Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Kate Kingsbury, The Clue is in the Pudding

(2014-01-17 001)Title: The Clue is in the Pudding

Author: Kate Kingsbury

Series: Holiday Pennyfoot Hotel Mysteries

Publication Information: New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2013, c2012

ISBN: 978-0-425-25232-1

Library of Congress Classification: PR9199.3.K44228

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Baxter, Cecily Sinclair (Fictitious character)—Fiction
Actors—Crimes against—Fiction
Pennyfoot Hotel (England : Imaginary place)—Fiction
England—Fiction

The series, Holiday Pennyfoot Hotel Mysteries, set during the Christmas season at the Pennyfoot Hotel. There are regular mystery books at the Pennyfoot set all year round, so I was surprised to find a series like this. I love mysteries set around the holidays–don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s because I like to see what other people do for the holiday season, even if they are fictitious. This book is not the first in the series but several volumes into it.

The setting is historical, taking place in Badger’s End, England, at the beginning of the 20th century. The Pennyfoot Country Club is decorated for Christmas, and the staff are preparing the hotel for holiday festivities. Cecily Sinclair Baxter, the manager of the hotel, has her hands full. The household manager, Mrs. Chubb, has left to take care of her grandchildren while her daughter recovers from being ill. The replacement, Beatrice Tucker, has alienated just about everyone in the house with her waspish tongue and temper. Cecily’s husband’s first name is never given; he’s simply called Baxter throughout. (All the characters at the Pennyfoot are referred to by their first names except Mrs. Chubb and Baxter.)

The hotel is filled up when Archibald Armitage, master thespian, is found murdered in his room. It is revealed that Armitage had been the lover of a young woman whom he had abandoned after she became pregnant by him; she committed suicide. This being the Edwardian Age, her entire reputation had been destroyed as well as her standing in society. Strangely enough, her parents are also staying at the hotel for the holidays. Then there’s Tucker, whom Armitage had apparently insulted one night after she had played up to him because he was well-known. However, Pansy the maid thought Armitage a gentleman because he had saved Tess, Samuel the stable manager and carriage driver’s dog (and Pansy’s fiance), from drowning in the pond. However, she’s in the minority.

There is a lively cast of characters. Tucker is just a miserable, old bag who constantly tears anyone apart for any little infraction. The cook Michel, who speaks English with a French accent (but his Cockney slang when drunk reveals his true birthplace), detests her. She has so upset the household that Cecily tries to bring her into line to no avail; Cecily is also afraid to offend the woman, since she needs a housekeeper to keep the household running efficiently through the holiday season. Samuel and Pansy have been engaged for awhile when something happens to break them up. Pansy’s friend Gertie, also a maid, finds Clive the caretaker an enigma; her twins adore him and he cares for them and her, but he’s harboring a secret. Gertie herself has been around, having had children with a man whom she loved but then found out was already married; had fallen for an upper-class man who wanted to move her and the children to London, but she had realized that it would never work and broke it off; had married a much older man more for the children than for herself; and now, widowed, she is not sure what to make of Clive. Gilbert Tubbs, Samuel’s assistant, also has an ax to grind with Armitage.

Then there’s Cecily’s friends, Madeline and Phoebe. Madeline had married Kevin Prestwick, the local doctor, who had been a suitor of Cecily’s before taking up with Madeline. Madeline has precognitive abilities that come over her and, in a trance, she calls out what she sees. Phoebe married Freddie the colonel, whom Baxter is sure is completely crazy. Phoebe is completely self-absorbed and into how things look; substance isn’t that important.

For the most part, I found Baxter a wet dishrag. I kept wondering why Cecily, had married him. However, in one passage, he secretly admitted that he was proud of his wife’s sleuthing abilities and couldn’t understand why the government hadn’t simply given women the right to vote, figuring that if they were only half as smart as his wife then the country could only benefit from the brainpower.

I liked the book, and the characters. I would recommend the book to anyone who likes historical mysteries. The running joke throughout is that Cecily wants to keep the murder hush-hush, since most people know about the Pennyfoot’s record of having murders committed around the holidays. It’s a definite damper on the festivities.

