Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dead Things - Stephen Blackmoore

Dead Things
Stephen Blackmoore
DAW Books
Paranormal Noir Thriller

Fifteen years ago, Eric Carter left Los Angeles following the grisly deaths of his parents.  They were both magic users, and that gave them power, and people with power inevitably make enemies.  Eric knows who killed his parents.  The last thing he did before he left was to take care of that person.  He left his kid sister, Lucy, behind in the care of family friend Alex Kim.  Alex has a bit of magic; Lucy has virtually none.  Since she has no magic, Eric figured she’d be safe.  He figured wrong. 

Each person manifests a different aspect of magic, with a different degree of skill and power.  Eric is a necromancer.  He works with the dead and death magic and he’s good at it.  He’s made a decent living travelling to whatever place/person needs his particular skills.  Until Alex calls with the news. Lucy is dead; brutally murdered. You might think Eric would just know, but it doesn’t work that way.  He has to go back now.  He has to see the death scene, see what’s left of his sister.  Because she can certainly tell him who killed her.  And Eric will take out that person without mercy.  That is, if he can stay alive long enough to do the job.
Eric is a tough guy who makes hard choices and is not afraid to get his hands dirty.  A lot of his magic needs human blood to work.  A lot of spells separate body parts from bodies.  Eric works both sides of the veil.  Turns out, most of the dead are not happy about it.  He uses what (and sometimes who) he needs to get results.  In all of the darkness, he’s trying to toe the line.  He’s not looking to damn himself, but that might have happened last week or last year, or it might happen with the next spell.  Liquor helps sometimes, but not often enough.
Eric tells the story in first person, and he doesn’t mince words.  Even he seems surprised by the events in the final pages of the book.  The cast of characters is surprisingly large and consists of everything from humans to gods.  This is a gritty, bloody, violent, fast story.  It gets ugly and it gets unhappy.  And if you’re up for it, it’s quite a ride.  The follow-up novel is due in August and is already on my must-read list.
Rating: 9
February 2013
ISBN# 978-0-4561-0774-2   

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Cakes Of Wrath - Jacklyn Brady

The Cakes Of Wrath
A Piece Of Cake Mystery
Jacklyn Brady
Berkley Prime Crime
Part of running a business is networking with the businesses around yours.  So says Miss Frankie, who is Rita Lucero’s former mother-in-law and silent partner at Zydeco Cakes.  Rita isn’t really excited about joining the Magnolia Square Business Alliance, but Miss Frankie won’t be denied.  And that’s how Rita ended up spending hours in a meeting after a full day at the bakery.  Not that the entire meeting was a bore.  The first order of business concerns Destiny.  Moose and Destiny own the Chopper Shop.  Destiny says she has a deep desire to be involved in the alliance but has so far missed every meeting.  Given the stories she’s heard about Destiny (drugs, rehab, and romantic indiscretions) missing meetings seems like small potatoes.  Destiny finally arrives and demands to be put on the ballot for president, causing upset, arguing, motioning and voting.  Once the meeting is finally over, Rita and Moose are chatting on the street when a van speeds toward them, clearly intending to hit them.  The van misses Rita, but Moose doesn’t.  In his zeal to protect Rita, he tackles her pretty hard, sending her to the ER.
Returning to work the next day, bruised and sore but determined to carry on, Rita stashes her prescribed pain medication in her private office.  Later that afternoon, somewhat to her surprise, Destiny arrives, as promised, to help organize a weekend cleanup effort.  Showing up at all is a positive.  Unfortunately, Destiny is clearly high on something and Rita tells her to go home.  Destiny says she’ll soon be making a lot of people sorry; the implication being that Rita just made that list.  After she leaves, Rita discovers that her pills are missing from her office.  It doesn’t take Poirot to solve this crime.  The following morning, Rita walks to the Chopper Shop, hoping to have a serious talk.  What she finds instead is Destiny, dead, clutching Rita’s prescription bottle in one cold hand.  The resulting investigation puts Rita squarely in the crosshairs of a narcotics detective.

