More Claudia — digitized!

Publishers really do listen to readers — because books 2, 3 and 4 of the Claudia mystery series have been digitized!

I’d described Marilyn Todd’s Claudia series in an earlier post. The books, set in early Rome, feature Claudia Seferius, on paper the widow of a wine merchant from the upper class. She has a business to run (and no idea how to manage that task), questionable friends from all strata of society, an annoying nobleman-investigator who’s constantly “interfering” in her life, and a teensy, tiny little gambling problem. Oh, and a tendency to fall, trip or run headlong into murders.

The series was published mostly only in Europe, and it can be difficult to find the books at a reasonable price, particularly the first 9 which were only published in paperback. However, last year I discovered the first book, “I, Claudia,” had been issued in a digital format. I’d only sent off a request for a Kindle version to the publisher every week for the last year! Untreed Reads is bringing the books out in e-pub, Kindle and Nook formats, at last!

Book 2, Virgin Territory, followed a couple of weeks later.

Spoilers below for some elements of the individual books in the series, although I’m only offering brief plot summaries.

Claudia, disconcerted to realize she’s actually expected to run her husband’s wine business, jumps at the opportunity to get out of town and away from her oh-so-onerous business responsibilities. She agrees to accompany a Vestal Virgin back to her family after the completion of thirty-years’ service to the goddess Hestia. After starting the journey, Claudia realizes there’s a little problem — she saw all the Vestals earlier in the season at a major holiday, and the woman she’s traveling with was not one of them. Oh, and she’s fairly certain the fake-priestess is not completely sane. Matters only get more confusing when they reach their destination and Claudia’s companion is recognized, and welcomed, as the daughter they’d sent off to the temple. If she wasn’t serving as a Vestal, just where has the woman been for thirty years? And why are people connected to her childhood suddenly dying? As second books go, it was solidly entertaining, and interesting in that you got a look at elements of Roman society that were not based in Rome itself. I found the twist at the end about the woman’s identity to be a bit unbelievable at first, but realized after a second reading that my assumptions as to the plot’s believability were based on how modern society works — not how a rural farming community without any means of rapid communication would have functioned.

Book 3, Man Eater, followed hard on the heels of Virgin Territory. Claudia just can’t win. She ran away from her business and straight into murder in the second book. Now she races to handle a problem at her business — and runs straight into a murder again. This time we travel to the northern countryside, where Claudia is ambushed and ends up convalescing at a training facility supplying animals to those Roman games on which Claudia just loves to wager. The characters, the facility — even some of the sub-plots, they all reminded me of old black-and-white mystery movies, where everyone had dark secrets and any one of the characters could have been the murderer, but in the end, the resolution of the mystery was so apparent that you could not believe you hadn’t figured it out earlier. Overall, well-plotted, lots of action, and another glimpse into a Roman world we’d rarely seen before Gladiator.

And now I’ve bought Book 4, Wolf Whistle, where Claudia has to confront memories of her real earlier life when her good deed of rescuing a street urchin rewards her with a serial murderer, thugs running a slavery ring, and the ever-more-persistently determined-to-save-her-from-herself Marcus Orbilio. By this point, if I were Claudia, I’d have sold the wine business and emigrated to the furthest country outside Roman’s empire. I plan to read this treat this weekend.

Overall, the books thus far have lived up to my memory of them — good plots; interesting characterizations; a heroine (if Claudia lets you call her that!) who’s funny, abrasive, determined, arrogant and desperate to ignore her impulses toward caring for others; and glimpses of everyday Roman life, not just the historic events we see in blockbuster movies.

Now I’m off to harangue the publisher to bring the rest of the series out. I can’t wait to get to books 6-9 which I never got to read!

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I, Claudia — digitized!

I’m doing a happy dance here, because, finally, finally, the first of the Claudia Seferius mysteries is available as an e-book. Now they just have to digitize the rest of the series!

Have you read any of Marilyn Todd‘s Claudia mysteries? If not, run to your computer, download the first book — I, Claudia — and prepare for a great read.

The novels are set in the Rome of Augustus, and the plots center around Claudia, the noble wife of wine merchant Gaius Seferius. The secondary lead is usually Marcus Orbilio, a patrician who has chosen to work as an investigator for the Imperial Security Police, on his way to a Senate seat and to falling for Claudia. Doesn’t sound exciting? Oh, read on.

