Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Traitor's Tale - Margaret Frazer

The Traitor’s Tale
A Dame Frevisse Medieval Mystery
Margaret Frazer
Berkley Prime Crime


July of 1450 may be the beginning of the end of the Hundred Years’ War, but there’s still plenty of treachery and political intrigue. Dame Frevisse, a Benedictine nun who would like nothing more than to be left to her devotions, must leave her abbey to help her cousin, Lady Alice. Lady Alice’s husband, the duke of Suffolk, is dead, murdered. It hardly counts as news to say that Suffolk was not well-loved by the local populace, and it isn’t long before Suffolk’s men begin dying or disappearing under mysterious circumstances.

Enter the duke of York, in the person of traveling player Simon Joliffe. York believes that Suffolk penned a letter before he died, listing the names of those who conspired with the hated French. Plenty of people would like to get their hands on that letter, including Lady Alice, who wants it to secure her son’s heritage. York, who is currently in exile, is loved by the people, who would like nothing more than to see him return and shore up the weak King Henry VI. Although it appears that they’re working at cross-purposes, it’s clear to Joliffe and Dame Frevisse that the best course of action is to join forces, work together, and find the letter before more English blood is spilled.

When you pick up a Margaret Frazer novel, you know you’re in for a treat. She has a marvelous way of weaving historical details, facts, politics, and the ins and outs of everyday medieval life into the fabric of her novels. If history texts were written in such a fascinating way, I’m convinced that every schoolchild would become a scholar. Political assassination is a bit different from the crimes that the indefatigable Dame Frevisse usually investigates, but her keen mind is more than equal to the task. Joliffe makes the perfect foil for the reverend lady, as he can access people and places that she cannot. While this is the latest in a series, each book can easily be read on its own merits. I must admit, though, to a burning desire to cloister myself with the entire series and read it from beginning to end.

Rating: 8 ½
January 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21370-4 (hardcover)

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Man in the Middle - Brian Haig

Man in the Middle
Brian Haig
Warner Books

Mystery/Legal Thriller

The year is 2004, and Sean Drummond, a JAG attorney, is currently on loan to the CIA, specifically, the Office of Special Projects. As the story begins, however, he’s introducing himself as FBI at a murder scene. The scene is the apartment of one Clifford Daniels, a high-ranking civilian on staff with the Secretary of Defense. Daniels apparently died from a gunshot wound to the head. The question, aside from concerns about the rather unusual condition of the body, is whether the death is murder or suicide. Also on the scene is Bian Tran, a Major with the Military Police who reports to the Secretary of Defense. It’s clear that there’s a high level of concern over this death.

As the investigation progresses, it only becomes more complicated. Daniels functioned as a liaison between Defense and an Iraqi exile who advocated the overthrow of Hussein’s regime. As layer after layer is uncovered, it looks like the Iraqi may have been passing information to the Iranians. And it’s possible that Daniels may have been leaking information, too. The looming presidential election has a lot of people scrambling to cover a lot of butts, and it will take Drummond’s special blend of wit and intelligence to cut to the heart of things.

The author notes that it’s always difficult to write a book based on political realities of the moment, because those realities not only shift but also become divisive. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, however, this is a solid thriller backed by research and understanding. Drummond may be an acquired taste for some, but, for me, his dry wit makes him a great character. MAN IN THE MIDDLE is a deeper and more thought-provoking novel than previous novels. The author manages to juggle a large cast of characters, locations, and plot twists, fashioning a big, fast, roller coaster of a read.

Rating: 8
January 2007
ISBN# 0-446-53056-5 (hardcover)

Chain Mail - Hiroshi Ishizaki

Chain Mail
Addicted to You
Hiroshi Ishizaki

Young Adult/Thriller

In Tokyo, junior high student Sawako gets a surprise message on her cell phone, inviting her to join in on an interactive story. The idea is that each participant will write a character in a story about a girl, a tutor, a detective, and a stalker. Sawako, an overachiever with no friends to speak of, is excited about the opportunity to be creative and to connect with other young people. Mayumi and Mai are two more girls who get the same message. Although the girls don’t recognize the name of the person who sent the messages, it sounds like fun.

The originator of the message, Yukari, takes on the character of the stalker in the story. For a time, it’s fun and the girls get very involved. Then, Sawako goes missing both in the story and in real life. For the first time, the other two girls wonder about how much of this is reality and how much is fantasy. And will one of them be next?

A very interesting take on the story-within-a-story format, CHAIN MAIL makes excellent use of the ever-present cell phones and teenage culture. While that culture takes place in Tokyo, teenage girls aren’t so different from one side of the world to another. A tight plot and ‘it could happen to you’ feel may disturb more sensitive readers; but most readers will be instantly drawn into this novel, and will want to read it in one sitting.

Rating: 7 ½
January 2007
ISBN# 1-59816-581-X

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Princeton Impostor - Ann Waldron

The Princeton Impostor
Death is Academic
Ann Waldron
Berkley Prime Crime


Professor McLeod Dulaney is enjoying this semester teaching at Princeton. This term, she’s teaching a nonfiction writing class, currently focusing on interviewing and writing about individuals. During class, she’s shocked when the police arrive and ask student Greg Pierre to leave with them. Greg is a quiet student, but it’s become clear that he’s a very talented writer. Once class is over, McLeod demands an explanation. What she hears is stunning.

