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Archive for May, 2022

Fantasy Friday Review – Penric’s Progress

Friday, May 27th, 2022

Penric’s Progress by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)


Penric’s Progress by Lois McMaster Bujold is a collection of 3 fantasy novellas set in the World of the Five Gods. You don’t need to have read her previous books set there in order to enjoy these.

In the World of the Five Gods, the gods are the Father of Winter, the Lady of Spring, the Mother of Summer, the Son of Autumn, and the Bastard. They all have various traits – maybe call them specialties? – for instance, the Father is also associated with justice, the Son with hunting, and so on.  Most people pray to one god or another as appropriate to their situation in life – a girl to the Lady, a father to the Father and so forth. The Bastard takes everything that’s left over or odd. When you die, your soul is taken up by your god. The priests have sacred animals that signal which god has claimed your soul.  For most people, that’s as close as they get. Some might be given a little extra sense, or gift, and they are considered saints. But for a few…

Penric is a younger son of a minor noble family on his way to his wedding when he stops to assist a dying woman. Little does he know she is a senior Temple sorceror, bearing a demon inside. And when the host dies, the demon needs someone else to host and will jump to the strongest person nearby.  Guess who’s going to get it this time? Hosting a demon isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It gives the human special powers of sight and some interesting talents. But it takes a strong personality to train the demon, to channel their magic into helpfulness instead of mere chaos, and to keep it from consuming their host entirely and then running amok. Hosting a demon means giving up your normal life and joining the Bastard’s temple. Some people would find this horrifying. Once over the initial shock, Penric thinks maybe this won’t be so bad and is rather looking forward to a life of study. But there’s going to be a few bumps along the way.

The first novella, PENRIC’S DEMON, introduces Penric. How he becomes the host and how he and the demon manage to get along is the main story.  There is more than one person who doesn’t want this pairing to succeed, so Penric and his demon Des will have to figure out an escape plan if they want to live.

PENRIC AND THE SHAMAN finds Penric and Des chasing after a shaman, who seems to have murdered a person and taken off with his soul.  Another interesting theological construct, and a lovely ending.

In PENRIC’S FOX, we go back to the shamans and the great-souled animals to solve the mystery of a murdered woman.

Bujold is a fabulous writer, she’s won many awards including the Science Fiction Writer’s Association Grand Master. There’s not a wasted word in any of these – she neatly captures everything you need to know in the conversations, without being boring or pedantic about it. Her characters have depth and personality and her imagery is first-rate. Penric is so engaging and amiable, he’s almost too perfect, and Des makes an excellent balance as the sarcastic and slightly cynical elder. There’s a high emotional quotient too – victories and tragedies that you can really feel.  These are excellent novellas, just long enough to read in a couple hours and be a complete story.



Mystery Monday Review – Poirot Investigates

Monday, May 23rd, 2022

Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


Over the years I’ve said rude things about Dame Agatha, for which, older and wiser now about the benefits of light reading material, I retract with chagrin, knowing that sometimes a tired brain should not take on anything heavier than a Golden Era whodunnit. I have zero plans to read her novels, but I grant Hercule Poirot is one of the best PI characters in detective fiction and the short stories in which he stars are perfect gems, like the Nero Wolfe novelettes.

Hercule Poirot is similar to Sherlock Holmes. He is a thinking machine and vain about this superior deductive powers. It helps in the comedy department that the narrator of this these stories, Capt. Hastings, is buffoon, the classic dim-witted Col. Brain of Henry Cecil novels who does not grasp how dim-witted he himself is. The lively interplay between Hastings and Poirot is entertaining.

These are short stories so Christie does not have any room for budding romances, melodramatic padding, or the complicated engines of death that plague mysteries from the Golden Era of whodunits. These stories, only about 10 to 15 pages long, are little classics, ingeniously and tightly constructed. Lest the development of the stories start to feel same-old same-old, they ought to be read one at time over a period of weeks.




