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About the blogger:
Debra Hamel is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


Books by Debra Hamel:

THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
VICTORY AT SEA AND ITS TRAGIC AFTERMATH IN THE FINAL YEARS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


Kindle | paperback (US)
Kindle | paperback (UK)

KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
A TRUE CRIME STORY
FROM ANCIENT ATHENS
By Debra Hamel


Kindle | paperback (US)
Kindle | paperback (UK)

READING HERODOTUS:
A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE WILD BOARS, DANCING SUITORS, AND CRAZY TYRANTS OF THE HISTORY
By Debra Hamel


paperback | Kindle | hardcover (US)
paperback | hardcover (UK)

THE MUTILATION OF THE HERMS:
UNPACKING AN ANCIENT MYSTERY
By Debra Hamel


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Kindle | paperback (UK)

TRYING NEAIRA:
THE TRUE STORY OF A COURTESAN'S SCANDALOUS LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE
By Debra Hamel


paperback | hardcover (US)
paperback | hardcover (UK)

SOCRATES AT WAR:
THE MILITARY HEROICS OF AN ICONIC INTELLECTUAL
By Debra Hamel


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ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
THE LIBERATION OF THEBES AND OTHER ACTS OF HEROIC TRANSVESTISM
By Debra Hamel


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IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
By Debra Hamel


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Kindle | paperback (UK)

PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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Book-blog.com by Debra Hamel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


Click here for a complete list of books reviewed.

Book Notices | Gone the Next by Ben Rehder / Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

Ben Rehder, Gone the Next

  Amazon  

This is another book that somehow has been sitting unread on my (virtual) shelves for years. And while it's languished on my Kindle, the author has added another four books to the series, now seven books strong. Gone the Next introduces Roy Ballard, a charming smart alec who pays his bills by investigating insurance fraud. That means he stakes out insurance claimants hoping to film them exercising or picking up heavy objects when their alleged injuries should preclude it. It's a stakeout that lands him in some trouble in this first outing: while on duty, Roy catches site of a child who's been all over the news. But try convincing the police that you saw a kidnapped girl when you've got a history like Roy's! The book also introduces a small cast of characters to flesh out Roy's world—a love interest, an accomplice, a policeman with whom he's mostly at odds. I liked the characters. I liked the story. Mostly I liked Roy's personality, and I'm glad he's got a series wrapped around him.

Peter Swanson, Eight Perfect Murders

  Amazon  

A murder mystery that references Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train and whose protagonist is a cat-owning bookstore owner? Count me in! It turns out that life in the book trade is more dangerous than you'd expect. Someone's killing people, evidently using a blogged list of perfect literary crimes as a template, and the list's author, Malcolm Kershaw, is called in by the FBI to lend his expertise. This all seems like a straightforward, if unlikely, series of events plot-wise, but straightforward flies out the window early on as Swanson starts throwing twists at us. And the twists keep coming. It's a good read, with my one caveat being that I felt there were too many names of victims tossed around. I couldn't keep them straight, and I felt it distanced me from the story somewhat. Another consideration is that Strangers on a Train is not the only classic novel mentioned here. Readers who are more familiar with the books on the murderer's list will probably connect more with Swanson's novel. I was only familiar with some of them.

Book Notices | A Graveyard of Memories by Barry Eisler / The Charming Quirks of Others by Alexander McCall Smith

Barry Eisler, A Graveyard of Memories

  Amazon  

A Graveyard of Memories is a prequel to Barry Eisler's series featuring John Rain, a half-Japanese, half-American assassin. I've only read the first book in the series, some years ago, so I'm not familiar with the character's later development. But in this outing he's twenty years old and naive. He's bloodied his hands in Vietnam, so he's no stranger to killing, but we watch as he gets involved in a complex plot that forces him to translate the skills he honed in the jungle to an urban environment. Eisler spells out Rain's learning process as he goes. This may be a little heavy-handed, in that it's very noticeable that he's doing it, but I nonetheless do like being walked through Rain's thoughts and process. Somehow, Rain is both a vicious killer and a likable young man who's tender to a love interest, an unexpected combination, but it somehow works. One thing that I personally don't like is that the book is dotted with Japanese terminology. It's always explained, and I guess it serves to exoticize the setting, but mostly I find it an interruption, and I think a lot of it could be dispensed with. It's one thing to use a couple of terms that are repeated frequently enough that they can become part of the reader's vocabulary, but including too much unfamiliar terminology is alienating.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Charming Quirks of Others

