From Rome to Milan – via Boston

No not me, but a series of books. Readers may remember my first Italian trip was as a spectacularly unsuccessful au pair, paired with a family of four: two vegans, one alcoholic and one nymphomaniac – or so others described them. The vegan part was accurate.

And the second visit was as part of my world trip, which was a self-indulgent history and archaeology itinerary, although a large part of Roman history seemed to be undergoing restoration eg Trajan’s Column and the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. My hist/arch interest fits nicely with the first book in this series which involves archeology in Rome. I like reading stories set in places I’ve visited, although I’ve not been underground in Rome.

Roma, Underground by Gabriel Valjan

Book One
Book One
This starts off the Roma series which centres on a strong heroine with a background as a financial investigator for a covert US organisation, Rendition. Wonder how many there are in reality?

Alabaster Black becomes Bianca Nerini in Rome when she chucks the covert firm and gives herself a new life. She meets Dante, an amateur underground archaeologist, who also works as a financial investigator and they team up to try and solve the problem of Rome’s disappearing artefacts.

This is another book with foreign language phrases scattered around and luckily, for the most part, they aren’t followed by a literal translation. I mean, does anyone really need Importazione/Exportazione translating? Or bistecca? Speaking of steak, there are lots of mouthwatering foody references in this book, so not one to read when you are hungry. Probably explains why I made lasagna after I read the book.

The relationship between Bianca and Dante is nicely low key, concentrating on their investigation rather than anything else, and the interaction with Dante’s colleague Alessandro and their boss Gennaro is good too. It’s an interesting plot, and combined with plausible characters, food snippets, some history, and a great location, it makes for a good read.

Travelogue interlude …

Wasp’s Nest

So then, it was onto the second in the series, Wasp’s Nest, and Bianca has returned to Boston and her previous life as Alabaster, lured back by Rendition to work on a case she can’t resist. She’s chucked her boyfriend Dante, left her friends, and new life behind to work for the dodgy firm again. Bizarre.

Book Two
Book Two
The lure in this story, is for Bianca to apply her skills to a firm doing research into wasp genome-mapping. Or something like that. Meanwhile two of her Italian pals – although not Dante – come to Boston, hot on the trail of the assassin who killed Gennaro’s wife years ago. And, the men behind the artefact scam she worked on in Rome are due for trial in Boston. So it’s all pulled together very neatly with some of the former main characters, and some new ones.

We learn more about Bianca, seeing the good and the not-so-good side of her. Gennaro pals up with a cynical honest American police officer, corruption abounds, and there is quite a body count. As light relief, Bianca befriends a struggling but talented chef, so our team of honourable misfits use the restaurant as their meeting place, with the chef cooking special meals for them, so there are more yummy foody references (yummy for non-vegetarians that is).

With the exception of the struggling chef, who Bianca helps financially, I don’t understand what all these men see in this woman apart from her brains. Because she’s not very personable or considerate in her relationships.


Threading the Needle

Bianca’s inability to trust starts off book three of the series, Threading the Needle, set in Milan.

She can’t resist dabbling and hacking and finds herself looking at an arms manufacturer with a secret project. Most arms projects probably are secret, I guess.

Book Three
Book Three
Her Italian pals with the financial investigation team from Rome have been despatched to Milan, so we have the same team, different plot, different location. Add into the puzzle of the dodgy armaments manufacturers, the ruthless murder of a young American student and an up-and-coming popular Communist leader, who is gay and Catholic, disturbing the political scene, and throw in the usual corruption and leaks. It’s anyone’s guess what will happen.

No distractions with descriptive meals this time, we discover Bianca can’t even make a decent job of French toast, which I think is eggy bread in English. This alone should tell you that Threading the Needle is a much grittier book.

If you only read one book in this series, read this one. Not least for the powerful afterword by Claudio Ferrara, journalist, author, and translator, from Milan, who sets the historical and political context.

Icons in Milan:

As a series, there are common elements: corruption, deception, trust (or lack of), food references (!), politics, greed, dishonesty, corporate power, vendettas and revenge. And although the heroine is a woman, there are few other women in the books and they fall into the usual decorative sexual stereotype category. I found Bianca somewhat flat, with her analytical coldness and she could really do with an injection of vitality. I am surprised her long-suffering boyfriend puts up with her. In contrast Gennaro, and his detective pal Farrugia are well-developed characters who tend to take over the books. No matter, the point is, the series is a good read, there are a few proofing errors but not enough for me to tear my hair out, and if you enjoy these sort of thrillers, I recommend them. They can be enjoyed at two levels, as an interesting story and straightforward read, or if you want to think a little deeper, Valjan poses some challenging questions about society, organisations and global corporations.

The fourth book in the series, Turning to Stone, is set in Naples and looks equally promising, and I’ll be reviewing that next month.

The author

Gabriel Valjan
Gabriel Valjan

Gabriel Valjan lives in New England, USA. He went to university in southern California and gained his master’s in Medieval Studies in England.

