Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mission Canyon - Meg Gardiner

Mission Canyon
An Evan Delaney Novel
Meg Gardiner


A year after the events of CHINA LAKE, Evan Delaney and Jesse Blackburn are counting down to their wedding when events from the past intrude. Three years ago, Jesse and his friend, Isaac Sandoval, were biking in the hills of Mission Canyon when a hit-and-run driver ended Isaac’s life and put Jesse in a wheelchair for the rest of his. The driver, Franklin Brand, fled the country and lived on his offshore bank accounts, beyond the reach of US law. Now, shockingly, he’s back in Santa Barbara.

Obviously, Jesse and Evan want justice. And, just as obviously, Franklin claims he’s innocent. He claims he’s back to clear his name. But why now? Determined to get to the truth, the two attempt to track down Brand and turn him in to the police. The trail gets murky, though, when Evan begins to delve more deeply into the events that led up to the hit-and-run.

Meg Gardiner writes a great book. The trail that Evan follows is truly labyrinthine, yet, in the end, everything makes sense. There are surprises around every corner, but nothing seems contrived. Evan is no superhero, just a woman trying to get justice. Isaac’s brother, Adam, is heart-breakingly realistic as the surviving brother who only wants ‘right’ to win. And Jesse, once an athlete, is very realistic in his struggle with anger and longing for justice tinged with revenge. It’s no exaggeration to say that I lost some sleep over this novel. This one works quite nicely as a stand-alone, but if you like this kind of novel, you won’t want to miss CHINA LAKE.

Rating: 8 ½
July 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-22472-9 (paperback)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Blood Memory - Margaret Coel

Blood Memory
Margaret Coel
Berkley Prime Crime


Perhaps because she was adopted as a small child and knows nothing of her family history, Catherine McLeod became an investigative reporter. Her job has seen her through a lot, including a recent divorce from a socially prominent Denver family. One evening, she notices a man following her through her supposedly safe neighborhood. Panicked, she calls on her friend, Maury, for help. When Maury arrives, the stranger pushes in behind him, a fight ensues, and the intruder shoots. Now Maury is in ICU, fighting for his life, and everyone around her is blaming Catherine for not calling the police instead of an unarmed, but well-meaning friend.

Catherine believes it was a random rapist, looking for a convenient target. The police and her editor at the paper believe it must be something more personal. Quite possibly something connected to one of her stories. To keep her safe, her ex-husband offers her the use of his family’s ranch house outside Denver. With some misgivings, Catherine moves in, but almost immediately, her attention is diverted by her current story.

The local Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes are filing claims with the government, asking for the return of their native lands, under a century-old treaty. Lands that now make up roughly one-third of the Colorado. This, despite the fact that the government settled with the tribes nearly forty years ago. Part of the story concerns an attack (the government’s version) masquerading as attempted genocide (the Native Americans’ version.) But all this may be just the tip of the iceberg. And there’s still a very determined assassin out there, waiting for the right moment to strike.

This novel begins a new series for the author, but retains much of what made her Wind River Reservation Mysteries (THE DROWING MAN, THE GIRL WITH BRAIDED HAIR) so involving. The characters are all deep and developed very well; the issues relevant. The history of the native peoples is included as an integral part of the story. The reader meets the assassin quite early on in the story, but knowing who he is and how he works takes nothing away from the suspense of discovering his motives, or when he’ll strike next. This is a fine novel and an excellent introduction to the author for new readers.

Rating: 8
September 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22345-1 (hardcover)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Legacy - Jeanne C. Stein

Anna Strong, Vampire (Book 4)
Jeanne C. Stein


Anna Strong has been an unwilling vampire for just about six months. She’s done everything she can to hide that fact from her family and her bounty-hunting partner, David. It helps that some of the lore is wrong: she can walk around in daylight, for instance, but she can’t eat food or be seen in mirrors. But hiding her true nature is becoming increasingly difficult.

