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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.

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Brass Rainbow

Monday, May 2nd, 2022

The Brass Rainbow by Michael Collins

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

It is 1969. A two-bit gambler comes to one-armed private eye Dan Fortune to arrange an alibi. He doesn’t want to take the rap for roughing up a rich guy from whom he was trying to extract a gambling debt. Fortune refuses. The very next day the rich guy is found in his ritzy apartment stabbed to death.

The cops are after the two-bit gambler, who has disappeared. Fortune doubts the gambler has the heart to turn killer. Though he has no client, he works to find him and clear him. Fortune is a defiant cuss so he takes pleasure in disregarding the cops when they pressure him to drop the case.

This was the second of 19 Dan Fortune novels, making it a very long running series. The first in the series Act of Fear won the 1968 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Collins wrote in the hard-boiled tradition of Hammett and Chandler, but also with the social concerns of Ross Macdonald. His unadorned prose has energy and confidence. He focuses on how characters found themselves in a bad situation and how they cope. We never lose track even when the suspenseful twists and turns get mighty complicated.

Michael Collins was one of many pen-names of Dennis Lynds (1924–2005). He was raised in New York City and like many born in the Twenties he fought in WWII. He won a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Private Eye Writers of America in 1988.

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – Deadly Duo

Monday, April 25th, 2022

Deadly Duo by Margery Allingham

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Deadly Duo a.k.a Take Two at Bedtime was first released in 1950, this book collected two awkwardly sized stories. The first Wanted, Someone Innocent (1945) is a long short story about 80 pages and the second Last Act (1946) is a novella of about 115 pages so they were too short for a stand-alone book. The Bantam paperback I read says on the cover “An Albert Campion Mystery” but this is misleading because the series hero does not put in his gangling appearance in either story.

The first story has some familiar gothic elements: an unworldly pretty girl in distress, an atmosphere of suspense, and cold and unhelpful servants. Granted, it is not set in a castle, but the London house is still unsettling and the weather is grey and rainy.

Our heroine is 20-year-old Gillian Brayton, who was raised by her uncle after she was orphaned at a young age. She was gently brought up and attended a tony girls school but times have been bad for her since her uncle died after burning through his money. At a reunion of alumnae where she’s supposed to tout her employer’s hats, one of the mean girls Rita Fayre offers her a job so attractive that a penniless girl with nobody in the world couldn’t dream of refusing. Though the duties of the job are unclear, she figures the annual salary of 300 pounds (about 17K in bucks) is better than working in a hat shop. Gillian is introduced to Rita’s husband who is convalescing from a war wound. As we’d expect in a gothic tale, romance blossoms. There’s a killing, though, and innocent as a puppy Gillian becomes the prime suspect. This is an interesting story, with good pace, witty writing but not arch or glib.

The second story, on the other hand, has some elements of the romance novel. The setting is an English country house, with a backdrop of entertainment and glamour. A beautiful clever actress gives her perspective on the story. The victim is a strong-willed older female, a veteran of the French stage and screen. Our actress feels giddily in love with one of the victim’s grandsons, a medical student. Our unlucky pair soon become not husband and wife but the prime suspects in a murder. Allingham builds suspense, persuading us inexperienced readers that being falsely accused because of circumstantial evidence would be an unfortunate situation.

Fans of the cozy whodunit who don’t mind Allingham’s mashing of genres will probably like this. Other readers, sensitive to misogyny and gender stereotyping, may find these stories problematic.

 

 

 

Fantasy Friday – The Last Graduate

Friday, April 22nd, 2022

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)

 

THE LAST GRADUATE is the second in Novik’s YA Scholomance series, an excellent entry in what I’m now calling the “wizard school fantasy genre” . You should have read the first book (A DEADLY EDUCATION) in order to make sense of it. And really, If you like semi-gritty fantasy, you should read it – forget Harry Potter, he had it way too easy.

In the first book, we were introduced to Galadriel (she hates that name, call her El). El is an angry loner teen with a ton of dark power who is absolutely, completely, no matter what,  determined that she will never use. She will never become a maleficer (dark wizard) and never, ever, live down to the prophecy her paternal grandmother has pronounced upon her.

But here she is in the Scholomance, a school for wizard teens, where there are no adults, no teachers, and the lessons are almost as dangerous as the monsters roaming the school.  Politics and backstabbing abound, alliances shift rapidly, as the kids all maneuver for a place in the safety of the Enclaves after graduation. But less than half of the seniors actually make it out –  monsters fill the graduation hall waiting for them to enter. Most of the senior year is spent practicing their fighting skills.  And this is supposed to be safer for wizard kids than the outside world!  Using dark magic would be so easy. She could guarantee her survival – but she’s not going to use that talent.

