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Mystery Monday Review – The Shape of Water

January 30th, 2023

 

The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This is the first mystery that stars the series hero Commissario Salvo Montalbano. Set in Sicily in the early 1990s, the story opens with two garbage collectors discovering a body near The Pasture, a den of dope dealers, dope takers and prostitutes. The corpse in the BMW is local big shot Silvio Luparello, partly clothed but no apparent signs of suspicious death.

Indeed the local bigwigs seem relieved that Luparello’s autopsy shows that he died of natural causes. They want him below ground as soon as possible. Montalbano is not satisfied because he assumes that appearances are always deceptive. He even comes around to thinking that surviving big shots want the silence over the death to resound, make people mutter about cover-ups, and thus bring Luparello’s political faction into disrepute.

Camilleri didn’t write puzzles so the mystery is not the main draw here. Amazing are the smooth connections between the interviews Montalbano conducts with his superiors and subordinates and persons of interest. The interviews run the gamut, from locker-room smutty to comical to profound (such as the deep explanation of the title).

Montalbano is a brilliant creation. He’s a street-wise man of integrity who takes brave stances against supervisors, bishops, judges, mobsters, managers, land-owners, bureaucrats and all the other syndicates that want to keep The Little Guy down. But he’s also cranky and short-tempered when he’s hungry. Camilleri also includes pointed social critiques, drawing a straight line between the story and the centuries-long history of misgovernment, corruption, and exploitation in Sicily.

Highly recommended. It’s amazing that from the very first novel in the series of 28 Montalbano novels, Camilleri determined what he wanted to do in the books and he did it successfully time after time. That he wrote all these books after the age of 69 should give us of a certain age heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fantasy Review – The Blue Sword

January 27th, 2023

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)

Let’s go back to the 1980s for a lovely fantasy from Robin McKinley – THE BLUE SWORD. I don’t remember if it was marketed as YA at the time but it’s on the Newbury Honor Roll. No fairies or elves in this one, but it has lots of other elements of classic high fantasy along with a nice bit of romance.

Angharad Crewe (she prefers Harry) is a young woman whose father has just passed away, leaving her in the care of her older brother Richard. He’s a military officer, posted at a remote desert town in Damar. If you think of the British rule in India you’ll have the scene in mind.  Harry has been invited to stay in the house of the commanding officer, with his wife and two daughters.

Harry is a dutiful young lady but isn’t all that into the normal girlish activities. But she’s grateful to have a place to go, and settles into the rather tedious life in this small community – not without a bit of restlessness, but she’s not going to complain.  And she likes the desert; it calls to her somehow.

There are other people in the desert too, the Hillfolk, who are rumored to have a bit of magic, easily laughed off by the military men. When Corlath, the King of the Hillfolk, asks for a meeting, they’re all stunned but readily agree. It so happens that Harry and her companions, hoping to at least see the mysterious folk, run into Corlath as he’s leaving in a fury. Harry is shaken by something, something in his eyes…

Corlath asked for  help from the military against a threat growing from the North. What help they might be, he wasn’t sure, because the enemy has magic, but he knows his own forces are not going to be a match for them. The Homelanders refuse; it’s not their business plus a war between the two other forces will only strengthen their own position. Corlath can’t explain that the inimical magic of the Northerns will destroy all. But as they ride out he sees Harry. Corlath has the Sight, sometimes, and the Sight tells him Harry is important. This is not pleasing to Corlath, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Harry wakes up from a drugged sleep to find herself kidnapped, traveling with Corlath’s band toward his town. The men have accepted that she’s important in some way and are kind, and slowly it becomes apparent that Harry does have a contribution to make.  Her training, and how she becomes the new wielder of Gonturan, the legendary Blue Sword, make up the bulk of the novel.

