Thursday, October 30, 2008

Witch High - Denise Little, editor

Witch High
Denise Little, editor

Fantasy/Short Fiction

This group of short stories takes place at Salem Township Public High School #4, commonly known as Witch High. Each of the fourteen stories has a distinctly different tone, and a different cast of characters.

Diane Duane’s contribution, “The House,” tells the story of Brianna’s contribution to Heritage Week. She’d initially wanted to something magic-sword-related with Arthur, the cute new exchange student from England. But when he’s not interested (and how humiliating is that?) she comes up with something a bit more edible and gets some revenge at the same time.

“Temporal Management” is a story in a lighter vein by Laura Resnick. She explores just what lengths an over-committed junior will go to in order to get a few extra days’ study time. Phaedra M. Weldon’s “Boil and Bubble” is darker in tone, and tells the story of how getting into the Omega Honor Society can set your path for life. But is that really a good thing?

Each story is unique, but stays within the theme. With an entire high school full of students, teachers, and parents, there’s plenty of material and the authors come up with some interesting storylines. Obviously, fans of Harry Potter will enjoy this group of tales, but the kids here face problems that are more realistic. This is a fun bunch of stories and a great way to sample different authors’ writing styles.

Rating: 8
October 2008
ISBN# 978-0-7564-0513-7 (paperback)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Fleece Navidad - Maggie Sefton

Fleece Navidad
A Knitting Mystery
Maggie Sefton
Berkley Prime Crime


The holiday season in Fort Connor, CO, means a surge in business for House of Lambspun, a knitting and spinning shop. Everyone wants to complete their holiday projects. Claudia Miller, newcomer to both the shop and the town quickly makes friends. She offhandedly tells the shop regulars that she’s been married and widowed three times, then coaxes reticent Lizzie to join her in some activities at the senior center. Claudia is openly looking for lucky husband number four.

Her introduction quickly sours when Sheila Miller, daughter of Claudia’s last husband, accuses Claudia of killing not only her father, but the first two husbands, as well. Claudia arrived in town in a stolen card, using a stolen credit card. Claudia has plausible reasons for all of this, but it still looks bad. Sheila’s version of events, even those concerning the previous two husbands, seems at least as persuasive.

The shop regulars, including amateur sleuth Kelly Flynn, are further divided when they learn that Claudia’s newest conquest is a retired professor. The same retired professor who, until Claudia’s arrival, had been seriously dating librarian Juliet Renfrow. Juliet is clearly devastated by this turn of events, but the two are clearly working things out; Juliet is wearing an engagement ring. All this makes Juliet’s death, the result of a hit-and-run, all the more tragic. There were no witnesses, but Sheila is quick to believe that Claudia must have been behind the wheel. It’s up to Kelly to uncover the truth and restore harmony to her circle of knitters.

It seems to be a bit of a trend lately for cozy mysteries to spend a lot of time at the start of the book on the everyday lives and backgrounds of the characters. That’s fine, up to a point, but if I’m reading a mystery, I’d like to get to the actual mystery. In this murder mystery, there’s no murder until nearly halfway through the book. I don’t expect a dead body on page one of every mystery, but this seems a bit excessive, as I look forward to the following of clues and solving of the crime. Obviously, this is purely subjective, and I have no doubt that many readers disagree.

For those familiar with the series (A DEADLY YARN, A KILLER STITCH, DYER CONSEQUENCES) this is a welcome visit to old friends during the holidays. Claudia’s possible black widow background puts an interesting spin on the proceedings. As always, the scenes that take place around the knitting table in the shop ring absolutely true, and any book in this series makes me want to pick up my own needles. For those who are so inclined, there are several knitting patterns and recipes included. I see a batch of gingersnap cookies in my very near future.

Rating: 6 ½
October 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22360-4 (hardcover)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Chocolate Snowman Murders - JoAnna Carl

The Chocolate Snowman Murders
A Chocoholic Mystery
JoAnna Carl


It’s winter in the lakeside resort town of Warner Pier, Michigan, and that means it’s time for the Winter Arts Festival. As the manager of her Aunt Nettie’s shop, TenHuis Chocolade, Lee Woodyard is on the planning committee for the festival. When the original art show juror cancels due to injury, Fletcher Mendenhall becomes the last-minute replacement. Lee ends up driving to the airport to pick up Fletcher. He sounds quite happy when she contacts him by cell phone. When he gets in the truck, the reason for his happiness is painfully apparent. The man is completely drunk.

