Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Killing In Antiques - Mary Moody

A Killing In Antiques
A Lucy St. Elmo Antiques Mystery
Mary Moody
It’s the first day of Brimfield, the Event of the antique dealer’s year.  Actually, it’s only the pre-dawn darkness before the first day.  Lucy St. Elmo is there, along with hundreds of her closest friends in the business.  Brimfield is a sea of tents set up in a series of fields.  Dealers line up for the early opening, then rush through the vendors, always on the lookout for that hidden gem or great deal.

This morning, however, is different.  By lunchtime, the word is everywhere: well-known dealer Monty Rondo is dead.  He was discovered at the edge of one of the fields.  He’d been strangled by a strip of lace, of all things.  First under suspicion is Monty’s sort-of partner, a furniture refinisher known as Silent Billy.  Since Billy is strange, he’s the obvious choice of culprit, but Lucy knows he couldn’t possibly have done it.  Monty had been in the business for years, and didn’t have the best reputation.  Almost everyone roaming the fields might have had a motive.  Lucy’s husband disapproves of her investigative leanings, but Lucy decides that there’s nothing wrong with simply gathering information if it will free an innocent man.

This is the first in a new series, and it shows a lot of promise.  There are many references to Lucy’s previous investigations, including one that ended up with her being shot in the… left hip.  It was that incident that really put her college professor husband off the amateur sleuth train.  I feel sure that we’ll be hearing more about these previous cases in future installments.
It’s a lot of fun to follow Lucy around Brimfield to vicariously ‘see’ the various antiques and wares on display.  There are even some tips for collectors included at the end.  It’s more difficult to really get into the murder mystery, though, since it happens completely ‘off camera’ and to a character the reader has never met.  The addition of a new daughter-in-law as a possible future cohort is a nice touch and a great way to connect with readers who are neophyte or armchair collectors.  The antique shopping and investigating balance out nicely, though, and in the end the mystery is solved in a satisfying, if somewhat far-fetched way. 
Rating: 6 ½
July 2011
ISBN#  978-0-451-2318-6  (paperback)

To Sketch A Thief - Sharon Paper

To Sketch A Thief     
A Portrait Of Crime Mystery
Sharon Pape
Berkley Prime Crime
Rory McCain used to work as a police sketch artist.  Then her uncle died and she inherited his house and his ghost.  Yes, his ghost.  The ghost is one Zeke Drummond, who worked as a federal marshal in the late 1870s, right up until the moment he was killed in the parlor of the house Rory now occupies.  Her uncle, a private investigator, promised to try and find out who killed Zeke.  Now Rory is trying to fulfill that promise.  She’s also started her own PI firm.

During a much-needed therapeutic session of weed-pulling, a dog introduces himself to Rory by sticking his cold, wet nose onto the back of her neck.  She checks his collar (Hobo) and decides to drive the dog back home, since it isn’t far.  Arriving at the dog’s home, Rory finds the front door open and the dog’s owner dead on the kitchen floor.  Getting involved in another murder was the last thing on her day’s to-do list, but Rory can’t seem to quell her curiosity.  Especially when she’s got Hobo around as a reminder.
This is the second installment in a series, following SKETCH ME IF YOU CAN.  If you missed it, the basics are covered nicely here.  The most interesting sections of the book, by far, concern Zeke.  He was a federal marshal on the trail of a killer.  His journey began in the Arizona Territories and ended on the east coast in what is now Rory’s home.  Reading the sections devoted to Zeke make me wish the entire book was about him.  Clearly, his story will be continued in future volumes.

The case that embroils Rory is involving, beginning with finding a body and expanding into the world of dogs and dog lovers and even some shady dog dealers.  There’s a fairly amusing story arc concerning Zeke and Hobo.  Apparently, Zeke is not a fan of dogs, and Hobo (like all dogs) instinctively knows this.  If you enjoy stories with a paranormal element, this is the mystery for you.  Likewise, those who enjoy animals/dogs will find a lot to like here.
Rating: 7
June 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-24192-9 (paperback)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Good Neighbors - Ryan David Jahn

Good Neighbors
Ryan David Jahn

Crime Fiction
This amazing novel covers a little over two hours’ time, from roughly 4 a.m. to a little after 6 a.m. on March 13, 1964.  During that time, the author tells the story of Kat Marino (a stand-in for real-life murder victim Kitty Genovese) and various neighbors who live in her apartment complex.  On her way home from her job as a bartender, Kat sees a strange man in the shadows near her garden apartment door.  The man has a knife and a compulsion to kill that even he doesn’t understand. 