It seems that Greg Pierre doesn’t exist. The best student in her class is really Bob Billings, and he’s wanted in Wyoming for violating his parole. His offense is a shocker, too: possession to sell crystal meth. Greg/Bob claims he’s innocent; that he was framed. Of course, so do most people who are arrested. But he pled guilty in exchange for a shorter sentence. As Bob Billings, he says he was accepted to Princeton, but wrote them a letter, requesting deferment to care for his dying mother. Which was creative, but another lie. McLeod is the only person in his corner. But that position becomes even more perilous when the student who blew the whistle on the imposter is found dead. Who would have a better motive? McLeod determines to answer that question.

This is the latest in a series, but the first I’ve read. I had no trouble at all jumping in at this point. While I, personally, found McLeod’s instant belief in the innocence of Greg/Bob naïve, it’s a necessary plot point, and seems to fit her character. The academic setting, as anyone who has been there will tell you, is always fraught with intrigue and backstabbing, though usually of the political variety. Given faculty and the student body, plus ancillary characters, there are plenty of suspects, making this an interesting mystery. McLeod is the kind of teacher everyone wants: she honestly cares about her students and their futures. That makes for a very appealing character.

Rating: 7
January 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21362-9 (paperback)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Stalking Ivory - Suzanne Arruda

Stalking Ivory
A Jade del Cameron Mystery
Suzanne Arruda
New American Library


In 1920, WWI is over and with it, the need for female ambulance drivers. In search of further adventure, the ever-resourceful Jade travels to East Africa with her friends Beverly and Avery Dunbury. The group is headed for Mount Marsabit to film the indigenous elephants there. But their trip is sidelined by the shocking discovery of a group of corpses. Three are elephants, clearly slain for their ivory tusks; the other is human.

Local authorities attribute the crimes to local poachers, but Jade isn’t so sure. Her former, and persistent, boyfriend, Harry Hascombe, is also in the area, leading safaris of all things. Jade knows that Harry’s sliding scale of ethics would hardly prevent him from leading elephant-hunting expeditions. When she learns that he’s currently leading a group of suspiciously well-armed Germans, her doubts increase. She, with a bit of help from American pilot Sam Featherstone, decides to solve the murder case and try to put an end to the poaching.

Jade is a wonderful creation. She’s independent and intelligent without being abrasive. She’s fearless without surrendering her femininity. And she’s not afraid to take a moral stand. Readers who followed her adventures in MARK OF THE LION (1/06) know all of this already. New readers will be happy to meet this engaging amateur sleuth. The African setting provides a perfect backdrop for the action; and the author's experience with animals shines through clearly. Superior characterizations and a well-plotted mystery make for a worthy addition to this fine new historical series.

Rating: 8 ½
January 2007
ISBN# 978-0-451-22026-4 (hardcover)

Death on the Flop - Jackie Chance

Death on the Flop
The First Poker Mystery
Jackie Chance
Berkley Prime Crime


Belinda (Bee) Cooley has had a really rotten week. She turned forty and is taking it hard. She quit her job as an advertising executive after breaking off her engagement to her boss. She broke off the engagement when she discovered her boss/fiancé boinking his twenty-two year old assistant in his office. Which is why, when we meet Bee, she’s throwing herself a great big pity party. Her plans for sitting around, feeling sorry for herself change, though, when her fraternal twin, Ben, arrives. He announces that he’s taking Bee to Vegas. Eventually, he admits that it’s not only a birthday get-away-from-it-all trip. Ben is registered in a Texas Hold ‘Em pro-am poker tournament. It’s big money and high profile; the last few rounds will be televised. Bee isn’t sure she likes the idea of either poker or Vegas, but she finally caves to her brother.

The siblings check into a suite at the Lanai Hotel, where the tournament will be held. Ben decides to scope out the competition, in particular, one Steely Stan, a pro player with a very nasty rep. When he doesn’t return for hours, Bee gets worried and goes looking for him. Too impatient to wait for the elevator, Bee is in the stairwell when she overhears an ominous conversation about someone needing to ‘deal with’ a stalker because of what he might have overheard. Shaken, she leaves the stairwell and continues her fruitless search. Arriving back at the suite, she finds a ransacked the room, and a blood smear on one wall.

Frank Gilbert, a security expert Bee met earlier in the evening, advises against calling the sheriff. According to Frank, you never know which deputy is corrupt and on the mob’s payroll. Testing that theory, Bee pretty much storms the front desk and demands to speak to the police. The head of security for the tournament happens to be right there. He also happens to be one of the men from the stairwell. Bee decides her best course of action is to hide in plain sight. She’ll take her brother’s place in the poker tournament. She should be relatively safe in such a high-visibility event; and her participation will allow her access to other players who may know something about Ben’s disappearance. One little problem, though: She’s never played the game.

With the recent surge in popularity of poker (who would have thought televised poker games would be ratings hits?) it was probably inevitable to set a series of mysteries around the game. And Vegas, with its unending cast of incredible characters, is a great venue for mysteries of all kinds. Even if you’ve never played a hand of Texas Hold ‘Em in your life – I haven’t – you’ll have no problems following the story. The author very neatly sets out the basic rules, and then allows the reader to watch the action as it unfolds. This is the solid beginning of what looks to be a promising series.

Rating: 7
January 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21348-3 (paperback)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Dance of the Gods - Nora Roberts

Dance of the Gods
Book Two of The Circle Trilogy
Nora Roberts


NOTE: If you have not read the first installment, MORRIGAN’S CROSS, this review contains significant plot spoilers.

When we last left 12th century sorcerer Hoyt MacCionaoith, he had rounded up the individuals needed to complete The Circle. The warrior goddess Morrigan tasked Hoyt and the others with an epic battle against the evil Lilith and her demon fighters. Now ensconced in Hoyt’s ancestral home, the group begins to prepare in earnest for the fight to come. But preparations are often interrupted by internal conflicts; sporadic smaller attacks by Lilith’s minions, and a developing romance.

