Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Buried In A Book - Lucy Arlington

Buried In A Book
A Novel Idea Mystery
Lucy Arlington
Berkley Prime Crime
After twenty years of writing for her local paper, Lila Wilkins is shocked to find herself unceremoniously down-sized.  Not to worry, though.  Through judicious use of the paper’s own classifieds section, she finds herself another job.  It’s entry level – actually, intern level – and involves a serious pay cut, but it’s a job.  Lila is the newest intern at the Novel Ideas Literary Agency.  She has dreams of finding the next best-selling author.  The reality is plowing through loads of poorly-written query letters every day and separating them into ‘rejection’ and ‘potential’ piles.
Her first day at work, a homeless-looking man arrives at reception clutching a bunch of flowers, asking if anyone has read his query letter.  Lila tries to let him down gently, especially after the other agents tell her that Marlette (it’s the only name they know for him) has been showing up at the agency twice a day for some time.  His next arrival proves to be his last, however, when Lila returns from a coffee run to find Marlette, dead, on one of the couches in reception.  An agent points out what looks like a needle mark on his neck.  Lila feels horror and pity for his man, who seemed like nothing more than a harmless nuisance.  When the local police put Marlette’s death aside during a murder/arson case, Lila decides that she won’t let his murder be forgotten.
This is the first in a new series.  A mystery series that gives readers a look at the inner workings of a literary agency is a unique idea, and the mystery plot itself is quite interesting.  Unfortunately, the various agents come across as caricatures, not real people.  The guy who does sports books is young and energetic and refers to himself in the third person; the woman who does children’s books is a zaftig matron who drinks tea.  The setting, a place called Inspiration Valley, is just entirely too twee for my personal taste.  That said, the underlying mystery is one not often seen in cozies, with enough red herrings to be entertaining.  If this were a query letter, it would definitely go in the ‘has potential’ folder.

Rating: 6 ½
February 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-24619-1 (paperback)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lucifer's Tears - James Thompson

Lucifer’s Tears
An Inspector Vaara Novel
James Thompson
Berkley Prime Crime

After the events detailed in SNOW ANGELS, Inspector Kari Vaara is ‘rewarded’ for his performance with his choice of police appointments in Finland.  The truth is, he’d prefer to stay in his tiny hometown above the Arctic Circle, but he knows his wife, Kate, a transplanted American, would prefer to live in Helsinki.  So he takes a position in the homicide squad in Helsinki, much to the displeasure of most of the other squad members.  He’s not too happy, but Kate works as the general manager of a large hotel and is expecting their first child, so he does what he always does: endures.  Nearly continuous insomnia and unending headaches make endurance a real feat.
As proof of the disregard in which his co-workers hold him, Kari is relegated to the overnight shift and given the new guy, Mensa member Milo Nieminen, as a partner.  Milo is something of a loose cannon.  He’s sure he’s smarter than everyone else (he may or may not be right about that) and with the arrogance of youth, knows more about police work than the others (he’s definitely wrong there.)  When the partners work a torture/murder, Milo tries to show off by working out blood spatter angles in his head, as opposed to consulting the resident expert, as will inevitably be necessary.
That murder investigation takes up most of the partner’s time.  But Kari is working his own case, on direct orders from the nation’s chief of police.  The Simon Wiesenthal Center would like Arvid Lahtinen, a 90-year-old man, a Finnish war hero, extradited and tried for war crimes during World War II.  Like most Finns, Kari is unaware of the history shared by Germany and Finland during the War.  As it turns out, Kari’s late grandfather worked with Arvid during those days.  Kari has nothing but fond memories of a loving grandparent.  Is it even remotely possible that the man who fed him ice cream and loved him could have participated in war crimes?  Because if Arvid is guilty, then so is Kari’s beloved grandfather.
The main storyline concerns Kari’s investigation of Arvid.  Twined around that plot is another major story, concerning the torture/murder of the beautiful wife of a Russian construction magnate.  The police force is fairly small, so Kari and Milo end up investigating several other murders, too.  None of them are pleasant, and lovers of cozy mysteries – if they’re still reading – should look elsewhere.  The results of violence and the lives of the people are graphically portrayed here.  For those of stouter constitutions, this is the second in a series of very literate mysteries. 
The setting will invite comparison to Stieg Larsson’s work, but this series more than stands on its own.  The author does an amazing job of painting the daily lives and customs of urban Finland during winter. The life of the main character, like any investigator, is split between his home life and his professional life.  He’s often pulled in conflicting directions, and this seems utterly realistic.  The added pressure of a baby on the way, and the in-laws arriving from the States adds to the domestic chaos.  His professional life and political entanglements continue.  Things come together in a way that is startling, but in retrospect seems almost inevitable.  This novel, this series, is not to be missed by serious mystery fans.

