Friday, February 29, 2008

Hold 'Em Hostage - Jackie Chance

Hold ‘Em Hostage
A Poker Mystery
Jackie Chance
Berkley Prime Crime


Belinda Cooley “Bee Cool” is in Las Vegas to take part in the World Series of Poker. Whatever you do, do not call her a professional gambler. She plays poker as a lucrative – sometimes very lucrative – hobby. To make her living, she relies on her public relations firm. This being Vegas, there are poker games every day, everywhere. Bee, her twin brother Ben, and her best friend Shana are playing at the same table. Not a good idea, for a variety of reasons, but this time it’s because only two can walk away with money, so one of them is guaranteed to lose their $100 buy-in.

Shana, more than a little tipsy, stands up and bumps into a man walking behind her. To everyone’s shock, the bump dislodges a bloody knife from his coat. The man is gone before the knife even comes to rest, point-down, pointing at Bee. Not the best way to start a day. Naturally, the police want to talk to her about this little incident. One thing leads to another, and Bee finds herself attempting to escape a man who is probably not actually a member of casino security. During her escape, she winds up in the (surprisingly cold) fake lagoon that decorates the lobby. The bigger problem is, she’s not alone. There’s a corpse in there with a slashed throat.

The police want to talk to her pretty extensively after that; sure that she must know the victim. Naturally, they don’t believe that she doesn’t. Back in their suite, Shana brings everything to a screeching halt when she confides in Bee that she hasn’t been able to get her teenaged daughter, Bee’s goddaughter, Aphrodite, on the phone. Affie is supposedly staying with the parents of Bee and Ben. A call to them goes unanswered, too. All is explained, unfortunately, when Bee gets a call from someone who says he’s got Affie, has access to Bee’s parents, and has framed Bee for a murder. A quick check with a neighbor confirms that Affie and the parents are, indeed, missing. If Bee wants to get them back and beat the rap, she’s going to win the World Series of Poker and hand over her winnings. But Bee’s no pushover.

Bee, last seen in DEATH ON THE FLOP and CASHED IN, is an interesting character. She’s only just recently discovered her skill with cards and enjoys the tournaments, but her first priority is her family and friends. You don’t have to know the first thing about poker to enjoy the story. And, if you want to learn, there are tips and explanations scattered throughout the text and at the end of the book. Even without that knowledge, this is a fun and lively caper-type novel. Set in Vegas, there are plenty of interesting characters wandering in and out of the action. Bee is definitely cool.

Rating: 7
February 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-21984-3 (paperback)

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hot - Julia Harper

Julia Harper
Grand Central Publishing

Contemporary Romance/Humor

“In Turner Hastings’ opinion, the bank robbery didn’t go truly bad until Yoda shot out the skylight.” If anything, Turner’s opinion minimizes the truth when, on a sleepy Saturday morning in a small Wisconsin town, two masked men (one Yoda and one SpongeBob SquarePants) inexpertly holding sawed-off shotguns burst into the bank and start making demands for money. And, really, once the Jedi Master had shot out the skylight, and his pal, SpongeBob, dressed for success in a bright yellow mesh tank top that not only matches his mask but displays his remarkably hirsute nature, has shot out the front door of the bank itself, things are not likely to get very much worse. The tellers hand over the money, the quietly but clearly instruct the robbers on their next course of action, which would be 1. Take the money and 2. Run away.

After that the two police cars of the town come screaming along main street and everyone who has even the slightest reason to be there is wandering around the scene, confusing it. Under cover of this confusion, Turner sees the chance she’s been waiting for during four years of working as a Saturday teller; the chance to clear the name of her Uncle Rusty. Turner calmly enters the office of the bank president, Calvin Hyman, takes the key to Calvin’s safe deposit box, and removes the contents. When she’s done with that, she looks straight at the nearest security camera and delivers a smile that might almost be a smirk. And then, Turner goes home, packs up a few things, and goes on the run.

FBI agent John MacKinnon gets the call, since banks are federal jurisdiction. He spends hours with local law enforcement and Calvin Hyman, who also happens to be the town mayor with ambitions of running on a state level. Searching Turner’s vacant home, John discovers a photo of her Uncle Rusty. Four years ago, Rusty was accused of embezzling from the same bank. He died before the case was disposed of. It’s the first hint of anything resembling a clue, and John decides to follow it. Taking a chance, he calls Turner’s cell phone number. They’re both shocked when she answers. Over time, and while Turner is on the run, the two strike up a sort of relationship over the phone; a relationship that certainly transcends your average cops-and-robbers interactions. They’ve both got their own jobs to do, the question is, which one will uncover the entire truth first? And what happens after that?

