Saturday, December 4, 2010

Compromising Charis - An Erotic Romance

Okay, to start, as I mentioned in my last post, I don't normally read romance anymore (though I used to read a lot of it), and these days usually skim over the sexy bits whenever they show up in a novel I'm reading.  However, when I saw Compromising Charis on the NetGalley website, I decided to get a taste of what's on offer out there. For one thing, I was thinking of writing an erotic romance for NaNoWriMo and thought I should read one before trying my hand at writing one.  For another, I was curious. I had no idea what to expect, and to say I was a bit apprehensive is putting it mildly.
I needn't have worried. Compromising Charis by Sahara Kelly, published by Red Sage, was a surprisingly amusing novelette about a young aristocratic woman who decides to get herself ruined in order to avoid having to marry a man she's never met.  She's sure she doesn't want to marry him because she is sure he is a "chuckleheaded lackwit" to want to marry her, since she'd been ruined once already and is, in the eyes of most of society, unmarriageable. Charis decides to run away to the gypsies (I didn't say the story was free of melodramatic improbabilities). On the way to the gypsy encampment, she meets a very good-looking, obviously aristocratic young man who is driving down the road in a curricle.

Sinjun Randall offers to drive her to her destination. Ever a rebel, Charis accepts his offer, then, in sudden inspiration, asks if he'd be so kind as to ruin her some more. (Did I mention he was really handsome? And charming.) He, of course, being a red-blooded male, immediately agrees. (Did I mention that Charis is really beautiful?) Off they go to a secluded country manor belonging to a friend of his and, after giving the servant a holiday until the next morning, have their way with each other for the rest of the day and night.

I expected the sex scenes to be pretty much nonstop and, if not boring as hell, then totally cringeworthy, and that I'd have to skim over them to get to the expected HEA. I was wrong. Yes, they were pretty much nonstop, but they were far from awful. In fact, though there was the requisite breathlessness and moaning as well as some frank descriptions of the sexual act, in between these passages were also some delightful conversation (!) and moments of actual humor, and much of the action was more sensual than mechanical.

And the ending?  Expected, of course, but fun and satisfying. 

So, not only did I learn a lot about how to go about writing an erotic novel (for instance, there were a total of only FOUR characters in the entire story, and two were on for a mere two or three pages, never to return), I spent a couple of hours of reading enjoyment (I almost said "pleasure," but I didn't want to give the wrong impression. I was reading strictly for educational purposes, you will recall, not to be aroused, no matter how arousing some of the parts turned out to be. ;)

Bottom line: Compromising Charis is an appealing erotic romance, filled with humor, great characters, and a sweet and sexy love story, and I will definitely be reading more from Ms. Kelly and whatever else is on offer from Red Sage.

Being an eGalley, there were a few typos, and the formatting, as is usual with galleys, sucked. I shouldn't think those annoyances will be issues in the actual eBook.

DISCLAIMER: I received the eGalley free from NetGalley; however, that didn't influence me in the least, and all of the opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Friday, November 26, 2010

When Harry Met Molly by Kieran Kramer - A Review

When Harry Met Sally is a light romance, a fun and fluffy romp through Regency England.  I really enjoyed it, although I haven't been "into" romances for a year or so. 

Harry is the younger son of a duke, sent from home in disgrace and forced to join the army at the age of 18 after Molly, the second daughter of an earl whose estate neighbors the duke's, tattles on him for kissing her older sister who happens to be the fiance of Harry's older brother. Molly, who was 13 at the time, is also sent away in disgrace to a school in the north of England for her bad behavior. Harry and Molly meet again when she is around 20 and on the verge of spinsterhood, which is the reason she is at an inn on the way to Gretna Green with a vacuous but oh-so-handsome friend of her father's. Harry, named one of the Impossible Bachelors by the Prince Regent, is at the same inn with his mistress, an equally vacuous but oh-so-beautiful woman, on the way to his hunting box for a week's debauchery. Molly's reluctant suitor and Harry's petulant mistress elope together, leaving Molly stranded alone far from home and Harry in a lot of trouble. The Impossible Bachelors have been ordered by Prinny to engage in a competition, and if Harry doesn't show up at the hunting box with the Most Delectible Mistress in tow, he will be forced to marry a woman chosen by the other Impossible Bachelors.

You can see where this is going.

There was a problem or two, mostly with believability, and many of the scenes at the hunting box with the bachelors and the mistresses were plain silly, but overall it was funny, touching (it even brought tears to my eyes in one place), and multi-dimensional. Even the villain had a redeeming quality. At first I disliked Molly ~ she started out acting like a real twit ~ and Harry wasn't all that appealing either. But during the course of the adventure, as layers of guilt and wrong-headedness were peeled from them, they became completely loveable, and by the end I liked both a lot and was rooting for them.

The ending? Well, it was one of the improbable scenes I mentioned above, and a bit too facile in my opinion, but, once I managed to turn the "suspension of my disbelief" up a notch, it didn't detract from my enjoyment of how things worked out.

There was, as you can imagine, quite a bit of sex, but I found I wasn't skimming those scenes as I usually do; they actually had substance to them, as well as humor. And some of the scenes with Molly and the mistresses were as amusing as they were touching.

Recommended for fans of Regency romances.

DISCLAIMER: I got the paperback copy free from Pump Up Your Book in exchange for a review.  Neither my opinion nor my review were influenced thereby.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Winners' Circle

And the names of the lucky winners of the autographed copies of the Aristide Ravel historical mysteries, courtesy of the author Susanne Alleyn, are:

1. Book Bird Dog
2. pennyt
3. Aik
4. Kari Wainwright
5. k-sunshine1977

Congratulations! I've contacted all the winners by email and have all their mailing addresses and I plan to get the books out in the mail by Monday morning 11/22. Thanks to all who entered!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Palace of Justice - A Review

I absolutely loved Palace of Justice, the latest in the Aristide Ravel historical mystery series by Susanne Alleyn. The action takes place in Paris during The Terror, a few years after the events in Cavalier of the Apocalypse, the novel in which Ravel reluctantly begins his career as a police agent. Though I loved loved loved Cavalier, and very much enjoyed Game of Patience and Treasury of Regrets, Palace of Justice is my hands-down favorite! Clearly, Ms. Alleyn's really hit her stride with this one!

Someone is leaving headless corpses from one end of Paris to the other, macabre reminders of the bloody work being done by Madame La Guillotine, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason for the killer's choice of victims, which range across the entire social spectrum. Ravel is brought into the case when the headless corpse of an unknown woman is found in an alley in Commissaire Brasseur's patch. When Ravel discovers that their victim is actually the fifth such corpse and that the Revolutionary Council is involved, things start to get dicey for the morose detective. Is it a true madman responsible, or could it be a royalist fanatic out to discredit the fledgling Republic by whatever means possible, even if it means murder?

