Thursday, August 30, 2007

Next to Die - Marliss Melton

Next to Die
Marliss Melton
Warner Forever

Romantic Suspense

It’s unusual for a Navy Commander to go into the field with his SEAL team, but when one member of a team on a time-sensitive mission falls ill, Joe Montgomery takes his place. The mission, deep in the mountains of Afghanistan, is a disaster; Joe watches his entire team get wiped out, and only barely survives himself. Back home, he becomes mired in guilt and pain, blaming himself for the loss of his men.

His next-door-neighbor, Penny Price, a physical therapist at the Naval Medical Center, has always noticed the attractive Commander, but, given his very active love life, has consigned herself to cat-sitting and yard-raking duties when Joe is traveling. This time, when he arrives home, it’s clear that he’s been injured. Joe is understandably reluctant to tell Penny about what happened, but when she ends up assigned to him as a physical therapist, the two grow closer.

Penny and her sister Lia are busy with an investigation of their father’s death. His car accident was suspicious, but there was no proof of foul play at the time. Now, five years later, they’ve found his journals and an email that seems to implicate his former business partner, Eric Tomlinson, in the theft and sale of a bioweapon. Overcome with anger, Lia confronts Eric over the phone. Soon, she and Penny are being stalked. Feeling that he needs to do something to redeem his faith in himself, Joe throws himself into the investigation, and into protecting Penny.

This is part of a continuing series, and newcomers (like me) may find themselves feeling that they’ve missed some significant events. At the outset, Penny comes across as a bit of a sad sack, taking care of the cat and doing yard work for free because she’s got a crush on the hot SEAL next door. Once she finds a bit of backbone, it’s much easier to like her. Lia has her own romantic subplot here, woven into the main plot quite nicely. The group does spend a bit of time investigating the death of Penny’s father, but the mystery elements are fairly light. For a nicely paced read with a bit of suspense, NEXT TO DIE is the perfect summer read.

Rating: 6 ½
August 2007
ISBN# 978-0-446-61834-2

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

God's Spy - Juan Gomez-Jurado

God’s Spy
Juan Gómez-Jurado
translation by James Graham


In the days after the death of Pope John Paul II, hundreds of thousands of mourners pour into Vatican City and Rome from all over the globe. In the midst of this chaos, a serial killer is at work. A priest finds a Cardinal dead in a church; eyes and hands removed. The scene clearly indicates that the Cardinal was killed somewhere else, then transported to the church; but how that could have happened through the packed streets is an open question.

Investigating the crime is the head of the violent crimes unit, Inspector Paola Dicanti. She’s also a criminal profiler, having completed the coursework with the FBI. She’s sure that the killer has done this before; the scene is too complex for this to be a first-time killer. She quickly learns she’s right when the head of the Vatican City police appears on the scene and tells her that this is the second such murder. The first was covered up, and all evidence destroyed by the Vatican City Police.

Owing to the conflicting jurisdictions and the obviously delicate political climate, Dicanti will have to work with a representative of the Vatican police. This is an uneasy alliance at best, with neither side truly willing to trust the other. Adding to the confusion is Father Anthony Fowler, a priest from America, who arrives in time to drop the biggest bombshell so far: the identity of the killer, a pedophile priest. But knowing the killer’s name and finding him in the hordes of people in the city are two very different things. It must be done, and it must be done quickly, as Cardinals are arriving to elect the new Pope. As the body count rises, the investigation continues to deepen, uncovering an incredible conspiracy.

Although the reader discovers the name of the killer, and a fairly extensive history of him, fairly early on, this has little effect on the investigation. The tensions between the Church and city authorities ring very true. A very serviceable thriller, GOD’S SPY falls strangely flat in several places. This may be due in part to the inevitable loss of nuances when a text is translated. The author manages to throw in a few interesting twists to keep things interesting, and anyone who enjoys a fast-paced thriller, tinged with more than a hint of gore will enjoy this one.

Rating: 7
April 2007
ISBN# 978-0-525-94994-7 (hardcover)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Afghan - Frederick Forsyth

The Afghan
Frederick Forsyth


The accidental use of a flagged cell phone leads counter-terrorism forces to a tiny apartment in Peshawar. Inside the apartment, they find a few low level bodyguards, and a man who would rather throw himself out the window than be taken alive. A quick search turns up his identity: the top financial man for bin Laden’s faction. Before he jumped, he tried to destroy his laptop, but failed. Putting together the pieces of this incredible find now occupies intelligence agencies around the world.

It soon becomes clear that a major attack is being planned. Only disparate facts are available; to get the big picture, intelligence needs someone on the inside. For this job, there’s only one man to hire. Colonel Mike Martin, recently retired, has the looks, the language skills, and the cultural knowledge to go undercover. His identity will be a known terrorist currently being held at Guantanamo Bay. As he gets closer to the truth, the stakes, both personal and global only increase.

Forsyth will probably always be known for THE DAY OF THE JACKAL and THE ODESSA FILE, classics of espionage fiction, and rightly so. In comparison to those two works, THE AFGHAN is fairly pedestrian. There were some strange inconsistencies. Without getting into spoilers, the various intelligence agencies spend more than half the book desperately trying to pinpoint the target of the planned attack. When they manage it, it seems blindingly obvious, which probably explains why no mention of the target was made before; the reader would have figured it out immediately.

