Friday, November 30, 2012

Collision Course - David Crawford

Collision Course
A Novel Of Survival
David Crawford
New American Library
In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should admit that if The End Of Everything happens tomorrow – whether through economic collapse, nuclear war, or zombie apocalypse – I’m not ready.  I’m not a “prepper” or a survivalist.  So I can’t accurately judge those aspects of this story. 
DJ Frost calls himself a “security specialist” and is completely prepared for The End.  He’s got supplies, a heavy-duty ATV with attached trailer, and a lot of weapons.  He’s also got his “bug-out route” figured and a destination consisting of a piece of land purchased some time ago with a bunch of other like-minded individuals.  What’s already happened before the story begins is called the Smash.  It’s some combination of oil prices and economics and a lot of other things that the news commentators can’t agree about.  The upshot is that society seems to be crumbling and DJ is getting out of the city while he can. 
Gabe Horne doesn’t even know the Smash has happened.  He pretty much lives day-to-day in a drunken haze after the loss of his wife and son.  He supports himself by cultivating and selling vegetables at a nearby farmer’s market.  Once he realizes what’s going on, he starts to look around for the first time in a good while to try and take stock of what needs to be done, both in his own home and in his neighborhood.

The storyline is pretty straightforward, with DJ on the move and Gabe in one spot.  While Gabe gets some character development, DJ starts off sketchy and devolves quite a bit from there.  At some point, very late in the proceedings, the reader discovers (as DJ just happens to remember) that his safe place might have been sold years ago, because of a breakdown of his group.  It makes his trek and every event in it seem ridiculously pointless.  The narrative moves quite quickly, making this a fast, if ultimately demoralizing, read.

Rating: 5
November 2012
ISBN# 978-0-451-23807-8 (trade paperback)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Spirited Gift - Joyce and Jim Lavene

A Spirited Gift
A Missing Pieces Mystery
Joyce and Jim Lavene
Berkley Prime Crime

As explained in the first installment of this fun series, Dae O’Donnell has a gift.  She can find lost items simply by holding hands with the person who lost the item.  Recently, during the events of A TOUCH OFGOLD, her gift has expanded.  Now when she touches an item, she can see details about it.  Sometimes the details are simply about where the item was made and how it arrived in Dae’s hands.  Sometimes, strong emotions remain with an inanimate object: love, fear, hate, envy, and occasionally joy.  She’s still working to control this new aspect of her gift and how to control feeling the attached emotions herself.  Fortunately, she lives in tiny Duck, North Carolina, where most inhabitants know about her gift and have used it (her grandmother had the same gift) and believe strongly in ancestral ghosts and superstitions. 
Dae is also Mayor of Duck, and had the great idea to throw a conference weekend for mayors in the area, since many of them deal with the same types of problems endemic to small island communities dependent on tourism.  During the meeting, there’s a storm.  It’s ‘only’ a trailing arm of a hurricane, but it does some damage.  The gala party Dae envisioned devolves into a bunch of mayors, some with families in tow, hanging out in the lobby of the Blue Whale, waiting for the power to be restored.  Getting a head count reveals that one mayor is missing: Sandi Foxx, onetime weathergirl, now mayor of nearby Manteo.  Sandi’s body is found on the grounds of the inn, under the wreckage of a storage shed.  It begs the question: what would she have been doing outside during the worst of the storm?

