Tag Archives: Fiction

Sunday Review: The Medicus Series

Today, rather than reviewing one book, I’m going to talk about the Medicus series of historical mysteries by Ruth Downie, set in the Roman Empire in the second century of the common era. We first meet Gaius Petraius Ruso, a physician (or medicus) from Gaul, when he is assigned to a legion in Britannia. Ruso is a wry, unassuming man who just wants to earn a decent living to help out his family in Gaul, left in debt after his father dies, and to forget his failed marriage to a woman who had far more ambition than he does and regarded him with scorn for not rising faster in his career. He hopes working at a routine institutional job will give him the time he needs to focus on compiling a medical guide that will salvage his finances and reputation—as well as helping other physicians.

Life in Britannia quickly proves more complicated and dangerous than Ruso anticipates. His soft heart leads him to purchase a blonde slave girl with an unpronounceable British name from her abusive master with the intention of saving her severely injured arm. Thus we are introduced to the second main character, quickly rechristened Tilla.

When young women at a local bar near the military outpost start turning up dead, Ruso somehow ends up investigating the crimes. This in turn gives him a reputation as a detective that he dearly wants to disavow but which follows him throughout the course of the series, disrupting his plans to be just a good doctor.

As does Tilla, who evolves from a distrustful housekeeper with no domestic skills to Ruso’s partner in more ways than one. She views every injustice with sharp indignation, and she has a knack for annoying the authorities and going her own headstrong way, further injecting chaos into the life of the man she lives with.

The series meanders to Ruso’s family home in Gaul and even to imperial Rome but always seems to come back to Britannia, touring some of the ancient high spots such as Hadrian’s wall (then under construction) and Aquae Sulis (now known as Bath).

The stories are fast reads, and humor makes up a large part of every book. Downie’s use of eccentric characters to people her world reminds me a bit of Dickens. Some of the most memorable of those characters are recurring. Life in the ancient Roman empire is depicted in vivid but not overwhelming detail. Most importantly, by the time I reached the third or fourth book, I found myself missing Ruso and Tilla between reads. To me, that is always the sign of a good series.

Read the books in order to avoid confusion and to be able to follow the characters’ development:

Medicus
Terra Incognita
Persona Non Grata
Caveat Emptor
Semper Fidelis
Tabula Raza
Vita Brevis
Prima Facie (a novella, rather than a novel)
Memento Mori

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Sunday Review: Chasing the Wind by C.C. Humphreys

This is like a cross between one of those early movie serials—all action and peril—and a historical novel set between the world wars. The heroine is a risk-taking, cigarette-smoking, whiskey-drinking, adventure-loving aviatrix who flees America after her father is killed, leaving her with a mountain of debt she can’t repay. 

Her adventures take her to Africa, Spain, the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and aboard the Hindenburg on its fateful voyage—and along the way she encounters smugglers, art forgers, saboteurs, Nazis, and her family’s arch enemy. 

Don’t expect a serious portrayal of the politics of Europe in the late 1930s. But if you’re in the mood for a fast-paced, fun romp on the order of Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is the book for you.

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Sunday Review: The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny

Although I am a longtime fan of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series, over the last few years I’ve felt less enthusiastic about some of the books. I know that it’s very hard to keep a series fresh, but the pivot to having several plots about massive conspiracies didn’t appeal to me as much as her earlier work. (Your mileage may vary.)

With this novel, I think Penny struck a better balance. First, it’s set back in Three Pines, so we get to catch up with the cast of eccentric characters there. Second, the issues she explores juxtapose a debate over policies that would have national significance with the moral cost to individuals of participating in or fighting against those policies. (I am being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers.) Several characters come face to face with shadowy things hidden in their own psychological depths—reasons for their behavior that they would prefer not to admit. This isn’t unusual in a Louise Penny novel, but I found these revelations particularly poignant. 

This is one series I strongly recommend reading in publication order. And I do still recommend it. Because of this latest installment, I am looking forward again to the next Gamache book. 

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A Visit with Anna Belfrage

I did a guest post on Anna Belfrage’s blog yesterday. We became acquainted on social media through our network of historical novelists. To read the post, you can click here.

