Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review of Nobody Loves a Centurion by John Maddox Roberts

I think John Maddox Roberts’ ancient Rome series featuring Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger gets better and better with each novel.  I devoured Nobody Loves a Centurion (SPQR VI) in very few sittings.  Not only was it an excellent mystery, it had a sense of humor as well.

Decius reluctantly reports for his duty in the armed services with Caesar in Gaul.  His political rival has come into power, it’s best he leave the city.  He shows up at camp in full military regalia, much to the amusement of his colleagues.  Then he manages to anger one of the most powerful men in the army, Centurion Titus Vinius, who is cruel to the men in his century.  One of the unfortunate young men is a client of Decius’ and the senator protests his ill-treatment.  Soon every soldier in the camp has bet odds on who will come out on top, Titus or Decius.  The battle is decided when Titus is found murdered outside of camp and wearing slave’s clothing.
Caesar puts Decius in charge of finding the centurion’s murderer or he will put the entire century to death, including Decius’ client.  To his horror, Decius finds many of the soldiers don’t want him to discover the truth behind Vinius’ death, just let the men die. It’s all part of war.  But Decius won’t let that happen.  He feels bound to save his client from a slow, excruciating death.

Confounding the mystery are the murdered centurion’s two German slaves, a small, dwarfish man named Molon and Freda, a stunningly, beautiful woman who has the tongues of every man in camp hanging to the ground when she passes.  When Caesar awards the two slaves to Decius, it only adds to the bad feelings against him. 

Decius manages to focus on the mystery despite the beautiful slave and nightly skirmishes with the Gauls.  But he is again called out in the middle of the night to another bizarre discovery.  Three Druid priests have been hung in the forest.  Decius knows the two incidents are related but he has no idea how.
Despite his goofy entrance and actions after his arrival, Decius exhibits bravery and a tenacious curiosity to find out the truth and save his friend.  As usual, the final solution has serious consequences for him but he perseveres and confronts someone who could become a dangerous enemy.
As with all his ancient Rome stories, Roberts includes a glossary of the numerous terms that are obsolete or unknown.  Sometimes it gets frustrating to have to flip to the back of the book to look up a word, but it also helps bring ancient Roman culture and lifestyles to vivid life.  It helps the reader identify more with Decius and his countrymen.

In this story, Roberts shows off his knowledge of ancient Gaul and German history as well as Italian.  He makes numerous references to their lifestyle, where the two cultures were settled, the advancement of their territories and their gods. 
Decius maintains his sense of humor even outside of Rome, which is as dangerous as being in the middle of Gaul territory, now France.  Roberts keeps a healthy pace mixing humor and action, and showing a brave side of Decius while at the same time, Roberts likes beating up on him.  I think that’s why I like Decius so much.  He has the right amount of sarcasm and wit, that endears him to people and at the same time, annoys the hell out of them, too.
It’s novels like Nobody Loves a Centurion that bring me back for more.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Review of The Cross-legged Knight by Candace Robb

I enjoyed reading Candace Robb’s The Cross-legged Knight, the seventh in the Owen Archer series, more than the previous two novels, A Gift of Sanctuary and A Spy for the Redeemer. Both of those stories dealt with Owen traveling through his native Wales on a pilgrimage with his father-in-law Sir Robert. They were a bit confusing and I had to go back and re-read sections to be sure that I had read them correctly. This book seems to return to the intriguing and fast-paced mysteries that I have come to expect from Robb.

In The Cross-legged Knight, Owen has long returned to York but he and his wife Lucie are mourning the miscarriage of their baby, when Lucie fell from a stool while working in her apothecary. Their family is put under more stress when the Bishop of Winchester, William of Wykeham arrives in York, thinking that he is in mortal peril. A powerful family of a knight blames him for the knight’s death in a French prison, accusing him of dragging his feet in the negotiations with France and offering half the sum the family gathered to ransom him. While he is observing the building of the lady chapel, a piece of tile nearly smashes into his skull. Then his townhouse is burned to the ground by a suspicious fire. A servant is badly burned but a mysterious woman dies in the blaze. Thus, Wykeham assigns Owen to assure his safety.

