Monday, January 31, 2011

Iron River - T. Jefferson Parker

Iron River
A Charlie Hood Novel
T. Jefferson Parker
NAL/New American Library


The term ‘iron river’ refers to the apparently never-ending “great current of firearms headed south.” As the drug traffickers and cartels become more bold and ruthless, the need for guns only increases. The US is full of cheap guns, and more than a few dealers are willing to sell to anyone for a profit.

Charlie Hood is on loan from the L.A. Sheriff’s Department to an ATFE group trying to stem the tide. Even members of the operation know that a few buy-and-busts won’t make a dent. The idea is to arrest the low guys on the totem pole and turn them against the people above them. Eventually, they hope to land a really big fish.

Before that can happen, though, a normal buy turns into a shootout in Buenavista, a border town. One of the bad guys goes down, but so does an innocent bystander, a teenaged boy. This teenaged boy happens to be the son of the leaders of a major cartel. Obviously, his father is going to want vengeance. To everyone’s shock, the rules have clearly changed: the cartel members came across the border and grabbed the agent from American soil, then transported him back to Mexico. This is a diplomatic nightmare. It’s also the first step for the group of ATFE agents (including Charlie Hood) on a shadowy path.

The original buy was part of a planned escalation. Someone is planning to provide a large number of American guns to drug cartels. It may be true that the criminal world in any given area is fairly small, but Charlie is shocked and disheartened to discover just how small it really is. Then there’s the mystery of one Mike Finnegan, hit by a car along a desert road while changing a tire, head injuries, multiple bone fractures, a miracle of survival. He has $90,000 in an unlocked tool chest in the bed of his truck; Charlie Hood’s name and current P.O. Box in his wallet; and speaks vividly about sharing a drink with Wyatt Earp and watching sunsets with Manson. His daughter, who may or may not be trustworthy, claims that Mike is a paranoid schizophrenic. Maybe it’s just the head injury. Whatever the case, it looks like all roads lead to Charlie Hood.

Being in law enforcement cannot be easy in the best of times. These are far from the best of times. A friend today could be working for your enemy tomorrow. Or maybe that friend has been working for the enemy for years. Alliances are shifting and murky. The soul of even a killer can be compared to the desert environment that surrounds the characters: from a distance, it looks dry and empty; but up close, there’s life and complication, and possibly even beauty to be found. Charlie Hood’s moral compass provides the true north here. Even when sorely tested, his personal imperative is to do the right thing, even when those things are not formally codified.

This is my second Charlie Hood novel (after THE RENEGADES) and I forgot what to expect. These are not written as procedurals or straight clue-to-clue-to-clue-to-killer mysteries. There are so many layers to what’s going on that I find myself slowing down; going back and re-reading sections to pick up some word or phrase I might have missed the first time. For all its complication and multiple stories, the pace is surprisingly fast. The tension is established in the first pages and only grows throughout the novel. There’s an overriding feeling of darkness and despair that’s just held back by force of will. These books are gems and should be read by anyone with an interest in well-written, realistic crime fiction.

Rating: 8 ½
January 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23242-7 (trade paperback)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Hexbound - Chloe Neill

A Novel of the Dark Elite
Chloe Neill

Young Adult/Paranormal

This is the second in a series, following FIRESPELL. I didn’t read the first novel, so there may very well be spoilers in this review.

Since Lily Parker’s parents moved her to St. Sophia’s in Chicago, she’s had a steep learning curve. She discovered that there are magic users called Adepts. They understand and accept the fact that their gifts are only temporary, and they’re the good guys. And there are magic users who try to hold onto their gifts forever. They’re called Reapers, or the Dark Elite, and they’re the bad guys. The Reapers gain power by draining it from innocents and Adepts. Lily’s best friend, Scout, was kidnapped and nearly killed by the Reapers.

