Sunday, March 31, 2013

Bowled Over - Victoria Hamilton

Bowled Over 
A Vintage Kitchen Mystery
Victoria Hamilton
Berkley Prime Crime
The small town of Queensville, Michigan hosts a huge celebration for the Fourth of July each year.  There’s a picnic, boat races, and of course fireworks.  This year, Jaymie Leighton is a bit distracted from the festivities.  Kathy Cooper was Jaymie’s best friend in school, until, suddenly, Kathy simply froze Jaymie out of her life.  At the time, Jaymie thought time would heal things.  Then months turned into years without any resolution, and the rift festered and grew even wider. 

It’s hard to avoid someone forever in such a small town, and Jaymie finally finds herself face-to-face with Kathy.  She realizes that the silly ‘fight’ has gone on long enough, and she’s determined to find out what started it and how to fix it.  Before she can do that, Jaymie finds Kathy’s body in the park at the end of the Fourth of July picnic.  They hadn’t been close in years, obviously, but Jaymie feels the loss of her erstwhile friend.  Because the murder weapon appears to be Jaymie’s antique bowl, she both feels responsible and finds herself as the prime suspect. 

This is the second in a series, following A DEADLY GRIND, and in my opinion rises far above the first installment in tone and construction.  I found myself immediately drawn into the story.  Anyone can relate to a relationship that’s allowed to dissolve, and when Jaymie finds Kathy’s body, it’s clear that she regrets wasting so much time on some silly thing that happened in high school.  While she’s investigating, she finds out some things about the people around her and about herself in her high school years.  It all paints a picture of something that could have been fixed, but wasn’t until it was far past ‘too late.’
This time around, Jaymie uses the tried-and-true amateur sleuth technique of simply asking everyone a lot of questions.  Since the central topic is intensely personal to Jaymie, it works perfectly as a storytelling device.  The location and the residents of Queensville are brought to life on each page, making me wish I could visit.  The story moves along swiftly, with the dual investigation (into murder and a long-ago friendship) keeping everything moving.  I’m very much looking forward to another visit with Jaymie and her friends and neighbors.

Rating: 7
March 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25182-8 (paperback)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Assaulted Pretzel - Laura Bradford


Assaulted Pretzel
An Amish Mystery
Laura Bradford
Berkley Prime Crime
The Karble Toy Company wants to bring back simpler times; to create toys that allow children to play and imagine.  They’re going to be producing a series of toys called Back To Basics, based on the wooden toys created by the Amish in Heavenly, Pennsylvania.  This will bring much-needed work and income to the Amish who live there, since farmland is not infinite.  As the annual food festival begins, there’s a mood of excited celebration in the air.  The festival ends abruptly when Rob Karble falls dead among the crowd from an apparent blow to the head.
Clarie Weatherly knows that the Amish avoid violence, and can’t believe any of them would do such a thing.  But there’s a letter circulating in the crowd that announces the new Karble toy line and says that the toys will be mass-produced in a factory in Michigan.  It soon becomes clear that Karble simply photographed the wooden toys and appropriated the designs.  That makes the toymaker the most obvious suspect, but Claire knows that Karble and his wife had a huge fight the night before the announcement – a fight witnessed by many at the local inn.
This is the second book in this cozy series, and, as before, the setting is perfectly evoked.  Heavenly is a place where traditional Amish families work alongside the English.  The Amish live on farms outside the town, but many of them run shops or work in town.  Jakob Fisher returns as the local detective who was raised Amish, and then abruptly left after his baptism to follow his calling to police work.  His departure after baptism means that the Amish – even his family members – must shun him.  That makes his work all the more difficult as he tries to track down the killer.

As in the first book, HEARSE AND BUGGY, the mystery takes a back seat to the setting and the people who live there.  That’s not a criticism when the locale and the inhabitants are fascinating on their own merits.  I found myself to be far more interested in the interplay among the characters and their intersecting lives than in the mystery plot.  The mystery is wrapped up neatly in the end, with loose ends left dangling in the personal lives of several characters.  That’s what I want to know about: what happens next to these lovely and sympathetic people?
Rating: 7
March 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25200-0 (paperback)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Office Of Mercy - Ariel Djanikian

