Book Review: The Mask of Troy by David Gibbins

The Mask of Troy is the fifth book by David Gibbins to feature Jack Howard.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

An imaginative story containing some interesting passages and characters, but tempered by the inclusion of some heavy, lengthy descriptions. Well worth the read, if only for the ancient history and archaeology.  3 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Greece. 1876. Heinrich Schliemann, the great archaeologist, raises the Mask of Agamemnon and makes a mind-blowing discovery. Determined to keep it a secret until the time is right, he then dies.

Germany. 1945. The liberation of a concentration camp reveals clues to lost antiquities stolen by the Nazis. But the operation is covered up after a deadly secret surfaces. Northern Aegean.

Present day. Marine archaeologist Jack Howard discovers a shipwreck, part of the war fleet of Agamemnon, king of the Greeks, and soon becomes embroiled in a desperate chase across Europe against a ruthless enemy…

Favourite Quote

The air had been cleansed by the rain, but the smells were rising again: rosemary, thyme, the sweet ether that seemed to float above these ancient sites, an exhalation from history too powerful to be washed away by a transient act of nature.

Review

I really enjoyed parts of this book.  It was interesting to read about marine / underwater archaeology and the complexities involved, such as tidal patterns and how these effect not only working conditions while excavating but also how they can alter the appearance of the context in which artefacts are found. However, there are lengthy technical descriptions which were a little harder to read, which affected the pace of the book.

I liked the historical aspect of the storyline (both real and fictional), in terms of the discussions on ancient Troy, Mycenae and Homer and the mystery surrounding Heinrich Schliemann’s behaviour in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  But I found the Nazi story thread too much.  I understand why it was there: to create the thriller / mystery part of the book, but still.

As for the characters, I liked them, though the cast seemed extensive.  Jack Howard was interesting (though the other characters had a tendency to go on about how great he was). Costas Kanzantzakis made a great side-kick (I think he was my favourite character).  Professor James Dillon had the air of the aging adventurer about him.  Rebecca I wasn’t sure about; I liked her but found the things she got up to a little far-fetched for a 17 year old.

The author’s passion for the subjects involved is clear and obvious to the reader.  However, the heaviness of some passages does impact on the book’s pace, hence the rating.  So, a bit of a mixed review, but well worth the read if only for the ancient history and archaeology.

Rating

 

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Book Review: The Anatomist’s Apprentice by Tessa Harris

The Anatomist’s Apprentice is the first book in the Dr Thomas Silkstone series by Tessa Harris.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Dr. Silkstone is an interesting character and the mystery isn’t too bad either.  I will be reading more of these books.  3.5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

The death of Lord Edward Crick has unleashed a torrent of gossip through the seedy taverns and elegant ballrooms of Oxfordshire. Few mourn the dissolute young man-except his sister, the beautiful Lady Lydia Farrell. When her husband comes under suspicion of murder, she seeks expert help from Dr. Thomas Silkstone, a young anatomist and pioneering forensic detective from Philadelphia.

Thomas arrived in England to study under its foremost surgeon, the aging Dr. Carruthers, and finds his unconventional methods and dedication to the grisly study of anatomy only add to his outsider status. Against his better judgment he agrees to examine Sir Edward’s decomposing corpse, examining his internal and external state, as well as the unusual behavior of those still living in the Crick household.

Thomas soon learns that it is not only the dead but also the living to whom he must apply the keen blade of his intellect. And the deeper the doctor’s investigations go, the greater the risk that he will be consigned to the ranks of the corpses he studies.

Favourite Quote

A good corpse is like a fine fillet of beef, the master would say – tender to the touch and easy to slice.

Review

First impressions: The front cover grabbed my attention immediately.  Then, as I read the back cover, I thought the story sounded very interesting.  According to the acknowledgements in the front of the book, it was inspired by a murder trial at the Warwick Assizes in 1781 during which an anatomist was called to give evidence for the first time (that we know of).  However, this is not the fictionalised version of that case.  The case in question is entirely fictional.

The Anatomist’s Apprentice is Dr. Thomas Silkstone.  I think the title is a little misleading because by the time the book is set, the doctor is no longer an apprentice.  That being said, it does sound good, doesn’t it?  As soon as we meet him, we are introduced to his work.  There are passages within the story that are not for the faint-hearted – or those who like to eat their lunch whilst reading.  The reason for this is that we are given some very graphic details about the work and experiments of Dr. Silkstone in his capacity as an anatomist.  (See above quote).

