Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Dying By The Sword - Sarah D'Almeida

Dying By The Sword
A Musketeers MysterySarah D’Almeida
Berkley Prime Crime


Being a musketeer is tough on a sword, so when Porthos’ is damaged, he sends his servant, Mousqueton, to the armorer’s for repairs. When Porthos, along with his inseparable friends, Aramis, Athos, and D’Artagnan, arrive in the street outside the armorer’s, they find a mob scene, literally. The armorer is dead, run through by a sword. Quite conveniently, Mousqueton is found, unconscious, with a sword in his hand. Since Mousqueton has not been above the odd bit of petty larceny in the past, he’s instantly blamed and taken to the Bastille.

The four immediately seek counsel with Monsieur de Treville, the captain of the musketeers. The four are convinced that the whole thing is a frame. Monsieur de Treville agrees, and gives them the bad news. It seems that Cardinal Richlieu, enemy of these musketeers is convinced that there’s a plot to kill him, and possibly the King of France. He believes that plot involves the Queen, and, given the musketeer’s friendly status with the Queen, Richlieu essentially took poor Mousqueton hostage, to use as leverage. The four realize that the only way to clear the servant of the charges and gain his freedom is to locate the real murderer.

You don’t have to have read or enjoyed Dumas’ original novel to appreciate this historical series (see list below.) If you have read it, though, you’ll find much to enjoy here. The author does a wonderful job of expanding on each of the characters, and giving them new adventures and mysteries to solve. The books are written very much in the style of Dumas, adding more historical flavor. The details of Paris, from the grubbiest street to the musketeers’ rooms, to the Palace, are amazingly detailed. This detail adds to the realism, but never slows down the story. This outstanding series is a must-read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

Rating: 8
December 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22461-8 (paperback)

Previous books in this series, and not to be missed:

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Talk Of The Town - Sherrill Bodine

Talk Of The Town
Sherrill Bodine
Grand Central/Forever

Contemporary Romance

For the past fifteen years, Rebecca Covington has been the undisputed queen of gossip in Chicago, and she wrote the column to prove it. Imagine her shock when she arrives at work one morning to be told that she’s out, and someone else has taken her place. Someone who is younger, allegedly hipper, and more in sync with what the new owner of the paper, widower David Sumner, wants. In a clear attempt to avoid an age discrimination lawsuit, the managing editor puts Rebecca on the food column; two columns per week of recipes.

The bright side, if you can call it that, is that, at 45, Rebecca returns to the chaos of the newsroom and will be working for a woman who once won a Pulitzer. Determined not to give the paper’s new owner, David Sumner, the satisfaction of seeing her quit, Rebecca takes on the recipe column and gives it her own bit of flair. Advertising revenue immediately doubles for those pages.

Rebecca is the more realistic of the two as a lady approaching "a certain age" and wondering if it's all downhill from here. David comes across as some kind of saintly philanthropist – he coaches underprivileged kids on a Little League team in his spare time – without too much depth. When David and Rebecca meet, however, they’re both surprised. It’s not often that a romance concerns two adults in their late forties or early fifties, so, points for originality there. When the two meet, there’s an undercurrent of hostility and defensiveness over the situation at the paper. Even so, neither is remotely what the other expected.

TALK OF THE TOWN reminded me very much of the movie “His Girl Friday,” a 1940s screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, both employees at a major metropolitan paper. This is a compliment. The novel is much more frothy, but effectively uses comedy to bring together the two protagonists. If you’re looking for a lively read, you won’t find one that’s more fun than this.

Rating: 7 ½
December 2008
ISBN# 0-446-61858-6 (paperback)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Peacekeeper - Laura E. Reeve

A Major Ariane Kedros Novel
Laura E. Reeve

Science Fiction/Mystery

Major Ariane (Ari) Kedros is not who she appears to be. Fifteen years ago, she was part of a wartime Autonomist spaceship crew that unknowingly delivered a time distortion weapon. They dispatched the weapon before realizing what they had done. As a result, an entire Terran world may or may not have been obliterated. Since the explosion (or “glitch”) destroyed the local time buoy, the rest of mankind has to wait for lightspeed transmissions from the area; messages that won’t arrive for several more months. The Intelligence Directorate provided new identities to personnel involved with delivering and detonating the weapon.

Before the fate of that world is known, however, the Terrans and the Autonomists are working out a mutual disarmament treaty. The two factions fundamentally disagree about just about everything, from theology to the origin of the species. With the encouragement of the alien race known as Minoans – who provided the technology for faster-than-light travel, but only as a finished product – each side is beginning to inspect the other side’s military space installations.

