Monday, May 20, 2013
Sorry, I did not get this up sooner. I did not work on Friday because I was finishing up a wedding cake for my sister-in-law. We have added dates to the book group for the Summer. We now have meetings scheduled for June 13, July 18, and August 15. The June meeting will be at the regular 6:00 pm time. However, since the library closes earlier in the summer the July and August meeting will start at 5:30 pm. Sue and I decided that we were going to make an executive decision about June's book. We felt that "Moon Called" by Patricia Briggs had come up enough times for vote but never has won, so this will be our book for June.
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
The first of the Nic Costa series.
Before I write my review I have to be honest about one thing that seriously biased my approach to this book: I love Rome. Actually, that is not quite true because it is a massive understatement. I have some sort of bizarre connection to the Eternal City that I do not understand, but which makes me feel as if I have lived there in a previous life. I am at my most content whenever I am there and I have a passion for all things Italian, modern and, most especially, ancient. I loved learning Latin when I was at school, so much so that I spent seven years studying part time to earn a degree in Classical Studies during my thirties and have even been known to cook authentic ancient Roman recipes from Apicius. Some of my favorite books are mystery novels set in Ancient Rome, especially those by Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor, and my one great regret about moving to the US is that we can no longer take our two week vacation in Rome every year. So, as I said earlier: I LOVE Rome!
Sara Farnese is a professor of early Christianity at the University of Rome. One day she is working quietly in the Vatican Reading Room when one of her colleagues enters the room behaving very strangely. He pulls the evidence of an appallingly grisly crime from a plastic shopping bag and then proceeds to wave a gun in her face. While she tries to make sense of his bizarre behavior and confusing words he is shot dead by an overzealous security guard.
Sitting in their car just outside St Peter’s Square, Detective Nic Costa and his new partner, Luca Rossi, hear the calls for help over the Swiss Guard radio frequency that Nic is monitoring out of heat-induced boredom. Although they have no jurisdiction in the Vatican State, they are the first detectives on the scene and are soon embroiled in a disturbing series of bizarre murders where each victim is killed and presented as a martyred saint. Constantly blocked by the security officials in the Vatican and possible corruption within his own police force, Nic struggles to solve the mystery of the murders and how they are all connected to the beautiful, but enigmatic, Farnese woman.
I recently read Diana Peterfreund’s Rampant, which is also set in Rome; in fact one of the prime reasons why I read it was because of its setting. I was pleasantly surprised that it did not make any glaring errors in its depiction of the city, but that was mainly accomplished by being rather vague in its details. This was not the case with A Season For The Dead. Mr Hewson has obviously spent a great deal of time in Rome and has done much more than visit the well-known tourist attractions. He describes many obscure places that I have also been and conjures the feeling of Rome with effortless ease, placing us in the terrible, driving heat of mid-summer when all the sensible Romans escape to the coast or the mountains. He evokes the feel and the smell of the place so well that I reveled in it, rather than finding myself waiting for the next blunder or telltale mistake that would reveal his lack of familiarity with somewhere that I know so well. This was a very, very pleasant surprise to me and one that I enjoyed immensely, grinning with delight as he used unusual locations that I recognized. This was a rare experience for me as I am so used to reading books set in the UK that do not quite ring true. For this aspect alone I found the book very enjoyable.
However, not everyone will be so enraptured by his depiction of Rome and its inhabitants, so I will try to set that aside and consider the book’s other attributes. One major problem that several of the other book group members found was with the character of Sara Farnese. We begin the book in her head and it is quickly revealed that she is engaged in an affair with an academic from the UK. She speculates that he probably has a lover in every major city, but she has never asked him about any other attachments, such as a wife. I am normally the first to be disappointed with characters that engage in infidelity, but I did not find her to be so appalling that I could not continue with the book. Unfortunately, several of the other members could not get past this point in the plot and stopped reading. I think that if they had read further and started to get to know Nic then they would have been carried along by the story as I was, but I can understand their decision. Sara is probably the weakest link in the entire book. She is certainly beautiful, intelligent and desirable, and she is provided with a sufficiently terrible origin story to explain her tragically warped character, but she still remains unsympathetic, even once we know all the appalling details. I think that starting the book in her head was a huge mistake.
