Another different Italian Inspector!

Death and the Olive Grove by Marco Vichi, translated by Stephen Sartarelli

This is the second of Vichi’s novels featuring Inspector Bordelli of the Florentine police.  I’ve yet to read the first, but I don’t think it really mattered. It was first published in Italian in 2003, the English translation was published this year.

When I started reading the book, I was initially worried that it might seem a little similar to Andrea Camilleri’s excellent Inspector Montalbano stories. Stephen Sartarelli has translated both and his style is recognisable in these pages.

Outwardly, although the Italian locations are different, Bordelli has some similarities with Montalbano too, being a single policeman who loves his food and drink. However, some pages in, (there are no chapters, only section breaks), Bordelli was beginning to show a personality of his own, and I really began to enjoy the novel.

Set in the 1960s, this is the era before technology revolutionised forensics. When a young girl is brutally murdered, the scene of the crime is overrun with onlookers, the paparazzi aren’t so new! No sooner than Bordelli and his young sidekick Piras have one murder on their hands, another happens when Casimiro, a dwarf who lives on the edges of Florence’s criminal fraternity, is killed. Casimiro had been Bordelli’s friend, and he vows to find his killer – they had been investigating some fishy goings on together in the grounds of a villa in Fiesole, a town in the Florentine hills.  The villa’s occupant, a German baron, is notable by his absence.  Things will get worse yet…

Bordelli is in his fifties, he’s unmarried, gruff, and accompanied by a personal fug of cigarette smoke everywhere he goes. His methods of detecting are largely to sit and smoke until inspiration hits. He agonises over the murders though, they keep him up at night; added to which he keeps thinking back to the war – when he was a Commander in the part of the San Marco marine battalion that turned and fought for the Allies against the Germans. He was a man of action, a fearsome shot, looked up to by his men which all gives him an added gravitas.  The after effects of the war still resonate from time to time in this part of northern Italy.

When he needs comfort though, he often ends up at Rosa’s flat.  She used to be a prostitute, and they’re old friends, and have a cosy relationship – why she’s knitting him a pullover.  If I had one quibble, it would be that, save for the wartime remnants, occasional musical references and the lack of mobile phones, it didn’t feel very like the 1960s to me – the traditional Italian café culture not having changed so much over the years.

Like all good Italian detectives, he has a healthy disrespect for authority, and goes his own way as much as possible. I liked him a lot and will read more, he needs to give up smoking though – but I forgot – it’s the 1960s!  (8/10)

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I received a review copy through Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Death and the Olive Grove (Inspector Bordelli 2) by Marco Vichi. Pub Hodder & Stoughton. Hdbk, 272 pages. Paperback due out 26 April.
Death in August (Inspector Bordelli 1) by Marco Vichi
The Shape of Water (Montalbano 1) by Andrea Camilleri

Short Takes on Two Short Stories…

I don’t read many short stories, but this week, I’ve happened to read two …

The Small Miracleby Paul Gallico

Published in  1951, Gallico’s story is a charming fable of faith and love about an orphan boy Pepino, and his donkey Violette.

Pepino and Violette live in Assisi. They make ends meet by doing donkey work for everyone in the town. One day Violette is taken ill and the vet can’t help. Pepino goes to church to ask the priest if he can take Violette into the basilica of St Francis to pray for a cure. The Supervisor and Bishop forbid it, but Father Damico tells Pepino to ask the Pope, so off he goes to Rome …

Sweet, and with a light touch, this was a delightful tale. Unusually, it was published as a single illustrated story back then, and the charming drawings really help to show the spirit of St Francis alive in the love of Pepino for his donkey.  A charity shop find, it was well worth the 50p I paid.

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The Little Daughter of the Snow from Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome (pub 1916).

One of the books I’m looking forward to reading in the coming weeks is The Snow Childby Eowyn Ivey. It was inspired by this particular fairy tale from Ransome’s collected tellings of Russian fairy tales, (which I previously wrote about here). Before I embark on the new book, which everyone seems to love, and I’ve deliberately steered clear of reading too many details about, I thought I’d re-read the old tale, a mere ten pages, to set the scene for me…

In Ransome’s story, a childless old couple build a snow girl who comes to life. She is an elemental force, spending most of her time outside playing. But one day she gets lost in the forest.  A fox brings her home and think he’ll get a chicken as thanks, but the old couple plan to trick him out of his reward.  The snow girl melts away while telling them that they didn’t love her enough if they wouldn’t give away a chicken.

