Sunday, April 27, 2008

Blind Spot - Terri Persons

Blind Spot
Terri Persons
Berkley Prime Crime


FBI Agent Bernadette Saint Clare has more that just intuition working for her. She has the ability to see through the eyes of killers. It’s triggered by touching a physical object linked to the crime. This is not an ability she advertises, but word gets around fairly quickly, and most supervising agents don’t really know what to do with her. They like catching killers, but there’s the problem of obtaining evidence that can be used in court.

Just arrived at the St. Paul, Minnesota Field Office, Bernadette finds that her new boss is a bit more accepting of her strange talent. She’s almost immediately called into a new case. There’s a severed hand without a corresponding body, and a body without its hand. Handling a ring from the severed hand, Bernadette finds that she’s seeing through the killer’s eyes in real time. Since he’s not looking in a mirror, this is not helpful in identifying him, but she makes a note of the surroundings, and every detail she can see.

Bernadette’s method of ‘seeing’ is a great hook for a series. The problem is that Bernadette makes illogical assumptions based on what she sees and often ends up running in the wrong direction. Obviously this kind of remote viewing is not standard investigating technique, but add this to the gaps in basic knowledge that seem odd for a college-educated, FBI-trained investigator, and this kind of thing becomes frustrating very quickly, especially since the reader is aware of the actions and identity of the killer from very early on in the story.

Regardless of Bernadette’s fault, this novel had me compulsively turning pages. The pacing is very fast, the writing shows great flair, and the story captivated me from the first page. The secondary characters, including her very mysterious upstairs neighbor, are all written very well. The few relationships in her life evolve very naturally. This is the first in a series, and with a few judicious tweaks, it will be a real winner.

Rating: 6 ½
April 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22046-7 (paperback)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Girls In Trucks - Katie Crouch

Girls In Trucks
Katie Crouch
Little, Brown and Company


Sarah Walters was born into the Camellia Society in Charleston, South Carolina. If you’re from Charleston, that means something. If you’re a girl, it means you have a place at the front of the line at cotillion, you have a built-in guest list for your debut into society, and that one day, you will be a Camellia Mama. None of this is terribly important to Sarah. She participates because it’s what you do.

She spends most of her time as a girl in the shadow of her older sister, Eloise, or one of her friends. One friend is prettier, one friend is more wild, and one is much more generous with her favors. You might say that Eloise is all of the above. Sarah is more interested in the geeky guy she works with on the school newspaper. Visiting Eloise at Yale gives Sarah her first real taste of life in another place. It’s almost inevitable that Sarah, too, will go East to college, eventually settling in New York to begin her career.

Following Sarah through her childhood and into her adult life is like watching your best friend. You know she’s making mistakes, and sometimes you just want to shake her and ask her what she’s thinking. But, just when it gets too painful and you think you can’t take any more, she says or does something smart or funny or both, and you remember all over again why you’re such good friends.

Sarah’s life is neither charmed nor cursed; neither slapstick nor tragedy. It’s a life lived by feeling her way along, just like everyone else. Every reader will be able to identify with episodes from the lives of Sarah, her sister, and her friends. There are moments both funny and heartbreaking, and you’ll be happy you got to make the journey with her.

Rating: 8
April 2008
ISBN# 978-0-316-00211-0 (hardcover)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Dragons Wild - Robert Asprin

Dragons Wild
Robert Asprin

Urban Fantasy

Griffen McCandles, known as “Grifter” to his college and poker-playing buddies, think he’s got a plan. Having just barely managed to scrape through college – by attending as few classes and playing as much poker as possible – he’s going to ask his Uncle Malcolm for a job. Uncle Mal runs a huge company. There’s got to be some job Griffen can do to earn the most amount of money with the least amount of exertion. But the interview doesn’t go quite the way Griffen planned.

Uncle Mal put Griffen and his sister, Valerie, through school, after their parents died, but otherwise has been pretty hands-off. Now, he’s sitting on the other side of the interview desk, telling Griffen that the family is made up of nearly pureblood dragons. Griffen has already experienced the excellent health, stamina, and ability to read people. Now that he’s coming of age, his secondary powers – like shape shifting and breathing fire – should be starting. Uncle Mal offers him a job, and then tells him, in all seriousness, to be careful about where he places his loyalties, since dragons are quite territorial and disagreements can get quite violent.

