Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Excalibur Murders - J.M.C. Blair

The Excalibur Murders
J.M.C. Blair
Berkley Prime Crime


This is a mystery set in Camelot during the reign of King Arthur. What makes it different from so many other takes on the time and people is the treatment of the characters. King Arthur’s intentions were to unite all the tribes of England; to make England a power on par with courts of Europe. He managed to conquer all of England, but uniting and civilizing the people is a different matter. The knights here are your average illiterate, superstitious landowners who devote their lives to battle. Morgan Le Fay is a woman born into an age in which the matriarchies are all but extinct; who holds what power she can through tricks and playing on the fears of the people. The maid Nimue, who left Morgan’s court and disguises herself as a boy, serves as Merlin’s assistant.

Merlin is King Arthur’s main advisor. Contrary to popular opinion throughout England, he is not a wizard or a sorcerer, or in any way involved in any kind of magic. He doesn’t believe in magic. He believes in science. He is a scholar. That alone sets him apart from most of the rest of Arthur’s court. When Arthur tells Merlin that another knight has found the fabled Stone of Bran, Merlin scoffs openly. Bran was a god. Legend says that the stone is imbued with mystical powers. Arthur’s hope is that it will bring peace to the land and also to his broken marriage. Merlin doesn’t believe it for an instant. But Arthur will not be deterred and plans a celebration to display the Stone of Bran for his court. He even commissions a silversmith from Cornwall to create a shrine for the Stone.

On the appointed day, knights and nobles from all over the kingdom attend. Morgan attends as well, in her role of high priestess. She’s promised to perform some rite for the Stone. Merlin suspects it’s all hokum, but it will make the people happy. Among the other guests are Guenevere and her consort, the attractive but dim Lancelot; the former king of Cornwall, Mark; and mad old Pellenore, the king who originally built Camelot and now wanders its halls, fighting off imaginary beasts. Arthur sends a squire to retrieve the shrine with the Stone, but he doesn’t return. The squire and the guards on duty are all dead, hacked with a sword. Both the Stone in its shrine and Excalibur are missing.

What starts out looking like a murder and theft quickly widens in scope as Merlin investigates. The author does a truly wonderful job of depicting life as it might have been like at the time. There’s a clear separation between the servants and the nobility, so Merlin uses a squire (the dead squire’s twin brother) to talk to the servants. Merlin, Nimue (always in disguise) and a female knight called Britomart, visit the courts of the noble suspects. Politics, revenge, rivalries, anger, and superstition all play a part – both in the case and in the everyday lives of the characters. The characters are quite realistic and their reactions to events and complex emotions bring them to life. This is that rare novel that captivated me immediately; I had a hard time putting it down for any reason. THE EXCALIBUR MURDERS is the start of what promises to be a truly entertaining series. The next installment is out this month. Watch this space.

Rating: 8 ½
July 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22253-9 (paperback)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Night At The Operation - Jeffrey Cohen

A Night At The Operation
A Double Feature Mystery
Jeffrey Cohen
Berkley Prime Crime


All things considered, there are plenty of things Elliott Freed, owner and operator of the independent movie house Comedy Tonight, would rather do than have a conversation with his ex-wife’s soon-to-be-ex-husband. When the future-ex, Dr. Gregory Sandoval, calls Elliott and tells him that Sharon, his almost-ex is missing, Elliott figures that Sharon is just ducking Gregory’s calls. After all, he just saw Sharon at her medical practice yesterday. After essentially hanging up on Gregory, he calls Sharon’s place and leaves a message on her machine, largely concerning Gregory’s general unsuitability as anyone’s life partner.

When he doesn’t get an answer for a while, he starts to worry. When the police call to tell him that Sharon is officially missing (which, apparently, is more missing than just evidently missing) he’s really worried. Unlike most ex-spouses, Elliott and Sharon took great care to keep in touch and be friendly after their divorce. It’s not like her to just disappear. Thinking back on his last visit to her office, Elliott remembers that Sharon was uncharacteristically short and seemed to have something on her mind. In his experience, the only thing that can bring about that change in her is being worried about a patient. As it happens, a patient is dead, and it could be murder. Elliott categorically refuses to believe that Sharon could be responsible, and sets out to set the record straight.

