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Friday, February 27, 2015

Caveat Emptor: A Novel of the Roman Empire

I was so glad to read another mystery featuring Gaius Petreius Ruso, late of the Roman legions as a medicus, and now married to Tilla, his British bride.  In Caveat Emptor: a Novel of the Roman Empire (#472) things didn't go quite as well as he had hoped when he introduced Tilla to the rest of his family in Gaul.  It seemed prudent at the time to return to his former posting and Tilla's native Britain for the sake of his new marriage.  Besides, his friend Valens had promised that there were jobs aplenty if he were to return, but that turned out not to be the case.

When Ruso is offered a temporary job as an investigator by the Assistant Procurator in Londinium he takes the assignment. His job is to discover the whereabouts of the missing tax money from the town of Verulamium,  The town has always paid its taxes on time.  According to Verulamium's  Chief Magistrate who has arrived in town, the money was signed out to Julius Asper and his brother, but now all have vanished into thin air.  But when the tax collector's very pregnant girlfriend Camma shows up in Londinium,  things become even more complicated.  She claims Asper is innocent and that the Coucil of Verulamium has plotted against him, demanding justice from the Procurater.  Is Julius Asper the thief that the Town Councilors of Verulamium claim he is, or is he the victim of foul play?  In the meantime, Tilla in championing Camma's cause, is hiding a secret of her own.  It's a deadly game being played, and Ruso can't trust anyone if he and Tilla are to come out of this investigation alive.

Like Lindsey Davis' beloved Marcus Didius Falco series, Ruth Downie has claimed the outskirts of the Roman Empire as the setting for her medical character, Gaius Petreius Ruso.  He takes his calling seriously, but he does have an open, inquiring mind which goes a long way towards explaining his reluctant participation in solving mysterious deaths, and his willingness to take on a wild British native as his wife.  What I particularly enjoy about these books (Caveat Emptor is the fourth in this series.) is the amusing dialogue and sense of humor Ms. Downie incorporates.  I know that I can settle down for several hours of being blissfully lost on the remote outskirts of the Roman Empire with Ruso, who isn't always sure just what to make of  the situation around him.  What fun!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Nazis Next Door

A couple of my friends urged me to read Eric Lichtblau's book The Nazis Next Door; How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler's Men (#471).  They were outraged after reading it, and having read it myself, it's easy to understand why.  I had always been aware that the United States recruited Nazi scientists to work on our own rocket and space program - the name Werner von Braun sprang immediately to mind on reading the title of Mr. Lichtblau's book.  What I hadn't realized was just how cynical, calculated and wide-spread that recruitment was on the part of American spy agencies and the military, nor what a great role the US played in the continued imprisonment of the victims of Nazi purges (now hygienically renamed "Displaced Persons") after the so-called "liberation" of the concentration camps.  This book made me angry and sick simultaneously.  I certainly came away from it thinking that the ends definitely and most emphatically did not justify the means.

It also makes me think that "The Greatest Generation" is misnamed.  Yes, there were plenty of soldiers and sailors who fought for the right and noble reasons, but I always did think it was sad to think so many of these veterans recalled years of brutal warfare as the "best years of their lives".  But many Americans conveniently forget (or never knew) how many politicians and their like-minded constituents fought to keep us out of World War II entirely, and actively blocked the immigration of both European and Asian refugees, especially if those refugees happened to be Jewish.  General Patton was comfortable with the status quo of the inmates of the concentration camps in the areas the Allies won.  Conditions and food supplies didn't improve, nor did the DPs' work loads for several years.  The only difference under Patton was that the suicide rate went up among the inmates.  What else would you expect when your last hope is taken away?  In the visa application process for entry to the United States, their applications were consistently shuffled to the bottom of the stack as Nazi applications were given top priority, even for those who were known to have participated in Nazi atrocities.  If they were anti-communist, that was good enough to guarantee a free ride, and in many cases, a good job, spending money and the protection of the United States government.

Those who tried to unmask these former Nazis who were wanted for trial as war criminals in Europe were continually stymied in their efforts by our own government, which did not want to lose its "valuable" assets.  The whole story Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist Eric Lichtblau tells here is an evil witches' brew, but at the same time, one that needed to be told.  Draw your own conclusions about how history will view this episode.

Monday, February 16, 2015

An Appetite for Violets

I was initially attracted to An Appetite for Violets (#470) by the cover art.  When I read the early reviews for Martine Bailey's novel, several compared it to Downton Abbey, the rationale being, I suppose, that anything with the name Downton Abbey will guarantee sales.  Since this is at the heart, a servant's tale, it does bear a slight resemblance to that masters & servants soap opera, but the neat and tidy images conjured up by the cover don't do this wickedly twisted tale justice.

Biddy Leigh is an undercook at a neglected English manor in the 1770s.  When the book opens, she is torn between wanting to continue to hone her cooking skills, and giving up this satisfying pursuit to marry her sweetheart, Jem.  Her life is turned upside down by the sudden and unannounced arrival of her master's brand new young wife on their doorstep.  Lady Carinna has come to take stock of what she can carry off with her on her travels to Italy.  She determines to include Pars, the butler and Biddy as her cook in addition to her enslaved footman and her maid.  Since a cash bonus is promised to Jem for her services, Biddy soon finds herself traveling through England and France towards a villa in Italy.  Nothing is as it seems on this journey, and Biddy is beguiled by the insistence of her mistress that she dress in Lady Carinna's clothes and do her best to imitate a grand lady herself, when she's not cooking and cleaning, of course.  It seems that Carinna has plans for Biddy, and she's not the only schemer in the party...