Harry is your classic orphan who comes into surprising powers. She’s perfectly delineated and extremely relatable. Corlath too is an excellent character – his reluctance to use her at all, then his reluctance to put her in harm’s way was a good progression.  McKinley gives real depth to all the characters including the minor ones. Even Narknon the cat and Sungold the horse are distinct personalities.  Excellent world-building too. The enemy is a mysteriously evil force with a malevolent leader, and the battle scenes are vivid.

An aside – after it’s all over, you might notice that conversation between Harry and Corlath becomes couched in strangely formal language.  That happened in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, too, so I wonder if that was a deliberate choice by McKinley.

THE BLUE SWORD is such a good book and plus it’s stand-alone, not as common these days. I also highly recommend McKinley’s second in the same world, THE HERO AND THE CROWN, which tells the story of Aerin, the first wielder of Gonturan.  You can read them in either order, and you should, because they are classics.

 

 

 

Thriller Review – Midnight in Europe

January 26th, 2023

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

This 2014 espionage thriller is set in Europe between the wars. A refugee from the Spanish Civil War, Cristián Ferrar works as a lawyer for a prestigious law firm with clients in Paris, New York, and as far east as Budapest. The firm sympathizes with the Spanish Republic against Franco’s Nationalists. Cristián is approached by the Spanish Embassy to procure arms on behalf of the embattled Republic, whose ostensible ally, Stalin’s USSR, is not providing replacement parts and ammunition.

Unlike lots of heroes in spy thrillers, Cristián is not a combat infantry veteran or old hand in a tough-guy job like a walking boss of lumberjacks or manager of a heroin factory. He’s just a quick-witted professional who does his duty when his government, his country, asks him to do his part. Furst has faith that ordinary people will step up to the plate when the going gets rough.

Cristián soon finds himself in various European cities with arms merchant Max de Lyon, who’s been there and done that when it comes to gun-running. Furst convincingly portrays Berlin in 1938 as a place smothered by secret police. We readers are also convinced by the settings of the tough shipyards of Gdansk and low-class sporting houses in Istanbul.

The novel is divided up into episodes in which Cristián and Max have to call on all their smarts and resourcefulness. The best set-piece is the last, in which Max’s confederates in Odessa manage to use Stalin’s system of terror against itself and pull off an audacious heist. The climax involves getting the maguffin back to Valencia on a tramp steamer.

While there is not much shooting and stuff blowing up real good, it’s gripping thriller material.

 

 

Non-Fiction Review – Travel Back in the Day to 1972

January 25th, 2023

Travel Back in the Day to 1972 by David and Lauren Benson

Review by jjares

The information, especially the photos, takes the reader back down memory lane to 1972. There’s a little for everyone, from world events to fashion trends, music, and beyond. A loaf of bread cost 27 cents, while a gallon of gas was 36 cents. The average home cost was $27,600, and the average price of a car was $3,879. The minimum wage was $1.60/hour, while the average income was $11,116/year.

Of the 1.7 million couples in the US who tied the knot in this year, many couples shared their first dance to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” or “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers.  Also, three million three hundred thousand babies were born in 1972. Favorite male names were Michael and Christopher. Jennifer and Michelle were the hot female names for babies.

The information on vacations blew me away. Disney World opened in October 1971, and 400,000 visitors enjoyed the Magic Kingdom by the following year. Tickets were $3.75, and rides were extra. However, a family of four could ride and eat for $10 per person. Today, that cost is $100 per person. Another way to travel that became popular at this time was the RV (recreational vehicle). Winnebago and Airstream were popular brands.

Integration was a new phenomenon in education, along with English as a Second Language and classes for the disabled. In 1972, the high school graduation rate was 75% (today, it is around 86%). In 1973, 1.5 million students were in college. Today, the enrollment is about 19 million.

Many pages (and photos) are about the college protests against the Vietnam War, the hippie movement, and the emerging interest in drugs. Then, of course, Nixon and the Watergate Scandal are mentioned. On a more positive note, the moon landings were highlighted. The Olympics occurred in 1972. Finally, the tragedy of the Black September group killing Israeli Olympic team members is mentioned, along with comparing gold, silver, and bronze medal winners in the most successful countries.

