Monday, May 24, 2010

Six Graves To Munich - Mario Puzo

Six Graves To Munich
Mario Puzo (writing as Mario Cleri)
New American Library


During WWII, genius Michael Rogan worked as a code breaker for the Allies. He devised a plan that would require him to be placed in France, in order to cut down on message transmission time. During his time there, he got married to a girl in the French Resistance. On D-Day, the message traffic was so frantic that he somehow became careless. He slipped up, and because of his mistake, he, his pregnant wife, his wife’s family, and several Resistance operatives were captured by the Nazis.

Of course, the Nazis wanted the codes. In the end, they shot Rogan in the head. By some fluke, the bullet deflected and left him alive and alone with a silver plate in his skull. He knows he’ll never live a full life. But he hopes to have enough time to track down and kill the men who interrogated and ‘killed’ him. He’s had ten years to accumulate as much information as possible, and even at that, his files are not complete. Even so, the time has come to begin his revenge.

Keep in mind that this is a reprint of a novel published in 1967, so Rogan would have been in his late thirties or early forties during the story. I expected the novel to feel dated, but aside from advances in communications technology, it really didn’t. Rogan is no hero; he’s deeply flawed and he knows it. The story makes no real moral judgment about his actions; they’re simply presented as the path he feels he must take. In context, it seems more than plausible.

The narrative feels a bit constricted, since we see and hear everything through Rogan’s eyes and ears. Given the subject matter, this choice makes sense. It’s an intensely personal crusade; the first-person pov gives everything more immediacy. The narrative flows very smoothly and seems to move quite quickly, punctuated by a few quiet, more ruminative interludes. Fans of thrillers and of this era in particular should be interested in this novel from the author of “The Godfather.”

Rating: 7 ½
May 2010
ISBN# 978-0-451-23059-1 (trade paperback)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ark - Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter

Science Fiction

This follow-up to FLOOD details the creation of Ark One. If you haven’t read FLOOD, I highly recommend it, as that knowledge serves as a useful counterpoint to the concurrent events covered here. The first novel detailed the events of a world-covering flood and the use of Ark Three. There are a few returning character here, most significantly Grace Gray, who has seen plenty in her 26 years of life. As this novel begins in 2041, we see her arrive in Colorado at one of the few places left on Earth not covered with water and brought into a mysterious program. They want her because, since she’s pregnant, she’s a sort of two-for-one deal, and they’re dealing with nothing less than the survival of the human race.

A young woman called Holle Groundwater greets Grace, and from there, we flash back to Holle’s very early childhood to trace the development of the Ark One program. While the rising ocean waters slowly swallow the world, the very rich and very bright are working on ways to save humanity. Holle is fortunate enough to be the daughter of a very wealthy man and gets in on the ground floor of the Ark One project. There are several children, called Candidates, who spend their lives training for the mission. Ark One will transport life from Earth to some other habitable planet.

The challenges are myriad and not always scientific. The author does a wonderful job of making this story about the people and personalities involved, even more than the science. These children are raised and educated with the knowledge that they will eventually leave Earth behind forever, to colonize some distant star. They don’t realize, until fairly late, that a large segment of the remaining population believes they live lives of rare privilege on a dying world. The societal problems and pressures are many, as the program moves several times to get to higher ground ahead of the water.

A large part of the novel details the trip and the living conditions in Ark One. Even with social engineers trying to come up with optimal combinations, and working through all the foreseeable scenarios in a classroom on Earth, there are going to be situations that cannot be planned. The stresses of living together in a confined craft seem pretty realistic, as personalities evolve and, eventually clash. Again, the author manages to make it all about the people who happen to be in the situation, and uses the science and world-changing events as a backdrop. There’s another Ark story to be told, another group of survivors to follow, and I’ll be there.

Rating: 9
May 2010
ISBN# 978-0-451-46331-9 (hardcover)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cat's Claw - Amber Benson

Cat’s Claw
A Calliope-Reaper Jones Novel
Amber Benson


Call me a Grammar Snob if you will, but I finished this book two days ago, and I’m still giggling over the apparently non-ironic appearance of the phrase “without further adieu” in this book. It really has nothing to do with the story, but I cannot stop hearing that exact phrase as uttered by Zap Brannigan from “Futurama.” I’ll do my best to get over it.

This is the second novel in the series, following DEATH’S DAUGHTER, and I’m very happy to say that main character and first-person narrator Calliope has vastly improved over the first outing. That time, I found her to be wildly immature, foolish, and possessed of an ability to break down and cry in every chapter that would put your average daytime drama diva to shame. This time, she keeps the waterworks under control. She still has a tendency to react like a spoiled child and take exactly the wrong actions, but I liked her much better, anyway.

