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
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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 gabrielswharf.wordpress.com 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.