Monday, March 31, 2008

Murder Of A Chocolate-Covered Cherry - Denise Swanson

Murder Of A Chocolate-Covered Cherry
A Scumble River Mystery
Denise Swanson


Scumble River, Illinois may be a small town, but it’s never boring. As spring begins, the cooks in town are gearing up for Grandma Sal’s Soup-To-Nuts Cooking Challenge. Skye Denison, school psychologist, was blissfully unaware of the contest until her mother, May, told her about it. And about how Skye is a finalist in the contest. And, at last, how May wanted so badly to be a finalist that she entered four different recipes, using four different family members. Now all four, including May, are competing, with various degrees of good humor.

Since Grandma Sal’s company owns a factory that employs much of the town, the contest is big news. At the press conference covering the opening events, Skye meets the other competitors. One is Cherry Alexander, who waltzes in, after keeping the rest of the group waiting for nearly an hour, wearing couture and trailing a beach bum-looking husband while issuing demands over a cell phone.

Things go rapidly downhill from there when Cherry accuses May of stealing the “secret ingredient” for her recipe and one contestant after another discovers that someone has tampered with everything from ingredients – switching salt for sugar – to kitchen timers. The ensuing chaos prompts the judges to allow a second test run the following morning before the contest begins. Before that second test run can begin, early arrivals discover an addition to the huge chocolate fountain that was a feature at last night’s dinner: a body, facedown. Death by chocolate looks a lot better on a menu than in practice.

This is the latest installment in a long-running series, but newcomers will have no problems getting up to speed. The author cleverly works in background without being obtrusive. The contest brings together a disparate cast of characters, and provides an interesting pool of suspects. There are a couple of interesting subplots going on, involving a possible teen kidnapping and the possible sale of the factory. Foodies will get an extra layer of enjoyment, as the author thoughtfully includes the winning recipes at the end of the book. As always, the mystery revolves around Skye, her family, and her interconnected relationships with nearly everyone in her hometown. Readers who enjoy small town cozies will love this series.

Rating: 6 ½
April 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-22368-5 (paperback)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Saving The World And Other Extreme Sports - James Patterson

Saving The World And Other Extreme Sports
A Maximum Ride Novel
James Patterson

YA/ Paranormal Thriller

Note: If you haven’t read the first two books in this series, THE ANGEL EXPERIMENT and SCHOOL’S OUT-FOREVER, not only have you missed a couple of really good books, but this review is going to contain spoilers. If you hate spoilers, go read the first two books. You’ll thank me later.

Max is not your average 14-year-old girl. For a start, she’s homeless. She’s also on the run from a bunch of freaks who want to kill her. She’s in charge of a bunch of other kids (Fang, Iggy, Gasman, Nudge, and Angel, along with their dog, Total) who are also in danger. Oh, and she and those other kids? Had bird DNA grafted into their human DNA before birth, so they all have wings and can fly. The freaks chasing them are mutant freaks designed for the purpose of hunting and killing bird kids. So far, the flock has managed to stay one step ahead of their pursuers. But running all the time, never being able to trust anyone, is hard.

They’ve just learned that the scientists who created them have a plan for the world. It’s called Re-Evolution, or the By-Half Plan. Basically, they plan to eliminate (that’s “kill,” in pc-speak) anyone who isn’t in perfect physical shape and performs a vital social function. If this whole ‘master race’ thing doesn’t ring a bell, you haven’t been paying attention in history class. Max has a Voice in her head and a chip in her arm. She wants to get rid of both them. The Voice keeps telling her that it’s up to her to save the world; to stop the scientists from carrying out their plan.

Fang has a plan to get started. He’s started writing a blog, on the theory that the scary scientists can’t just kill them if everyone knows about them. Max thinks it’s a long shot. Besides, getting a bunch of regular kids to go up against whatever the scientists come up with (now it’s robotized hunters) seems like throwing a bunch of lambs in front of a fleet of buses. While Fang and Max argue about the best way to stop the By-Half Plan, the Voice comes up with the terrifying news that there’s a traitor in the flock.

