Monday, September 28, 2009

Skull Duggery - Aaron Elkins

Skull Duggery
Aaron Elkins
Berkley Prime Crime


Forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver (LITTLE TINY TEETH, UNEASY RELATIONS) and his wife, Julie, are preparing for a week of relaxation in the sun of Mexico. Well, Gideon will be relaxing. Julie will be taking over for her cousin, Annie, manager of the family-run resort Hacienda Encantrada. Nearly every member of the very extended family has spent time working at the place, so Julie knows the ropes and should get along fine. Of course, things are complicated by the fact that the business manager is also absent, with those duties falling to Julie, too.

And Gideon won’t be getting as bored as he thought he might. In small nearby town – a place that has had a murder rate of zero for decades – bodies are starting to turn up with distressing regularity. First, a hiker finds the skeleton of what looks to be a girl in an abandoned silver mine. Whoever she was, it looks like a number of blows to the head killed her. Then a local villager, looking for firewood off the beaten path discovers the mummified remains of a man. There’s a bullet hole in the remains, but no bullet. And no exit wound.

The chief of police, Flaviano Sandoval, only wanted to serve his time in office in peace, as a stepping stone to his real goal: the mayor’s office. Years of civil service are required for that, which is how the unprepared Sandoval finds himself in this terrible position. If he can’t solve these crimes, the state police will be all over him, and, far worse, he’ll look incompetent. That would definitely be a blow to his political aspirations. Lucky for him, then, that the famed Skeleton Detective is in the area and willing to lend a hand. Not so lucky for those already in office (including the coroner) that Gideon disagrees with nearly everything they’ve said. It’s enough to make a man wish he’d become a farmer instead.

This is a wonderful series of mysteries. There’s plenty of character development as we follow Gideon and Julie through their lives and careers. For forensics buffs, even (or maybe, especially) the armchair variety, the way Gideon goes about his job, and the clues he’s able to uncover, fascinate. The author skillfully uses the locale, with its blend of tourists, locals, and legends, to underpin the story. It’s rare for me to put down one of these novels once I’ve started, and this was no exception. Now begins the wait for the next one.

Rating: 8 ½
September 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22797-8 (hardcover)

The Treacherous Teddy - John. J. Lamb

The Treacherous Teddy
A Bear Collector’s Mystery
John J. Lamb
Berkley Prime Crime

Mystery - Cozy

Brad Lyon, retired detective and teddy bear artist/collector, is busy creating a new bear with one year on the police scanner. This bear will mimic David Caruso’s “CSI: Miami” character, complete with sunglasses. It’s not clear whether the bear will be utterly insufferable, but that’s neither here nor there. Brad’s wife, Ash, is a part-time deputy and he can’t help listening to her calls. It gives him new insight into her decades spent as a cop’s wife. At the moment, she’s coordinating with a game warden to try and catch repeat poacher Chet. It’s not a dangerous call; Chet gets caught and goes along quietly, then gets released and goes back to poaching.

The routine is shattered, though, when a strange car rockets out of a farmhouse turnoff. Ash briefly gives chase, until she decides that the chase is too dangerous. She goes back to the farmhouse to check the place and finds farmer Ev Rawlins lying on his back, with an arrow in his chest. The most obvious suspect is Chet, who doesn’t appreciate being told that he can’t poach. But Chet is known for using rifles, never arrows. It all looks a little too neat to be an accident. In between making bears, showing bears, and working on getting their teddy bear museum off the ground, Brad and Ash decide to track down the killer.

It’s nice to see Ash’s character move to the forefront a bit more. It’s also quite interesting to witness Brad’s worry about his wife while she’s out on patrol in a rural VA town and realize how much worse it must have been for her when he was a detective in San Francisco. They really feel like a couple who have been together for a long time and seen a lot of ups and downs in life. It makes their working together – on bears or on murder – that much more realistic. This time around, the story gets off the ground quite quickly and the pacing is quite even. This is a great choice for fans of cozy mysteries and a solid entry in a winning series. (THE MOURNFUL TEDDY, THE FALSE-HEARTED TEDDY, THE CRAFTY TEDDY, THE CLOCKWORK TEDDY)

Rating: 7
September 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-23032-9 (paperback)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Armed & Magical - Lisa Shearin

Armed & Magical
Lisa Shearin


This is the second novel in a series that began with MAGIC LOST, TROUBLE FOUND. This book picks up a bit less than a week after the events of the first novel. While that means some spoilers to new readers, it also means that there’s a nice sense of continuity for those who have read the series from the start. For the newcomers, the author does a fine job of weaving the backstory into the current action.

