A solidly grounded, atmospheric evocation of Nero’s Rome at a crossroads of faith and crisis.

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VESTAL VIRGIN

CHOSEN FOR ROME

A historical novel features a vestal virgin in ancient Rome encountering the new religion of Christianity.

This book from Basto, following Days to the Gallows (2016), opens in C.E. 60. Cornelia Cosa, the pampered 10-year-old daughter of a prosperous wine merchant, is chosen in a lottery to become a vestal virgin, a member of Rome’s most venerated and venerable female religious society, charged with preserving the morals of society. Vestals serve 30-year terms and are revered by all strata of Roman society. But being torn from her family is naturally a rude shock to Cornelia. In carefully researched and well-crafted prose, the author uses Cornelia as a viewpoint character through which to introduce her readers to the inner world of the vestal virgins (“I climbed the seven steps and entered my new home feeling as bald as a baby bird,” the young girl muses as she begins her journey). Readers meet her fellow sisters in the House of the Vestals and learn the lore and history of the order as Cornelia grows older and adapts to its rhythms. One day, a friend among the vestals takes Cornelia to the house of a man named Paul, leader of the fledgling Christian faith and gadfly to the Emperor Nero. Cornelia sees a “small, bandy-legged man with the balding head and tufts of red and gray hair sticking up on the sides.” Paul impresses her; his message about the ministry of Jesus thoroughly converts her friend and troubles Cornelia’s thoughts. As the years go by, Cornelia’s family experiences business reversals, and Nero deteriorates into a brutal tyrant. Basto does a very readable, confident job of playing all of this against the backdrop of personalities and intrigue inside the Temple of Vesta. Cornelia herself is a lovable, headstrong character who will make a deep impression on readers.

A solidly grounded, atmospheric evocation of Nero’s Rome at a crossroads of faith and crisis.

Pub Date: Dec. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-73339-007-1

Page Count: 372

Publisher: Self

Review Posted Online: June 3, 2020

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A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

THE MYSTERY OF MRS. CHRISTIE

In December 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie really did disappear for 11 days. Was it a hoax? Or did her husband resort to foul play?

When Agatha meets Archie on a dance floor in 1912, the obscure yet handsome pilot quickly sweeps her off her feet with his daring. Archie seems smitten with her. Defying her family’s expectations, Agatha consents to marry Archie rather than her intended, the reliable yet boring Reggie Lucy. Although the war keeps them apart, straining their early marriage, Agatha finds meaningful work as a nurse and dispensary assistant, jobs that teach her a lot about poisons, knowledge that helps shape her early short stories and novels. While Agatha’s career flourishes after the war, Archie suffers setback after setback. Determined to keep her man happy, Agatha finds herself cooking elaborate meals, squelching her natural affections for their daughter (after all, Archie must always feel like the most important person in her life), and downplaying her own troubles, including her grief over her mother's death. Nonetheless, Archie grows increasingly morose. In fact, he is away from home the day Agatha disappears. By the time Detective Chief Constable Kenward arrives, Agatha has already been missing for a day. After discovering—and burning—a mysterious letter from Agatha, Archie is less than eager to help the police. His reluctance and arrogance work against him, and soon the police, the newspapers, the Christies’ staff, and even his daughter’s classmates suspect him of harming his wife. Benedict concocts a worthy mystery of her own, as chapters alternate between Archie’s negotiation of the investigation and Agatha’s recounting of their relationship. She keeps the reader guessing: Which narrator is reliable? Who is the real villain?

A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

Pub Date: Dec. 29, 2020

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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A story with both comedy and heartbreak sure to please Backman fans.

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ANXIOUS PEOPLE

Eight people become unlikely friends during a hostage situation created by an inept bank robber.

In a town in Sweden, a desperate parent turns to bank robbery to help pay the rent. Unfortunately, the target turns out to be a cashless bank, which means that no robbery can take place. In an attempt to flee the police, the would-be perpetrator runs into a nearby apartment building and interrupts an open house, causing the would-be buyers to assume they're being held hostage. After the situation has ended with an absent bank robber and blood on the carpet, a father-and-son police pair work through maddening interviews with the witnesses: the ridiculous realtor; an older couple who renovates and sells apartments in an effort to stay busy; a bickering young couple expecting their first child; a well-off woman interested only in the view from the balcony of a significant bridge in her life; an elderly woman missing her husband as New Year’s Eve approaches; and, absurdly, an actor dressed as a rabbit hired to disrupt the showing and drive down the apartment price. Backman’s latest novel focuses on how a shared event can change the course of multiple people’s lives even in times of deep and ongoing anxiousness. The observer/narrator is winding and given to tangents and, in early moments, might distract a bit too much from the strongly drawn characters. But the story gains energy and sureness as it develops, resulting in moments of insight and connection between its numerous amiable characters.

A story with both comedy and heartbreak sure to please Backman fans.

Pub Date: Sept. 8, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6083-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2020

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