In THE LAST GRADUATE, El has made it to her senior year. She has an alliance who she can actually call friends, and one of them has given her a familiar (may I just say that I love little Precious?) She has a boyfriend, even if she’s not calling it that. She has almost gotten what she wanted, which was a spot in one of the Enclaves. If she can survive this year, she’s done it. But El’s class schedule is impossible, and there’s no way to change it. She can’t possibly complete the assignments she’s given, and if she can’t, she’ll probably die.  She’s received a short cryptic note from her mother, a warning against her boyfriend. Thanks to last year’s events, there are fewer monsters in the school, but all of them are after her and if she can’t defend herself, she’ll die.  She’s stuck in a study class with a bunch of freshmen who are now put at additional risk because of her. They might die. El is coming to a realization that the Scholomance has heretofore unexpected sentience, and it’s now focused on her.
Novik has done a great job of showing El’s growth. She’s found people to care about, people who like her for who she is and not just her abilities. She’s willing now to ask for help, and she can accept that other people might do a better job than she does. She can forgive. Throughout the whole book drums the idea of injustice and privilege. Those with privilege will probably live. They have used and abused others all their lives without thinking about it. El accepted it, she thought she would work within it, but things change. Now El is forcing the privileged to think about what they’ve taken and what they might owe.  El is going to make a decision that will change everything, and she needs all of them to sign on. There is a lovely little twist right about then too, just to force El into extra persuasion.

My main gripe about the book is how long-winded El is. Oh so much inner dialogue!  Pages and pages of exposition on various types of monsters, thousands of them, and history, how the spells work, what she thinks about Orion, how she’s going to manage.. Lots of action in this book interspersed with long sections about things breeding in the showerheads or how to protect yourself in the cafeteria. Too much telling without showing. But when you get to the action you’ll be on the edge of your seat.

Just so you’re prepared, THE LAST GRADUATE ends on a major cliffhanger. I figured it would, just based on how the last book ended, and it’s pretty shocking. But don’t let that put you off, it’s still a great read.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – Double, Double, Oil and Trouble

Monday, April 18th, 2022

Double, Double, Oil and Trouble by Emma Lathen

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

This is Book 17 of the long-running mystery series starring investment banker John Putnam Thatcher. It is set in 1978. He taken far from his Manhattan haunts to Istanbul, Zurich, and London in adventures that involve kidnapping and murder.

In the first half of the book, the familiar series characters are pushed into the background in order to visit the different locations and place the various characters in their various organizations. The action unfolds in a semi-complicated fashion and we are thankful Putnam gives a lengthy reveal. The wheeling and dealing of large oil companies to land drilling contracts is only mildly interesting.

In the end, while this is worth reading for true fans, I don’t think it is the best introduction to the Lathen mysteries. Emma Lathen was the pen-name for two Boston business executives, Mary J. Latsis and Martha Hennissart. Their entertaining series blended series characters from Wall Street and characters in a specific industry. Their novels were solid sellers from 1961 to 1997 when Ms. Latsis passed away.

 

 

 

Fantasy Friday Review – Terciel & Elinor

Friday, April 15th, 2022

Terciel & Elinor by Garth Nix
Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)

Terciel & Elinor by Garth Nix is the sixth book in the Old Kingdom series, although it’s the second in the timeline. Back in 1995, Nix wrote YA fantasy SABRIEL, the story of a girl who must take up the necromantic duties of her vanished father, and fight evil in Death. It’s a great book, lovely world-building and solid characters, and it stands alone quite well. You really ought to read it before this prequel as it lays the foundation to understand this world. Plus you’ll recognize all sorts of characters.  TERCIEL & ELINOR takes place perhaps 30 years before SABRIEL.   But here’s the thing – if you read SABRIEL, you already know a little about Terciel and Elinor, and it isn’t a they-lived-happily-ever-after ending. Going into this story means you start out already a little sad.  Not to mention you know what’s going to happen to the nasty monster.

But this isn’t the story of the ending, it’s the beginning, and Nix once again immerses us into the magic of the Old Kingdom.

As a young orphan, Terciel is suddenly thrust into the role of Abhorsen-in-Waiting.  His great-aunt is the Abhorsen, the necromancer whose duties are to keep the Dead from coming back into Life, and Terciel is now the nearest with the required bloodlines.  Great-aunt Tizanael isn’t the most sympathetic person, being solely focused on her duties and with only the bare minimum of nurturing skills.  Terciel takes up his duties, but not without misgivings for what his life may be.

Over the Wall, in Ancelstierre, Elinor thinks she’s just a girl with an eccentric mother. She’s not allowed to go to school, so she’s taught at home by her nanny. In her free time, she’s happy to learn skills and tricks from a retired performer who’s now their gardener. But when her mother falls into a seeming coma, really strange things begin to happen. Saved by the Abhorsen but a homeless orphan, Elinor learns she is a descendant of the Clayr, and decides her future lies across the Wall. It’s not going to be easy.

Even if you haven’t read SABRIEL, Nix makes falling into this world almost effortless.  Great imagery of the terrain, how the Charter Marks look and feel, and the iciness of Death. There are lots of great action sequences and Nix laid out the groundwork so we can believe in Elinor’s talents.  Some of the dialogue is a little clunky, maybe. i really enjoyed the glimpses of Mogget aka Moregrim.
I have to say that while you might think this is a love story, it really isn’t. Although we know the two get together, that side of it is almost non-existent (until, I imagine, Nix remembered there’s a baby in their future and he has to get there somehow). I’m not sure if Nix just isn’t good at writing romance or if he felt the book didn’t need all that mushy stuff. But it is two young people learning their capabilities and finding courage, deciding how they want to live despite knowing there will be danger.

On the whole, this is a very welcome addition to The Old Kingdom. SABRIEL is one of my favorite “comfort reads”, and it’s lovely to see all the foreshadowing of that story.