Saturday, March 26, 2011

Stitch Me Deadly - Amanda Lee

Stitch Me Deadly
An Embroidery Mystery
Amanda Lee


It’s been several weeks since embroidery shop owner Marcy Singer discovered a dead body in her shop (THE QUICK AND THE THREAD) and she’s not anxious to repeat the experience. When elderly Louisa Ralston enters the shop, she already looks ill, but she’s intent on her mission. She hands Marcy an antique sampler, and asks Marcy to help find “my ivy.” Marcy has no idea what she means, and has no chance to find out, since Ms. Ralston almost immediately collapses into unconsciousness, then dies.

Marcy is horrified and saddened by the event. The autopsy turns up a prescription medication in Ms. Ralston’s system that caused a heart attack, and now the police are looking hard at Marcy as the prime suspect, since she was the last person with Ms. Ralston. A search of Marcy’s home turns up a bottle of that same medication in a guest room last inhabited by Beverly, Marcy’s mom. As is her wont, Beverly is determined to set the police straight on the whole story. It’s not enough to allay suspicion, but it’s a start. In the meantime, Marcy is left with the lovely sampler that the dead woman’s family apparently doesn’t want. It might have been worth something at one time, but the verse at the bottom was removed and changed for some reason. With nothing better to go on, and to get herself out of hot water, Marcy looks into the stitching.

This is the second in a solid mystery series. Marcy is an engaging and realistic. She doesn’t always make the right decisions, and she’s far more trusting that I would ever be, even in normal circumstances, but she’s a good person at heart. Her mother, Beverly, is a well-known costume designer for the film industry. Unlike many other moms (who are played for overbearing comic effect) Beverly is really a more mature, wiser version of Marcy. She wants to look out for her thirty-something daughter, but she’s got her own life and career and seems like someone who’d be great fun to know. I found myself far more in tune with Beverly than Marcy this time around. I have no idea what that says about me.

The mystery is interesting, and the sampler angle makes it unusual. It makes sense that Marcy would want to clear her name. Again. I think most readers will have at least half of the story figured out long before Marcy and Beverly get to the point. Usually, that’s a serious demerit. If it’s so easy to figure out, why didn’t someone in the story get it? This time around, there’s a solid answer for that; it makes sense, on both a literary and human level. That kind of plotting is what makes mysteries fun reading, and makes this installment stronger than the first book.

Rating: 7
February 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23251-9 (paperback)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Beaglemania - Linda O. Johnston

A Pet Rescue Mystery
Linda O. Johnston
Berkley Prime Crime


As the head administrator of HotRescues, Lauren Vancouver has a lot on her hands. HotRescues is a no-kill shelter funded privately by a super-chain of pet stores called, of course, HotPets. Lauren takes care of her charges, runs the books for the place, and oversees adoptions. One of the least savory aspects of her job is finding out about puppy mills. Rumors spread fast through formal and informal channels in the shelter business, and Lauren hears about a raid going on nearby. When she arrives, she’s horrified to find Efram Kiley, an erstwhile volunteer at Hot Rescues on the premises. He claims he heard about the rescue and is only there to help, but it soon becomes clear that he had a hand in the puppy mill.

Not only in the mill, but in the four tiny beagle puppies tossed into a nearby storm drain. Clearly, Efram thought he could cover his crimes by disposing of the living evidence. Naturally, Laruen bans Efram from the premises of HotRescues. Naturally, the lowlife makes threats against the people and animals at HotRescues. Not so naturally, Lauren finds Efram at the shelter, dead. The high-tech camera system and crack security team saw nothing and Lauren immediately becomes the prime suspect. A few more nasty incidents at the shelter only seem to point the finger of suspicion more firmly in her direction. Taking a cue from animal-rights lawyer Kendra Ballantyne, Lauren decides that she owes it to herself and her animal friends to do a little investigating of her own.

