Review 1356: The Ides of April

Cover for The Ides of AprilFor a long time, I followed Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco mystery series set in Ancient Rome. Davis knows her period, and the books are amusing, but after a while I got tired of them. A few friends have recommended her newer Flavia Alba series, so when I found the first one at the library, I decided to try it.

Flavia Alba is the daughter of Marcus Didius Falco and Helena Justina, who adopted her as an abandoned and wild fifteen-year-old in Britain on one of their cases. Hence, I was vaguely aware of her in some of the Falco books. At the beginning of The Ides of April, she is a young widow who has become an enforcer in her adoptive father’s footsteps.

As a female enforcer, she doesn’t get the best cases. She is trying to get her client, Salvidia, off the hook in a lawsuit against her company for running down a young boy. The aedile, Manlius Faustus, has advertised for witnesses to the accident, so she goes to his office to find out if anyone has left a statement. At the office, she encounters two key characters, Tiberius, who works for the aedile, and Andronicus, an archivist, with whom she begins a flirtation.

Flavia Alba’s case very soon becomes more sinister as she learns that her client, Salvidia, is dead of no apparent cause. A visit to the undertaker leads her to understand that a lot of healthy people are dying for no apparent reason. She begins investigating these deaths despite being warned off by the aedile’s office, but soon she is working with them in the person of Tiberius.

Unfortunately, although I enjoyed this book in some ways, there was nothing new here. Flavia Alba’s jaunty, flippant first person sounds exactly like Falco’s. Davis avoids too much repetition by hardly mentioning Flavia Alba’s parents, even when she goes to visit them, but by then I would have been happy to meet them again.

As to the mystery, there is one character with a hidden identity that was obvious to me, and I was onto the murderer fairly quickly, at least mistrusting this character almost immediately. The story arc is very similar to Davis’s first book, Silver Pigs, in that the main character encounters someone who may be a future love interest.

So, for me anyway, been there, done that.

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Day 1193: Pompeii

Cover for PompeiiI was just as short way into Pompeii when I realized I had read it before, probably when it first came out. Leave it to Robert Harris to make a page turner out of a story that everyone knows the end to.

The novel begins a mere two days before the horrendous eruption of Vesuvius. Marcus Attilius Primus is the newly arrived aquarius for the area—the engineer who is responsible for maintaining and operating the aqueduct that provides water to the towns along the bay. His predecessor mysteriously disappeared two weeks before. Soon after the beginning of the novel, Attilius discovers that the aqueduct has stopped running. He mounts an expedition to Vesuvius to try to find the break.

On the course of his urgent journey to repair the aqueduct, Attilius runs afoul of Numerius Popidus Ampliatus, a powerful citizen of Pompeii. He is also attracted to the man’s daughter, Corelia. When in his work on the aqueduct, Attilius figures out what is happening on the mountain, he has to avoid assassins sent by Ampliatus as he endeavors to rescue Corelia.

The novel also follows Pliny, who as admiral takes the fleet across the bay in an attempt to make observations and rescue people.

Harris has done his homework, and his descriptions of the eruption are terrifying. He must have had the time frame right, but my only quibble is that Attilius has to cover so much ground before he gets to Corelia, I can hardly imagine she would still be alive when he got there. This is another well written, suspenseful novel by Harris.

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Day 935: Acté

acteActé was Alexandre Dumas’ first novel and a partial inspiration for Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis. As with most of Dumas’ work, it is based on actual historical characters. That being said, my research tells me that it is unlikely that Acté was a Christian convert.

This novel begins in Corinth in the year 57 A.D. Corinth is preparing to hold a competition of wrestling, chariot racing, and singing. Acté, a beautiful Greek girl, is on shore when a bireme arrives containing one of the competitors. Acté falls in love with this man, Lucius, at first sight, and he appears to fall in love with her.

Lucius wins all three competitions but in a manner that seems to fill the audience with dread. He also behaves in an oddly commanding way. To the reader, things don’t look good for Acté, but she heedlessly runs off with Lucius, leaving her home and father behind.

It is not until their arrival in Naples that Acté learns with horror her lover’s true identity. He is the Emperor Nero. Acté is further horrified at the behavior of his court, especially the dissoluteness shown during feasts.

