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Archive for June, 2022

Science Fiction Review – The Martian

Thursday, June 30th, 2022

The Martian by Andy Weir

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)

Before THE MARTIAN was a hit movie, it was a successful near-future science-fiction novel. Andy Weir created an immensely likeable and humorous protagonist in astronaut Mark Watney, who absolutely has the right stuff.

Watney is the sixth member of an astronaut crew sent to spend a few weeks on Mars, testing survivability and conducting experiments. They’ve only been there a couple days when a vicious storm blows in, forcing the mission to abort. On their way to their shuttlecraft, a piece of debris skewers Watney, blanking out his spacesuit’s telemetry signal and knocks him unconscious. Because of the dust storm, the crew can’t see him nor can they hear any signal from his suit.  They can’t search long because of the storm. Believing him dead, they take off. When Watney finally comes to, he’s alone on Mars with no chance of rescue for years.

How Watney manages to survive his ordeal makes for great reading.  Watney’s first-person log accounts capture his determination, never-say-die attitude, humor and inventiveness, and not to mention loneliness of his situation.  Weir delighted in coming up with various survivable disasters that might happen to a crew on a distant planet, and he throws most of them at Watney.

Interspersed with Watney’s account are scenes back at NASA and JPL, and later the spacecraft. The characters are distinct, and they talk like real people. Again, there are many scenarios that you can readily imagine playing out.

The thing that might put off many is the incredible amount of scientific detail that’s gone into this book. Let me reassure you there are no equations although there is Mark Watney telling you about the equations he’s doing, but in an understandable way.  For every disaster that Watney encounters, there’s a solution and he tells the reader exactly how he’s going to solve it. This means a lot of explanatory detail and for some, that’s just going to slow down the narrative too much. Personally, I loved it. All the things that Watney does, those are real or something that soon could be real – no faster-than-light travel, no magical Force, no handwavium physics. There’s chemistry, astrophysics, astrodynamics, botany, and duct tape. Yep, duct tape works just as well on Mars as it does here.

My only other criticism is that Watney is almost always upbeat, always ready with a quip. I like to think because his log is meant for future readers, his astronaut training isn’t going to allow him to break down “in public” as it were, so Weir never lets us see Watney in real despair.

I am someone who will go back and re-read books I really like, This is my second time around with THE MARTIAN, and I still think it’s excellent.



Mystery Monday Review – The Mamur Zapt & the Return of the Carpet

Monday, June 27th, 2022

The Mamur Zapt & the Return of the Carpet by Michael Pearce


Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This 1988 historical police procedural thriller was the first in a series that is still going with as many as 19 published as of 2016.

The Mamur Zapt is a title for the head of the secret political police in Cairo, capital of an Egypt indirectly run by the British in the early 20th century. Gareth Cadwallader Owen, a Welsh army captain, is young to have such an important job but he has two important qualifications. He’s a member of an ethnic group with a romantic past so he’s canny about the ways of thinking of embattled minorities. He’s also smarter than the bureaucrats and military types he works with, both of whom depend much on smokescreen and force respectively.

The author was born in the Sudan so his details about the heat and environment come from real life observation. His line about the smell of wet sand in 120-degree heat brought back Saudi Arabia for me. Pearce skillfully evokes settings such as crowded cafes, interrogation rooms, and busy street life. Pearce wonderfully describes a bath house (hammam) when Owen and his faithful counterpart Mahmoud tail a crook. This scene took me back to hot springs in Japan: the ritual of washing before entering the bath, the talking with other patrons, enjoying snacks and beer.

Indeed, readers may object that the book is long on scene setting and cross-cultural interaction but short on action. I will grant the climax was a lot less rip-roaring than I like in a thriller, but I’m told low-key climaxes and subdued endings are not unusual with this writer.

I think that readers will like this novel who like historical mysteries, terrorist intrigues, and Middle Eastern settings. Similar authors are Michael Gilbert, Eric Ambler, and John le Carré.