  Amazon  

This is the seventh book in the Sunday Philosophy Club series, and things are going much as they always do for Isabel Dalhousie. Her life of calm near perfection, that is, is peppered with small annoyances and moral dilemmas—her own and others'—that she has to mull over. This time she's tasked with looking into the qualifications of a suite of candidates for the head mastership of a local boys' school. Of course, as usual, the book isn't really very much about that at all. The boys school plot just forms a scaffold on which to hang Isabel's reflections on guilt and trust and poetry and Scotland and so on. I still find Isabel kind of annoying (but I have more volumes of this series already on my Kindle, so I can't stop yet), and the ease with which she navigates motherhood while everyone around her jumps to take care of Charlie rankles. But no, I'm not bitter. Anyway, I love AMS, but this is not my favorite of his series.

Book Notices | The Man with the Getaway Face by Richard Stark / The Mourner by Richard Stark

Richard Stark, The Man with the Getaway Face

  Amazon  

This is the second of 24 Parker novels by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake). Parker isn't the kind of protagonist you root for, exactly. He's a criminal, a thief and sometime killer. He's amoral. He's not very nice to women—or men, for that matter. But he's very professional, and there's something compelling about watching him plan and execute crimes. And since the early Parker novels were written in the 1960s, there's an added historical interest to them. They're gritty and dirty, and everything goes down in a simpler, meaner, pre-traffic camera world, in big hulking Chevies and Fords. In this outing, we're along for the ride as Parker plans an armored car heist and deals with an unexpected problem related to his recent facelift. I doubt I'd ever do it, but it would be fun to read all 24 Parker books in order, one after the other, and since they're fast reads, it wouldn't be a very difficult undertaking. 

Richard Stark, The Mourner

  Amazon  

It took me a while to get interested in this fourth book in the Parker series, maybe because I was just coming off of book two, maybe because I'd skipped book three, but it just seemed a little disjointed. Eventually the story improved. What's going on is a little complicated, but in brief, Parker and his partner in crime Handy are going after a 15th century statue. They've got a buyer for it, but there's another party who's after the same mark for different reasons. And actually it's more complicated than that. Anyway, Parker is Parker—shrewd and good at what he does but not above making potentially fatal mistakes. The series continues to interest me, but after this one, probably less so than previously.

Book Notices | Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

Robert Galbraith, Lethal White

  Amazon  

This is the fourth book in the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). I really enjoyed the first three, and I continue to enjoy the relationship between Strike—Rowling's one-legged private eye—and his associate Robin. But holy Christ this book was long. Too long. The first three books in the series were less than 500 pages each (464, 464, 497). This one was 657 pages long, and I think that's the main problem. Had it been 200 pages shorter, I would have liked it a lot more. Maybe I'm unusual, but for me, the mystery in a book like this isn't the main attraction. It's the scaffolding that supports what I really want to read about, the unfolding relationship between the principals. In this case, there was a whole lot of scaffolding, and I couldn't bring myself to care about the mystery at all or any of the minor characters (with their cute little aristocratic names and horse obsessions). I made it through the book only because I care about Strike and Robin, but I think this installment may be my last. I was in a bookstore just yesterday and I happened to see Lethal White on the shelf next to the next book in the series, Troubled Blood. Guess what! That one is—maybe you should sit down for this—945 pages! I can't do it. 

Book Notices | Find You First by Lynwood Barclay / The Man with the Silver Saab by Alexander McCall Smith

Linwood Barclay, Find You First

  Amazon  

In this stand-alone thriller, Miles Cookson is a terminally ill rich guy looking for his nine children, the products of his donation to a sperm bank decades earlier. But while Miles is hoping to improve his progeny's lot in life, someone else seems to be trying to take them out, one by one. Linwood Barclay can be counted on for a good page-turner, and this book is no exception. It's a good, fast read, but if you think too closely about the plot, you'll start to notice how much of it hangs on unlikely coincidence. My advice: Just suspend your disbelief and enjoy the read.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Man with the Silver Saab

  Amazon  

I read the final lines of this third book in Alexander McCall Smith‘s Department of Sensitive Crimes series and realized I was smiling. Ulf Varg charms in a way that the author’s Isabel Dalhousie simply doesn’t—although I enjoy that series enough to continue reading it. (Do I like Ulf more than Precious Ramotswe? Maybe!) In this outing, Ulf and his loquacious colleague Blomquist investigate fraud in the art world, Ulf’s dog Martin has a run-in with a squirrel, and a trip to the vet results in interesting developments of a more personal nature. I'm already looking forward to reading what happens in book four.

