Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Cat, The Quilt, And The Corpse - Leanne Sweeney

The Cat, The Quilt, And The Corpse
A Cats In Trouble Mystery
Leanne Sweeney


Jillian Hart is effectively starting life over again. Widowed just ten months ago, she’s living in the dream home she and her late husband bought in the small town of Mercy, South Carolina. In self-imposed isolation after her husband’s sudden death, her constant companions are her cats, Merlot, Chablis, and Syrah, all purebreds rescued after Katrina. She fills her time making quilts for cats and for the children of veterans.

Arriving home after a night out of town at a show, Jillian notices that the TV is off (she leaves it on Animal Planet for the cats) and Chablis is sneezing. Chablis is allergic to human dander. Obviously, someone has been in the house. A broken window confirms this theory. And Syrah is missing. Even in a sleepy small town, the police don’t assign much urgency to a broken window and a missing cat, so Jillian decides to take matters into her own hands.

It’s an excellent reason to end her isolation, and she’s worried about Syrah. Deputy Candace Carson, a young woman looking to advance and very interested in forensic evidence, helps as she can. Jillian checks out the local shelter and finds out all about a local, aptly named Flake Wilkerson. He’s a hermit and many believe he collects cats; some of which belong to other people. A visit to his home finds the door open and Syrah in the driveway. Following Syrah into the house, Jillian finds Flake dead on the kitchen floor.

Naturally, she’s the prime suspect initially, but attention soon turns elsewhere. Jillian is not at all sure that the police have the right person in custody and she believes there’s more to the case that meets the eye. She’s very believable as a regular person drawn into events around her. Anyone who loves their pets will understand Jillian’s feelings when she discovers that Syrah is gone. Readers meet various town residents along with Jillian, making each encounter seem very natural. This is a solid start to a cozy mystery series.

Rating: 7
May 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-22574-0 (paperback)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Lancelot Murders - J.M.C. Blair

The Lancelot Murders
A Merlin Investigation
J.M.C. Blair
Berkley Prime Crime

Historical Mystery

Arthur’s dream was to unite all Britons under one rule and to make England a power to be respected throughout Europe. His faithless wife, Guenevere and her consort, Lancelot, have other ideas. Just months after the events of THE EXCALIBUR MURDERS, from their base at Corfe Castle, they’re plotting to present themselves to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian as the rightful rulers of England. They have gone so far as to hold a public wedding ceremony, even exchanging gifts of gilded daggers, as if Arthur didn’t exist. Unfortunately for Guenevere, there are spies in her court that carry news of these plans to Arthur and his advisor, Merlin.

Merlin, who has no use for spies in general, sees the wisdom in using the information provided. The original plan was to use Guenevere’s birthday celebration as a reason to gather dignitaries from all over Europe. Arthur and Merlin decide to go ahead with these plans, but to be on hand to welcome the visitors and run the meetings, cutting Guenevere and Lancelot out, entirely. Naturally, Guenevere’s aged parents, minor French royalty angling for more power, arrive for the occasion. Just before the meetings are to begin, Guenevere’s father dies, stabbed to death by Lancelot with one of the wedding daggers. Lancelot was standing over the body, and one of Arthur’s spies claims to have witnessed the crime.

Unwilling to have his first international conclave destroyed, Arthur determines to bring the murderer to justice immediately and prove to all assembled that he is truly in control of his country and his people. It looks fairly obvious that Lancelot killed his erstwhile father-in-law. But there are facts that make no sense. Arthur asks Merlin to get to the bottom of things.

This version of Camelot is a very real-world version. Merlin is simply a scholar and physician. Arthur is a man conflicted. He desperately wanted to be king and to usher in an era of peace and prosperity for England, only to see many of his dreams dashed. Even his marriage is destroyed by his wife’s open adultery and obvious ambition for herself and Lancelot. Meeting Guenevere’s parents, it’s easy to see how she came to be the woman that she is. Arthur, who married for love, spends a good deal of time drunk and bemoaning the loss of his wife. Thankfully, Merlin verbally slaps him when he needs it.

