Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Murder Hooks A Mermaid - Christy Fifield

Murder Hooks A Mermaid
A Haunted Souvenir Shop Mystery
Christy Fifield
Berkley Prime Crime
The tiny town of Keyhole Bay, Florida is gearing up for the spring influx of tourists.  Pretty much anyplace near a beach can expect some tourist income during the spring and summer months.  Souvenir shop owner Glory Martine is sidetracked by a familiar problem.  Her best friend since forever, Karen, used to be married to Riley, a commercial fisherman with a lifelong penchant for bailing his younger brother, Bobby out of trouble.  Bobby seems to unerringly find trouble, and what was endearing in their teen years has become significantly less so now that they’re all adults.  Nevertheless, when Bobby is in trouble, Riley is there for him, and that means Karen is, too.
This time, the trouble looks pretty serious.  Bobby convinced Riley to let him use his commercial fishing boat to take out a dive charter.  Never mind how sketchy that sounds right off the bat, at least Bobby was trying to earn some money.  As soon as the group returns, they’re all arrested for suspected smuggling.  That means Riley’s boat – his only means of making a living – is impounded.  Not long afterwards, one of the divers is found murdered.  The scant evidence points to Bobby.  No one believes he’s capable of murder.  Although Glory tries to stay out of it, the fact that her best friend is running herself ragged trying to prove Bobby’s innocence means she’s part of the investigation.
This is the second entry in this entertaining series.  One of the most interesting aspects of this series is Bluebeard, the parrot that Glory inherited from her uncle, along with the souvenir shop.  It’s pretty clear that he sometimes channels Uncle Louis.  I have to admit that at first I was skeptical of this.  But Bluebeard/Louis has/have grown on me a lot.  It might be because in this one, Glory has to explain Bluebeard to a couple of people.  She knows exactly how crazy it sounds, and her reluctance to share is completely believable.  The reactions are believable and, in one case, really touching. 
If you like your mysteries without paranormal aspects, there’s still plenty to like here.  There are characters we met in the first volume (MURDER BUYS A T-SHIRT) who become much more detailed and complex in their relationships as the series progresses.  Glory and her friends continue to hold weekly suppers, and many of the recipes for traditional southern cooking are included at the end.  The cast of characters really gels and gives the feeling of a small town group of people who have known each other forever.  There are ups and down to that, but it always feels real. 
Rating: 7
January 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25184-3 (paperback)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The MIst-Torn Witches - Barb Hendee

The Mist-Torn Witches
Barb Hendee

This novel, the first in a new series, is set in the world of the Noble Dead series, written by the author and her husband.  I admit, I haven’t read any of those books (for reasons I cannot figure) but I have read most of the Vampire Memories series by this author and find them to be unique and entertaining.  This is all to say that I am not qualified to detail exactly how linked this series is to the Noble Dead series.  I’m just taking this book on its own merits, and it succeeds quite well.
Celine and Amelie live in a small village.  As two girls alone (their parents are both dead) they eke out a living in their mother’s apothecary shop.  In addition to being a healer, their mother was a seer with a true gift.  Celine quickly learns to “read” customers who come to her, wanting information about their future.  She feels a bit guilty about it, but figures there’s no real harm done.  Until a member of local Prince’s household arrives with much-needed coin and an order to tell a woman that her proposed marriage will be happy.  Celine agrees, since refusing could result in her death.  When the woman arrives for her reading, Celine is shocked when she receives a true vision of the woman’s future.  To her horror, the proposed husband will have the woman killed.  Celine is completely unable to lie to this woman and tells her the truth.  Hours later, the shop is firebombed.
Running from the fire, Celine and Amalie are rescued by men in strange livery.  They’re from a neighboring Prince’s household.  The two Princes are brothers, vying to be named their father’s heir.  The two are taken to Prince Anton’s castle.  It’s a revelation.  The castle is surrounded by a village full of prosperous and safe people.  Here, the Prince’s men bring order and safety.  Prince Anton tells the sisters that they can have the local apothecary shop to live and trade in, as long as Celine uses her gift to help him solve a local mystery.  Recently, several young women have been killed by means unknown.  They go to bed perfectly healthy, only to be found in the morning, still lying in their beds, but as dessicated husks.  The deal is too good to pass up, despite the inherent risks when dealing with royalty.

