Book Review: A Dying Light in Corduba by Lindsey Davis

This is the eighth in the series and I’m not entirely sure what it was about this one that I really enjoyed, but of these first eight, it is probably my second favourite (behind Venus in Copper).

At the request of Spanish olive oil producers, Falco attends a lunch along with several other honoured guests. One of which is his chief rival, the spy Anacrites. When several members of the party are attacked, including Anacrites, Falco must travel to Baetica in Spain to track down and question as many witnesses as possible but not before having to find shelter for his nemesis. Helena Justina is not happy, she is heavily pregnant and demanding that Falco be present for the birth. To ensure this she travels with him and becomes part of the investigation.

This is one of the most intriguing plots so far, plots within plots, possible industrial sabotage and price fixing… the sort of thing a lot of modern thrillers are made of. But what adds an extra dash of intrigue is that Falco has been charged with the care of Anacrites and to solve the attempted murder. Less funny than the others and increasingly fewer exclamation marks, this is arguably one of the strongest in the series so far.

Book Review: Time to Depart by Lindsey Davis

After several books travelling the empire, Falco has returned to eternal city. Book seven in the series sees his friend Petronius Longus catch one of Rome’s most notorious criminals. Convicted criminals who are Roman citizens and facing the death sentence are permitted “time to depart” a period of grace in which they might choose to leave the empire in exile, considered a fate worse than death.

After packing Balbinus off onto a ship at Ostia, Petronius Longus and Falco get the impression quickly that Balbinus will not stay gone for long. Following the discovery of the corpse of one of the arresting officers and later, a number of others associated with the case including several witnesses. What is more, Helena Justina is pregnant again and the matter is pressing that they get married… but Falco has yet to attain his promotion to Equestrian class.

More of the same from Davis and the formula is really working well by now. All of the previous elements are there: flow, good plotting, humour, characterisation. I guess I don’t need to elaborate further for those who are already fans and those who haven’t read them shouldn’t really be starting with the seventh book. It is certainly nice to see Falco return to his native Rome after a seemingly endless number of trips to foreign lands

Book Review: Last Act in Palmyra by Lindsey Davis

In this, the sixth book in the “Falco” series, our hero is sent east to spy for Emperor Vespasian. So much for cutting ties to the imperial house. While there he chooses to investigate the disappearance of a young musician by the name of Sophrona. After meeting up with a troupe of actors, Falco is roped into becoming their playwright for the duration of his stay.

I felt that this is the weakest in the series since Shadows in Bronze. Though her usual high-quality writing is maintained, and it is interesting to see a different part of the Davis’ Roman Empire (this time the Levant), and to explore the lifestyle of a troupe of travelling actors, I felt that Falco’s stint as a playwright just felt out of character. He just doesn’t strike me as the playwright type, after all he is a private detective. I know that Davis style is often tongue-in-cheek that sometimes prides itself on a dash of silliness but I didn’t particularly like this turn of events.

Book Review: Poseidon’s Gold by Lindsey Davis

And so to book five in the “Falco” series and our hero, fresh back from his trip to Germania, returns to the tragic news that his elder brother Festus has died in a ship wreck. Festus was a bit of a schemer it seems, and was on a scam regarding gold and stolen antiques when he died.

So it is down to Falco’s mother to hire Falco to clear the family name and discover what his brother was up to. Whats more, his mother has a legionary lodger who claims to be an old friend of Festus and was owed a lot of money. The following morning he is found murdered and Falco is the chief suspect.

I’ve nothing really to add on the writing style of Davis that I haven’t already said in the previous reviews. After a trip way, Davis clearly felt it was time to bring Falco back to Rome and develop his character some more. This she does through the exploration of his divorced parents. His mother appeared previously; his father, an antiques dealer, is introduced for the first time. In contrast to the character development of Shadows in Bronze, this feels about the right time to be exploring Falco’s family life.

Book Review: The Iron Hand of Mars by Lindsey Davis

The fourth in the “Falco” series sees the titular character being sent to the barbarian frontier to deliver a new standard to Legio XIV Germania and to write a report on the state of them and their battle-readiness. The memory of the cataclysmic defeat in Teutoberg Forest is still fresh in the memory and Vespasian does not want a repeat of those events. Falco must also investigate claims of corruption by the legate and attempt to discover what happened to the previous legate who disappeared.

On the journey we finally meet Helena Justina’s brother, an amusing ladish character with whom Falco immediately hits it off. What’s more, his repugnant niece is on the scene to torment Falco at every turn and Vespasian’s son Titus has designs on Helena Justina. This is far more amusing book than the three that preceded it, but it doesn’t lose the quality of the typical historical crime fiction that we have come to expect from Davis.

The narrative is once again well researched, intricately plotted and fast moving. The great thing about Davis’ Falco novels is that you feel you are learning something about the first century Roman Empire while being entertained. Davis has developed a knack already for a free-flowing style of writing that has you turning page after page. And it is good to see that the overuse of exclamation marks is starting to slow down.

Book Review: Venus in Copper by Lindsey Davis

The third in the “Falco” series and the one that hooked me to this series.

