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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
By Debra Hamel


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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
A TRUE CRIME STORY
FROM ANCIENT ATHENS
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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
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ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
THE LIBERATION OF THEBES AND OTHER ACTS OF HEROIC TRANSVESTISM
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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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Davies, Martin: The Conjurer's Bird

  Amazon  

4 stars

Martin Davies' The Conjurer's Bird wraps two stories around a handful of intriguing historical facts: A thrush-like bird, called here the "Mysterious Bird of Ulieta," was discovered on James Cook's second voyage of exploration (1772-1775). The bird was described by the naturalist onboard and drawn by his son, a draughtsman, and the specimen was stuffed and mounted and given to another naturalist, Joseph Banks, at the end of the voyage. No other example of the bird has ever been found, and the single specimen in Banks' possession has since disappeared. Banks himself, who accompanied Cook on his first voyage, failed to go on the second because of a last-minute disagreement about accommodations. But a certain "Mr. Burnett" had apparently not heard of the change in plans and was awaiting Banks in Madeira when Cook arrived there. Mr. Burnett was widely assumed to in fact be a woman.

In the modern-day segment of his novel Davies follows the efforts of a small group of acquaintances to locate the lost specimen of the Ulieta bird. Davies' focus is on Fitz, who teaches natural science and dabbles in taxidermy and who has a mystery of sorts in his own past--something painful and life-altering that's dredged up when an old flame seeks his help in locating the bird. While the others are after the specimen for profit, Fitz's motivations are more noble, and he becomes interested while investigating the bird's history in the human side of the story--the reasons for Banks' failure to join the second expedition, his affair with a certain Miss B___n. Banks' story--told largely from the point of view of his mistress--forms the second thread of Davies' novel.

The two stories Davies weaves together are both well told, and the author's solution to the mystery of "Mr. Burnett" seems to me ingenious. I also appreciate that Davies' modern story echoes that of Banks--but subtley; we are not beaten over the head with similarities between the two men and their situations. The book offers a clever plot and a good mystery, with bits of romance and history stirred in. A good read.

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