Shelf Control #339: A Venetian Affair by Andrea di Robilant

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Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

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Title: A Venetian Affair
Author: Andrea di Robilant
Published: 2003
Length: 291 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In the waning days of Venice’s glory in the mid-1700s, Andrea Memmo was scion to one the city’s oldest patrician families. At the age of twenty-four he fell passionately in love with sixteen-year-old Giustiniana Wynne, the beautiful, illegitimate daughter of a Venetian mother and British father. Because of their dramatically different positions in society, they could not marry. And Giustiniana’s mother, afraid that an affair would ruin her daughter’s chances to form a more suitable union, forbade them to see each other. Her prohibition only fueled their desire and so began their torrid, secret seven-year-affair, enlisting the aid of a few intimates and servants (willing to risk their own positions) to shuttle love letters back and forth and to help facilitate their clandestine meetings. Eventually, Giustiniana found herself pregnant and she turned for help to the infamous Casanova–himself infatuated with her.

Two and half centuries later, the unbelievable story of this star-crossed couple is told in a breathtaking narrative, re-created in part from the passionate, clandestine letters Andrea and Giustiniana wrote to each other.

How and when I got it:

I picked up a copy at one of our big library sales, probably about 10 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I barely remember, but this seems like a book that I grabbed on a whim while browsing at the huge annual library sale. The cover and title certainly would have caught my eye!

I don’t read a ton of non-fiction, but there are so many elements of this story that sounds like they’d be fascinating — historical Venice, a secret love affair, a discovered cache of passionate letters — just the synopsis makes me want to know more!

This book has pretty mixed reviews on Goodreads, but some of the reviewers seem to have expected a novel and felt disappointed that this is a non-fiction book. Other reviews are absolutely glowing, so it’s a bit difficult to get a good sense of the book’s overall reception.

I’m interested enough that I’ve held on to this book all these years, but I’ve never quite been in the mood to pick it up and read it.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
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Audiobook Review: Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Valour and Vanity (Glamourist Histories, #4)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 29, 2014
Print length: 405 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 12 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Acclaimed fantasist Mary Robinette Kowal has enchanted many fans with her beloved novels featuring a Regency setting in which magic–known here as glamour–is real. In Valour and Vanity, master glamourists Jane and Vincent find themselves in the sort of a magical adventure that might result if Jane Austen wrote Ocean’s Eleven.

After Melody’s wedding, the Ellsworths and Vincents accompany the young couple on their tour of the continent. Jane and Vincent plan to separate from the party and travel to Murano to study with glassblowers there, but their ship is set upon by Barbary corsairs while en route. It is their good fortune that they are not enslaved, but they lose everything to the pirates and arrive in Murano destitute.

Jane and Vincent are helped by a kind local they meet en route, but Vincent is determined to become self-reliant and get their money back, and hatches a plan to do so. But when so many things are not what they seem, even the best laid plans conceal a few pitfalls. The ensuing adventure is a combination of the best parts of magical fantasy and heist novels, set against a glorious Regency backdrop.

More fun with Jane and Vincent! Yes, I’m hooked on this series. Listening to the audiobook for #4, Valour and Vanity, was just as much fun as the first three. I’m only sad that there’s just one more left!

In Valour and Vanity, we’re treated to a high calibre caper. The synopsis is right to describe it as something out of Ocean’s Eleven!

Following a disastrous sea voyage in which they lose all their money and possessions, Jane and Vincent arrive in Venice penniless. To make matters more difficult, their intended host, Lord Byron, has left town on romantic pursuits, leaving Jane and Vincent with no place to go and no funds to pay for lodging or even a fresh set of clothes. Fortunately, a fellow traveler from their ship offers them his generous assistance…

And clearly, there’s more to the story, but I’m not going to give any spoilers! Let’s just say that there are twists and turns, all sorts of sneaky double-dealing, plus helpful nuns, a brave puppeteer*, gondola chases (yes, you can in fact have a chase scene with gondolas!), glass-blowing, and so much more.

*Fun fact: Author Mary Robinette Kowal is a professional puppeteer, so her inclusion of a heroic puppet-master here is just delightful.

Once again, Jane and Vincent are a terrific twosome. They’re unconventional, incredibly talented, and very much in love. They also feel real in the way that they face difficulties and disagreements, react emotionally, talk things through, and find ways to move forward. They don’t have to be perfect around each other — they love each other passionately and accept each other exactly as they are.

The Venice setting is new and different for this series, and provided a great setting for a plot where Jane and Vincent have to navigate without any of their usual allies or safety nets. The action is fast-paced, and the schemes are just oh-so-clever.

One sure sign that you’ve become overly involved as a reader is when you can’t stand for bad things to happen to beloved characters, even if the bad things lead to exciting storylines. This was my only problem with Valour and Vanity — I’m so in love with Jane and Vincent that it upsets me too much when their well-being is threatened, so even though the caper aspects of the story are really fun, I was also incredibly tense throughout! I just needed to know that the characters I care about would come out okay in the end. (Yes, of course they do. After all, we still need to get to book #5!)

This series continues to be a delight, and I can’t wait to start the final book, Of Noble Family. Well… I’m actually dreading it, because I don’t want the series to be over… but still, I have to know what happens next!

For an interesting look at the author’s puppetry career and her transition to writing, check out this article.