Julia Harper has won the hearts of historical romance readers everywhere with THE RAVEN PRINCE, THE LEOPARD PRINCE, and THE SERPENT PRINCE, written under the name Elizabeth Hoyt. This is a seamless transition to the genre of contemporary romance with a good dose of light comedy and action.

The characters, especially Turner and John, are realistic and completely believable. It’s quite simple to suspend your disbelief and go along with this fun, frothy ride. Even the bad guy has depth. Calvin isn’t your cardboard-cutout villain. Sure, he’s done bad stuff, but you almost have to feel sorry for him for having to live in a home decorated almost exclusively in pig motif. Thinking back, though, that motif might have been perfect for him. If you’re looking for a speedy ride, light reading, an unusual romance, and quite a few laughs, you need to get HOT right now. I hope this isn’t a one-time experiment for this talented author.

Rating: 8
January 2008
ISBN# 978-0-446-61917-2 (paperback)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Decorated To Death - Peg Marberg

Decorated To Death
An Interior Design Mystery
Peg Marberg
Berkley Prime Crime


Last seen in FAUX FINISHED, and clearly undeterred by the circumstances of that case, Jean Hastings, and her daughter, JR, still run their own interior design business called Designer Jeans. Since this business is located in the small town of Seville, Indiana, business is necessarily slow sometimes. That’s why Jean’s thrilled when her sister-in-law and lifelong friend, Mary, tells Jean that there’s a lucrative job on the horizon.

When she lived in her hometown of Seville, Dona Deville was your basic cheerleader-cum-prom queen. But her ambitions were large, and now, decades later, she runs a very successful upscale spa business in Indianapolis. She’s making a brief return to Seville to check out an inheritance left to her by an aunt who died under rather mysterious circumstances. Her aunt left her property with three buildings: a cottage, a barn, and a shed. Dona and Jean are only interested in the cottage. Dona wants it transformed into a weekend getaway house.

Jean immediately starts working up preliminary ideas for the as-yet-unseen cottage. She’ll be meeting Dona later to tour the cottage, partly to familiarize herself with the space, and partly to make sure that the place is up to code and ready for decorating. When Dona cancels the visit, Jean and Mary decide to ride out and check on the basic condition and surroundings of the cottage. As it turns out, the lady of the house is home. Unfortunately for all concerned, she’s very dead.

Jean is someone you’d like to be friends with; she’s both creative and grounded in reality. She does what’s practical, but when the practical isn’t enough, she’s not afraid to go that extra mile. The mystery is involved enough to hold the readers’ attention. Dona had enemies that range from Seville to Indianapolis and, to hear her tell it, far beyond. The supporting cast of characters, many of them returning from the first book, are always entertaining. The whole book is sprinkled with interior design tips. The author includes extra information about ‘Country Style,’ and a ‘Tips For Painting’ section at the end, including ideas that could be put to use no matter where you live.

Rating: 7
February 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-21982-9 (paperback)

Killer Mousse - Melinda Wells

Killer Mousse
A Della Cooks Mystery
Melinda Wells
Berkley Prime Crime


Della Carmichael is nervous, for lots of reasons. Her cooking school attracts students, but Della is a much better cook than accountant; she’s seriously overextended. Looking for a supplementary source of income to save her school brings her to the second, and major, source of nerves. Tonight, she’s taping and broadcasting her very first show as Better Living Network’s new Cooking Diva. As if that’s not enough to get the stomach churning, the previous Diva, Mimi Bond, is in the audience. She only settled herself in the audience after bursting into Della’s dressing room and accusing her of stealing Mimi’s job. Prudently, Della refrained from pointing out that the real reason for Mimi’s dismissal was 100-proof.

As if that’s not enough, during a commercial break, Della learns that Mimi will be the first taster of tonight’s dessert: Della’s Killer Mousse. That’s just great. But the show must go on, so Della gamely retrieves her pre-made mousse from a backstage fridge for the final segment. True to form, Mimi takes one taste and tells the entire audience that it tastes terrible. In a surprise move, she keels over, dead. On the air. Probably not the best way to start your career as a cooking show host. It’s not long before the mousse and Della are pinpointed as the most likely culprits. With her personal and professional lives at stake, Della knows she has to clear her name.

