WRATH OF THE FURIES: Roman detective Gordianus the Finder tries to go undercover amid angry Greeks bearing arms – #bookreview

 

Wrath of the Furies

A Novel of the Ancient World

Steven Saylor

Minotaur Books – hardback, Kindle

As a young student, I deliberately avoided the ancient world—all of those armless and headless statues, magnificent carved-stone structures collapsed into rubble, “wonders of the world,” and gods and goddesses who allegedly had both magical powers and human frailties.

Now that I am somewhat older (okay, a lot older), I have read several of the 15 novels in Steven Saylor’s popular Roma Sub Rosa series of historical mysteries. The series features a clever Roman investigator known as Gordianus the Finder. Gordianus is a fictional character, but he encounters many of the ancient world’s real-life kings, queens, generals, political leaders and other figures while trying to solve murders and other crimes.

Thanks to Saylor’s expertise and irrepressible enthusiasm for ancient Roman and Greek times, I have found myself both enjoying his engaging fiction and pausing now and then to look up more about the people, places, things, and customs that Gordianus is encountering in each book. In other words, I am learning some eye-opening things about the ancient world and wishing I had gotten an earlier start.

In Saylor’s new novel, Wrath of the Furies, set in 88 B.C., Gordanius is a young man of just 22 and still somewhat subject to youth’s reckless belief in invincibility.  He receives a cryptic message, apparently a distress signal, from his former tutor and friend, Antipater, and decides to sneak into Greek-held territory to try to rescue him. Of course, this is at a dangerous moment. Greek forces led by the brutal King Mithridates are taking back Greek-speaking cities previously held by the Roman Empire. Some of Italy’s states also are revolting against Rome. So now is not a good time to be Roman detective snooping around amid angry Greeks bearing arms.

It is also not a good time for travelling with your slave (and lover), Bethesda, while trying to disguise yourself as a mute so your Roman-accented Greek won’t give you away. And it is an especially bad time to be going to the ancient Greek-speaking city of Ephesus (where King Mithridates now holds the home-court advantage), particularly when you don’t realize that sinister and powerful forces are drawing you in, and you must solve the mystery of Antipater’s message before it gets you and others killed.

Wrath of the Furies is a fine addition to Steven Saylor’s excellent Roma Sub Rosa ancient history-mystery series.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

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BLEEDING KANSAS: Coming-of-age adventure and danger on the American frontier just before the Civil War – #fiction #bookreview

Bleeding Kansas

Dave Eisenstark

(World Castle Publishing, LLC paperback, Kindle)

 

It is very tempting to say: “This book is a lot like Huckleberry Finn, but on land, with lots of horses and guns!”

However, amid the humor, the horrors and the main character’s many dangerous, coming-of-age adventures, readers also get close, unnerving looks at a very rough, very dark chapter in American history.

During a seven-year period leading up to the Civil War, violent clashes in Kansas and parts of Missouri pitted anti-slavery “Free-Staters” against pro-slavery “Border Ruffians.” It was gang warfare on horseback, and it also was a proxy conflict that demonstrated what was about to happen on a gigantic scale once the North and South split and took up arms against each other.

In Bleeding Kansas, a Quaker youth from Pennsylvania, James Deeter,  heads west, trying to avoid being drafted into the Union Army. But Deeter makes some naive and unfortunate decisions along the way. To survive, he finds himself suddenly facing his worst nightmare: He must ride in raids as part of the pro-Confederate gang known as Quantrill’s Raiders.

Eisenstark’s fiction in this book can stretch credulity at times, and it relies on a few coincidences and confluences of historic characters. Yet those just enhance the dark humor and the moments of real horror and surprise that keep coming as the well-written work of history-based fiction unfolds.

Memo to producers: Bleeding Kansas has the makings of an action-packed movie for a rising young star.

Si Dunn

The Sun is God – Adrian McKinty takes readers well off the beaten path with this new historical mystery – #bookreview

 

The Sun is God

Adrian McKinty

Seventh Street Books – Kindle, paperback

Take a weird but true exotic setting. Throw in some real people and real murders. Add to the mix a fictional investigator: Will Prior, an ex-military police lieutenant who deliberately got himself cashiered from the British army during the Boer War following a deadly clash with African prisoners. Wrap it all up with a (very) surprising ending.

