S.J.A. Turney's Books & More

Reviews, news and inside the world of books.

Posts Tagged ‘crime

Vita Brevis

leave a comment »

26073009

The seventh novel in Ruth Downie’s Ruso and Tilla series takes us from Roman Britain (the setting for the majority of the books) for our first glimpse of Hadrianic Rome. And what a glimpse it is.

If you follow my reviews at all, you’ll be well aware by now of my opinion of this series and Ruth Downie’s awesome talent for storytelling, so you’ll be unsurprised to know that this is one of my highest rated books.

Following a former commander from Britain, Ruso brings Tilla and their new baby to Rome, seeking the good old ‘streets paved with gold’, only to find out that they are, in fact, paved with charlatans, criminals, gawpers and cockroaches. Oh, and barrels with bodies sealed inside. Yes, Ruso’s getting himself involved once again, entirely through atrocious luck, with a mystery. He receives an offer he cannot refuse: a ready made medical practice with patients, including a rich patron, and accommodation, all just waiting for him. But entirely apart from the delivery of the body in a barrel, he starts to worry that something is wrong because the former doctor has vanished without trace. Cue once again a truly complex, labyrinthine plot. As Ruso and Tilla battle debt collectors, wicked morticians, medical con-men, angry patrons, credulous neighbours, Christians and so many more, Ruso finds his life spiralling once more out of control, his reputation hanging on  knife edge, Tilla trying to hold things together.

As with all Ruth’s plots, Vita Brevis is a masterpiece of subtlety and complexity intertwined. As with all her books, character, colour, detail, pace and humour are prime movers. The characters are so well constructed, and we’ve known that since book 1, but the fact is they have have 6 books to grow, and they are now old friends. Well, the main characters are. The supporting ones are new, obviously, but are instantly dislikeable. Oh, some are likeable, but the majority are unpleasant, oily, corrupt Roman city-folk. And colour? Well, you just won’t believe the colour of the Rome Ruth paints until you read it. Detail? Well there are very few writers I have read who have anything close to Downie’s knowledge of her era. She is skilled as an author but also knowledgeable as a historian and archaeologist. I always feel confident with her work that I am experiencing the closest thing to actually being there. Pace is easy. It is almost impossible to put down a Ruth Downie book. They drag you in and then pull you along until you blink in disbelief that you’re at the end. and finally, humour. Well, there is so little light-hearted or humorous material to be found in the genre, that to see the ongoing quirky humour of Ruso and Tilla is always a heartwarming thing.

Gods, but Vita Brevis (Life is Short) is the latest in the series. This is the first time I’ve finished a Ruso book without there being another one waiting to be read. Come on Ruth. Maybe we can somehow push the calendar forward a year? In short: buy this book. Read this book.

Written by SJAT

November 22, 2016 at 10:22 pm

Ruth Downie on the journey to Rome

with 4 comments

I am fortunate indeed today to play host to a guest post by the marvellous Ruth Downie as part of her Blog Tour, celebrating the release of her latest masterpiece ‘Vita Brevis’. As you may be aware, I’m currently reviewing the whole series of Ruth’s books, which will continue this week with Semper Fidelis, followed by Tabula Rasa and then the new book. But that can all wait for now while I let Ruth inform and entertain you in her own words. Over to you, Ruth…

9781620409589

 

Travelling to Rome – the long way

Medicus, the first book in the series that features legionary medic Ruso and his British partner Tilla, has this printed at the front:

O diva…

serves iturum Caesarem

in ultimos orbis Britannos.

Which roughly means,

Oh Goddess…

safeguard Caesar as he sets off

for the remotest regions of the Earth—Britain.

(Horace)

Most of the stories in the series are set in those “remotest regions:” the Wild West of the Roman empire.

“Are Ruso and Tilla going to Rome?” the editor would ask from time to time, and I would keep very quiet. Anything was better than admitting, “I don’t dare, because other writers do Rome so well.” Besides, there was plenty to write about here.

What drives the first half-dozen books is the tension between Roman and Briton, occupier and occupied—all the clashes, compromises and misunderstandings that ensue when foreign boots land on native soil. All, in some way, connected to the attempts of Ruso and Tilla to forge a life together.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We come in peace…

Even in times of relative peace, there was plenty of drama going on in Roman Britain without me having to make it up. The sale of people into the sex trade isn’t new – it’s something Hadrian tried to restrict. The use of religion to whip up violence goes back at least as far as the Druids.  The connection between power and greed comes out in a hundred subtle ways: the official traveller who bullies the innkeeper into giving him a horse he isn’t entitled to; the tax collector who demands that payments in wheat be delivered so far away that it’s impossible to avoid paying him exorbitant fees to transport them; the town councillor who tries to vote for a contract knowing one of his relatives will rake in the profit that follows. Then there’s the casual violence of soldier on civilian, and the use of false measures, loaded dice and fake coinage, some of which is on display in the British Museum.