Fortunately, Nic and many of the other characters are interesting and sympathetic enough to draw us into the story. Apart from his inability to resist Sara’s lure, Nic is an excellent lead character. He is young and still learning his trade, but is not over-confident and full of bravado, nor is he exceptionally brilliant or a ‘golden boy who can do no wrong’. He works hard, makes logical deductions and is heart broken when he is disillusioned by life’s ugliness. He has an interesting back story and a penchant for studying the paintings of Caravaggio (one of my favorite artists to see in Rome). He makes personal mistakes and is suitably human, which I appreciate in the lead character of a series. We see him develop and change over the course of the story, especially in regards to the relationship with his father.
However, it is the lesser characters that really steal the show. This is especially true for Luca Rossi and his girlfriend, the pathologist known to everyone as ‘Crazy’ Theresa. Luca is a detective who has been broken by the job and is simply trying to slog along until he gets his pension. He looks like a slob and seems to care very little for himself: drinking and eating badly, smoking and continually crumpled and sweaty. He looks at Nic and sees the young man he once was, with all his energy and idealism, and finds the world unutterably depressing. There is a wonderful revelation about his character near the end of the book that is very touching, so I will not spoil it, but I will say that I genuinely wanted this man to find some happiness with Theresa: I think he deserved something good to happen to him.
Theresa is a character that I can identify with quite readily because of my training as a biologist. She is quite happy to discuss autopsy details over dinner, no matter how awfully stomach-churning this might be to her companions. This reminds me of many happy hours spent discussing parasites and intestinal infestations with my husband, a former public health laboratory technician, who can spend hours gleefully recounting the horrendous cases he encountered and samples that he processed. For some reason, when you become a biologist you develop a need to discuss the most disgusting topics whilst eating in company! Theresa is also a person uncomfortable with herself, and her position as a woman constantly fighting for acceptance in a male-dominated workplace has made her very abrasive. She is very perceptive and intelligent, with a wonderful wit, so she has some great lines and I hope that she reappears later in the series.
Another great addition to the story is Nic’s father, the dying Communist, Marco. At first, I thought that his addition to the plot was merely maudlin, but he actually brought a wonderful poignancy that grounded Nic’s character and allowed for a lot of soul searching. He was a wonderfully witty character, and the father-son relationship was very well explored, with both of them learning and growing as they came to terms with the inevitable. Marco also had the most normal relationship with Sara Farnese of all the ones that we saw, which did help to humanize her a little.
Interesting characters cannot shine without a good plot and this one skips along at a good speed. We are given a number of unusual points of view to reveal the story, and whilst this means that we are shown much more of the story than we would normally expect in a murder mystery, some people might find it rather unnerving to be placed in the head of a victim just prior to their murder. Equally, the corruption of the Vatican officials and the unethical, even evil, behavior of at least one Cardinal could be a stumbling block to some. Personally, I did not find it all shocking, not after all the revelations about the sexual abuse that the Church has tried to conceal. Also, I tend to be a rather cynical person when it comes to the Catholic Church: I have seen people dressed in sack-cloth and ashes on pilgrimage to Rome and people climbing up the stairs to Saint Peter’s Basilica on their knees in penance or supplication. I have also seen how much of the Basilica’s interior is made of gold and precious stones.
I guess it goes without saying that I really enjoyed this title and I will certainly try to find time to read more of the Nic Costa series. It may be too bloody and controversial for some readers but it transported me to my beloved Rome and kept me enthralled as the various unpleasant truths were revealed.
Thursday, April 4, 2013
Amelia Peabody can be summarized by a few words: sensible, self-confident and self-sufficient. A Victorian lady with the good fortune to have had a wealthy father, she is now pursuing her interest in all things ancient and Egyptian by travelling that country armed with her extensive fortune, an endless sense of determination and a stout umbrella. She was accompanied by a suitably boring companion until their stay in Rome, where the thoughtless woman developed a horrible disease and had to be sent home to England. However, she came across another, more suitable travelling companion in the form of the destitute, but beautiful, Evelyn Forbes. Miss Forbes is a fallen woman, whose Italian lover has abandoned her now that her grandfather has written her out of his will because of her scandalous behavior.
Undeterred by Evelyn’s previous poor judgment, Amelia rebuilds the poor girl’s wardrobe and self-esteem and then they depart for Egypt. There they encounter the Emerson brothers and Evelyn is smitten by the young of the pair, Walter, while Amelia detests the elder brother, Radcliffe, on sight. They also meet Evelyn’s cousin, Lucas, who brings news of their grandfather’s death and his position as the new heir. He proposes marriage so that she will be allowed to inherit after all.
