The Roman Quests – Return to Rome

Who’d have thought, that time about 15 years ago, when I discovered the [first] three Roman Mysteries in The Book People’s catalogue (yes, sorry about that) and felt they’d be perfect for my young reader of crime, who also happened to love school subjects such as the Romans, the Egyptians, and so on, that there would be another 27 books from Caroline Lawrence (so far), or that my young crime-reader would meet her (after all, she was an American…), or anything else?

I certainly didn’t think.

But here we are, with the – surely – last of her Roman adventures, Return to Rome. I was glad to see my second generation Roman adventurers back home, and in the company of some of the older characters. I like things tied up, and I would say Caroline has tied pretty well, and I think she’d find it hard to untie and continue. It is very satisfying when you know what happens to all your beloved characters.

Caroline Lawrence, Return to Rome

And yes, this is a spoiler, but you didn’t think Caroline would kill everyone off, did you? What we get is more history, learning more about Roman times, both in Britain and on the continent, while seeing how our young friends act in the face of adversity, and how they discover who they are and what they want in life.

While Roman Britain was interesting – and I especially enjoyed seeing Caudex in his natural habitat – I’m sure we all agree that we like Rome, and Ostia. And luckily, not all emperors are bad. Even Domitian had some good points.

So, our ‘old’ Roman friends did what adults do, and our younger Roman heroes are growing up, falling in love. Personally I’m relieved that Miriam’s twins were found. But they will always be a reminder that Caroline does kill when she needs to.

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Bra Böckers Lexikon

Is life too easy these days? Well, obviously not. Not if you consider all of it.

But looking things up? You have all these search engines that will tell you more than you need to know, far too quickly. That’s good, isn’t it? I have just spent a rather short while learning a lot about US army ranks, Jackie Onassis and Antony Armstrong-Jones. And all that goes with it.

When I have time to reflect, I often wonder how I found certain things out, decades ago. I mean, I can remember needing to know something, and eventually doing so, but how did I know where to look?

The automatic response for many years, if you were a Swede, which I was, still am, would be Bra Böckers Lexikon. This encyclopaedia could be found in ‘every’ Swedish home, no doubt often in a Billy, or an Ivar. We ‘all’ belonged to this mail order book club, where every other time (three times a year) you received the latest instalment of the encyclopaedia, and the other three times, you ‘just got books.’ It couldn’t be more frequent, because they were actually making things up, sorry, putting the volumes together, as we subscribed and couldn’t work any faster.

So I remember how pleased I was over a browsing discovery of all the military ranks I could want. I’d had no idea you could look this kind of thing up. Whereas this week, when Purple Hearts made me want to check it out again, I knew where I could find the information within seconds.

After watching another episode of The Crown, we wanted to look up Jackie Onassis, and that too was done in the blink of an eye, and a few more blinks for all the family news, so to speak. Similarly for the Earl of Snowdon from the episode before.

Bra Böckers Lexikon

But was it better before? You got the satisfaction of hunting for information. You had to use your little grey cells to work out where to look.

I was a child who would sit down to read encyclopaedias, and atlases, and telephone directories. You can’t quite read the internet in the same way.

What women do

Two things cheered me up this week, and kept me going.

Putting the finishing touches to the translated Maria Turtschaninoff interview, I was reminded again of how much Maria’s strong female characters meant to me. Because if truth be told, I am often put off – otherwise excellent – books when there are too many toxic relationships between girls. I know that often the whole point is that we read about their troubles, to discover how they overcome, or not, the trials of getting on with each other.

It is so much better if they can cooperate from the start. As Maria said, they don’t have to be best friends or like each other. Just not do bad things towards another female ‘because it’s what girls do.’

And reading Michael Grant’s Purple Hearts, taking courage from how his soldier girls have grown in their soldier’s boots, executing ‘male’ tasks as well as the men, and sometimes better, not putting up with their stupid comments and prejudice. Yes, I’m looking at you, Private ‘Sweetheart,’ but you learned your lesson, didn’t you?

So maybe Rio’s best friend Jenou enlisted in the belief that she could be an army typist somewhere safe, flirting with soldiers, while doing her bit for the war. But she did just as well – better, really – marching in the heat or in the cold, hiding in holes, cold and wet and hungry, with lice everywhere you could mention, and in some other places too.

All those trailblazing female soldiers made me cry with pride. And they too could cooperate, whether or not they liked the other soldier.

Rio Richlin

I suspect that neither Maria nor Michael could have imagined the current state of relations between the sexes when they wrote their books, even though it wasn’t all that long ago. Things have moved fast, and not in the right direction.

We need more writers like this. I mean, we need writers to write about this. I ought not to suggest that authors might not share these opinions. As for me, I’ll probably continue to shun any books with plots that seem a bit too catty, or misogynistic.

