Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Hint Of Wicked - Jennifer Haymore

A Hint Of Wicked
Jennifer Haymore
Grand Central/Forever

Historical Romance

Sophie, Duchess of Calton, was expecting his child when word came that her husband, Garrett, died at Waterloo. Of course, she was devastated, but life – and her child – demanded that she move on. Years later, Sophie married Tristan, Garrett’s cousin and legal heir. The two are truly attracted to one another and are making a life together.

Then, the unthinkable happens. Eight years later, Garrett reappears, wounded both physically and emotionally. While he knows that significant time has passed, he’s angered to discover that he’s been declared legally dead (since the body was never recovered) and Tristan has inherited his title and lands. And also, apparently, his wife. Tristan and Garrett were like brothers, but this is enough to tear apart any friendship. Sophie was deeply in love with Garrett as a young woman; now, as an adult, she feels the same deep love for Tristan. Neither man is willing to give up his life and his love without a fight.

This is a very unusual historical romance, in my experience. There really is no villain (and thus, no real ‘wickedness’) in this triangle. There are two men who have both conducted themselves honorably and now must fight for the life and love each believes he deserves. Likewise, Sophie has done nothing wrong. She waited nearly eight years to marry Tristan, after truly grieving for her supposedly dead husband. She is indecisive for some time, but that stems from her desire to avoid inflicting further pain on either husband, not from weakness on her part.

The downside to all of this realistic pain and confusion is that, no matter how the story ends, someone will be disappointed. The very positive aspect of this is that, until the very end, I had no clear idea how the story would resolve itself. There were perfectly good, sound reasons for a number of outcomes. It seems inevitable that some readers may be disappointed, looking for a different resolution. I have to say that this is an incredible first novel by an author to watch. She’s set the bar exceptionally high for herself, and I’m eager to see what she does next.

Rating: 8
June 2009
ISBN# 978-0-446-54029-2 (paperback)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Murder On Waverly Place - Victoria Thompson

Murder On Waverly Place
A Gaslight Mystery
Victoria Thompson
Berkley Prime Crime


Arriving home after the grueling delivery of twins, midwife Sarah Brandt is surprised to find her mother, the society matron Elizabeth Decker in her home. As it happens, Mrs. Decker is there to ask a favor of Sarah. Mrs. Decker wants Sarah to accompany her on a visit to a spiritualist, recommended by a longtime friend. When Sarah questions the reason for the visit, Mrs. Decker admits that she wants to contact her late daughter Maggie and beg forgiveness for the way the family treated her.

Sarah is the pragmatic sort and tries to reason with her mother. But it’s clear that Mrs. Decker is in emotional torment. Sarah goes with her mother and witnesses an incredible performance by Madame Serafina, complete with darkened room and disembodied voices. Later, unbeknownst to Sarah, Mrs. Decker returns to the medium for another séance. This time, a member of the séance circle dies, with a knife to the back. But the door was closed, the room in utter darkness, and all participants were holding hands in a circle. Not only is there a murder to solve, but, as a member of high society, Mrs. Decker is in danger of becoming the object of scandal.

As always, the author does a wonderful job of depicting the era. Details of daily life add flavor without ever overpowering the main narrative. The early scene in which Mrs. Decker begs her daughter to attend the séance is heartbreaking. That, along with the ‘inside’ information on cons by maid Maeve, makes those who paid huge sums to attend séances very sympathetic. And, of course, it makes perfect sense that Sarah would want to protect her mother, both from the unscrupulous and from tarnishing her good name. Like most books in the series (MURDER IN CHINATOWN, MURDER ON BANK STREET) this novel works quite well as a standalone, but readers who enjoy historical mysteries would be advised to seek out the author’s extensive backlist.

Rating: 8
June 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22775-6 (hardcover)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Swimsuit - James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
Little, Brown and Company


Ben Hawkins, crime reporter for the LA Times, has stumbled into the story of his life. It was supposed to be a good way to take a Hawaiian vacation on the company tab. During a shot for a national magazine, swimsuit model Kim McDaniels disappeared without a trace. The case was mostly local until her parents got a middle-of-the-night phone call from an anonymous man, telling them that their daughter is in “bad hands.”

