Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mind Over Murder - Allison Kingsley

Mind Over Murder
A Raven’s Nest Bookstore Mystery
Allison Kingsley
Berkley Prime Crime
After an unhappy stint in New York, Clara Quinn has returned to her hometown, the tourist haven of Finn’s Harbor in Maine.  Her cousin and lifelong best friend, Stephanie, runs a bookstore called The Raven’s Nest.  Ana Jordan, the owner of the shop next door, is agitating against the book shop, claiming that the sale of “occult” books will inevitably turn the town’s kids into witches or toads or Satanists or thinking individuals or whatever it is that book-banners fear is likely to happen.  Apparently, the fact that the store also stocks the required reading books for the local high school is lost on her.  Molly, a bookstore employee, exchanges some fairly angry words with Ana on the sidewalk between the shops.
The following morning, Clara finds Ana in the bookstore’s storeroom.  She’s dead; bashed over the head with a bust of Edgar Allan Poe.  (Whether you find that horrifying or ironic kind of depends on your own personal stance on banning books, I suppose.)  The police hear about the argument with Molly, and, since she was the last person out of the shop the previous night, she immediately becomes the prime suspect.  Stephanie won’t have it and wants to prove that Molly is innocent.  She convinces Clara to use something called the Quinn Sense to help figure out the identity of the killer.
This Quinn Sense is supposed to be a sort of psychic sense that, during her adolescence, allowed Clara to get flashes of the future and interpret dreams.  As it stands, it’s really just common sense or intuition or that feeling you get when you know someone is staring at you.  So, if you’re not a fan of paranormal stuff, you have nothing to worry about here.  This, the first in a new series, is a fairly straightforward mystery novel.  There’s a nice assortment of suspects and possible motives; although it’s not too hard to pinpoint the killer, even without a sixth sense.
Watching the actions and reactions of Clara and Stephanie, I can’t help thinking that they might have been originally conceived as teenage ‘girl detectives,’ and only given adult backgrounds as an afterthought.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s pretty common to revert to a younger version of yourself when you visit/rejoin close members of your family after an absence.  It’s just jarring to witness a woman come up with Nancy Drew-level plans (don’t get me wrong, I grew up on Nancy and I loved her) when you’re told that the woman in question owns her own business, is married, and has three children.  There are some kinks to be worked out here, but the setting is good, the surrounding characters are engaging, and the mystery was certainly interesting enough to keep my attention to the end.
Rating: 6
September 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-24377-0 (paperback)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Button Holed - Kylie Logan

Button Holed
Kylie Logan
Berkley Prime Crime

That’s right, buttons.  Who would have thought?  But stay with me, because this was a very enjoyable mystery and the first of a new series.

Josie Giancola just opened her dream shop: the Button Box.  She’s a self-proclaimed button nerd.  I had no idea there was such a thing, but clearly, there are lots of people who view buttons as little pieces of art and history and devote their lives to collecting and studying them.  Josie is preparing for her new shop to be put on the map in a big way.  Superstar Kate Franciscus will be visiting to select the perfect buttons for her designed-to-order wedding dress.  She’ll be marrying a foreign prince soon, and the press can’t get enough of her or her so-secret wedding plans.
Her first visit is accompanied by several assistants and a horde of reporters and photographers.  Her second visit to the shop is supposed to be held in private, to keep her selections secret until the big day.  Josie runs out for a sandwich several hours before the appointment time.  When she returns to her shop, Kate is already there.  Unfortunately, she’s lying on the floor, dead, stabbed with an antique button hook.  When the body is removed, Josie discovers a unique button on the floor.  The button doesn’t belong to her, but Josie is determined to track down the owner, and maybe even the killer.
Josie is a strong female character.  Far too often, we meet women during the last months of their terrible relationship and have to watch them make excuses for themselves and their no-good significant others.  Josie is a wonderful exception.  She married a handsome guy who turned out to be a compulsive gambler, liar, and thief.  We meet her after she’s realized the truth, found her backbone, and finalized the divorce.  It’s refreshing to see a character acknowledge past mistakes and refuse to make them again.
The book actually begins when Josie arrives at her shop during a burglary.  That scene introduces Josie, makes her sympathetic, lets the reader know who she is, and sets the pace for the rest of the story.  The story is told by Josie, in first person, and she’s a very entertaining narrator.  There’s a wide array of possible suspects, and the plot unfolds in expert fashion.  The final scene reads like an old Nero Wolfe novel, with all the suspects assembled for the denouement.  The whole thing comes off very well.  I know I’ll never look at a button the same way again.