Dr Silkstone, along with his work, is interesting and engaging, and makes for a very good main character.  However, a number of the other characters were a little flat, my least favourite being the Lady Lydia, who spent most of her time looking beautiful whilst being confused or upset.  Also, I felt some of the other characters didn’t read as consistent.

One of the highlights of the book was the level of detail the reader is given.  Places jump off the page so you can easily visualise where the characters are, and the author doesn’t shy away from darker topics: the grim reality of life at the time and the cost that must be paid for scientific breakthroughs.  I did find the pace a little slow in places and I wasn’t particularly bothered by the romance – it didn’t feel like an integrated part of the plot.

On the whole though, I did enjoy it and would read more books from this series.

Rating

3.5 / 5

Short Story Review: Eye Witness by Ellis Peters

Eye Witness is the third and final short story in the collection, A Rare Benedictine by Ellis Peters.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

 An enjoyable, quick read that sees Cadfael tackle a mystery with his usual style of logic, observation and a keen understanding people.  A perfectly cosy, comfort read.  4.5 / 5

Summary

The yearly rents are due for collection from all the properties owned by Shrewsbury Abbey.  The monk whose job it is to oversee and collect these monies, Brother Ambrose, is sick in the infirmary, and so the task must fall to another, William Rede.  The job is a difficult one, but he also has problems closer to home.  His son, Eddi, is a “brawler and a gamester”.  When he racks up debts, he expects his father to pay them, but not this time.  William Rede has decided enough is enough.

The following day, Madog of the Dead-Boat pulls a man out of the River Severn, still alive but in a bad way.  The man is William Rede and the Abbey rents have been stolen.

Cadfael will have to use all at his disposal to not only help William Rede recover, but also to find out if the victim’s son is really as guilty as he looks…

Favourite Quote

“Now William,” he said tolerantly, “if you can’t comfort, don’t vex.”

Review

Although this is only a short story, it is packed with as much story as one of the full length Cadfael novels.  This means that although you may have your suspicions as to who is the culprit, you are not quite sure until you reach the end.

It is a well-thought out mystery that Cadfael tackles with his usual style of logic, observation and a keen understanding of people.  He is not going to make the same mistake as others in jumping to the wrong – and the easiest – conclusion.

As the final story in this collection it is perfect, showing each side to Cadfael’s personality – the healer, the mystery solver, the sympathetic, compassionate man who understands both the problems of real life and a life hidden away from the world.  By the end of Eye Witness, and thus A Rare Benedictine, we see that Cadfael is not only settled in his new life, but enjoying it.  We also see the sleuth he is to become.

This collection makes the perfect prequel to the novels.  If you’ve read the longer stories but not these, I recommend you do.

Rating

4.5 / 5

Book Review: The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth by Stuart Clark

This is the first book in the series of the same name by Stuart Clark.

Quick Review (read on for the full review)

A fantastic historical novel about science, religion and politics – engaging, illuminating, educational.  4 / 5

Summary (from back of book)

At the dawn of the seventeenth century Europe is a dark and dangerous place. As war rages across the continent and men’s immortal souls are traded for mortal lives, two astronomers risk everything to reveal the truth behind the universe’s grand design.

When Johannes Kepler discovers that the stars and planets move not to the whims of angels but according to natural laws, Galileo Galilei proclaims his own startling discoveries.  Ultimately both men become caught in a web of intrigue and face persecution as heretics in one of the darkest yet most enlightening periods of European history.

Favourite Quote

My favourite quote from the book is far too long to reproduce here, and without keeping in its entirety, it’s meaning becomes lost (in my opinion).  So I thought I would post a snippet of the final sentence that has stuck with me in the weeks that have passed since I read the book:

“…and one is left to wander about lost in the dark labyrinth of the sky.”

And now for a complete quote:

“I’m an astronomer.  I look at the heavens.  Would you ask a book-keeper what makes him count money?”

Review

First of all, I really love the cover of this book.  I know I don’t usually mention front covers in my reviews, but I do think it’s important to point out the one’s that work well with the story they are supposed to visually represent. This is one of them.