Book Notices | The Traitor's Story by Kevin Wignall / The Speed of Sound by Eric Bernt / The Night Bird by Brian Freeman

Kevin Wignall, The Traitor's Story

  Amazon  

Finn Harrington is an ex-spy who's spent the six years since he left the business writing popular history books. He lives in Switzerland with his girlfriend, Adrienne, and with a vague sense that his past will one day come back to haunt him. It does in this story when Finn agrees to investigate the disappearance of his neighbors' teenaged daughter. Turns out that she unwittingly dredged up ghosts from Finn's past, and we learn about them in historical chapters that are interlaced with the modern narrative. In order to reclaim his life with Adrienne, Finn has to put those ghosts to rest. I really enjoyed this book. It took a little effort to keep the timeline straight as the author's switching between the modern-day and historical chapters was sometimes confusing. But that's my only complaint. Finn is a complex, interesting character, a flawed hero for whom "nothing much had mattered" for a long time when the book opens. It's enjoyable to watch him find his way after six years of living a life of shadows.

Eric Bernt, The Speed of Sound

  Amazon  

There are a lot of moving parts in this fast-paced sci fi novel by Eric Bernt. There are the good guys, a new doctor at a secret home for autistic savants and her genius patient Eddie, who's working on a project that could change life forever for everyone. And then there are the various sets of bad guys who are out to get Eddie's invention for themselves. The machine, by the way, is an implausible one: The device is able to scan a room and replay sounds that were made in it at pretty much any point in the past. You just have to input the proper date to retrieve the sounds you're looking for. So, yes, it's definitely a machine that would change the course of history. There's a lot going on in the book, with the crazy science and the multiple teams of malefactors, but Bernt does a good job of keeping things from getting too confusing. My only major complaint is that the book ends very abruptly. It's the kind of ending where you turn the page and literally say aloud—I speak from experience—"That's it?" We're being set up, it turns out, to read a sequel, Bernt's The Sound of Echoes, which was published a year after this one. I liked this book enough to read a sequel one day, maybe, but it annoys me a bit that I wasn't really given closure within this book, that the story isn't finished, and if I want to know how it ends I'd have to read book two. 

Brian Freeman, The Night Bird

  Amazon  

In this first of a three-book (so far?) series, San Francisco Detective Frost Easton is investigating a string of bizarre deaths. A handful of otherwise happy women have suffered violent psychotic breaks that led to their dramatic deaths. Turns out they're all one-time patients of a psychiatrist who specializes in rewriting people's memories, and someone is tormenting her through her patients. There's scary stuff here, specifically, a guy in a creepy mask with a creepy voice—either is a problem independently, but in combination they're a nightmare. The main story is interesting, and the characters' back stories add to it. I liked Frost Easton, too. He's a cat lover with a weird living situation and a tragic past, a good anchor for a series. I think this one would make a good TV show.

Book Notices | The Venus Fix by M.J. Rose / The Lost Art of Gratitude by Alexander McCall Smith

M.J. Rose, The Venus Fix

  Amazon  

This is the third book in M.J. Rose's Butterfield Institute series. The books feature sex therapist Dr. Morgan Snow, who has worked with the police in the past on cases related to her field. This time, there's a string of bizarre on-screen deaths involving "web cam girls," girls who perform live for people watching on their computers. Morgan has insight into the case but isn't able to share it with her policeman boyfriend because of confidentiality issues, and that is in fact a recurring problem for the couple. The story was interesting and I did not guess who done it before the reveal. It bothered me a bit, though, that it was all so incestuous. The victims were all in New York (despite that web cam pornography could be coming from anywhere in the world) and one way or another the case involved Morgan's client, Morgan's co-worker, some kids in Morgan's group therapy session, Morgan's boyfriend, and at least one other connection I won't specify. How likely is that? But apart from that, a good read. Be warned that there's sexually explicit stuff in this series, if that's not something you want to read.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Lost Art of Gratitude

  Amazon  

In book six of the series, Isabel Dalhousie faces a new series of challenges. Her nemesis, Christopher Dove, is trying to bring her and the philosophy journal she owns and edits into disrepute. And an old acquaintance, Minty Auchterlonie (whom, however, I did not remember at all from her previous appearance), involves Isabel in a pair of her problems. But fixing things this time around is complicated by the difficulty our practical philosopher has in getting the truth out of people. There are also developments on the personal front and the Brother Fox front to be enjoyed. There are no great surprises here for readers of the series, though I did find Minty's machinations a little harder to follow than usual for this series. My only real gripe is this. Isabel's son Charlie is now something like a year and a half old. Somehow, Isabel has two cheerful caretakers—Charlie's father Jamie and Isabel's housekeeper Grace—who together seem to watch Charlie at least 80% of the time, leaving Isabel free to involve herself in other people's problems and take leisurely walks around art galleries. (To say nothing of the kid going to bed before she and Jamie sit down to some lovely dinner that he cooked.) At that stage of parenthood, I was lucky if I could take regular showers. So, yeah, that aspect of the series is beginning to irritate. But we'll see how it continues.