Owen detests the man but Archbishop Thoresby manages to keep his feathers from getting too ruffled and Owen carries out his duties begrudgingly. The archbishop feels pulled in two different directions since his friend Wykeham is now enemies with the powerful Duke of Lancaster, with whom Thoresby is allies.

Owen continues his investigations, learning more about the woman who died in the fire and helped by Lucie, trying to move past her grieving and get back to health to take care of her family and business.

An underlying theme to The Cross-legged Knight could be aging. I don’t know whether Robb included it on purpose but several characters deal with the problems of growing old. Archbishop Thoresby reflects frequently that he is an old man and wonders what he has done with his life as a cleric. Lucie’s elderly aunt Phillipa, although is lucid much of the time, still has bouts of sleep-walking and dementia. A maid to the Dale family is losing her eyesight as she gets older. Lucie herself wonders at one point if her child-bearing days are over. The river woman Magda is elderly and people wonder how she manages at her advanced age. It is inevitable that characters age but in this book they seem to age before the readers’ eyes.

I suppose my preference to this novel over the past two is having Owen in York, working together with Lucie to investigate a mystery. While in Wales, he was tempted to rejoin the Welsh in their battle against the English, something Owen nearly gave into and Thoresby is well aware of. Maybe it’s because I don’t like seeing one my literary heroes being sorely tempted as he was.

Whatever the reason, The Cross-legged Knight is a return to the familiarity of fourteenth century York and the magic of the Robb novels.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Review of The Raven in the Foregate by Ellis Peters

Saying something negative about Ellis Peters is tantamount to criticizing Agatha Christie. Peters’ Brother Cadfael series, set in twelfth century England, has been made into a television series featuring Derek Jacobi as the monk/sleuth, is evidence of just how popular her work is.

Still, the twelfth novel The Raven in the Foregate doesn’t quite measure up to the standards set by the previous eleven books.

Set at Christmas in 1141, Abbot Radulfus returns from a meeting with the bishop with a young priest Ailnoth, assigned to the parish of the Holy Cross. Ailnoth quickly makes himself unpopular by his strict, overzealous and selfish ways. It isn’t long before half the village has reason to hate him. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to the reader when his body is discovered in the mill pond with a wound to the back of his head.

Could it have been the baker whom Ailnoth accused of cheating his customers? Or could it have been the father of the baby who died shortly after birth unshriven because the priest refused to interrupt his own prayers? Or maybe it was the sympathizers to Empress Maud who has been beaten back by her cousin King Stephen in her efforts to overtake the throne?

It is only Brother Cadfael who can sort through the murky clues to discover what really happened to the priest, but he seems to spend as much time investigating the death of Ailnoth as he does sheltering the young man whose aunt accompanied the priest to Shrewsbury. Since Cadfael has no allegiance to either King Stephen or Empress Maud, he knows that the current public opinion is in favor of the king and the young man is ready to take up arms for Maud.

The conclusion of the mystery is almost a disappointment, as it seems that Cafael, usually extremely observant, should miss an important clue that reveals the truth until the last moment. As in previous novels, he’s pieced together fragments of clues and used his keen intelligence to figure it out.

Another aspect is a ruse by Hugh Beringar to ferret out the murderer. It’s out of character for the shrewd sheriff and it falls flat. One wonders why Peters included this in the story.

The Raven in the Foregate just didn’t have the magic of most Peters’ novels.

Review of The Romanov Prophecy by Steve Berry

I’ve always found the brief but violent history of Czar Nicholas II and his family so I’m aware of Rasputin’s macabre prophecy that if anyone from the royal family or their relatives assassinated him, the czar would die within two years. His prognostication came true.

In July 1918, Nicholas, Alexandria, their five children and four servants were shot to death in a basement in a house in Ekaterinburg. Their bodies were buried in the woods several miles away.

When the burial site was exhumed, two skeletons were missing, those of Aleksei and Anastasia. Berry’s book, The Romanov Prophecy, builds on the premise that the tow children survived the massacre by would-be assassins and secreted away.

The novel opens with Miles Lord, an Attorney from Atlanta, almost being assassinated on the streets of Moscow by mysterious men. A colleague is killed and Miles is on the run. In Russia to help restore the monarchy, Lord unknowingly stumbles on information that could jeopardize the current claimant to the throne, a man backed by millions of American dollars.

