Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Nightkeepers - Jessica Andersen

A Novel of the Final Prophecy
Jessica Andersen
Signet Eclipse

Paranormal Romance/Urban Fantasy

The ancient Mayans developed more than one stunningly accurate calendar. One of them is for day-to-day measurement of time. Another is the Long Count calendar, used to count backwards to the zero date. The Mayans believed that on this date (December 21, 2012) the astronomical conjunction of the earth, moon, and sun would usher in a new age. The character of this new age depends upon the actions of those few warrior-priests designated to watch over the earth. If the forces of good win out, the new age could be one of peace and enlightenment. If the demons of the underworld win, earth and its inhabitants will be destroyed.

Each solstice and equinox, the barrier between the worlds thins, allowing those with the knowledge to contact a God or a demon; and possibly bring that entity through the barrier to earth. To Leah Daniels, a detective in Miami, this is a bunch of woo-woo hokum, designed to frighten the impressionable. Too bad the impressionable are so numerous. For the past 18 months, there have been two murders at each solstice and equinox. The victims were beheaded and had their hearts cut from their bodies. Leah believes that a cult leader who goes by the name of Zipacna is responsible. A serial killer who styles himself as one of the Big Bads of ancient Mayan culture is new, but he’s still just a killer. Leah’s stake is very personal. Her brother, Matty, was one of the most recent victims.

Striking Jaguar (Strike) grew up knowing that he is the son of the Nightkeeper’s King. The Nightkeepers are charged with preventing the demons from getting a foothold on earth. Strike knows all too well that the prophecies and magic are real. Twenty-four years ago, most of the adult Nightkeepers were slaughtered when Strike’s father and the other magi tried to seal the intersection between the worlds, thus nullifying the significance of the zero date. They failed, and the few Nightkeepers – children and teens – were dispersed with their guardians for safekeeping. Now it’s time to reconnect. The zero date is getting ever closer and the barrier between worlds is clearly active. Strike has been distracted lately by dreams of a blonde woman who is clearly important to him. Saving her from nearly being sacrificed by Zipacna is only the beginning for them.

If you’ve never read a thing about Mayan history, you’ll find plenty of very understandable background in this novel. I’ve been interested in it ever since a trip to the Yucatan as a teenager, so it was great to see it used to such great effect here. The author uses a light voice, peppered with slang phrases (I’m so not going there) as a perfect counterpoint to the deep history background. The action starts early and continues throughout, making this a real page-turner.

Assembling the Nightkeepers, now adults, provides plenty of conflict and secondary characters. This is the first in a proposed series; it introduces the basics and these disparate characters. Since each character has a real part to play in this novel, it’s not correct to dismiss them as mere sequel-bait. There are so many directions to go, both in plot and with the characters. Clearly, the author has a lot of story left to tell, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

Rating: 8
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-22437-8 (paperback)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Pitch Black - Susan Crandall

Pitch Black
Susan Crandall
Warner Forever

Romantic Suspense

Madison (Maddie) Wade moved from her high-powered job as an investigative journalist in Philadelphia to small-town Buckeye, TN, to give her newly-adopted son, Ethan, more stability and better chance to grow up right. Now the editor of the local daily paper, Maddie is only beginning to realize that, as the newcomers in a small Southern town, assimilating isn’t going to be that easy. The locals are suspicious of her “Northern” “big city” ways. Her front-page series, dealing with the death of a high school athlete from steroid abuse does nothing to endear her to the populace.

Ethan, now a teenager, has lived with Maddie for only two years. Before that, he was street kid, surviving on his wits. When he begged to go on a mountain camping trip with his only friend, Jordan, his stepfather, Steve, and some other boys, Maddie reluctantly agreed. That trip ends in disaster. The four boys make it back, covered in mud and blood. Jordan is almost catatonic; they’re all clearly in shock. The previous evening, Steve died, apparently after a fall. The boys stayed with his body overnight then hiked back down the mountain.

Steve was a very experienced climber and outdoorsman, but sheriff Gabe Wyatt knows that accidents can happen to anyone at any time. Being cautious, he treats it as a crime scene, but is shocked when the ME tells him that this death was no accident. Steve sustained several blows to the head. As the outsider, Ethan comes under immediate suspicion, especially when he tells Maddie – and later, Gabe – that he felt the need to protect Jordan from his stepfather. If it were any other kid, Gabe would be going after him full-bore. But Gabe is already half in love with Maddie, and is trying to balance his duties as sheriff with his feelings.