The mystery is clever and twisty and seems to me to be a police procedural / judicial drama, coupled with a study of what fanaticism and madness does to a society as a whole and to individuals in particular, as much as a whodunnit. As usual, though, it is Ravel's story and the fascinating historical period details that sucked me in and kept me up late at night reading "just one more page...or two."  While immersed in the novel, I was there with Ravel in the gritty heart of Paris during The Terror, with all of its paranoia, hysteria, poverty, fear and bloody death. Even as he races about trying to solve the murders, resulting in some nail-biting moments for me, Ravel is personally touched by tragedy when Mathieu, his best friend from childhood, is brought up on charges of treason in front of the Revolutionary Tribunal, resulting in some of the most heartbreaking scenes in any novel I've ever read. I cried, which isn't something that usually happens when I read a mystery.

Palace of Justice is, quite simply, sublime, and I highly recommend it (and the entire series) to those who love good historical mysteries. For a taste of what Palace has to offer, you can read the first two chapters on Ms. Alleyn's website: She is also having a giveaway of two copies of Palace ~ the link to the contest is in the right-hand column of this blog. So, do yourself a favor: check out the excerpt and then enter the giveaway. You'll be so glad you did!

In bookstores November 23, 2010 (just in time for the long Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S.)!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An Exciting Giveaway, courtesy of Susanne Alleyn

In anticipation of her latest Aristide Ravel mystery Palace of Justice going on sale later this month, and because she's just an all-around great gal, Susanne Alleyn has generously provided me with five autographed copies of her first three Ravel mysteries to give away to five lucky readers.  I've got two copies of Game of Patience, two of Treasury of Regrets, and one of Cavalier of the Apocalypse up for grabs!

How to Enter:

1 Entry: Leave a comment below.

1 Entry: Leave a comment on the Interview with Susanne Alleyn post.

3 Entries:  Go to Susanne's website and read the excerpt from Palace.  Then come back here and leave a comment, telling me your thoughts about it.  You can also let me know which of the novels you'd prefer if you win, and I'll do my best to accommodate your request.  Please be sure to leave me your email address. 

1 Entry:  Tweet about this giveaway.

1 Entry:  Mention this giveaway on Facebook.

1 Entry: Mention this giveaway on GoodReads.

1 Entry:  Mention this giveaway on your blog.

1 Entry:  If you are a follower of this blog (or become one).

Please remember to leave a link to your blog, social site mention, and/or your Twitter handle, and let me know if you are a follower of this blog. 

The drawing will be held on the 16th of November, so please be sure to leave your enter by midnight on November 15.  Good luck!

(So sorry, but this giveaway is open only to residents of the U.S. and Canada, and you must have a street address; no post office boxes.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Interview With Historical Mystery Author Susanne Alleyn

Susanne Alleyn, acclaimed author of four historical mysteries set in Paris during the French Revolutionary period, as well as a non-mystery historical novel, apparently comes by her love of writing historical fiction naturally, being the granddaughter of Lillie V. Albrecht, who wrote a number of children's historical novels beginning back in the 1950s.  As it notes on Susanne's website, though, Susanne "definitely doesn’t write for children, unless, like her, they have found guillotines, high drama, and the French Revolution fascinating since the age of ten or so."

I feel so lucky to have "discovered" Susanne's Aristide Ravel mystery novels a few years ago, first gobbling up Game of Patience and Treasury of Regrets, and then getting to know her a bit while nagging her to hurry up and finish the next one (The Cavalier of the Apocalypse) and after that to hurry up and write the next one (Palace of Justice, which, I am thrilled to be able to say, will be in bookstores November 23, 2010, just in time for the long Thanksgiving Day weekend in the U.S.). 

Not long ago, while discussing with her when Palace would be published so I could get my next Ravel fix, we had a little chat, which went something like this:

Me:  So your grandmother was a famous writer of children's books!  Is that where your love of historical fiction came from?

Susanne:  I don't know about "famous," but she definitely influence my love for historical fiction!  She lived in a town called Westfield, Massachusetts, which has about 400 years of history. It was settled by the Puritans in the mid-17th century. She was just fascinated by the local history, so after doing quite a lot of local research and such (she was librarian there), she decided to write children’s books, set in the area. And she ended up writing five, and had them published, and became a local celebrity.

Me:  Your Ravel mysteries are certainly not children's books, though I guess A Far Better Rest, which is a reimagining of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities from Sydney Carton’s viewpoint, could be appreciated by young teens. Where did you get the idea for writing it?

Susanne:  Oh, dear, dear. Doesn’t every romantic, literary-minded teenaged girl fall in love with Sydney Carton at one time or another?  Call me a case of arrested development, but apparently I never outgrew my teenaged infatuation with him (a progression, from the Classic Comics Tale at 8 or 9, to a somewhat abridged version of the novel at 13, to seeing the 1935 film with Ronald Colman ~ best Carton ever! ~ at 16, to reading the whole, unabridged novel for the first time soon afterward).  A Tale of Two Cities, in turn, led to my fascination with the French Revolution.

During many re-readings, I had always wondered why Carton just dropped out of A Tale of Two Cities for such a large chunk of the narrative, while Dickens concentrated on the married life and then the revolutionary travails of Charles and Lucie, and how and why Carton then popped up again in Paris just when he was most needed. Dickens never, ever explains this (Did Mr. Lorry write, from Paris, to Carton or to Stryver, telling them of the Darnays’ plight? If so, why not say so?). No doubt it’s simply one of his famous coincidences, beloved of Victorian novelists; but I really wanted to know.

In 1995, I had the opportunity to spend a week in London before going on to Paris for two more weeks. And toward the end of my trip, one evening in the very bare room of a Parisian youth hostel (having no money to go out for evening activities), I idly began to ponder the fact that I had been in London and was now in Paris . . . the “two cities” of the novel. Once again I began to wonder why Carton had disappeared from the middle of A Tale of Two Cities and turned up in Paris many chapters and years later. And suddenly, perhaps thanks to the influence of Paris, I realized the solution was . . . obviously! . . . that he had been in Paris all the time (doing what? Hmm . . .).

I immediately knew that I had to write that story, from Carton’s perspective, and (being a history geek) with a fuller and more balanced look at the French Revolution.  Dickens does provide a very sketchy timeline in the course of his narrative, but from a quick read, you would think that all the events of the Revolution, from the fall of the Bastille to the Terror, happen within about six months ~ film versions are even guiltier of this ~ and it was all blood and massacres and guillotines; nothing is ever mentioned of the first two “happy” years of the Revolution or of its many positive achievements.

Me:  I can see how Tale could be such an influence.  It was one of my favorite novels of childhood too.  So romantic!  By the way, I've heard there are plans afoot to reissue it in paperback.

Susanne:  Yes, I'm so excited that it's being reprinted!  It's just become available at Amazon in paperback and eBook, to coincide with the release of Palace of Justice.

Me:  What then inspired you to write your first Aristide Ravel mystery, Game of Patience?

