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Historical Fiction Review – The Devil’s Queen

Thursday, March 28th, 2019

The Devil's Queen

The Devil’s Queen by Jeanne Kalogridis

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

Welcome to the complicated and tortured world of Catherine de Medici.  Jeanne Kalogridis has a knack of creating historical fiction that is based in reality but bursting with imagination. The Devil’s Queen immerses the reader in the life of Catherine de Medici from her years as a young girl being manipulated by her family to her later days where the roles have been reversed and she has become the manipulator.

Fascinated by astrology and the fate in the stars, Catherine places trust in Cosimo Ruggieri. As an astrologer, Cosimo convinces Catherine of her path and what can be done to strengthen herself and her family, sometimes through very dark practices. Catherine has a life that, truly, is fraught with trials. From being manipulated as a young woman, tortured in marriage with the affairs of her husband, and children who are spoiled and dark in their own ways. She is willing to do whatever it takes to protect those she loves, but she is in danger of losing herself and her sanity in the process.

The Devil’s Queen is a creative and intricate portrayal of Catherine’s life. The descriptions of visions are incredibly dark and expressive, graphic images of blood and suffering that haunt Catherine every day. The complexity of royal family trees and relationships is front and center in this book. For this reason, I wish a family tree would have been included for a visual reference because the plot got hard to follow at times. If you are a reader who enjoys dark historical fiction, I think you would enjoy The Devil’s Queen. My rating is 4/5 stars.





Mystery Monday Review – Maigret on the Riviera

Monday, March 25th, 2019

Maigret on the Riviera by Georges Simenon

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


This 1932 mystery is also known as Liberty Bar. M.’s superiors assign him to investigate a murder on the French Riviera, so the novel is set in Antibes, Cap d’Antibes, Juan-les-Pins and Cannes.

Stabbed to death in his car is Australian William Brown, once a spy during WWI, so M. is told to tread with discretion. M. finds that Brown has come down in the world, owing to poor choices as to hard drinking and unsavory companions. M. finds out that Brown’s lifestyle frightens and disgusts his family, which deprives him of resources and pays him only a monthly minimal allowance. M. also discovers that Brown shared his life among his “four women:” first Gina, his “official” mistress and the mother of the second one, with whom he lived in his villa in Antibes, then Jaja, the owner of a bar in Cannes, where the young Sylvie, the fourth and a prostitute, also lives.

Despite this sordid backdrop, M. feels a connection with the victim because they resemble each other in looks, an uncompromising attitude, and a love for a quiet drink. Also, among the lush tropical flora, garish colors, and tanned beach bunnies, for a brief moment while wearing his usual heavy coat, M. himself better understands why a man on the Riviera for the first time might turn to extreme slacking.

He takes himself in hand, however, and explores two different settings, high and low, to find the culprit. The sadness and the squalor are balanced in the last when M. and his wife have a wonderful conversation in the last couple of pages. In this 17th Maigret novel, written in 1932, Simenon starts to use the existential themes that we meet in his “hard novels.”






Fiction Review – The Brightest Star in the Sky

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

The Brightest Star in the Sky

The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

A ‘spirit’ is visiting a town house in Dublin in The Brightest Star in the Sky.  What is this ‘spirit’, does it have good or bad intentions, what is it doing in Dublin, and why does it care about the residents in this town house?

The Dublin town house at the center of this novel has a variety of residents and the reader gets a ‘fly on the wall’ perspective into everyone’s lives through the perspective of the ‘spirit’. Through celebrating birthdays, navigating relationships, and dealing with family and roommate challenges, the reader gets to know each resident and the ups and downs of what the residents go through.  Keyes brings them all together in different ways and doesn’t reveal the identity of the ‘spirit’ until the end of the book.

I have enjoyed novels by Marian Keys in the past.  She is a witty author who blends humor with realistic and serious situations.  The characters in The Brightest Star in the Sky are a combination of angry, calm, young, old, oblivious, passionate, sad, happy, and all kinds of mixed up and confused.  The reader can tell there are things going unsaid that have characters teetering on the edge of different precipices.