Lily also found out that she can work a firespell. It’s a powerful weapon, but there’s still a lot she needs to learn about it. The Adepts secretly patrol the area to make sure Reapers aren’t doing what they tried to do to Scout. While on a patrol in the underground tunnels, the Adepts run into some bizarre, nasty, half-human things with fangs. Not vampires: they’re different, and are, just by the way, waging a war between covens. These tunnel things are something else entirely, and the Adepts need to figure out what they are and how to stop them. While also staying out of the way of angry vampires and taking classes like normal teenagers and keeping their magical secrets. So, no pressure.

While I feel like I missed quite a bit by missing the first book in the series, it was pretty easy to get up to speed on this one. Lily narrates and fills in the blanks and background. There’s a lot going on (vampire wars, weird things in the tunnels, mean girls at school, a Reaper who seems to be hanging around Lily for reasons she doesn’t understand, the truth about Lily’s parents, a maybe-boyfriend who’s a definite werewolf) and the author does a great job of keeping everything sorted out and moving forward while still allowing the characters to grow and evolve.

HEXBOUND has action, humor, high school problems, and a lot of supernatural battles. It can be read as a single novel, but there’s clearly more to come. The friendship between Lily and Scout seems quite real, even when tested by some seriously scary stuff. They’re the kind of friends every girl would want to have. It’ll be fun to see what happens next.

Rating: 6 ½
January 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23079-9

Hellforged - Nancy Holzner


A Deadtown Novel
Nancy Holzner

Urban Fantasy

Note: If you missed the first novel in this series, DEADTOWN, this review contains a few unavoidable spoilers. And you missed a fun read.

When last we left Vicky (Victory) Vaughn, she was saving Boston from a Hellion attack. Quick history: a recent plague of unknown origin killed everyone in a certain section of Boston. Then brought them back as zombies. With zombies in even the best families, other paranormals came out of the closet, too. Due to current laws, they’re confined to that same section of Boston, now called Deadtown, for reasons that should be painfully obvious.

Vicky is a shapeshifter, so she must live in Deadtown. However, she’s also a demon fighter, so she’s allowed to leave the area to pursue her career. This time, the book opens with Vicky fighting a Glitch in a computer lab. It’s meant to throw us into the action in the way her fighting a dream demon did in the first book. But, where the first book was exciting and a bit scary, setting a perfect tone, the Glitch fight comes off as strangely comical and does not really fit in with the rest of the book.

Once the Glitch is dead (see what I did there?) Vicky’s assistant, Tina, doomed to be a teenaged zombie forever, announces that she’s joining an undead rock act. It’s just as well, since Vicky has got plenty of problems to occupy her time. First and foremost, she’s lost control of her own dreamscape. This is a huge problem since it theoretically shouldn’t be possible, and since it rules out the lucrative field of slaying dream demons. There have also been some zombie deaths. Really messy, permanent deaths. It doesn’t take Vicky too long to figure out that these deaths are connected somehow to her out-of-control dreams and the Hellion who’s been appearing in them when he should have been banished. It’s clear that she’s going to need the help of her Aunt Mab to get through whatever is coming.

As second books do, this one takes what happened in the first and continues to build. Aside from the strangely out-of-tune first scene with the Glitch, the tone here is pretty uniformly dark. And that’s fine, because the story takes Vicky to some very dark places, both figuratively and literally. It’s quite interesting to see her visit and train with her Aunt Mab in Wales. There’s a lot of action and pace is quite fast. There are some loose ends tied up from the last novel, and some plot elements that are clearly left open for upcoming installments. Even so, the final battle is quite satisfying and well-written. The author does a great job of building an original world and weaving in mythologies and various paranormal nasties. I’m looking forward to seeing where the series goes from here.

Rating: 8
January 2011
ISBN# 978-0-441-07980-9 (paperback)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Cypress House - Michael Koryta

The Cypress House
Michael Koryta
Little, Brown and Company


“They’d been on the train for five hours before Arlen Wagner saw the first of the dead men.” Arlen, a WWI vet, is travelling to the Florida Keys, looking for work, like just about everyone else in 1935. He’s spent the trip with a 19-year-old kid, Paul Brickhill. When he sees smoke in the eyes of his fellow travellers, he knows that something terrible is about to happen. He tries to get everyone off the train, but people aren’t inclined to listen to man who claims to have the ‘gift’ of seeing impending death. Only young Paul gets off the train with him.