This is the first installment in a new series by the author of the Kendra Ballantyne series. It’s interesting to see the sort of spin-off series take shape, as Lauren needs to hire a lawyer, and hires one from Kendra’s practice. I may be a bit biased, since I firmly believe that every animal in every shelter deserves a loving forever home, and so I’m pretty sympathetic toward Lauren and her cause. The scenes of Lauren going through her daily routine at the shelter are a bit bittersweet, knowing that, for every animal that ends up in a place like this, there are many more that meet less fortunate ends.

Although I’m disposed to like this series, this effort feels uneven. Lauren, who has no investigative experience, decides to make a list of suspects and question every one of them. It’s completely unrealistic to think that Efram’s relatives (who know that Lauren considered him an animal-abusing monster, since he was) would talk to her at all, let alone give her any useful information. Yet, this is what happens. I know the story needs to move forward, but there’s no reason the puppy mill operators or Efram’s lawyer would give Lauren the time of day. The book mainly focuses on the animals, with the mystery a sort of subplot that’s just too easy to solve. Still, anyone who feels this strongly about animal rights gets not only my respect, but my continued support.

Rating: 6
March 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-24021-2 (paperback)

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Queen's Rival - Diane Haeger

The Queen’s Rival
In The Court Of Henry VIII
Diane Haeger
New American Library

Historical Fiction

Young Bess Blount dreamed of going to the court of King Henry VIII. Both her parents served there, and the stories they told made it seem like a magical place, ruled over by a god-like King. Bess gets her wish at 14 when her father returns, injured, from war, and her mother must stay at home in the country to nurse him back to health. Bess will serve as a sort of place-holder for her mother in the court of Queen Katherine of Aragon. Bess is shocked to discover that the Queen’s court is not the lively place full of music and dancing that the remembered from childhood stories. Instead, the Queen is devoted more and more to prayer, desperate to give the King (and the country) the son and heir he desires.

Bess’ first meeting with Henry does nothing to diminish her childhood crush or her romantic notions about the man. She’s sure that she, alone, can be the partner he needs. Thinking no further than that, really, Bess learns how to flirt and catch the King’s attention, completely oblivious to the fact that one of her best friends at court is currently Henry’s mistress. Bess will not believe that she is just one in a long line, and allows her thoughts of romance to become deed. The reality of the situation becomes quite clear when Mistress Blunt (not even a lady of any real standing) discovers that she is with child.

It’s true that Bess’ story is one of the more little-known stories of the Tudor era. She was absolutely real, and had an affair with the king that resulted in a child. Her time at court began during the time of Katherine of Aragon and continued through the times of the Boleyns and into the time of Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour. It should have been quite a dangerous time for anyone at court, not the least one of Henry’s many mistresses, but Bess somehow floats above it all, living out a girl’s fantasy.

In a way, it’s understandable, since she comes to court at 14, and begins her affair with Henry at perhaps 16. Girls that age are still full of romantic silliness and unrealistic expectations about life. On the other hand, I found it nearly impossible to believe that Bess’ mother, a longtime member of Katherine’s court, wouldn’t have warned her lovely daughter about the King’s habits in no uncertain terms. And it’s extremely difficult to imagine that a girl would live at court for years and still retain her innocently rose-colored view about the King and his court.

Be that as it may, this is a bit of Tudor history that generally gets a footnote or, at best, a paragraph. When held up beside the courage of Katherine and the scandals that followed the Boleyns, Bess’ story seems quite tame. The author does a wonderful job of making Bess into a living, breathing human being with strength of character and the kind of flaws that define a person. She’s real, on the page, as are Henry, and the many members of his court. The descriptive passages allow the reader to feel that they’ve walked through the hallways or sat at supper with some of the greatest names in English history. The writing is lovely and makes this story accessible for those with no familiarity for the historical period; yet deep and fascinating for those readers who do. It’s a beautiful book about a little-known part of Tudor history that might have changed the course of a country.

