Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hunting Memories - Barb Hendee

Hunting Memories
The Vampire Memories Series #2
Barb Hendee


Note: If you haven’t read the first book in this series (BLOOD MEMORIES) this review contains some critical, but unavoidable spoilers.

Eleisha has been a vampire for close to two centuries, but she’s just discovered that she has the ability to feed from humans without killing them. Her newly-discovered telepathic ability allows her to feed, then alter the prey’s memory. For a vampire who detested having to kill to survive, it’s a huge discovery. Even better is the realization that she’s not the only vampire who can do this. She teaches Philip, who has always been a predator, to do the same thing. He doesn’t enjoy it as much as a real hunt, but it keeps them below the radar.

Eleisha and Philip recently fought off an attack by her maker, Julian. Julian, having no telepathic abilities, has been engaged in a centuries-long quest to destroy all other vampires. Eleisha and Philip believe they’re alone until she receives a letter from Rose. Rose, most importantly, tells them that they are not alone. Eleisha’s new mission is to bring Rose into her little family, and establish some kind of underground or safe harbor for vampires, away from the dangers posed by Julian.

Julian makes an excellent villain. He’s older than the rest, and knows the truth about the nature of vampires and the rules by which his kind once lived. Since he hasn’t passed that information along to any of his children, they’re all feeling their way along while trying to avoid him.

Rose’s story is told mostly in flashbacks, detailing how she came to be a vampire. Her present-day life is terribly lonely. She’s lived in the same apartment for decades and is, for all intents and purposes, a shut-in with no friends or family. It makes perfect sense that Julian would go to any lengths to stop the formation of a united front against him, and he has some interesting tricks up his sleeves. These books are clearly meant to be read as a series, and while the basics from the previous book are sketched in, new readers may feel that they’ve missed a lot. There’s clearly more of the story left to tell, and I look forward to it.

Rating: 7 ½
October 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-46291-6 (trade paperback)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Blackwork - Monica Ferris

A Needlecraft Mystery
Monica Ferris
Berkley Prime Crime


Ask anyone who lives in a small town and is even slightly civic-minded. There is no event in the world that a well-meaning committee can’t needlessly complicate. That’s exactly what happens with the Halloween Festival in Excelsior, Minnesota. The head of the organizing committee is inexperienced and likes to make bullet point lists for meetings. Those meetings inevitably run long. As compensation, of sorts, the latest meeting is being held in the Barleywine pub, where committee head Billie Leslie is a business partner. Betsy Devonshire, owner of the Crewel World needlework shop, and a sub-committee of one, is there because Billie put out the work that the meeting was mandatory.

Also in attendance is Ryan McMurphy, a local mechanic. He’s not on the committee, but he’s come up with a great idea for part of the parade. He’s found a vintage fire truck and some old-time uniforms that are falling apart. By painting the uniforms white and letting them continue to fall apart, he’ll have a truck from the past, staffed by ghost riders. The committee is thrilled with this unsolicited contribution and Ryan goes back to his bar stool.

As Betsy finds out later, Ryan has had a problem with alcohol that led to his wife kicking him out of the house. He started on soft drinks that evening, but someone kept buying him drinks – the microbrew ales created by Leona Cunningham are legendary in the area. He has one too many, and starts accusing Leona, a practicing Wiccan, of being a witch and trying to put a hex on him. She tosses him out of the bar, and he immediately has an accident. The next morning, he’s found dead, without any signs of violence. No one in Excelsior believes in witchcraft; not really. But it’s quite a coincidence. And Leona is worried enough about her local reputation that she turns to Betsy to help find out what really happened.

It’s true that gossip can spread like wildfire in a small town. Damage to the owner of a small business can mean the end of that business. So it makes perfect sense, given Betsy’s well-known track record (KNITTING BONES, THAI DIE) that Leona would turn to her for help. My favorite character, Godwin, makes an appearance. It’s nice to see a character in a cozy mystery series who is openly gay and accepted by the community. That kind of tolerance underscores the harm that can be done by ill-chosen words, but the author manages to completely avoid being preachy about it.

The mystery is fun, with enough plausible suspects to make things interesting, and the author knows how to keep things moving. Not just for needleworkers, this is a series that should appeal to anyone who enjoys a good cozy mystery, populated by characters who continue to grow and evolve. Part of the fun is catching up with everyone since the last installment. New readers will have no problems starting here, and longtime fans will be happy to make another visit to Crewel World.