Spoilers ahead for the major storyline of I, Claudia so read no further if you don’t want your enjoyment of the first book to be spoiled:

Our heroine, Claudia Seferius, is, on the surface, a proper Roman matron. Prior to the novel, she lost her first husband, a judge, and her three children to a plague which also sickened her. When she recovered, she traveled to Rome in an attempt to escape her grief, and now is married to Gaius Seferius, a rich wine merchant in the equestrian class — what we would probably call the upper middle class.

She is quite a bit younger than Gaius; it’s a second marriage for him as well. However, Claudia is doing her best to live up to her marital and social obligations. She plans parties and entertainments to further her husband’s business. She steps into her role as stepmother to Gaius’ nervous daughter and prepares her for an upcoming arranged marriage. Okay, so she does some of these things very, very grudgingly, and maybe she has a little gambling problem but really, her life as a rich noble matron of Rome should be good.

Except she’s not a noblewoman. Claudia came from so far on the wrong side of the Roman road that you can’t even see it from the top of the Coliseum — unless you’re a Roman man who’s interested in the naughtier side of life. You see, the original Claudia died of the same plague that killed the rest of her family. Our Claudia, who started her professional life as a ‘dancer’ in the provinces, took the identity of the dying Claudia and came to Rome to make her fortune.

Claudia is determined to end up with a son in the Senate. It just takes one million sesterces. Which would possibly be achievable – if she didn’t have that little gambling problem.

Who am I kidding — it would be more accurate to say that Claudia has a major, life-ravaging gambling problem. If there’s something to bet on, she’s betting on it. And in Rome, there’s always something going on which involves a betting pool. Normal Romans track the year by major religious holidays. Claudia tracks the year by the games, races and entertainments associated with those holidays and the other celebrations of Rome’s upper-crust.

As the book starts, Claudia has ended up in debt to a thoroughly unpleasant moneylender, and to recover, she’s slipped back into her earlier profession – you could call her an upper-level prostitute-dominatrix who specializes in indulging the peccadillos of Rome’s elite. It’s a fine line balancing between her gambling losses and her naughty income stream – and then someone begins killing off seemingly unconnected upper-class Romans. Only Claudia sees the connection – all of the victims are her customers.

Enter Marcus Orbilio, who’s been assigned to track down the killer. Marcus is a shrewd person – and he quickly determines that these men are connected in some way with Claudia. (The fact that she travels in a litter with a very distinctive orange canopy doesn’t help to hide her whereabouts.)

Needless to say, Claudia solves the murders, with Marcus hard on her heels. But there’s more to solving the murders than just protecting her new identity. And that’s where Claudia really begins to develop into a person you can root for – the moment she discovers she has, all gods help her, developed a conscience.

On first acquaintance, Claudia strikes you as an abrasive, self-absorbed character interested only in her own future, someone who can’t really be bothered with other people’s problems. She’s sarcastic, impatient, and tends to verbally abuse and threaten when she’s unhappy or feels in danger. And let’s face it, she’s probably committed every crime in the book and then some during her life. Claudia, shall we say, does not hesitate to take any actions necessary to protect herself and further her goals.

But while she is all of that, mixed in is the fact that, while she might not want to admit it, Claudia does care about other people. And she will protect and avenge those people that belong to her, or that she identifies with in some way – and preferably in a way that furthers her goals.

For example, in this first book, Gaius ends up dead. Allegedly, he committed suicide because he was the one murdering men who were infatuated with or interested in his wife. In reality, he was murdered for an reason unrelated to the serial murders (not going to give you more than that!). Humiliatingly, while she plans a magnificent funeral for him, no one attends, by order of the Senate. So Claudia digs into his death, and makes certain that her husband’s killer is satisfactorily dealt with by Claudia herself. And then, she solves the series of murders in such a way to both remove Orbilio from her surroundings (she thinks!) and clear her husband (and herself).

In later books, Claudia travels widely throughout the Roman world. She escorts a Vestal Virgin home after her thirty-year term of service, vacations at an exclusive resort that experiences some unfortunate circumstances, and visits/is lured to Gaul and other provinces while running her wine business. In each book, she extracts a rough form of justice for crimes against her and her ‘people’. I sometimes found myself rooting for her form of judgment, especially in circumstances where Roman justice bowed to those in a position of power and money and ignored those who were poor and unimportant.

The books are incredibly detailed – from the furnishings of the houses to the clothes worn by different strata of society to the everyday life in Augustinian Rome. You really can form a picture in your mind of what the settings were like, and how it would feel to wend your way through the crowded noisy streets filled with all kinds of people and activities. The characters in each book are never cookie-cutter, always interesting, and frequently contain multiple hidden layers underneath the polite veneer they exhibit to society.