The Sun is God, Adrian McKinty’s new historical mystery, likely will please and amaze many readers. Trying to track down a murderer in a 1906 German nudist colony off the coast of New Guinea is a stunning and challenging departure from his Detective Sean Duffy trilogy set in the urban battles and enormous tensions of Northern Ireland in the 1980s.

McKinty is in fine form in this book as he offers up a complicated crime story set within a little-remembered slice of pre-World War I history: Part of New Guinea, north of Australia, was a German colony in the year 1906.

It is here that Will Prior is now living with his “servant girl,” Siwa, amid the colony’s failing banana, rubber and tea plantations.  While still willing to swear allegiance to the British Empire, Will now lives under German rule. So, when a German army officer, Captain Hauptmann Kessler, comes to his house one day, Will fears that it is to take back the money Germany previously loaned him to become a plantation owner. Instead, Will learns that the colony’s governor wants him, because of his past military police experience, to go with Captain Kessler to an island where some German nudists claim to have discovered the secret of immortality.

One of the immortals, unfortunately, has suddenly turned up quite dead. And while the nudists claim the victim died in his bed from malaria, an official autopsy in the capital of German New Guinea has revealed something quite different: the victim drowned and had bruise marks consistent with a struggle.

Things quickly get even more strange after Will and Kessler arrive and have to camp amid the nudists and share their dangerous diet while they attempt to find clues. There’s sex, yes, and drugs. (But the novel is set 50 years before Elvis Presley, so no rock ‘n’ roll.)  And, once danger erupts for the two investigators, they can’t call for backup, and they definitely can’t hide — not on a very small island that boats seldom visit, because it’s thought to be haunted.

Si Dunn

Halley – This fine, intense #YA novel explores the harsh lives that women and children faced in 1930s rural Georgia – #bookreview

Halley

Faye Gibbons

(NewSouth Books – hardcover, Kindle)

 

Life was tough in the mountains of  northeast Georgia during the Great Depression. And it was particularly hard for women, who had virtually no rights and no say in important matters, especially if they were unmarried. The rural mountain life also was tough for children, who were expected to work hard, always obey, not be heard, and waste no time on enjoyment or fun.

In Faye Gibbons’ excellent new young-adult novel, a hard, unforgiving brand of backwoods religion also holds sway in young Halley’s life. Her father, Jim Owenby, recently has died, and Halley, her mother Kate, and her young brother Robbie have been forced to move in with Kate’s mother and father. Halley’s grandfather, Pa Franklin, is a backwoods fundamentalist preacher who cuts no one any slack. He is quick to judge, criticize, preach, punish and condemn. In his eyes, the road to hell is very short and most people already are on it.

Pa Franklin also takes, or tries to take, any money earned by his wife, his daughter and his granddaughter. And he even reads their mail and sometimes throws it away before they can see it. It is his way, he thinks, of protecting them from their own helplessness.

The author grew up in northern Georgia, in a large mountain family, and she has gotten to know many of the region’s people, mill towns, and other communities. Her central character, Halley Owenby, is fourteen and dreams mainly of getting an education and somehow gaining a level of control over her own life.

The actions and confrontations that unfold in this new book are gritty, intense and sometimes dark. Yet the combined powers of hope, love, honesty and stubborn effort finally shine through and light the way to brighter possibilities for Halley and those around her.

Faye Gibbons is a superb storyteller and writer, with a fine-tuned ear for regional speech, a sharp eye for detail, and an unhidden love for her characters–even the ones who make us shudder, cringe and tighten our fists in frustration at their repeated refusals to listen, think, and change.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

 

Halley

Enemies at Home: A Flavia Albia Novel – A cool detective procedural set in ancient Rome – #mystery #bookreview

 

Lindsey Davis Enemies at Home

 

Enemies at Home

A Flavia Albia Novel

Lindsey Davis

 ( Minotaur Books, hardback, Kindle )

Can a 29-year-old widow make it as a private detective in first century A.D. Rome?

Flavia Albia has some friends in semi-high places. And she has one very important family connection: She is the adopted daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, one of Rome’s best-known “private informers,” the ancient equivalent of a modern private eye.

Flavia has taken over her father’s office, and she keeps needing new cases.  But in the private informer business, it’s “no win, no pay.” So,  she is always on the lookout for a case she can both win and profit from, in a legal system where women have no rights in matters of law and where she must compete with male private informers who do have rights.

Unfortunately, the case that suddenly lands in Flavia’s lap in Enemies at Home does not seem to hold much promise:

“Even before I started, I knew I should say no,” Flavia states at the book’s beginning.

