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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


Kindle | paperback (US)
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


Kindle (US) | Kindle (UK)

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.


Book Notices | The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett / Friends, Lovers, Chocolate by Alexander McCall Smith

Ken Follett, The Evening and the Morning

  Amazon  

I've been reading Ken Follett's novels for some 40 years. Used to be, he was the one author whose books I'd snatch up the moment they were published. I kind of fell off the wagon about a decade ago, though, because I couldn't get into the Century Trilogy books, despite starting the first one a couple times. So I had to wait out their publication. But with the appearance of The Evening and the Morning (somehow I missed A Column of Fire and have to get to it), I'm back. Follett's latest novel is a prequel to his very popular Kingsbridge books. And it's got everything you'd expect from the author: A strong heroine, true love, scheming monks, an evil bishop, and a brilliant builder. (Sure, maybe the book is predictable to an extent, but maybe predictable isn't always a bad thing.) Edgar is the son of a boat builder who is left homeless after a Viking raid on his town. His family migrates to a farm and a new way of life in Dreng's Ferry, where Edgar's genius for constructing things will come into play. Meanwhile, Ragna, the daughter of a Norman count, falls for a visiting English lord, one of three brothers whose bad behavior undermines the good intentions of the story's heroes. The book weighs in at more than 900 pages, but it goes down easy.

Alexander McCall Smith, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate (Book 2)

  Amazon  

I read the first Isabel Dalhousie novel (The Sunday Philosophy Club) just a few months ago and said then that I wasn't sure I'd read more in the series. But here this one was, already on my shelves; I couldn't say no. I find myself growing fonder of Isabel and more interested in her increasingly complex relationship with Jamie, her niece Cat's ex-boyfriend. In this installment, Isabel looks into the strange experiences described to her by a man she meets by chance in Cat's delicatessen. Sure, she's meddling in other people's affairs again, but she feels she has a moral duty to do so sometimes, and she seems to leave people better off than she found them. Philosophical musings abound, of course, and there is more talk of poets and more conversations with Isabel's housekeeper Grace, who is something like the Mma Makutsi of this world. An increasingly charming series: I'll doubtless be reading more.

Book Notices | True Story by Michael Finkel

Michael Finkel, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa

  Amazon  

Shortly after Michael Finkel was fired by the New York Times for journalistic misbehavior, the story of a lifetime fell in his lap. A man named Chris Longo was in police custody, suspected of having killed his wife and three children in Oregon, after which he fled to Mexico and lived briefly under an assumed name: He pretended to be New York Times reporter Michael Finkel. The real Finkel tells the story of his ensuing relationship with Longo. The pair corresponded in a series of long letters, Finkel looking for a story and Longo ostensibly baring his soul, slowly doling out an account that would, Finkel hoped, culminate in the truth about what happened in Oregon. True Story discusses their relationship and Longo's trial in 2003. Wrapped around that are details about the piece (on slavery in cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast) that ended Finkel's career at the Times. The book's subtitle hits the nail on the head: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa. The title of the book, too, is perfectly apt given the two principals' unfortunate relationship with the truth and the book's attempt, nonetheless, to uncover it. Very interesting book. It was made into a movie in 2015 (starring James Franco and Jonah Hill), which I feel I must now watch.

Book Notices | Drowning with Others by Linda Keir / Arsenic Under the Elms by Virginia A. McConnell / A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Linda Keir, Drowning with Others

  Amazon  

Andi and Ian Copeland were the "it" couple at Glenlake Academy. Twenty years and one seemingly perfect marriage later, their daughter Cassidy is a senior at the prep school. But when a car is pulled from a lake near campus, the ensuing investigations—both that conducted by the police and the one undertaken as a project by Cassidy's journalism class—rip open old wounds and threaten to expose some long-buried secrets. Andi and Ian have a stake in the proceedings, and their relationship is tested more than it has been since their senior year. The story is punctuated by passages from Andi and Ian's high school journals, from which we get first-person accounts of the events leading up to that car's plunge into the lake. But we're still kept guessing about what happened until close to the end. This book was very readable, and I enjoyed it as a whole, but I found the resolution somewhat unsatisfying.