With so many foreign dignitaries, spies, and even servants, there’s a large pool of suspects and more motives than might be expected. There’s an interesting subplot concerning the first Pope sending a bishop to the meeting. Christianity is new and mostly unwelcome in England at this point. Merlin has to explain the terms “pope” and “bishop” to Arthur, who dismisses them. His sister, Morgan Le Fay, is more openly hostile to the new religion. All in all, it’s a very interesting look at what life might really have been like in those times. The characters that have become larger-than-life through legends are presented here as human beings with strengths and frailties, negotiating a changing world. I hope to see many more volumes in this series.

Rating: 8
May 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22813-5 (paperback)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The 8th Confession - James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

The 8th Confession
James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
Little, Brown and Company


During rush hour in San Francisco, a school bus explodes, taking surrounding cars and drivers with it. Upon inspection, it’s clear that the bus was not carrying children, but a mobile meth lab. While Sgt. Lindsay Boxer and her partner Rich Conklin work the scene, reporter Cindy Thomas leaves her apartment building to a grisly sight. There’s a homeless man, apparently beaten to death and left on the street. Seeing the possibilities of a multi-part story for her paper, Cindy immediately begins talking to the homeless who have come to pay tribute. The man was known as Bagman Jesus and, according to everyone willing to talk to Cindy, he was the kind of guy who helped his fellow homeless.

Speaking to Lindsay, Cindy demands to know if the SFPD will be investigating this death. Lindsay knows the truth. The death of a homeless man, even by violent means, with no witnesses, is not going to get much priority at the best of times. And this is not the best of times. Members of the Nob Hill elite are dropping dead in their own homes. Chief ME Claire Washburn is stumped; she can’t find a cause of death. Some of the dead and their families are well connected politically, so these cases are given higher priority. In other words, it’s all rolling downhill and landing on Boxer and Conklin.

Knowing that Cindy is relentless in her job, and since she’s already run a story portraying Bagman Jesus as the patron saint of the homeless community, Lindsay promises to investigate the death in whatever off time she has. Cindy isn’t satisfied with that and isn’t shy about saying so. This is probably the first time in the series that one character nearly turns on another. Cindy basically accuses Lindsay, a longtime friend, of not doing her job. Given the accusation, Lindsay’s reaction is pretty mild. And I have to admit to feeling a certain satisfaction when Cindy’s smug assumptions blow up in her face. As written here, she’s easily the most shrill and almost-mean of the four women.

Claire has had her baby, but still works as Chief ME. She’s dedicated to her job and clearly doesn’t like a puzzle she can’t solve. Yuki is working on a prosecution that’s completely unrelated to the main story, but is still a story within itself. There are romantic subplots for three of the women, but the majority of the book is given over to the investigations. And that’s just fine. The investigations are interesting, move at a quick pace, and contain some interesting twists. The outcomes are not neat, but seem quite realistic. This series (6th TARGET, 7th HEAVEN) still has legs.

Rating: 7 ½
April 2009
ISBN# 978-0-316-01876-0 (hardcover)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Death Loves A Messy Desk - Mary Jane Maffini

Death Loves A Messy Desk
Mary Jane Maffini
Berkley Prime Crime


Office politics. Something professional organizer Charlotte Adams does not miss one bit. In fact, she moved from the big city back to her hometown of Woodbridge to start her own business and avoid all of that. She was looking forward to a new life of peace and quiet, too, but two murder cases (ORGANIZE YOUR CORPSES and THE CLUTTERED CORPSE) ruined that. Now, though, she’s taking a crime sabbatical. She doesn’t even want to watch the news reports about a body found in a car trunk.