Lord finds himself criss-crossing the globe with beautiful dancer Akilina Petrovna, following clues to a cryptic message and trying to stay a step ahead of Russian hit men. Could Aleksei and Anastasia have eventually made their way to America? And if so, could there be direct descendants of Nicholas II with stronger ties to the throne than the man currently seeking the crown?

It’s a great basis and it makes for an exciting page-turner but anyone who has read Robert Massie’s incredible work on the Romanovs will know none of them made it out of the basement room alive. He has an interesting theory, well-grounded in facts, on where the two missing bodies are.

Nonetheless, The Romanov Prophecy is an intriguing novel, reminiscent of Dan Brown’s work. From the synopsis, I thought it would be more of a spy novel, the likes of Daniel Silva and Brad Thor, but I wasn’t disappointed. Berry’s story is a great thrill ride through the streets of Moscow and San Francisco.

Queen of Disco Donna Summer has passed away

The beautiful and gifted Donna Summer died today at the young age of 63.  She is one of my all-time favorites since way back in high school, during the height of the disco craze.  I waited anxiously to get her album "Crayons" when it was released back in 2008.  It was like being back in high school waiting for her next album.  The winner of 5 Grammys, she, her beautiful voice and music will be missed terribly.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review of Death Comes as Epiphany by Sharan Newman

I started reading this series some time ago but confused and put it down. After speaking to author Sharan Newman several years ago at Bouchercon, I realized that I hadn’t read the series in the proper sequence. I decided to try again, from the beginning.

Newman’s Catherine LeVendeur is very reminiscent of Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma. Both are young reliegieux who are well-read, intelligent and stubborn.

The first of the Catherine LeVendeur series, Death Comes as Epiphany, opens with the main character being sent on a secret mission by Heloise, the abbess of the Paraclete abbey. A psalter written by the nuns of Paraclete, mostly by Catherine herself, has been desecrated and accusations of heresy have been levied against Heloise’s beloved Abelard.

To give the investigation a cover, Catherine returns home in disgrace as part of the ruse. Her family, with the exception of her sister Agnes, is not happy to have her back. In fact, her mother refuses to acknowledge her presence. Catherine endures her family’s wrath in order to gain access to the library at Saint-Denis where the vandalized psalter is kept. It isn’t long before the sculptor Garnulf, working on the new abbey church at St. Denis falls to his death, nearly landing on Catherine.

The sculptor’s apprentice Edgar isn’t all he purports to be. Nevertheless, Catherine and Edgar form an unlikely alliance, each realizing the other has secrets.

Confounding the mystery of the psalter and the death of the sculptor is the presence of an enigmatic hermit near St. Denis who has many pilgrims seeking his blessings and cures. Catherine almost finds out the hard way just how the beautiful hermit administers to his female supplicants. She is horrified to discover what close friends and even family members have done in hopes of receiving the blessings they desperately seek.

Slowly, Catherine pieces together the seemingly unrelated events, stolen jewels, a rising body count and strange monks to find a disturbing conclusion.

The basis of the mystery in Death Comes as Epiphany is rather disturbing and may turn a few stomachs like mine. If there is a basis in fact, like many historical mysteries, it would be a chilling revelation. Despite the walk on the bizarre side, I enjoyed reading this a second time. I’m ready to start the series in the correct sequence now.

Review of Daughters of Summer by Sara Conway

I read Conway’s first Lord Godwin mystery Murder on Good Friday and enjoyed it enough that I didn’t hesitate when I saw her second novel, Daughters of Summer.

I should’ve hesitated longer.

Murder on Good Friday actually had a basis in historical fact, young boys being murdered on Good Friday to focus blame on the local Jewish population in thirteenth century England. Nothing like that in Daughters of Summer, in which a wealthy merchant is poisoned shortly after learning his wife is being unfaithful. Suspicion immediately falls on the old man who gave the merchant herbs for a stomach ailment, the villagers thinking he made a simple mistake.

Unfortunately, most of the novel focuses on Lord Godwin’s relationship with the Lady Constance. The cunning Fulk d’ Oily (how’s that for a bad guy’s name?) is determined to marry her, despite her refusals.

The mystery takes a back seat to the adventures of Lady Constance and Godwin figures out the mystery only when he overhears an unrelated remark.

