Monday, March 30, 2009

A Kiss Before The Apocalypse - Thomas E. Sniegoski

A Kiss Before The Apocalypse
Thomas E. Sniegoski


Remy Chandler is not your average private investigator. Once upon a time, he was Remiel, one of the Seraphim. After the war in Heaven, when many angels fell, Remy was disillusioned and decided to try living as a human, suppressing his angelic nature and powers. He retains some powers, like the ability to will himself invisible, which comes in quite handy in his work as a PI. He can also communicate with animals, which comes in handy when dealing with his black Lab, Marlowe.

During what looks like an ordinary divorce case, Remy follows a middle-aged guy and his secretary to a seedy motel. Moments after the door closes, he hears gunshots. In the room, the woman is dead and the man is ready to kill himself. He talks about dreaming of the end of the world and how the woman agreed to end her life this way, with him. Even more disturbing, at the last moment, before he pulls the trigger on himself, he recognizes Remy for what he is. Or, for what he was.

Most disturbing of all, although Remy saw both bodies and knows that no one could have survived their injuries, these two don’t die. According to his friend, homicide detective Steven Mulvehill, the same thing is happening all over the city. People who should be dead, aren’t. There’s only one explanation for this, and it terrifies Remy. The Angel of Death has gone off duty. Further investigation reveals that the scrolls are missing. Those scrolls with the seals that, once broken, bring down the Apocalypse and end everything.

The twist in this tale, and the emotional punch, comes from the fact that Remy’s wife of forty-some years is near death. Although he’s immortal, Remy is as anguished about her death as any human husband would be. And he knows that, if he restores the Angel of Death to his duties, it will only be to lose to love of his life. Between this, and the scenes where he has to try and explain it all to Marlowe, as you would to a very small child, there’s a lot more raw emotion here than is usual in a fantasy.

The ‘fantasy’ world is absolutely our own. Remy lives and works in Boston. He lives as a human, and hides his nature from all but his wife and Mulvehill. For his part, Mulvehill isn’t too sure how much he really wants to know about it all, which seems like a completely logical reaction to me. The ‘mythos’ here are rooted strictly in the Bible. God, angels, Seraphim, fallen angels, demons, penance and redemption are all taken from the Judeo-Christian traditions. I wasn’t sure this would work for me as a fantasy, but the author used it all to brilliant effect. This has to be one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in some time. I can’t wait to get to the next one.

Rating: 9
April 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-46205-3 (trade paperback)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Death Takes The Cake - Melinda Wells

Death Takes The Cake
A Della Cooks Mystery
Melinda Wells
Berkley Prime Crime


As the new star of a new cooking show on the Better Living Channel, Della Carmichael is pretty pleased with her lot in life at the moment. She also owns a cooking school in Santa Monica, but that’s under renovations at the moment. So this seems like the perfect time for her boss, Mickey Jordan, to throw her a curve ball. Actually, he lets his son, Addison, do the throwing. It seems that Addison has already made a deal with the Reggi-Mix Cake Company to create the first annual Reggi-Mix Cake Contest. And to use Della as one of the contestants. And, by the way, film the entire contest, from coming up with a recipe to testing to the actual baking of the finished product and the award, for a reality show. Addison claims it will boost the ratings for Della’s show. Della is pretty sure it’s going to boost her blood pressure.

One serious problem is the use of Reggi-Mix cake mix. To Della, it’s an inferior product that tastes like cardboard. And she went to college with Regina (Reggie) Davis, with less-than-friendly results. In fact, the last time Reggie and Della were face-to-face, Reggie was threatening to kill Della. Mickey brushes these worries aside, sure that Della can make even cardboard taste good; sure the college animosity will have evaporated; and mindful that they’ve already signed the contracts. Della’s just stuck with the project.

