Friday, March 26, 2010

Pretty In Ink - Karen E. Olson

Pretty In Ink
A Tattoo Shop Mystery
Karen E. Olson


“If your name is Britney Brassieres, being taken down by a tsunami of champagne might seem only fitting.” There’s no way to improve on that as a first line in a novel. The Britney in question happens to be a drag queen (real name Trevor) performing in Chez Tango’s Nylons and Tattoos show. Of course it’s Vegas, did you need to ask? The tsunami of champagne actually hit Brett Kavanaugh, tattoo artist and owner of The Painted Lady. What hit Britney was the cork, and who aimed it is a mystery. But Brett is certain of two things: that the perpetrator was aiming, and that he had a queen-of-hearts tattoo.

After the EMTs take Trevor to the hospital to make sure he doesn’t have a concussion, Brett and Charlotte, her intern and Trevor’s friend, go backstage to pack up Trevor’s stuff. In the makeup case, Brett finds a pin that looks like the queen of hearts. Apparently, Trevor is quite attached to the pin, although he occasionally pawns it when he runs short of cash. Depending on who you ask, it’s one of dozens like it, or it the decorative stones might be real and Trevor got it from an actor currently making a run for the Senate.

Either way, Trevor is released from the hospital the following morning. Hours later, he’s back, feeling ill. Before Brett can get there, Trevor dies. When he was admitted the second time, the only thing he had on him was that pin. Even if the stones are real, would someone kill to get it? And why?

Last seen in THE MISSING INK, Brett is an interesting and increasingly complex character. She runs a tattoo shop in an upscale hotel/casino. Her brother is a cop. Her staff is what might be called a motley group, but they’re all stand-up people. Personally, I’ve never wanted a tattoo, but I understand its value as an art form and as artistic expression. It’s interesting to note that Brett cautions first-timers to be very sure that this is what they want, since it is, for all intents and purposes, permanent.

The mystery this time around is a bit more involved, and the cast of characters is wider, spanning just about every layer of society. Although, in Vegas, maybe that’s not so unusual. The setting and Trevor’s line of work make for some very entertaining developments. Readers who are put off by body art or drag queens might have problems with this one, but the author does a great job of making everyone an individual and more than just what they do for a living. Mystery fans will be thrilled to find this series full of complex stories and fascinating characters.

Rating: 7 ½
March 2010
ISBN# 978-0-451-22962-5 (paperback)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sprinkle With Murder - Jenn McKinlay

Sprinkle With Murder
A Cupcake Bakery Mystery
Jenn McKinlay
Berkley Prime Crime


At some point, every bakery owner must have to deal with a bridezilla or two. For Melanie Cooper and Angie DeLaura, the event is somewhat unexpected. They’ve been friends with Tate Harper forever; he even invested in their new shop, Fairy Tale Cupcakes. He just got engaged Christie Stevens, a fashion designer. Not only was the engagement a surprise, the demanding, arrogant Christie is just not what anyone thought of as Tate’s type.

To give the bakery some exposure, Christie agreed to a cupcake wedding ‘cake.’ But, since she’s so very special, she wants several new, original flavors, designed just for her that will match her wedding décor. And she wants ownership of the new recipes, too. Angie and Melanie soon find that she’s made this demand of every vendor, including the florist. For the sake of her friendship with Tate, Melanie knuckles under and agrees. She even agrees to an early-morning meeting at Christie’s studio to discuss things.

Arriving at the studio, Melanie finds Christie’s lifeless body. Unfortunately, she’s got one of Melanie’s original cupcakes in her hand. The police naturally find this suspicious and begin to look seriously at Melanie as a suspect. As the fiancé, Tate is also under scrutiny. To save herself, her friend, and her fledgling business, Melanie decides to do a little snooping of her own.

This is the first installment in a fun new series and it does a great job of laying the groundwork for future books. Melanie and Angie are a great pair; each woman is complex and realistic and they provide a great balance for each other. The mystery touches all of the main characters and it makes perfect sense that Melanie would want to take a few risks to find the real killer. There are enough suspects to make the chase interesting, but it never gets too complex to be a cozy mystery. The author provides several cupcake recipes and, I admit, I’m eager to try a couple of them. I’m interested to see where the series goes from here.