He’s worked as an engineer, a nurse, and is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and an advanced scuba diver. Gabriel has enjoyed traveling round Europe and North America.

His short stories and poetry have appeared in literary journals and online magazines. Ronan Bennett short-listed him for the 2010 Fish Short Story Prize for his Boston noir, Back in the Day.

He has an interesting blog at where he writes about books and authors, but also has a series about World War One which may interest history buffs.

Books provided through Italy Book Tours.

80 comments on “From Rome to Milan – via Boston

  1. Love all the photos! That lasagne looks yummy too – I reckon my garlic mushroom one could be on the menu today. :) Sometimes it’s quite interesting to see how male authors envision their main character females and vice versa, although I suppose we’re not all that different in our heads.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Photos are obviously ancient, mid 80s!
      I got three aubergines and loads of peppers from my Spanish neighbours, so it was lasagna one day, and pizza the next :)
      I edit for a great author who writes excellent male characters, especially evil ones, but having said that, she writes good characters across the board.
      I was saying how much I liked a strong female character to another author, and he said she originally started off male, which I thought was interesting. Perhaps we should write characters first and ascribe gender later?


      • Still, such gorgeous buildings. I’ve been to Venice at the ripe old age of fourteen, but never Rome although I’ve always wanted to see it. Love aubergines too in Lasagne – pizza too. Aubergine and avocado pizza is amazingly cool. You’re right! Write the characters first. I’ve never wondered what a man would think before writing any of my males – mainly just think of them as people. I do remember a long online chat in a writing group with some getting quite hot under the collar about having to get into the mind of the opposite sex or you would never be able to write them.


        • I loved Italy for the history, but I can say the same about France, Spain, Portugal etc. I’d just spent so many years studying Roman history and archaeology that it was a real delight to see places and artefacts for real. Preferably not covered in scaffolding and netting.

          Aubergine and avocado? Must try. Made an excellent guacamole last week to go with chilli beans and tortillas. The avocado was just perfectly ripe. I should have bought two.

          It’s an interesting discussion point. Are men and women essentially different and should they be portrayed as such, or are we just reflecting the societal view that ascribes gender attributes and behaviour? I like reading blogs where the gender isn’t clear, and people make assumptions based on what they read as to whether the author is make or female.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Travel pictures and food. Perfect post. (Avocado goes with everything – sticking to that story)
    You are right about how much fun it is to read stories about places you’ve been too – and the same with traveling to the places you’ve read about.
    The last book sounds like the winner. I like characters that are archeologists. Valjan’s occupations and adventures probably created a solid stories. (Impressive book reviews as always. Enough tidbits to interest, but nothing given away -plus humor. Nicely done) Now you’ve made me very hungry…and we do have avocado…food before or after dog walk – with tropical rain band days, that’s always the question.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Travel and food, indeed a perfect combo – and with a good book to read too.

      I like reading some travel books too, but I tend to like the long journey type ones, again probably because it reminds me of my own travels. I don’t think I’ve read many fictional archaeology books, probably because it always seems over-glamourised, whereas my reality was either dust or mud, chapped/dry lips, scuffed hands, broken nails, and poor money. I felt like a labourer on a building site wheeling my barrow up and down ramps to tip the unwanted soil away.

      With Valjan’s work, I like the way he tackles a range of issues, weaves in the day to day office work, adds the foody touches, and brings it all together. Matter of taste I suppose, and I was influenced by the Italian locations.

      Mmm, avocado. Delicious however it’s cooked/prepared. Allegedly it rained last night but I never heard it. Sounds like muddy paw wave time your way again.


  3. Sounds good, and the lasagna looks scrumptious! I often find that interesting, to read, how a male author describes a female character and vice versa.

    On an unrelated note; I followed the Pope’s visit in the US. CNN had total coverage of the entire visit. The Pope had a translator who followed him around everywhere … he was really good at what he was doing, and he did it in such an un-intrusive way. I said to my husband I thought I detected a slight, British accent, but my hubby thought not. We started to google the guy, and apart from finding out that all girls found him incredibly CUTE in Twitter, we found out he’s from Gibraltar! Msgr. Miles :)


    • Thanks Reb, and yes, a male author with a female lead is an interesting one :)

      Gibraltarians have a variety of accents, some are Spanish, some are perfect English, and if they’ve lived in/were brought up in the UK, they can have all sorts of UK regional accents. I didn’t know about Mark Miles though, so thanks for that piece of info. He must be pretty handy at languages, brought up bilingual Eng/Span, and presumably has Latin and Italian to survive inside the Vatican. I guess from Gib, he’s used to living in small places so not too difficult to adapt to the Vatican. If you’re Catholic of course. Bit difficult otherwise …

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, you just know how to make my hungry! That Lasagne looks soooooo delish! I wouldn’t mind reading those books as well, with that Lasagne next to me of course. :lol:

    Roma, underground will be the first one I would love to read. I love archaeologist stories and this reminds me of the books of Barbara Michaels I loved to read. She also wove her stories around different themes. Old and historical buildings, archaeologist digs, jewellery, etc. Very well researched too. I think these stories would make great movies as well. :D