This is the first installment in what promises to be a highly entertaining series. Della is a fun character; a woman who is making her way in life doing what she loves: cooking. She’s hit bumps in the road before, and weathered them all. Her determination to succeed will make the reader root for her. The mystery is crafted very well; there were plenty of people with motive and opportunity. For mystery lovers who are also foodies, there’s a wealth of cooking tips and a number of included recipes that are easy and use easy-to-find, affordable ingredients. Quite a tasty combination.

Rating: 7
February 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-21981-2 (paperback)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Bleeding Dusk - Colleen Gleason

The Bleeding Dusk
The Gardella Vampire Chronicles – Book 3
Colleen Gleason
Signet Eclipse

Paranormal Romance/Historical/Regency

Note: For readers who haven’t read the first two books (THE REST FALLS AWAY and RISES THE NIGHT) this review contains plot spoilers. Also, you’ve missed a couple of very good books.

In this latest installment of her series following the life of vampire slayer Victoria Gardella, the author continues to deepen the characters. Even Victoria, who in a Regency romance, would be our sympathetic and always-relatable heroine, is a study in ambiguity. Not surprising, since she’s suffered some serious losses very close to home since she began her vampire-fighting career. Now that she’s taken over as the leader of the Venators (vampire slayers) she has even more responsibilities weighing on her.

The vampires, in their never-ending quest to take over the world, are now searching for the Alchemist’s Door, an artifact that will give them a terrifying power. Victoria is forced into a position where she must place her trust in master slayer Max (who may be playing both sides of the field) and Sebastian, the descendant of a vampire who may or may not deserve her trust.

Like the second book in the series, this installment relies much more on action and plot and less on Regency-era romance elements. Honestly, the series works better this way. There’s so much going on with Victoria and her various supporting players that spending too much time on the romance aspect would, necessarily, detract from the rest. And, much like the second book, this one is long on action and darkness. Instead of taking the tried-and-true (and very predictable) path, the author manages to twist the characters and plotlines around in surprising ways. This is an excellent series, sure to be loved by paranormal readers everywhere.

Rating: 8
February 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-22326-5 (paperback)

Rises The Night - Colleen Gleason

Rises The Night
The Gardella Vampire Chronicles – Book 2
Colleen Gleason
Signet Eclipse

Paranormal Romance/Historical/Regency

Note: If you haven’t read THE REST FALLS AWAY, the first book in this series, this review contains major, and unavoidable, spoilers.

Victoria Gardella recently became a Venator, a vampire slayer. She believed that she could slay vampires, fight their leader, Lilith the Dark, and maintain a normal life. She discovered, in the worst possible way, that this was not to be when Lilith killed her new husband. Now bent on avenging his death, Victoria travels from London to Rome, chasing Lilith and her vampire minions. And there’s the nasty shock of discovering that there’s an organization of humans who actively protect vampires.

This time around, Lilith is attempting to find an ancient artifact that gives the bearer power to command the dead. With such an army, Lilith and her vampires would be virtually unstoppable. Victoria now has a solid year of vampire slaying behind her, and a very personal reason to dedicate herself to the task.

Many of the characters introduced in the first book make return appearances here, but the reader should be warned that the author devotes almost no time to explaining what has gone before. There’s certainly no sign of the dreaded sophomore slump here; the action is faster, the plot tighter, and the mood much darker. There’s a bit of romance, but this installment is clearly dedicated to following a more tortured Victoria as she fights the forces of darkness.

Rating: 8
June 2007
ISBN# 978-0-451-22146-9 (paperback)

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Rest Falls Away - Colleen Gleason

The Rest Falls Away
The Gardella Vampire Chronicles – Book 1
Colleen Gleason
Signet Eclipse

Paranormal Romance/Historical/Regency

Victoria Gardella Grantworth is ready to embark on her debut in London Society. Her debut is almost two years later than her contemporaries, due to the periods of mourning required for her father and grandfather. Naturally, her mother, Lady Melisande, is quite eager to make an advantageous match for her daughter. The catch of the Season is the Marquess of Rockley. Upon their first meeting, at Victoria’s debut, the two realize that they met as children. There’s obviously some attraction, but there’s a very large impediment for Victoria.

