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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Rat Catchers' Olympics: Dr. Siri Mystery at the 1980 Summer Olympics

I was introduced to Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri Paiboun series by the F2F mystery group that I attend a number of years ago.  I said then that the first Dr. Siri novel, The Coroner's Lunch,was delicious.  I have loved this 20th century Lao doctor and his circle of friends, but I've never reviewed any of the books in the series on this blog.  It's about time that I did.  I received a free copy of The Rat Catchers' Olympics from Edelweiss and this is my review.


The first eleven books of the Dr. Siri series took place primarily in Laos though there was a foray into Thailand and a nightmarish journey into Pol Pot Cambodia.  The series has also dawdled in the 1970's for more years than that decade had.  With The Rat Catchers' Olympics Cotterill finally turns to 1980. He also leaves Southeast Asia for the circus like atmosphere of an Olympics in the Soviet Union.

Don't get me wrong.  I love the Olympics.  I watch my favorite events with rapt attention.  I also adore the human feats of skill and daring at circuses.  So calling the Olympics a circus wasn't intended to be a disparaging comment.  Yet it is a very different background for a Dr. Siri novel.

The 1980 Summer Olympics was unique for a number of reasons.  Up until I read this Cotterill novel, I only knew that it was the Olympics that the Western nations boycotted due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

 I researched all the tidbits of info about this Olympics that Cotterill dropped into the narrative.  This was indeed the first Olympic appearance of athletes from Laos.  I thought that Cotterill was engaging in wordplay when he told us that the pole vault was won by a Pole--especially when he followed it up with the shameless puntification that the gold medal in boxing had not been won by a box.  It did turn out that Polish athlete Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz  won pole vault gold and he made a defiant gesture for which he became famous.  I couldn't confirm the Cotterill assertion that more women athletes participated in the 1980  Moscow Spring Olympics than in any previous Olympics, but  it was true that the most dramatic result was the victory of the inexperienced Zimbabwe women's field hockey team who were only invited because the Soviet women's field hockey team found themselves unopposed due to the boycott.

I didn't research the post-Olympic rat catching contest in this novel because it seemed pretty clear that it was purely fictional. Cotterill invented it for the entertainment of his readers like all the wonderful dialogue that always appears in every Dr. Siri novel.

Oh yes, there are also murders in Moscow that need to be solved.   The resolution certainly wasn't what I expected, but it was in keeping with our current atmosphere of political cynicism.

The only thing I missed was the shamanic aspect which wasn't at all prominent in this particular Dr. Siri book. As a fan of the paranormal, I consider this the best part of the series.  I hope that the most recent Dr. Siri novel, Don't Eat Me, includes lots of communications from spirits.


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Eagle and the Dragon--An Original and Multicultural Historical Fiction Novel

It was a total surprise when I won The Eagle and the Dragon by Lewis McIntyre from one of  author Stephanie Dray's monthly giveaways for her list members.  McIntyre's novel is about an ancient Roman diplomatic mission to China which makes it very unusual. So when I was gifted with a copy by the author via Amazon, I looked forward to reading it.  Yet at 682 pages, I wasn't sure where I could fit it into my schedule.   I ended up having to start it and put it aside while I dealt with books that I had committed myself to review.   I finally finished The Eagle and the Dragon recently, and this is my honest review.


I wondered about whether this book had any historical basis.  I found a 2004 article in The Economist  called "They Came, Saw and Settled: The Romans in China" here.   Judging from the content of that article, I would say that it's possible that the events described in The Eagle and the Dragon could have happened.  McIntyre definitely did his research.

While browsing reviews, I encountered one on Goodreads which claimed that The Eagle and the Dragon becomes a preachy Christian novel at some point.   This didn't seem to be in keeping with what I'd seen of the book.  I also didn't think that Stephanie Dray would have failed to mention that in her description of The Eagle and The Dragon.  A giveaway is a promotion, so she would have wanted the book to find its audience.  There are readers who prefer Christian inspirational fiction, and there are readers that avoid it.  I sometimes read in this category.  When I do, they are usually books about the Amish.  See my recent review of Her Fear by Shelley Shephard Gray here .The only reason why I thought it was possible that the review might be accurate is because McIntyre did write what seems to be a Christian short story that appeared before this novel called "Come Follow Me".

After finishing the book, I have to say that I don't consider this a Christian inspirational novel.   There are characters who represent a variety of spiritual traditions in this book.  They are all presented sympathetically.  I believe that the reviewer was referring to a character who went through a Christian conversion experience.   A Christian inspirational novel would follow that up by primarily focusing on that character's perspective.  Yet after the section about the Christian conversion experience, the focus of The Eagle and the Dragon remained on central characters who were non-Christians practicing their religions and being shown in a positive light.   I believe that this book reflects the spiritual pluralism in the ancient world by including within its pages characters who were Roman, Mongolian and Bactrian polytheists as well as Jews, Buddhists and Christians.

My favorite character in The Eagle and the Dragon was Marcia, a Chinese woman who was also of Roman descent.  Since she knew Latin as well as (probably Mandarin) Chinese, she functioned as a translator who could speak to both Chinese and Romans.   As the narrative progresses she learns fighting skills and becomes even more extraordinary.