Falco has decided to remove himself from the employment of the Imperial household and return to being an independent investigator despite realising that he will now never earn enough money to work his way up to Equestrain rank (and legally be able to marry Helena Justina). He soon finds himself with a commission investigating a family of freed slaves. The group is concerned that one of their number will be murdered by his fiancé and have asked Falco to uncover the plot and prevent it from happening.

The events of Shadows in Bronze come back to haunt Falco as he is arrested for the theft of a good weight of imperial lead… he is ordered to pay the Emperor the value of the lead and then freed. He agrees but on condition that the imperial house settles its accounts with Falco. Despite his desire to remain distant from the Flavians, the family are not quite ready to let go of Falco.

Davis is playing to her strengths here; she is a writer that prides herself of imparting knowledge on the reader and in this novel she goes into the fine details of the legal complexities of being a freed slave, their rights and responsibilities and how they were able to gain a lot of power, influence and material wealth. This is a fascinating insight into an mostly not investigated by people who write about Rome.

This novel is significantly more intriguing than the prior two. The plot of how the freed slave was killed is ingenious and will keep you guessing until the final few pages.

Book Review: Shadows in Bronze by Lindsey Davis

This is the second in the “Falco” series.

Following the revelation of the silver pigs, Falco is once again roped into working for Emperor Vespasian to dispose of the body of a man who was quietly executed on imperial orders. Following this, Falco is sent to investigate a fire at a nearby temple. There he discovers that a man en route to meet the Emperor has been killed in the fire. Meanwhile, his friend Anacrites reports that he has been unable to locate Barnabas, a mysterious man who has apparently been asking around about Falco.

This is longer than the first novel and unfortunately the weaker of the two. At times it seems over-written and I occasionally felt my interest start to wane. There is also a lot of development of Falco and Helena Justina as characters as well as their relationship. I understand why Davis felt it was necessary, but this background story bogs down what is already a slow-moving plot. I do feel that such development may have benefited from being later in the series when they were well-established.

This is shaping up to be an interesting series already though.

Book Review: The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

This is the first in a highly successful series of historical crime novels set in First Century Rome. At the end of the year of the four Emperors, Marcus Didius Falco, an informer by trade (essentially a private detective) has the unfortunate honour of stumbling upon a conspiracy to trade silver ingots (pigs) on the black market. When the young girl who brought it to his attention is killed, Falco is hired by her father to find the killer and simultaneously hired by Emperor Vespasian to unravel the plot. His journey takes him to Britain, a province he loathes, where he meets the girl’s sister Helena Justina and together they begin to unravel the plot.

Lindsey Davis’ writing is both approachable and informative, often with a lot of humour. So you will usually fly through a Falco book laughing and being amazed at the plot and the research. The characters are larger than life and though these elements may not seem to fit together, they do so rather well. Falco is a likeable yet flawed character.

My only real gripe is her overuse of exclamation marks; it sometimes makes her style seem childish and that cheapens what a superb writer she is.

Book reviews and libel laws

This article on the BBC website caught my eye today. Though I can’t comment on the specifics of the case because 1) I’ve not read Sarah Thornton’s book 2) I’m not likely to 3) I haven’t read the review and 4) I don’t read The Telegraph (the review doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the internet but The Telegraph has posted an apology here). It does force us to confront the fine line between what is valid criticism and what constitutes a personal attack.

The British libel laws are the toughest in the world, arguably too tough when used as a weapon by practitioners of alternative therapies to stifle legitimate scientific debate into their efficacy . Libel is defined as :

the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government, or nation a negative image. It is usually a requirement that this claim be false and that the publication is communicated to someone other than the person defamed (the claimant).

Giving a product a negative image i.e. giving a book, a film, a music album, an electrical item, a car (or anything else) a bad review qualifies as libel! Of course, there are defences and the two most relevant to reviewers are “opinion” and “fair comment”. Opinion is generally a safe bet and the burden is on the accuser to prove that the claimant is knowingly spreading false information. “Fair comment on matters of public interest” is the best defence available for a reviewer. They are, after all, providing a public service by pointing out how good/bad the product is. The choice to use or not use that product is then on the part of the person reading the review.

I’ve never really considered that I might be sued for my book reviews. For any reviewer it is important to stick to the facts and make sure that their critique doesn’t get personal. For example I can say “The Da Vinci Code is badly written with lots of factual errors” but can I say “Dan Brown is a bad writer”? If in doubt, leave it out.

The five most important books – Post a Day #

This Post a Day, is very similar to a prompt from earlier in the year.

As that list is only three long, I’ll add another two here to make it five.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The cartoon strip I posted the other day shows that when we look at modern society, he was closer to the truth than Orwell. We allow advertisers to make us think that this or that will make us more successful, sexually attractive or that to spend lots of money on stuff that we can attain happiness. Only we have no Soma to numb the pain when we realise that none of it is true.

The other I started reading last week. Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. It is a discussion of what happens when industry interferes in the scientific method in an attempt to undermine it for their own selfish interests. It describes their tactics to muddy the waters on issues from the effects of smoking to CFCs and acid rain. Well researched, I’m only a couple of chapters in but it is eye-opening already to see that we see the same people using the same tactics time and time again. The people who need to read it most unfortunately will be the first to dismiss it without consideration. I will of course post a review when I finish it.