The cruel moral sting in the tail makes this one of the saddest in the collection.  I’m really looking forward to reading The Snow Child now!

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I bought my copies, to explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Small Miracle by Paul Gallico
Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome

A man, his lover, & his dog

Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes

This is the story of a mongrel dog with the ‘saddest eyes in the world’.   One day a stray dog turns up at retired British composer Cockcroft’s Italian villa.  The dog has beautiful eyes and Cockcroft is very happy to gain a new companion, for he has been lonely since his last lover left.  Soon man and dog become inseparable.

Cockcroft hates being alone, and has over the years since his enforced retirement from the UK in disgrace, somehow managed to attract a stream of willing house-guests by offering room and board in return for a weekly blow job!  One day, a visitor arrives unexpectedly – a handsome Bosnian, whom it turns out Cockcroft invited him to visit when he was last in Florence.  Timoleon Vieta growls at him taking a mutual instant dislike, but Cockcroft welcomes him even though he can’t remember who he is. The Bosnian, who is keen to lie low for a bit, insinuates himself into Cockcroft’s life.  He does odd jobs, and performs his weekly service, but he wishes all the time that he could get rid of the dog.  His wish comes true on a trip to Rome,  when he forces Cockcroft to abandon Timoleon Vieta there.

The second part of the book is then the story of all the people whom Timoleon Vieta comes into contact with as he tries to get home to Tuscany and his beloved master.  All these people are falling in and out of love, and Timoleon Vieta passes through their lives briefly, but their love is no match for his master’s.

This novel was Dan Rhodes’ first, and having read and loved one of his later ones, Gold, which was like a twisted version of Last of the Summer Wine, I was hoping to really enjoy this book.  Timoleon Vieta come home is much more savage in its humour and darker throughout than the later novel.  With some graphic descriptions you need to be rather broad-minded too.  I didn’t engage with the stories within the story of the second half much though – they were full of emotion and exquisitely crafted but some were quite extended, and I was itching to find out what was happening with Cockcroft and the Bosnian.

Rhodes has created some memorable main characters:  Cockcroft is a silly old fool, and the Bosnian, although not nice, turns out to be quite complex – but what of the dog?  Sorry, I can’t tell you – you’ll have to read it yourself.  (7.5/10)

For another take on this book, read Simon Savidge’s review here.  I did a bookswap for this book.

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To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Timoleon Vieta Come Home, Gold both by Dan Rhodes.

Bodies in Bologna

Almost Blue by Carlo Lucarelli, translated by Oonagh Stransky.

Lucarelli is apparently an established author of over a dozen books, and a TV presenter to boot, but this is the first of his detective novels to get translated into English.

Ispettore Grazia Negro is part of a new group within the Italian constabulary set up to investigate serial murders.  Several students have been brutally murdered in Bologna, and they appear to be linked.  Grazia and her boss Vittorio Poletto  have arrived from Rome to take over the case.  Being a relative rookie, and female she has a hard job convincing the locals – until she shows the last photo.

Simone is blind. He spends his life in his attic room where he scans the airwaves and listens to jazzman Chet Baker, whose version of Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue is his favourite track. Simone ‘sees’ voices in colour, and one day he hears the killer’s ‘green’ voice.  Grazia and Simone together can catch him – but at great personal risk – will they get there in time?

At just 168 pages of ‘Italian noir’ the plot clips along at a fast pace. It’s original and expertly zips between Grazia and the police, Simone and the killer. There is also plenty of blood – indeed we’re thrown into it on the very first page, and it doesn’t let up.  In the three main characters, the murderer is truly monstrous, Simone is a revelation, and Grazia is feisty and likeable.  Of course as a woman detective, she has to prove herself by being working harder than all the men – sadly it seems ’twas ever thus, (I could have done without the author making her pre-menstrual too though!)

The fast pace and low page toll mean that more words have to count, and this this was an enjoyable read for the most part; would that more books embraced the less is more philosophy.  I would happily read more by this author, especially if Grazia is allowed to develop. (7/10)

Pub 2003 in the UK.  This edition – Vintage Books – 168pp. I bought this book.

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To buy this book from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Almost Blue by Carlo Lucarelli.

Kidnap in the Florentine hills

Death in Springtime by Magdalen Nabb.

The first I’ve read, this is the third novel in Nabb’s series of police procedurals set around Florence and featuring Marshal Guarnaccia.  I was recommended this series by good blog-friend LizF who kindly sent me this one to get me started.   Nabb, who died in 2007, wrote fourteen novels in the series which started back in 1981. 