Rating: 8
February 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-24539-2 (trade paperback)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Serpent's Storm - Amber Benson

Serpent’s Storm
A Calliope Reaper-Jones Novel
Amber Benson

To be fair, life isn’t exactly easy when you’re the daughter of Death.  No matter how much Callie just wants to live a normal life in New York City and buy great shoes and designer clothes, the reality is that, well, there’s a whole different reality out there.  Case in point: her current boyfriend, Daniel, who was once the Devil’s understudy and is now a wannabe activist for the denizens of Hell.  Try bringing that up with your coworkers at the office.  Daniel is working hard to convince Callie to travel with him to Heaven to try and bring changes about in Hell.  (The mythos of this world is slightly different than the average Judeo-Christian version of Hell.)  But Callie is resisting, holding on to her average-girl life.
That comes to an undeniable end when a Vargr (a werewolf, only more aggressive) attacks her in a subway car full of innocent people.  Her father’s Executive Assistant, Jarvis, is there to help her, as usual, but this time Callie can’t quite stop the fallout.  That fallout becomes extreme and unavoidable when she realizes that her older sister, Thalia is up to her old tricks again, trying to take over the family business, Death, Inc.  This time, Thalia isn’t messing around; she’s teamed up with the Devil himself and is clearly willing to do absolutely whatever it takes to get what she wants.  It all gets very personal when Callie realizes that someone close to her is actually helping Thalia.
It’s finally happened.  Callie Reaper-Jones has started to become a functioning adult.  If the series had started with this Callie, I would have enjoyed the whole thing enormously.  But, better late than never, I suppose.  Does she still make mistakes?  Sure.  Does she still default to the selfish decision?  You bet.  But she realizes these faults and works very hard to overcome them.  She’s thinking for herself and making decisions, instead of following the lead of someone else.  It makes her so much more likeable.  I was really rooting for her the whole way through this one.

This installment, the third, following DEATH’S DAUGHTER and CAT’S CLAW, is head and shoulders above the first two novels in terms of plot and tone.  Callie finally realizes that her enemies are playing for keeps, and it’s time for her to straighten up and become an adult.  There’s a much darker atmosphere to this novel, as Callie faces situations and losses that can’t be fixed.  That is not a bad thing, since it allows her to grow into what she was meant to be.  It’s all very satisfying for someone who’s followed the series to this point.  The action is almost nonstop this time around, and the author does a fine job of pacing while introducing new characters and incorporating those we’ve already met.  Fantasy fans should not miss this one.

Rating: 7 ½
March 2011
ISBN# 978-0-441-02009-6 (paperback)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Winter Ghosts - Kate Mosse

The Winter Ghosts
Kate Mosse
Life essentially ended for Freddie Watson when news of his brother’s death arrived during World War I.  It took him several years after that to completely fall apart at his 21st birthday celebration.  Perhaps it was the guilt of knowing that he had now lived longer than his cherished older brother.  In any case, his reserved English parents were of little support and no compassion for his breakdown. 
After several months in a sanitarium, Freddie’s doctors pronounced him fit enough to leave.  Travelling in France might be a way to change his perspective, through a change of place.  A snowstorm descends while he’s driving on small mountain roads, and the inevitable accident happens.  Freddie manages to walk to a village called Nulle in search of help.  The proprietress of the local inn tells him that there’s a festival that evening, and invites him to attend if he feels up to it.  It’s a decision that makes all the difference in the world.
This novel is a beautifully-written ghost story; or a finely-crafted mystery, depending on your point of view.  In either case, this is exactly the type of book that reminds me of why I love to read.  The prose is almost spare, but it’s wonderfully evocative, setting the scene and the time.  It’s a story of love and loss; of this world and another; of chances lost and chances gained.  It’s a small gem of a novel, and one that I’ll be re-visiting.

