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Archive for the ‘Book recommendations’ Category

Gary Corby Singer From Memphis

No, Gary Corby’s latest historical mystery isn’t about Elvis, but strangely enough a king–or more precisely, a pharoah–is involved. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Both Nicodemus and Diotima find themselves up to their rears in alligators–both real and metaphorical–when Nicodemus signs on as tour guide to the scholar, Herodotus. Herodotus wants to write an account of the war going on between the rebelling Egyptians and their Persian overlords which means a fact-finding trip to the Egyptian war zone. Meanwhile, Inarus, leader of the Egyptian rebels, needs a good man for a delicate task and Pericles, Nicodemus’s boss, wants to discomfort Athen’s enemy, the Persian Empire.

It’s international intrigue and adventure on the high seas as Nicodemus, Diotima, and Herodotus find themselves in search of a pharoah’s buried treasure. Can they survive pirates, sandstorms, and Persian assassins long enough to succeed?

Another well-crafted and historically intriguing book in Corby’s Athenian Mystery series.

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Book series, no matter how promising, don’t always continue. Authors die or become caught up in other things or just simply write themselves out where those particular characters are concerned. But every now and then a series that you thought dead is fanned to life once again. How appropriate that it would concern vampires.

I first came across Barbara Hambly’s work when I picked up her first James Asher novel, Those Who Hunt the Night (1988).  This excellent beginning was followed in 1995 by Traveling With the Dead. Then a long period of “dead air” followed by the publication in short succession of Blood Maidens (2010), Magistrates of Hell (2012), Kindred of Darkness (2014), and Darkness on His Bones (2015). It’s a cliche to say things like “grabs you by the throat” and “sinks its fangs in and won’t let go” about vampire novels, but those two phrases accurately describe the James Asher series. Hambly has a knack for writing gripping openings that seamlessly lead into compelling, multi-layered narratives.

Those Who Hunt the Night Cover

James Asher, former spy turned language professor, comes home one night to find his wife and servants unconscious and a vampire in his house. Don Simon Ysidro has come to “hire” (read blackmail) Dr. Asher into acting as a detective. Someone or something is killing the vampires of London as they sleep and Ysidro wants to put a stop to it. Forced to take the case, Asher and his medical student wife, Lydia, soon discover that the truth is much worse than any of them suspect.

Traveling with the Dead Cover

James Asher left the spy world long ago and heaven knows he has no desire to reacquaint himself with the vampire underworld he unwillingly discovered the existence of, but when he spots vampire Charles Ferren, Earl of Ernchester, talking to a known Austrian agent on a train platform, duty kicks in and he impulsively follows them to France. Trailed by his wife, Lydia, and Don Simon, and accompanied by the Earl’s devoted wife, Anthea, Asher finds himself playing a different kind of Great Game as he seeks to stop foreign powers from recruiting vampire secret agents. This story marks Lydia’s emergence as a co-protagonist.

Blood Maidens Cover

After receiving a disturbing letter from his friend and fellow vampire, Lady Irene Eaton, who then disappears, Don Simon contacts Dr. James Asher who is equally alarmed at the prospect that the Kaiser might be intent on developing an artificial vampire formula. Soon the two reluctant allies are on the road again, this time to pre-Revolutionary War Russia. St. Petersburg is the kind of hunting ground that vampires love–plenty of poor people and no one in authority who really cares if they go missing. So what could the Kaiser–or any government–offer a vampire that would be worth the loss of secrecy that has allowed them to operate in safety all this time?

Magistrates of Hell Cover

“The Magistrates of Hell” takes James and Lydia Asher out of London and into China where reports of the Others–animalistic vampires who devour animals, people, and vampires alike–have surfaced. Accompanied by James’ old tutor and mentor, vampire hunter Dr. Solomon Karelbach, the Ashers’ investigation is sidetracked when James is asked to investigate the murder of a young English woman inside the Western compound. Was the killer vampire or human? Why was she killed? And what is Don Simon Ysidro doing in China? A look at non-Western vampire culture and the first appearance of James and Lydia’s daughter, Miranda.

