Sunday, August 31, 2008

Mayhem In Miniature - Margaret Grace

Mayhem In Miniature
A Miniature Mystery
Margaret Grace
Berkley Prime Crime


Retired teacher and widow Gerry Porter has an interesting hobby. She creates miniature rooms in full detail. She’s in the midst of putting the finishing touches on a Victorian Christmas scene when she hears from her friend, Dolores. Dolores’ grandmother, 80-year-old Sofia, is missing from her residential care facility. When she’s found, she’s wandering around her old neighborhood. And she’s covered in blood that is clearly not hers. The police find a body nearby; a man who was a gardener at several of the city’s nursing homes. Obviously, the police want to talk to Sofia, and just as obviously Dolores is fiercely protective of her grandmother. Since Gerry solved a mystery not long ago (MURDER IN MINIATURE) Dolores begs her to look into this case. Gerry doesn’t need much convincing.

Those who read the first book will recognize many returning characters, including granddaughter Maddie. Gerry is a fun, but realistic character. One of the best things about the series, thus far, is the depth of characterization. Each person has his/her own background and motives for acting the way they do, all rendered in a very believable way. For miniature crafters, there are descriptions scattered throughout the text, and a section of tips at the end. Not quite as involving as the first book, this one is still a charming read.

Rating: 7
August 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22305-5 (paperback)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Turnaround - George Pelecanos

The Turnaround
George Pelecanos
Little, Brown, and Company


In 1970s Washington DC, teenaged Alex Pappas is learning a work ethic from his father, who operates a breakfast/lunch counter. He begins making deliveries at age 11, and learns percentages and math by working the register. One evening, he and a couple of friends are driving aimlessly around when one of them decides it would be fun to go through a black neighborhood and shout at the residents. Alex wants no part of it, but he’s not driving. Everything goes horribly wrong when it turns out that one of the three black teenagers has a gun.

The story is presented from both points of view with disturbing clarity. James and Raymond Monroe are brothers who live in the black neighborhood. James has dreams of moving up in the world; of becoming a mechanic and maybe owning his own garage one day. Raymond, the younger brother, is full of anger. Both are upset that the last carload of white boys who came through the neighborhood shouted at their mother, a hardworking and honest woman.

It’s so easy to see the story from both sides, and it’s a tribute to the author that he makes the incident and the consequences seem so avoidable on all sides. Anyone who’s every done something stupid as a kid will be able to relate, and there are so many points at which so many lives hinge on one decision, it’s painful to witness. When the story cuts to the present, it’s clear that there’s plenty more to be played out, based on that one, stupid night. While not type of mystery novel the author is justly known from (THE NIGHT GARDENER) this story is rich in truth and realism.

Rating: 8
August 2008
ISBN# 978-0-316-15647-9 (hardcover)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ace Is Wild - Penny McCall

Ace Is Wild
Penny McCall
Berkley Sensation

Romantic Suspense/Paranormal

Allow me to begin by saying that I am completely conflicted in my reaction to this book. On the one hand, it’s like a summer popcorn movie: full of action, not-very-realistic characters, and, really, not to be taken seriously. On the other hand, it’s pretty disturbing in that one of the main characters stubbornly engages in stalker-like behavior (continued phone calls to the office, showing up at various public events, taking hostages with a gun) that ought to end up with, at best, a restraining order. If the male character acted like this, there’d be an outcry. Since it’s the woman, and she’s cute, it’s supposedly ok.

The bare bones plot is this. Vivi Foster is getting psychic visions that federal prosecutor Daniel Pierce’s life is in danger. She calls his office repeatedly, and when she gets the brush-off, she shows up at a social event and takes him (and a couple other people) hostage at gunpoint. Daniel, a former FBI agent, apparently finds all this excusable because Vivi has large breasts. And Vivi is willing to tolerate Daniel’s bad treatment of her (from her point of view) because he’s hot. From there on, it’s a race to keep themselves both alive long enough to figure out who is really behind the threats.

There’s just really no reason, other than the superficial physical, that these two people should even like each other. That makes their romance feel very forced. Even though Vivi is obviously (to the reader) sincere in her desire to save someone’s life, her methods are just creepy. I am fully aware that this is just my take on it, and also should say that I have a low threshold for zany antics. Others will obviously feel differently.

