Sunday, February 27, 2011

Play Dead - John Levitt

Play Dead
A Dog Days Novel
John Levitt

Urban Fantasy

Mason is a jazz guitarist in San Francisco. He’s also a practitioner in a world that doesn’t know – or doesn’t want to know – about magic. He does a lot of freelance work for Victor, who oversees the use of magic in the area. There are black practitioners, and those who use their magic in ways that might harm others or expose the rest of the community. Imagine Mason’s surprise when Jessie Alexander, a well-known black practitioner wants to hire him to find a young woman who stole something from her.

Of course, Mason doesn’t believe it will be that simple. But Victor wants him to take the job just to find out what’s really happening. If a powerful black practitioner has a problem serious enough to need help, it could affect lots of people. As it turns out, Victor is right. More right than he ever wanted to be. The young woman in question is on a mission that could turn the entire world inside-out, and she’s fine with that.

This is the most recent entry in a series that includes NEW TRICKS. I’ve missed a few of these novels, but they’re all written in such a way that, while they’re a continuous series, each novel feels complete in and of itself. The necessary background gets sketched in where appropriate, and the world’s rules are succinctly explained. My favorite character, naturally, is Lou, Mason’s Ifrit. Ifrits are magical creatures who find a practitioner and act as a sort of familiar – but much more than that. Lou, in particular, looks like a mini-Doberman.

Mason’s journey through this story takes him to some interesting and unique places. The characters make absolute sense within this particular world. Even the bad guys have concrete reasons for the actions they take. The endgame to this novel is both epic and surprising. I’m sure I’m not alone in my impatient desire to know just where things go from here.

Rating: 7 ½
February 2011
ISBN# 978-0-441-01964-9 (paperback)

The Quick And The Thread - Amanda Lee

The Quick And The Thread
An Embroidery Mystery
Amanda Lee


Marcy Singer moved from fast-paced San Francisco to small-town Tallulah Bay in order to follow her dream and open an embroidery store. In keeping with her fondness for old movies, she calls it The Seven Year Stitch. During her opening night open house, the previous tenant of the shop appears. He’s clearly drunk and not making any sense. He says he has something to say to Marcy, but Marcy is in no mood to hear it. The next morning, she finds him dead in her storeroom, a cryptic message partially scratched on the wall near him.

The death is bad enough, but when Marcy’s landlord hears about the message, he gets really upset and demands to see it, immediately. Not long after, he, too, is found dead. Marcy’s best friend and college roommate, Sadie, runs the shop next door with her husband. She says the previous tenant was there for decades and rumor had it that he was leaving his wife and pulling up stakes. Instead of the quiet, small town life Marcy envisioned, she finds herself tangled in a web of murder.

This is the first in a new series. Marcy is a fun, intelligent character with a quick wit. There’s the obligatory maybe-love-triangle with Marcy, Todd the microbrewery owner, and Ted the cop. Marcy’s relationship with Sadie seems pretty realistic, with the two of them arguing and making up, the way friends do. Sadie has her own concerns and history, making her much more than a stock character. The mystery is interesting at the outset, but the story relies far too much on lucky finds, and bizarre coincidences to keep things moving. The ultimate resolution makes sense, but I’m not a fan of “I guess we’ll never really know” dangling threads in a mystery novel. Overall, the setting is great, Marcy is a character I’d like to spend more time with, and the whole thing shows a great deal of promise. I’ll be sticking around to see what happens.

Rating: 6
August 2010
ISBN# 978-0-451-23096-6 (paperback)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Snow Angels - James Thompson

Snow Angels
An Inspector Vaara Novel
James Thompson
Berkley Prime Crime


In Finnish Lapland, one hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, there are two weeks of constant darkness, called kaamas. The ski resorts stay open, and lots of people cope by drinking far too much. There are killings, but they’re usually domestic in nature. This year, at the beginning of kaamas, local chief of police Kari Vaara arrives at the scene of a terrifically brutal murder.

Sufia Elmi is a B-movie actress in Finnish films. She’s something of an anomaly, since she’s a refugee from Somalia. Her death, just outside the neighborhood where Vaara grew up, looks like it could be a sex crime, or a hate crime. Either way, the violence done to the body of the beautiful girl is going to be big news and the national chief of police wants a solution and an arrest in short order.

This beautifully-written novel takes place in an environment that seems almost alien. The people and their motivations are recognizable, but they’re all filtered through the lens of a different culture, a different history, a different set of laws. That only makes sense when you realize that the residents are people who chose, more or less, to live in a place where the temperature regularly hovers in the ‘below zero degrees Celsius’ range for a good part of the year. At first blush it sounds harsh and arid, but as the author continues to describe the place and its people, the beauty of the place and the strength of the people emerge, too.

Many U.S. readers will be unaware that there was a large influx of Somali refugees in Finland in recent decades. Before that point, many Finns had never seen a black person, outside of TV shows. The author speaks of a quiet, ingrained racism. It’s important to remember, but also odd, in a place where there would be so few people of color. The death of this Somali girl is shocking, then, for many reasons.