After her sojourn through Hell to save her dad (big-D Death,) Callie is trying to balance her supernatural (and immortal) background with her present life as a single girl trying to make it in New York City. For new readers, she pretty much admits right up front that she’s a whiner, so just accept that and go with it. It’ll be worth it. During her previous adventures – which make for fun reading, but are not necessary to enjoying this installment – Callie ended up owing Cerberus a favor. She also ended up taking one of Cerberus’ puppies home with her. When the Big Dog calls in the favor, it’s obvious that the consequences will involve returning the puppy, who has become a cherished addition to Callie’s family, and a particular favorite of Clio, Callie’s younger sister.

The problem is that there’s a soul missing. Death keeps pretty good records and knows where all the souls are, whether on earth, in Hell, or being processed for some kind of reassignment. But one of them slipped through the cracks, and Cerberus wants Callie to find out what happened. Naturally, there are a few problems. Like, he hasn’t been spotted since ancient Egypt; and, to get a look at his Death Record is going to take some serious juice. Good thing Callie knows people in high places. If Callie fails in her quest, not only does the puppy go back to Cerberus, but Callie becomes the new guardian of that gate. And she has exactly twenty-four hours to accomplish her task. With a little help from friends and family, Callie quickly ends up… completely over her head and deep in a situation she had no idea even existed. So, business as usual.

Callie still whines and complains a lot more than is becoming in a fantasy heroine, but she’s shown so much growth from the first book to this one that I’m willing to overlook it. It’s looking possible that she might actually grow up fairly soon. If she could just stop overusing italics, it would be lovely. As a reader, I so do not need her guidance in every paragraph to tell me which words need emphasis, thanks.

Readers of the first book will be happy to know that we get to see a bit more of Clio, Runt (the puppy), and of Jarvis, Death’s very amusing and competent Executive Assistant. The plot this time seems a lot more straightforward, and not too complex. This is balanced by some interesting sidetracking into Callie’s past, making me think there’s much more to come.

Rating: 7
March 2010
ISBN# 978-0-441-01843-7 (paperback)

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Summer Of The Geek - Piper Banks

Summer Of The Geek
Piper Banks
New American Library

Young Adult

Miranda Bloom (Geek High) is “gifted.” Her gift is the ability to do complex mathematical problems in her head. As she’ll be the first to tell you, in the age of calculators and computers, it’s not that big a gift. But it’s enough to get her into Geek High with a bunch of other kids, whose gifts range from computer programming (her friend, Finn, has amassed a fortune from his games) to painting to music. Her painter friend, Charlie, is stuck working at a bowling alley over summer break. Not the ideal. But everyone needs something to do, so Miranda takes a job as an ‘au pair’ to ten-year-old musical prodigy Amelia.

Pretty much all Amelia wants to do is practice, and her parents seem fine with that. But they do see the wisdom in introducing Amelia to another gifted person. That’s where Miranda comes in, and Miranda firmly believes that having a gift is great, but it’s not all there is to life. In Miranda’s case, there’s her cute boyfriend, Dex, who’s spending the summer as a lifeguard. Meaning that he’ll be surrounded by girls in bikinis all summer. Again, not ideal. And Miranda has the sneaking suspicion that Dex is hiding something from her.

Then again, Miranda is hiding something pretty big from him. Her mom, Sadie, an author living in London, invited Miranda to come and live with her. There are lots of pros, including getting out from under the disapproving eye of her stepmom, Peyton. But it means she’d have to leave her friends and Dex. Maybe Dex wouldn’t be all that broken up about it, seeing that his model (seriously) girlfriend, Wendy, is back in town for the entire summer and looks fantastic in a bikini. Isn’t summer supposed to be relaxing and fun?

Somehow, I missed the second book in this series, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Miranda is a great character. She’s very matter-of-fact about her ‘human calculator’ gift, and doesn’t think it makes her all that special. She’s still going through everything you go through when you’re fifteen and have your first serious boyfriend and your first summer job. She’s smart and witty and has great friends. But, as any high school girl knows, having doubts about your boyfriend can make everything seem grey. Miranda has a big decision to make, and her struggle with it seems absolutely genuine. Meanwhile, her friends Finn and Charlie add a nice dose of humor and reality. I highly recommend this series for anyone in this age group, or who remembers what it’s like to be there.

Rating: 8
May 2010
ISBN# 978-0-451-22984-7

Monster In Miniature - Margaret Grace

Monster In Miniature
A Miniature Mystery
Margaret Grace
Berkley Prime Crime


It’s getting close to Halloween in Lincoln Point, and retired teacher Geraldine Porter is busy with her hobby, making miniatures. Maddie, her 11-year-old granddaughter is an eager helper. This year, everything worked out right and Geraldine is finally getting to make a ‘haunted’ dollhouse for the season. For inspiration, she and Maddie head over to Sangamon River Road, where the residents hold an annual contest for best decorations. The competition is pretty intense, with residents using motion sensors and animatronic devices to make their displays more realistic and scary.

Unfortunately, the display on the Ferguson’s porch is a little too realistic. From a distance, it looks like a scarecrow, but up close, it’s clear that it’s a dead man. The teenagers who discover this are understandably shaken, and tell the police that the man apparently shot himself in the head, and still holds the gun in one lifeless hand.