Rating: 7
March 2010
ISBN# 978-0-425-23342-9 (paperback)

Monday, March 22, 2010

How To Tame A Modern Rogue - Diana Holquist

How To Tame A Modern Rogue
Diana Holquist

Contemporary Romance

Ally Giordano is changing her life. She’s leaving New York City for San Francisco, where she’s already lined up her dream job, teaching English in a great high school. She’s sad to leave her grandmother, Granny Donny, but the woman is wealthy and spry and can hop on a plane to come for a visit any time she likes. She’ll miss her roommate, June, but June’s boyfriend is moving in to take Ally’s place, so everyone is happy.

Until Granny Donny pays a visit one evening, dressed like an extra from a Jane Austen movie, talking to Ally as if she’s sixteen and must marry a dashing duke. To Ally’s horror, she’s brought said ‘duke’ with her. And there’s a horse and carriage waiting outside on the street. The duke, Sam Carson (who calls himself Duke Whatthehell) met Granny Donny (he calls her Lady Donatella) on her way over and, in order to avoid an angry woman staking out his lobby, decided to go along for the ride. Granny Donny natters on about a trip to the country now that “the season” is over and how she’s sure Ally and “the duke” will fall in love there and marry. June recognizes this plot. It’s from a regency-period romance, The Dulcet Duke, a favorite of both hers and Granny Donny’s.

Ally has not read the book and is not amused by any of this. The following day, she takes her grandmother on a round of visits to doctors who diagnose some type of dementia, possibly temporary, possibly brought on by a mild stroke. In other words, they’re not sure. Granny Donny insists on the trip to “the country,” which Ally takes to mean a beach house in Long Island. If this is what her beloved grandmother wants, Ally is determined to make it happen for her. Even if it means taking several days to ride through Brooklyn and points beyond in an open carriage like a lunatic. Granny Donny also insists that “the duke” must accompany them. To his own surprise, Sam agrees. After all, what kind of duke would allow to unescorted ladies to ride through iffy neighborhoods in an open carriage?

This is a cute romance, and I mean that in the best way. It would have been easy for the story to become too twee and precious and sugary, but the goings-on are leavened by Ally’s very real distress at losing her grandmother – her only relative, since her parents took off without a word to avoid debts ten years ago – to dementia. Sam has his own history, and while he’s currently a wealthy playboy, he has some baggage that makes him much more interesting. Each chapter begins with an appropriate passage from The Dulcet Duke, and it’s fun to watch the modern characters play out close approximations of a regency romance. It’s a wonderful device for a contemporary romance and works perfectly.

Rating: 7 ½
August 2009
ISBN# 978-0-446-19705-2 (paperback)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Motherhood Is Murder - Diana Orgain

Motherhood Is Murder
A Maternal Instincts Mystery
Diana Orgain
Berkley Prime Crime


In addition to new motherhood – daughter Laurie is barely two months old – Kate Connolly has found a new calling. She wants to be a PI. In her estimation, it’s a great job for a mom. She can take her baby on stakeouts and interviews with her, the hours are flexible, and she won’t be faced with the prospect of going back to the corporate grind and leaving her child with others. Of course, there’s a downside, too. Like the fact that she doesn’t have any training or experience, and certainly no license. And, even though she was instrumental in solving a case when her daughter was only six weeks old (BUNDLE OF TROUBLE) the homicide detective in charge was less than thrilled at her amateur attempts.

One thing every new mom needs is a support system. By chance, Kate runs into a couple of women while at a baby specialty store who belong a mommy club. She decides to check them out, especially after they tell her that their next meeting will be a grown-ups dinner cruise on the San Francisco Bay. They barely make it to dessert when disaster strikes. The leader of the group, Helene, falls down a flight of stairs. Kate knows the news is very bad when she sees the medical examiner.

Maybe it was just an accident, but the more she learns about this group, the more motives she uncovers. For instance, Helene, the leader of the group, wasn’t a mom. That’s more than a little odd. Also on the cruise is a woman who was kicked out of the group weeks earlier. Another member fears her husband is having an affair. There’s the suggestion that Helene wasn’t the intended target, after all. It’s impossible for Kate not to involve herself in the investigation.

