Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Hard Day's Fright - Casey Daniels

A Hard Day’s Fright
A Pepper Martin Mystery
Casey Daniels
Berkley Prime Crime


Due to car problems, cemetery tour guide Pepper Martin (TOMB WITH A VIEW) finds herself forced aboard the Cleveland train, or “rapid” as it’s called. As if public transportation isn’t enough to ruin her day, she finds herself confronted by a ghost. This is nothing new to Pepper; she can see and speak with the dead. They usually want her to solve their murder or to finish something they left undone. This teenager, Lucy, wants Pepper to find her body so her spirit can rest. It’s a fairly startling request, even for someone with Pepper’s background.

Lucy was riding the rapid with a bunch of friends on what was perhaps the best night of her life. It was the summer of 1966, and they’d all been to the Beatle’s concert. Lucy was thrilled with herself because she’d been brave enough (in the midst of a near-riot that almost stopped the concert) she’d jumped onstage and planted a kiss on Paul McCartney. Then the night turned sour. Her memories are fragmentary, but she knows she was blindfolded and put in a car trunk. She has no idea about the identity of her killer or where that person left her body. As far as everyone else is concerned, Lucy simply disappeared that night, never to be seen again.

A lot of the story – too much, for my personal taste – deals with Ariel, the teenaged daughter of Pepper’s boss, Ella. Ariel is rebelling and being generally obnoxious. Ella’s plan is to force her to come to the cemetery office every day after school, and hoping that Pepper can work some kind of change on her. She definitely has her moments, but a little of this kid goes a long way. When she’s not dealing with a teenager, Pepper is bemoaning the state of her relationship, or lack thereof, with a local detective. As it turns out, there’s a reason for this, but during the course of the book, it just seems like wallowing.

The story of Lucy and her final evening makes for a very good mystery. Pepper has to rely on Lucy’s hazy and incomplete recollections and the willingness of other people to re-open what is, at this point, a forty-five-year-old wound. Lucy is a great character and the reader really feels the tragedy of her life cut so violently short. The investigation takes some interesting twists and turns, and the resolution feels nicely complete. The plot twists continue until the final page, leaving Pepper at a crossroads. Readers who enjoy a dose of the paranormal in their mysteries should enjoy this series.

Rating: 7
April 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-24056-4 (paperback)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Question Of Belief - Donna Leon

A Question Of Belief
A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery
Donna Leon
Penguin/Grove Press


The canals and soaring architecture of Venice are no match for the stifling and inescapable August heat due to widespread lack of air conditioning. These are the realities that face Commissario Guido Brunetti. Usually, the crime rate increases during a heat wave, but this one is so bad that the criminals apparently can’t be bothered. Brunetti is counting the days to a family vacation in the mountains (where sweaters and quilts will be necessary) when a friend drops in on him with a strange file. The file details several cases wending their very slow way through the court system. Examining the information, Brunetti sees that there are far more delays with these cases than would be usual. And he finds a couple of names that appear frequently: Araldo Fontana, a man who has spent a distinguished career as a functionary in the system; and Judge Coltellini.

Before Brunetti has much time to pursue the information, Inspector Lorenzo Vianello comes to him with a problem. Lorenzo’s aunt, generally a no-nonsense type of woman, has begun withdrawing large sums of money and is uncharacteristically secretive about where the money is going. For her to be so secretive must mean that there’s something shady about her actions. It’s a family problem, but the family is making no headway. Brunetti finds himself following an old woman after a bank withdrawal to see where she goes. The answer satisfies no one and the recipient of the funds raises further concerns.

Brunetti and his family are on the train to the mountains when he’s called back to the city. Araldo Fontana is dead; murdered in the courtyard of his apartment building. An apartment that a court clerk should never be able to afford. Despite everyone’s assurances that Fontana was “decorous” and “a good man,” there was clearly more to his life than his dedication to his job.

This is the nineteenth book in the series; don’t let that discourage you. Venice, its people, its summer heat, even its political problems, are all detailed in a way that allows the reader to fully experience the story. To read A QUESTION OF BELIEF is to live in Venice while turning the pages. This is a very literate and character-driven crime novel. This was my first foray into the world of Guido Brunetti, and I felt right at home. His relationships with his wife, his children, and his colleagues are deep and complex. Each character feels absolutely genuine. The story is crafted with care and grace. Ms. Leon is clearly a master at work.

Rating: 9
April 2011
ISBN# 978-0-14-311895-4 (trade paperback)

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Timely Vision - Joyce and Jim Lavene

A Timely Vision
A Missing Pieces Mystery
Joyce and Jim Lavene
Berkley Prime Crime


Miss Mildred and Miss Elizabeth are legends in tiny Duck, North Carolina. The oldest living residents, and sisters, they’ve got plenty of history with the town and each other. At age 92, and after a successful marriage of her own, Miss Mildred still carries a grudge over Johnny Simpson, who chose Miss Elizabeth instead of her. The fact that this man later ran out on Miss Elizabeth doesn’t seem to enter into the equation. The story begins when Miss Mildred visits Dae O’Donnell at her shop, Missing Pieces, to ask for help.