Virginia A. McConnell, Arsenic Under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven

  Amazon  

In Arsenic Under the Elms, Virginia McConnell writes about two infamous murder trials that took place in New Haven County in the late 19th century. The first was the murder of Mary Stannard in 1878 near her home in Rockland, Connecticut, some 15-20 miles northeast of New Haven. Mary's neighbor, the slick Reverend Herbert Hayden, was arrested for the crime, and a sensational trial ensued. According to the prosecution, Hayden poisoned Mary with arsenic (and clubbed her in the head and slit her throat) because she was pregnant by him and he wanted to protect his reputation. McConnell walks us through the crime and trial and the legal procedures of the day. I found the introductory chapters, detailing the crime, more interesting than the author's account of the trial, which got bogged down a bit in details. It's clear from her account where the author stands on the question of Hayden's guilt, but we're still left guessing until the end of the story about what the jury's verdict would be. 

Jenny Cramer was killed three years later, in 1881, her body found in West Haven's Savin Rock area. There was arsenic in her system as well. Members of an illustrious New Haven family were implicated in the crime: Walter Malley, scion of the Malley's Department Store family, and his cousin Jimmy were arrested in connection with her death. This account too gets bogged down in the trial chapters, and so while I'm glad to have read the book—particularly because I'm local to the area—it wasn't always easy to make progress in it. One final note is that it's not always clear when reading to what extent the narrative is based on verifiable fact versus inference. McConnell cites her sources and is honest about her inferences, but you have to dig in the footnotes to find her comments, and many readers may not bother. For example, p. 135: "Mrs. Cramer was very much aware that her daughter's beauty might well be her ticket to a higher class, and so she took great pains to highlight it and show it off." With footnote 3 on p. 238: "This is an assumption based on Mrs. Cramer's actions and statements concerning her daughter, including her disapproval of one of Jennie's suitors because of his lowly occupation (barber)."

Mark Haddon, A Spot of Bother

  Amazon  

An upcoming wedding forms the scaffolding of Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother. Katie and Ray are the newlyweds-to-be—unless they break up for good before the wedding. Jamie, Katie’s brother, is likewise on shaky ground with his boyfriend, Tony. And George and Jean are the parents of the bride, now in their sixties, retired, and having health and marital problems. There’s a lot of arguing and drinking, doctors‘ visits and drama, but it’s all rather light in tone—three different love stories hung on that wedding backdrop. My only complaint has to do with the number of names tossed around in the book—so many first names that, fifty pages in, I resorted to drawing a family tree on my bookmark. (It helped, but there were a lot of names of minor characters mentioned too, too many to write down, so I finally gave up caring who they were.) Apart from the name issue, the story was fine, though I don’t expect I’ll remember much about the book in a year’s time.

Book Notices | The Man on Table Ten by Luke Smitherd / Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson / A Dangerous Thing by Josh Lanyon / The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

Luke Smitherd, The Man on Table Ten

  Amazon  

Luke Smitherd's novella The Man on Table Ten poses an interesting question: What would you do to ensure your survival if the fate of the world depended on it? Smitherd's story is told from the perspective of an old man who has had to answer just that question. The man who sits at table ten in the restaurant that serves as this story's setting tells his tale to a waitress, fully expecting that she won't believe him. And that's really it: The story is mostly his narrative, with a bit of drama thrown in at the very end, and then the novella ends abruptly. On my Kindle, the ending seemed even more abrupt, because it ended when I was only 50% through the file, so I'd expected a lot more. (The remaining 50% was an author's note and a book preview.) So, overall, the story is fine, and it's built on a neat idea, but I think more could have been done with it.

