Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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Location: New York, United States

The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A beautiful tribute, sung by Susan Wehle

Monday, March 09, 2009

Book Review: The Blood of Caesar ****

The Blood of Caesar: A Second Case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger by Albert A. Bell, Jr. ****

An invitation to dine alone with the princeps (the historically accurate title used by emperors at this period) Domitian is not necessarily a good thing, and Pliny the Younger's friend Tacitus tells him that an astrologer has predicted that it will change their lives forever. As it turns out, Domitian has heard about Pliny's powers of observation and talent for detection, honed at the feet of his uncle, the naturalist and polymath Pliny the Elder, and has a job for him.

Pliny is shown an old letter from Nero's mother to her son taunting him with the fact that other descendants of Augustus, who could be his rivals for power, still live. Domitian, as a representative of a family with no relationship to the Julian-Claudian line whatsoever, is even more concerned, and asks Pliny to ferret out the truth of the matter.

This is the second book in what promises to be an enjoyable, well-written series featuring the historical figures of Pliny the Younger and the historian Tacitus. Pliny soon finds out that the dead man he was shown by Domitian as a test of his deductive abilities not only did not die by accident as he was told, but has a connection to the mystery, as well as to his own family. He also must deal with the domestic issues that come with being the relatively new master of a large household, as well as his mother's increasingly close relationship to two of their Jewish slaves and her apparent interest in their religion.

The central mystery in The Blood of Caesar is not a complicated one to unravel; rather, the enjoyment comes from the author's detailed picture of Roman life in the late first century and anticipation of how what seems like an impossible situation will be resolved. Since I've read about that time period, I'm somewhat familiar with the tortuous complexity of the Julian-Claudian family tree, so I'm not sure how clear it will be to those without such familiarity. There is a helpful glossary and timeline at the back, as well as numerous illustrations scattered throughout the book, but maybe a simplified family tree would also have come in handy.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Book Review: Bone by Bone *****

Bone by Bone by Carol O'Connell *****

Twenty years ago, at the age of 17, Oren Hobbs left his small California town after the disappearance of his younger brother Josh. Now he has been called home to find that his brother is also returning, one bone at a time being left on the porch of his family home. This is the situation at the beginning of Bone by Bone, Carol O'Connell's first novel after the (presumed) culmination of her incredible Kathy Mallory series, and the absence of Mallory has not hurt her writing one bit.

As in the Mallory series, the solution of the mystery is secondary to O'Connell's brilliant characterizations and her portrayal of the interlocking relationships and tensions that have turned this claustrophobic community into a pressure cooker ready to explode. Even the stock characters in this type of story, such as the family housekeeper, a tiny woman who can quell a grown man with a glance, and Oren's childhood crush, with whom he has never exchanged a word and who appears to harbor homicidal passions toward him rather than the usual kind, are unique and individual human beings.

As Josh's burial place is found and the investigation into his murder proceeds, Oren is drawn more and more deeply back into the secrets and haunted lives of the people in the town - the alcoholic socialite and birdwatcher who has chronicled the life of the town in her journal by portraying them as various types of birds, her controlling attorney husband, the crippled and scarred ex-policeman, and others. Josh was an inveterate shutterbug with a talent for capturing people's secrets with his camera. Could he have exposed one too many? Bone by Bone will keep you reading as it races towards the final confrontations and revelation of the various secrets that have poisoned the town for decades.