It’s March in Florence and snowing. With the unusual weather, no-one notices the abduction of two foreign language students.  One is later released with a message for the girl’s parents, but won’t talk. The carabinieri suspect the Sardinian shepherds who live in the hills above the city, most local kidnappings are down to them, but they don’t have much information to go on. Leading the case is Captain Maestrangelo and his team, working with a new Prosecutor to get the girl back alive, before the girl’s father can pay the ransom. The Captain believes they’re dealing with amateurs this time, and that the girl will die unless they get to her first.

Although the Carabinieri are structured quite differently from our police, they go about finding the missing girl in much the same way – particularly in that there’s no substitute for local knowledge.  Knowing your patch like the back of your hand, what goes on in it, and who does what is essential to their policework as the Marshal and other team members are well aware.  Of the other characters, the young Carabiniere Bacci, proves very useful as an English speaker, teasing information out of the released girl; and the new prosecutor, whom the Captain always refers to as the Substitute, is a lively sort who brings a little cheer to this rather serious novel.  The Marshal is, this time, a supporting character to the double-act of the Captain and the Substitute, but from his few appearances, you know you will like him – an older policeman with the intuition of experience. What is most surprising is the poverty that the Sardinians live in up there, no wonder the sons grow up wanting to get out of this close-knit community and choose crime as an easy route to money. 

We see little of tourists’ Florence in this novel, the city locations are mostly those of workers, as are those in the hillsides – no-one ever said a shepherd’s life was easy. The policework is thorough and solid, like the novel itself which is rather serious. We don’t learn anything about the policemen’s private lives here, it’s all about the case, unlike those of Donna Leon where Comissario Brunetti’s family co-star, and Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano where food and his girlfriend play second fiddle, along with their locations in both cases.  I am definitely interested in reading more of the series though and in particular, getting to meet the Marshal properly.  (7/10) I was given this book.

From bitter almonds comes sweet romance …

Madonna of the Almonds by Marina Fiorato

I was delighted to meet Marina a couple of months ago as I had so enjoyed her debut novel, The Glassblower of Murano, which I had blogged about last autumn here. She’s a real character! – half-Italian with a mass of red Titian hair, a northern accent and sense of humour to match. I was equally pleased to receive a review copy of her new book, and lovers of well-researched historical romances will not be disappointed.

It’s set in Lombardy, specifically Saronno – home to the famous liqueur Amaretto, and the story behind the creation of that exotic tipple is the inspiration for the novel. In the early 1500s a church in Saronno commissioned frescoes from one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s students – Bernardino Luini. Luini needed a model for the Madonna and it’s said that a young widowed innkeeper posed for him – and became his lover. To thank him, she created Amaretto from apricot kernels steeped in brandy, and the legend was born.

Bernardino Luini is real – his work can be seen in museums around the world, and his frescoes of the Madonna in Saronno, and the Saints in a Milanese monastery exist. The latter in particular are said to be particularly fine and equal in skill to that of his master Da Vinci. Apart from his art, not much is known of his life, so Fiorato has been able to weave a rich narrative involving him and the Amaretto legend.

The author has made the widow of this tale a young noblewoman, Simonetta, forced into straightened circumstances after her husband’s premature death in battle. With no money in the coffers, she may be forced to borrow money from a Jew, but in Manodorato, she finds a friend rather than foe who persuades her to try to make some money rather than borrow. She reluctantly agrees to pose for the painter, a known philanderer and unbeliever, but he falls in love with his muse and she begins to have feelings too – but she’s still meant to be in mourning. A stolen kiss leads to their denouncement in front of the visiting Cardinal and Bernardino has to flee. Simonetta retreats to her villa where she finds a still and experiments with the almonds growing in her orchard – and we know where that will lead!

The main story is set against a period in history where the Jews were being subjugated wherever they settled, extra-marital relationships would likely end in execution, and corrupt cardinals had their fingers in many pies. Yet (renaissance) art is a powerful redeemer; and having escaped to an abbey in Milan, Luini starts to paint frescoes of the Saints – martyrs all, and finds himself and what he must do in their agonies.

Marina has created another richly imagined world and this made for an immensely satisfying comfort read – a summer bestseller for sure. Her first novel had Venice as a co-star; here art fulfills that role admirably and should I go to Milan, I’d love to see the Luini frescoes. The only irony though is that although we strongly associate Amaretto with almonds, the current liqueur is ‘Nut-free’! (8/10)

“If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?”

