Friday, August 28, 2009

The Dark Reaches - Kristin Landon

The Dark Reaches
Kristin Landon

Science Fiction

This novel picks up around two years after the end of THE COLD MINDS. If you haven’t read that, or its predecessor, THE HIDDEN WORLDS, this review contains spoilers. And you’ve missed some truly great books.

The nanotech called The Cold Minds attacked Earth centuries ago, destroying all human life. Scattered throughout The Hidden Worlds, humanity thought it was safe. The Line, Pilots who jealously guarded the secrets and means of flight – and therefore, the power – repeatedly told the worlds that they were safe. But the Line was wrong, and paid the ultimate price. A central world fell to the infesting nanobots, and now everyone knows the truth: they’re back, and it’s only a matter of time.

Once a disgraced Pilot, Iain sen Paolo taught his love, Linnea Kiaho to pilot in otherspace. It takes nerve and a natural ability. She’s the first non-Line pilot in centuries, and possibly the first woman pilot in memory. More and more, Linnea considers otherspace her ‘real’ home. She dreams about it constantly; always wishing she were piloting. Iain knows these signs. It happens to some pilots, and it’s madness. He’s worried about Linnea, but, true to stubborn form, she won’t quit flying. And it’s not like there are pilots to spare. Constant pickets must be flown around inhabited worlds; scouting parties must visit the far-flung worlds and report on their status. There are barely enough pilots to do that, since the last, catastrophic battle with The Cold Mind.

Linnea is torn. On some level, she recognizes the dangers of wanting to exist solely in otherspace, but, cast out from her home planet and something of an oddity, she feels best there. She sees vistas, jungles, places she’s never seen in real space. Then she hears the plea: help us before it’s too late. During the past few years, Cold Mind ships were captured. The ‘pilots’ were destroyed humans who were clearly modified by the machines to fly the ships. Linnea begins to believe that, centuries ago, there were humans left on Earth, contrary to the heroic tales of the Line Pilots. If some of them survived for centuries, they may hold the key to defeating the Cold Minds and saving the rest of humanity.

This series is science fiction at its best. Obviously set in the future, the books are almost wholly character-driven. The various characters are quite recognizable. There are those who wish to preserve whatever legacy the Line has, no matter the cost. Others who refuse to believe that the human race will fall to machines. There are those who put their own petty self-interests above all else. No matter how far in the future, these individuals are sadly realistic. Linnea is a strong female character. She’s flawed, as is Iain, but she’s driven to do all she can to save her people, no matter what they feel about her.

If possible, I recommend reading all three books in the series. If not, it’s still very easy to pick up the story at this point. The author manages to unobtrusively insert background and character information during the first few chapters. While the characterization is the standout, there’s plenty of action and danger, keeping the story moving at a good clip. Clearly, this is an author to watch.

Rating: 8 ½
July 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01734-8 (paperback)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Larceny And Lace - Annette Blair

Larceny And Lace
A Vintage Magic Mystery
Annette Blair
Berkley Prime Crime


For Maddy Cutler her hometown of Mystic, Connecticut, is the perfect place. A former fashion designer and life-long collector of vintage clothing, she’s about to open a shop called Vintage Magic. Of course, there are one or two little snags. Like the fact that the building, bought for taxes at the behest of its centenarian former owner, used to be a morgue. It’s been sitting empty for the past fifty years or so. Empty, except for Dante Underhill, the friendly and courteous ghost of a former client. Maddy has always been able to see ghosts, but recently she’s been learning a lot more about her witch-y heritage from her Aunt Fiona.

Aside from the usual contractors’ delays, there have been a series of break-ins at the building during the few weeks Maddy spent in New York, tying up the loose ends of her former life there. The police have investigated, but never find anyone. Arriving ahead of schedule, Maddy interrupts someone who was obviously trying to pry open the second-floor doors. Making matters just that much more awkward, she spots the current boyfriend of her best friend, Eve, handing around and looking decidedly suspicious.

Maddy planned to open the doors with her dad, Aunt Fiona, and Eve (and Dante, of course) in attendance. Before they can do that, a fire breaks out in the playhouse across the street. The fire is relatively small, but the group finds the owner dead in the lobby. The man would argue with a lamppost, so it seems there would be plenty of suspects. When they finally manage to open the sealed doors at Vintage Magic, they find morgue equipment and a set of body drawers. In one drawer is a quilt, made from various pieces of vintage clothing. Unfortunately, the quilt is wrapped around a set of vintage bones.

