Sunday, May 14, 2017

Caramel Crush - Jenn McKinlay

Caramel Crush
A Cupcake Bakery Mystery
Jenn McKinlay
Berkley Prime Crime


Have you ever spent time close to someone who’s planning a big, fancy wedding?  After a while, the detailed planning and changing whims make it not much fun.  Especially if you’re best friends and business partners with both halves of the couple.  Angie DeLaura, the bride-to-be, won the coin toss, so Melanie is standing up with her and functioning as Maid of Honor.  Tate, the groom, and the other third of the partnership that runs Fairy Tale Cupcakes, just wants Angie to be happy.  And that’s about all the input he has.  Not too surprisingly, Angie is now a full-fledged bridezilla, complete with endless agonizing over every detail, ever-increasing demands for hand-holding at every single step, and terrifyingly regular temper explosions and crying jags.  All three have been best friends since junior high.  Melanie is happy for her buddies, but the wild swings between crying jags and ‘schmoopie’ lovey talk is starting to make her dizzy.

Enter the seemingly perfect antidote to all of that:  Diane Earnest, Mel’s college roommate, who now runs her own successful marketing firm.  Mel owes Diane a favor, as she delights in reminding her, so here’s what she’s going to need to do.  Diane just found out that her fiancé is marrying her for her money.  Diane, a Type A on turbo, is all about her business and her bank account.  She’s not going to be taken advantage of, by any man.  She wants Mel to bake a batch of cupcakes, decorate them with “love stinks” and other assorted ‘I’m dumping you’ phrases, and deliver them to Mike Bordow at his party supply business.  Diane wants Mel to be on the phone with her so she can hear his reaction to getting dumped.  None of this makes Mel feel good, but she does owe Diane from their time in college, so she agrees.

If you’ve been reading this series (list of titles below, all very much worth a read) for any time at all, it will not surprise you at all to know that, when Mel arrives at the party supply office/warehouse, she discovers a dead body.  It’s Mike, and it looks like someone already dumped him, into a ball pit, after bashing him over the head.  Of course, as the angry ex-fiancée, Diane is the primary suspect.  Diane invokes The Favor again, and convinces Mel to try to find the real killer, and get her off the homicidal hook.  It honestly doesn’t take that much convincing.  Mel is on the case.

In this installment, Mel, Angie, and Tate all matured quite a bit.  I lost my patience with Angie quite a long time before Mel did, and I was grateful that this author doesn’t find that kind of behavior in any way cute.  Mel, to her credit, deals with it as only a lifelong friend could.  It’s a huge relief to everyone involved, and a great opportunity to further develop the cast of characters.  The mystery is interesting, since, as it turns out, there might be several people who wanted Mike dead, for different reasons.  The outcome of the whole thing makes sense and is quite satisfying.  The story ends on a kind of cliffhanger for a secondary character, so I hope the next installment isn’t too far in the future.

Rating: 8
April 2017

ISBN# 978-0-399-58381-0 (paperback)

The series so far:

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Vanilla Beaned - Jenn McKinlay

Vanilla Beaned
A Cupcake Bakery Mystery
Jenn McKinlay
Berkley Prime Crime


It’s a bittersweet truth that, many times, business partnerships function best during the startup period.  At that point, each partner has the same mind-set.  Everyone is working day and night; hustling to make the business a success.  Once there is a measure of success, the partners may have very different ideas about where to take the business (if anywhere) from there. 

In this case, Melanie (Mel) Cooper is thrilled with the success of Fairy Tale Cupcakes.  Her partners, Angie and Tate (who are now real-life partners, too) are eager to capitalize on this success by opening franchises.  Mel is opposed; she wants to be hands-on, not a long-distance owner.  The recipes and baking methods are largely hers.  She’s very worried about quality control, among other issues.

Angie and Tate have the majority vote, but they want to convince Mel, not force her.  They’ve decided on Las Vegas as the location of their first franchise.  It’s close enough to Scottsdale to feel not-quite-long-distance; but still far enough away, and in a high-traffic town.  Their prospective franchisee is Holly, an almost-former showgirl.   Mel’s knee-jerk reaction is to turn her down immediately.  But, after spending some time with Holly, she sees the woman beneath the showgirl.  She has a young daughter now, she’s going through a divorce, and she’s ready for her life to take a new direction.  She’s also a gifted baker, even creating some new cupcake flavors.