During their rush to Hawaii, the case exploded in the media. But no one had any more information than the night she vanished. And the McDaniels can’t get the cooperation of the local police, who post office hours and are apparently unavailable at any other time. Ben meets the McDaniels and uses his paper’s pull to put them in touch with the local cops and a private investigator. In the days that follow, the body of a young girl washes up on a beach, and Kim’s roommate and fellow model, Julia, disappears. Julia’s body is found, horribly murdered, in an exclusive resort. And there are still no witnesses. But the killer has noticed Ben; and he wants Ben to tell his story to the world.

The book is written “by” Ben Hawkins. The reader meets the killer, who calls himself Henri Benoit, very early in the story. We watch him commit several murders. So the identity of the killer and the question of Ben’s survival are never in doubt. Nothing else is a given, though. There were some twists that were very surprising, but made perfect sense in retrospect. The violence is fairly graphic, and the killer is the authors’ scariest creation since KISS THE GIRLS.

The book is written at the customary break-neck pace, utilizing short chapters to propel the reader forward in the narrative. Everything is rock-solid until the last few chapters, which feel incomplete and sketchy. Even with this flaw, this is the perfect summer beach book: thrills, chills, and almost impossible to put down.

Rating: 8 ½
June 2009
ISBN# 978-0-316-01877-7 (hardcover)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Dial Emmy For Murder - Eileen Davidson

Dial Emmy For Murder
A Soap Opera Mystery
Eileen Davidson


Following her last brush with death (DEATH IN DAYTIME) soap actress Alexis Peterson has changed jobs – from The Yearning Tide to The Bare And The Brazen – and is scheduled to be a presenter at this year’s Daytime Emmy Awards. Following a full day of preparation, Alex is ready to go on stage, but her partner in presentation is missing. Jackson Masters, the hunk du jour, is known for skipping rehearsals, so no one thought much about it then. But it’s airtime and he’s nowhere to be found. Ever the professional, Alex goes on alone, determined to make the best of it.

To her shock, Jackson joins her on stage. Contrary to expectations, however, his body plunges from the catwalk over the stage, and hangs, tangled in a chain, right next to Alex. Clearly, the show does not have to go on, and everything screeches to a halt as the police arrive and attempt to question everyone in the Kodak Theater. Detective Frank Jakes is one of the first to arrive. Alex knows Frank from their last case, and might just like to get to know him a little better. But finding dead bodies is not the method she had in mind.

This is the second in a delightful series. The author is an Emmy-nominated actress who ably gives the reader a real insider’s view of the world of daytime drama, both in front of and behind the cameras. The murder case is structured and paced very well, and takes some very satisfying twists and turns. Alex’s love life takes a few turns, as well. There’s clearly more in store for Alex, and I’ll be tuning in next time to find out what happens next.

Rating: 7 ½
June 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-22825-3 (paperback)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Magic Lost, Trouble Found - Lisa Shearin

Magic Lost, Trouble Found
Lisa Shearin


Raine Benares is the main character and narrator; an elf who makes her living as a seeker. A seeker finds things and people, using magical means. Raine is a sorceress of fairly limited abilities, but she has enough to make an honest living. That’s more than most of the family can say. Her cousins and various relatives generally make their living through “acquisitions.” Best not to ask exactly how those acquisitions are made, or from whom.

As the story opens, Raine and her cousin, Paelan, are standing in a nasty alley across from the home of a well-known necromancer. Raine is there to keep an eye on Quentin, a thief. She has no idea why Quentin is breaking into a necromancer’s home, or why he thinks he will survive the experience. Somehow, he’s able to gain access, walk right through what should have been some very nasty wards protecting the pace, and find a white, stone box. When he opens the box to retrieve the amulet inside, the power knocks Raine to her knees.

It seems that Quentin is not the only one looking for the amulet. As soon as he gets it in his hands, goblins appear, and they’re armored for a fight. Raine and Phaelan help the thief escape, then Raine takes control of the amulet, on the theory that it will safer if it’s not with Quentin. Unfortunately, the amulet has its own ideas about that, and Raine discovers that she can’t remove it. That’s a big problem, since the chief shaman for the goblin king – a shaman known to be a sadistic psycho – also wants it, and has no compunctions about killing to get it.