Susanne:  Game was loosely inspired by a real-life female multiple murderer, Manette Bouhourt, whose killer career in early 1800s Paris was briefly outlined in a book about the Parisian executioners and crime in the 18th and 19th centuries. I knew I wanted to learn more about her, and I knew I wanted to write a story, play, or novel about her. Unfortunately I could find very, very little about the historical Manette, so I took the few facts I had and created a fictional character, first in the beginnings of a play, which didn’t work, and then in the beginnings of a novel with the young woman as the main character, which also didn’t work. Then it suddenly occurred to me that the story I had in mind would work as a mystery, with a new central character/sleuth (at which point Aristide Ravel appeared, almost fully formed); and finally the story worked!

Me:  I know from reading your novels that you do meticulous research and then weave the historical details seamlessly into the stories. What was the most fascinating detail you learned while doing research?

Susanne:  There are probably way too many fascinating details to count. It was interesting (and rather disturbing) to learn how the prerevolutionary French police and justice system worked; study a bit of this, and you understand why our own framers of our constitution wrote it as they did, because they knew about the horrific abuses and injustices that could sometimes happen under Europe’s absolute monarchies, where the whole system was designed to keep the subjects in line. The idea that it didn’t really matter who was punished (publicly and usually harshly) for a crime, because, it was theorized, the example would frighten other potential wrongdoers into not committing crimes, was typical and, to our modern American ears, simply appalling.

The most fascinating footnote character of the French Revolutionary period that I discovered has to be Fragonard, the mad scientist featured in The Cavalier of the Apocalypse. I’d known a little about him long before I even began writing the Ravel novels; but after visiting the museum containing his works, I knew I just had to include him in a future novel. (This was while I was just finishing Game of Patience; perceptive readers will notice a sneaky reference to him in Game, although I didn’t write Cavalier for another five years.)

Me:   I’ve read that you can see Adrien Brody in the role of Aristide Ravel if Game of Patience were made into a movie (and wouldn't it make a wonderful film).  Does your choice still hold? Who would you like to see play Inspector Brasseur and Rosalie Clement?

Susanne:  Oh, yes, Adrien Brody is still my first choice for playing Ravel. He’s just so right for the character in both appearance and style. For Rosalie, I’ve thought of French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, or someone like her. Very French-looking and intense, though not conventionally pretty. Brasseur is definitely a character actor’s role and I keep thinking of Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies), although he’s too old for the part. I don’t see enough movies to be really aware of a lot of the current talent out there.

Me:  Oh, my, yes, I agree ~ Adrien Brody would  make a brilliant Ravel.  In fact, I always picture Brody as Ravel when I'm reading one of the Ravel mysteries.  Such a brooding yet sensitive character. *drool*

What?  Oh, right, back to the books.  The fourth Ravel mystery, Palace of Justice, will be hitting bookstores toward the end of November 2010. I read the first chapter (at your website) and wow! What a hook! Tell us what you can ~ without giving anything away, of course ~ about the plot and where it fits time-wise with respect to the first three.

Susanne:  Palace of Justice takes place in October 1793, when the Terror was just beginning to heat up.  Revolutionary politics and events will interfere with Ravel’s pursuit of a multiple murderer who seems bent on leaving as many headless corpses around Paris as the guillotine does.  If you read the novels in the order of when the stories take place, it’s second in the series (between the The Cavalier of the Apocalypse and Game of Patience). (Blame the publishers for the crazy sequence! They asked for two particular books based on some very brief ideas I sent them, without paying any attention to the historical timeline.)

Me:  Besides Ravel, which one of your fictional characters did you find most interesting to write?

Susanne:  Am I cheating if I say the Sansons, father and son executioners?  They were real people, so are not strictly “fictional”. (I am obsessed with the Sansons, a family trapped by social mores and customs in an intolerable position, and will be writing much more about them someday.)

Me:  Not cheating at all!  I find them fascinating too.  And the way you've written them, so three-dimensional and sympathetic, for all they are engaged in a terrible and macabre job!  It's hard to imagine how it must have been for them, trapped as you say by the social customs of the time.

Susanne:  For totally fictional characters, the most interesting to write was probably Rosalie Clément in Game of Patience. A close second was the Marquis de Beaupréau in The Cavalier of the Apocalypse; he’ll be back in at least one future Ravel novel. He was vaguely inspired by a real revolutionary figure, Jean-Marie Hérault de Séchelles, a wealthy and influential aristocrat with liberal views, who became an extremely left-wing revolutionist and member of the Committee of Public Safety (while continuing to live like a wealthy and influential aristocrat). I see Beaupréau as being sort of a combination of Lafayette and Robespierre.

Me:  Okay, so, as an aspiring writer, I've got to ask: What is an average writing day like for you?

Susanne:  I have to confess I’m horribly lazy and undisciplined! But on a good day, I get up as early as possible, fortify myself with coffee, get to work, and produce a few pages’ worth of rough draft before lunchtime. I rarely can get much writing done in the afternoon or evening, although I can reread and do a bit of editing. When the rough draft is complete (hallelujah!) I can usually spend whole days rereading and rewriting. So much easier than writing the draft.

Me:  Lazy?  Undisciplined?  I don't think so. Not with five published books under your belt.  And, may I say, five excellently written published books.  So, do you have any special writing rituals or totems to wake up your Muse?

Susanne:  One word: Coffee. (Ravel and I share this trait.) Two of the most productive writers in history, Voltaire and Balzac, were also among the greatest coffee addicts in history. So far, caffeine hasn’t made me nearly that productive, but I can hope.

When I’m stuck in the middle of a paragraph or scene (“Where does this conversation go from here?” “What the heck happens next?”), I usually run the solitaire program and play a round or two of Freecell. Usually that little break allows the subconscious to figure out what comes next. Yep, that’s where Ravel’s solitaire habit comes from; I thought it would work well for him, too.

Me:  Heh.  You, Ravel, Voltaire, Balzac ~ and me!  I can't live without my daily dose of coffee, the stronger the better, but my game of choice is Mah Jong.  Although I just love it when Ravel pulls out his old deck of cards and starts laying them out.  You just know something's going to percolate up out of the depths of his intellect.  Anyway, one last question: I know you like to read. What are some of your favorite books?

Susanne:  My tastes are pretty conventional. I’ve always liked mysteries, and read mostly the Golden Age authors ~ Christie, Sayers, Tey, and so on.  I continually reread books, for pleasure and to half-consciously examine the writing style. I also like fantasy and science fiction, from time to time, and have read some of the classics, like The Lord of the Rings, many times.  A Tale of Two Cities, of course.  Historical fiction ~ depending on the period; aside from the French Revolutionary period, I like ancient Egypt and Rome.  I’ve amassed quite a collection of fiction set in the French Revolution but a lot of it is pointless costume schlock (bodice-ripper romances, dull male-oriented “adventure” novels from the 1950s, and, ugh, the truly witless, historically ludicrous, and Francophobic Pimpernels). The best by far, both in historical fidelity and literary quality, is A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. She wrote the book I wanted to write (and she wrote it much better than I could have), but that sent me off in other directions which seem, so far, to have worked for me.