Purple Hearts

And then I cried.

I was sad to get to the end of Michael Grant’s Front Lines trilogy, because now there is no more to read. But I was glad the war was finally over. Not everyone survived, because that’s the thing with wars; people don’t.

Michael Grant, Purple Hearts

Purple Hearts, along with Front Lines and Silver Stars, will count among the best I’ve read. It’d be easy to dismiss this fast paced WWII trilogy as pure entertainment, but it is so much more. For a start, what makes it stand out is the use of women soldiers, alongside the men.

Michael makes a stand for equality, for men and women, for black and white, for ‘real’ Americans and for those others who fought by their side.

The Front Lines books teach us history. There was much I didn’t know. It’s given us rounded and interesting characters – I even grew fond of Private Sweetheart in the end – and it tells us how stupid, and evil, people have always been, and will continue to be, but that there is good in so many of us.

You have to care. And in order for us to care about those who had to die, Michael shows us, however briefly, what they are like. This way we mourn their deaths. Otherwise it’d be like it ended up being for those worn out GIs, who didn’t learn the names of new soldiers, on the grounds that they wouldn’t last long.

Starting in June 1944 we first fight on Omaha Beach. It didn’t take me long to realise Michael was making a detour via Oradour for one of our heroes. Mercifully it was quick (I have read a whole book about it), as was Malmedy (which I didn’t know about). And the concentration camps… Brief is almost better, with one major atrocity after another, the reader is with the GIs as the European continent is – slowly and painfully – conquered.

My guess as to which of the main characters was ‘writing’ all this down was correct. My hope for some of the more romantic elements worked out. We need hope.

I could go on. Purple Hearts is an inspiring read.

We could have done with women like these a long time ago.

And I [almost] blubbed over one name. Diane. It’s continuity like that which makes a story.

(The cover image is the American one. I prefer it, and as I read this as an ebook, there was no cover to call mine.)

The quick Vaseem

The Reading Agency’s Quick Reads are extremely good value, and when they invite some of the best authors to write for them, it’s a win-win. Even if you happily read normal length novels, these short story length little books are a bargain at £1. And if you find reading hard, look no further, as here is a grown-up story, with large print and not too many pages. It’s just right.

When I discovered that one of the 2018 books was an Inspector Chopra story, by Vaseem Khan, I just had to read it. I can’t get enough of Ganesha, the baby elephant who helps his master solve crimes, and Inspector Chopra & the Million Dollar Motor Car is merely a shorter book, offering as much enjoyment as the full length ones.

It’s a locked room kind of mystery, with a very expensive car vanishing from a garage, just as it was about to be delivered to its rich new owner.

And for anyone who’s not yet met Chopra and Ganesha, there is enough of an introduction to understand who is who in this Mumbai based crime series.

If there is a problem with the Quick Reads, it is that we could use many more of them. Just imagine how much good could, and would, come of having lots and lots of high quality, easy reads for adults. Six titles is fine, but if we could make that every month, at least?

2018 Quick Reads

The late interview – Maria Turtschaninoff

If I employed me to work on Bookwitch, I’d have to give myself the sack for slacking and being late.

But here, at very long last, is my interview with Maria Turtschaninoff, in English. The Swedes – and the Finns – got her ages ago. Well, like two months ago. Right in time for Finland’s national day. The only thing special about today, is that it’s the day before tomorrow.

Maria Turtschaninoff

All those ghastly women

Now, I obviously don’t mean that. But it doesn’t mean that certain people don’t think along those lines.

Not having read anything by David Walliams, I am no expert. But it appears he’s not keen on women. If they get a mention in his books, it’s the horror version of the female of the species.

This is so wrong. No one should write children’s books if they can’t get rid of their unwanted women in a more elegant way. And if the author can’t do it, perhaps an enlightened editor could suggest a less crude way of describing, and even removing, any surplus females?

I accept that mothers, even grandmothers, and maybe the odd sister, could get in the way of the character[s] in some stories. They could be killed without being described as grotesque. The [child] character could be distanced from its females in some other way. This has always been done.

There’s an author I’ve read at least a couple of books by, and the reason it didn’t end up being more, was I didn’t care for the unpleasant way he dealt with the women. I just hadn’t realised that DW now does something similar.

And of course, Roald Dahl, hero to so many, had a way with women too. I remember reading and re-reading the bit where the plan is to poison the grandmother in George’s Marvellous Medicine, simply because I couldn’t believe you were allowed to put something like that in a children’s book. But I suppose if the book’s old enough, and ‘classic’ enough, you can be [c]rude to women.

That way the future is secure. There will be more writers who believe that this is quite an OK thing to do.