Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Rembrandt's Ghost - Paul Christopher

Rembrandt’s Ghost
Paul Christopher


After her adventures in Egypt, detailed in THE LUCIFER GOSPEL, Fiona (Finn) Ryan has settled into a job at a very stuffy auction house in London. She thought she’d be using her education there, but, as it turns out, she’s the token American hired to deal with other Americans. Her main duties seem to be more along the lines of auction hostess than art expert. Which explains why, when a man wearing a Harvard sweatshirt appears at the auction house, asking for someone to authenticate a painting that’s been in the family forever, the receptionist sends him to Finn.

After their meeting, Finn’s boss appears in her office, completely livid that “His Grace” had been there and only talked to Finn. This is pretty much the last straw for Finn, and by almost mutual consent the employment arrangement is terminated. Arriving home, she finds a letter from a lawyer, asking her to attend a meeting the following day. To her surprise, Harvard, who she now knows is a duke of something-or-other, is also there. The duke, who initially introduced himself simply as Billy Pilgrim, admits that his great-aunt is Queen Elizabeth, but he’s not much for formality.

The lawyer drops a bombshell on both Finn and Billy. It seems that Billy’s cousin, an adventurer, left instructions that if he disappeared for a year, the lawyer should make certain bequests to Finn and Billy. Why Finn? Well, because this cousin seems to believe that he’s Finn’s biological father. The cousin, part of a huge shipping empire, has left three assets to Finn and Billy, jointly: a cargo ship, a house in Amsterdam, and a Rembrandt. The Rembrandt is quickly judged to be a fake, but there’s something else under the paint. It’s a clue to the location of a long-lost treasure. And Billy and Finn aren’t the only ones who want to find it.

As an adventure story and thriller, this novel works quite well, particularly if you’re willing to suspend a certain amount of disbelief. The name Billy Pilgrim (see: SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE) was distracting to me early on, but once I let go of that, I was able to lose myself in the rollicking international adventure. The pace is very fast, the dialogue entertaining, and the various locations nicely detailed. From England to the South China Sea, you’ll feel like you’re traveling with Finn and Billy as they track down the clues.

Rating: 7 ½
July 2007
ISBN# 978-0-451-22175-9 (paperback)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Lethally Blond - Kate White

Lethally Blond
Kate White
Warner Books


Bailey Weggins is turning her life around after a couple of setbacks. She’s left Gloss magazine to work for Buzz, a weekly gossip magazine. Bailey covers the celebrity crime beat. And she’s single again, not very happily so, after breaking up with filmmaker Beau Regan. When one of her colleagues shows her a story about a new crime show and possible next-big-thing called “Morgue,” Bailey is surprised to see a former almost-boyfriend, Chris Wickersham, is in the cast. After thinking about him all afternoon, she’s even more surprised to get a call from him. To her short-lived dismay, he wants her help, not a date.

Chris is worried about fellow cast member Tom Fain. The show “Morgue” debuts soon, is still in the midst of shooting episodes, and this is Tom’s big break in the business. But Tom has disappeared without a word to anyone. While looking through Tom’s apartment, Chris and Bailey find evidence that Tom was having an affair with the girlfriend of the producer. Not a great way to ensure that your small recurring role on a series continues to recur. Finding his corpse isn’t exactly unexpected; according to Chris, nothing but death would keep him away from shooting the show. When another cast member ends up dead, it can’t be a coincidence.

Once again, Kate White delivers a pitch-perfect depiction of life among the famous, and those who cover the exploits of the famous. Bailey is a fun and relatable character. She takes her investigations seriously, but still worries about her job and her love life. The circumstances here aren’t too gruesome to scare away fans of chick lit looking to branch out a bit, but they’re complex enough to entertain mystery fans. Following Bailey is a great way to spend a day at the beach, or an evening recovering from one.

Rating: 8
June 2007
ISBN# 978-0-446-57795-3 (hardcover)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Demons Are Forever - Julie Kenner

Demons Are Forever
Confessions of a Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom, Book 3
Julie Kenner


WARNING: If you haven’t read the first two novels in this series (CARPE DEMON and CALIFORNIA DEMON) this review contains unavoidable plot spoilers for those books.

Nearly twenty years ago, Kate Connor was a Demon Hunter for the Vatican. Then she married, got pregnant, and retired with her Demon Hunter husband, Eric, to the seaside California town of San Diablo. Both felt that their retirement, coupled with the proximity of a large cathedral, would keep the demons at bay. After Eric died, Kate remarried. Her new husband, Stuart, has no idea about her past. He’s consumed these days by running for San Diablo County Attorney. Their son, Timmy, is a toddler. Only teenager Allie, daughter of two Demon Hunters knows the truth. And Allie only knows because she was kidnapped by a demon and rescued by her mom. Obviously, explanations were in order.