Whether you know the Noble Dead books or not (I don’t) this is a solidly entertaining fantasy.  The sisters have very legitimate reasons for acting and reacting as they do.  They’ve spent years fearing the local Prince and his men-at-arms.  Being suddenly offered a life of safety and prosperity seems too good to be true.  Both sisters have a lot to learn about life in general and their mother’s past.  The inhabitants of the castle and surrounding village all seem very realistic.  The pacing is so quick that the pages seemed to turn themselves.  If you like your fantasy on the dark side with a dash of intrigue, you'll enjoy this book.  I hope for many more books in this series.
Rating: 8
May 2013
ISBN# 978-0-451-41415-1 (paperback)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Generation V - M.L. Brennan

Generation V
M.L. Brennan
Urban Fantasy/Paranormal
At first glance, Fortitude Scott looks like any other 26-year-old guy who’s finally got his degree in film theory and parlayed it into a solid job at a coffee shop.  The deeper truth, and the truth he’d like to forget, is that he comes from an unusual family.  They’re vampires, and so is he.  Well, almost.  He’s not quite a full vampire yet, and he’d really like to stay that way.  His older brother and sister (they’re centuries older than he is) seem like completely alien beings to him, and he’d rather maintain his humanity for as long as possible.

It was at this point that I thought I’d happened on another dreary, emo, I-hate-being-a-vampire kind of character.  I’m so glad I kept reading, because this book and this character are so much more than that.  Fort comes across as a pretty regular guy with a bunch of not-regular problems.  Sure, he’s not keen on being a creature of the night, but he’s not a whiny, sparkly mess, either.  In fact, when he starts whining, there’s always someone there to call him on it.  And, when the chips are down, he comes through in a big way. 
This version of the vampire mythos is original and believable.  Vampires don’t have little vampires.  Making little vampires is a long, difficult, unhappy, and very messy affair.  That’s why there are so few of them.  Fort’s blood mother, Madeleine, is something of a legend, since she has three offspring – a feat unheard of in supernatural circles. It’s because of her astounding success that Luca, a vampire from Italy, travels to the U.S. to meet Madeline.  The meeting is something like heads of state getting together, since Luca has to ask permission to enter Madeline’s territory and Madeline has to extend her hospitality to him. 
Luca is the first not-family vampire that Fort has ever met, and he’s not impressed.  The guy travels with a sort of entourage that includes a very young and very obviously abused girl.  The wounds all over the girl’s skin and her dead eyes tell the story.  Fort is horrified and wants to rescue her, but he’s clearly the only one in the room who finds her presence remarkable.  It’s not long before other girls go missing.  It’s no secret to Fort who’s got them, and he plans to stop Luca by any means necessary.
Fort’s character has a long and relatable backstory.  I won’t spoil any of it by detailing it here, but he’s got real and justifiable reasons for not wanting to live with his family.  After Luca arrives, Suzume appears in Fort’s life.  She’s a kitsune (a Japanese shapeshifter) hired by Madeline to protect Fort.  As the two of them spend time together, Fort’s character really blossoms and becomes someone you can really root for.  Suzume’s family also has a long history, some of it very darkly touching.  The world-building here is solid and fully realized.  The story’s pace is quite fast, with necessary exposition woven into the narrative in unobtrusive ways.  Each character is a detailed individual, with backstory and solid reasons for their actions and attitudes.  Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys fantasy with an edge.
Rating: 8 ½
May 2013
ISBN# 978-0-451-41840-1 (paperback)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Gluten For Punishment - Nancy J. Parra

Gluten For Punishment
A Baker’s Treat Mystery
Nancy J. Parra
Berkley Prime Crime

In this first book of a new series, Toni Holmes returns to her Oiltop, Kansas roots after a bitter divorce.  Her mother’s passing left her a huge Victorian house (and a stipulation to shelter any member of her huge family that needs it) in her hometown.  A newly-constructed dam is creating a new lake in the area and the chamber of commerce hopes that this will bring an influx of tourists to the town.  At present, most of the townspeople either work at one of the refineries (thus, the town name) or farm the outlying lands.  But the new lake signals a need for more tourist-friendly businesses.  Toni’s best friend, Tasha, runs the only B&B in town, and urges Toni to think about transforming her huge house into another B&B.
Toni has just about all she can handle with her new bakery.  She started it as an online business while she lived in Chicago.  Moving back to Oiltop meant opening a storefront, and the online part of the business moved right along with her.  Baker’s Treat is a gluten-free bakery.  It’s not something that’s popular in the Midwest, but Toni lives with celiac disease – meaning she can’t digest wheat products – so it seems like a natural fit for her.  The residents of Oiltop are wary of gluten-free, thinking it’s some oddball fad diet.  And the farmers who grow wheat seem to think she’s trying to drive them out of business.  During the ribbon-cutting for the bakery, someone throws flour bombs.  The next morning, Toni finds a man who seems to be passed out drunk in front of the bakery.  There’s a can of spray paint next to him and graffiti on her storefront.  To her horror, it turns out that the man, a local wheat farmer and gluten-free opponent, is dead.  Even worse, Toni is the prime suspect.
The investigation by the local police seems less than capable, so Toni and her irrepressible Grandma Ruth (at the age of 90, she’s still looking to get back on the staff of the local newspaper she loves so much) begin their own investigation.  This works better than you might think, since Grandma Ruth has her finger on the pulse of the town.  She knows everyone, and if there’s gossip she hasn’t heard, she knows how to get to it.  Fortunately, her character never becomes a caricature.  She’s an independent woman who’s seen a lot and is impossible to shock.  Toni’s friend Tasha helps out, in between running her B&B and caring for her autistic son, Kip.