After enduing a couple of pathetic advances, Lee drops Fletcher at a hotel forty-five minutes from Warner Pier and leaves him to sleep it off. Her husband, Joe, is none too pleased to hear about Fletcher’s actions and drives out to confront him. Joe assumes that Fletcher has, indeed, passed out when he doesn’t answer the door at his motel. The next morning, Joe returns to find Fletcher dead. Someone beat him with the lamp in his room. Of course, Lee and Joe are the prime suspects. When another committee member is found dead, it’s clear that there’s something other than jealousy at work.

Warner Pier sounds like a lovely place to visit. The author expertly captures the small town atmosphere and relationships. The mystery is plotted very well and evenly paced. As always (THE CHOCOLATE JEWEL CASE, THE CHOCOLATE BRIDAL BASH) the author provides chocolate trivia, facts, and tempting recipes throughout the story. This is the perfect cozy for a cold night spent next to a fire. If you’re very lucky, you’ll have someone like Aunt Nettie to make “real” hot chocolate for you, too.

Rating: 6
October 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-22506-1 (hardcover)

Casket Case - Fran Rizer

Casket Case
A Callie Parrish Mystery
Fran Rizer
Berkley Prime Crime


Callie Parrish (named Calamine Lotion by her father, as it was the only pink thing he could think of at the time) works as a cosmetologist at a mortuary. It’s not a job suited to everyone, but Callie finds comfort in giving the departed a last bit of care and dignity. One of the downsides of the job is being “on call” when the brothers who own the mortuary are gone. If there’s a death, Callie is left to pick up the body. When the wife of “Dr. Melvin,” the small town’s beloved pharmacist calls, Callie comes, only to find Dr. Melvin facedown in the hot tub, with no coroner present. And a very young, new wife making the calls, with her very attractive brother by her side.

With that taken care of, Callie returns to her life as usual. There are outings with Jane, Callie’s best friend, who has been blind since birth. Jane is having problems with the new owner of her apartment building. The woman, Dorcas Lucas, is clearly bigoted and harasses Jane, treating her terribly from the outset. This culminates in a screaming match during Callie’s birthday party. The next morning, Callie discovers Dorcas, dead in a heap at the bottom of the steps leading to Jane’s apartment.

This is the third in a series (the first was A TISKET, A TASKET, A FANCY STOLEN CASKET) and my problem then was that the “zany factor” was way too high for my personal taste. In this installment, which works quite nicely as a standalone, the author seems to have toned that down quite a bit. Callie is still a bit ditzy, but she seems to have matured, which is good. Jane is harder to like, given her penchant for shoplifting (how does a blind woman know if anyone is watching her?) but still an interesting character.

The main problem here is that much of the first half of the book is slow, and reads more like a slice-of-life portrait than a mystery. Take my advice and pay attention. The author is laying the groundwork for all the action that happens in the last third of the book. There’s plenty going on at that point, with a few threads all coming together in the end. Callie has evolved into a character I can like, and if the author can solve the pacing problem, this will be a fine series.

Rating: 6
October 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22428-1 (paperback)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Blood Memories - Barb Hendee

Blood Memories
Barb Hendee


Eleisha Clevon has been a vampire for a very long time. It’s important for vampires to keep ties to their past, but still live in the present. To that end, Edward has been a huge help. It’s rare for two vampires to live in the same place, especially since there are so few of them. But Edward has been a good friend to Eleisha. When he calls her, ostensibly to say good-bye, she knows something is deeply wrong. She’s not prepared for the chaos she finds in this home. And she’s unable to stop him from throwing himself off his porch and into the sunlight to burn.

Unfortunately for all involved, two cops witness the event. When Edward died, the life force of the thousands on whom he fed poured out of him. It knocked down Eleisha, but, more shockingly, it knocked down one of the cops on the lawn. That shouldn’t be possible. Desperate, Eleisha turns to Maggie, another vampire. Maggie is able to give her some information, but not nearly enough. Not enough to explain how this cop could get into her head and share her thoughts. Definitely not enough to explain how he and his partner, mortals both, were able to track her down in her new home.

This novel is a standalone, apart from the author’s “Noble Dead” series. It’s a bit less tightly plotted than that series, but the pacing is fast and the story original. This version of the vampire mythos contains a few twists, such as the ‘gift’ that each vampire possesses, based on their maker and their gifts during life. There are only a few vampires in the world, and the rules of their society are fairly strict. Dealing with Edward’s death and the cop who can see her thoughts adds a very interesting extra level to this paranormal thriller. I’ll be interested to see what comes next.