Since most of Elliott’s life revolves around his movie house, much of the book takes place there. Mr. Cohen does an incredible job of depicting the interpersonal dramas of Elliott’s teenaged (high school and college) staff. In particular, he nails the reaction a high school girl has with both her first love and dealing with her mother. Since I can only assume that Mr. Cohen has never been a teenaged girl himself, that makes the feat even more impressive.

This is the third in a series (SOME LIKE IT HOT-BUTTERED, IT HAPPENED ONE KNIFE) but newcomers will have no problems getting up to speed. The mystery begins almost immediately, moves quickly, and takes some very unexpected turns. Movie buffs will obviously enjoy the various references to classic comedies and the “Further Funny Film Facts For Fanatics” at the end give insights into classic comedies and should be of help when it’s time to rent a movie. I had no idea there were so many great, classic comedies I haven’t seen (yet.) If you’re not a film buff, you can still enjoy the mystery and characters on their own merits.

Rating: 7
April 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22815-9 (paperback)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Notoriously Neat - Suzanne Price

Notoriously Neat
A Grime Solvers Mystery
Suzanne Price


It’s not too unusual for a first date to hit a snag or two. For Sky Taylor, her first date with Police Chief Alex Vega is going quite well until the restaurant suddenly transforms into Noah’s Ark. One minute, they’re eating great Japanese food, the next minute, all manner of animals are running through the place. A monkey ends up in Sky’s lap. The intruders are escapees from the vet’s office across the street.

Like most residents of Pigeon Cove, Sky knows and likes the vet, Gail Pilsner. Unfortunately, police who are already at the scene find Dr. Pilsner dead at the bottom of the stairs. Given the broken banisters, it’s clear that someone threw her. The immediate suspect is Orlando, a Spanish-speaking employee who maintains the kennels. Even though parts of his story don’t make sense, Sky doesn’t believe that Orlando is guilty, and once again finds herself up to her elbows in murder.

This is the third installment in the series (SCENE OF THE GRIME, DIRTY DEEDS) and Sky’s life and character continues to evolve. Her business continues to grow, and her new assistant, Bryan, maintains a blog with cleaning tips (scattered throughout the novel) while trying to steer Sky to more green cleaning solutions. Anyone with pets will appreciate the many cleaning tips to be found here. Cozy mystery lovers will enjoy the satisfyingly twisty mystery.

Rating: 7
April 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-22659-4 (paperback)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Long Lost - Harlan Coben

Long Lost
Harlan Coben


Myron Bolitar, former first-round draft pick for the Celtics and now an entertainment agent, hasn’t heard from Terese Collins in over seven years. The two spent a few passionate weeks together back then, each trying to blot out painful memories. Then she disappeared completely. When she calls, out of the blue, and asks Myron to come to Paris to meet her, he’s bemused. And not a little tempted. In the end, Myron does what he feels he should and travels to Paris.

Not long ago, Terese got a very similar phone call from her ex-husband, Rick. For the first time in forever, Rick sounded scared, but said he had something to tell his former wife that would change her life. Terese arrived in Paris, but there was no sign of Rick. Eventually, she tells Myron that, when they met, she was running from a personal tragedy involving her young daughter. That’s the only thing that she and Rick could possibly have in common.

Myron knows that there must be more to the story. For one thing, he was detained at the airport when he arrived. And he’s being followed around Paris. Then there’s the gun-toting guy at the café who tries to kidnap him. Working with Berleand, a French detective, Myron learns that the police found Rick in a bloody murder scene. Not all of the blood at the scene was Rick’s. Entirely improbably, some of that blood appears to be that of Rick’s and Terese’s long-dead daughter.

The story begins with a scene of pure Americana: the kids’ basketball game. Myron displays his great wit by observing that many of the parents have “Spectator’s Tourettes.” From there, the story moves to Paris, then to England and back to the US. There are several seemingly disparate subplots that eventually – and surprisingly – do manage to come together in the end.