If you’ve read the first two books, you know that these books are long on action. We get to find out more about Max and her past, and about the huge corporation and scientists that started everything. The enemies are stronger, and the flock splits up at one point, making for some very tense situations. Max is at her smart-aleck best here, and there’s excitement and action pretty much from page one. The story is a bit bigger, too, making this the best installment in the series so far.

Rating: 8
May 2007 ISBN# 978-0-316-15560-1 (hardcover)
February 2008 ISBN# 978-0-446-19404-4 (paperback)

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Prisoner Of Birth - Jeffrey Archer

A Prisoner Of Birth
Jeffrey Archer
St. Martin’s Press


It should have been the best night of Danny Cartwright’s life. His longtime girlfriend, Beth, is expecting his child, and has accepted his proposal; his lifelong best friend, Bernie, would become his brother-in-law; and Bernie’s dad was set to retire and leave his garage business in Danny’s hands. Instead, when Danny, Beth, and Bernie leave their familiar East End haunts for a Chelsea pub to celebrate the happy occasion, they run into a quartet of West End Cambridge-educated men. Remarks are made, leading to a fight in the alley. At the end of that fight, Bernie is dead from several stab wounds. By the next morning, Danny is in custody as the killer.

Beth truly believes that Danny will be acquitted. There’s just no way an innocent man could be convicted. Danny’s trial lawyer is young and relatively new, although he is the son of a retired judge. The prosecutor is an old hand who puts on a case that includes three of the four Cambridge men who all claim that it was Danny who killed Bernie; the outcome is almost never in doubt. Danny is convicted and sentenced to 22 years in a high-security prison. There, his cellmate teaches him to read and write. Together, the men hatch a scheme that they hope will allow Danny to break out, prove his innocence, and gain revenge.

Archer is a great storyteller and uses Dumas and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO to great effect here, and manages to throw in some very neat twists. The plot contains several layers. The book can be read as a thriller; or as an exploration of the dichotomy, even in the best of legal systems, in the way people of different socioeconomic classes access justice. For readers familiar with Dumas and the author’s past few years, there are additional layers of meaning to be plumbed, but they’re not strictly necessary to the enjoyment of the novel. No matter how you read it, this is a fast-paced thriller and a fascinating look at the English legal system from the other side of the bars.

Rating: 8
March 2008
ISBN# 978-0-312-37929-2 (hardcover)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

7th Heaven - James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

7th Heaven
James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
Little, Brown and Company


Michael Campion, son of the popular California governor, was everyone’s child. Born with a heart defect that would kill him one day, he was a beautiful little boy, and, in time, a handsome young man. When he went missing without a trace, it was huge news. As months went by without any clues, the story got pushed off the front pages. But SFPD Sgt. Lindsay Boxer and her partner, Rich Conklin, never stopped working the case. When a tip came in about a last-known sighting, they immediately investigate.

The tip takes them to the home of a prostitute who calls herself Junie Moon. Initially she denies ever seeing Michael, then, to the shock of the officers, she confesses to having a hand in his murder. As her trial date approaches, she attracts a media savvy defense attorney and recants her confession. As ADA, Yuki Castellano is prosecuting this possibly career-making case.

At the same time, Lindsay and Conklin are investigating a series of horrible murders. Several very upscale homes burned with the owners still inside. The fires look like arson, and there are items missing from each house. One house belonged to the parents of Conklin’s high school sweetheart, making the case that much more personal.

The latest in the Women’s Murder Club series, following 6th TARGET, this installment manages to make the criminals interesting – as well as scary – without sacrificing the fast pace for which the series is known. Each of the four women in the Club show some growth here, and it’s nice to catch up with them, although Lindsay and Yuki deservedly take center stage this time. As always, it’s best not to start one of these novels too late in the evening; you’ll feel compelled to keep turning the pages long into the night.

Rating: 8
February 2008
ISBN# 978-0-316-01770-1 (hardcover)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Murder Melts In Your Mouth - Nancy Martin

Murder Melts In Your Mouth
A Blackbird Sisters Mystery
Nancy Martin


It’s summer in Philadelphia, and the heat wave makes it feel like everything is melting. Nora Blackbird, former socialite, now broke and working as the society columnist for the paper, has a new assignment: to cover the Chocolate Festival Gala. Before that, she has to deal with her sisters. Libby managed to get hit by a Rolls while crossing the street and is currently ensconced in the air conditioned serenity of the Ritz-Carlton, all on the tab of the mystery Rolls driver. That means Nora is now responsible for Libby’s five children. Nora calls them ‘monsters,’ and I cannot disagree.