This is romantic suspense, but the emphasis is clearly on the suspense side. That works out just fine for this story. There’s plenty going on, both in the main plot and a few subplots. The difficulties that Maddie and Ethan encounter while trying to fit in ring very true. I admit, I had the ‘bad guy’ pegged about halfway through the book, but that didn’t lessen my enjoyment at watching the story unfold. There are enough viable suspects to make things interesting to the end. There is an undercurrent of romance, of course, mainly played out in the way Maddie and Gabe must weigh what information they share with each other. As always, this author’s writing is a delight, and keeps the pages turning effortlessly.

Rating: 7 ½
June 2008
ISBN# 0-446-17856-X (paperback)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Dyer Consequences - Maggie Sefton

Dyer Consequences
A Knitting Mystery
Maggie Sefton
Berkley Prime Crime


Kelly Flynn’s first winter in Colorado has been a busy one. She’s learned the joys of fibers and knitting as a daily visitor at House of Lambspun, located, conveniently, right across her driveway. Like most of the knitters, she also frequents Pete’s coffee shop, in the back of the yarn shop. She continues her work as an accountant, and just bought an alpaca ranch in a nearby canyon. It’s the ranch that worries her the most. The ranch house, barn, and stable are all old and poorly constructed and will need to be pulled down and rebuilt. She’s got a short-term loan for that, but the due date seems awfully close.

Adding to her stress level is a series of acts of vandalism. Over the past few months, the vandals slashed her tires, smashed her car windshield – the car now remains locked in her garage at all times – and splashed the side of her stucco cottage with deep red paint. Since the little town of Fort Collins is growing, the police are kept busy with bigger crimes. Even so, they have no leads at all on the vandals. When Kelly awakes one morning to find the sides of her garage splashed with red paint, she’s at the end of her rope.

Things only get worse when she goes next door and finds out that Pete’s has been completely trashed, too. This is no casual vandalism; broken glass, beer and wine, are everywhere and all the food is dumped and ruined. Venturing into the yarn shop next door, they find a terrible mess, but, fortunately, no real damage. Owner Mimi worries about her storage and dye space in the basement. Arriving downstairs, the group finds the body of college student Tracy half-submerged in the dye kettle. Tracy was new to the shop, and to dyeing, but an eager and enthusiastic student. Like everyone, Kelly is stunned at this development, and determined to get to the bottom of things.

As always, the author of this series (A DEADLY YARN, A KILLER STITCH) perfectly captures the atmosphere of a local yarn shop and the regulars who gather there. As a knitter who wishes there was such a yarn shop across the street from me, I can tell you that the interplay and descriptions of the work is spot-on. Having something as violent as a murder, or even vandalism, happen in such a welcoming environment would be enough to make anyone want to see justice done. This is a cozy, so the murder happens off-screen. The emphasis is on the characters involved, their interrelationships and solving the crime. If you haven’t been reading along in the series you’ll have no problems jumping in at this point. If you have been reading the series from the beginning, the character developments are interesting to watch.

Rating: 7 ½
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-21933-1 (hardcover)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Amnesiac - Sam Taylor

The Amnesiac
Sam Taylor
Penguin Books


“What changes is not the color of the canal, but the perspective of the person who looks at it.” For the past five years, James Purdew has lived with his girlfriend, Ingrid, in her apartment in Amsterdam in a contended sort of suspension. The turning point for James comes when he breaks his ankle while running up the stairs to answer the phone. Ingrid confounds him by asking who he thought was on the other end of the line. Sitting around the apartment, unable to work construction while in a cast, gave James a lot of time to think. Too much time, perhaps. When Ingrid broaches the subject of the future, James is filled with panic. Ingrid moves out and wishes him well.

James is left, for the first time in years, truly alone. Under the bed are boxes full of his personal diaries. Most are in regular cardboard boxes. They speak of a younger self he barely recognizes. One set, covering three years at the university in the city of H, are in a locked safe. James purchased the small safe because it is impossible to open without the key. And he doesn’t know where the key is. It slowly dawns on him that he has no memory of these three years.

At loose ends, James leaves Amsterdam and returns to H. Looking for housing, he serendipitously discovers and unusual arrangement. A homeowner who wishes to remain anonymous is looking for someone to live in an old home and do the renovations as rent. Being a builder and electrician, James is perfectly suited for the task. There, he discovers a nineteenth-century manuscript that provides insight into his past and present, and possibly more.

The writing here is masterful, lyrical; it takes on almost a dreamlike quality, even during the most mundane events. When James spends six weeks of enforced idleness in a stifling apartment during a heat wave, the temperature seems to rise. He has a recurring dream about wandering through a labyrinth, trying to follow a string to its conclusion. Early on, he decides that the labyrinth is his mind, the string the events that connect present and past. Both the journey and the novel are unlike anything you have read before this. Composed of dream, reality, cynicism, optimism, tragic, comic, and more than anything, a searching for those things that form the fundamentals of what we are.