My main problem with the first installment (A VEILED DECEPTION) was that there were too many storylines crammed into one book. This time, while there’s still a whole lot going on, the story seems more polished and focused. The fire and the discovery of the bones are only the beginning of a series of events that play out in unexpected but interesting ways. Even Maddy’s version of swearing (‘scrap!’ or ‘how the Hèrmes’) is starting to grow on me. I’m also enjoying the addition of Chakra, the yellow kitten who acts as Maddy’s familiar. The pacing is very good and the fashion tidbits and quotes are great. This series is shaping up to be a lot of fun.

Rating: 6 ½
August 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22911-8 (paperback)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Path Of Razors - Chris Marie Green

The Path Of Razors
Vampire Babylon – Book 5
Chris Marie Green

Urban Fantasy

The author structures these books so that major story arcs are contained and (mostly) resolved within a trilogy. The first three books, including BREAK OF DAWN, concerned a vampire Underground in Hollywood. Beginning with the fourth book, A DROP OF RED, the team has moved on to hunt down a new Underground, in England. If you haven’t read A DROP OF RED, this review will contain unavoidable spoilers.

Once upon a time, Dawn Madison was a stuntwoman. Then she was a vampire hunter. Then, briefly, a vampire. Now she makes it her business to hunt down and wipe out every vampire Underground she can find. She’s not alone; there’s a group of like-minded individuals who work with her. At the end of the previous book, they’d discovered the Queenshill school, and found that that some Mean Girls are meaner than others. While the girls and their handlers know there is a danger, they’re not acting very afraid. Clearly, each Underground takes on the characteristics of its founding vampire.

Long ago, several blood brothers exchanged blood with the dragon. Then they went out into the world to create more of their kind, in anticipation of the day the dragon would reappear and wage war on humanity. That was several centuries ago, though, and complacency has set in for many Underground members. That’s possibly good news for the hunters. But the Queenshill girls are about to find out just how far they’ll go to prove their loyalty.

Far too often, the ‘middle’ book of a trilogy seems like a bunch of filler; a way to get from the setup in the first book to the climax in the last. That is absolutely not the case here. The vampires are more fully developed, and their attitudes and outlooks are interestingly human. They may live forever, but some human flaws are apparently hard to shake. There are some really neat twists in this novel, including the addition of some interesting characters. The hunters are also flawed human beings, making the whole setup more interesting. Many storylines are left open for the final installment of this trilogy, but this is a such a complete experience that readers won’t feel cheated by that. It might work better to read the previous book first, but this is a great addition to the author’s mythos.

Rating: 8
August 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01720-1 (trade paperback)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Bundle Of Trouble - Diana Orgain

Bundle Of Trouble
A Maternal Instincts Mystery
Diana Orgain
Berkley Prime Crime


Kate Connolly has a baby. Really, the first couple of chapters are of Kate going into labor and delivering. (All written in delightfully non-graphic terms, so fear not, squeamish readers.) And what could possibly make your delivery day less-than-joyful? Aside from huge contractions and a husband who spends the time in between contractions watching TV in the hospital room, which, let’s face it, are pretty much givens. One thing that would cast a pall on that happy day would be a phone call from the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office, asking if your brother-in-law, George, has any distinguishing scars or tattoos that they can match against a body found floating in the bay.

All of that is lost in the joy of finally having baby Laurie. Once she’s home and settled, though, Kate begins to wonder. One of her first outings is pretty grisly: she goes to the ME’s office to pick up the bags ID’d as George’s that were somehow left on the pier. At the ME’s office, she meets an old high school friend, Michelle. Incredibly, it turns out that the body in the bay was that of Michelle’s estranged husband, Brad. Now Michelle’s a suspect and so is George. But George is nowhere to be found. And with Kate casting desperately around for a way to avoid going back to the corporate grind after six weeks with her baby, she decides to take the investigation into her own hands.

I have to admit that I find it fairly unbelievable that a mom with a week-old child would even want to travel around the city, interrogating shady characters. Sometimes, she brings the baby with her, which strikes me as pretty irresponsible, especially since Grandma is always available to care for Laurie. Once you get past that, though, the mystery is interesting and grows in unexpected ways. If you love babies and the mommy-track type of books, this is the mystery series for you. If the Mommy-and-me scene isn’t for you, there’s still a good mystery here.

