Monday, January 25, 2016

A Second Chance At Murder - Diana Orgain

A Second Chance At Murder
A Love Or Money Mystery
Diana Orgain
Berkley Prime Crime

After competing in one reality show called For Love Or Money, you’d think Georgia Thornton would like to take a break from the limelight and try to deal with her personal life.  Actually, you’d be right about that.  That’s exactly what she wants to do.  The sad truth is, though, any money from the first show has already been eaten up by taxes, paying existing bills, and investing in Georgia’s dad’s farm.   So winning another cash prize would be nice.  And the producers are all about getting Georgia on another show after her extra-curricular activities (A FIRST DATE WITH MURDER) generated so much press.  The concept is familiar enough.  This time, several teams of two will compete with each other by performing stunts or completing a scavenger hunt while travelling through various overseas locations. 

And that, in a nutshell, is why Georgia wakes up in the pitch blackness of a freezing tent, camped out somewhere in the Spanish Pyrenees.  Almost the first thing she notices (besides the cold, the dark, and the rock she’s sleeping on) is that Scott, her boyfriend, isn’t in the tent.  Cell phones are useless, so that won’t help.  Not willing to suffer alone, she pulls on her cold weather clothes and goes looking.  She doesn’t find Scott, but she does find a coupe other contestants wandering around the campsite.  One went to the outhouse, one can’t sleep, the usual.  They agree to help her search. 

Minutes away from the camp, they stumble over the dead body of a woman.  She doesn’t belong to the cast or the crew; she’s a stranger to everyone.  There’s another clue: a watch on the ground beside the dead woman.  It looks very much like the watch Scott has been wearing.  The police arrive and do a search, finding nothing else.  They ask for everyone’s passports.  Georgia retrieves hers, and then looks for Scott’s.  It’s not among his things.  Did he kill the woman then run?  Or did he take his passport in the dead of night and leave the tent (and Georgia) meaning not to return?  Or, as the police seem to think, did Georgia do away with her boyfriend in the middle of the night?
Given this set of circumstances, Georgia has a very personal stake in the outcome of the case.  She was dumped at the altar by her last boyfriend, so thinking Scott walked out on her is a perfectly reasonable conclusion to draw.  As before, her friend, Becca, is on the scene as a producer of the show.  Becca has a balancing act to perform, between her duties as a friend, and her duty to her career.  The author skillfully mixes the various characters (who are uniformly entertaining,) Spanish scenery and customs, and the sometimes near-lunacy of filming a TV show, making the whole a great deal richer than the sum of its parts.  It’s great fun to follow Georgia behind the scenes of a reality show, meeting people on both sides of the cameras.  I hope she continues long into the future.    

Rating: 7 ½
January 2216
ISBN# 978-0-425-27169-8  (paperback)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Chocolate Falcon Fraud - JoAnna Carl

The Chocolate Falcon Fraud

A Chocoholic Mystery

JoAnna Carl





In the lakeside tourist town of Warner Pier, Michigan, there’s always something interesting happening.  At the moment, fans of hardboiled private eyes, gun-toting dames, and Humphrey Bogart are assembling for a noir film festival.  Lee Woodyard, business manager of Ten Huis Chocolade (a gourmet chocolate shop run by Aunt Nettie) is thinking about attending the screening of The Maltese Falcon when she gets a surprise visitor.  Her ex-stepson, Jeff Godfrey, a fan of noir films since she first introduced him to them, has come to town.


Lee hasn’t seen Jeff since he was a naive teenager.  He’s now in his twenties, has a bachelor’s degree, and plans to do graduate studies in history.  The two make plans to meet for dinner that night, but Jeff never shows.  He isn’t at his hotel, either.  Some searching uncovers his empty car, run off a gravel road in a very out-of-the-way spot.  Further searching and a large dose of luck lead to Lee finding Jeff in a bizarre spot.  The hospital says he’s got a concussion, and his memory is gone.  Soon after, Tess, Jeff’s friend, shows up in town.  According to her, the two are involved in a competition to find the best piece of film memorabilia for a cash prize, and she followed him to Warner Pier to try to scoop his find.  It seems thin to Lee, but great noir stories have been based on less.


