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.