There are a few drawbacks – for example, sometimes the language includes what seems to be more modern slang, and on occasion, unless you’re paying attention, the minor characters in some of the books can become confusing, especially when their names are similar or only mentioned once or twice. However, Todd does get past this by having Claudia, or another character, reference them along with some identifying detail, and then they snap back into focus.

Overall, though, I absolutely loved this series – I read books 1-5 (the list is below) when I found them at a now-defunct mystery-specialty bookstore in Bryn Mawr. And I was able to find the latter four books in my local library. I’ve yet to read the middle books, because, unfortunately, the books themselves tend to sell for high prices, depending on the websites.

I really don’t understand why Steven Saylor’s Roman novels were such a hit, and Claudia didn’t catch on. I would say it’s the heroine, but frankly I find Saylor’s main character much more annoying and unlikeable. Marilyn Todd has a second series of books now, the Ilona mysteries, dealing with a priestess in a temple in Greece. Unfortunately, they just don’t hold the charm for me that Claudia does.

Ah well, each to his or her own tastes.

As I said, read these books. I’ve already downloaded I, Claudia, and I’m now going to visit Amazon and harangue the publisher to please, please, please digitize the rest of the series.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping to find the books, somewhere, at a reasonable price (early books were paperback only, later books hardback only). This is a series I’ll want in both digital and paper format.

The Claudia Seferius Mysteries

I, Claudia
Virgin Territory
Man Eater
Jail Bait
Black Salamander
Wolf Whistle
Dream Boat
Dark Horse
Second Act
Widow’s Pique
Stone Cold
Sour Grapes
Scorpion Rising

Monstrous Thursdays

I love TCM’s Monstrous Thursdays. Tonight’s features are just what I needed after this crazy week, although one still has to be digitized!

I just finished watching the original Godzilla. The Americanized version, with Raymond Burr, not the Japanese classic of Gojira. I’ve seen this movie so very many times (I’m a bit of a Godzilla fanatic) — and in fact, I can (and did tonight) recite the dialogue by heart for most of the scenes. As usual, when watching the film, I found myself contrasting the American version with the Japanese original and speculating what the lost scenes, cut from the Japanese film, might have looked like and what they might have added to the story. Or would they have have slowed down the pacing, and ruined the film? Since the cuts have never been found, we’ll probably never know.

The second feature has just started — The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I positively love this film. Yes, the opening is a bit hokey. Yes, as the commentator pointed out, I, you, and the audiences of the 1950’s all know that the monster is nothing more than a man in a good rubber suit. And yet, it’s a truly scary movie — a combination of clever lighting, eerie music and an almost-Hitchcockian suspense in the timing of the creature’s attacks.

The water of the lagoon always seems to be murky, yet the innocent swimmers weave their way through the fronds of seaweed. They swim along, and nothing happens, They go back in the water and nothing happens. And then, suddenly, with no warning, the creature strikes.

Reminds me of scenes from Jaws, and makes me wonder if the creators of Jaws were inspired by Creature?

Later tonight, we get the third movie — It Came From Beneath the Sea. A giant octopus attacks San Francisco. A Ray Harryhausen monster — an octopus with only six arms, well, six that can move, thanks to the limitations the budget imposed on Mr. Harryhausen. And you get a bit of comedy in the movie as well, watching a woman scientist shoot down her interested suitor because he’s interfering with her ability to do Science!

Perfect movies to watch on a stormy night and relax from the week’s stresses! All three being shown on TCM are available digitally, too, and ultimately I’ll add them to my collection. However, the Japanese Gojira is not digitally released — and that one should, and must be, digitized!

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. novels

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. novels and short stories need to be digitized.  Someone, please, put them into an e-pub or mobi format, make them formally available on Kindle/Nook, pdf them as a last resort.

Because they’re simply too much fun to languish in obscurity. 

And they should do it now, as, once again, there are plans afoot to make a movie about this wonderful show.

I discovered The Man From U.N.C.L.E. years ago, when someone had me watch a few episodes he had on tape, and immediately I was smitten.  It had a unique format for its time — an American (Napoleon Solo, played by Robert Vaughn) and a Russian (Illya Kuryakin, played by David McCallum), at the height of the Cold War, working together in a multi-national agency (the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) to protect the world from harm.  Ian Fleming, the creator of “Bond, James Bond,” was involved in crafting the show’s premise, which was originally to center around Solo — although that had to be altered when David McCallum’s character attracted the attention of fans.

I understand that UNCLE was the inspiration for my beloved SHIELD (of Marvel comics fame), which is itself soon to be a TV show in its own right.   