Add in the splendid locations on offer—Chester, York, Verulamium, Hadrian’s Wall, Roman London and a brief trip to the South of France so Tilla could shock Ruso’s family—and there didn’t seem much reason to send anyone to Italy. Besides, how would the story work without the Roman-vs-Briton tension?  I’d already painted myself into enough of a corner by giving them a baby to look after.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ah, the family pile…

But… there are stories you can tell in cities that don’t work as well in a rural society. Stories about slum landlords with horrible agents (at last, revenge for that gruesome student flat!). Stories about arriving as an immigrant and an outsider. Stories about vast buildings that reach up to trap the sky. Stories about watching your fellow-countrymen offered up for auction in a slave market. In a city of a million people it’s quite possible that an abandoned body could remain anonymous, whereas in Britannia it’s hard not to believe that somebody would know somebody else who knew the dead person’s cousin. And then there’s Pliny’s assertion that doctors are “sharks using medical practice to prey on people” and that “only a doctor can kill a man with impunity.”

wp_20140804_054-2

There’s no shortage of material. So when Ruso’s former commanding officer invited him back to Rome at the end of book six, it felt as though it was time to take the plunge. Never mind what other writers had done. Rome was a massive city, and there would be plenty for Ruso and Tilla to get their teeth into in “Vita Brevis”. Provided, of course, they could find a babysitter.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ruth-downie-author-photo-may-2014-credit-steve-nuth

Ruth Downie is the author of the New York Times bestselling Medicus, as well as Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor, Semper Fidelis, and Tabula Rasa. She is married with two sons and lives in Devon.

Follow her at ruthdownie.com and on Twitter @ruthsdownie.

9781620409589

 

Vita BREVIS

A Gaius Ruso Mystery

By Ruth Downie

22nd September 2016
hardback – £16.99

Bringing both the majesty and depravity of ancient Rome to life, Ruth Downie concocts a delicious mix of crime novel, mystery, and history lesson in the latest novel in her bestselling Medicus series, VITA BREVIS.

 “Downie writes with her usual humor and depth . . . Perfect for fans of the Falco novels by Lindsey Davis, this entertaining New York Times best-selling series and its endearing characters deserve as long a run” —Booklist

“A deftly crafted and consistently compelling read from beginning to end, ‘Vita Brevis’ clearly establishes author Ruth Downie as a consummate and accomplished master of historical crime fiction” —Midwest Book Review

*****

Ruso and Tilla’s excitement at arriving in Rome with their baby daughter is soon dulled by their discovery that the grand facades of polished marble mask an underworld of corrupt landlords and vermin-infested tenements.

Ruso finds that his predecessor Doctor Kleitos has fled, leaving a dead man in a barrel on the doorstep with the warning, ‘Be careful who you trust’. Distracted, Ruso makes a grave mistake, causing him to question his own competence and integrity.

With Ruso’s reputation under threat, he and Tilla must protect their small family by tracking down the vanished doctor – and discovering the truth behind the man in the barrel.

VITA BREVIS is brimming with humor, clever plot twists, and evocative historical details, as Ruth Downie follows her beloved characters in their next adventure.

 *****

And check out the next stop on her blog tour: A Fantastical Librarian

vitabrevis_blogtourdocsmaller

Ruso – Books 1 & 2

with one comment

ruso1

I read the first two of Ruth Downie’s excellent Ruso books some time ago, and reviewed the first on Amazon in the days before this blog was largely dedicated to books. I’ve been, this week, reading other books that I’ll be releasing the reviews of shortly, but for my usual Thursday post, I thought it was time to up the reviews of these two from mere ‘I bought this product’ reviews to proper examinations.

Off we go then. Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (‘Medicus’ in the US) was, at the time, far from my common fare. I’m not a general consumer of whodunnits and police/medical procedurals, though I’ve read most of the Agatha Christies in my time. I came to read Ruso not through its whoddunit aspect, but through its connection to the Roman legions.

What I discovered was that the first Ruso novel is far from a tense, dry, fuddling story. It is more the story of the medicus, Ruso, the events that surround him, and the array of interesting and bizarre folk that serve alongside. The plot at times seemed almost incidental to the general interaction of character and the colour of the ancient Britain Ruth takes us through, though that detracted nothing from the book I must say. In fact, I found it enchanting. That the sheer vivacious colour of the book was so enthralling that the plot for me took second place is utterly impressive for a writer, especially on a debut. From the very beginning I was absorbed.