The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth is an engaging, thought-provoking read that reminds us what early scientists had to go through in order to literally change how the earth and the heavens were perceived during their lifetime.  An aspect of the story that really came through was the danger you and those around you could find yourselves in if you failed to openly endorse state or religiously approved science even though you knew it to be wrong and have the evidence to support it.  Possessing knowledge really could be dangerous.

The writing style of the author is very readable, combining fact and fiction to produce a dramatic story.  It was interesting to read about the personal lives of both Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, as well as their discoveries.  As the story unfolds we get to see how their dedication to science impacted their families and how both men struggled to survive amongst the turbulent events of the period.

The book is full of vivid descriptions of locations, people and religion as well as, of course, astronomy and the universe.  Some passages felt a little heavy but that is to be expected, I think, when focusing on the complexities involved in the subject matter and what was happening in Europe at the time; their is much detail to incorporate into the story if it is to remain authentic to history, which The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth does.

With having so many book series on the go at the moment, I have been trying to avoid starting any new ones.  It wasn’t until I reached the end of this one that I learned it is part of a trilogy.  However, with most multiple-book series, it is the characters and storyline that move through the additional instalments.  With this one, it is the subject so that in book two, The Sensorium of God we have a new cast list (Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Edmund Halley) and a new location, Stuart London.  This means that the books can be read as standalone novels.  That being said though, I am very eager to read book 2.  This is not a book I’ll happily part with as part of my “Read, Review and Re-Home” policy; no, this book I’m keeping.

Rating

 

Book Review: Claudia, Daughter of Rome by Antoinette May

Summary (from Goodreads)

Claudia has a privileged life. Niece of Rome’s favoured warrior, she lives in luxury, surrounded by her family and tended by slaves. Gifted with second sight, her dreams tell her many things, from which gladiator will win the battle in the Coliseum to the secret enemies who plot against the Emperor. When Claudia falls deeply in love with a charismatic soldier known as Pilate, she determines to win his heart, whatever the cost.

Ignoring the warnings, she enchants Pilate with a love-spell and the pair are swiftly, blissfully, married. As wife to one of Rome’s rising stars, Claudia is admired and talked about, for her beauty, for her lavish parties and for her gift of the sight. Yet her dreams begin to trouble her… Rome is built on powerful, treacherous alliances, and while Pilate’s star continues to rise, shame and tragedy stalk Claudia’s family.

As a circle of betrayal and despair threatens to encompass her, Claudia realises her fate and future happiness is inextricably bound with a man who appears in her dreams, a man who wears a crown of thorns, a man she knows her husband must not condemn to death …

Favourite Quote

We are not in this world to live safely.  We are here to fall in love and break our hearts.

Review

In a nutshell, this book was nowhere as good as it could have been.

It’s always tempting when writing historical fiction, especially when your main character is a real person about whom not much is known, to fill their lives with famous connections.  And this happens here, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it allows the author to tie into the story some of the major events of the period.

Even a few days after finishing the book, I can’t decide whether or not I like Claudia as she is portrayed in the book.  There are some terrible events that impact on her and her family in the story, and whilst in these instances I felt for her, the rest of the time I couldn’t help but think her problems were of her own making.  She does whatever she wants to get what she wants, which, I grant, is a very Roman quality, but when things go wrong she is full of self-pity and acts as if it wasn’t really her fault at all.

As for the other characters and their stories, I liked and felt for Marcella (her story would make a good standalone novel), and Agrippina was interesting, as was Pontius Pilate.

One problem I had with the book is that Claudia’s story is full of drama from the moment we meet her, and yet when Jesus is crucified the book suddenly stops.  There’s a four-page epilogue that condenses down the next 35 years of her life and that’s it.  I’m left wondering why…?  The ending felt far too sudden.

There were plenty of aspects of the book that I enjoyed.  The tour of the empire was fascinating.  As the story unfolds we see Gaul, Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, Jerusalem, and more.  Also, the story was entertaining, dramatic and fast-paced in places.  The different religions of the time and how they did and didn’t get along were interesting to read about.

One of my favourite threads of the story was that of Claudia’s “gift”.  I thought it was realistic to have it feature throughout the book rather than just at the end when her dream holds a warning for her husband.