Even though it’s four in the morning, there are plenty of people awake and aware, for various reasons.  Many of them hear her screams.  Not one of them calls the police.  It sounds simple, but the reality is far from it.  Each one of the neighbors, regular people all, has his/her own reasons for not making the call.  Many are caught up in personal issues.  There’s a teenager who cares for his dying mother while worrying about reporting for the Vietnam War draft in the morning.  There’s a man caught up in the unexpected aftermath of a wife-swapping session.  There’s a woman who finally confronts her husband about an affair.  There’s Frank, a man in an interracial marriage (this is the 60s, he’s a “colored” man) out on an errand for his wife.  And there’s the attacker, who wonders for us all why no one stopped him.  The overall effect is not unlike “Rear Window” in reverse: instead of looking in, we’re inside all the apartments, looking out on the courtyard.
All of these disparate stories and more swirl around Kat, as she’s attacked and heroically tries to make it to safety while she waits for help to come.  The whole is unsettling, disturbing, infuriating, moving, and very real.  Each character is a real person with real problems, just trying to get through the night in their own ways.  They’re all fighting for their lives; Kat fights on a much more heartbreaking and visceral level.  The novel is part crime story and part time capsule, giving the reader a real look at what it was like to live during that time.  Some things have changed, others seem strangely immutable. 
After Kitty Genovese was murdered, there was an outcry over the cruel inhumanity of an entire apartment complex hearing her screams for help but doing nothing.  The author of this astonishing debut novel makes each character’s decision not to get involved terrifyingly understandable, given their circumstances.  The novel presents Kat’s ordeal in awful detail, moment by moment, allowing the reader to come to know her through her suffering.  The most stunning realization for the reader is that, while it’s still horrible that no one came to her aid, we come to know and understand her good neighbors, and realize that they’re all simply and tragically human.  Any one of them could be any one of us.  All of them are, unknowingly, bound together by the events of the night.    This is an excellent novel.  Perhaps not for the faint of heart, but for those who can take it, it will stay with you for some time.  I truly cannot recommend this highly enough.
Rating: 10
July 2011
ISBN# 978-0-14-311896-1 (trade paperback)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Black Ties And Lullabies - Jane Graves

Black Ties And Lullabies
Jane Graves
Contemporary Romance

Bernadette (Bernie) Hogan has spent most of her life living on her own terms.  She’s independent, unencumbered, and works in what is traditionally a man’s field.  She’s a private bodyguard.  Her current assignment is guarding the attractive, if irritating, body of super-rich CEO Jeremy Bridges.  He’s also independent and plans to remain unencumbered.  Bernie usually spends her time guarding him at black tie affairs, and watching him take home an endless parade of blonde, buxom, one night stands.
This evening is no different.  They enter the event and Jeremy zeroes in on a blonde.  The thing is, Bernie is sure she’s seen this woman before tonight.  Not at another event; that would be pretty commonplace.  No, this woman is clearly following Jeremy.  Naturally, Bernie’s warning only serves to drive Jeremy into the silicone embrace of the blonde and they leave the event together.  Suspicion on high, Bernie sticks around for a while.  Turns out, the blonde is the ‘front man’ for a bunch of well-armed thugs.  Bernie and Jeremy end up locked in his panic room, awaiting the police.  They also end up having a one night stand of their own.  Which results in a pregnancy for which neither one are prepared.  (This is not a spoiler; this is all first-chapter stuff.)
Of course, Bernie makes all the right moves, telling Jeremy the truth, then asking him to sign a paper terminating his parental rights.  She, in turn, wants not a penny of his fortune.  Jeremy counters by surprising himself, refusing her offer, and accompanying her to doctor’s appointments.  The rest of the story is pretty standard from there; although I did quite like that Bernie took another, equally fulfilling job once she could no longer be a bodyguard.  She’s also got a huge side issue in the form of an aging mom who is losing a battle with Alzheimer’s.
My main problem with this story can be nicely summed up by Marge Simpson: “Nothing solves everything forever like a wedding.”  Insert ‘baby’ for ‘wedding,’ and you’ve got it, Marge.  Ask anyone who’s been through a divorce.  A child (expected or not) does not cement a relationship in real life.  On the other hand, this is clearly not real life.  This is a light, fast, romance novel where a happy ending for all is virtually assured.  The addition of Bernie’s mom and her perilous condition injects a note of gravitas to the story that grounds things nicely.  It is very well written and some of the verbal sparring between Bernie and Jeremy is quite entertaining.  If you’re looking for a light read on a hot summer night, you could do a lot worse than spending some time with Bernie.