“There are rules for private informers accepting a new case. Never take on clients who cannot pay you. Never do favors for friends. Don’t work with relatives, Think carefully about legal work. If, like me, you are a woman, keep clear of men you find attractive. The Aviola inquiry broke every one of those rules, not the least because the clients had no money, yet I took it on. Will I never learn?”

 Not yet. She meets up with a magistrate, an aedile, named Tiberius Manlius Faustus, with whom she has worked before and finds attractive. (Can “Manlius” be viewed as a Latinized pun on “manly”? Yep.) Faustus has just been assigned to deal with a very complicated case within his jurisdiction, and he needs Flavia’s help to try to sort things out.

A man and his wife have been brutally murdered and robbed, apparently by intruders, and the couples’ slaves have fled to the Temple of Ceres, desperately hoping to get asylum so they can save their lives.

“The slaves got wind of their plight,” Flavia informs us. “They knew the notorious Roman law when a head of household was murdered at home. By instinct the authorities went after the wife, but that was no use if she was dead too. So unless the dead man had another obvious enemy, his slaves fell under suspicion. Whether guilty or not, they were put to death. All of them.”

Flavia’s task, of course, is to attempt to help exonerate the slaves. But Roman law literally is a vicious beast, sometimes. Criminals and those merely suspected of a crime can be thrown to the lions or sewn into large bags along with dangerous animals and dropped into the sea. And that’s just two of the many ways capital punishment can be meted out in the Roman Empire.

Flavia is the slaves’ only hope. And she is armed with nothing but curiosity, questions and bluster, plus some occasional help from the aedile, Manlius Faustus, as she goes where no woman typically has gone before, at least in recent years, in Roman society.

Enemies at Home features a very big cast of characters (spanning two pages at the front of the book). And it is somewhat easy to grow confused by (and a bit wearied of) virtually every male name ending in “-us” and almost every female name ending in “-a.”

For the most part, however, this second Flavia Albia novel is fun and informative reading. Lindsey Davis is a master at moving her characters about in ancient Roman settings. She keeps them both human and limited by the pace, technology, laws and social mores of the Roman Empire (during the reign of the allegedly paranoid emperor, Domitian). Her dialogue often is wickedly sharp and funny, and, except for an occasional Latin word here and there, no effort is made to have the characters speak in any tongue other than modern lingo.

If you have been hoping Falco will reappear and have a cameo role in this new book, be prepared to wait for the next novel in the series and see if he shows up there. Flavia Albia is now her own woman. She emerges strongly from her father’s shadow in Enemies at Home and demonstrates why she also deserves to be known as one of the very best public informers in first-century Rome.

Si Dunn

River of Angels – An excellent tale of two families and their divided city: Los Angeles – #fiction #bookreview

 

River of Angels

Alejandro Morales

(Arte Público Press, paperback )

 

This third novel by Alejandro Morales is a compelling, evocative portrait of  two very different families whose lives become intertwined through their children, in ways both loving and tragic.

Set in the 19th and 20th centuries, River of Angels is also the story of a burgeoning U.S. city divided by a dangerous river yet   linked by bridges and marriages, as well as shifting economic, cultural and racial balances.

Los Angeles today is divided by many ethnic, political and financial lines. And these divisions have been defined not only by major currents and undercurrents in California and American history but also by the river powerfully described in Morales’s book:  El Río de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de la Porciúncula, “The River of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula.”

The completion of a bridge over that river in 1887 provided a more convenient way for people to cross from either side, the author makes clear. But the bridge also helped set discriminations into easier motion.

“Most of the Los Angeles residents and people in neighboring communities were soon enjoying the convenience the bridge offered,” Alejandro Morales writes. “Laborers who worked on the west side of the river used the bridge every day to return to their dwellings on the east side. On certain days and hours during the week, it seemed that only workers moved back and forth across the river. Mexicans, blacks and Chinese had settled in the center of the city around the old plaza. However, that was changing, and [after the bridge was built] there was a deliberate and obvious push to house Mexicans on the east side of the river. The City Council made it easier for Mexicans to buy property and build houses on the Eastside.”

Some years later, a savage storm and flooding washed away the first bridge, and two more were built. Meanwhile, as this tale of families makes clear, the growth of Los Angeles’ Anglo population continued to push and squeeze minority groups, including Mexicans, African-Americans, Chinese and Japanese, out of their homes and businesses and into other areas of the city.