On the very strong positive side, even a par effort from Forsyth easily outstrips the best efforts of most of his competitors. There’s a lot of fascinating information about the various factions, and the faith and motivation of terrorists. None of it is presented as excuses; far from it. And the information is presented in a form that’s quite easy to understand. Anyone looking for a good spy thriller should enjoy THE AFGHAN.

Rating: 8
August 2007
ISBN# 978-0-451-22183-4 (paperback)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Still Summer - Jacquelyn Mitchard

Still Summer
Jacquelyn Mitchard
Warner Books

Women’s Fiction

When they were in high school, the four girls were known for making trouble, mostly of the innocent kind. They named themselves The Godmothers. Cousins Tracy and Janis, along with Olivia and Holly did everything together. As they got older, their lives diverged a bit. Particularly Olivia, who spent a year abroad and ended up marrying an Italian Count. Now widowed, Olivia is returning to Chicago to meet her friends for a sailing vacation.

The four plan to sail from St. Thomas to Grenada, with the help of a captain and his mate. It will be the first time the four have really spent time together in years. When Janis has to cancel at the last minute, Tracy thinks the trip is ruined. As fate would have it, her usually rebellious nineteen-year-old daughter, Camille wants to go. Thrilled beyond reason at the fact that her daughter wants to spend time with her, Tracy immediately agrees.

The trip starts out as any lazy sailing trip would start. But all too soon there’s a storm that batters the boat. The four women are left without food, sails, radio, and crew. They find themselves confronted with a couple of modern day pirates. While trying to survive, each woman learns what she and her friends are made of; and some unsettling truths about the pasts they share.

While this book is a bit of a departure for the author, her fans will still be able to enjoy it. True, there are dangerous situations and scary scenes, but there’s nothing terribly gory or nightmare-inducing. Stripped of virtually everything that ties them to civilization, they’re forced to live within themselves. The focus of the book is on the characters’ various reactions to the survival situation, and their interactions with each other. Inevitably, not everyone shines in such an environment. Generally, I’m not a fan of head-hopping, but in this case, it’s the perfect way to show the reader exactly what each woman is thinking and feeling. The result is a book that practically demands to be finished.

Rating: 7 ½
August 2007
ISBN# 978-0-446-57876-9 (hardcover)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Exposure - Kurt Wenzel

Kurt Wenzel
Little, Brown and Company

Futuristic Thriller/Satire

In 2019, advertising is everywhere, and it moves and speaks constantly. The main culprits are mobile image billboards (MIBs) that provide moving images and sound without the option of muting them. These images and sounds are everywhere, from roadsides to public bathroom stalls. The public has virtually no way to escape from the relentless ads. And, truth be told, most of the public is apparently so numb to it that they don’t even think about trying to get away from it. Then a book appeared, with no author listed, called The Black Book for it’s complete black cover. It argues against the MIBs, the constant noise, and the digital insertion of former screen icons into ads.

Dre McDonald runs the most powerful talent agency in the world. He reps all the top names, including A-listers Colt Reston and Carmen Montoya. He also has a hand in the development of the MIBs and other cutting-edge technology. With Dre’s help, Colt’s image is, quite literally, everywhere. In the dozens of movies he’s made, in the constant photographs that are taken of him when he’s in public, and on a huge number of MIBs. Carmen’s image is everywhere, too, even after her sudden and unexplained death.

Marshall Reed hit it big ten years ago with what has been called the perfect screenplay. The movie starred his longtime friend, Colt, and the two have remained close, even while Marshall works primarily at punching up other writers’ scripts. Colt calls Marshall in a panic, telling him that something is wrong with his face. At first, Marshall writes it off to Colt’s working too hard. But, within days, the changes are undeniable. Marshall learns that the same strange thing happened to Carmen. It can’t be a coincidence, but finding the real cause is going to take a lot more than even the doctors at Cedars can provide.

The humor here, and there is some, is very dark, but works perfectly with the tone of the novel. Marshall is not the most sympathetic character, prone as he is to booze and drugs, but he’s still improbably likable. This near-future Los Angeles seems more than possible; the ad industry has already had a go at inserting iconic actors into current commercials. Let’s hope that non-mutable talking billboards on every flat surface are not next.

My only complaint is that the true cause of the deaths is not fully explored. It’s left to the reader to connect the dots, which, honestly, isn’t that hard. In all fairness, that’s not really the aim of this novel, being satire/thriller and not cyberpunk. I just would have enjoyed it if this aspect had been mined more thoroughly. On the satire front, the author expertly skewers the characters we love to hate: the drug-addled screenwriter; the top agent drunk on his own power; the reporter, always looking for the next big, salacious story. EXPOSURE is an enjoyable and fast-paced ride that will have you compulsively turning the pages, looking for the next twist. This is a great blend of thriller and satire on a future that is all too probable.

Rating: 8
July 2007
ISBN# 978-0-316-09397-2 (hardcover)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Visions of Heat - Nalini Singh

Visions of Heat
Nalini Singh
Berkley Sensation

Paranormal Romance

NOTE: This is the second in a series that began with SLAVE TO SENSATION. If you haven’t read the first book, this review contains spoilers.

Nearly one hundred years ago, the Psy race instituted the Silence Protocol in order to train all traces of emotions from their ranks. They believe they have succeeded. But recent events prove otherwise.