Della’s got some other things to worry about, too. Like the crime reporter she’s been seeing, and his appearance at a local restaurant with a blonde bimbo not his sister. And a best friend, Libby Marshall, crushed that she may have found evidence that her reliable dentist husband is cheating on her after a couple of decades of marriage. These worries take a back seat when Della discovers Reggie’s dead body. Someone was either mad, or had a dark sense of humor: she was left with her face buried in a bowl of cake batter in the test kitchen.

There are some neat twists that come into play during this mystery, allowing the several storyline threads to come together in unexpected ways. It does take a good amount of narrative time for this to happen, but, for me, the setup was interesting and enjoyable enough that it didn’t seem to matter. As before (KILLER MOUSSE) Della is a very real character. She’s an adult woman embarking on an unexpected second life after the death of her husband. The way she deals with her relationship with the reporter is mature – but not too mature to be believable – and shows a good deal of self-respect. Any woman who can conduct herself that way, run a cooking school, provide recipes that anyone can create using easy-to-find ingredients, and solve a few mysteries is someone with whom I’d like to be friends. I’d be the George to her Nancy Drew any day.

Rating: 7 ½
February 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22642-1 (paperback)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wild Sorrow - Sandi Ault

Wild Sorrow
Sandi Ault
Berkley Prime Crime


Shepherds from the Tanoah Pueblo report that, this winter, wolves are coming closer to their flocks. One man takes a shot at a shadow moving at the edge of his flock, wounding whatever was there. As a resource protection agent for the Bureau of Land Management and a liaison to the pueblo, Jamaica Wild takes up the hunt, following the bloody trail deep into the wilderness. Instead of a wolf, she finds a wounded and starving female mountain lion with two starving babies to feed. Before she can pursue the situation any further, weather conditions force her to shelter in an abandoned building. This place was once a boarding school for Indian children. Looking at the few remaining photos, Jamaica instantly understands that this was not a happy place.

It’s still a place of bad vibes. Looking for a place to spend the frigid night, Jamaica and her wolf, Mountain, stumble over (literally) the body of a woman. The killer also scalped the woman, then put wreaths of sage and feathers around her ankles. Once Jamaica is back within communication range, she reports her findings. It turns out that this woman, who died at age 77, was once a matron at the school. Local memories are long and many remember being sent to live at the school. She was notorious for mistreating the Indian children, even in an atmosphere that tacitly approved of such behavior.

The closed-up boarding school is some distance from the pueblo, so clearly someone went to great lengths to place the body there. They also left a note on her chest, reading, “I am not an Indian.” An act of long-repressed rage? Or someone with a very personal grudge? The truth is, there’s no shortage of suspects.

Readers who miss the novels of Tony Hillerman will be thrilled to find this author. She writes with great assurance and respect about the native peoples. She states at the outset that she blends traditions and rituals, and shades them out of respect; to maintain them as private things within the tribes. Her knowledge of (and respect for) the terrain and peoples of New Mexico shines through each scene. The information about the boarding schools is more heart breaking with the realization that real places like this existed not so very long ago.

With only a few sentences, the author immediately establishes the physical isolation of the school and the gathering storm and its impact on such an isolated place. The reactions of the animals – Mountain, her wolf, and the horse called Rooster – serve to cement the wildness of the area. The mystery is necessarily woven into the culture of the pueblo’s people and the white culture that surrounds it. Jamaica’s inner life continues to evolve, but if you’ve not read the first books (WILD INDIGO) you won’t be at a loss, since she’s a pretty straightforward narrator. For such a deep, dark subject, this is surprisingly fast read. Possibly because the language and urgency of many scenes compels the reader to keep turning pages. I’m sure there’s no way to truly understand the lives of the native peoples of our country unless you’ve lived it, but this series makes you feel that you may have walked in someone else’s shoes for a bit.

Rating: 8
March 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22583-7 (hardcover)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Drop Of Red - Chris Marie Green

A Drop Of Red
Vampire Babylon – Book 4
Chris Marie Green

Urban Fantasy/Vampire

Note: Background for this book will necessarily spoil some of the outcome of the previous book (BREAK OF DAWN) that ended the author’s first trilogy. Proceed at your own risk.