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Release Day: Katie, Bar the Door

cover of Katie, Bar the Door

Today is publication day for my third novel—Katie, Bar the Door, a work of contemporary women’s fiction.

You can order the book in Kindle or paperback here: https://bit.ly/order_KBtD (The Kindle is live now; the paperback will be up in a day or two.)

Summary: From a childhood of parental loss, religious repression, and sexual shaming, Katie Thompson suffers deep wounds and persistent self-doubt. Her desire to find meaning through education and a career is threatened by those who push her to conform to a more traditional path. In her desperate search for love, Katie makes disastrous choices about men, leading her to the brink of self-destruction. Her journey through Katie, Bar the Door is the universal quest for healing and hope as she struggles to save herself and her dreams.

ADVANCE PRAISE

“The full circle of love, loss, and forgiveness left me with a great deal of hope and heart-swell.”—Kelly Fumiko Weiss, Windy City Reviews

“An admirable literary feat”—Jodi Daynard, The Midwife’s Revolt

“Tackles the cost of secrets and silence in this raw yet tender coming-of-age story”—Pat Wahler, I Am Mrs. Jesse James

“A gut-punching, white-knuckled labyrinthine tale of Katie’s tormented, guilt-ridden passions”—Nina Romano, The Girl Who Loved Cayo Bradley

“Manages to offer the reader both deep psychological insight and a page-turning narrative”—Barbara Monier, The Rocky Orchard


Radio Interview with Susan Wingate

To mark the book launch, I was interviewed toady on blog talk radio by the fabulous Susan Wingate. Click on the image to go to the interview.

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Review of Katie, Bar the Door by Windy City Reviews

I’m very pleased to share that my novel Katie, Bar the Door—which is coming out Wednesday, September 22—was just reviewed by Kelly Fumiko Weiss for Windy City Reviews. You can read the full review here.

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Author Interview

I was interviewed by author Pat Wahler today here. Check it out.

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Sunday Review: The Fourteenth of September by Rita Dragonette

According to family lore, one of my older brothers had the wrong date on his birth certificate. The nuns wrote down the next date instead and refused to believe my mother when she pointed it out. Whether that story is true or not, I have long been intrigued by the idea that someone’s chances of dying in Vietnam might have been determined by a clerical error.

I kept remembering that as I listened to this novel. It doesn’t deal with such a mistake, but it does examine how the draft lottery was an arbitrary gamble that the government played with people’s lives. The book focuses on Judy Talton, a college sophomore in 1969 whose mother pressured her into enlisting in the army in exchange for college tuition and a nursing degree. But after her first year in the program, Judy begins to have qualms about the Vietnam War, so she embarks on a careful plan to determine exactly what she believes. Since only one other student on campus knows about her military commitment, she decides to “go undercover” and join a group of freaks (AKA hippies) who oppose the war and are increasingly vocal about it.

Judy quest to resolve her crisis of conscience is complicated by conflicts among various student groups, an attraction to one of the freak leaders, a friendship with a young man who shares the same birth date as hers (causing her to identify with his anxiety over the lottery), a trip to Washington to participate in the largest protest the government had ever seen (at least until then), the mounting tensions over the pending first draft lottery, the explosive news of the Kent State shootings, and the constant fear that either the army or her new friends will discover the double life she is leading.

I enjoyed the book. I’m 8-10 years younger than that generation, so I wasn’t very aware of the explosive events of 1969 at the time, and it was enlightening to live it through Judy’s perspective. There were times I felt that I wanted more descriptions of setting; the book was inside Judy’s head a lot of the time, and I could have done with more concrete details.

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Love Song for a River

Photo: MrHarman, Wikimedia Commons

From the age of six until the time I went away to college, I lived about three blocks away from Cobb Park in Kankakee, Illinois—significant to me because Cobb Park is bordered by the curve of the Kankakee River. Children had more freedom in the 1960s than they do now, and from the time I was nine or ten, I was allowed to walk or ride my bike to the park on my own during summer vacation. Sometimes my little brother came with me. I remember spending unsupervised time on the bank of that river, which I came to love with an abiding affection that has never left me. My brother and I knew we should never wade in it, although we did creep close to the water or walk out onto the square concrete block that was all that remained of a long-vanished boat house. The photo above shows a view similar to the one that greeted me on those idyllic summer days.