Don’t let the ‘fluff’ title fool you. This is not a cute, cuddly, or comic fantasy. The author has done an incredible job of creating a very deep and detailed world, inhabited by nuanced characters. The story contains action, a great deal of peril, magic, and a very good dose of political intrigue among factions. Fitting all of this into one book should be difficult, but the author makes it seem effortless. Even better, there are at least two more books in this series. If you haven’t discovered this author yet, you owe it to yourself to do so. I have no idea why it took me so long to get started on this series, but I have no hesitation in recommending it to any reader of fantasy.

Rating: 8 ½
July 2007
ISBN# 978-0-441-01505-4 (paperback)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

How To Score - Robin Wells

How To Score
Robin Wells
Grand Central/Forever

Contemporary Romance

FBI agent Chase Jones is moonlighting as a life coach. It’s really his brother’s profession, but his brother witnessed a crime and had to go into witness protection until the trial. Since the coaching is all conducted over the phone, and Chase feels responsible for his brother’s situation, he volunteered to fill in temporarily. To help tide him over, he’s got files and lists of sports analogies to use on his clients.

Sammi Matthews thinks she needs a life coach. She’s 31, and her employment status as a museum curator is in limbo at the moment. Arlene Arnette is currently the curator of a home-cum-Art Deco museum. When Arlene had a heart attack, the board hired Sammi to replace her. Then Arlene got better, returned to work, and refused to leave. Sammi lives in a home she adores, but only rents, since the owner is thinking about selling. And she can’t afford to buy. But her biggest problem is that she’s not married and working on babies, like the rest of her friends. She’d like to find The One, but every guy she likes ends up injured. In various bizarre accidents, she’s knocked one down, blackened one’s eye, and even caused a few broken ribs.

Chase was supposed to dump Sammi as a client, per his brother’s instructions. But her voice on the phone is just too sexy, so he keeps her as a client, avoiding the subject of payment. That’s fairly creepy. But it gets worse. He gives her an ‘assignment’ to improve her discipline that involves jogging every morning. Then he goes to the park to get a look at her. Stalker, anyone? Of course, he thinks she’s hot. So when her dog knocks him down and practically mauls him, and she brilliantly invites this complete stranger home for coffee, he goes.

Sammi thinks he’s hot, too. And, during his five minutes in her house, she manages to scald him with coffee. Later, she actually gives him a concussion. This gives them an excuse to spend time together, alone, in his apartment. He still hasn’t told her who he is, and goes so far as to ‘coach’ her on the phone from the next room. This all goes on for far too long to be plausible and far past the point of being uncomfortably creepy. Of course, Chase’s big dilemma is how to tell her that he’s been lying to her since day one.

I realize this is supposed to be a comedic romance, but these two characters are just too foolish to believe. Sammi is klutzy, credulous, and adorably (supposedly) ditzy, yet we’re supposed to believe that she’s qualified to run a museum. There are subplots involving Horace, a mama’s boy who needs therapy more than he needs a life coach; the owner of the house in which Sammi lives; and Arlene, the curator of the museum. Each of these subplots is far more inherently interesting than the too-wacky interactions between Sammi and Chase. Readers who enjoy a large dose of ‘zany’ in their novels will love this one. Sadly, it just didn’t work for me.

Rating: 5 ½
June 2009
ISBN# 978-0-446-61842-7 (paperback)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Flash Of Hex - Jes Battis

A Flash Of Hex
An OSI Novel
Jes Battis

Urban Fantasy

If you haven’t read the first novel in this series, NIGHT CHILD, this review isn’t going to do much to spoil it. The author spoils it, in near totality, during the first chapters. Clearly, she intends that readers will pick up the books and read them in order. I know that authors have to walk a line between making successive installments accessible to new readers and entertaining those who started at the beginning; and that’s got to be a tough line to toe. But here, readers are treated to some fairly clunky exposition, detailing the fight with, and the identity of, the last book’s Big Bad. I have to wonder if the author meant to leave this out and assume that readers had already been through the first book, but had second thoughts.