Kate’s problems are hardly behind her. Allie, once she assimilates the truth, wants desperately to follow in her parents’ footsteps and train to be a Demon Hunter. Then there’s David, the high school chemistry teacher. He’s what’s known as an untrained, rogue demon hunter. And Kate keeps getting the unsettling feeling that, when David looks at her, it’s really Eric’s soul behind the eyes. Transferring souls is dark magic, though, and Kate is afraid to go too far down that road for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is her current happy marriage and family.

Just when she thinks that things are going to settle down in San Diablo, demons begin to appear. They’re all demanding the release of Andramelech. He’s one of the Biggest Bads in Hell; a high chancellor to Satan. If he’s around, there’s going to be trouble, and lots of it. Adding to her troubles, there’s new information about the circumstances of Eric’s death and a possible connection between Eric and Andramelech. Which would explain why his minions are sniffing around San Diablo and Kate’s family.

This is the third in a great series, and it doesn’t disappoint. Reading the first two installments isn’t necessary to understanding and enjoying this one, but you’ll most likely find that you want to go back and start at the beginning, just for the fun of it. The domestic scenes are a nice contrast to the research and demon hunting passages, but I’d be happier personally if those domestic bits were fewer and farther between. They do serve to nicely point up Kate’s divided life and loyalties, though. Putting teenager Allie into the mix and learning more about Eric’s death and past keeps the series fresh. The way this one ends makes it very clear that there’s more to come. Here’s hoping for several more installments.

Rating: 8
July 2007ISBN# 978-0-425-21538-8

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Grave Apparel - Ellen Byerrum

Grave Apparel
A Crime of Fashion Mystery
Ellen Byerrum


Every year, they return. No matter how offensive, how ridiculous, how over-the-top; like clockwork, each holiday season they come back. Holiday sweaters. Sweaters with snowmen and gingerbread men and Christmas trees and candy canes. Some of them blink, some of them play music. Some of them are even relatively restrained. But if it’s the holidays, they are virtually inescapable.

Of course, your reaction to theme sweaters may vary. You may love them. You may be indifferent. Cassandra Wentworth, editorial writer for The Eye Street Observer in Washington, DC, and professional martyr, finds them egregiously tasteless, politically incorrect and personally offensive. Her editorial piece to that effect, written with no byline, the better to sling arrows, is making Lacey Smithsonian, the fashion reporter, very unhappy. Not because she loves theme sweaters. No, it’s because everyone simply assumes that, since the subject was fashion, she wrote the piece.

Felicity Pickles, the food editor, is a lover of all themed sweaters. It had to happen, and eventually, Cassandra’s hatred for the sweaters boils over into insults. When Lacey writes a fashion column that does not condemn holiday sweaters, Cassandra accuses her of trying to undermine the editorial. Later, just before the office Christmas party, Lacey finds Cassandra lying unconscious in the alley behind the newspaper office, wearing just such a sweater. A child at the scene tells Lacey that Santa Dude yelled at the lady, hit her over the head with a gigantic candy cane, then dressed her in the sweater, laughing.

Naturally, the police take a dim view of this account, particularly since the kid didn’t stick around to make a statement. The police seem to feel that the kid was in on it, especially since he seems to have stolen Cassandra’s cell phone. Arriving at the Christmas party, Lacey finds Felicity in a sleeveless red dress. It’s quite subdued, really. Felicity tells Lacey that she special-ordered a very special Christmas sweater, left it at her desk, and returned to find it had been stolen. No points for guessing where that sweater ended its evening.

Lacey is a fun character and a great amateur sleuth. Working as a reporter in DC offers plenty of opportunities to get personally involved in crimes. She takes a very realistic view of life, while still remaining fashionable. Her fashion articles are scattered throughout the book, and make for very entertaining reading. Just like a little black dress, you can’t go wrong with a Lacey Smithsonian mystery.

Rating: 7 ½
July 2007
ISBN# 978-0-451-22178-0 (paperback)

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Hidden Worlds - Kristin Landon

The Hidden Worlds
Kristin Landon

Science Fiction

Generations ago, the sentient machines known as the Cold Mind destroyed most of humanity. Only the jump ship pilots, who managed to evacuate a portion of the population saved humanity from extinction. The refugees colonized planets known as the Hidden Worlds. As a result, the Pilot Masters of the Line are now the highest power known to man. They control the wealth, the shipping and trade, and the politics from their base on Nexus. Nephew of the leader of the Line, Iain sen Paolo is proud to be a pilot, but the galaxy he thinks he knows is about to change.