I am giving The Brightest Star in the Sky 4/5 stars. As a reader, I liked having a subjective view of the characters.  The ‘spirit’ sees things the characters probably want to go unseen and this view provides great insight into their true selves.  I felt that in the middle things seems to hit a few bumps that slowed down the momentum of the story and I found my mind wandering a little while reading.  I had the identity of the ‘spirit’ wrong throughout the whole book but thought things came together rather nicely in the end.  In addition to The Brightest Star in the Sky, I would also recommend the following by Marian Keyes: Sushi for Beginners, The Other Side of the Story, and Cracks in My Foundation.




Mystery Monday Review – The Seven of Calvary

Monday, March 18th, 2019

The Seven of Calvary by Anthony Boucher 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


This 1937 mystery fits the criteria for genre of academic mystery: set at a university, professor as detective, international cast, cultured dialogue, learned digressions, and mild gibes at profs’ manners and ways.

Though this was the author’s first mystery, he takes pleasure is satirizing the conventions of the Golden Age mystery. For instance, the professor-detective, like Nero Wolfe, never stirs out of this room to investigate the crime. In fact, he has a graduate student be his Archie Goodwin, getting out and talking to persons of interest. The grad student narrates the story in an arch and faux-sophisticated tone, very much like Michael Innes in the Thirties. In an outrageous post-modern technique, the grad student and Boucher (rhymes with “voucher,” by the way) meet over chow to confirm with each other that fair-play has been the byword, that clues needed to solve the mystery have indeed be given to the reader.

The story moves steadily through plenty of action. Boucher misdirects too but the long-time mystery reader, while alert to being fooled, will not be cheated out of a good surprise either. It’s impressive that Boucher developed such a crackerjack story his first time out. This book well deserves its classic status. Although he did not return to a campus setting, he wrote many more mysteries and short stories. For many years he was the mystery reviewer for the New York Times. He has a convention of mystery fandom named after him, Bouchercon.







Mystery Monday Review – Minute for Murder

Monday, March 11th, 2019

Minute for Murder by Nicholas Blake

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


Cecil Day-Lewis, poet and translator of Latin classics, added to his probably low income as a prof by writing detective novels under a pen-name. As we’d expect from a professor of classics, his writing is erudite, witty, and lucid enough to put up with the usual British whodunit machinery of red herrings, beautiful blondes, and wacky characters.

The upside of Minute for Murder (1947) is that it is probably based on Lewis’ wartime experience working in the Ministry of Information, which Orwell also satirized in 1984.

Series hero Nigel Strangeways is working at the “Ministry of Morale” in the Visual Propaganda Division. He captures the tensions among different grades of staff and the problems of supervising talented but temperamental people. The material on the human factor and red herring combine to make this rather longer than the typical old-timey whodunnit, but he’s such a charming writer that we don’t mind.






Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Careless Cupid

Monday, March 4th, 2019

The Case of the Careless Cupid by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

An affluent widow is in love with a wealthy widower. Although one of his nieces is sympathetic to the match, the other niece and her main-chancer boyfriend don’t want rich uncle to tie the knot. Insinuations that the widow murdered her first husband are bruited about, capturing the attention of the police and an insurance company that wants its dough back, plus all the money she made from investments on that dough. Ace lawyer Perry Mason is hired by the widow to defend her on the first-degree charge that she poisoned her husband with arsenic.

This 1968 outing, the 79th and third from the last of the series, has its problems, like more than couple of Mason novels written after 1960. The prose is mechanical. The characters tend to excessive explications, which is odd since Gardner usually handled dialogue more skillfully (he dictated the novels). The plot is not as intricate as usual. In fact, the ease with which we can identify the perps makes this border on an inverted mystery, which is highly unusual for Gardner.