I’m still having trouble believing that a woman who desperately wants to be home with her new baby would think that being a PI is a great plan. Let alone that it’s a feasible plan. My doubts are only confirmed when Kate takes her child on an interview with the possible killer (she suspects he poisoned Helene before shoving her down the stairs) and then eats the lunch he prepares (he doesn’t eat) at then nurses the baby. Even an ambulance ride, a stomach pump, and the very real danger to the baby won’t deter her from her new career plans.

On the bright side, the mystery is an interesting one, with plenty of suspects and possible motives and red herrings to keep things interesting. The author begins each chapter with Kate’s current “To Do List,” which is a very creative way of reminding readers of certain points. This is most helpful to readers (like mommies, maybe?) who need to put down/pick up books often. For those readers who enjoy a good cozy but are not immersed in the Cult Of Mommy, the author does a good job of keeping the investigation in the foreground.

Rating: 6 ½
March 2010
ISBN# 978-0-425-23373-3 (paperback)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Where Angels Fear To Tread - Thomas E. Sniegoski

Where Angels Fear To Tread
A Remy Chandler Novel
Thomas E. Sniegoski

Remy Chandler was once Remiel, a Seraphim, one of God’s warrior angels. Disillusioned after the great war in heaven, Remy took on human guise and came to earth to live as a mortal. He works as a private investigator in Boston. Some of the cases he takes are the ordinary, mundane kind; others are more otherworldly. His angelic nature, while suppressed, is always present.

When Deryn York appears at his office, she seems to be simply a mother involved in a parental kidnapping. Her husband, Carl, took their six-year-old daughter, Zoe, and disappeared. The family had traveled to Boston from their home in Florida to get treatment for the child, who was exhibiting signs of autism. What really intrigues Remy is that Deryn hired him based mainly on information contained in her daughter’s drawings. These drawings seem to show the future.

There are other forces at work behind the scenes. Zoe is a special child, but not at all in the way Deryn and Carl believe she is. Zoe is powerful, and there are plenty of beings that would like to have that power for their own ends.

The character of Remy (A KISS BEFORE THE APOCALYPSE, DANCING ON THE HEAD OF A PIN) continues to evolve from one book to the next. The first two books were more complicated, plot-wise, but this one, while more straightforward, is interesting due to the characters involved. In Remy’s world, the good guys aren’t always all good, and even the bad guys are multi-faceted. There are two storylines that come together rather quickly into a whole, and that drives the pace of the narrative. For those who haven’t read the previous books, this is a good place to start – although I think you’ll want to read the first two later – since this works just fine as a standalone novel. It’s clear there’s more to come, and that’s good news.

Rating: 8
March 2010
ISBN# 978-0-451-46314-2 (trade paperback)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Nefertiti - Michelle Moran

Michelle Moran
Three Rivers Press

Historical Fiction

In a museum in Berlin sits perhaps one of the most fabled pieces of art ever to come out of ancient Egypt: the bust of the beautiful Queen Nefertiti. She’s notable for her great beauty, unusual headdress, and long slender neck. History shows that she was wife to Pharaoh Akhenaten, the man who attempted to install a monotheistic religion on a people who had spent a millennium or more worshipping various gods.

That’s the story in a very tiny nutshell. The brilliance of this novel is that it manages to bring Nefertiti alive in a very realistic way. Some facts are historical record, some are artistic license, perhaps, but it all adds up to a vibrant portrait of the woman who nearly changed the face of Egypt. The story begins in her childhood, and is narrated by Mutnodjment (Mutny) her younger half-sister.

Mutny travels with Nefertiti when she marries the heir to the throne of Egypt as a sort of lady-in-waiting. Through her eyes readers can experience the royal courts, the ascension of the new Pharaoh, and the vicious political infighting that takes place. Modern politicians have nothing on these ancients, who would do anything, up to and including murder, to put themselves in places of power and security, if only temporarily.