Rating: 9
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-14-311340-9 (trade paperback)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Through The Veil - Shiloh Walker

Through The Veil
Shiloh Walker
Berkley Sensation

Paranormal Romance/Urban Fantasy

By day, Lee Ross is a graphic artist. By night, she’s something she doesn’t quite understand. She often dreams of almost familiar, yet alien landscapes, demons, and savage fighting. When she awakes, she’s often sporting bruises and other injuries. Oddly, these injuries heal very quickly; often within a day. She’s even been to a sleep clinic, but the results were so unnerving – a blip on the monitors, but nothing else – that she hasn’t gone back. In all of her dreams, there’s a man, Kalen. She feels that she knows him somehow.

She’s been able to function, denying the reality of her dreams, until the day she actually sees the man, standing in her apartment. A vision? A sure sign she’s crazy? Kalen’s ability to see through the Veil has served him well in the fight against the demons. He’s able to see Lee in her ‘other’ world, but, even though she visits his world and wields great magic against the demons there, he’s not able to convince her to see the truth and stay with them. With him. Somehow, he knows that Lee is the key to being able to destroy the demons and send them back through the gate between the worlds; to save his world and everyone left in it.

This is the first book I’ve read by this author, but it certainly won’t be the last. The world building is superb. The world devastated by demon attacks, the resulting carnage, the people who inhabit it, all are complex and believable. We even get a look at the other side, populated not by cardboard baddies, but beings with realistic motives. I realize this is a paranormal romance, but I found it jarring that Kalen could stand in the midst of a blood-soaked battlefield, surrounded by dead friends, and still find Lee’s smile “sexy.” Moments like that tended to interrupt the flow of the story and pull me out of it. Fortunately, for me and every fan of paranormal romances, these moments are overwhelmingly outnumbered by scenes of action, torment, battle, and conflict. Fans of paranormals and urban fantasy will love this one.

Rating: 8
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22247-8 (paperback)

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Case Of The Ill-Gotten Goat - Claudia Bishop

The Case Of The Ill-Gotten Goat
The Casebook of Dr. McKenzie
Claudia Bishop
Berkley Prime Crime


Got milk? State milk inspector Melvin Staples does. About four hundred gallons of it, in fact. Unfortunately for him, he’s floating in it, after getting his skull cracked. It might be of some comfort to him to know that he’s floating in the holding tank at Tre Sorelle Dairy, a place run by 90-year-old Doucetta Capretti. Despite her age and tiny size, she certainly did everything she could to make his life miserable.

The problem was that the somatic cell count (white cells) in her dairy’s milk was over the acceptable threshold of state standards. The dairy is clean and well run, and, as even Melvin knows – knew – the state guideline was pretty much arbitrary. Second-year vet student Leslie Chou is very interested in the problem. Since the dairy is clean and the milk-producing goats are healthy, the reason for the high count is unclear. She’d like to investigate, and maybe get a paper out of the deal.

Enter Dr. Austin McKenzie, large animal vet. He’s mostly a beef man, but eventually becomes involved in the problem. In addition to the cell count puzzle, there’s the matter of Melvin in the milk. It doesn’t take long for him to discover that Melvin was a man of many enemies. He fancied himself a ladies’ man, so there are several ladies (and husbands) who might have wished him harm; Doucetta’s family at Tre Sorelle, who all stood to lose a lot of money if the dairy was shut down due to test results; even a tax assessor, who used some interesting logic to try and affect the test results. Aided by his loving wife and two trusty assistants, Dr. McKenzie is on the case.

Dr. McKenzie (THE CASE OF THE ROASTED ONION and THE CASE OF THE TOUGH-TALKING TURKEY) is a wonderfully curmudgeon-like character. This large animal practice is his second career, after retiring from Cornell, so he’s seen more than enough to know about the nature of both humans and animals. He doesn’t suffer fools, and once on a case, is determined to find the culprit. His affection for his wife and assistants temper his gruffness; his love for animals of all kinds makes him very likeable. I’m sure that would horrify him to no end. Spending a bit of time with Dr. McKenzie and friends is always a pleasure.

Rating: 7
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22207-2 (paperback)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Monster Of Florence - Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

The Monster of Florence
A True Story
Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi
Grand Central

Nonfiction/True Crime

Beginning in 1968, Florence, Italy, point of origin for the Renaissance, was also ground zero for a serial killer dubbed ‘The Monster of Venice.’ This killer targeted lovers in parked cars, killing the male first, then the female. In later killings, the Monster would cut the women’s sex organs from the bodies with curious precision, and take them from the scene. Other than the cutting, there was no sign of sexual attack. These killings stymied the police and prosecutors for years.