Raine Benares now understands that she’s bound – in some way she doesn’t fully understand – to a very powerful and evil rock called the Saghred. Naturally, there are plenty of other bad people around who would like to control and wield that power; either through Raine or over her dead body. That’s why Raine is now ensconced on the Isle of Mid, home of the most powerful mages in the seven kingdoms. The hope is that they will be able to find some way to sever the connection that doesn’t also sever Raine’s lifeline.

Mychael Elliesor is the paladin of Mid, and is charged with protecting the Saghred and Raine. The mages have put all kinds of magical wards around the thing, but so far, there’s been no long-term effect. That’s bad, since that means that Raine constantly feels the pull of black magic. And, apparently, others can feel it, too. The stone was asleep or controlled for nearly nine hundred years. Now it wants to play.

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but right around the time Raine and her party arrived on Mid, students at the mage college started disappearing. Since Raine is a seeker, she offers her services in finding the kids. But a very powerful someone has gone to great lengths to magically cover his trail. With her young friend, Piaras, starting his studies on Mid, Raine has a vested interest in making sure the place is safe.

The first novel opened strong and stayed that way to the end. This one gets bogged down a bit in the middle with the logistics of ‘is the Saghred asleep or not’ and Raine’s worries about her future. It’s not that these issues aren’t important, just that, in this case, they tend to really slow down the flow of the story. The plotting and pacing pick up tremendously toward the last third of the book, and remind me of just why I enjoy this series. There are a lot of revelations, changes, and reactions to be gleaned from the final chapters here. And there’s clearly more story to tell in the third book, and I’m more than eager to see how things resolve.

Rating: 8
May 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01587-0 (paperback)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hunting Ground - Patricia Briggs

Hunting Ground
An Alpha And Omega Novel
Patricia Briggs

Urban Fantasy

Anna Latham is that most rare and precious member of a werewolf pack: an Omega. She can bring peace to the pack, even in the presence of several competing Alphas. As this story begins, she and her new mate, Charles, are headed to Seattle for a conference with the leaders of several European wolf packs. Charles’ father, Bran, the Marrock, has decided that it’s time for werewolves to make their presence known to the rest of the world. Other, lesser magical creatures have already come out of the magical closet. Bran wants to slowly introduce the concept to the public by showing them werewolves in heroic jobs: police, firefighters, and military.

Bran isn’t going to the conference because he feels it might tip the balance of power too far. Charles, his son and enforcer, will be going in his place. And, he hopes, the presence of an Omega will calm the European Alphas who are set against this plan. Obviously, outing American wolves will out wolves around the globe, so once Bran makes the announcement, everyone is in the same boat.

During a break in the proceedings, Anna takes a shopping trip with Tom, a wolf, and his mate Moira, a witch. A group of vampires attacks, stunning the trio with what feels suspiciously like wolf magic. Clearly, the vampires are working with someone who has access to pack magic. There are opponents to Bran’s ideas, but it’s hard to believe anyone would voluntarily work with vampires. Unless they had to do so in order to attack an Omega. No member of the pack would be able to do so. Clearly, the opposition is not doing all its bargaining at the conference table.

For those who missed the first book of this series, CRY WOLF, the author does a fine job of filling in the details. In fact, the details of that story are less important than Anna’s past and her evolving relationship with Charles. Despite all the action going on around them, these two characters remain the center of the story. And there is plenty of action. This series is not for the faint of heart – there is violence and gore. But that all makes sense in context. This novel incorporates some very interesting legends from the past and weaves them into the present-day story. The author, who also writes the excellent Mercy Thompson series, is on top of her game.

Rating: 8
September 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01738-6 (paperback)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Cleopatra's Daughter - Michelle Moran

Cleopatra’s Daughter
Michelle Moran

Historical Fiction

In 30 BC, Octavian’s Roman forces take over Egypt and the lovers Marc Antony and Queen Cleopatra take their own lives rather than become prisoners, paraded through Rome’s streets. That leaves their children, the twins Alexander and Selene (10) and little Ptolemy (6) as the heirs of a conquered nation. Octavian, seeking to show mercy, takes the children back to Rome with him. Little Ptolemy doesn’t survive the trip, but the twins arrive safely and are housed with Octavia, the emperor’s sister.

Although they dream of home, they’re treated extremely well. They live in Roman luxury and attend classes with other privileged children. Selene worries, though, about what will happen when they reach the age of 14. At that point, Octavian can marry her off to whomever he pleases and Alexander, as a man, will become a real threat.

