Here are books I couldn't finish reading or read but have not kept, either because they were poorly researched or poorly written or both. I could have called it The Scrap Heap but that would have been rude and there is enough rudeness out in Cyberspace as it is. I'm putting this on my website to remind me why I couldn't finish them as a number of these are in series and I don't want to make the mistake of buying any more. I no longer have most of these in my collection as I recycle them through Life Line or op shops.
Colton, Robert, Pompeii: a Tale of Murder in Ancient Rome. Saint Louis, Seventh Zone Press, 2012 ISBN 9781479189960
The two main characters are not sympathetic or even particularly interesting, especially the main one, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus Marcellus, who is immature (he might be 19 but people grew up fast in ancient times), easily distracted, a self-confessed coward and easily led around by his slave, Tay. Having a slacker hero would not be such a problem if the story was told with a scintilla of wit and humour but the style is plodding and laboured (made worse by a lot of typos and some grammatical errors). After all, John Maddox Roberts' detective, Decius Caecilius Metellus, at least in the earlier books, was a bit of a wastrel but he at least was amusing, effective and decisive.
Tay is at least efficient but more like a nanny at times and somewhat blinkered, a hindrance to such investigation as occurs, as his view is that it isn't their concern. I also found his treatment of Marcellus unconvincing. He, after all, is a slave and Marcellus could have him flogged, sold or put to death for his presumption. That he doesn't and that Tay so clearly has the upper hand does not aid one's acceptance of Marcelluus. It makes him look like a goose.
Equally tedious is the fact that Marcellus knows just about everyone around at the time (Tacitus, Suetonius, Nero, etc. etc.). While it is true the Roman aristocracy was a small world, something lacking in the writing just doesn't sell this, it comes across as contrived. It is also superfluous as it doesn't advance the plot.
The plot - ah, the plot, what there is of it is a mystery apparently a murder and an attack and mysterious journeys to Rome from Pompeii and back but it just never goes anywhere. In fact, the mystery disappears for chapters at a time in favour of a tiresome section dealing with Marcellus and his estranged father wherein his parent is always referred to as "the old man" in italics, a curious and meaningless affectation.
At around the halfway point, the story still had not progressed very far and the mystery had gone off the rails again, this time in an interlude in a brothel in Pompeii and I was finding reading the book like wading through molasses. Despite a well written and lively section describing an earthquake, I decided enough was enough. I had other books to read and felt no compulsion to keep going, there was nothing here to keep me hooked and draw me on. Mysteries need to have pace, style and be tightly written. This did not.
Somebody must like them as there are two others plus a collection of short stories:-
Pompeii: a Conspiracy Among Friends (2013)
Rome to Alexandria (2013) (short stories set before the first novel)
Pompeii: Hazard at Bay (2014)
Devenish, Luke, Den of Wolves. (Empress of Rome Book 1). Sydney, Bantam, 2008 ISBN 9781863256216
This starts off well with a genuinely eerie sequence in the cave of the haruspex. The style is clear and fluid, however, Devenish tends to dwell on the gross and scatological and this becomes more so as the novel progresses. Characters like Livia tend to do some peculiar things which don't seem all that likely and this gets worse as the novel goes on. He seems to want to wallow in the sordid side of life in Ancient Rome at the expense of character and plot. Some historicity is a bit suspect (the ubiquity of silk in 1st Century BC Rome, a common error, especially in the more sensational historical novels). Too improbable, I gave up at page 208 of a 588 page novel.