It would have been easy for the author to make Destiny a cartoon floozy who does drugs, but she wisely avoids that.  Instead, as the story unfolds and the reader finds out more about Destiny, it becomes easier to sympathize with her, even while disagreeing with her life decisions.  And her husband, Moose, a large man with many tattoos who owns the Chopper Shop, becomes a realistic person instead of a stock character.  This installment, the fourth in the series (A SHEETCAKE NAMED DESIRE, CAKE ON A HOT TIN ROOF, and ARSENIC AND OLD CAKE) introduces many of the surrounding business owners, providing a much better picture of the neighborhood.  This opens up many more avenues for interactions and mystery plots.
If you haven’t read previous books, this is a fine place to start.  There are many returning characters, and each is introduced succinctly, with just enough background for context.  This is one of the strongest stories of the series thus far. A very suspicious detective, sure that Rita is the culprit, provides a very realistic reason for Rita to continue her investigation despite several injuries that could have put her out of commission.  I’ll admit, I had the real baddie pegged before Rita, but I wasn’t concussed at least once!  This is a great cozy series.  And, if you’re so inclined, there are several great recipes provided, too.

Rating: 7 ½
September 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25826-2 (paperback)

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Tempest In A Teapot - Amanda Cooper

Tempest In A Teapot
A Teapot Collection Mystery
Amanda Cooper
Berkley Prime Crime
Once upon a time, Sophie Taylor had a restaurant in Manhattan.  Unfortunately, like so many other restaurants every year, hers did not have a happy ending.  The failure stings, but she knows what her next move will be.  She’ll return to Gracious Grove, the lovely small town in New York that was the site of all her best summer memories.  Her grandmother is there, running Auntie Rose’s Victorian Teahouse, just as she has done for the past forty years, with great success. 
In fact, the town boasts two tearooms.  The second, located just next door, is The Belle Epoch.  It was once an inn as well, but as she’s aged, owner Thelma Mae Earnshaw has mostly stopped renting to guests, concentrating on her tearoom, with mixed success.  Thelma Mae and Rose share a history that goes back over sixty years; a friendship fractured when a boy chose Rose over Thelma.  Thelma never really got over it. 
When Sophie arrives, she finds, like most adults, that much has changed and much has stayed the same.  Her best friend, Cissy, is engaged to Francis Whittaker, son and heir to the wealthy doyenne Vivienne Whittaker.  Their engagement party is taking place at The Belle Epoch (Thelma Mae is Cissy’s grandmother) and attended by the highest of Gracious Grove society. But the party is interrupted by a scream.  Sophie races over to help, only to discover Vivienne, on the floor, clearly in her death throes.  The cause of death is quickly established: poison.  Someone at the tea party must be a murderer.
Sophie is an interesting character; she’s someone who tried for her big dream and failed, but is more than willing to get back up and try something else.  True, she’s lucky to have her Nana and the tearoom to fall back on, but it’s clear that her grandmother is equally happy to have her there.  The two women (and assistant, Laverne) relate to each other as only real friends can.  The reader meets the various residents through Sophie’s adult eyes, comparing them to her memories.  It makes sense that Sophie would want to help her friend, Cissy, who is trying to console her fiancé after the death of his mother.  And Sophie manages to do a lot of nosing around without looking too suspicious by using social gatherings and casual run-ins to ask questions.
The story is told in third person, and it involves some changes in point-of-view.  This device can be confusing, but here, it’s used to great effect.  There’s no better way to know what Thelma Mae is really thinking, for instance, than to switch pov and listen in on her thoughts.  This device fills in a lot of gaps, and also creates great depth in what might otherwise come across as a ‘cranky old lady’ stock character.  The plot here is has layers that sometimes go missing in cozy mysteries.  And it contains a scene that may have whiskers, but is one of my favorites: the scene that gathers together all the suspects to get at the truth.  (Blame Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, et al, for my love of those scenes.) Full of interesting, realistic characters, this is a very strong start to a new series.
Rating: 8
June 2014
ISBN# 978-0-425-26523-9  (paperback)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Murder Gone A-Rye - Nancy J. Parra