Robert Kurson, Shadow Divers:The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II

  Amazon  

Amazon tells me that I bought this book in June of 2005. It's sat on my shelf for 15 years, just waiting for its time in the sun. Happily, that time finally came. I've never been interested in deep wreck diving, but, man, as Robert Kurson tells it, the subject is absolutely fascinating. Kurson brings readers into this alien (for most of us) world with detailed discussions that are always edifying and often poetic. I love it when nonfiction authors unpack unfamiliar subjects and make technical details easy for readers to understand. So what have I learned in this one? Fishermen jealously guard the geographic coordinates of secret shipwrecks because that's where the good fishing is. A two-hour deep dive may require a decompression period—the diver's ascent to the surface along an anchor line—of some nine hours. If divers stay down too long, their judgment can become impaired enough by nitrogen narcosis that they'll make stupid decisions that will get them killed. Or they may become paranoid enough to kill a diving partner. Who knew? And all that's before the author even gets to the juicy stuff, his meticulously researched real-life account of his subjects' discovery and exploration of one fisherman's secret wreck, which turned out to be a German U-boat sunk 60 miles off the New Jersey shore. Its discovery in 1991 was followed by years of trying to identify the boat, which was made especially difficult because there was no historical record of any U-boat in the vicinity in which this one was found. Shadow Divers is nonfiction at its finest. It's beautifully written—by which I mean that the sentences themselves are often lovely—and written in precise language. It teaches readers a lot. And beyond that, it's a great story.

Josh Lanyon, A Dangerous Thing

  Amazon  

Twelve years ago TO THE DAY (it's August 14, 2020 as I write), I reviewed the third book in Josh Lanyon's Adrien English series, The Hell You Say. I was quite taken by it and had meant to come back to the books, but, well, time flies and life happens. A Dangerous Thing is the second book in the series—not sure why I'm going backwards in steps here. Adrien is a likable protagonist, a mystery writer and bookstore owner whose love interest—Jake the studly cop—hasn't fully embraced his homosexuality yet. In this outing, Adrien drives off to his grandmother's old house, which he's inherited, to get away from things, and he quickly stumbles across a corpse. The ensuing story finds him investigating the unusual history of his property. It's an okay but ultimately forgettable read with a strangely abrupt ending. I'm not recommending against it, but it didn't impress me as much as Lanyon's third installment.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Sunday Philosophy Club (Book 1)

  Amazon  

I've been a fan of Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana books for years and have read a great number of them, but I'm new to his Sunday Philosophy Club series, of which The Sunday Philosophy Club is the first installment. Isabel Dalhousie is a moral philosopher, the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. She is middle-aged and unmarried but has a beloved niece nearby in Edinburgh. Her life is civilized—tea and crosswords and lectures and concerts—but she evidently has a knack for insinuating herself in other people's affairs. And so, in this outing, she winds up looking into the death of a young man she saw falling from the balcony of a concert hall one evening.

Isabel Dalhousie is not completely unlike Precious Ramotswe, the protagonist of the author's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books. But Precious's wisdom is homespun, and she is herself the salt of the earth. Isabel's insights come from Cambridge lectures and philosophy treatises. Not my cup of tea, and so the observations in this book appeal to me less than Precious Ramotswe's lower-brow offerings. I'm torn as to whether I'll read more in this series. I enjoyed the read, and I liked Isabel Dalhousie, but I did not love her.

Book Notices | The Ghost Writer by John Harwood / Half Broken Things by Morag Joss / High Crimes by Joseph Finder

John Harwood, The Ghost Writer

  Amazon  

John Harwood’s gothic novel The Ghost Writer centers on Gerard, a boy of 13 when the book starts, growing up in Australia, who begins a penpal correspondence with an orphaned English girl named Alice. Gerard’s mother is not keen on their relationship, thinking it somehow dangerous, but that’s just one in a series of strange things about her: She is very private and paranoid. Gerard's relationship with Alice is a little weird, though, and the mysteries it offers keep us reading, but this central story is interrupted repeatedly by stories within the story, gothic tales that Gerard finds here and there. They too are good reading. Still, I disliked the constant interruptions and the jarring refocusing of my attention, and it became very confusing trying to figure out what significance each story had to the central one. The book can be boring in parts—particularly the lengthy discussion of the layout of a house Gerard explores toward the end—and confusing: I’m still not completely sure I understand everything that happened. But the author also succeeds in building our dread—and I say this as someone who read the last bits with increasing discomfort in a dark house at 2:00 a.m. I don't think I'll be reading more of Harwood, because I don't really care for the genre, but that's not to say his story isn't impressive.