So, there you have it!  I'd like to extend a big thank you to Susanne for sharing her thoughts with me so I could share them with you!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Review: Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie

Persona Non Grata is Ruth Downie's third book in her series of mysteries set in the farflung the Roman Empire during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian that features the medicus Gaius Petraeus Ruso and his slave/girlfriend/partner-in-detecting Tilla (who's British name is unpronounceable and translates to "Daughter of Lugh").

In the first two books of the series, the action takes place in Roman Britain, but in this one Ruso has been granted leave from the legion and has brought Tilla to his home in Gaul where he has come to sort out some family problems, most of them having to do with money ~ or rather the lack thereof. The first third of the novel was a bit long and consisted mostly of introducing the cast of characters and highlighting their unusually unpleasant idiosyncracies. Then someone dies right in front of Ruso, and it looks like he was done in by poison. The fact that the dead guy was Ruso's main creditor who was in the process of ruining him legal and turning his family off the family farm to become homeless and destitute makes Ruso look pretty good for the murderer, at first glance anyway.  After that, the story gets really good, and I ended up liking it far more than the first two. For one thing, there were some really amusing bits.  Also, Tilla is beginning to be more likeable and Ruso not to irritating in his thick-headedness.  I also liked the way the author developes even the unlikeable characters so that in the end I had begun to understand them, if not outright like them.

Oh, and the mystery? It was okay, if just a tad too facile. But I just love Downie's way with characters and her ability to evoke the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the ancient Roman world, so the mystery is secondary for me.

This series lies somewhere between Lindsey Davis's Falco and Wishart's Marcus Corvinus mysteries and the more serious SPQR and Gordianus the Finder mysteries by John Maddox Roberts and Steven Saylor, respectively. 

CAVEAT:  This was a LibraryThing Early Review book that I received gratis in exchange for a review.  (Notice the Latin terms in a review of a Roman mystery? Pretty classy, huh?)  The opinions expressed are strictly my own and were in no way influenced by the fact the book was free.

Ghost Files: We Have a Winner!

Nickel the African Grey parrot was sleeping hard last night at midnight when it was time to draw a winner, so I used to pull out the name of . . . Misha!  Congratulations, Misha!  I hope you enjoy Ghost Files, the Haunting Truth

To everyone who visited Just One More Page...Or Two and left comments, I'm so glad you did and really hope you had a good time.  I'm planning to be having a number of giveaways in the next few weeks, and I hope you'll come back and check them out.

Happy reading!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dark Road to Darjeeling: A Review

Anyone who loves mysteries, especially historical mysteries with just a touch of romance, and hasn't yet met Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane, you need to run right out to the store or library (or log into and get hold of the first in the four-book (so far) series of mysteries set during the Victorian era.  They are that good.

As many others commenters have noted, the first two lines of Silent in the Grave, the first book of the series, are among the most memorable in recent times:
"To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor."
How could anyone not continue reading after that?  Not me, and I've continued to follow the exploits of Lady Julia and Brisbane as soon as each new novel came out: Silent in the Sanctuary, Silent on the Moor, and now, the latest, published October 1, 2010, Dark Road to Darjeeling.

The story begins in Egypt but moves to India, where, in a valley at the very feet of the Himalayas, Lady Julia and her party set out to investigate the possible murder of their distant relative Freddie Cavendish.  Freddie, heir to a tea plantation called The Peacocks, had married Jane, the former lover of Julia's sister Portia.  Now Jane is now a widow and pregnant with Freddie's child.  Having reread the last few sentences, I realize that it all sounds contrived, but the complicated relationships upon which the mystery depends make perfect sense as described in the novel.

The exotic locale lends a completely different flavour to Dark Road.  It is definitely not England, even though some of the characters try their utmost to behave as if they were in the center of London, with their starchy insistence on Victorian manners and tea and boiled meat.  Aside from the humor of the Brits' conceit, the novel makes clear the colonial tensions simmering just below the surface.

At the heart of the novel, though, are Julia's intrepid (some might call it stubborn) spirit and her unconventional relationship (some might say rivalry) with Brisbane, setting up a sometimes delightful, sometimes maddening tension that runs through the entire course of the novel.  Once or twice I admit that I found myself thinking irritably that if Brisbane were to run out on Julia without explanation one more time I was going to throw the book against the wall, but by the end of the novel when the truth came out, I came to understand his reasoning and, even, to agree with him to an exent.  Which brings me to one of the difficulties of a novel written in the first person: all we can know is what the narrator knows or believes, or suspects, and thus are we as much in the dark as Julia when it comes to Brisbane's surliness and seemingly inexplicable inability to share his thoughts with her.  I do have to say, though, that I love the way the relationship is growing in a realistic (for the two unconventional protagonists) manner.

The other characters ~ including a very proper British spinster, a handsome plantation manager and would-be heir, a beautiful, well-educated native girl, a drunken doctor, a minister and his highly unorthodox family, Lady Julia's mysterious and suspect female cousins who are living in seclusion on the estate, as well as the White Rajah, a strange old man who has taken up abode in a ruined Buddhist monastery and keeps track of all the gossip going on the valley ~ are every one much more than cardboard cutouts, nor are they often at all what they appear to be.  Then there is the charming eccentricity of Lady Julia's siblings Portia and Plum (short for Eglamour ~ however did the Victorians come up with some of their names?) to lighten the mood with their witty repartee and to add piquancy to an otherwise dark tale.

As to the mystery itself, much of the first part of the novel consists of Lady Julia, in a bid to out-detective Brisbane, speculating upon the most likely  killer, if there had even, in fact, been a murder at all (something that was far from certain from the evidence).  Julia's suspicions rest first on this character, then that character, only to alight on someone entirely new after a new piece of information is brought to her notice.  The final quarter of the story, though, shifts into high gear, and, almost too quickly, sad event is followed by horror is followed by stunning revelation is followed by denoument and then, finally, by a final tragedy.  I won't say more than this, but at that point I was pretty much sobbing.

Dark Road to Darjeeling was a lovely historical mystery, even though some of it dragged a bit, and I look forward eagerly to the next installment, nicely hinted at in the final paragraph.

NOTE: I received a free e-copy of this novel from NetGalley in exchange for my review. I was not obligated to review it or even to finish it, and I will receive no payment for having done so.  All opinions expressed in the review are my own.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Ghosty Giveaway!

Last year around this time, I went to my local indie bookstore for a book signing by the living authors of Ghost Files (the members of the Spirit Society declined to make an appearance, except through a Ouiji Board).  While there, I picked up an autographed copy of the book.  It's really intriguing, with a lot of cut outs and hidden messages ~ even a little fold-out Ouiji Board ~ and beautifully illustrated.  It's supposed to be for kids 10 and up, though I think it might be a little scary for the younger ones.  On the other hand, I'm sure adults wouldn't find it too scary and would instead get a real kick out of it.  Unless they were to try working the Ouiji Board and, you know, got a message.  That might be just a tad worrying, but, hey! Maybe it'll be good news you get from the Spirit World!