Parts of this story seem a little on the dark side for a cozy mystery, but I found that refreshing.  The story is constructed quite well, with events building bit by bit after the initial shock of finding the body.  The townspeople and business owners are all individuals – some are likeable, some are not, and some just need time to grow on you.  I felt that Toni’s incipient love triangle (she doesn’t want to date, but the two hottest guys around are completely smitten) was very much overdone, but then, I always feel that way about the romances in mysteries, so your mileage will most likely vary.  Overall, this is a very entertaining first installment in a new mystery series.  There are gluten-free recipes included that look easy and tasty enough for any home baker to try.  I know I’ll be headed back to Oiltop and Baker’s Treat as soon as possible.
Rating: 7 ½
May 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25210-9 (paperback)

Monday, May 20, 2013

Cat Nap - Claire Donally

Cat Nap
A Sunny & Shadow Mystery
Claire Donally
Berkley Prime Crime
I guess the lesson here boils down to this: choose your vet very carefully.  Jane and Martin Rigsdale are veterinarians who used to be married.  Both popular around the small town of Kittery Harbor, Maine, they made a strikingly handsome couple.  But, when the marriage unraveled (due to Martin’s roving… eye) so did their business partnership.  Jane has gone on to increase her work with homeless animals, getting a grant to do so.  Martin, never good with money, thinks he sees a way to get his hands on some quick cash.  He’s wrong.
After a fairly public blow-up, Martin approaches Sunny for help.  He says that if Sunny can help him get his hands on some of Jane’s money, he’d be happy to spend some of it on Sunny.  Since Sunny has a brain and a conscience, she tells Martin to get lost, then contacts Jane.  Sunny agrees to go to Martin’s new vet office with Jane to explain the financial realities to Martin.  When they get there, they find him in an exam room, dead.  Of course the young, blonde receptionist (clearly another of Martin’s conquests) immediately tells the police that Jane and/or Sunny must have killed Martin.  Lacking any other viable suspects, the police focus their attention on Jane.
The main mystery is quite absorbing and unfolds in quite an unexpected way.  There are plenty of suspects, from duped and dumped women to people who felt his medical practices were less than above-board.  The suspect pool just keeps getting wider.  Shadow, of course, has his own plotline here, and some of his scenes (narrated from his point of view) are quite touching.  The final outcome was both surprising and satisfying on all levels.  Animal lovers will adore this series (beginning with THE BIG KITTY) and mystery lovers will enjoy the offbeat plotlines and realistic characters.
Rating: 7 ½
May 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25213-0 (paperback)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Every Trick In The Book - Lucy Arlington

Every Trick In The Book
A Novel Idea Mystery
Lucy Arlington
Berkley Prime Crime
In just a few short months, Lila Wilkins went from laid-off reporter to literary agency temp to literary agent.  She’s bought a house and settled into bucolic Inspiration Valley.  Everything seems to be going perfectly.  As the story begins, the agency, A Novel Idea, is gearing up to host their first annual book conference.  One of the attendees, an editor from New York, bears a striking resemblance to Lila.  The two bond over it and become friendly.  That bond is severed forever when the editor is found dead at the conference site.  Lila immediately suspects a creepy-looking guy she’s seen wandering around the event, but has no name to put to the face.

This is the second installment (following BURIED IN A BOOK) in what is shaping up to be an entertaining series.  The inner workings of a literary agency will be fascinating to even the most casual reader.  The various agents’ personalities so clearly match their genres that it’s easy to keep them all straight.  It’s obvious that Lila feels a kinship to the dead woman; looks aside, the woman leaves behind a husband and small son.  Lila knows how difficult it is, financially and emotionally, to be a single parent.