Since they’re in Vegas, the group decides to check out possible franchise locations.  At the first location, opening the front door sets off an explosion that seriously injures both the realtor and the local lawyer who had accompanied them.  It’s definitely a shock, and most likely an accident, and maybe even some kind of warning from the universe.  Later, at the second prospective shop, a car leaps the curb and crashes through the front window.  The driver, wearing a helmet, manages to flee the scene.  That’s more than definitely a purposeful act.    Holly breaks down and admits that she’s being terrorized by a stalker.

 This latest installment (see list below) puts the three main players in direct danger.  Since their personal relationships have been strained lately, the danger serves to pull them all together again.  A common enemy will do that.  It’s nice to see them all on the same page again.  The action is fast-paced and the pages seem to fly by on their own.  Holly turned out to be quite an interesting and likeable character.  She’s a good addition to the cast, and I hope we get to see more of her.  As always, don’t miss the recipes at the end of the novel.  I haven’t found a bad one yet.  

Rating: 7
April 2016

ISBN# 978-0-425-25894-1 (paperback)

Previous titles:

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Friday Night Bites - Chloe Neill

Friday Night Bites
Chicagoland Vampires
Chloe Neill
New American Library


Note: If you haven’t read the first book in this series, SOME GIRLS BITE, this review contains unavoidable spoilers.

Merit has been a vampire, and a member of Cadogan House, for a short few months.  Due to recent events – including those that led to her being turned without her permission – she’s proven her skill and worth to Ethan, the Master of the House.  He’s named her Sentinel.  That means she’s part of the security team that protects the House.  Vampires came out to the public fairly recently, via a worldwide press conference.  The initial hysteria has mostly died down, but there are still plenty of mixed feelings about the vampires living among us.

When Cadogan House gets an anonymous tip that a journalist is planning an in-depth series of articles about the vampires, it’s not quite a surprise.  The downside is that this reporter is apparently planning to make so-called vampire “raves” public.  A rave is a gathering of vampires and willing humans.  The vamps take the blood the humans are willingly giving, but sometimes take more than they should.  And they offer nothing in return, despite the many and varied promises they make to the hapless humans.  These gatherings are considered illegal and immoral by most vamps.  If this knowledge becomes public, there will most likely be another round of fear, Congressional hearings, laws, and possibly the modern equivalent of villagers with pitchforks and torches.

Turns out, Merit knows the reporter in question.  He’s the brother of her childhood friend and high school sweetheart; the youngest son of a fabulously wealthy family that Merit has known all her life.  This gives her the perfect opening.  Ethan wants Merit to mend bridges with her (also very wealthy) family.  Her name and connections will give him entrée to the right parties and, thus, the right (rich, powerful, political) people.  They can investigate the family, the reporter, and possibly head off this potential PR disaster.  Of course, as with most disasters, this one is much more than it appears to be. 

I did read the first novel before this one, but I think that readers starting here will get the background information they need.  There’s a lot of continuation of characters and situations that made me glad I read the first book, though, so proceed at your own risk.  What seems like a pretty straightforward plot of protecting the House quickly becomes much more thorny and interesting.  It’s fun to watch Merit interact with her family and people from her childhood.  She was always more interested in literature than in cotillions, so she’s almost as much of a fish out of water as Ethan.  When she inevitably confronts her former boyfriend, the depth of hurt she feels is palpable.  Merit does a lot of growing up in this installment.  Not much of it is fun, but it’s all necessary.  There are many more installments in this series, and I’m so glad about that!

Rating: 8.5
October 2009

ISBN# 978-0-451-22793-5 (trade paperback)

Monday, May 08, 2017

K Street - M. A. Lawson

K Street
A Kay Hamilton Novel
M.A. Lawson
Blue Ridge Press


Kay Hamilton is ready to quit her job.  It’s not that it’s a bad job, exactly.  It’s that she’s just not sure whose interests the Callahan Group represents.  Rumor has it that the Group works for the President, but unofficially, so there’s no trail back to the White House.  Kay, late of the DEA, doesn’t quite believe it; but she can’t brush it off, either.  With no straight answers coming her way, she’s on her way into the office to tell Thomas Callahan that it’s been nice, but she’s leaving. 