Actress, model, and all-round self-centered individual, Gloria Estrella asks Anna for her help. That’s rich, considering the way she mistreated David during their ill-advised relationship. Gloria claims that her billionaire business partner is trying to blackmail her. Of course, Gloria isn’t telling the whole truth, but Anna agrees to help her on the condition that Gloria stays away from David. When the billionaire ends up dead (a pistol, in the study) Gloria immediately comes under suspicion.

While dealing with Gloria’s drama, Anna is confronted by a threat that’s quite different. In the past, Anna managed to kill Avery, the vampire who turned her. By vampire law, his vast estate now belongs to Anna, who wants no part of it. Enter Sandra, a werewolf, who claims that she’s Avery’s widow. Anna tries to convince her that she can have the estate, but Sandra is strangely unwilling to take ‘yes’ for an answer.

Not having read the previous novels in this series, I think I’m at a bit of a disadvantage. The basic back story is laid out succinctly, and the pertinent characters introduced. But, in many series, there comes a point where the basic goal of an installment is to get the characters from Point A to Point B in their lives. I have the distinct feeling that LEGACY is that kind of bridge novel.

There are werewolves, and Anna manages to learn the basics about them through a book loaned by a friend, but they’re really shoved to the periphery in favor of the Gloria plot, and the murder mystery. This will no doubt be frustrating to readers who expect more of a paranormal flavor. Those who are looking for a mystery will be disappointed, since, in the end, there is no definitive solution. Longtime readers may enjoy this installment quite a bit more, having seen the events that led up to this point. This is probably not the best place for new readers to start.

Rating: 6 ½
September 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01626-6 (paperback)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Death Swatch - Laura Childs

Death Swatch
A Scrapbooking Mystery
Laura Childs
Berkley Prime Crime


Mardi Gras time in New Orleans is one huge party. Carmela Bertrand, owner of local scrapbooking shop Memory Mine, and her friend, Ava Grieux, owner of the Juju Voodoo Shop, are both happy to be invited to a private party thrown by local celebrity and parade float designer Jekyl Hardy. He lives in what might be the most spectacular and coveted apartment house in New Orleans. While there, they meet Archie Baudier, newly hired as Jekyl’s assistant.

The party is in full swing and the drinks are flowing, but her customers expect her to open on time in the morning, so Carmela goes to find her host to say good night. Instead of Jekyl, she finds Archie out on the balcony, choking, a length of barbed wire wrapped around his neck. No one can help him in time, and the man dies in front of the shocked guests. Knowing her reputation as an amateur sleuth, Jekyl begs Carmela to look into Archie’s death.

The author makes great use of the New Orleans area and the Mardi Gras traditions – and traditional chaos – in this installment, following FRILL KILL and MOTIF FOR MURDER. Background, including local history and the process of assembling a Mardi Gras parade float adds a nice dash of realism. New readers won’t have any trouble jumping in at this point, and longtime fans will feel like they’ve reconnected with a friend. The characters are suitably eccentric, and the mystery very involving.

Rating: 7 ½
September 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22478-6

Burn Notice: The Fix - Tod Goldberg

Burn Notice: The Fix
Tod Goldberg


Michael, a former spy (although not by choice) and his mom, Madeline, are having lunch at an upscale Miami hotel. There are some suspicious guys around, and Michael hustles his mom out of the place before anything bad can happen. Clearly, this was supposed to look like a sting operation, aimed at Fiona, a onetime IRA operative and now jill-of-all-arms dealer. While trying to get to the bottom of the bogus sting, longtime friend Sam approaches Michael with a new problem. Cricket O’Connor, socialite friend of Sam’s lady friend, needs some help and she can’t really call the police.

In short order, Michael re-connects with possibly-former agent Natalya, who tells him that someone is floating information that makes him look like a double agent and traitor. Cricket, contrary to Michael’s expectations, has some real problems with a shady husband who has disappeared, but not before draining her finances, and some “sort-of drug dealers” who want a whole lot of money. If they can’t find the husband, they’ll take it from her. And if she doesn’t pay up, it’s clear that they’re more than willing to take things to the next level.

Fans of the show should know that nothing in this novel spoils the ongoing Season Two storylines. The writer takes care to focus on the characters and an expanded “someone needs help” case. He does a truly excellent job of mimicking Michael’s narrative tone, and makes great use of existing characters. There’s plenty of action, leavened with a good amount of humor.