The two men, looking for a place to spend the night before setting out again, join up with a man who claims that the local gypsies told him to keep an eye out for travellers in need. He offers them a ride, which is hard to refuse at this point. The trio eventually winds up at an isolated inn called the Cypress House. The place is run by Rebecca Cady, a tight-lipped woman who has clearly seen a lot in her life. She clearly doesn’t want them there. When the third man dies in a car explosion, Arlen and Paul are essentially stranded. The local sheriff arrests them for reasons that are murky at best, and jails them for reasons that are even more unclear. The local judge arrives to interrogate them.

When they’re finally released, they’re told, in no uncertain terms, to leave the area. War changes a man, and Arlen decides to stay on and help Rebecca, even though she doesn’t appear to want it. Paul wants to stay, too, but his reason is an infatuation with Rebecca. It’s clear to Arlen that all is not well at the Cypress House, and he’s puzzled about why he couldn’t see the driver’s impending death. Once things become clear, it may be too late for all of them.

This novel, by the author of the excellent SO COLD THE RIVER, begins as a paranormal, but turns into so much more. It almost reads like a noir. The atmosphere is described so well that I could almost feel the oppressive heat and humidity, echoing the oppressive nature of the authority figures in the town. The truth comes from Rebecca little by little, and it makes absolute sense that she would keep her own counsel. The story is really character-driven, with each person trying to make the best choices in the worst of circumstances. I really cared what happened to each individual.

Arlen’s stay is depicted in just enough day-to-day detail that it feels real. This makes the paranormal elements at once strange and believable. Arlen carries his gift like a burden, and it eventually becomes clear exactly why he feels this way. The details of his past are moving and only serve to deepen his character. At one point, he looks back to the first day at the inn and remembers that he and Paul only meant to spend a few hours there. He considers how it all changed so drastically. We’ve been on the trip with him, and look back with a sense of wonder, too. Even if you’re not a fan of ‘supernatural’ plotlines, I highly recommend this novel.

Rating: 9
January 2011
ISBN# 978-0-316-05372-3 (hardcover)

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Catch Her If You Can - Merline Lovelace

Catch Her If You Can
A Samantha Spade Mystery
Merline Lovelace
Berkley Prime Crime


“I was at Pancho’s bar/café/motel/convenience store when I lifted the lid on a dented beer cooler and discovered three severed heads.”

If that first line doesn’t pull you right in, I have no idea what will. Samantha (Sam) Spade is a second lieutenant in the Air Force, stationed in El Paso, TX. Her team tests inventions that don’t make it through the big-league finance track: stuff submitted by retired professors and garage tinkerers. At the moment, they’re testing a robot that can self-fuel by using whatever organic matter it happens to find. Due to a slight operator error, the robot is currently configured to find *any* organic matter, including lovely stuff like dead animals. That’s why it zeros in on a pickup truck with a beer cooler in the back. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, the press instantly jumps on the story. Even in an out-of-the-way spot like their desert testing grounds, this is big news. And, of course, there are various reactions, from enthused to outraged. The owner of the pickup is outraged. He pulls a gun, and ends up on the wrong end of Pancho’s shotgun. Thing is, there’s a reward for the pickup driver, and Sam may be in line to collect part of it. Once that hits the news, everyone she’s ever heard of, including her slimy ex-husband, comes out of the woodwork looking for a ‘loan.’

Sam’s relatives aren’t the only ones watching the news. Someone with an axe to grind was watching, too, and tries to kidnap Sam and her ex (or possibly just her ex, if it’s the scary guys he owes money to) right outside her apartment. Sam’s fairly sure it’s all about her ex’s debts, until she ends up kidnapped. If only the reward money could get her out of this.