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. only ran for four years in the mid-1960’s, spinning off a short-lived sister show, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.  After being unavailable for years, the episodes finally were released on DVD and then digitally.  I promptly bought the DVDs, and as part of my decluttering, I’m slowly adding the digital versions on my iTunes account.  Although some people dislike the latter part of the second season and the third season for being more campy and outlandish, the show overall is one that is always fun to watch, feature interesting characters (including the ‘innocent of the week’) and a number of well-known actor guest-stars.  Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner appeared in the same episode — two years before they created sci-fi history in Star Trek.

It’s one of those shows where every episode has something in it that I like.  The action, the plot (no matter how outrageous) or simply the snarky commentary by Kuryakin and Solo.  Literally, there isn’t an episode that I don’t enjoy.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had a number of merchandise tie-ins — games, toys, action figures (I hope to someday see one of those!), comics (I actually have found some, courtesy of my local comics store, and will, I vow, have them all!), and above all, novels and a monthly magazine that featured original stories about Solo and Kuryakin.

And it is those stories I want to be able to read in a digital format.

Altogether, there were 23 tie-in novels (well, 24 really, but more on that in a bit), and a number of short stories published over 2 years in the monthly magazine.  There were also a couple of books published for The Girl, a standalone called ‘the ABCs of Espionage’, etc.   And with one exception, none of them are available in a digital format.

And that’s a shame, because if you liked the series, you really do need to read the books.  As a rule, they generally followed the format of the show (even down to having the requisite ‘innocent’ character to be placed in danger, and calling each book ‘The (insert name) Affair’, just as almost every episode was named an ‘affair’).  The books were more explicit than the show in how they depicted the violence of a ‘spy’s life’), and in my opinion, you really do have to read them to have the full ‘UNCLE’ experience.

My personal favorite is book number 6,  The Vampire AffairAn UNCLE agent is found dead in a forest in Transylvania, drained of blood.  Napoleon and Illya are dispatched to investigate and along the way meet the descendant of Dracula.  The ending is a killer — in that they may actually have been dealing with a real vampire!

Over the years, through used bookstores and yard-sales, I’ve managed to get most of the 23 published books.  I’m still hunting for 19, 20, 22 and 23, as well as the books from The Girl.  I can always pick them up off Amazon, although the books I’m searching for can be rather expensive, as there seem to have been fewer of them published.  There was a 24th novel planned, but the series was cancelled and so it never made it into formal publication.  At some point, it ended up published as a pdf file online, and I’ve since managed to snag that file.  I’ve even come up with a few of the magazines.

But, as carefully as you care for these books, they are 50+ years old.  And while my copies still are tightly-bound in their bindings, the pages are discoloring, and eventually, they’re going to begin crumbling.

And so I need them in a digital format, where I can indulge in reading them without worrying that a fragile page is going to rip.  While we’re at it, someone needs to gather the short stories/novellas published in the magazines in one place as well.

Especially since, it seems, we may sometime in the next few years actually get a movie version of the show.  There’ve been a number of attempts to get one filmed, but they always seem to fall through.  But given the recent popularity of films based off classic TV shows, it might be time for Napoleon and Illya to make their triumphant return, either as a remake in 1960’s style, or an updated version of the show.

Just as long as they pull the books and stories into digital print along with them.

Bambi’s Children

Bambi’s children are named Geno and Gurri.  Geno is his son, Gurri his daughter.

I know this rather obscure fact because I spent the morning reading a beloved book from my childhood — Bambi’s Children, The Story of a Forest Family.  Yes, Felix Salten wrote a sequel to his famous book Bambi.  I had read it, over and over, when I was young, but then I moved, and I was never able to find another library with a copy that could be checked out and read.  Until last week, that is.  I was picking up two of Albert Payson Terhune’s Sunnybank books from the historical collection of my library system.  The librarian and I began discussing classic children’s books from the turn of the last century, and out of nowhere, she asked if I’d ever read Bambi (the real Bambi, not the shortened version that accompanied the Disney movie) and its sequel.  Wait, the library had a circulating copy of Bambi’s Children?  When she answered yes, I promptly requested it.

 

Bambi book

A much-loved, much-read book

 

I grew up in a small ‘patch town’ in northeasterm Pennsylvania.  My friends lived in other patch towns, and while we would meet often, we simply couldn’t spend every day together.  My parents, like my friends’ parents, both worked — even then, in those small towns, you needed two incomes in order to maintain a household.  Our parents simply couldn’t drive us, every day, to each others’ homes for what we’d call ‘playdates’ today.  Bus service between the towns was sporadic, and not always available at a convenient time for a child to go home.  And so, to pass the time, I dove into reading.