During their cruise down the Nile the ladies re-encounter the brothers at their dig site and decide to stay to help Radcliffe recover from a terrible infection. However, things at the dig site are much more complicated that they would seem. A strange mummy begins to haunt the dig, terrifying the local diggers and Lucas arrives to continue his pursuit of Evelyn, much to Walter’s distress.
This series was one that I had seen mentioned in some of the reviews for Gail Carriger’s Soulless, with comments about the similarities in their settings and the heroine. While it is true that both Amelia and Alexia have similarities in their general appearance and temperament, and that both books are set within the Victorian era, I found several differences between the two. While Ms Carriger maintains a cutting and sarcastic tone, especially in the way that Alexia views the world, Ms Peters gives Amelia a much more bombastic voice, with much less wit and bite. I also found that the plotting and world building were handled very differently, with Ms Carriger’s story ripping along at a good pace, whilst Ms Peters’ struggled from far too much description and unimportant detail. The final difference that was most obvious was the way in which the two authors handled the love-hate relationship between the heroine and her leading man. In Alexia, we have a woman who is constantly aware that she is lacking a soul and, therefore, is not quite normal in her lack of emotionality. This gives her a unique perspective on her growing feelings for Maccon, which she does not understand or trust, and adds to the humor in the situation. In contrast, Amelia’s bloody-minded refusal to recognize the obvious attraction between herself and Radcliffe becomes simply irritating.
Even if we put aside the comparisons with The Parasol Protectorate, we are left with a novel that is not entirely satisfying. The plotting was dreadfully slow, with so much detail about the preparations necessary for a trip down the Nile and then about the trip itself, that I was tempted to skip over some sections. This is very, very unusual for me, and shows how difficult it was for me to stay engaged with the characters. I plodded along, convinced that there must be some significance in the description of the pyramids, the decoration for their ship, what they were wearing, what Amelia had in her first aid kit . . . but, alas, these proved to be merely set dressing that a good editor would have hacked out with numerous slashes of a red pencil. I can understand the desire to wax lyrical about a subject dear to your heart, and I would probably do the same if I ever attempted to write a novel set in Rome, either ancient or modern, but there is a point at which one must stop describing the scenery and actually get on with the action.
Unfortunately, the plot itself was rather predictable, which made the unnecessary description even more annoying. When I have read most of a book, where very little has happened, only to have the ‘big reveal’ illicit nothing more than a disappointed eye roll I am not a happy bunny. I expect some mystery in my mystery novels and a surprise at the end when the cunning plan is revealed. This book had neither and left me feeling like I had wasted my time plowing through all the pages up to that point. Perhaps if the ‘eccentric’ British characters had been more witty and amusing I would have been swept along, but they were actually pretty tame. There was also very little use of the Egyptian and Italian characters, which left the story focused on the four main characters and made it even more imperative that they be entertaining.
On the whole, this was a disappointing read for me and I am not sure that I can ascribe that entirely to the book’s publication date of 1975.
This is the fifth book in Abe’s Drakon series. It is a mixture of historical romance and fantasy, set within a magical world of shape shifting dragons. Honor, the lead heroine, is a time weaver. She can move through time and is hunted because of her gift. So much so that she is taken from her home at a young age in order to protect her life, and raised by a foster family in historical Spain. But her gift is also a curse, taking a toll on her future self with each weave. Just about every shift through time leads her to Sandu, the leader of an enemy clan of Drakon. She leaves notes to her younger self in hopes of altering the outcome of their future. She will learn that Sandu is destined to be her mate, and is drawn to him regardless of the peril it brings to herself and to her foster family. However, her actions have dire consequences. She feels compelled to change a potentially disastrous future because of her past wrongdoings, and in the process will become that which she fears the most. In order to change a tragic future, she will turn to the one person who saved her life as a child.
This is a well written and emotional story. It follows the course of Honor’s life from her teen to elderly years, jumping through time as events unfold. I’m not a big fan of time travel stories because they are often confusing, but I found this one compelling and clearly fleshed out. It was not the least bit hard to follow.
