Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Wicked Stitch - Amanda Lee

Wicked Stitch
An Embroidery Mystery
Amanda Lee


 It’s Ren Faire time in Tallulah Falls, Oregon.  This is a long-running annual event; something the whole town looks forward to with excitement.  This year, the theme is MacBeth, and will culminate with a performance of the play.  Until then, various characters from the play will be strolling around the faire, giving warnings about the trouble to come, gossiping about Lady MacBeth, and the witches will be reading fortunes.  People come from all over the area to attend.  For merchants with small specialty shops, it’s a great way to get your wares displayed to potential customers.  In the week before the faire starts, Marcy Singer is busy sewing costumes (to be worn by merchants) and embroidering shirts, collars, and cuffs with blackwork to sell in her booth in the merchant’s hall.

 Her excitement about the faire is tempered a bit when she finds that her assigned booth is in between the booths of the Davis sisters, Nellie and Clara.  Nellie has had it in for Marcy since she moved to town, for reasons semi-real and imagined.  Clara, who only arrived in town recently, immediately co-signed her sister’s attitude, leased the shop next door to Marcy, and opened a competing needlework shop that mirrors Marcy’s setup in almost every way.  It may be a chilly two weeks in the merchants’ hall, but Marcy is determined behave civilly and have a good time.

The night before the Faire begins, merchants are setting up their booths.  Marcy and her boyfriend, detective Ted Nash, arrive late in the evening to being their setup.  Glancing into the booth next door, Marcy spots something odd in the back corner.  She’s shocked to discover Clara, on her side on the floor, with a knitted scarf twisted around her neck.  The paramedics say there was nothing Marcy could have done, but Nellie still blames Marcy and, in her grief, begins hurling accusations.  Not long after, Marcy’s booth is vandalized during the night, leaving her shirts, collars, and cuffs cut to shreds.  None of the other booths were touched, so clearly, this is directed at Marcy.  Is it revenge, or just a warning?

The author does a great job of describing the atmosphere of the faire.  It’s obviously a venue with large crowds of people in costume; anyone might be lurking behind a mask.  The faire also allows for a large influx of new characters, potential motives, and possible suspects.  As a result, we spend a lot of time with Marcy at the Faire, shopping, chatting, and meeting new people. Many people are supposed to be acting ‘in character,’ especially those given the foreboding MacBeth lines.  It all makes sorting out who’s acting suspiciously and who’s just acting, that much more difficult.

As the story opens, there is no current open homicide in Tallulah Falls, so Ted is working on a five-year-old cold case.  A detective has to keep an open mind and deal with facts.  Any mystery reader worthy of the name knows that this cold case will somehow figure into current events in town.  It does, of course, but not in quite the way I expected.  Secondary characters never get left out: their lives progress and change and the author is careful to make that clear. This mystery has a great backdrop, good characters, and a few red herrings to keep things moving.  Whether you’re a newcomer to the series (listed below) or have been reading from the start, you’ll enjoy this outing.

Rating: 7
April 2015
ISBN# 978-0-451-46740-9  (paperback)

  Previous Titles:

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Thread End - Amanda Lee

Thread End

An Embroidery Mystery

Amanda Lee





The tiny coastal Oregon town of Tallulah Falls has scored a coup:  their museum will be hosting the Padgett Collection, a group of textiles collected over the lifetime of Mr. Padgett.  Along with a high-profile exhibit comes high-profile security.  Also in attendance – apart from the many locals, both expert and amateur – will be a billionaire art collector, an FBI agent, and an art thief who was once an art history professor.  The FBI agent got a tip about the art thief’s being there, since the one piece of art the thief stole was from the aforementioned billionaire.  So that should make for some interesting conversation during cocktail hour.


The opening of the exhibit goes off without a hitch.  The following morning, Marcy Singer is performing the glamorous task of taking out the garbage in the alley behind her store.  First she sees what she thinks much be a kilim carpet from last night’s exhibit.  Looking for closely, she sees that the rolled-up carpet contains the body of a man.  It’s Dr. Vandehey, the art thief.  He’d been shot and rolled up in one of the kilim rugs from the display.  