No previous experience with this series is necessary. New readers will be happy to meet Myron, et al, and probably anxious to check out the backlist. Each character’s background is quickly sketched in without losing any narrative momentum. I have to admit that I don’t care for the character of Terese. She struck me as flat-out selfish. But the actions of Myron, Win, and everyone else seem perfectly consistent with their own characters. This is one of those could-be-true scenarios that kept me up late at night to finish the book. It was time well spent.

Rating: 8
April 2009
ISBN# 978-0-525-95105-6 (hardcover)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Dancing On The Head Of A Pin - Thomas E. Sniegoski

Dancing On The Head Of A Pin
A Remy Chandler Novel
Thomas E. Sniegoski


Warning: If you haven’t read the first book in this series (A KISS BEFORE THE APOCALYPSE) this review contains serious but unavoidable spoilers. And you’ve missed a great read.

Remy Chandler is back in Boston, taking the occasional case as a PI. He’s having a hard time dealing with the death of his beloved wife, Madeline. Remy, once called Remiel, is essentially immortal, but this is the first time in his very long life that he’s had to deal with the death of someone he loved. He lives on Earth, as a human, but was once part of the host Seraphim. After the War in Heaven, during which angels slaughtered one another and so many fell, he found he couldn’t bear the aftermath and left for a life on the earthly plane.

His friend Francis is a former Guardian angel and now the guardian of a door between Hell and Earth as penance for choosing the wrong side during the War. The two found a couple of Denizens (fallen ones) who claim to be selling the body parts of an angel. The black market for such things is huge, and Remy is shocked to discover that the Denizens have the real thing. Even more shocking is the fact that the angel, a Nomad (part of the host who held themselves apart from the War, not choosing a side) is a willing participant in his own slaughter.

Before Remy can find out exactly what that means, he’s drawn into another case, hired by eccentric collector Alfred Karnighan. Karnighan claims that, despite the excellent security at his estate, pieces of his collection of weapons were stolen. These particular weapons are special. Remy soon discovers that this is no exaggeration; these weapons are known as the Pitiless: weapons forged from Heavenly material, both capable and very eager to kill anyone and anything they encounter. The question is, who could know about these weapons, and for what purpose did they take them?

These books are fantasy, but very deeply rooted in Biblical lore. Heaven and Hell are real places; the War happened and many angels fell or were cast down by God for their sins. It should be noted that readers do not have to believe in these concepts or their corresponding faiths in order to enjoy these books. Remy’s conflict is personal and real. He struggles internally to subdue his angelic nature and live as a human. Having been absent from Heaven for so long, he sees things in a different way than he would have as an angel.

Some of his angelic nature is allowed loose, such as the power to be unseen, and the power to communicate with his Black Lab, Marlowe. These scenes might have been too saccharine, but any animal lover will enjoy them, since I suspect we all believe that, on some level, we communicate with our animals. These books contain an excellent mix of mythology and action. There were scenes that were truly surprising and events that were unexpected. The outcome is never pat or trite. The reader makes the journey with Remy, seeing events unfold from his perspective, which works to great effect. There’s clearly much more story to tell, and I hope to see many more volumes in this series.

Rating: 8 ½
April 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-46251-0 (trade paperback)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

It Happened One Knife - Jeffrey Cohen

It Happened One Knife
A Double Feature Mystery
Jeffrey Cohen
Berkley Prime Crime


Elliot Freed has finally completed (almost) the renovations on his movie theater. He shows a double bill of comedies each week; one current and one classic. The place is called, appropriately enough, Comedy Tonight. This week, though, he’s showing a very special film. It’s called Killin’ Time. It’s a super-violent western. Not the usual fare, but it’s projectionist Anthony’s first-ever film. The audience mainly consists of Anthony’s film school buddies and his girlfriend, all of whom seem unduly impressed by the film. Once the show is over, and Anthony leaves, surrounded by admirers, Elliot goes up to the booth to put away the film. One problem: the film is gone. Another problem: Anthony seems to think Elliot stole it, possibly because he didn’t like it.