Her handler sends Ari to the first space station to be inspected. She has an ulterior motive, of course. Recently, almost all of the people involved in setting up, delivering, or detonating the time distortion weapon have been murdered by unknown agents. All of these people had new, false identities. It’s well known that the Terran State Prince Isrid Sun Parmet still carries murderous anger over the destruction of the Terran planet; his brother lived there. But it’s looking more and more possible that there’s an inside mole, feeding classified information to the killer(s). It can’t possibly be a coincidence that Parmet will be part of the delegation arriving at the space station. Or that another potential victim is the man in charge of the place.

There’s a lot going on in this debut novel. There’s the political plotting, the murder plot that clearly ties into the politics, Ari’s ambiguous feelings about her part in past events and her current situation as a mostly-unwilling undercover intelligence operative. When she’s not working as an agent, she works with an independent exploration company. On their last prospecting trip, they may have found the artifacts of a lost space-faring civilization. Ari is called away before anything develops on that score, leaving her partner, Matt, to deal with the considerable fallout.

Even though there are multiple subplots and a large cast, the author manages to keep everything moving forward in a logical manner. Politics permeate everything in this society, just as in our own. There are at least two sides to everything, and no situation is entirely black-and-white. I felt that a lot of the circumstances here were a little too obvious as parallels to recent world events, but that’s a small quibble. Ari is a damaged and conflicted character, doing her best to do what’s right. Or, at least, what seems right at the time. This is the start of what promises to be a superior scifi series.

Rating: 7 1/2
December 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-46245-9 (paperback)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Magician's Book - Laura Miller

The Magician’s Book
A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia
Laura Miller
Little, Brown and Company


Anyone who read C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia as a child will remember the feelings those books evoked. The moment that Lucy pushes through the coats hanging in the wardrobe and hears the snow crunching under her feet is still one of my cherished childhood memories. Miller felt the same way. Later, when she was older and discovered the Christian themes that are supposed to be apparent to any adult, she felt betrayed in some fundamental way. So did I. Ms. Miller makes the point that kids don’t like to be lied to or tricked, and that’s how this felt. Strangely, a friend of mine, well into the autumn of his life, exhibited the same kind of outrage after seeing the first movie. He was angry that a story he’d enjoyed as a fantasy ‘snuck in’ any kind of message.

This book is not an attack on Christians or the messages and symbols that Lewis embedded into his books. It’s a reasoned examination of a reader’s reaction to those messages and symbols. Ms. Miller isn’t a Christian, but she takes great care to provide quotes and anecdotes from a wide range of readers of all beliefs. In this way, the book becomes an examination of the Chronicles, and a bit of biography. What it is not is an in-depth look at the Christian symbols. It is, rather, a look at the way the discovery of those symbols affected the reader and her relationship with the books.

Ms. Miller points out early on that children read for far different reasons than adults read. Children read for pleasure, for joy, for magic, for adventure. Too often, adults read to sound intellectual, to hold up their end of a party conversation, to be part of a group, to fulfill some real or perceived obligation. This disconnect to the reading experience of childhood resonates deeply with me; it’s not often that I’m able to forget that I’m reading a book in order to review it. In that respect, I am reading out of obligation and have sadly lost the joy that led me to books as a child. But perhaps recognizing that, I’ll find a way back to it.

So much of what Ms. Miller experienced exactly parallels my own experience with these books, it’s almost uncanny. I imagine this will be the case with many readers. It’s like discussing your childhood with a long-lost friend who truly understands, without having to be told. In the words of Lucy when she briefly and wordlessly glimpses a girl of the Sea People in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, “There does not seem to be much chance of [our] meeting again in that world or any other. But if [we] ever do [we] will rush together with [our] hands held out.”

Rating: 9
December 2008
ISBN# 978-0-316-01736-3 (hardcover)

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Defending Angels - Mary Stanton

Defending Angels
A Beaufort & Company Mystery
Mary Stanton
Berkley Prime Crime


Bree Winston-Beaufort moved to Savannah to take over her late uncle’s law practice. His offices are currently being renovated, so she’s looking for some short-term space. What she finds is an office on the first floor of a home in the middle of a cemetery for murderers. Her landlady, Lavinia, seems to know quite a bit, but isn’t talking; a condition Bree puts down to Lavinia’s age and eccentricity.

By the end of the day, Bree has rented the office, rescued a dog, and taken delivery on a shipment of letterhead from a former law professor. How could he have possibly known her new address? To top off the day, she gets a message from billionaire Benjamin Skinner, requesting her services. The thing is, Skinner died earlier that afternoon. Even stranger, it turns out he really does want to hire her, to defend him in Celestial Court.