I devoured books.  Our library, while small, had a ever-expanding and varied children’s collection.   Although my mother worked evenings, every other Saturday we would run errands, and at some point, we’d end up at the library.  My mother, who loved to read as much as I did, would browse through the latest histories and historical novels (she was partial to the American Revolution, the Civil War and the kings and queens of Europe), and I would search through the shelves for new books on my favorites topics — mysteries, fantasies, historical stories and most importantly, animal tales.

Horses and dogs.  Dogs and horses.  While I diligently read my way through Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, Tom Swift and tales from ancient Greece and Rome and Egypt, I kept coming back to the animal tales.  Sunnybank collies and Jim Kjelgaard’s Irish Setters.  The Black Stallion and his rival, the Island Stallion.  Kazan and Baree, wild dogs of the far North.  Marguerite Henry’s ponies and trotters and the King of the Wind.  I read them all, repeatedly.  Then one day, the libarian (and oh, I wish I could remember her name!) asked me if I’d read Bambi.  I explained that I’d seen the movie, and had the Disney books, and the coloring books.  Ah, she replied, but had I read the sequel?

There was a sequel?

And so I met Geno and Gurri, while renewing my acquaintance with Faline and Bambi, the great King of the Forest.  I followed the fawns as they grew up, facing threats from both nature and man.  I poured over the illustrations, because all of these books — Bambi and the Black Stallion and Big Red — contained lovely black and white (pen and ink?) drawings, or multi-color plates, that were interspersed throughout the book.

 

Bambi drawing

Bambi, Faline and Geno searching for Gurri

 

And I wondered whether our deer had conversations like the deer in Salten’s books.  My house was built on the edge of a forest.  In the autumn and winter, whitetail deer would wander into our backyard to eat the fallen apples from our trees.  I would sit in the window and watch the herd throughout the evening, giving names to the more distinctive animals.  I can still see Blaze in my mind — the deer had a streak of white running down its side.  Natural coloring, or a scar, I wonder today.

Second obscure fact — Bambi and his family are not whitetail deer, as portrayed in the Disney movie.  They are roe deer, native to Europe.  Similar to whitetails, but from what I understand, roe deer are smaller, alter color through the seasons and have virtually invisible tails.  However, they, like their American cousins, are rapidly increasing in numbers, especially in Britain.

I’ve read hundreds of books to my friend’s children over the years, and yet very few of these modern ‘classics’ compare to the simple beauty of books like Bambi and Bambi’s Children.  These books were not simplistic — Geno and Gurri lost friends to both man and beast, experienced hardships, learned difficult lessons about ‘adulthood’ — but somehow, they seem more entertaining than so many of the books available today.

Bambi’s Children was just as enchanting as I remembered it, and I’ve decided that, while I’m winnowing down my books in favor of digital editions, I have to find a good hardback copy to add to my collection.  Certain books are meant to be held and treasured.

Of course, I also want a digital copy, so I can read it whenever I want.  A digital copy that includes the wonderful drawings.  Digitize this book, please!  Bambi is already available, its sequel should be as well.

Coming home this evening, I passed two herds of deer, standing in the fields, watching alertly as my car drove by them.  The second group had 17 deer that I could see (I stopped and counted, while they studied me warily, prepared to run if I moved toward them).  The first herd had at least twice that number.

Geno and Gurri called their humans “Brown He” and other similar descriptive names.  I wonder what my deer would call me, if I could hear their thoughts?

 

Santa TCM grants half a wish . . .

A month or so ago, I requested that The Glass Key and several other movies, long unavailable on DVD, be released digitally.  TCM has given me half my wish — and released them on DVD this week.

The Glass Key, Dashiell Hammett’s commentary on election corruption, which starred Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, is part of a 3-movie compilation released by TCM.   Dark Crimes gives us The Glass Key, another Ladd-Lake film noir, The Blue Dahlia, and Phantom Lady, a wonderful old classic about a man accused of murdering his wife, whose alibi witness cannot be found as he does not know her name.  Filled with  twists and turns, it’s a movie I’ve not seen for close to a decade, and one which I cannot wait to watch again!  However, I can’t help wondering why TCM didn’t include the third Ladd-Lake film, This Gun for Hire, instead of Lady.

I still want TCM to partner with iTunes/Amazon and release these movies digitually, or go off on their own and provide an MP4-type service so those of us who love classic Hollywood films can have them on our laptops.   But I am extremely grateful to TCM for finally releasing them on DVD.   Now if some of my other (obscure) favorites would receive the same treatment!