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!