Historical Fiction: The Glassblower of Murano, by Marina Fiorato

The Glassblower of Murano

My rating:  3 of 5 stars

Historical fiction meets contemporary romance in this tale of two glassblowers. Leonora Manin, an artist with some skill in glassblowing, has been reading about her ancestor, the illustrious Venetian glassmaker Corradino Manin (fictional). Now reeling from her recent divorce, she decides to make a new start in Venice, which is also the city of her own birth. Leonora fortuitously lands a job and a new love interest during her very first week as a native Venetian. Author Marina Fiorato spins out her debut novel by juxtaposing, in alternating chapters, the lives of 18th century Corradino and 21st century Leonora. By far the most effective of the two story lines is that of Corradino, who, during the downfall of his wealthy merchant family, is taken in by the master of one of Murano’s best glassworks. He grows to become one of the greatest glass artists of all time, and while this sounds wonderful to modern readers, the Republic closely guarded those artists with an eye to preventing them from selling secret formulas and techniques to other countries. But to save his illegitimate daughter, Corradino is reluctantly drawn into a plot to do just that, by traveling to Paris to create the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Leonora will learn that she is the direct descendant of that girl.

Leonora’s story is far less compelling, and, because it relies so heavily upon coincidence, less than satisfying. In these sections, Ms. Fiorato resorts to extravagant description, perhaps to dress up a somewhat prosaic plot, in which she is fired when a columnist accuses Corradino of treason. The love match between Leonora and Alessandro Bardolino, descendant of another of Venice’s patrician lines, looks like “someone who stepped out of a painting”, quite literally. So for that matter does Leonora; in her case, it’s the famous Primavera. It takes a while to get started, but things do heat up a bit, and avid romance readers are likely to enjoy their tale more than I did.

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Historical Fiction: The Book of Unholy Mischief, by Elle Newmark

4.0 out of 5 stars Transformations

Venice in the early Renaissance was a perilous in the extreme. Innocent or guilty, prominent or poverty stricken, an individual could be destroyed in the blink of an eye, if it suited the aims of the politically powerful. The age of scientific enlightenment was dawning, but superstition and “heresy” still abounded under the iron rule of the church. Luciano, a street urchin, is offered a rare opportunity to transform his life by the chef of the doge, who is not merely a culinary master. Chef Ferraro is one of the Guardians, a network of educated men who are living and dying to preserve priceless knowledge that church and government are eager to obliterate. Together, Ferraro and Luciano undertake the perilous task of preserving this knowledge and denying it to the autocrats.

The Book of Unholy Mischief is chock full of mystery, intrigue, hope, and violence. It is also an argument for “free thinking”, in such a way that the religious sensibilities of some readers will be offended. Those who can approach it with open mind will discover much to enjoy: vivid characters, food for thought, great atmosphere and period detail, an appreciation for humanistic values. Life in the kitchen of the doge’s palace is portrayed so expressively that the mouth waters. While the plot sometimes loses its tension, its underlying message, that true magic lies not in sorcery but in learning, is beautifully conveyed.

Historical Fiction: The Four Seasons, by Laurel Corona

4.0 out of 5 stars A tale of two sisters

18th century Venice, in the midst of its long decline. The nobility still hold sway, their lives simultaneously purposeful and decadent. Maddalena and Chiaretta, sisters abandoned as toddlers at the famed Pieta ospedale, are nurtured there and trained to become superb musicians. As a young woman, Chiaretta chooses marriage over career, and becomes a member of the aristocracy, adapting to ways completely at odds with the standards under which she was raised.  Maddalena will live out her years as maestra of the Pieta’s renowned coro, cloistered and virginal, deeply immersed in her music, and  destined to become the muse of composer Antonio Vivaldi.

The Four Seasons plunges the reader into both worlds, describing vividly the sights, sounds, and strange customs of Venice, which even today seems somewhat unreal. Author Corona’s  lovely prose is a pleasure to read, but, although her heroines experience the highest of highs and lowest of lows, emotionally the narrative remains somewhat distant and flat. Nevertheless, as a competent, reasonably accurate piece of historical fiction, Seasons delivers. Well worth reading.

Travel Stories: City of Falling Angels

by John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Vignettes

Judging from the reviews I’ve read here and there, I’m one of a only a few readers who didn’t notice much difference between Midnight/Good/Evil and City of Falling Angels. Both are light, gossipy little romps through famous, exotic cities, built around a pretext of getting to the bottom of a notorious crime. Both books lack focus, and don’t really solve their crimes. Outs me in mind a bit of Dominick Dunne. But the value of Berendt’s writing lies in the profiles and vignettes that swirl around in somewhat formless fashion. Berendt is a decent researcher who tries to stick to the facts, which are often colorful enough to need no embellishment. He is also a capable writer. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. Reading City of Falling Angels is like visiting little corners of Venice piecemeal, an activity that can never be boring.

The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense. ” Tom Clancy