Fantasy Friday Review – The Serpent Mage

Friday, June 24th, 2022

The Serpent Mage by Greg Bear

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)

The Serpent Mage by Greg Bear is a direct sequel to The Infinity Concerto, which Cyndi reviewed on last week’s Fantasy Friday blog post. Here is the link to that review: The Infinity Concerto.

Michael Perrin has returned to the “real” world after escaping from the Realm, the world of the Sidhe. To him, it seemed as though he were gone for a few months but on Earth five years have passed. (One of the funnier bits of this book is when asked his age and he says “It’s complicated”.)

Michael is fully aware now that he’s been chosen and trained to do something – he thinks it’s probably to bring humans and Sidhe back together after millions of years. How to do that is still a mystery. Michael knows his magic powers aren’t up to the task.  But something is happening – there are reports of “hauntings” all over the world, and in an abandoned building in Los Angeles, the corpses of two women mysteriously appear. Michael knows these are the dead bodies of the two who guarded the gates to the Realm. He doesn’t have a lot of time to figure things out.

Meanwhile, the will of his friend Arno Waltiri has stipulated that Michael is in charge of Waltiri’s estate. Michael begins living in Arno’s house and cataloguing all the papers and musical scores that made Waltiri famous. Here too, he doesn’t know quite what he’s doing, so when a UCLA music grad approaches him about Waltiri’s infamous Infinity Concerto, Opus 45, he takes her help.  Michael has found the manuscript for the Infinity Concerto and Kristine is determined to have it performed.  Bear either knows music well or had a lot of  help – I have to assume it was accurate or why bother – but most of the musical commentary was completely lost on me.

I found this book warmer and less harsh than THE INFINITY CONCERTO.  Good sympathetic minor characters – Robert Dopso, the police detective, Michael’s parents.  But it spends a lot of time in Michael’s head, which slows down the action a lot.  There were definitely things that didn’t gel for me; for instance, I’m not entirely certain what playing the Infinity Concerto actually did or exactly what Michael took from the Serpent Mage.  I really liked how bits of our mythologies were woven into Bear’s version of human evolution, I liked that Michael went back to the Realm, and the imagery of the various Sidhe coming back to Earth was very nice. I had issues with the “magic is passed through the female” bit. It’s like someone told Bear he needed more female magicians and he grudgingly added one.  Dodger Stadium was a very nice touch, and so was the wine, and I laughed when Michael meets the Serpent Mage (because of course that’s who it is).  And I felt the whole idea of songs of power being created in many different disciplines was intriguing. All in all, a nice sequel with a happy ending, but while there’s a lot happening it takes some patience to get there.





Fantasy Friday Review – The Infinity Concerto

Friday, June 17th, 2022

The Infinity Concerto by Greg Bear

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)


THE INFINITY CONCERTO by Greg Bear is the first of a duology, but if you’re not inclined to go further this one has a story arc so at least there’s an ending.

Sixteen year old Michael Perrin is interested in poetry, music, and old films. He meets and becomes friends with Arno Waltiri, an elderly friend of his parents. Waltiri was a composer of film scores and one very strange symphony that was requested by a man named David Clarkham. Waltiri gives Michael a key left to him by Clarkham saying it could lead to an adventure, if Michael is willing to take a risk.  Waltiri says he never had the courage to go through with it.

After Waltiri’s death, Michael decides to follow the directions left with the key and suddenly finds himself in a strange landscape with no method of return. He is, in fact, in the land of the Sidhe – the Realm.  There are other humans here, but they’ve been relegated to a dismal little ghetto in the middle of the Blasted Plain. Hated by the Sidhe, the humans are nonetheless protected by a treaty from a long-ago war.  Michael is apparently the only human to arrive by choice; all the others seem to have been transported somehow while lost in music – playing, listening, or composing.

