Book Review – Cat in an Aqua Storm

  • Title: Cat in an Aqua Storm
  • Author: Carole Nelson Douglas
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 09/18/2019

I started the e-book Cat in an Aqua Storm while I was on vacation and I had finished the books and graphic novels I brought with me but when I got home from vacation I promptly forgot about it. Then I picked it up again. Cat in an Aqua Storm is a light mystery story. The main character, Temple Barr, is an independent PR consultant in Las Vegas. Midnight Louie is her black tomcat. The book alternates between chapters told in a straight forward fashion about Temple, and chapters told in first person from the point of view of Louie. This is the second book I’ve read in this series, though the other one was later on in the series.

Temple, as she is wont to do, falls into a mystery, when a rival PR person is attacked while providing coverage for a stripper contest. This guy is rude and sexist, and continuously harasses Temple, but after he ends-up in the hospital, she agrees to provide PR for the contest, something she had turned down initially. Then Temple proceeds to trip over bodies – also something that seems to happen to her a lot.

Over the course of the book, four strippers are killed, all of whom had entered the contest in hopes of winning the cash prize and changing their lives. All had been in abusive relationships at some point in their lives and that abuse had led to their careers as strippers. Temple is forced to confront some of her own assumptions about the lives strippers lead. She even encounters a woman who protests the stripper contest, though this woman is made out to look like a fool who is out of touch with reality, which is a bit unfair.

Temple has also recently lost her boyfriend, who disappeared on her, but she inherited his condo, something that costs her a lot of money. She’s also met a handsome man who teaches self-defense courses and works at night at a helpline for abused women.

Midnight Louie meanwhile pursues the pampered Persian cat that belongs to one of the contestants in the contest. Temple stumbles around, getting to know the various strippers, and trying to figure out who the killer is. Eventually, the crime is solved, and the conclusion makes sense.

Cat in an Aqua Storm is a fun, lightweight, mystery story. The only thing about it I found weird is that the main character is not a private investigator, or police officer, or lawyer, or someone who has any reason to be involved in solving murders – she’s a PR person. Someone who gets paid to help companies, events, people, or organizations get good publicity. It seems incongruous that such a person would constantly stumble over bodies and then get involved in solving the murders. I like Midnight Louie, but he also doesn’t seem to be a “gumshoe” and doesn’t work to solve the crime. Overall, the book is a fun, light read, but it leaves one wanting a bit more depth. Overall, I’d give this novel 3.5 stars.

Book Review – Night Witches

  • Title: Night Witches A Novel of World War II
  • Author: Kathryn Lasky
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 08/12/2019

**Spoiler Alert** I ordered Night Witches from Amazon after reading about the all-female Russian combat pilot group that fought in World War II. I didn’t realize before ordering it that it was a Young Adult novel, but that is on me, and it made for a quick read. Valya and her sister, Tatyana, learned how to fly at a young age – their father was an air force flight trainer before he disappeared – a victim of Russia’s internal politics. When Stalingrad is blockaded by the German Nazis, Tatyana joins the Night Witches immediately. Valya wants to join too, but at 16, her mother thinks she is too young. During the siege of Stalingrad, first, her grandmother and then her mother are killed. After her mother’s death, Valya leaves the apartment that has been largely leveled, to join the Night Witches. She receives some help from a Russian sniper that took shelter in her flat the night of her mother’s death.

Valya tries to get out of the city to join the Night Witches at their hidden base camp. It’s not an easy journey and for several months she is forced to join a big gun trench. There she loads the guns with huge shells and helps turn the wheels to lower or raise the gun. Valya proves to be very good at shooting tanks and blowing them up. She eventually tries to get to the river to join a ferry that is trying to escape. She is unable to get on the crowded ferry and thus survives when the ferry sinks.

However, eventually, thanks to her excellent work in the trenches, she is given a pass to join the Night Witches. At the staging area, the higher-ups argue about how to physically get her to the base camp. Valya borrows a plane and flies herself there.

At the camp, Valya is first assigned to the maintenance and turn-around crew. She’s disappointed but makes the best of it. Finding the unorganized running to and fro of the crew to be inefficient, Valya comes up with a better way. Her immediate supervisor dismisses the idea – but another woman recognizes a good idea when she hears it and implements it immediately anyway. The new assembly-line type plan, where women work specific jobs instead of running all over greatly improves efficiency. Valya is promoted to navigator.

Valya flies several missions as a navigator, telling her pilot where to fly and dropping bombs on the Germans. In one mission, her friend and pilot is shot – Valya takes over the plane and lands it, despite the damage – but her friend is dead. Valya is promoted to pilot and becomes close friends with her navigator, Galya. On one mission, Valya turns and sees her close friend, Galya, missing from the plane. Fortunately, though, she is found and rescued by other pilots. Valya and her sister, Tatyana also are rivals, until Tatyana disappears on a mission.

The novel briefly summarizes the real history surrounding the siege of Stalingrad, and after the city is freed, the Night Witches become a more general combat unit, but also drop vital supplies to Russian troops. Valya and Galya are on another mission when they are shot down.

When Valya wakes up, she finds herself in a Ukrainian house, being cared for by a strange woman. This woman tells her that her navigator didn’t make it. Valya gradually starts to figure out the issue with the woman – she’s part of the anti-Russian Ukrainian Resistance. Valya also knows that Stalin has decided that all POWs are traitors and ordered them to be killed as enemies of Russia. Valya is stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea – even if she’s “rescued” she’ll be killed. Eventually, though, she is rescued by Galya and a small taskforce. Her commander arranges a suitable story to keep Valya alive. When the sniper from earlier in the story tells that same commander he’s seen Valya’s sister in a German POW camp the soldiers are about to liberate, the commander comes up with a plan. Valya, Galya, and a small group are able to rescue Tatyana when she is being moved between locations. Again, the helpful commander prevents Tatyana from being killed as a traitor for getting captured.

The war ends and Tatyana and Valya are given medals by Stalin for their accomplishments as Night Witches.

I liked this book a lot. It’s a Young Adult book, so the horrors of war are downplayed, but the author doesn’t downplay the realities of war so much as to make it sound exciting or in any way a “good thing”. It’s horrible – but Valya is doing her part because it’s necessary. Valya is also interested in the sniper she meets the night her mother is killed, but this isn’t a young adult romance. Valya is frankly too busy to think about boys. The night flying scenes are actually a little vague, but the history of World War II, especially all the details of the Siege of Stalingrad are extremely well integrated into the story. The real history impacts the fictional characters. I also liked Valya, even though, upon reflection, she’s a bit of a Mary Sue. Still, while reading the book the impression is more that Valya is lucky and determined, rather than boringly perfect. I highly recommend this book, especially for pre-teen and teenaged girls.

Book Review – The Man Who Died Laughing

  • Title: The Man Who Died Laughing
  • Author: Tarquin Hall
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 08/10/2019

**Spoiler Alert** Set in post-colonial India, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing features a private detective named Vish Puri and his friends and employees. One of the things I didn’t like about the book though is Vish’s employees don’t have real names – they have titles based on what they do. For example, his driver is called, “Handbrake”, his tea boy, “Door Stop”, his undercover operative is “Facecream” and his assistant operative is “Tubelight”. I really dislike this kind of laziness on the part of the writer – at least give your characters names. And if the author thought the reader wouldn’t be able to handle the “exotic Indian names” that’s extremely patronizing.

The story begins with Dr. Suresh Jha taking his early morning walk in a private, upper-class New Delhi neighborhood. He reaches the Laughing Club, a semi-spiritual group that practices morning laughter as a way of relaxing and even seeing the lighter side of life. The group is outside. Dr. Jha joins the group. But after a round or two of laughter, there is a flash of smoke, the members seem frozen in their tracks and the Hindu goddess Kali appears. After this remarkable occurrence, Dr. Jhu is found dead on the ground, stabbed.

Vish Puri had been a friend of Dr. Jhu, a famous debunker of spiritualism, and India “magic” and miracles. Although Vish didn’t agree with everything the “logical” Dr. Jhu claimed (Vish was Hindu) they were still friends, so Vish immediately becomes involved in the investigation. Dr. Jhu had been investigating Maharaj Swami a famous spiritualist who ran an ashram on the Ganges in the city of Haridwar. Dr. Jhu was trying to debunk Swami’s levitation act and communication with spirits and other spiritual “miracles”. He was also trying to get someone from the police to investigate the death of a teenaged girl at Swami’s ashram.

Vish Puri and his friends investigate – interviewing the police, friends of Dr. Jhu, and even India magicians to learn more about how tricks are done. Facecream is sent undercover to the ashram, where she is drugged, sees a “vision”, and is brought for a private audience with Swami. She talks with the dead girl’s roommates at the ashram and learns more about the suspicious death. Eventually, she searches the underground tunnels and office of Swami and finds evidence of how the ghostly vision is created on stage (they really do it with mirrors) and evidence of impropriety between Swami and the young women at the ashram. She’s unfortunately caught but then rescued by Tubelight and company.

Meanwhile, Vish eventually figures out that Dr. Jhu had faked his death and was planning on revealing how it was done on national Indian television. He was hoping such a grand gesture would make strides for logic over spiritualism in India. But as Vish goes to the place where Dr. Jhu is hiding out, he hears sounds of a fight and gunshots. By the time he, his crew, and the police get inside both Dr. Jhu and his partner have been murdered – for real this time.

However, the case against Swami – including how he drugged visitors to his ashram, and the sexual improprieties against young women come to light and he is arrested. He is also involved in “creative accounting”.

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing was a different book – but I found the broken English of the main characters a poor choice. I also didn’t like the job descriptions for names. There’s a great impression of what life in the largest city in India is like. However, the book also has a condescending, patronizing, imperial side to it – as if the British author suggested India wasn’t capable of self-rule after the British left. For the most part, politics are left alone – yet bribes, corruption, and graft are common. One of Vish’s clients even has to pay a bribe to get his children into a good school. Yet, despite their lack of names, the characters are interesting. I liked the short internal case of Vish’s wife and mother-in-law solving, by themselves, the robbery of their “kitty party” (a sort of women’s group with guest speakers and monthly lotto). This book would have been improved greatly if it had been written more from a genuine Indian point of view rather than a condescending British one. Thus I can only give it the so-so rating of 3 out of 5 stars, and not wholeheartedly recommend it. I will say that if you keep in mind the author’s obvious prejudices it’s not completely horrible.

Book Review – Star Flight

  • Title: Star Flight
  • Author: Phyllis A. Whitney
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 07/08/2019

In junior high I discovered Phyllis A. Whitney’s romantic suspense novels in a library somewhere – it may have even been a school library, and I became a devoted fan, scouring used book stores for her novels. But my tastes changed and I stopped reading them. Star Flight is a novel that sat on the shelf for years and I finally took it down and read it. And actually, it’s pretty good.

Lauren Castle is the granddaughter of Victoria Frazer and Roger Brandt two movie stars who had a hot and steamy film set romance that resulted in the birth of Lauren’s mother. But it also resulted in Victoria Frazer’s mysterious death (or disappearance). The death was considered suicide but the body was never found. Lauren’s estranged husband, Jim Castle, was a documentary filmmaker who decided to make a film about Victoria, Roger, and Roger’s wife, Camilla. He died and never finished the film. When Lauren receives a note suggesting her husband and her grandmother were both murdered, she travels to North Carolina, the site of all the happenings, to find out the truth.

Lake Lure in North Carolina was home to many movie stars and films in the 1920s and 1930s, and more recently with films like Dirty Dancing and The Last of the Mohicans, well, recent at the time of the novel, anyway. Victoria and Roger had filmed Blue Ridge Cowboy there but an on-set romance developed. Things did not end well.

When Lauren arrives she lets people she meets know her as “Jim Castle’s wife” rather than as Victoria’s granddaughter. She also runs into an old flame, the type of “what might have been” relationship, Gordon. In the end, she choose Jim, what she and her mother deemed a “practical choice” instead of Gordon – a more romantic free spirit. Lauren’s marriage to Jim was on the rocks before his mysterious death, thus the two-year gap before she decides to find out once and for all what happened.

Lauren meets various people, all of whom have an opinion on Victoria, Roger, the affair, and even the local movie business. There’s Natalie, a woman who paints dramatic paintings (including the painting, “Star Flight”, which gives the book its title), and who sent Lauren the note bringing her to Lake Lure, but who seems not particularly helpful once Lauren arrives. There’s Gretchen, Victoria’s sister who runs the local gift store and seems obsessed with finding good uses for the weed, Kudzu. There’s Betsey, Victoria’s dresser, now ancient, but still sharp, devoted to Victoria, and in possession of an awful lot of information. There’s Roger, himself, who seems content to not stir up the past. He’s angered when Victoria finally tells him who she is. There’s Camilla, Roger’s beautiful Spanish wife who stood beside him even through his various affairs, including the one with Victoria. There’s Ty, Victoria and Gretchen’s brother, who’s made a name for himself as the local “mountain man”. And there’s Gordon, Lauren’s old beau whom she thinks she can’t have a new happy relationship with. There’s even an older, retired actor who was in Blue Ridge Cowboy with Victoria and Roger. And there’s an author who wrote a book called, The Firefly about Victoria.

Victoria basically interviews everyone she meets, at times pretending she’s continuing her husband’s project (the film about Victoria, Roger, and Camilla) and at times admitting who she really is and telling whoever she’s talking to that she wants to learn about her grandmother. She slowly finds out more information, but she’s no closer in finding out what happened.

Finally, there’s a masquerade ball – and Lauren goes dressed as Victoria, wearing the costume she wore in the film, a white ball gown with a white turban. Her date is Gordon, dressed as Roger’s cowboy character. At the ball, it’s clear from Roger and Camilla’s reaction that neither had anything to do with Victoria’s death. But Lauren is also affected by the heat, noise, and the confrontation. Gordon goes to get her a drink – at exactly the wrong time. Lauren is tempted outside and kidnapped. She’s taken to her grandmother’s tomb by the murderer and their accomplice. However, the accomplice gets cold feet at being involved directly in a murder – he runs off. Lauren is rescued. It seems she and Gordon will restart their relationship, possibly settling in North Carolina. No, I’m not going to spoil who the murderer is.

This book starts slow, but the final two or three chapters are really good. The attack on Lauren outside the crowded ballroom, and everything involved with the murderer and their accomplice are really well-written. There’s also some beautiful imagery in those pages, especially Victoria’s final resting place. But for romantic suspense, there’s less romance between Lauren and Gordon than there should be. Lauren keeps thinking to herself that it’s too late for them – yet she’s a widow and Gordon either never married or is long divorced, so there’s no reason they can’t get together again. Besides, I have a soft spot for “second chance” romances between older couples. Another issue with this book is it is written in the first person, which I found to be distancing from the story, rather than the intended drawing you in. Also, all the stuff about using kudzu in salads, to make tea, and medicinally smacked of an author shoe-horning in too much research. It did nothing to add to the story. The book ended a bit quickly – I definitely could have seen at least a chapter or coda showing Lauren and Gordon’s happy relationship. Still, the book is better than the last few books I’ve read by Whitney, and those last few chapters were very good. I can actually recommend this book.

Book Review – Doctor Who: Combat Magicks

  • Title: Combat Magicks
  • Series: BBC Books New Series Doctor Who Adventures
  • Author: Steve Cole
  • Characters:  Thirteenth Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, Graham
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 05/18/2019

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book in the BBC Books New Doctors line, but I found Combat Magicks better than I remembered the Ninth Doctor books being. This is one of three books featuring the Thirteenth Doctor (as played by Jodie Whittaker on the BBC Series) and her companions, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham. The book opens with everyone in the TARDIS discussing where they want to go next when the TARDIS crashes into something. The TARDIS crash lands, and the Doctor and her companions find themselves in Gaul during Roman times, just before a major battle between the Huns and the Romans.

Speaking of Huns, they meet Attila (the Hun) though at first, he’s incognito as Attila’s first aide de camp. Attila says that the Doctor is a witch, but that’s OK since both he and the Roman commander have been employing witches to help them in combat.

The group is attacked and split up. The Doctor and Yaz are taken to Attila’s camp, Graham is captured by the Romans and assumed to be a wizard after he used some of the Doctor’s healing gel to heal people, and Ryan is captured by the mysterious Legion of Smoke. The Legion of Smoke is fascinating – sort of a Roman Torchwood. They investigate the supernatural but also keep alien tech hidden.

Graham tries to help the Romans where he can and discovers the Doctor’s alien healing gel is poison to the alien Tenctrama, which present as witches to the locals. And the Tenctrama also seem to be carefully avoiding giving either side an advantage. When one side is given genetically-engineered fighting animals, so is the other side, and so it is with every weapon and battle technique that the aliens give to either the Romans or the Huns. As much as they seem to want a level playing field, they also seem to be promoting as much death as possible. And both sides are using their tech to raise the dead as fighting zombie soldiers.

As often is the case, there’s a lot of running around as Graham, Ryan, Yaz, and the Doctor all learn bits and pieces of information slowly to figure out what the Tenctrama are up to, and why the Doctor’s healing gel is poison to them (and any person healed by the gel also cannot be absorbed by the Tenctrama and explodes instead).

The Tenctrama are rather inefficient genetic farmers, taking a thousand years to genetically modify their stock (all humans and animals) and then gaining energy from the animals’ deaths. With help from Liss and Vitus of the Legion of Smoke, Atilla general of the Huns, Aetius general of the Romans, and a few others, the Doctor and her companions are able to defeat the Tenctrama, but not without cost.