All that gets put on a back burner when Elliot discovers that one of his comedy heroes, Harry Lillis is living out his remaining years at a nearby Actor’s Home. Elliot immediately invites the man to Comedy Tonight for a showing of “Cracked Ice,” a classic made by Lillis with his partner-in-comedy, Les Townes. As it happens, Les shows up for the movie as well, and the sold-out audience is treated to a long-overdue reunion of the comedy team. After the show, Lillis and Townes reminisce about their co-star, and Townes’ late wife, Vivian. Both men clearly adored her. As he’s leaving, Lillis has one more bombshell for Elliot. He almost casually states that, fifty years ago, Townes killed Vivian.

It’s never fun to find out that a hero of your childhood has feet of clay. Or that he might just be human. Throwing in an allegation of murder is almost more than Elliot can take. In spite of the fact that the murder happened a half century ago and on the other side of the country, Elliot just can’t let it go. Lillis and Townes and their films were an important part of his development and he needs to know the truth.

I really wish that Lillis and Townes and their films had been real. It’s a real tribute to the author that he describes the film and the stars in a way that makes you think you might just remember having seen something almost like that. Elliot, despite his slightly offbeat business, is a very realistic character. He’s got a wry wit and a way with words. His relationships with his employees, his parents, and even his ex-wife are completely believable. Movie fans will enjoy these books (SOME LIKE IT HOT-BUTTERED) and their trivia and allusions. Non-fans will still enjoy the characters and twisty mystery plot.

Rating: 7 ½
July 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22256-0 (paperback)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dragons Luck - Robert Asprin

Dragons Luck
Robert Asprin

Fantasy/Urban Fantasy

Note: If you haven’t read DRAGONS WILD, this review contains unavoidable spoilers to the plot of that book.

When a New Orleans voodoo queen asks you to moderate a conclave of various supernatural beings, it’s a little disconcerting. When that voodoo queen is a ghost, it’s hard to tell her no.

The sequel to DRAGONS WILD picks up where the first book left off, with Griffen McCandles living in New Orleans, running a gambling operation, and getting used to being a dragon. Until recently, he thought dragons were the stuff of legend. Now he knows that dragons are pretty much at the top of the supernatural pecking order, in relation to their power and reputation. Accepting the role as moderator seems like the thing to do, but Griffen quickly discovers that it comes with a lot of baggage and might have been a huge mistake. He’s going to have to act as go-between, arbiter, and peacemaker among the very disparate groups that attend. All while maintaining his position of power as the head dragon in the region.

The first two-thirds of the book is filled with frantic activity. Various groups arrive and introduce themselves; some with more tact than others. Griffen’s sister, Valerie, discovers that she’s going to have a little fire-breather of her own. Flynn, a powerful dragon from California is in town and offers Griffen his support and advice on anything and everything. Another powerful – and powerfully crazy – dragon is making life difficult for Valerie. And George, a hunter and killer of dragons, is lurking in the area. Most of the activity here consists of various people and factions connecting, conversing, arguing, and maneuvering for position. With all the activity, surprisingly little is accomplished.

In the last third of the novel, there’s a murder mystery. One of the local attendees turns up dead and all roads seem to lead to Griffen. This, finally, gives the novel some focus as Griffen and various others attempt to clear him with the police. It’s too bad that this part of the story feels rushed, both in the telling and in the wrap-up, because it was the best part of the novel. A final confrontation at the masked ball that ends the conclave begins in a very dramatic fashion, then fizzles. Maybe realistic, but not terribly satisfying. I find the female characters much more interesting than Griffen, but perhaps that’s intentional. They seem stronger and more centered than most of the males. It will be interesting to see this develop.

Rating: 7
April 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01680-8 (trade paperback)

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Dirty Deeds - Suzanne Price

Dirty Deeds
A Grime Solvers Mystery
Suzanne Price


Every holiday season in Pigeon Cove, the Art Association hosts a party. This year, the host is Chloe Edwards, and she’s decided that each display must be a living diorama. She figures, if you can’t stop the local businesses from advertising, you might as well make them be creative about it. One of the displays is for a new condo development. Inside the diorama is real estate developer Kyle Fipps, who pretends to mow grass and do yard work before ‘falling asleep’ in a hammock. Chloe and Sky notice that Kyle’s sleeping act is a little too good; he’s actually asleep.