However, as the reader knows from the beginning, someone or something has plans for Michael.  He doesn’t know why he’s sent to train with the half-Sidhe, half-human Crane women, but he soon realizes there are a lot of forces in play and eventually he realizes there’s something for him to do, if he can just figure out what. Michael’s training is abruptly brought to an end and he must  make his way across the dangerous land if he’s ever to find a way home.

This is a nice hero’s journey sort of fantasy, lots of references to poetry, classical music and some religion; I expect I missed a number of references  I liked the idea of the ancient war that caused the devolution/evolution of humans, and the other races like the Spryggla and the Cledar. I liked Michael – at times he seems very adult, and sometimes he’s cranky and obstinate as you’d expect in a 16-yr-old.  His ability to break off and then throw away the parts of himself he doesn’t like seems very convenient and I wondered about it. Does that mean he won’t, or can’t, act that selfishly in the future?

It can be a little slow in places, and there were scenes I couldn’t visualize very well. Others, like the spreading blue plague, were quite vivid.  I thought the transition from training to quest was a little abrupt, and Michael’s growing magic abilities weren’t given enough emphasis.  It’s a good fantasy, sets up the next book very nicely, with good characters and world-building but Michael’s experiences in the Realm are mostly grim.



Mystery Monday Review – Through a Glass, Darkly

Monday, June 13th, 2022


Through a Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This 1949 mystery starts in cozy way, with shy young art teacher Faustina Crayle living and working in a girl’s boarding school that is prim to the point of grim. Like Rebecca at Manderley, she’s being given poor service on top of the fisheye by the servants. Faustina’s problem is the fallout from multiple witnesses seeing her double here and there on school grounds

You enter a room, a street, a country road. You see a figure ahead of you, solid, three-dimensional, brightly colored. Moving and obeying all the laws of optics. Its clothing and posture is vaguely familiar. You hurry toward the figure for a closer view. It turns its head and – you are looking at yourself. Or rather a perfect mirror-image of yourself only – there is no mirror. So, you know it is your double. And that frightens you, for tradition tells you that he who sees his own double is about to die…

One professional challenge caused by this uncanny phenomenon is that she is fired from her job. One of her fellow teachers, a pretty refugee Austrian named Gisela von Hohenems, urges her fiancé to look into the “termination without cause.” Her fiancé is psychiatrist Dr. Basil Willing, on staff of a famous Big Apple hospital and consultant to the NYC DA.

Since its first publication, this mystery has received much acclaim for its skillful use of a superstitious belief about The Double as a background for an outstanding mystery plot (see also Dorothy L. Sayers’ “The Image in the Mirror”). McCloy seems to have known a little about a range of people, places, and phenomena. She includes informational tidbits about costume designs for the production of the play Medea, changes in kitchens over time in the Western world, and shifts of attitude on the sable vs. mink controversy. Like Edith Wharton, McCloy provides plenty of details about room arrangements, furnishings, furniture and colors of wall paints. Into describing clothes in a big way, McCloy sent me to my thread-bending wife to ask about words like “chiffon” and “taffeta” and “voile.”

From the early Thirties to the late Seventies, critics and readers respected McCloy for her elegant writing. Even when the reader is dubious about seemingly supernatural elements in a mystery, McCloy’s solution can also appeal to readers who are skeptical about the paranormal. It’s a challenging balance but she manages it through intelligent and graceful writing that is beyond our expectations for a mystery.



Mystery Monday Review – The Silent Scream

Monday, June 6th, 2022

The Silent Scream  by Michael Collins

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

The hard-boiled mystery from 1973 is the sixth appearance of the series hero Dan Fortune, one-armed Polish-Lithuanian private eye. Fortune is hired by a young but imperious Mia Morgan to identify a pretty woman in a snapshot she hands him on their first meeting.

Fortune identifies the woman easily.