The story continues through the events that ended the reign of Akhenaten and Nefertiti and ends with the young price, Tutankamun coming to power under his vizier. These twenty years are detailed in both political and human terms. Nefertiti’s political ambitions equaled her beauty, and she found a way to wield power that was generally unavailable to women of her time. She had success and failure; faults and vanities; great joy and crushing sorrow. The author allows her all of this without diminishing her at all.

The author (see also: CLEOPATRA’S DAUGHTER) does an incredible job of making history and its inhabitants come alive. Her evocative descriptions allow readers to ‘see’ everything from garments and hairstyles to gigantic monuments and cities. For those confused by all the names, she helpfully includes a glossary, a timeline, and a family tree to keep everything straight. This is one of those rare things: a historical novel that reads like the author – and, thus, the reader – was truly there. This is one for the keeper shelf. And I’m already hoping for more.

Rating: 9
May 2008
ISBN# 978-0-307-38174-3 (trade paperback)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Silver Bear - Derek Haas

The Silver Bear
Derek Haas


There’s an old reviewing chestnut – I’ve used variations more than once, myself – that says a good thriller ‘grabs you on the first page and won’t let go’ until some harrowing ending ‘leaves you breathless.’ I hope I haven’t used the ‘breathless’ bit. The thing is, THE SILVER BEAR is exactly that kind of book.

On the first page, we meet the main character. He has no name, but some call him Columbus. He narrates the entire book from first-person perspective. He kills people for money. Lots of people, lots of money. And he doesn’t feel bad or remorseful or regretful about it. He never falls to his knees, weeping and repenting a misspent existence. This is his skill set in life, and that’s fine with him. He dresses to blend into a crowd; never tries to draw any attention to himself. Reading about his efforts and preparations makes me think that if Michael Weston from “Burn Notice” had his conscience and humor and morals removed, he would be this man.

The first pages detail a meeting with a new client. More accurately, a new middleman. Clients are, for some reason, reluctant to meet with the killer they’re hiring. Maybe it’s self-preservation, on several levels. The job is to take place eight weeks later, to give the assassin time to do his own groundwork. The pay is good. The target is someone in the running to be the next President. This job is going to complicate the assassin’s life in ways he cannot even imagine.

The story is written in first-person, and in a fairly spare style. The story is fast-paced and fascinating. It’s a look at an assassination from the other side of the gun. If you can suspend your moral compass long enough to get on board with the main character, and it isn’t hard to do at all, you’re in for quite a ride. By the end of the book, I found myself caring what happens to this man who kills people for a living. That’s no small feat.

Rating: 8
March 2010
IBSN# 978-0-515-14763-6 (paperback)

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Adamantine Palace - Stephen Deas

The Adamantine Palace
The Memory Of Flames, Book 1
Stephen Deas


Long ago, dragons were creatures of enormous power and destructive force; creatures to be feared. Then the alchemists discovered a way to tame them. Now royal families raise them and use them as mounts for hunting or making war. The dragons, having been raised by humans from their hatching, remember nothing different. Until a dragon, on its way from one kingdom to another as a royal wedding gift, gets lost. No longer under the influence of the alchemists or their potions, this dragon is able to access a race memory of a time when dragons were free to do as they liked. A time when they were much more than glorified horses.

It’s time to select a new Speaker of the Realms, who will rule from the Adamantine Palace. The speaker is generally chosen by consensus from among the various kings and princes. This time, Prince Jehal is hoping to be selected. He’s spent years plotting and planning his ascension. He has not stopped short of murder to see his dreams fulfilled. His rival is Queen Shezira. Although a woman, she has also spent years contemplating her rise to power.

The fact that this is a debut novel is truly amazing. It has something for every reader of fantasy. There’s power and politics and intrigue; there’s action; there are characters worthy of caring about; and, of course, there are dragons. The story starts out strong with an act of violence, and the pace never flags. The author skillfully moves the action from one kingdom to another, to mercenary “sell-swords” and their part in the maneuvering, and to the wilds where the dragon is slowly becoming conscious of the reality of the state of her race.

This is a highly satisfying tale. While it’s a first installment in a series, and there’s clearly more to come, its large cast of characters and many storylines come to a natural close, and leave this feeling nicely complete as a novel. I’m already looking forward to the next book from this talented author.