The Office Of Mercy
Ariel Djanikian

Natasha Wiley lives a life based on ethical thinking developed by the Alpha generation of her people, the inhabitants of America-Five.  The people spend their days working for the betterment of the lives of their fellow citizens.  America-Five is one of many self-contained settlements; underground habitats made necessary by the Storm that decimated the world.  The Outside is considered dangerous and contaminated.  Sadly, there are still humans who live Outside.  These people are called the Tribes.  The citizens of the settlements believe it is their ethical duty to alleviate the suffering of the Tribes whenever possible. 
Natasha works in the Office Of Mercy, the department that tracks weather patterns, migrations of animals, and the movements of various Tribes.  It’s an important job, since the Office Of Mercy is the personification of ethical thinking, directly responsible for ending the Tribes’ suffering in “sweeps” of various groups.  As a junior member of the office, Natasha serves in a supportive capacity.  She wanted this assignment, and is proud of her work.  But she’s always had a fascination for the Outside.  Despite her education and visits to the Office Of Health, she’s never really let go of a desire to see the Outside for herself.  Of course, she keeps these occasional unethical thoughts to herself.
After a particularly successful sweep, Natasha is thrilled when her mentor, Jeffrey, selects her to join a small group who will venture Outside to observe what is left in the swept area.  It’s an honor, since Natasha, at twenty-four, is part of the youngest generation in the settlement.  The group dresses in protective biosuits and exits through an airlock into the Outside.  It should take a few hours and satisfy her curiosity about the larger world.  Instead, Natasha comes face-to-face with members of a Tribe.  They’re not at all what she expected.  Shockingly, they seem to have speech, reasoning, and emotional capabilities.  This encounter changes everything for Natasha.
This is both a post-apocalyptic novel and a philosophical study on human nature.  The citizens are raised in carefully-planned, carefully-taught generations.  They learn as children that greed for food is a useless remnant of a time, centuries ago, when people had to compete for food.  They learn that feeling sorry for the Tribes is a misplaced empathy that has no place in the modern world.  They learn so much about the mind, but so little about the soul.  Their technology is advanced, but their society is sterile.  Natasha loves the learning, is comforted by the ethical teachings, and believes in what they do in the Office Of Mercy.  But there’s always a little bit of doubt; a vague yearning for something else.  Something that makes her feel different.
The author has built a world that seems realistic and makes sense on both fronts.  The people who live in the sterile, sealed settlements have reasons and history and their actions make sense for them.  Instead of everyone marching in lockstep, though, there is a small group of people who question things.  That’s accepted as a bit of an annoyance, but also as something to be expected in any free society.  The Tribes look at the settlements as places of evil.  That makes perfect sense, too, given their experience.  In each group, each person we meet is an individual.  Each individual deals with events in an individualistic way.  It’s hard to believe that this is a debut novel.  From world-building to characterizations to plot, THE OFFICE OF MERCY is a unique book and a fascinating read.  I look forward to much more from this author.
Rating: 8
March 2013
ISBN# 978-0-670-02586-2 (hardcover)

Thursday, March 07, 2013

The Ramal Extraction - Steve Perry

The Ramal Extraction
Cutter’s Wars, Book 1
Steve Perry
Military SciFi
Once part of the Galactic Union Army, Colonel Cutter now runs his own for-profit group.  Some might call them mercenaries; others know that you get what you pay for, and with Cutter and his group, you get the best, without a lot of red tape.  On the upside, Cutter gets to pick and choose his jobs, making sure that the ‘bad guys’ are really bad, and that the client actually pays.  On the downside, they’re not nearly as well funded as a regular army team, so they sometimes have to get creative.
It sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale: the daughter of the Rajah of New Mumbai has been kidnapped just before her wedding to the son of a neighboring rajah.  Rajah Ramal, the girl’s father, just wants his daughter back.  If Cutter can eliminate the kidnappers, all the better.  The girl’s fiancé is ready to go to war with the leader of the city-state he suspects of taking her.  The first order of business is gathering intel on the location situation.  Each member of Cutter’s team has his/her/hir own methods in the field.  It’s what makes them the best.
Since this is the first installment in a new series, there’s some groundwork to be laid, and the author has chosen a fascinating way to do it.  During the op, there’s unavoidable downtime.  During the downtime, each member takes a turn telling a ‘war story.’  These stories give insight into the characters and the surroundings.  It’s the late 24th century, Earth is hardly alone, and humans are not the only sentient species out there, so there’s a lot of ground to cover.  The personal stories give glimpses into the book’s future-history.
Another great decision (and one I always applaud) is the use of the Cast Of Characters at the front of the book.  There’s a whole team in place when the op – and the book – begins, so it’s quite handy to be able to refer to this to keep everyone straight.  The members are varied and well-characterized, even at the outset.  One is a non-human, giving the reader a sort of outside look at things.  Another is a human androgyne, and everyone uses the pronouns ‘zhe’ and ‘zir’ as a matter of course.  It seems like a small detail, but it goes a long way in immersing the reader immediately in the fictional universe.

I’ve always felt that a lot of scifi readers skip over military scifi because they feel they need to know about weapons or technology to read it.  Those readers are missing some great series.  I’m not up on weapons or military strategies, but the author here, like the best military scifi writers, writes in a way that makes it easy for readers like me to understand.  If you’ve been avoiding military scifi, I’d highly recommend giving this one a try.  It’s highly character-driven, it’s the first in a series, and the pace is very fast.  If you’re already on the military scifi train, you can’t go wrong here.
Rating: 8
January 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25662-6 (paperback)