Nero’s formidable mother, Agrippina, actually approves of Acté and hopes that by her innocence, she will discourage Nero from his excesses. But in shock one night at the behavior during a feast, Acté runs to Agrippina for shelter. Unfortunately, that is the same night that Nero has decided to have his mother murdered by sinking her ship with her on it. Agrippina and Acté are almost drowned, but they get away, and Acté is rescued on the shore by the Apostle Paul. Agrippina, although briefly rescued by Acté, ends up dying.

There are lots of descriptions of races and fights and battles in this novel, but its focus is on the fall of Nero and the role Acté played. Acté herself is just a cardboard figure prone to fainting, which is interesting since she is strong enough to swim to shore from the middle of the Bay of Naples, supporting Agrippina, and is described in terms of an athlete and Diana the huntress.

Delphi Press editionIn addition, the many pages wherein St. Paul describes his conversion and in doing so recounts most of the life of Christ, are deadly dull and unnecessary. If his words are meant as the inspiration to convert Acté, I believe they would be more likely to put her to sleep.

All in all, this novel is interesting as the start of Dumas’ career but is not in itself the most compelling of historical novels. It is based on the most damaging of the accounts of the life of Nero, who has been rehabilitated to some extent in more recent scholarship.

Note that the cover at the top is for a French-language version. The only English-language version I could find had just a black cover. My own version is a Kindle collection of complete Dumas works, published by Delphi Classics, shown just above.

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Day 382: Touch Not the Cat

Cover for Touch Not the CatI was surprised by how many people were interested in my review of Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, so I decided to post a review of another Stewart novel, one of my favorites of her later romantic suspense novels, about family secrets, published in 1976. Touch Not the Cat is the only Stewart book, aside from her Merlin novels, that includes a touch of the supernatural.

Bryony Ashley is awakened on Madeira, where she works, by a message from her father. She has always had a telepathic link with one of her cousins—she doesn’t know which one—but he unexpectedly relays a garbled message from her father. So, she is not altogether surprised when she learns that her father has been severely injured after a hit and run accident. Before she can go to him, he dies, leaving behind a warning of danger. She returns to England to settle his estate.

Bryony’s family owns Ashley Court, an ancient stately home that the family has not been able to afford for some time. It is entailed to her cousin Howard and after him to his sons, her identical twin cousins Emory and James.  Bryony has always assumed that her “lover,” as she calls her telepathic friend, is one of these two cousins, since telepathy is said to run in her family and she was never very close to her third cousin, Francis.

The only part of the estate that passes to Bryony is the small cottage where she lives on a patch of land surrounded by a system of canals. The rest of Ashley Court is currently being rented by a rich American family, the Underhills.

Almost as soon as Bryony gets home, odd things begin happening. Someone steals an old book of records from the church. She goes on the tour of Ashley Court and notices that small, valuable objects of art are missing, including some of her own possessions. Then Emory and James arrive on the scene and immediately begin pressuring her to wind up the estate affairs and sell her own property to them.

As she pokes around in the library, Bryony figures out that her father was worried about something he discovered about the ancient property and is reluctant to sell it until she determines just what his discovery was. Calmly helping around the estate is her childhood friend, Rob Granger. It was to Mrs. Granger and her son that Bryony always turned in times of trouble as a child, so she confides some of her concerns to him.

Interspersed with Bryony’s story are a few paragraphs in each chapter from the point of view of an ancestor, the black sheep of the family, Nick Ashley. It was Nick’s father who selected the puzzling family motto “Touch not the cat, but [without] a glove” (an actual motto of the Clan MacPherson). Eventually, the two stories converge to reveal the secrets of the house and the reason for Bryony’s father’s death.

From a more innocent time, Mary Stewart’s novels are among those I turn to periodically for a bit of light reading, and I find them unfailingly entertaining. As usual with Stewart, her heroine is appealing and she slowly builds a feeling of suspense. Her plotting in this novel is complicated and the mystery engrossing. Although we are accustomed these days to narratives that move back and forth between two periods of time, this was a more unusual technique for the 1970’s.

Day 202: The Lantern Bearers

Cover for The Lantern BearersIf you are historical fiction lover and are not familiar with Rosemary Sutcliff, I recommend that you try one of her books. She is best known for her novels about the Roman occupation of Britain and the interaction between the Romans and the various British peoples. Although many of her books are classified as children’s literature, the ones I have read are just as suitable for adults. My review today is of a Sutcliff book I read most recently, which unfortunately is the third book of her acclaimed Eagle of the Ninth trilogy, The Lantern Bearers. Although she wrote a series of eight books about the Aquila family, three are usually grouped together and sometimes can be purchased as one book. The other two are The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch.