I truly enjoy Shana Abe’s writing style and get lost in her stories every time I pick one up. She sets a scene so well that I feel as if I am a participant of her world. Here’s a memorable description that stood out for me while reading The Time Weaver, when Honor is first brought to Spain to live among humans…
“I had never before been around so many humans. There were fat ones and thin ones, many with grime darkening the folds of their pocked skin. Some had wooden teeth and some had no teeth at all. They wore homespun and brocades and wigs hopping with fleas.”
Abe’s prose is poetic but not cumbersome.
Our book group read The Smoke Thief, the first book in this series, about four years ago. The Smoke Thief has received quite a few awards: Best Historical Romance of the Year from Romantic Times was one of them. The awards were well deserved. With that being said, I skipped ahead of the series to read The Time Weaver. I didn’t feel like I missed much but I do think reading book one is necessary. It has received some negative comments in reviews because of its similarity to The Time Travelers Wife, but I didn’t feel that way about it. This is pure historical fantasy: the setting and voice is completely different. I am in the process of backtracking to read the middle books within the series.
I’m not sure if this will make our next vote, but I have nominated it and will bring copies of The Smoke Thief to our next meeting just in case.
Hope to see you all then!
(And I would give this one a solid red chili pepper rating.)
Friday, March 22, 2013
The books that we have chosen for April's reads are "A lady Awakened" by Ceclia Grant and "A Season for the Dead" by David Hewson. "A lady Awakened" will be the book put on the Nook and you will have to get "A Season for the Dead" from another library.
Saturday, March 16, 2013
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Warning: This book earns a flaming hot, chili on fire!
This is a historical romance set in England. Martha, the lead heroine, is recently widowed. If she does not produce an heir, her estate will go to her late husband’s brother, an abusive man who formerly raped the servants. To protect the people who live in her household, she devises a plan to conceive a child and pass it off as her late husband’s heir. A man is needed for this, unfortunately for Martha, because she has no particular interest in the actual act. Regardless, she approaches Theo, a new neighbor known for his exploits with women to help with her scheme. She will learn that Theo isn’t the player everyone assumes, and that with respect, love will often follow.
A Lady Awakened is getting a lot of hype and I had to give it a try. It was, quite frankly, the best historical romance I’ve read this year. It is endorsed by Mary Balogh, one of my favorite romance authors. I have read more than one negative review on this book and wanted to write with each one, “What is wrong with you people?” They don’t like that Martha isn’t fawning all over the hero---but I loved that! The book is highly sensual; hence the chili pepper on fire rating, but those scenes drive the story. Martha is looking at Theo as a chore to achieve a goal, and he eventually gives up trying to seduce her and just performs the act, but as he proves that he is worthy of her respect that all changes.
I enjoyed the fact that the characters are country land owners and not dukes and princes, and that the author included concerns of a community of that time era. It was a smart read, emotionally driven, and lovely. I couldn’t put it down. From a feminist perspective who loves the romance genre, I think this would be an interesting discussion. There is one minor addition I think would have strengthened the heroine’s motivation at the end, and if it’s voted in we will discuss! :D All and all, it really was a great read.
I have nominated it for this month’s vote.
"a book group member"
Thursday, March 7, 2013
Every year the Romance Writers of America award one librarian who demonstrates outstanding support for romance authors and the romance genre. I am pleased to announce that our Sarah has been chosen as the 2013 RWA Librarian of the Year!
This is such a wonderful honor for her---and well deserved! (This is Jan writing this post, by the way, and I am sending it via proxy because I know she wouldn’t post it herself.) I am the culprit who nominated Sarah for the award and I am beyond thrilled that she is getting this recognition. We have worked together from the very beginning of the Not Your Ordinary Book Group project, but it was Sarah’s idea to make it a romance book group. That simple idea eventually resulted in a cover story in the Library Journal, and then was awarded a grant to purchase Nooks for all the members, with funds for eBooks; it has been a truly rewarding venture to be a part of with a coworker and friend. I will always remember the amazing lemon cake castle she made for one of our meetings. While the group has evolved over the years, romance has always been a front runner and the books we read, review, and vote for. Sarah is an avid reader and promoter of the romance genre, and I, as well as patrons, have benefited from her recommendations. (And thank goodness she warned us all to check out books 4 and 5 at the same time of Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series!)
As always, hope to see you all our next meeting,
Posted by Not Your Ordinary Book Banter at 3/07/2013