Rating: 7
October 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-22990-3 (hardcover)

Detectives Don't Wear Seat Belts - Cici McNair

Detectives Don’t Wear Seat Belts
Cici McNair
Center Street


If this were a novel, and Cici a character, she’d be completely unbelievable and unrealistic, with a history that defies all logic. The thing is, this isn’t a novel; it’s nonfiction. And Cici actually lived (and continues to live) this life, only changing names to protect various people of varying degrees of innocence.

Born in Mississippi, she endured some trials in her childhood that she reveals to the reader only gradually. She went on to travel the globe, even writing and reporting news for the Vatican. No small feat for a Protestant. One day, living in New York City and needing a job, she decided she wanted to be a detective. Where most people check the want ads, Cici likes to look through the Yellow Pages. That’s how she hit on the idea. She found out, fairly quickly, through cold calling and ill-advised office visits, that most private investigators in the area were retired cops and male. She stood out a mile as not one of the bunch.

The advice she got early and often was, ‘don’t work for Vinny Parco.’ Naturally, she ended up working for him. Not least because he was the one who would hire her. She went out to work a case the first day she started, and she’s never stopped. Cici found her niche in life. She loves her job, and she’s pretty good at it, too.

Don’t mistake this for a ‘how to be a private detective’ instruction manual. It’s not. It’s clear, and Cici admits, that a lot of what happened was sheer luck, circumstance, and a whole lot of determination. She’s got a great writing voice, and a way of structuring her story so that, even when she skips around a bit, it’s quite easy to follow. The world private investigations is not a world of niceties, so expect some very explicit language and some seedy situations.

Not every case is laid out beginning-to-end. Most overlap, and some are left up in the air. Which, as she tells us, is what happens in real life investigating. I know I wouldn’t have made the same life choices or taken the same leaps that she did, but she’s someone I’d love to have lunch with sometime. The conversation would be fascinating.

Rating: 7 ½
September 2009
ISBN# 978-1-59995-187-4 (hardcover)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Mourning In Miniature - Margaret Grace

Mourning In Miniature
A Miniature Mystery
Margaret Grace
Berkley Prime Crime


Geraldine (Gerry) Porter is a widowed high school English teacher who spends her retirement making miniatures and enjoying every minute she can spend with her 11-year-old granddaughter, Maddie. One of her former students is Rosie Norman, who now runs the local bookstore. Gerry is not a little dismayed to hear that Rosie’s thirty-year high school reunion is coming up soon. Rosie was not terribly popular in high school, and asks Gerry to go to the reunion with her this year as emotional support.

Rosie has an ulterior motive for attending. It seems that she’s been nursing a crush on the school’s star quarterback, David Bridges, for all these years. In the weeks leading up to the reunion, she says he’s been sending her flowers, candy, and jewelry, while planning a romantic private reunion. Privately, Gerry has her doubts. The man lives in San Francisco, an hour away in traffic. If he was so anxious to reconnect, one might think he’d simply pick up the phone. But Rosie has her heart and expectations set on this. Her current miniature project is a room box, depicting the high school hallway where she and David shared their first and only kiss.

Despite her reservations, Gerry wants to be supportive, but she can’t help worrying about her friend and former student. Arriving at the first evening’s cocktail party does nothing to alleviate her concern. David greets Rosie casually and only in passing. The former captain of the cheerleading team is hanging on his arm, not so secretly sneering at Rosie. After a particularly humiliating encounter, Rosie disappears and doesn’t return to their shared hotel room that night. The following morning, she looks terrible, but says she feels better. Then comes the terrible news: David Bridges is dead, beaten with his own football trophy.

Gerry is a genuinely likeable character who always tries to see the best in everyone. She’s not foolish, she’d just like to believe in the goodness of people. Where others might have warned Rosie more forcefully, Gerry simply tries to be supportive, which makes perfect sense for her character. Given their friendship, it follows that Gerry would want to look into the situation in order to help Rosie, even when it starts to look pretty bad.

Maddie is present for much of the novel, and she’s almost a rarity in fiction: a child who acts like a child. She’s eleven, and sometimes she’s a little too grown-up and sometimes she’s a little girl. The whole family is close, but not overly so, and always there to support one another. Longtime readers will be interested to know that Gerry becomes re-acquainted with a man who was once the shop teacher when she taught English. He loves to create miniatures and has a granddaughter just about Maddie’s age.

