Monday, May 30, 2011

The Worst Thing - Aaron Elkins

The Worst Thing
Aaron Elkins
Berkley Prime Crime


For those readers who have followed this author’s excellent Gideon Oliver series (LITTLE TINY TEETH, UNEASY RELATIONS, SKULL DUGGERY) this standalone novel is almost by definition a let-down of sorts.  If you have met Gideon and his lovely and beloved wife Julie, then you have met Bryan and his wife Lori.  If you know the first couple, you know immediately how the current couple relates to each other and just about everything else.  I’m not sure why this bothers me so much, since I sincerely like Gideon and Julie, but it does.

The only real difference is that Bryan is in crisis management.  He was once a hostage negotiator.  Now he writes policy and prepares presentation for the executives of large corporations regarding how to avoid abductions.  In many countries around the world, kidnapping for profit is a form of business.  He’s quite good at what he does because, when he was a child, he was abducted and held for nearly two months.  The memories of that time have colored most of his life.  He will not fly, due to feelings of loss of control.  He will not present the programs he writes, because it just hits too close to home.

Eventually, of course, he’s confronted with his fears.  His boss wants him to fly to Iceland and give his presentation to GlobalSeas.  Instantly, Bryan is against the idea.  First, he’d have to fly.  Second, the CEO of GlobalSeas has already been the victim of an abduction attempt.  That would put Bryan much too close to kidnappers for his comfort.  Bryan’s wife, Lori, a marine biologist would love to make the trip and see the country and the company.  It’s her desire and Bryan’s guilt that goads him into agreeing, in spite of himself.

The worst thing that could happen, for Bryan, would be another kidnapping.  It’s hardly a giveaway to say that this eventually does occur.  A lot of the book takes place inside Bryan’s head, while he deals with his fears, his memories, and his captivity.  These sections are written in first-person, from Bryan’s point of view.  It’s a bit jarring, then, to be thrown into third-person to witness the action happening elsewhere.  We see how Lori and the Icelandic police deal with things; we see the kidnappers deal with each other.  Then it’s back to being inside Bryan’s head. 

 I think it might have been far more effective, and certainly more interesting from a psychological standpoint, if we spent the entire book with Bryan.  A big part of his lecture program is to tell the executives what to expect and how to deal with it.  Being taken out of Bryan’s point-of-view cuts the tension and really dilutes the effect of experiencing being a hostage.  In the end, this head-hopping makes the book less effective than it might have been.  Add to this one last-minute plot twist too many, and, even with an interesting setting, the result is a bit disappointing from such a talented author.

Rating: 7
May 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-24099-1 (hardcover)

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Bake-Off - Beth Kendrick

The Bake-Off
Beth Kendrick
New American Library


Linnie Bialek and Amy Bialek Nichols are sisters with nothing in common.  Linnie was a childhood genius who took all her parents’ time and attention.  Amy, the older sister, spent a lot of time with her Grammy Syl.  When she complained, her parents explained to her that Linnie just needed them more.  Things didn’t turn out quite the way everyone expected, though.  Amy is a soccer mom of toddler twins, a dental hygienist married to a dentist.  Linnie deals blackjack in a Vegas casino. 

Linnie also has a roommate.  When the roommate’s brother steals an antique brooch, Linnie will do anything to get it back.  Except, of course, tell anyone the truth.  Or call the police and report the theft.  She manages to get the pawn ticket and tries to play poker to win the thousands of dollars it will take to redeem the heirloom.  That fails.  Enter the indefatigable Grammy Syl.  Grammy Syl would like her granddaughter to join her in a baking contest in New York.  First prize is big money.  Linnie is desperate enough to accept.  Amy goes along for Grammy Syl.  And, it must be said, for the opportunity to sleep peacefully past the crack of dawn.  Then Grammy Syl drops the bomb.  She won’t be participating.  The sisters will do it together.  Obviously, it’s a ploy to reunite the girls, but neither one feels she can say no.

It’s really hard to feel sorry for Linnie, although we’re clearly supposed to do so.  Not only was she born a genius, she’s model-gorgeous, too.  Her childhood was one long science fair, and she claimed that she’d be an M.D. before she could legally get a drink.  When all that falls through, she retreats to a seedy apartment in Vegas and, because she can’t face anyone, spends years there.  This is what some might call karma.  She’s completely insufferable at the outset of the story, and only softens a bit by the end.  I think I was supposed to like her by the end, but the truth is that I was just used to her at that point.