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Edward Crichton, The Last Roman

(2014-06-21 001)Title: The Last Roman

Author: Edward Crichton

Series: Praetorian Series ; book 1

Publication Information: c2012

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Soldiers–United States–Fiction
Time travel–Fiction
Rome–History–Caligula, 37-41–Fiction

It’s the year 2021. The world in engaged in World War III. No nuclear weapons have been used yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Two billion people are already dead, and many cities lie in ruins. Pakistan and India are in all-out war. Russia is attempting to annex sections of Central and Eastern Europe–with the European Union at war with them. North Korea has overrun most of South Korea–a “rump” south still existing at the tip of the peninsula, where American forces are also fighting. As for Africa, “Their part in the conflict was, for once, not to fight amongst themselves, but to somehow put aside their differences and wage war against just about everyone else,” which thus destabilizes the entire Mediterranean Region. The Chinese, except for continued trade with the West, closes their borders and engages in war with the Russians. The South American countries are at war with each other. Even the United States’ neighbor, “… Mexico became a war zone when Mexico was overrun by guerilla [sic.] forces led by communists and warlords alike, who had been slowly building their armies for years, mostly thanks to Russian benefactors. Russia had finally succeeded where the Germans had failed during WWI by opening up a second front against The United States of America.” Most horrifyingly of all, the Vatican is attacked.

A terrorist attack (using gas) on the Vatican kills many pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, but those inside the church are safe. (St. Peter’s facade is equipped with super-secret vents that can seal off the building.) “While millions of Catholics mourned, the attack had another unexpected side effect that would united all of Christendom in a way it had not seen since the days before Martin Luther. … No one had any idea that almost overnight, sects of Christians ranging from Anglicans, Baptists, and Lutherans to Protestants of all sorts, were in complete support of their Catholic brothers and sisters. The situation did not progress as far as uniting all Christians under a single religion, but there were many converts and the Pope began to influence decisions of all Christians again, not just Catholics.” (I guess the Bob Jones University crew and their like gave up their anti-papal rants for the greater good. And the Eastern Orthodox are never mentioned. Perhaps they aren’t considered Christians?) The Pope stops just short of calling for a new crusade. Still,  a lot of people from various nations flock to serve him in a secret new wing of the Swiss Guards, an elite force secretly called the Pope’s Praetorians.

Jacob Hunter, the protagonist, is a former Navy SEAL who transferred because he wanted to “serve a greater good.” He’s Catholic, of course, but has had a troubled adolescence, stealing constantly. Somehow he becomes an excellent student who gets a BA in classics with a proficiency in Latin. His Masters degree is never completed, however, because his father insists that he go into the military; it’s a family tradition. In the end, Jacob becomes a SEAL. His mother dies while he is deployed, and ole’ Dad blames him for not being there. After the Vatican is attacked and Jacob transfers to the Praetorians, Dad is again unforgiving.

Once the group ends up in ancient Rome–pulled through a blue orb that can unbalance the mind the more time one spends around it–their leader already dead, the second-in-command, the priest in the group, assumes the leadership role, and he decides to help the Emperor Caligula in his conquests. Having brought along a huge amount of ammo from the future, the Praetorians begin their interference in history. Hunter warns them not to do it. (Hunter is also a science fiction geek.) He warns that tampering with history can have dire consequences.

Nonetheless, the priest leads his team to completely support Caligula in any way they can. Except that the priest isn’t what he appears to be. See, papal intelligence knows about the orb being a time machine of sorts, so the “priest,” who has never taken holy orders, is sent back to change time so that (I assume) World War III will not take place. This is justified because Jesus had already been crucified, and the Church had already been established. (Nothing “relevant” would be changed?)

I don’t even know where to start. I couldn’t even get my mind around the premise. That’s the problem with these future end-of-the-world stories for me: they have to have some plausibility with what’s actually going on in the world. Most of them don’t. All the states in Africa turning their attention outward to make war is incomprehensible. If Russia and China were fighting along their huge border, I doubt that the Russians would be able to continue attacking the EU or support the American “second front,” Mexico. North Korea could expect little help from an embattled China if it invaded South Korea. And, of course, the shrinking U.S. military budget is also to blame for much of America’s woes.