Oddly enough, some of the scariest books I ever read were not horror stories, per se.  One I particularly remember was by Caleb Carr, the guy who wrote The Alienist.  I thought his novel Angel of Darkness was terrifying, with one of the creepiest, altogether evilist characters I've ever met on the pages of any book.  I've read other books that have made my heart race and my mouth go dry, notable among them The ExorcistThe Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, The Collector, Salem's Lot, even In Cold Blood, but I'm always up for more.  I've decided to join the ranks of all the ghouls and boys who are reading scary stuff this October, and the first novel I've chosen to read is World War Z. I've heard from people whose book recommendations I trust that it's an excellent read, so I can hardly wait!

So, tell me, what's the scariest book you've ever read?  Just leave a comment after this post, telling me what your absolutely number one top favorite read-it-with-the-lights-on scary novel is, and you'll be entered to win the autographed copy of Ghost Files.  I plan to hold the drawing in one week, on October 21, at the *mwahahaha* witching hour.  That should leave plenty of time to get the book to you before Halloween.

Since it's on my own dime, I've decided to open this giveaway up worldwide.  All you need do to be entered is comment with your fave scary book and include your email address.  And all you have to do to get the book (should Nickel ~ the highly intelligent parrot who shares my abode ~ pick your name out of the proverbial hat) is send me your street address when I notify you at the email address you left in your comment.  (Sorry, you have to have a numbered street address; no post office boxes or Crossroad-Between-the-Living-and-the-Dead type addresses please.)

Anyone who links this post to their blog, either in the sidebar or in a post, gets an extra chance to win.  Ditto for anyone who tweets this or mentions it on Facebook (with a link back to my blog).  If you do any of the three, please leave a comment with the link to your blog, the tweet or the FB mention.  Thanks and good luck!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Intrigue ~ and Food ~ in Renaissance Venice

There is so much to say about The Book of Unholy Mischief that I hardly know where to begin or what all to include.

Being a lover of historical fiction, and having a few years ago explored and fallen in love with Venice on a trip to Italy, it was with great anticipation that I began The Book of Unholy Mischief  by new-to-me author Elle Newmark.  Set in Venezia at the very dawn of the Renaissance, the novel brings to life this proud but decaying old city and its denizens.  Every page is redolent with the sights and sounds, the smells and the raw energy of Venice at the height of its power as a center of world trade.  As the action moves from the doge's palace to the marketplace in the Rialto to the port where ships of all nations dock to unload exotic goods, into the warren of narrow streets in the poorest quarters, under crumbling bridges and in the dank cold cellars of the meanest taverns, it becomes clear that the city of Venice itself is a major character. 

The Book of Unholy Mischief tells the story of Luciano, an impoverished orphan living on the teeming streets, eking out a meager existence by thievery along with a pair of other hapless street urchins.  One fateful day, after stealing a pomegranate from the cart of a fruit vendor, he is caught by Amato Ferrero, master chef to the doge, Venice's supreme but nominal ruler.  Instead of having the boy tossed into the dungeon, the chef sees something salvagable in Luciano and takes him under his tutelage.  While working as a scullery lad in the palace kitchen, Luciano witnesses many strange and terrifying things, from political intrigue to casual cruelty to a macabre murder, yet it is the creative genius of the master chef which excites the imagination of the young boy more than anything else.  Until, that is, he discovers that the chef may be in possession of a fabled book that some believe holds the key to immortality and others believe contains the secret alchemical formula for turning lead into gold, and which a few, including the impressionable Luciano, believe includes the process for making a love potion.

As the search for the book by the depraved and power-mad rulers of Venice intensifies, becoming ever more frenzied and brutal, Luciano spends his days and often his nights in the kitchen learning about food ~ how to appreciate the different smells, tastes and textures, the proper way to prepare the most succulent dishes, what seasonings work best with which foods.  Luciano begins to aspire to the position of chef, and I found his clumsy attempts to create an original dish in order to impress his mentor one of the most charming episodes in the book.  Highly intriguing to the impressionable boy is the way that certain dishes prepared by his mentor seem able to change the mood of the diners, thereby affecting the course of history.  It must, he is certain, be magic.  Torn between gratitude to and loyalty toward the chef and his urgent desire to find the formula for a love potion that would allow him to win the fair Francesca, for whom he feels an unrequited but mindless lust, Luciano blunders about trying to discover what he believes the chef is hiding from him and everyone else.  Thus are the seeds of disaster sown.

Despite Luciano's almost willful blindness and stubborn resistance to reality (which I admit drove me nuts at times), Chef Ferrero begins to teach him more than simply the art of cooking.  In his lessons, the chef uses food to illustrate his points.  In one evocative scene, Chef Ferrero prepares a simple cheese souffle.  After he and Luciano have eaten it, the following conversationn ensues:
"You know, Luciano, sometimes I think the rumors about alchemy might also have been started by this souffle."

"Because of the golden color?"

"No. Because once you learn to live in the present, you're as rich as anyone can be. We must embrace each moment."

"Even the bad ones?"

"Especially the bad ones. Those are the ones that show us who we are."

P. 279
Descriptions of the various luscious foods beguile and entice, while scenes of voluptuous feasts and the way the different foods affect the diners fascinate and amuse.  I don't believe I am being too extreme by warning potential readers that reading this book while trying to lose weight may be problematic when even the cover art looks delicious enough to make one's mouth water.  Nor do I think it is off-the-mark to say that food can be seen as another major character, so important is it to the story.  As Chef Ferrero says of a banquet at which the purpose of the doge is changed from entrapping his guest to embracing him as a dear friend:

"Food has a power, Luciano. Each dish works its own magic, a kind of alchemy that changes our bodies and our minds....Consider the effect of melted cheese. Soft, warm, comforting, so easy to eat you barely need to chew. It makes a man relax. Then came the dumplings. Plain, common food to inspire trust, to awaken a sense of shared humanity and the enjoyment of simple things....Food can manipulate men's hearts and minds."
P. 105
As I read, I began to see Holy Mischief, at least in part, as a study of opposites:  Love versus lust; loyalty versus betrayal; violence versus redemption; descriptions of decadent opulence and power amidst grinding poverty and degredation; the quest for knowledge opposed by the close-minded Catholic Church and the ruling classes; the credulous beliefs in alchemy and magic set against the scientific and philosophic discoveries just beginning to shine after centuries of darkness ~ sort of entitlement versus enlightenment.  They all war for ascendancy, and Luciano must find the strength within to find his way through the maze and become the better man the chef believes he can be.