Marcy is quickly eliminated as a suspect, but there are plenty more in the area. Word quickly spreads that the Collection was stolen from the museum during the night, too.  It could be that he was killed by his partner (or partners) in that crime for any number of reasons.  The billionaire, who seems a little volatile, could still be carrying a grudge.  Even the new, young curator of the museum has a motive.


Despite the fact that the alley behind her shop is a crime scene (again,) Marcy continues with business as usual in her needlework shop, The Seven Year Stitch.  She deals with customers, teaches classes, and gets to have lunch almost daily with her boyfriend, Ted Nash, the local detective, to discuss the case and suspects. Over the course of the story, little scraps of information drop here and there; pieces of the puzzle.  The resolution itself, however, is fairly awkward.  It involves odd leaps of logic by Marcy, then the sudden appearance and immediate confession of the Bad Guy.  The facts make sense, though, and it’s all worth it for the Epilogue.


Rating: 6

June 2014

ISBN# 978-0-451-46739-3 (paperback)
Previous Titles:

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Winter Family - Clifford Jackman

The Winter Family
Clifford Jackman
Doubleday Books
Western Noir/Historical Thriller
Just after the Civil War, the American West was still a wide-open, nearly lawless place.  It was an enormous area where a man could get lost, start over, reinvent himself, or evade the law, depending on his needs and desires.  Any time the forces of law begin to close in, the Winter Family simply moves west.  They came together during the Civil War.  Quentin Ross, the son of a good Chicago family, was a lieutenant for whom the fog of war was no obstacle; and the collateral damage and destruction visited on a helpless civilian population was never quite enough to satisfy him.
At that time, Augustus Winter was a mere private, serving under Ross.  Winter came to the war broken, and the war simply tempered him into a more dangerous weapon.  He would eventually come to lead the group and give the ‘family’ its name.  During their travels, men came and went from the group:  freed slaves, many with scores to settle; an alcoholic Indian called Bill Bread; a young, soulless gunslinger; various soldiers and civilians at loose ends.  The group moves from the war through the reconstruction period, working for whoever will pay them.  They re-group in Chicago to work as paid enforcers during the 1872 election.  From there, they move into the west, taking what they want, dodging the law, and still taking work from those desperate enough to hire them.
The story begins in Oklahoma at the height of the family’s rampage, and then circles back around to the time when the family began to coalesce.  Each section of the book details the family’s time in one area or another as they move through history and the country.  For men like this, the days of the war and the ‘peace’ that followed were golden times.  Anyone could do anything he wanted; there was simply not enough justice to go around at the time.  Little by little, the family and their actions get squeezed into a smaller and smaller arena as law and civilization inexorably threads its influence across the West.  In one sense, it’s a story of man’s primal nature, in the form of outlaws, attempting to fight back against the march of technology, in the very real forms of the railroad and the telegraph.  In another sense, it’s a Western from the point of view of the brutal and unsentimental black hats.
The author excels at conjuring a scene with just a sentence or two.  Where many authors need paragraphs to establish setting, here, the author open each section with a few powerfully descriptive sentences, instantly transporting the reader to the time and place.  Action sequences, and they are many and bloody, manage to convey violence and horror with a few words.  Of course, there are options other than violent, yet, somehow, when it comes, it seems almost fated. It’s nearly impossible to pin down a genre for this.  It’s very much a Western, but written with the cadence and bleakness of a noir.  Not a happy story, but one very much worth reading.  It’s the kind of book that stays with you long after you’ve closed the cover.     