This is the first book in a new trilogy. For readers who are new to the series, this is an excellent place to start. Most of the characters carry over from the first trilogy, set in Hollywood. Now the team has moved to London, and learning a new place, searching for a new Underground (vampire nest) is a great way to acclimate new readers. There’s enough background given to understand the characters and their situations, without rehashing the first three books.

Dawn Madison, stuntwoman-turned-vampire hunter-turned-vampire-turned human, and her team moved to England after the battle that ended the last book (BREAK OF DAWN.) They’re looking for a new vampire Underground to destroy. When they meet Natalia Petri, a Romani who can sometimes hear the dead speak, it’s both a blessing and a curse. With Natalia’s help, they’re able to locate some recently buried human remains. But Dawn, not the trusting sort, isn’t sure of Natalia’s motives. The group’s resident psychic, Kiko, takes Natalia’s presence as something of a threat, and works to improve his game.

Meanwhile, at an exclusive boarding school, the Queen Bees have quite a big secret. Although they can walk in daylight, they’ve been turned. Their mentor, nicknamed Wolfie, seems like an aging rock star to them. To the hunters, he may be something much more important.

This novel starts out with a scene involving the new vampires, and the pace continues to be fairly steady after that. Dawn is still learning to control/use her newfound abilities. Costin is still fighting the good fight, even with his new disadvantages. The rest of the team is still feeling their way after their exit from the US. For my money, the relationship between Dawn and Costin/Jonah is far less inherently interesting than the search for the local vampires. That may be because I didn’t follow them through the first trilogy. The mythos presented here is quite interesting, and the book is left open-ended. This is clearly intentional, since the next book is due this summer. I’ll be waiting.

Rating: 7 ½
March 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01681-5 (trade paperback)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Hounding The Pavement - Judy McCoy

Hounding The Pavement
A Dog Walker Mystery
Judi McCoy


Fresh from a nasty divorce, Ellie Engleman visits the ASPCA to adopt a dog. Most people talk to animals. It’s pretty surprising when one talks to you. That’s what happens while she’s standing in front the ranks of cages. She hears a dog talking to her, telling her that he’s the reincarnation of her previous pet. After making sure it’s not a practical joke, Ellie accepts her new talent and brings Rudy home. In a roundabout way, these events lead her to her new, dream job: dog walker.

Life as a dog walker in Manhattan is interesting. So many people do so many crazy things that no one thinks twice about the dog walker carrying on a one-sided conversation with her charges. Collecting her group for the morning walk, Ellie arrives at Professor Albright’s apartment. The dogs balk and tell her something’s not right. Using her key, as usual, Ellie finds the door blocked by the Professor’s body. After notifying the proper people, Ellie immediately begins to search for Buddy, the Professor’s AKC champion bichon. The police are clearly more interested in the dead human body than the missing dog, so Ellie decides to look for him with the help of her canine friends.

This is the first in a new and inventive series. The author handles Ellie’s gift in a fairly matter-of-fact way so that it never becomes too cutesy or paranormal. The focus here is on the dogs and the mystery. Each dog, naturally, has its own personality, which will make complete sense to any animal lover. Ellie is a fun character. She’s devoted to the dogs, but she’s still human enough to be a little attracted to the lead detective on the case, Sam Ryder. The mystery starts quickly and the breezy writing style keeps the story flowing very well. There’s already another installment in the pipeline, so it’ll be interesting to see where things go from here.

Rating: 7
March 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-22631-0 (paperback)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Plague Of Poison - Maureen Ash

A Plague Of Poison
A Templar Knight Mystery
Maureen Ash
Berkley Prime Crime


It’s the spring of 1201 A.D., and while most of the townspeople and farmers of Lincoln, England are making repairs or planting crops, someone else has murder on his mind. He begins testing his poison (this is in the Prologue, so it’s no spoiler) on a stray dog. This is a pretty gruesome scene, particularly for readers who love animals, and graphic enough to make me long for justice to come to the murderer instantly and painfully.