The group includes a demon-hunter, Blair, who is a thoroughly modern and kick-ass woman. There will be inevitable and tedious comparisons to Buffy, but the author manages to put an interesting spin on things to keep it fresh. The final battle, which will take place in a magical realm the gods control, will begin in only a few days’ time. Lilith and her minions conspire to keep The Circle off balance by continuing to attack and by taking hostages. And, in that new realm a new queen will be revealed and the group will have to prepare the local populace for the battle while continuing to protect themselves and The Circle.

Fans of Nora Roberts who are looking for a nice, sweet romance should look elsewhere. This is paranormal fantasy, it’s dark and contains violence and magic and gore, and the author does it quite well. As in the first book, there is a romance, and this time it’s more organic. In fact, this second installment outshines the first one a bit. To her great credit, Roberts manages to give each of the many players a distinct personality that fuels their actions, making everything that much more believable. I’m anxious to get to the third and final book.

Rating: 8 ½
October 2006
ISBN# 0-515-14166-6 (paperback)

Morrigan's Cross - Nora Roberts

Morrigan’s Cross
Book One of The Circle Trilogy
Nora Roberts


In Ireland in 1128, sorcerer Hoyt MacCionaoith is gearing up for battle. A vampire took his twin brother, Cian, and Hoyt blames himself for not being there to protect him. It only takes one short encounter for Hoyt to realize that this vampire, Lilith, is a creature of immense power and magic; it will be impossible for him to fight her alone. Fortunately, it will also be unnecessary. Morrigan, goddess of battle, comes to Hoyt and tells him that the fight against Lilith and her minions is the fight against evil.

The fight will range across space and time, and can only be won after he has assembled certain individuals who make up The Circle. To do so, Hoyt travels to present-day Manhattan, where he meets Glenna, a modern-day witch, and one of those needed for the battle. Returning to the MacCionaoith ancestral home to prepare, the two are joined by two more fighters.

Since this is a Nora Roberts novel, it should come as no surprise to anyone that this book contains the beginnings of a romantic relationship. At the risk of committing heresy, I admit that I had no interest in the romance and feel that the book would have been better without it. Of course, the vast majority of Roberts’ readers would be (even more) shocked and dismayed by the absence of romance, so its inclusion is understandable. I say “even more” because I feel fairly sure that many longtime Roberts readers will be uncomfortable with this foray into the darker, bloodier side of the paranormal. I, on the other hand, really enjoyed it, and hope to see more like this from her in the future.

Rating: 8
September 2006
ISBN# 0-515-14165-8 (paperback)

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Suspect - John Lescroart

The Suspect
John Lescroart

Mystery/Legal Thriller

Well. I’m conflicted about this one. On the one hand, there’s a solid story here about how much easier it is to prove guilt than to disprove it, populated with interesting, mostly likeable characters. On the other hand, some of these characters, capable professionals all, act like dim children far too often; and the unmasking of the real killer happens thanks to machinations that would make Scooby Doo scoff. I really wanted to like this one a lot more than I did. And, I happen to know that this author is generally rock-solid when it comes to legal thrillers.

The setup of the story is the high point. It begins with Stuart Gorman, outdoors writer and husband of 22 years, reflecting on the bewildering changes in his wife and his marriage. Their daughter has just gone off to college, and Caryn, an orthopedic surgeon, major breadwinner, and inventor of an orthopedic device that is close to being approved by the FDA, has completely tired of her life with Stuart. Over the past few years, the two have grown apart, and, that Friday, Caryn announced that she wants a divorce. The announcement shocks and angers Stuart, to the point that he feels the need to retreat to his mountain cabin for a few days.

By Monday, Stuart, still seething, is home, and the police are all over the house. According to Stuart, he arrived home early Monday morning to find his wife, dead in the hot tub. He claims he has nothing to hide and tells the investigating officer about arguing with his wife, the fact that she asked for a divorce, and spending the weekend out of town. Of course, the police are going to look at the inheriting husband first, especially when that husband is going to inherit millions. After much urging by friends, Stuart retains defense attorney, Gina Roake.

Gina is still dealing with the death of her fiancé, but is ready to get back to the law. Stuart’s case is big, and could be just what Gina needs, both personally and professionally. And this, sadly, is where things start to unravel. Gina, a longtime defense attorney and partner in her own law firm, almost instantly allows her personal feelings to color her dealings with Stuart. She swings from incredibly angry at the thought that Stuart might be lying to her (not that he might have killed someone, but that he’s lying about it) to feeling attracted to him. For his part, Stuart squanders the early sympathy readers might feel for a regular guy who’s had life’s rug yanked out from under him by professing complete bewilderment that the police might suspect him. The underlying plot is solid, but the characters’ choices make it difficult to fully invest in them. This one is a bit of a misstep from a generally fine author.

Rating: 7
January 2007
ISBN# 0-525-94998-4 (hardcover)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Terror - Dan Simmons

The Terror
Dan Simmons
Little, Brown and Company


In May of 1845, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror left England on an expedition to find the fabled Polar Sea and navigate the North-West Passage. When the voyage began, there were 129 sailors aboard the ships. By November of 1847, when the two ships were frozen in pack ice around King William Island in the north, only 59 men remained. Some died of scurvy, accident, or other illness. Others were taken, one by one, by something that lurks among the alien and ever- changing landscape of ice.

Captain Sir John Francis, leader of the expedition and captain of the Erebus was supremely confident in his ability to be the first to sail the unknown North-West Passage. So confident that he had no time to listen to the warnings given by other polar explorers, nor the warnings and explanations of dangers given by his Ice Masters. Sir John remained, until his death, positive that his force of will would overcome the forces of nature. His second-in-command, Captain Francis Crozier, a bitter but experienced seaman, had no such faith. Upon Sir John’s death, Crozier assumed command of what appeared to be a doomed and dying expedition.