As she enters the office that early evening, she walks into a fire fight.  Several heavily-armed men are in the process of removing the safe from Callahan’s office wall.  Callahan and two of his employees have been shot.  Callahan is clinging to life.  The other two weren’t so lucky.  Since she was forced to defend herself – and in the process killed one of the intruders – the DC Police are more than a little eager to discuss every detail.  Kay is not about to start spilling information (what little information she has) to a random detective.  Once she makes her way to the hospital to check in on Callahan, he manages to utter a single name.  It’s not much, but it’s a starting point. 

This is the third novel in this series.  I haven’t read the first two, and I had no problem picking up here.  There’s enough background sketched in to give me a good idea of who Kay is as a character; and about her recent history.  The story starts with the heist, from the point-of-view of the armed men.  To say it hits the ground running is an understatement.  When we switch back to Kay’s point of view, the investigation moves very quickly as she backtracks through the last couple of days’ events.  As it turns out, a whole lot happened, including several murders.  Clearly, someone very powerful (and dangerous) is involved in all this.

The narrative continues to switch points-of-view throughout the book.  Far from being distracting or confusing, this allows the reader to follow the characters and gain a full picture of what’s going on and why.  Everyone has his/her own motives here; some are obviously going to conflict.  Kay is the star, but there’s plenty of attention given to the rest of the cast.  Even the secondary characters feel like real people on the periphery of something big.  This is one of those fun, fast-paced thrillers that keep me up way too late.  And I don’t regret it one bit.

Rating: 8
January 2017

ISBN# 978-0-399-57584-2 (hardcover)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Magic Bites - Ilona Andrews

Magic Bites
A Kate Daniels Novel
Ilona Andrews
Ace Books

Urban Fantasy/Dark Fantasy

So, full disclosure: I’ve been having some issues lately and these issues have led to what must be the longest, worst reading slump for me to date.  I was looking around, trying to find something to jolt me out of it, and came across this series.  I’ve been meaning to ‘get around to it’ for some time.  I picked up the first book and was completely hooked!  I think I read this in two sittings, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I’m so grateful to the nice people at Ace, who have provided me with (I think) the whole series, so never mind the publication dates, if you enjoy urban fantasy with a very dark slant, you will not want to miss this series!

Kate Daniels is a sort of magical mercenary, living outside of Atlanta.  She could be a part of the powerful Guild, if she chose to be, but she’s got a long-standing problem with authority.  She’s just happier working for herself.  As the story begins, she has a visitor.  It’s a vampire.  Not the Dracula kind, the animalistic kind, piloted from a distance by a magical someone.  The pilot uses the vampire to ask when’s the last time Kate saw her guardian.  Just out of curiosity. 

Kate’s guardian happens to be the Knight-diviner of Atlanta.  He’s very powerful and extremely knowledgeable about all things and all creatures magical.  Even so, he was found dead, on the street, next to the beheaded corpse of another vampire.  Only someone with a huge amount of power could do something like that, and they should have left traces.  Of course, that would be too easy.  Kate’s guardian was the last family she had left; she’s determined to find and punish whoever hurt him.  No matter who, or how powerful, that person is.

The world of this book looks much like ours, but takes place in some unspecified future.  Here, there’s magic, and there’s technology.  Some time ago, there was a huge magic surge in the world.  Since then, the magic ebbs and flows.  When magic is high, tech stuff (like cars, and lights) won’t work.  Most people and places have adjusted to this, and switch over to horses or feylamps during these times.  Magic is accepted as a given here, and there are multiple government agencies in place to oversee/regulate its use.  In theory.

While this is a first installment in a series, and there is some necessary groundlaying work happening here, it’s never obtrusive.  In fact, this is one of the few times I’ve wished for a bit more background information.  The story is complete in this novel – no cliffhanger – but there’s clearly a lot more story to tell.  I’ll be reading/reviewing more in this series in the future, so stay tuned!

