The author's historical research and detail are impeccable; the writing is highly competent. In her effort to heap up red herrings and plot twists, however, the author mostly succeeds in creating an unconvincing melodrama. Quite early in the book, I wanted someone to throttle the fair and frail Lydia, beloved of our hero only because she is a lovely lady in distress. She's a stock character, a non-entity. The so-brilliant Dr. Thomas Silkstone is reduced to cliché-spouting idiocy in her presence. He has to love her; otherwise he would have little motivation to work feverishly to solve the mystery. I have no doubt the series improves in later novels but this novel does not impel me to continue reading them.
When I first started listening, I thought, "Oh no, another man-against-irrational-communist-bureaucracy story." Then I started to chuckle. Then I laughed out loud and was completely hooked on the series. This book is a fresh take on classic conventions. The detective is one stubbornly honest man in a corrupt world. He must constantly get around the dictates of his boss. (You will love the name.) The craziness of communist rules satirize our own. What stands out brilliantly is the character of Siri, which sounds like "Silly." He's a cheerful person with a lively sense of irony and a connection to the spirit world that veers from absurd to menacing. All the other characters are drawn with depth. Relationships shift and develop. These are people you want to live with through book after book. And, oh yes, there is a mystery in each novel.
I recommend this series to anyone who enjoys Tarquin Hall's Vish Puri series or Ruth Downie's Medicus Fortunately it avoids some of the problems that plague the latter.
I approached with anticipation--wonderful title--quickly grew bored, but slogged on for a while. The rakish, ne'er-do-well protagonist takes on a job against his better judgment. All goes wrong, of course. People lie, he gets arrested, he gets kidnapped and beaten, he makes a clever escape, he discovers more layers of lies, etc. This is a time-honored formula that requires interesting, well-drawn characters, a clever stylist, and/or some kind of emotional grabber early in the story to make the formula fresh. This novel has none of those characteristics. And the protagonist is puzzling about the significance of plaster monkeys when there's a prized first edition of Dashiel Hammett framed on his wall? Duh! It's not badly done; it's merely so boring that I don't care "who dunnit."
Unlike Newman's Dracula book (I didn't find Anno Dracula interesting), this one is fast-paced, humorous and worth a listen for the bon mots alone. Colonel Moran is hilariously amoral and cynical. The Holmes-Watson world is turned inside-out. Moriarity, for instance, cultivates wasps and takes great satisfaction in their deadly effects on experimental subjects. The action rushes along a little too quickly in places. I don't know if I cared whether there was any action at all; I was that captivated by the language.
I didn't mind the slow start that bothered others. By the time the action began picking up and something significant happened--relevant! a statement! important in the world!--I was so sick of the tiresome, navel-gazing protagonist that I lost interest. Will she be jailed? Bring back hanging for this character and her lover. She certainly needs major editing to rid the book of those endless what-ifs and pointless speculations that even the peerless Juliet Stevenson cannot save. The story gives an accurate portrait of a woman obsessed with someone, a woman of status and accomplishment who thought herself confident and self-possessed becoming as nutty as any teenager. But good literature needs more than accuracy and this book doesn't have it. Instead of creating tension, the hook at the beginning merely results in impatience. Without it, would anyone get past the first few pages or minutes?
This is Downie's best yet. Without losing any of the humor of the his tactlessness or inability to "control your wife," the Medicus' character is more consistent with his actions than in the previous books. He has lost the sad-sack bumbling that belonged to a less intelligent character. Humor, horror, and danger are perfectly balanced. I sped through this one, listening every chance I could get, completely absorbed in the all-too-modern politics of the Roman Empire; the characters; and of course, the plot.
I'm comparing this book to Gone With the Wind for the way it focuses intensely on a small group of people, through them showing the effects of a ruinous war. The book gives us personal melodramas enacted throughout changing times. Our personal absorption in these characters makes each event of the war all the more shocking. Although it's overly long, the extraneous details are absorbing, thanks to Robin Miles' brilliant narration through which each voice becomes a fully realized character.
This book might win runner-up in the bad Hemingway contest. " I thought of Maria. I checked the .9 mm in my shoulder holster. I needed the .45, but it was lost somewhere in the sea of dust bunnies under Stella's bed." All read in a gravelly monotone that is supposed to sound hard-boiled.
The hero is a wounded soul. Check. Everyone's a bad guy. Check. Everyone's corrupt. Check. A few have a spark of integrity. Check. I cannot finish. Check.
This is a popular science book that expertly combines research with anecdote. I thought I wouldn't mind the narrator but after an hour, couldn't stand any more of her. She reads in a hushed, whispery voice (reverence for the death of species?) with little change in intonation, expertly combining boredom with irritation.
In a great book, the author knows what to leave unsaid. This book would be improved by cutting half the overly detailed and sometimes overwrought description. You could practically hear the violins playing in the background when hero and heroine meet. We already know from previous heavy hints that they are to be star-crossed. Description sets scene and mood, but each detail should also serve a purpose in moving the story forward. There may be an engrossing story buried here, but I lost interest.
Expect a cross between a Coen brothers' movie and Candide--plus a touch of Forrest Gump. It's funny, absurd, and entertaining as the 100-year-old man collects equally eccentric characters while the plot snowballs along. Enter this book as you would a fable and you won't be disappointed.
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