On the plus side, the author writes a very nice action sequence, good dialogue, and manages to keep the pace humming along nicely. She’s clearly having a lot of fun in the writing of this. This is clearly part of an ongoing series, but works just fine as a standalone novel. In the end, if you can suspend your disbelief a bit, this is a fun, fast read.

Rating: 6 ½
August 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22298-0 (paperback)

Death By Cashmere - Sally Goldenbaum

Death By Cashmere
A Seaside Knitter’s Mystery
Sally Goldenbaum


When Izzy Chambers and her Aunt Nell saw the ocean view from the old bait shop, they knew they’d found a home for their new enterprise, the Seaside Knitting Studio. Located in picturesque Sea Harbor, Mass., the shop attracts locals and summer vacationers. The heart of the place is the Thursday night knitting group, formed through a set of happy accidents.

Angie Archer was known as a wild child in her youth, and that reputation clings to her when she returns to Sea Harbor as a researcher. Izzy, who left a legal career to move back to her hometown, understands that people change, and rents Angie the apartment above her shop. One evening, Angie leaves on a date with one guy, ends up in a fight with another, and the following morning, is found drowned, tangled in a lobster trap at the breakwater. Everyone assumes it was a tragic accident until new and startling facts come to light.

Readers of cozy mysteries will love the beginning of this new series. The story is told mostly from Aunt Nell’s point of view; giving it a bit of a different feel from the other yarn shop owner/amateur sleuth series. The knitting group is made up of several very different personalities, including an octogenarian and a female lobster-fisher-person, all realistically detailed by the author. The shop sounds like a dream to any knitter. There are plenty of viable suspects and not a few motives that make this mystery an involving and enjoyable read.

Rating: 7
August 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-22471-2 (hardcover)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Double Dog Dare - Linda O. Johnston

Double Dog Dare
A Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter Mystery
Linda O. Johnston
Berkley Prime Crime


It’s not easy to keep up a pet-sitting business and a law practice at the same time. Fortunately for Kendra, her eccentric boss is more than understanding. What’s really got her off-balance at the moment is the fact that her boyfriend, PI Jeff Hubbard, is missing. The cops found his car, partially submerged, with a broken-out driver’s side window and blood in the interior. But no Jeff. And still no contact with Kendra or his office.

Desperately following any lead she can find, Kendra ends up meeting Jeff’s “Aunt” Lois. Lois admits that she hired Jeff, on condition of secrecy, to investigate a local lab. Lois wanted to have her dog cloned, against all the beliefs of her church. But the cloning never happened, the original dog died, and the lab is refusing to return her money. Kendra makes a visit to The Clone Arranger, posing as a client. The next she gets a call from Lois. One of the execs at the lab was murdered. And Lois is under arrest.

The search for Jeff makes an interesting and compelling twist on this series (MEOW IS FOR MURDER, THE FRIGHT OF THE IGUANA) and the change of scenery serves to expand the cast of characters. Which makes the pool of suspects deeper and murkier; a must for any mystery. Kendra’s professions seem to be at cross-purposes, but the author very nicely resolves that by allowing Kendra to work on animal-related cases. Animal lovers and cozy fans will enjoy this charming series.

Rating: 7 ½
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22232-4 (paperback)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Death's Half Acre - Margaret Maron

Death’s Half Acre
A Deborah Knott Mystery
Margaret Maron
Grand Central


Suburban sprawl has come to beautiful Colleton County, North Carolina. First, a few homes for wealthy commuters from the larger cities, then whole housing developments followed by the inevitable shopping centers featuring a lot of asphalt for parking. The Board of County Commissioners controls this type of growth, of course, but they’re heavily influenced by the builders, who are making money hand over fist. The chairman is Candace Bradshaw, a woman who fought her way up from poverty by running an office cleaning service and has no intentions of looking back.