Paranormal Romance – Clean Sweep

Thursday, May 19th, 2022

Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)


CLEAN SWEEP by Ilona Andrews is the first of the Innkeeper Chronicles series.   It’s an easy-reading pleasant paranormal romance.

On the outside, Dina is a nice young woman running a B&B in a quaint Victorian house. But all is not what it seems. Dina is an Innkeeper, with magic power mostly tied to the house. Her job is running the Inn, which provides a place to stay for an assortment of alien visitors. She must make sure the Inn is a neutral place and keep her guests and the Inn from harm.  The Inn itself is a magical entity that can think for itself somewhat, and as long as Dina is on its grounds it feeds her magical power.
The story starts off with a dog being killed, and it isn’t the only one. Dina is supposed to keep out of any situation that doesn’t directly threaten the Inn, but decides she can’t let this go on. Enter the werewolf, who is of course devastatingly handsome and exceptionally powerful even for werewolves. As the plot unfolds we get, naturally, a vampire who is also devastatingly handsome and exceptionally powerful. Of course both of them are attracted to Dina and her long blond hair. Did I mention the two males are aliens?  Yes, and the dog killing nasties are also aliens.  We also get a mass-murdering alien guest who can’t leave the Inn and a suspicious cop who just intuits there’s something wrong here. Dina and cohorts have to figure out what’s out there and why, plus come up with a plan to stop it. Dina is taking a real chance here, as the rules for Innkeepers clearly state she isn’t supposed to take sides unless the Inn is in danger.
Told in first person POV, Dina gives the reader quite a lot of explanation about being an Innkeeper and the limitations on her powers.  I found that to be definitely more tell than show. The love triangle is very, very mild and restricts itself to a  lot of male posturing and one kiss.  There’s a lot of snarky banter between the males. There’s so much of this book that feels derivative – the girl/vampire/werewolf love triangle, the magical inn, the alien marketplace – that I have to think Andrews had her tongue firmly planted in cheek when she wrote it. It has the flavor that you’re supposed to be counting all the little digs to other books during the plot. That’s kind of fun sometimes.
CLEAN SWEEP has good pacing with lots of action scenes, some funny dialogue, pretty decent world-building, but very stereotypical characters. I hadn’t read any of Andrews’ books before, and while this one is the beginning of a series, it felt a little like I’d been dropped into the middle of the movie.  My favorite bits of the book involved the Inn and Dina’s Shih-Tzu, who is not really a dog.  Andrews has a big backlist and a large fan base; I enjoy other authors in the same genre so I gave it a try, but I found this particular book to be just a little too lightweight for my taste. There are four other books plus a couple short stories in this series so clearly it has a following; it might be just what you’re looking for.




Mystery Monday Review – The Chinese Maze Murders

Monday, May 16th, 2022

The Chinese Maze Murders by Robert Van Gulik

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


As soon as the judge, his family, his servants, and his subordinates arrive at his new post in Lan-fang, the cases begin to pile up. His predecessor has fled without so much as a greeting, a gross breach of manners in the China of the Tang era (618 – 907). The judge finds out the magistrate before his predecessor was murdered in mysterious circumstances.

Besides administrative troubles, he finds that a local tyrant dominates the village with protection rackets and strong-arm tactics. Hordes of Uighurs – barbarians or freedom-fighters, depending on one’s point of view – make battle plans and recruit Chinese as a fifth column. The messy situation worsens when a well-known ex-general is found murdered, the daughter of a blacksmith disappears and an inheritance dispute escalates.

Because the setting is seventh-century China, women are severely oppressed and therefore vulnerable to exploitation of all kinds. Also, the judge’s subordinates are allowed to beat and torture information out of witnesses. The author portrays Judge Dee as an ideal Confucian official. He resolves cases through his incorruptible spirit and benevolent intelligence.

In an afterward, van Gulik openly says that the ideas for the criminal cases come straight from old literary sources, which he then wove together. The progress of the narrative is that of the western detective novel. All the characters play clear parts. The account follows that of a police procedural with a shocking crime followed by careful questioning and following clues. The lengthy reveal and ingenious engines of murder will call to mind mysteries of the 1920s.

