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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


Kindle (US) | Kindle (UK)

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 | 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.

Book Notices | Open House by Katie Sise

Katie Sise, Open House

  Amazon  

A decade before the book opens, art student Emma McCullough disappeared during a college party. Now, Emma's younger sister Haley is a student at the school herself. Her father holds out hope that Emma is still out there somewhere, but everyone else thinks she's dead. There's no physical evidence one way or the other until the discovery of Emma's bracelet in the woods near the school breaks the case of her disappearance open. Open House is centered on Haley and the gradual revelation of information about Emma's disappearance in the present day, but the modern story is interspersed with chapters describing events from Emma's perspective. Initially, I found the cast of characters and their incestuous relationships a little overwhelming: Haley is the student of Brad, who's the husband of Priya, who was the teacher of Emma and Josie, Emma's friend and Haley's real estate agent, who's married to Noah, who used to date Emma, and so on. Eventually one becomes familiar with the relationships, but it's a lot to take in at first. The book is an okay read, but not one I'm likely to remember for long.

Book Notices | When All the World Was Young by Barbara Holland

Barbara Holland, When All the World Was Young

  Amazon  

I bought this book on October 12, 2007, which is the same day that I finished reading Bingo Night at the Fire Hall (my review), Holland's account of living on a mountain in Northern Virginia in the 1990s. I was excited to read more by her, clearly, but still, this one sat on my shelves unread for 14 years, making me feel a little guilty. (I've now learned that Barbara Holland died in 2010, while this book was waiting to be read, and I feel a little bad about that, too, as if I owed it to her to read more while she was still alive.) Lately I've been making more of an effort to get through the stacks of physical books that got forgotten when I started reading on the Kindle, and so I plunged into this, Holland's account of her early life, from her childhood during World War II to roughly about the age of 20. That doesn't sound like much, writing it now, but somehow her memoir encompasses worlds. And somehow, now was the time that I needed to read this, not 14 years ago. Holland is a generation older than I, but there is overlap in our experiences, in weird places, so that reading it I repeatedly yearned to highlight passages just to mark that I got it. She's captured the mores of a simpler, maybe more brutal time, pre-internet, pre-woke, pre-psychobabble, when childhood was part blissful ignorance and part survival of the fittest. It was a salve to read her descriptions and think, ah, so it's not just that my family was crazy; others did this too. Barbara survived and lived, so she tells us, happily ever after (at least until 2010). I hope that's true. 

Book Notices | The Risk Pool by Richard Russo

Richard Russo, The Risk Pool

  Amazon  

One of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is "The Inner Light," the one where Captain Picard is probed by an energy beam and left unconscious on the bridge. In the few minutes that pass in real time, Picard lives a lifetime on an alien planet. He has a wife and children. He conducts experiments. He plays the flute. He grows old. And eventually he's yanked out of that reality and back into consciousness on the Enterprise. The episode isn't action-packed, but it is powerful. Picard is thoroughly immersed in the life of this man from another world. The experience is deeply real for him, and it remains with him when he returns to his own life. Anyway, I was thinking of this as I was reading The Risk Pool, another story that is far from action-packed. We watch as Ned Hall grows up in the small town of Mohawk, New York, where fathers routinely abandon their families for barstools when they don't leave the state entirely. Ned's mother is forever teetering on the edge of a breakdown. His father, Sam Hall, is absent until he's not, and then he's not the best influence. The book is about fathers and sons and loving one's parents despite everything and wanting but not wanting to escape them. I don't know. Someone could write an English paper or two on what the book is about. It's a long read and a slow one, but if you have the patience for it, it will immerse you in another, wholly real world that you will be sad to leave when eventually you return to consciousness.

Book Notices | The Strange Case of the Moderate Extremists by Alexander McCall Smith / Hide Away by Jason Pinter

Alexander McCall Smith, The Strange Case of the Moderate Extremists

  Amazon  

In this short addition (73 pages) to Alexander McCall Smith's Detective Varg series, Ulf and his colleagues in Sweden's Department of Sensitive Crimes look into a pair of insignificant not-quite-crimes. In one case, the author explores Ulf's strained relationship with his brother, a leader of the right-wing Moderate Extremist party. The other has Ulf dipping into the rarified world of purebred cat breeding. This is another sweet read from McCall Smith that further explores Ulf's world and world view and his seemingly hopeless love for his married coworker Anna.

Jason Pinter, Hide Away

  Amazon  

Rachel Marin—not her real name—is a mother bent on protecting her children at any cost after the gruesome murder of her husband. But she's also keen on righting wrongs unrelated to her family, and this can land her in trouble. In this first book in what is currently a two-book series, Rachel's vigilantism puts her at odds with the police department in Ashby, Illinois, where the family lives in hiding. I was initially very attracted to Rachel's character. Early on, we see her defeat a would-be rapist, and she comes off as smart and well-trained, a kick-ass supermom. (She even has a secret lair in her basement.) Then her character gets a little muddled. She does stupid things that get her in trouble with the police and put her family at risk—so much for protecting the kids. It almost seemed as if she was a different person from the hero we met in that alley early on. I was still rooting for her, but she became forgettable. I don't think I'd bother reading more in the series.