If you’re not a fan of noir, don’t worry.  Anything you need to know about the genre and The Maltese Falcon in particular, is detailed here.  (Good thing, since I haven’t seen the movie in years.)  This allows non-fans to join in the fun of festival attendees roleplaying specific characters; and appreciate many situations that parallel classic noirs.  The author is great at blending background in the current events.  New readers will have no problems starting this long-running series at this point; and longtime readers (THE CHOCOLATE JEWEL CASE, THE CHOCOLATE BRIDAL BASH, THE CHOCOLATE SNOWMAN MURDERS, THE CHOCOLATE BOOK BANDIT) will have a great time, too.  As always, there are chocolate facts and recipes throughout.  I’ve already tried one of the easy fudge recipes, with great success! Despite the many noir associations, this mystery is light, fun, and cozy: the perfect escape from the holiday stress.


Rating: 6 ½

November 2015

ISBN# 978-0-451-47380-6 (hardcover)

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Prince Of Fools - Mark Lawrence

Prince Of Fools
The Red Queen’ War, Book One
Mark Lawrence
Dark Fantasy

As the grandson of the Red Queen, Prince Jalan Kendeth lives a pretty easy life.  Since he’s tenth in line for the throne, there’s really no danger that he’ll ever have to do anything like rule or make policy.  Instead, he spends his time gambling and making it his job to visit every bedchamber in the city.  To his horror, he was once sent into battle at the Aral Pass.  Somehow, while running away from his scouting party, he ran into the main battle and managed to acquit himself well, earning him the title “Hero Of The Aral Pass.”  He’s well aware of who and what he is, does his almost defiant best to play the fool, is self-deprecating about it, and yet is keenly and uncomfortably aware that his imposing grandmother knows it, too.

On the morning this story begins, the Red Queen summons all of her grandchildren to the audience chamber.  Also present are several captives who have tales to tell about the rise of the Dead King and his armies, both undead and unborn.  One of these, the very picture of a Viking, called Snorri ver Snagason, tells his story in such a way that it forces even Jal believe – until the story is done.  Once free of the audience chamber, Jal tells himself that these stories of far-away events must be the superstitious imaginings of uneducated foreigners.  Obviously nothing to do with him.
Later, at a performance of the capital’s opera, Jal sees the Queen’s seer, painting symbols around the opera house.  She’s clearly trying to cast a spell, and it won’t be pretty.  He manages to escape through a window, breaking through a symbol that has a physical presence to it.  He hits the ground in shock, because of the spell, and because of the soulless eyes he saw on an attendee wearing a mask.  In that moment, he believes in the unborn and the Dead King.  When the spell activates, it splits into light and dark.  The light hits Jal, and the dark hits Snorri.  From that moment, the two are bound by the spell.  They quickly find that, should they venture too far apart, there are very physical consequences.  Since Snorri is set on going back north to find what is left of his family after an attack by the undead, a probable suicide mission, Jal is constrained to follow.
This story takes place in the same Broken Empire that contained PRINCE OF THORNS, KING OF THORNS, and EMPEROR OF THORNS.  While it crosses that narrative once or twice, readers don’t have to have read the first trilogy to enjoy this one.  I would highly recommend reading the first trilogy at some point, however, because it is a sterling example of dark fantasy.  For longtime readers, this novel begins in a very different tone.  Keep reading.  While this first installment seems to set up Jal as a clown prince, it quickly becomes serious.  Jal does his level best to behave like the put-out royal, forced out of his palace and onto the road; but since readers are privy to his thoughts and emotions, we can see that, underneath it, there is more to him.
The story consists mainly of Jal and Snorri, on the road to the far north.  This is ideal for new readers, since Jal has never been outside his home kingdom, and everything beyond its borders is new to him.  On the way, a great many people pass in and out of their lives; some of them will be familiar to longtime readers. In addition, each one is carrying one side of the spell, a passenger that makes itself known, for good or ill, literally, every single day of the journey.  This is a great first book in a new series by a consistently compelling author.