Followed by a sequel, Nest of Vipers (Empress of Rome Book 2) (2010)
Gibbins, David, Total War: Rome: Destroy Carthage. London, Macmillan, 20134 ISBN 9780230770966
This is based on a role-playing game and it reads like it: loads of info dumps usually unconvincingly delivered as speech or conversation by one or more characters (thus making a sort of manual for the game) and shallow, two-dimensional characters of no great interest. It starts off promisingly. The introduction discusses the author's research into the period (the Third Punic War) and his consultation with various bods (he himself is an archaeologist though I suspect not of this period). Oh good, someone who knows what he is talking about and certainly the opening chapter on the Battle of Pydna is convincing enough and well written. But then we go to Rome and are confronted with twelve - count 'em - Vestal Virgins and the curious idea that you could accidentally become one if you associate with them too much and since the young lady in question was 18 that made it even more unlikely. We are introduced to a sort of military academy which not only includes sons of senators but non-Romans including a Scythian princess, oh, and a daughter of the Julii who also attends and as an equal. Really? That's not how Roman matrons rolled - some of them certainly wielded considerable power but by influencing and/or advising their menfolk, not by attending a Roman Duntroon. Not that they ever had such institutions. And we get the Praetorian Guard again. *Sigh*. There is a lot of clumsy foreshadowing of events 100 to 150 years later (discussion about getting rid of the republic and setting up a dictatorship or an emperor, for example). I hoped that once it returned to the battlefield the novel would pick up again. There are not a few which are brilliant when in the camp or on the battlefield but rubbish once the story shifts to Rome. This didn't appear to be one of them as, after Pydna, we didn't seem to be getting any battles, just more tedious talk talk written in a flat style. Reviews on Amazon indicated that this was the case for the whole novel and even the ending, the destruction o Carthage, was dealt with an an off-hand manner. So I gave up about a third of the way through as the style and characterisation (never mind the inaccuracies and very dodgy Latin) did not entice me to continue.
Lee, Edward, Brides of the Impaler. New York, Leisure Books, 2008 ISBN 9780843958072
This is not well written. It reads like a teenage boy having a go at his first fan story with words used in the wrong sense and an obsession with "bosoms". Some examples: after being given the brush-off by a shop assistant, "Cristina felt stultified"; "Do you realise the price you paid for this property was invidious?"; "You are unmitigated, Mr Naschy"; "She looked back at a denigrated altar". There is also a relentless name-checking of well-known brands and consumer items. Characters are a mixed bunch. Cristina, the main one, isn't badly drawn and is quite interesting but her boyfriend swings sharply between unsympathetic lawyer-type, then is sympathetic toward her before turning back into the materialist, power-hungry lawyer cliché. Her best friend and her boyfriend are shadowy. Oddly, I found the vampiric nun rather appealing in away.
The prologue dealing with a professor's archaeological expedition to Snagov, Romania in the 1970s is almost unreadable. Not only is the Vlad stuff hopelessly garbled (impalements and the implements thereof within the church precinct) but so is some peripheral ancient history. Looking for 400 BC Roman artefacts in Snagov, he'd be better off looking for Vlad's body there.
In some ways, it isn't actually a vampire story as there is very little blood-sucking (though quite a bit of modern-day impalement). Yes, this is one of those novels which has Vlad as a vampire with no reference to Count Dracula and Stoker. Except that Vlad has been sealed up since 1476 so doesn't actually appear, though does influence those of his cult.
On the plus sided, at least it isn't chick-lit or feature angsty teenage vampires. These vampires are unregenerate monsters,
Ludlow, Jack, The Pillars of Rome (Republic 1). London, Allison & Busby, 2008 ISBN 9780749080198
This is a type of novel most often met with among historical novels set in Japan, that is, it is set in a sort of analogue of a particularly period where the events roughly follow those of that period but which feature completely original characters who may or may not have a passing resemblance to actual historical characters (who don't appear). Examples include the Shike series and James Clavell's Shogun. It is a sub-genre I have never seen the point of, no matter how well written.
This would appear to be set in a version of the 2nd Century BC since Macedonia has just been conquered and Hannibal is in the recent past. It concerns a prophecy involving the two most prominent Romans of their day, one a successful general, Aulus Cornelius, and the other, a conservative, clever politician, Lucius Falerius. Both of these have children whose fathers are barbarians. In Aulus's case, his beloved wife was abducted by a charismatic Celtic chief in Spain. This child was exposed but was found by a peasant and raised by him. Falerius's son is the result of his wife's affair with a slave. He raises him as his own giving him the very best education.
The book, the first of a trilogy, is just under 500 pages of very small type. The second book is not much less. It is well enough, but none of the characters, except Cornelius, is really very sympathetic or interesting and he is killed at the end. Marcellus, Falerius's son, does have potential but I was rather left wondering what the point of all this was. Why not write about the very real and colourful characters who inhabited that era: Titus Quinctius Flaminius, Marcus Porcius Cato, Aemilius Paullus, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (the elder) or Scipio Africanus? 500 plus pages per volumes seems a tad self-indulgent though the style is readable (the author specialises in 18th century naval stories).
Because it is set in this nebulous quasi-historical period, one can overlook things like praetorian guard for a general, the grain dole and silk but not the dodgy Latin (hastari for hastati, principi for principes, ass for as, Tarpien Rock for Tarpeian Rock and "every sesterces" - which is ungrammatical).
The other two novels in the trilogy are: The Sword of Revenge (2008) and The Gods of War (2009)
Stack, John, Ship of Rome (Masters of the Sea I). London, HarperCollins, 2009 ISBN 9780007285242
I was put off right at the start with a description of slaves rowing a Roman ship (pure Hollywood, the rowers were free, it was the Venetians who used slaves in their galleys many centuries later), compounded by calling Roman soldiers "legionnaires". However, he has the pre-Marian legion correct with triarii and hastati and chain mail though anything else seems to reflect a later era. References to the loricata armour, permanent camps in Sicily and to Ostia are anachronistic. Other anachronisms abound such as praetorian guards (in black, no less, a common cliché of certain historical novels as if they were some sort of proto-SS), generals described as legates, the use of the term 'contubernium' as if the legion was divided into centuries and not the maniples of this period. Rome is too wealthy for this period as all that gold came in after the conquest of the Mediterranean and the Senate sounds more like it did in the late republic. Stack also has the weird idea that the junior consul of one year would be the senior consul the next year. "Scipio"'s idea of extending the term of a consul beyond one year is also extremely anachronistic. Scipio is accompanied to the Senate by armed guards (Praetorians, forsooth - where were his lictors? The Servian wall was built after the Brennus's sack of Rome. When I came to a section which said the tablinum was the master bedroom, I chucked the book into the nearest wall. Aaargh!
The characters are shallow and need more development. The villains are a bit obvious. Women are mere ciphers.
This is a shame as this period (the First Punic War) is not much treated in historical novels. It would have been interesting to read of Rome's rise and the development of its navy in the face of the Carthaginian war.
The other novels in the trilogy are: Captain of Rome (2010) and Master of Rome (2011)
Stoker, Dacre and Ian Holt, Dracula the Un-dead. London, HarperCollins, 2009. ISBN 978000731034X
The writing style is flat and pedestrian with simple, short sentences and little characterisation. Like Lee's Brides of the Impaler, it reads like it was written by a teenage boy having a stab at fan fiction.
If it is billed as the "official sequel", why throw out or reinterpret so differently the events of Bram Stoker's original novel? In fact it reads as if neither author has bothered to read that novel. There are historical howlers, one of the most egregious is Sarah Bernhardt who is described as an English actress! Seriously?! Elizabeth Bathory is the Big Bad and Dracula a good (or at least, not as bad) vampire trying to stop her. Mina is in love with Dracula and Quincey Harker their child. Clichés, much? Been done better many times before from Marvel comics to the Coppola film.
One gets the impression neither Holt nor Stoker (Dacre) like the novel (if they did read it). They seem to seek to undermine and destroy the heroics of Harker, Mina, Van Helsing and Seward without putting anything in their place. Harker seems clichéd and even more of a twit than his son.
It could have been an interesting novel (if a rather bleak one) on how Dracula's influence (the fact he existed and the stress of pursuing him) had a long lasting effect on them as individuals and on their interrelationships if it had some halfway decent writers.
The depiction of Bram Stoker (yes, he appears in this supposed sequel, thus demonstrating they have left no trope unturned) is insulting and incredible, given that his descendant is supposedly one of the authors. And it has Stoker running the Lyceum in 1912! Just about one of the worst Dracula novels I have ever read.
Updated August 2014