I noticed a few little problems, among which was the illogic of the highly intelligent chef entrusting to an obviously immature boy who can't keep his mouth shut secrets that could mean his death if disclosed, or the fortuitious way Luciano seems to be wherever he needs to be to find out things that advance the plot.  I also felt that some of the characters' behavior was not adequately explained, and there was a loose end or two left at the end of the book.  Even so, the writing was so delightful and the story so compelling (not to mention (again) the descriptions of Venice and food) that the only thing that really stands out as annoying now that I've had some time to digest (pun intended) the novel is the wrong-headed way Luciano behaved at times.  And I will say no more about that lest I include a spoiler in my review.   There were also, as the author discussed in her note at the back of the book, a few anachronisms. I guess I'm not much of a pedant, because they weren't bothersome enough to stop me from enjoying this work of fiction. I think that anyone who loves good food, revels in rich language and who is fascinated by the idea of a secret order called the Guardians who collect and guard knowledge in order to pass it on to the future generations would enjoy the novel as well.

DISCLAIMER: I received this novel for free from Pump Up Your Book, with no strings attached. The opinions are my own, and I am being paid nothing for my review.

Monday, October 4, 2010

News About the New Aristide Ravel Historical Mystery and a GIVEAWAY!!!

Amazing news that I just had to share lest I burst trying to hold it in.  So, as someone who is a lover of good historical fiction and, in particular, historical mysteries, I was absolutely thrilled to learn that Susanne Alleyn's latest Aristide Ravel historical mystery ~ Palace of Justice ~ is due out on around November 23. 

But wait! Although that is great news, it's not the news I'm talking about.  It was with great interest that I heard that Publishers' Weekly gave Palace a starred review, which I reproduce in its entirety for everyone who loves good historical fiction:
"Palace of Justice: An Aristide Ravel Mystery

"Susanne Alleyn, Minotaur, $24.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-312-37394-8

At the height of the Reign of Terror in 1793, an unknown killer is emulating the work of the guillotine by leaving beheaded corpses all over Paris in Alleyn's superior fourth Aristide Ravel mystery (after 2009's The Cavalier of the Apocalypse). Given the tight control of the republican government, the police don't realize that the deaths are part of a series, but eventually former justice minister Georges Danton asks Ravel to solve the case. With delicate peace negotiations with the English under way, Danton fears that word of the atrocities will jeopardize them. The pressure to catch the killer only increases as the roster of victims expands to include a member of the government. Alleyn brilliantly captures the paranoid spirit of the times, and inserts enough twists to keep most readers guessing. This entry approaches the quality of the historical fiction of such authors as Steven Saylor and Laura Joh Rowland. (Dec.)" 
Look at all those superlatives!  "Superior."  "Brilliantly."  I'm sure you'll agree that this is great news too,'s still not the news I want to share.  I just heard that I'm getting an Early Review copy of Palace of Justice to review, and I should be receiving it within the week!!!!  Okay, now is that worth four exclamation points or what?'s still not the news I'm talking about.

This is the news I'm so excited about, and I think you will be too when you hear that Susanne has graciously consented to let me interview her for my blog (squeee), AND she's going to provide some copies of her previous Aristide Ravel novels for me to GIVE AWAY to some lucky readers!!!!! 

So, when is this five-exclamation-point interview and giveaway going to be officially announced?  Well, I'm thinking soon, in a week or so.  Can you wait that long?  Can I wait that long?  I am pretty darned excited, after all.  So stay tuned!  It's going to be so much fun!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Shine On, Harvest Moon

This year's autumnal equinox, which took place on September 23, occurred in conjunction with an event that doesn't happen all that often ~ a harvest moon.  So it's rather interesting that Harvest Moon, an anthology of three fun new fantasy novellas, is being released on October 1, not long after that unusual event.  Coincidence?  I wonder.  At any rate, it's pretty clever, as are the stories which all have as a motif a harvest moon.  In other respects, they all are quite different. 

A Tangled Web by Mercedes Lackey is a story of the Five Hundred Kingdoms, this one a retelling of both Hades's abduction of Persephone and the doomed attempt by Orpheus to rescue Eurydice from the Underworld.  As is common with Lackey, her retelling turns the myths pretty much upside down.

Cast in Moonlight by Michelle Sagara is set in the world of Elantra.  It tells how teenager Kaylin Neya joins the Hawks, a peacekeeping force, and helps them break up a ring of child abductors and murderers. My introduction to Elantra and its different species was pretty much my favorite of the bunch, and I'm looking forward to starting this series. *doing the happy dance over finding an excellent new series to start*

In Retribution by Cameron Haley, Domino Riley is a mob lieutenant who executes a guy named Benny after he attempts to murder her.  This wasn't just an ordinary mob hit, though, nor is this mob run-of-the-mill.  Rather, Domino Riley is a master magician, as are many of the other mobsters.  Although Benny doesn't have much "juice" (magical power), before he dies he puts a Jewish death curse on Domino that has her being stalked by Samael, the Old Testament Angel of Death.  It was okay, sometimes amusing and other times rather gruesome, but I never really warmed to the character, though by the end I was curious enough to want to read more novels about Riley.

Publication Date: October 1, 2010

As an aside, I started this about a month ago, but, after I finished Mercedes Lackey's novella, I stopped reading, mainly because I wasn't familiar with the other two authors' and their work. I guess I was in one of my "not interested in trying anything new" moods. Thank goodness that didn't last long because, while I enjoyed the Lackey offering, the second turned out to be really good. I wasn't quite as thrilled with the third, but eventually I enjoyed it too once I got into it, especially since urban fantasy is a new subgenre for me and one which I think I really like a lot.  I do hope this teaches me be less resistant to trying new things.

DISCLAIMER: I received this free unproofed eGalley, sent to my Kindle by the publisher with no strings attached, through The opinions expresssed are my own, and I am being paid nothing for my review.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Glamorous Green ~ The Latest Fashion Color

When I saw that Green Interior Design by Lori Dennis was being offered by publisher Allworth Press on, I jumped at the chance to read it.  Being  one of those unfortunates who is highly sensitive to chemicals, including perfumes and colognes (which abound in the office where I work, though most of the offenders are ~ believe it or not ~ men!), as well as other types of pollutants such as dust and cleansers, I'm always on the lookout for ways to make my living space ~ and work space, to the extent possible ~ cleaner and more livable.  I'm also interested in having less of an impact on the environment, a goal that becomes more and more urgent every year.  Finally, I'm planning to make a big move within the next few years when I retire.  I hoped this book might help me achieve a more environmentally friendly lifestyle both now and after I move.

I was not disappointed.

The book covers every aspect of one's living space: from building a new green space to making the one you live in more green, including what to look for when buying furniture and accessories, window treatments, and fabrics, as well as surface features, appliances and plumbing fixtures, what plants help neutralize pollution inside the home, and more.  It also includes handy checklists and lists of green sources.

