. This legionary core was, no doubt, backed up by a substantial contingent of auxiliary units such as the Nervii in this story. The author has filled in the gap in the sources intelligently and confidently.

Overall, it reminded me of Adrian Goldsworthy’s ‘The Fort’ which I very much enjoyed. 

On the production side, the cover is just right, conveying the light in the dark of the cohort’s situation and the hardness of their dilemma. Red is always a good choice for Roman historical fiction! Unfortunately, some of the poor punctuation and typographical mistakes in the edition reviewed jarred, e.g. ‘Trubunus’ for ‘Tribunus’ in the first line of the story and incorrect use of apostrophes for plurals or placed singly for plural nouns. A little attention to the formatting, particularly indenting, would also make the story more relaxed to the eye.

However, once these are cleared up, I would heartily recommend this to a reader who is looking for a new author of Roman fiction. A second in the series is on its way, I understand. Excellent! I shall be reading it.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Alison Morton
 e-version reviewed

Friday, 20 May 2022

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The Helsingør Sewing Club by Ella Gyland

Published by Harper Collins
 cover designed by Lucy Bennett

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Fictional Drama 
WWII / 1943 / 2018

The Helsingør Sewing Club is an emotional dual-timeline novel which focuses on a less well-known aspect of the Second World War – how the Danish population rallied round to help and protect Danish Jews. 

In the 1943 story, the author focuses on the provincial community of Helsignør (Shakespeare’s Elsinore) where its members wrestle with fear, inner conflict and their consciences as each strives to do the right thing under extreme circumstances. Inger Bredahl from Copenhagen takes a job with a bookbinder in Helsingør and lodges with her aunt and uncle at whose home she has previously spent holidays. The central friendship is with her cousin Gudrun and her friend Bodil – all very different characters and whose own stories illustrate the conflicting pressures on relationships during war and occupation.

In the 2018 timeline, Inger’s granddaughter Cecelie is in an emotionally fragile state. She is unable to have a child, which leads to her husband leaving her for another woman, and she is having to clear her beloved grandmother’s flat after the latter has died. Cecelie stumbles across a diary and a box with jewellery, and a name, which leaves her confused and wondering what her grandmother could have done to have this jewellery in her possession. Thus, the 1943 story is nicely introduced.

Germany occupied Denmark on 9 April 1940 and through a ‘cooperation agreement’, the Danish government and king functioned as relatively normal until 29 August 1943, when because of increased sabotage and resistance, Germany placed Denmark under direct military occupation, which lasted until the end of the war. 

The Danish resistance movement, with the assistance of many Danish citizens, managed to evacuate 7,220 of Denmark's 7,800 Jews, plus 686 non-Jewish spouses, by sea to nearby neutral Sweden. A little more detail of this background would have set the context more roundly as life in early occupied Denmark appears much ‘softer’ than in other occupied countries such as France or, much worse, Poland.
This novel puts human faces to the historical story. We meet ordinary Danes – farmers, fishermen, artisans, local doctors, police officers, shopkeepers and the bookbinder for whom Inger works – who have managed to resist German occupation subversively but quietly including producing and distributing an underground newsletter and forging identity documents. When the relatively light occupation changes to a much harsher one and the persecution of Danish Jews, these same ordinary people become the ones to take overtly dangerous actions. You cannot help holding your breath. 

Gyland's treatment of this story and its range of characters – the timid, the bold, the careful, the quietly patriotic, the vicious, the courageous, the risk-takers and the opportune – is compassionate and dramatic. The author does not shy away from the less happy sides of human nature, but she draws a very sympathetic picture of the goodness of ordinary people who risk internment in a concentration camp or a bullet in the head to save people they don’t know.

Cecelie in 2018 is well drawn and her environment very vivid. While I very much like the coming together of past and present (no spoilers!), I felt the modern romantic relationship was too quick to develop.