During the cleanup process, Dae gradually realizes that she’s got a new friend.  Even Dae, who has actively tried to talk to her mother’s spirit through annual séances with her friend Shayla, can’t believe this is happening.  Dae wanted to speak to her mother because she died unexpectedly, when the two were angry with each other.  What she gets instead is the ghost of locally-famous (an infamous) pirate Rafe Masterson.  He claims to have been executed unjustly and wants to prove that the local magistrate of his time framed him so that he can finally rest in peace.  In return, he’ll help Dae solve Sandi’s murder. 
If you’ve read this far, I know what you’re thinking.  But, pirate ghost notwithstanding, the authors never allow this story to devolve to the level of a Saturday morning cartoon.  What I enjoy most about these books is that the authors treat the paranormal elements in a very organic and respectful way.  Every community has its own long-held set of beliefs and the people here understand Dae’s gift and have used it when the need arises.  Every schoolkid in the area grows up hearing and loving the stories about the pirates that plied their trade just off shore and who sometimes, when the weather is right, still sail their ghostly ships.  It’s just a part of local life.
So, yes, there’s a pirate ghost.  But when all is revealed, Rafe’s story is that of a real person; layered and affecting.  His story isn’t neat and clean, and it brings up other facts relating to another locally famous murder case.  This one happened a mere thirty years ago, but the community in general is still feeling the reverberations of it.  Readers of the series will have a deeper appreciation of this, since this plot figured heavily in the first book, A TIMELY VISION.  Strangely, that leaves Sandi’s murder and the surrounding events as the most recent, but least interesting storyline.  Knowing how things work in Duck, though, there might be further revelations in a few decades.  For those following along with Dae’s blossoming relationship with FBI agent-turned-innkeeper Kevin, there’s quite a surprise in the last lines of this one.

Rating: 7 ½
December 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-24502-6 (paperback)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Touch Of Gold - Joyce and Jim Lavene

A Touch Of Gold
A Missing Pieces Mystery
Joyce and Jim Lavene
Berkley Prime Crime

The residents of tiny Duck, North Carolina, are very proud of their history.  Some of it might be slightly unsavory, but the residents own both the good and the not-so-good aspects.  Small as the place is, it has its own historical museum, full of various bits of seafaring lore, pirate gold, and legends.  Max Caudle is the town historian, and loves the town and the museum.  Dae O’Donnell, mayor of the town, has just finished overseeing an elementary school field trip at the museum.  The kids and teachers are out of the museum, and Dae is just about to return to the museum, when she’s blinded by a flash of light.  The next thing she knows, she’s waking up in the hospital.
She learns that, unbelievable as it sounds, the museum exploded.  The authorities are on the scene, trying to determine how it could have happened.  What they discover is that the propane tank at the side of the museum exploded when it was hit.  With a cannonball.  Instantly, residents begin speculating about the reappearance of their local pirate ghost, although why he’d want to destroy the museum, with Max inside it, remains a mystery.
Dae has known all her life that she has a gift.  She can find things people have lost.  The explosion left her with a mild concussion and a giant leap forward with her gift.  Now, when she touches inanimate objects, she can see how they came into being.  Mostly it’s boring manufacturing and shipping information, but some items are imbued with great emotional energy.  Her gift is hardly a secret: townspeople accept it and come to her often, looking for lost items.  This makes a nice change of pace from the ‘secret that must be hidden lest everyone think she’s crazy’ scenario.  It leaves the authors free to develop the mystery aspects of the story, while allowing Dae to deal realistically with her newly expanded gift.

This is the second in this series (following A TIMELY VISION) and the authors do a very nice job of building on local lore.  The subplot about a famous historical figure maybe – or maybe not – having lived in Duck is woven into the main story seamlessly.  The main plot is grounded in local legends and present-day lives, and the mystery ends up being quite a bit more far-flung that one might expect.  While I admit I had the bad guy figured out quite early on, the story is involving and the characters engaging.  If you enjoy a bit of psychic flair with your mysteries, this series should not be missed.
Rating: 7
March 2011
ISBN#  978-0-425-24024-3 (paperback)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Arsenic And Old Cake - Jacklyn Brady

Arsenic And Old Cake
A Piece Of Cake Mystery
Jacklyn Brady
Berkley Prime Crime
In the third installment of this series (A SHEETCAKE NAMED DESIRE, CAKE ON A HOT TIN ROOF) the story begins with Rita – owner of Zydeco Cakes in New Orleans – getting some bad news.  Business is down.  Way down.  Because of the economy, even the very wealthy are cutting back on luxury expenses and one-of-a-kind cakes are on that list.  I have to give the author credit for this.  Generally speaking, the ‘luxury’ businesses in mysteries remain strangely unaffected by events in the real world.  Forcing characters to deal with real problems like business downturns makes both the fictional world and the characters that inhabit it seem more realistic. 
While she’s trying to find a solution that doesn’t include cutting employees’ hours or lowering the bakery’s impeccable standards and reputation, Rita gets a couple of visitors.  Gabriel, the bartender at the local bar and one of Rita’s two casual boyfriends (the other is Sullivan, a cop) drops by with trumpet player Old Dog Leg.  Dog Leg just got a letter from his brother, Monroe.  Monroe disappeared forty years ago without a word to anyone.  Now he’s sent his brother a letter, inviting him to drop by the Love Nest, the bed-and-breakfast where he’s staying.  Dog Leg needs help.  He wants to be sure this person is really his brother and not some con man.  The problem is, Dog Leg is now blind.  The plan, cooked up by Gabriel and Dog Leg, involves Rita and Gabriel checking into the Love Nest posing as a newlywed couple and check out this Monroe character, then report back to Dog Leg.  They’ll know he’s Monroe by the birthmark on his shoulder.