Kindred of Darkness Cover

Friendships between the living and the dead, Don Ysidro says at one point, never end well. He’s very right as Lydia discovers when Grippen, Master of London, kidnaps her daughter, Miranda, and Miranda’s nursemaid. There’s a new vampire in London, killing at will, and the deaths are starting to make un-life difficult for the London nest. Grippen is tough and brutal, but the newcomer is eluding his grasp. Lydia’s job, as Grippen sees it, is to use her detective skills to find the newcomer’s lair via bank and property records. James, Lydia, and Don Simon must use their combined talents to find Miranda and uncover the new Dracula’s hidden agenda. The build up to World War I has been the background to the most recent novels and in this book we see the repercussions of the conflict in the Balkans for the first time. Worth the money just to see Don Simon driving a motorcar.

Darkness on His Bones Cover

Less than a week after James arrives in Paris, ostensibly for a conference, Lydia receives a cable informing her that James has been seriously injured and is in the hospital. As James drifts in and out of consciousness, Lydia and Don Simon attempt to unravel the sequence of events that nearly killed him. Is there really a talisman in the Paris nest that will give the possessor control over other vampires? Meanwhile, World War I has broken out and German troops are advancing on Paris. If Lydia can’t get her husband out of the city, James will be taken up and executed as a spy. The most sophisticated entry in the series so far, Darkness on His Bones, shifts backwards and forwards between James’s and Simon’s past memories.

I highly recommend this series if you enjoy both historical mysteries and well-written “old school” vampires.

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Death Ex Machina Cover

“A dead man fell from the sky and landed at my feet.”

–Opening line of The Pericles Commission

Mathmatician-turned-mystery writer Gary Corby has penned five, soon to be six, novels featuring the detective team of Diotima, priestess of Artemis, and Nicolaos, an inquiry agent for Pericles, the leading statesman of Athens. Set in Ancient Greece during the Athenian Golden Age, the novels are both intricate mysteries and an immersion course in Greek culture.

In The Pericles Commission, Nicolaos has a mystery fall at his feet–literally–when the corpse of Ephialtes, the founder of Athenian democracy, lands in front of him. Who would want to assassinate the man who created democracy? As it turns out, quite a few people including Nico’s new boss, Pericles. This book gets my vote for best opening line as quoted above.

The Ionia Sanction finds Nico and Diotima overseas in Ephesus and up against political intrigues in the Persian Empire as Nico investigates the death of one proxenos and the disappearance of another. A proxenos was a citizen of one town who represented the interests of another–kind of like the world’s first diplomatic corps.

Sacred Games

Sacred Games, one of my favorites, deals with murder at the 80th Olympic Games. Timodemus, the Athenian pankration (martial arts) champion, is accused of murdering Arakos, the Spartan pankration champion. With tensions rising between Athens and Sparta, can Nico and Diotima find the true killer before real war games break out?

The Marathon Conspiracy revolves around the events that precipitated the creation of the world’s first democracy. Roughly a generation before our story opens, Hippias, a cruel tyrant, had ruled Athens with an iron hand, turning the city into a police state. So onerous did his rule become that the Athenians deposed him and when Persia attempted to put him back on the throne, a small force of Greeks fought and defeated a much larger Persian army at the Battle of Marathon. Fast forward thirty years later. A pair of girls at the Temple of Artemis, the first finishing school for girls,  find a skeleton and a set of scrolls in a cave. Soon after, one girl disappears and the other is found dead. Who would kill for thirty-year-old scrolls? Can Diotima and Nico unravel the mystery at her old school before more deaths occur? A special note: Nico and Diotima finally tie the knot.

Death Ex Machina is the latest entry in this series. Nico and Diotima are asked to investigate the case of a ghost who is haunting the Theater of Dionysos. But what begins as a series of pranks becomes much more serious when one of the actors is found hanging from the God machine. A great send up of the acting/theater scene as well as being a look at the status of metics (non-citizens) in  Athens.

I highly recommend these books and I look forward to Nico and Diotima’s next adventure.

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White Ghost Cover

James Benn’s latest entry in his Billy Boyle series is a flashback of sorts. In 1943, Billy is in North Africa when he finds himself and his friend, Kaz, re-assigned to the South Pacific, specifically the Solomon Islands, to investigate the death of a native Coastwatcher. The chief suspect is a guy Billy used to know back in Boston–Jack Kennedy. Jack’s in the hospital recovering after losing two men and his PT boat on a recent mission. The brass still haven’t decided whether to court martial him or pin a medal on him.

There’s no love lost between the Boyles and the Kennedys which ironically makes Billy the perfect investigator as far as Jack’s father, Joe Kennedy, Sr. is concerned. Joe, Sr. has pulled strings to make sure Boyle is on the case. If he exonerates Jack, Billy is seen as being fair and above the fray. And if he finds him guilty, Billy is seen as pursuing a grudge.  Jack’s a charmer, a womanizer, and a liar, but is he a killer? That’s what Billy and Kaz must find out.