On the positive side, Gardner, as is his wont, includes strong female characters. The widow is the kind of independent-minded, self-sufficient female Gardner respected. She’s an astute investor, turning a $100K into a half-million. She’s blunt: “I like what I like and not what I’m supposed to like because of mass rating. And I very much dislike the things I don’t like.” Gardner also features a real person, which is very uncharacteristic. The female pilot that takes Della and Perry to El Paso is Pinky Brier, the first woman to become a flight and aerobatics instructor in the early 1940s.

I’d still recommend it to Mason fans but also to readers looking for a quick uncomplicated read without subplots or extraneous detail. Perry springs into action numerous times. Watching him direct Paul Drake (his PI), his client, Della (his PA), and lead the cops on is always a kick. Gardner’s language is simple if stiff. The interesting legal issues and thinking keep the little grey cells engaged. The story has suspense and theatrics.




Nonfiction Review – Grateful American

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service by Gary Sinise

Review by Mirah W (mwelday)



I’m going to be honest with you from the start, PBSers. I am a huge Gary Sinise fan and I have been for years. I am unapologetic in my promotion of the Gary Sinise Foundation and for Gary’s professional endeavors. As an active duty Navy spouse, I have immense respect and admiration for Gary and his charitable works to support military service members and first responders. So when I learned of his book last September, I immediately pre-ordered it. In December, I had the opportunity to join Gary’s launch team for his book and I was so very excited to do my part to support this new endeavor. I did receive an advance reader copy; however, all of my opinions about Grateful American and this review are my own opinion and my own words.  Now, of course, with that being said, my opinion may not be totally unbiased since I am such a fan.

In my reading of the book, I think there were two defining moments that catapulted Gary into what has become a true life of service. First, was his portrayal of Lt Dan Taylor in the movie Forrest Gump. Unless you’ve been living under a rock since 1994, you’ve heard of Forrest Gump (“Run, Forrest, Run!”). Veterans responded positively to Gary’s portrayal and embraced him with respect as one of their own. Second, was the attack on our nation on Sept 11, 2001. That event propelled Gary to reach out to the USO and volunteer.  He went on his first USO tour in 2003 and his life was then on a course that would eventually lead to hundreds of concerts with the Lt Dan Band and numerous other endeavors to raise millions of dollars for initiatives to support veterans, first responders and their families.  And the incredible thing is that raising millions of dollars is just tip of a magnificent iceberg of service.

I know I mentioned earlier in this post that I was an unapologetic fan of Gary’s and this book has only increased my deep respect for him. I know it may sound incredibly cheesy, but I feel a sort of kinship with Gary. He went on his first USO tour in 2003 and that is the year our family became a Navy family. Our families were both impacted by Sept 11, 2001 in a way that would change the trajectory of our lives. We each chose lives of service after that tragedy, just in different ways and both being equally important.

Even though I am a fan, I won’t blow smoke about the level of quality of this book. Please, listen to me…this is a great book. If you think you know about Gary, I promise there will be new revelations in this book (one of my favorite insider bits was about his character on the TV show CSI:NY). Gary knows how to tell a story. He grabs your attention with the first few chapters about his early life, how he finds acting and the founding of The Steppenwolf Theater. He brings you further into his life by telling the reader honestly about the trials he experiences professionally and personally. His heart is on the pages of this book and you can just tell it is sincere. Gary injects humor and humility into his story and there is something for everyone in the book. There is something for the wayward teenager, the hopeless romantic, the spiritual, the volunteer, the service member, the first responder, the family of a veteran or first responders, the movie/television buff, the military historian…I could go on and on.  The only slightly less-than-positive thing I could say about this book is that the last few chapters read as a list various projects and events; but this really can’t be helped given the magnitude of Gary’s endeavors and desire to cover everything.  And even with these ‘lists’ there are personal stories of those involved that continues to give the book heart.

The thing I probably like most about Grateful American is it is of singular purpose. Gary Sinise conveys his message clearly on every page. And what message is that? It is quite simple, Gary Sinise is a grateful American and he has gratitude and respect for those that defend his country and make his life of freedom possible. I can’t recommend this book heartily enough…5 stars!