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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


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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


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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.


Click here for a complete list of books reviewed.

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.

Book Notices | Ninth Square by Gorman Bechard / Outsider in Amsterdam by Janwillem van de Wetering / The Talented Mr. Varg by Alexander McCall Smith

Gorman Bechard, Ninth Square

  Amazon  

I came for the location: Ninth Square, written by fellow Connecticut native Gorman Bechard, is set in and around New Haven, and there are lots of local references beyond the expected Yale and pizza—Willoughby's, Toad's Place, Showcase Cinemas in Orange (back when that was a thing). Even more remarkable, some of the action takes place in North Haven, my adopted hometown. The main character's parents have a bakery right near the town hall, and—more amazing yet—they live just a ten-minute walk from me! That's all very cool. The story is pretty good, too. Detective William Shute is investigating the stabbing death of a big-deal Bible thumper whose organization of holier-than-thous is planning to move its headquarters to New Haven. But it seems that some of them aren't above satisfying the needs of the flesh in inappropriate ways. Shute has to wade through a lot of porn in the course of his investigation, and he uncovers some surprises along the way: police corruption, a city-wide conspiracy, and an unexpected connection to the case that makes it personal for him.

Janwillem van de Wetering, Outsider in Amsterdam

  Amazon  

This is an old read (published in 1975) by an author who's new to me. Janwillem van de Wetering was born in Rotterdam and seems to have had a lot of adventures. These included a stint as a part-time policeman in Amsterdam's Special Constabulary, an experience that inspired his Grijpstra and DeGier novels, of which Outsider in Amsterdam is the first. In this outing, the two policemen—Grijpstra is older and more senior—investigate the hanging death of the unlikable founder of a commune. The investigation continues at a comfortable pace: This is a world in which there's time for conversation and drinks with suspects. Outsider in Amsterdam is more about character than action, which is to my liking. Grijpstra and DeGier have a worn-in relationship, and it was enjoyable to tag along with them on their relaxed hunt for a killer. I'm not sure I'd jump to read the next book in the series, but I wouldn't object to reading it one day.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Talented Mr. Varg

  Amazon  

The endearingly-named Ulf Varg—"Wolf Wolf"—is a policeman, the head of the Department of Sensitive Crimes in Malmö, Sweden. The office is not very busy, and Varg and his colleagues are thus able to take a somewhat leisurely approach to solving the unusual and relatively minor cases that cross their desks. Varg is a good man, honest and thoughtful and humane in the way the author's protagonists tend to be. He likes Swedish art and dogs and his married coworker Anna—and that's a storyline that we'll surely be hearing more about in the books to come. The series has much in common with McCall Smith's other work. Ulf Varg is to a great extent Precious Ramotswe or Isabel Dalhousie transplanted to a different exotic locale (although I find Ulf more immediately likable than Isabel for some reason). So, sure, the books are a little formulaic. It just so happens that I really like the formula.

Book Notices | The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday by Alexander McCall Smith / Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Alexander McCall Smith, The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday

  Amazon  

This is the fifth book in Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series. If you're this far along, you'll know what you're in for: occasional reflections on philosophy, music, and art packed around the twin scaffolds of Isabel's personal life and her ethical dilemma du jour. This time around there's a depressed, disgraced doctor she feels responsible for, and she does a wee bit of sleuthing to try to help him out. But mostly the book is about watching Isabel's life and relationships unfold. A gentle read, which is sometimes just what one needs.

David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day

  Amazon  

I've finally gotten around to reading the copy of David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day that's been weighing down my shelves since—not an exaggeration—May of 2004. It's a collection of 29 essays about Sedaris' life that anyone reading this has probably already read at some point in the last 17 years. The praise for the book in the praise-for-this-book section suggests that the stories are "hilarious"—"wildly," "dangerously," even "blisteringly" funny. I don't know about that. I did laugh aloud once, at a line in one of the shortest stories in the book, "Big Boy," about the author's encounter with alien feces while using the bathroom at a dinner party. And Sedaris' essay about his sister, actress Amy Sedaris, in "A Shiner Like a Diamond" was interesting in displaying how peoples' passions can reveal themselves early. When I was a kid, I pretended my little glass dogs ran a newspaper. Amy Sedaris, meanwhile, was studying her teachers' mannerisms and stockpiling wigs. So, not laugh-out-loud funny, for the most part, but competently written little windows into the author's life that left me feeling well inclined toward him.