Walking more than a few blocks in the heat is impossible, so, on the way to the paper, Nora ducks into a popular restaurant. Inside, she sees her younger sister, Emma, who is showing all the signs of descending into another alcoholic binge. Crewe Dearborne is there, too, and the two catch up on gossip. Crewe has been seeing Nora’s oldest friend, Lexie, a financial genius. But lately, Lexie has been acting distant. As it happens, Lexie is in some potentially serious trouble. Her former business partner, Hoyt Cavendish, has just been caught stealing from clients. That very afternoon, Hoyt makes a very unscheduled swan dive from the penthouse of his building. Anyone who was swindled is a suspect, but the authorities are focusing on Lexie. Nora knows that can’t be, and decides to track down the truth.

Nora, last seen in A CRAZY LITTLE THING CALLED DEATH, is a wonderful character. She was raised in the midst of Philadelphia’s Main Line Society, but when her parents cleaned out the trust funds left for her and her sisters, a major adjustment in lifestyle was necessary. It’s not what she imagined for herself, but she’s not wallowing in denial or self-pity; she’s doing what she must to make a life for herself. She’s a strong woman, intelligent, and amazingly loyal to two sisters who seem to be perpetually in danger of sailing off the edge of reason. There are plenty of suspects in this satisfyingly complex mystery. But, as always, Nora, with her sense of fashion and knowledge of the social register, is the star.

Rating: 7 ½
March 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-22311-1 (hardcover)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Rich Girl - Carol Culver

Rich Girl
A BFF Novel
Carol Culver
Berkley Jam

Young Adult

How great would it be to live in a mansion with no parents around while attending an elite prep school like Manderley Prep? How about if you’re an exotic beauty and smart, too? Sounds great. But Victoria Lee discovers that the reality is a little different, and a lot lonelier. Especially since her parents’ Ivy League plans for her don’t quite match her own plans.

Her parents, in Hong Kong for the foreseeable future, decide to hire a housekeeper for her. That housekeeper comes complete with a teenaged son, Gabe, who sees all the Manderley kids as incredibly spoiled, stuck-up, and worst of all, wasteful and dangerous to the environment. More and more, Victoria is starting to think that maybe Gabe has a point; maybe this isn’t where she really belongs.

Echoes of A Tale Of Two Cities run through the story, but this is pure YA fiction at its most fun. A continuation of the series started with MANDERLEY PREP, this time Victoria gets a chance to take center stage. Moving from Hong Kong to San Francisco would give anyone culture shock, and to deal with it alone as a teenager would be really difficult. Victoria’s feelings will resonate with anyone who’s every felt out of place in a new school or a new group of people.

Rating: 7
January 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-21915-7 (trade paperback)

Manderley Prep - Carol Culver

Manderley Prep
A BFF Novel
Carol Culver
Berkley Jam

Young Adult

For Cindy Ellis, attending the exclusive school Manderley Prep is simply a stepping-stone to getting into an Ivy League college. Her father made a lot of money before he died, but Cindy’s stepmother is far more concerned with herself and her twin cheerleader daughters than she is with Cindy, so Cindy’s there on a scholarship. It’s quite a change from the regular public school, where she left her best friends.

Her first day is going badly until she catches sight of Marco, the impossibly handsome Italian exchange student. Rumor has it that he’s a prince. Cindy’s thrilled when he’s assigned to her for English tutoring. Of course, they’re just friends. Right? When Scott and Victoria, two new friends, offer to give Cindy a makeover, it’s almost enough to make her believe in fairy tale endings.

The first in a promising new YA series, Manderley Prep is a modernization of the story of Cinderella. Fortunately for readers, the author adheres more to the spirit of that story than to each plot point. There’s plenty more going on here. Cindy is a great example of a likeable young woman determined to make her own way in life despite all obstacles. The language, along with references to sex and drugs make this more appropriate for high school readers, but adult readers will enjoy it as well.

Rating: 7
December 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21747-4 (trade paperback)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Harlot's Daughter - Blythe Gifford

The Harlot’s Daughter
Blythe Gifford

Historical Romance

To the court of King Richard II, Lady Joan Weston is thought of, when she’s thought of at all, as ‘the harlot’s daughter.’ Her mother, Lady Alys Weston was the very public mistress of King Richard’s grandfather, King Edward III. Upon Edward’s death, Alys and her daughters were instantly evicted from Court. Now, almost a decade later, Joan (called Solay by her mother and others) has returned to Court, desperate to secure a grant from Richard to keep her family from starving.

When Lord Justin Lamont sees Solay presented to Richard, he understands for the first time how a woman can ensnare a man’s mind. Justin’s mind is dedicated to his career as a lawyer. He serves as liaison between Richard and the Council appointed by Parliament to oversee (and stop) Richard’s profligate spending. When Richard offers Solay to Justin as a wife, Justin requests the time between Yuletide and Easter to make his decision, with the unusual stipulation that he must be sure she loves him before he will consent to the marriage.

The pairing is both happy and painful for Solay, who grew up at her mother’s knee, learning the ways and intrigues of Court. She knows that there must be a benefit for Richard in this. Richard wants Solay to extract information from Justin, by any means necessary, about the actions of the Council. Solay, who already cares for Justin more than she expected to, knows that she must obey the King for the sake of her family. Justin, who values honesty and truth above all else, may not forgive this betrayal.

This is a historical romance that’s very much grounded in real history. The author includes a note at the end that details her inspiration and where she took some license with real events. That license was used very well, as this novel feels quite real. The characters of Solay and Justin begin on opposite sides of the philosophy of life – both correct from their own perspectives - and the interest lies in watching them inch toward each other. The background of Court intrigue is fascinating and integral to the plot, but never overshadows the two main characters. This one is a treat for any reader who enjoys a historical novel with depth.

Rating: 8
October 2007
ISBN# 978-0-373-39470-1 (paperback)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Mine to Possess - Nalini Singh

Mine to Possess
Nalini Singh
Berkley Sensation

Paranormal Romance

Note: This is the fourth volume in this series, following SLAVE TO SENSATION, VISIONS OF HEAT, and CARESSED BY ICE. This review contains no spoilers, really, but in this particular case I think readers would be much better off starting at the beginning of series.

Clay Bennett has been a member of the DarkRiver pack for many years. Although he wasn’t born to the pack, and is, in fact, half human, no one questions his loyalty. But everyone has noticed that he’s a loner; clearly tormented by darkness in his past. That darkness involves Talin (Tally) McKade. When Clay was 14 and Tally was 8, Clay killed her foster father in order to protect her. Because of the extenuating circumstances, he was sent to juvenile detention for several years. As a changeling, he suffered more than most from being confined. When he was released, he was told that Tally had died in a car crash. He’s never gotten over her.

Tally, too, lives with the horror of that night. In a vain attempt to alleviate her fears as a child, Tally agreed to let Clay believe that she died. She lives with that guilt daily. Now she’s an adult, living in San Francisco and working with needy children. Lately, children like this have been disappearing. Some have turned up dead. The authorities treat them as runaways, but Tally knows different. There’s only one person she can trust to help her with this, and to contact him means facing her fears.

Nalini Singh is a master at world building. The world of 2080 presented here is at once familiar and different; complex, but always consistent. This time around, readers see characters that don’t quite fit into the three races of Psy, Changeling, or Human. There are hybrids, and the Psy view them both as a problem and an opportunity. The politics of this world are complex, and very believable. Likewise the relationship between Clay and Tally. It evolves quite naturally as the story progresses. This may be the best, most tightly plotted installment to date, and that’s saying quite a bit. If you’re new to paranormals or this series, start with the first book and settle yourself in for an amazing ride.

Rating: 8
February 2008ISBN# 978-0-425-22016-0 (paperback)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Chat - Archer Mayor

A Joe Gunther Mystery
Archer Mayor
Grand Central Publishing


Joe Gunther heads up the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. His brother, Leo, is a prominent and well-liked butcher who has lived all his life with their mother in the house where they were raised. One snowy evening, on the way home from a movie, Leo’s car goes off the road and his life changes. Both Leo and his mother are seriously injured. Joe, following a hunch and nothing more, asks to see the car. What he and a fellow investigator find points to foul play.

When Joe got the call about his family, he was at the scene of a murder. A man with no ID and no mode of transportation, floating facedown in a creek, miles from anything. The ME can’t find any trace of trauma or bruising to the body. Soon after, another man is found dead in a motel room. Again, there’s no sign of foul play, and no sign of a car or other transportation. The two cases are strangely similar, but Joe will have to work overtime to find the connection.

This is the latest in a long-running series, but each installment is crafted so that it works equally well for newbies as for long-time readers. Necessary background is worked in where needed, but never overpowers the story. The author clearly loves Vermont and includes descriptions that make even a bone-chilling New England winter sound beautiful. There are two parallel investigations going on here: the car crash and the two homicides. Both are handled well with some interesting twists. Longtime fans know better than to miss a Joe Gunther novel, and this one should win many new readers as well.

Rating: 7 ½
November 2007
ISBN# 978-0-446-58258-2 (hardcover)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Border Wedding - Amanda Scott

Border Wedding
Amanda Scott
Grand Central Publishing

Historical Romance

Lady Margaret (Meg) Murray lives in precarious times. In the Borderlands between England and Scotland of 1388, the border itself changes nearly as often as alliances do. At 18, she’s more than eligible to be married, but her father, Sir Iagan Murray, needs to tread carefully, both financially and politically, to keep his family safe. When he and his men catch a group of reivers, he plans to hang them all, until his wife realizes the potential boon that fate has brought them.

Sir Walter (Wat) Scott, eldest son of a laird, and with ties to the King of Scots, Douglas, only intended to steal back the cattle that were his. But Sir Murray’s men were waiting, and instead, Wat and his men are scheduled to hang. Until Sir Murray makes an unbelievable request: marry his eldest daughter, Margaret, widely known as one of the homeliest woman in Scotland, and Sir Murray will spare Wat’s life. Wat bargains for the rest of his men as well, but eventually agrees. For Wat, this ends any discussion of his marrying his unpleasant cousin. For the Murray family, it gives them ties to the mighty Douglas and ties to the powerful English Percy family through Lady Murray.

The opening chapters are a joy to read, setting the stage with a succinct, but not intrusive, explanation of the current political situation between England and Scotland. The presence of Meg’s mother, the Lady Murray, is always a pleasure, as she manages to maneuver her husband into doing the right thing while making him think it’s all his idea. Meg’s sister Amalie provides a lighter foil to Meg’s sense of duty. And who can blame Meg? Being married off to a man you set eyes on a few hours ago cannot be easy, even if it was not completely unheard of at the time.

The rest of the story unfolds around the evolving relationship between Meg and Wat. Meg soon learns that Wat takes his vows seriously and intends to treat her well as his wife. Watching the two of them get to know each other is touching. Add to this the ongoing political intrigue of the day, and Meg’s discovery that one of her brothers is a spy, and you’ve got a great story. No prior knowledge of history is required, and the author does readers like me a great favor by including a pronunciation guide in the Author’s Note. A new Amanda Scott novel is always cause for happiness, and this is certainly no exception. Block out some time and get lost in the Borderlands.

Rating: 8
March 2008
ISBN# 978-0-446-19798-4 (paperback)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Wild Jinx - Sandra Hill

Wild Jinx
Sandra Hill
Grand Central Publishing

Contemporary Romance

As an award-winning journalist, Celine Arseneux is prepared to do anything to get her story. This time, getting the scoop on the Dixie Mafia running a sex club entails dressing like a sex-starved tart and attending the club, the Playpen, pretending to be a customer. With her hidden microphone and camera in place, Celine is definitely uncomfortable, but ready to do her job. Then she sees him across the room. The last man she wants to see, tonight or any other night.