And then finds himself in a situation involving multiple murders, an Israeli commando, New England aristocrats, and Mafia bigwigs and hoods. The economical characterization is well-done. The convincing settings include Chelsea in New York City and working class Somerville in Jersey, in the gritty old days before US manufacturers realized the Japanese had to be dealt with. Like Ross Macdonald did in the Lew Archer novels, Collins deals with adult themes such as troubled families, the risks of power for the power-seeking, and the pitfalls of making wealth and status higher priorities than self-respect and kindness. Like the whodunnits of the 1930s, surprisingly, one killing is of the closed-room variety, featuring an intricate means of murder on the part of the culprit.

Though there’s lots of smoking – it is 1973, after all – Collins never preaches, the language is clean, the action lingers not on violence, and there’s no panting or throbbing. Nor is it too long. I highly recommend this example of old-school hard-boiled detective fiction.

Michael Collins was the pen-name of Dennis Lynds. Under various other names, Lynds wrote 80 novels and a couple hundred short stories. His first novel Combat Soldier (published under his own name) was a fictionalized memoir of his own WWII experience as an infantry rifleman.




Fantasy Friday – A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians

Friday, June 3rd, 2022

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians  by H. G. Parry

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)

A DECLARATION OF THE RIGHTS OF MAGICIANS by H.G. Parry is one of the “secret history” fantasy genre, dealing with events during the “Age of Enlightenment”, roughly 1780s to 1800-ish, when the freedom of individuals was a hot topic. This is our world, with the same individuals, pretty close to the same system of governments, but with magic underpinnings for many of those in power. You can’t boil down this book to just one theme, but one of the biggest is that individuals have the right to use their magic.

Some individuals are born with magic, and it tends to follow bloodlines. Everyone is tested at birth. If you’re an aristocrat, good for you – you can use your magic and get away with almost anything. If you’re a commoner, you’re out of luck. A magic bracelet identifies you and will burn you unmercifully as well as calling the authorities if you try to use magic, and you’re sent to jail or executed for anything except defending yourself from death.

Slavery is even more horrific than in our timeline. A spellbinding potion is forced down them and from that point on, while their minds rage helplessly inside, their bodies are under complete control of the slavers.

The book follows 3 main narratives: the abolitionist movement in England, with William Pitt the Younger as Britain’s prime minister and his friend William Wilburforce, famous MP and abolitionist; the French Revolution following Maximilien Robespierre; and the slave revolt in the Caribbean, where escaped slave Fina meets up with Toussaint. Except for the slave revolt, this is dense political stuff. Prepare to spend a lot of time reading about votes and meetings and speeches.

In contrast to our world, where it’s only (only) greed and basic inhumanity that make people so awful, this  one has a master villain who manipulates the movers and shakers into a design of his choosing. We don’t see this person for a long time, just a voice that comes to Robespierre, but eventually it comes clear that while Robespierre believes the magical help he is receiving is for good, the end results are anything but. And so, England keeps its slave trade, the French Revolution devolves into guillotining everyone in sight, and blood flows across entire islands.

I very much admired how Parry took these real-life events and real people, and incorporated this whole system of magic with a dark design. The characters are vivid, the sense of place and time are perfect, the dialogue is spot on. She achieved a nice ominous overtone in some sections. But frankly, it was glacially slow. Endless political strategies and debate tend to make my eyes glaze over, and the slave sub-plot just made me unbearably sad. Then, too, knowing that the broad events were real without the excuse of a demonic villain also made me sad. This isn’t light fare: despite the law abolishing the slave trade and the overthrow of the French monarchy, there’s no joy.

My other disappointment happened about halfway through  when I realized that the story is not contained in one book. No payoff – we have only vague ideas who the villain is and there is no confrontation with it. The meager victories are not celebrated, it’s just a grim ending. The next one is obviously the Napoleonic empire, and I’m curious how Parry will deal with it, but by the last quarter of this novel I was really ready for it to be over.