The title was puzzling and when mentioned for the first time in Chapter 20 in 2018, it seemed parachuted in. Perhaps it could have been integrated better within an earlier scene in the 1943 timeline?

The writing is excellent, clear and even stark when needed, and the period setting is well-crafted. You see the rows of house, hear the seagulls and smell the fish. This novel is well worth your precious reading hours. I think it will lead many readers to want to find out more about Denmark's unique history in the Second World War.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

Ella Gyland also writes as Henrietta Gyland

© Jessica Brown
 e-version reviewed

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Monday, 16 May 2022

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The Colour of Evil by Toni Mount

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Murder mystery / Series
15th Century

This is the ninth Sebastian Foxley adventure / investigation, set in 15th Century London. These books feature a medieval book producer or illuminator. Presented with a royal commission, Foxley is faced with decisions about font sizes, cover design etc. while struggling with worries about materials, resources, and time pressures, all the while uncertain whether he will be reimbursed for the work.

Recently widowed, and with two young children, an extended family, three employees and an apprentice to provide for, as well as a dog and a cat, his hands are full. On top of that, he is continually interrupted by all manner of people, like his prodigal, thieving brother, an incompetent artist of his acquaintance, the bishop of London, and his friend the bailiff, who needs help investigating a series of brutal murders. 

Altogether a quite satisfying diverting read, although I would quibble with the flavour of English used throughout. It is written in the first person by Master Foxley himself who uses the word ‘be’, as in 'I be grateful', 'I be certain' and so on. It makes for slightly stumblesome reading but the trouble with writing in ‘Middle-English’, of course, is that actual Middle-English would be impossible to read today. What we have here is a patchwork of old and contemporary words and phrases that give a passable simulation of the sort of language of the period. 

Anyway, the author is to be congratulated on carrying the uninitiated reader through the story. All of the backstories of the various characters were unknown to me, but this did not spoil my enjoyment of the book. Indeed, it whetted my appetite for more. Sebastian’s late wife, Emily, for example, appeared as a lost angel in the early chapters, only to be revealed as a nagging harridan later on. Sebastian himself comes across as a plodding, naïve milquetoast, something of an unreliable narrator, put upon by all and sundry. His brother is a thorough rogue, a wife-beating cheat and thief, which raises the question whether he has always been like this and whether he will continue his wicked ways in future books. 

The plot is a little thin, but that is of no importance, given the richness of the detail of everyday life illustrated in the pages of this fine book.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© J J Toner
 e-version reviewed

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The Prisoner by Joan Fallon.

11th Century

Once again, I have the pleasure to submerge myself in 11th-century Andalucía; more specifically in the city of Malaqah. Ms Fallon is an excellent guide through the complexities of Moorish Spain, be it the cultural aspects, the tensions between the various faiths, or the political intrigue that killed off one khalifa after the other. 

The Prisoner opens with a scene that indicates the story will be primarily about the power struggles at the top. The young new khalifa, Hasan, has his younger brother arrested and thrown into a dungeon, there to slowly rot to death. Intriguing, but soon enough it becomes evident that the main plot centres round Salma, Simon, and their family. Salma is a female scribe, a Muslim woman who decades ago fled Qurtubah in the aftermath of civil war with a Christian monk, Simon. It is forbidden for a Christian man to wed a Muslim woman, but Simon loved Salma and so he officially converts, while clinging to his true faith in secret. 

Initially, things seem to go well. After years living out in the country, Salma and Simon arrive in Malaqah and are welcomed by Makoud, Salma’s cousin. Makoud is a recurring character in Ms Fallon’s series, an engaging and intelligent apothecary who lives with his two wives and four grown children in Malaqah. He is delighted that Salma and Simon now want to make their home in his city, and it is through his efforts that Salma and Simon find work at the library in Malaqah.

Salma and Simon have not travelled alone: they have two daughters, one who is safely married to a potter while their younger daughter desires to attend university.