Cozy mystery fans who appreciate a bit of ghostly whimsy will be thrilled to find this new series by Mary Stanton, who also writes under the name of Claudia Bishop. The supporting cast is full of local color, and balance out very nicely against the paranormal activities. Bree’s first brushes with the angelic realms occur at a time when she’s tired and stressed and it makes perfect sense that she brushes them off as such. As the story progresses, the reader is pulled in alongside Bree. I’m looking forward to more from Beaufort & Company.

Rating: 7
December 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22498-4 (paperback)

Thai Die - Monica Ferris

Thai Die
A Needlecraft Mystery
Monica Ferris
Berkley Prime Crime


Doris Valentine has just returned from four weeks in Thailand. Her first stop on returning home is the Crewel World needlework shop run by her friend and landlady, Betsy Devonshire. Doris has a suitcase full of gorgeous Thai silks to show the Monday Bunch. She’s also got a boxed-up statue of the Buddha. Betsy and the others are a bit taken aback when Doris tells them that the American owner of a silk factory she visited asked her to take the statue back to the States and deliver it to an antiques dealer. Something doesn’t sound right about that.

Of course, they’re all dying to see the statue, so Doris opens the box and removes the packing. Inside the bubble wrap is what looks like an old rag. Doris tosses it, but Betsy and her shop manager, Godwin, see the beautiful stitch work on the old piece of silk and think maybe they can clean and restore it somehow. Doris delivers the box to the antique dealer, with some misgivings, and goes on her way.

The following day, Doris’ apartment is trashed. Some of her Thai silks and some relatively inexpensive jewelry she brought home were stolen, but it’s clear that whoever did this was looking for something specific. While the police investigate, they inform Doris that the antique dealer was found, murdered. The time of his death appears to be just after Doris left the box with him. The police are looking at Doris, and Betsy finds her investigative skills are needed to save her friend.

It can’t be easy for an author to come up with new mysteries that touch on the needlework shop, but Ms. Ferris (KNITTING BONES) has a winner here. Any needle worker would be fascinated by the silks and stitching from Thailand, and the international angle gives this mystery an additional layer of interest. Being friends with Doris also gives Betsy a good reason to be concerned with, and involved in, the investigation. The mystery is fascinating, and, as always, the author provides a stitching pattern that relates to the story.

Rating: 7 ½
December 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22346-8 (hardcover)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

New Tricks - John Levitt

New Tricks
John Levitt

Urban Fantasy

Mason is a jazz guitarist who lives in San Francisco. He’s also a magic practitioner. (In Europe, they still call themselves sorcerers.) Mason was lucky. He found a mentor, Eli, when his magic began to manifest during his teenage years. Over the years, he’s worked for Victor as a magical enforcer, making sure that other practitioners don’t do harm to themselves or others. It’s not a job he particularly likes, but sometimes he needs the extra money.

The three men have gathered at the Castro for a Halloween party. They’re waiting for Sarah, another practitioner, who is never, ever late to anything. Tonight, she’s late and she’s not answering her cell phone. Lou, Mason’s Ifrit (no one really knows what an Ifrit is, but Lou looks a lot like a mini Doberman) manages to track Sarah. She’s sitting on a bench, staring into infinity. There’s a hole in her forehead. It’s clear that someone tried to possess her through physical means, but failed, destroying her. This kind of practice is prohibited, but there are dark practitioners.

Mason’s old Friend, Rolando, and his sister, Josephine, have just arrived from Portland with a similar tale. Practitioners there were murdered. When a man called Byron left Portland, the problems stopped. Now he’s in San Francisco, and they’ve started again. It seems like simple math.

I didn’t read the first book, DOG DAYS, but the characters and situations are introduced in such a way that this was no impediment. Each of the characters is individual, and has a unique outlook on life and magic. There’s a scene during the book (not a spoiler) where Mason uses a piece of classical music as the means of creating a virtual world. Although it’s fanciful, any musician will understand the underlying theory. It makes perfect sense, from beginning to end. While I had the killer pinpointed quite early in the story, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment. And the final scene with the ‘bad guy’ was incredibly effective. If you like urban fantasy, this one is a cut above the rest.

Rating: 8
December 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01656-3 (paperback)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Knights Of The Cornerstone - James P. Blaylock

The Knights Of The Cornerstone
James P. Blaylock


Calvin Bryson lives comfortably on the inheritance left by his dad, doodling cartoons and collecting oddball pamphlets and small press books. Occasionally, he even submits a cartoon to a magazine. He lives a very quiet and solitary life, and he’s fine with that. Getting a letter from his Uncle Al Lymon is a surprise. Reading between the lines, it seems that Aunt Nettie isn’t doing so well, and Lymon wants Calvin to visit them. The very same day, Calvin gets a package from another distant relative, addressed to Lymon, c/o Calvin. The coincidence is enough to propel Calvin to action.