Rating: 8 ½
June 2014
ISBN# 978-0-425-26878-0 (hardcover – also available in pb)

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Voyagers: Project Alpha - D.J. MacHale

Project Alpha (Book One)
D.J. MacHale
Random House Children’s
SciFi/Middle Grade


Earth is running out of energy. Within one hundred years, all fossil fuel resources on Earth will be gone.    Already, there’s eight hours of power blackout every night just to try to conserve energy.  The only solution is to find fuel on another planet.  Project Alpha will send four kids into space to find that fuel.  It has to be kids, because of the stresses this type of space travel places on adult bodies.  The kids’ families get ten million dollars, and the kids get the honor and adventure of saving Earth.
As this first book in the series starts, the eight candidates arrive at a top secret base to begin their training.  At the end, the commander of the mission will choose the final crew.  The training is both physical and mental, and only the best will make it.  Each candidate has a distinct personality, and a different set of strengths and weaknesses.  It’s fun watching the group come together, watching friendships form in such a stressful atmosphere.

This is the first installment in a series of six books.  Each installment deals with a different segment of the mission, and will be written by a different author.  There’s also an online component that allows readers to take tests and see if you could qualify for the mission.  There’s plenty of action, twists, great characters, and some interesting science fiction happening here.  It was complicated enough to hold my interest as an adult, and proved to be great fun for my middle grade reading friend. 
Fall 2015
ISBN# 978-0-385-38658-6  (hardcover)

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed To Earth - Judd Winnick

The Boy Who Crashed To Earth
Judd Winick
Random House Children’s
SciFi/Graphic Novel


D.J. is just a regular kid, living in a regular town.  Nothing interesting ever happens to him.  His brothers and sisters (he’s right in the middle) all participate in sports and music and dancing and all kinds of things.  D.J. doesn’t.  He’s not good at anything except being friends with Gina.
One day, all of that changes when a boy crashes to Earth.  He knows his name is Hilo.  And that’s about it.  He can’t remember where he came from or why he crashed to Earth.  D.J. befriends him, feeds him, and promises to help him.  Hilo is kind of weird, but kind of really interesting, too.  After Hilo arrives, life gets really weird, but also really interesting.  After all, Hilo fell to Earth from somewhere else for a reason.  How could that not be interesting?
I admit that I am very far from the target audience of this graphic novel; still, I really enjoyed it.  I liked the friendship, the action, and of course, Hilo and his silver underpants.  (Edit to add: I passed this along to a boy in the correct demographic: both he and his mom liked it.)  Parents looking at this should know that there’s nothing objectionable here, no bad language, and any ‘violence’ is of the cartoon variety.  Bottom line is, your middle grade readers are going to love Hilo and D.J. and Gina This is the first in a series.  Clearly, there’s more to come.  Outstanding!


Fall 2015
ISBN# 978-0-385-38617-9-3  (hardcover)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Damage Done - Amanda Panitch