John LeDeux is an almost-reformed bad boy turned police detective. He’s currently working undercover at the Playpen, aware that a major raid will begin any moment. He’s shocked to see geeky Celine dressed like what his 92-year-old Tante Lulu would call a “scarlet woman,” sitting in the club. In order to protect the case and the resulting arrests, John manages to get her hidden microphone and camera away from her during a kiss that surprises them both.

When Celine realizes what John has done, she exacts her kind of revenge by printing a sidebar story about the hot cop who frequents the Playpen. She didn’t name names, but everyone in the department knows who it is. And that’s a problem, since John will be testifying against some very dangerous people when the case goes to trial. To keep him safe and out of sight until the trial, John is put on a paid suspension. To fill the time, he decides to participate in a treasure hunt instigated by his Tante Lulu, who is sure that some of pirate Jean Lafitte’s treasure is just waiting to be found in the bayou.

To help find the treasure, she’s hired professional treasure hunters Jinx, Inc. Several of John’s family members will be joining the expedition, too. And there’s a late addition. Celine arrives, assigned to cover the expedition. Tante Lulu is thrilled with this little development. She’s decided that it’s high time John got married, and she’s set her sights on Celine. Despite a one-night stand six years ago, John is far from ready for marriage, and Celine has her own reason to be more than a little wary. His name is Etienne, and he’s nearly six years old.

Let’s just get that last out of the way first. It’s not a spoiler. Etienne and his parentage are revealed in the first couple of chapters. The whole “secret child” plotline is a peeve of mine, and I admit I groaned when I read it. Celine’s reasons for keeping the secret are very flimsy. To her credit, Celine has begun to seriously consider the fact that her child has a right to know his father, despite her grandfather’s grudge against John’s family.

The rest of the book is frothy fun. Celine and John initially hate each other the way only two characters destined to fall passionately in love can. Their sniping is really quite fun to read. It’s obvious that many of the supporting characters are from previous books in this series, but, as a new reader, this works fine as a standalone novel. The treasure hunt is entertaining, and the author describes the bayou country so beautifully and with such genuine affection that it makes me want to brave the snakes and mosquitoes just to be able to see it. If you’re looking for a light romance with a good dose of adventure, you won’t want to miss WILD JINX.

Rating: 7
March 2008
ISBN# 0-446-61653-2 (paperback)

Monday, March 10, 2008

Halting State - Charles Stross

Halting State
Charles Stross

Science Fiction/Mystery/Techno Thriller

The Edinburgh constabulary is already short-handed when Sgt. Sue Smith gets a call about a robbery. Arriving at the scene – denoted by a revolving red diamond overhead – Sue finds an old bunker occupied by a game company. They show her the video capture of the crime. The criminals entered the main bank and looted cash and items from security boxes. The criminals were a war party of Orcs backed up by a dragon.

Initially, Sue discounts the real severity of this cybercrime. Then she realizes that by undermining the in-game economy, the thieves may be able to undermine the company’s stock prices, which, in turn, could affect the market as a whole. Another possibility is that the thieves are some kind of new technospy, looking to take down the electronic infrastructure.

At the underwriter’s firm, Elaine, an insurance adjuster, is on the case. Her company’s position is simple. They want to pay out as little as possible (preferably nothing) in insurance claims for this crime. Despite her gaming prowess, Elaine quickly realizes that she’s out of her depth, technologically speaking. So she hires Jack for that side of things. Jack was recently remaindered (laid off) from his job and recruited for this one.

The email that recruits Jack kicks off the story, and it’s darkly funny, a little scary, and all too possible. The way the world works in this novel, set in 2018, with everyone virtually connected in real time, seems quite realistic. Readers do not have to be technocrats to understand the story. If you’re reading this, you know more than enough about cyberspace to enjoy the plot.

The story is told from three points of view: Sue’s, Elaine’s, and Jack’s. Far from being confusing, this allows the reader to see the story through three different sets of eyes, giving a more complete picture. The book is written in second person, which is unusual enough (for me) to be uncomfortable at first, but that’s quickly past as the events of the story take over. Like his previous book, GLASSHOUSE, HALTING STATE is one of those rare books that entertains while giving a glimpse of a plausible future.