In her various books about the period, Ms Fallon has repeatedly offered glimpses of a surprisingly modern life, a world where women could work as scribes or translators and even study to become lawyers or doctors. Still: a woman must accept that in some aspects her life is restricted. As a wife, she must obey her husband and has little recourse should he choose to abuse her—something Ms Fallon illustrates in The Prisoner.

Not everyone approves of women working outside their homes. The assistant librarian, Marwen, develops an intense dislike of Salma and will do anything to discredit her—or her family. So he starts snooping, and suddenly, Simon’s secret adherence to his Cristian faith can put all of them in danger. 

As always in Ms Fallon’s books, the setting is brought to vivid life, the historical details woven casually into the narrative. To me, the central storyline is that of Salma and Simon, and there are moments when I am not quite sure why Ms Fallon has included some of the other plot-lines,  as they contribute little to the main story. They do, however, offer insightful and educational glimpses into a distant past, reflecting not only Ms Fallon’s fascination with the period but also her expertise. 

For anyone interested in learning more about Moorish Spain, The Prisoner is an excellent and educational read.   

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Anna Belfrage
 e-version reviewed

Monday, 9 May 2022

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The Elsdon Affair by Jen Black

Regency Romance

"When a stranger knocks her off her feet, Rose Brewster is dazzled and curious…handsome flirt Archie has already stolen her cousin's heart along with jewellery from their neighbours, and he has an uncanny knack of disappearing…can she trust such a man when no one knows who he is or where he comes from?
Her parents want her to marry a rich, elderly peer with a grown family. Faced with such a horror, Rose’s fine principles vanish like smoke in the wind across the moors of Northumberland as she rejects the idea and looks at every young man she meets with new eyes.
Harry Stewart shocks Rose with his likeness to Archie…thrilled by him, she discovers even he has secrets. Nothing is perfect or straightforward, but she must do something. Does she have the courage to take a risk that will affect the rest of her life?"

Jen Black's Regency romances combine all that's good about the genre and yet shakes it up a bit with a supernatural twist that never interferes too mischievously with the main plot. 

Rose travels from Tunbridge Wells in Kent to Elsdon in Northumberland to spend time with her cousins and to get away from her parents who are intent on marrying her off to a rich but rather elderly gentleman who has enough money to restore their fortunes. There is a thief on the loose in Elsdon and when Rose discovers his identity, he is not at all what he appears, and for reasons she could not possibly imagine.

I find Jen Black's romances fresh and sparkling with plots that haven't been done before. She has taken the essence of the genre and re-written the rules and created a world that feels familiar but is new at the same time: the same balls and obsession with men and marriage, the mainstay of the genre, but more relaxed, and with fewer marquesses and earls, and more normal people in normal communities. And because she is a little different, the endings are not as obvious.

This one is written with a combination of first person and third and, although I have read this style before, I'm not entirely convinced by it, but that is a personal view and I'm sure other readers would hardly notice.

If you like Regency and all the romance of the genre but are jaded by the same old stuff and can't face another restless duke or shy, downtrodden young lady in need of rescuing, Jen Black is a good antidote. 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Nicky Galliers
 e-version reviewed

Friday, 6 May 2022

A Golden Oldie: Ross Poldark by Winston Graham


Ross Poldark - first edition cover
(Ward Lock & co)


"Ross Poldark is the first novel in Winston Graham's hugely popular Poldark series. Tired from a grim war in America, Ross Poldark returns to his land and his family. But the joyful homecoming he has anticipated turns sour, for his father is dead, his estate is derelict and the girl he loves is engaged to his cousin. But his sympathy for the destitute miners and farmers of the district leads him to rescue a half-starved urchin girl from a fairground brawl and take her home – an act which alters the whole course of his life ."

Despite having a To Be Read list as long as my arm (and two of my own novels to write) I turned to a bit of familiar comfort reading for, well, a bit of comfort when winter suddenly returned and the days were wet and the nights were cold. Nothing better than curling up in a nice warm bed with a good book to read. Or I should say, re-read. 