Everyone in town knows that Dae has a talent for finding things. If you’ve lost something, Dae can hold your hand and tell you where that thing is. In a town that traces its roots to pirates and takes ghost sightings on the beach as a matter of course, Dae’s gift is regarded simply as useful. Miss Mildred lent her mother’s watch to Miss Elizabeth, who hasn’t returned it. To Miss Mildred, that means it’s lost. Dae gets a very clear mental image of the watch on Miss Elizabeth’s arm, but Miss Elizabeth is nowhere to be found. That’s a serious problem because Miss Elizabeth is known for aimlessly wandering on the beach, and there’s a serious storm breaking over the coast.

Kevin Brickman, the new guy in town, volunteers to help Dae search. To their dismay, they find Miss Elizabeth on the beach. She’s buried in the sand, with only her watch arm showing. It’s a blow to the town, but Miss Mildred opines that her sister might have got what she had coming. Not what you’d expect to hear. Days later, Miss Elizabeth’s purse (missing from the crime scene) turns up at Miss Mildred’s house. Miss Mildred claims her sister brought it to her the previous night. Ghost sightings may be accepted by the locals, but there’s no way a judge or a court of law is going to believe it. In no time, Mildred is arrested for the murder of her sister. Dae knows that it’s not true, and sets out to prove it.

This is the solidly entertaining first installment in a new series. The paranormal elements are blended seamlessly with the mystery elements. Dae has a gift, and sometimes she has to prove it to the skeptical. Kevin, for instance, doesn’t quite believe in the gift, but he’s renovating the long-abandoned local inn, and needs to find a key to a locked door. When Dae finds it for him, they find much more than they expected in that locked room. Although he’s a ‘show me’ type, Kevin has to admit that the gift is real.

There’s a lot of necessary introduction that takes place in any first book, but each character appears in a natural way and is woven into the life of the town (and Dae.) The mystery here involves a lot of the town’s history, allowing readers to become well acquainted with the town and its inhabitants. There are plenty of twists to this tale, and clearly more to come. I know I’ll be returning to Duck.

Rating: 7
May 2010
ISBN# 978-0-425-23475-4 (paperback)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Deadly Cliche - Ellery Adams

A Deadly Cliché
A Books By The Bay Mystery
Ellery Adams
Berkley Prime Crime


When I reviewed the first book in this series (A KILLER PLOT) I admitted to having problems with the main character, Olivia Limoges, oak barrel heiress and generally entitled person. Those problems still exist, but now come with a measure of confusion. She still parks in fire zones or anywhere else that’s convenient to her and waves her magical credit cards around to solve everyone’s immediate problems, to the point that she becomes “drunk” on the gratitude of the townspeople. During the course of the book, a couple of secondary characters openly call her on her habit of constantly buying friendship. It makes me wonder if the author actually likes the main character any better than I do. That’s odd.

This time around, there are a couple of mystery plots, but they’re both clearly subplots in service to detailing the dichotomous Olivia. She had an emotionally rough but materially wealthy childhood that has clearly left her with some scars. She wears those proudly and apparently enjoys playing the eccentric Lady Bountiful in her little hometown. She says she’s doing it all behind the scenes, but it seems pretty clear that everyone knows all the details. She claims to enjoy being alone, yet nurtures two potential romantic relationships. One of those is the local sheriff, which gets her the inside track on the investigation into a man’s body she finds on the beach, buried up to his neck in sand.

Another contradiction is her friendship with various members of her writing group. (There are long passages from a couple of the group’s ‘books’ included. Sadly, they sound more interesting than the one at hand.) She encourages Laurel, a stifled stay-at-home mom of twin toddlers to live her life by going for a part-time writing/reporting job at the local paper. Then she encourages Laurel to lie to her husband and in-laws about it, while sending home five-star meals from Olivia’s top-notch restaurant as ‘proof’ of the mythical set of cooking classes that take up Laurel’s time. This job, however, has the benefit of getting Olivia in on interviews with local burglary victims, since Laurel needs her to come along as moral support. Someone is breaking into homes and leaving strange little tableaux on the scene: a knife in butter, a deck of cards that’s not complete, that kind of thing. At first, they’re little more than nuisance crimes, until a homeowner ends up dead.