On a poor colony planet, Linnea Kiaho and the rest of her tiny fishing village are devastated when most of the men and their one ship sink. With their means of survival gone, the village must move to the nearest larger city. Linnea, her sister, Marra, and Marra’s children end up in a barracks with no work, no income, and no hope. Until, one evening, Marra tells her little sister about the strange tube that has been passed down through the family line. This tube belonged to a distant relative who took a work contract on Nexus. When he returned, he implied that the tube related to some great scandal; but the details are lost, since anyone who spends any time on Nexus suffers a social death upon their return.

In her desperate attempt to find any kind of work to sustain her family, Linnea learns the truth about her planet. The current trade contract is expiring; ships no longer land there, resources are drying up, and the populace faces a slow death. There is no money to renew the contract or to get people off the planet. To save her people, and to make sure her family survives, Linnea decides to take a work contract on Nexus. Even before she leaves, she is dead to her sister. When she arrives on Nexus to work for Iain’s family, she attempts to barter the information the silver tube holds for a new trade contract. It’s clear that the leader of the Line knows what information it contains, but he stonewalls. Iain decides to help Linnea uncover the secret that could undo the power of the Pilot Masters at a time when the Cold Mind may have found the Hidden Worlds.

THE HIDDEN WORLDS is a thing of beauty. A science fiction story set in a far future, but with clear and familiar footholds in the past. Linnea is a wonderful character. She’s young and has little idea of the obstacles she faces, but she’s willing to essentially trade her life for the survival of her family. Iain is much the same, although raised in an atmosphere of male wealth and power. He’s flawed, but a decent person. The societies created here are clearly delineated and have a true depth. The story has great pacing that is never bogged down by extraneous technical information. The pages practically turn themselves. I hope that this is only the first of many novels from this extremely talented author.

Rating: 9
July 2007
ISBN# 978-0-441-01511-5 (paperback)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Witch Fire - Anya Bast

Witch Fire
Anya Bast
Berkley Sensation

Paranormal Romance

Mira Hoskins is just getting her life back together after the implosion of her marriage. She’s waiting on tables in a diner and saving money to continue her education. She may be living in a crummy basement apartment, but the place is all hers and she’s proud of that. Everything is moving along in a very normal way until Mira spots Jack McAllister sitting in the diner. She’s instantly attracted to him. On the plus side, that means maybe she’s ready to move on; on the minus side, she’s pretty sure she’s not.

That decision is taken out of her hands when Jack rescues her from a kidnapping attempt. It falls to Jack to tell Mira that she is a natural elemental witch. Her element is air, and her magick is the most rare and sought after of all four elements. Unfortunately, her power is sought after by warlocks, male or female witches who have gone rogue and use elemental witches in rituals to summon demons. As a child, raised by his warlock father, Jack witnessed one of these rituals, which results in the deaths of the witches involved. Jack witnessed the death of Mira’s mother.

Mira’s godmother kept the truth from her so she could have a normal life. I particularly appreciated the fact that Mira does not immediately believe Jack when he tells her about her heritage. Who would? Mira is a great character; she’s got a real backbone and an innate intelligence, but doesn’t go haring off and putting herself in needless danger. Fans of the tortured hero won’t find one much more tortured than Jack. He’s doing what he feels he has to do to keep Mira safe and atone for his inaction as a child. The system of magick set up here is clear, and everything seems to work by the rules, avoiding the annoying ‘it works like this, except when it doesn’t for plot convenience’ trap. The first in a proposed series, this should put the author on the map and have fans of paranormals eagerly waiting for the next installment.

Rating: 8
June 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21614-9 (paperback)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Quickie - James Patterson, Michael Ledwidge

The Quickie
James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge
Little, Brown and Company


Lauren Stillwell followed in her father’s footsteps and joined the NYPD. After years of work, she’s attained the rank of Detective First Grade in Homicide. Her husband, Paul, works in the financial district. But Lauren’s world starts falling apart when she decides to surprise Paul for lunch and witnesses him entering a hotel with a young blonde. Her sense of betrayal is immense. So, when Scott Thayer, a detective in the Narcotics division wants to take their office flirtation into the bedroom, Lauren goes along with it.