Rating: 9
February 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-24529-3 (trade paperback)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Shadow Ops: Control Point - Myke Cole

Shadow Ops: Control Point
Myke Cole     

Military Scifi

The world has changed.  Society, law enforcement, and the military are scrambling to keep up with the change.  During something called the Great Reawakening, magic came back to the world.  Individuals simply began to demonstrate previously unknown magical abilities.  Some of these abilities (schools of magic) are legal, others are not.  Since you can’t control what school you Manifest in, if you turn out to have an illegal (Prohibited) power, you’re out of luck.  You can either turn yourself in, or go on the run.  If you run, the law and the military will hunt you down.  And possibly kill you.  Or maybe they’ll use you as a tool.
Oscar Britton is a case in point.  One day, he’s trained Army, on a mission to stop a teenaged Pyromancer and his Elementalist girlfriend from destroying their school and classmates; the next, he unexpectedly Manifests.  At first, he has no clue what’s happening to him.  Strange doorways start appearing around him.  Turns out, Oscar is a Portamancer.  Unfortunately for him, that’s a Prohibited School.  So, he can either turn himself in and hope for a quick death, or run as a fugitive.
Despite his training, he panics and runs, putting himself in the crosshairs of police and military.  Eventually, he ends up in a training camp for the Supernatural Operations Corps.  It’s not by choice, but it’s better than death.  The SOC training camp is on another plane of existence, called the Source.  This is where the runners (who live) are taken, to be trained and used as military assets.
This novel, the first in a new series, will inevitably be compared to the “X-Men” movies and stories.  It seems to me to be a lot deeper than that, though.  (Although, for full disclosure, I never read the comics.)  We see the story through Oscar’s eyes.  For all intents and purposes, he’s going from cop to criminal without choosing to do so.  He has no control over the manifestation of magic or what kind of magic it is.  His fear and frustration seem quite realistic, given the circumstances.  There’s not only magic altering the social fabric of life, there’s politics to consider.  There are groups who want all magic to be unregulated; others who want all magic-type people locked away from ‘normal’ people; others who declare one group as inherently superior to the other.  This background is nicely encapsulated at the start of each chapter through excerpts from speeches or books or blogs.  It gives the reader a much better understanding of the broader world of the book.
The first scene of the novel is a very literal fire fight.  It’s fast-paced and intense.  After that, the action rarely seems to slow.  Even scenes of introspection are written in a way that do not slow the flow of the story.  If you’re a fan of military scifi, alternate world fiction, or urban fantasy, this novel is a real find.  It manages to take the best of all these genres and combine them, giving the reader a look at a fully-realized world that’s quite different from our own, yet quite similar, too.  The story is more or less complete in this novel, but I’m glad there’s more to come.
Rating: 8
February 2012
ISBN#  978-1-937007-24-9 (paperback)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Almost Everything - Tate Hallaway

Almost Everything
A Vampire Princess Novel
Tate Hallaway
New American Library

Young Adult/Paranormal

This is the third novel in a series that began with ALMOST TO DIE FOR and continued in ALMOST FINAL CURTAIN.  Frankly, there’s just no way to write this review without spoiling major events from both those novels.  I’d advise reading them first, in any case; they were that entertaining.
Usually, summer break means sleeping in until noon and hanging around with your friends.  When you’re half-witch and half-vampire and your mom (Queen of the Witches, just FYI) signs you up for driver’s ed classes that start at oh-dark-thirty, you can be pretty sure you’re not getting the normal teen summer experience.  Despite her very rare heritage (as races, witches and vampires hate each other) Ana is trying to live as normal a life as possible.  This past spring, she took part in the school musical.  This summer, she’s going to audition to be a performer at the Renaissance Faire.  Her best friend, Bea (a True Witch) and maybe-boyfriend (excellent boyfriend material, even if he is non-supernatural in any way) Matt Thompson are going with her to the auditions.
On her dad’s side of things, it’s a bit more iffy.  Dad, btw, is the Vampire Prince of the Northern region.  Ana gave another vampire permission to break a betrothal that would make her deeply unhappy.  Case closed, right?  Wrong.  Because one fine summer day a vampire who introduces himself as Luis David Montezuma from the Southern Region appears and would like to re-negotiate this situation.  Hoping to get some direction from her dad, Ana visits his domain.  And finds a bunch of strung-out, nearly-insane, barely-human-acting creatures. Her Dad is no better at all. They’re all starving.  Not just for blood, but for the sacred hunt.  Something about the ritual is what puts everything right.  Unless you’re the poor sod who turns out to be the target of the hunt.  After further discussion, it seems that Prince Luis knows about the weakened condition of the Northern vampires and is demanding that their betrothal contract be honored immediately or they’ll be happy to start a war on the Northern weaklings.

