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I have got horribly behind, so here are some capsule reviews of the remaining books from last year.

The Slaves' Story
July 2015
Enemies at Home - Lindsey Davis - Hodder & Stoughton, 2014

* * * *
This is the second of Davis' Flavia Albia series and it maintains the standard of the first. Flavia's female status is put to good use as she investigates a domestic double murder of a newlywed couple. Why didn't their slaves save them? Could one of them have been responsible? Or was a third party involved? The storyline allows Davis to investigate, for the first time, the status of slaves in ancient Rome and their complicated relationships with their masters. Long-time readers will be pleased to see the return of a couple of characters from the Falco series and relationships from the first book are pleasingly developed. It is a shame that the whodunit is somewhat unsatisfying - the perpetrator(s) can't, I think, be worked out in advance - but in all other respects this is a very satisfying novel.

The Second Stringer
Sep 2015
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance - Lois McMaster Bujold - Baen, 2012 (Kindle edition)

* * *
Few authors of long-running series can successfully resist the lure of marriage and children for their protagonist, which is fine but does tend to mark the end of their usefulness as a carrier of story once the obvious "partner/offspring in peril" plot has been done. Bujold, thank goodness, has never descended to that level with Miles Vorkosigan, but as his two most recent outings have shown, family responsibilities have diminished the dramatic range of the stories that can be told. What to do? Well, one well-tested solution is to bring up a second stringer, and Ivan Vorpatril, Miles' laid-back cousin, is a very suitable choice. But sadly, he simply isn't as interesting as Miles and nor is his love interest up to Ekaterin's standard. It’s still a fun romp - Bujold is incapable of writing a dull book - but it does nothing new.

Apples and Yokels
Sep 2015
The Wine of Angels - Phil Rickman - Corvus, 2011 (Kindle edition)

* * * *
Liked this - a thriller/murder investigation set in deepest Herefordshire with main characters Merrily Watkins, an engaging and realistically-written Church of England vicar, her rebellious teenage daughter Jane, and a musician-songwriter called Lol. Cider apples, suspicious yokels and an LGBT-themed historical back-story all feature. I'm surprised that there hasn't been a televisual adaptation.

Delaney's Successor
Nov 2015
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps - Kai Ashante Wilson - Tor, 2015 (Kindle edition)

* * * *
This short novel reads so much like Dhalgren or Tales of Neveryon that I wondered whether it was written by Samuel Delaney himself under a pseudonym. The story is very simple, concerning a merchant caravan that must travel through a magically dangerous area known as the Wildeeps, the wizard and the captain who protect it, and the relationship between them. What makes it interesting is the variety of writing styles: most strikingly African-American demotic in the speech of the caravan guards, but also the lush descriptive rhythms of epic fantasy and the dry jargon of science fiction. As a package it shouldn’t work, yet somehow it does. Ultimately, it is styles over substance - the main plot is hardly original, and the resolution of the romance is disappointingly predictable - but I enjoyed the ride.

Ritual Maths
Dec 2015
The Atrocity Archives - Charles Stross - Hachette Digital, 2004 (Kindle edition)

* * * *
This is an early Stross, written when he still worked in IT, and to a certain extent it shows. But it’s also the book of his that I have enjoyed the most. It is based on an engaging idea obviously inspired by a well-known Cthulhu Mythos tale; that newly discovered mathematical algorithms could act as summoning rituals allowing Nameless Horrors into our universe. Which of course means that mathematics professors, physicists and other numerically literate types are particularly dangerous people. Needless to say, a secret government department - the Laundry - has been created for the sole purpose of catching such mavericks and preventing apocalypse. Our hero, Bob Howard, is a geek who has accidentally found himself working for the Laundry, and becomes a reluctant operative facing powerful horrors from beyond space and time and the no less terrifying bureaucracy of a public sector organisation. There are two stories: the first builds to a surprisingly intense climax in an interesting location, and the second, involving a danger from an aspect of modern life, is as amusing as it is ridiculous. I appreciated both the satire and the computer nerd hero, though it's a pity that the women in both stories are sassy but otherwise agentless.

One Hundred Words for Rain
Dec 2015
Landmarks - Robert Macfarlane - Hamish Hamilton, 2015

* *
Eskimoes may or may not have fifty words for snow, but British English definitely has at least one hundred words for rain. I know this because I counted the helpful list of them in this book, one of several glossaries of terms for describing the natural world that have largely fallen out of use. My personal favourites were dimpsey, a Cornish word for low cloud with fine drizzle, and plothering, heavy rain in Leicestershire.