Morag Joss, Half Broken Things

  Amazon  

This beautifully written novel takes its time building to the crime hinted at on its dust jacket. Joss tells a sweet story about three broken people—Jean, Michael, and Steph—who find each other and build a family unit, living as divorced from the rest of society as possible. Their days are filled with homely pursuits—house repairs, fruit picking, childcare, family dinners, wine by the fire. But Joss's description of even the most idyllic of summer afternoons is suffused with tension because we readers know that the trio's happiness has an expiration date. They know it too, but they choose not to think about it. The story is told partly in third person and partly in first, the latter in an account being written by Jean. If I were to complain, I'd say I'm not completely sold on Michael's character development—something toward the end of the book that I'm not convinced he'd agree to. But I wouldn't argue that point too strongly. What a beautiful read.

Joseph Finder, High Crimes

  Amazon  

High Crimes is an earlyish novel by Joe Finder, published in 1998. I suppose it’s not super early, as Finder already had four books under his belt by then, but it’s the earliest of his that I’ve read. And it’s a bit different from the others I’ve read. High Crimes is a legal thriller: Harvard law professor Claire Heller has to defend her husband at a court martial for an atrocity he’s alleged to have committed 13 years earlier. Legal thrillers really aren’t my cup of tea, but the book held my interest pretty well despite my lack of interest in the genre.

Book Notices | The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick

Edward Dolnick, The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece

  Amazon  

In this very readable narrative, Edward Dolnick writes about the 1994 theft of Edvard Munch's Scream (or one version of the piece, as there are several) from Norway's National Gallery and the ensuing undercover operation, which resulted in its recovery a few months later. The star of that show, and of Dolnick's book, is English/American detective Charley Hill, a larger-than-life member at the time of Scotland Yard's so-called Art Squad. The book also introduces readers to the world of art crime (security in the art world is surprisingly lax, and priceless masterpieces aren't necessarily insured) and the criminals who commit it. We also learn a bit about Edvard Munch and his work along the way. This is very well-done nonfiction.

Book Notices | Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz / Killer Thriller by Lee Goldberg

Gregg Hurwitz, Into the Fire

  Amazon  

Into the Fire details Orphan X's latest--and maybe his final--mission This time, he's contacted on his super secure RoamZone phone by Max Merriweather, a down-on-his-luck construction worker who lands in serious trouble after his golden-boy cousin gives him an envelope for safekeeping. And then the usual: lots of bad guys, and Evan using his unusual talents to save the day. Meanwhile, he's determined that this will be his final mission. He's hoping to settle down afterwards and live a normal life--if he can figure out what normal is. But is it really his last mission? Maybe. Probably not. On the one hand, the book's ending ties things up well so that it would make a good closer to the series. On the other hand, it also opens the door to further adventures ahead, should the author choose to continue. In either case, another good read from Gregg Hurwitz in an enjoyable series.

Lee Goldberg, Killer Thriller

  Amazon  

Ian Ludlow has a good imagination and an uncanny knack for writing fiction that comes true. His latest book is being turned into a movie, and Ian is on set in Hong Kong with Margo French, dog walker turned author escort, etc., who's there to scout locations for Ian's next Clint Straker novel. Turns out there's a plot against the U.S. government, and the world once again needs the services of Clint Straker...er, Ian Ludlow. I like Lee Goldberg's novels and have read a whole lot of them over the years, but I didn't get into this one as much as previous titles. Probably it's a me thing: There was too much time between reading sessions, and I wound up forgetting the plot and having to look up characters. That said, I do like the developments that happen in this book and how things are set up for the next installment in the series (Fake Truth, which came out in April, 2020).

Book Notices | Unf*ck Your Habitat by Rachel Hoffman

Rachel Hoffman, Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better Than Your Mess

  Amazon  

This is a book about cleaning that might have been written by your therapist. Rachel Hoffman--who doesn't seem to be a therapist in fact--gives advice about cleaning, sure, but the real value here is in her advice about less palpable cleaning-related problems--how to overcome the dread of starting larger projects, how to talk to people you share your space with about sharing responsibilities. The book is surprisingly wise. It's worth a read, particularly if you're trying to navigate a roommate/spousal situation in which chores need to be divvied up.