A few weeks later, a clerk in the castle at Lincoln falls ill and dies within minutes. The doctor (leech) suggests that perhaps the man ate something rancid. Bascot de Marins, a Templar who has been living at the castle for some eighteen months, recuperating from being held prisoner in the Holy Land for eight years, knows that another possibility is some disease against which the people have no cure. When another knight in the household dies in the same manner, the cause is quickly narrowed down to poison. More distressing is that the initial target was apparently the castellan, Nicolaa de la Haye.

The author does a marvelous job of setting the time and place. Her descriptions of the town, the castle, and the unfortunately but aptly named suburb of Butwerks, which contains most of the refuse and squalor, really allows the reader feel as if they’re seeing everything. And, possibly, smelling it, too. This is no romanticized history; everything – good, bad, and ugly – is presented and described in detail.

In the midst of the attention to detail, the author never strays far from the central mystery or the characters. The initial deaths occur within the first few pages, leaving plenty of space for the story to develop. New readers will have no problem starting here. For those who have read the series from the start (THE ALEHOUSE MURDERS, DEATH OF A SQUIRE) the characters continue to evolve. Bascot, in particular, has a potentially life-altering decision to make. Nicolaa continues to be a strong and intelligent female without seeming anachronistically modern. The scenes presented from the poisoner’s point of view are truly chilling and keep the story moving. This is a great historical series, and I hope to see much more.

Rating: 8
March 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22677-3 (paperback)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Orphan's Alliance - Robert Buettner

Orphan’s Alliance
Robert Buettner

Science Fiction/Military

Note: This is the fourth in a series (ORPHANAGE, ORPHAN’S DESTINY, ORPHAN’S JOURNEY) so the background details will inevitably ‘spoil’ parts of the plots of the previous books. Readers will find it easy to jump into the story at this point, but the first three novels are well worth reading.

Decades after the beginning of what would be known as the Slug War, mankind discovered waypoints in space that would allow faster-than-light travel. Through those waypoints lie inhabitable planets. Planets seeded with humans nearly 30,000 years ago by the Slugs. Human society on each planet evolved separately, none knowing about the others. The most advanced society knows little of aviation; not yet imagining space travel.

One of those planets, Tressan, is embroiled in a bitter war. General Jason Wander arrived as a military advisor to Audace Planck, leader of one faction. The aim is to create a lasting peace on the planet in order to strengthen humanity as a whole. We’re going to need to stand together against the Slugs. And the pivot point is going to be a little moon called Mousetrap. It sits at a junction in space, near several waypoints. Whoever controls Mousetrap controls travel into our area of the universe.

Jason’s godson, Jude Metzger, the first human born in space, is a pilot with exceptionally fast reflexes and an ongoing battle with depression. He’s along for the ride on this mission. Partly because the mission needs him, and partly because he needs the mission.

This installment begins quite near the end of the story, and then loops back a couple of years, allowing the reader to walk the road with Jason Wander. The author’s military background is used to great effect, giving even the most speculative of issues a ring of truth. In this near future, politics are still politics, even in this enlarged arena. The series so far has stretched over thirty years, with well-drawn characters aging and responding to events in a believable way. It’s rare to find military scifi that so skillfully blends realistic characters with fast-paced action and events.

Rating: 8
November 2008
ISBN# 978-0-316-00174-8 (paperback)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Death's Daughter - Amber Benson

Death’s Daughter
A Calliope Reaper-Jones Novel
Amber Benson


Calliope (Callie) Reaper-Jones is just like most twenty-somethings who go to New York. She loves the city and wants to work in fashion. At the moment, she’s an admin assistant in a yard and garden company. Her life gets one huge shake-up when, during one ordinary morning, a faun shows up at her job and the Forgetting Charm she apparently cast on herself breaks. Now she remembers everything. Her father is Death. And she cast the Charm in the first place so that she could live a normal life away from all the magic and weirdness. And just live in the Manhattan version of weirdness.