Sky Taylor, professional cleaner and Chloe’s best friend, is on hand for the party and, especially for the after-party cleanup. As they try to wake up Kyle, they realize that he’s not asleep; he’s dead. It’s a terrible way to end a party. And Sky can’t help but feel some sympathy for Kyle’s soon-to-be-ex, even if the two are going through an acrimonious divorce. Turns out, Kyle had enemies everywhere. Sky’s current bid for cleaning services at the local government offices takes her to the seat of local power. Where, as she discovers, things can get pretty dirty.

Sky is a realistic and interesting character. She quit her job as an ad copywriter and now finds immense satisfaction in her cleaning business. I understand the appeal of doing a job and seeing immediate, quantifiable results. I just wish I were half as organized and motivated as Sky. This is the second installment in this charming series (SCENE OF THE GRIME) and reads quite well as a standalone novel. New readers will enjoy getting to know Sky; others will be happy to have another visit with Sky. The plot moves at a very nice clip, and the author manages to work in several cleaning tips along the way.

Rating: 7
July 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-22457-6 (paperback)

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Never Say Sty - Linda O. Johnston

Never Say Sty
A Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter Mystery
Linda O. Johnston
Berkley Prime Crime


Kendra Ballantyne manages to balance her two careers very nicely. She pet-sits for a wide variety of customers (and their owners) and she practices law in a firm that allows her flexibility and encourages her to take cases involving animals. Recently, she settled a case against Show Biz Beasts. Several pet owners signed on, but claimed that their animals were never given work. During this case, Kendra’s idea for an animal-based reality show, called Animal Auditions, was born.

Dante DeFrancisco, pet store magnate, heard about the proposed show and wants to executive produce and bankroll the venture, in exchange for exclusive advertising rights. And dinner with Kendra. Since he’s attractive, intelligent, and interesting, Kendra doesn’t have a problem with that. With her relationship with Jeff in an indefinite holding pattern, she feels free to explore options.

One episode of the show will feature pot-bellied pigs. Pigs are, in reality, clean and intelligent creatures, and the show is shaping up nicely, with a few exceptions. Detective Ned Noralles and his sister each have a pig and want to participate. A judge for the show (animals that perform poorly will be voted off weekly) tells them that they’re both in danger of being cut. Soon after, that very judge is found dead. Strangled by a pig harness, no less. Immediate suspects include Ned, his sister, and Dante. Naturally, Kendra wants to clear her friends, new and old.

Ms. Johnston does a very good job of constantly expanding Kendra’s world – and thus, the suspect pool – in each installment. (MEOW IS FOR MURDER, THE FRIGHT OF THE IGUANA, DOUBLE DOG DARE) The concept of the animal reality show is more than feasible, and the show biz types Kendra encounters ring very true. It’s certainly likely that people will become irrationally upset over their pets or over possible fame.

There are several detours from the case, while Kendra takes care of her charges, but those bits simply add to the overall charm of the series. The pacing is solid, the dialogue crisp, and Kendra continues to evolve as a character. Many characters return from previous novels, and their lives continue to grow, as well. All of this without sacrificing anything in the way of storyline. Animal lovers will adore this series for the mystery as well as the animals.

Rating: 7
April 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22704-6 (paperback)

Friday, April 03, 2009

WWW: Wake - Robert J. Sawyer

WWW : Wake
Robert J. Sawyer

Science Fiction

Caitlin Decter (15) is a math genius and can navigate the web at light speed. She’s also been blind since birth, due to a rare condition that causes her pupils to expand in bright light and contract in the dark. Because of the cause of her blindness, Dr. Masayaki Kuroda contacts her about an experimental treatment. His device (Caitlin dubs it the “eyePod”) intercepts the signals from her eye to her visual cortex, re-interprets or unscrambles them, and re-transmits them correctly. With the eyePod as an external pack attached through WiFi connection to an implant just behind her eye, he hopes Caitlin will be able to see. Out of one eye, for a start.