Griffen’s first concern, after worrying about his uncle’s mental health, is his sister. Uncle Mal mentioned that the dragons have “plans” for her that may include using her for breeding stock. Valerie is a six-foot Amazon, so there’s not much chance she’s going to knuckle under for that, but Griffen feels the need to protect his little sister. On the way to collect her, there are several very suspicious incidents, including at least one attempt on his life. Griffen and Val decide to head to New Orleans, where no one would think to look for them, while they figure out just exactly what is going on, and what their role might be in it.

I’m not overly fond of the goofy, pun-filled variety of fantasy, so I admit I’ve never read any of Asprin’s “Myth” series. This, however, is very much urban fantasy. It’s also the first book in a series, and most of the book is taken up with establishing characters and back story. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since this world and its mythology is quite detailed. Griffen reacts to his uncle’s revelation much the way anyone would. It’s only subsequent events that start to convince him. DRAGONS WILD is a very entertaining start to what promises to be a great series. I can’t wait for more.

Rating: 7 ½
April 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01470-5 (trade paperback)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

High Stakes - Erin McCarthy

High Stakes
A Tale of Vegas Vampires
Erin McCarthy
Berkley Sensation

Paranormal Romance

Ethan Carrick is running for re-election as President on a sort of law-and-order platform. But he’s no ordinary politician. For one thing, no TV camera could photograph him. He’s a 900-year-old vampire and Vegas casino owner. His voters are members of the Vampire Nation, a group created to keep the vampire population under control, keep order, and teach new vampires how to sustain themselves without leaving a trail of bodies. The one thing he lacks at the moment is an appropriate First Lady. He thinks he’s found the perfect woman in dentist Brittany Baldizzi. He’s so wrong, in so many ways.

Alexis Baldizzi, Brittany’s older, and very protective, sister, is a prosecutor. She doesn’t find it at all humorous that her sweet, naïve, little sister is shacked up with some casino owner. When she arrives at the casino to drag Brittany home, she gets the vampire report. She doesn’t believe it, of course. It’s just a bunch of people who like to play dress-up and drink red wine. It’s not too surprising that gullible Brittany believes it, though. Then Brittany drops the next bombshell: she doesn’t want to leave. She wants to stay and save the vampires from themselves.

At the end of her rope, Alexis proposes a trade. She’ll hang out with Ethan and his role-playing friends for a week, provided Brittany leaves. And that’s where things really get interesting. Because Ethan and his friends really are vampires. And Ethan has a political adversary who doesn’t play nice. In point of fact, he hired an assassin. And Brittany just cannot resist the impulse to try and save the vampires. Let the games begin.

This is the first in a series of (so far) four novels. It’s an interesting take on vampires. While there is definitely some brooding going on, there’s a lot more humor, verbal sparring, and political maneuvering. Alexis is smart and stubborn and not prone to swooning, which is great in a paranormal romance heroine. Ethan is able to loosen up and see the humor in things through her. As a pair, they’re very nicely matched. There’s a very interesting subplot playing out, too. I’m hoping to see lots more of these characters in future installments.

Rating: 7
January 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-21978-2 (paperback)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Blue Religion - Michael Connelly, editor

The Blue Religion
Mystery Writers of America – Michael Connelly, ed.
Back Bay Books

Crime/Short Fiction

The unifying theme in this collection of short stories is “Cops, Criminals, and the Chase.” In his introduction, Michael Connelly presents an axiom (attributed to the veteran crime writer Joseph Wambaugh) that the best crime fiction does not focus on how cops work the case, but on how the case works the cops. These stories, from 19 different writers, including Connelly, show that the case does, indeed, work the cop; sometimes harder than others.

The settings for stories range from present-day Los Angeles to the frontier of the late 1800s. The cops run the gamut with regards to personality and moral code. Contributors include T. Jefferson Parker, Laurie King, and Leslie Glass, and there’s truly something here for everyone. For Connelly fans, the last entry is a bonus: a new Harry Bosch story.