The faun, Jarvis, is her father’s assistant and he’s got bad news. Callie’s dad, her oldest sister (a VP in Death, Inc.) and most of the Death, Inc. executives are missing. Kidnapped. Now the next person in line needs to take over as Death. If someone outside the family takes over, there’s not likely to be any mercy. Of course, in order to take over, Callie must complete three tasks, assigned to her by various Gods. The first task: get one of Cerberus’ puppies. It only gets harder from there.

The main problem with this novel is Callie. She’s an idiot. That may sound harsh, but she knows it, and she admits it, and she confesses, often and loudly, that she’s pathetic. And she cries. All the time. This woman speaks like a teenager, believes everything everyone tells her (despite her upbringing, and even when she’s in Hell, dealing with beings who clearly have it in for her) and, roughly every other chapter, she breaks down, sobbing, for long stretches of time. This is not the individual I’d want in charge of Death. This is not someone I’d hire as an admin assistant in a yard and garden company. It’s clearly meant to depict her as an everyday chicklit kind of girl, but a little of that goes a very long way.

That aside, the author uses various world mythologies to great effect here. It’s not often that the same mythos contains Kali, Wodin, the Devil, and God. The various tasks are all structured to bring Callie and friends to the site of the final battle when she figures out who is behind the whole kidnapping scheme. This is not a big mystery, unless you’re Callie. I had it figured out less than halfway through the novel, but there was a neat twist to the solution that I didn’t foresee. I enjoyed the world created in this novel. Now, if Callie could exhibit a bit of brain and a bit of spine, she’d be a fun heroine. I’d like to see more of her smart little sister, Clio, and Runt, the hellhound puppy. They make a great team.

Rating: 6
March 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01694-5 (paperback)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Third Revelation - Ralph McInerny

The Third Revelation
The Rosary Chronicles
Ralph McInerny


Say what you will about the Vatican; one area in which it excels is in covering up unpleasantness. So, when an intruder murders three priests and a guard, the powers that be take steps to make sure that knowledge never becomes public. The funerals take place over a period of time, with the deaths attributed to various other (non-murderous) causes. This general air of power and secrecy explains why so many people believe that the Vatican never released the revelations of Our Lady Of Fatima in their entirety.

In 1917, the Blessed Virgin appeared to three peasant children in Fatima and spoke to them. The third ‘secret’ was withheld from the public due to its possible sensational nature until the year 2000, when then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote an accompanying commentary. But there are those, inside the Church and out, that believe the Church is still withholding critical information; hiding it in the Vatican Archives.

After the murders, former CIA agent Vincent Traeger is pressed into service again. When he was an operative, he worked mainly in Rome, so he knows the area and the players. He doesn’t take long to realize that the murders all tie back to Fatima and the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. Traeger goes looking for the records and finds nothing. Unknown to him, there is a secret group working within the Church for its own purposes.

This is the first book in the “Rosary Chronicles.” It’s a very intricately plotted novel. The various strands include the Church personnel, laypeople, foreign nationals, and a billionaire software designer whose current obsession is obtaining artworks depicting the joyful mysteries of the rosary. The author is a scholar of Church doctrine, and it shows in the deep background and labyrinthine dealings he depicts. Non-Catholic readers may not enjoy the book on as many levels, not having the same kind of background, but I found that everything was explained in a way that anyone could understand.

I haven’t read the author’s Father Dowling mysteries, so I can’t compare the two, but THE THIRD REVELATION is a deep book with a dark tone. There’s plenty of intrigue, inside and outside the Church; and the various characters are all believably flawed in various ways. The underlying message of human frailty and imperfection comes through loud and clear. Readers who enjoy religious thrillers will love this novel. Those who aren’t necessarily interested in the religion itself will still find a great story that moves quickly. There’s clearly more to be told, and I’ll look forward to the next novel.