For readers not familiar with the TV show, there’s a solid explanation of his background and circumstances, woven into the opening pages. The plot, never bogged down by this, takes off very quickly and the fast pacing continues throughout the book. Fans looking for a fix and newcomers just looking for a fast, fun read will enjoy this one. I’m not usually a fan of novels based on TV shows, but this one worked for me.

Rating: 7
August 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-22554-2 (paperback)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Asking For Murder - Roberta Isleib

Asking For Murder
An Advice Column Mystery
Roberta Isleib
Berkley Prime Crime


Therapist Dr. Rebecca Butterman has been looking forward to this lunch date for some time. She and her friend, Annabelle Hart, are headed to their favorite local hamburger place for great food, gossip, support, and to finalize plans for Friday that will bring together the two women and their significant others. Rebecca hasn’t met Annabelle’s man yet, and the curiosity is making her antsy. But Annabelle never shows for that lunch. She doesn’t answer her cell or home phones, and she’s not in her office.

Still worried when there’s been no word by evening, Rebecca drives to Annabelle’s place. Annabelle’s car is in there, so why isn’t she answering the phone? Using a hide-a-key, Rebecca lets herself inside. It looks like the place was ransacked, but all the pricey (and easily carried away) electronics are there. In the bedroom, she finds Annabelle, in a head on the floor. It’s more than clear that someone viciously beat her and then left her for dead. It feels like a miracle when Rebecca realizes her friend is still breathing. The investigation, as Rebecca is told by Detective Meigs, is police business, and her intrusions will not be helpful.

Everyone reacts to a stressful situation and the near-fatal beating of a friend in her own home ranks right up there on the stress scale. It still doesn’t explain the strangely dismissive attitude of Annabelle’s sister when she meets Rebecca at the hospital. Still, Rebecca feels a real need to be involved in the investigation, not least because she and Annabelle had a deal in writing that, if one were to fall ill or need to travel, the other would take on the patients left, even temporarily, without a therapist. It’s clearly a stressful situation, but some of Rebecca’s reactions just seemed overly shrill and less genuine this time around.

This series, now in its third installment (DEADLY ADVICE, PREACHING TO THE CORPSE) excels at pointing out the difficulties of running a therapy practice. Just like any other job, there are ups and downs; often not about things one might think. Annabelle’s method of therapy is to use sand play (think Zen sand gardens) so Rebecca needs to get up to speed quickly. The interplay between the many supporting characters has a very realistic feel to it, and the investigation conducted by Rebecca is interesting to watch. Newcomers to the series can jump in here with no problems.

Rating: 7
September 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22331-4 (paperback)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Insatiable Desire - Rita Herron

Insatiable Desire
The Demonborn
Rita Herron
Grand Central/Forever

Paranormal Romance

When Vincent Valtrez was a child, his father turned evil. Vincent endured beatings, torture, and watched his father kill his mother, an Angel of Light. Then young Vincent killed his father. He was found outside a place called the Black Forest. Local lore and history says that no one who enters this place gets out alive. Since then, his memory of that time a blur, Vincent has done everything he could to work on the side of good. It’s why he joined the FBI. Now he’s been assigned to return to his hometown and help track a killer.

Clarissa King knew Vincent, once upon a time. Most of the kids called her Crazy Clarissa. She can communicate with spirits who have not yet moved on. Her mother and grandmother shared the gift. In her mother’s case, it drove her to suicide. Clarissa, like Vincent, is determined not to repeat her parent’s mistake. She uses her gift in her job as a family therapist and grief counselor.

So far, there have been two deaths in tiny Eerie, TN. The young women were killed in very brutal, but very different ways. Clarissa insists that the same individual, who uses the victim’s greatest fear to cause death, killed both. She’s been able to share the dying visions of the women, but the killer’s face is a blank. As the killings continue, Vincent is eventually forced to admit that the killer must be supernatural, and he can’t rule himself out as a suspect.