Rating: 8
February 2010
ISBN# 978-0-451-46313-5 (hardcover)

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds - Katherine Ramsland

The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds
Katherine Ramsland
Berkley Boulevard

True Crime/Nonfiction

It’s clear that knowing the characters from the show “Criminal Minds” and their various histories would lend an extra dimension to reading this book. As someone who has not seen the show, I still found these cases fascinating. The author takes situations and storylines from the show that were inspired be real events and details those real events.

Naturally, any fictional series is going to take a few liberties with the ‘real’ story for the sake of drama and pacing. The author points out those differences here, and also talks about how what we see on TV differs from the real job of a behavioral scientist. She does so in a completely respectful way that will not offend fans of this show or others like it. Her intent is clearly not to criticize, but to educate. And this she does, splendidly. Her examples are clear and concise and her language is easily understandable.

Instead of taking an episode-by-episode approach, the author starts out with a history of various investigative techniques, then relates them to characters and situations from the show. For those readers who take a deeper interest, there’s a great glossary of forensic psychiatry terms and even a bibliography for further reading. This is a very interesting way of writing true crime, I find. As long as there are shows like “C.S.I.” (the subject of her previous book) and “Criminal Minds,” there will be viewers who want to know more. Whether you’d like to broaden your knowledge base or just find out more about a specific case, this is the book for you.

Rating: 8
February 2010
ISBN# 978-0-425-23226-2 (trade paperback)

The Proof Is In The Pudding - Melinda Wells

The Proof Is In The Pudding
A Della Cooks Mystery
Melinda Wells
Berkley Prime Crime


It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Della Carmichael has a lot on her plate these days. In addition to hosting “Della Cooks” on the Better Living Channel, she’s got her mail-order fudge business to deal with (with the help of her almost-daughter, Eileen) and she teaches classes at her Santa Monica cooking school on weekends. When she’s tapped to fill in as a cook-off judge, she thinks twice. But this is no ordinary cook-off. This one is full of celebrity cooks and the proceeds go to charity. At nearly the last minute, Della agrees.

Too late, she learns that one of her fellow judges will be the odious Keith Ingram. Della has always known him as a food critic. Now she knows he’s a terrible human being, too. Eileen and Keith had been seeing each other until the night before, when Keith dumped her. He dumped her, then told her he’d filmed at least one of their encounters and would be more than happy to upload it to the Internet if Eileen makes any trouble for him. Della, who sees in Eileen the daughter she never had, takes a dim view of this. John O’Hara, Eileen’s father and a cop, sees red. John actually hits Keith during the pre-judging time of the cook-off and is removed from the premises.

Just prior to the judging, it seems that a fire breaks out. In reality, it was a smoke bomb that caused a lot of panic, but no real damage. The damage was all to Ingram, who ends up on the floor with a slashed throat. The emcee of the event and owner of the hotel (and father of Ingram’s new celebutante armpiece) immediately accuses John O’Hara. Eileen was also present. As were plenty of people who would have been fairly happy to see Ingram’s grisly end. Della has known the O’Hara’s for years and knows he would never have done this, so she rolls up her sleeves and dives into this confusing mix of a case.

If you haven’t read the first two books (KILLER MOUSSE and DEATH TAKES THE CAKE) you’ve missed a lot of fun. But you won’t feel lost here. The author nicely fills in the pertinent information regarding the O’Hara family and Della’s relationship with them. The setting is akin to a locked-room mystery, since someone must have killed Ingram under cover of smoke. And, given the quick response of the hotel’s security, that someone might very well still be there.

The celebrity participants give the author all kinds of directions to explore as Della investigates. There’s the married pair of action movie stars, the soap actress, the thriller author. All people you might feel you recognize, in the same cast of murder suspects. It makes for a fun and interesting mystery. Of course, for Della and the O’Haras, the states are very real, which keeps the story from becoming too frothy. Della is a realistic and likeable character, a loyal friend, and someone who can make great dishes using common ingredients. I always enjoy spending time with her.

Rating: 7 ½
February 2010
ISBN# 978-0-425-23311-5 (paperback)