Rating: 7 ½
March 2009
ISBN# 978-0-515-14592-2 (paperback)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fatal Flip - Peg Marberg

Fatal Flip
An Interior Design Mystery
Peg Marberg
Berkley Prime Crime


Faced with a bad case of empty nest syndrome at the same time her husband took early retirement, Jean Hastings took charge of her life. She’s now an interior designer, and along with her daughter, Jean, Jr. (JR) she runs her own firm, Designer Jeans. Lately, the schedule has been looking a little thin, but that all changes when Fast Flippers hires her to re-do the inside of a local Victorian-era home.

Fast Flippers is a group of people from outside the area who do the paperwork and pay contractors to make repairs and redecorate. Their interest is a quick return on their investment. The only part of the redecoration that Jean doesn’t like is a pillow made to sit on a window seat with the legend “Rest In Peace” embroidered on it. That seems to be in questionable taste, since the previous owner of the home died there not long ago, but Jean is outvoted on that score.

When Jean and JR arrive to make sure everything is in order before the big open house, the pillow is missing. JR takes a look inside the window seat and finds the body of Stuart Goodenough, one of the investors. Stuart was quite the salesman; a smooth talker who effectively masked his cheating, bullying ways. Jean discovered that Stuart was about to be outed as a thief, a gambler, and someone who runs out on his bills. Not the kinds of actions that would endear him to many people.

This is the third in a charming series (FAUX FINISHED and DECORATED TO DEATH) and it’s a winner. With each installment, the recurring characters become deeper and continue to be realistic. Jean’s love of classic movies and her determination to carve out her own life make her someone that most readers would like to know as a friend. There are some great tips included for anyone looking to redecorate, or just make a few changes to a room in their home. The inclusion of various people from outside the area adds to the pool of possible suspects, and the mystery held my interest to the final page. I always enjoy a visit with Designer Jeans of Seville, Indiana.

Rating: 7
March 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22679-7 (paperback)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Drood - Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons
Little, Brown and Company

Historical Fiction/Mystery

In the opening line, narrator Wilkie Collins wonders if we, the readers in his future, will even remember who he was. Oh, Wilkie. Not only do I remember you, but I adore your gossipy, unreliable, mean-spirited, laudanum-laced, proto-snark style of narration. I could listen to you tell this tale forever and never be bored. Your every tangent is entertaining; each pointed observation a thing a beauty.

DROOD is presented as a memoir, penned by Wilkie Collins and withheld from publication for 125 years after his death so as not to cause harm to anyone living during his time. It’s the story of how his friend, Charles Dickens, “the Inimitable,” came to write (but leave uncompleted upon his untimely death) The Mystery Of Edwin Drood.

According to this account, it all began when Dickens was involved in a horrific train wreck. Many of the passengers were killed and mutilated, and Dickens, who was miraculously unharmed, rendered aid to the injured and dying until help could arrive. During that interval, as he later tells his friend and writing partner, Wilkie Collins, a ghoulish figure appeared, calling itself Drood, and everywhere he went, death seemed to attend him. Dickens and Collins decide to try and track down this strange personage, and descend into the underbelly of London to search.

The entire novel is written in the language and style that was in vogue during the time of Dickens and Collins, and this adds immeasurably to the experience. There’s a palpable sense of darkness and gloom hanging over the story from the very first page; a feeling that is only heightened by Collins’ jibes. Much like the rookeries of London, this story leads the reader down several shortened avenues and dead-end streets. Somehow, the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps reading the novel over the course of a few raw and windy late-winter evenings added to the ambiance, but I have no doubt that I would have been just as enthralled had I read it on a beach in full sunlight. Readers unfamiliar with the authors and their works and times will have no trouble, as Collins kindly provides background to the “Dear Reader.” Those with even a passing familiarity with Dickens, Collins, and their works will find a treasure trove here. This is the kind of book that I, as a reader, am thrilled to be lost in, and I find myself more than saddened when I turn the final page.

Rating: 10
February 2009
ISBN# 978-0-316-00702-3 (hardcover)