Rating: 9
April 2015
ISBN# 978-0-385-53948-7 (hardcover)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Stranger - Harlan Coben

The Stranger
Harlan Coben

Adam Price leads a pretty nice life.  Married to Corrine, a woman he still loves; two teenaged sons; a law practice that affords him a good living in a nice house in an upscale suburb, all chosen by Corrine.  It’s all just sort of happened for him.  Corrine is different.  She has a capital-P Plan for everything that happens.  Since she’s at a teachers’ conference, Adam is the one sitting at a lacrosse draft meeting, holding Corrine’s ranked-in-order list of possible draftees for various teams. 
Just before the draft, a stranger sidles up to Adam.  He looks almost sad when he drops the bombshell that Adam’s wife, Corrine, faked her pregnancy a few years ago.  He tells Adam where to look for proof, then he simply leaves.  Adam tries to put this out of his mind, telling himself it must be some sick joke or something.  But it works on him until he has to find out for sure.  He’s sickened when he finds the proof.  The only hope is that there’s some kind of explanation that he can accept.  When he asks for one, Corrine stonewalls him, and eventually disappears.  Adam wonders how well he really knows his own wife.  And he’s going to find out the identity of this ‘stranger.’

Maybe the most frightening aspect of this novel is that it might only take one uncovered lie to rip away everything a person thinks he has.  Adam was completely secure in his marriage, in his family.  It was all part of the bedrock of his existence.  But one lie irreparably damaged it.  Not just for him, maybe, but for his sons, too.  He never loses sight of the fact that this whole life he’s part of is their life, too.
His investigation starts small, finding details on a credit card charge.  It inevitably widens to include more and more people.  People he’s known for years; whose children go to school with his; who serve on committees with him; who spent years standing on the sidelines of lacrosse fields with him and his wife.  If you can’t know your spouse, how can you know the guy down the street?  What secrets are hidden behind that Chamber of Commerce smile?  Once the stranger is factored in, it goes to a deeper, darker place than I really expected.  But I still enjoyed the ride, and couldn’t stop turning the pages.  Harlan Coben (LONG LOST, PLAY DEAD) writes very original, very relevant thrillers.  This is one that feels like it could happen to you.     

Rating: 8
April 2015
ISBN# 978-0-525-95350-0 (hardcover)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Death Of A Liar - M.C. Beaton

Death Of A Liar
A Hamish Macbeth Mystery
M.C. Beaton
Grand Central Publishing

There’s a certain type of romantic person who thinks that living in the Scottish Highlands would be something out of a storybook.  It usually takes those people less than one winter to see the error of their ways, and return to more southern climes, where reading about the Highlands is just fine.  When Frank and Bessie Leigh move into the area, Police Sargent Hamish Macbeth figures them to be the romantic-notion sort.  They claim to be from London, and, although they’re living in a small village where everyone knows everyone, they don’t care to mix much, or discuss what they did before arriving.  Everyone figures they’ll be gone by the first snow.
They’re gone much sooner than that.  A child finds a foot sticking out of a newly-turned garden.  That’s Bessie.  Frank is found, miles away, his bound and gagged body in the trunk of his car.  It looks like he was tortured.  Not long after, Liz Bentley, a woman infamous for making up outrageous stories (then weeping when caught out) is discovered in her own back garden, dead.  Hamish believes that the crimes are linked, but there’s no hard evidence to tie them together.  That doesn’t mean it’s time to stop looking.
If you’re a fan of this long-running series, settle in for quite a treat.  Over the course of the series, there have been many recurring characters.  Many of them make appearances here; and there’s one fairly large change in store.  If you’re new to the series, everything is explained, and you have a huge backlist to enjoy.  The mystery this time seems a bit more labyrinthine that usual, but that just adds interesting layers to what is always a treat.  It’s really almost enough to drop in on Hamish and his sidekick, Dick, in their police station, and wander about the Highlands with them.  The fascinating mysteries almost feel like a bonus.
Rating: 8
March 2015
ISBN# 978-1-4555-0478-7 (hardcover)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Deep Winter - Samuel W. Gailey

Deep Winter
Samuel W. Gailey
Everyone in town knows Danny.  The owner of the laundromat gave him a job as a janitor/caretaker, complete with a room upstairs.  Danny may be slow, but he’s honest and scrupulous about his work.  After a near-drowning left him with brain damage, habit is his friend.  His only other real friend in town is Mindy.  He’s known her since they were children.  She was the only one who would sit with him at lunch; the only one who didn’t taunt and tease him.  Today is Mindy’s birthday.  Danny knows that because it’s his birthday, too.  Despite the frigid temperatures and the blizzard blowing in, Danny walks several miles to Mindy’s home to deliver her birthday present.