“The residents of the original Mexican colonias in Los Angeles proper–near La Placita and other sections newly designated as Anglo-only–were evicted and forced to relocate to the immigrant quarters of Los Angeles that were thought of as Mexican reservations,” Morales writes. “The city’s Anglo population needed the Mexicans for labor. The Mexicans had to live near, but not among, the Anglo families.”

That segregation sets up major tensions and drama within this engrossing novel as two families from widely separate realms are forcibly pulled together.

River of Angels delivers a unique and vivid portrait of Los Angeles at some of its worst and best. At the same time, Alejandro Morales skillfully illuminates racial, cultural, political and economic tensions that can be found today in virtually any other American city, whether a river runs through it or not.

Si Dunn

Raiders of the Nile – Steven Saylor brings fast-paced action & intrigue to ancient Egypt – #fiction #bookreview

Raiders of the Nile

A Novel of the Ancient World

Steven Saylor

(Minotaur Books – hardcover , Kindle )

Best-selling author Steven Saylor is well-known for his many books, including his Roma Sub Rosa series of historical mysteries set in ancient Rome, starring Gordianus the Finder, a B.C. equivalent of Sherlock Holmes.

Now, in Raiders of the Nile, Saylor again has turned the sundial back a few years and given us a young, pre-Finder Gordianus. In 88 B.C., on his 22nd birthday, Gordianus suddenly has to embark on a truly desperate quest. He must rescue Bethesda, the beautiful young woman he loves,  from fearsome pirates based in the Nile Delta. They have kidnapped Bethesda from the troubled city of Alexandria, where the latest in a string of Egyptian kings named Ptolemy is on a very shaky throne (despite, or perhaps partly because of, his huge girth). And young Gordianus finds that he has just one ally willing to be his John Watson in the Egyptian badlands: a 10-year-old slave boy named Djet.

A pleasingly complex plot unfolds as Gordianus and Djet barely escape death at several turns and have to join the pirate gang not only to save their lives but to have a chance to escape with Bethesda, who is being held for ransom.

What the pirates and their vicious leader don’t know is that they have kidnapped the wrong woman. And if they somehow find out, she, Gordianus and Djet all could be killed on the spot.

It’s the set-up for a lot of intrigue, action and entertainment. And Steven Saylor demonstrates that he is a master at telling fast-paced stories set in the seemingly slow-paced ancient world.

His characters, fortunately, do not speak in hieroglyphics or Latin. Nor do they sound like actors in grainy Old Testament movies. Indeed, they converse in reasonably modern English, which momentarily can be disconcerting the first time you pick up a Steven Saylor novel. But it doesn’t take long to get caught up in the tale and find yourself racing along on the back of a camel you barely can ride, while murderous villagers, also on camels, try to chase you down and hack you into mincemeat.

Saylor, widely recognized as an expert on ancient Roman life and politics, has done extensive research into the lives and politics of some ancient Egyptians, as well as key settings used in Raiders of the Nile. He needed a vacation, he says in the book’s concluding notes, from his long studies of the ancient Romans’ “murder trials, gruesome histories, and self- aggrandizing memoirs.” So he turned to the works of “Greek authors whose books were all about travel and exploration, love and sensual pleasure, religious exaltation and athletic glory.”

One outcome was his 2013 book The Seven Wonders, which brings 18-year-old Gordianus face-to-face with intriguing, challenging, deadly mysteries each time he stops to visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Raiders of the Nile is the second prequel novel that points toward how Gordianus eventually will become the famed Finder who solves cases involving prominent historical characters and events in Rome. While researching ancient Greece, Saylor encountered several books, manuscripts and websites that inspired him to look closely at Egypt, too. And that led to the absorbing tale which unfolds in this new book.

One downside to the many plot twists, intrigues, double-crossings, and surprises in Raiders of the Nile is that Saylor must rely on a fairly lengthy ending to wrap everything up and shake Gordianus loose for whatever will come next. Even then, some of the concluding events seem to happen just a bit quickly and conveniently.

Still, fans of Gordianus the Finder will not be disappointed. And readers encountering Gordianus (and Saylor) for the first time will find plenty to enjoy–including a whole series of Gordianus novels to savor.

Steven Saylor definitely knows how to blend imagination, good storytelling, historical accuracy and cultural details into tales of mystery, intrigue, action and, yes, love.

Si Dunn