After their few hours together (the “quickie” of the title) Scott leaves to get some food. Lauren watches in shock from a window as her husband assaults Scott and drives away with him in the car. Searching for the two, Lauren comes across a crime scene thronged with police. Scott is dead; beaten, shot, and then dumped in a park known for drug activity. Of course, Lauren knows exactly what happened, but her guilt at being the cause overwhelms her. Designated the lead investigator on the case, Lauren is in a pretty good position to manipulate facts and evidence to protect her husband and her own career.

The main problem with this whole setup is that Lauren is presented as a strong, intelligent woman with a solid moral compass. To have sex with another man as revenge of sorts on her husband is a completely different shade of pale than actively covering up a violent murder. In short, Lauren is not a character that the reader can really root for, since her hands are filthy, too. Her moral ambiguity may have been a conscious choice, as opposed to presenting a ‘good guy’ main character, but that’s a significant flaw that makes it difficult to empathize.

As it turns out, many of the characters presented here are morally ambiguous. What it boils down to, in the end, is watching a bunch of characters betray one another, for their own ends. Realistic? Maybe. And it’s still a very fast read. The narrative is kept moving along with the help of the characteristic Patterson micro-chapters. There are plenty of twists and turns to uncover, making this a perfect beach book.

Rating: 7
July 2007
ISBN# 978-0-316-11736-4 (hardcover)

Monday, July 16, 2007

How To Teach Filthy Rich Girls - Zoey Dean

How To Teach Filthy Rich Girls
Zoey Dean
Warner Books

Chick Lit

In her first book for adults, veteran YA author Zoey Dean tackles the horrifying problem of trying to tutor a “celebutard.” And not just any rich girl; a pair of excessively entitled twins, granddaughters to the founder of a cosmetics company and heirs to an $84 million trust. Rose and Sage Baker, dubbed The Fabulous Baker Twins by magazines, are mere months away from their eighteenth birthdays and a huge amount of money when their self-made grandmother turns their world upside-down.

Instead of being handed their trusts at 18, both twins must be accepted at Duke University to receive the money. Their parents and grandfather attended Duke, making the twins legacies, but because of recent documented activities, the president of Duke informs their grandmother and guardian that the pair will have to earn their way into school, just like everyone else. This looks like an impossible task, since the twins spend most of their time shopping and partying.

Enter Megan Smith, recent Yale graduate and aspiring journalist. The cold, hard truth is that, in NYC, there are lots and lots of journalism grads and only a few jobs. So it is that Megan finds herself working for a tabloid, captioning photos showing Jessica’s possible new implants. As her boss informs Megan, while firing her, lofty aspirations make for a poor fit at the tabloid. At the same time, her boss offers a new source of employment: tutoring the twins in their Palm Beach mansion. It beats pounding the pavement for a new job, the pay is great, and it may provide the inside scoop for an incredible exposé, jump-starting Megan’s career as a journalist. How can she lose? You might be surprised.

As expected, the first meeting is rocky with Megan ineffectually trying to convince the girls to work, and the girls exhibiting zero interest. Things get much more interesting, though, when the twins mistake Megan for a Main Line socialite of the same name and accord her some respect. The ethics of the situation get sticky very quickly and add some depth. There’s a cute guy in Palm Beach and a cute guy at home. Decisions, decisions. Of course, the household staff includes a friendly gay whose boyfriend is a stylist and can lend all kinds of fabulous clothes. While this is written for adults, teenage fans of the A-List books will enjoy it, too. Suspend your disbelief, go along for the ride, and you’ve got a perfect beach book.

Rating: 7
July 2007
ISBN# 978-0-446-69718-7 (trade paperback)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Karma Girl - Jennifer Estep

Karma Girl
Jennifer Estep

Paranormal Romance

As a reporter, Carmen Cole has learned to trust her instincts. Her instincts fail her spectacularly, however, when it comes to her fiancé, Matt. Thirty minutes before walking down the aisle, Carmen finds him having sex with her best friend and bridesmaid. Karen. As if that’s not shocking enough, Matt turns out to be the superhero who protects her hometown, and Karen is his arch-nemesis. Stumbling out the door, Carmen takes a moment to use a disposable camera (that was to be used at the reception) and snaps some severely incriminating photos of the two.

After writing an exposé on the two, unmasking them, as it were, Carmen’s career as a reporter is red-hot. She specializes in investigating and unmasking superheroes and villains. To her, it’s all retribution for the “lie” they tell the public by maintaining secrecy. And, yes, it’s revenge, too. To the authorities, having a real identity gives them someone to bill for the property damages that are inevitable in a super-showdown. But, eventually, karma swings around and bites Carmen, hard.