For me, The Eagle and the Dragon is five star fiction because its narrative trajectory is original. I also found it to be a gripping novel of adventure that was also culturally inclusive.


Friday, October 19, 2018

A Different Kind of Angel: The False Imprisonment of a 19th Century Refugee

I first heard of  Paulette Mahurin on author Christoph Fischer's blog a number of years ago when he was heaping praise on her novel The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap,  dealing with bigotry against a lesbian in a small Nevada town in the late 19th century.  When Mahurin recently gifted me with her latest book, A Different Kind of Angel, I was reminded that I still hadn't read The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap.  I hope to rectify that error in the immediate future.

A Different Kind of Angel focuses on a fictional woman unjustly consigned to the asylum where  the real investigative journalist Nellie Bly went undercover in 1887 to expose their abuse of patients.  Nellie Bly appears as a character late in the novel.


In the current political climate in which my government considers its harsh treatment of refugees justifiable, it's instructive to examine earlier times when American authorities had a similar attitude.  

A Different Kind of Angel's protagonist Klara Gelfman was sent to a mental institution because she couldn't speak English.   She was a refugee fleeing Russia due to a major pogrom that really did occur in 1881 precipitated by the Jews of Russia being irrationally blamed for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.

Mahurin's fictional Klara was still imprisoned inside that institution when Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" in 1883 whose famous lines about "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" were later inscribed on a plaque placed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.  This was the same period when the Immigration Restriction League was founded and gained an influential following.  They believed that immigrants were inferior  and that they would destroy America's social fabric.  I can only conclude that Emma Lazarus wasn't reflecting the cultural consensus of her time.  Her poem must have been aspirational.   She hoped that Americans would one day be welcoming toward refugees.   Let's just say that we still need to do a great deal of work on that issue.

I thought that Mahurin portrayed Klara and other patients convincingly as human beings.  On the other hand, she has Klara make an observation about the nature of insanity that seemed too much like current ideas.   I agreed with it.  I just don't believe that someone from late 19th century Russia would be thinking in those terms.

What I liked most about this book was that Mahurin brought Nellie Bly's real undercover investigation of the asylum to life powerfully by showing us the impact of their abusive practices on patients.  I felt that Mahurin was herself playing the investigative role of Nellie Bly by uncovering the horrors of that institution for her readers before Nellie Bly showed up in the story line.




Monday, October 15, 2018

The Black God's Drums--The African Diasporic Steampunk That I Was Looking For

Back in 2016 I read an alternate history novel called Everfair by Nisi Shawl and absolutely loved it both conceptually and spiritually.  It was my favorite read of  2016. My review is here. Yet I was really looking for a book that centered on an authentic character who was privileged to have direct contact with one of the spirits from the rich religious traditions that were brought from the land of the Yoruba in Nigeria, and spread all over the world.  Since then I have read fantasy novels containing significant African religious content, but still not what I was looking for.  Contemporary YA novel American Street  by Ibi Zoboi came very close with her protagonist who was very devoted to a Haitian Loa. See my review here.

The Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark is IMAO under-rated because it's a novella.   It's as if people believe that shorter books can't possibly be as good as longer ones.  Over and over again, I see in reviews that it's good for a novella.  This is a backhanded compliment.  Short literary forms are very much on point.  There is nothing unnecessary.  So it seems to me that the best ones have more power than a full length novel. It never surprises me to find exactly what I wanted to read in a short story, novelette or novella.  Clark's The Black God's Drums is a complete slam dunk.


Protagonist Creeper was born during a hurricane in alternate steampunk  Louisiana and was declared a daughter of the Yoruban Orisha Oya by her mother at birth. Oya wasn't originally an Orisha from Yorubaland.  According to Oya scholar Judith Gleason, she came from Benin and was syncretized  (a theological term that means combined) with various Yoruban spirits. ( See Gleason's book Oya: In Praise of an African Goddess.) This resulted in a very complex figure with numerous aspects.

Creeper is very close to the aspect of Oya who dances during storms with her husband, a thunder spirit variously known as Chango, Shango or Xango depending on which African diasporic tradition is most familiar to you.  This Oya flies and is often depicted with wings.  So naturally her daughter Creeper wanted to fly in an airship.  

Airships are common in steampunk worlds, but the weapon known as the Black God's Drums comes from Clark's alternate Haiti.  I would describe it as that universe's equivalent of the nuclear option.  It has much broader effects than the purpose for which it's deployed.  Anyone who considers using such a weapon really ought to think it over, but there are those in Clark's universe who don't consider the consequences of their actions.  I am familiar with those types in our own universe. 

Any author who has mastered the magic of combining political, historical and spiritual themes with an action plot and characterization is one I will want to continue reading.   I sincerely hope that P. Djèlí Clark will be writing and getting published for some time to come.


Monday, October 8, 2018

The Astronaut's Son--Blog Tour and Giveaway @woodhallpress @tom_seigel

Like many American science fiction fans, I've always been a supporter of  NASA.  This is the primary reason why I downloaded a Net Galley of The Astronaut's Son which is the first novel of Tom Seigel.  This is also why I decided to participate in the blog tour for this novel.  Scroll down for information about the giveaway.