Ana feels a bit guilty since she’s the one who stopped the hunt in the past.  Once because she thought it was barbaric and once because the hunt was called on her own mother.  It’s clear that a hunt will have to happen somehow or all those vampires are going to go rogue and turn into the mindless nosferatu.  And none of this takes into account Ana’s pretty-much-ex-boyfriend, Nikolai who is a rock star and vampire slayer.  Or Matt Thompson, a regular guy who wants to bring her flowers and take her to dinner.  Or Elias, the captain of her father’s guard who was, of late, betrothed to her.  It’s enough to make you wish school was back in session.
This time around, we get to learn a lot more about just exactly how vampires are/were made and what it entails.  We especially get to learn more about Elias’ past.  Ana is in a very tough spot: directly in between the witch community that she grew up in, and the vampire community that is completely at odds with that.  She manages to work through some fairly serious situations in ways that would benefit (or, at least not kill) everyone.  The big showdown at the end is done well, and the serious consequences for some characters gives the whole thing a bit of real gravitas.
As with the first two novels in the series, this one tells a whole story and ties up most loose ends.  That makes sense since this is billed as the ‘third and final’ book in this series.  Even so, there seems to be room for future stories that ought to be well received.  Anyone who enjoys a good paranormal story with a dash of romance and a good dose of action should be reading this series.
Rating: 8
February 2012
ISBN#  978-0-451-23566-4 (trade paperback)

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Cake On A Hot Tin Roof - Jacklyn Brady

Cake On A Hot Tin Roof
A Piece Of Cake Mystery
Jacklyn Brady
Berkley Prime Crime
Growing up in Albuquerque did nothing to prepare pastry chef Rita Lucero for the experience of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  It’s one thing to visit as a tourist; quite another to be in charge of your own bakery, Zydeco Cakes, and working crazy hours to fulfill party orders while the party is just outside the door.  Rita inherited Zydeco Cakes from her almost-ex-husband, Philippe, when he died.  (Details of that story can be found in the first book of the series, ASHEETCAKE NAMED DESIRE.)  She also inherited his obligation to host a huge party at Philippe’s social club.  Being new to New Orleans, new as a business owner, and new to the upper crust social life that was Philippe’s is making for some very tense times.
In New Mexico, Rita was raised by her Uncle Nestor and Aunt Yolanda.  Working in their restaurant, she learned her love of food and cooking.  She hasn’t been back to see them in months, so imagine her surprise when they turn up in New Orleans without warning.  Aunt Yolanda says they just missed her.  Rita knows that it would take something very serious for Uncle Nestor to leave his restaurant in other hands (even if those hands belong to his sons) but he’s not forthcoming about the reason for the visit.  Or anything else.  In fact, he seems more angry than anything else.  Of course, Rita takes them along to her party, hoping to show them some of the fun in the city.  Unfortunately, Uncle Nestor gets into a fist fight with Big Daddy Boudreaux, a local personality.  When Big Daddy ends the evening face-down in the pool, fingers point at Nestor.  His odd behavior aside, Rita knows it’s not possible and dives into another murder investigation.
Those who read the first installment will recognize many returning characters.  Since taking over Zydeco, Rita is still struggling with being ‘the boss’ to people who were once her friends.  Juggling authority, local traditions, and an almost overwhelming demand for King Cakes (traditional for Mardi Gras) is really starting to wear on her.  Her temper wears thin and she’s exhausted.  She’s also torn between some feelings of guilt for ‘leaving’ Nestor’s restaurant – even though it’s clear that it will go to one of his sons – and her justifiable pride at having started a new life in a new city.  All of these things give Rita’s character depth and realism, making her seem like someone you might know.

The murder victim was a bigger-than-life type.  A given, since he called himself “Big Daddy.”  He’s much less relatable, but that doesn’t seem terribly important.  What is important is that there’s an entire party full of people who might have wanted him dead.  The suspect pool (pardon the expression) includes at least one ex-wife and one current wife; Uncle Nestor, who punched him in the face during the party; and any number of business and social associates.  The answers kind of fall into Rita’s lap in the end, but the journey is what matters.  The author does a wonderful job of portraying New Orleans during party season.  The book includes a recipe for the traditional King Cake, among other things.

