Wednesday, July 18, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Pandora's Boy by Lindsey Davis

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

Having recently completed book 5 in Lindsey Davis’ historical mystery series set in ancient Rome, The Third Nero, I was thrilled to have the chance to review book 6, the newly released Pandora’s Boy.

With this latest installment, the series has recaptured its momentum and I enthusiastically recommend it. However, the series should be read from book one, The Ides of April. (For ultimate enjoyment, start with Silver Pigs, the first book in the preceding Marcus Didius Falco series – but that’s not crucial for this series featuring Falco’s daughter, Flavia Albia.)

When we left Albia and her new husband, plebian aedile Manlius Tiberius, the outlook for his recovery from the wedding-day lightning strike was looking promising, but he was not yet out of the woods. Things take a turn when his ex-wife, the unpleasant Laia Gratiana appears with a job for Albia. A friend’s fifteen-year-old daughter has been found dead in her bed, possibly poisoned, possibly the victim of a love potion.

Albia turns down the job. She wants nothing to do with any friend of Tiberius’ ex. But the moment her back is turned, Tiberius disappears. No explanation. He’s even taken off his wedding ring. Albia, whose job it often is to find missing husbands, is unable to find her own. The frightening suspicion of her loved ones is that he is suffering from a post-lightning strike fugue state. Desolate, Albia decides to bury herself in her work. She takes the case.

Small, tragic domestic troubles never remain small and domestic. The more Albia digs, the more she uncovers, most of it only peripherally related to the question at hand: how did the girl die? There are criminal gangs active in Rome. Albia (and her adopted father Falco) have come across these dangerous characters before and do their best to avoid them. But Albia’s investigations keep crossing into their territory and she’s going to have to deal with some gangsters before she solves the mystery.

This novel demonstrates Davis’ talent for conflating ancient Rome with modern day tropes: hippies/earth mothers, foodies, bratty overindulged teenagers, and organized crime. The results are vastly entertaining even if a bit farcical for a historical novel. Also, (spoiler alert) Tiberius does reappear. The relationship between Albia and Tiberius is sweet, loving, and amusing. They complement one another’s working styles. And Tiberius has an admirable ability to stand back and let Albia do her work.

For fans of tongue-in-cheek historical mysteries, Lindsey Davis’ novels are pure fun.

Monday, July 9, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Dear Mrs.Bird by A.J. Pearce

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

Historical fiction fans may want to keep an eye out for the new release: Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce, a wonderful WWII novel set in London during the blitz.

I had to struggle a bit through the first chapter. The protagonist was, at first, too awkwardly perky and naive. But I rapidly warmed to her.

Emmy Lake is doing her part by volunteering to answer phones for the fire brigade at night and working as a secretary by day. But she dreams big. She wants to be a journalist – a war correspondent She believes she’s gotten her big break when she sees a help wanted ad: the newspaper is hiring a "junior." But when she does get the job, she’s distressed to discover she’ll be sorting mail and typing for the advice columnist at a failing, old-fashioned women’s weekly magazine.

Once this premise is established and Emmy deals with the situation she’s found herself in, the narrative voice settles down and the book takes off.

Emmy is an optimist and she makes the best of an unpleasant situation. Her boss, Mrs. Bird, has ridiculously outdated ideas about what is suitable for an advice column. Nothing about the war or anything hinting about relationships can be addressed. Not many women bother writing to Mrs. Bird, but unacceptable letters far outnumber acceptable ones. Emmy is tremendously upset by Mrs. Bird’s callousness. She wants to help. She starts answering letters and signing them with Mrs. Bird’s name.

Meanwhile, her own life suffers a few bumps. Her boyfriend jilts her. Bombs keep falling. It gets harder and harder to keep calm and carry on. The crises grow more serious and the story’s poignancy increases as the losses hit closer and closer to home.

Emmy’s great fault is impulsiveness and her judgment is faulty at times, but her heart is definitely in the right place. She’s brave, persistent, and loyal. And she and her best friend Bunty amuse and entertain.

The subject matter gets heavy and Emmy does a lot of growing up, but a light-hearted strain runs throughout the novel. Its feel-good ending will make you feel good! I find myself wishing for a sequel.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Third Nero by Lindsey Davis

I can tell time is passing too quickly when I realize I’ve fallen behind on a series that I love. I’ve been a fan of Lindsey Davis’ historical mysteries set in Ancient Rome since the Falco days. When Falco retired from informing, his adopted daughter Flavia Albia took over. I reviewed the previous novel, The Graveyard of the Hesperides, in January of last year. So I’m months behind on this one: The Third Nero.