When he activates the device, Caitlin sees. But she doesn’t see the real world. She sees a series of lines connecting to and disappearing from circles in space. What she’s seeing is the web. She’d trained her visual cortex to ‘visualize’ or map the web each time she was online, mentally mapping her position with great accuracy. It’s a joy and a disappointment for both Caitlin and her doctor. Neither of whom realizes that, with the activation of the eyePod, something else is now awake and is eager to learn.

While this is clearly a novel of big ideas, the author never neglects the individual characters. Caitlin, her parents, Dr. Kuroda, and even the kids at school all seem very realistic. Allowing us to follow Caitlin’s story from her point of view works perfectly. She’s a teenager, so she’s moody and very human; but she’s a very smart girl, applying knowledge to new situations and grasping abstract concepts with relative ease. She reflects that maybe her lack of sight makes her more intuitive. Or maybe her upbringing as the daughter of a theoretical physicist might have an impact. She’s a great character, with flaws and a sense of humor.

This novel is the start of a trilogy. Caitlin’s story, the main concentration, can be read as a complete story. There are other storylines that begin here, but are left hanging in anticipation of future volumes. One storyline involves an ape who uses sign language and paints. Generally, animals paint abstract shapes. This ape begins creating primitive portraits of people around him. The questions are, of course, how and why.

There’s a lot to be said here about how various systems process information; how it’s passed along from one medium to another; how learning happens; and how consciousness evolves. These big concepts are explored in general, and also distilled down to a human level with Caitlin. Like the painting ape, she’s caught in the middle of something she doesn’t quite understand, but does what comes naturally to her. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series from this Hugo and Nebula winner.

Rating: 8
April 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01679-2 (hardcover)

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Murder Of A Royal Pain - Denise Swanson

Murder Of A Royal Pain
A Scumble River Mystery
Denise Swanson


Skye Dennison, school psychologist to the entire district, though that serving as the faculty liaison on the Promfest committee would pretty much involve a couple of meeting and tacking up streamers. She was so wrong. Prom has become an enormous event at the local high school, complete with door prizes (dorm fridges, flat-screen TVs) and an insane amount of on-site entertainments. Clearly, this is the direct result of each committee of parents trying to outdo last year’s group. The cherry on the top of this cake is the hot competition to lead the committee. Apparently, the mom who leads the committee has a great deal of influence in getting her daughter crowned prom queen. If you’re into that sort of thing. And these moms definitely are.

This year, there’s a fight between Annette Paine (prom queen of 1982) and Evie Harrison (prom queen of 1983.) The two nearly come to blows and have to be separated before the meeting begins. After a bit of whispering, involving who knows what, Evie declares that Annette will be chair. Witness to all this frivolity is the new ‘gossip’ reporter in town, a man attractive enough to get even insular, small town ladies to share their secrets.

The first event in the yearlong fundraising drive is a haunted house at Halloween. Skye hates haunted houses, but feels compelled to volunteer. Maybe it will get her mind off the newly arrived, and desperately needed, social worker, who clearly has her own plans about division of labor. Dressed as a witch, Skye enters the haunted house, only to literally trip over a dead woman. The woman, Annette, was dressed as a witch, too. In fact, there were a few witches on hand that evening. Which witch was the target? As usual, Skye finds it impossible to stay out of the investigation, especially when she might have been the target.

This is the latest in a long running series (MURDER OF A REAL BAD BOY, MURDER OF A CHOCOLATE-COVERED CHERRY) but new readers will find it easy to jump in at this point, since the author excels at providing necessary background while telling the current story. My personal preference in a murder mystery is that the murder happen fairly early on, leaving plenty of time for investigation. Much like small towns, though, the murders in this series happen in their own time; this time, we’re approaching the halfway point of the novel before the body appears. Readers who love this series for the quirks and foibles of small town life won’t mind this delay. If you’re in the mood for an old-fashioned cozy, this is the book (and series) for you.

Rating: 6
April 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-222658-7 (paperback)