Rating: 7
July 2011
ISBN# 978-0-446-56847-0 (paperback)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Stories For The Nighttime And Some For The Day - Ben Loory

Stories For Nighttime And Some For The Day
Ben Loory
Short Fiction
This collection of short stories is unlike any other I’ve ever read.  Most of the stories are quite short.  Most are a few pages; the shortest, “The Shadow” is a bare three sentences.  Even so, each one is like a stone polished to a shine.  There’s nothing there that doesn’t belong; nothing extraneous.  Many of the stories are written in present tense, giving them an even greater immediacy.
The stories are by turns moving, funny, frightening, gentle, absurd, and thought-provoking.  No matter how strange the subject matter may seem on its face, in the tiny universe of the story, it’s all perfectly logical.  Witness “The House On The Cliff And The Sea,” who fall hopelessly in love.  Or “The Octopus” who lives in an apartment and has his young nephews come from the sea for a visit.  It sounds crazy, or like a children’s story.  And, when I think about it, those two are quite closely related.  But the octopus, in his story, is everyone.
Each one of these little gems will speak to someone.  Many someones, most likely.  Like most fables and fairy tales, there are lessons to be learned from these stories.  They’re written for adults, but I think they’d make great bedtime stories for kids, too.  Reading these stories felt almost like being read to, in a way that I’m not sure I can quite articulate.  My guess is that this volume will become a classic.  I know that I’ll want to re-read this sooner, rather than later.  Don’t miss the longer story in the Appendix, included “at the publisher’s request.”

Rating: 9
July 2011
ISBN# 978-0-14-311950-0 (trade paperback)

Plague Zone - Jeff Carlson

Plague Zone
Jeff Carlson

SciFi/Post-Apocalyptic Thriller

This is the third in a series including PLAGUE YEAR and PLAGUE WAR.  This story takes place fifteen months after the events of the previous book, so there will be spoilers if you haven’t read the series to this point.

Most people consider the year of the nanotech machine plague to be Year One.  The machine plague wiped out most warm-blooded life under ten thousand feet elevation.  At that point, what remained of humanity waged wars over securing the highest points on the planet.  Even after scientist Ruth Goldman came up with a vaccine to allow people to return to the lowlands, war continued.  At the outset of this book, the survivors have weathered the machine plague and man-made weapons.
The novel begins with a bug infestation in a village greenhouse.  The natural world is in turmoil, having lost so many species, and insects continue to breed and ravage almost unchecked.  People grow crops in protected greenhouses, so an ant invasion is very bad news.  Even worse is the stranger who wanders into the village, looking confused.  This stranger is carrying a new nano-plague that affects higher brain functions.  Unfortunately, the people in the village discover this only after several of their own are infected.
Ruth Goldman, a scientist partly responsible for the original plague, realizes almost immediately that only the Chinese currently have the capabilities of designing and manufacturing this tech.  It makes sense.  The Chinese have occupied a good portion of the western United States since the last war.  This is obviously their latest attempt to wipe out the remaining population.  Or worse, to enslave it.  Ruth believes that she can find a cure for this plague, too.  To do so, she’ll need a sample and a place to do research.  Not so easy when you’re on the run for your life.
I wasn’t convinced that Ruth was any kind of hero at the end of the last novel.  This one has not changed my mind at all.  She overwhelming hubris is only held in check by the weird and twisted relationship she has with Cam Najarro, another survivor.  I’m sure relationships during the end of the world are problematic, but there’s a lot of twisted stuff going on here that I’m not sure is intentional.  The selfless heroics of even minor characters seem all the more heartbreaking when viewed against the two main characters. 

The book starts out with the village inhabitants fighting for their crops against insects.  The arrival of the stranger is surprising, and the results of that are unexpected.  From there, the book takes off on what is almost an extended chase scene, across the western U.S.  This time, we also get to see some of what’s going on over on the Chinese side.  The author takes care to make the enemies just as human as the defenders.  The only mindless soldiers here are the nanotech that may end us all.  The writing seems more fluid and the pacing is faster in this installment, making for quite a page-turner. 