Rating: 8
October 2007
ISBN# 978-0-441-01498-9 (hardcover)

Friday, March 07, 2008

All Shots - Susan Conant

All Shots
A Dog Lover’s Mystery
Susan Conant
Berkley Prime Crime


Dog trainer Holly Winter (last seen in GAITS OF HEAVEN) volunteers for a malamute rescue group in Cambridge, Mass. When she gets a call about a missing Siberian, she’s not surprised, since many people confuse the breeds. The dog was in the care of Mellie, a mentally slow woman who takes her dog-sitting duties very seriously. She tells Holly that the dog, Strike, got out under her fence. Looking around the neighborhood for Strike, Holly and her malamute Rowdy meet a woman who points them down a narrow driveway, saying she saw a dog headed that way.

It looks like no one’s home at the small cottage, but Holly checks the back yard just to be sure. Just inside the sliding glass door lies the body of a woman, amongst the wreckage of the kitchen. Food, dishes, and even the contents of a few fish tanks litter the floor. There’s blood around the body, and what can only be gunshot wounds in the woman’s back.

Later that evening, Kevin Dennehy, the cop next door, arrives a Holly’s home and is thrilled to see her alive. The preliminary ID of the dead woman gave her name as Holly Winter. Holly explains that there are two women with the same name living in Cambridge. The second Holly is an academic at Harvard, and mix-ups are not uncommon. Then Kevin reveals that the dead woman had utility bills and bank statements for both Hollys in her possession. It looks like she was planning to steal at least one identity. She also had a photo of a rare blue malamute. Holly is more interested in tracking down the dog than in delving into the murder, but it soon becomes clear that one leads to the other.

This time around, Holly is mostly on her own, since both her husband and her tenant are out of town. Niece Leah makes an appearance, and Kevin keeps her connected to the investigation. But it’s mostly Rowdy, Kimi, and Sammy providing backup in this installment. The mystery is interesting, if a bit thin, and Holly unaccountably misses a few fairly obvious connections. There’s plenty of time devoted to the lives of dogs (Holly’s and others’) and that’s sure to please fans of this longtime series who read for the dog information and tips.

Rating: 6
November 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21744-3

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Dead To Me - Anton Strout

Dead To Me
Anton Strout

Urban Fantasy

If you could see past events and people just by touching an object, would you consider that a gift or a curse? It’s called psychometry, and if you’re smart, you know it’s both. And you’d wear gloves pretty much everywhere. Simon Canderous is smart. In the past, he used his skill to make a living in not-very-legal ways. These days, he’s working for the D.E.A. That would be the Department of Extraordinary Affairs, located in NYC.

Odd things happen pretty much every day around the D.E.A. offices, but even Simon isn’t quite prepared to meet a ghost face-to-face. In fact, he’s been sitting across from her for some time before he realizes exactly what she is. All she knows is that her name is/was Irene; she’s not even prepared to believe that she’s dead yet. Simon and his mentor, Connor Christos, promise to attempt to find out who she was and how she died, in order to help her move on. In doing so, they discover a cult – they prefer to be called Sectarians – operating pretty much in the open and with the support of City Hall. City Hall apparently decided that Evil has the right to office space, too.

It’s very refreshing to find an urban fantasy centered on a snarky, smart-ass male character. Simon is fairly young, has had a checkered past, and is now on a new path. He’s got a lot to learn about his own skill, and about the paranormal in general. Connor is a great foil. He’s been around, but he’s no stereotypical kindly old man, calmly dispensing bits of wisdom. There are still plenty of things that surprise Connor. Both men get irritable and angry and make mistakes. The fact that they can’t always make everything ok gives a tone of realism to characters.

The everyday workings of the D.E.A. is exactly what would happen if the government ran paranormal investigations. Paperwork is omnipresent. For every zombie infestation put down, there’s a dozen forms that need to be filled out, and reports to be filed. Again, this gives a sense of realism, even in the midst of the fantastical. Simon’s reactions to the ghost of the lovely Irene, and even to a cute cultist, are so completely normal that it’s easy to empathize. For readers who like their urban fantasy a little more gritty and laced with dark humor, this is a real treat. I hope there’s more to come.

Rating: 8
March 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01578-8