Monday, July 26, 2010

Delicious And Suspicious - Riley Adams

Delicious And Suspicious
A Memphis BBQ Mystery
Riley Adams
Berkley Prime Crime


Springtime in Memphis, Tennessee means a lot more foot traffic on historic Beale Street, outdoors blues concerts, and of course, barbeque from Aunt Pat’s. Aunt Pat raised Lulu Taylor, who now runs the place, assisted by her sons, daughter-in-law, and young grandkids. It’s a family business and a Memphis institution that some might say rivals Graceland.

The big news this spring is that the Cooking Channel – a new rival to the Food Network – is sending a scout and cameraman to find the best bbq in town. Of course, all the regulars assume that’s Aunt Pat’s. The owner of the nearby Hog Heaven, Lurlene, naturally disagrees and is anxious for the scout to taste her cooking. The scout, Rebecca Adrian, quickly makes enemies of just about everyone. She mocks the manuscript of a local bookstore owner and hopeful author who spent decades polishing her gem. She insults the folk art of Lulu’s daughter-in-law during a public exhibit set up specifically for her. She even manages to alienate the seventeen-year-old boy who has a crush on her. By the time of the tasting, she’s left a foul taste in everyone’s mouth.

Everyone is shocked, though, when Rebecca dies in her hotel room, the victim of an apparent poisoning. The suspect list is almost endless. Even Tony, the cameraman who came to Memphis with her, admits that she was not a nice person. The logical place for the police to start their investigation is, unfortunately, Aunt Pat’s, where Rebecca ate her last. That means that the finger of suspicion points at Lulu and various members of her family, much to the delight of her Hog Heaven competition. Lulu may look like a sweet, little, old grandmother, but when her family is in danger, she makes a pretty good amateur sleuth.

This is the first in what promises to be a solid and entertaining series. I’d classify this as a cozy (no witnessing the murders, no explicit violence) the mystery takes some surprising turns and never takes the easy way out of any situation. Of course, there are the requisite Southern “characters,” but their eccentricities never veer into camp, and the author takes care to make them all multi-dimensional people with real emotional lives and backgrounds. Don't let the almost too-cute title fool you: The result is a great mix of humor and tragedy. Lulu’s actions are all believable and logical, and the plot moves along nicely through several interesting twists. I look forward to future visits with Lulu and the Aunt Pat’s regulars.

Rating: 7 ½
July 2010
ISBN# 978-0-425-23553-9 (paperback)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tomb With A View - Casey Daniels

Tomb With A View
A Pepper Martin Mystery
Casey Daniels
Berkley Prime Crime


To avoid potential spoilers: This is the first book I’ve read in this series, so some of what I have to say about Pepper’s personal life may spoil a part of the previous novel.

Pepper Martin may disparage being a cemetery tour guide, and the only paid staff member at Garden View Cemetery in Cleveland, but she’s uniquely suited to the job. Pepper sees dead people. And she can talk to them. It can be unnerving, but it comes in pretty handy when solving a murder and helping those dead people put an end to their unfinished business and move on to wherever it is they go.

Currently, the staff and volunteers are gearing up for a commemoration ceremony honoring President James A. Garfield, whose tomb rests beside that of his wife in a rotunda on the grounds. The President makes periodic appearances to Pepper and speaks to her at length. The presence of the still-living Marjorie Klinker is far more annoying than any ghost. Marjorie collects Garfield memorabilia, believes she knows absolutely everything there is to know about him, and will tell anyone who will listen – and more than a few who won’t – that she is, somehow, related to the late President. Obviously, Marjorie rubs everyone the wrong way, but getting thrown off the balcony of the rotunda onto the marble floor below is harsh punishment.

Pepper counts herself lucky that Marjorie’s ghost doesn’t seem to anywhere around, but she still feels the need to solve the case. After all the two of them were supposed to be working together on the memorial, and Marjorie had called her to meet at the rotunda that morning, saying it was urgent. Then there’s Pepper’s ex-boyfriend the detective, who dumped her when she told him about her Gift, and warned her to stay away from the case. Clearly, he learned nothing about her while they dated.

This is my first Pepper Martin book, and my feelings about her as a protagonist are conflicted. On the one hand, I appreciate her willingness to help ghosts find their way to the other side by finishing whatever they left behind, or solving their murders. But she comes across as arrogant and strangely air-headed too often for my taste. (Who has a degree in art history but doesn’t know what “bas relief” means? Who has any kind of degree at all but thinks “semantics” refers to Jewish people?) Overall, though, she’s the kind of pro-active, slightly reckless main character a mystery series like this really needs.

The story moves forward at a nice clip, the writing style is breezy and seems perfectly suited to Pepper’s personality. The plot really starts with the murder, of course, but during the investigation, the story becomes deeper and the mystery includes some nice intricacies. By the end, it’s clear who dun it, but any fan of mysteries knows that the fun all lies in wading through the suspect pool and getting to that point. For a first-time reader, the stalker subplot seems random and tacked-on, but I imagine that this has been a story arc spanning a couple of novels, so the inclusion of it with this investigation takes on a different tinge for longtime fans. I’m still not sure Pepper and I would be buds, but I like her enough to find out what she’s going to do next.

