Thursday, January 29, 2009

What Time Devours - A. J. Hartley

What Time Devours
A. J. Hartley


High school English teacher Thomas Knight (last seen in ON THE FIFTH DAY) is up before dawn, as usual. What’s not usual is the face peering in at him, outside his kitchen window. It takes a moment to register the fact that the woman is dead. It takes longer to realize that someone had to drag her into the yard and prop her up that way. The police have no idea, and find no ID; only a scrap of paper with Thomas’ address on it.

One of Thomas’ former students works as an agent for a literary publisher. He calls Thomas and asks for a meeting at his hotel. Once there, Thomas is stunned to see David Escolme, in a complete panic. He’s torn up his hotel room searching for something. He tells Thomas that what’s missing is a transcribed manuscript for a previously unknown Shakespeare play, Love’s Labour’s Won. The monetary value of such a work would be nearly incalculable, to say nothing of the scholarly value. From that moment, the race is on to not only find the missing copy, but to attempt to authenticate the work.

It’s not often you find a literate, literary thriller, but the author has outdone himself this time. The action moves from Thomas’ home base in Chicago to various cities around Europe, and, of course, to Stratford, home of the bard himself. The novel starts off with the truly disturbing ‘dead face in the window’ scene, and really kicks off after the hotel meeting. From there, the pace is fast and even throughout the novel. A few scenes require some suspension of disbelief, but overall, this is quite a ride. Devotees of Shakespeare will enjoy this novel on an extra level, but you don’t have to love his plays or poems to enjoy this fast-paced thriller.

Rating: 8
January 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22623-0 (paperback)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Jennifer Morgue - Charles Stross

The Jennifer Morgue
Charles Stross


Bob Howard works for the Laundry. Of course, that’s a cover. The Laundry is a group that protects the rest of the world from demonic death and destruction, more or less. Bob used to be a computer programmer, until one of his neat new algorithms nearly summoned a creature that could destroy our dimension. After that, he was kind of forcibly inducted into the Laundry. He’s spent the past few years doing paperwork, attending meetings, and being bored. He asked to be transferred to fieldwork. Big mistake, Bob.

In Germany on an otherwise unremarkable business trip (a meeting with his opposite numbers from other countries, who exchange gossip and trade information) Bob meets Ramona. She looks gorgeous, but that means nothing, since she’s got a class three glamour working. Ramona works for the Black Chamber, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Also, she’s not exactly human. Within an hour, Bob and Ramona have been ‘entangled.’ Now they communicate telepathically and can draw on each other’s power. They’re going to need every advantage they can get, because they’ve got less than a week to save the world.

If you’re not familiar with Charles Stross, (SATURN’S CHILDREN, HALTING STATE, GLASSHOUSE) you’ve missed some fantastic reading. In the Acknowledgements, the author includes a thanks to someone “who valiantly helped [him] MST3K [his] way through the Bond canon.” It’s a perfect setup of what you’ll find in the story. A lot of super-secret-spy stuff, gadgets, characters, and situations, leavened with more than a bit of humor. The occult twist makes it that much more fun. If you’re not a fan of Bond but enjoy paranormals, you’ll still find a lot to enjoy here. The story moves at a very fast pace and I admit to staying up long into the wee hours, reading.

As a bonus, this book also includes the related short story “PIMPF;” a not-to-be-missed Afterword called “The Golden Age Of Spying,” that begins with a section called “The Mary Sue of MI6;” and a fine glossary that would have come in quite handy had I discovered it (or read the Table of Contents) during my reading of the novel. This novel is the second in a series, but I can say that not having read the first book was in no way an impediment to my complete enjoyment of this one. Very highly recommended.

Rating: 9
January 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01671-6 (trade paperback)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

For The Love Of Pete - Julia Harper

For The Love Of Pete
Julia Harper
Grand Central/Forever

Contemporary Romance/Humor

Julia Harper writes amazingly deep and detailed historical romances (THE RAVEN PRINCE, THE LEOPARD PRINCE, THE SERPENT PRINCE) under the name of Elizabeth Hoyt. These books are full of well developed and believable characters and realistic situations. Her contemporaries – this is the second, following HOT – are much different. They’re silly, frothy fun. That’s not a bad thing at all; just something to consider, since reading enjoyment often varies with the reader’s mood and expectations.