The ships have been ice-locked for over a year. Sub-zero temperatures and poor food had the men exhausted even before the arrival of the creature. Sailors are a superstitious lot, and while some believe the creature is simply some kind of polar bear, others believe there must be a supernatural explanation. Bolstering this fear is the fact that the first killing coincided with the arrival of a mute Esquimaux woman that the men have named Lady Silence. In the dead of a dark, arctic winter, his men being picked off by some unknown creature, Crozier must make some harsh decisions if anyone is to survive.

The main facts of the story should be familiar, since the novel is based upon a real arctic expedition. The author has not only done his research, he’s fleshed out the characters and events and made them come alive. The horrible conditions, the freezing cold, the paralyzing fear, seem very real to the reader. So real, in fact, that I spent most of my reading time shivering or reaching for a blanket. The story is told in chapters narrated by Sir John, Crozier, and a ship’s surgeon’s mate and would-be naturalist on his first voyage. Each character has his own unique voice and viewpoint that, when put together, paint a vivid picture.

At something around 800 pages, the story still flies. Nothing seems extraneous or padded. Each page adds to the creeping unease, the sense of dread that eventually pervades the group of marooned sailors. This book rarely left my hands during the few days it took me to read it; and when it did, it was not far from my thoughts. It’s not often that I finish such an epic story and want nothing more than to turn back to the first page and begin again, watching events unfold. I cannot recommend this highly enough for readers with an interest in history, naval history, arctic expeditions, horror, thrillers, character studies, or unforgettable reads. Horror and scifi fans already know this author. THE TERROR should cement Hugo winner Dan Simmons’ reputation with readers everywhere.

Rating: 10
January 2007
ISBN# 0-316-01744-2 (hardcover)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

True Faith - Alan Gold

True Faith
Alan Gold
Berkley Prime Crime


It was a stereotypical dark and stormy night, not all that unusual in Oregon, when Grace Geller, the rabbi’s wife, arrived home. While on the phone with Roberta, her adult daughter, she hears someone at the door. Telling her daughter that it’s “the bathroom guy,” meaning the guy who stopped by the week before to use the bathroom, she opens the door. This time, the bathroom guy has brought a friend with him. Her shocked daughter listens over the phone as the intruders bludgeon her mother to death. Grace’s son, Robbie, an EMT, responds to the call and must be restrained from entering the scene until most of the work is done. When he does enter, he finds his father coolly smoking a cigarette, something his mother would never have allowed in the house.

Cut to four years later. The two men who did the killing were arrested and convicted. Their story is that the rabbi hired them to kill his wife. When one of the two recants his confession, the case falls apart and ends up in a mistrial. Roberta harbors some serious doubts about her father’s innocence. She knows her parents were having problems, and she can’t shake the feeling that he did, in fact, hire the men who killed her mother. With no new trial on the horizon, Roberta turns to investigative reporter Lou Tedesco. Lou is known for digging until he has the truth, and what he finds out during the initial cursory back-check only fuels his curiosity.

The story, while fictionalized, is based on true events. As he did in his first book, TRUE CRIME (2/05) the author is careful not to sensationalize or trivialize the events or the effects on the family members. This time out, Lou is a more reluctant participant at the outset, but it doesn’t take long before his desire for the truth overrides his resistance. In fact, it’s easy to forget that this is based in truth, since it reads like the best kind of mystery/legal thriller. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader interested, and the pacing never flags. This novel surpasses the first, and is clearly the start of a great series.

Rating: 7 ½
January 2006
ISBN# 978-0-425-20856-4 (paperback)

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Lady of Serpents - Douglas Clegg

The Lady of Serpents
Vampyricon, Book 2
Douglas Clegg

Dark Fantasy / Vampire

Note: This is a sequel to PRIEST OF BLOOD. If you haven’t read the first book, this review contains plot spoilers.

The previous volume introduced Aleric, a boy born into abject poverty in medieval Brittany. Through luck and skill, he was able to rise to the post of Falconer in the local Baron’s house. But a forbidden love with the Baron’s daughter resulted in his being sent to fight in the Crusades. In an abandoned city, Aleric met a creature that changed his very nature. Hailed as the Chosen One who would save the vampyre tribes, Aleric journeyed to their ancestral home and discovered their secrets. Upon his return, he found his tribe under attack, and he and his faithful friend, Ewen, where thrown into a covered well and left to starve.

Not a noble or fitting end to the one who was to be the savior of the vampyre race. For eleven long years, Aleric and Ewen managed to survive by feeding on each other, growing weaker as the years progressed. They gain their freedom only to find themselves enslaved in a new way. They’re forced to fight for their survival. And, all the time, they know that an evil sorceress with a thirst for power and immortality, and her shadow warriors, are taking over humanity. They must not only survive, but also find a way to stop the shadows from spreading.

In this volume, Aleric tells the tale of his adventures during a “lost century” of human time, sometime during the Dark Ages. In this time, vampyres existed, alongside other supernatural creatures and mankind. The author makes all of this very accessible. Aleric is an excellent narrator, filling in background when needed. The pacing is necessarily a bit slower in the beginning, during Aleric’s imprisonment, but picks up afterwards, and stays strong until the end. It’s clear that a third volume is planned, and I’m looking forward to it. If you haven’t yet discovered horror writer Douglas Clegg, this is the time to do so. He artfully combines dark fantasy and vampire fiction, while giving each a fresh twist.