Shortly after the events of the first book, changeling sentinel Vaughn, the lone jaguar changeling in the DarkRiver leopard Pack, is out running when he discovers something strange. The home of a Psy, isolated not only from other Psy, but also from all civilization. Adding to the oddness is the fact that the house is surrounded by gated fences and patrolled by guards. Sascha Duncan, a recently-defected Psy and now mated to the Pack alpha, realizes that this must be the home of an F-Psy. The F designation means foreseer; and the Fs are the most sought-after and valuable assets in the Psy world. They forecast stock prices and business trends, allowing their families to become wealthy and powerful.

The resident of the house, Faith, has lived there, alone, all her life. She lives to make predictions for the businesses that pay her family. All of her training tells her that isolation is necessary to prevent insanity, but boredom and restlessness drive her outside the compound and into the surrounding forest. She knows that she’s on DarkRiver lands, and figures that one of the Pack will stop her. What that happens, she’ll ask to talk to Sascha. That meeting, with Sascha and with Vaughn, will change her world forever.

It’s not only her external world that’s changing. There’s a killer stalking Psy women. Faith was plagued with dreams of suffocating, only to learn that the killer strangled her sister, a woman she barely knew. Now, somehow, the killer has established a link with her, and delights in showing her what has happened and what will happen. This sort of connection is not supposed to be possible. Then again, the connection between changeling and Psy shouldn’t be possible, either.

For the most part, this is an excellent follow-up to SLAVE TO SENSATION. My one quibble is the character of Vaughn throughout much of the book. There’s a thin line, even in romance novels, between being alpha and forcing yourself on someone; and, for me, Vaughn crosses that line often enough to be fairly distasteful. Overlooking that, the storyline is quite good, and we’re allowed to delve deeper into the PsyNet and the workings of the Council. It’s clear that there’s plenty of story left to tell, and I’m looking forward to it.

Rating: 7
March 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21575-3 (paperback)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Woman in Red - Eileen Goudge

Woman in Red
Eileen Goudge
Vanguard Press

Women’s Fiction

Nine years ago, Alice Kessler watched helplessly as her young son died in the middle of the street, a victim of a hit-and-run driver. Hours later, the police found the driver, Owen White, the wealthy son of a prominent Grays Island family. Alice maintains that Owen was speeding and drunk; Owen claims the child shot into the street in front of him before he could stop. In the end, the police believe Owen and rule the death an accident. But Alice can’t let go. She files a wrongful death suit against Owen. She’s so positive that she’ll win, she insists that her surviving son, seven-year-old Jeremy, be present in court for the verdict.

When the verdict goes against her, Alice is lost. With her young son in the passenger seat next to her, Alice spots Owen in the parking lot. She jams her foot down on the accelerator and aims the car at Owen, oblivious to her son’s terror. Alice is sent to jail.

After her release, Alice home, hoping to reconcile with Jeremy and attempt to heal the breach between them. Long since divorced, Alice is alone in the small community. Arriving on the same ferry is Colin McGanty, whose grandfather willed him a house and property on Grays Island. Colin needs a place to heal. He once made his living as a D.A. in Manhattan, then he lost his wife in the attack of 9/11 and turned to the bottle. He remembers his grandfather’s home fondly from summer visits.

A painting comes with the house: Woman in Red. A little digging into local history turns up the information that the woman was Alice’s grandmother; that she and Colin’s grandfather knew each other during the days of World War II. Moving from the present to the past and back again, this is a lovely story of how small events ripple outward and how redemption is almost always possible if you’re willing to try.

Rating: 7 ½
June 2007
ISBN# 978-159315-444-8 (hardcover)

Monday, August 20, 2007

On the Fifth Day - A. J. Hartley

On The Fifth Day
A.J. Hartley


Thomas Knight’s life has not quite followed the path he expected. At thirty-seven, he’s been fired from his beloved job as a high school teacher. He’s got no prospects, and virtually no funds. And then comes word that his brother, Father Edward Knight, is dead. His brother died in the Philippines, but that’s pretty much all anyone will tell him. He can’t even get information from the American embassy. Although the brothers had grown apart over the past several years, Thomas makes the trip to Edward’s rectory to go through his meager possessions.

At the rectory, Father Jim tells Thomas that Edward was engaged in research for a book on early Christian symbology. This subject holds very little interest for Thomas, until someone breaks into Edward’s room and steals a seemingly worthless trinket. At loose ends, anyway, and feeling that he owes something to his late brother, Thomas begins to retrace Edward’s steps on a trail that begins in Italy and leads to Japan and Manila. Clearly, Edward was onto something. Just as clearly, there are people who are more than willing to kill to keep that ‘something’ buried.

Thomas is a great sort of ‘everyman’ character. He’s a teacher looking at middle age, trying to resolve his feelings about his dead brother. There are deadly assassins chasing him, but the author makes it clear that any escape is the product of native intelligence and a bit of luck instead of some super abilities. While the story begins a bit slowly and appears to meander a bit in the first third, the author is really laying some important groundwork. Even so, I was hooked from the beginning.

The novel really hits its stride when the action moves to Italy and Thomas begins putting pieces of the puzzle together. There are some nifty plot twists that keep things interesting, along with a wealth of historical information. Readers who enjoy historical/archaeological thrillers, you won’t want to miss this one.