Murder Gone A-Rye
A Baker’s Treat Mystery
Nancy J. Parra
Berkley Prime Crime

For most of the country, Thanksgiving means turkey and maybe the Macy’s Parade.  In Oiltop, Kansas, it also means Homer Everett Day, complete with a parade and a carnival.  Homer was a native son who found success on the football field, making it to the pros.  Then he went to war, during which his bravery earned him the Congressional Medal Of Honor.  After all of that, he returned to Oiltop where he was immediately elected mayor.  Today, his large shoes are filled by his son, Hutch.  All of this is to explain why Toni Holmes is working on a parade float as the book opens, instead of baking gluten-free treats at her bakery.
And what would a holiday be without a relative in jail?  Grandma Ruth calls, thrilled that she’s been “arrested” for the murder of Lois Striker, a local woman.  Grandma Ruth is 90 and rides a scooter everywhere.  The police found scooter tire prints near the body.  In truth, Grandma Ruth is only there to be questioned.  She’s never let go of her job as an investigative reporter, so she’s questioning the police right back.  She tells Toni that she’s sure this death has something to do with Homer Everett, who died in the 1970s.  The case was quite cold until Grandma Ruth got ahold of it, and now with Lois’ death, it looks like maybe something is afoot in the small town.
I’m really torn about this book.   On the one hand, the mystery plotline is quite interesting, and not easy to solve, since most of the background happened fifty years prior.  The way the author tells the story is unique, too.  At the outset, various characters are finding out about Lois’ death by word of mouth; exactly as they would, in a small town.  The reader hasn’t met Lois, hasn’t seen the crime scene, and doesn’t even know exactly how she died.  Toni gets pulled into the investigation through the actions of her Grandma Ruth, who claims that her investigation (Ruth’s) of an old crime is what got Lois killed.  This leaves the reader to find more information along with Toni.
If you read my review of GLUTEN FOR PUNISHMENT, you know that I enjoyed Grandma Ruth’s irrepressible nature at that time.  But, if you’ve read here for any length of time, you know that my tolerance for ‘zany’ is quite low.  Sadly, Grandma Ruth has zoomed right past ‘entertinaing,’ and now exists firmly on the ‘whacky’ side of things.  This is too bad, because her continuously escalating antics unfairly divert attention from the plot, and served only to irritate me.  Readers who enjoy this kind of character will obviously have a better time with it than I did.  As I said, the underlying mystery was an interesting and unusual one, with twists happening right up to the end.  There’s a subplot involving a boy and his dog that is most effective and touching without being heavy-handed. There’s enough here for me to like – including some recipes for gluten-free treats – that I’ll be making at least one return trip to Oiltop.
Rating: 6 ½
June 2014
ISBN# 978-0-425-52544-4 (paperback)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Cross-Stitch Before Dying - Amanda Lee

Cross-Stitch Before Dying
An Embroidery Mystery
Amanda Lee

Beverly Singer wants The Seven Year Stitch, her daughter Marcy’s shop, to go Hollywood.  Actually, she wants the stitchers to go Bollywood.  As a well-known costume designer, Beverly is working on a new film depicting the life story of one of Bollywood’s early stars.  The costumes will take an army of hands to stitch, embellish, and embroider.  Marcy and several of her steady customers are up for the challenge, including Reggie Singh, who’s thrilled to be able to use/showcase some of her stitching talents.

Hollywood moves ever closer when location scouts decide that a spot outside town would be a great substitute for a town in India.  The production arrives soon after, and Marcy immediately gets a dose of the downside of working with stars.  This is supposed to be a comeback vehicle for Babs Tru (BTru, if you read the tabloids.)  Launched as a child star, lost in her teens to drugs and alcohol, now ready for her redemption arc, Babs is not exactly radiating gratitude for this chance.  She’s being especially horrible to Beverly.  Somehow, all of Babs’ costumes are too small.  Beverly blames the craft services table, while Babs blames Beverly.  It gets loud at one point, before Babs stalks off in a fury.  Later, she’s found, dead.
Naturally, suspicion falls on Beverly.  Even though she’s highly respected in her field, she was the last person to have a fight with Babs.  But there are plenty of other people around who might have had a hand in it, for all kinds of reasons.  It could have been someone who wanted to stop the movie from being made at all.  Or someone who objected to the movie being shot in the U.S.  It could have been one of the many people who had it in for BTru, who did leave a trail of destruction in her wake.  Everyone, on the set and around it, is a suspect.  But Marcy’s not going to let anyone railroad her mom.
This is the Marcy I missed in the last installment (see below for list.)  Obviously, she stands behind her mom, knows she didn’t do it, and will do whatever she can to help prove that.  There’s a nice subplot on this one for Beverly; it’s hard not to feel it along with her as she tries to see longtime friends in new and possibly unflattering lights.  There’s also a subplot that lets a speeding bank robber start the book with a bang (gunshot.)  I tend to like this series better when Beverly is involved, but now that Marcy is settled, she’s really growing on me as a character.  A very entertaining entry in a fun series.
Rating: 7 ½
August 2013
ISBN# 978-0-451-24007-1 (paperback)