The last documented Monster killing occurred in the mid-80s. Ballistics and comparisons of the knife wounds proved that the same gun and knife was used in each and every crime. For years, the people of Florence lived in terror. The investigation was byzantine, often incompetent, incredible, fantastical, and, in the end, ineffectual. Several men were arrested, charged, and a few even tried and convicted as the Monster. (The authors helpfully provide a timetable of major events.) Several prosecutors made their careers on cases that were later proved to be without merit. Along the way, many lives were utterly destroyed.

Mario Spezi is an Italian journalist who became famous for his coverage of the Monster killings. Because of his stories, often critical of the investigators, he was eventually arrested and imprisoned. Douglas Preston, an American writer of thrillers, became interested in the case and agreed to write a book with Spezi. For his trouble, he was brought in for interrogation and told that he’d be better off outside of Italy. Their stories are entwined with later events, and their personal experiences make it nearly impossible to stop turning pages.

In the end, this book is not so much about the crimes or the killer, but about the investigation itself and the men who used it for their own ends. Years after the killings ended, the investigators requested a profile from her FBI’s behavioral sciences group. This profile was promptly buried when it didn’t match up to the current suspect. For some time, those in charge of the investigation claimed that the killer was part of a demonic cult, who killed and used the body parts for unexplained ‘ritual’ reasons. It sounds so far-fetched as to be almost comical, but the authors make it clear that any humor is truly tragic. The cost of lives was far higher than the unfortunate victims; their loved ones, those falsely accused, those tarred by the very wide brush of association, all paid the price for the ambitions of a few unscrupulous people in positions of power.

Rating: 8
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-446-28119-6 (hardcover)

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Unkindest Cut - Honor Hartman

The Unkindest Cut
A Bridge Club Mystery
Honor Hartman


The more Emma Diamond plays bridge (even on the computer) the more she likes it. Although she’s still new to the game, she enjoys the strategy and challenge. Her neighbors, Sophie and Marylou, are both bridge players, too. One of Marylou’s best friends is visiting, and she wants to introduce Sophie and Emma to her. The first meeting is less than auspicious. Paula Trowbridge comes across as a bitter and self-centered woman. Over lunch, she tells the other three that while she’s currently married to Avery Trowbridge (a celebrity in the bridge world,) she’s positive that her first husband, Basil (another high-ranking bridge player and teacher,) wants her back. And she’s definitely interested.

Paula invites the other three to accompany her to a bridge retreat in the Texas Hill Country. True, Basil is scheduled to teach at the retreat, but Avery should be nowhere near the place. Of course, Avery shows up the very first day. If his attitude toward Paula in public is even half as bad as it is in private, Emma can understand Paula’s negative outlook on life. Paula isn’t the only one with reason to dislike Avery. He’s just fired his agent, and he angers the retreat participants by showing up, uninvited, and offering his services as a teacher and bridge partner. When he’s found dead, Emma is horrified, but not exactly surprised.

This second installment is a great follow-up to ON THE SLAM. The bridge retreat offers a wealth of possible suspects, from Paula and Basil, to participants, and even the hotel staff. Emma and her friends get involved in the investigation when suspicion falls on Paula, and it seems logical for them to do so. Of course, there’s a lot of bridge, but you don’t have to play or understand the game in order to enjoy the mystery. If this series piques your interest in bridge, though, the author provides tips and sources for more information.

Rating: 7
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-22436-1 (paperback)

Night Child - Jes Battis

Night Child
An OSI Novel
Jes Battis

Urban Fantasy

Tess Corday is an Occult Special Investigator (OSI) working for the clandestine organization CORE. Called to the scene of a murder, she’s pretty surprised to find that the dead body is that of a vampire. Even more strange, the scene seems to be staged; and cleaned of all trace evidence. The only clues are a photo and an address, written in vampiric script. The address, once translated, leads Tess and her telepathic partner, Derrick, to thirteen-year-old Mia Polanski and her Aunt Cassandra.

There’s something odd about Aunt Cassandra, but Tess has bigger problems. Her boss tells her, in no uncertain terms, that her career trajectory in taking a decidedly southward path. She needs to work this case, successfully, following the rules, or face losing her job. Tess has never been big on rules. And rules pretty much fly out the window when a demonic assassin barges into her living room and tries to kill her. Clearly, she’s stepped on some pretty big toes. She’d better find out whose toes they are before she, Derrick, and Mia are all toast.

In any first novel of a series, the author has to introduce the characters and the world to the reader. A lot of that introductory stuff gets buried in a mountain of CSI-type detail. Clearly, the author did a lot of research and was working to make this aspect of the novel as realistic as possible. But there comes a time, fairly early on, when enough is just too much. As a reader, I’d rather get to know the characters and the unique world created here. By the conclusion of the novel, the plot moves quickly and the finale is quite satisfying. The basic premise for the series is exciting, and it will be very interesting to see where Tess and the other characters go from here.

Rating: 6 ½
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01602-0 (paperback)