In either case, what you need to know is that Tess Corday is an Occult Special Investigator in Toronto. She and her partner, Derrick, work for CORE, investigating occult crimes. The murder scene that begins this case is unlike anything anyone has seen. A young teenaged boy, immobilized and suspended from the ceiling by magic, his throat cut just enough to let him bleed to death. He bled into an old, ritual cauldron. It looks like some banned dark ritual. The victim was the son of a very old and powerful sorceress, who insists on inserting herself into the case.

The investigation widens to include similar incidents in Ontario. All the victims were young, potentially powerful, sons and daughters of powerful mage families. The question is, what does the killer hope to gain from these deaths? Another investigator from Ontario, Miles, arrives to consult with the Toronto group. His specialty is being able to see traces of the magic done in a given space. The trail is fairly twisted, and leads to a connection with Tess.

During the course of the book, Tess takes the irritatingly self-involved attitude that the murders are somehow all about her. It’s a relief when someone finally tells her that the world does not revolve around her. It doesn’t stop her from believing it, however. The final battle with this book’s Big Bad is entirely undermined by not one, but two, deus ex machina moments that go completely unexplained. This is urban fantasy, so the author doesn’t have to play by the rules of our physical world, but these instances severely undercut everything that had happened previously. It’s entirely possible that these incidents will be explained in a future installment, but that doesn’t prevent me from feeling cheated in this one. I do have to say, though, that the scenes leading up to this are very atmospheric and well done.

The author has created a very detailed and realistic alternate world for her novels. Tess, Derrick, and Miles are all multi-dimensional characters who are completely believable in this world. Tess, in particular, has a history that deserves a lot more exploration, and there are plenty of characters on which to build future stories. The investigation is interesting, and the foes they face are quite inventive. With a few tweaks, this series could be a real winner, and I’m interested enough to stick around and see what happens.

Rating: 6
June 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01723-2 (paperback)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Angel's Advocate - Mary Stanton

Angel's Advocate
A Beaufort & Company Mystery
Mary Stanton
Berkley Prime Crime


After arguing her first case in Celestial Court (DEFENDING ANGELS) Bree Winston-Beaufort is ready for a case located in the temporal realm. After all, she’s going to have to have some paying clients to support her staff. When her Aunt Cissy begs her to take a case, Bree’s Southern manners don’t permit her to say ‘no’ outright. Instead, she agrees to meet with a spoiled seventeen-year-old cheerleader whose idea of fun is knocking down a Girl Scout and stealing her cookie money. Adding to the discomfort is the fact that the accused, Lindsey Chandler, is the daughter of the late drug store magnate Probert Chandler, a friend of the family.

Lindsey is all Bree expected, and worse. But during her visit to Lindsey’s home, Bree makes contact with another client. Probert, who died in a one-car accident four months ago, says he didn’t die in the accident. After checking it out with her staff and the Celestial Court, Bree discovers that Probert is in a lot of trouble in the next world. And she’s the only lawyer equipped to help him with his case.

The author does a great job of blending paranormal/angelic elements with the usual elements of a cozy mystery. There are still a lot of things about this gig that Bree doesn’t understand. According to her not-quite-human staff, she’ll just have to feel her way along. The reader is making the journey with her. It can be a bit frustrating at times, but that gives readers a window into Bree’s thoughts and actions. Cozy readers who like a bit of a ghost story will enjoy this series.

Rating: 7
June 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22875-3 (paperback)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sucker Punch - Sammi Carter

Sucker Punch
A Candy Shop Mystery
Sammi Carter
Berkley Prime Crime


Abby Shaw returned to her hometown of Paradise, CO, two years ago to take over her late aunt’s candy shop, Divinity. She’s busy gearing up for the Valentine’s Day rush when Vonetta Cummings drops in for a visit. Vonetta runs the Paradise Playhouse, and she’s there to ask Abby to participate in the next production. Abby begs off, citing a busy candy-making schedule, but finds time for regret when she learns more about the production. The director is one Alexander Pastorelli, who decided to direct a sort of farewell local production before heading out to his new gig on Broadway.