    You must have enjoyed reading these books, especially because you were at those place. Must be so much fun! :D

    I love the photos! Such beautiful architecture. Thanks for sharing Kate. Always a treat to visit here. ♥


  5. Hmmm… interesting. Female heroine, foodie refs, series… all things I love in a book and your review makes the rest attractive as well. I’ll never make decent inroads on my TBR list if you keep this up.
    Mmmm… lasagna :)


    • About the same as me! I was meant to speak English with the non-English speaking children though. Au pairing. Just tell me about it. I did stay with a family, friends of the weirdos, who were delightful, and had gorgeous children. Luck of the draw …

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hey Kate

    Totally unrelated to the book review, but this made me think of it. I Drove through Milan once, coming up from the Adriatic Coast to my home in Germany. All I can say to that is… Not for the faint of heart. It’s not as bad as Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but is better than say, San Diego.


      • When we lived in Germany, we were pretty fearless. We would just get in our very American Pick up truck with its camper and hit the road. Like that vacation on the Adriatic. 10 days in an Italian town mostly frequented as a holiday spot for Germans. And us LOL. It was quite interesting to say the least.

        I know you like animals, so this might interest you about my time overseas. I did the German Begleithund training with my Golden Retriever, Scooter. We didn’t do the protection part, as that not really in the Golden temperament, but we did the rest, the Part A and B. topic, sorry. I really, really liked Europe a lot, though. Got to see quite a bit of it actually. Not the eastern part, as that was still the Cold War days, so you could not just hop over.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I ‘hopped’ over th wall. I was staying with a German family in Düsseldorf or somewhere and they had a flat in Berlin. The son drove me and him there and we had to stop at a checkpoint. I had to get out, (not him), show passport to evil looking Stasi or whatever they were and it freaked the life out of me. I had visions of being hauled off, incarcerated and never seen again outside the wall.

          I bet you were fun before you got religion Wally ;)

          Liked by 2 people

  7. Whadaya mean not you… go on, git! And it better be a slow boat too, maybe even a canoe… for you! :D Those pics look pretty old. Threading The Needle with the arms manufacturing involving a murder sounds interesting. What kind of arms though, hey? Arms of a jumper came to my mind, but that would be knitting needles, gotta be a shirt… yep, needles, cotton, definitely a shirt. But then if they were short arms… could be a cover up for something else. ;) Dodgy if you ask me!


    • Not me because I didn’t go via Boston. And it was train not slow boat. Did the Euro-rail thing. Brilliant. And it was thirty (one) years ago, so the pics will look old. The cars in the header photo should give that away.

      Tanks actually. No not a tank top either ;)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Actually I do. But these were a free book tour so why not? There is something wrong with this heroine. She’s cardboard. Much better was Dylan Hearn’s heroine who started out male and he swapped genders. Very clever. And regarding diet, the fourth book brings back the menu. Phew.


      • Mind you, I’ve noticed that plastic lead characters seem to provide little limitation to success, in action/thriller or detective books in particular. That reading public doesn’t seem to want these characters fleshed out. Skeletons will do.


          • It is a depressing topic. I have been introducing increasingly challenging threads into my own fantasy scribbles, when actually I should be ‘dumbing them down’? I am probably trying to swim against the current.


          • It’s a bit like the reading age of tabloid newspapers isn’t it? But if you have people who enjoy your books, why not introduce something else? If you look at commercial bestsellers, authors are often criticised for their later books where they lose inspiration and churn out endless tat instead of adding that bit extra to their work. Always good to go against the flow :)

            Liked by 2 people

  8. Ah-ha! I knew I’d find something we have in common eventually! (apart from a love of Yorkshire and Olhao :) Just a bit different, aren’t they?) I like books set in places I’ve been too, or would like to visit. And doesn’t Gabriel sound an interesting man?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I make the base from onions, garlic, toms, aubergine, peppers, just sauté them together and always do more than you think.

      One layer veg, one lasagna, another veg, etc. topping was yoghurt with grated cheese mixed in, easier than a white sauce and I didn’t have soya milk in, although that would have been my preference.

      Is that not specific enough? Quantities, at least one of everything, and loads of toms. I usually do three sheets of lasagna.

      If I have any leftover anythings I add that too. It’s the tomatoes that make it as they keep it moist. What you need to avoid is that vile claggy stuff that is served out. Vomitsville. For me, it needs to be about the veg, so it’s light but full of flavour. Oh, herbs. Of choice.

      But, if you want to change it, you can add ground nuts or tvp if that’s your thing. I prefer to use those for spag bol, shepherds pie, cannelloni.

      I can give you those recipes if you wish:) Today we had sliced potatoes, sort of pommes Anna, with sautéed onion, herbs, mozzarella and yeast extract stock. Didn’t do enough. With broc and courgettes.

      Salad shortly for tea.

      Seriously, email me if you want inspiration. Or at least, recipes.


Thanks for visiting roughseas whatever your interest and, if you comment, a bigger thanks.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s