Rating: 7 ½
September 2006
ISBN# 0-441-01438-0 (hardcover)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

You're The One That I Want - Cecily von Ziegesar

You’re The One That I Want
Gossip Girl #6
Cecily von Ziegesar
Little, Brown and Company

Young Adult (ages 15 and up)

Note: If you haven’t read the first books in the series, this review contains plot spoilers.

The waiting is over for all those second-semester seniors. It’s April, and the letters of acceptance (or not) from colleges are in the mail. This year, the letters are being mailed in batches by zip code, so pretty much everyone in Manhattan will be getting the news at the same time. Blair Waldorf wants to go to Yale more than anything in the world. Maybe even more than she wants Nate. Which is probably a good thing, since they’re still not speaking. Blair talks her best friend, Serena, into opening their college letters together. Serena, knowing how incredibly competitive Blair is, thinks this is a lousy idea, but caves in the face of Blair’s insistence. When the letters arrive, everyone gets some pretty big surprises. Yes, everyone.

Vanessa, who got early acceptance to NYU, is busy filming a documentary about how the process of applying to college, then waiting for letters makes seniors crazy. Self-styled tortured poet Daniel has the incredible joy of opening his letters in front of his dad and his younger sister, Jennifer. No pressure there. Speaking of Jennifer, the short yet very buxom freshman recently decided she wants to be a model. With Serena’s help, she lands a gig almost immediately, but it’s not quite what she had in mind. Everyone with acceptance letters starts making campus visits, and, true to form, Serena hits four campuses in one weekend and loves them all. And, now that we’re back to love, it might interest you to know that Blair finally finds true love in a very unexpected place.

Fans of this series know what to expect. The trials and tribulations of the cool Upper East Side kids, whose main problem seems to be which Ivy League School to attend. Well, except for a certain very cocky someone who managed to get rejected from literally everywhere. There’s plenty of fashion, parties, and angst, of course. And what would a Gossip Girl book be without hookups, makeups, and breakups? We still don’t know the identity of Gossip Girl, but there are more hints dropped, if you’re keeping track. And there are still questions to be answered in a future volume. I can’t wait.

Rating: 8
October 2004 (also available in 3-volume box set)
ISBN# 0-316-73516-7 (trade paperback)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I Like It Like That - Cecily von Ziegesar

I Like It Like That
Gossip Girl #5
Cecily von Ziegesar
Little, Brown and Company

Young Adult (ages 15 and up)

Note: If you haven’t read the first books in the series, this review contains plot spoilers.

So it’s March in Manhattan, and everyone is waiting for Easter break and acceptance letters. Most are waiting extremely impatiently for both. Not Vanessa, of course; she’s already been accepted to NYU. Her problem over break is that her hippie-dippie junk-artist parents are coming to visit from Vermont. Dan, meanwhile, is still jazzed about getting a poem published, and about his new internship at the very snooty, very literary magazine, Red Letter. Because first jobs always go so very well.

Blair bails on her family’s surfing safari to Oahu and goes skiing with Serena in Sun Valley, instead. Also in attendance? Serena’s older brother, Erik. Blair has known him forever, but she’s just now noticing how attractive he is. Is he the one? Nate is in town, too, with the wild girl he met in rehab and the Danish Olympic snowboarding team. So many guys, so little time, so much gossip.

These books are addictive. They’re fun and fast and completely impossible to put down. No matter which characters you love, or hate, or love to hate, they’re all back for another installment. This time, most of the action takes place in Sun Valley, instead of Manhattan, but it’s still the same Gossip Girl you know and love. There are still unanswered questions, relationships on the brink, will they or won’t they drama. You know you love it.

Rating: 8
May 2004 (also available in 3-volume box set)
ISBN# 0-316-73518-3 (trade paperback)

Because I'm Worth It - Cecily von Ziegesar

Because I’m Worth It
Gossip Girl #4
Cecily von Ziegesar
Little, Brown and Company

Young Adult (ages 15 and up)

Note: If you haven’t read the first books in the series, this review contains plot spoilers.

There’s no such thing as a dreary February for the posh teens of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The best way to combat the weather? Great clothes and a huge party. Blair Waldorf could use some cheer right about now. Her mother, recently married to a red-faced embarrassment of a man, is proudly pregnant. Lucky for Blair, something nice is about to happen. It seems her dad, who now lives in France with his “life partner” came through in a big way. After Blair had a meltdown of thermonuclear proportions in her Yale entrance interview, dad managed to get her a sort of second-chance interview. And the interviewer? Hot.

In other developments, Vanessa’s career as a filmmaker and Dan’s career as a poet are both taking off. Will it bind them together, or tear them apart? Jenny has a new and very interesting friend. The ever-smarmy Chuck appears to be taking his life in a whole different direction. Serena’s life is full of amazingly unexpected things, as always. And poor Nate loses the most important person in his life: his pot dealer. With Valentine’s Day, Fashion Week, and college trauma, at least life is never boring.

Gossip Girl, whose identity is still a mystery, fills in readers on all these details and more in this installment of the hugely popular series. Any teenager (and anyone who can remember being a teenager) will recognize a bit of herself in these books. Probably best not to recognize too much, though. Recommended for a fast, fun read.

Rating: 7 ½
October 2003 (also available in 3-volume box set)
ISBN# 0-316-90968-8 (trade paperback)

Monday, January 08, 2007

Glossed and Found - India Ink

Glossed and Found
A Bath and Body Mystery
India Ink
Berkley Prime Crime


It’s the holidays and business is booming at Venus Envy, the bath and beauty shop in Gull Harbor, WA. This is great news for Persia Vanderbilt and her Aunt Florence, the owners. But it also means having to think about putting on some extra help for the busy season. They’ve already hired a hair stylist, Seth, and a makeup artist, Lisa. Lisa and her sister are trying to iron out their recently deceased father’s estate. The estate is much smaller than anyone expected it to be, and creditors are calling.