Book Notices | The Perfect Marriage by Adam Mitzner / Almost by Elizabeth Benedict

Adam Mitzner, The Perfect Marriage

  Amazon  

This story has sort of a strange arc. Jessica and James are happily celebrating their first anniversary, but their "perfect marriage" was built on the backs of two destroyed relationships. Both exes are on the scene and suffering in their own ways from the betrayal of their former spouses, and Jessica's teenaged son is facing a grim medical diagnosis. James, meanwhile, is getting involved in a shady art deal with a sometime associate. So there's all that backstory, which goes on for more than a third of the book, and then suddenly everything changes: one of the characters is found dead, and now we're in the middle of a police procedural. Then it turns into a legal story and we watch the initial proceedings against the accused in some detail until, ultimately, the story rolls to an unsatisfying, unsurprising conclusion. It's not an awful book, but it doesn't make me eager to read more from this author.

Elizabeth Benedict, Almost

  Amazon  

Well, this was a lovely book. Narrator Sophy Chase is almost divorced when she finds out that her husband, Will, has died. She leaves her new boyfriend to fly back to Swansea, an island off of Massachusetts, to deal with things—her grief, her guilt, her stepdaughters, the funeral, the dog she left behind when she left. Sophy's desperate for answers about Will's sudden death, but there aren't any firm conclusions on offer here. That's the beauty of the book: It eschews Hallmark Channel certainty for ambiguity and moral grays. By the end of the story, after the funeral and a couple of other dramas piled on top of it, Sophy's character has moved forward in her life, but it's a subtle shift only, to a subtly better place. It's not a Hallmark ending, that is, but a realistic one.

Book Notices | Never Go Back by Robert Goddard

Robert Goddard, Never Go Back

  Amazon  

Back in England for his mother's funeral, Harry Barnett winds up traveling to a Scottish castle for a 50th reunion weekend with his old RAF buddies. They'd been involved in an experiment at the castle back then—learning academic subjects in an isolated setting for three months in lieu of their regular service. Their stint as guinea pigs had been uneventful, or so Harry had always thought. But the reunion stirs up some old memories and a lot of trouble, and Harry and one of his RAF mates find themselves on the hook for murder. I've enjoyed a handful of Robert Goddard's novels in the past, but this one dragged for me. In addition to a not very exciting plot, the big problem was that a lot of names are thrown at the reader early on—a bunch of secondary characters who are sometimes referred to by their given names and sometimes by nicknames. It was just too much. I was never able to keep them straight and wound up not caring about any of them.

Book Notices | The Passengers by John Marrs

John Marrs, The Passengers

  Amazon  

John Marrs' The Passengers takes place in the same universe as his earlier novel The One (my review)—a not too distant future in which cool scientific advances tend to have unpleasant unintended consequences. In The Passengers, self-driving cars are an everyday thing, and the government hasn't been as up-front as one would hope about how the vehicles are programmed to deal with accidents. Enter a bunch of disgruntled hackers, and live broadcast a handful of passengers who are trapped in their cars, and you've got a nightmare scenario that's not too hard to imagine happening in real life, at least in some form. The premise of the book is intriguing, but it didn't hold my interest for all 350-odd pages. The last 20% of the book—the what happened afterwards part—dragged a bit. I also didn't care very much about the passengers: their bios come thick and fast at the beginning, and it's not easy to keep them straight. 

Book Notices | Sleeping with Schubert by Bonnie Marson / The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith

Bonnie Marson, Sleeping with Schubert

  Amazon  

Liza Durbin was in the women's shoes department at Nordstrom's when she was inhabited—literally, not figuratively—by the spirit of Franz Schubert. She sat down at the store's baby grand piano and played a piece skillfully enough to attract an audience. Liza had played piano before, but not well enough to impress her grade school piano teacher. Being inhabited by a dead genius has its benefits—the piano thing—but a lot of negatives go along with it. We follow Liza as she puts her life on hold to deal with her possession. She subjugates her interests to those of her inhabitant, I'd like to say, because she really does give up her life, although the book doesn't really focus too much on her decision to do so, or question it. Meanwhile, she's surrounded by a number of hangers-on, secondary characters who are never really fleshed out and whom we never care about, people who manage her new career as an out-of-nowhere piano prodigy that mostly plays Schubert. We don't really care very much about Liza either, for that matter, or Schubert. The premise of the book is interesting, but it was a bit of a slog, over-long and without much of a payoff.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Careful Use of Compliments (Book 4)