If you were looking for a feel good romanticization of the space program, The Astronaut's Son isn't that book.   It's a provocative thriller that addresses a number of significant issues that can make for uncomfortable reading.   This is especially true if you have a Jewish background, and the only thing you really know about Nazi scientists at NASA is Tom Lehrer's satiric song, "Wernher von Braun". If you don't remember this song or never knew it, you can watch Tom Lehrer sing it at the hyperlink I've provided.

The Astronaut's Son takes you inside the experience of protagonist Jonathan Stein.  His father had been the Israeli astronaut Avi Stein who had tragically died of a heart attack just before his departure on a NASA moon mission. Jonathan's entire life has been devoted to honoring his father's memory by reaching that shining lunar destination in the sky.  Yet what if  his father hadn't died of natural causes?  What if he'd been murdered?  If Avi Stein had been murdered, then his first priority should be to find out the truth.

I found Jonathan Stein complex and sympathetic.  The discoveries that he makes in trying to find out what really happened to his father create a very personal dilemma for him. Jonathan thinks about a range of ethical issues that trouble him throughout the book.  I respected the fact that he had integrity.

I think that being an astronaut is a calling.  It requires tremendous dedication to a very demanding career path. I read an award winning story called "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" by Mary Robinette Kowal dealing with a female protagonist who wrestles with a decision over life priorities like Jonathan Stein. You can read it at here.

I admit to being bothered by Jonathan Stein putting science fiction fans on a list that included hoax believers, fraudsters and mass murderers.  He also seemed to think that science fiction fans are generally male.  I would like to point out that the demographics of science fiction fandom began to change in the late 1960's when women started to organize their own fan conventions and publications as a result of Star Trek.

Aside from the issue I had in the above paragraph, I was impressed by the Astronaut's Son.  The plot and characters had a great deal of impact on me.  There were revelations about NASA's history that caused me to place Tom Seigel's book on  my list of top reads for 2018.


If you would like to see the entire schedule of this blog tour, you can find it at


 The prizes will be a copy of THE ASTRONAUT’S SON, a package of freeze dried astronaut ice cream and a gift card for 2 movie tickets (hopefully people will use the tickets to go and see the Neil Armstrong movie, First Man which opens on October 12).  There will be one winner from this blog. The giveaway is  limited to the USA only.  Sorry international readers, but Over The River Public Relations which has organized this blog tour only wants to mail prizes within the U.S.

In order to enter, you will need to comment on this review with a contact e-mail.   Your deadline for entry will be October 18th.  I will then select a winner.  If you are the winner, I will e-mail you and request your postal mailing address.  Then I will forward your info to Over The River Public Relations.

 This giveaway is now over. Sadly, no one entered.   This doesn't exactly encourage me to do future giveaways.  OTOH, looking at the bright side, I can afford to do lots of my own  giveaways if no one will take me up on it. There are no shipping costs for a failed giveaway. 😄


Saturday, October 6, 2018

Claire's Last Secret: The Perspective of Claire Claremont

When publicist Mary Glenn McCombs asked me if I wanted to read Marty Ambrose's first historical mystery, Claire's Last Secret, for review I jumped at the chance because I hadn't read a novel from the perspective of Claire Claremont.  I was generously supplied with free review copies in both digital and print formats via Mary Glenn McCombs.


Claire Claremont (1798-1879) was brought up in the household of  political philosopher William Godwin along with her stepsisters Mary and Fanny. Seventeen year old  Mary ran off with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and sixteen year old Claire tagged along because she wanted to have an interesting adventurous life.  Many contemporary readers would think of these girls as irresponsible teenagers.  Mary eventually married Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.  Yet what about Claire?  Before reading this book, I knew little about her beyond her brief involvement with Lord Byron.

I found the historical aspect of Claire's Last Secret intriguing. Ambrose raises the possibility that Byron may have been involved in an Italian secret society.  I was also interested in some background scenes dealing with how Byron became inspired to write his iconic narrative poem "The Prisoner of Chillon" which was based on the life of the real 16th century Swiss historical figure François Bonivard whose Wikipedia article can be found here.

Claire's Last Secret is a dual period novel that contains sections taking place during Claire's youth in 1816 and Claire's old age in 1873.  There are mysterious events in both these periods, but only the 1873 murder appeared to be fully resolved.  I saw a review on Goodreads that said that this novel ended with a cliffhanger.  In my view, the protagonist needs to be in actual jeopardy in order to describe the ending as a cliffhanger.  There are some dangling plot strands, but I didn't believe that Claire was in any danger when I finished reading the final scene in this book.  So I would definitely disagree with that criticism.

I do need to say that the police investigation of the 1873 murder isn't really a prominent element in the plot, but I wasn't expecting Claire's Last Secret to be a police procedural. The surprising resolution made it a satisfying mystery.

This book's greatest strength was Marty Ambrose's solid research which made her characters so convincing.   I would definitely read another historical mystery by this author.