Van Gulik’s writing style is a bit simple and uneven. His pages look like Lee Child’s: lists of single sentences, no paragraphs that might scare the reader who reads only in extreme circumstances. The author’s own illustrations can be safely regarded as amateurish and featuring too many topless females. For some readers it might seem like the writer likes dwelling on gruesome violence a little too much. It will depend on the individual reader if the downsides outweigh the intriguing atmosphere and unfamiliar setting of this unique historical mystery.

I myself have a couple more Judge Dee mysteries in the to-be-read stack and I will take the time to read them. But I have no plan to read all 17 of the Judge Dee collections.




Fantasy Friday Review – Amongst Our Weapons

Friday, May 13th, 2022

Amongst Our Weapons by Ben Aaronovich

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)


If you like quirky uban fantasy mixed with police procedural, you’ve probably already read Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London series. But if not, wow, you need to find these. Just start with the beginning, MIDNIGHT RIOT (aka RIVERS OF LONDON) because you’ll definitely need to know what’s going on before tackling the 9th in the series, AMONGST OUR WEAPONS.

I will recap just a little. Peter Grant was just a regular London police officer guarding the scene of a murder when he happened to speak to a ghost. This came to the attention of DCI Thomas Nightingale, the head of Metropolitan Police’s Special Assessment Unit, the branch that deals with all sorts of magic-y stuff that the regular police really don’t want to talk about. Peter is soon Nightingale’s apprentice, the first new wizard in decades. He’s learning spells, dealing with all sorts of supernatural nasties, getting engaged to a river goddess, and generally attempting to drag the SAU into the modern world.

In AMONGST OUR WEAPONS, Peter and associates are called to take a look at a dead guy in London’s Silver Vaults. Dead guy has a hole where his heart used to be. And then another dead guy, same problem. There are seven rings involved, a being who looks like an angel with a burning spear, and a magic jar that dates back to the Spanish Inquisition. Peter’s nemesis Lesley May also has an interest in the rings. And once again, Peter finds out that there’s more to the magical community than Nightingale has remembered to mention, notably the Sons of Wayland – magic-using blacksmiths who went missing during WWII. Peter, Sahra, and new recruit Danni are chasing down leads via the police databases and the other magic users.  And at home, the goddess Beverly Brook is expecting their twins any day now, and Peter had better be there for the birth or risk widespread flooding over the countryside.

Aaronovitch throws in a lot of popular culture references in each book, I’m sure way more than I can recognize. I laughed at all the Lord of the Rings references and of course no one expects the Spanish Inquisition. Every book reveals a bit more of the magical world.  Also in each book is Peter’s very funny commentary on London’s architecture, bits of mythology, Latin, and pokes at bureaucracy in general. Not to mention talking foxes.

A couple minor criticisms. The plot feels a little forced, and Peter’s home life takes over quite a lot of the book (but hey, she’s a goddess, and she’s having twins, so…).  There are a couple loose ends – what’s with the rings, after all? Maybe in another book?  It occasionally seems like Aaronovitch felt he needed to drop in most of the recurring characters – we didn’t really need Agent Reynolds, I think, and probably not Lady Caroline. And I would really like to see more Nightingale, and more of Peter’s training.

Peter is an intensely likeable protagonist; the first person POV is perfect for his voice. I love the diversity that Aaronovitch has depicted. All the characters feel unique and well-rounded, the pacing is excellent as is the imagery. I’m still loving this series and already anxious for the next.



Mystery Monday – The Case of the Drowning Duck

Monday, May 9th, 2022

The Case of the Drowning Duck by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


In early 1942 a landowner near Palm Springs, John L. Witherspoon, consults lawyer Perry Mason on a family matter. He tells Mason that his daughter Lois is about to marry Marvin Adams, who is finishing up his college major in chemistry. But Marvin does not know who he is in the sense that his mother gave him a far-fetched story about his origins.