The whole tale is told with a constant, quirky humour that serves to make the whole situation and background more human. Indeed, it is the very humour that defines much of the protagonist’s character. I have, since I read this book, talked to many people who bemoan the overwhelming seriousness of historical fiction and it is surprising how often Ruso is cited as a shining gem of light heartedness in the genre.

And yet, despite the fact that I have, here concentrated on the subtle, clever humour throughout and the colour and depth of feeling of the novel, there is a solid plot here and, moreover, a huge wealth of knowledge. Ruth, I know, is an archaeologist and, having had the opportunity to speak to her a number of times, I am well aware of the impressive level of knowledge that has gone into this book.

Buy Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls/Medicus and read it. You will not regret it. It is a wonderful book. And so on to book 2…

RUSO AND THE DEMENTED DOCTOR/TERRA INCOGNITA

ruso2

Ruso book 2 moves us on in the story nicely. Now that we have been introduced to the characters of Ruso and Tilla (his former slave-cum-housekeeper), as well as a fascinating supporting cast, we are to be introduced more to the world of Roman Britain. For in book two we leave the comfortable familiarity of the Deva fortress and march north to the edge of the Roman world, to Coria (modern Corbridge near Hadrian’s Wall).

The change gives us not only the chance to explore more of Ruso’s Britannia, but also to explore more of Tilla’s history. For in the wild north, on the periphery of Roman control, live Tilla’s tribe. And as the intrepid medicus heads towards his destination, the tribes are stirring and an embodiment of their gods – a warrior with antlers who seems ethereal and unreal – so Tilla is about to find her loyalties tested, between her connection to her Roman employer and her estranged family.

And in Coria, awaiting Ruso is news of a murder victim, several obstructive officers, a barking mad unit doctor, rebels, liars, wastrels and so much more. This is more than just a trip to the north.

The feel of this story for me was quite different from the first. The same quirky humour was still there, but now that and the character colour had begun to take second place to the plot. The general feel was also darker and creepier, while maintaining the pace and intrigue. Certainly the book was a worthy successor and deserves praise of the highest order. Again, a masterwork of investigative thriller against a background of lighthearted yet realistic history.

Ruth Downie continues to impress. A review of book 3 will follow soon.

Written by SJAT

July 23, 2015 at 8:00 am

Staymaker by Andy Millen

leave a comment »

staymaker-cover

Staymaker is the first book by indie author Andy Millen, and is something of a departure for my reading pile for, while it is in the strictest sense a historical novel, it is much more ‘gangland’ than ‘blitzkrieg’.

The novel revolves around the smuggling rackets of the mid 18th century – a time when the government duty on good such as rum and tea and bans on export of wool along with compulsory sales systems were making the poor poorer. Thus rose groups, gangs and families who were by the letter of the law criminals, yet considered themselves ‘free traders’ and were often hailed as something of a dark hero by local residents and the folk they supplied at vastly improved rates.

And therein lies something of what drew me to it.

This is not a straight tale of bad guys and good guys. Every man in Staymaker is a shade of grey (though some are darker than others.) The tale and the action that unfolds within will evoke memories of old movies, series and books that you have probably forgotten. Moonfleet. Poldark. Jamaica Inn. Even Treasure Island and kidnapped. That certain era of history. And it really does evoke it. It is a well-written, well-characterised and well-plotted novel that brings us the story of a gang and its leaders who bear in many ways a resemblance to the Krays of the mid 60s in East London. Yes they were dangerous and even murderous men. But to the folk who lived around them, there was a certain respect (speaking as a man who has family who lived around them) for the levels of control they kept which prevented random crimes from afflicting the common folk.

I feel certain that you will experience the time and the location through the telling of the tale, and certain scenes are so nicely put together that they are almost cinematic.

The one negative point I must raise for a fair review is that the proofing of the book is a little lacking and would benefit from a solid edit (an issue that is a common hiccup with the indie writers and of which I myself have fallen afoul before now.) Typos, incorrect words occasionally and regular misplacings of speech marks were notable and for that I dropped the book from a 5 star to a 4 star rating. But I feel sure that with the next release that extra star will not be found wanting – as with other indie writers clearing up edits and rereleasing is a simple thing and I expect Millen will release a version 1.1 in the near future. And it is nothing but a hiccup in the scheme.

So that’s my thing. Buy Staymaker and read it for a thoroughly engrossing tale of the seedy underbelly of 18th century trade and familial wrenches through the gangs of the south east. You will, I’m sure, be transported back to an era of secretive signals and hidden trade.

Nice one, Andy. I look forward to seeing what next bleeds from your quill.

Written by SJAT

August 7, 2014 at 11:39 pm