This is one of those rare historical novels that immediately pull the reader into the world of the past. Daily details give realistic texture to the narrative, allowing the reader to vicariously experience what life must have been like during that time. The story is told from Selene’s point of view, and her observations are honed by her background as Egyptian royalty. She understands how politics works. She’s seen both her parents die because of it. She’s clear-eyed and not a little cynical, but she still has dreams.

The author kindly includes a timeline and a glossary so that readers not familiar with the time can easily reference terms and incidents. While Selene is the star here, the author manages to paint a human portrait of the man who would become the Emperor Augustus, his scheming wife, and his kind-hearted sister who willingly took in the orphaned children of her former husband. I truly hope that the author plans to continue these stories. She does the reader the favor of outlining the later lives of many characters. That only made me wish she’d write the whole thing as another novel. Or three. Bringing history to life is a real gift, and readers are fortunate that Ms. Moran has chosen to share it with us.

Rating: 9
September 2009
ISBN# 978-0-307-40912-6 (hardcover)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Stuck On Murder - Lucy Lawrence

Stuck On Murder
A Decoupage Mystery
Lucy Lawrence
Berkley Prime Crime


When Brenna Miller was desperate to leave Boston, her former college roommate, Tenley Morse came through for her. Tenley suggested Brenna move to tiny Morse Point and clerk for her at her shop, Vintage Papers. Brenna is getting used to small town life – although she’ll still be considered an outsider for decades yet – and enjoying her job. She even teaches classes in decoupage at the shop.

She should have known that when the Mayor asked to speak to her, it couldn’t possibly be good. He wants Brenna to speak to her reclusive landlord, Nate Williams, about selling the lots he owns around the lake. Part of the town wants to develop the land into vacation homes to give the town an economic boost. Others are set against it. Nate is vehemently against it. And, against her better judgment, Brenna mentions the Mayor’s request. That sets off a public feud between the two men. It all ends, though, when Brenna discovers a trunk floating in the lake. Inside the trunk is the very-dead mayor.

Of course, Nate is the prime suspect, and Brenna wants to clear his name. This is an interesting beginning to what could be a very solid mystery series. The initial conflict makes perfect sense and seems pretty realistic, especially in these economic times. Personally, I’ve never been attracted to decoupage, but the author includes enough history and examples to make it sound interesting. There’s a nice cast of characters, a good suspect pool, and a nice setting. I’m looking forward to more from this author.

Rating: 7
September 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-23029-9 (paperback)

The Silent Spirit - Margaret Coel

The Silent Spirit
A Wind River Mystery
Margaret Coel
Berkley Prime Crime


In the 1920s, many Arapaho and Shoshone Indians took part in filming westerns. Movies were still fairly new, but the directors already wanted ‘realism’ that couldn’t be had by using white actors in dark makeup. Tim McCoy, a movie star and friend to the Indians helped them get work and did his best to interpret between the Hollywood people and the Indians. For many Indians, who were not allowed to leave the reservation without permission of a government agent, working on these films was the only way to feed and house their families. One participant was Charlie Wallowingbull. He went to the set with dreams beyond simply providing for his family. He hoped for a career.

Once the filming was done, the Indians returned to their homes. But Charlie was never seen again. Some of his friends claimed that he’d run off to Hollywood, or to Mexico. But those who knew him knew that he’d never desert his young family. Three generations later, Kiki Wallowingbull is obsessed with what happened to Charlie. Having spent half his twenty-five years in various jails and detention facilities, striking out on his own to California to find some answers about his great-grandfather seems reasonable; even noble.

Andrew, Kiki’s grandfather, is worried. He knows that Kiki is young and worries that no good will come of trying to pry answers from the white man’s world. He speaks to Father John O’Malley, who is back on the rez after a stint in Rome. Father John admits that he gave Kiki a lift when he saw him hitchhiking many days earlier. Since then, no one has heard from him. A little searching points Father John to an area known for drug deals. Thinking that Kiki is using again, Father John investigates, only to find Kiki’s body.

Readers unfamiliar with this series (THE DROWNING MAN, THE GIRL WITH BRAIDED HAIR, BLOOD MEMORY) will have no problems jumping in here. The author writes with great feeling and knowledge about the Indian people and their way of life. Life on the rez seems, in many ways, like life in a small town: the kids all want to get out, and everyone knows everything about everyone. The descriptive passages are so evocative that it’s easy to ‘feel’ the cold and the sun glinting off the snow.