Vaara and his skeleton crew (it’s close to Christmas) are perhaps in over their heads, but this is where they live, Sufia died on their watch, and they’re doing everything they should be doing to solve the crime. At times, the mystery almost takes a back seat to the setting, but, in the end, it all feels right. The characters are complex, and the prose is spare enough to echo the setting, yet still evocative. The eventual solution comes through a series of muddled human and inhuman actions and reactions. This is one of those stories that truly transports the reader to a unique place, and holds us there until the tale is told.

Rating: 8
February 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-23883-7 (trade paperback)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The King Of The Crags - Stephen Deas

The King Of The Crags
The Memory Of Flames, Book II
Stephen Deas


Note: If you haven’t read the first book in this series (THE ADAMANTINE PALACE) then you’ve missed a great fantasy debut. And this review will contain unavoidable plot spoilers.

Too many times, the second book in any given fantasy series feels like filler, info dumps, and moving characters into place for the big finale to come. Not this time. This time, the second installment is every bit as intriguing as the first, and leaves the reader impatiently awaiting the next. We’re still following the plotting and intrigues of Prince Jehal and Queen Zafir, the latter of whom is now Speaker of the Realms. It’s clear that Zafir is not content with the power that comes with being Speaker. Dragons mean power, and Zafir wants to have all of it. To that end, she is not at all averse to starting an all-out war, when the Speaker traditionally acts as peacekeeper of the nine realms.

Jehal sees both wisdom and folly in this stance. And there’s still the matter of what to do with Queen Shezira and King Valgar, both now prisoners in the dungeons of the Adamantine Palace, accused of treachery and killing the former Speaker. Queen Shezira, who just happens to be the mother of Jehal’s new wife. As is usually the case in politics, everyone concerned has plotted for years to get to the top. Political rivalries and alliances will clearly be tested in the time to come.

Zafir is correct: Dragons mean power. Snow, the white dragon meant as a wedding present for Jehal, is lost in the wilds. She’s been without the alchemists potions for some time now, and is wide awake and full of memories. Legend has it that dragons die only to be reborn again and again, each time with memories intact. Snow would appear to prove that theory. She’s not willing to be a drugged slave to humans any more. Her plan is to recruit more dragons and let them awaken to reality and their memories. Of course, this is a nightmare for the inhabitants of the realms, who have no defenses against dragon attacks.

There’s so much going on in this novel that it would be impossible to recount, or even introduce, every plotline in a review. If the dragons are changing, then so are some of the humans. There are alchemists, blood-mages, riders, Kings, Queens, and soldiers, all with a very real stake in the outcome of things. Political intrigues, alliances, and rivalries abound. For all of the plotlines and action being juggled here, the author somehow still manages to craft each character as an individual with unique hopes and dreams and desires. I feel sure that the dragons will become unique once they awaken. Snow is a fantastic, terrifying, and awesome (in the best sense of the word) character. This is, quite simply, some of the best fantasy writing I’ve read in quite some time. This series is highly recommended.

Rating: 8
February 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-46375-0 (hardcover)

Drip Dead - Christy Evans

Drip Dead

A Georgiana Neverall Mystery
Christy Evans
Berkley Prime Crime


There’s a lot going on in Georgiana (Georgie) Neverall’s life these days. She’s in the final stages of studying to get her plumber’s license; her mother, the indefatigable Sandra, is turning into a bridezilla planning her wedding to slick real estate mogul Gregory Whitlock; and Georgie is planning on buying her mother’s house (her childhood home) once Sandra moves in Gregory’s brand new McMansion. It’s that last bit that has Georgie wriggling through the crawlspace under her mother’s house. If she’s going to buy the place, she might as well use her plumber’s knowledge to check out the state of things.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, while she’s under the house, she finds more than pipes. She finds a stack of shipping crates and the body of Gregory Whitlock. Now both Sandra’s house and Gregory’s house are considered crime scenes, so Sandra temporarily moves in with Georgie. The arrangement is more temporary than expected when, within days, Sandra ends up in jail, accused of killing Gregory. Georgie never really liked the man, true, but she’s more than sure that her mother is no murderer, and intends to prove it.

The set-up for this story is great. The narrative hits the ground running, with Georgie finding the body in the first few pages. Then, sadly, the book degenerates into a bunch of sit-com situations with Sandra and Georgie living together for a couple of days. Once Sandra is in jail, Georgie searches Sandra’s laptop for evidence. She finds hidden files, but various circumstances keep her from even looking at the files for most of the book. If your mother is in jail, awaiting trial for murder, I don’t think much would stop you from actually looking at those files on the laptop.

For the first time in this series (SINK TRAP, LEAD-PIPE CINCH) I found Georgie to be strangely ineffectual and borderline unsympathetic. I felt that much of the book consisted of filler and contrived, frustrating delays in examining readily-available evidence. The mystery itself was quite linear and, despite a few names thrown into the mix late in the proceedings, the whodunit completely unsurprising. In contrast, the setup was more than solid, and there were some really interesting and fun scenes scattered throughout the book, bringing in various characters who already feel like old friends to the reader. The writing and characters are engaging. If the plotlines were less simple, this series would really be a winner.

Rating: 5 ½
February 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-23989-6 (paperback)