A list of Chapter headings gives an idea of the extent of the material covered by the book:
Chapter One: Introduction
Chapter Two: Furniture and Accessories
Chapter Three: Fabrics and Window Treatments
Chapter Four: Surface Materials
Chapter Five: Interior Plants
Chapter Six: Appliances and Plumbing Fixtures
Chapter Seven: Living Rooms
Chapter Eight: Bedrooms and Nurseries
Chapter Nine: Green Building
Chapter Ten: Cleaning and Maintaining Interiors and Landscapes
Chapter Eleven: My Favorite Green Designers, Architects, and Builders
Since I'm currently living in an apartment and don't have a lot of control over the building materials or paints, etc., I kind of skimmed the chapters on surface materials, appliances, green builders, etc. I'm keeping the book on my computer, though, to use when I move and may need the info. I got a lot out of the chapters on furniture and accessories, window treatments, cleaning supplies and interior plants, since those are things I have direct control over. And may I say that some of the information was eye-opening!

Having said all that, I confess that what I loved most about the book were the gorgeous photos! 

Speaking of gorgeous, here's a link to a video tour of a house in the Hollywood Hills that was designed by the author.  Scrumptious!  Makes me wish I'd become a lawyer like my dad wanted me to do so I could afford to live there.

To eReaders, I don't believe this would work well as an eBook.  The color photos demand a computer monitor or the iPad screen.  Therefore, I read this on my laptop, which wasn't the most pleasant experience due to my monitor's small size, so I couldn't see the entire page (which meant that some full-page images had to be made a lot smaller or I could only view the upper or the lower portions at a time.  Not a huge problem, but I wouldn't get this as an eBook unless you plan on reading it on a large screen monitor.  In my opinion, this book would be best as a print copy.  Though I haven't seen it yet in print, I imagine it would make a lovely decorative effect if left out on the coffee table for ease of reference.

Recommended for everyone who wants to turn their homes into places where they can thrive.

Publication Date: 11/16/2010

Advanced Praise for Green Interior Design

“Lori Dennis gives us a comprehensive primer and tool-book for green living. This must-have volume is filled with encyclopedic details, checklists and source guides—everything one needs to know in order to create eco-friendly interiors. It’s the new go-to for sustainable interior design principles and practices.” –Pamela Jaccarino, Editor in Chief, Luxe Interiors + Design

“Lori Dennis is a trailblazer, having specialized in green interior design for over a decade. She’s a master at the efficient use of space and has all the resources and trade secrets you need to make any home more environmentally friendly, visually appealing and comfortable.” –Phyllis Goldstein, Editorial Director, Small Room Decorating, Cottage Style, and Romantic Country

"Not only is Lori Dennis a brilliant designer, in Green Interior Design she proves time and time again that green is both good and glamorous." –Ronda Carman, All the Best Blog

“Lori Dennis offers a thoughtful look at the shades of green that go into living responsibly, comfortably, and beautifully at home. An essential introduction to sustainable domestic design.” –Jordan Kushins, Assistant Editor, Dwell
And from the publisher:
"This easy to use manual includes every aspect of residential interior design ~ furniture and accessories, window treatments, fabrics, surface materials, appliances and plumbing fixtures, plants, and more ~ discussed from a green perspective in terms of both avoiding pollution and protecting the occupants’ health. Green building criteria are elaborated and special focus is given to bedrooms where occupants spend most of their time and are most at risk. Landscaping and landscape maintenance are scrutinized from a green vantage point. The book concludes with interviews with a number of leading designers and architects who incorporate environmental and health concerns in their projects. Lori Dennis shares checklists (such as for green criteria) and sources for materials to help readers develop successful, sustainable projects. This book is a thorough guide for anyone wishing to create green interiors and lessen the enormous stream of waste and pollution generated by the building industry. The audience for this title includes interior designers, architects, builders, contractors, homeowners planning an interior remodeling or new construction project, and students and faculty of both interior design and architecture.
DISCLAIMER: I received this free unproofed eGalley, sent to my Kindle by the publisher with no strings attached, through The opinions in the review are my own, and I am being paid nothing for my review.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day, the Workers' Holiday

Ahhh, Labor Day! Celebrated on the first Monday of September, this end-of-summer holiday is marked by picnics, barbecues, fireworks displays, water sports, and public art events. For families with school-age children, it is the last chance to travel before the end of summer recess, and for high school and college students, it's the last carefree weekend for partying before the start of the fall semester.  For sports fans, Labor Day is the start of the NFL and college football seasons.

But what is Labor Day?  How did it come into being? 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor website, Labor Day "constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."  And to whom do you think thanks are owed  for the well-being of those selfsame workers?  To the efforts of labor unions, actually, those very unions which today are much-maligned by those who blame them for our current economic woes.

From the U.S. Department of Labor website, I also learned that the first Labor Day holiday was organized as a "workingmen's holiday" by the Central Labor Union, the nation's first integrated major trade union, and was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, with a parade.

Prior to the organization of the various unions, working conditions in America were dire, with workers being paid very little for back-breaking work under terrible conditions.  For example, " 1834-1836, women worked 16–17 hours a day to earn $1.25 to $2.00 a week. A girl weaver in a non-union mill would receive $4.20 a week versus $12.00 for the same work in a union mill. They had to buy their own needles and thread from the proprietor. They were fined for being a few minutes late for work. Women carried their own foot treadle machines or were held in the shops until the entire shop had completed an immediate delivery order. Their pay was often shorted, but a protest might result in immediate dismissal. Sometimes whole families worked from sun-up to midnight. Pulmonary ailments were common due to dust accumulation on the floors and tables. Some shops had leaks or openings in the roofs, and workers worked in inclement weather."  (wikipedia)

Despite the odds, some of the women challenged the employers. Their first organization was called the Daughters of Liberty in 1765. In 1825, the women reorganized, calling themselves the United Tailoresses of New York. Strikes occurred over the years, and some were successful. Many were not.

The above example of workplace abuse is only one of hundreds.  Men and children workers faced similar unbearable conditions in the workplace.

The fight for an 8-hour day, a living wage, and safe working conditions was long and bloody.  It could not have been waged without the unions.  So, while fewer American workers belong to unions today than ever before, and union busting seems part of today's political rhetoric, all of us who work an 8-hour day in a safe environment and draw a decent paycheck owe our thanks to those early unions and to those men and women who fought and sometimes gave their lives for the rights of all American workers.

Happy Labor Day, America.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Murder in Ancient Rome

In the debut novel Roman Games by Bruce Macbain, Pliny the Younger, a somewhat straitlaced Senator and expert probate lawyer, is ordered by the Emperor Domitian (the last of the Flavian dynasty and the nemesis of Lindsey Davis's detective Falco) to solve a locked-door murder of a hated informer. While making his bumbling way toward discovering the culprit and how the deed was accomplished, he uncovers a lot more going on than he really wants to know.

Roman Games is well-written with a good plot and well-developed, multi-layered characters and contains no anachronisms of which I was aware. It falls somewhere between Roberts's SPQR mysteries and Saylor's Gordianus series in terms of seriousness and well-researched historical detail. I haven't read a lot about the reign of Domitian, so Roman Games was interesting for that reason too.