Rating: 6 ½
August 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22924-8 (paperback)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Inked Up - Terri Thayer

Inked Up
A Stamping Sisters Mystery
Terri Thayer
Berkley Prime Crime


Halloween in Aldenville, PA means the annual Pumpkin Express. It’s a group of seven businesses, each of which hosts a themed attraction. The challenge for the attendees is to get to each attraction in one day, getting a ‘passport’ stamped at each place. This year, Dowling Nursery is hosting a corn maze. The owner, Suzi, calls on her crafting group buddies to help staff the place. April Buchert, a stamper and home restoration expert, jumps in to help, even though she has an irrational fear of corn mazes. Still, just working the gate and stamping hands can’t be too traumatic.

Of course, by the end of the day, someone has lost a camera in the maze, and Suzi asks April to go look for it. She takes her boyfriend, Mitch Winchester, as moral support. Mitch has been busy this fall, too, starting Winchester Homes for Hope, an organization that builds homes for families in need. The Villarreal family will be getting the first house, being the most qualified of all the applicants. Sadly, in the small town, there are plenty of people who don’t like the idea. They see the surname and assume that the Villarreal’s are illegal immigrants undeserving of help.

Walking through the maze is scary enough for April, and when they get turned around and darkness begins to fall, Mitch suggests simply cutting through the dried cornstalks. That’s how they find the body. It’s Xenia Villarreal, the wife and mother of the family planning to get the first house. She’d been at April’s home just the night before, picking out paint colors for the walls and discussing, with no little excitement, stamping decoration ideas for the children’s’ rooms. Officer Yost is the first on the scene, and he instantly wants to arrest Pedro, Xenia’s devoted husband. Both April and Mitch know that’s wrong, and they know that Yost doesn’t care if he gets the right guy, just as long as he can book an arrest. Mitch, April, and her stamping group are going to have to be very crafty this time around; they’re playing with local politics and prejudices.

This is the second in a series (STAMPED OUT) and is a much more polished story. The scene where Xenia and April bond over decorating ideas and dreams, and Xenia speaks with such real love about her family makes her death so much more ‘real’ and jarring when it happens. This wasn’t the one person everyone hated, so everyone has a motive. She was a woman married to the love of her life, raising five kids, thrilled about finally getting a real home. To see her life cut short puts the reader squarely in the corner of April and Mitch and those investigating the death.

There’s more character development this time around, and much of centers on the reactions and lives of the remaining Villarreal’s. Of course there are suspects, mainly from a pool of people who were opposed to the Homes for Hope project in the first place, or those who opposed the idea of a home going to ‘foreigners,’ even though Pedro had worked at the country club for years. The ‘civic pride run amok’ theme works very well here, and there are some subplots and another murder that happens late in the game. By that time, it’s really fairly easy to see who the murderer is, but there are other stories playing out around it, so it’s not much of a disappointment. Far from a sophomore slump, I – uncharacteristically – enjoyed this second installment much more than the first.

Rating: 7
August 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22912-5 (paperback)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

So Into You - Sandra Hill

So Into You
Sandra Hill
Grand Central/Forever

Contemporary Romance

Angel Sabato and Grace O’Brien are both in their thirties and have both had very checkered careers. Grace has been a nun, a professional poker player (which is how she met Angel) and is now studying to be a Cajun healer. She’s an apprentice to the ninety-something legend Tante Lulu, a woman known for her healing arts and her meddling ways. Living in a small house next to Tante Lulu means completely sacrificing her privacy, but Grace feels that she’s finally doing what she was meant to do.

Angel has been a poker player, and now works for Jinx, Inc, as a treasure hunter all over the world. He’s been friends with Grace for years, and finally realizes that he’s in love with her. He picks possibly the worst time and place possible to tell her, and he does it badly. Shot down, he takes off for another job with Jinx in Germany and ends up marrying on the rebound. His marriage lasts about a month, but Grace doesn’t know that.

Grace has problems of her own. To start with, she has issues in her past that keep her from committing to any relationship. And now, with Tante Lulu, she’s found herself keeping track of four kids orphaned four years ago during Katrina. The oldest is now 19, and trying to keep the others fed and sheltered by waitressing. They all live in fear of CPS. Tante Lulu decides that the first thing these kids need is to move out of their falling-down trailer. They’ll need a new house. And that’s where Angel (and the rest of the clan) comes in. He’ll draw the plans and supervise construction. Grace will be there, of course. And Tante Lulu is positive that Saint Jude and that thunderbolt of love will take care of the rest. It usually does.