The bake-off setting and story is quite fun, especially since neither one of the sisters is anything of a cook.  Some of the contestants are ferociously competitive, some are underhanded, and some are just there for the fun and the trip to New York.  Amy gets her own little story arc, and it’s a lot more convincing than Linnie’s.  Sadly, there’s less to it.  Grammy Syl is obviously the glue that holds this whole thing together.  She was far and away my favorite character, keeping on the right side of the ‘eccentric old lady’ line.  It would be nice to think that a week in a hotel for a baking contest could repair the damage wrought by short-sighted parents and decades of mistrust.  Possibly not terribly realistic, but that’s why fiction is fun.

Rating: 7
May 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23310-3 (trade paperback)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Magic In The Shadows - Devon Monk

Magic In The Shadows
An Allie Beckstrom Novel
Devon Monk

Urban Fantasy

In Allie Beckstrom’s world, magic is so real that it’s treated as a natural resource.  In fact, her father got rich by figuring out how to collect magic and pipe it from one place to another.  Allie is a Hound, which means she can track the magical signature of a spell back to the caster.  For Allie, the price is often pain, and sometimes memory loss.  She carries a notebook with her to record to daily activities in case of such a loss.

If you missed the first two books in the series, MAGIC TOTHE BONE and MAGIC IN THE BLOOD, you’ll be starting this one on equal footing with Allie.  Recent events took a huge piece of her recent memory.  She’s been told about what happened, but has no memory of it.  According to her notebook, she’s in a relationship with magic-user Zayvion Jones, but she remembers none of it.  Upping the awkward factor is that Zayvion remembers everything. 

What Allie does know is that her father, entrepreneur and powerful magic-user, is dead.  That little fact hasn’t stopped him from taking up residence in her head.  He wants her to find his killer (understandable, if creepy) and find some disks.  The disks are new technology from his company that will make magic portable; make it usable by anyone, anywhere; and completely bypass any price (in pain, memory loss, etc.) to the user.  In short, they’re extremely dangerous.  Adding to the mix is Detective Stotts, who would like Allie to work for him, in a magical-investigative capacity.  Allie’s predecessor was Pike, the leader of the Hounds.  Since his recent death, Allie has inherited his title and responsibilities.  And all she really wants to do right now is act like a normal girl – whatever that is - and go on a date and see what’s what with Zayvion.

Up to this point, Allie’s memory loss not only illustrates that magic giveth and magic taketh away; it’s an ingenious way to keep new readers up to speed.  There’s a lot Allie doesn’t remember, and getting filled in on prior events because of her memory loss seems completely natural and not at all intrusive to the narrative.  It probably goes without saying that the whole Date Night With Zayvion goes a bit haywire.  Before they even get to his car, Allie finds a creature lurking in the alley, killing an animal.  With Allie’s Hound senses, she can tell the creature is something different.  She can also smell the scent of one of her Hounds.  Since she’s responsible for all the Hounds, this is her problem in more ways than one.

The system of magic in this series is fresh and original and makes a lot of sense.  In this world, the magic pools beneath the ground and was just waiting for someone to tap into it.  Of course, as with any natural resource, there are those who will use it responsibly and well, and those who are in it only for monetary profit or personal gain.  All of that seems completely realistic.  Allie is a bit prickly as a character, but I’d say she has more than ample reason for her attitudes. 

This installment starts quickly, introduces some great new characters (and re-introduces some who are already familiar) and ends with a scene that will make any fantasy reader sit up and take notice.  As with all of the books so far, this one is a complete story, but it’s very clear that there’s more to come.  That’s good news for fans of fantasy and urban fantasy.

Rating: 8
November 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-46287-9 (paperback)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Inhuman Resources - Jes Battis

Inhuman Resources
An OSI Novel
Jes Battis

Urban Fantasy

This is the third novel in this series (NIGHT CHILD, A FLASH OF HEX) and as far as I’m concerned, it’s far and away the best yet. The author has created a world in which magic and the occult exist, but are still mostly hidden from the ordinary citizen. Tess Corday and her partner, Derrick, work for CORE, investigating supernatural crimes. They have their individual paranormal skill sets, but they’re aided by labs and equipment created to detect traces of supernatural beings. Tess’ mother was a witch of some power; her father, she recently discovered is a full-blood demon. A demon in the bloodline is bad enough. Having a demon father, a witch mother, and a so-so level of talent is just plain odd.

Still, Tess does the best with what she has, and as the story begins, she’s called to a crime scene. A necromancer is dead, murdered. That’s almost unheard of, period. Add to that the fact that there’s no trace of anyone/anything else in the apartment, and the fact that he’s wearing armor from the 1500s, and the not-inconsiderable fact that he was a legal activist and wielded huge power, both political and necromantic in his own community, and it becomes a case with unknowable consequences. Unknown to her superiors, Tess has been having an off-and-on affair with Lucien, a necromancer and student of the murder victim. This kind of relationship is forbidden for all kinds of reasons. Now that Lucien has been designated the liaison for the necromancers, he and Tess will have to work together on this. Necromancers have always been secretive and devious, and this is no exception. It’s becoming quite clear to Tess that she knows next to nothing about necromancers in general, or about Lucien in particular.

A painting by Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas, is a large part of the case. If you’re not familiar with the painting, you owe it to yourself to check it out online. The author does a superb job of describing the painting and its history, but nothing beats seeing it. Also, be sure to check out the re-interpretation by Picasso, which, while also described well, is more difficult to visualize.

As is usually the case in this series, Tess spends some time being sidetracked by other issues, including her less-than-normal home life. This time, though, it all gets tied together by the end, and seems right. At one point, Lucien must take Tess to the necromancer’s hidden city - inaccessible to those who don’t belong there - and this is the stuff of high fantasy. It’s fascinating to see the home turf of the ‘other side’ and it opens up some very interesting possibilities for future novels. Just as a side note, however, I’d prefer to see the use of the term “speculum” restricted to certain medical practices. Your mileage may vary on this. This installment is fascinating, fast-paced, and ties up some loose ends from previous novels while leaving open some tantalizing new possibilities for the future.

Rating: 7 ½
June 2010
ISBN# 978-0-441-01884-0 (paperback)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mind Your Own Beeswax - Hannah Reed

Mind Your Own Beeswax
A Queen Bee Mystery
Hannah Reed
Berkley Prime Crime


It all starts with a Great Escape, Bee-Style. Well, that’s not exactly true. Sixteen years before Story Fischer’s honeybees swarmed off to find a bigger spot (she got them back and everyone is living happily) there was a tragedy in town. Since Moraine, WI is so small, absolutely everyone knew about, and they still talk about it today. A group of teenagers, including Story, were off the in woods, drinking. One of the kids, Lauren Kerrigan, left the group early and ended up driving her car over the town’s police chief. That first hit didn’t kill him, though. She backed up and finished the job. Lauren always claimed she was black-out drunk when it happened, and she’s spent the intervening years in prison, paying for it.

Cut to present-day Moraine, where Story runs her own grocery store, stocked with local items and her own honey products. She’s running a beeswax candle-making class when Rita Kerrigan (mother of Lauren) and a stranger appear. After the class, Story is shocked to hear that the stranger was Lauren, out on a medical parole with terminal cancer. Later that day, Lauren and the family’s gun go missing. The current police chief isn’t too interested in mounting a search party. Possibly because he’s got some issues with Lauren killing his dad with her car. When all is said and done, Lauren and another woman lie dead in the woods, murdered. The current police chief is an obvious suspect with some serious anger issues, but why now? And why would anyone want to kill both women?

This is the second in a series that began with BUZZ OFF. I admit, I’m not partial to bees. At all. But in this installment, bees are mainly in the background. The real mystery concerns the deaths of the two women, and how the past can shape the present. In such a small town, where almost everyone grew up together, memories are long, and gossip rules. That can be a plus when you’re trying to ferret out information, or a drawback when you’re the object of speculation. There’s no sophomore slump here. MIND YOUR OWN BEESWAX is a winning entry in an entertaining series. And for those who are so inclined, there are recipes and tips on growing bee-attracting flowers included.

Rating: 7 ½
May 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-24159-2 (paperback

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Almost Final Curtain - Tate Hallaway

Almost Final Curtain
A Vampire Princess Novel
Tate Hallaway
New American Library

Young Adult/Paranormal

NOTE: This review is going to spoil quite a bit of the first novel in the series, ALMOST TO DIE FOR, so proceed at your own risk.

Just last semester, the only strange things Ana Parker knew about her heritage was that her mom was a witch who could do real magic and her dad was absent. Now she knows that her mom is the Queen of the Witches and her dad is a Vampire Prince. Oh, and that witches and vampires pretty much hate each other, so being from both worlds is a lot more than awkward. Since Ana demonstrated no real magical power during her initiation into the Circle, she’s sort of been letting her witch side slide. Her best friend, Bea, a True Witch, is accusing her of choosing her vampire side over her witch side. And her sort-of boyfriend, Nikolai is a vampire hunter in training. Also, somehow she’s now betrothed to Elias, one of her dad’s vampire knights. Not at all confusing.