I found the protagonist Pliny to be a bit tiresome, what with his seemingly unrelenting naivete, his slight pomposity and an insufferably proper attitude, though he was certainly a decent man.  I also found him a bit unlikeable (for one thing, he treated his pregnant wife of FOURTEEN like, well, a child ~ a lovable one but a child nonetheless, and a slightly stupid one at that), and I feel that he didn't do much in the way of growing during the course of the novel, but it wasn't enough to put me off reading it or looking forward to the next installment (I'm sure this is the beginning of a series). Certainly, idealistic honorable courageous men who stood up to the imperial bullies were at a premium in those days, and from what history I've read of the time it wasn't unusual for women to marry young and be treated like children or halfwits. Still, I hope as the series advances, so too will Pliny. And his child bride.

The subject matter was darker and the action more brutal than any of the other Roman mysteries I recall reading recently and, thus, more realistically portrays life in those dangerous days, but I didn't find it outrageous or prurient in any way.  Lots of swearing, especially by the soldiers, but quite a bit of it was, if you'll credit it, in Latin.  I enjoyed those parts a lot.  Many of the characters were historical personages, including Pliny, and much of the action was based on first-person accounts by Pliny and others.

In any event, as an aficianado of ancient Roman mystery/detective series, I'm excited to have another Roman detective to follow and highly recommend Roman Games to anyone who enjoys the Falco, Gordianus, Corvinus or SPQR mysteries.

For more plot information, here's the blurb from the NetGalley website:
"Rome: September, 96 AD. When the body of Sextus Verpa, a notorious senatorial informer and libertine, is found stabbed to death in his bedroom, his slaves are suspected.
"Pliny is ordered by the emperor Domitian to investigate. However, the Ludi Romani, the Roman Games, have just begun and for the next fifteen days the law courts are in recess. If Pliny can't identify the murderer in that time, Verpa's entire slave household will be burned alive in the arena.
"Pliny, a very respectable young senator and lawyer, teams up with Martial, a starving author of bawdy verses and denizen of the Roman demimonde. Pooling their respective talents, they unravel a plot that involves Jewish and Christian 'atheists,' exotic Egyptian cultists, and a missing horoscope that forecasts the emperor's death.
"Their investigation leads them into the heart of the palace, where no one is safe from the paranoid emperor. As the deadline approaches, Pliny struggles with the painful dilemma of a good man who is forced to serve a brutal regime—a situation familiar in our own age as well.
"The novel provides an intimate glimpse into the palaces and tenements, bedrooms and brothels of imperial Rome's most opulent and decadent age."
DISCLAIMER: I received this free unproofed eGalley, sent to my Kindle by the publisher with no strings attached, through The opinions in the review are my own, and I am being paid nothing for my review. Please note that parts of the story may change between now and publication date. The novel is due for release in October 2010.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Black Hills by Dan Simmons

I've heard that some people weren't enamoured of this novel by the author of Drood and The Terror, but, aside from a few annoying parts *cough*Custer*cough*, I enjoyed the audiobook a lot. I especially liked the reader ~ loved the way he read the Native American words in such a wonderful voice (I have no idea whether the pronunciations were correct or not, though I would imagine he must have done some research on it) ~ as well as the story of Paha Sapa's life story told in his own words and the last couple of chapters of the book.  I liked Simmons' writing style, too.

For those who haven't yet heard, Black Hills is a novel about a Lakota (Sioux)  named Paha Sapa, whose name translates as Black Hills. Paha Sapa learns at a very early age that he has certain gifts, but they are so strange he tells only his grandfather.  One of these gifts is the ability to see into the future as well as back to the past, and to have out-of-body experiences where his spirit flies high above the earth.  When Paha Sapa is ten years old, he sneaks onto the battlefield at Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn) to count coup (touch the dead bodies of enemy soldiers). He happens to touch the body of Longhair (Custer) at the moment of his death, and, in that fateful moment, Custer's ghost enters Paha Sapa and remains in his head for pretty much his entire life. (Sounds a bit farfetched, I know, but it works in the story.)

The main plot centers around the building of the Mount Rushmore memorial, which is being carved into The Six Grandfathers, a mountain sacred to the Lakotas. Paha Sapa is helping to create the monument, working as a "powderman" and blasting huge chunks from the mountain to form the giant faces. His work on the monument is particularly interesting because the building of Mt. Rushmore monument was shown by The Six Grandfathers themselves to Paha Sapa as a vision, along with other incredible and disturbing future events, in his coming-of-age vision-quest.

Subplots include Paha Sapa's mystical coming of age as a Lakota visionary and the demise of the Free People, his time as an actor in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at the White City (Chicago's World's Fair), the particularly poignant saga of his family life. Running beneath it all is the story of America's manifest destiny-westward growth through the early twentieth century.

I guess many readers loathed the voice of Custer, and, while I admit I found it irritating, I believe it was necessary to the story and for what Simmons was trying to do ~ which I think was at least partly to show the differences and similarities of the Americans and the Lakotas.  Paha Sapa himself was a study in dichotomy. For example, he was Lakota to his soul and despised the treacherous Crow for treating with the white man, yet he himself did things to help the white man that appeared diametrically opposed to the well-being of the Lakota Nation. 

There was a lot of jumping around in time, which I've heard from some was off-putting, at least at the beginning of the novel.  I think it must have been easier to comprehend on audio than it would have been in print, since I never had any problem knowing where I was in time.  Although I listened to most of the book on my iPod, somehow I forgot to load the last CD and so had to read the last bit in print form. While it's true I missed listening the reader pronounce the Native American words, I otherwise enjoyed it just as much in print as as an audiobook.

I'm not sure whether Black Hills is going to be a best-seller or win any prizes, but I thought it was pretty wonderful.  I have been unable to stop thinking about it from pretty much the first CD and, after I finished it just last night, I dreamed about it. To me, that is the sign of a good read.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

What Remains of Heaven, a St. Cyr historical mystery

Just a quick review of What Remains of Heaven by C. S. Harris.  I just love the St. Cyr mysteries, especially now that fiesty, independent, and intelligent Hero Jarvis, the daughter of Lord
Charles Jarvis, Sebastian St. Cyr, Vicount Devlin's archenemy, has a more prominent role. She's so much more interesting than Kat Bolyn.

Anyway, in this one, the fifth of the series, Devlin's Aunt Henrietta ~ the only member of his family who has never let him down and who has shown him unconditional love (though she doesn't hesitate to flay him with her tongue when he needs it) ~ talks a reluctant Devlin into investigating the murder of the Bishop of London, who was found in a recently reopened crypt with his head bashed in, lying beside the body of someone who had been stabbed to death some 30 years earllier. While on the case, Devlin discovers yet another of his father's lies ~ this one the most explosive of all yet one that explains a lot of odd things about his family history and about Devlin himself that were heretofore incomprehensible.

I love Harris's writing, and her historical research and use of period details is impeccable.  The mysteries are good, but the thing I like best about the novels is the character development.

Thanks to NetGalley, I've got the unproofed galley of the next in the series on my Kindle and plan to read it while on vacation.  I'm working really hard to wait until I get to the airport tomorrow before starting on it.  :)