Now working in Bigtime, New York, she’s attempting to unmask the Fearless Five who protect the city, and the Terrible Triad, who, like most villains, are after world domination. She succeeds in unmasking one of the Five. But when he commits suicide, Carmen’s personal and professional life crash. Suddenly hated by everyone from supers to people on the street, she’s busted down to covering the society column. Then, one of the Terrible Triad offers her a job. Unmask Striker, the head of the Fearless Five. Or else what? Or else Carmen becomes part of one of the Triad’s experiments with radioactive goo. She has one month, and no choice.

KARMA GIRL is a great blend of chick lit and comic book conventions. Completely different in tone from a dark, urban fantasy, this is a novel meant to be taken lightly. The superheroes have great names and a fabulous headquarters; the villains are mean and nasty and not very well disguised and want to take over the city and then the world. Carmen tends to act impulsively, and while this can be annoying, she pays for it, in spades. There’s some romance here, and it’s just what you might expect, but it’s still fun to read. If you like your fantasy on the frothy side, you’ll love this one. The ending makes me think, and hope, that a sequel is on the way.

Rating: 8
May 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21511-1 (trade paperback)

Decaffeinated Corpse - Cleo Coyle

Decaffeinated Corpse
A Coffeehouse Mystery
Cleo Coyle
Berkley Prime Crime


Clare Cosi is content with her job of managing Village Blend, a landmark coffeehouse in Greenwich Village. Tonight, it will become the testing grounds for a new coffee. In coffeehouses, decaffeinated brews are referred to as “why bother,” but there’s still a healthy slice of clientele that ask for it. Clare’s ex-husband Matt believes he’s found the next big thing: a decaffeinated coffee that actually tastes like real coffee. The brew gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from the assembled baristas, who want to know how it was done. The secret, as Matt explains is a new hybrid plant that actually grows beans without caffeine in them.

Matt and his partner Federico (Ric) are poised to make the big announcement at the International Coffee Growers Exhibition trade show, complete with press conference and samples. Of course, such a breakthrough will mean huge money; and that kind of money means a certain amount of danger. This becomes apparent when Clare finds Ric, unconscious, outside the Blend. He first claims it was a simple mugging, but refuses to inform the police. The only thing the “mugger” took was his hotel keycard. Eventually, Ric admits that, in order to sidestep all that pesky paperwork, he smuggled a cutting of the new plant into the US. As it turns out, there’s someone out there who’s willing to kill for the secret to a great cup of decaf.

The latest in a running series, newcomers will have no problems jumping in at this point. Clare is an amateur sleuth who generally plays it smart, even while following her investigative impulses. She clearly loves the Blend, and the art of making coffee drinks in general. I particularly enjoyed the bits of history about the Blend and its famous former customers. Ms. Coyle is even able to sneak in some of the history of coffee without making it sound like a lecture. It all flows smoothly with the story, which is a very solid and entertaining mystery.

Rating: 7 ½
July 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21638-5 (paperback)

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Blood of Flowers - Anita Amirrezvani

The Blood of Flowers
Anita Amirrezvani
Little, Brown and Company

Historical Fiction

The comet appeared over the 17th century Persian village in the spring. Fearful inhabitants waited anxiously for the village wise man to decipher the portents. He tells the villagers that this will be a mixed year, full of strangely immoral behavior and other bad behavior. For the nameless fourteen-year-old narrator, this is not good. She planned to be married that year. But all of her plans change in an instant when her father dies suddenly.

Left alone in the world, the narrator and her mother must leave their tiny village and accept the help of their only living relative. Gostaham, who lives in the huge city of Isfahan, is a wealthy master carpet maker, much favored by the shah. In the house of Gostaham and his wife, the narrator and her mother live as servants under the direction of the wife. Her only hope of anything like a marriage now is to enter into a three-month-long contract that guarantees her nothing.

With no son to teach, Gostaham takes the narrator under his wing. As a woman, she cannot work in the rug workshop, but her love for the colors and designs, and her skill at knotting the wool, make her a valuable assistant. In time, she dares to hope that, one day, her skill as a rug maker will enable her to build a life for herself and free her mother from the servitude in which she labors.

It seems like a simple story, but the author deftly weaves layers, texture and dimension throughout the novel. The details about how women lived and interacted in society during this place and time are fascinating. The descriptions of everything from the tiny, dusty village, to the enormous capital city to the details and hues of a rug, are beautifully evocative. The narrator is nameless, but her inner life is rich with determination and a will to better her lot and that of her mother. It’s clear that the ties of family, like the knots in a rug, are what really hold people together.