Rating: 7
July 2010
ISBN# 978-0-425-23551-5 (paperback)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

So Cold The River - Michael Koryta

So Cold The River
Michael Koryta
Little, Brown and Company


Just a couple of years ago, Eric Shaw was on a career fast track in Hollywood. But one bad film can end a career, and now he’s back in Chicago, making a living by creating what he calls “video life portraits,” mostly for weddings or funerals. There’s no denying Eric has a unique eye for accuracy. He simply knows when a shot is important or correct, sometimes without knowing why. While making a ‘life of’ video for a woman’s funeral, he picks one photograph out of the stacks given to him by the family. It’s the only photo of a cottage, with no people in the frame. Somehow he knows that this place was important to the woman.

The woman’s sister, impressed and a little frightened by Eric’s insight, hires him to make a film about the early years of her now-dying father-in-law. According to family lore, Campbell Bradford left the small town of French Lick, Indiana, as a teenager and managed to make himself into a multimillionaire. The family knows almost nothing about his early life, and the daughter-in-law, Alyssa, feels that the film will be either an appreciated gift or a worthy memorial to the man. To get Eric started, she passes over a bottle of Pluto water, bottled at a spa in French Lick. Something about the bottle speaks to Eric, not least of which is the bottle’s unnatural chill.

The story proper begins when Eric arrives in Indiana. The towns of French Lick and West Baden are quite real, as are the spas associated with them. It’s clear that the author is familiar with the area. It’s not long at all before Eric discovers that the legend of Campbell Bradford is both more complicated and more shrouded in mystery than anyone in the family realized. The bottle of water continues to feel colder and Eric feels an irresistible impulse to try some of the famed water, never mind that the bottle is around eighty years old and he can see sediment floating in it. The fact that the author makes this action seem reasonable and logical from Eric’s perspective, even while the reader winces and hopes he doesn’t do it, is a testament to his ability to immerse the reader in the story.

For those old enough, or widely read enough, to remember early Stephen King novels, this atmosphere will seem ominously familiar. Eric makes a comment at some point about having checked into the Overlook Hotel (from The Shining.) The cast of characters includes a graduate student in local history and an 86-year-old woman who has spent her life in the area, monitoring the weather and knowing a storm is coming. That storm is both physical and metaphysical and sweeps along everyone in its path.

This is the kind of book that reads very quickly, then sticks with you days and weeks after turning the last pages. I know I’ll be making a return trip to West Baden in years to come. This is an author who clearly has more stories to tell us, and that makes us readers fortunate indeed.

Rating: 9
June 2010
ISBN# 978-0-316-05363-1 (hardcover)

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

A Killer Plot - Ellery Adams

A Killer Plot
A Books By The Bay Mystery
Ellery Adams
Berkley Prime Crime


I have to admit, right up front, that I am conflicted about this book. Specifically, about the main character, the super-rich oak barrel heiress, Olivia Limoges. In the very first pages, she does so many things to turn me off to her as a character; it’s very difficult to sympathize with her. She cuts into a grocery line and crushes someone’s groceries (then proves how great she is by paying for them.) She overhears a writer’s group meeting in a diner and loudly mocks the woman reading her work-in-progress from across the room, while musing that perhaps joining this group would help her with her own writer’s block. And, she parks in a handicapped spot, rationalizing that if she gets a ticket, it’s her ‘contribution’ to the town. Never mind that someone might need the spot. My hot buttons? Consider them pushed.

All of the above happens in the first chapter. And I can’t just get over it because she’s a poor-little-rich-girl who lost both parents and was raised by a stern grandmother; or because she has a standard poodle she takes with her everywhere. At least she doesn’t try to hide who she is. It’s all right there, for everyone to see. For some reason, one of the writers in the critique group approaches her after she essentially ends their meeting with her unsolicited comments and invites her to join them next time. They’re the Bayside Book Writers, and they’re all very different people, united by their love of writing. The more time Olivia spends with them, the --ore she grows to like them, and finds that she’s making friends in spite of herself.

When one of the members of the group ends up dead in an alley with his throat slashed, Olivia is devastated. (So am I. I really liked his character.) On the wall next to his body is a haiku. Not only is that beyond strange, but a bit of research tells Olivia that the haiku is unfinished. That means the murderer may not be, either. Of course, as the most literate bunch in the tourist town of Oyster Bay, Olivia looks to the writer’s group. And there’s the new guy in town, who retired there to open a bookshop called Through The Wardrobe. But the dead man wrote a gossip column under a pen name, so there might be any number of people out to get him.

So, there’s my conflict. The mystery itself is quite good - a step above the ordinary small town cozy. The characters are written well and come across as real people, and with a rather large and varied cast, that’s an accomplishment. My problem is simply Olivia. I don’t like her. But, given the quality of the mystery and the rest of the supporting cast, I’m willing to give her another chance. Here’s hoping that she grows on me.

Rating: 7
June 2010
ISBN# 978-0-425-23522-5 (paperback)