The origin of the word Kankakee (pronounced KANG•kuh•kee) is Native American, although records differ as to the people who originated the name and its possible meaning. According to an early fur trader (1822), the original Pottawatomi name was Ti-yar-ack-naunk and meant “wonderful river.” However, a priest who visited the region in 1721 recorded the original name as The-a-ki-ki, which meant “wolf.” (Houde, M. J., & Klasey, J. Of the People: A Popular History of Kankakee County, pp. 2-3.)

Whatever its exact origin, I appropriated an approximation of the native name for the river in my novel Katie, Bar the Door, which is coming out on September 22, 2021. (It can be preordered here.) I dubbed my river the Theakia (pronounced Tay•AH•kee•uh) and didn’t bother to assign an original meaning.

My main character Katie lives in a small community consisting of about a dozen houses and a general store out in the countryside of fictional Bishop County, very loosely based on Kankakee County. The river doesn’t run past her home, but it is close enough that she can pass it when she goes out running, and like me, she loves it with a deep, instinctive love. Here is a description from her point of view:

Up ahead, a flock of starlings wheeled in a huge cloud against the white sky and then settled in a field. I lifted my braid from my neck. Sweat poured down my face, and I tasted salt on my lips. Already I was beginning to sense the almost mystical sense of rhythm that possessed me when I ran. Sometimes, I imagined my veins sucking up strength from this ancient prairie where I’d been born. I loved it here, even though the land was flat as a table.

Turning the corner, I passed a white farmhouse whose yard displayed a silver milk can surrounded by orange marigolds. Half a mile farther, I turned onto Eagle Island Road. On my left, a tangle of wild shrubbery followed the line of the Theakia River. In places, openings broke through the green wall. After running another mile, I halted by one of those clearings.

From here, I could see Eagle Island, a long sandy oval overrun with thin trees and dense undergrowth. On mornings when mist from the river curled up around the island, the view made my heart ache.

Often, people sat fishing here when I ran past. The spot where I stood was empty that day, but down near the water’s edge stood a table made from a large wooden spool and two rusty metal chairs with scalloped backs.

A breeze moved across my sweaty skin, and I pulled at the tank top plastered to my chest and then turned back.

Kankakee River: ©Shutterstock/Tolk83

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Sunday Review: You Belong Here Now

Set in Montana in 1925, You Belong Here Now by Dianna Rostad is a beautiful story of relationships that bring healing. The “you” in the title refers to three young people who are sent from New York City on one of the orphan trains transporting children out west to be taken in by families and set to work on farms. Each of the three has been battered by life: Charles, a strapping young man who learned to get by on the violent streets after his father died in WWI and his mother took to the bottle; Patrick, an Irish immigrant orphaned by the Spanish flu epidemic; and Opal, a tiny, mostly silent, little girl taken from an abusive mother. In town after town, these three are picked over and rejected until they’re the only ones left. On their way to the last town on the line, they take desperate action and jump off the train rather than be sent back to New York.

Fate leads them to the Stewarts, a ranch family that is in many ways as scarred as they are. Nara, the unmarried daughter in her 30s, is a capable ranch hand and wants nothing so much as to be Papa’s righthand helper and heir—but he refuses to accept that the family’s only son has left permanently for the life of an artist in New York. And Mama, caretaker of everyone else, still nurses a deep wound inflicted by the death of her oldest daughter as a small child. Although the Stewarts desperately need help around the place, Nara doesn’t trust the children because of rumors about crimes committed by other train riders. Mama takes Opal under her wing, but Nara works the boys hard so they will be too tired to get into mischief. But trouble finds them anyway in the form of prejudice by the community, Children’s Aid Society officials looking for the runaways, and dangerous ghosts from the children’s past lives.

Rostad delivers the setting masterly, evoking the language, scenery, and customs of rural Montana with a deft touch. The story is heartwarming without being saccharine. None of the difficulties are glossed over, and each character’s growth is hard won. I recommend this debut novel highly.

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