The day of the Thanksgiving Gala, the social event of the season, Lisa disappears from Venus Envy, leaving only a note, customers, and a very irate Persia. The note is vague, but Lisa has talked to Persia about her suspicions that someone stole from her father’s estate. When Lisa doesn’t come home at all that night, her sister is frantic. The police quickly find Lisa’s car, locked and empty, parked next to a pier. Persia knows that the last thing Lisa would do is walk along the pier; she has a lifelong fear of water. The police believe that Lisa either drowned or left town on her own. Persia doesn’t believe either theory and joins the investigation, determined to find out what happened to her friend.

Persia is an interesting character with a complicated, but believable history. Her love for her aunt and their business informs all of her decisions, both personal and professional. Her job, creating custom fragrances, is fascinating and the basis of several of the included beauty/spa tips. The supporting characters are varied and quite realistic. The subplot, involving Persia’s best friend, Barb, and her meddling mother-in-law, will ring true for a good many people. There are a few smaller stories woven into the overall mystery, and they manage to complement, instead of compete with each other. A very enjoyable cozy for a cold winter night.

Rating: 7 ½
January 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21294-3 (paperback)

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Shoot from the Lip - Leann Sweeney

Shoot From the Lip
A Yellow Rose Mystery
Leann Sweeney


Abby Rose discovered her calling in life with her wealthy father died, leaving pools of cash to her and her twin sister, Kate. The girls were adopted, and not by legal means. Now Abby runs Yellow Rose Investigations, specializing in reuniting adopted children with their birth families. Assuming both parties agree, that is. Her sister, Kate, a practicing psychologist, consults on cases.

Out of the blue, a TV producer and her cameraman arrive at Abby’s door, asking her to participate in the taping of their reality show that, hilariously, airs on Coyote TV. The show, Reality Check, is a “lifestyle makeover show,” providing houses, or scholarships, or cosmetic surgery, or, apparently, whatever will draw the most viewers. In this case, they received a letter detailing the story of Emma Lopez who has been taking care of her three younger siblings since she was a teenager. Their only asset, the home her father left to her, is scheduled to be demolished shortly, and Reality Check wants to make news by building them a bigger, better home, and perhaps providing for the younger kids’ college funds.

The one huge hitch in the plan? The letter, sent by persons unknown, includes details of a missing fourth sibling. The baby, who would be about 15 now, disappeared shortly after her birth. As Emma tells Abby, once Abby convinces her that she’s not part of the show, Mom was a raging alcoholic. Mom gave birth to the baby at home in the bathtub with only 8-year-old Emma in attendance. When Emma returned from school the next day, the baby was gone. Mom had a story that barely fooled an 8-year-old and sounds mighty suspicious to adults. Then, a few years later, Mom disappeared, leaving the remaining children alone.

Now that the production company knows all about this, Emma wants out of the deal, new house or not. But she desperately wants to know what happened to her baby sister. That’s where Abby and Kate come in; they’ll launch an investigation to try and reunite the family. They do warn Emma and her now-teenaged siblings that the outcome may not be happy. They have no idea how right they are. Mere days later a shocking discovery sends the investigation in a whole new direction.

This is the fourth in this fine series, and, for my money, far and away the best to this point. The storyline is more complicated, with many layers and some deeper, darker, emotions at play. As a character, Abby is completely believable. She’s a woman who is dedicated to her work because of her own life experience. Emma and her family are characters that readers will root for; from their past to their present, readers will want to see them come out on top. If you’ve never read a book in this series, this is a great place to start, and newcomers will have no problems doing so. The story will engage readers from the first page to the surprising outcome. I’m really looking forward to more along this line.

Rating: 8 ½
January 2007
ISBN# 978-0-451-22017-2 (paperback)

Friday, January 05, 2007

Best Served Cold - Jimmie Ruth Evans

Best Served Cold
A Trailer Park Mystery
Jimmie Ruth Evans
Berkley Prime Crime


Wanda Nell Culpepper is just about finished with her evening shift at the Kountry Kitchen when she sees a customer she never expected. It’s Rusty, the younger brother she hasn’t seen since their mother’s funeral. At the time, Wanda Nell was furious that Rusty ignored their dying mother’s pleas to return home for a final visit, and she let him know it, in no uncertain terms. For the past six years, the siblings haven’t been in touch.

He refuses to tell Wanda Nell why he’s come back to town after living in Nashville for almost ten years. All he’ll tell her is that he has to take care of some things that are none of her business. The next day, Wanda Nell overhears Rusty having a nasty argument with Bert Vines, who went to high school with both of them. A few days later, the sheriff, Elmer Lee, is looking for Rusty. It seems that Reggie Campbell is dead; the back of his skull crushed. And there are witnesses who say Rusty had a violent argument with him just hours earlier. Wanda Nell is sure that her little brother isn’t capable of murder and vows to clear his name. But the more she digs into his activities, the less she likes what she finds.

After a bit of a sophomore slump, the third entry in this series is right back on track. Wanda Nell is a great character. She’s a single mother, and a grandmother thanks to her unmarried teen daughter, who works two jobs to keep her family afloat. It’s exhausting, but she does what she needs to do. Her sense of family loyalty is strong enough to compel her to go out on a limb for an estranged brother. For all that, she’s no fool, and realizes that life is often untidy. The supporting cast of characters deepens with each installment, and they all seem very realistic. The mystery here is complex and interesting; and the outcome is uncertain until the end. I’m looking forward to more from this steel magnolia of the trailer park.