Jean Hanff Korelitz, The Plot

  Amazon  

Stephen King called this book "insanely readable," and that may have been the final selling point for me. But first, there was the plot: A novelist with two books under his belt but nothing new on the horizon uses someone else's story under extraordinary circumstances, with dire results. I love a good novel about writing, but a lot could have gone wrong here. There's a story within a story, and sometimes those transitions are just too jarring and don't work for me. That wasn't a problem here, though, perhaps because the story within a story was so important to the main plot. Also, there were a couple of leaps in time, when a few years pass between chapters. This may be just me, but I don't usually like leaps in time. They distance me from the characters and, frankly, depress me. But they weren't a problem for me here. I did have suspicions about the big twist pretty early on, and the final reveal was a bit of an information dump, a little too Hercule Poirot in the drawing room telling everybody what happened. Maybe I'd take off half a star for that. But apart from that, yeah, insanely readable! Now to see what other books Jean Hanff Korelitz has written.

Book Notices | Dead Certain by Adam Mitzner / The Girl Who Married a Lion by Alexander McCall Smith

Adam Mitzner, Dead Certain

  Amazon  

Charlotte Broden disappears one day.The story of the ensuing investigation is told in large part from the perspective of her older sister, Ella. Ella is a defense attorney working at her father's law firm, but along the way to becoming a lawyer, she suppressed her desire to be a singer. Now she sings once a week at a lounge on open mic night, adopting a secret identity she hasn't even told her sister about. Charlotte is a writer with a secret life of her own, as the investigation into her disappearance uncovers. Her unfinished novel, which she gave to Ella to read, is excerpted throughout this book and winds up providing important clues about what happened to her. In addition to Ella's chapters and the novel excerpts, we eventually hear the story from another character's perspective. I won't give away that person's identity, although I will say that the addition of this third voice was a surprising choice from the author. The fracturing of the story—multiple perspectives and the excerpts—might not have worked if done poorly, but I think it worked well enough. It certainly held my interest. My only complaint is that the resolution—the moment when Ella figures things out—comes faster than I would have liked. It was an unsatisfying payoff after so much buildup.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Girl Who Married a Lion

  Amazon  

This is a collection of 33 folktales from Zimbabwe and Botswana that Alexander McCall Smith has retold and, I guess, expanded on to an extent. They are lovely stories with the sort of content and sometimes absurd plots and logic that one sees in folktales—talking animals and reanimated corpses and witchcraft and so on. Maybe it's because I grew up reading fairy tales, or maybe everyone feels this way, but there is something immediately inviting and almost exciting about stories like these. You quickly enter into a world that's like ours but where so much more is possible and where characters act in ways that only make sense in fiction. The stories are told in simple sentences that grab you and pull you in. Here is the first paragraph of one story ("Head Tree") as an example:

"A man who had never done any wrong to anybody else had a great misfortune happen to him. His wife noticed that a tree was beginning to grow out of his head. This was not painful to the man, but it made him feel awkward when there were other people about. They would point at him and and say that this was a very strange thing to happen. Some people walked some miles to see this man sitting outside his hut with a tree growing out of his head."

I love it. How can you not want to know what happens to this man with a tree growing out of his head? And it's just so perfect in its simplicity. You'd think it would be easy to write so simply, but I don't think it is. In this case, the stories have presumably been passed down orally for generations and thus smoothed into simplicity like a stone smoothed by water. But McCall Smith's own modern prose shares this delightful simplicity as well. Here's another example of what I love about these stories. A hyena is left to guard a well while his friends look for food, and so he waits: "He sat in the shade of a tree and thought about things that hyenas like to think about, which are not things that you and I would understand." Again, I love this. No need to imagine what's going on in the hyena's head. We wouldn't understand! If you like folktales, take a look at this collection, and read it to your kids. They'll enjoy it.