Just before her debut, Victoria learned from her Great Aunt Eustacia that she is to be the next Venator. A Venator is a vampire slayer. In her day, Eustacia was also a vampire slayer. The two women are quite powerful since they are in a direct line of descendants from the original. The first Venator arose to battle Lilth the Dark. Now Lilith is in London, searching for a mystical book that will allow her to command an unstoppable force of demons. Victoria decides to embrace her destiny; training in the art of slaying vampires, while still attending balls and Society functions and finding a husband. It won’t be long before Victoria realizes that each choice in life comes with a price.

This novel is a wonderful blend of Regency romance and supernatural genres. While Victoria will inevitably be compared to Buffy, the Regency setting makes it unique. The author does a nice job of balancing the romance, action, paranormal, and historical elements. Lilith the Dark is the Big Bad here, but Victoria has many other obstacles to overcome, not least is how best to stake a vampire during a ball without revealing herself or causing a panic. There are already two more volumes in this series, and it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

Rating: 7 ½
January 2007
ISBN# 978-0-451-22007-3 (paperback)

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Bone To Pick - Charlaine Harris

A Bone To Pick
An Aurora Teagarden Mystery
Charlaine Harris
Berkley Prime Crime


There weren’t many mourners at the funeral of Jane Engle. A former school librarian and member of the now-disbanded true crime discussion group Real Murders, Jane mostly kept to herself. No one is more surprised than Aurora (Roe) Teagarden to learn that Jane left Roe everything. ‘Everything’ includes Jane’s house, all the contents, and a hefty bank account.

When Roe goes to Jane’s (her) house with the estate lawyer, she’s dismayed to see that a back window is broken out, and that someone clearly searched the place. At first, she assumes the break-in was some kind of a prank. But the way things were moved, closets emptied, and nothing stolen, paints a different picture. It’s clear that someone was actively searching for something. Never one to pass up a mystery, Roe continues the search. And finds a human skull in the window seat. Clearly Jane left her one last mystery to solve.

I think if Nancy Drew grew up and became a librarian, she’d be Roe Teagarden. This is just the kind of story that started my love of mysteries: A strange inheritance, a house to search through, and a mystery to be solved. Roe uses her smarts to ferret out the clues left behind by a fellow mystery buff. Her personal life isn’t quite as neatly resolved, but that’s realistic. This is a great follow-up to REAL MURDERS.

Rating: 7 ½
February 2008 (reprint)ISBN# 978-0-425-21979-9 (paperback)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Tacked To Death - Michele Scott

Tacked To Death
A Horse Lover’s Mystery
Michele Scott
Berkley Prime Crime


Horse trainer Michaela Bancroft is starting a new venture: a tack shop, to be run by her best friend, Camden. The only problem is that Camden has more than a bit of a temper, so customer service isn’t exactly her forte. Michaela hopes that Camden’s engagement to the unflappable trainer, Dwayne, will help offset that tamper. For the opening of their tack shop, Michaela organized a charity polo match, to be followed by a fashion show with catered lunch. Almost immediately Michaela has to step in to mediate a dispute with the caterers and Camden. And the day has barely started.

Sterling Taber isn’t helping Michaela’s peace of mind. He was recently voted the area’s most eligible bachelor, but Michaela finds him more slimy than suave. Her opinion is clearly shared, especially by the makeup artist hired for the fashion show, who refuses to work if Sterling is anywhere around the place. And there’s at least one other person who doesn’t like him. When Michaela enters her private office, she discovers Sterling is there. Unfortunately for everyone, he’s on the floor, his head smashed by a polo mallet. That mallet belongs to Michaela, making her the prime suspect. It’s going to take some fancy footwork to clear her name.

There’s no lack of suspects. The polo match and fashion show bring together a large cast of characters from all walks of life, many of whom had reasons to want to harm Sterling. Michaela, last seen in SADDLED WITH TROUBLE and DEATH REINS IN, is a strong character. She’s been through her share of troubles, but she’s managed to land on her feet. She’s doing what she wants to do with her life and uses her skill with horses to run a charity for autistic kids. She takes on investigations, but she never rushes into a situation blindly. She makes intelligent choices, and she’s always in search of justice. You don’t have to be a horse aficionado to enjoy this series. The interesting characters and solid plotlines should appeal to any mystery reader.