Rating: 7 ½
January 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21349-0 (paperback)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

All I Want Is Everything - Cecily von Ziegesar

All I Want Is Everything
Gossip Girl #3
Cecily von Ziegesar
Little, Brown and Company

Young Adult (ages 15 and up)

Note: If you haven’t read the first books in the series, this review contains plot spoilers.

Christmastime in Manhattan is a magical time. Especially if you’ve got your parents’ credit cards and an unlimited spending limit. Or you’re planning a little Christmas trip to St. Bart’s, like Blair and Serena. Since the two made up at the end of the last installment, they’re doing everything together. And Blair needs Serena now, because she and Nate are no longer together. Aaron, Blair’s new stepbrother, is secretly fighting his attraction to his incredible new stepsister. As if that’s not bad enough, Nate is dating a freshman nobody with huge bazooms. Not that Blair cares. At all. Right.

In other news, filmmaker Vanessa and tortured poet Dan have finally come to their senses and are together. But Dan is freaked out and threatened by the fact that he’s a virgin and Vanessa is not. Vanessa is getting impatient with Dan overanalyzing everything in life. Jenny, the aforementioned freshman is just thrilled to be with the god-like Nate. Nate is mostly baked, and honestly doesn’t know what (or who) he really wants. Typical teenaged boy. And Serena? Well, naturally, Serena is being pursued by the hottest rock star on the planet. So, really, everything is pretty much the way it should be.

If you’ve read the first books in the series, you know that they’re like popcorn. Light, fluffy, and you simply can’t stop reading. You may not be in the same income bracket as these teens, but their problems, while slightly more expensive, will be familiar to high school students everywhere. And Gossip Girl, the anonymous owner of the site everyone reads, keeps all the information flowing. If you’re looking for a fun read, you’ve come to the right place.

Rating: 8
May 2003 (also available in 3-volume boxed set)
ISBN# 0-316-91212-3 (trade paperback)

You Know You Love Me - Cecily von Ziegesar

You Know You Love Me
Gossip Girl #2
Cecily von Ziegesar
Little, Brown and Company

Young Adult (ages 15 and up)

Note: If you haven’t read the first book in the series, this review contains plot spoilers.

Picking up right where GOSSIP GIRL left off, it’s wintertime in Manhattan, and all the students attending exclusive prep schools are concentrating on applying to colleges. Of course, being from wealthy families and privileged backgrounds, they’re expected to go Ivy League. Blair Waldorf, who never accepts second-best is fixated on going to Yale. Really, why even apply anywhere else? In her mind, she’s got it all planned out. She and boyfriend Nate will live together, off campus, and get married four years later. She’s got a surprise coming. More than one, actually. Nate is not at all sure that he’s going to get into Yale after spending a lot of his time lately baked. He’s also not happy about mapping out his entire life at the age of seventeen.

As if there’s not enough stress on her, Blair’s divorced mother is planning her wedding to the very-tacky Cyrus Rose. And she’s asked Serena, Blair’s former best friend, to be a bridesmaid. And Blair is competing with Serena in the school’s student film competition. With all of this, and Nate acting decidedly weird (he’s seeing someone, but Blair has no clue) the only bright spot is her Yale interview. Her new, hippie, vegan, stepbrother volunteers to drive her there when Nate flakes. And, to her horror, and after meticulous preparation, Blair’s performance in her interview is pretty much freakshow-worthy. Looks like it might be time to make some different plans. Or just throw one hell of a party.

This second book in the series builds very well on the events from the first. Gossip Girl, the anonymous website that tracks the actions of all the characters is still going strong. The title is taken from GG’s sign-off, and it’s true. To read her is to love her. In a twisted kind of way. Anyone and everyone who has ever gone through the horror of college application time will appreciate the pressures here. The difference is, most of us don’t get to shop our troubles away at Barney’s or drink until we pass out in some chic bar or hotel suite. That might not be a bad thing. This series is completely addictive. Even when you don’t much like some of the characters, you must know what happens next.

Rating: 8
September 2002 (also available in 3-volume boxed set)
ISBN# 0-316-91148-8 (trade paperback)

Gossip Girl - Cecily von Ziegesar

Gossip Girl
Cecily von Ziegesar
Little, Brown and Company

Young Adult (ages 15 and up)

At almost 17, Blair Waldorf appears to have everything. She lives in a fabulous apartment (with her family, but still) on the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile. It’s the only place to live. She has hot and cold running credit cards, freedom, privacy, and, now starting her senior year at the exclusive all-girls school she attends, she is the “it” girl. She’s the prettiest, the hippest, the one everyone wants to be. Oh, and she has an adorable longtime boyfriend, Nate Archibald. Nate is not only Abercrombie & Fitch gorgeous, he’s from another wealthy family, they’ve known each other since childhood, and Blair knows they’re destined to spend their fabulous lives together.

But all that comes crashing down around her when Serena van der Woodsen, Blair’s best friend since forever, comes back to the city. Serena is a true “it” girl, without even trying; tall, blonde, gorgeous, and irresistible. She spent last year at boarding school, and the summer traveling. While Blair’s parents were going through a horrible divorce (Blair’s dad now lives on a French vineyard with his boyfriend) Serena was sending breezy postcards, telling her how much fun she was having in Europe. Of course, Blair can’t admit that she’s hurt. That would crack the cool façade. There are all kinds of terrible rumors about why Serena is back, but Blair’s only worry is the heated looks that Serena and Nate are sending each other. This is so not how Blair’s senior year is supposed to start!