The second mysterious subplot is the letter Olivia receives claiming that her long-lost father (who sailed into the fog during a drunken rage thirty years ago, never to return) is actually alive, but his location will cost Olivia $1,000. This sets off a private investigation, memories, and a storyline that all but eclipses everything else. The robbery/murder case is given fairly short shrift, and is solved by some logic leaps that don’t seem quite feasible. The solution seems fairly unrealistic, too, but I suppose ‘only in a small town’ applies here. The mystery of her father is cleared up, too. The good news would be that Olivia seems to be starting to come to terms with her childhood. I hope this character arc continues and she becomes a likeable character. I find the rest of the cast, specifically the writers, far more appealing.

Rating: 6
March 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-24023-6

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Trouble With Demons - Lisa Shearin

The Trouble With Demons
Lisa Shearin


Fair Warning: If you haven’t read the first two books in this series (MAGIC LOST, TROUBLE FOUND and ARMED & MAGICAL) you have missed a couple of really great books. Also, this review will contain unavoidable spoilers. So go read the first two books before proceeding here. Really. It’s worth it. I’ll wait.

It’s difficult to believe that, only two weeks ago, Raine Benares, an elf and seeker, found the Saghred. An incredible amount of action has taken place over those two weeks (detailed in the previous two volumes.) It should be noted, too, that, even though Raine’s profession is a seeker of objects, her finding of the Saghred was something of an accident. That accident was most likely helped along by the Saghred itself, since it’s an ancient stone of nearly limitless magical power. Now it holds Raine to it as a bond servant, meaning escape is impossible.

At the moment, Raine is still on the Isle of Mid, which contains the best college for sorcery in the seven kingdoms. Originally, she went there seeking help for her bound-to-a-magical-rock problem, but her problems have only escalated since then. It’s almost – almost – not surprising when, on a lovely sunny morning, Raine catches sight of a bunch of blue demons wandering the streets. To her shock, no one else can see them. Even worse, they’re in search-and-attack mode. It’s pretty clear that, although they’re looking for something, they don’t have any problems munching on college students while they search.

While fighting the demons, Raine gets an unexpected magical assist from Tam, a former dark mage. He’s also a goblin, which in this world, makes him visually an elf with grey skin and black hair, and quite attractive. Raine, whose magical abilities were pedestrian at best before the Saghred, can suddenly channel vast amounts of magic and can hear Tam speaking to her in her mind. Moments later, she has almost the same experience with paladin Mychael. This should not be happening at all, never mind with men who represent the white and black sides of magic. But, thanks to that annoying rock, Raine is now in some kind of three-way soul-twin relationship. It’s confusing and illegal and dangerous and still first thing in the morning. So, you know the rest of the day is going to be great.

Clearly (to the magic users) the demons are coming out of a Hellgate. The really bad news? Hellgates don’t just open on their own; someone very powerful has to create one and then keep it stable to allow the demons to move from their world to ours. As paladin of Mid, Mychael’s job is to keep everyone on the island safe. The action moves all over the city, above and below ground. The writing style is so fluid that I was honestly surprised to realize that the first two-thirds of the book covers a single day. There is so much action, magic, and character development that I was simply swept up in events.

This is the kind of story, the kind of writing, that makes you remember why you love reading fantasy. The characters are many and varied, and the author has managed to make each one of them individual and believable. The world they inhabit feels completely real. During scenes of peril, I honestly care what happens to each character. This story is complete in itself, but is clearly the start of something more. Events continue until the final pages, letting this grateful reader know that there’s more to come. I’m so glad.

Rating: 8
May 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01712-6 (paperback)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cookie Dough Or Die - Virginia Lowell

Cookie Dough Or Die
A Cookie Cutter Shop Mystery
Virginia Lowell
Berkley Prime Crime


After her divorce, Olivia Greyson returns to her hometown and, along with lifelong best friend Maddie, opens The Gingerbread House, a shop on the first floor of a Victorian house (she lives upstairs) devoted to cookies, cookbooks, and especially cookie cutters. During the planning and opening stages, local businesswoman Clarisse Chamberlain was a sort of mentor who became a friend and customer. Not coincidentally, Clarisse was an avid collector of vintage cookie cutters, loving them for the feeling of history and home they gave her.

It comes as a horrible shock when news arrives that Clarisse is dead. In her sixties, Clarisse was still a force to be reckoned with, both in her business and personal lives. Widowed, she still took a very active role in her various businesses, along with her grown sons, Hugh and Edward. The sheriff believes the death was an unfortunate and accidental combination of wine and sleeping pills (Clarisse had insomnia) but Olivia refuses to believe it. Clarisse was clear-headed and quite in control of all aspects of her life. If it was murder, the motive seems pretty obvious: money. Then the will reading reveals that Clarisse left Olivia a large amount of money and her very valuable collection of cookie cutters. Now it looks like Olivia had a motive, too. Undaunted, Olivia is determined to get to the truth behind her friend’s death.