One of the main problems with the book is repetition. The author often squanders any tension she’s built during scenes of brutal murders or terrifying visions by reverting to Vincent, who is worried that he has bad blood, that he’s evil just like his father, that he needs sex daily, that he has bad blood, that he can’t love anyone, that he’s evil like his father, and that he has bad blood. It’s just too much, too often, and it undermines the pace of the story. The ‘final’ denouement is disappointingly brief, and there’s information provided at the end that seems tacked on, in order to continue the series.

The author has a great idea for a supernatural thriller here. The forces of evil (Satan, demons, the god of fear) are very real, very local, and able to possess a human body in order to commit murders. Vincent’s heritage is both good and evil; he knows that he could go either way, and he’s desperate to stay on the right side of the line. Clarissa wants to help the spirits of the dead women move on. It’s a solid idea with great inherent conflict. Unfortunately, the execution is just not up to par this time.

Rating: 6
September 2008
ISBN# 0-446-19947-8 (paperback)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Dial Me For Murder - Amanda Matetsky

Dial Me For Murder
A Paige Turner Mystery
Amanda Matetsky
Berkley Prime Crime


Paige Turner has worked hard to be where she is: the only female crime reporter in 1955 Manhattan. She works for a true crime magazine, occasionally writing a cover story in between her usual typing, filing, and coffee-making duties. Every morning, she scans the papers for a good story. One October morning, she finds one that sounds perfect for her.

Virginia Pratt, a young, single secretary, found nude and bound, wrapped in a sheet and covered with a pile of leaves. Strangely, the killer left Virginia’s clothing, including a mink jacket, diamond jewelry and a handbag, wrapped in another sheet nearby. Putting aside for a moment why the killer would do that, Paige immediately wonders how a young single woman living in Manhattan would afford mink and diamonds. And she was found on a Monday night; not a big party night.

Many of Paige’s questions are answered – and a lot of her worldview shattered – when she gets a phone call from Sabrina Stanhope, inviting her to lunch in her upscale apartment. Sabrina was once a socialite. Now she’s a madam, managing a stable of high-priced escorts who serve some of the most wealthy and influential men in the city. There might be plenty of people who had a reason to kill Virginia. Sabrina wants Paige to investigate, believing that she’ll bring a woman’s understanding and insight to the case. One huge problem: Paige just promised her boyfriend, Detective Sergeant San Street, that she’d keep her nose clean and stay out of investigations.

Paige (MURDER ON A HOT TIN ROOF) is a fun and lively character. By today’s standards, she’s a bit “gee-whiz,” but I would imagine that was pretty standard for a woman in a man’s world in the 1950s. Speaking of the era, the author really brings it to life. From Paige’s wardrobe to her attitudes to the rest of the characters and surroundings, 1955 Manhattan seems real and present. The mystery and investigation are quite interesting, given the victim’s line of work and Paige’s inexperience with that kind of life. For new readers, Paige offers a capsule recap that is clever and perfectly true to Paige’s character. I hope to see more of her.

Rating: 7 ½
September 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22050-4 (paperback)

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Break Of Dawn - Chris Marie Green

Break Of Dawn
Vampire Babylon, Book 3
Chris Marie Green

Urban Fantasy

This novel picks up just after the second book’s conclusion. Those who haven’t read the first two books in the series (I haven’t) may feel a bit lost for a while, until the characters provide some background. Even then, it’s more than clear that new readers have missed a lot by starting at this point. And, unfortunately, some of the major plot points here necessarily have less resonance for new readers than they would for those who’ve been reading from the beginning.

Dawn Madison, onetime stuntwoman in Hollywood, and the rest of her team are recuperating from an epic battle that left them wounded in more than body. They’ve lost one of the team, Dawn’s father has been kidnapped by someone she trusted, and it’s clear that the ‘big battle’ is coming, soon, to a reality near you. The team, led by the mysterious Jonah, is trying to find and root out an Underground vampire lair, led by a dangerous Master. It’s becoming more and more clear to Dawn that there’s plenty Jonah hasn’t told her, despite their oddly close relationship.

