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)

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)