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As a young man growing up in the dense Amazon Rainforest, this book was the only souvenir of my earlier childhood in England. I read this book every night before I went to bed on my matress of liana and shredded tree roots. It's not a particularly enthralling book, but for me it holds special sentimental value, as it was given to me by my great uncle, a good friend of Marilyn Todd's (the author). The story is set in Roman times and falls under the category of crime. It includes light humour in some places and is rife with double-entendres like, for example, one of the central characters, Gaius, who is ostentatios and camp and lives up to the implications of his name. Claudia, the main character is followed throughout the book, and it is her that most of the humour surrounds. It is possibly called sour grapes due to the fact that grapes were a crucial part of the Roman diet, and it is fairly ironic that they are sour
*** The Author ***
The author was born in Middlesex, later lived in West Sussex where she run a secretarial business from home, and now lives in France. She has no formal educational qualifications in the classics, but says that the origins of Greek mythology have always fascinated her.
She has written 13 books in her series of Ancient Roman murder mysteries. Sour Grapes is number 12 in the series. It didn't seem to matter that I hadn't read the previous ones first, although I believe that they do contain some of the same characters.
She is now writing books about a High Priestess in Ancient Greece.
*** Historical Setting ***
This is set in Tuscany during the reign of the Ancient Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. The Empire was at peace, with a whole generation now having lived without experiencing civil war.
Slave labour worked the fertile land, and slaves or convicted criminals mined for the mineral wealth. The good economic climate meant that extremely impressive building work could be done, and the citizens enjoyed the benefits of increased wealth.
Readers will also learn about the Etruscan way of life, as well as that of the Romans, as the two communities live side by side.
*** Writing Style ***
This story contains what I think is a weird mix of colloquial modern English in this ancient setting.
The author often uses this up-to-date writing style to add humour to the story. Some jokes I found a bit corny, but most made me laugh. Overall I liked the humour in the book, which was mostly generated by the main character Claudia. Examples of the humour are a man named "Gaius" (replace the I with a Y to learn more about him), and an inscription under a gorgon's head on the doors of the public ovens, putting a curse on "any nosey parkers who felt like peering inside and ruining the rising process."
The humour contained in most of the story, fades towards the end of the book, where many plot lines come to a conclusion and multiple mysteries are solved. Here many concentrated deductions over a few pages taxed my brain, and I would have preferred the strands of the plot to have been revealed more slowly to me.
The parts of the book I like least were when the reader is told how the different gods are reacting to the plot. I often found these too long and boring. Readers should skip these passages, if they feel the same as me, because I now know that they are not essential to the plot. Thankfully, the rest of the book is fast paced.
I grew to know and have sympathy for the main character Claudia. As for the other characters, perhaps if I had found them easier to understand, it may have helped me solve the mysteries prematurely.
*** Background to Plot ***
Claudia Serferius is a beautiful widow and wine merchant who often finds herself involved in doing amateur investigative work. Claudia wants to remain an independent woman, although the laws and customs of Ancient Rome are making it difficult. After two years of state allocated mourning time, she should remarry, but even if she doesn't, the marriage of another may affect her.
Her mother-in-law has also been widowed, and if she remarries, her husband will have legal rights over the single Claudia, as he will be the new male head of the family. No wonder she feels a need to find out more about mother-in-law's admirer.
Murders, and other crimes, which Claudia suspects may be connected, are plentiful, and most of the plot revolves around solving them, including separating superstition from fact. The violence is moderately described, so suitable for all but the very skirmish.
*** Recommendation ***
I am no expert in Ancient Roman history and there was nothing obviously wrong with the historical setting to me, but I suspect that this is not the best author for authenticity of the period. I could find no reference either in the book, or on the internet, to any research undertaken by the author, but I did find an admission on the web that she had no background in the classics.
Despite my criticisms, I did enjoy this book, especially the easy going writing style and the plays on words in the humour. Some readers may find these too corny though.
There is a better (larger) than average print size, and quality of the paper than I would normally expect from paperbacks.
I hope to read some more books in this series about Claudia Serferius soon.
Paperback: 249 pages
Publisher: Severn House Publishers Ltd (April 2006)
Visiting her stepmother at the family estate in Tuscany, Claudia is concerned at the gaggle of hangers-on surrounding the old lady. There's the sorceress Candace and the handsome horse trader Darius, both of whom seem to hold Larentia equally in their thrall. And, what of the series of recent local murders, and the mishaps - including soured wine - that have befallen a number of people? Amidst the mysteries of the local religion, could the god Fufluns be working some plan; or even Veive, the god of revenge? Or are there even more sinister forces at work?