When we left off, Albia had just wed her aedile, Tiberius, an intelligent, supportive member of the Roman upper crust who aided her with her investigations in the past. Unfortunately, at their wedding, he was struck by lightning. A bit farfetched, but it worked.

Now, they are dealing with setting up housekeeping, Tiberius’ lengthy recuperation, and a new political crisis. Approached by the official spy network of Emperor Domitian with seemingly inconsequential tasks that require a woman’s touch, Flavia Albia becomes aware of a plot against the emperor. Since she and everyone she loves hates the tyrannical Domitian, she is not thrilled to be working for his men. On the other hand, stability is better than chaos. And she needs the funds.

Those interested in getting rid of Domitian have plotted in the past to replace him with a false Nero, claiming Nero was not really dead. Two of these plots have failed. Generally, the impostors get their starts in the east, supported by the Parthians. The newest fake must be rooted out. More importantly, the mole in the spy network who is in contact with the Parthians must be discovered.

At first, Flavia gets so much help from the official spy network that it’s unclear why she is even needed. A good deal of historical background is explained, sometimes rather clunkily, but it is necessary to understanding the convoluted plot.

This is not one of my favorite books in the series. From the plot, to the ironical voice of the protagonist, to the take-a-back-seat role for Tiberius, it seemed forced. Even so, I love returning to this world and will get to the next book sooner.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Eighty Days. Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman

For our next meeting, our book club has chosen Eighty Days. Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman.

The book is a dual biography of these two adventurous women. Nellie Bly is the better known historical figure. She initially made her name as a journalist by going undercover to write exposés. However, determined to make her mark on the world and to prove women could be as successful as men, she proposes to her editor that her next project be beating the fictional record for circumnavigating the globe recounted in Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in Eighty Days. Although the idea was rejected at first, as the editor began to realize that someone was likely to undertake the task soon and it would be a greater publicity stunt to send a woman than a man, he gave her the green light.

Elizabeth Bisland was also a writer, but she wrote more literary articles for a monthly magazine. Her editor decided that it would be an even greater publicity stunt to send another woman around the world in the opposite direction to see who would come in first. Elizabeth was reluctant, but seemed to have been given little choice. She was aware it was a race, but Nellie was not.

The book goes into lengthy detail, sometimes absorbing and sometimes rather plodding, describing their itinerary, traveling quirks, hazards, people they meet, impressions of distant locales and peoples, and their thoughts on the undertaking. There are also numerous digressions that give a great deal of detail about things touching upon the various modes of transportation, sights they saw, and the lives of people they came into contact with. An eighty-day race is a fairly slow-paced one, but the book would have been more interesting if some of the extraneous detail was pared away to give it more sense of urgency.

The personalities of the two women were quite opposite and they were differently affected by the venture. In some ways, the short summaries of their lives afterward was more compelling than the story of the race.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Care by Mary Balogh

I’m a sucker for Mary Balogh’s Regency Romances, most recently the Westcott Novel series (starting with Someone to Love.) The latest addition to the series is Someone to Care.

Miss Viola Kingsley was, until two years prior, a countess – the wife of the Earl of Riverdale. At least, she thought she was. Upon the earl’s death, Viola discovered the marriage had been bigamous. Her children are illegitimate and were disinherited. The family circled the wagons and supported one another, so the scandal has more or less faded for the others affected by the earl’s deception. But not for Viola. After a christening party held for a grandchild, Viola snaps. Needing time for herself, she flees.

She isn’t particularly clear on where she wants to go, but the decision is taken out of her hands when her hired carriage breaks down in a small country village and she is forced to wait overnight for it to be fixed. There she comes across an old acquaintance, Marcel Lamarr, who is now the Marquess of Dorchester.

Marcel is a widower, but his wife died in an accident many years earlier. His response was to immerse himself in a life of pleasure-seeking debauchery.

Fourteen years earlier, Marcel had tried to begin a flirtation with Viola, but she, then a virtuous young wife, sent him on his way. When she enters the country inn where he has also been temporarily detained by a transportation mishap, memories of his past attraction come flooding back. He approaches Viola to renew the flirtation.