Rating: 7 ½
September 2011
ISBN#  978-0-425-24376-3 (paperback)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Thread Reckoning - Amanda Lee

Thread Reckoning
An Embroidery Mystery
Amanda Lee
Usually, embroidery shop owner Marcy Singer enjoys doing projects on commission, especially when there’s a hefty fee involved.  This time, though, the proprietor of the Sever-Year Stitch just can’t find her motivation.  Part of that is no doubt because her client, Cassie Wainwright is a Bridezilla who wants her dress be-jeweled in less than two weeks.  She provides the vintage dress and commands Marcy to use the jewels, provided by her future mother-in-law, to embellish the dress and hide the yellowing spots.  Maybe Marcy can’t get into the project because it reminds her of her own cancelled wedding.  Her erstwhile groom, David, left her standing at the altar with no explanation.  And today, of all days, David arrives in town, trying to apologize for his cold feet and expecting Marcy to fall back into his arms.
All of this angst becomes secondary when Marcy arrives at her shop the following day.  Francesca, the future mother-in-law, is dead.  The police seem to think that someone killed her for the contents of the velvet bag she was carrying.  Marcy explains that the bag contained the rest of the gems and beads for the dress and quickly turns the gems in her possession over to the police.  The very real distress of Frederic, the groom-to-be, coupled with the fact that the woman was murdered just outside her door, makes Marcy determined to figure out who could have done this. 

Overall, this is a nice cozy mystery.  There are several good suspects and motives for the crime, and the plot is probably the most complex in the series to this point.  The main problem is that the ‘solution’ to the whole thing is dashed off in a very short Epilogue that might as well be written in bullet-point format.  It’s an abrupt and disappointing way to end what, to that point, was an interesting story; and only serves to undermine all that went before it.  Those who read the first two (THE QUICK ANDTHE THREAD and STITCH ME DEADLY) will enjoy seeing familiar characters again.  Those who are new to the series will be able to jump in here with no problems.
Rating: 6 ½
September 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23455-1 (paperback)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Children Of Paranoia - Trevor Shane

Children Of Paranoia
Trevor Shane

Joe is a soldier.  He fights in the War.  His job is to kill the targets identified by his superiors, efficiently and without question.  No one really knows when or how the War started; not even those fighting and dying for the cause on either side has a real grasp on any concept other than taking revenge for past violence.  It’s possible that the higher-ups know the truth, but it’s apparently not the concern of those on the ground.  If Joe’s honest with himself, he’d have to admit that he really has no idea if he’s fighting on the ‘good’ side or the ‘bad’ side of this conflict.

You get into the War by being born into it, or marrying into it.  The population of the world at large has no idea this War even exists.  There are iron-clad rules prohibiting the involvement or killing of civilians.  Only the initiated participate.  Every child born into the War becomes aware of it at age sixteen.  Most of the kids have already lost at least one close family member.  It might be a parent, a sibling, an uncle, or all of the above.  There follows two years of training before becoming active at eighteen.  No one under the age of eighteen is allowed to participate; that’s another iron-clad rule.  Anyone who breaks the rules becomes an immediate target for both sides; outed by his/her own people to the enemy for elimination.
Joe travels to Montreal for a job.  It’s going to be a difficult job, so his handlers allow him some time for surveillance of the mark.  During that time, he meets a girl, Maria.  Given the nature of his life, Joe has never thought about falling in love.  Having a family just gives the other side more targets to eliminate.  Joe and Maria fall for each other, hard and fast.  He can’t tell her the truth about his life, of course, and just wants to be ‘normal’ for a few days.  His plans are destroyed when he discovers that Maria is pregnant.  Despite his personal losses and life-long devotion to the War, Joe decides that it’s worth risking everything, even his own life, to try and carve out a life with Maria, even if they have to do it on the run.
It’s hard to believe that this is a first novel.  The writing is more than solid, the pace never flags, and the action sequences are almost surreal.  This is not for the squeamish, but if you’re a fan of thrillers and chase novels, this is a sure bet.  There were a few elements that didn’t quite hang together for me, but these quibbles are pretty easy to overlook as the story rockets along.  The story is presented in Joe’s voice, as he writes his story in a journal for Maria.  This gives events real immediacy and impact.  Even when they’re making mistakes that would be glaringly obvious in retrospect, the journal format makes it fairly easy to see why each character does what s/he does.  The final pages make it clear that there’s more to come in this story, and I’m interested to see where it goes from here.
Rating: 8
September 2011
ISBN# 978-0-525-95237-4 (hardcover)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Green-Eyed Envy - Kasey Mackenzie

Green-Eyed Envy
A Shades Of Fury Novel
Kasey Mackenzie
Urban Fantasy

Marissa (Riss) Holloway is a Fury of the mythological variety.  Usually, she looks human, but she can shift into Fury mode when bringing a law-breaker to justice.  As such, she’s the perfect person to serve as Chief Magical Investigator in Boston.  You might think that she’d be used to just about anything, but events of the recent past (detailed in the first book in the series, RED HOT FURY) have rocked her understanding of her family heritage.  In addition to this, she’s on the trail of what looks like the first-ever arcane serial killer.