When he arrives, Mike Sokowski, the deputy sheriff is there with his eternal hanger-on, Carl.  Mike tells Danny to stay there while he goes for help.  When the sheriff arrives, it’s to find Danny, weeping, holding Mindy’s body in his arms.  It’s not a big stretch to assume that Danny had some unrequited love for Mindy, got rejected, and snapped.  Danny knows Mindy is dead.  And he knows that he’s going to be blamed for it.  He’s terrified, and escapes custody, running into the woods, with no clear goal in mind.  As the snow piles up and the temperatures drop ever lower, the search begins.

It’s hard to believe that this is a first novel.  Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view.  The voices of each character are so clear and defined that this is never confusing.  The story takes place over roughly twenty-four hours.  In that one day, we learn about each participant; their pasts, their long-hidden hopes and fears, their true selves.  All of this happens within the construct of what is, essentially a chase novel.  It can be read on either level: as character studies, or as a fast-paced action novel.  That’s hard to get right, but this author makes it look easy.  Set aside some time before you start this one, because you won’t want to stop reading.  I’m really looking forward to the author’s future work.
Rating: 8
March 2015
ISBN# 978-0-14-218178-2 (trade paperback)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A First Date With Death - Diana Orgain

A First Date With Death
A Love Or Money Mystery
Diana Orgain
Berkley Prime Crime
We all know the basic setup: A single woman, looking for love; several (apparently) eligible bachelors; a bunch of over-the-top dates; and the one-by-one eliminations.  It’s all supposed to lead to romance.  The twist on this reality show is that there’s also a large cash prize.  And only half the men competing are really looking for love.  The other half are after the money.  The single woman doesn’t know who’s who until the end.   If she ends up with a guy looking for money, that guy takes the money and leaves her looking like a fool.
The single woman in question is Georgia Thornton.  She used to be a cop in San Francisco, until quite recently.  That didn’t end well.  She was engaged to a fellow officer who left her standing at the altar, so that didn’t end well, either.  Georgia’s best friend, Becca, is an assistant producer on the show, and recruited Georgia, figuring that either outcome (love or money) would be great for Georgia.
That’s why Georgia finds herself standing on the Golden Gate Bridge one early morning, being strapped into a harness, about to bungee jump over the Bay, with cameras recording it all.  She doesn’t want to do it, but there are contracts and obligations and a lot of pressure from everyone around her.  Something goes wrong on the first jump, and the unfortunate bachelor hits the Bay at full speed.  Everyone is horrified, but the show must go on, and in true Hollywood fashion, that first bachelor is replaced by Georgia’s ex, Paul, who will be investigating, while pretending to compete.
A reality show is a great idea as the backdrop of a new book series.  Everyone has at least a passing familiarity with the way reality shows work, so there’s not too much needed in the way of explanation on the ‘game’ side of things.  As the book progresses, readers find out which men are there for love and which for money.  And, by extension, who might want to commit murder, and why.  Although Paul claims he’s only there undercover, it’s clear from the outset that he wants to get back together with Georgia.  For readers who enjoy a bit of romance with your mystery, this series is tailor-made.
Readers who just like a good mystery will be pleased as well.  The background is interesting, the characters are realistic, and the personalities are diverse.  I especially enjoyed the very real friendship between Georgia and Becca, and Georgia's relationship with her dad.  While filming 'reality,' the layers of possible deception pile up quickly: what’s real; what’s real for the cameras; what’s real for investigative purposes; what’s real for purposes of the game.  The result is a fast-moving plot with several twists and a satisfying solution.  This is the first installment in what looks to be a very entertaining cozy mystery series.       
Rating: 7
March 2015
ISBN# 978-0-425-27168-1 (paperback)