When Angel comes back, he spends quite a lot of time pretending that Grace didn’t shred his heart and that he hasn’t spent the past year thinking about her. Grace tries to pretend that doesn’t sting. It’s kind of childish behavior, but with these two, who have been buddies for years, it somehow makes perfect sense. While there’s not a lot of doubt that they’ll eventually work it out, there’s plenty of story and some interesting subplots to keep everyone occupied.

One of my pet peeves is the ‘big secret that must not be told’ too often turns out to be something that a two-minute conversation could clear up with ease. This time, Grace’s issue is a legitimate stumbling block to her possible happiness, and it’s reasonable for her to believe that others might not understand. Characters from previous books (WILD JINX) make appearances, but no previous experience is necessary to enjoy this frothy romance.

Rating: 7
August 2009
ISBN# 978-0-446-53577-9 (paperback)

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Secret Speech - Tom Rob Smith

The Secret Speech
Tom Rob Smith
Grand Central Publishing


It’s 1956 in Russia. Stalin is dead and Khrushchev has risen to power. Leo Demidov has been running his homicide department for three years. His department is unique and must be kept secret from the public; admitting that there is still significant crime is against the interest of the State. Leo knows this very well, having spent the early years of his career as part of the militia. But he feels like he’s doing good work now, meaningful work. Maybe even work that can balance out the State-sanctioned activities of the past.

Three years ago, while investigating the case of a serial killer (CHILD 44) Leo and his wife, Raisa, adopted Zoya and Elena, the two daughters of a farm couple caught in the deadly events. Zoya is now 14 and, while she loves Raisa, she refuses to allow Leo past her stony façade. She’s proud to be an outcast, even at school. She knows that this wounds Leo, since it ruins his dream of a personal utopia: a happy family. Events come to a head when the State distributes a speech by Khrushchev to be read in every school class and factory in the country. Shockingly, the speech asserts that Stalin was power-mad and that, under him, the police committed crimes. Zoya hears this with glee, taking it as proof that Leo is a criminal to be hated.

Many other men who worked for the State under Stalin are under insidious attack. Someone is sending them arrest photos, reminding them of the bad old days. One man, who was a prison guard, kills himself when he realizes that his reputation and life will be destroyed in the eyes of every schoolchild and worker in the country. Leo’s first partner calls him in the middle of the night, drunk, wanting to talk. Leo puts him off until the next morning when he’s sober, but by then it’s too late. The man took the lives of his beloved wife and daughters, then killed himself, rather than face the shame and guilt. It’s obvious that someone is exacting revenge for the past. As a part of that past, Leo must find out who, and why.

This novel proves beyond a doubt that CHILD 44 was no fluke. This author is hugely talented and manages to create an atmosphere of dread and hope. He excels at creating characters that are complex, but utterly realistic. This is a period of history that I haven’t read much about, so the general atmosphere is fascinating to me. The story moves from place to place and addresses both very personal issues and those that are much more global in scale. Leo is a man trying to live a good life, give his family a good life, and atone for things he did in the past, even though each and every one of those things were sanctioned – no, demanded – by the State he serves.

Rating: 9
May 2009
ISBN# 978-0-446-40240-8 (hardcover)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Vanished - Kat Richardson

A Greywalker Novel
Kat Richardson

Urban Fantasy

As a Greywalker, Harper Blaine can move between the normal and paranormal worlds. She’s even starting to get some control over the whole process. Then she hears from an ex. That’s never easy, but especially difficult when that ex happens to be dead, and contacting you by phone from the other side. From what Harper knows about the way things work, there has to be something very important attached to his appearance. She travels from Seattle to Los Angeles to the site of his death in an attempt to contact him. He tells her that it’s time for her to learn exactly what she is; and that she needs to look at the past.

A big part of her past is right there in Los Angeles. Her father committed suicide in his office when she was a child. His office building is still there, and Harper manages to get inside and find the approximate location of her father’s violent death. Instead of finding her father – or a time-loop phantom of him – she finds a sort of cosmic hole. That sort of thing doesn’t happen by accident. Her mother still has her father’s old journals, giving Harper a window into what seems like madness.