While some of the stories are a bit uneven in quality, anthologies like this are a great way to get a feel for different writers and their styles without a major investment of money or time. I admit that I enjoy a full novel a bit more, since it gives the author a chance to really get into a crime and the characters, but I’ve found more than one new favorite through short story collections. Whether you read them bit-by-bit or straight through, these stories are sure to entertain, and are a great tribute to those men and women who wear badges and protect the rest of us.

Rating: 7
April 2008
ISBN# 978-0-316-01265-2 (trade paperback)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Death In Gascony - Sarah D'Almeida

A Death In Gascony
A Musketeers Mystery
Sarah D’Almeida
Berkley Prime Crime


A day that starts out fairly typically, with the musketeers squared off against some of Cardinal Richelieu’s guard, turns tragic for young D’Artagnan when he receives a letter from his mother. The letter informs him of his father’s death. His mother begs him to come home and see to his family and estate. She also says that D’Artagnan père was taking care of his brother’s affairs, in service to the Cardinal. This information shocks D’Artagnan, since he opposes the Cardinal in all things.

D’Artagnan has no real wish to leave Paris (and his mistress, who serves in the Queen’s court) so soon after joining the musketeers, but family duty prevails. In addition, he agrees with his mother’s intimation that his father’s death was no accident. D’Artagnan père was a master swordsman and, in fact, trained his son. To think that he would be bested in a duel is questionable, at best. On the way to Gascony, highwaymen set upon the young musketeer and his servant. Given all that has gone before, it hardly seems like a coincidence. Could someone be trying to kill D’Artagnan, too? Only one thing is certain: it’s good to have three friends who ignore you when you tell them to stay in Paris.

Any new book in this series (DEATH OF A MUSKETEER, THE MUSKETEER’S SEAMSTRESS, THE MUSKETEER’S APPRENTICE) is great news to lovers of historical mysteries. You don’t have to be a fan of the original Dumas tales, but, for those of us who are, there’s an extra level of enjoyment to be had here. The author translates the flavor of the original novels very will into a mystery series, and it’s great fun to see the beloved characters in more depth. The mystery is fairly challenging, and it’s interesting to watch the companions operate outside of Paris for a while. This is a very entertaining installment in a series that is always a cut above the rest.

Rating: 8
April 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22101-3 (paperback)

Galaxy Blues - Allen Steele

Galaxy Blues
Allen Steele

Science Fiction

Note: The Coyote Trilogy and Spindrift precede this novel. Not having read the previous books, I have no way of knowing if this review contains spoilers. On the bright side, I’m proof that you can start reading the series here with no problem.

The career trajectory of Jules Truffaut has not been ideal. He made it to the Union Astronautica, attained the rank of Ensign, and was thrown out in short order. His mission now is to get to the planet called Coyote. To do so, he’s got fake papers that allow him to work for months as the astronaut version of a longshoreman, loading cargo into ships. He stows away in one such ship, and is apprehended fairly quickly. When brought before the captain, he requests political asylum on Coyote. His request met with less than enthusiasm, he helps himself to a lifeboat and crashes down on the planet on his own. Now that his feet are literally on the ground, his case for asylum should be stronger. Or, the local government could simply deport him back to Earth where he will enjoy the accommodations provided by the penal system.

Having reached Coyote, he is almost immediately arrested as an illegal immigrant and put in a fairly comfortable cell to await the pleasure of a judge. What he gets instead is a visit from a man he saw briefly aboard the ship. That man turns out to be Morgan Goldstein, founder and CEO of Janus, Ltd. Goldstein is a billionaire on several planets, thanks to his shipping concerns, and he has a proposition for Jules. He wants Jules to work for him, as a shuttle pilot. The flights will be the first-ever cargo shipments to and from the home world of the recently discovered alien race known as the hjadd. If Jules agrees, Goldstein can make the immigration mess go away; if he refuses, good luck back on Earth.

Too late, Jules realizes he’s forgotten to ask exactly what cargo will be shipped. He decides that he’ll take that gamble for a chance to be part of Coyote and to see star systems most pilots will ever only dream about. Careful what you wish for, Jules. In short order, an incident arises that angers the reclusive hjadd. In a sort of penance, Jules must now place a probe near a black hole. What happens next has huge implications for both races.