Rating: 8
April 2007

ISBN# 978-0-441-01489-7  (paperback)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Better Off Thread - Amanda Lee

Better Off Thread
An Embroidery Mystery
Amanda Lee
Berkley Prime Crime


In the days after Thanksgiving, Marcy Singer, owner of The Seven Year Stitch embroidery shop, is looking forward to a quiet evening with her guy, Ted, a detective in the local police force, when the doorbell rings.  To her surprise, it’s Capt. Moe, a local character and the man who makes the best milkshakes for miles.  Capt. Moe has been a great friend to both Marcy and Ted, so when he says he has a favor to ask of Marcy, she knows she’ll say yes.  He’s going to be playing Santa at the local hospital during the week after Thanksgiving, and again before Christmas, and he needs an elf.  Marcy agrees, and even volunteers Angus, her Irish wolfhound to come along wearing reindeer antlers.

The first evening, as Marcy arrives, she wanders into an argument between Moe and Sandra Vincent, the hospital administrator.  Sandra wants Moe to show special attention to one sick child – even give him a special gift – because the child’s father is on the hospital board.  Moe refuses, and pledges to treat all the kids the same.  Despite that, the rest of the evening goes very well.  When Marcy returns the next day for her second performance as an elf, she’s stopped by a large security guard.  The guard says that Sandra was found by Moe with a knife in her chest.  The county police waste no time arresting Capt. Moe and charging him with the murder.  Marcy, Ted, and anyone else who knows him, knows that Moe didn’t do it.  Now they just have to figure out how to prove it, without stepping on the county boys’ toes.

This is the tenth installment in this fun series (see list below.)  It can’t be easy to keep characters and plot lines fresh over so many stories.  But this is one of those stories that feels completely organic to the place and the people.  Capt. Moe has been a friend to Marcy since the first book.  Readers most likely agree with Marcy, that there’s no chance he stabbed someone.  It makes sense that Marcy and others would do what they could to dig into the situation, trying to help out their friend.  As is realistic for small towns, the investigators quickly realize that lives and livelihoods and politics are all tangled together.  Pulling one thread could unravel a lot more than a murder.  Visiting the Seven Year Stitch is always a good time.

Rating: 8
December 2016

ISBN# 978-0-451-47385-1  (paperback)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Stitching Hour - Amanda Lee

The Stitching Hour
An Embroidery Mystery
Amanda Lee


Halloween in the little town of Tallulah Falls, Oregon, usually means a G-rated haunted house at the public library.  It’s their best fund-raising event of the year.  But this year, something new has come to town.  The Horror Emporium has opened in the store next door to Seven Year Stitch, Marcy Singer’s needlework shop.  They’ll only be open in the evenings for the month of October, but Marcy teaches classes three nights a week and isn’t looking forward to interruptions from next door.  She’s also busy getting ready for her one-year anniversary party at the shop and preparing for a visit from her mother, Beverly.

The Atwoods, the flamboyant couple running this new attraction, announce that there will be a sort of open house for neighboring shop owners before the Emporium officially opens for business.  To celebrate, there’s a party, catered by the nearby coffee shop; and manned, with very little enthusiasm, by Keira, one of the coffee shop waitresses.  As the group of shop owners starts the tour, the first room on the tour is the Lair of the Serpent, featuring real snakes.  The rest of the attraction consists of a series of actors and effects that make the experience fairly realistic.  As they exit, they see a female form, crumpled on the sidewalk.  Most think this is a last scare.  Instead, it’s Keira, lying on the ground, with a pair of wounds to her neck.

Marcy feels unaccountably sad for Keira.  Although they hadn’t known each other well, they had a bit of history.  When Marcy first arrived in town, the two women had briefly been interested in the same guy.  Although that’s long past, Keira held a grudge.  She was a generally unhappy person, it seems.  But who would want to kill her?  Was she the intended victim, or just a victim of opportunity?   Before Marcy gets very far in her investigation, a family emergency almost derails everything.

Keira has been a very secondary character since the beginning of the series (see list below.)  The fact that the reader is learning so much background about her only after her death pretty much puts the reader in Marcy’s shoes.  No one is any one thing; and Keira was more complex than Marcy thought.  Getting to the bottom of this mystery requires some input from almost everyone in the cast of characters.  The solution comes about fairly abruptly, but it makes sense and ties up the loose ends nicely.  Beverly’s visit adds an extra dimension to the story, as usual.  And I continue to wish for a shop just like Seven Year Stitch near me.

Rating: 7
November 2015

ISBN# 978-0-451-47384-4  (paperback)