Instead, she’d rather focus on her organizing business. Her newest client is Fredelle Newhouse, office manager at a large local company. The real problem is one desk in particular. But Fredelle is the motherly sort who doesn’t want to hurt the employee’s, Barb’s, feelings. She and Charlotte agree to couch the visit in terms of making the whole office function better. Charlotte knows some people work better in what looks like chaos, but she’s ready with some tactful suggestions.

What she sees completely eclipses any expectations. The desk is buried under a mountain of loose papers, with what look like socks mixed in; there are various sneakers under the desk, and a variety of food and drink containers. The situation isn’t helped by the office harpy, who loses no opportunity to make snide comments about everyone else. And, to make a bad situation more uncomfortable, the owner’s son, Robbie, is clearly infatuated with Barb and very protective. Clearly, this situation will not be easy to defuse.

But Charlotte is game to try. This despite the fact that her only contact with Barb so far happened when she was nearly flattened by a panicked-looking Barb driving out of the business. Charlotte can’t believe she was panicked over a messy desk. Watching the news later, she sees what may be the real reason. In the footage of the body found in the car’s trunk, Charlotte sees Barb in the background, agitated and pacing.

Charlotte has mellowed quite a bit since her first appearance, and that’s made for a better reading experience. In this volume, one of her friends gently suggests that perhaps she’s being too bossy. Charlotte seems shocked, but does take the words to heart. The mystery is structured a bit more tightly this time around, with plenty of suspects and an interesting twist or two. Of course, there are organizational tips at the start of each chapter. I’ll never be as organized as Charlotte, and that’s ok; but there are great ideas here that are easy to implement.

Rating: 7
May 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22809-8 (paperback)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sins & Shadows - Lyn Benedict

Sins & Shadows
A Shadows Inquiries Novel
Lyn Benedict

Urban Fantasy

This is the first in a new urban fantasy series. I mention that up front because the novel begins with Sylvie Lightner deciding to close down her PI office due to the death of a friend on her last case. The way it’s written, it sounds like something that happened in a previous volume. That’s not the case. Once that confusion lifted, I realized that this is exactly what it would be like to be dropped into someone’s life on any given day. Plenty has gone before, and much will likely happen after; life is rarely neatly compartmentalized.

During her previous case, Sylvie lost her friend and assistant to a band of Satanists who used him in a blood ritual. Sylvie, who has no magical abilities, was unable to save her friend, but she stopped the cultists from achieving their goal, and they’ve vowed revenge. Alex, another assistant in the firm, is just as affected by prior events, but she handles things differently and tries to get Sylvie to change her mind. The decision is effectively taken out of Sylvie’s hands when a potential client arrives. He wants Sylvie to find his lover. The twist here is fairly substantial: the client is the newly minted God of Justice.

So, how does a person, even a magic user, even another god, go about hiding someone else from a god? It seems like an impossible puzzle. Sylvie would prefer not to have to deal with gods, but this one, who tells her his name is Kevin, is starting to lose control. When a god moves through the mortal realm, that realm is changed by the contact. Kevin is grief-stricken, frustrated, vengeful, and angry. The bits of power he’s leaving behind could fall into the wrong hands and lead to disaster for everyone.

Sylvie is a bit different from most paranormal PI types. Usually, they’re tough on the outside, but mushy when you get to know them. Sylvie is tough on the outside and even tougher on the inside. There are no easy outs for anyone in the story. Everything happens the hard way. That’s partly due to the entities involved and partly due to the way Sylvie approaches life and her job. Sylvie is harder and darker than the usual paranormal PI, and this story is the better for it.

Rating: 7 ½
May 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01711-9 (paperback)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Flood - Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter

Science Fiction

How would the world cope if the water level began to rise and would not stop? That’s the terrifying premise of this novel. It seems pretty innocuous at first. There’s a lot of rain, and some rivers flood their banks and levees. The knee-jerk first reaction is to write it off as a fluke; or attribute it to global warming. And then go on with life, as usual.