So far, three Bastai, or were-Cats, have been found dead; their tongues ripped out and their mouths stuffed with catnip.  Cats are shape-shifters, and for all intents and purposes are immortal.  The mode of death itself is the first mystery.  For those in the know, the catnip is a pretty heavy insult, and could be the result of some rogue Warhound counting coup on an ancient enemy.  It doesn’t take long for Riss to discover that each of the dead Cats was once involved with FBI agent Harper Cruz.  Harper is a Cat, and the first arcane to work for the FBI. 
Riss and Harper have worked cases together.  The fact that a very powerful someone is systematically working through Harper’s ex-boyfriends is problem enough.  It’s possible that the ultimate target is Harper.  But first, Riss has to get past her very protective current boyfriend and fiancé.  Who just happens to be a Hound.  And not any Hound, but a member of one of the most powerful families in the city.  A family none too pleased with one of their own marrying a Cat.
This novel works very well both as a murder mystery and as urban fantasy.  The realistic foundations of the world-building that were laid in the first novel are expanded here.  This is a world that knows about arcane creatures and had a human/arcane war that nearly decimated both sides.  Both sides have good reason to keep the peace, and this case is potentially explosive.  Riss makes use of her own shape-shifting ability to go undercover with the bridal party.  While that results in a few amusing scenes, the author wisely keeps the sitcom situations to a minimum.  Readers who enjoy a good dose of gritty action (and some gore) should check out this series.  The serial killer story wraps up here, but there are some pretty serious subplots left with loose ends for the next installments.
Rating: 7 ½
July 2011
ISBN# 978-0-441-02049-2 (paperback)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bloodlands - Christine Cody

Christine Cody


This novel is the first of three, set in some not-too-distant future.  In this time, ecological disasters and disease have taken a serious toll on the world.  At some point, the Powers That Be decided that a lot of the west coast of the U.S. should be destroyed.  People cluster in urban hubs, working from home, having contact with only their immediate families.  No one ventures out unless it’s absolutely necessary.  The bad guys are everywhere and willing to do anything to survive.  The new west coast is a desert environment called the New Badlands.  It’s almost like the old Wild West, except for the new, mutated species and the fact that water, not gold, is the most precious commodity.

Gabriel enters the Badlands on a mission.  When he unwittingly trespasses onto the stake claimed by another new arrival, Johnson Stamp, he takes a vicious beating.  He manages to find the underground home of Mariah.  Mariah and several others have staked their claims as well.  These people come from many different backgrounds and have carved out dwellings and connecting tunnels under the earth.  All they want is to be left alone in peace.  Most fled the violence of the hubs and want to live out their days in private obscurity.

When Gabriel finds Mariah’s place and pleads for shelter, her first instinct is to throw him back out.  Outsiders only mean trouble.  But Chaplin, her Intel Dog and only true friend, convinces her to let the stranger stay, at least until the killing heat of the day passes.  Against her better judgment, Mariah agrees, unaware that she’s giving shelter to a vampire.  Gabriel wants to remain anonymous, too.  He plans to heal up and head back out as quickly as he can.  But when Stamp and his men threaten the group, Gabriel finds that he hasn’t quite given up on being human.

This story is a truly original twist on the classic Western; a sort of post-apocalypse Western crossed with a paranormal.  Many elements are recognizable, but most are twisted into new and interesting shapes.  At its core, this is a group of miners threatened by a big city upstart who wants to drive them off their claims.  They look to the mysterious stranger for help.  Even if you’re not a fan of Westerns, you’ll be drawn in by the intensity of the narrative.  Everyone is aware of the existence of vampires, but no one wants to shelter a monster, so Gabriel does his level best to conceal his true nature from Mariah and her friends.  And Mariah, who lost her entire family, is intent on concealing her tragic past.

The book starts out strong, and then seems to lag just a bit in the middle.  In hindsight, this is the author laying some very necessary groundwork and building believable characters and tensions.  The final third of the book comes back strong and contains some great action scenes and reveals that I never saw coming.  The world-building is done expertly, revealing the past in bits and pieces through the experiences of the characters.  The New Badlands is a brutal, unforgiving place and requires hard decisions from the people who live there.  For those who aren’t faint of heart, this is a new and original chapter in paranormal/fantasy fiction. 