This installment of the series (ALL THE WRONG MOVES, NOW YOU SEE HER) is more of a thriller than a straight-up mystery. The identities of the pickup owner and the owners of the severed heads are revealed fairly early on, as is the motive for their murders. The rest of the novel involves Sam allowing herself to be shamelessly manipulated by her ex-husband, and then getting kidnapped. The kidnapping is really the heart of the story, and I wish the book would have focused a lot more on that and less on the wacky ex hijinks. The writing is solid, though, and the pace is fairly quick. Not the best of the series so far, but still a solidly entertaining read.

Rating: 7
January 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-23925-4 (paperback)

Friday, January 07, 2011

Buttercream Bump Off - Jenn McKinlay

Buttercream Bump Off
A Cupcake Bakery Mystery
Jenn McKinlay
Berkley Prime Crime


Watching your widowed mom prepare for her first date in thirty-five years can be nerve-wracking. Fortunately for Melanie (Mel) Cooper, she’s got a distraction. She’s holding a couple’s baking class at her bakery, Fairy Tale Cupcakes. No cooking class can override the call for help she gets later in the evening. It’s mom, saying that her date, Baxter Malloy, ended up floating face-down in his own swimming pool. Leaving aside, for the moment, how mom ended up in her underwear at a man’s house on a first date, Mel springs into action. It only looks worse for mom when the police discover that Baxter didn’t drown; he was strangled with one of mom’s stockings. That’s awkward.

Turns out, there were plenty of people who might want to see serious harm visited on Baxter. He’d run a Ponzi scheme that defrauded many wealthy people out of every penny they ever had. His estranged son, who now goes by the name Roach and plays in a famous rock band, coincidentally happened to be in town that week. Mel thinks that makes him a viable suspect, but Roach and Mel’s business partner, Angie, are in some kind of whirlwind relationship, so that’s awkward in more ways than one. Any way you slice it, Mel needs to figure out who killed Baxter to keep her mom and her friend out of danger. Or jail.

This is the second in a very entertaining series (SPRINKLE WITH MURDER) based around the owners of a cupcake bakery. If you’ve made a New Year’s resolution to avoid sweets, either avoid this book or use it as a vicarious sugar fix. There’s lots of cupcake talk, flavor inventions, and even recipes included. (I tried a couple from the first book, with great results.) The lifelong friendship between Mel, Angie, and their third partner, Tate, seems real and organic. I love their running game of identifying movie quotes. Angie has been in love with Tate forever, but Tate remained blissfully unaware until Angie started dating Roach. It adds a level of real personal involvement for everyone.

The mystery is interesting and there are plenty of potential suspects in the area. Aside from Roach, there’s everyone in the area affected by Baxter’s fraudulent money games. And, of course, the police are looking hard at Mel’s mom, because it’s hard to believe that she went to change and just happened to miss someone showing up and killing her date in those few minutes. The dialogue is done very well, and the pacing is quick and even. I pretty much read this in one sitting. And now I want cupcakes.

Rating: 7 ½
January 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-23924-7 (paperback)

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Grave Witch - Kalayna Price

Grave Witch
An Alex Craft Novel
Kalayna Price

Paranormal/Urban Fantasy

Alex Craft used to be Alexis Caine. When she was eight, it became clear that she couldn’t control her abilities as a wyrd witch, and she was sent to a boarding school that could train her. Fortunately for her, the faeries came out of the woodwork decades ago, so those kinds of schools exist. Alex is a grave witch. She can connect with the land of the dead, speak to ghosts, and raise shades. She also sees and talks to Death on a regular basis. In fact, raising shades (which are simply the unfeeling memories of a once-living person) has become her profession. Asking recently-deceased dad about the terms of his will can curtail a lot of family arguments. Or start more.

As the story begins, Alex is about to be the first person to raise the shade of a murder victim in a courtroom for purposes of prosecution. It sounds like a logical idea, but there are a lot of people who don’t understand (or care) about the difference between a ghost and a shade, and find the idea morally repugnant. The governor and much of the legislature are run by members of the Humans First Party. George Caine, the Lieutenant Governor, among them. That would be why Alex changed her name and hasn’t been home in years.