Macfarlane is trying to demonstrate that our restricted vocabulary reflects and perhaps causes the lack of respect for and interest in the natural world that is characteristic of urban dwellers, a point made well in the introduction but sadly not in the rest of the book, which consists of uninteresting portraits of nature writers, most of whom were unknown to me (with one or two exceptions) and are likely to remain so.
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Jan 2015
The Ides of April - Lindsey Davis - Hodder & Stoughton, 2013
* * * * *
Like most Falco fans, I was disappointed to hear that Davis had given up on her titular hero and was concerned that her new sequence featuring Flavia Albia, his adopted daughter, would turn out to be a pale imitation of the original. Which only goes to show that one should never listen to fans. The Ides of April is Davis' best book in years, with a colourful setting, a tight and (mostly) logical plot and a new and interesting perspective on Roman life. And the change in lead character is almost entirely responsible.
Read more... )
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Behind once again, so here is a round up of some of the lighter books from last year.
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Jan 2014
Alexandria - Lindsey Davis - Arrow, 2010
* * *
Briefly, since I no longer have the book - Falco and Helena are on their travels again, this time to the city of Alexandria to visit Falco's Uncle Fulvius and his partner. They become suspects in the death of Theon, a scholar working in the fabled library. But who among the posse of bureaucrats and heads of department could have wanted him dead?

As always with Davis, the research into ancient Alexandria is superb and the reconstruction of the library and its organisation are highly convincing. Helena is of course present and feisty as ever, and the unwanted appearance of Falco's father Didius and an old friend adds to the fun. However, as is so often the case with the later Falco books, the resolution of the murder mystery is disappointing, with too many side-plots that seem to be there mainly to incorporate interesting tidbits of information from Davis' researches. And the primary theme - bureaucracy and its corruption - makes for a distinct lack of action.
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Jul 2011
Saturnalia - Lindsey Davis - Arrow, 2008
* * * *
To me, the Falco books are essentially science fiction novels. Just as Charles Stross and others imagine an alien landscape and then populate it with people whose motives and speech patterns we can recognise and understand, so Davis does with the equally alien setting of first century Rome and her characteristically British-speaking and -acting characters. Falco in particular shows that peculiar British combination of frustration with the social stratification of his society and a fatalism about it ever changing that suggests that he is more content than he seems.

Another Britishism, and one of the delights of the series, is the author’s cynical take (through the eyes of her embittered hero) on traditions and mores, and this is particularly evident in this story. Falco has reason to be rebarbative because it is Saturnalia, often described as the Roman equivalent of Christmas. There is certainly much fun to be had in the parallels - the tired civic rituals, the enforced bonhomie, the family tensions - particularly when the latter have been hiked a notch by the disappearance of Falco’s brother-in-law Justinus after Veleda, a Gallic princess with whom he had a fling in an earlier book, is brought as a captive to Rome. As Veleda is on the run, having escaped house arrest and apparently murdered a prominent senator’s son, Justinus’ parents and his aggrieved wife Claudia Rufina fear scandal and drag Falco from his own familial preparations (rather to his relief) to investigate.
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Getting behind again - a few capsule reviews to catch up.

Jul 2010
Big Bangs - Howard Goodall - Vintage, 2001
* * * *
You need at least a passing interest in classical music to appreciate this one, but I liked it. Goodall (the composer responsible for the theme tunes to Blackadder and QI) describes five major developments in musical history (notation, opera, temperament, the piano and recording), explaining the technical details in clear and engaging prose. Occasionally he overdoes the matey humour, but the personal interludes, particularly the one where he describes the process of composition, are fascinating. At least to a wannabe composer like me.

Sep 2010
Travelling Heroes - Robin Lane Fox - Allen Lane, 2008
* *
Mary Beard has spoilt me for non-fiction books about the classical world, and it doesn't help that this one is sold on slightly false pretences. It sets out to show that Homer's epics were not drawn directly from middle eastern sources but were authentically Greek creations, with their mythic background coming from the peregrinations of the Euboeans (inhabitants of Evia, a large island just off the Greek mainland) in the Mediterranean and the near east. Unfortunately, demonstrating the range of Euboean settlements in the eighth century BCE involves two hundred pages about pots that only a fully-paid up archaeologist could love.

Later parts of the book, tracking the appearances of various myths in different parts of the Mediterranean, are more interesting, but ultimately futile. Fox mentions in the final chapters that Homer probably lived on the island of Chios and had little connection with the Euboeans and their travels. Most of the myths he has so carefully tracked are not in fact referenced in the Iliad or the Odyssey and there is no indication that Homer knew them. If, like me, you were expecting some insight into Homer's life and world, you will be seriously disappointed.

Jan 2011
The Oxford Despoiler -Gary Dexter - Old Street Publishing, 2008
* *
Parody is to satire what sarcasm is to wit. It is essentially frivolous and, once it has achieved its aim of pointing up the pretensions and quirks of the writer being satirised, has little more to say. It therefore works best as a short story. Being in that format already, the Sherlock Holmes tales are particularly susceptible to this kind of treatment and this is the latest in a long line of parodies of them. Its unique selling point is that all the mysteries relate to unusual sexual practices that would not normally have been discussed in Victorian England. The parody is very well done - the Holmes cognate Dr Henry St Liver and his mousey but open-minded assistant Olive Salter are both memorable and amusing characters (I particularly liked the teasing references to Olive's book 'The Story of an Australian Barn', which is clearly highly salacious). But after two or three stories the concept wears thin, and there are eight in this book. The characters do not develop and the main interest for the reader becomes guessing the sexual practice on which the current mystery is based.

Feb 2011
Falco The Official Companion - Lindsey Davis - Century, 2010
* * * *
A quick mention for a book that will be of interest to all lovers of Lindsey Davis' Falco series. It is a reference guide to the places and people in the novels with some characteristically eccentric asides (such as the importance of thermal underwear in the genesis of the series) and trenchant opinions. There are also well-researched notes on Roman life and a revealing potted autobiography that explains a good deal about where the characters came from. It would probably be wise to be completely up to date on the series as there are numerous spoilers.

Sadly, from comments in this book and from updates on her website, I suspect that we have reached the end of the line for this particular series. Luckily, I still have three to read.
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Jan 2008
Scandal takes a Holiday / See Delphi and Die - Lindsey Davis - Arrow Books, 2004 / 2005
* * * / * * *
It’s been a while since I have read a Lindsey Davis so it was nice to catch up on the doings of Marcus Didius Falco, although it is clear that she has had a few problems maintaining the standard. There are two main difficulties, firstly in finding original settings for the
stories now that she has covered every conceivable aspect of life in the capital from gladiators to aqueducts to the legal system, and secondly in reconciling Falco’s new-found respectability as a middle-class father of two with his dodgy occupation as an informer. The former is solved neatly - in these two books Davis gets Falco out of Rome by sending him on working holidays, first to the domestic port of Ostia and then to the ancient ruins of Greece. The latter proves to be more problematic and perhaps explains why neither of these books is really a satisfying mystery.
Read more... )
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14 Nov 2004
The Accusers - Lindsey Davis - Century 2003
* * * * *
So here we are back in ancient Rome. Time for another humdrum murder mystery - a senator dies in mysterious circumstances, various of his family and servants are the suspects, nobody will talk to the detectives, but Falco works out what happened anyway. This is the plot that Davis summarises in a single chapter. The rest of it is rather more interesting.
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20 Apr 2004
The Jupiter Myth - Lindsey Davis - Arrow 2003
* * * *
This, thankfully, marks something of a return to form after the mildly disappointing "Body in a Bath House". It follows on almost directly from that book with Falco and co. staying in Londinium with Julius Frontinus, the governor of the province and Julia's uncle. Given Falco's oft-professed dislike of Britain, one would have thought that he would have wanted to hot-foot it back to Rome as soon as possible, but it seems family ties took precedence. His mistake, as inevitably a corpse turns up - this allows Davis to tie off a loose end from the last book as the victim turns out to be a companion of King Togidubnus who was exiled (in an unofficial sort of way) after getting mixed up in the murky goings on. With Togidubnus making a fuss, Frontinus asks Falco to investigate. Petronius, Falco's vigile friend, also turns up but proves strangely uncooperative when asked to help...