All of this characterization is nicely woven into the mystery. I don’t know anyone who actually enjoys high school reunions, so the whole situation is ripe for drama from the outset. It brings together a now-diverse group of people who might still have unsettled scores from high school. It’s truly not that difficult to pinpoint “who done it,” but the story is much more involved than expected, and it’s a fun ride. Newcomers will have no problem starting the series here (see below for list of previous titles) and longtime readers will be happy to make a return visit to Gerry and her miniatures.

Rating: 7
October 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-23080-0 (paperback)

On The Edge - Ilona Andrews

On The Edge
Ilona Andrews

Urban Fantasy/Dark Fantasy

This is the first novel I’ve read by this author, but it certainly won’t be the last. The world she’s built here is as complex and realistic as any I’ve encountered. In fact, it’s a world in three parts. The normal, non-magical part is called the Broken. The magical world is known as the Weird. In between, there’s an overlap of sorts called the Edge. Those who live in the Edge possess varying degrees of magical abilities. They’re usually able to cross into the Broken, and they have to, in order to earn money to live. The people of the Edge are not wealthy. Most of them were born there, and with no birth certificates or Social Security numbers, they work low-paying, cash-under-the-table jobs just to feed their families.

Rose Drayton is an Edger with more magic than most. That makes her special, and it also makes her a target for other Edger families who would like her to make their next generation stronger. There was even an incident with a slaver from the Weird. With two little brothers to care for, Rose is determined to stay put and protect what little is hers. When Declan appears outside their ward stone barrier, she can tell by his clothing that he’s a blueblood from the Weird. That means he’s trouble.

There are more dangerous things in the Edge than a renegade noble who may have not very noble plans for her. There are creatures no one, not even the eldest and most magical residents, have ever seen. They look like hounds from hell, and they’re attracted to and consume magic. There are already Edgers missing. Declan wins Rose’s momentary gratitude by protecting her neighbors, but she can’t trust him. They agree on three challenges. If she can stump him, he goes back to the Weird empty-handed. If not, she’ll have to leave her home and go with him.

The narrative grabbed me in the first few sentences, and the swift pacing made it very hard to put down this novel. The first few pages see Rose dealing with her zombified Grandfather. He’s that way because one of her brothers can raise the dead and couldn’t bear to let him go. The energy it takes to keep things alive is slowly draining the life from him, but he can’t stop himself. Her youngest brother was born a cat and works very hard to overcome his instincts. Rose’s Grandmother is a witch of some power, and the matriarch of the family. This is urban fantasy with a good dose of horror/gore and more. The great news for readers new to this author is that this is a standalone and a wonderful introduction. Now that I’ve read this one, I may have to go back and start at the beginning of her Kate Daniels series, too. Highly recommended for fans of urban fantasy.

Rating: 8 ½
October 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01780-5 (paperback)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sink Trap - Christy Evans

Sink Trap
A Georgiana Neverall Mystery
Christy Evans
Berkley Prime Crime


Until recently, Georgiana Neverall ran her own computer security firm in San Francisco. Due to circumstances – and business partners – beyond her control, she’s now back in her small hometown of Pine Ridge, Oregon. To the consternation of her mother, real estate magnate Sandra, Georgiana has begun a plumbing apprenticeship. It’s light-years away from her previous life, it’s good honest work, and that makes it just about perfect.

While Georgiana and her boss are working on the plumbing of a warehouse, she comes across a cameo brooch lodged in a drain. She’s alarmed to realize that it belongs to Miss Tepper, the town’s longtime librarian. Miss Tepper wore the brooch daily. According to her lawyers, Miss Tepper is in the process of moving to Arizona to enjoy her retirement. But when neither the lawyers nor anyone else in town can produce a forwarding address, Georgiana becomes suspicious.

This is the first installment in a new series, and it starts out with a lot of promise. Georgiana is a fun character, and watching her re-connect with her hometown friends and neighbors is entertaining. The way the mystery is set up is fairly original, and makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, the mystery itself is fairly linear. There really aren’t a whole lot of suspects to be had, so the villain of the piece is quite easily identifiable.

There are a lot of references to Georgiana’s life in San Francisco, that I presume will be addressed in later volumes; and a maybe-romance with a hometown guy. Her dogs get more narrative time than the guy, though, and seem more likeable to me. For those readers aspiring to deal with some basic plumbing issues, there are tips throughout the book, and a list of indispensable tools at the end. With a bit more attention to making the mystery more central, this could be a very interesting series.

