Sunday Books & Culture for April 28, 2024

This week’s reviews include unusual Victorian history in Deanna Raybourn’s “A Grave Robbery” and maps for the Tolkien superfan in Brian Sibley’s “The Maps of Middle Earth.”


by Deanna Raybourn

Published by Berkley (March 12, 2024)
Hardcover $28.00
Audiobook $17.72

Reviewed by Penny A Parrish  

I learned something new when I read this book. In the 18th century, artists created female wax cadavers known as “Anatomical Venuses.” The figures were often referred to as “Sleeping Beauties” with flowing hair, jewelry, and realistic looking skin. They also were created in layers, so medical students could take them apart to learn about female anatomy. The Venuses were eventually phased out and replaced with graphic medical textbooks and actual human cadavers. Some of the original Venuses still exist in museums today. I found a photo of one on the internet – very erotic and eerie.

In Raybourn’s newest adventure, a “Beauty” is the focus of an investigation by Veronica Speedwell and her partner (and now lover) Revelstoke Templeton-Vane (aka Stoker). Veronica is a lepidopterist (butterfly collector and scientist), and Stoker is a “natural historian” and taxidermist. Into their Victorian workplace comes an “Anatomical Venus” and when Stoker pokes around with his taxidermy tools, he finds that the wax has been added to an actual dead woman. In this, the ninth in a series, Veronica and Stoker are determined to find the identity of the woman, learn how she died, and give her a proper burial.  

This book stands alone, but readers will have more fun if they peruse the first book in the series (A Curious Beginning). The initial relationship between Veronica and Stoker was anything but friendly. She is an independent woman, who has traveled the world and has no shortage of opinions. Stoker is from a titled family but is the black sheep who spent time as a surgeon in the British Navy. He is gruff, unsociable, and furious when bested by this woman who challenges him at every turn. He is also handsome, and by this book, the two have taken their relationship way past the laboratory.

To find the identity of the “Beauty,” they enlist help from a Scotland Yard detective (who is in trouble with his boss), a female journalist who is desperate to beat out other reporters, a man who has inherited a funeral home but can’t stand the sight of bodies, and various circus performers. Be ready for the dead, the not so dead and even the undead.

Peril is always close at hand when Veronica and Stoker are on a case, and it’s here in spades (any book with a title like this will have someone literally digging in a graveyard). The plots are fun but it is the dialogue, the witticisms, and the banter between the two main characters that make these books so delightful.  

Penny A Parrish is a long-time book reviewer and artist. Learn more about her by visiting her page at Brush Strokes Gallery, which is in downtown Fredericksburg.


by Brian Sibley

Published by William Morrow (April 9, 2024)
Hardcover $27.49

By Drew Gallagher

I imagine that anyone reading the headline to this review will have one of two reactions to the thought of reading The Maps of Middle-Earth: The Essential Maps of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fantasy Realm from Númenor and Beleriand to Wilderland and Middle-earth.

Reaction 1: Tolkien was an absolute genius and doing a deep dive into the maps that he compiled while writing both The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings is how I’d love to spend my evenings this summer. Poring over the texts and then finding the locations of particularly memorable scenes on the maps that Tolkien would often refer to in compiling his “history” of Middle-Earth sounds delightful. I am in the presence of genius and want to spend as many leisure moments during my waking hours to better understand his writing and his exceptional mind.

Reaction 2: Similar to that of Oxford English professor Hugh Dyson who allegedly was listening (or asleep and woke up) as Tolkien was reading some of his work-in-progress Lord of The Rings to a group of friends and scholars, including C.S. Lewis, when Dyson exclaimed: “Oh no! Not another f***ing elf!”.

If your reaction was close to that of Dr. Dyson, you can probably move on to the next book review because The Maps of Middle-Earth is truly for the Tolkien enthusiast. That is not to minimize what this book has to offer. The reproductions of the four featured maps are truly works of art, and the book comes with four loose copies of the maps which are suitable for sticking on your wall to study or sticking on your dorm room wall as a warning to prospective boy or girlfriends that if the relationship works out beyond college then Frodo as a middle name of your first born is definitely in play.

Even if you’re not a Tolkien fan to the degree of insistence that your offspring need to be labeled accordingly, it is always fun to read books about Tolkien that reflect upon his creative process and have assorted quotes from the great master as this one does. He compiled the stories that became the Silmarillion over 60 years, and most of those stories were background in creating the history that he had already envisioned in The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings. Tolkien was obsessed with Middle-Earth and the storied history which he created.

There are four sections to this book, and each section is devoted to one of the corresponding maps listed as one of the Essential maps. The author, Brian Sibley, provides an introductory context for the map in the Tolkien tales and then, with illustrations by John Howe, the book portrays the maps including names and features contained on the map along with a guide to those names and features. By way of example from the Map of Wilderland:

“ELF-PATH, the way through MIRKWOOD taken by Bilbo and his companions. The path was narrow and wound in and out among the tree trunks and was crossed by the ENCHANTED RIVER. ‘Don’t stray off the track!’ warned Gandalf, ‘if you do, it is a thousand to one you will never find it again and never get out of MIRKWOOD…’”

Many books have gotten by with simply splashing J.R.R. Tolkien on the cover or in the title, but for fans of Tolkien and the magical world he created there is much to be enjoyed in The Maps of Middle-Earth.

 Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He is the second-most-prolific book reviewer and first video book reviewer in the 137-year history of the Free Lance-Star Newspaper. He aspires to be the second-most-prolific book reviewer in the history of FXBG Advance and is also a founding member of Dads for Puppies.