The Kiss of Death by Marcus Sedgwick

Now this is a proper novel about vampires – and they don’t even make an appearance properly until late in the book, however, they are mentioned in the blurb, so I’m hardly giving the game away. It’s also a proper book about Venice, set in the 18th century during the end of the winter carnevale – approaching the start of Lent, when Venice becomes a masked city of revellers.

Marko, a doctor’s son, comes to the city after receiving a strange letter from his father Alessandro, who had travelled there to attend an old friend Simono, a glassmaker, who was seriously ill. When he arrives, he finds his father has disappeared, Simono has gone mad and his daughter Sorrel is at the end of her tether, worried that her father will die and that their house is cursed. Strange things are happening in and around Venice involving a band of celebrants with a strange tattoo. They seem likely to come to a head during the festival when the new Doge takes his seat, and it seems that Simono is somehow involved in these events. It becomes a race against time for Sorrel and Marko who, as you may expect, begin to fall for each other, to solve the mystery, to find Alessandro and cure Simono.

Sedgwick’s gothic Venice is wonderfully realised; it’s one of my favourite literary settings.  You can smell the stench, you can hear the water constantly lapping on the piles, and you can feel the damp and gathering dread in the fog. It’s also all the better for the vampire action coming from Eastern Europe folklore rather than any modern romantic interpretation, it’s subtle yet menacing and not pretty at all – the quote at the top from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice above seems to sum it up well.

Although this is, I later discovered, a sequel to a previous book, My Swordhand is Singing, this novel stands perfectly well on its own.  In summary, this is a sophisticated novel for teens steeped in a sense of time and place, and also a cracking good adventure. I will definitely read more of Sedgwick’s novels.   (9/10)

“Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”

… so said Truman Capote. Going to Venice is like stepping into a time-warp. On the surface, it’s ancient, romantic and beautiful, yet it is mysterious and there’s often a whiff of danger from its history as a great trading city. Much of the paraphenalia of modern living is hidden from the tourist’s view allowing you to wallow in adoration of this unique place.

This is the Venice of The Thief Lord by German author Cornelia Funke. It feels so Dickensian in time, that you are really surprised when a mobile rings. Dickensian is actually an apt adjective, for the book centres around a group of orphaned children who live together in an abandoned cinema, looked after by their Faginesque young mentor – the self-styled Thief Lord. The two newest members of the gang, brothers Prosper and Bo, have a detective on their trail whose job it is to return Bo to the guardianship of his rich aunt; the brothers had run away as they were to be split up.

The first third of the book introduces us to the gang and their life in Venice which is hard, but appears a lot of fun. It takes its time to get going though, but once the detective Victor (who doesn’t normally do lost children) is hard on Bo and Prosper’s trail things start to hot up. Also the Thief Lord is commissioned to steal an object for a mysterious Conte, which would earn them enough money to live well for ages. They can’t resist the job though, and things happen thick and fast with many twists and turns in the plot.

***SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT***
The novel up to this point has been firmly rooted in reality, but it turns out that the object they are looking for is the missing part of a magic roundabout which has the power to either age its riders or make them younger. I felt that the introduction of this fantasy element at such a late stage in the book was detrimental to the story, although it did then allow for very neat tieing up of many ends.

This was the first novel in my Easter kid-lit feast, and overall I really enjoyed it. As an adult it was an easy read but never simplistic. Aimed at around 8-12 yr olds, I feel that the slow first third (it’s nearly 350 pages long) might not hold the interest of some younger readers enough to get to the real excitement, but the chapters are fairly short, so the frequent scene changes may do the trick. The main characters are great – I loved Victor the sympathetic detective with his pet tortoises, and Scipio the Thief Lord was really interesting. All the alleys and nooks and crannies made Venice seem very real, and the smattering of Italian in the text was well-integrated, and explained in a glossary at the back.

I would definitely like to read Funke’s Inkheart trilogy, which are full-on fantasy novels for 10+. On to my next book – Numbers by Rachel Ward a novel for teens about a girl who can see the date when people will die …

Short Takes

I’d like to introduce you to a couple of books that I particularly enjoyed earlier this year before I started my blog …

Gold by Dan Rhodes.