Rating: 8
July 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21626-6 (paperback)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Man of the Month Club - Jackie Clune

Man of the Month Club
Jackie Clune

Chick Lit/Brit Lit

As the star of her art school, Amy Stokes thought her future would consist of a career as a high-end design consultant, or possibly an impossibly cool minimalist artist. Instead, she discovered a talent for designing and screening fabrics for nurseries. This almost embarrassing talent has earning her more money than she ever imagined. She’s now the owner of three shops, and a mail-order business called Precious Little Darlings. Her customers are the upscale, trendy mommies with money to burn.

The irony is that Amy, now celebrating her 39th birthday, doesn’t particularly care for children or the moneyed mommies who overindulge them. That changes when she discovers a baby left in the doorway of one of her shops. Taking the abandoned child to the hospital apparently sets her biological clock in motion, and it’s counting down in fast-forward.

Her business methods have served her well in the past, so she decides to apply them to the problem of conception. She doesn’t need a mate, just a sperm donor. But trying to find the “right” man to father your child is a lot more difficult than she imagined. She embarks on a series of terrible dates and hopeless one-night stands, looking for the one man who can give her exactly what she wants.

Amy’s observations on everyone from those she calls her friends to the customers who support her lavish, if lonely, lifestyle, are almost unremittingly mean-spirited. Her social isolation rings very true, however, and it’s easy to see how she painted herself into this corner. The dating misadventures are entertaining, if fairly predictable. For all of that, the writing style is polished and engaging; the main characters are detailed and complex enough to be realistic. If you’re a fan of the ticking-biological-clock, need-a-baby-now subgenre of chick lit, you’ll enjoy this British take on the subject. Personally, I’m not a fan of this subgenre, but there are authors out there who can make it work for me. Sadly, this was not one of those times.

Rating: 4
August 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21557-9 (trade paperback)

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Spy Wore Silk - Andrea Pickens

The Spy Wore Silk
Andrea Pickens

Historical Romance/Mystery

Mrs. Merlin’s Academy For Select Young Ladies boasts quite a unique curriculum. Then again, the “select young ladies” who attend are also unique. Found in the stews and slums of London, orphans with no chance for a future, the girls are chosen for bravery and cleverness, then taken to Mrs. Merlin’s and educated. They’re trained in marital arts, and use of all manner of weapons, including seduction.

Lord Lynsley, ostensibly a low-level bureaucrat at Whitehall, arrives at Mrs. Merlin’s looking for a girl to send on an assignment. There’s a traitor in England; someone who has access to high level information, such as troop movements against Napoleon. A critical dispatch has been stolen. If this message falls into the wrong hands, it would mean the end of the accord between England and Russia.

At this point, Lynsley has narrowed down the pool of suspects to one group of men: the six members of The Gilded Page Club. These men meet several times each year to discuss acquisitions of rare books and art treasures. Siena, the first member of Mrs. Merlin’s school to be sent into the field, must discover which of these men is the traitor, and recover the missing dispatch. She will pose as a courtesan, looking for her next wealthy protector.

The six members of the club are more than eager to compete for her favors. All but Lord Kirtland, a man who was forced to resign his commission under mysterious circumstances. However, he accedes to the wishes of the majority and agrees. A man of principle, he feels certain that there’s more to this courtesan than meets the eye.

The author makes great use of a fortnight’s trip to the country to attend a book auction to gather all the players together in one place. There are plenty of suspects, including a mysterious Russian. The mystery and necessary subterfuge make for a very entertaining story. Siena is no shy wallflower. She uses her intelligence, wit, and wiles to unmask the traitor. Kirtland is a brooding hero, but a man of conscience. Together, the two make a great pair. Mrs. Merlin has several other girls ready for their forays into the field. I hope we’ll get to see more of them.

Rating: 7 ½
June 2007
ISBN# 0-446-61800-4 (paperback)

A Play of Lords - Margaret Frazer

A Play of Lords
Margaret Frazer
Berkley Prime Crime


In 1435, Joliffe and the traveling company of players arrive in London. King Henry VI’s advisor is dead, and many people, noblemen and clergy alike, are vying to step into the influential role. At the behest of Bishop Beaufort, the company will entertain the royals; while Joliffe keeps his eyes and ears open for developments. Joliffe is to report back anything he finds. It’s not often that a traveling player is drafted as a spy, but stranger things have happened in his life.

Soon enough, the deadly importance of this assignment becomes clear, as individuals close to the situation begin to die. To be sure, life in uncertain in these times, but these deaths cannot be written off to mere coincidence. And as the violence continues, the company begins to fear that someone in power may think they know too much to be allowed to live.

This is the fourth installment in this series, following A PLAY OF KNAVES, and the regular players have gained a good deal of depth. The players are ideally situated to gather information, but are also in a good deal of danger doing so. The real draw of this series for me is the amazing wealth of historical detail. While the mystery is compelling, and rooted in a fascinating historical period, it’s the details of everyday life that make the story and characters leap off the page. The author is quite obviously a scholar, and can clearly evoke the conditions, the social structure, and the politics of the time. This series will appeal to readers who enjoy historical mystery and historical fiction.

Rating: 8 ½
August 2007
ISBN# 0-425-21668-2 (paperback)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Dead Sexy - Tate Hallaway

Dead Sexy
Tate Hallaway


Garnet Lacey is a witch. The real kind; one who used to have a coven before a bunch of Vatican assassins killed them all last year outside Minneapolis. Stumbling into the carnage, Garnet called on the Goddess Lilith for protection. And she got much more than she expected. Lilith took out the assassins and then took up residence in Garnet. And, when Garnet cast a spell to hide herself and her vampire boyfriend from the rest of the Vatican, a bit of Lilith took up residence in him, creating an intense bond. Now living in Madison, WI, Garnet has spent the past year trying to forget what happened that night.