But her investigation of her past is cut short when Edward, the leader of Seattle’s vampire community, sends her on an urgent trip to London. It seems his people there have cut off all contact. Harper agrees to go partly because of a nightmare she’s had about Will, her most recent ex. Edward seemed to be mostly worried about his assets. But things in London are so much worse than he ever imagined.

For those new to this series (GREYWALKER, POLTERGEIST, UNDERGROUND) the author sketches in the salient details. For those who have been reading the series since the start – and I recommend it – there are some very interesting scenes here, involving Harper’s past. These revelations are balanced nicely with a healthy dose of action and some interesting new characters. While this novel is relatively self-contained, the author leaves it open-ended, and it’s clear that there’s more to come. This series has only improved over time, and I look forward to the next installment.

Rating: 8
August 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-46277-0 (hardcover)

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Fresh Kills - Bill Loehfelm

Fresh Kills
Bill Loehfelm
Berkley Prime Crime


This novel is part mystery, and part character study. That’s not a bad thing; just something the reader should know. The story begins when John Sanders, Jr. gets the news that his father is dead. Not just dead, but murdered; and not just murdered, but shot, execution-style. The grown son’s first reaction is that whoever killed the old man saved him the trouble of doing it himself. The old man was a first-rate abuser and put his wife and family through a particular kind of hell. John’s sister, Julia, managed to escape almost all of the physical abuse, but growing up in that kind of household still shapes a person’s character.

In Julia’s case, it’s made her kind and compassionate and eager to forgive and forget. Her brother isn’t nearly so forgiving. He loses himself in alcohol, women, and brawls. At the outset, he doesn’t seem to realize just how much he’s grown up to be his father’s son. It’s with no small amount of surprise that he realizes that he wants to find out who killed his father. Julia would much rather put everything in the hands of the police and the past. The siblings are back in their parents’ home due to the circumstances, but they find themselves unable to settle into a grownup dynamic without parents present. (Their mother died some years before.)

While the underpinning of the novel is the son’s search for the killer of his father, the real story here is how adults are shaped and molded by their childhood, their parents, and, finally, by their own choices. The son tells the story in first person, and he can be quite darkly witty. It’s that spark in him that makes it so painful to watching him wander from bar to bar and from fight to fight, all while telling himself that he’s doing it all to find a murderer and give his sister peace. As a mystery, this novel weighs much more heavily on the side of am adult son’s personal journey, but it finds its way in the end, as we all must.

Rating: 8
July 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22874-6 (trade paperback)

The Sword Of The Templars - Paul Christopher

The Sword Of The Templars
Paul Christopher


Lt. Col. John Holliday served as an Army Ranger. Now he spends his time teaching medieval history at West Point. During his downtime, he works on what has become a massive volume detailing the history of armor. He’s reunited with his second cousin Peggy Blackstock on the sad occasion of his Uncle Henry’s death. (Henry was Peggy’s grandfather.) The two meet with the lawyer for the disposition of the will, and both are taken aback when the lawyer mentions that his father was in the same military unit as Henry’s father and claims that the two found a sword at the site of Hitler’s summer house during WWII. This strikes Holliday as very peculiar, since the unit the lawyer named was not Henry’s unit.

The clear implication is that the lawyer would be quite happy to take the sword off their hands. Holliday and Peggy rebuff the strange offer and head to Henry’s house to being the long process of sorting out a lifetime’s worth of accumulated objects. In a hidden drawer, they find a sword, wrapped in Hitler’s personal standard. It’s obviously the sword to which the lawyer referred; and Holliday’s long experience with armor tells him that this is not an ordinary sword. It has a meaning and value far beyond that of its association with Hitler. Peggy, being a well-traveled photojournalist, is up for the challenge, and the two are off to discover what the sword really means.

This author (THE LUCIFER GOSPEL, REMBRANDT’S GHOST) excels at writing fast-paced thrillers that span the globe and a good chunk of world history. Reading one of his books is like being an armchair Indiana Jones, really. Peggy and Holliday are both mature, intelligent adults, so following them through a discussion of history is just as fascinating as following them through a chase scene. And, as with any good adventure, just when you think you know exactly where things are headed, you’re happy to find that you’re wrong. I always enjoy Mr. Christopher’s books.

Rating: 7 ½
July 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-22740-9 (paperback)