At this point the book veers from murder mystery to thriller with Falco stalking the mean streets of Londinium as he uncovers an extremely unpleasant protection racket. The nature of the storyline makes this a rather darker book than some of its predecessors and this is definitely to its advantage. The depiction of Londinium as a barely civilised frontier town is very well done, and there is an edge of danger which suggests that the author might be preparing to try something new and risky. The setting also calls forth some wonderfully vivid writing - I remember particularly an extraordinary description of a ragged but immensely strong brothel madam with whom Falco has a fight (which he loses). Though even this passage is slightly let down by Falco's reference to her as "baggage", a term which no man has used to describe a woman since Rex Harrison in "My Fair Lady".

As always there is a roster of amusing and memorable characters to leaven the darkness. I particularly liked an ex-girlfriend of Falco's who has become the leader of a troop of female gladiators. Helena is less than pleased when she finds out and for a while it looks as if Davis might actually bust apart their too-cosy relationship, or at least change it in some way. Sadly, she doesn't.

And this is symptomatic of a retreat to safety and predictability which makes the final section of the book slightly disappointing. I can't say more without spoiling the plot, but suffice to say that I knew about a hundred pages before the end more-or-less how it would go. Whilst the resolution was reasonable and satisfying (as with the previous books there are two villains whose identities are revealed, but this time they make a lot more sense), I would have liked there to have been a twist or two more as the early part seemed to suggest there might. Still, a minor niggle - it's a fun book.
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13 Mar 2004
A Body in the Bath House - Lindsey Davis - Arrow 2002
* * *
It must be said at the outset that Lindsey Davis has never been a writer of great detective fiction in the Agatha Christie/Dorothy L Sayers sense. The reader can generally figure out the murderer about thirty pages before her frankly rather thick hero, and ingenious methods of murder or fiendishly labyrinthine setups are not her stock in trade. The strength of her books lies in her terrific depiction of the first century Roman Empire and the ongoing soap opera that is the lives of Falco's and Helena's families and friends. These strengths are very much to the fore here, which is just as well because the detective plot is unusually incoherent.

The book starts with a bang, or rather a smell. Falco and his father Geminus discover a corpse in the hypocaust of Geminus' new bath house. Suspicion soon falls on Gloccus and Cotta, the forever absentee builders, who have fled abroad. At the same time, Vespasian asks Falco to investigate some mysterious deaths and financial irregularities at the building site of a new palace for Togidubnus, a client tribal chieftain in Falco's least favourite province, Britain. And Falco's sister Maia is being menaced by Anacrites, the slippery spy, who has not taken kindly to her rejection of his romantic advances, and needs to be got out of the country quickly.

So Falco and his family up sticks and travel to Britain's south coast, along with Helena's two brothers Aulus and Quintus who have both decided that they want to continue to be Falco's assistants despite the fact that one of them stole away and married the intended bride of the other (I hope you're keeping up at the back there). One would have thought that their senatorial parents would be a little concerned that Falco now seems to have charmed all three of their children into abandoning the Patrician lifestyle, but apparently not. Falco investigates the mysterious deaths and uncovers some ingenious building scams. More murders occur. Everything is (more or less) resolved.

All this is fine, but none of the major plot elements fit together. The Gloccus/Cotta subplot, which I think was the one that Davis originally intended to be the main storyline, gets shunted into the sidelines after Falco and co. arrive in Britain. The scams and the murders turn out to be parts of largely unrelated sub-plots. With so much to be resolved, it is not surprising that the denouement feels rushed and unsatisfactory (in the case of one of the murders, Davis doesn't even get round to telling us precisely who the murderer was). I was particularly disappointed with the revealed identities of Gloccus and Cotta, one of which is obvious and the other implausible.

Fortunately, the book has its compensations. The depiction of what a Roman building site must have been like is splendidly done, and the descriptions of the professions and logistics involved are convincing. The characters are as strong as ever, with Helena getting to do a gratifying amount of the detecting whilst posing as a demure Roman mother. I am particularly getting to like Aulus, who though arrogant and truculent is so put upon that it's hard not to feel sorry for him, unlike the charming but slimy Justinus (the fact that I am an elder brother has, I am sure, no bearing on my attitude to these characters). There are signs that he is beginning to learn from his experiences with Falco and I hope that Davis will give him a break. Sadly we don't see much of the splendid Petro, which allows his unresolved attraction to Maia to be spun out for yet another book.

This book was undermined by having too many plot ideas which were insufficiently thought through. Hopefully Davis will regain her focus in future books and bring the plots, setting and characters into better balance. I'll certainly be reading them to find out.


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