Before her court date, Alex heads to the morgue to help out a detective friend by raising the shade of an unidentified murder victim. This shade acts completely unlike any other: the shade crosses into reality screaming and violent, attacking Alex. That shouldn’t happen, ever. Before she can recover, she finds out that the body of the Governor is on the premises. He’d been missing and presumed dead for over two weeks during a heat wave, but his body shows no signs of decay. It also doesn’t ‘feel’ like a body to Alex. She can see, with her gravesight, a series of glowing glyphs on the “body.” And there’s a ghost wandering around, claiming that the “body” in question is his, just glamoured to look like the Governor.

I read a lot of paranormals, so it’s really a pleasure to find one that is fresh and unique, with great characters and a fascinating story. There are so many elements and subplots that describing them all here would really be a disservice. The book opens very strong and the pace and voice never waver. Each character, even minor ones, is given a realistic personality and history. The system of magic in use is explained and detailed very well. The way Alex visualizes a living wall of ivy vines separating her from the cold of the grave is really a perfect and perfectly-understandable image.

It’s not often that I finish a book and immediately want to go back and start it again. This is one of those. There’s magic, all kinds of paranormal beings, a good dose of action, and multi-faceted mystery. I’m truly looking forward to further installments in this series. It’s a clear winner.

Rating: 8 ½
October 2010
ISBN# 978-0-451-46380-7 (paperback)

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Celebrity Sudoku - Kaye Morgan

Celebrity Sudoku
A Sudoku Mystery
Kaye Morgan
Berkley Prime Crime


Leaving scenic Maiden’s Bay, Oregon for the frantic pace of Los Angeles is not the first choice of sudoku columnist Lisa Kelly. But she’s been asked to spend a couple of days serving as an expert for Celebrity Week of long-running TV game show “K-Dodas.” What really tips the balance is the chance to spend some quality time with her longtime not-quite-ex-husband, Michael Langely.

On the set, tempers flare almost immediately. Celebutante and chronic instigator Ritz Tarleton gets the ball rolling by insulting nearly everyone she encounters. Her actions include, but are not limited to, giving another hapless expert the kind of makeover that ends up in a drastic haircut; insulting and baiting her fellow C-listers; appearing petulant and annoyed by the entire process; and starting a yelling match with the show’s hostess over the hostess’ gowns. Most on set realize that Ritz’ fifteen minutes are ticking away their final seconds and believe she’s doing whatever she can to extend them.

During the taping, an earthquake hits, dislodging an overhead light and injuring Liza’s leg. On her way to get treatment from the studio infirmary, she sees the famous bungalow built on the grounds for child star Baby Boots. The bungalow, once an attraction itself is mostly destroyed. Almost immediately after, the studio receives a threat that Ritz is “in danger.” Most insiders assume that’s a lame ploy for more publicity, staged by Ritz or her questionable publicist. But the search for Ritz ends when rescuers find her in the wreckage of the cottage. Interestingly, she did not die from injuries sustained during the quake.

Even though Liza’s leg is injured, her mind is moving at top speed. Obviously, there were a lot of people who didn’t like Ritz, but who disliked her enough to kill her? With the help of Michael and the vast network of behind-the-scenes contacts she made during her own days as a publicist, Liza is on the case.

This is the most recent in a solidly entertaining series (see list below.) Newcomers to the series will have no trouble starting here, and longtime readers will enjoy seeing Liza work through some of her ‘old’ life. The setting is interesting and the characters are just plain fun. There are lots of possible suspects, and the further the investigation goes, the more suspects appear. Of course, the book contains several sudoku puzzles, their solutions, and tips for solving tougher puzzles. Every time I read one of these, I find my addiction to sudoku rekindled. If it weren’t so fun, it would be diabolical.

Rating: 7 ½
December 2010
ISBN# 978-0-425-23827-1 (paperback)

The rest of the series: