Monday, February 13, 2012

Jane Finnis

Jane Finnis's Aurelia Marcella novels tell of life and death in first-century Roman Britain, the turbulent province of Britannia, on the very edge of the Roman Empire. The series includes Get Out or Die, A Bitter Chill, Buried Too Deep, and Danger in the Wind.

Recently I asked her what she was reading.  Her reply:
I'm reading a lot of Roman-era books at present. I've been hooked on the Roman Empire ever since, as a teenager, I first read Robert Graves' wonderful books, I, Claudius and Claudius the God. That's why I set my own mysteries in Roman Britain. But I don't feel comfortable reading fiction with a Roman background while I'm working on my own stuff. However I'm between books just now, so it's catch-up time, and it's great.

I usually read two books at once. Confusing? No, because they are in different formats: one in print, one in braille. Having had bad eyesight all my life. I've used braille since my schooldays, (including I, Claudius,) and I still enjoy reading it. Quite the best place to relax with a braille novel is in bed, with myself and book tucked underneath the covers, comfortable and warm however cold the night. The only problem is - as with all night-time bookworms - I often become so absorbed that I keep turning the pages well after I should be asleep.

That certainly happened recently with Imperium by Robert Harris. It recounts the life of the Roman statesman and orator Cicero, as told by his secretary Tiro. (Tiro, incidentally invented the world's first workable shorthand system, so he could take down his boss's extremely long speeches verbatim.) I'd always pictured Cicero as a worthy but rather pompous politician, but thanks to this sympathetic and believable portrait, I found myself rooting for him as he struggles to climb the political ladder to the consulship. He's despised by the snobbish aristocracy and hated by ruthless political rivals…but he makes it. Some of his tricks to win elections have a very modern feel to them: memorising hundreds of voters' names, and showing off his small daughter in public.

My current paperback read is Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls by Ruth Downie, (the US title is Medicus.) It's set in 2nd-century Roman Britain, with Ruso, an army doctor, as sleuth. He's a likeable, kindly, funny character, and a good doctor - the insights into Roman medicine are fascinating. He's plagued by shortage of cash, as he must support his impoverished family, and above all driven mad by the petty rules and regulations of the hospital administrator. I wonder whether Downie or her family have worked in present-day hospitals, because the mind-numbing bureaucracy of Roman army life rings loud bells today. Aside from getting to know Ruso and his feisty slave Tilla, (and detecting the start of a romantic interest here,) I'm drawn into Downie's picture of a Roman fort, and the contrasting world outside it where the native Britons live and work...and disappear. Oh yes, there's an intriguing mystery here, and I haven't a clue yet what the solution will be.

I'll be starting work on my next book soon, but I'll make time for more catching up before I do.
Visit the official Jane Finnis website.

The Page 69 Test: Buried Too Deep.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Jane Finnis & Copper and Rosie.

The Page 69 Test: Danger in the Wind.

--Marshal Zeringue