The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen

Rhys Bowen’s newest is another skillfully told, impeccably researched tale of World War II.  A tale in which wartime secrets come to light 60 years later.

Bowen’s forte is creating a sense of place and time. The city of Venice really is the main character- the book comes to vivid life when Juliet and Caroline arrive in Venice. The reader, through the wanderings of these two women – separated by generations –  comes to know its labyrinthian  canals and bridges.  Water (tides and rain and waterways) dictate when, how and where one goes in any given moment. More than once, boat and bridge accidents illustrate the danger of living on a watery lagoon.

Juliet travels to Italy as a teenager, then as a teacher and finally as an art student in 1938. When Juliet dies in 2001, her great-niece travels to Venice just after 9-11.  Caroline’s aunt gives her a sketchbook and  keys and points her in the direction of her beloved city.

Juliet’s maturity and self-discovery is defined by her growing knowledge of Italian and  the Venetian dialect as well as her ability to traverse the lagoons and canals.  Her encounters with other students, teachers, and  patrons of the arts are a highlight and offer a glimpse into the art world of the time.  Their camaraderie  is shadowed by the news coming out of Poland and Germany. The sorrow and tragedy of the war is made made personal when we see how it affects one city – its people and those who’ve made their way to Venice and its priceless treasures.

Politics of Washing by Polly Coles

politics of washingThis is the story of ordinary life in an extraordinary place.

The beautiful city of Venice has been a fantasy land for people from around the globe for centuries, but what is it like to live there? To move house by boat, to get a child with a broken leg to hospital or to set off for school one morning only to find that the streets have become rivers and the playground is a lake full of sewage? When Polly Coles and her family left England for Venice, they discovered a city caught between modern and ancient life – where the locals still go on an annual pilgrimage to give thanks for the end of the Black Death; where schools are housed in renaissance palaces and your new washing machine can only be delivered on foot. This is a city perilously under siege from tourism, but its people refuse to give it up – indeed, they love it with a passion.

The Politics of Washing is a fascinating window into the world of ordinary Venetians and the strange and unique place they call home. (description from publisher)

The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny

Book of Madness and cures

For Dr. Gabriella Mondini, there is no other option besides following in her father’s footsteps into a life of medicine in Regina O’Melveny’s debut, The Book of Madness and Cures.  She is passionate about healing the citizens of Venice. For a woman residing in this part of the word in the late 16th Century this proves to be a challenging feat.  In the male dominated Italian medical society, Gabriella gains credibility with her father’s colleagues by assisting him with research on “The Book of Diseases.”

A few years prior, Gabriella’s father, the elder Dr. Mondini, disappeared unexpectedly with only an occasional letter as to his whereabouts.  In addition to the sporadic correspondence, his writings are cryptic and give little clue to Gabriella and her mother of his condition, which has a tendency to gravitate toward madness.  With the prospect of continuing her medical career in jeopardy without her father’s guidance, Gabriella, her maid and a few additional servants embark on a journey to solve the mystery of what happened to her father.  The journey takes them across Europe to France, Germany, England, Spain and south to the tip of Morocco, all the while encountering danger while traveling and encountering locals who met her father and are able to provide clues to the group of travelers.

While in Morocco, Gabriella finds out the shocking truth about her father, his nearly completed book on diseases and her own future.  O’Melveny’s debut provides a rich look at late 16th century day to day life, the logistics of cross continent travels and the lives of women during this time.

Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark

unholy-mischief1Imagine Venice in 1498.  Imagine being orphaned and living hand-to-mouth in its busy streets.  Imagine you’re Luciano and you’ve just been caught stealing a pomegrante.  Will this act send you to the dungeons?  No!  This act will actually land you an apprenticeship with a maestro chef, who just happens to cook for the doge, the highest court official in Venice.

As unlikely as this sounds now, as a reader, I found it completely plausible.  Apparently, the chef sensed some finer qualities in this street urchin, so he takes him in under his wing, encouraging him to learn all he can.  The plot thickens as rumor circulates that there is an ancient book hidden within the city that contains many secrets of alchemy — the secret to eternal youth, plus secret recipes for making gold and love potions, among others.  Luciano is especially interested in the love potion, hoping that it will help him secure Francesca, an unavailable convent girl with whom he is smitten.  The doge, meanwhile, suffering from old age and syphilis, is intent on finding that fountain of youth, and he doesn’t mind committing multiple murders to obtain it.

While most everyone in the city becomes obsessed with finding  this precious tome, it is just as jealously protected by the Guardians, who are willing to die to keep its secrets.  The ending may not be what you expect, but you’ll keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.  The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark is part Da Vinci Code and part Oliver Twist, and recommended for foodies and historical fiction fans.