Rating: 8
June 2007
ISBN# 978-0-316-06576-4 (hardcover)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Castle of the Wolf - Sandra Schwab

Castle of the Wolf
Sandra Schwab

Historical Romance/Paranormal

Unmarried at the age of 27, Celia Fussell realizes that she is well and truly on the shelf. Upon her father’s death, though, the reality of her situation hits her hard. She is no longer the unmarried daughter of the bookish baron. Now she is the spinster sister of the current baron, her brother. Her brother, George, is kind and more than willing to provide a home for her. His wife, Dorinda, however, is pretentious and generally insufferable. Living in her home will not be pleasant.

The chance for escape comes from an unlikely source: her father’s will. Neither Celia nor George had any idea that their father owned a castle, Wolfenbach, in the Black Forest. Celia inherits the castle, but there is a condition. She must marry the son of the castle’s former owner, if, indeed, he is still unmarried. The late baron was great friends with the former owner, and is sure that his son will be a good man, and a good husband for his beloved daughter. Over her brother’s reasonable protests against marrying a man she has never met, Celia decides to take this one last chance at having a life, and a love, of her own. This will prove no easy task, since Fenris, the man in question, is very nearly wedded to the shadows and pain that comprise his world.

This is a lovely spin on the classic “Beauty and the Beast” kind of tale. Lovers of myths and fairy tales will find many references here that add an extra dimension to the story. To say that Fenris is a tortured hero is understating things considerably. He has a decent reason, unlike many other heroes of this type. And Celia is a great character. She is innocent in many ways, but she is also intelligent and strong-willed. When life offers her a chance and a challenge, she does not back down from it. The story has a wonderfully gothic feel with a touch of the paranormal. I’m hoping to see many more books from this very talented author.

Rating: 8
May 2007
ISBN# 978-0-505-52720-2 (paperback)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Brush With Death - Hailey Lind

Brush With Death
An Art Lover’s Mystery
Hailey Lind


Annie Kincaid had a checkered childhood. This was due to her grandfather, the infamous art forger, who tried to mold her in his image, and very nearly succeeded. A night spent in jail on her seventeenth birthday cured her of that life, though, and now she keeps (mostly) on the straight and narrow, running her own faux-finishing business in San Francisco. To her continuing dismay, however, she’s still an outcast in the art world because of her family connections. At the moment, however, she’s engaged in one of her favorite pastimes: restoring paintings. These murals are located in the Chapel of the Chimes, a chapel and columbarium situated next to a graveyard. Annie’s contract stipulates that she work only at night, so she doesn’t disturb the visitors.

Taking a break one evening, she runs into grad student Cindy Tanaka, who is writing a dissertation on the methods of public grieving; things like leaving flowers and candles at the scenes of accidents, etc. The two women are standing outside the crypt of a long-dead child. To their shock, an individual wearing a Halloween mask leaps out of the shadows of the crypt and runs for the exit. Although he manages to escape, Cindy retrieves a box clearly stolen from the crypt. Cindy takes the box for safekeeping and will report the incident to the cemetery office in the morning.

But Cindy never arrives, and Annie’s calls to her go unanswered. Annie is especially interested in talking to her again because Cindy claimed that “a friend” told her that one of the paintings hanging in the chapel is the original of Raphael’s masterpiece, La Fornarina. Not quite willing to believe it, Annie checks out the painting, labeled a copy from the 1800s. To her dismay, she discovers a cheap digital reproduction in the frame instead of the copy. The original is supposedly hanging in Italy in the Barberini Palace. But a discussion with an Italian expert convinces her that it’s more than possible. What’s more, he offers her a deal. If she can find the original and return it to Italy, her beloved grandfather, long the object of police agencies all over the globe, will live out the rest of his life in safety.

You don’t have to be an art lover, or even have a background in art, to enjoy this series. Not quite as tightly plotted as others, the story tends to wander a bit in the middle sections. But the history of the painting, and of the chapel (a real place, as explained in the Author’s Notes) and the large cast of characters keeps things interesting. Longtime readers will be entertained by Annie’s introduction to Pete’s very large Bosnian family. Using real places and works of art gives a real immediacy to the overall story. This is a solid addition to a series that should appeal to lovers of mystery and art alike.