All Christian sects, excepting the Catholics and Uniates, agree on one thing: the Pope is not the supreme head of the church. A bomb leveling St. Peter’s Basilica wouldn’t bring the churches back together under the leadership of the Pope. The Crusades were a military failure; they did nothing to stem the tide of Muslim expansion. The Fourth Crusade gravely weakened the Byzantine Empire–a Christian state that had held off the tide of Islam from engulfing Europe in the Dark Ages. Gravely weakened, the Byzantines could not stop the advancing Turks, and the empire ended with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. That crusade also diverted much needed aid from reaching the Holy Land, which only hastened the fall of the Crusader states along the coast. The medieval papacy was militaristic, basically abandoning spiritual matters, which led to corruption, which eventually led to the Reformation.

Almost the first quarter of the book is spent on weaponry and what it can do, what ammo it takes, etc.; it became techno-babble to me. Hunter’s got a repeating rifle that can shoot so many yards with exploding ammo. Okay, that’s all I need. I nearly gave up reading the book when the group was pulled into the Rome at the time of Caligula, so I decided to stick it out.

Romans did not wear togas all the time. People are digging in togas, Praetorians are wearing togas over their armor, there’s togas everywhere. When Hunter first sees the men in togas, he says that they resembled fraternity guys at a keg party. Togas look nothing like frat boys wrapped in bedsheets. Togas were an extremely complex dress that was hard to wear. The person needed help getting the garment on, getting it adjusted, and then had to carefully help hold the toga together. It was a pain in the ass to wear and only worn on formal occasions.

Oh, and Caligula could never have crucified a fourth of the Senate or any other citizens, since Roman citizens could not be crucified. It was against Roman law to crucify any citizen. Crucifixion was reserved for non-citizens and slaves. This is why Jesus of Nazareth, a non-citizen, and the followers of Spartacus, all slaves, could be crucified. St. Paul, who was a Roman citizen, was beheaded.

I read some of Jerry Ahern’s The Survivalist pulp novels when they first came out. Those books dealt with post-World War III, but there was no time travel involved. The old Soviets-vs.-America war was once more rehashed, and I quickly got tired of it and gave up after the third novel. This novel reminded me of them.

Obviously, this book wasn’t my cup of tea. If you like military hardware and love having military protagonists blazing through adventure after adventure, then this one is for you.

Rhys Bowen, Royal Blood

(2014-04-25 004)Title: Royal Blood

Author: Rhys Bowen

Series: Royal Spyness mystery

Publication Information: New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2011, c2010.

ISBN: 9780425243749

Library of Congress Classification: PR6052.O848

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Rannoch, Georgie (Fictitious character)–Fiction
Royal weddings–Romania–Fiction
Royal weddings–Bulgaria–Fiction
Castelul Bran (Bran, Brașov, Romania)–Fiction
Transylvania (Romania)–Fiction

Lady Georgiana–Georgie to her friends–is 38th in line for the British throne. Her father squandered away the family fortune and committed suicide, her mother took off when she was a child to become and actress–and a playgirl–and her brother, the latest lord of Rannoch, has married a woman who tries to be more royal than the royalty. She thinks that Georgie should marry and not continue to be a “burden” to her family. As a result, Georgie gets no allowance to live on, and this being the 1930s, she has not gone to college but to a finishing school that taught her how to land a husband and raise a family.

Nonetheless, Georgie tries to find work so that she can eat. She has no intention of simply marrying anyone; she wants to marry for love. Watching the London house for her brother, Georgie hasn’t eaten in days because she has no money. Her sometimes penniless Irish lord boyfriend, Darcy, takes her out to dinner and they end up in Georgie’s bedroom–just in time for her brother and his imperious wife to catch them. Having come down from their castle in Scotland, the couple (in particular her sister-in-law) is scandalized at what she finds and banishes Darcy into the night.

And thus the book begins. The royal family has no problem asking Georgie to represent them or take care of relatives, but they do so without a stipend–except for the representation of the royal family at the wedding of the princess from Romania and the prince from Bulgaria. Only problem: she has no personal maid and must find one immediately.