Candace was installed as chairman through a series of political favors and machinations common in small communities where everyone pretty much knows everyone else. She enjoys her position of power immensely, but votes as her benefactors direct her. She and her much-older husband are separated and have a daughter, Dee, who’s home from college. After another mother-daughter blowout, Dee shows up at her dad’s house, saying Candace kicked her out again.

That evening, Candace very uncharacteristically misses a board meeting to discuss more development. It doesn’t take long for word to get out that Candace was found, dead, an apparent suicide. Although she left a note that talked about her misusing her job for personal gain, no one can quite believe she’d kill herself. Obviously, there are people who might want her dead. Wives whose husbands enjoyed Candace’s favors, political enemies. And then investigators find that Candace was keeping files on everyone. She knew a lot of things that could make life – political and personal – very difficult for a lot of people. Including Judge Deborah Knott.

This is a fascinating and pretty accurate snapshot of political life in a small town. The lines of power and influence are inextricably intertwined. In some way, everyone owes everyone else; and plenty of people have memories that stretch back over generations, remembering slights and shady dealings. It made me a little sad to realize how Deborah got appointed, and why she’d be so worried about finding Candace’s secret files on a hidden flash drive, but it’s pretty realistic. Longtime readers will recognize recurring characters, and newcomers will feel right at home. And there’s an interesting little subplot threaded through the novel involving Kezzie Knott, onetime moonshiner and all-around character.

Rating: 7
August 2008
ISBN# 978-0-446-19610-9 (hardcover)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Marsbound - Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman

Science Fiction

At the age of 18, Carmen Dula and her family will be making the longest trip possible. They’re going to the colony on Mars. Carmen’s parents qualified due to their scientific specialties, while Carmen and her younger brother, Card, spent a year in training. The trip out will take six months, and they’ll spend five years on (or under) the planet. There are a few other young people on the ship out, and they’re all kept busy with required exercise periods to keep their muscles and bones strong in zero gee, and with their individual school or college work.

Arriving at the colony on Mars is a little intimidating. It seems huge after six months on a ship, but it’s still close quarters and on Mars, as anywhere else, there are personality clashes. In what she later admits was a bad move, Carmen decides to take an unescorted walk on the surface, just for some alone time. She falls, her suit malfunctions, and she would have frozen to death without help from another species of intelligent life on the planet.

The fact that there are “Martians” on the planet, also living under the surface, causes a firestorm of controversy both on Mars and Earth. The two groups are able to communicate, and most colonists look on these beings as new friends. There are those, however, who feel that there may be a hidden agenda. They’re not wrong, but it will take years for the first event to occur.

The story is told by Carmen, in first person, and begins on the day her family leaves Florida to begin the long journey to Mars. This method gives every scene and emotion a real immediacy. The technology presented here is obviously futuristic, but still recognizable as outgrowths of what we have today. Technology aside, this is very much a character-driven story. It’s the story of two cultures meeting; and how individuals in those cultures react. In the end, it’s a very human story, perfect for scifi fans and newbies alike.

Rating: 8
August 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01595-5 (hardcover)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Cry Wolf - Patricia Briggs

Cry Wolf
An Alpha and Omega Novel
Patricia Briggs


It’s important to point out, first of all, that this is a spin-off of the popular (and deservedly so) Mercy Thompson series (MOON CALLED, BLOOD BOUND, IRON KISSED.) The two main characters, werewolves Charles and Anna, were introduced last year in a short-story anthology. That story apparently detailed their meeting, Anna’s past, and the fact that their wolves instantly chose each other as mates. It’s usually the human component that chooses a mate, hoping the wolf agrees. This time, the wolves chose, leaving the humans to hash out their relationship.

The book picks up with Charles and Anna arriving in Aspen Creek, a wolf pack run by Charles’ father, Bran, who is the Marrock – leader – of all the wolves in North America. Anna is immediately subjected to close scrutiny as the prospective mate of the Marrock’s son and enforcer. And Anna is, indeed, special. She’s what’s known as an Omega: an almost mythic creature among werewolves. She has the inborn ability to bring peace through her mere presence.