It’s going fairly well until FBI agent Gabriel Dominguez shows up at the occult bookstore, looking for Garnet. Fortunately, he’s got an old driver’s license photo of Garnet as a blonde. These days, she’s looking decidedly more Goth. Dominguez doesn’t recognize her, but Garnet realizes that, if he tracked her this far, she can’t keep running. All she wants is for him to listen to her story; to be open and sympathetic. So she decides to cast a little love spell to make that happen. A little spell; one she can break any time. She didn’t really reckon on the huge power boost Lilith gives her. And how is she going to explain this to her vampire boyfriend? Or the vampire ex-boyfriend who’s currently hiding his coffin in her basement? Sometimes, being a witch on the run seems like the easy part.

This is the second in a series, and I haven’t read the first volume. The story of the killings and Lilith and the initial spell are all part of the first book, but explained very early here. Honestly, I wish I’d read the first book before this one. Not because the author doesn’t do a good job of filling in the backstory; just because I feel like I’d have a better handle on the characters if I had. But that’s just my little problem. Garnet is a very engaging character. The story mixes paranormal elements with a real world setting to great effect. It’s very obvious that the spell is going to have unforeseen (by Garnet) consequences, but watching them play out is highly entertaining. I’ll be searching out the first installment, and looking forward to more.

Rating: 7 ½
May 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21508-1 (trade paperback)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Case of the Tough-Talking Turkey - Claudia Bishop

The Case of the Tough-Talking Turkey
The Casebook of Dr. McKenzie
Claudia Bishop
Berkley Prime Crime


Dr. Austin McKenzie retired from teaching to open a large animal vet practice in upstate New York. His neighbors are a varied lot, from horse people to commercial farmers. One such farmer is Lewis O’Leary, who runs his turkey farm, and his family, with an iron fist. Age hasn’t mellowed Lewis, who thinks nothing of striking his grown son during a feed seminar or accusing a feed salesman of shorting his shipments in front of the man’s boss.

When O’Leary turns up dead in a dumpster, it’s not really a surprise. And there seem to be plenty of suspects. His sons, who felt trapped and belittled; their wives, trapped and frustrated; the salesman, who could lose his job over the accusations; animal rights activists; and a postdoc student who desperately needed the man to sign off on research data to finish a study. Any one of them had good reason. When the police zero in on the hapless feed salesman, Dr. McKenzie decides to take on the role of investigator again.

This is a great follow-up to the first book in the series, THE CASE OF THE ROASTED ONION. Dr. McKenzie is in fine, opinionated, curmudgeonly form here. He does what he believes is right, and takes no guff from anyone. He has a dry and biting humor that makes him a very entertaining narrator. His wife and assistants at the vet practice are excellent foils for him. There are plenty of suspects on hand, and a large cast of characters makes this an engaging cozy.

Rating: 7 ½
August 2007ISBN# 978-0-425-21669-9 (paperback)

A Secret Rage - Charlaine Harris

A Secret Rage
Charlaine Harris
Berkley Prime Crime


Nickie Callahan is a has-been at the ripe old age of 27. That’s the way it goes in the world of New York models. While trying to decide what to do with the rest of her life, she gets a call from her best friend, Mimi. Mimi, who still lives in their hometown of Knolls, TN, is recently divorced. The divorce was quite a surprise, really; one day her husband simply announced that it wasn’t working. Hearing from Mimi makes Nickie realize how homesick she’s been.

The two women decide to move in together in the house Mimi’s grandmother left to her. Nickie will attend college and attempt to get one of her novels published. And they’ll help each other rebuild their lives. But Nickie’s hometown is no longer the safe haven she imaged. There’s a violent serial rapist operating in the area. When the violence hits much too close to home, the victims band together to stop the predator.

A reprint of a very early standalone mystery, this novel is rooted firmly in reality. Readers bothered by rape as subject matter may want to steer clear of this one, as the violence is fairly graphic. Much of the story centers on the victims’ trauma and how they deal with it. The mystery itself is fairly linear, and the characters aren’t quite as complex as in the author’s later work; but it’s still a solid and fast-paced mystery.

Rating: 7
August 2007 (reprint)
ISBN# 978-0-425-21453-4 (paperback)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Conqueror - Stephen Baxter

Time’s Tapestry, Book Two
Stephen Baxter

Alternate History

In 607 AD, the Romans have all but abandoned Britain. Even so, their presence is still keenly felt. The Roman Church, attempting to consolidate power by gathering the various pagan tribes into its fold, has begun to appropriate all major regional religious stories and relics. To that end, a bishop is leading a group of pilgrims into the north in search of a prophecy. Needing protection, he hires an unlikely duo; one, a Saxon who is bored working for his father’s trading business, the other, a Norse warrior. The two men agree to go, having heard tales of riches in the north.

In 743 AD, the last extant copy of the prophecy, said to have been made by Isolde, rests with a young girl, Aelffaed. She goes by the name of Aelfric now, having disguised herself as a boy in order to join a monastery on the tiny island of Lindisfarne in order to gain access to books. When Vikings, hearing of the monastery’s wealth, raid the place, they destroy the parchment containing the prophecy. But Aelffaed has it memorized. She’s joined by a disparate group of people, brought together in the same time, at the same place. Many believe that only the Weavers of time’s tapestry could have made that happen; and there must be a reason.

This second installment, following EMPEROR, begins in 607 AD and continues through the battle of Hastings in 1066 AD. My one complaint about the first book was that, covering so much time, each group of characters were given relatively little space in the story. That’s been remedied a bit here, as the book is broken up into four major eras. It’s a testament to the author’s talent that, while he fully develops each group, I still would have liked to see more. As before, each group interprets and values the prophecy just a bit differently, depending on their ultimate goals and frame of reference.

No previous knowledge of history is necessary, as the author provides plenty of information in the narrative. There’s also a map, timeline, and list of people and place names at the beginning; all inclusions that warm my history-geek heart. And, if you’re looking for factual accounts of the events described here, the author provides a concise list in his Afterword. This series is sure to please fans of alternate history and historical fiction alike. I’m already hoping for more.

Rating: 8 ½
August 2007
ISBN# 978-0-441-01496-5 (hardcover)

Emperor - Stephen Baxter

Time’s Tapestry, Book One
Stephen Baxter

Alternate History

In Britannia in 4 BC, nearly fifty years after the war against Cesar, Cunovic waits anxiously for the birth of his nephew. Waiting with him, the child’s father and great-grandfather, Nectovelin, a warrior who fought against Rome. The birth was difficult, and, at the end, the mother, a simple girl who had never ventured outside her own village, began to babble in Latin, a language of which she could have no knowledge. Cunovic, a traveling trader, understands her words and feels he should record them for posterity. Looking back, Cunovic would pinpoint that night as the time that time’s tapestry began to unravel.

Jumping forward to 43AD, that nephew is now a chieftain, and he and his people are faced with an ever-changing political situation and the very real possibility of another Roman invasion. To some, the prophecy speaks of freedom; to others it speaks of sorrow; some are disinclined to believe it at all. When the inevitable Roman invasion comes, his cousin Agrippina uses what has come to be known as the Prophecy of Nectovelin to divert the Emperor Claudius. But Claudius won’t be Emperor forever.

Readers who enjoy the alternate history genre will be happy to find this series. My only complaint is that I wish each section had been expanded. The characters are skillfully drawn, but since the story takes place over centuries, each set of characters is presented for a relatively short time. This is a minor quibble, however, since the intent is clearly to show the long-range scope of the prophecy, and the various interpretations by different family members, over a long period. The author skillfully evokes each time period through use of historical and political details, making each segment unique.

For those who want the details, like me, the author presents, at the beginning, a map of the ancient region, a timeline of major events, and a list of place names, both ancient and current. This makes it a simple matter for any reader to follow historical events. Since the conclusion takes place in 418 AD, the author has left himself plenty of room for future volumes.

Rating: 8
January 2007
ISBN# 978-0-441-01466-8 (hardcover)

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Vanishing - Bentley Little

The Vanishing
Bentley Little


Brian Howells, a reporter, is more concerned with family problems than with his new job at the L.A. Times. His mother tells him that his father, who abandoned the family more than twenty years ago without explanation, is back. But there’s something very, very wrong. When Brian sees the letter his father sent, he begins to understand his mother’s fears. It’s made up of alien, scrawled symbols, and bracketed with what looks like bloody fingerprints. The symbols fill Brian with dread, not least because, recently, various wealthy men have suddenly snapped and butchered their families in spectacularly bloody ways.

Slowly, Brian starts to put things together, heeding the advice of a financial reporter who tells him to “follow the money.” He hopes to find his father again, but is afraid of exactly what he’ll find. Eventually, he meets social worker Carrie Daniels, who can add more pieces to the puzzle. She’s seen several children who were born with grotesque deformities. And she has inside information about one wealthy businessman in particular.

Interspersed with the present day crimes, is the story of James Marshall, a man who joined a wagon train heading west to California in the 1840s. James is convinced that there’s great wealth to be found in California. When he arrives, he finds that great wealth can come at a great and terrible price.

If you’re faint of heart or weak of stomach, you’d best skip this one. For fans of horror, a new novel from Bentley Little is always good news. The carnage begins in the very first chapter. From there, readers follow Brian and Carrie as they struggle to put together seemingly disparate events and people into a coherent big picture. Usually, Little excels at taking something mundane (buying an insurance policy, taking the family on vacation at a resort) and building a sense of terror from the most banal foundations. This time, however, is a bit of a stumble as he weaves a rather obvious message into a large story. While not his personal best, it’s still head and shoulders above almost anyone else writing horror today, and horror fans will compulsively turn pages until the end.

Rating: 8
August 2007
ISBN# 978-0-451-22185-8 (paperback)

Gun Shy - Donna Ball

Gun Shy
A Raine Stockton Dog Mystery
Donna Ball


The instant that Raine arrives at the vacation cabin near the Smoky Mountains, she knows it’s going to be bad. For a start, the sheriff’s deputies and the sheriff, her Uncle Roe, are all gathered outside. From inside, she can hear the hoarse, desperate barking of a dog. Passersby heard the dog for days before finally reporting it. Inside the cabin is the body of a woman; an apparent suicide. Also inside the cabin is a retriever who has barked for days, trying to get someone’s attention, and who has gouged the closed door to the bedroom, trying to get to his dead mistress.

Getting the dog out of the cabin is only the beginning. What looks like an unfathomable suicide quickly starts to look more suspicious as the woman’s identity and background come to light. The woman, Michelle White, was supposedly unable to use the right side of her body. But, if that’s the case, why was the gun that killed her found in her right hand? And why would someone come to the Smoky Mountains on vacation in order to commit suicide? The lack of even basic food, human or canine, in the cabin is curious, too. At the moment, only the dog, named Hero by Raine, knows what really happened. And Raine is determined to find out the truth.

The first twenty or so pages deal with Raine’s meeting with, and rescue of, Hero. If you can read those pages and not feel your heart twist, you need to take a refresher course in being human. Those scenes serve to perfectly, if painfully, pull the reader into the story and into Raine’s shoes. Time spent dealing with her kennel business, various others’ dogs, and her own dog, Cisco, make a nice counterpoint to the opening scenes. After being in that cabin, and taking in Hero, it makes perfect sense that Raine would want to fully investigate the suspicious death. This is the third in a series, following RAPID FIRE, and newcomers will find it very easy to jump in here. The best new is that, so far, the author has managed to surpass herself with each new installment.

Rating: 7 ½
August 2007
ISBN# 978-0-451-22189-6 (paperback)

Friday, August 03, 2007

Murder in Chinatown - Victoria Thompson

Murder in Chinatown
A Gaslight Mystery
Victoria Thompson
Berkley Prime Crime


In turn-of-the-century New York, the only ethnic group more hated than the Irish is the Chinese. So maybe it’s not so surprising that many immigrants from these two groups decide to marry. On what should be a happy day for Cora Lee, the birth of her first son, trouble descends on the Lee household. Cora’s teenaged niece, Angel, one of the mixed-race children, has disappeared. Distraught at the prospect of marrying the man her parents chose for her, she packed up her clothes and left. Sara Brandt, midwife to Cora and veteran of several investigations, knows just as well as the Lee family that alerting the police would be pointless. Unless there’s a dead body or an arrest to be made, the police stay out of Chinatown.

But Sarah can’t help but worry about the innocent girl, and the various fates that might befall her on the dangerous streets of New York. She helps the family by asking questions of the girl’s friends. But things end badly when Angel’s body is found in an alley behind the tenement where she’d been living. Calling on her friend, Detective Sergeant Frank Malley, Sarah tries to piece together what really happened to Angel. With so much hatred for both sides of Angel’s family, there’s certainly no shortage of suspects.

As always, the author imbues the story with period details that brilliantly evoke the time and place. If you haven’t read other books in the series, you’ll no doubt want to go back and start from the beginning, even though it isn’t necessary to understanding the background. If you’ve been following the series for a while, there’s more information about the home lives of Sarah and Frank; and more developments in Frank’s independent investigation into the death of Sarah’s husband. Fans of historical mysteries won’t want to miss this smartly written series.

Rating: 8
June 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21531-9 (hardcover)

Con Ed - Matthew Klein

Con Ed
Matthew Klein
Warner Books


Kip Largo has spent his life running cons. As he narrates this novel, he tells the reader all about some very elementary cons and how they work. In the first scene, he prevents a thug from throttling an inept scammer. Walking to his car after the episode, he’s confronted by a blonde who wants to hire him. She’s sporting a black eye under her sunglasses and offers Kip $100,000 to do a “simple job” for her. Out of prison for just a year after serving five for securities and mail fraud, Kip turns her down and returns to his $10/hour job at the dry cleaner’s.

Then, his son, Toby, 25, shows up at his apartment, asking to stay. Clearly, Toby is in trouble. Eventually, he admits that he owes $60,000 in gambling debts to the Russian mob. When the mobsters break Toby’s leg and a couple of ribs, Kip is pushed into a corner. He knows that the worst reason to get involved in a scheme is out of desperation, but he’s got to protect his kid. And, really, a gorgeous blonde married to a Las Vegas casino owner would just be hanging around a local bar, and just happen to run into the perfect con man, right? Sure, she would.

Kip is a cynical, world-weary guy with a dry and self-deprecating wit. That makes him an extremely entertaining narrator. He’s also a con man, who has spent his life learning how to ingratiate himself to others. As the story progresses, and the truth about some of his cons come to light, he becomes less sympathetic. But, as with any good con, by the time that happens, the mark (that would be the reader) is hooked. The story is fast-paced and streamlined, with enough surprises to be entertaining without undue confusion; it’s only at the end that the entire truth is revealed. An excellent debut; I hope to see much more from this author.

Rating: 8
March 2007
ISBN# 978-0-446-57955-1 (hardcover)

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Blood Drive - Jeanne C. Stein

Blood Drive
An Anna Strong, Vampire Novel
Jeanne C. Stein


Two months ago, Anna Strong became a vampire. Not through choice, so it’s been an unhappy adjustment. But she’s been able to keep her life relatively unchanged. Fortunately, that old myth about sunlight being dangerous is only a myth. Her parents don’t know, of course, but Anna’s running out of ways to explain why she’s not eating when she visits them. On one of these visits, there’s a surprise visitor. Carolyn Delaney was the girlfriend of Anna’s brother, Steve. Steve died at the age of eighteen due to the stupidity of a drunk driver. Since Steve’s death, fourteen years ago, no one in the family has seen Carolyn; she didn’t even attend Steve’s funeral.

Now, in their living room, Carolyn says she wants to hire Anna to find her daughter, Trish. Anna suggest that the police are better equipped than a bounty hunter to search for a runaway, and that’s when Carolyn drops the bomb. She says that Trish is Steve’s child. Anger battles with concern as Anna and her parents process this possibility. Carolyn wants Anna to find Trish and then broker some kind of deal with the police. She believes that Trish was involved in a murder. Her partner in crime, according to Carolyn, was Daniel Frey, a teacher at the school where Anna’s mother is principal.

If Trish is blood, then Anna wants to find her and help her. And even if she’s not, the allegations of a teacher having sex with students, and providing drugs to those students, is impossible to ignore. The chief of police suggests to Anna that there may be a supernatural element to the case. He’d know, since he’s also a vampire. Meeting Frey is a shock. And, very quickly, Anna realizes that her vampiric nature is going to be very useful in this case.

This novel is the sequel to THE BECOMING. Not having read the first book, I found it quite easy to pick up the threads from the information provided here. The author writes about the real world, but populates it with vampires and other supernatural beings who must keep their true natures secret from the mortals around them. In some ways, being a vampire is a great benefit to Anna, but she’s keenly aware of the downside, too, such as the fact that she will outlive everyone she loves. Anna is a very likeable character; intelligent and competent, even without her vampire advantages. The writing is fast-paced and smooth, and unraveling the truth about Trish and the murder will keep readers turning pages. I’m looking forward to the next installment, due out this winter.

Rating: 7 ½
July 2007
ISBN# 978-0-441-01509-2 (paperback)

A Deadly Dealer - J.B. Stanley

A Deadly Dealer
A Collectible Mystery
J.B. Stanley
Berkley Prime Crime


Molly Appleby, a reporter for “Collector’s Weekly” is in Nashville to cover the Heart of Dixie antique show. Her mother, Clara, a collector, is just there to attend the convention. They’re staying at the Opryland Hotel, a place so vast that guests are provided with a map upon check-in, and advised to keep the map with them at all times. During the preview night, they encounter Tom Barnett, a well-known collector of medical antiquities. His booth, however, is in uncharacteristic disarray, with apothecary chests sharing space with walking sticks. A bit later in the evening, they see him arguing with a powerful New York dealer.

The following morning, in search of a cup of coffee, and without her map, Molly wanders around the first floor of the hotel. Eventually, she discovers something else that wakes her up in a big hurry. Tom’s body is lying partially obscured by plants; his face submerged in the indoor stream. There are plenty of suspects, from a bitter ex-wife to the New York dealer, who claims that a blanket chest in Tom’s booth really belongs to him.

With a convention full of antiques dealers and collectors, there’s no shortage of suspects or motives. Collecting can become a compulsion for some. Molly’s job as a reporter gives her a valid reason to look into the death, and her mother’s knowledge of the people and background comes in very handy. Last seen in A FATAL APPRAISAL, they make a fine team. The author includes some historical vignettes that illustrate various aspects of the antiques, and really outdoes herself with the section at the end, detailing walking sticks concealing various instruments and weapons, complete with fascinating photos. This series is great for collectors, history buffs, and mystery fans alike.

Rating: 7 ½
August 2007ISBN# 978-0-425-21670-5 (paperback)

The Chocolate Jewel Case - JoAnna Carl

The Chocolate Jewel Case
A Chocoholic Mystery
JoAnna Carl


Life as newlyweds is hardly bliss for Lee and Joe Woodyard. Just three months into their marriage, they’re contending with a home remodeling project and several houseguests, all in a one-bathroom cottage. Joe’s Aunt Gina showed up, unannounced for a “short visit” that seems open-ended. What’s clear is that she’s hiding out from her latest soon-to-be-ex-husband. Pete Falconer, whom Joe describes as a bird-watcher, is camping out in a sleeping bag on their screened-in porch. Lee’s stepsister and her friend are living in the cottage for the summer and working at TenHuis Chocolade, the family business. And Darrell, who was recently released from prison after serving five years for a crime he didn’t commit, is living in a trailer in the yard. Confused yet? Did I mention that bird-watcher Pete is hiding a gun?

It seems that escaping the crowd for an evening at a neighbor’s dinner party is just what’s needed. The Garrett family has owned a cottage on the lake for generations. During the dinner party, armed intruders break in and steal a bag belonging to eccentric Uncle Alex. That bag contained the family’s famed jewelry collection. This is only the latest in a series of break-ins at cottages around the lake. As in any small town, gossip spreads quickly, and the story of the day is that each burglary occurred in a property insured by Joe’s mother, Mercy Woodyard.

The latest in the series of cozy mysteries finds Lee and Joe dealing with a series of domestic crises that rival an episode of “I Love Lucy.” Lee still misspeaks at inconvenient times, a trait I personally find annoying instead of endearing, but I’m clearly in the minority on that point. There are several visits to the family chocolate shop, and interesting information about chocolates thrown in along the way for flavor. But the story works best when it focuses on the string of break-ins around the lakefront properties. There’s quite a large cast of characters this time around, and several interesting subplots playing out during the main story. Readers with an affinity for chocolates and cozies will find another satisfying read here.

Rating: 6 ½
August 2007
ISBN# 978-0-451-22188-9 (paperback)