Rating: 7
July 2007
ISBN# 978-0-451-22179-7 (paperback)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Little Tiny Teeth - Aaron Elkins

Little Tiny Teeth
Aaron Elkins
Berkley Prime Crime


After thirteen books, where in the world is there left for Gideon Oliver, forensic anthropologist to go? Why, down the Amazon in a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time boat, of course. Accompanying Gideon on this trip are his friends John Lau and Phil Boyajian. They have Phil, a travel agent for the budget-conscious, to thank for the accommodations. Their guide, Cisco, is an obviously sketchy character who is just as obviously on drugs a good part of the time.

Ethnobotanist Arden Scofield, known throughout the world for his work, a ghostwriter, and entomologist Duane Osterhaut are also on board, on a research mission. The first day out, a spear lands on the deck, adorned with a shrunken human skull. While keeping a lookout for a rarely seen tribe of headhunters, it quickly becomes clear that, professionals or not, there’s plenty of tension among the researchers. Deep in the jungle, one of the researchers is killed, apparently by a passenger who then leaps from the boat. And while accusations and long-held resentments boil over, human bones, picked clean by the titular little tiny teeth of piranhas, appears out of the river. It’s certainly not the relaxing vacation Gideon had in mind.

It’s pretty much a given that a Gideon Oliver mystery is a good, and engaging mystery. This one is no exception. Perhaps my experience was made more realistic by the fact that I read this novel during a heat wave, but I felt like I was right there with them. The first part of the novel is a bit slow, if you’re looking for action, since it centers on the trip down (up?) the river, and describes the exotic flora and fauna to be found there. I enjoyed that, really, and felt that it helped build the atmosphere. Gideon is always a delight, and it’s fun to watch him work with his friend, John Lau. The real downside is the wait between novels; but it’s always worth it.

Rating: 8 ½
June 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21530-2 (hardcover)

Surviving Demon Island - Jaci Burton

Surviving Demon Island
Jaci Burton

Contemporary Romance/Paranormal

Gina Bliss is the top-earning female action star in the movies. She loves the action part of her job, and does a lot of her own stunt work. After making back-to-back films, she’s due for a vacation. When her agent suggests participation in a reality show, she’s hesitant at first. But the fact that the show will film on a tropical island and will be a test of physical prowess convinces her. The idea of the show is that several people, with various areas of physical and fighting expertise, come together on a deserted island to kill demons. Sounds simple enough.

Derek Marks introduces himself to the group during the cruise to the island. He’ll be their trainer and drill sergeant. Most contestants feel like he’s taking things way too seriously. The truth is, they have no idea about the truth. Derek and Lou, who poses as the host, are really testing each contestant; assembling a fighting force. The group discovers this truth when two contestants are killed after the first day of filming. What they all assumed would be actors in demon costumes are, in reality, demons. The group is there to train in fighting demons. And the stakes really are life and death.

When I started this novel, I had no idea (or I had forgotten, which is far more likely) that this was a paranormal story. That bit caught me by surprise, but the author works it in so believably that I had no trouble shifting gears, just as Gina and the rest of the contestants must. There’s great chemistry between Gina and Derek that drives the romance part of the story. But, for me, the draw was the action, the adventure, and the demon-fighting. The pace is fast and never flags, with that can’t-put-it-down appeal. SURVIVING DEMON ISLAND is the first in a series, and if this first installment is any indication, it’s going to be a real winner.

Rating: 8
January 2007
ISBN# 978-0-440-24335-9 (paperback)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Death By Sudoku - Kaye Morgan

Death By Sudoku
Kaye Morgan
Berkley Prime Crime


Liza Kelly has spent the past couple of months holed up in her small hometown of Maiden’s Bay, Oregon. While she’s still a partner in a very successful Hollywood pr firm, she now spends her time working for her hometown paper as the resident expert on sudoku puzzles, and, to be honest, hiding out from a failing marriage. Her first trip back to southern California is at a friend’s invitation, to participate in a sudoku tournament. There, she’s greeted by Derrick Robbins, an actor whose last job was as a cryptologist in a long-running spy show.

Derrick seems to have taken his role to heart and now creates puzzles of his own. But he has an ulterior motive for attending. He wants to get into the production side of things and asks Liza to accompany him to his home in Santa Barbara to see his work. His work turns out to be his niece, Jenny’s, audition tape, and it’s surprisingly good. The following day, on her way back to Derrick’s to sign the girl, Liza’s trip stop abruptly when she finds Derrick’s body. Someone obviously threw him from the terrace of his secluded home. And now Jenny is missing.

During her visit with Derrick, he mentioned something about finding messages coded into sudoku puzzles. Liza dismissed it at the time, but now she wonders. When the police are completely uninterested in this theory of hers, Liza feels that she owes it to her friend to continue her avenue of investigation.