Damage Done
Amanda Panitch
Random House
Young Adult/Thriller
Every once in a while, seventeen-year-old Lucy Black has to remind herself of her name.  She’s had this name for a bit less than a year.  Last year, she was Julia Vann.  She went to high school, played clarinet in the band, had friends, and a boyfriend.  She also had a twin brother, Ryan.   They were as close as two people could be.  The two of them held hands in the womb.  They were practically inseparable as kids, even after Ryan was sent to a doctor about his behavior.  After that, Ryan spent a lot of time with Dr. Spence, his therapist.  And then one day, Ryan walked into the band room and never walked out again.  Neither did anyone else, except Julia.  After that day, nothing could possibly be the same.  Now she’s Lucy and she lives in a new town among strangers.  She started at a new school.  She has a new friend or two.  She’s on the verge of having a boyfriend.  And no one knows who she really is.
Being Lucy is kind of a relief.  No one wants to ask her horrible questions or call her vile names.  Reporters aren’t lurking in the bushes every time someone takes out the trash.  On the other hand, most of her previous life is gone and she can never talk about it.  She has exactly one photo left of Ryan.  Compared to the other victims, maybe she’s lucky.  Until one day, rushing into first period, she spots him in the parking lot.  He’s far away, but she’s sure it’s Dr. Spence.  How could he have found her?  More to the point, what does he want?  Digging up the past and destroying the present is the very last thing Lucy (or Julia) wants. 
This is written for young adults, but it will appeal to a wider set of readers.  At the core, this is a very well written thriller.  I stayed up much too late because I had to find out what happened.  Julia/Lucy is a completely sympathetic character.  She’s not only the new kid, she has to lie about where she came from and who she was and what she did.  The whole novel is written from her perspective, so the reader really gets a good look inside her head.  While there are some difficult themes here (school tragedy, student deaths, psychological issues) most teens should have no trouble with this.  Most parents will want to borrow it when they’re done.
Rating: 8
August 2015
ISBN# 978-0-553-50749-2  (hardcover)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Rules - Nancy Holder and Debbie Viguie

The Rules
Nancy Holder and Debbie Viguié
Delacorte Press

Young Adult/Horror/Thriller
From the outside looking in, it seems like August DeYoung and his sister, Alexa, have it all.  Their parents are wealthy and that gives them freedom and opportunities most teenagers don’t have.  But, while their parents’ money is always around, the parents are emotionally absent, leaving the siblings to their own devices in their new home in California wine country.  August has built up emotional defenses against people who only want to use him and his friendship for his money.  Alexa, though, desperately craves love and attention and acceptance.  She’s gone down a dark road of drug addiction and empty sex in her search for affection.  One morning, she’s found in the pool at the country club, drowned.

August is devastated by the loss of his sister.  Unlike her, he has a strong personality, a genius IQ, and a laser-like ability to focus and plan.  During the following school year, he mounts a campaign to become the guy who throws the best parties; the guy who gives out trips to Europe as door prizes; the guy who stages elaborate scavenger hunts with huge prizes at the end.  To do this, he’s enlisted the help of Beth, up until then just a high school nobody.  A nobody who’s known the A-list kids since birth and can help August work his way into the group.  Now the end of their senior year is approaching.  August has planned (without Beth’s help, for reasons that worry her) what he bills as his final, blow-out, sure to be legendary, party and scavenger hunt. 

The guests assemble at an abandoned factory to begin a hunt with enormous, personalized, life-altering prizes at the end.  With prizes like a Los Angeles agent for the aspiring actress and the use of Mr. DeYoung’s considerable influence on college boards and coaches at stake, no one is going to miss this.  And that’s good, because August knows that at least one of these people – and probably more – was directly responsible for the death of his sister.  Those people need to pay, by any means necessary.  No punishment is enough for their crime. This party is going to be legendary.  And deadly.

If this sounds like the setup to a scary movie, you’re right.  And in less-experienced hands, it could have gone terribly wrong.  Fortunately, these two authors are very, very good at setting the stage, introducing the characters, and giving them all reasons for everything they do.  Everyone comes to the party with their own sets of preconceived notions, their own plans and hopes for the future, and their own secrets.  Take all of those together, and they form a set of ‘rules’ that each of us uses to know how to act from day to day.  Those rules no longer apply here, because there’s a killer on the loose, and there’s no way to know who the next target is.
Every good scary movie needs an innocent-in-all-this heroine.  Ours is Robin: nice girl, good student, the daughter of the high school football coach, the kind of girl who plays Clue with her little brother because he loves it.  Robin is not part of the in crowd.  She was friends with Beth until Beth dumped everyone else for August.  Going to this party is huge for Robin, socially.  Robin, like the reader, walks into the situation completely unprepared.  The authors do a great job of setting the stage and establishing the mood.  There are some unexpected twists that keep this from being too straightforward.  If you like scary movies, you’ll love this book. 
Rating: 8
July 2015
ISBN# 978-0-375-98347-4 (hardcover)

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)