Rating: 6 ½
February 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-24622-1 (paperback)

Sunday, February 05, 2012

File M For Murder - Miranda James

File M For Murder
A Cat In The Stacks Mystery
Miranda James           
Berkley Prime Crime
As the fall semester begins, Charlie Harris has a full house.  In addition to his two renters, Justin (from MURDER PAST DUE) and Stewart (last seen in CLASSIFIED AS MURDER) he’s got his son, Sean, and, the real surprise, his daughter, Laura.  His faithful friend, Maine Coon cat, Diesel, and Stewart’s poodle, Dante, complete the family.  The big surprise in all this is the arrival of Laura.  An actress, she’s been asked to fill in for a professor on maternity leave in the Theater Dept.  Her former boyfriend and current writer-in-residence, Connor Lawton, recommended her for the job.  Working with Connor is never easy.  His bad-boy appearance masks an equally bad-boy demeanor.  Hailed as the playwright of his generation, he seems to think this gives him license to verbally and emotionally abuse anyone, from student actors to the head of the department.
During a workshop for his new play-in-progress, Connor blows up in epic fashion at the student actors.  The problem isn’t the actors; it’s the painfully bad dialogue.  This is why plays get workshopped, but Connor can’t take criticism and lashes out at everyone present, including Laura and Charlie.  Later that afternoon, Laura goes to see Connor and discovers that he’s dead.  Arriving on the scene after Laura’s frantic call, Charlie feels sure the death isn’t natural.  When someone attacks Laura in her office, he’s not only sure Connor was murdered; he’s sure that he needs to find the killer before his daughter becomes another victim.
This is the third in a solidly entertaining series, but new readers will have no problems getting up to speed.  The author does a wonderful job of including characters from previous books, giving them supporting roles, and sketching in the necessary background information.  The location, tiny Athena, Mississippi, is almost a character in itself.  Many times, I’ve complained that the ‘murder’ in the ‘murder mystery’ doesn’t take place until long into the story.  Not this time.  This time I was so content to re-visit Charlie and Diesel and their family that I didn’t even notice. 
The mystery this time is constructed quite nicely.  It takes a group of intelligent people to collect all the necessary information to solve it.  And, since this one hits close to home for Charlie (literally) there's more emotional resonance to the story. Deputy Kanesha Berry is her usual, competent, no-nonsense self; and the growth of her character and the relationship between the deputy and Charlie seems quite organic.  The many scenes with Diesel will delight cat lovers, of course.  (Diesel has his own Facebook page at where those interested can find out just what all those chirps and warbles sound like.)  Overall, this is another clever entry in a winning series of mysteries.
Rating: 7 ½
February 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-24618-4 (paperback)

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

An Appetite For Murder - Lucy Burdette

An Appetite For Murder
A Key West Food Critic Mystery
Lucy Burdette
Living on a houseboat in Key West should seem like a dream come true for northern transplant Hayley Snow.  Unfortunately for her, it’s where she landed (thanks to the generosity of a friend from college) after her almost-two-month-long relationship with divorce lawyer Chad imploded.  Let that be a lesson to every female: if a rich, attractive guy invites you to come to Key West and live in his luxury condo after knowing you for a couple of weeks, well, proceed at your own risk and try to act surprised when you come home and find your lothario short-term boyfriend in flagrante with another woman.
On the upside, Hayley loves everything about Key West and is currently in the running to be the food critic at a new magazine.  But there’s a snag there, too.  Her new boss would be one Kristen Faulkner.  That would be the woman Hayley caught with Chad.  Awkward?  Definitely.  But worth it for this chance at her dream job.  Then Kristen ends up dead, apparently poisoned by a key lime pie.  Suspicion instantly falls on Hayley, and she does herself absolutely no favors by entering Chad’s condo to snoop.  A neighbor calls the cops, and this time Hayley’s the one who’s caught.
Hayley is an interesting character, but she’s fairly immature for a 25-year-old.  Some of her actions are self-centered enough to make her seem like a teenager.  Fortunately, her friends (roommate Connie and therapist Eric) are pretty straightforward with her.  When she jeopardizes Connie’s cleaning business by entering Chad’s apartment, Connie reminds her that she can’t run home to mom or dad; she needs to make a living.  And there are real consequences to all of Hayley’s actions.  She’s not the plucky heroine who charms everyone into forgiving her anything.  She actually makes amends and becomes considerably more mature by the end of the story.
The author truly excels at setting the scene.  Her descriptions of locales and locals in Key West are so evocative that you’ll feel like you’ve had a mini-vacation there.  The mystery is constructed quite nicely and embedded in Hayley’s life and ambition as a local food critic.  Although I figured it out pretty early on, I’m convinced it was purely a lucky guess.  Many subsequent clues and characters made me seriously doubt my guess.  The true test of a good mystery is that, in the end, all the clues and actions of suspects make sense in the context of the solution.  That’s definitely the case here.  And for those so inclined, there are a few recipes included.
Rating: 7
January 2012
ISBN# 978-0-451-23551-0 (paperback)