The musical director of the new play-within-a-play is Laurence Nichols, another local boy turned celebrity. With that kind of star power, the seats will be filled and the critics in attendance. Naturally, this makes for heightened competition for all roles. And that leads to disputes, like the very heated exchange between Vonetta and Laurence that Abby happens to overhear. Deciding to check in on things, Abby arrives at the Playhouse to discover Laurence lying dead on the stage with Vonetta crouched over him. Of course, Abby knows perfectly well that Vonetta would never commit an act of violence. Now she’s going to have to convince the authorities.

Paradise is a small town, so most of the inhabitants have known each other all their lives. It’s interesting to see these dynamics play out in this kind of atmosphere. Setting the story in and around the theater production widens the cast of characters – and, thus, the suspect pool – to a satisfying degree.

While this installment (PEPPERMINT TWISTED, GOODY GOODY GUNSHOTS) is a little slow to get started, the opening chapters are a lot of fun and serve to introduce the new and returning characters. Once there’s a crime, the story moves along at a nice pace, with a few interesting twists along the way. New readers will find it very easy to get up to speed. Anyone who has ever participated in community theater will recognize many of the interactions and personalities here and appreciate the author’s realism. A visit to Divinity isn’t always sugarcoated, but it’s always a lot of fun.

Rating: 7
June 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22706-0 (paperback)

Monday, June 01, 2009

Darkborn - Alison Sinclair

Alison Sinclair


Because of an ancient curse perpetrated by a group of mages, Darkborn cannot move about in sunlight. Sunlight will kill them within seconds. Likewise, the dark is deadly to the Lightborn. Most cities house either one society or the other. Minhorne is a place where both live side by side; the Darkborn moving about at night, the Lightborn during the day. Balthasar (Bal) Hearne is a Darkborn physician, scholar, and noble. As the sunrise bell begins to ring, there’s a frantic knocking at his door. Tradition dictates that he offer shelter. The woman outside is Tercelle Amberley, who brings her own set of problems.

Tercelle is betrothed to a very powerful noble who has been away this past year. Tercelle is mere hours away from giving birth. Clearly the child does not belong to her fiancé. Bal summons his sister, a healer-mage, to deliver her of twin boys. To his shock, it seems the infants are sighted. Darkborn do not have sighted offspring. Tercelle tells an impossible story of a Lightborn lover who came to her during the daytime. Far from a doting mother, Tercelle tries to leave the infants outside for the sun, but Bal saves them and sends them away with his sister after Tercelle decamps.

Bal’s wife, Telmaine, and his two children are off visiting her family during all of this. Telmaine is what’s known as a touch-reader. She has real magic, but has managed to hide it all her life in order to move about in society. When she and her children arrive home, she finds that thugs have come looking for the infants and nearly killed Bal in the process. She unwittingly reveals her secret when her guest, the notorious baron Ishmael di Studier, uses his magic and hers to save Bal. Ishmael is hardly likely to reveal her secret. His magic is known and he lives on the fringes of society as a hunter of the Shadowborn, creatures who live along the Borders. The men who hurt Bal take one of his children hostage, claiming they’ll hold the child until Tercelle’s infants are produced.

The world of DARKBORN is beautifully detailed, with a real sense of breadth, depth, and history. The two societies, separated by the curse are both very different and very similar. Each side has a separate existence and government. The setting seems reminiscent of Regency England, with rules that govern society and individual behavior. Darkborn and Lightborn do communicate, through paper walls that allow no light to penetrate. Bal’s family home has shared such a wall with a Lightborn family for generations. Floria White Hand, who lives on the other side of the wall, is a Lightborn spy and assassin for her prince. The details and texture of everyday life are astonishingly realistic.

By dividing the light and the dark, the two societies are forever separated. Within each society there are very recognizable personalities. Bal and Telmaine have a mature and loving relationship. Bal’s friendship with Floria is as real as it is unusual. Ishmael’s pain and estrangement from society makes him very sympathetic. The story plays out like a fairy tale in light and dark. The world is simply a given; it’s the actions within the world that comprise the tale. It’s a darkly beautiful story of political and personal intrigues told against the backdrop of an age-old curse that still holds the population prisoner. I’m really looking forward to future volumes.

Rating: 9
May 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-46270-1 (trade paperback)