Audiobook Review: The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich


Hannah Levi is known throughout sixteenth-century Venice for her skill in midwifery. When a Christian count appears at Hannah’s door in the Jewish ghetto imploring her to attend his labouring wife, who is nearing death, Hannah is forced to make a dangerous decision. Not only is it illegal for Jews to render medical treatment to Christians, it’s also punishable by torture and death. Moreover, as her Rabbi angrily points out, if the mother or child should die, the entire ghetto population will be in peril.

But Hannah’s compassion for another woman’s misery overrides her concern for self-preservation. The Rabbi once forced her to withhold care from her shunned sister, Jessica, with terrible consequences. Hannah cannot turn away from a labouring woman again. Moreover, she cannot turn down the enormous fee offered by the Conte. Despite the Rabbi’s protests, she knows that this money can release her husband, Isaac, a merchant who was recently taken captive on Malta as a slave. There is nothing Hannah wants more than to see the handsome face of the loving man who married her despite her lack of dowry, and who continues to love her despite her barrenness. She must save Isaac.

Meanwhile, far away in Malta, Isaac is worried about Hannah’s safety, having heard tales of the terrifying plague ravaging Venice. But his own life is in terrible danger. He is auctioned as a slave to the head of the local convent, Sister Assunta, who is bent on converting him to Christianity. When he won’t give up his faith, he’s traded to the brutish lout Joseph, who is renowned for working his slaves to death. Isaac soon learns that Joseph is heartsick over a local beauty who won’t give him the time of day. Isaac uses his gifts of literacy and a poetic imagination—not to mention long-pent-up desire—to earn his day-to-day survival by penning love letters on behalf of his captor and a paying illiterate public.

Back in Venice, Hannah packs her “”birthing spoons”—secret rudimentary forceps she invented to help with difficult births—and sets off with the Conte and his treacherous brother. Can she save the mother? Can she save the baby, on whose tiny shoulders the Conte’s legacy rests? And can she also save herself, and Isaac, and their own hopes for a future, without endangering the lives of everyone in the ghetto?

My Thoughts:

I found the plotlines revolving around Hannah’s midwife practice very compelling. It was fascinating to learn more about the role of midwives at that time (1575). Of course, we know that childbirth was a hazardous undertaking for women prior to the advent of modern medicine, but seeing it up close through Hannah’s experiences really drives home how risky it was and how closely death would hover for both mother and child. On top of the risks of childbirth, in The Midwife of Venice we get a stark portrayal of the status of Jews in Venice. The anti-Semitism of the time is commonplace, ordinary, and frightening. The threat of the inquisitors arresting Jews in violation of the law is an ever-present danger. When Hannah agrees to deliver a Christian nobleman’s baby, she’s putting the entire ghetto at risk, because if a Jewish woman can be blamed for causing the mother or baby to die, it’s likely that the people of Venice will invade the ghetto and slaughter the Jews.

Woven throughout Hannah’s story are chapters focusing on her husband Isaac, held prisoner on Malta with a ridiculous and unattainable sum set as his ransom. His efforts to earn his own freedom come to nothing, and the best he can do is try to stay alive until he can either escape or get rescued.

While the story as a whole held my interest, there are some oddities in the narrative that kept it from being more than just an okay read (listen) for me. It was often hard to tell how much time had passed from one chapter to another, so that a messenger might bring Isaac word of something that had happened in Venice — word that would presumably take weeks or longer to travel that distance — while only days had passed in Hannah’s part of the story. I wish the sections dealing with Hannah and her estranged sister Jessica had been better developed; their relationship is very layered and complex, yet it seemed to be dealt with much too quickly. Some of the action sequences happened much too quickly as well, leading me to believe that the author isn’t quite skilled enough in this type of writing: She’s very good at creating mood and characters, but putting together scenes of suspense or physical danger doesn’t seem to be a strength.

On the whole, there are some believability issues as well. Characters change course and act in ways that seem illogical and not in keeping with what we know about them. There are story beats that seem to come from nowhere, keeping the drama high, but almost without connection to the scenes that came before. A few moments of high drama keep the tension ratcheted up, but at the same time, at least one in particular seems to have no impact on the plot whatsoever, so why even include it?

Overall, The Midwife of Venice presents a very interesting story and setting, but the execution isn’t as good as I would have hoped. As for the audiobook, I didn’t particularly care for the narrator. She does a good job with the Italian phrases and names, but the depiction of the rougher folks of Malta was off — there were times when I thought the people in the crowd scenes sounded like New Yorkers! Also, the audiobook experience makes certain repetitions more glaring — why, for example, is it necessary to begin every chapter by identifying not only the location of the chapter (helpful to know whether we’re in Venice or Malta), but the year? It’s 1575 in every single chapter, so why repeat it in EVERY SINGLE CHAPTER?

The Midwife of Venice was my book group’s pick for March, and I’ve enjoyed hearing others’ thoughts on the book. I understand this is the first in a trilogy. Because of my issues with The Midwife of Venice, I’m not planning to read the follow-up books — but I’m interested enough in the outcome for the characters to be glad that one of my book group friends is reading the whole trilogy and has promised to let us know how it all turns out!


The details:

Title: The Midwife of Venice
Author: Roberta Rich
Narrated by: Antoinette LaVecchia
Publisher: Anchor Canada
Publication date: January 1, 2011
Length (print): 336 pages
Length (audio): 9 hours, 7 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased