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Historical Spy Novel Review – The Spies of Warsaw

May 27th, 2020

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Pre-World War II Warsaw becomes an arena of intense international rivalry. In almost every embassy, friendly and hostile, an intelligence cell operates. Secret agents assigned to Warsaw create an extremely colorful society. Poles, French, Germans, Russians – everyone knows that in the war is coming and that you have to prepare for it or be destroyed. Everyone believes that by their intelligence activities they will save their country from being occupied or that they will ensure victory for the homeland.

Our hero Jean-François Mercier, the French military attaché, also knows that armed conflict is inevitable. At 46, he has already participated the Great War and the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1920. He has had a long and dedicated service, and he would like to leave for a well-deserved retirement, but a sense of responsibility for the fate of millions keeps him on post. He skillfully navigates in a narrow diplomatic world, but does not avoid a direct, even painful clash, with an opponent. His strength is certainly increased by the warm feeling of a beautiful French-Polish woman working for the League of Nations that he met at a boring official reception. Mercier discovers that first of all he is not so old, and secondly – that he is not only ready for retirement, he is ready to go to extremes.

The book details Mercier’s activities in episodes. He runs agents and even saves one from being kidnapped and forcibly repatriated to a certain death in Germany. He sneaks into Germany to observe tank exercises. On his travels, in hotels and restaurants, a foreboding comes over him, “What is going to happen to these people after war comes.” He meets ordinary people who are fighting the forces of evil – literally – because it is the right thing to do.

The settings all have evocative details of Silesia and the countryside of Poland (think rural New Jersey). Furst is also effective at getting across the mundane details of ordinary people doing their best in trying circumstances – something we in the pandemic can connect to, for sure. We readers need the romantic angle as a break from the suspenseful intrigue and tension of Nazi cruelty. We readers also know what the characters do not: Poland is doomed to Nazi occupation and will be the most damaged country staggering out of World War II.

 

 

 

Fantasy Review – The Empire’s Ghost

May 26th, 2020

The Empire's Ghost: A Novel

The Empire’s Ghost by Isabelle Steiger

Review by Mirah W (mwelday)

I don’t often read fantasy adventure novels, but I was looking for a new series and the synopsis for The Empire’s Ghost was unlike anything else I’ve read so I decided to give it a try and I am glad I did!

The Empire’s Ghost is an epic fantasy adventure that centers around various kingdoms seeking control over neighboring lands, but with magic and cunning rulers, who will have the upper hand and who will be victorious? As I read, I became partial to Prince Kelken, who is the underdog in this story, but who knows if I will still like him later in the series.

The imagery is quite exquisite throughout the novel and the locales seem to become characters themselves.  There are a lot of characters to remember, especially since characters are referred to by more than one name or title, but after sticking with the novel, they became clearer in my mind and I could picture each one in every scene. The characters slowly reveal more and more about themselves as the novel progresses to provide more depth and understanding to their choices and actions. Magic and the use of magic is a thread throughout the plot, but does not control or distract from the plot.  The ending is definitely not a conclusion but, rather, an opening to another book set in this epic world.

I am giving The Empire’s Ghost 4 out of 5 stars. My reasons for the 4 star rating are primarily the amount of time it took for me to get invested in the novel and the difficulty I had following some of the intricacies of the plot.  The second half of the book definitely seemed to come together more solidly than the first half.  The action was easier to follow and the characters easier to delineate. I think a multi-faceted novel like The Empire’s Ghost would have benefited from a map and character list/tree at the beginning to give the reader some perspective. For a debut novel, I think Steiger created an amazing story with memorable characters. If you are looking for a sweeping, epic fantasy to transport you to a different world, The Empire’s Ghost is the novel for you.

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom

May 4th, 2020

The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Mysteries in the Perry Mason series often start with a bang. In this 1949 outing, while working late in his office, Mason spies pair of shapely gams on the fire escape. When Mason queries her as to what she’s up to, the beauty says she works upstairs for a company in the extraction industry. Mason notes she’s carrying something that metallically glints, which she tosses away, saying it was a flashlight.

He wants to confirm her identity by checking out her car registration, but out on the street she smacks him, making onlookers think she’s a pretty baa-lamb fending off a wolf. In celeb-addled LA, this spectacle is noted and thus appears in the gossip column in the paper the next morning. His secretary Della Street rags Perry about the next morning.

But things get complicated mighty quick when Perry finds himself enmeshed in a case that involves two convoluted situations. One is bigamy involving a Mexican divorce that may or may not be legal. The other is a proxy fight looming at a stockholders meeting.

As usual, Gardner paints an unflattering portrait of the guardians of our criminal justice system. The cops arrest their person of interest by using trickery. At the trial two bumbling prosecutors are more intent on puffing themselves up by making Perry look bad than on building a strong case. They are helped out by Perry’s client, who lies to Perry about his movements on the night of the killing. The reliable lesson we regular folks can draw out of Mason mysteries is never lie to your lawyer.

A good, not great, Mason mystery redeemed by a rocker of an ending.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – The Case of the Lucky Loser

April 27th, 2020

The Case of the Lucky Loser by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

This 1957 mystery starts with a troubled young woman hiring Perry to attend a court case and give her an informed opinion as to how a witness to a hit and run comes off on the stand. His lawyer’s intuition says the witness is lying.

