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)

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Girl On The Train - Paula Hawkins

The Girl On The Train
Paula Hawkins
Riverhead Books
Rachel takes the train every day.  Every day, on her way to and from London, she watches for a row of houses whose back gardens face the tracks.  Every day, the commuter train stops at a signal near the houses, allowing Rachel a view of these homes and, sometimes, the people inside them.  In one of those houses lives a good-looking couple.  Rachel calls them Jess and Jason.  She sees them so often, she’s invented lives for them.  Their lives are full of friends and work; and they’re very happy together.  Rachel can tell, because Jason often seems very protective of Jess.

She can picture the inside of their house, because she used to live just a few houses down the road.  But that was two years ago, when she was married to Tom.  She never knew Jason and Jess; they moved in after her divorce and move to a single bedroom in the home of a friend from school.  Rachel takes a real sense of comfort in watching the happy couple, day to day.  Until the day that destroys her entire scenario.  As the train stops for a moment at the signal, Rachel sees Jess on the back terrace, kissing a man who is clearly not Jason. 
Soon after, the papers report that Megan (Rachel’s “Jess,”) has disappeared.  She vanished without a trace.  Of course, the husband is the primary suspect.  No one seems to know about the other man, the one Rachel saw.  Should she tell the police?  Will they believe her?  It was only a moment in passing, seen from a train.  But what if Megan is never found?  What if the husband is unjustly charged because no one else knows about this other man?  What if her information means nothing, and she ends up simply confusing the investigation?  Despite misgivings, Rachel makes her report to the police, and finds herself drawn ever more deeply into the mystery of the disappearance; and the lives of the people surrounding Megan and her husband.
Each character reports events from her unique point of view.  Each one gives emphasis and meaning to each event or encounter based on her personal feelings.  As we all do, every day.  Clearly, some interpretations are more accurate than others.  Some are simple mistakes.  Some are colored by intense emotion; some are blurred or eradicated by alcohol.  Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s former husband, Tom, contributes her own version of events, understandably colored by her own feelings about Rachel.  It’s a testament to this author’s skill that each person comes off as flawed (some more deeply than others) but completely human.  Here, presented in clear prose, is the difference between people in public, and people behind closed doors.  For some, there may be no real difference.  For others, the differences can be profound.
The book is written in parallel chronological order, with different sections narrated by different characters.  Rachel’s story begins a few days before she sees the strange man from the train.  Megan’s story begins roughly a year before that time.  Far from being confusing, I found that the device of changing points-of-view (and time) only made me more eager to keep turning the pages.  The reading experience here is much different than the usual straightforward timeline and all the more exciting for it.   By the time Megan’s narrative catches up with the present, the truth of events becomes clear to the reader.  Until then, it’s very much a mystery of motives and flawed memories. 
Rating: 9
January 2015
ISBN# 978-1-59463-366-9 (hardcover)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Cherry Bomb - Kathleen Tierney (Caitlin R. Kiernan)

Cherry Bomb

A Siobhan Quinn Novel
Kathleen Tierney (Caitlin R. Kiernan)

Urban Fantasy
Like RED DELICIOUS before it, this book comes with a pre-emptive warning from Quinn, who narrates in first-person.  To paraphrase: this is not a paranormal romance with gorgeous vampires who just want to be loved.  There will be blood, death, violence, and lots of bad language.

After the events of the last book, Quinn left Providence and her erstwhile employer Mr. B behind and struck out on her own.  She travelled to different places, took different jobs, and disliked the whole thing.  (I would dearly love to hear the story about the alligator women who worshipped Cthulhu, but, alas.)  Eventually, she landed in Manhattan, moved in with a woman with whom she had zero emotional connection, and let the time slip by.  Until the night a lovely girl called Selwyn approaches Quinn and says, “I know what you are.”
What Quinn is, is both a vampire and a werewolf, through an unlikely sequence of events.  What Quinn should be is more put off than intrigued, but, by her own admission, she was stupid and overlooked a lot of warning signs.  Like when she followed Selwyn, a dealer in “occult antiquities,” on a few deliveries, and got a good look at what those antiquities were.  Dark and dangerous items handed over to questionable and even clearly dangerous individuals.  But Quinn stays, and in very short order finds herself in the middle of an aeons-old conflict between the ghouls and the djinn.

Quinn isn’t kidding about her story.  It’s no romantic fairy tale.  It’s messy and bloody and murky and sometimes there is no clear-cut answer to the ‘why’ of it all.  Pretty realistic, actually.  Quinn is like that friend who simply won’t take good advice; won’t turn off the path that is clearly going to lead to destruction.  Part of that is because it’s simply her nature.  She’s not happy with what she is now, or what she knows now, and is maybe more than a little self-destructive.  Another side to her nature is the side that has a burning desire to see the right thing happen.  She says she’s no hero, but I think she’s wrong about that.

According to the author’s note at the end, this series of three books (I missed the first one) was a kind of experiment for her.  That experiment is now at an end, which makes me a little sad.  The author also claims that this experiment was not entirely a success.  As a reader, I disagree.  I think Quinn was a unique construct, but a strangely realistic one.  A supernatural creature grounded more deeply in reality than she ever was as a human being.  If this is, indeed, the end, then it was one fascinating ride.  Not always fun, sometimes horrifying, but absolutely a ride worth taking.
Rating: 8
February 2015
ISBN# 978-0-451-41655-7 (trade paperback)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Drifters - John L. Campbell

An Omega Days Novel
John L. Campbell

Note:  If you haven’t read the first two novels in this series, OMEGA DAYS and SHIP OF THE DEAD, this review contains many unavoidable spoilers.
At the end of the second book, Angie West was still tormented by thoughts of the fate of her family.  Angie and her husband, Dean, are both gun enthusiasts and survivalists.  Thus, they’re better prepared than most to deal with a zombie apocalypse.  They have a plan for any kind of crisis. The plan is to get to the ranch owned by Angie’s parents.  It’s isolated and defensible; there’s a bunker that’s stocked with food, water, and weapons.  Angie knows it's where Dean would have headed with their toddler daughter.  She has to know if they survived.

A few of her fellow survivors agree to accompany Angie on her search.  Privately, they feel it may be hopeless, but they can't let her go alone.  The freeways are choked with the abandoned and wrecked vehicles of panicked people fleeing cities; communications are down.  The only way to get in and out of the area in any kind of safety is to use the one helicopter (and pilot) available to them.  They land in an open area on a neighboring ranch, where they find Halsey, a ranch hand who has managed to survive alone since the outbreak.  Vladimir, the pilot, and Halsey agree to stay behind to guard the helicopter while the rest set off across the rugged terrain.

There are two timelines at work here: one for Angie and her group, beginning just after the events of the second book; and another for Dean and other characters, beginning just before the original outbreak.  The wise reader will take careful note of the date listed for each chapter.  While Dean is racing to get out of town without traumatizing his small daughter, other survivors are trying to make their own way.  For many, that means banding together with other people and finding someplace safe to hide for a while.  Little Emer, the leader of a motorcycle gang, has bigger plans.  He uses the crisis to set up a sort of fiefdom.  He styles himself as some sort of present-day Roman emperor and sends his people out to take what they need/want, no matter who gets hurt or killed.
In this installment, the scope of the story begins to widen a bit.  The events of the first book are a few months in the past by the time the two timelines converge, and human beings have become just as big a threat as the zombies.  Of course, everyone wants to survive, but different people have radically different ideas about how to accomplish that.  There’s still plenty of action, chases, and running gun battles, but this book contains some quiet moments, too.  Most of these are centered on Vladimir and Halsey, spending their evenings swapping stories while they wait for the search team to return.  These scenes are a nice contrast and allow the two characters and their unlikely friendship to develop naturally.

The author really excels at setting the scene.  We get glimpses into the lives of the survivors and what their lives were like before the world collapses.  We also see bits of the lives of a few zombies – who and what they were before they turned.  It humanizes them and gives the story more emotional punch.  As always, there’s no telling who is going to survive and who will not.  Some deaths seem fated, but others come as a shock.  Along the way, there are some new developments.  A few of the zombies are changing, becoming more aware; presenting a much more dangerous foe to the living.  There are some loose threads left at the end.  I hope that means more in this series, and soon.
Rating: 8 ½
January 2015
ISBN# 978-0-425-27265-7 (trade paperback)

Monday, February 09, 2015

Deadeye - William C. Dietz

The Mutant Files, Book 1
William C. Dietz
In post-plague Los Angeles, the face of crime may have changed, but there are still people dedicated to stopping it.  The plague happened in 2038, before Cassandra Lee was born.  She followed in her father’s footsteps and joined the police force.  Now she’s part of the elite Special Investigative Section, charged with tracking down the worst of the worst.  The plague, started by an act of bio-terrorism, has effectively separated humanity.   At the time, millions died.  Those who contracted the plague but survived were mutated in various ways.  Some of them are still carriers.  The norms and the mutants live apart, in newly-defined territories.  Since there’s no way to identity a carrier, when the populations must interact, they use specialized face masks and nose filters.
The new landscape of society has given rise to new hate groups – or old hate groups with new targets.  The Church Of Human Purity is dedicated to making sure than norms and mutants remain forever separated.  Bishop Screed has built an empire on the idea.  His great wealth gives him influence in the city.  When his daughter, Amanda, is kidnapped off the street, he puts pressure on the mayor and the police force.  Lee knows that mutant groups do kidnap norm women for use in creating norm (or norm-appearing) offspring.  That means that Amanda will have been removed from Los Angeles and taken into the red zone.  At best.
A norm in the red zone is an anomaly.  The mutants aren’t going to be likely to cooperate with Lee.  To that end, Lee now has a new partner: Deputy Ras Omo.  As a mutant, Omo will be able to talk to people Lee wouldn’t.  He knows the red zone and how to get around in it.  Lee is less than interested in working with a partner, but recognizes the necessity.  To Lee, finding the girl means time taken away from her obsession: finding a serial killer who specializes in cops.  He’s known as the Bonebreaker, and Lee is determined to find him, even though she’s not technically on the case.  She’s too close to it.  The Bonebreaker killed Lee’s father.

This is the first volume in a great new series.  The world-building is impeccable.  The Los Angeles here is still recognizable, but it’s clearly been altered in fundamental ways.  It’s now part of a state known as Pacifica.  To the east, starting roughly at Arizona, is the Republic of Texas, run by mutants.  The red zone is located in between the two.  Each location is a function of the individuals who live there.  It all fits together and it all makes sense.

The story unfolds in layers.  There are some great subplots that give the story and the world depth.  Lee is known as a loner who isn’t much liked, but is very well-respected for her ability to get results.  She closes cases.  Not always by arrests, but she closes them.  Most of the story is told from her point of view, but every once in a while, we get a bit of someone else’s.  It’s a great technique that gives the reader a glimpse into the inner minds and motivations of others.  It provides a richer and more complex view of this world. 

This novel is a great intro for someone unsure about “scifi” in general.  This story is driven by the characters.  Lee and Omo are both carefully drawn individuals.  They each have a history, a career, a family, a past.  The setting may be futuristic, but anyone who loves a good story, a good mystery, a good chase, will enjoy this novel.  The mystery plot is solid, there’s enough action to satisfy readers coming from the author’s military scifi novels, and the characters are realistic.  The author ties up the main story here, but leaves some very interesting loose ends for future novels.  I’m very much looking forward to them.

Rating: 8
February 2015
ISBN# 978-0-425-27333-3 (paperback)