Zoey Addler’s family situation is complicated, to say the least. Her sister’s boyfriend is (or, was) a bagman for the mob. Due to some unpleasantness, he agreed to testify against his boss in a federal trial. The couple, along with their baby daughter, Zoey’s niece, lives anonymously under constant FBI guard. While digging out a parking space in front of the apartment building, Zoey witnesses the abduction of the baby, Pete. The nearest person to her is a gorgeous guy in a BMW convertible, so she enlists her help.

FBI agent Dante Torelli was just arriving for his shift on guard duty when it all happened. The kidnapped baby, the gunfire, the hysterical woman leaping into his car, and the ensuing chase. The two chase the kidnapper’s car until, incredibly, he gets out at a gas station and two little old ladies in Indian saris steal the car. And the baby. The ladies have an agenda of their own; one that did not include a kidnapped baby. Imagine their surprise when they find two babies strapped in the back seat.

The rest of the novel is told from various points of view: that of Zoey, Dante, the Indian ladies, the kidnapper, the mob boss, and a few others. There’s a lot of chasing, a lot of confusion, double-crosses, and a lot of different plot threads. There’s not a whole lot of time to develop deep characters or create a realistic romance. But, really, that’s fine, because the whole thing is just so much fun. The book starts with the kidnapping and rarely slows down at all. It’s the kind of book you start, intending to read a few chapters, then look up to realize you’re halfway through it. For a light, fun, fast and frenzied read, you just can’t beat Julia Harper’s contemporaries.

Rating: 8
January 2009
ISBN# 0-446-61918-3 (paperback)

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Ghost And The Haunted Mansion - Alice Kimberly

The Ghost And The Haunted Mansion
A Haunted Bookshop Mystery
Alice Kimberly
Berkley Prime Crime


Penelope (Pen) Thornton-McClure owns a mystery bookshop in the small town of Quindicott, Rhode Island. Jack Shepard lives in the shop, in a manner of speaking. As a PI in the 1940s, he was working a case when he was gunned down in the shop. Now his ghost resides there, speaking only to Pen. Together, the two have been pretty good at solving local murders.

During a normal single-working-mom morning of running rushed errands for both her son and her business, Pen very nearly runs down a pedestrian. She was on her way to make a monthly delivery of books to Miss Todd, an elderly shut-in who lives in one of the largest mansions in town. The pedestrian, who kept right on running as he crossed the street, was clearly Seymour Tarnish, the town’s letter carrier. Arriving at Miss Todd’s, Pen discovers that the door is open. Entering the house, she finds Miss Todd on the floor, murdered. The look on the dead woman’s face is one of terror.

The local chief of police seems more than willing to pin the whole thing on Seymour, given his recent presence at Miss Todd’s, and his hasty exit. Pen knows Seymour and is convinced that he could not have done it. Things begin to look worse for Seymour when it turns out that Miss Todd left him the mansion. And apparently, the mansion comes with a few unwelcome inhabitants. Too bad Jack can’t talk to other ghosts.

Jack and Pen have an interesting friendship and working relationship; their personalities complement each other very nicely. Each installment of the series (THE GHOST AND THE DEAD MAN’S LIBRARY, THE GHOST AND THE FEMME FATALE) includes not only a present-day mystery, but also flashbacks to Jack’s days as a tough-talking PI, hustling to make a buck. The mix of a cozy mystery with the ghost of a hardboiled NY private eye seems like an odd one, but it works wonderfully well. The mystery here is constructed very well and delves into the history of the town and various characters, utilizing them to great effect. As usual, the highlight is Jack, making sarcastic quips that only Pen can hear. I hope for many more installments in this series.

Rating: 7 ½
January 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22460-1 (paperback

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Just Another Judgement Day - Simon R. Green

Just Another Judgement Day
A Novel Of The Nightside
Simon R. Green


The Nightside is a secret, hidden part of London, where it’s always 3 am and you can find absolutely anything you want. And quite a lot that you don’t. John Taylor is a PI who specializes in finding people, things, and the truth. Sometimes it’s not what anyone wanted to know.

John knows something big is happening when Walker calls on him at home. Walker is a sort of Nightside facilitator; a person who wields enormous power and influence. The Authorities, a group of individuals who run Nightside, to the extent that anyone runs anything there, has been replaced with a new group after a rather nasty incident. The new Authorities are a bunch of people who might very well wish John a good deal of harm.

But the time has come to play nicely together, because trouble is coming to Nightside, in the form of the Walking Man. The Walking Man is the personification of God’s violent vengeance. He’s come to Nightside “to punish the guilty.” That’s pretty much everyone. The Authorities want John to stop this implacable, unstoppable force and save the Nightside. Just another day at the office.