This is a gently humorous novel about Miyuki and her annual trip to the same Welsh seaside village out of season, where she walks, reads, and drinks beer for a fortnight before going home refreshed to her lover.
At this time of year the village is sleepy, and night after night the same small group of people frequent the pub. There’s Short Mr Hughes, Tall Mr Hughes, Mr Puw and Septic Barry among them. Miyuki who’s been going back for quite a few years, easily slips into place – until she feels herself compelled to do something that pushes else everyone into action.
The characters are all strongly drawn, and with that touch as in The last of the summer wine, you can’t dislike any of them with all their little obsessions and peccadilloes. As Miyuki’s fortnight holiday goes on, we gradually find out more about her and them and grow to love them all which makes the twist at the end all the more of a surprise. (9/10).
*****

Saving Caravaggio by Neil Griffiths

This was that rare thing – a thriller with real depth and big themes of obsession and negotiation. Its overall timbre in the writing is very much that of chiaroscuro, the artist’s skill of working with light and shade and, as you might expect from the title, art is at its core too.
Art cop Daniel Wright recovers stolen paintings; he’s one of the best at negotiating in the shadows to reclaim these purloined pictures. His speciality is Caravaggio, and there is one long-missing canvas that he once saw for just a few moments, which now obsesses him. When he’s sent to Italy to do some undercover work at the Uffizi, he seizes his chance to go after the painting, realising that it’s more important to him than his failing relationship with his wife. He’s helped towards that by meeting curator Francesca!
I’m not a fan of Caravaggio, finding him too dark, but the author does give us interesting insights into understanding why he was an artistic genius and worthy of such obsession and study. The shafts of light through this dark novel are few and far between, the characterisation is brilliant and the side of Italy that we see is very different from that experienced by any tourist. (10/10)
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Source: Own copies. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
Gold by Dan Rhodes, Canongate paperback
Saving Caravaggio by Neil Griffiths, Penguin paperback.

A sense of place

The Glassblower of Muranoby Marina Fiorato

Novels with a strong sense of place are always attractive to me, and the most attractive of all are those set in Italy. I can’t get enough of them – the romance, the passion, the art and architecture, the food. But absolutely top of the list are those set in Venice at the trading heart of the renaissance world, so The Glassblower of Murano, the alluringly titled debut novel by Marina Fiorato wasn’t going to languish at the bottom of my to be read pile. Was it worth promoting?

Yes … Like many novels these days it seems, there are parallel strands – weaving a modern day story with a historical one. Usually one strand is more interesting than the other, and this is no exception; but unlike Labyrinth by Kate Mosse say, where the contemporary strand was superfluous and detracted from the historical one, this novel nearly pulls it off.

Newly single Nora runs off to Venice to find herself and her family history in the glassblowing trade, where she meets and falls for Alessandro, a policeman. So far, so resonant of a younger version of Miss Garnet’s Angel by Sally Vickers. But Leonora, to give her full name, is herself a skilled craftswoman and artist and does have Venetian heritage. She persuades a ‘fornace’ to take her on as a glass-blowing apprentice – causing age-old rivalries to resurface between her and Roberto, from the line of her ancestor’s greatest rival.

Back in the 17th century, her ancestor, Corradino, the glassblower of the title, is Murano’s greatest exponent of making Venetian mirrors much coveted the world over. The Murano glassblowers are the best in the world, with rivalry between themselves also, and their techniques and trade secrets are so prized and guarded by the Venetians, they are rarely allowed off the island. Thus Corradino rarely gets to see his secret daughter from a liaison with a noblewoman who died in childbirth.

However when he is offered the lure of being reunited fully with his daughter and to escape to France to furnish what will become the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, he can’t resist. He is constantly watched by members of ‘The Ten’ – the Venetian guild of assasins, so the only way they can get him away is to fake his death – like Juliet – with a potion … The two stories converge as Leonora tries to clear his name of the betrayal and heal the rift at the fornace.

We learn just the right amount about glassblowing and the potentially deadly process of silvering the mirrors with mercury. The author, a Shakespearean scholar, pays her debt to him, but I would have liked to find out more about ‘The Ten’ who stalked Corradino and ultimately collect their debt when he returns to Venice one last time. I enjoyed the historical stand more than the contemporary, yet they did entwine nicely by the end. This was an entertaining and romantic read. ****

P.S. My Dad has just told me that Daphne Du Maurier wrote a novel set during the French Revolution called The Glass Blowers. It sounds good – I may have to check that out!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Glassblower of Muranoby Marina Fiorato, Beautiful Books, paperback.
The Glass-Blowers (VMC) by Daphne DuMaurier, VMC paperback.