Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Death By Devil's Breath - Kylie Logan

Death By Devil’s Breath
A Chili Cook-Off Mystery
Kylie Logan
Berkley Prime Crime
Maxie Pierce, her half-sister Sylvia, and the whole Chili Showdown are in Las Vegas for a cook-off.  On the line is a national title.  That may seem small, but to the savvy cook, a national win like this can be publicized and spun into a cookbook deal, or a signature chili mix, or even a stint as a TV cooking star.  The contest will be held in a hotel/casino.  The judges will be celebrities.  Well, fairly minor celebrities, really.  There’s Hermosa, the single-named lounge singer; Osborne a magician; Yancy, the blind pianist; the Reverend Love, who runs a large wedding chapel;  and Dickie Dunkin, a comic who performs insult comedy.  He insults everyone.  He insults the heads of the Chili Showdown, he insults various audience members; even his fellow performers don’t escape his taunts.
The first cook-off event is for Devil’s Breath chili.  The hottest of the hot.  The kind of chili that burns your nasal passages if you get a whiff of it from the next room.  The kind that Maxie loves best.  During the tasting, a judge keels over, dead.  It’s Dickie.  Obviously the Showdown crew is tops on the list of suspects, because they had access to the scene and the ingredients.  It soon becomes clear that Dickie had a very long list of potential enemies, up to and including anyone he randomly insulted during his act.  Despite several warnings to stay out of it, Maxie’s fired up, and decides that she’s going to get to the bottom of this.
Maxie is a bit of a different kind of amateur sleuth.  She’s no pro, so she makes mistakes, but it doesn’t slow her down at all.  Her personality allows her to be comfortable barging into conversations or situations, and asking pointed questions of anyone and everyone.  She’s completely unafraid of confrontation, verbal or physical.  It makes her an acquired taste, and it also makes her deliciously different than the normal run of fictional investigators. 
In this second installment of the series (CHILI CON CARNAGE) the main mystery is an interesting idea, peopled with the sort of odd and eccentric characters you’d probably only find in Vegas.  It feels like the author could have made so much more of this.  As it is, the story is a bit thin, and turns on a series of coincidences.  There are subplot involving a couple of the cook-off contestants, and, of course, Maxie is still looking to find out anything she can about Jack, her still-missing father.  I like Maxie, and I’ll be following her and the Chili Showdown to the next stop on their tour.

Rating: 6
August 2014
ISBN# 978-0-425-26242-9 (paperback)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Death Under Glass - Jennifer McAndrews

Death Under Glass
A Stained-Glass Mystery
Jennifer McAndrews
Berkley Prime Crime
Georgia Kelly is starting to settle in to life in tiny Wenwood, NY.  She’s re-connected with some people she knew there during her childhood; she’s met and made some new friends, too.  One of these is Carrie, who runs an antique shop.  Georgia used her skills in creating stained glass designs to repair a Tiffany-style lamp for Carrie, and has a few pieces in the shop on consignment.  The next step, professionally and financially, is commissioned work.  Carrie is helping a local woman refurbish a new B&B; Georgia will be creating a stained glass piece for the front room.
The visit comes to an end when Carrie gets a phone call.  Her ex-husband, Russ, has a law office in the next town.  It’s on fire and likely a total loss.  Since no one can find Russ, and Carrie owns half the building, she needs to get there.  The place is likely a total loss.  Once she learns no one was inside, Carrie is mostly irritated at Russ for leaving her holding the bag.  The fire is quickly declared arson and the police begin working through a fairly extensive list of people who might wish ill on Russ.  The situation really heats up when Carrie and Georgia arrive at Carrie’s shop to find that it’s been broken into and ransacked.  The discovery of a body makes it clear: Someone is looking for something, and that person will stop at nothing to get it.
For my personal taste, there are too many instances here of Georgia simply being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time, or overhearing exactly the conversation she needs to hear to advance the plot.  Likewise, having the local police detective repeatedly warn her away from the case wears thing very quickly.  She’s not a reluctant sleuth at all; I guess I’d just like to see her be more proactive.  I can forgive the quibbles, though, because Georgia (and Ms. McAndrews) finally posed the question I have pondered for years.  In a reflective moment, Georgia wonders if the recent murder victims would still be alive had she not returned to Wenwood.  She asks, as I have often done:  “How does Jessica Fletcher live with herself?” 
This is the second installment in the series, following ILL-GOTTEN PANES.  New readers will have no problem beginning the series here, as the author fills in the required background.  This time around, the mystery seems fairly straightforward.  The emphasis is on further developing the characters.  In the first book, Georgia was a new transplant, and quite sure that her stay would be temporary.  Now, though, she’s starting to create a whole new life, making connections, and even attending town meetings.  If the talked-about development along the riverfront goes forward, it would bring in tourists and maybe make her stained glass work a viable livelihood.  It’s interesting
to see someone move to a small town that isn’t perfectly nice and bucolic.  It seems more real. 
Rating: 6
July 2015
ISBN# 978-0-425-26796-7 (paperback)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Death With All The Trimmings - Lucy Burdette

Death With All The Trimmings
A Key West Food Critic Mystery
Lucy Burdette
Christmas in Key West is anything but festive this year for Key Zest’s food critic, Hayley Snow.  The boss is bringing in potential new investors and looking to revamp the magazine.  This boss is no fan of Hayley at the best of times; now it looks like she’s going to take this opportunity to get rid of her.  Key West is a small place.  There just aren’t that many writing jobs to be had.  For the moment, she’s trying to be business as usual, and up her writing game a bit in an effort to prove how essential she is to the magazine.  Part of that is accepting an assignment to do a review of the new place in town, Bistro on the Bight, including an interview with the chef/owner, Edel Waugh.
Edel and her now ex-husband ran a famous restaurant in New York, and there’s rampant speculation among those in the know about how well Edel will fare on her own.  The truth is, as Hayley soon discovers, Edel is not faring well, even before opening.  For a start, there has been a run of little sabotages in the kitchen.  Things like making changes to recipes, or, far more dangerous, substituting peanut oil for the regular cooking oil.  Edel asks Hayley to look into things for her.  Hayley isn’t entirely comfortable with this blurring of editorial lines, but she agrees.  It all comes to a head when someone sets a fire in the rear of the empty restaurant.  At first, it looks like no real damage has been done.  Then a body is found in a storage shed out back.  It’s the body of Edel’s ex-husband.  Now the restaurant is a crime scene, the opening won’t happen as planned, and a man is dead.  There’s no way Hayley can leave all of that alone.
In addition to all this, Hayley’s mom and mom’s boyfriend, Sam, decided to winter in Key West.  Mom has already landed a job with a good catering firm and is well on her way to making the place her second home.  It’s a subplot that will please readers who enjoy the mother-daughter relationship and it continues to develop the characters very nicely.  The mystery is interesting and nicely twisty.  Miss Gloria, Hayley’s octogenarian roommate makes an appearance of course, and figures into a part of the mystery.  Their friendship is realistic and the very sweet and solid base on which so much of the series (previous novels listed below) rests.  I really enjoy this series, and I’m happy to see there’s another installment out this month.  As always, there are recipes included for those who’d like a taste of Key West.
Rating: 7 ½
December 2014
ISBN# 978-0-451-46590-0 (paperback)

The rest of the series:

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Murder With Ganache - Lucy Burdette

Murder With Ganache
A Key West Food Critic Mystery
Lucy Burdette

It’s a busy time for Hayley Snow.  As always, she’s working to complete food reviews for Key Zest.  Her best friend, Connie, is getting married at the end of the week.  Hayley is desperately trying to find time to bake the key lime cupcakes for the reception.  And Hayley’s family (Connie’s surrogate family) is arriving for the wedding.  The family includes mom and her boyfriend, Sam; dad and his wife (and Hayley’s stepmom) Allison, and Allison’s son (Hayley’s stepbrother) Rory.  Having this whole group together in one place is a new experience for everyone.
Hayley hasn’t seen Rory since he was a child, since he lives most of the time with his father.  The sweet child she remembers is gone.  In his place is a sullen teenager who is far more interested in getting on a jet ski than in anything to do with the wedding.  During the wedding shower, it becomes clear that letting him explore the street outside is preferable to having him moaning and whining at everyone.  When he’s not back by curfew, Hayley is worried.  His disappearance, coupled with the report of a jet ski stolen from a dock by a couple of kids, can only mean trouble.   The next morning, they find Rory, unconscious, with the clear imprint of a chain on his hand.  Miles away, the body of a teenaged girl floats in the ocean, the clear imprint of a chain around her neck.

While Rory lies unconscious in the ICU, the police get to work.  It looks pretty bad for Rory.  Of course, his mother claims he’s incapable of something like this, but he doesn’t live with her.  And his father was planning to send him to military school due to discipline problems.  How much do any of them really know about Rory?  How much does any parent know about the inner life of their child?  Or about teenage culture; or, specifically, teenagers’ actions in Key West during spring break?  How do you parse out independence and privacy and safety and guidance?  This installment (AN APPETITE FOR MURDER, DEATH IN FOUR COURSES, and TOPPED CHEF) explores a seedier side of the vacation spot.
It’s a very organic reason for Hayley to get involved in the case.  She remembers the sweet kid he was, and feels guilty for not keeping in closer touch, despite the age difference between them.  The presence of her family both motivates and anchors her.  It’s interesting to watch the dynamics change during times of stress.  Through all of this, there’s a subplot involving Connie and her wedding that echoes, in a smaller way, the chaos around Rory.  As always, there are recipes included.  (I must try the key lime cupcakes.)  The mystery plot is nicely twisty, with the outcome never assured.  Even though a lot of people seem to die there, I’d love to visit this Key West that the author clearly loves so much.

Rating: 7 ½
February 2014
ISBN# 978-0-451-46589-4 (paperback)

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Finding Audrey - Sophie Kinsella

Finding Audrey
Sophie Kinsella
Delacorte Press

Young Adult
After some bad stuff happened at school, and after spending six weeks as an in-patient, 14-year-old Audrey Turner is home.  She’ll sit out the rest of the spring term, then start in the fall.  At a new school, of course.  There’s no way she could go back.  She’s getting better, bit by bit.  She’s been left with paralyzing anxiety and depression.  To help shield herself from the world, she wears dark glasses everywhere.  Inside or outside, rain or shine.  It’s her way of coping.  Eyes have a lot of power.
Audrey is the narrator of her own story, and doesn’t want to give too many details up front.  She’s got an older brother, Frank, and a 4-year-old brother, Felix.  Audrey can talk to them and her parents.  But she still needs the dark glasses.  As part of her recovery, her therapist suggests making a film.  It would be about her family to start, then widen to include ‘outside’ people.  The theory is that it might be easier to look at and talk to people through the camera lens.  Audrey’s not sold, but she’s willing to give it a try.  She’d very much like to be normal.  Especially for Linus, one of her brother’s friends.  Linus doesn’t treat her like a mental case.  And she saw him play Atticus Finch in the play last term, and thought he was great.  She still thinks he’s great.
It might seem that Audrey’s world would be tiny and confined, trapped in the house all the time.  But the truth is, her thoughts and worries take up a lot of her time.  Her story never feels small, just personal.  As she continues filming, we learn more about each member of her family.  There’s her Mum, who takes the Daily Mail newspaper as absolute truth, believing everything in it, and modifying the family’s habits to suit the latest story.  Which often contradicts the last story, so it can be tiring.  Her Dad is the nice, affable guy who used to be in a band and now does accounts.  Her brother Frank, dedicated to computer gaming (too bad, since the Daily Mail just listed the signs of computer game addiction and now Mum is convinced that computers are evil.)  And Felix, who is loved by everyone and leads such a simple, innocent little life.
Her film widens a bit, to include Linus, who is the boy every girl wants to meet.  Nice, understanding, and handsome.  When Audrey is too shy to speak to him, he writes her notes.  It’s an amazingly sweet solution that makes the problem seem like nothing.  Audrey so wants to be well; to be through this whole thing.  While she works through it, she comes to realize that her parents, especially her Mum, have a life apart from the house and the kids.  It’s a revelation most teenagers make, and it makes the story that much deeper.  You can read this as a love story; or you can read this as a family comedy/drama; or you can read it as a recovery story.  It’s all those things, and the ending feels real and earned.  I really like Audrey and loved her story.
Rating: 8
June 2015
ISBN# 978-0-553-53651-5 (hardcover)

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Dark Chocolate Demise - Jenn McKinlay