Word spreads quickly in a small town (especially when you have a relative who’s a sheriff) and it turns out that the deceased, Oliver Halbert, was a building inspector who was scheduled to testify against a developer. The developer apparently had a history of bribing officials, including Oliver’s predecessor. It seems like small town politics gone wrong. Then Geraldine finds that part of Oliver’s investigation turned up the name of her late husband, and architect who did a lot of work around town. There’s nothing solid against him, but Geraldine is determined to clear his name and solve the murder.

Newcomers to this series (see below for titles) will have no problems jumping in here. This is probably the best of the series, so far. The plot seems a bit more complex and tightly scripted than in previous books. Perhaps it’s because the case has a very emotional connection for Geraldine, who understandably wants to clear the name of her late husband.

As always, Maddie is a delightful child who, unlike far too many fictional kids, acts like a real child. She’s smart and clever, but in many ways she’s still a little girl. It’s nice to watch the grandmother/granddaughter interactions on both a personal and crafting level. I have to say that I’ve never been personally interested in the creation of miniatures until this installment. The idea of taking a dollhouse and transforming it into a mini-haunted house really crystallizes the appeal of this craft for me.

Rating: 7 ½
April 2010
ISBN# 978-0-425-23390-0 (paperback)

Monday, May 03, 2010

A Toast To Murder - Michele Scott

A Toast To Murder
A Wine Lover’s Mystery
Michele Scott
Berkley Prime Crime


Nikki Sands, manager of the Malveaux Estates winery in Napa Valley, is just days away from her wedding to Derek Malveaux. As if a wedding isn’t stressful enough, someone has been sending her nastygrams. First is a wedding photo of Derek and his ex-wife with the question, “Do you believe in fate?” Shortly after that, while babysitting, Nikki ends up with gum in her hair. Her best friend (and Derek’s brother) Simon takes her to a salon for a fix, and Nikki ends up with a platinum pixie ‘do. Not entirely a bad thing, but not her usual style, and not what she had in mind for her wedding photos.

When out-of-town guests begin arriving, they instantly try what little patience Nikki has left with their stories of bright college days and their thinly veiled needling. Next comes a text message that reads, “Do you believe in fate?” Then another photo of Derek with an ex-girlfriend. Nikki is about to throw in the towel when she and Derek finally compare notes. They’ve both been getting messages, but they decide not to let it ruin their wedding. But someone else has other ideas. When Simon walks Nikki down the aisle, someone objects in a very straightforward manner: by shooting Simon.

The opening scenes of this installment (SILENCED BY SYRAH, A VINTAGE MURDER, CORKED BY CABERNET) concern Nikki’s adventures in babysitting a couple of toddlers (and getting the gum in her hair) and reads like an unfortunate episode of “I Love Lucy.” Some readers may love this, as Nikki and Derek are already trying for a tot of their own, but I have a very low tolerance for slapstick. The story gets much more interesting when the messages being arriving, but the buildup to the wedding/shooting seems overly long.

After this pivotal scene, the story really gains momentum. You don’t have to be a longtime reader to care about who would shoot into a wedding ceremony, but longtime readers will know that the Malveaux clan is pretty dysfunctional, and that includes a lot of their friends. The inclusion of the wedding guests introduces new faces and makes for a nicely diverse suspect pool. No knowledge of wines is necessary, but there are some recipes and suggested wine pairings throughout the text, as usual.

Rating: 7
April 2010
ISBN# 978-0-425-23392-4 (paperback)

Lead-Pipe Cinch - Christy Evans

Lead-Pipe Cinch
A Georgiana Neverall Mystery
Christy Evans
Berkley Prime Crime


Apprentice plumber Georgiana Neverall (last seen in SINK TRAP) is part of a construction team working on building a dream house for Chad McComb, a retired MS engineer. In point of fact, Georgiana, as low man on the totem pole, is working on digging a moat around the ‘castle.’ Once upon a time, she owned her own computer security firm in San Francisco, but was ousted by unscrupulous business partners. One of those partners was Blake Weston, who was much more than a business partner in those days.

On the heels of that thought, who should appear at the under-construction castle but the not-so-charming prince himself? Blake is working as security consultant on the project. In Georgiana’s opinion, Chad seems much too nice to be associated with Blake, but knows that Blake can turn on the charm when required. Despite her best efforts not to be seen, Blake spots her and is clearly quite amused at her change in circumstances. Georgiana wants nothing to do with him, but that’s not to be. In the morning, there’s a body lying facedown in the few inches of water at the bottom of the moat. It’s Blake, all charm eliminated.

Georgiana comes under suspicion, due to her past with Blake, and it makes perfect sense that she’d get involved in trying to find the real killer. This second installment has a bit more convoluted plot to it, making it much more interesting. There’s more background information about Georgiana’s time in San Francisco, and some developments on the home front, as well. Far from falling victim to the dreaded ‘sophomore slump,’ this novel is far superior to its predecessor, making this series seem like a solid bet for mystery fans.

Rating: 7
April 2010
ISBN# 978-0-425-23388-7 (paperback)