I wouldn’t have thought that a shop like this one would thrive in an economy like ours, but I have to admit that the shop sounds divine. And it’s a great place to gather various characters. Olivia has a lot of history in this small town; she knows just about everyone in some way. That makes for a large and varied and interesting cast of characters, all with intersecting stories and possible motives. Olivia moved away from town for a while, but her friends and family remained there, so they’re able to fill her in on what she might have missed. Olivia’s mom, Ellie, is an interesting character who manages to be eccentric without veering into caricature at any point.

This is exactly the kind of mystery that made me a fan of the genre. My first mysteries were Agatha Christie novels, so it’s fun to see Olivia compare herself to Tuppence Beresford. A couple of scenes, like the will reading and the gathering of all the suspects at the end, seem like homages to classic mysteries, without being slavish imitations. It’s always a joy to find a new series that has such a solid first outing and contains such promise. There are plenty of possibilities to the story at hand; enough suspects and subplots to make the mystery delightfully twisty, and to sustain suspense until the end. I’m hoping for lots more from this author.

Rating: 8
April 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-24067-0 (paperback)

Friday, April 08, 2011

I Would Find A Girl Walking - Kathy Kelly and Diana Montane

I Would Find A Girl Walking
Kathy Kelly and Diana Montané

True Crime

During the 1970s, a serial killer was at work in the U.S. He was very good at his “job,” and might have gone undetected in that era before ViCAP and DNA. He made a mistake. He let a woman live. When he was arrested, Gerald Eugene Stano did very little to deny or obfuscate his guilt. In fact, he built a certain trust with a police officer, Paul Crow, and began confessing, in detail and without emotion or remorse, to dozens of murders.

By all accounts, Gerald Stano was unprepossessing. He was pudgy, of below-average intelligence, and displayed a fondness for polyester and disco music long past the time either of those things were considered cool. It must have been his harmless-looking exterior (and the times they lived in) that allowed so many young women to get into a car with him. They probably felt, as the authors surmise, that they could either overpower or outrun him if the situation arose. Unfortunately for most of them, they were wrong. Stano attacked with a suddenness and ferocity that left almost all of his victims dead. A careless comment about his weight, his clothes, or his music set him off and he attacked with his hands, a knife, a gun, or whatever was at hand.

One of the authors, Kathy Kelly, covered many of the stories of murdered girls as separate incidents. At the time, no one put together a pattern. By the time he was awaiting execution, Stano entered into a written correspondence with Kelly, sending some forty letters in a bit less than a year. These letters are appended to the text, and they are chilling. Some are chatty, and sound like a long-distance boyfriend. Some contain offhand confessions to heinous acts. The letters lend insight into the mind of a killer; although readers should remain aware that he was always in control of exactly what he wrote and how he appeared.

The body of the text is somewhat more disjointed. It may be that this is a reflection of the fact that most of these stories appeared as separate events when first reported. There are quotes from the appended letters and interviews the author held with Stano to tie things together, but there’s a lot of repetition and overall, the accounts feel oddly second-hand. It may also be that the author necessarily needed to hold Stano at more than arm’s length, mentally, to deal with the subject matter. Whatever the case, it is unlikely that a killer like Stano would escape notice with today’s detection methods. The truth is that he killed for no good reason, and he cut short lives that held promise out of pettiness and jealousy. This book is far more than he deserves.

Rating: 7
April 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-23186-9 (paperback)

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Royal Pains - Leslie Carroll

Royal Pains
A Rogue’s Gallery Of Brats, Brutes, And Bad Seeds
Leslie Carroll


Everyone loves to read about a good scandal, especially when the actors are the most powerful/wealthy people in the world.

This is no dry recitation of historical fact. The writing style is conversational, almost chatty, and breezes along through each narrative. No prior historical knowledge is required, as the author helpfully provides background and dates to ground each historical person. History buffs should find this an entertaining read, too, since the author takes care to separate fact from fiction, and also corrects some common misconceptions about those covered.

The book begins with King John (the nasty guy from the Robin Hood tales) and his tale sets the tone. He was undeniably a complete pain and a horrible person in some ways. In others, he laid the foundations that allowed modern English society to evolve. Vlad the Impaler, who served as the inspiration for Dracula; Ivan the Terrible of Russia; and King Richard III are obvious inclusions here. Still, each gets evenhanded treatment while dealing with even the nastiest of rumors and facts.

The most surprising inclusion (to me) was Princess Margaret, who died in 2002. Let’s be honest: her sins pale in comparison to someone like Elizabeth Bathory. But it’s all entertaining and informative. I think I might have learned a thing or two, accidentally of course, during the book. Readers of historical fiction will enjoy this on its own. For those with more scholarly leanings, there’s a truly great bibliography of other resources included. 

Rating: 8
March 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23221-2 (trade paperback)