Monday, July 31, 2017

Brooklyn Wars by Triss Stein: Reading Room Review

One of the greatest pleasures of reading is learning about unfamiliar places, being surprised at how interesting a place is that you hadn't given much thought to.  In the Erica Donato series by Triss Stein, I have fallen in love with Brooklyn, New York and its rich, diverse history which comes into play in the present day.  The character of Erica Donato was brilliantly created by the author to be a cultural historian working on her PhD in urban history.  Through the connection of Erica doing research for her dissertation and her part-time job at the Brooklyn History Museum, there are plenty of opportunities for mysteries from the past and even murder.  Many people don't want the past disturbed, and Erica comes to realize that some will even kill to keep it quiet.  Her natural inclination to uncover the secrets of the past and relate them to the present often places her right in the path of danger.

In this, #4 of the series, Erica is investigating the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which was a big part of our country's WWII effort and employed 70,000 plus at its height of operation.  She has decided that because of the Yard's important history, even before WWII and after, and because of current plans being made to redevelop the area, she needs to include a chapter about it in her dissertation.  Attending a community meeting about redevelopment plans at the Navy Yard's Museum, Erica discovers that there are lots of emotions and opinions concerning the Yard's history and future.  Looking around after the meeting in an isolated and condemned area of the Navy Yard known as Admirals' Row, Erica is a witness to murder.  Although she doesn't get a look at the shooter, she realizes that the dead man is the speaker at the just finished meeting.  Erica learns that the man, Michael Conti, has a long personal history with the Navy Yard as a political and financial opportunist, having betrayed those who looked to him to save the Yard when it closed for his own personal gain.  Things, as usual, become complicated when Erica decides she needs to find out all she can about Michael Conti to include in her research and paper, and there is much to find.  Erica even gets entangled in the relationships of the women in his life.

As fate would have it, or the author's clever maneuverings would, Erica's teenage daughter is doing a history of her father's family as a school project.  Since Erica's husband died when her daughter Chris was just three, Erica hasn't had much contact with her mother-in-law, but Chris instigates a trip to see her grandmother in Buffalo to talk about the family history, and Erica has no choice but to go.  While looking through old boxes of family documents and pictures and mementos there, Erica is surprised to learn that there is a connection to the Brooklyn Navy Yard through her late husband's family, a "Rosie the Riveter" girl named Philomena.  Philomena and some of her brothers worked at the Yard during WWII, and Philomena lost her job to men returning from the war at its end.  But, there is more than just a fading memory of a young girl who was part of history and who died young.  There is a mystery of her disappearing boyfriend and her family's association with the man Erica saw murdered.  It does seem that Brooklyn is like a spider web, with many strings of interlacing points from the past to the present.

With this addition to the series, Erica Donato finds herself on the cusp of several life changes.  Her time as a student and working on her dissertation is coming to a close, she has some major revelations about her personal relationships, and she faces the transition from student to searching for employment in her field of study.  Triss Stein has developed Erica's character and her journey to this point in a plausible and fascinating progression.  With each book, the reader has greater insight into Erica, just as Erica has greater insight into herself.  The supporting characters are also well-drawn, and their stories are unfolding in a timely manner that keeps pace with Erica's development.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Triss Stein is a master at intertwining great storytelling with engaging history in a story-rich setting.  Her research is exceptional, rooting out all the behind-the-scenes aspects that make any history intriguing.  Her love and respect for Brooklyn is evident.  I recommend that in reading this captivating series, you come for the story, but be prepared to leave with that and an appreciation for Brooklyn as a major player in our country's history.  Brooklyn Wars is a book you will enjoy on many levels.

I received an advanced reader's copy of Brooklyn Wars from the author in exchange for this objective review. 


Author Spotlight: Triss Stein and the Erica Donato Brooklyn Mysteries

Brooklyn Wars, the fourth book in the Erica Donato Mystery series, comes out tomorrow on Tuesday, July 31st.  Today on The Reading Room author Triss Stein gives us a glimpse into Brooklyn and why it's a perfect setting for her mystery series.


Brooklyn is a place where a single block has antique shops and Middle Eastern stores where you can buy fresh pita bread and hookahs, where a descendant of an old family kept removing street signs that named streets for other old families, where the Botanic Garden is a restorative oasis of flowering plants in the midst of hectic city life, and where a scenic cemetery was once a popular place for picnics and carriage rides.  Where you can hop a subway to the beach and the beach could be the famed Coney Island, or you can explore a Wildlife Refuge marsh and spot more than 330 bird species, including Ibis, herons, egrets and ospreys. All within sight of distant skyscrapers. Where an ivied public college has sent generations of immigrant children on their way into American life.  Where they marched elephants across Brooklyn Bridge when it opened to prove it was safe.

I didn’t grow up knowing all this. I grew up in the rest of New York state, a small city in an area of dairy farms and paper making and lots of snow. My parents were originally from New York, the city, but the Bronx! Anyone will tell you, emphatically, that is not the same. I went to college in Boston, came to New York for library school and went to work for the Brooklyn Public Library system. 