Rating: 8
August 2011
ISBN# 978-0-441-02062-1 (paperback)

Monday, September 05, 2011

Deep Disclosure - Dee Davis

Deep Disclosure
Dee Davis
Forever/Grand Central

Romantic Suspense

This is the latest in the author’s fast-paced series about an elite CIA squad called A-TAC.  One of the team members, Tucker Flynn, spent a long nightmarish time undercover in a Columbian prison.  He’s back in the States, but still on an indefinite leave.  One of his stops in the morning is a coffee shop.  A couple at another table, a young woman and an older man have an animated conversation before the woman leaves, clearly upset.  Moments later, a backpack bomb under their table demolishes the coffee shop and kills the man.  Since Tucker was at ground zero, the A-TAC team takes an interest.  Tracking down the young woman isn’t too difficult, given their technology.  Finding out what (and who) was behind the bombing is far more problematic. 

Alexis Markham had an unusual childhood.  Her parents drilled her on the importance of staying off the grid; of never trusting anyone, especially if that someone has ties to the government.  Alexis’ father was once a scientist working on a top secret project.  When he realized that others in the organization intended to use his work to distribute bioweapons, he took his family and ran.  When Alexis was a teen, someone caught up with them and bombed the house, killing her entire family.  Since then, she’s been on the run and in hiding.  Tucker is offering his assistance, but she’s got major trust issues.

For those who have read the previous books (DARK DECEPTIONS, DANGEROUS DESIRES, DESPERATE DEEDS) it’s no surprise that characters from those novels – other team members – make appearances here.  Readers starting here won’t have any problems, though, since Tucker relates his backstory to Alexis during the narrative.  I have to say, that of all the books in the series thus far, I find this relationship the least realistic.  There’s no reason for Alexis to trust Tucker, especially since he spends a long time lying to her about who he is and why he’s helping her.  Given her background, she ought to run, not walk, to the nearest exit. 

That said, I don’t read this author’s books for the romance component.  Indeed, the romance takes a back seat to the action and the thriller plot, and that’s more than fine with me.  In this case, there are people after Alexis who either want to find her father’s work, or kill her off as a loose end.  There are some neat plot twists as the team tries to figure out just exactly what the bad guys really want, and how to stop them.  As always, the author writes a great action sequence, and the pages seem to turn themselves.  Each of the novels is a complete story, but I’m glad to see there’s another installment on the way.

Rating: 7
September 2011
ISBN# 978-0-446-58292-6 (paperback)

Friday, September 02, 2011

Quickstep To Death - Ella Barrick

Quickstep To Murder
A Ballroom Dance Mystery
Ella Barrick
Four months ago, Stacy Graysin walked in on her fiancé and professional dance partner, Rafe, in bed with another woman.  Of course, the engagement ended then and there.  Too bad the same can’t be said for their business partnership.  Together, they own the ballroom dance studio Graysin Motion.  As award-winning competitive ballroom dancers, they attract a nice clientele of students.  Some want to compete as amateurs; some just want to learn to dance. 

Since neither Stacy nor Rafe can afford to buy out the other’s share of the business, they’re pretty much stuck with each other for the foreseeable future.  Even factoring in the broken engagement, it’s been uncomfortable.  Rafe seems far more interested in making fast money than usual; to the point that he’s advocating adding hip hop and tap classes and hosting annual recitals.  That’s not the kind of studio Stacy wants to run, and she’s more than a little surprised that Rafe is pushing for it.  He’s been acting odd recently, too, taking mysterious meetings in strange limos outside the studio and secretively taking phone calls he won’t discuss. 
When Stacy finds Rafe dead in the studio (which is attached to her home) she’s not completely surprised.  She is, however, surprised at the sorrow she feels over his death.  All of that is quickly overshadowed, though, when the responding detectives look to her as the prime suspect.  Then it turns out that Rafe was shot with the gun Stacy keeps in her nightstand drawer.  The only fact to mitigate her guilt is the fact that Rafe changed his will, leaving his half of the studio to someone else.  That’s another unpleasant shock.  Now Stacy needs to figure out who killed Rafe, keep her business running, and deal with an unknown business partner.

This is the first in a new series that looks like fun.  Stacy is a sort of everywoman caught up in awful events.  The detectives investigating the case are refreshingly realistic.  They’re annoyed by her interference and don’t seem to find her pluckiness at all endearing.  That’s how I would expect the police to react to civilians trying to conduct an investigation.  The truth is that Stacy doesn’t so much solve this case as have the solution dropped in her lap.  And that’s pretty realistic, too, really.  There are lots of suspects, all with clear and compelling motives, making for an interesting mystery.  I look forward to the next installment.

Rating: 7
September 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23454-4 (paperback)