This time, Viola succumbs. Why not? They spend a lovely day together, followed by a night of passion. In the morning, they decide to run off together for a fling, both recognizing that this is to be temporary.

Naturally, they fall in love. Following some of the usual conventions of Regency Romance, they miscommunicate and pride keeps them from being honest with one another. Before they can part, they are found out in their love nest and, doing the honorable thing, Marcel announces that they are betrothed. For the rest of the novel, they try to wriggle out of the betrothal even though marriage is clearly where they need to be heading.

Sometimes, plots that follow this track get annoying because the hero and heroine just behave stupidly. But Mary Balogh has a talent for writing sympathetic characters that tug at the heartstrings so you can forgive them for making a muddle of things. In addition, she usually twists convention enough that the typical romance plots feel fresh. In Someone to Care, Viola is forty-two years old! Marcel is just shy of forty. A regency romance featuring "middle-aged" lovers with the woman older than the man? Someone to Care is a heartwarming romance and I continue to follow this series avidly.

Friday, June 22, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Charity Ends at Home by Colin Watson

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I decided to keep going with the Flaxborough Chronicles. The next book in this charming detective series by Colin Watson is Charity Ends at Home.

Detective Purbright is wearily keeping tabs on increasingly competitive Flaxborough charity drives when an anonymous letter is brought to his attention, a letter that has been sent to three local VIPs: the coroner, the constable, and the newspaper editor. The distressed writer is convinced he/she is in danger. Loved ones are plotting murder. Although the writer does not sign the letter, an enclosed photograph is referred to – but no photo is enclosed.

Purbright is duty-bound to take the threat seriously, but has no idea where to start until a local woman is found dead, drowned in a well. She was active in the local fund-raising community, favoring charities that support dogs. She was not happily married. Naturally, her husband becomes the prime suspect. But how does the letter tie in?

At the same time, a newcomer to town is trying out his own amateur detecting skills. His job is to catch a cheating husband. However, the detective, Mortimer Hive, is not very bright, a drinker, and easily distracted. He bungles his job, but no matter. The person who hired him has decided he doesn’t need Hive’s input after all. The assignment is over.

Hive doesn’t leave town. He’s a good friend of Miss Lucy Teatime (a con-woman introduced in the previous book). Lucy has set up camp in Flaxborough. She is no longer scamming gentlemen looking for lady friends. She’s involved in a new plot, skimming money from charities.

Purbright seems to be impressed by Miss Teatime. It’s difficult to believe he doesn’t realize she is up to no good. Still, she’s courteous and helpful as well as very clever. With her help and with some prodding of Mortimer Hive, Purbright sets about chasing down the murderer.

This book is a bit more jumbled than the others and the humor seems more forced. Mortimer’s ramblings take up a good deal of the book and he wasn’t as interesting a character as the others. Nevertheless, he serves his purpose. The threads are all pulled together to bring about a satisfying conclusion. I’ll take a little break, then return eagerly to this series.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Lonelyheart 4122 by Colin Watson

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Thanks to Netgalley, I’ve discovered British mystery author Colin Watson. (See book one in the Flaxborough Chronicles: Coffin Scarcely Used.) The books largely follow the work of Inspector Purbright, a small-town investigator whose polite, persistent detective skills have solved several murders already.

Book four in the series is Lonelyheart 4122. When two middle-aged women, one unmarried and one widowed, go missing within a short span of time, relatives become concerned and bring the matter to the police. After some gentle questioning, Purbright is convinced there has been foul play and he begins looking into the matter. One thing they both had in common was that they were customers of a match-making agency, the Handclasp House Marriage Bureau. Each had a bit of money that also may have gone missing. Could they have been conned? Were they murdered?

Coincidentally, a con-woman, Miss Lucy Teatime, arrives in Flaxborough, presumably because things have become a bit hot for her back in London. Seeing an advertisement for the Handclasp House, she signs up. Soon, she is matched with a charming old seaman. It’s quite evident that each is trying to con the other. Their mercenary courtship is a delight to follow.

However, Purbright is following also, concerned for Miss Teatime and unaware that she is more than a match for an unscrupulous suitor. But is she a match for a murderer?

With his usual care, Purbright pieces together the clues and hurries to head off disaster.

Lonelyheart 4122 is an entertaining cozy mystery with a splash of dry British humor. This series is a lot of fun!