Previous titles:

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Witches In Red - Barb Hendee

Witches In Red
A Novel Of The Mist-Torn Witches
Barb Hendee


After much turmoil, sisters Celine and Amelie are settling into their new home and apothecary shop.  Living in the midst of peace and prosperity is still a novelty to both, and neither truly trusts in it yet.  As Celine waits for the other shoe to drop, Amelie finds herself at loose ends.  In the past, her role was to protect and provide for her sister, the healer.  Now, there’s no need for that, and while Celine continues her role as healer and seer of the future, Amelie is coping with her feelings of restlessness in addition to her newfound ability to see the past.
Both sisters’ immediate problems seem to be solved when Lt. Jaromir, Prince Anton’s personal guard, comes to the sisters with a request.  Since the two (and Jaromir) were instrumental in solving a series of murders in the castle (THE MIST-TORN WITCHES) Prince Anton asks for their help again.  There is a silver mining camp far to the north, populated by the miners who toil, and the soldiers who guard and transport.  There are all the usual tensions between the two groups, but now men are dying.  The stories that reach Prince Lievan, father of Prince Anton, tell of men suddenly turning into huge beasts and turning on their fellows, tearing them apart.  And far worse: the silver has stopped flowing into Prince Lievan’s coffers.
If there is some sickness among the men, Celine and her healing arts may be able to stop it.  If there’s something more malevolent going on, then the two seer sisters will be invaluable in identifying the culprits.  Of course, Jaromir and several men will accompany them, presenting them as ladies of Anton’s court, come to practice their ‘seeing’ skills.  The knowledge that the handling of this situation is a test for Anton only puts more responsibility and stress on the shoulders of Celine and Amelie.  Should they fail, Anton fails in his father’s eyes as well.     
The author manages to mix fantasy and mystery to great effect.  The scenes are set perfectly; the world inhabited by the characters is quite solid and real.  There is a bit of a detour during the story, away from the central mystery, but it really serves to broaden our understanding of Celine and Amelie.  The motive behind things was a bit weak, I thought, but the story itself was so much fun it really didn’t much matter.  This is the second book in a very solid series. I always look forward to Ms. Hendee’s books.  I enjoy her fascinating method of constructing a story.
Rating: 7 ½
May 2014
ISBN# 978-0-451-41416-8 (paperback)

Monday, May 26, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Karen Jay Fowler
Once upon a time, Rosemary Cooke lived in a stable nuclear family with her mother, her father, her brother, and her sister, and all was right with the world.  That may be the fairy tale version, or the real version, or something from somewhere in the middle of all of that.  What is true is that, when she was a child, she was a talker.  A nonstop, no-breath-taking, talker.  At one point, her parents told her to pick the most important thing and just say that.  It wasn’t terribly helpful.  Eventually, her father told her not to start a story at the beginning; to start in the middle.  That was.
Rosemary begins her story in 1996, in the middle.  She hasn’t seen her older brother in ten years.  She hasn’t seen her sister in nearly seventeen years.  She’s doing college on the extended plan, with no concrete goals in mind.  One day in the canteen, she’s swept up by a human hurricane called Harlow Fielding.  Harlow is essentially a one-woman drama department and most of this part of the story surrounds her.  Or does it?  Because the real story for Rosemary is not so much the people who come into her life; the real story is those who leave it.
It’s good to meet Rosemary in college, when she’s at some distance from the disappearance of her sister.  Rosemary-now is quite different from the hazy memories of Rosemary-then.  Rosemary-then had a sister called Fern.  They were raised together by devoted parents; they were inseparable.  There’s almost no moment of her early childhood that Rosemary can recall without Fern.  Then, suddenly, she wasn’t there anymore and Rosemary had to adjust her entire self.  The fact that Fern was a chimpanzee is really beside the point in those early years.
The author (who also wrote THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB) allows Rosemary to tell her story in a kind of desperately breezy kind of way.  The way someone tells a story when they want to give the impression that they’re not deeply affected, even though any casual listener can see right through that.  As the tone subtly shifts, so does Rosemary.  It’s a unique story that has a lot to say about how we form a family; how we can come to value or devalue events or the members of that family over time.  In essence, our lives are just as much about what we forget or leave behind than about what we carry with us.
Rating: 9
March 2014
ISBN# 978-0-14-218082-2  (trade paperback)