Wheels within wheels kept this plot rolling along quite nicely.  It's not a pretty story, and some of the descriptions of eighteenth century cooking do require somewhat of a strong stomach, but you find yourself turning just one more page to see what will happen next.  I thoroughly enjoyed this one! 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

To Fetch A Thief

To Fetch A Thief (#469) is the third book in Spencer Quinn's wonderful Chet and Bernie mystery series. (See also my posts of 8/29/14 & 8/14/15.) Chet's take on what is happening over the course of their investigation of a Little Detective Agency case is unique and quite, quite funny.  Chet is a complete professional, but if a squirrel should wander by, or a he detects a scrap of leftover food, well, he can't help but be distracted; after all, he is a dog.

In To Fetch a Thief, Bernie and Chet are hired for a divorce case, not a favorite of either of this pair of investigators, but hey, the bills have to be paid.  When the case turns personal for Bernie, he's not quite sure what to do about it.  In the meantime, though, his client has given him a couple of tickets for the circus that's in town, and that's the perfect outing to take his son Charlie on, especially since Charlie is studying elephants in school.  The problem is that when they arrive at the fairgrounds, the circus won't be performing that night.  It seems that the star of the show, Peanut the elephant, and her trainer Uri DeLeath, have both gone missing.  Everyone at the circus claims they didn't see or hear anything during the night the pair vanished.  Popo the clown hires Bernie to find out what happened to them, since he doesn't believe for a moment that Uri and Peanut left voluntarily.  Chet and Bernie have unwittingly taken on one of the most dangerous cases in their career and there's no guarantee either of them will come out of this alive.  Snakes!  Ugh!!!

Spencer Quinn does an excellent job setting up the plot twists in To Fetch A Thief, and making sure that solving this case truly does involve the unique skills of both Bernie, the human half and Chet, the canine partner.  Neither would have been able to do it alone.  Between the nail-biting situations and the comic relief provided by Chet, this devoted pair of partners provide the complete package for an entertaining read.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Rebel Queen

Michelle Moran's latest historical fiction novel Rebel Queen (#468) is due out in March.  Her forte  is writing about real women in history, trying to shed light on those whose stories aren't as well known. (See my posts of  11/13/12 & 5/3/11.

The subject of Rebel Queen is the Rani of Jhansi, Queen Lakshmi.  If you're not a student of Indian history, the chances are that you've never heard of her, even if you've read books set in the time of the mutinies against British Rule in the 1850s.

Her story is told through the eyes of Sita, a girl from a small village who rises to become one of the Rani's Durga Dal, her cadre of female bodyguards, trained in the same martial arts as their male counterparts, and close companions to the Rani at the court.  From the first glimpse of the cover photo through to the last word of the Glossary, this story is awash with vivid colors, scents, emotions and politics. It's a world that will keep you enthralled as you're caught up in the intrigues of court life, and the maneuvering for power by those who live there.  I really didn't want to leave that world to eat or sleep myself.  (Though someone handing me an endless supply of samosas would have been welcome!)

Understanding what motivates the major characters makes the ending to the Rani's story inevitable, yet poignant, from our knowledge of how the British conquered India and did their best to destroy yet another ancient civilization.  Ms. Moran has done another outstanding job in making the India of the mid-nineteenth century come alive.  If you enjoy historical fiction, don't miss Rebel Queen.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Baritone Wore Chiffon

I effectively disrupted my recent Education for Ministry seminar when the subject of alternative liturgies came up, and I mentioned the Clown Liturgy described so amusingly in the second book of Mark Schweizer's Liturgical Mystery series, The Baritone Wore Chiffon (#467).  Who could resist singing that old favorite hymn Crown Him With Many Clowns?

The Lenten season is almost upon St. Barnabas' Episcopal Church in the North Carolina mountains.  Normally, that would be a time for Hayden Konig, organist and choirmaster at St. Barnabas to be contemplating the proper musical selections to suit this penitential period.  But, alas, in his capacity of Chief Detective of the town of St. Germaine, Hayden has been called in by his friend in York, England, to consult on the murder of a chorister in the Minster's Treasury during an Evensong service.  The dead baritone is an American, there on a fellowship, and since Hayden has been helpful in the past, it's the perfect opportunity to work with the Minster Police in a "hands across the seas" exchange of ideas.  With a new interim priest in charge at St. Barnabas, changing things right and left, Hayden is glad to get away for a few days.  When he returns to the chaos that was once St. Barnabas, Hayden still hasn't figured out the murderer or the motive.  But when Peppermint the Clown dies during the Palm Sunday service, he begins to follow the over-sized footprints that will lead Hayden to a grand finale that might be his own.

Clever and laugh aloud funny, this ingenious mystery is sure to appeal to anyone who's ever been involved in church politics; but if you're Episcopalian, with a broad knowledge of liturgical and classical music and a good sense of humor, it's even better.  Can't wait to read the next installment!