For those who are new to Nightside novels (THE UNNATURAL INQUIRER) this one might not make the best place to jump into the story. Each novel can work fairly well as a standalone, but this one requires just a bit more background than others. There’s plenty of the usual action and sarcastic humor that makes this series a real standout. This time around, there’s also a good deal of serious discussion about the nature of Good and Evil and the consequences of each. In the end, John cannot simply use his gift to affect a clean solution, leading to an ending that’s both a bit unusual and very interesting. A trip to the Nightside is always a good time, especially with John and Suzie Shooter as guides.

Rating: 8 ½
January 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01674-7 (hardcover)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Leftover Dead - Jimmie Ruth Evans

Leftover Dead
A Trailer Park Mystery
Jimmie Ruth Evans
Berkley Prime Crime


Wanda Nell Culpepper, a waitress at the Kountry Kitchen, is still happily surprised by the fact that she’s been married for six weeks to Jack Pemberton. In addition to teaching, Jack has written a couple of moderately successful true crime books, and he’s looking for another subject. People in small towns have long memories, and the school janitor tells Jack about the dead girl found on the football field thirty-one years ago. It was clearly a murder, and she was never identified. According to the janitor, it was a big deal for about a week, then, nothing. Anyone who has lived in a small town knows that something like that would have been grist for the mill for months, if not years. It looks like maybe someone wanted to cover up the details.

Looking for more information, Jack and Wanda Nell go to see Elmer Lee, the sheriff. He digs out the original file. The file consists of two pieces of paper. Clearly, some long ago person removed information from the file. Whatever reason that person had, it’s not good enough for Elmer Lee, and he vows to look into it himself. That won’t stop Jack and Wanda Nell, of course, but as they continue with their attempts to uncover information, it becomes very clear that someone is desperate to keep the secrets of the past.

After a certain number of installments in a series, it must be difficult to come up with new plotlines yet retain a sense of realism about the core characters. (I always wondered why Jessica Fletcher had any friends at all, since people around her seemed to drop dead with distressing regularity.) But Ms. Evans is definitely up to the task. By placing the actual murder in the past, she opens up all kinds of fascinating possibilities and can bring in various characters from the past.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this series (MURDER OVER EASY, BEST SERVED COLD, BRING YOUR OWN POISON) is that the characters act and react like normal people. They change, and form different opinions and relationships from book to book. Nowhere is this more apparent than the fact that Elmer Lee and Wanda Nell are now able to ‘share’ in an investigation. There’s a real charm to this series that’s based in the realistic characters. This may be the best of the series, so far.

Rating: 7 ½
January 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22560-8 (paperback)

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Veiled Deception - Annette Blair

A Veiled Deception
A Vintage Magic Mystery
Annette Blair
Berkley Prime Crime


Maddie Cutler travels to her hometown of Mystic Falls in order to help her baby sister plan her wedding. After living in New York and working in the fashion industry, she’s expecting life to be more relaxing in Mystic Falls. Of course, she’s wrong. At an engagement party at her family home, her sister, Sherry, is upset. There’s a woman called Jasmine hanging all over Justin, the prospective groom. They were apparently friends (or more) in college. To make things worse, Justin’s mother is behaving as if Jasmine is her future daughter-in-law.

After the party winds down, Maddie discovers Jasmine in an upstairs bedroom, strangled by a beaded wedding veil. Naturally, Sherry is the prime suspect in the murder. Just as naturally, Maddie goes into protective mode in order to prove that Sherry couldn’t have killed Jasmine. During all this Maddie gets to work on altering a vintage wedding dress, worn by generations of women in Justin’s family. Maddie has always been able to see ghosts. But handling this vintage dress, she gets a kind of vision about a woman who once wore it. A woman who never married into the family.

This is the first book in a new series. Clearly, the author decided to set several storylines in motion that will evolve in future books. The problem is that there’s just too much going on, and the result is that each storyline gets shortchanged. Maddie’s on-again, off-again relationship with an FBI agent, a possible flirtation with a local cop, the purchase of an old building for a new business, new information about her late mother, and the very definite presence of a dapper ghost are all crammed into this one novel.

These are all solid ideas, but it might have served the author better to save something for the second installment. Perhaps mention future plotlines, but allow the mystery to retain center stage here. As it is, the narrative skips from one story to the next and back again, quite quickly. The final denouement of this murder, while definitive, feels rushed and ultimately unsatisfying. It will be interesting to see how the author handles the remaining plotlines in future volumes.

Rating: 5 ½
January 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22640-7 (paperback)