The story shifts from present day to the 1920s during filming, giving the reader a real look at how things have – and have not – changed. The insular worlds of the people from Hollywood and the insular world of the Indian people bump against each other with results that are both predictable and moving. The author excels at finding ways to make each new novel in the long-standing series unique. While never a light read, any new novel from Ms. Coel is worth every word.

Rating: 8
September 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22976-7 (hardcover)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Ravens - George Dawes Green

George Dawes Green
Grand Central


Shaw and his buddy, the improbably named Romeo, are on the run from their tech-support jobs in Ohio. Their plan, such as it is, is to drive Romeo’s car to Florida, get jobs on boats and work their way to Trinidad. A chance stop at a gas station in the small town of Brunswick, GA, changes all that. Inside the station, Shaw hears about a local family who just won $318 million in the lottery. He begins formulating his plan almost at once.

The Boatwright family can’t believe their good fortune. Their first thoughts are of all the great things the money will buy. Then they begin to plan how and when to tell people. Ten-year-old Jase spills the beans to a friend at school, and soon the news is everywhere. Now the various family members have to deal with congratulations, envy, blessings, and requests from all sides.

Enter Shaw, his gun, and his plan. He tells the family that he will be taking half their winnings. His associate, Romeo, is driving around town, checking in on all their family members. Should there be any resistance, Shaw will give the signal and his friend will begin killing those nearest and dearest to them. He has a cover story ready for the press, and tells the family that he only wants the money to do good things.

Readers who like every loophole closed and every loose end tied up may be disappointed with the outcome of this novel. But the truth is, human life is messy. The author switches points-of-view quite often, allowing the reader access to the thoughts of various members of the family, townspeople, and Romeo, on his endless drive. Sudden wealth brings sudden problems, even if those problems don’t carry guns. Friends and family members treat you differently; they’re jealous, they want or expect things. Or maybe the recipients of fortune only perceive that to be so.

Romeo is a flawed, sad character, clearly going along with the plan out of loyalty to Shaw. He vacillates between mindless bravado and utter hopelessness. Shaw has the courage of his convictions, but I was never sure whether he actually believed what he was saying or not. Not that it matters, since he’s the guy apparently in control. Watching each character fall into his/her own web of emotion was hypnotic. The finale feels sudden and sloppy, perfectly in tune with the various personalities in play. Every word and emotion rings absolutely true from the first page to the last.

Rating: 8 ½
July 2009
ISBN# 978-0-446-53896-1

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Murder Of King Tut - James Patterson and Martin Dugard

The Murder Of King Tut
The Plot To Kill The Child King
James Patterson and Martin Dugard
Little, Brown and Company


Most people know the basics about King Tut and the discovery and subsequent display of the items from his tomb. His golden mask is instantly recognizable. The exact circumstances surrounding his death are more murky. What is clear is that he died at a very young age. The authors here present a possible solution to the young pharaoh’s untimely death.

The book is told in three times: Howard Carter’s long search and eventual discovery of the tomb in 1922; James Patterson’s writing of this book; and the events of Tut’s time. While I enjoy James Patterson’s fiction thrillers, I have to be honest and say that ‘his’ chapters of the book, while mercifully short, were by far the least interesting. Surprisingly, the chapters dealing with Howard Carter were even more fascinating than Tut’s possible story. The author admits that Carter’s story is worthy of a book in itself. It’s true. His life reads like fiction, only better.

The sections dealing with Tut, his family, and his young queen and half-sister are, of course, speculation drawn from available data. With that said, I found it very strange that Tut was referred to, even in very early childhood, as Tutankhamun. I’m no Egyptian scholar, but even my armchair research informs me that he was born Tutankhaten. His father, a fascinating personage in his own right, worshipped the single god, Aten, and wanted all of Egypt to do the same. It’s an important piece of history, and I find it odd that this is completely ignored.

When I was in high school, I had an English teacher who would mark down any student who tried to “gloss over” any subject. I feel like that’s what’s happened here. Obviously, it’s very difficult to read ancient texts and breathe life into lives that were over thousands of years ago, but this felt very much like a surface effort. Without spoiling anything, I found the ultimate solution to be fairly unsatisfying. I did, however, appreciate the time devoted to Tut’s apparently loving relationship with his queen. The sweet image of the young rulers that decorates a throne from Tut’s tomb has always stayed with me. She came alive on the page far more than Tut. Overall, the sections involving Howard Carter were much more emotionally resonant. Perhaps, someday, he’ll get the book he deserves.

Rating: 7
September 2009
ISBN# 978-0-316-03404-3 (hardcover)