That’s really when the seed for my mystery series about Brooklyn was planted, though it took a few decades to begin to put out leaves. In eight years I worked in nine different locations and I noticed three things in all of them:

-people said “I’m from Brooklyn”  not “I’m a New Yorker.” In fact, they often said, “I’m from Mill Basin…Van Wyck projects…Brighton Beach.”  Many scarcely ventured out of their neighborhood.

- those neighborhoods were sharply different from each other, with unique histories, cultures and populations

- everywhere, people thought it was better in “the old days.” Often, that meant before “those people” moved in.  (The specifics of "those people" changed with the neighborhood.)

Sounds like small towns, doesn’t it? And I saw that I because I was not attached to any particular neighborhood, and did not have any cherished memories. To me, it was all new, fascinating, and surprising.

Now I have lived in Brooklyn myself for almost a lifetime.  Some things have changed at an accelerated rate.  Intense gentrification has made Brooklyn – astonishingly! - trendy. That has brought better restaurants and safer streets and property values have skyrocketed, very nice for long time homeowners, very scary for young people getting started, lifelong renters, and small businesses. 

Was it –still- better in the old days?  As it always was, it depends on who you ask. And the answers to how it got that way are part of each urban villages history. In those conflicts between the old days and right now, the old generation of immigrants and the just arrived, the people who love change and people who hate it or fear it, even between the old-style criminals and more up-to-date evil, there are a lot of stories tell.  If you can’t find a mystery plot here, you can’t find it anywhere. And it can always be sprinkled with a helping of Brooklyn attitude.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Throw Back Thursday: Great Reading from My Past

I have certain obsessive subjects in reading, and one of those is the plague in England, both in the 1300s and the 1600s.  So, back in 2008 when I came across Company of Liars by Karen Maitland, set in the plague year of 1348 in England and mirroring the story of The Canterbury Tales, I was thrilled.  This book remains one of my all-time favorites, and one I intend to go back and read again soon.  There are great characters, mystery, medieval history, and did I mention the plague?  Karen Maitland is an English author who has written several of my favorite books, The Owl Killers being on equal footing with Company of Liars.  On a side note about Karen.  I was having trouble finding one of her books, and I wrote her telling her of my problem.  She sent me a signed copy of the book and a lovely postcard of Lincoln, a city rich in medieval history, where she then lived.

I'm including a book description for Company of Liars and a biographical sketch from Karen's website at   She has led a fascinating life, and her website is awesome.  So, if you haven't been fortunate enough to discover Karen Maitland's writing yet, please read on and become acquainted with one of my best experiences in reading to date.

Book Description:
The year is 1348. The Black Plague grips the country. In a world ruled by faith and fear, nine desperate strangers, brought together by chance, attempt to outrun the certain death that is running inexorably toward them.
Each member of this motley company has a story to tell. From Camelot, the relic-seller who will become the group's leader, to Cygnus, the one-armed storyteller . . . from the strange, silent child called Narigorm to a painter and his pregnant wife, each has a secret. None is what they seem. And one among them conceals the darkest secret of all--propelling these liars to a destiny they never saw coming.

About Karen Maitland, from Her Website:
In medieval legends the black dog or black shuck is thought to be a sign of death, but my life was once saved by a black dog which appeared out of nowhere.

I recently moved to the lovely county of Devon, having lived for a number of years in the beautiful medieval city of Lincoln, which together with the wild salt-marshes of Norfolk, provide great inspiration for my novels.  But, like my characters in Company of Liars, I’ve spent much of my life traveling, spending my early childhood in the sunshine of Malta and later journeying to Iceland and Greenland. In my working life I’ve done all kinds of jobs from hospital worker to lecturer, egg packing to dance-drama, to before I finally started writing in 1996.

One of my jobs took me to Nigeria for eighteen months where I lived the medieval life for real in a rural village in Nigeria, without running water, electricity or sanitation. A group of lepers who begged in the village kindly taught me enough words of Hausa to be able to bargain for food in the market place. One of the great joys of living in Africa was that I got to raise a duiker fawn and an orphaned bush-cat. I even had the thrill of baby sitting two lion cubs which needed bottle feeding.

But life in Nigeria got pretty terrifying when civil war broke out. One day I was trapped alone in a narrow street and found myself surrounded by men wielding machetes. Having seen someone hacked to pieces the night before, I was under no illusions about what they intended to do. But as they closed in a big black dog suddenly appeared at my side, growling savagely at anyone who approached me. The dog led me safely home, pressed against me all the way. It stood guard behind me as I unlocked my door, then it turned and ran off. I never saw it again, but I owe my life to that amazing black dog.

I began writing historical novels after I became fascinated by the medieval period having visited the beguinage (city of women) in Bruges, which I then used in my novel The Owl Killers. I have now written four medieval thrillers, Company of Liars, The Owl KillersThe Gallows Curse and Falcons of Fire and Ice which came out in August 2012. I’m hard at work on the next two books  ‘The Vanishing Witch’ and The Raven’s Head.

As well as my own stand-only medieval thrillers, I also write joint medieval crime novels with a wonderful group of historical authors known as the Medieval Murderers. They include Philip Gooden, Susanna Gregory, Michael Jecks, Bernard Knight, and Ian Morson.

Medieval Thrillers

The Medieval Murderers Joint Crime Novels