Dark Chocolate Demise
A Cupcake Bakery Mystery
Jenn McKinlay
Berkley Prime Crime

Scottsdale’s first annual Zombie Walk should be a lot of good, clean (gruesome, rotting) fun.  The walk ends at the park, where there will a concert and vendors.  Of course, the Fairy Tale Cupcakes van will be there.  Even zombies love cupcakes.  The antics of newly-engaged Angie DeLaura and Tate Harper are wearing out recently-uncoupled Melanie Cooper, but the three have been best friends forever, and she tries to put on a brave (zombie) face.  Going with the spirit of the occasion, Mel is dressed as a zombie chef.  Angie and Tate are, naturally, dressed as bride and groom zombies.
The three decide to get a closer look at the concert across the park.  The crowd is huge, and they get separated.  Arriving back at the van, Mel checks out the loaner coffin they’ve got propped up for photos.  The lid is closed, but there’s a piece of dress sticking out.  She almost doesn’t have to open the thing to know: someone in a big, poufy dress is dead.
I usually enjoy the characters in this series (see list below) but this time, their antics went too far.  They know that there’s someone out there, shooting people.  They’re pretty sure they know why.  Everyone around them is bending over backwards to make sure they’re safe, offering help, begging them to lay low.  So, of course, they ‘escape’ from their ‘minders’ as often as possible, putting themselves in terribly dangerous positions.  To the author’s credit, other characters call them on this behavior, but it’s hard to believe that rational adults would act like this, given the circumstances.
The mystery itself is involving, and the solution was an interesting surprise.  This installment of the series relies very heavily on what I’d call romcom elements.  That’s not my personal preference, but I know other readers feel differently.  As always, there’s a great supporting cast, developed over the course of the series, moving in and out of the story in a very natural way.  The cupcake recipes included are not new flavors, but the decoration ideas are new, very doable, and would be great for a Halloween party.  I’ve been following Fairy Tale Cupcakes from the beginning; I can’t let an instance of bad behavior turn me off this series.  I’ll be back for the next one, and, I hope, many more after that.
Rating: 6 ½
April 2015
ISBN# 978-0-425-25893-4 (paperback)

Cupcake Bakery Mysteries:

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Played By The Book - Lucy Arlington

Played By The Book
A Novel Idea Mystery
Lucy Arlington
Berkley Prime Crime

Everyone loves a ‘local boy makes good’ story, and that’s what Novel Idea Literary Agency is celebrating.  Damian York grew up in the area, left after high school, and now returns as an up-and-coming home and garden guru.  He’s already got a show on public television, and his first book is about to be released.  To mark the occasion, the agents of Novel Idea are organizing an outdoor dinner and book-signing event.  They’ll decorate along the same lines as the photos/suggestions in his book, using reclaimed doors for tables, tinted mason jars to hold wild flowers, and pots of fresh herbs on each table, waiting to be snipped and eaten by the diners.
Of course, Lila Watkins is right in the middle of things.  Although Damian isn’t her client, this is a team effort.  She’s been meaning to clean up her own home garden, so when her boss suggests that she participate in the walking garden tour – also part of the festivities – she’s got the motivation to make it happen.  While her son, Trey, is uprooting some sad-looking bushes, he discovers a human skull.  Lila calls the police, of course, and soon an entire skeleton comes to light.  Tests say that the skeleton has been there for maybe thirty years.  Lila naturally wants to find out who this person was, and possibly bring closure to a still-grieving family.
Finding a skeleton in your garden is a really good reason to launch your own investigation, I’d say.  Lila is hampered this time by a sort of estrangement from her boyfriend, who was just promoted to detective.  That brings me to The Big Misunderstanding, my very least favorite literary device.  Lila and her boyfriend have TBM; one that could be cleared up with a few declarative sentences, and since they’re both past forty, that’s what should happen.  Instead, there are ignored calls and dropped hints and trying to start jealousy.  Not how I’d expect these two characters, who until now have been written like real adults, to behave.  Your reaction will vary, of course, based on your tolerance for this device.

Aside from this issue, which may not impact other readers the way it does me, there are some interesting things going on in this installment (BURIED IN A BOOK; EVERY TRICK IN THE BOOK; BOOKS, COOKS, AND CROOKS.)  Several characters evolve and develop, and others hit new life milestones.  In a longstanding series, it’s nice to see the characters grow this way.  For readers who enjoy seeing the inner workings of a literary agency, there’s a good deal more of that this time around. The mystery was interesting, and there was enough misdirection to make the eventual reveal both surprising and original.  I have to admit, this series is really starting to grow on me.
Rating:  7
February 2015
ISBN# 978-0-425-25224-6 (paperback)