I remember the Hewlett-Packard pocket scientific calculator. We bought one of the first available in 1972, I remember it cost an astronomical price of $135.You can find one that does more (than the 1972 scientific model) for about $20. The same year, Polaroid released the SX-70 model. It developed a photo in less than 10 minutes.

The 1970s brought color and new fabrics to the fashion world. Polyester was developed by NASA and hit the clothing market hard. The phrase “groovy psychedelic” describes the clothes of this era, complete with bell-bottom trousers, high-waisted pants, going braless, and oversized glasses.

The top television shows for 1972 were “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Sons.” The biggest movie was “The Godfather.” Roberta Flack had the biggest tune of the year, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Roberta and her music were introduced to moviegoers in “Play Misty for Me.” The photo of David Bowie in the Ziggy Stardust Tour is mind-bending.

This book is pure nostalgia. Readers can spend a couple of hours reminiscing about their old toys (now worth a mint), clothes, and pastimes. There is something for everyone. Enjoy. Overall score = G+.

 

 

Fantasy Review – A Symphony of Echoes

January 20th, 2023

A Symphony of Echoes by Jodi Taylor

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)

 

A SYMPHONY OF ECHOES by Jodi Taylor is the second in The Chronicles of St. Mary’s, the institute of time-traveling historians. (To read my review of the first book, Just One Damned Thing After Another, click here.)

It’s best for a new reader to start at the beginning; Taylor provides some backstory but there’s so much that happened in book 1 that’s germane to this episode. We begin in Jack the Ripper’s London, where Max and her best friend are having a pleasurable jaunt to check out the last of The Ripper’s victims. Yeah, doesn’t sound like a great time to me either, but those historians are made of stern stuff. They barely make it back without incident…or do they? Bwa-ha-ha! (that’s a sinister laugh, sorry).  But that’s just a warm-up.  The big villains of the last book – Ronan and the evil Barclay – are still out there.

It’s a breakneck pace all through the book, with people zipping back and forth through time. It turns out they can jump into the future too; Max and Leon have to go forward to save a future St. Mary’s

Speaking of Max and Leon, I have to say I didn’t care for the big blow-up scene between them.  Romantic partners leaping to conclusions without talking to each other makes me sigh. On the other hand, if it weren’t common authors wouldn’t use it so much. Max’s immediate revenge was very funny.

Anyway, the big adventure of this story is from the end of the last book, to wit, the “undiscovered” play by Shakespeare that has Mary Queen of Scots becoming queen of England instead of Elizabeth 1. Someone has monkeyed around with history, and History did not drop a rock on them for doing it, so obviously the team has to go back in time and fix things.  I loved the depiction of the trip, Max’s conversations with Queen Mary, and her anguish/anger at how she fixed the problem.

Did I mention catching dodoes as a team-building exercise? Another grin-worthy chapter.

Do not attempt to apply a lot of logic to the time-travel paradoxes. Probably best if you don’t attempt to apply it to the book’s internal rules, either, because just like Star Trek’s Prime Directive, they are only there so our heroes can break them. Sometimes that sort of thing irritates me in a book, but here I feel that it’s all tongue-in-cheek and don’t mind it much.  While it’s fun, there’s a lot of darkness here too; not everyone lives (again) and not everyone is who they claim to be. People do die in awful ways.  But all in all, this is highly entertaining. I don’t know how long Taylor can keep my attention, because already I can see outlines of plot formulas, but I’ve got number 3 on my list.

 

 

 

SciFi Review – Places in the Darkness

January 17th, 2023

PLACES IN THE DARKNESS by Chris Brookmyre

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)

 

Looking for a gritty mystery set in a space station?  Got it –  PLACES IN THE DARKNESS by Chris Brookmyre.