The Lantern Bearers is about the desertion of Britain by the Romans and its subsequent inundation by marauding Saxons. Aquila is a soldier with the last battalion on Britain. He is recalled to his regiment to withdraw from Britain and leave his father and sister behind in the home they have occupied for generations.

Aquila finds that his heart is with Britain, so he deserts his regiment and returns home. However, the day after he arrives, his home is attacked by the Saxons, his father is killed, and he and his sister are enslaved.

Without giving too much away, I will say that the story eventually focuses on the rise of the British ruler Ambrosius and his adopted son Artos, from whom we get the stories of King Arthur.

I think these books are fascinating, although of the three in the trilogy, my favorite is The Eagle of the Ninth (which, by the way, was recently made into a very good movie that no one apparently went to see; I recommend it). If I had any criticism of this book, which is carefully researched, well written, and full of action, I would say that sometimes it seems as if Sutcliff thinks the Roman occupation of Britain was completely positive. I doubt if the Britains felt that way when they were conquered. However, even though her heroes are often Romans, her ideas are more nuanced than that.

If you decide to read this trilogy, I suggest you start with The Eagle of the Ninth, although the books are far enough separated in time to be read as stand-alones.

Day 165: Alexandria

Cover for AlexandriaFor years I avidly collected all of Lindsey Davis’s Didius Falco mysteries. My passion has cooled a bit, as it usually does for series mysteries, but I still enjoy them enough to pick them up when I find them.

Marcus Didius Falco is a cynical, rascally, wisecracking “informer” during the Roman Empire of Vespasian. I have followed his path from the first book when he met Helena Justina, the fiery, unconventional daughter of a senator. Falco has had to work his way up from the plebeian rank and earn enough money so that he can legally be permitted to marry her.

In Alexandria, the 19th novel in this series, Falco and Helena Justina have been married for awhile when they travel to Alexandria with their two daughters, their adopted teenage daughter, and their mongrel dog for a vacation and visit to his uncle. Almost immediately upon arrival Falco is plunged into an investigation when his uncle’s dinner guest of the night before, Theon, the head of the famed library, is found dead, locked in his own office.

Of course, Falco has to figure out how Theon was murdered and why. He soon finds that several of the library’s scholars may want Theon’s job. Of course, people begin dropping like flies, including a philosophy student who is mauled by a crocodile. Falco begins to suspect that something else might be going on.

Davis’s books always involve a multitude of interesting, shifty characters and lots of dirty politics and other shenanigans, and Falco is always engaging and amusing. Davis does a convincing job of re-creating the ancient world in her books.

If you are interested in this series, I recommend that you start with the first book, Silver Pigs (recently renamed The Silver Pigs). Although the mysteries are stand-alone, developments in Falco’s personal life make it more enjoyable if you read this series in order.

Day 147: Quo Vadis

Cover for Quo VadisI picked up Quo Vadis because I so much enjoyed Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Polish history trilogy, as you know if you read my review of With Fire and Sword. This novel is about a young Roman patrician, Vinicius, who falls in love with Ligia,  a Christian, in the time of Nero’s rule. Sienkiewicz did extensive research on the period to get the details right.

About half of the book is about Vinicius’s pursuit of Ligia, first through ruthless means, including kidnapping (presumably pagan patricians have no morals), and later through conversion to Christianity. I was frankly uninterested in either Vinicius or Ligia, who are cardboard characters, and I couldn’t care less about whether they got together.

The last half of the book is about the burning of Rome and the persecution of the Christians. It features the last days of St. Paul.  The pace picks up a little here, but overall the novel is marred by its focus on extolling Christianity. All of the Christians are noble, and most of the other characters are not. Sienkiewicz was a devout Catholic, as is obvious from a few scenes in all his books, and I can only think that the added emphasis on this aspect in this particular novel gets in the way of the book’s effectiveness, at least as viewed by a modern audience.

I know that Quo Vadis was extremely popular in its time (it was published in 1896) and contributed toward Sienkiewicz winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. I also know that Sienkiewicz was capable of creating more interesting characters and writing more exciting scenes. Perhaps the times have just changed too much since this book was written for it to appeal to a wide audience now.