  Amazon  

The fourth installment in Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series picks up about a year after the surprising revelation of the last novel. With another dozen novels (and counting?) waiting for me in the series, I guess it's not sustainable to entirely avoid references to major plot developments in these early books. So beware of spoilers. Here's a big one: Isabel now has a baby, Charlie, by her much younger lover Jamie. But Charlie's kind of in the background so far, more of an accoutrement that's sometimes mentioned but doesn't dramatically impact the story or, it seems, Isabel's free time (because she has a willing babysitter in her housekeeper Grace). So, Isabel is free to become entangled in an art-related mini mystery that leads ultimately—after a graceful buildup—to the sort of moral conundrum by which Isabel is so often vexed. At the same time, her tenure as editor of the Review of Applied Ethics is in jeopardy, and I found myself angry on her behalf at the cowardly machinations that would threaten her happy avocation. Another gentle read from McCall Smith. I'm sure I'll be on to the next one shortly.

Book Notices | The School of Night by Louise Bayard

Louis Bayard, The School of Night

  Amazon  

In this 2010 novel, Louis Bayard twists the story of a modern treasure hunt around a centuries-old romance. "The School of Night" refers to a secret group of 16th-century intellectuals—among them Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, and a figure probably less familiar to most readers, Tom Harriot, around whom the historical part of Bayard's story revolves. There's romance in the modern story too—and a treasure map and an over-the-top collector of antiquities and a few dead bodies. Honestly, I didn't care very much about the modern-day hunt enough to try to figure things out myself. The historical romance grabbed my attention a bit more, but mostly I enjoyed Bayard's writing. That's what kept me reading through the early stages of the book when I might otherwise have abandoned it. A decent read (with an ending that may be a bit too far out there).

Book Notices | Never Knowing by Chevy Stevens / The Givenchy Code by Julie Kenner

Chevy Stevens, Never Knowing

  Amazon  

The premise of this book kept me reading: An adopted woman's search for her birth parents goes about as badly as it possibly could when she finds out that her father's a serial killer and her mother's the only victim who ever escaped form him. Sounds good, and here and there the book did become interesting. But mostly there was a lot not to like. It dragged. The main character whined constantly. Actually, there wasn't a single likable character in the book other than the dog. The serial killer was in fact more likable than the protagonist's six-year-old daughter. The story is told to a therapist in a series of sessions, a dramatic device that doesn't seem to have much point to it. And the twist, when it comes, isn't terribly surprising. So.... But I did like the author's first novel, Still Missing, which I read back in 2010.

Julie Kenner, The Givenchy Code

  Amazon  

This book is sort of an odd mixture of chick lit and smart thriller, and protagonist Melanie Prescott is herself an odd mixture: part shoe-obsessed shopaholic, part whip-smart code-breaker. I'm not convinced the blend is totally believable, and certainly the "I live to shop!" mentality was a little hard for me to swallow, but still, I enjoyed the book well enough. The deal is that Melanie gets caught up in a deadly game when a madman takes an international online assassin game offline. Suddenly Melanie's got a target on her back, she's paired with a hunky bodyguard, and she's got to run around New York collecting clues and solving puzzles or die. Totally not believable, of course, but kind of fun. I can see it making a halfway decent lighthearted movie. The Givenchy Code is the first installment in a footwear-themed trilogy: The next two books in the series are The Manolo Matrix and The Prada Paradox. I'd read them if they fell in my lap, but I probably won't seek them out.

Book Notices | The Right Attitude to Rain by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith, The Right Attitude to Rain (Book 3)

  Amazon  

Things are heating up in Edinburgh! (And in Dallas, for that matter.) And love is in the air, at least for a couple of happy couples. This time out, Isabel is hosting her cousin Mimi (and Mimi's husband Joe) from Dallas, and they all vacation together at a house rented by another pair of Americans. Tom and Angie are an enigmatic engaged couple whose relationship may or may not be what it seems. This installment in McCall Smith's series is more about personalities than problem-solving, but Tom and Angie do pose a something of a mystery and raise a moral problem or two for Isabel. The book really moves Isabel's personal story forward as well, ending as it does with a revelation that I never guessed was coming.

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.