There are plenty of other characters, like Jenny, the freshman from the “wrong” neighborhood who idolizes Serena and would pretty much do anything to be accepted by the “in” girls. And her brother Dan, a self-styled tortured poet type who meets Serena during a student film casting and is, of course, instantly smitten. And Vanessa, the filmmaker who wears black and shaves her head, who has a wicked crush on Dan and is forced to watch him moon over Serena. The whole story is narrated by the unnamed Gossip Girl, who runs a website of the same name, spilling the good tidbits about various characters. If you’re in high school, you know people exactly like everyone here. If you’re a bit past high school, you’ll remember them. And you’ll want to get your hands on the next book in the series immediately.

Rating: 8
April 2002 (also available in 3-volume boxed set)
ISBN# 0-316-91033-3 (trade paperback)

Ready or Not? - Chris Manby

Ready or Not?
Chris Manby

Chick Lit

So, it’s four months before your wedding. You’ve already spent a year planning, preparing, and nailing down every last detail. And then, your fiancé, a grown man, a dentist, appears at your door after a rugby weekend with friends. And he’s naked. Naked and still drunk from the previous evening. Naked and drunk and covered with treacle and feathers. And right about then, you start having second thoughts about the whole happily-ever-after deal.

Heidi Savage finds herself in just this position, four months before her wedding to Ed Gordon. She tries to shrug off her growing doubts as pre-wedding jitters. But, suddenly, Ed seems so wrong for her; especially when he’s with his rugby mates. Which is often. Taking care of a friend’s baby has given her a big fear of being a mother, as well. And, just to top off everything nicely, her first love, Steven Gabriel, is back on the scene and asking to reconcile. Heidi’s got four months to decide which man is her meant-to-be guy.

While the story is your basic triangle, anyone who has ever gone through a protracted wedding planning process, or has been in a relationship serious enough to consider marriage, will recognize a lot of what’s going on with Heidi and her life. Her hopes, her fears, and her confusion, are all very realistic. I never really had a doubt as to the outcome of the story, but the author’s style is so breezy and witty that it’s a fun ride just getting there.

Rating: 7
December 2006
ISBN# 0-425-21353-6 (trade paperback)

Echo Park - Michael Connelly

Echo Park
Michael Connelly
Little, Brown and Company


Harry Bosch is back. For fans, that sentence is enough to send you to the nearest bookshop. At 60, he’s returned to active duty in the LAPD’s Open-Unsolved Unit, looking into cold cases. Every cop has one unsolved case that haunts him/her. For Bosch, it’s the 1993 disappearance of 22-year-old Marie Gesto. He repeatedly reads over the case file, looking for something he might have missed; something to give the young woman’s family some kind of, if not closure, then at least an answer. Over the years, he’s developed a likely suspect in his mind, but there’s no evidence strong enough for an arrest.

One evening, in Echo Park, a routine traffic stop nets serial killer Reynard Waits. When the cops find body parts in the van, it’s big news, both inside and outside the department. Bosch is drawn into the case when Waits unexpectedly confesses to the murder of Marie Gesto. Waits is not the man Bosch had pegged for the crime, but another re-reading of the case file shows that Waits called the hotline after Marie’s disappearance, acting as a tipster. If he is the killer, it’s possible that, had the tip been investigated, Waits would have been caught in 1993, sparing future victims. It’s also possible that Waits is simply trying to use information about Marie to get himself a lighter sentence. And, with the election for District Attorney in the near future, everyone wants a piece of this political pie.

Fortunately for the reader, Bosch is no pushover. He’s a straightforward, no bs detective, who cares about solving the case and very little else. He’s also a detective who cares deeply about his work, and the fact that his mistake in 1993 could have cost many lives eats away at him. The reader can feel his pain and his need to clear the case, no matter what the outcome. The characters surrounding Bosch are all realistic and complex. The pacing makes it virtually impossible to put this book down before turning the last page.

Rating: 9
October 2006
ISBN# 0-316-73495-0 (hardcover)

Hollywood Station - Joseph Wambaugh

Hollywood Station
Joseph Wambaugh
Little, Brown and Company

Mystery/Police Procedural

Imagine going to work every day and not knowing whether you’re going to be bored out of your mind, shot at, or called upon to referee a dispute between Darth Vader and Elmo. Such is the lot of the LAPD officer who works out of the Hollywood Station. Given the general insanity that is everyday life on the streets of Hollywood, it’s perhaps not difficult to believe that the officers who deal with this aggregation of humanity are just as diverse and unique. The sergeant, known as the Oracle, has been on the job for decades. There’s a pair of surfer bum cops, a new mother, and an officer who spends more time worrying about his next extra role than his next collar.

Several seemingly diverse plotlines begin to converge when a couple of tweakers get money for the next fix by selling stolen mail. The buyers happen to be part of the Russian mafia. From this low level deal, the action escalates to the robbery of a jewelry store and an armored car heist. In the face of all of this, the police are increasingly constrained by state and federal oversight groups who, from the street cops’ point of view, seem more interested in public relations than keeping the streets safe.

It’s been a long time since Wambaugh published a police procedural, but it’s clear from the very first page that he hasn’t lost his touch. The descriptions, the dialogue and the necessarily black humor are all spot-on, and indicative of people who work in high-stress jobs. Much is made of the new (since the 90s) constraints and rules imposed on the LAPD and the intense media scrutiny that accompanies every arrest. Whatever your personal feelings on the matter, it’s clear that these rules have made policing more difficult. The characters here deal with these issues and more while solving various interrelated cases. This is a fascinating look at modern policing, and an excellent procedural. Here’s hoping readers won’t have to wait twenty years for the next one.

Rating: 9
December 2006
ISBN# 0-316-06614-1 (hardcover)