Coincidentally enough, the next day the defendant’s aunt-in-law contacts Mason. The plus: the plot in this one becomes spectacularly tangled, as complex a puzzle as a Mason novel ever provides.

This novel provides an excellent example of Gardner’s uncanny ability to keep us turning the pages to see what happens next, even when we have given up trying to comprehend the twists.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – Wolf in the Shadows

April 20th, 2020

 

Wolf in the Shadows by Marcia Muller

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

A reader with some pretentions to taste would expect, after 14 installments in a series, to hear the gears grinding. But not at all in this case because Sharon McCone, the baddest female PI in Early Nineties San Francisco, learns, grows, and changes from book to book.

This 1993 mystery deals with the issues of illegal immigration and dolphin-protecting environmentalists. With her bosses going all corporate on her and pressuring her to accept sitting at a desk and moving papers around, she proves herself to be the Coolest Toughest Girlfriend Ever and works on finding her missing soul mate Hy Ripinsky who has gone missing.

As usual, the characterizations, even of the secondary characters, are very finely drawn, as are the settings. Nothing mars the elaborate plot but a couple of melodramatic scenes.

Well worth reading.

Mystery Monday – Lament for a Maker

April 13th, 2020

Lament for a Maker by Michael Innes

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Set in remote rural Scotland in the middle 1930s, this novel borders on the surreal, with fanciful plotting and bizarre characters. Who is responsible for the death of morbidly stingy Ranald Guthrie of Erchany? Maybe his stepdaughter Christine, or even her fiancé, who had at least a motive, since he comes from family in a feud with the Guthries – a story almost like Romeo and Juliet.

Innes narrates the story just as Wilkie Collins did in The Woman in White: he tells the tale through various characters, starting with the quirkiest of all – Ewan Bell, patriarch and village cobbler. He uses the unfamiliar vocabulary of Scottish English: such as, chiel for man. The new words add to the local color, strange atmosphere and bizarre goings-on. It’s challenging but attentive reading allows us to ken the meaning.

The next section is narrated by Noel Gylby, who is clearly an English major with a sophisticated literary style. Innes was a university prof and must have read – and suffered – stacks of papers written in this witty mannered style. Gylby appears in Hamlet, Revenge! by Innes. Very impressive is his depiction of Gothic scene of the ruined castle, unheated and unlighted, with the mad miserly laird in his keep, his face lined and heart in turmoil.

The third section features the orotund style of Lawyer Wedderburn. His pompous prose calls to mind attorneys in Dickens. The fourth section is the narrative of Innes’ series hero, Yard inspector John Appleby. The next section, I can’t possible give away as a spoiler. Innes – that is, J.I.M. Stewart – was a scholar of modernist prose so he enjoys pulling tricks out of its bag: multiple points of view, unreliable narrators, sly social comment, starting in the middle of the story, etc.

Innes wrote mysteries assuming his audience included bookish people. He has Lawyer Wedderburn define mysteries as “a species of popular fiction which bears much the same relation to the world of actual crime as does pastoral poetry to the realities of rural economy. “ So Innes thought it appropriate and fun to “bring a little fantasy and fun into the detective story,” as he said in his 1987 memoir.

Readers that like Nicholas Blake, Cyril Hare, Mary Fitt and Josephine Tey will like the intelligent and deftly written mysteries of Michael Innes. Lament for a Maker is a gem of detective fiction. It has been recognized as a classic for years. Rex Stout, creator of Nero Wolfe, included it on a 1947 list of best detective stories. It was selected for the “Top 100 Crime Novels of the 20th Century” by The Times in 2000.

 

 

 

Historical Fiction Review – In the Shadow of the Banyan

April 7th, 2020

In the Shadow of the Banyan: A Novel

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

Review by: Mirah W. (mwelday)

In the Shadow of the Banyan is the story of Raami and her family during the time of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.  Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge attempted to create their utopian Organization, taking homes and possessions away from the people and promising that the Organization would provide.

Raami is seven years old when the Khmer Rouge arrives at her home in the middle of the night and forces her family to leave with very little of their belongings. Fleeing the capital city of Phnom Penh, Raami’s family goes to their country home but that does not last long. Again, her family is forced out and their are caught up in the revolution and moved from camp to camp. Raami’s family is dealt blow after blow; they are separated from one another and pushed to the edge through violence, cruelty and hunger.

Ratner has created a novel that is heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time.  She delivers a story that mirrors the chaotic nature of life at the time of the Khmer Rouge and the isolation, confusion and disorientation at the time. The chaos and frustration virtually leaps from the page and while reading I was so angry and sad for Raami and what she goes through. Ratner provides a very moving Author’s Note at the end of the novel and she explains some of the autobiographical connections to the story that provided more depth, appreciation, and understanding of the novel.

Ratner delivers a strong novel about the strength of family and the human spirit that will stay with me for a long time. I give this novel 4 out of 5 stars for the strength of character development, clarity of storyline and depth of themes.  I highly recommend In the Shadow of the Banyan for those who enjoy historical fiction and cultural novels.