But the rise in water level doesn’t stop. And it can’t all be due to global warming. In a matter of years, many coastal plains are flooded. It’s a scary statistic that nearly a quarter of the world’s population lives on a coast or waterway. The first few years, millions of people are displaced and must be housed on higher ground. That alone is a huge undertaking. And, as the water begins to cover the ground, plants and wildlife die off, skewing the normal rate of carbon dioxide exchange. In short, this event, which is only the beginning, triggers a chain of other events that will forever alter the surface of the Earth.

In such broad terms as this, the struggles of man to survive may be no more important than the struggle of any other animal. The author manages to put a face on things by following Lily Brooke. Lily was once a pilot for the USAF. She was taken hostage by extremists in Spain and held for five years. When she emerges from captivity, the world is already changing, but the vast majority of people don’t see it. Maybe they don’t want to see it. The reader spends the next fifty years or so with Lily, witnessing events primarily through her eyes. Through her, we see the events on a large, global scale; and on a small, family scale.

The reaction of the peoples of the world to the flooding is all the more frightening because it rings so true. It is not difficult at all to imagine events unfolding in precisely this way. National governments would be doing what they can; local governments doing what they must to protect their people and their little patches of ground. Corporations would be hanging on, trying to wring the last bit of money, power, and influence out of an unthinkable situation. Families and individuals would face the day-to-day tasks necessary to live to see another sunrise. The author never takes the easy way out of any situation. The story is disturbingly possible. FLOOD is a pragmatic, sometimes brutal, look at the way that life as we know it could come to an end.

Rating: 9
May 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-46271-8 (hardcover)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Chasing The Bear - Robert B. Parker

Chasing The Bear
A Young Spenser Novel
Robert B. Parker
Philomel Books

Young Adult

As a longtime fan of the Spenser novels (he’s a PI in Boston) I’ve always wondered about his youth. As a grown man, he has a very defined sense of what is right and what is wrong; a set of ethics that dictates his actions in virtually every situation. That doesn’t happen overnight. So when I found this novel about his teen years, I was very interested.

The book begins with adult Spenser and his significant other, Susan. Susan would like to know about his youth. Spenser tells her, in a flashback, about an incident when he was a kid. A mere seven pages later, the story flips back to adult Spenser and Susan, smugly flirting with each other. Each story he tells is interrupted in the same way. A few times, instead of showing the readers what happened through the eyes of his teenaged self, adult Spenser simply tells Susan, in a few sentences, what happened. This kind of ‘telling instead of showing’ really diminishes a lot of the emotional impact of the stories. I wonder if young adult readers, who probably haven’t read any Spenser novels and may be meeting the character here for the first time, really care to read pages full of adult Spenser and Susan analyzing his actions. My guess would be no.

The actual incidents from his teen years are clearly formative experiences. Loosely connected, they provide a good deal of insight into why and how Spenser grew up to be the kind of man he did. For readers familiar with the Spenser series (mostly adults, I suspect) these incidents will ring absolutely true to his character. The material itself is fine for young adult readers 12 and up. There’s no graphic violence or sexual content; a couple of fistfights and a few kisses is about the extent of it.

Rating: 6
May 2009
ISBN# 978-0-399-24776-7 (hardcover)

Burn Notice: The End Game - Tod Goldberg

Burn Notice: The End Game
Tod Goldberg


When you’re a spy, even a yacht race can be dangerous. Michael Westen spent years working as a spy, until someone, somewhere, burned him. That is, removed all his clearances, froze all his accounts, and dumped him in Miami for the foreseeable future. Miami is Michael’s hometown, and his mother and brother still live there. That’s either good news or bad news, depending on your point of view. In the mostly-good-news department is the fact that Sam Axe, former Navy SEAL and longtime friend, also lives and drinks in Miami. He also occasionally finds ‘side jobs’ for Michael. These side jobs are never as easy as they sound. Michael’s sort-of-ex, Fiona, a woman well versed in every piece of hardware one human being can use to disassemble many others, decided to hang around, too.