I enjoyed this novel. It does follow the typical Doctor Who pattern of splitting up the Doctor and her companions so everyone can discover something and then bringing them back together to trade intelligence and put together a solution, but it’s a well-written story. I liked the historical detail, and it was neat that Attila was portrayed as an intelligent leader with actual goals rather than just being a hacking and raiding barbarian. I loved the Legion of Smoke – rather than being paranoid, they were intelligent and motivated, like Torchwood. Plus, they had prior knowledge of the Doctor, which was a nice bit of continuity.

I recommend Combat Magicks and look forward to getting the other two books in the series featuring the Thirteenth Doctor.

Book Review – Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

  • Title: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
  • Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 03/17/2019

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles VorKosigan series has always been one of my favorites. The books are funny, poignant, and quick reads. This story takes place three years after the death of Aral VorKosigan, Cordelia’s husband and Miles’ father. Miles is now Count VorKosigan and living on Barrayar with his wife and five children. Widowed Cordelia is the Vicereine of Sergyar – the planet where she and Aral met so many years ago. Admiral Oliver Jole is a close friend of the family. It turns out that Aral was bisexual and Oliver was his lover for over 20 years, with Cordelia’s permission. The trio had even experimented with being a threesome, but only somewhat successfully.

Oliver and Cordelia cross paths on Sergyar and quickly renew their friendship and then become “friends with benefits”. Cordelia also takes frozen gametes to the Reproduction Center on Sergyar and gets herself six new daughters-to-be. She has one placed in a Uterine Replicator and the rest frozen for later use. She also has some leftover “eggshells” from the process – which she donates to Jole. Jole will initially freeze these genetic specimens but eventually decide to have three boys of his own using the Rep Center’s advanced technology.

Cordelia and Oliver date, sleep together, and try to figure out what they will do with their lives. Cordelia decides she will retire as Vicereine to raise her new daughters. Admiral Jole is offered a plum promotion to Chief of Operations for the Barrayarian Military, a post he eventually turns down so he can retire with Cordelia and raise his own new family.

Miles arrives with his wife and children to find out what is going on with his mother. It takes a little while but eventually Cordelia explains she’s sleeping with Jole, she is going to use tech to have six daughters with Aral and eventually Oliver tells Miles’ about his own family plans. It takes Miles a little while to absorb all this but he eventually adapts and he’s happy about his mother’s happiness.

I enjoyed this book – it starts a little slow, but speeds up once Miles finally arrives (with wife, five children, and nannies in tow). The scenes at Jole’s birthday picnic are marvelous. There’s also a more technical plot with moving Sergyar’s capital city away from a Volcanic Zone to someplace more temperate and suitable to living. This almost functions as a McGuffin as it functions as an excuse for furthering the plot. The book is really about the people: Cordelia, Jole, Miles, and the people around them. This book also really feels like it’s a conclusion to the entire Miles VorKosigan series, letting the reader know all the characters are OK and will be happy, even after Aral’s death. Still, it’s an enjoyable read and highly recommended. This volume isn’t really stand-alone as it refers back to various events throughout the entire Miles VorKosigan series of books. Recommended.

Book Review – Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder

  • Title: Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder: Scholars and Creators on 75 Years of Robin, Nightwing, and Batman
  • Author: Kristen L. Geaman
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 02/09/2019

Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder is an excellent essay collection about Dick Grayson – Robin, Nightwing, Agent of Spyral, and the heart of the DC Universe. Some of the essays in this collection take a strictly chronological approach – summarizing different eras in Dick Grayson’s career from his earliest days as Batman’s “young sidekick” to the New 52 Era of Grayson. Other essays use a particular lens to examine the character from Freudian psychology to Feminism. Grayson’s relationships with other important characters in his life including Alfred and also the Teen Titans are examined. Finally, the book concludes with interviews with some of the more influential writers of various DC Comics.

I really enjoyed this book, though it took me a while to read parts of it (I never was a fan of Freud and Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin left me cold. So the chapters devoted to those topics were tough going. But, on the other hand, the essay on New 52 including Grayson was very interesting – and I’m not a fan of New 52 either.) I also learned a lot about the history of the character and of DC Comics. I highly recommend this book to Grayson’s many fans, and to anyone who would like to learn more about the character and the history of DC Comics. Each essay is meticulously researched and documented with footnotes.