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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.


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THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
VICTORY AT SEA AND ITS TRAGIC AFTERMATH IN THE FINAL YEARS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
A TRUE CRIME STORY
FROM ANCIENT ATHENS
By Debra Hamel


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READING HERODOTUS:
A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE WILD BOARS, DANCING SUITORS, AND CRAZY TYRANTS OF THE HISTORY
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THE MUTILATION OF THE HERMS:
UNPACKING AN ANCIENT MYSTERY
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TRYING NEAIRA:
THE TRUE STORY OF A COURTESAN'S SCANDALOUS LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE
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SOCRATES AT WAR:
THE MILITARY HEROICS OF AN ICONIC INTELLECTUAL
By Debra Hamel


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ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
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IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
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PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
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Pedersen, Laura: Beginner's Luck

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3 stars

Hallie Palmer is an unusually clever 16-year-old who applies her formidable math skills to the business of gambling, often riding her bike to the race track during school hours or sneaking out of the house to join a clandestine poker game in the local church basement. Hallie's long-term goal is the acquisitiion of a car, by means of which she hopes to escape the twin discomforts of school and life with her too-large nuclear family--neither of which is a good fit given her tendency to nonconformity. Her life changes when she lands a job working as a groundskeeper for the Stocktons, a mother and son team who embrace noncomformity in general and in particular quickly adopt Hallie as a sort of stray. Olivia Stockton, poet and pornographer and amateur fertility specialist, is a Ruth Gordon-esque, 60-something Bohemian who's never met a liberal cause for which she wasn't eager to man the barricades. Her son Bernard is a slightly more subdued antiques dealer and a passionate chef. Bernard's boyfriend Gil lives in the house as well, as do Olivia's husband--long suffering from Alzheimer's--and Rocky, a near alcoholic--wait for it--chimpanzee trained to work with paraplegics.

Laura Pedersen's Beginner's Luck is equal parts irritating and charming. A number of things bothered me about the book. Hallie is a likable character, but it's hard to believe that a 16-year-old girl could be as seasoned a gambler as she's made out to be, comfortable among the grizzled and chain-smoking at race tracks and OTB parlors. Olivia and Bernard, who are likewise likable, never jump off the page as believable, three-dimensional characters, and after a while their too-clever dialogue--all literary references and bon mots (delivered, in fact, often in French)--become tiresome. The book can be preachy, too, as Olivia makes her case for every cause that comes her way. And at 336 tightly-packed pages in my edition, the book is about a hundred pages too long. Add a cocktail-swilling chipmanzee--a chimpanzee, people--and the book has, as it were, jumped the shark.

That said, Pedersen's writing is often charming, particularly in the first half of the book, before the recitation of Olivia's causes begins to weigh too heavily. And Hallie, despite my credibility concerns, is a very appealing character whom one is happy to root for. In short, the book is a mixed bag, but I'll probably read Pedersen's sequel, Heart's Desire. Just not for a while.

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