The yacht race in question is the Hurricane Cup. A bunch of lovely yachts race from Miami to the Bahamas. This is a high-stakes event and the luxury goods sponsors throw a weeklong party to celebrate and to convince the wealthy that they really need that extra Rolex and matching Porsche. The helmsman of one of the yachts is Gennaro Stefania. Through some tenuous connection, he’s contacted Sam about contacting Michael. Gennaro needs help. He’s involved with some people in organized crime. Now those people want him to throw the race. They’re very specific: do not simply withdraw, but do not win, or we kill your wife and daughter. To prove their point, they provide live surveillance video of the wife and child. For a variety of reasons, Michael feels compelled to help.

The author (BURN NOTICE: THE FIX) does a fantastic job of capturing the feel of the TV series here. The characters speak and act perfectly within their parameters from the show. Readers who are also fans should know that this plotline in no way spoils anything having to do with Michael and his quest to find and deal with those who burned him. This story is a standalone and could fit in anywhere in the series. Readers who have never seen the show will probably want to check it out after reading this, and will have no problem understanding the history. The pacing moves along at a good clip, and the case is quite interesting. Fans waiting for the new season to start will find this a welcome diversion.

Rating: 7 ½
May 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-22676-1 (paperback)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Fall Of Light - Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Fall Of Light
Nina Kiriki Hoffman


Opal LaZelle comes from a family with magical gifts. Each person’s gift manifests in a different way. Opal’s strength lies in manipulating the appearances of things. Unlike the rest of her siblings, Opal ventures into the wider world to make a life for herself as a makeup artist in the movie industry. She’s becoming quite well known for her special effects makeup. While on a set, Opal takes care to use her non-magical talents to transform the actors. She’s not really anxious to be known as a witch.

During the filming of a new horror movie, Opal works exclusively with Corvus Weather, a seven-foot-tall character actor who will be playing the Dark God. She’s worked with Corvus before and may be in love with him. Each day, they spend several hours applying prosthetics, makeup, and paints to transform the gentle giant into a nature deity.

One of the writers of the film grew up in the small town they’re using for location filming. The writer used half-remembered stories from her childhood for the script about something powerful that lived in the woods and perhaps made off with young girls. Now an adult, the writer admits that it was scary as a kid, but that the girls in question probably just left the backside-of-nowhere town for greener pastures elsewhere. Opal isn’t so sure. Since the day she set foot in the clearing, complete with stone altar, being used to film various scenes, she’s felt some unfamiliar power under the ground. It feels like something very large, stirring from a long sleep. As the days go by, Corvus’ transformations become a little too easy and much too complete. He’s becoming something other than what he was, and Opal isn’t at all sure that she can get ‘her’ Corvus back again.

This is a sort of fantasy/horror story that manages to maintain an air of real menace without resorting to gruesome gore. It’s the slow build-up that makes it all believable. The juxtaposition of Opal’s magical nature and the unknown power with the fairly mundane day-to-day operations of a movie set works wonderfully. Both Opal and Corvus are sympathetic characters. Both feel more than a little like outsiders; both glad to have found an industry that accepts them, and to have found each other. The ending feels a bit abrupt, but that’s a relatively minor quibble. The storytelling is wonderful. The whole thing reads like a dark fairy tale. I’ll be looking for more from this talented author.

Rating: 8 ½
May 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01468-2 (hardcover)

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A Corpse For Yew - Joyce and Jim Lavene

A Corpse For Yew
A Peggy Lee Garden Mystery
Joyce and Jim Lavene
Berkley Prime Crime


No matter old you are, you’re still a kid around your parents. Peggy Lee, a forensic botanist and owner of the Potting Shed, found this out the hard way when her parents moved to Charlotte. Age has done nothing to mellow her super-critical mother, Lilla Cranshaw Hughes. When Lilla joined the Shamrock Historical Society, Peggy hoped it would take some of the pressure off her. But Lilla never misses an opportunity to try to fix up her daughter with any remotely eligible man. The whole situation is high irony. Peggy and vet Steve are keeping their relationship a secret from Lilla, since she (Lilla) is quite firm about Peggy mourning her husband, a police officer, for five years before marrying again. The secrecy is starting to put a serious strain on the relationship.