Almost as soon as the two arrive, the pack gets word of a series of attacks in the nearby wilderness. Details provided by a surviving victim convince Bran and Charles that there’s a rogue wolf out there, attacking anyone who crosses his path. This is bad in general, but even more so since Bran has decided to ‘out’ the werewolves to the general public in a gradual fashion. It’s getting harder and harder to hide, and since other magical creatures have revealed themselves, he feels it’s time for the wolves to do the same. Bran’s decision is to send Charles and Anna out to track down and deal with the rogue.

Their trip alone together provides plenty of time for them to work through their issues, personally and as a couple. The trouble is that these issues have a tendency (as issues do in real life) to be a bit repetitive and slow down the pacing. If you missed the initial story – I did – you’ll be very aware of it, but the author takes care to fill in the blanks. There’s plenty to like here. Asil, the ancient Moorish werewolf is a fascinating character, and figures prominently in the plot. As usual, the author makes interesting use of magic and supernatural creatures, putting a fresh twist on a familiar genre.

Rating: 7 ½
August 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01615-0 (paperback)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Shoots To Kill - Kate Collins

Shoots To Kill
A Flower Shop Mystery
Kate Collins


They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Abby Knight, florist and owner of Bloomers might have a thing or six to say about that. Once upon a time, Abby babysat for little Elizabeth Blume. Now, Elizabeth wants to be called Libby and is working on making her life a complete copy of Abby’s. That would include driving the same kind of car, opening a competing and nearly identical shop, and getting Abby’s boyfriend, Marco.

The story opens with a prologue, three weeks in the future. Abby is in jail. She was arrested because some rookie cop mistook her for Libby. Libby is wanted for murder, and Abby is positive that this is part of Libby’s master plan to destroy her. In the hour or so Abby is mistakenly held in lockup, she manages to start “just a tiny riot.” She’s outraged by the stories of her fellow inmates and promises to do something to help them. Of course, she’s going to have to help herself, first.

The author never fails to come up with inventive ways to keep this series (ACTS OF VIOLETS, A ROSE FROM THE DEAD) fresh and interesting. No small feat in a cozy series set in the heroine’s small hometown. This time it’s a blast from Abby’s past who returns to town and stirs up trouble. At times, Abby can come across as more shrill than feisty, but in this case she’s got great reason to be angry. Even if you haven’t been following this delightful series from the beginning, you’ll feel for Abby as she watches everything she’s worked for threatened. This time it’s personal for Abby, and that makes the story that much more involving.

Rating: 7 ½
August 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-22474-3 (paperback)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Into The Storm - Taylor Anderson

Into The Storm
Destroyermen, Book 1
Taylor Anderson

Military SF

While trying to outrun a superior Japanese force during World War II, the USS Walker, helmed by Matt Reddy, heads into a squall. The idea is to gain cover in what is clearly a losing battle. The Walker was in service during WWI, and not much has been updated. On the other side of the squall is safety; or so it would appear.

It soon becomes clear that, while the water and land masses of the Southeast Asia are much the same, nearly everything else has changed. The Japanese ships and aircraft are nowhere to be seen. The seas are populated with gigantic, man-eating fish. And, grazing beyond the shore, is a herd of creatures that look amazingly like small-scale brontosaurs. And, while the destroyermen have left one war, they’ve landed in the middle of another. There are two intelligent races in this place who have been at odds for as long as either can remember.

Fans of military fiction and sf will love this novel, the first in a series. The story seems a bit slow to start, with much attention given to the initial battle with the Japanese. Clearly, the military enthusiast reader will disagree on this point. A little perseverance pays great dividends when the sf aspects kick in, and the crew begins to realize that they’re someplace ‘other.’ The characters all have very realistic and varied reactions to the overwhelming experience.

The introduction of the two races is done very well, by introducing an individual, then expanding the reader’s view to include the surrounding, believable, culture. The juxtaposition of the familiar land and sea with the completely alien, yet somewhat recognizable, creatures is done gradually and to great effect. I admit that I’m not a huge fan of military fiction, but this author has done a lot to change my mind on that score. The next book is due this fall, and I’m looking forward to it.

Rating: 8
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-46207-7 (hardcover)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sinister Sudoku - Kaye Morgan

Sinister Sudoku
A Sudoku Mystery
Kaye Morgan
Berkley Prime Crime


Liza Kelly’s career in sudoku is taking off in some interesting directions. First, and maybe most importantly, her puzzle column for her local paper already enjoys a regional syndication. Now she’s poised to embark on a national syndication deal. One of the more unlikely outgrowths of her puzzle expertise is the class she’s teaching at the Seaport Correctional Facility. Her few minimum-security students include celebutante Ritz Tarleton (in for 10 days on a DUI and blogging about it every day); Fat Frankie, a mob guy whose very politeness is scary; and Chris Dalen, a man who’s spent the last dozen years locked up for not telling anyone the location of the Mondrian painting he stole.

The final assignment for the class was to create a puzzle using thirty clues. To Liza’s amazement, Chris managed to create a puzzle with only seventeen clues. In the world of sudoku, it’s a rare thing to be able to create a true puzzle (one with only one correct answer) with so few clues. There’s not much time to devote to it, though, since Chris is being released that very afternoon, due to health issues.

Putting aside thoughts of prisoners, Liza and her sort-of-boyfriend Kevin plan a romantic dinner at the local inn where Kevin is manager. The weather turns ugly even before they get there, and the rapidly accumulating snow forces dinner guests to become overnight guests. The unexpected guest roster includes Ritz’ travel magnate father, a known associate of Fat Frankie, Chris Dalen on his first night of freedom, and an insurance investigator still on the trail of the stolen Mondrian. Alone in her assigned cabin, Liza discovers an unwelcome amenity in the bed. It’s a hand, underneath all layers of bedding. The hand is attached to one Chris Dalen.

The third installment in this very entertaining series (DEATH BY SUDOKU, MURDER BY THE NUMBERS) almost reads like an Agatha Christie. There’s a group of people, stranded by weather, and a murderer is in their midst. There are plenty of good motives collected under this one roof. A sudoku puzzle might seem an unlikely tool to use to solve a mystery, but both pursuits require the application of logic – and the willingness to take a risk or two. You do not need to be a fan of sudoku to enjoy the mystery, but if you are, you’ll enjoy solving the puzzles (answer keys at back) and tips scattered throughout the story. Looking forward to Liza’s next case.

Rating: 7 ½
August 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22306-2

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Out Of Time - Samantha Graves

Out Of Time
Samantha Graves
Forever/Grand Central


Jillian Talbot is a museum curator with a secret. Sometimes, she can look at an object and see its past. Usually, she sees few moment of the artist creating the item, or perhaps something to do with a previous owner. This talent proves frustrating more often than not, since, without proof, she can’t tell anyone in the art world about her special knowledge. She could, but she’d never be taken seriously again.

On her way out of her beloved museum one evening, she’s kidnapped. Twice. In under five minutes. Fortunately for her, she ends up with Simon Bonner, a tomb raider who desperately wants out of the business. Up until about an hour before kidnapping Jillian, he thought he’d manage to retire. Then a colleague of sorts with a gunshot wound showed up with Jillian’s contact information and a rock crystal lens. The deal is simple: get the one person who can use the lens (Jillian) to find the Archives Of Man, or Simon’s ex-wife dies. They’ve got ten days.

The author makes far too much of Jillian’s naïve, trusting nature. Jillian is the good-girl sister of Raven from SIGHT UNSEEN. Repeated mentions try patience and only serve to bring to mind unflattering comparisons with the kick-ass Raven, who was a much more interesting character. The plot is much more linear this time around, with no real surprises. The pacing is nice and even, and the action sequences are quite effective. If you like your romantic suspense with a bit of the paranormal, and don’t mind language and violence, this is a fun novel for an afternoon by the pool.

Rating: 6 ½
August 2008
ISBN# 0-446-61837-3 (paperback)

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Undiscovered Country - Lin Enger

Undiscovered Country
Lin Enger
Little, Brown & Company


During a hunting trip, seventeen-year-old Jesse Matson hears a shot and somehow knows that it’s the end of everything he’s ever known. Rushing across the ridge to the blind his father occupied, he finds his father’s body, minus most of the skull. The coroner and sheriff are content to call it a suicide, even though there were no signs of depression. There’s no way to match ballistics when a rifle at close range caused the damage.