Lymon and Nettie live in New Cyprus, a bit of land created when an earthquake changed the course of a river. Since the land doesn’t technically belong to any state, its homestead land. Calvin remembers the place from childhood visits. He remembers the Temple Bar that sits on a little spit of land. Lymon is a member, a Knight. Calvin always figured it was some kind of service organization. But events quickly make him think there’s something more important going on here. What’s in the package is far more than a family heirloom scarf. And the Knights in the desert are far more than they seem to be.

This novel neatly transposes the legends of the Knights Templar to the desert of the US southwest. It’s a geographically isolated place, perfectly suited to house a secret order. It’s a place that exists outside the laws of man, in nearly every way. The reader follows Calvin, a completely sympathetic everyman, step by step as he learns the truth about the place, his family, and history. The last third of the novel contains a lot of action, and the author allows the bad guys to be smart and inventive. A bit of fantasy, a bit of Templar legend, and stakes that are very real and immediate for Calvin make this a grand adventure story.

Rating: 8
December 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01653-2 (hardcover)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Dying For Dinner - Miranda Bliss

Dying For Dinner
A Cooking Class Mystery
Miranda Bliss
Berkley Prime Crime


Annie Capshaw has come to a crossroads in her life. She’s finally quit her day job as a bank teller – a job she’s had since she graduated high school – and is now devoting all her time and energy to being the business manager of Bellywasher’s, a pub a eatery run by her chef boyfriend, Jim MacDonald. As part of his renovation of the business, Jim has started teaching cooking classes. This evening, celebrated local chef Jacques Lavoie is scheduled to drop by, assist with the lesson, and hand out gift bags. And, not incidentally, promote his store that features high-end cooking gadgets and supplies.

When Lavoie doesn’t arrive on time, Annie calls the shop and the cell phone. Both are unanswered, which is suspicious. Annie and Eve, her best friend since forever and hostess at Bellywasher’s, make the drive to the shop to check on Lavoie. The police are already there. Inside, Greg, Lavoie’s assistant, lies in a pool of blood. Lavoie is nowhere to be found. Jim and Lavoie have been friends for years, and Jim asks Annie to take over running the store until Lavoie can be found and everything set right. This gives Annie the perfect ‘in’ to investigate Greg’s death and Lavoie’s disappearance.

In this installment (following COOKING UP MURDER and MURDER ON THE MENU) the investigation aspect evolves organically. The ties between Jim and Lavoie, and Annie’s presence in the shop, put her in the perfect spot to look around and ask questions. Annie and Eve make a great duo and their friendship seems very realistic. There’s more than a bit of a ‘chick lit’ feel to these novels, so they should appeal to a wide variety of readers. Before the final reveal, the mystery takes a few interesting and unexpected turns, making this a solid entry in the series. For the foodies, there’s plenty of information about cooking and kitchen gadgets, and there are several recipes included.

Rating: 7
December 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22610-0 (paperback)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Ding Dong Dead - Deb Baker

Ding Dong Dead
A Dolls To Die For Mystery
Deb Baker
Berkley Prime Crime


Gretchen Birch is happily settling into her new life as a doll restoration artist in Phoenix, AZ. An anonymous donor has given the Phoenix Dollers a large house and an even larger collection of dolls. The Dollers are hard at work creating a doll museum. Gretchen’s Aunt Nina, a self-proclaimed psychic, claims that the place is haunted by the spirit of a little girl who will be unable to rest until her doll is reunited with its antique trunk.

When her boyfriend, Matt, a detective, is called to a murder scene in a cemetery, Gretchen can’t help taking a look. One of the gravestones near the body bears the message “Die, Dolly, Die,” in lipstick. Nearby, police find a fairy-like doll. Gretchen’s mother, a doll expert, recognizes the piece and is able to identify the victim, another collector. And when someone leaves an identically worded note on Gretchen’s car, she knows she’s in trouble again.

This is the fourth installment in this series (DOLLED UP FOR MURDER, GOODBYE DOLLY.) Some of the chapters are written from a different point of view, in (mostly) present tense. I think this was intended to give readers the sense of the characters being watched by the ‘bad guy,’ but they’re oddly placed in the narrative, and not given any visual distinction, making the transition a bit awkward. It seems, this time around, that the mystery plotline is a bit simplified and abbreviated. For those who have been following this series, the characters do continue to develop, creating fresh opportunities for future books.

Rating: 6
December 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22502-8 (paperback)