As the story begins, Peggy finds herself trudging around on a muddy lakebed, exposed due to record drought conditions. The historical society is there to collect artifacts and human bones from the site. Before the site was a lake, it was a village, and vestiges of some buildings can still be seen. More surprising to Peggy is the fact that, when the place was flooded, many graves were moved to a new site, but those whose relatives were dead or gone or otherwise unable to pay for the move, were left there. Now that the lakebed is exposed, the society plans to rectify that.

What they find is a much more recent interment. The body of Lois Mullis lies under a layer of mud, her lips an oddly bright shade of red. Lois was the police chief’s aunt, and very socially active. She was expected at the site that morning, but never showed. It’s up to Peggy to assist the police in discovering just how and why Lois died when and where she did.

Readers need no previous knowledge of the series (POISONED PETALS, PERFECT POISON) to enjoy this installment. The authors do a fine job of sketching in the pertinent background information as the story progresses. The authors provide a wealth of information about plants of all kinds, including those that might be associated with the story. I found the setting – the uncovered village – to be especially interesting. Reading about Peggy and following her while she solves the mystery is always fun, and always makes me long to be outside, planting something. Sadly, my thumbs are not green, so I’ll just have to live vicariously through this charming series.

Rating: 7 ½
May 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22810-4 (paperback)

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Magic In The Blood - Devon Monk

Magic In The Blood
Devon Monk

Urban Fantasy

If you haven’t read the first book in this unique series, MAGIC TO THE BONE, this review contains unavoidable spoilers. And you’ve missed a great read. The really impressive thing about all this is that new readers will start this book right along with main character Allie Beckstrom; that is, with no memory of the events that transpired in the first novel. Allie has lost weeks’ worth of memories due to using a huge amount of magic. In this reality, magic always exacts a price. For Allie, it can be pain, fever, a head cold, or memory loss. To guard against the loss of memories, she always carries a notebook to record her activities.

Allie Beckstrom is a magical Hound. She can trace a spell back to the caster. As this book begins, she discovers a part of the police department she never knew existed: the Magical Enforcement Response Corps (MERC.) The officers who staff MERC are in charge of the serious magical crimes in Portland. Detective Stott wants Allie to work with him. Allie is well on her way to being a victim of a magical crime. Lon Trager, a dealer in drugs and illegal blood magic, has Allie’s blood. There’s no telling what he might be able to do with it.

Before she can deal with any of that, she has to deal with the ghost of her father. Not only has she never seen a ghost before, she had no idea ghosts could touch the living. Her father, a powerful magic-user and wealthy entrepreneur in life, is clearly trying to tell her something. Allie wonders if it has anything to do with the strange beings she sees every time she uses magic now. She calls them “watercolor people.” They’re sort of pastel-hued shadows of people, who attack and pull magic from her when they get close enough, leaving her weak and wounded. Clearly, something big is going on with magic in the area.

This series uses a system of rules for magic that is original and seems very realistic. It’s such a pervasive part of life that it’s taken the place of power utilities, there are laws governing its use, professions and businesses dedicated to finding new uses, and a black market for illegal uses. The structure of the story pulled me in right away, and kept me reading. There’s action, adventure, fantasy, and even some romance. After the confrontation with the Big Bad, there’s still story to tell, and the author does it in a very interesting way. The book ends in a way that tells a complete story, but makes it clear that there’s more to come. I’ll be waiting.

Rating: 8
May 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-46267-1 (paperback)