Rating: 6
October 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-23079-4 (paperback)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Love You To Death - Shannon K. Butcher

Love You To Death
Shannon K. Butcher
Grand Central/Forever

Romantic Suspense/Thriller

Elise McBride is a freelance reporter. She has no fixed address and no idea where her next assignment will take her; she loves the freedom of her life. Her one tether is to her younger sister, Ashley. Ashley is a free spirit who lives in a world slightly different than the real world. She met her new neighbor, Trent, an ex-cop, when he entered her house to discover why her car had been running in the driveway for hours and her front door was open. Turns out, Ashley had an idea for a new art medium and that took all her attention.

When Elise doesn’t hear from Ashley by phone for several days, she knows something is wrong. Sure, Ashley has been known to skip town without a word or take a long weekend with her man-of-the-instant, but this is different. Elise’s solution is to fly from her assignment in Hong Kong to Ashley’s Chicago suburb and break into the house. Trent thinks someone is trying to rob his goofy neighbor and goes to investigate.

By the time the dust settles, Elise has enlisted Trent’s help in looking for her sister. Elise is one of those heroines without which the romantic suspense genre would curl up and die. She just knows she’s right, she expects everyone else to believe it, and she’ll blindly rush into dangerous situations with no thought for her own safety. It makes sense on some level, since Ashley sounds like she belongs somewhere on a mental-impairment spectrum, and Elise feels a deep sense of guilt over leaving her sister alone. But you’d think someone who travels the globe would have a bit more sense than this. Trent is of the tried-and-true hero mold of the ex-cop who’s carrying terrible emotional baggage. He lived for his job until he made a mistake, then spends the next few years blaming himself for it until a pretty girl shows up who needs help.

The most interesting scenes in the book concern the killer, who is delightfully creepy. His identity is disclosed to the reader almost immediately, and when bodies and body parts start showing up around Chicago, there’s no doubt about who’s to blame. Elise captures his attention with a televised plea for information about her sister, and he decides that he ‘needs’ Elise. The killer’s manner and methods are pretty unique and the author does readers the great favor of fleshing out the bad guy just as well as those who hunt him. Whether you find him fascinating, repellant, or both, he’s a character you won’t soon forget.

For my money, there were far too many scenes of Elise demanding to act instantly and Trent trying to caution her about safety and finally following her in order to protect her. Trent seems like a sincerely nice guy; a dedicated cop who honestly wants to help people and make sure that, even if something has happened to Ashley (I won’t spoil it here) that Elise not get hurt. The author writes in a style that is compulsively readable. Despite the quibbles above, I’d planned to read a couple of chapters before bed, and ended up more than halfway through the book before I put it down for the night. I had the ending figured out pretty early on, but the strength of the writing managed to pull me in and keep me there.

Rating: 7
October 2009
ISBN# 978-0-446-51029-5 (paperback)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

At Empire's Edge - William C. Dietz

At Empire’s Edge
William C. Dietz

Science Fiction

Readers who have wanted to give this author a try, but were intimidated by his backlist (WHEN DUTY CALLS) will be happy to know that this novel is a stand-alone. While there are scenes that recall his Legion Of The Damned military SF books, this one is really a mystery/ political thriller set in a far future with a cast of characters from several different planets.

Jak Cato is a member of the Xeno Corps, a group of bio-engineered police. Their current mission is to transport a particularly dangerous criminal. Verafti is a Sagathi, a deadly race that have the ability to shape-shift into nearly anything or anyone close to his or her own size. The ability developed as a survival strategy on their home planet, but it wasn’t long before their efficacy as assassins was noticed and employed.

During their flight, another alien race, the Vord, attacks. The ship’s drives are disabled, and need repair. The only planet with the right facilities is Dantha. When the group arrives, however, they find the shipyard completely inadequate. This is because the ruler of the planet, Nalomy, has been systematically skimming money from every sector and lining her own pockets. Since the planet is at the rim of the Empire, she’s been getting away with this for some time. Now, though, a Legate sent by the Emperor is scheduled to arrive and assess the situation.

Nalomy didn’t get to where she is by letting a golden opportunity escape her. She concocts a plan to take the Sagathi from the Xeno guards and use him as her own assassin. To do so, however, requires wiping out every member of the Xeno Corps guarding the prisoner. Cato escapes the bloodbath, largely because he was off getting drunk while he should have been purchasing supplies. When he arrives to find his unit slaughtered, he vows to do right by them, and bring their killer or killers to account. As he learns more, his investigation widens until he’s caught up in the politics of this unfamiliar world.