Jules narrates in first person, so the reader just sort of tags along with him. In this case, the device works perfectly. Jules is intelligent and clever, and his schemes seem that way, too, until something comes up that makes them not quite so clever. He’s fond of comparing every situation to baseball, which can be a little tedious, but that’s a small thing. The story is really character-driven, making this novel easily accessible to readers with only a nodding acquaintance with science or space travel. The book opens with Jules’ great escape plan already in progress, and the narrative pace continues to be quick and even. It makes me wish I’d read the previous books, just for the enjoyment of good writing and great space opera.

Rating: 7 ½
April 2008
ISBN#978-0-441-01564-1 (hardcover)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Pursuit - Elizabeth Jennings

Elizabeth Jennings
Grand Central/Forever

Romantic Suspense

Robert Haine is second in the command chain at Court Industries. At the moment, he’s sitting on a Pentagon contract worth roughly $8 billion. The only thing standing in his way? Charlotte Court, daughter of the ailing owner. With her father on his deathbed, Robert figured all he’d have to do is wine and dine Charlotte, marry into the family, and take over things. Charlotte, however, wanted nothing to do with him.

Now he has a new strategy. He’ll kill her father – through a hit man, naturally – and then Charlotte, making the scene look like a mercy killing and suicide. It’s a good plan if you’re into that sort of thing, but it almost immediately goes awry when the hit man enters the hospital room to find Charlotte already there. Now Charlotte’s father is dead, she’s wounded and on the run from both Haine’s assassins and the police, who consider her the most likely suspect in her father’s murder.

Matt Sanders spent the past three months in a coma after being grievously injured in Afghanistan. Determined to heal, he headed to Mexico to stay with a buddy of his who owns a dive shop. Every day, he drags himself across the beach on crutches, swims, and does pushups. His progress is painful and painfully slow. But he’s not alone. There’s a woman on a terrace who watches him. He’s come to think of her as his Guardian Angel. The two acknowledge each other without words. It might have continued that way, except for the fact that Charlotte eventually fell off a rotten quay and into the ocean during one of Matt’s swims.

Readers looking for a darker kind of romantic suspense will be thrilled to find this novel. There’s nothing cute about either main character. They’ve both been close to death and lived to tell the tale. Both are running from something; and both need help to get back to where they started. The author manages to paint vivid pictures of their sufferings, and their strength. Everything about the relationship and their reactions make perfect sense in the context of the plot. For a gritty, fast-paced roller-coaster ride, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Rating: 7 ½
April 2008
ISBN# 978-0-446-61891-5 (paperback)

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Cluttered Corpse - Mary Jane Maffini

The Cluttered Corpse
Mary Jane Maffini
Berkley Prime Crime


Charlotte Adams is settling into her small hometown of Woodbridge, New York, after spending time as a financial analyst in Manhattan. She’s got her own business as a professional organizer, she shares a cozy apartment with her two dachshunds, and has reconnected with many of her friends. Her latest client, Emmy Lou Rheinbeck, just remodeled a house in the neighborhood where she grew up, and says she’s desperate for Charlotte’s help. When Charlotte arrives, the first floor is so perfect, she can’t imagine why Emmy needs her services. A trip to the second floor immediately explains it all.

The second floor is overrun with plush, stuffed animals. There are, quite literally, thousands of them. It will be a challenge, but since they’re all clean and relatively new, the job will be fairly pleasant. While looking at the collection in the bedroom, Charlotte and Emmy Lou are both terrified by pounding, flashing, and a couple of distorted faces at the window. Turns out the next-door-neighbor, Kevin, although chronologically an adult, isn’t quite all there. He and his new friend, Tony, have been playing these pranks on Emmy Lou for some time. The neighbors are worried, but Emmy Lou refuses to call the police about it.

After the incident, Emmy Lou is too agitated to continue. On her way to their second meeting, Charlotte gets a call on her cell phone, telling her that her building is on fire. Worried about her dogs and her downstairs friend and neighbor, Charlotte rushes home. Only to find that it was a prank and everything is fine. By the time she gets back to Emmy Lou’s, Emmy Lou is standing in the middle of the street, and is completely hysterical. Entering the house, Charlotte finds Tony at the foot of the stairs, dead. Although Emmy Lou claims it’s her fault, Charlotte isn’t at all sure about that.