These characters are fun. Georgie travels in the highest circles of society, and you meet all different personalities–some of them oddballs–in her class. The term “fairy” is tossed around several times in the book. In all cases the term is used to describe a gay man, particularly one who marries but who cannot satisfy his wife in bed. After using the term to Georgie, her mother explains that “fairies” are wonderful people to talk with, have fun, and befriend, but they cannot satisfy a woman in bed and would make a terrible marriage partner. (At least one royal character is gay.)

The young woman whom Georgie engages as her personal maid is a disaster. The head of the Romanian police is scary, and Georgie thinks that a vampire has visited her and her maid, who suddenly disappears in the middle of the book. And then Darcy suddenly appears, having been a “good friend” of the crown prince of Bulgaria.

And where does this wedding take place? Castle Bran, located in Transylvania. This castle is one that is associated with Vlad Țepeș Dracula, the prince of Wallachia, although Vlad never lived in Transylvania; he was, however,  imprisoned for two months in Castle Bran. Târgoviște was the capital of Wallachia, where Vlad ruled. It is believed that Bram Stoker, when creating the character Dracula, used an image of Castle Bran that he found in a book as the basis for his Castle Dracula.

Anyway, this is one of the first novels in the Royal Spyness mystery series. I just liked Georgie and thought the rest of the characters were a hoot.

Mark Siegel, Sailor Twain or, the Mermaid in the Hudson

(2014-01-26 001)Title: Sailor Twain: or, the Mermaid in the Hudson

Author: Mark Siegel

Publication Information: 1st ed. New York: First Second, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-59643-636-7

Library of Congress Classification: PN6727.S51549

Dewey Classification: 741.5

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Mermaids—Comic books, strips, etc.
Hudson River (N.Y. and N.J.)—Comic books, strips, etc.

This book was written by someone who lives in Tarrytown and who did his research for the book at the Historical Society of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow.

Sailor Twain takes place in the late 19th century. Twain is the captain of a river vessel that sails up and down the Hudson from New York City to Albany. He works for a Frenchman, Jacques Henri de Lafayette, who is also his friend. Jacques’ brother Dieudonne later joins him in the business. Jacques mysteriously disappears, and Dieudonne takes control, but he is no businessman like his brother. Dieudonne spends much of his time chasing women–single and married–and leaves Twain much to do whatever he likes.

It gets interesting when Twain finds a wounded mermaid. She becomes his muse and he becomes entranced with her. All I can really say is that Siegel crafts the lore surrounding mermaids into the story. Jacques’ disappearance, Dieudonne’s juggling several  misteresses, and Twain’s obsession with the mermaid all come together in the end. Meanwhile, the poor, wheelchair-bound wife of Twain becomes more neglected over time. (I thought that she was suffering from consumption.) The book ends with an interesting twist.

The illustrations are black and white. The art is rather cartoonish, but it works. It’s understandable why this was a New York Times bestseller. It’s quite entertaining. I didn’t like putting it down because I wanted to see how it ended.

Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove, Household Gods

Tarr-Household Gods (2013-09-01 026)Title: Household Gods

Author: Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove

Publication Information: New York: Tor Fantasy, 2000

ISBN: 0-812-56466-9 (i.e. 978-08-1256-466-2)

Library of Congress Classification: PS3570.A655

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Hotelkeepers—Rome—Fiction
Time travel—Fiction
Carnuntum (Extinct city)—Fiction
Rome—Social conditions—Fiction
Rome—History—Empire, 30 B.C.-284 A.D.—Fiction

This is probably the best book I have ever read that puts you in ancient Rome.

I do not like Harry Turtledove’s writing. Why, I do not know. I read his Agent of Byzantium years ago and I just did not like it. Besides, he writes an alternate history of the American Civil War, where the south won. It just does not appeal to me.

Judith Tarr’s name is listed first, and this is the only book I’ve read of Tarr’s to date. Whether it was her doing most of the writing, a collaboration of the two, or Turtledove supplying the research to Tarr (he has a Ph. D. in history), the book is a page-turner. Anyone who wants to learn what life was like in the second century near the Roman border in Austria, this is a must read.