This scheme seems like an incredibly bad idea for a lot of reasons.  First, Rita hasn’t been serious with either Gabriel or Sullivan and she’s not too keen on the idea of spending a weekend alone with Gabriel, pretending to be madly in love with him.  Second, there’s the problem of getting a look at Monroe with no shirt on, thus confirming his identity.  Another huge problem is that Rita is uncomfortable with lying, and this weekend will involve nothing but.  She’s eventually guilted into agreeing, though, since she’s fond of Dog Leg.  My feeling is that if a scheme sounds like it was cooked up by someone in a sitcom, it can only end badly.  The Love Nest turns out to be a b&b with a sort of annex attached that houses a group of senior citizens who have known each other for most of their lives.  It’s all very strange, and it gets even stranger when one of the seniors dies in the garden under Rita’s window, proving my theory.

It comes as no surprise that Sullivan arrives to investigate the death; and even less of a surprise when he declares it a homicide.  What is pretty surprising is that he asks Rita to hang around, since she’s already there, and see what she can find out about the residents and guests.  The rest of the story involves Rita doing just that.  She manages to get the seniors to spill information about events that they’ve kept quiet since the seventies.  While that’s not terribly believable, the story they have to tell is quite interesting, and it makes sense that the events of forty years ago would have bound them together and still reverberate in their lives today.  Again, Rita ‘solves’ the mystery only when someone confesses the whole thing to her, but by that time, I was as eager to know the answer as she was.

Rating: 7
November 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-25172-0 (paperback)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

King Of Thorns - Mark Lawrence

King Of Thorns
Book Two Of The Broken Empire
Mark Lawrence

 Dark Fantasy

Spoiler Notice:  If you haven’t read the first book in this series (PRINCE OF THORNS) this review will contain major and unavoidable spoilers.  And you’ve missed a great book.

This novel begins four years after the events detailed in PRINCE OF THORNS.  Really, it begins at the end of those four years, then wraps back around itself to tell the story up to this point.  Some sections are labeled “Wedding Day,” and others “Four years earlier.”  Interspersed with these are excerpts from a journal kept by Katherine Ap Scorron.  It’s maybe not the easiest way to tell a story, but it’s quite effective.
At the end of the previous book, Jorg of Ancrath essentially destroyed the kingdom of Gelleth, and then went on to take over as King of Renar.  At the ripe old age of fourteen, he’s determined to knit together the Broken Empire into one vast kingdom, with himself as emperor.  But he’s got competition.  The Prince of Arrow is as good and just a man as you could find.  He wants to bring the empire together in order to give the people peace and prosperity and move the world forward.  He’s almost too good to be true, and Jorg feels ‘less’ in his presence.  That’s enough to ignite Jorg’s anger and fuel a new conquest.
KING OF THORNS is, in many ways darker than the first book, but the darkness comes in layers and shows new maturity in Jorg.  He’s no longer just a child upset with his father (although a certain horrific memory, detailed here, would make anyone agree with him.)  Now he’s a King; a man with responsibilities to his people, not just to the road-brothers who helped him get to where he is.  He’s known loss and sorrow, and his pain is far from over.  It’s really the pain of experience that makes Jorg who he is.  He’s still not quite likable, but he’s much more understandable this time.  The story, told as it is, in sections from the present and the past, is absolutely compelling.  The addition of Katherine’s journal – and her journey – makes for a deeper, more resonant story.  The final lines are memorable, both as plea and as challenge.
Rating: 8
October 2012
ISBN# 978-1-937007-8 (hardcover)