My main criticism of the first book in this series, ORGANIZE YOUR CORPSES, was that Charlotte seemed shrill and thoughtless when it came to others. This time around, she’s still more than willing to stand up for the underdog, but she seems much more likeable. The plotting is solid, there are enough suspects to make things very interesting, and the secondary characters are fleshed out into very realistic people. As before, each chapter begins with simple tips for organizing and de-cluttering your home and life. This is shaping up to be a very solid and enjoyable series.

Rating: 7
April 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22092-4 (paperback)

Monday, April 07, 2008

Corpse Pose - Diana Killian

Corpse Pose
A Mantra for Murder Mystery
Diana Killian
Berkley Prime Crime


A.J. Alexander is in the middle of a client’s book launch party, taking calls and wondering why her longed-for career isn’t making her happy, when she gets a call that changes everything. It’s a detective on the line, which is never a good thing. He’s calling to tell her that her Aunt Di is dead, and it looks like murder. Di was discovered in her yoga studio, Sacred Balance. Along with the studio, Di put out books, a clothing line, skin care products, and owned a good amount of real estate. To her amazement, A.J. is the beneficiary of all of this.

Traveling with her mother, Elysia, a British TV actress, to Di’s home is more difficult than A.J. expected. Not least because her mother is quite fond of dramatizing situations that really don’t need the extra help. Arriving at Di’s home, A.J. is knocked down at the door by a fleeing figure. When the police arrive, they’re clearly skeptical. When they ask A.J. for her alibi for the time of Di’s death, it’s completely clear that A.J. is a prime suspect. Elysia is off the hook, since she was out of the country at the time. That doesn’t stop her from inserting herself into the investigation, however, citing her stint on a mystery television series as her sleuthing credentials.

At the reading of the will, Aunt Di’s generosity becomes even more apparent. Apart from a few other bequests, A.J. is, indeed, left the majority of Di’s estate, including the Sacred Balance studio. Since the police knew this almost from the start, A.J. assumed it was common knowledge. The reaction of Lily, a self-proclaimed “top instructor” at the studio, puts the lie to that assumption; Lily is visibly furious and claims that the studio should be hers. She vows to break the will. When A.J. is really run down in the street, it’s clear that someone really doesn’t want her taking over for Di. It’s up to A.J. to figure out who, and why.

This is an excellent beginning to what promises to be a solid and very entertaining series. The character of Elysia is eccentric, to be sure, but never crosses the line into slapstick. There’s humor here, but it never overshadows the central mystery. The author takes great care to draw the characters as complex people with real feelings who react realistically to the murder. The plot takes several interesting turns and will keep readers guessing – and turning pages – until the final denouement. This is the kind of story that began my interest in mysteries: great setting, engrossing story, plenty of suspects, and characters to care about. I look forward for more from this talented author.

Rating: 8
April 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22090-0 (paperback)

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

French Pressed - Cleo Coyle

French Pressed
A Coffeehouse Mystery
Cleo Coyle
Berkley Prime Crime


Clare Cosi, owner and operator of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse, Village Blend, has mixed feelings about her daughter, Joy’s, internship at Solange, an upscale Manhattan French restaurant. On the one hand, it’s a prestigious internship for a young woman just out of culinary school. On the other hand, Clare finds nothing even remotely positive about Joy’s relationship with Solange’s executive chef, Tommy Keitel. As if sleeping with the boss isn’t bad enough, the boss also happens to be fiftysomething, and married with kids. To keep the peace with Joy, Clare has reluctantly agreed to a “butt out” policy on the whole matter.

That policy doesn’t stop her from eating at Solange, with her ex-mother-in-law, however. The food is exquisite, but when Clare ventures into the kitchen to see Joy, she’s shocked to find Brigitte Rouille, the executive sous-chef, screaming at Joy, breaking plates, and brandishing a kitchen knife. Apparently, this is all de rigeur for an evening in the Solange kitchen, especially since Tommy has practically abandoned the place to Brigitte’s care. One of Joy’s friends from culinary school, Vinny Buccelli, was so overwhelmed by it that he’s risked his continued employment by calling in sick.