Nicole Gunther-Perrin, a divorced mother of two, lives in Los Angeles and works at a law firm in the last decade of the 20th century. Her husband, a professor, ran off with one of his students half her age; they married. Nicole got the custody of the children, but the child support is usually months late as ex-hubby is busy traveling around with his youthful bride.

We learn a lot about Nicole before she makes her trip back to Rome. She hates her job, hates her life, and is basically burned out on everything. Ironically, the best time she remembers having is being on her honeymoon and visiting the ruins of Carnuntum, a Roman city in what is now Austria. She admired the ruins and the Romans. Having bought a statue of Liber and Libera, Roman fertility deities, while there, she prays to them for a simpler life, a life that would take her away from the one she is suffering through.

She gets her wish and wakes up in Carnuntum. She inhabits a woman’s body which she knows is an ancestor of hers. She’s now an innkeeper and tavern owner. She has two children and a slave. Thus Nicole must come to grips with Rome in the second century on the frontier. Her education starts right away as she watches a woman coughing up black mucus in the baths, and watching it disperse in the water. Immediately she fears tuberculosis. This is just one surprise for her as plague, a barbarian invasion, and the inevitable return of Roman rule affect her and her family.

Her visit to Rome gifts her with the Latin language. Her mind is intact, and she puts her knowledge of the law to work. After an incident where she is wronged, Nicole writes to Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher emperor, informing him that he is ultimately responsible as the head of the Roman state. Her letter merits an audience with the emperor, which is quite interesting.

The book simply does not end with her return to Los Angeles. No, we get to see how her experience in the past has changed her for the better. Her entire attitude shifts and, because of that, she finds that her life isn’t all that bad, and is getting better. At least it is much easier living in Los Angeles than in second century Rome.

I loved this book. I can remember so many of the details even though I read it several years ago. It is a big novel at 664 pages, but well-worth the effort.

Richard Brown, Titanic with Zombies

Title: Titanic with Zombies

Author: Richard Brown

Publication Information: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

ISBN: 1-479-20-739-X (i.e. 978-1-479-207-39-8)

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Zombies—Fiction
Titanic (Steamship)—Fiction
Plague—Fiction
Shipwrecks—North Atlantic Ocean—Fiction

Okay, this is a cute book. It’s not a great book, but it is enjoyable.

I read this book on my Kindle. The drawings of the characters, especially the zombies, adds to the fun. Richard Brown wrote an interesting slant on the sinking of the Titanic—that while the ship sank, a plague broke out on the ship that the infected died and returned as zombies.

How do zombies end up on the ship? A poor, young Irish woman is infected by someone on the dock; he injects her with the virus before she boards the ship. She chases her attacker but he gets away. This is the most improbable part of the plot—who developed the virus, why and to what end—is never really explained. Also, the book ends with Charles Lightoller, the highest-ranking officer to survive the sinking, in London on the witness stand at the British Board of Trade inquiry. Big surprise that he has no plans to mention the zombies.

The prose is somewhat irritating in spots. Having written stories (unpublished) years ago, I used to do this as well. The following passage is one I bookmarked because it stood out:

“The water was up to his [Lightoller’s] waist now, and so cold he felt like he was wearing a pair of ice undies. If he didn’t get moving soon, he might never be able to have any more children, or worse yet, see the ones he already had ever again.”

Ice undies? Lightoller thinks of this while trying to escape a bunch of zombies as the ship sinks and he’s on a water-filling deck. One Amazon.com critic called this a “rolling of the eyes moment,” and I did.

Lots of historical figures known to be on the ship appear: Lightoller, Margaret Brown, Thomas Andrews, Madeline Astor, John Jacob Astor IV, Captain E. J. Smith—to name a few. One problem I did have is that some of the corpses that were found floating in the Atlantic were still moving although dead. The temperature of the North Atlantic Ocean at that time of year is below freezing; could a frozen zombie move? Perhaps more accurately, how could a frozen zombie move? This is splitting hairs, since we know that there are no zombies, after all, how could desiccated bodies even stand let alone walk? Also, if they could move, this means that the zombies were still able to infect the living who were pulling them out of the drink. (Sequel?)