Rating: 8 ½
March 2011
978-0-451-23220-5 (trade paperback)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sealed With A Kill - Lucy Lawrence

Sealed With A Kill
A Decoupage Mystery
Lucy Lawrence
Berkley Prime Crime


It’s fall in New England, and there are lots of tourists around, looking at the gorgeous leaves. Brenna Miller, who works at Vintage Papers with/for her best friend, Tenley Morse, sees more than her share of these tourists since she lives in a cottage on a scenic lake. When another friend asks Brenna to take his group for a walking tour, she agrees. What could happen on a nature hike?

What happens is that Brenna finds her third dead body since moving to tiny Morse Point. That’s bad enough; it’s even worse that the group of sight-seers had to see it, too; and even worse is that the body turns out to be that of Harvey Lester, longtime business partner of Tenley’s dad. The partners were having some financial issues, and suspicion naturally falls on Mr. Morse. Tenley begs Brenna to put her sleuthing skills to work, and Brenna is unable to refuse.

This is the third installment (STUCK ON MURDER, CUT TO THE CORPSE) in this very solid series, and newcomers will have no problems at all jumping in at this point. This is one of those times a reader can look back after the murderer is unmasked and see the clues that were planted along the way. The ongoing will-they-or-won’t-they between Brenna and Nate is resolved in this book, and there are a couple of interesting subplots to keep things lively. Townspeople of all walks of life are rendered as complex, real people. This series is a very solid bet for fans of cozy mysteries.

Rating: 7
March 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-24025-0 (paperback)

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Falling Under - Gwen Hayes

Falling Under
Gwen Hayes
New American Library

Young Adult/Paranormal

Theia Alderson begins as a sheltered and rather vanilla poor-little-rich girl, sheltered from the world and everything in it by an overprotective, if loving, Father. Professional decorators update her room regularly, Father’s personal shopper buys her clothing for her, and until moving to the US from London a few years ago, she was homeschooled. High school and a few friends have made a big difference in her life, but she’s still mostly wrapped in a nice, safe, boring cocoon.

“Everything changed the night I saw the burning man fall from the sky.” The man fell onto her lawn, burned, and turned to dust. The next morning, she isn’t at all sure it had happened. Then the dreams begin; dreams about a handsome boy she’s never met, in a place that is somewhere not quite real. His name is Haden, and when she sees him in the school admin office, she’s beyond shocked. The dreams continue, even though waking-time Haden pretends he has no interest in her. So, either she’s seriously crazy, or he’s keeping some serious secrets from her.

The plot of the first half of the book will be familiar to anyone who has read a certain series of books or seen the movies made from them. It’s a lot of back and forth, he loves me/he loves me not kind of thing. One day, Theia is positive that their love is real and forever; the next day, she completely believes that he wants nothing to do with her. This might play very well if you’re thirteen. I struggle to remember that far back in my life. Theia’s friends and a few secondary characters go a long way towards making all of this bearable.

Adults looking for an interesting paranormal story would be advised to stick it out through all the teen angst of the first portions of the book. In later parts of the book, the mystery of Haden’s identity is solved, and with that knowledge come a host of other problems for everyone involved. These last portions of the book tell a much deeper and complex tale, with a unique setting and characters. Theia and Haden both change and mature during this part of the story, and I liked the characters on the last pages far better than I liked them on the first. The book is complete, but the final pages leave things open for a sequel.

Rating: 7
March 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23268-7 (trade paperback)

Thursday, March 03, 2011

How To Survive A Killer Seance - Penny Warner

How To Survive A Killer Séance
A Party Planning Mystery With Tips
Penny Warner


Presley Parker has a new client for her event planning business. Jonathan Ellington, CEO and owner of one of the many high tech computer development firms in San Francisco, wants a special kind of party to announce the launch of his new 4-D projector. According to Jonathan, it will revolutionize fields as disparate as movies and medicine. His idea is to hold the party/demonstration at the famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. The house was built over decades by Sarah Winchester, heir to the fortune. Sarah believed the mediums who told her that continual building would appease the spirits of those killed by the Winchester rifles. The result is a puzzle box of a house and a great place for a séance party.

