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Book 198-199: The Night Villa and The Book of Fires

Book 198: The Night Villa.
Author: Carol Goodman, 2009.
Genre: Romantic Suspense. Historical Mystery.
Other Details: Paperback. 420 pages.

After a devastating event, classics scholar Sophie Chase takes a research position in a project excavating the Villa della Notte - the Night Villa; once home to a slave girl whose lawsuit to gain her freedom had been the subject of Sophie's doctoral thesis. The villa had been covered by layers of volcanic ash following the eruption of Italy's Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Concealed in the villa's subterranean labyrinth rests a cache of ancient documents believed lost that is of great interest to Sophie and her fellow researchers but also has attracted the attention of a sinister cult that draws its inspiration from ancient traditions. Sophie's long-term boyfriend had joined the cult some years before and broken with her. Now they have resurfaced in a number of unsettling ways.

As with the other Goodman novels I have read the theme of pagan rites is central to the plot. She does an excellent job of setting the scene in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. Sophie finds herself in the typical position of the heroine of a romantic suspense novel of not knowing who she can trust. I had assumed from the back cover blurb that the novel would be set in two time periods but rather than this there are sections of ancient texts that the researchers translate and read out to one another. I enjoyed it very much, finding it an engaging read.

Book 199: The Book of Fires.
Author: Jane Borodale, 2009.
Genre: Historical Fiction. 18th Century England.
Other Details: Paperback. 406 pages.

It is 1752 and pregnant with an unwanted child 17-year old Agnes Trussel runs away from her home in rural Sussex. Before leaving she finds her elderly neighbour dead and steals her savings. Once in London Agnes finds herself overwhelmed by the city though soon comes across the household of John Blacklock, a firework maker. He hires her as his first female assistant and she learns to make fireworks eventually joining Blacklock in his quest to create more spectacular fireworks. As the months pass she struggles to keep her pregnancy a secret from Blacklock and the household. There is also the matter of the stolen coins, which weigh heavily on her conscience.

I found with a nagging feeling that I had read something very similar a few years ago. Checking my shelves at Goodreads I found this was The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark, which also was set in 18th century London and featured a pregnant runaway. However, I felt more empathy here with Agnes and her circumstances than I ever did with Monsters' Eliza and this was a more uplifting story.

The novel managed to surprise me as things happened that I didn't expect and vice versa. Some teasing on part of the novelist perhaps? I felt it was a sound historical novel in terms of its story, characterisation and setting. Something that would make an excellent BBC mini series. This was a reading group selection that won't be discussed with others until later this month as a special library event bumped our October meeting.
Tags: historical fiction, historical mysteries, pagan, romance, suspense
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