The reality, as Witherspoon has found out, is that Marv’s father was executed for the murder of a business associate in 1924. Proud of his family name, Witherspoon detests the idea of killer genes polluting his family line. He hires Mason to investigate the old case see if Marvin’s father was in fact guilty.

Mason goes over the trial transcript and deplores the fact the defense attorney assumed his client was guilty. But as Mason sics his PI Paul Drake on the trial of the witnesses who may or may still be among the quick, a blackmailer appears and threatens the happiness of the Witherspoons and the future of Marvin Adams.

The blackmailer is done to death with a homemade blend of gasses. This points the finger at chem major Marvin – whose duck is found at the scene, according to a police officer, drowning in a fish bowl. Another murder carried out in the same way occurs in Witherspoon’s house. Mason does much of the PI legwork on his own; he is shamelessly manipulative when interviewing people to get them to talk. The courtroom scene is comparatively short, with a down-to-earth judge unlike any other stuffy judges in Mason mysteries.

The story is intricate with a strong subplot involving a Hollywood scandal sheet that engages in extortion and blackmail by using corrupt PI’s to collect dirt and threatening to release damaging information on victims shy of publicity. I especially like the ones written during WWII as classic puzzles well-worth reading: The Case of the Empty Tin, The Case of the Buried Clock, The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito, The Case of the Crooked Candle, and The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde.





Science Fiction Review – The Long Sunset

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2022

The Long Sunset by Jack McDevitt
Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)

This book is the 8th in “The Academy” series, but I see no reason a new reader couldn’t pick this up and still enjoy it. Read in order, there’s a clear timeline, but each book is a stand-alone science-fiction adventure.

Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins is a top-notch interstellar pilot, specializing in exploratory missions and the survivor of quite a few hair-raising adventures. But the political climate of the world right now is that humans can’t afford just to go exploring, there’s no money and besides, what if they meet something scary? Space is now the province of a couple private companies who do tours and one that’s working on terraforming a new planet for humans.

But then a signal from many light-years away is received, and it’s so compelling that a researcher decides they have to go look. He puts together a team with Hutch as the pilot, and they manage to get underway even as the stop order is hitting their comms.

I found this first part of the book slow going. The conversations about how the team might run into aliens determined to follow them back and wipe out humanity are repeated over and over. A thing I like about McDevitt is the idea that advanced civilizations are going to realize there’s no point in being automatically hostile. I don’t know that I believe it (just like some characters in this book!) but I want to. But the same question just gets hammered on too many times.

As in most of the Academy novels, there’s no straight line between the goal of the mission and  how they get there – much sightseeing is involved. McDevitt is great at throwing in fictitious books and plays his characters have experienced, so we get a lot of that too. Eventually,  Hutch and some of the crew are going to get a crash course communicating with a different set of aliens than they were looking for.  McDevitt isn’t one to come up with fantastically strange life-forms – his aliens are pretty much like us in terms of what they want out of life. In this case they apparently also invent instantly recognizable items, like telephones. It’s actually pretty funny that this crew from more than 200 years in our future knows what a 1970s telephone looks like.

There’s a huge disaster looming over the alien civilization, which the humans know about and the aliens don’t. The solution is overwhelming. Should they tell? Can they even figure out a solution? Can they find help? How to persuade Earth, given that space travel is now seen as unnecessary? There was a great big whopping idea early on, and I was disappointed when McDevitt only gave it one line of recognition later.

The dialogue is occasionally pretty clunky, and I don’t find much difference between the five members of the crew, but well-rounded characters has never been McDevitt’s strongest thing. It’s told exclusively from Hutch’s POV except for a few diary entries from the others. Don’t forget to read the little media headlines.  And I think he failed to give the reader a sense of real danger; there’s conflict but except for the return to Earth (that was tense) it didn’t catch my emotions. But what was very satisfying is a big discovery regarding the Monument Makers, the mystery that begins the very first in the series. Also, it’s hopeful – we’re left with the satisfaction that people can empathize with strangers, and given all the information, we’ll do our best to do the right thing. If McDevitt wanted to end this series, this wouldn’t be a bad place to do it.