Space station Ciudad de Cielo – City in the Sky – is engaged in humanity’s quest for the stars. Here it is that the spaceships are being tested and will eventually be built to carry us to new worlds. In the meantime, it is a home for 100,000 people, embodying a society that is supposed to reflect the very best that people can become. Everyone is working for its noble ideals.

Yeah, you didn’t really believe that either. People are people, and wherever we are, there’s going to be noble ideals, sure, but there will also be veniality and corruption. In CdC, there’s bootlegging, prostitution, graft and more. What there isn’t is outright murder. Sure, a few “accidents” happen now and again, which are covered up quickly by the Seguridad. You can’t let that stuff get back to Earth, after all, they might send their own security forces to crack down. Nope, all is well, nothing to see here.

Nikki “Fix” Freeman is an officer in the Seguridad and also one of the most corrupt out there. She runs a protection racket and drinks herself to oblivion almost every night. Everyone knows Nikki. Most of them are afraid of her.  Alice Blake is an idealistic bureaucrat newly sent from Earth as a deputy with the Federal National Governments – she’s a big deal charged with oversight of the Seguridad. She believes in the noble aspirations of the station, that there isn’t any corruption and if there is, she can root it out.

Just as Alice arrives on station, a horribly mutilated corpse is discovered in a cargo bay. This is so bad it cannot be hidden.  There are no homicide investigators on CdC…except Nikki.  Nikki is appalled to be chosen. Nothing about this can be good for her. But there’s not much choice.  And Alice is appalled at just how crooked Nikki is. Then more bodies start to pile up. Is this the work of a deranged killer? Or does it have an even more sinister motive?

Brookmyre gives the reader clues right in the beginning where he’s going with it.  His pacing is very good, with Nikki lurching along from disaster to disaster until everything she knows starts to look suspect, what she remembers might not be real, and what she doesn’t remember might kill her.  We can be sure that Alice is going to have surprises of her own and Brookmyre doesn’t disappoint us there either.  We get two strong female characters who change over the course of the book. Excellent sense of place with descriptions of how the space station is put together and a little about how it’s run. The desriptions of the “lens” and the mesh implants give a sense of how people interact.  I would have liked a bit more about the normal day to day ops, but the novel is not about normality, so no matter.  The identity of the initial murderer was a fun surprise. I didn’t guess the ultimate villain but an alert reader might not have any problem there. I think the motive got a little too convoluted towards the end, but it wraps up nicely.

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – Peeper

January 16th, 2023

Peeper by Loren D. Estleman

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

 

In this 1989 parody of the late Eighties hard-boiled detective novel, main character Ralph Poteet is a drunken, thieving, conniving sleaze of a PI. He’s not a sociopath like the protagonist in a Jim Thompson novel but he can’t help but make the wrong choices that only make the situation worse for himself and others. Through a combination of bad luck and sheer stupidity, he finds himself suspected of murder and arson.

The language is often pretty foul. The jokes are guy-oriented, which means the reader might feel coarse and crass in still finding them funny in our more enlightened era of 2023. If readers take the goings-on too seriously, they may feel sad, especially if they remember Detroit bleeding population and businesses in the Eighties.

But readers of a certain age will enjoy the references to Eighties pop culture such as Brooke Shields, Popeil’s Veg-O-Matic, and what I suspect is a fictitious long-playing album called “Slim Whitman Yodels Songs of Faith.” Readers like me who know SE Michigan and feel a sentimental feeling anyway will like the nod to the Uniroyal tire on eastbound 94 in Allen Park (no giant Presto Whip cans in Dearborn on Telegraph because they were removed in 1983 – an unhappy day indeed).

I’ve been reading Estleman for about 30 years and enjoyed the PI Amos Walker books in the 1990s. This book is a successful attempt to parody his own character. But he still manages to develop an original character and surprising twists and turns of plot. Unlike most comic mysteries, it does not feel too long by the end. Its incidents are darkly humorous but overall the hard-boiled genre is mocked for its pretentions and cynicism, especially in terms of its portraying the world as more unfair, uncaring, and corrupt than it really is.