It cost me 99 cents. It was a quick read and fun. Another Amazon critic could not finish reading the book because of the gore. Who in their right mind buys a book with zombies on the cover and does not expect blood, biting, disembowelments, eating of flesh and all the rest?

L. Sprague de Camp, Lest Darkness Fall

De Camp-Lest Darkness FallTitle: Lest Darkness Fall

Author: L. Sprague de Camp

Publication Information:  New York: Ballantine Books, 1983

ISBN: 0-345-31016-0 (i.e., 978-034-5310-16-3)

Library of Congress Classification: PS3507.E2344

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Time travel–Fiction
Rome–Fiction

This is an old one, and a good one.

When I was young, I used to be an avid science fiction reader. I remember L. Sprague de Camp’s The Tritonian Ring fondly.  I still have the book. It was so much, with the protagonist being a cynical hero that, in the end, just gave up and walked away from a potential drawn-out fight with his brother for the rule of their city.

The protagonist of this book is Martin Padway, an American graduate student in Rome doing research for his Ph. D. On the first page, the idea of time travel is introduced as Padway’s host, Tancredi, discusses his idea of time “pockets” simply appearing here and there and people, who just disappear and are never seen again, having fallen through and into the past. Thus the entire premise of the book is introduced.

Padway falls into one of these holes, going from fascist Italy (the original copyright is 1939 and explains why there’s a remark about Mussolini) into Ostrogothic Italy. Rome is in ruins and civilization is slowly sinking into the Dark Ages. Now known as Martinus–to the general public he will later be known as Mysterious Martinus–Padway begins his attempt to save Western civilization from decline.

The first order of business is to get money, so he sells the coins he has for their gold and silver, making friends with a Goth who knows Latin. Slowly, Martin learns the Germanic spoken by the Ostrogoths, and secures a loan (after teaching modern math to the accountants of the banker) at a high interest rate–far higher than today’s rates. With the money, Padway invents brandy, which quickly becomes a hit and makes him a wealthy man. Then Padway “invents” a printing press and then a telegraph.

Right away Padway runs into problems with religion. The Ostrogoths, converts to Arian Christianity, are heretics in the eyes of the the mainstream Christians, being the Romans and the Byzantines, who later enter the picture. Nonetheless, the Goths tolerate the range of Christians and their beliefs. Padway knows history, and he knows that Justinian, an orthodox Christian and a zealot, would be a horrible master. Also, the disastrous war waged by Justinian’s armies lasted two decades, bringing Italy back into the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire but at a terrible price. The peninsula was completely ravaged and it would be centuries before the damage could be undone.

Sorcery is leveled at Padway, so he has to fight for his survival, eventually using his wealth to bribe an influential bishop.  In the end, Padway ends up serving as the quaestor of the king whose life he saves. He’s able to defeat Justinian’s armies, throw back an attack by the Franks, and also crown a new king. He explains away his “gift” as not so much being able to see the future but to see “paths” that can be changed if those around him listen and act accordingly. He tells them his religion is Congregationalist, coming from America, which no one has ever heard of.

What is perhaps most interesting of all in this book is the alien nature of Ostrogothic society, and that of the last of the Romans living under Gothic rule. There is no sense of a nation-state as we are used to; identity at this time was very fluid. Vandals and Alemani serve in Italy under the Ostrogoths. The “kingdom” as such is held together by the nobles who follow the king; a council of nobles elect–and can depose–a king. The Goths overall distrust those who read and write; they are mostly illiterate.

The Ostrogoths have no idea of cohesion; the reason to fight is for honor and booty, nothing more. Padway desperately tries to introduce military organization and tactics from the far future, but the Ostrogoths do not understand the purpose. Even the idea of the early type of Roman government is alien; the Romans resent Gothic rule and refuse to help, preferring the orthodox Justinian as their ruler. There is no other word for it: these medievals are stupid by our standards, seeing nothing past what already exists. There is no interest in being inquisitive and no interest in discovering the unknown or questioning the status quo; religion explains everything.

A really fun book, and a quick read.