Rating: 8
December 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01799-7 (paperback)

Friday, July 08, 2011

Plague War - Jeff Carlson

Plague War
Jeff Carlson

SciFi/Post-Apocalyptic Thriller
This is a sequel to PLAGUE YEAR.  I didn’t read the first novel, so I have no idea if this review contains spoilers.  I would guess that it must.  For those who didn’t read the first book, there’s a really excellent recap in the first chapter here that seems to hit all the high points.
The first book dealt with a nanotech device escaping from a lab.  The nanotech was designed to enter the host’s body and eradicate cancer cells.  What escaped was nanotech that simply liquefies any living host over the course of a few hours.  The only way to escape the machine plague was to get to someplace above 10,000 feet in altitude, where the tech is rendered useless.  This novel opens fourteen months after the events of the first, with humans all over the world perched on very limited mountain space. 
Isolation, fear, and uncertain living conditions have changed most people.  In the U.S., there’s a civil war brewing, with at least two governments in power in their respective areas, both claiming to be the legitimate government.  The Rockies and Sierras contain what’s left of the population, in groups of varying size.  Many countries in Europe are fighting for space in the Alps; China, and India are trying to negotiate for space in the Himalayas, with Russia trying to negotiate for any sliver of space it can get.  The current capital of the U.S. is located in Leadville, CO, where the government knows about a vaccine for the plague, but wants to control the spread.  Controlling the vaccine means absolute control of the population.

Ruth Goldman is a scientist who worked on the tech.  She has a workable vaccine.  She, Cam Najarro, and Mark Newcombe are engaged in a desperate journey to Leadville.  Along the way, as soon as they can get into the mountains, they plan to spread the vaccine to everyone they can find.  Ruth is an obvious target for any number of governments or groups with a wide range of agendas.
The majority of the novel is spent as a road trip on foot.  Ruth, Cam, and Newcombe have to fight for their survival on a daily, if not hourly, basis.  The virtual eradication of mammals means the explosion of insect populations without the attendant increase in food sources.  Walking into a swarm of ants, even in protective gear, is pretty much my worst nightmare.  This happens in the first chapter and while it horrified me, it crystallized the situation of survivors in a way not much else could.  The insect attacks are shining examples of the writer’s dictate to ‘show, not tell.’  In too much of the rest of the novel, major events take place ‘off-screen,’ and are only presented in after-the-fact discussions by other characters.  It’s a bit disappointing.
As the title makes clear, war is imminent.  This time, it’s the human kind of war.  Because, clearly, even in times of near-total extinction, the need to wipe out the enemy and take his stuff is paramount in many people.  It’s terribly sad, but probably pretty accurate.  War is just looting with bigger guns on a much larger scale.  Ruth and Cam are clearly meant to be heroes here.  I find them to be complex characters dealing with impossible situations, but still not very likeable.  Maybe that’s accurate, too.  Ruth is personally responsible, in large part, for a huge number of deaths.  Guilt like that would have an effect on anyone.  Most of her decisions, both personal and public, seem mean-spirited and selfish.  Even in the final scenes, I don’t see her as a great hero.  There’s a third book in the series.  Maybe she’ll be able to change my mind.
Rating: 7
August 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01617-4

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Flying Blind - Deborah Cooke

Flying Blind
The Dragon Diaries, Book 1
Deborah Cooke
New American Library

Young Adult/Paranormal
This is the first book in a new series, and it’s a really wonderful start.  At nearly 16, Zoe is worried about the normal things, like when the Puberty Fairy will finally arrive and how to get through gym class without complete humiliation.  On top of that, she’s got some other worries, too.  Her father, Erik, is the leader of the Pyr, a race of dragon shape-shifters.  As his daughter, she’s supposed to be the Wyvern.  There’s only one female dragon shifter in the world at a time, and Zoe should be it.  With her shifting power, she should have a whole bunch more neat tricks up her sleeve, too.
The problem is that she doesn’t have the power.  Apparently, she used to… when she was a toddler.  Then, for reasons unknown, it all vanished.  There’s no other Wyvern to talk to and the rest of the Pyr are big into self-reliance, so Zoe is pretty much toughing it out alone.  She can’t even talk to her best friend because her best friend is a human and humans aren’t supposed to know that dragons really exist.  So, no pressure.
Then her dad decides to send her to what the guys call ‘boot camp’ over spring break.  The guys, who all have their shifting abilities nailed down, have been several times, but Zoe is new to all of this.  She gets that it’s all about testing your abilities, but what happens if you don’t really have any?
For fans of paranormal and fans of fantasy, this book is a great find.  It’s the kind of book that pulls you into its world immediately, making you remember why you loved to spend your summer vacations reading.  There’s lots of action, a possible love interest or two, and quite a lot of conflict.  Some books for young adults are fairly shallow and underwritten; that’s definitely not the case here.  The writing is fast-paced and accessible; the story contains several plotlines that are all used to great effect.  The story is complete in this book, but there’s clearly more to come.  I’m really looking forward to it.    
Rating:  8
June 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23388-2 (trade paperback)