This is the first in a new and very promising series. Liza is a likeable and believable character. Her investigation proceeds from the puzzles, her area of expertise. While the endgame is a bit shaky, the mystery as a whole is quite interesting and incorporates using the numerical puzzles. If you’ve never worked a sudoku puzzle, don’t worry. The author provides concise explanations that are woven into the tournament scenes, and provides sample puzzles, tips for solving them, and an answer key at the end of the book. I hope to see more of Liza and her friends in future volumes. In the meantime, I think I’ve found a new addiction.

Rating: 7
July 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21640-8 (paperback)

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Scarlet Letterman - Cara Lockwood

The Scarlet Letterman
A Bard Academy Novel
Cara Lockwood
MTV Books/ Pocket

Young Adult/ Fantasy

NOTE: If you haven’t read the first book in this series, WUTHERING HIGH, this review contains some very serious plot spoilers.

Miranda Tate is back at the Bard Academy for her second semester. The Bard is pretty much an isolated boarding school for juvenile delinquents. But it’s not like most of the kids there are hardened criminals. Miranda, for instance, crashed her dad’s car and ran up her step-monster’s credit card. One of her friends, Samir, refuses to enter into a marriage arranged by his parents when he was a toddler.

As the second semester starts, Miranda is dating her dream guy and basketball hero, Ryan Kent, a boy she knew long before Bard. Of course, the Queen B—of Bard, Parker Rodham isn’t pleased with that particular development. And when she’s attacked (shoved, actually, although to hear her tell it she nearly died) by Hooded Sweatshirt Guy, she manages to get Ryan to escort her everywhere on campus. For her own safety, of course. These attacks continue, all around campus, notably among Parker’s little band of clones.

Then something really scary happens. Coach H disappears. This is really scary because the teachers are all ghosts. Miranda and her best friends learned this during first semester, but were sworn to secrecy. The friends decide to investigate, but it’s pretty difficult to track down a ghost when you can’t even tell anyone he’s a ghost. Then Ms. W goes missing, just after telling Miranda that she’s a suspect in Coach H’s disappearance. Naturally, Miranda is a suspect there, too. Of course, she didn’t do it. Have you ever tried to prove that you didn’t do something? Then you have a very vague idea of Miranda’s problems.

This is an excellent sequel to WUTHERING HIGH. All the characters are back for the spring semester, and the danger this time is even greater. The key to the mystery is literary, as befits Bard Academy. There are some scares; nothing overly graphic, but more than enough to keep you reading until you find the answers. I’m hoping for lots more in this entertaining series.

January 2007
ISBN# 978-1-4165-2490-8 (paperback)

Monday, July 02, 2007

Wuthering High - Cara Lockwood

Wuthering High
A Bard Academy Novel
Cara Lockwood
MTV Books/Pocket

Young Adult/ Fantasy

Miranda Tate is not a bad kid. Not really. So, ok, she crashed her dad’s brand-new car while driving with only a learner’s permit. But she was on her way to save her younger sister from a bully. Naturally, Mom and Dad (who’s on wife #3 already) weren’t available. And, sure, maybe Miranda charged up New Wife #3’s credit card a bit. And yes, she overslept the PSAT because she got drunk the night before the test. But is that any reason to send her across the country to an isolated boarding school for juvenile delinquents?

Apparently, her parents think so. Miranda will now be attending the Bard Academy, located off the coast of Maine, on its own private island. Called Shipwreck Island, by the way. No cell phones or electronics are allowed; everyone wears uniforms, and every moment of every day is scheduled. Oh, and her roommate introduces herself as “Blade,” and decorates her side of the room with posters of Satan. The teachers are interesting, though. Ms. W, the housemother, is British, tends to leave wet footprints, and she never sleeps. Coach H also teaches history and says he drove an ambulance during “the war.”

After making friends with fellow students Hana and Samir, Miranda hears all the local legends. Like how the school was built on a burial ground. And that, fifteen years ago, a girl tried to escape through the woods and was never seen again. It’s good for laughs in the cafeteria. But when odd things start to happen in her dorm room, Miranda starts to wonder if the place really is haunted. And what’s the deal with the guy who calls himself Heathcliff?

If you’ve read much classic literature, you’ll have a good time spotting all the clues about the Bard Academy and its teaching staff. If you haven’t, everything is explained in the end. There are some neat twists and fun characters. It’s very creepy, and will keep you up late, trying to get to the heart of the mystery. I can’t wait to read the next installment.

July 2006
ISBN# 9-1-4165-2475-5 (paperback)