There’s an interesting subplot afoot, concerning Lila’s son Trey and the co-op where he lives and works.  Lila is of two minds about the co-op.  It’s clearly been good for Trey, but she was hoping he’d start college this fall instead of working as a glorified goatherd.  By the end of the book, all of that is resolved in a fairly unique way.  The major mystery is involving and interesting.  It’s complicated enough to be interesting while still maintaining an air of sadness for everyone involved.  Even in a cozy, murder shouldn’t be taken lightly.  There’s a ‘teaser’ chapter at the end, promising another outing with Lila and her friends.  I’m looking forward to it.
Rating: 7
February 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25167-6 (paperback)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Topped Chef - Lucy Burdette

Topped Chef
A Key West Food Critic Mystery
Lucy Burdette
Life is never dull in Key West.  As the food critic for local magazine, Key Zest, Hayley snow just hit a milestone: her first negative restaurant review.  Any owner is going to be unhappy about a not-great review, and Hayley feels more than a little guilty about panning someone’s livelihood.  Her guilt evaporates just a bit when she enters her office one morning to find chef Sam Rizzoli in her boss’ office, yelling.  But Wally, Hayley’s boss, has been in the business for a while, and tells her that being honest is more important than being nice.

And while we’re on the topic of honesty, there’s a reality TV cooking show taping in Key West, and they want Hayley to be one of the judges.  The first taping session starts in about half an hour.  Hayley is horrified to discover that Sam is going to be one of her fellow judges.  When he’s not disagreeing with her, he ignores her.  That night, police and emergency crews converge on one of the local docks to remove a body hanging from a ship’s rigging.  It’s Sam.  Once again, Hayley finds herself involved in a murder investigation.
This is the third installment of this fun series, following AN APPETITE FOR MURDER and MURDER IN FOUR COURSES.  Anyone who enjoys mysteries based around cooking will enjoy this series.  Hayley has really grown over the past two books, and she’s coming into her own as a food critic.  Her struggle with writing and publishing a negative review is something that really resonates with me.  It never feels good to say negative things about someone’s work, even if those things are true. 
Fortunately, I have no such problems here.  The Key West setting is fantastic, as always.  The author makes the setting and characters really come alive.  It’s fun to watch Hayley navigate her way through the kinds of career and personal incidents that any reader can understand.  The supporting cast is an interesting and believable group of individuals.  The backdrop of the reality cooking contest just adds an extra bit of spice to this satisfying concoction.  I’m hoping for another helping of Hayley and Company very soon.  And I’ll be trying the included recipe for lime cupcakes even sooner.
Rating: 7 ½
May 2013
ISBN# 978-0-451-23970-9 (paperback)

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Tales Of Majipoor - Robert SIlverberg

Tales Of Majipoor
Robert Silverberg
Fantasy/Short Fiction

Confession: I have never read Silverberg’s Majipoor books.  I know that Majipoor is a huge planet and that its history (the history of the people who colonized it) covers many thousands of years.  That’s about it.  And even those tidbits are more than I actually needed to know to read and enjoy these stories.  That’s what makes this collection perfect for someone who’s just dipping into the world, and, I would think, enjoyable for a longtime fan, too.
There are seven stories here, arranged chronologically from Majipoor’s historical standpoint.  The first story concerns a man called Stiamot who, as a court functionary, travels to far-flung places to ready accommodations for the ruling Coronal’s periodic progresses.  During the course of the story, he sees a Metamorph (the indigenous population, capable of shape-shifting) for the first time.  The trip changes his life in several ways.  Obviously, fans of the novels will understand this immediately – and probably more deeply – than a newcomer like me.  But I found that arranging the stories in this sort of timeline fashion was a perfect introduction to the world and its history.
The stories continue through a struggling poet called Aithin Furvain, a man whose mission in life it is to collect and curate all information about the Coronal Dvoran, and finally ends with a sort of murder mystery set in the ruins of a Metamorph city and investigated by Valentine.  There are a couple of stories that are crafted as mysteries, and they work quite well.  Each story is vastly entertaining in its own right, and I enjoyed following the connections among them.  For longtime fans of the series, it’s worth noting that this is the first time that all of Silverberg’s short fiction concerning Majipoor has been collected in one place.  After reading these stories, I find I’ve developed a taste for Majipoor and I don’t need a trip to the Midnight Market to foresee the novels in my future.
Rating: 8 ½
May 2013
ISBN# 978-0-451-46498-9 (trade paperback)