This is really an excellent novel for first-time readers of Mr. Dietz. There’s no prior knowledge required, and the book, while undeniably science fiction is truly character-driven. I found it very interesting that the action and motivations of most of the characters could be transplanted to nearly any culture at virtually any time. Some motives are timeless; thirst for power is one of those. The story moves at a nice clip and contains plenty of future tech and strange creatures. This novel should satisfy a wide range of readers.

Rating: 8
October 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01759-1 (hardcover)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Trick Of The Light - Rob Thurman

Trick Of The Light
A Trickster Novel
Rob Thurman

Urban Fantasy

To the casual observer, Trixa Iktoni owns a seedy bar in Las Vegas. Her old friend, Leo, an American Indian who delights in telling clueless tourists that his tribal name is something like “Leo Maker Of Warm Yellow Water” just to watch their faces, tends bar. Appearances are deceiving. Trixa spends quite a bit of her time killing demons, aided by street kids Zeke and Griffin. They’ve all sort of adopted each other, and their family is just as strong as any formed by blood bonds.

Zeke is essentially a sociopath and “born soldier.” He’s a telepath, but sees black and white and nothing in between. Griffin is an empath and makes up for the missing parts of Zeke. They were in foster care together, ran the streets together, and found Trixa together. They now work for an outfit called Eden House. Those in charge of Eden House claim to predate Christ in their demon-eradicating efforts.

There are plenty of demons in Sin City. Some of them even like to come into Trixa’s bar and flirt with her. She’s attracted, but she knows perfectly well that fire burns. Aside from drinks, Trixa trades in information. When she hears about something called the Light of Life, she knows it’s something big. And not only because both sides are desperate to get their hands on it. According to legend, this object will grant the holder absolute immunity from harm. So if that whole Armageddon thing happens, whoever’s holding the Light at the time wins. Not exactly small stakes.

This is the first book I’ve read by this author. Since it’s not part of her ongoing series, it’s a great place for first time readers to start. The pacing is a bit uneven in the first half of the book, but picks up and sustains quite nicely through the second half. I admit, I had part of the ‘big twist’ in the plot figured out fairly early on, but there were plenty of twists that absolutely surprised me. The finale is large enough to satisfy any reader, with room left for possible future volumes. The author manages to blend well-drawn characters, an interesting mythology, action, and a bit of dark humor into something that’s somehow more than the sum of it’s parts. I’ll be looking forward (and possibly back – to her previous work) to more from this author.

Rating: 8
October 2009
ISBN# 978-0-451-46288-6 (paperback)

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Xombies: Apocalypse Blues - Walter Greatshell

Xombies: Apocalypse Blues
Walter Greatshell


Louise (Lulu) Pangloss is a seventeen-year-old with issues. First, she has a condition that has severely slowed the onset of puberty and eliminated her menstrual cycle. As a result of this, she could pass for a child half her age. Second, her mother has made a lifestyle of dragging her across the country one jump ahead of bill collectors and angry landlords. Now, Lulu’s mother has become obsessed with the idea that a man named Fred Cowper is Lulu’s father. She’s followed him to a deserted off-season resort area on the east coast. With no radio or TV, the two women miss the beginning of the end of humanity.

During the month they’ve been hiding out in the seaside cottage, women around the world have suddenly become undying, killing machines. More accurately, the Xombies (named for the female X chromosome) seem to exist to create more Xombies. Although women are quickly quarantined, the disease continues to spread through both male and female populations. Lulu sees her mother become an unreasoning thing, and has resigned herself to an unknown fate when Fred arrives and rescues her. He clearly has inside information, and takes Lulu to a defense contractor’s compound, heavily guarded against the Xombies. From here, Lulu and a group of survivors begin an incredible trek north. None of them is prepared for what they’ll find there.

The story is told entirely from Lulu’s point of view, which heightens both the tension and the immediacy of events. The reader experiences everything with her, from her first, uncomprehending encounter with the Xombies to the moment she learns the terrible truth. Lulu has backbone, resilience, and intelligence. Her observations, even those most dark, are often laced with sarcastic humor. The rest of the cast of characters is developed quite well. Considering that the group of survivors is fairly large, it’s a tribute to the author that he was able to imbue each of them with distinct personalities and quirks.

The pace is frantic and grabbed me from the very first page to the last. Generally, ‘like a movie in book form’ wouldn’t be a compliment. Here, it most definitely is. This is one that you won’t be able to put down; I know I couldn’t.

Rating: 8 ½
October 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01835-2 (paperback, reissue)

Note: This book was originally published in 2004 as “Xombies.”