I read the Poldark series way back when I worked as a library assistant during the 1970s. The fifth in the series The Black Moon, was published in 1973 and I suspect that's when I started reading these excellent books - or it might have been when the original TV series, starring Robin Ellis, aired on BBC TV in 1975. (As an aside, my Jan Christopher cosy murder mystery series is set in and around a library during the 1970s - expect to see the Poldark  books mentioned in a future 'episode'.)

Wikipedia states: "The series comprises 12 novels: the first seven are set in the 18th century, concluding in Christmas 1799; the remaining five are concerned with the early years of the 19th century and the lives of the descendants of the previous novels' main characters. Graham wrote the first four Poldark books during the 1940s and 1950s. Following a long hiatus, he decided to resume the series and published The Black Moon in 1973."

The newer TV series, starring Aiden Turner, started in 2015. Whether the original or the newer series is the better of the two is personal opinion. I preferred the recent version, partly because the scenery and locations are made more use of because of improved camera technology.

What I think is not in doubt is the enduring enjoyment of the books. They are, almost, 'the everyday story of Cornish folk' set in the late 1700s/early 1800s. They are not, I must be honest, action adventure nor do they have in-depth plots. The stories are about the characters, their views, their feelings, their lives, loves, mistakes and achievements. They are about the arrogance of the gentry and the struggle to survive by the poor.

Nor is the 2015 TV series that faithful to the books - the books are slower, things happen in a more 'real time' frame, whereas the TV series skipped about a bit, and did not introduce as many sub-characters. (Why did the TV series change Nicholas Warleggan?) In the books, at least in this first novel, George Warleggan is nowhere near as prominent, plus the love that gradually develops between Ross and Demelza is a lot slower to blossom within the written pages.

Being truthful? There were rather a lot of POV and sudden scene changes - but - this is how books were written in the UK back then! I spotted a couple of minor historical errors, but nothing serious.

A fictional series portraying just how life - for the rich and the poor - probably was in Cornwall, or anywhere in England for that matter. Poldark remains a darn good read. So on to book two: Demelza.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Helen Hollick
 e-version reviewed

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The Viennese Dressmaker by Kathryn Gauci

1930s / 1940s WWII
Vienna / Austria

The Viennese Dressmaker by Kathryn Gauci is set in the 1930s to 1940s in Vienna during Hitler's rise to power. The novel's protagonist, Christina Lehmann is a successful couturier who caters to the Viennese elite.  She employs and has among her clients both Jews and Catholics. Mirka, her favorite seamstress is among the hundreds of Jews murdered by Nazis on the night of Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass, a true historical event described vividly at the beginning of the story. 

Christina is horrified, yet she is strong and kind, risking her safety to help Mirka's young children. As time progresses, the Nazis close in on Christina's inner circle, including her lover Max who is half-Jewish. Although his secret is known only to a few trusted friends, the Gestapo discovers his true identity. Besotted with Christina is her childhood friend, Dieter Klein, a high-ranking Nazi official who despises Max for winning Christina's heart. Unfortunately, the lovers are torn apart when Max "disappears".  When Christina is informed of Max's precarious situation, she is confronted with a nauseating choice: acquiesce to Deiter Klein's amorous proposition or risk losing Max forever.

Author Kathryn Gauci's prose is elegant and vivid, capturing the horrors of the Nazi regime's unconscionable cruelty while contrasting it with the opulent life of the Austrian elite. The novel is studded with meticulous details of Austrian architecture and cuisine and intricate descriptions of aristocratic Viennese women's attire.

The story moves at a measured pace, except in the final few chapters when it picks up tempo. My one criticism - and it is a minor one - is that the protagonist's character does not significantly change during the course of the story, although she definitely rises to the occasion as her life becomes increasingly difficult.

With fascism on the rise in many parts of the world, this novel is a must-read for us to understand why dictators must be stopped. Dictators destroy humanity, not just who they target at the outset.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Juhi Ray
 e-version reviewed