Set against the brutal fighting of the South Pacific campaign, White Ghost is an excellent mystery as well as being a meditation on war.

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Bring Up Bodies Cover

Anne Boleyn is Queen of England now, but she and Henry have fallen out and no male heir has been produced. Her position tottering, Anne is ruthlessly lashing out at everyone around her including Thomas Cromwell. Meanwhile, King Henry’s affections have moved to on to Lady Jane Seymour, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, and he wants Cromwell to find legal grounds to let him out of his second marriage. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Cromwell struggles to protect his friends and family and keep his head firmly attached to the rest of his body.

One of the great mysteries about Henry and Anne Boleyn’s relationship is why Anne had to die as opposed to being divorced. Mantel suggests that Cromwell was driven to trump up treason and adultery charges against her because Anne and the rest of the Boleyns would have seen him  imprisoned and executed otherwise. Certainly, one of the most chilling moments of the book for me was where Anne suggests to Cromwell that she have the gentlemen of her chamber seduce and shame the Princess Mary. In victory, Anne is neither merciful nor gracious to her opponents, especially not to the former queen and her daughter.

The sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, is, if possible, even more of a compelling read than the first book.

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Wolf Hall Book

George R. R. Martin was quoted as saying that he initially considered writing the story that would become Game of Thrones as historical fiction, but opted to change it into a fantasy saga because that way the readers wouldn’t know how the story would end. A great quote, but it illustrates one of the challenges to historical fiction writers which is how do you keep your story suspenseful and involving when your readers know what ultimately happens to the characters?

In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s solution has been to focus on Thomas Cromwell, a major player historically, but often only a minor character in other historical fiction about the Tudor period. The story opens with young Thomas being beaten half to death by his drunken, abusive father, Walter, and then running away to sea. We then flash forward to the now adult Thomas, a respected lawyer and moneyman in London, and protege of Cardinal Wolsey.

Most of the action in Wolf Hall pivots around Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from favor with Cromwell first attempting to salvage his mentor’s career and then trying to avenge his death while at the same time trying to keep his own neck off the executioner’s block. Wolsey, up til then the King’s Chancellor and the most powerful man in England, falls from favor when he is unable to arrange Henry VIII’s divorce from his wife of 18 years, Katherine of Aragon. The book ends with Anne Boleyn having become queen. In between, we see the private Cromwell, losing his wife and daughters to the sweating sickness, taking care of his wards and employees, and eventually becoming a powerful patron in his own right.

I became interested in the books via the PBS adaptation of Wolf Hall
with Mark Rylance as Cromwell, Damian Lewis as Henry VIII, and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn. The well-received stage play version of Wolf Hall is also enjoying a successful opening on Broadway.

One of the bigger themes of Wolf Hall is the clash between the older, static, stratified medieval world and the newer, dynamic, more open Renaissance world.  “New men” like Cromwell who have risen in the world through merit, initiative, and education are frustrated by the intransigence of “old men” like the Duke of Norfolk who continue to believe that the right family name and an ability to hunt and hawk are all the qualifications necessary to run the country.

My only quibble with the book is that the author doesn’t always make clear who’s doing the talking so sometimes the action becomes confusing.

 

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Not My Father's Son

It’s 2010 and actor Alan Cumming is looking forward to solving a long standing family mystery about his maternal grandfather as part of the genealogy program, Who Do You Think You Are? Out of the blue, he receives a phone call from his estranged father. You, the old man tells him, are not my son.That single phone call propels Cumming down the rabbit hole of his own past as he embarks on an unexpected journey that uncovers family secrets.

Memoir-writing is a specialized skill and very few people can really do the job well. Alan Cumming is one of those people. From the opening pages, Cumming grabs you by the short hairs and pulls you along, traveling between the past and present, as he recounts his harrowing childhood with his abusive father. The story is intense and gripping–one of those books that you can’t put down.

I would have liked Cumming to dwell a little more on how his father’s emotional and physical abuse affected Alan’s mother and older brother. I didn’t get a clear idea, for example, of why Alan’s mother stayed married to her husband for so long (she did eventually divorce him) or how growing up in the same abusive household shaped his older brother, Tom. That being said, this book is a powerful, searing read and I highly recommend it.

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