Rating: 7 ½
October 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-46229-9 (trade paperback)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

When Duty Calls - William C. Dietz

When Duty Calls
A Novel of the Legion of the Damned
William C. Dietz

Science Fiction

Humanity is at war. The Confederacy of Sentient Beings is in a war with the Ramanthian Empire. The Ramanthians are insectoids who just had an enormous population explosion and need more of everything, including space for the new members of society to live. Their Queen is new, and wants to be seen as a warrior. She accompanies her forces and participates in tactical planning.

The Clone Hegemony has been keeping a separate peace with the Ramanthians. That is, until one of their mining outposts is attacked and the population nearly exterminated. What the bugs didn’t count on is the presence of a group of clones trained for combat in the north near the mines. With the mines largely untouched, the many iterations of Seebo have a chance to take back the planet and do some serious damage to the occupiers.

This is military science fiction at its best. While this is part of a long-standing series, it’s no problem for new readers (like me) to jump in at this point. The inhabited universe presented here is vast, and my overview here is necessarily a bare thumbnail version of the intricate political and military actions that make up the plot. The cast of characters is very large, but the author manages to infuse each person with a unique personality and background.

The insectoid race has its own aims, individuals, and politics, and is fascinating to explore. The Clones, each a copy of a “founder” individual, live regimented lives according to their birth. They disdain “free breeders” and mixing genetic material from one line to another. Some members of their society are beginning to disagree, causing internal conflicts that are central to the Clone Hegemony’s view of itself as a whole. In all, WHEN DUTY CALLS can be read as military scifi, as a commentary on social values, or as a great action-adventure novel. Either way, it makes me want to go back and pick up some of the earlier stories.

Rating: 8
October 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01632-7 (hardcover)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Supreme Courtship - Christopher Buckley

Supreme Courtship
Christopher Buckley


Donald Vanderdamp is a President who only wants to sit for one term. His whole purpose in taking office is to change the way Washington does business, and he has made it his mission to veto every spending bill that crosses his desk. This has not made him any friends on Capitol Hill. In fact, it’s made him a lot of enemies. When a seat becomes available on the Supreme Court, Vanderdamp nominates two jurists of spotless reputation, only to see them trashed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In retaliation, he nominates Judge Pepper Cartwright. Pepper is a celebrity. She’s a TV judge with an overwhelming public backing. And suddenly, the committee finds itself in a real bind. Dexter Mitchell, Chairman of the committee, is particularly peeved, since he had hopes of filling the empty seat himself. His dreams also include residence in the White House; dreams that have been twice denied.

The ensuing story is something that could only come from Washington insider Christopher Buckley. His knowledge of the inner workings of power, and the people who wield that power, makes this satire seems wholly plausible. Even as events spiral out of control, it all makes a certain amount of sense. Never veering into the absurd, this is an all-too-possible story of what happens when personal ambition and personal entitlements override common sense.

Rating: 8 ½
September 2008
ISBN# 978-0-446-57982-7 (hardcover)

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Clockwork Teddy - John J. Lamb

The Clockwork Teddy
A Bear Collector’s Mystery
John J. Lamb
Berkley Prime Crime

Mystery - Cozy

Retired detective Brad Lyon and his wife, Ashleigh (Ash) are in Sonoma, CA to attend a teddy bear show. This is the first time they’ve been back to the San Francisco area since they moved to Ash’s hometown in Virginia, and they’re combining the show with seeing their daughter, Heather. Heather followed in her dad’s footsteps and is now a detective with the SFPD.

Ash is a devoted teddy bear designer, and since his forced retirement after an injury, Brad is surprised to discover that he’s taking it more and more seriously, even creating his own bears, dressed as famous fictional detectives. Another surprise is the surly guy in the bear suit, stomping around the show. Brad tries to talk to him, but the bear-man quickly up-ends a display table, steals the cash box, and escapes. Not a normal way to start a show devoted to stuffed animals and the people who create and collect them.

Later that evening, while having dinner with Brad’s former SFPD partner, Gregg Mauel, they’re interrupted by a call from a homicide scene. Missing the action, Brad rides along with Mauel. The scene is a flophouse motel. There’s a dead guy in one of the rooms, and a strange-looking teddy bear in the parking lot. It looks like the prototype for some kind of walking, talking, interactive toy. Technology like that might be worth killing to get. Also in the lot, a car containing a bear suit. That can’t be a coincidence.