Joy promises her mother that she’ll talk to Tommy about the situation with Brigitte, but, understandably, Clare is less than comforted by this. To her sadly practiced eye, it looks a lot like Brigitte may be using drugs to cope with the frantic pace and the huge responsibility of running the restaurant. All that takes a back seat, though, when Joy calls in a panic. She’d stopped by Vinny’s place in Queens to check on him. What she found was her friend, dead, and a lot of blood. The coroner estimates death took place only a few hours prior to the call, making Joy a first suspect. Unfortunately for her, Vinny was killed with a chef’s knife, solidifying those suspicions. Clare knows she has to act quickly to save her daughter, and another murder ups the stakes considerably. She manages to find a way into Solange by offering to create a custom coffee blend.

While this is the latest installment in a series that includes DECAFFIENATED CORPSE and MURDER MOST FROTHY, new readers will have no problems jumping in here. The necessary background is dispensed with in a few well-chosen sentences, leaving readers free to enjoy the current mystery. Clare’s ambivalence about her daughter’s choices not only rings true, it makes Clare a more complex and sympathetic character. A busy restaurant kitchen presents an interesting and lively set of characters. There are plenty of people who might want to commit murder on a nightly basis, and it’s fun watching Clare work her way through the tangled web of lies and deceit to solve the mystery. For the foodies, there are recipes for everything from coq au vin to a decadent chocolate dessert.

Rating: 7
April 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22049-8 (paperback)

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Names My Sisters Call Me - Megan Crane

Names My Sisters Call Me
Megan Crane

Chick Lit

The Cassel sisters have always been as different from one another as possible. On special occasions, their mother makes Cassel Cake: in truth, three different, smaller cakes, one for each daughter. Norah is the oldest, and a raging Type A personality. Raine, the middle daughter, is the wild-child hippie chick. And Courtney, the youngest, is a cellist who plays in a symphony orchestra. Their father left the family before Courtney was even born. He fled the East Coast, his pregnant wife (Beverley), and his two daughters, for California and freedom – and almost immediately died of a heart attack.

At that point, Beverley retreated into a grief so profound that it fell largely to Norah to raise Courtney. Consequently, Norah has always treated Courtney more like a daughter than a sister. As soon as Raine was able, she, too, fled for the East Coast. Unfortunately, she chose to make her exit during Norah’s wedding reception, while drunk. She also took with her Matt Cheney, Courtney’s first love. For six years, Norah and Courtney maintained a complete communications blackout with Raine. Their feelings were roundly reciprocated.

Now, Courtney is engaged to Lucas, a nice man who loves her and runs his own Internet security company. Thinking about her wedding makes Courtney nostalgic, and she wants both her sisters to attend. Norah immediately tries to veto this notion, but Courtney travels with Lucas to San Francisco to find Raine and try to reconnect. She finds Raine and Matt, still together, and still living a bohemian life. She’s ready for Raine to blame everyone but herself. She’s not ready for her reaction to seeing Matt again. Is it possible that, six years ago, she might have made the wrong decision? Is she engaged to marry the wrong man?

I like the character of Courtney. I’d love to be friends with her and talk about music and art. But, like her friend Verena, I think I’d have moments of real frustration with her willful blindness when it comes to her family. Of course, everyone has blind spots – necessary ones, usually – when it comes to family. But when your father hears that your mother is pregnant with you, abandons the family and then dies, how is it even possible that you don’t consider that you might have Daddy issues? How could you not contemplate that perhaps you feel (undeserved) guilt over the situation? Courtney’s excuse is that she spent her life with her music. She refuses to see what’s in front of her.

This book is more about Courtney finally being slapped awake after spending 28 years sleepwalking through the family dynamic than it is about choosing between Matt and Lucas. And it really works much better this way. Confronting her sisters, her mother, Matt, and even herself are all steps along the way to being a ‘real’ adult. The truth may hurt, but when it finally comes out, it can heal, too. This novel is wise, funny, sad, biting, smart, sarcastic, and all-too-true about the bonds between sisters and how they can stretch and change (maybe without breaking) over time.

Rating: 7 ½
April 2008
ISBN# 978-0-446-69856-6 (trade paperback)