This semester, Ana would like to pretend to be a regular student and try out for the spring musical. Unlike other years, half the student body wants to try out, too, since Nikolai is the lead singer for a local rock band and he’s going to be updating the music for “My Fair Lady.” (I’ll believe a rock version of the “Ascot Gavotte” when I hear it.) Ana has to contend not only with the whole ‘going to kill vampires’ thing with Nikolai, but also the endless supply of groupies. And the bizzaro fact that even the jocks and cheerleaders suddenly thing that musical theater is awesome. It’s enough to make anyone insecure.

Just when you think it can’t possibly get more weird, Ana learns about a talisman that means absolutely everything to both vampires and witches. Turns out, the whole hating each other thing started because the First Witch created a talisman that allowed her to bring vampires through the Veil. The catch? The vampires were only brought here to be slaves to witches. Then there was a whole war and the vampires were freed. Not by Lincoln, but because the witches lost the talisman. Now it’s up for grabs again, and so is the life of every vampire and every witch, depending on who gets their hands on it first. The sad thing is, even Bea thinks it would be cool to have a vampire servant. No one seems to have any real idea where Ana would fall on the whole master-servant continuum, but they all seem fairly sure that she should be doing something to help “her people.” So, which people are hers? And what, exactly, should she be doing?

The politics between the two groups goes back for, well, ever, and there’s no one simple solution to the problem. Ana doesn’t know whether to try and balance her two sides or choose one over the other. She’s really caught in the middle of everything, but she’s honestly trying to do what’s best for everyone. In other respects, she’s a normal teenager who just wants to write her extra-credit reports and not be late for math class and maybe get a singing role in the musical. Don’t let the ‘young adult’ designation fool you. These books are tightly plotted and contain enough intrigue and action to satisfy any reader of paranormals. There are some plot threads left open for the next book, but no dreaded cliffhanger ending. I’m looking forward to much more of Ana and her world.

Rating: 8
May 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23311-0 (trade paperback)

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Deadly Fear - Cynthia Eden

Deadly Fear
Cynthia Eden

Romantic Suspense

This novel, the first in a trilogy, is billed as romantic suspense. It would be more accurate, I think, to call it a murder thriller with romance. Monica Davenport is an FBI agent. She’s part of an elite team formed to identify patterns and hunt down serial killers. Luke Dante is the new guy on the team, and he’s worked hard to get there. The only snag is that Monica and Luke have a past. They went through training together and had a short-lived, fast-burning relationship. Now, Monica wants to put all that behind them and simply work as colleagues. Her reasons are more complicated than that, but she’s not interested in sharing. Luke is determined to re-ignite the spark he feels is still there.

The serial killer hunt – not for the faint of heart, or anyone who objects to colorful language – is written extremely well. The killer chooses and studies his victims in advance. He wants to know what scares each victim the most, and tailors the deaths for maximum terror. From the first scene they investigate, it’s clear to Monica and Luke that this killer is no novice; he’s highly organized and has been at his ‘craft’ for quite a while. The trail to the killer is twisted in more ways than one, but it always makes sense. Even absent the romance storyline, this would be an excellent thriller, and I’d recommend it for fans of that genre.

Fairly early on, it becomes clear that the killer has Monica on his radar. He starts making calls to her cell phone; a number that shouldn’t be available to just anyone. Then he leaves his phone – a phone that belonged to one of his victims – on the ground next to Monica’s car. Clearly, he loves playing his game and Monica is his next target. Monica has a past that makes her an excellent profiler, and she’s determined not only to evade the killer’s grasp, but to prove that she can do her job with all the steely determination of any man. That may play right into the killer’s hands. The pages fly by as the action accelerates throughout the narrative. The final denouement and the events that follow are fascinating and quite satisfying.

Rating: 7 ½
August 2010
ISBN# 978-0-446-55924-9 (paperback)

Friday, May 06, 2011

Classified As Murder - Miranda James

Classified As Murder
A Cat In The Stacks Mystery
Miranda James
Berkley Prime Crime


Life should be rather sedate for widower Charlie Harris. He lives in tiny Athena, Mississippi, works part-time as a rare book cataloger for the local college, and volunteers at the library. Diesel, a Maine Coon cat and Charlie’s constant companion, travels with him. During a morning at the library, local eccentric (meaning, odd but wealthy) James Delacorte approaches Charlie and asks him to catalog Mr. Delacorte’s personal collection of rare volumes. It seems that Mr. Delacorte is worried that someone is pilfering the treasures he’s spent a lifetime acquiring.