After three novels that take place in Virginia (THE MOURNFUL TEDDY, THE FALSE-HEARTED TEDDY, THE CRAFTY TEDDY) it’s nice to see Brad back in action as a SF detective, even if he’s serving in an advisory capacity. It’s clear he loved the job, and still has good instincts. His fondness for puns is something else again. This installment reads a little less like a cozy and more like a straight mystery, and that works just fine. The story seems a bit more complex than in previous novels and is very tightly plotted. The change in location makes this a great place for newcomers to start, and longtime readers will enjoy watching Brad in his old stomping grounds.

Rating: 7 ½
October 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22429-8 (paperback)

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Death In Daytime - Eileen Davidson

Death In Daytime
A Soap Opera Mystery
Eileen Davidson


Alexis Peterson has been playing the part of Tiffany Benedict on The Yearning Tide for many years. The soap itself has been on the air – and in the top three – since the 60s. Everything was going well behind the cameras until Marcy Blanchard appeared. Or, reappeared. Marcy had been a production assistant on the show twenty-five years ago, and is now head writer. She’s been holding a grudge against Alexis for more than two decades.

As the head writer, Marcy has a lot of power over nearly everyone. She can green-light storylines or stop them cold. She is exactly the kind of person who enjoys taking advantage of this power, threatening on-screen death and unemployment to anyone who opposes her. Alexis and Marcy had a screaming fight just a week ago over script revisions that never arrive and the call times that mysteriously change. When Alexis finds Marcy dead, bashed with her Emmy, Alexis becomes the prime suspect and decides to do a little sleuthing of her own.

Ms. Davidson is an actress, and clearly knows the inner workings of daytime dramas. She’s great at giving the reader an inside look at the real-life soap behind the soap. There are plenty of people, both on-screen and off-screen, who had reason to want Marcy dead, and Alexis is in a position to know most of them. Her amateur investigation is more than a bit bumbling, but in her favor, she admits that openly. More difficult to believe is the detective who allows Alexis so much access to the case, including suspect interviews. Suspend your disbelief a bit, though, and you’ll find this to be a fast, frothy read. The author’s breezy writing style really makes the whole caper fun, without going over the top.

Rating: 7
October 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-22564-1

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Key To Conflict - Talia Gryphon

Key To Conflict
Talia Gryphon

Paranormal Romance

Gillian Key is both a licensed psychologist for Paramortals (supernatural beings,) and an operative with the Marines Special Forces. As such, she’s uniquely qualified for a job in Romania. It seems that even Vampires get the blues, and Count Aleksei Rachlav, at four hundred years old, needs some help. Some Vampires, being immortal, get bored or crazy and end their lives. Aleksei hopes to avoid that, with Gillian’s help. To her surprise, Aleksei’s brother, Tanis, is also a Vampire and is also in residence. His interest is less in therapy and more in Gillian.

While in Romania, Gillian is supposed to look into the rumors that a Vampire Lord is on the move. Dracula, a cruel despot, has been in hiding for several centuries, waiting for the right time to strike out at humanity. Unlike most other Vampires, Dracula sees Humans as food. At best. While in the area, she’ll try to help out a centuries-old Ghost, haunting a manor, and maybe get some inside dirt from him, too.

There are some serious flaws with this novel, most notably with the character of Gillian. She’s a trained psychologist with a specialty in Paramortals, whose mental health services are known and in demand the world over; she’s also a decorated Captain in the Marines Special Forces who has seen her share of combat. And she’s all of twenty-eight years old. In addition to the age factor, there’s the fact that she possesses a hair-trigger temper and constantly lashes out at everyone around her (patients included) both verbally and physically. This makes her unbelievable as any kind of professional and unsympathetic as a main character.

The mythos of this world are quite interesting. There are three main branches of Vampires: the oldest, Egyptians, made by the all-powerful and benevolent Osiris; the Greeks, led by unpredictable Dionysus; and the European line, who come from Dracula. The Rachlav brothers descend from Dracula’s line, despise his views and claim loyalty to Osiris. The crossed relation lines and loyalty lines make for an interesting situation. Unfortunately, much of this is pushed aside in favor of some fairly forced pairings. The basis for a great series is here. This is the first novel in that series. If Gillian can evolve into a likeable, believable character, this one could be a winner.

Rating: 5
June 2007
ISBN# 978-0-441-01503-0 (paperback)