This isn’t a bad book, but I am left feeling a little disappointed that it wasn’t a better one.  Or that I didn’t enjoy it more than I did.  That being said, I would recommend it to those who enjoy historical fiction, especially books set in the early years of the Roman Empire – the tour of the empire alone is well worth the read.

Rating

2.5 / 5

Book Review: The Sanctuary Seeker by Bernard Knight

The Sanctuary Seeker is the first book in the Crowner John Mysteries by Bernard Knight.

Summary (from Goodreads)

November, 1194 AD. Appointed by Richard the Lionheart as the first coroner for the county of Devon, Sir John de Wolfe, recently returned from the Crusades, rides out to the lonely moorland village of Widecombe to hold an inquest on an unidentified body.

But on his return to Exeter, the new coroner is incensed to find that his own brother-in-law, Sheriff Richard de Revelle, is intent on thwarting the murder investigation, particularly when it emerges that the dead man is a Crusader, and a member of one of Devon’s finest and most honourable families…

Favourite Quote

It was now more than three hours since they had left Exeter and the ceaseless downpour along the eastern edge of Dartmoor was enough to rot a man’s soul.

Review

The first time I came across Crowner John it wasn’t in one of the Crowner John Mysteries but in The Tainted Relic by The Medieval Murderers, of which Bernard Knight is one.  I so thoroughly enjoyed the Crowner John story (in that and subsequent volumes) that I knew I had to give this mystery series a try.

My first impression of the book came from its cover, and I loved it.  I also liked the chapter subheadings, which always began with, “In which Crowner John…” does something or other.

I really enjoyed the story too.  The characters are diverse and have their own histories which nicely come through as the tale unfolds, adding richness and depth.  Crowner John is an interesting character with an interesting task to tackle which the author presented in an engaging way.  It would have been very easy to bog down the story with great swathes of historical detail, but that isn’t a problem here.

There is an authentic feel to the story, not solely because of the level of historical accuracy but also because the characters feel quite true to the time period.  The mystery is a good one and the story moves at a good if not fast pace.

The glossary in the front of the book was very handy and very informative.  In fact, I learnt a great deal from reading it, and although I know a fair amount about the period (I like to consider myself a bit of a history buff) some of the in-depth information I had never come across before whilst other snippets built upon what I already knew.

The Sanctuary Seeker was a great historical mystery, and an enticing first book in a series.  As such, I am looking forward to reading book two, The Poisoned Chalice.

I recommend this book to those who enjoy historical fiction.

Rating

4.5 / 5

Book Review: Quarantine by Jim Crace

Summary (from back of book)

Hell is other people…

Two thousand years ago four travellers enter the Judean desert to fast and pray for their lost souls.  In the blistering heat and barren rocks they encounter the evil merchant Musa – madman, sadist, rapist, even a Satan – who holds them in his tyrannical power.  Yet there is also another, a faint figure in the distance, fasting for forty days, a Galilean who they say has the power to work miracles…Here, trapped in the wilderness, their terrifying battle for survival begins…

Favourite Quote

It was bewitched by her already, if that is possible, if the land can be allowed a heart.

Review

Quarantine tells a different story of the forty days Jesus spent fasting and praying in the desert.  In this version, Jesus is not the son of God, but rather an ordinary son of a carpenter with a religious fervour unmatched by those around him.  So, he goes off into the desert to become closer to God.  However, he is not at the centre of the story, merely a figure who is present, seen most often through the eyes of the other characters, and in relation to their own personal reason that drove them out to the desert.

These other characters are diverse and richly drawn.  Musa, the greedy merchant and devil of the story, is chief among them.  He is a horrible, horrible person (this we know from the back of the book) but there are some passages in the story that outline his evil nature that make for unpleasant reading.  And yet, so well-written is the story, it won’t stop you from reading on, although I must say that I couldn’t sit and read long passages of the book in one go, at least, not until the end, when I couldn’t put the book down.

The descriptions of the desert are rich and detailed, and at particular points in the narrative, the desert almost feels like another character.  The style in which the story is told, and the language that is used, give Quarantine a vague, dream-like, poetic quality.  That vagueness seeps into the story, leaving open questions as to Jesus’ divinity but at the same time making the reader think and wonder…

Quarantine is an interesting, imaginative book.

Rating