The main set-piece for the party will be a séance during which the “ghost” of Sarah Winchester will appear to the guests through use of the 4-D projector and speak to those in the room. Given her social stature and introverted nature, I’m not sure how much she would have enjoyed being posthumously turned into a spokesperson for the new tech, even in a small gathering. Be that as it may, tech wizard Levi Webster will be hidden in a nearby room, running the effects and making it appear that Sarah can speak directly to various people in the room. Plans break down, though, when Sarah goes completely off-script and exposes Jonathan as a serial cheater that he is. As you might expect, that pretty much breaks up the party.

The following morning, Presley arrives to complete her post-party cleanup and finds Levi still holed up in his computer closet. When she left the previous evening, Levi was trying to find out who hijacked his signal and how they did it. Sadly, he’ll never know, because he’s dead. One of the prop candlesticks was used to bash him in the back of the head. An angry Jonathan and his disgusted wife left quite quickly after the revelations of the night before and neither has been seen since. Then there’s everyone involved in setting up and serving at the party who must be considered suspects. That most definitely includes Presley, who is starting to feel that she might have had some otherworldly intervention when she named her business Killer Parties.

The idea of an event planner/amateur sleuth (HOW TO HOST A KILLER PARTY, HOW TO CRASH A KILLER BASH) is a great one. It gives Presley entrée to venues that are often closed to the public; and while she’s there, she can be mixing with quite a cross-section of society. She’s got legitimate reasons to visit the CEO who came up with the party, the programming guys who did the grunt work, and everyone in between. The most entertaining portion is toward the end when Presley decides to do a second Séance Party, this time inviting only those who are prime suspects. She’s got some high tech wizardry of her own planned; just enough to smoke out the real killer. The scene brings to mind the suspects assembling in a drawing room to hear the convoluted solution. This solution is convoluted, but looking back, all the pieces fit and everything makes sense. This is the strongest, most entertaining installment so far, and I’m looking forward to the next party/mystery, where the theme will be vampires.

Rating: 7 ½
March 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23279-3 (paperback)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Desperate Deeds - Dee Davis

Desperate Deeds
Dee Davis
Forever/Grand Central

Romantic Suspense

Tyler Hanson thinks she’s on a fairly routine delivery mission. Of course, nothing is completely routine when you work with the CIA and the delivery consists of prototypes for a new detonator mechanism. There’s only Tyler and her two armed escorts, and she makes the seemingly outrageous decision to stop in the middle of the road for a downed motorcycle with no rider. It all turns out to be a fairly obvious ambush, but her backstory later explains this decision, and it’s clear that her enemies know exactly how to push her buttons. The bottom line is that the detonators are gone, her two military escorts are dead, and it looks a lot like Tyler set up the whole thing.

Enter Owen Wakefield, a British agent who was waiting on the other end to take possession of the detonators. The two of them commiserate over the situation, drink, and end up in a one-night stand. Except that Owen gets orders to work with Tyler’s group, ostensibly to retrieve the detonators, but in actuality to try and pinpoint the mole clearly working from within the group. Since Tyler is the munitions expert, she and Owen work together, trying to hide what went on the first night they met.

This is the third in a series including DARK DECEPTIONS and DANGEROUS DESIRES, and the author does not disappoint here. Each book can be read as a standalone, with the common thread of a possible mole working within the group to sabotage their efforts. That subplot is wrapped up very nicely here, and the outcome is honestly surprising. In addition to this mystery, there’s personal loss involved for both Tyler and Owen, and the author manages to weave this into the action with great expertise.

These detonators could be used to create a suitcase-sized nuclear bomb, so finding them is clearly a top priority. Fortunately for readers everywhere, Tyler and Hunter are professional enough to get on with it with a minimum fuss. There’s plenty of action, and the pacing is quite fast. As always the suspense/action plot far outweighs the romance plot, and that’s exactly the way I like it. There’s death, murder, treachery, and gunfights here, so those looking for a cute story should look elsewhere. Those of us who enjoy a great action story will be right at home. I hope to see much more from this author.

Rating: 7 ¾
August 2010
ISBN# 978-0-446-54202-9 (paperback)