Rating: 7 ½
February 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-21983-6 (paperback)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Murder In Miniature - Margaret Grace

Murder In Miniature
A Miniature Mystery
Margaret Grace
Berkley Prime Crime


Geraldine (Gerry) Porter has filled her free time since the death of her husband two years ago, with crafts. In particular, she creates very detailed miniatures. At the moment, the retired high school English teacher is serving as chair of the local Dollhouse and Miniatures Fair. All participants have agreed to donate a portion of their profits to the school library fund. Seated at the table next to her is longtime friend, Linda Reed. Linda is out-of-sorts most of the time, but Gerry is a sucker for a difficult person. And, the truth is, Linda has her moments. She used her nursing connections to help out when Gerry’s husband was ill. For that, Gerry is willing to forgive a lot.

But, when Linda goes missing just before the fair begins, leaving both of their tables unmanned, that’s too much even for Gerry. As the evening progresses with no word from Linda, Gerry moves from irritated to worried; especially once she realizes that Linda’s car is still in the parking lot. True, Linda has pulled this sort of disappearing act before, but Gerry can’t believe that Linda would leave her beloved miniatures unattended. And the centerpiece of her display, a tiny, working desk, is missing, too. It’s not until nearly 3 in the morning that Gerry hears from Linda. Linda won’t explain, except to say that she’s stranded at a gas station near the interstate. And, of course, wants Gerry to rescue her.

One might think that a friend would explain, but not Linda. She dances around all of Gerry’s increasingly pointed questions. Gerry wonders if it has something to do with Linda’s adopted teenaged son and a local robbery, but Linda refuses to discuss it. The following day, the craft fair – and the entire small town – is buzzing with the news of a murder. It’s just an item of interest for Gerry until she discovers that the victim was discovered on the grounds of a gas station; the very same gas station from which Linda made her frantic late-night call to Gerry.

Linda is, frankly, a bit hard to take, but the author (and Gerry, as narrator) makes a point of detailing Linda’s hard life and current troubles, making her a bit more sympathetic. Still, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that Gerry was just being used in that relationship. Gerry and her family are all great characters, down to ten-year-old Madison, who, refreshingly, acts like a child and not like a miniature adult. Speaking of miniatures, no background in this craft is required to enjoy the novel. The author explains the basics, and even offers tips for creating miniatures with found objects. This is the first in what promises to be a charming new series.

Rating: 7
February 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-21980-5 (paperback)

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Peppermint Twisted - Sammi Carter

Peppermint Twisted
A Candy Shop Mystery
Sammi Carter
Berkley Prime Crime


After a stint as a corporate lawyer and a painful divorce, Abby Shaw is back in her small hometown of Paradise, Colorado. To her surprise, her aunt left Abby her candy shop, Divinity, along with all of her recipes. Usually, Abby loves living in a town that’s full of artisans and tourists. Today is not usual. The Paradise Arts Festival was founded fifteen years ago and has gone off without a hitch ever since. With committee chair Meena Driggs at the helm, everyone feels confident. And that’s the problem. Out of the blue, the mayor removed Meena from her post and installed Felicity Asbury.

Felicity’s main qualification seems to be that she’s the wealthiest woman in town; and no one in power wants to say ‘no’ to her. The artisans lined up for the festival aren’t having that problem though. They’re threatening to pull out and shut down the festival after Felicity insisted on having final approval for all the pieces entered. In a scant few hours, the whole endeavor has gone from clockwork to chaos. Abby tries to talk Meena into coming back, if only to bring a bit of calm; but Meena seems strangely defeated. And a visit to Felicity yields nothing but a headache. The next morning, Abby is walking her dog when she sees a car parked in her lot. It’s Felicity. She’s been murdered, and there’s certainly no lack of suspects.

This is the third in this very entertaining series, but can easily be read as a standalone. Abby continues to evolve as a character, and manages to conduct an investigation without rushing heedlessly into danger. Since most of the people in town have known each other all their lives, it’s easy for feelings to run high, adding to the drama. The suspect pool includes everyone involved in the festival, just for a start. There are plenty of others that come to light, as well. And, just to top things off, the author includes some candy recipes that sound divine. It’s always a pleasure to visit Paradise, Colorado and the Divinity candy shop.

Rating: 7
December 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21227-1 (paperback)