At the moment, the only person she feels she can trust is Matt Lonigan, a human PI. But she’s not even sure about that. As the team reassembles, more information about Jonah and his past comes to light. This information does nothing to quell Dawn’s rising distrust. The team feels that she’s the “key” to defeating the vampires, but no one can tell her for sure just how she’s supposed to do that. And, after learning more about past events and present company, she’s not even sure she wants to be involved. She’s going to have to make a decision, and fast.

If you’re a longtime reader, this novel develops several characters in ways that are unexpected. It’s clear that these revelations rock the long-held beliefs of many of the characters, but new readers may feel a bit excluded from the proceedings. This is not really the fault of the author, who clearly intended these books to be read as a trilogy, and not as standalones. The vampire mythos presented here contains a lot of interesting twists, and urban fantasy fans should be excited to find this author. While this concludes the story arc for the trilogy, the door is clearly open for a planned new trilogy.

Rating: 7 ½
September 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01629-7 (trade paperback)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Goody Goody Gunshots - Sammi Carter

Goody Goody Gunshots
A Candy Shop Mystery
Sammi Carter
Berkley Prime Crime


Abby Shaw, owner of the candy store Divinity in Paradise, Colorado, has had a tough evening. First, her nephews (8 and 12) begged her to become the assistant coach of their basketball team. Without another adult on the bench, the team will be disbanded. Abby is not very enthused about the job or the time she would have to be away from making and selling candy, but she’s just getting to know her nephews after living in CA for years, and she’s feeling guilty. Lost in thought after dropping off the boys, she nearly runs over a mysterious man with a limp. Narrowly missing the man by slamming on her brakes, she hears gunshots and sees the man fall.

Racing back to her brother’s home, she calls the police. But when they all arrive back at the scene, it’s completely deserted. No body, no blood, no evidence that anything happened at all. A few days later, after a basketball practice, Abby spots the same man wielding a metal bar near the coach’s truck. This time her nephews see him, too. She gives chase, but loses the man. At least now she knows he exists. Until, that is, her faithful dog, Max, noses into a pile of rags during a walk. A pile that turns out to be the man’s dead body.

The latest installment in this cozy series (PEPPERMINT TWISTED) is charming without being cloying and entertaining without resorting to goofy antics. Abby’s contact with the latest dead body progresses quite naturally, and it’s fun to watch her family and friends wonder how she manages to keep getting mixed up in situations like this. Abby is a realistic character; a woman who’s working hard to keep her shop running and make a living, while getting closer to her family. The subplots involving the basketball team and a new shop employee keep the story humming along, and, for those so inclined, there are some sinful-sounding recipes included.

Rating: 7
September 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22332-1 (paperback)

Stamped Out - Terri Thayer

Stamped Out
A Stamping Sisters Mystery
Terri Thayer
Berkley Prime Crime

At 31, April Buchert is back in her hometown of Aldenville, PA, for the first time since age seventeen. She left to get away from the place. She’s back because after the failure of her marriage and business in San Francisco, she’s broke and has no other place to go. She’s living in a barn her dad, Ed, renovated and will be working for his business, Retro Renovations. Her first client owns Mirabella, the largest house in the area. April believes she’ll be using stamping techniques to bring the walls back to their former glory. But there are things about the job her dad didn’t tell her.

When the owner orders the guesthouse, nicknamed the Castle, demolished, Ed’s employee uses a little too much dynamite. The blast is felt for miles. And it demolishes any part of the house that might have been salvaged for materials – or money. When the brickwork chimney collapses, a skull is revealed. No one knows whose skull it is, how it got there, or how long it’s been there, but local cop Henry Yost instantly suspects Ed. Not least because Ed’s previous construction company built the place. With her dad under a cloud of suspicion, April decides to try to clear his name.

While doing so, she’s forced to confront her own memories and issues from the past. April seems more than a little sensitive at odd times. She was desperate to get out of town as a teenager, but when someone reminds her that life has continued without her, she feels hurt and angry. It can’t be easy to deal with the fact that your parents divorced because your dad fell for another man, but it seems that someone who lived in San Francisco for a decade, and weathered her own marital breakup, would have made peace with that.

On her first night back in town, April meets a group of stampers. I’ve never quite understood the attraction of the craft, but the author ably demonstrates various uses, from scrapbooks to personalized cards to wall treatments. The group is a varied bunch of characters, and each one has a contribution to make, either personally or to the mystery at hand. STAMPED OUT is a solid start to a new series of cozy mysteries.

Rating: 6
September 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22329-1 (paperback)

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Border Lass - Amanda Scott

Border Lass
Amanda Scott
Grand Central Publishing

Historical Romance

Lady Amalie Murray, sister to Meg (BORDER WEDDING) is in a delicate position. Her brother, Simon, wants to marry her off to a man who will be a help to him and to Earl Fife, who is brother to the newly-crowned High King of Scots. Amalie has absolutely no intention of getting married. Fortunately for her, the princess Isabel has informed her that, under Scots law, no woman can be married against her will. Isabel does not know Simon or Amalie’s mother, the implacable Lady Murray very well.

Isabel is beset with her own concerns. She is convinced that Fife, in a bid for even more power, killed James Douglas (her late husband) and Will Douglas. If not Fife himself, then, hired agents. Most believe Isabel is madly grieving. Sir Garth Napier, a friend of Will, and the man who found him dying, tends to believe her. As such, he is put in place as one of the knights in Isabel’s house, ostensibly to safeguard the princess and her ladies, but also to discover what information he can.

Events at the coronation brought Amalie and Garth together. In fact, Garth discovered Amalie, listening in at a door. He literally swept her off her feet and carried her away before either of them could be discovered. Amalie claimed that she only heard voices behind the door, but the truth is that she heard part of a discussion involving murder. Amalie has good reason not to trust anyone, and the political times are turbulent, making her hesitant to reveal too much. Garth is equally determined to find out the truth and to protect Amalie.

Anyone with even a passing interest in Scottish and English history will love this novel. Scotland in 1390 was a period rife with political intrigue. The author uses this background to great effect, making the deaths of James and Will Douglas and the attendant (clandestine) investigations the main plot. Of course, there’s the personal story of Garth and Amalie, and it’s woven seamlessly into the whole. Amanda Scott writes books that make history come alive; blending romance and history into something that’s more than the sum of its parts.

Rating: 8
September 2008
ISBN# 0-446-19799-8 (paperback)

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Bell At Sealey Head - Patricia A. McKillip

The Bell At Sealey Head
Patricia A. McKillip


Every evening, as the last ray of the sun touches the ocean in the little fishing town of Sealy Head, a bell tolls once. No one has ever seen the bell. No one knows who rings it or why. Some people don’t even hear it anymore, simply accepting it as one of the noises the world makes. But there are some who hear it and wonder at its source. Gwyneth Blair, eldest daughter of a local merchant, still hears the bell. She writes (unfashionable for a woman) stories about the bell, assigning it various meanings and sources. Her stories entertain and delight her family and friends.

Judd Cauley and his father, Dugold, run the Inn at Sealey Head. They hear the bell every evening, too. Their more immediate concern, though, is that the inn has been mostly empty for years. Visitors to Sealey Head are rare these days. Ridley Dow, a traveling scholar who is very interested in the bell arrives unannounced one evening. There will soon be plenty of guests. Lady Eglantyne, the owner of the imposing Aislinn House, is dying. Her solicitor has sent for her only heir, her great-niece.

Unknown to most people, Aislinn House holds a whole separate world. The young maid, Emma, can see that world sometimes when she opens a door. She has no control over which door will reveal the other world, or when, but during her life, she and Princess Ysabo – who lives in the other Aislinn House – have become friends. Ysabo lives in a world ruled by ritual and wonders why. The convergence of all these people in Sealey Head may bring her the answer.

THE BELL AT SEALEY HEAD is a beautifully written novel. It reads like a beloved fairy tale. The descriptions are evocative and the characters suffused with warmth and personality. The pace is perfect as various pieces of the mystery are revealed. Gwyneth’s current story of the bell is interspersed within the novel; a sort of story-within-a-story. This novel is a great choice for parents to pass on to teens and pre-teens who are ready to further their fantasy reading. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9
September 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01630-3