Jesse’s mother floats around in a bubble of her own despair and denial, leaving Jesse largely responsible for his eight-year-old brother, Magnus. Through it all, Jesse remains convinced that there’s another, more sinister explanation for his father’s death. His father visits him, perhaps in a dream brought on by shock or exhaustion. Jesse suspects his Uncle Clay, his father’s ne’er-do-well younger brother; the man who dated his mother first and never got over her.

The bleak Minnesota winter perfectly echoes Jesse’s sense of desolation at the loss of his father. This is clearly a spin on Hamlet, but the author doesn’t play it coy, instead allowing Jesse to openly draw parallels between the play and his life. The prose is perfect, capturing both the little, offhand moments and the huge events that shape our lives with the same clarity. Anyone who has lost a parent, in any circumstances, will understand much of the emotional terrain that Jesse must traverse. Jesse’s visions of his father, particularly the final one, are deeply moving without being saccharine. This is a beautiful novel, worthy of readers’ attention.

Rating: 8 ½
July 2008
ISBN# 978-0-316-00694-1

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Dead Over Heels - Charlaine Harris

Dead Over Heels
An Aurora Teagarden Mystery
Charlaine Harris
Berkley Prime Crime


“My bodyguard was mowing the yard wearing her pink bikini when the man fell from the sky.” That’s maybe one of the best opening lines I’ve read in a mystery. Unfortunately, once the man face-plants into the ground, the story slows down considerably. Those who know Aurora (Roe) Teagarden know that she’s no stranger to finding dead bodies. But having one hurled into her backyard from a small plane is a new twist. The body is almost immediately identified as Detective Sergeant Jack Burns, a cop who delighted in making Roe’s life as difficult as possible.

This time around, Roe isn’t a suspect, since she was on the receiving end of the flying body. But when she pays a visit to the widow and finds feds in the living room, she’s pretty sure there’s something big happening. Her suspicions are confirmed when the body count begins to climb. It’s been two years since the last novel ended, and Roe is only beginning to realize that she doesn’t know a lot about the married bodyguards who live over her garage. She has the uneasy feeling that they’re not telling her everything they know.

This installment (REAL MURDERS, A BONE TO PICK, THE JULIUS HOUSE) seems a bit thin on the ground, plot-wise. The action hardly seems to get started before the solution is presented, making it a bit difficult to really get involved. If you’re a fan of the series, or of Roe, each book is a like a visit with an old friend.

Rating: 6 ½
August 2008 (reprint)
ISBN# 978-0-425-22303-1 (paperback)

Friday, August 01, 2008

Underground - Kat Richardson

A Greywalker Novel
Kat Richardson

Urban Fantasy

Harper Blaine is a bit different than the average PI in Seattle. During what should have been an easy job, she was shot and killed. She was clinically dead for nearly two minutes. Now, she can see the Grey, the space that collects time, ghosts, and other creatures.

Quinton, Harper’s electronics go-to guy, is still something of a mystery. When he appears one day and orders her to follow him, she knows it’s bad. He leads Harper to a train tunnel, where the body of a homeless man lies near the tracks. This might not be so odd, except for a few details: there’s a hole in the concrete side of the tunnel that’s covered in Grey energy; and it looks like something chewed off the man’s leg. It’s pretty clear that this is not an ordinary accident.

Harper quickly learns that this man is not the first of Seattle’s homeless community to turn up dead. There have been at least five during the past several weeks. At first, she attributes the lack of blood at the scenes to the local vampire community. Even before talking to them, however, she suspects that something very different is happening.

Fans of this series (GREYWALKER, POLTERGEIST) are in for a treat, while newcomers will have no problems jumping in at this point. This time around, the novel concentrates on the paranormal aspects of Harper’s life and career, providing a much more focused and cohesive feel. The author excels at evoking the atmosphere of the ‘buried’ Seattle, which is almost a character in its own right. Combine all this with winning characters and a fast pace, and this third installment should cement the author’s reputation as a great urban fantasist.

Rating: 7 ½
August 2008
ISBN# 978-0-45146212-1 (hardcover)