When Charlie arrives for tea at the Delacorte home, he’s treated to just about as much Southern eccentricity as anyone could stand. The entire extended family lives in the home, and on Mr. Delacorte’s largesse. Since few of them have any independent source of income, the thief could be anyone. But first, Charlie has to determine that volumes are missing. To do that, he must complete an inventory using Mr. Delacorte’s written records. Returning from lunch on the first day, Charlie finds Mr. Delacorte dead at his desk. It might have been a heart attack, but circumstances would argue otherwise.

Adding to the mystery is the arrival of Charlie’s adult son, Sean. He’s fairly vague on the reason or length of his visit, but it’s clear that, after several years of working for a law firm, he’s disenchanted with the prospect. Watching Charlie and Sean come to terms really deepens both of the characters. The issues seem organic and not at all forced. That makes their resolution, such as it is, that much sweeter. Speaking of coming to terms, Charlie is on much better terms with deputy Kanesha Berry than he was in the first book, MURDER PAST DUE. This makes for a nice working relationship and an easier time for both the characters and the reader.

Throughout the book, Charlie mentions Miss Marple and Agatha Christie. The first mention came at a time when I was thinking that if Dame Agatha had written mysteries about quirky Southern families, this would have been the result. It’s a wonderful, classic mystery. Not only for the who-dunnit, but for the why-dunnit. There were several viable suspects, leaving everything up for grabs until the satisfying resolution. Diesel is always present, warbling and chirping to Charlie, sharing his days. This time, he even gets a friend, since Sean brings a dog home with him. Cat lovers will understand that Diesel instantly establishes a pecking order, with him as benevolent ruler. Charlie and Diesel are great characters, and I hope to see much more of them in the near future.

Rating: 7 ½
May 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-24157-8 (paperback)

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Among Thieves - Douglas Hulick

Among Thieves
A Tale Of The Kin
Douglas Hulick


When you look back on it, this whole thing is really the fault of one Athel the Grinner. Who, as it happens, is definitely not grinning when we meet him. Because he’s being tortured. Because he stole a reliquary for which Drothe already had a buyer. It’s bad enough to get ripped off like that, but even worse when relic hunting is pretty much a sideline, and a deadly one at that. If the empire catches someone trading in holy relics or artifacts, that someone ends up dead. Dead is exactly what happens to Athel, too, although not via the empire. Before he expires, he gives Drothe a name: Ioclaudia, a name not used in centuries. Among Athel’s thing, Drothe finds some twisted bits of paper with ideograms on them. Those would be clues.

Drothe’s normal line of work is as a Nose, or gatherer and sorter of information. He’s one of the Kin, a loose association of individuals who work outside the law and are governed by local bosses. Drothe’s boss, Nicco, is known for his near-psychopathic temper, so Drothe hesitates to tell him about rumors floating around that another boss is attempting to make a move on him. This hesitation backfires in a big way when someone else in the organization tells Nicco first. Long story and many rumors short, it looks like there’s a war brewing in an area called Ten Ways between Nicco and his former partner, Kells. This is bad because nothing brings out the empire (and their executioners) like a war among Kin. Another little wrinkle in his day? Everyone seems to be looking for a holy book. Everyone thinks Drothe has it. No one is going to be polite about getting their hands on it.

Drothe and his friends and associates are criminals. Some more than others, true, but they’re all part of what the p.c. police would call the ‘criminal underbelly of society.’ There are definite hierarchies, and there’s a lot of politics and intrigue. The difference is, if you insult the wrong Kin the right way, you’re dead. It makes for a lot of excitement, but dicey job security. While the Kin are criminals, they have their own code of conduct. There are penalties for certain acts and a clear understanding of possible consequences if you decide to go up against someone bigger or more powerful than yourself. The bosses aren’t just guarded by swords. Some of them have glimmer: magical protection. It’s expensive, but you might feel your life is worth it.

AMONG THIEVES is a grand adventure set in a fully-realized world. The history of this world and its empire are integral to the story, and the author manages to set it all out for the reader by weaving it into the narrative. Each character has a distinct point of view and goal, and they all act according to those mindsets. Since many of them are used to using deceit, some of those goals are obscured until late in the proceedings. It all works perfectly and produces a story that has twists right up until the end. This is one of the rare books that, upon finishing, you may want to start all over again, now that you know the truth about things. Readers of fantasy who also enjoy a good dose of action – and not a little language and violence – will love this, the first installment of what I hope to be a long-running series. Highly recommended.

Rating: 8 ½
May 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-46390-6 (paperback)