Since he has no proof, he’s content to let the matter be. The conclusion almost seems to be an afterthought by the author, as if she suddenly realized Daughters was a mystery, not a medieval romance.

The author’s writing style also makes this book a difficult read, e.g. changes in point of view from one character to another within a scene, telling instead of showing. It’s enough to put me off reading any more of Conway’s work.

Review of Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

The debut mystery novel, Last Rituals, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (author of children’s books) is a bizarre and intriguing journey into medieval literature on witchcraft and modern day Iceland, a mystery surrounding scholars at the university in Reykjavik and including dark pages from Europe’s past.

A college student is found strangled and his eyes cut out and his body is covered by strange symbols. Thora Gudmundsdottir, an attorney and mother of two, is contacted by the student’s wealthy family from Germany, asking for her help. They feel the man arrested and charged with their son’s murder is innocent. They don’t trust the police so they want her to find the truth.

Although reluctant to accept, the fee they offer her is too tempting to pass up. The money has a caveat. The family sends a representative to Iceland from Germany to work with Thora in her investigation. With Matthew Reich, the family rep, Thora discovers the murdered student Harald Guntlieb had a fascination bordering on obsession with the medieval history of witchcraft and witch hunts.

It becomes obvious soon in their investigation that Harald Guntlieb’s circle of college friends are not tell the whole truth, to the police or to Thora. The eclectic gang bands together to hide something from her and Matthew.

I’m not familiar with the medieval references or events that pepper Sigurdardottir’s intriguing mystery but one doesn’t need to be a student of history to enjoy it. Sometimes the story seems to bog down under the weight of the historical details of the events the murdered student was studying. Much of the novel/investigation centers around a fifteenth century book, Malleus Maleficarum, or The Witch’s Hammer, a treatise on witchcraft. It’s interesting to follow the trail of medieval literature and art on this topic as Thora and Matthew discover the disturbing reason for Harald’s mutilation.

The cause of his death, however, is something worthy of an Alex Morgan story.

What drew me to Last Rituals was the inclusion of medieval history but it’s well-centered in modern day Iceland. Sigurdardottir gives the reader a great taste of Icelandic culture and way of life. Great reading for any mystery buff.  Her second novel proves to be spooky fun as well.

Review of Home in Time for Christmas by Heather Graham

I enjoyed Heather Graham’s Flynn brothers trilogy because although her stories are het romance/erotica, she includes a wonderful paranormal aspect to her novels. In the Flynn brothers stories, that aspect bordered on supernatural and in one case, Deadly Harvest, almost stepped across the line.

In Home in Time for Christmas, the paranormal element is time travel. During the Revolutionary War, Jake Mallory is about to hanged by the British for his anti-British publications. His adopted sister Serena casts a strange spell with rose petals (in December!) and he suddenly finds himself in the twenty-first century.

Melody Tarleton, on her way home for the holidays nearly runs over him as he appears before her eyes and her car. Convinced he is a re-enactment actor/nut case suffering from amnesia, she takes him home to her family since she has no idea what else to do with him.

Her father, mother and brother accept Jake into their home with little questions to Melody’s explanation. Mark Hathaway, the man Melody is supposed to be getting engaged to isn’t swayed and becomes suspicious of the enigmatic gentleman, who bears more than a passing resemblance to him.

As hard as she tries to keep his secret although not believing it herself, Melody is surprised to find out that her parents have pieced together how she really came to meet Jake and they have no issue with him being from the past. In fact, they have an idea how to return him to his own time. And the revelation gives her little comfort.

Despite her misgivings, she is convinced that her mother and father know what they are doing and helps them to the novel’s final and somewhat predictable conclusion.

In the Flynn brothers trilogy, Graham put more emphasis on the paranormal aspects, but in Home in Time for Christmas, much of the story is spent on Melody trying to explain to everyone and herself Jake’s sudden appearance and their budding romance.

I prefer the stronger paranormal angle to the romance but I’m probably outnumbered in that respect. In the trilogy, the paranormal phenomenon that formed the premise for those stories was a bit more complex, more detailed than a doorway opened in time with rose petals. We’ve also seen this scenario before: a person about to be hanged is spirited away to another time in both “Dark Shadows” and “The Twilight Zone”.

But if you prefer romance to paranormal, Home in Time for Christmas isn’t too spooky to be romantic.