Tuesday, October 25, 2011

How To Party With A Killer Vampire - Penny Warner

How To Party With A Killer Vampire
A Party Planning Mystery
Penny Warner


As usual, Presley Parker is in the middle of planning another party.  As owner of Killer Parties, it’s pretty much her life.  This time, the party is to celebrate the wrap of a vampire parody movie.  Presley’s client, producer Lucas Cruz, is a local celebrity and the party is talk of the entertainment media.  The party will, of course, have a vampire theme and will be held in an old cemetery.

There are a few people who aren’t so pleased about the party.  The first is a group of kids who were extras in the movie.  Apparently, they’re upset that they weren’t invited to the big bash.  The night before the party, one of the kids is found in the cemetery, dead.  There’s almost no time for Presley to get involved in that, though, since she’s up at dawn to complete the set-up.  The party is invitation-only, and there’s a photographer turned away at the door.  He’s none too happy about it.  Later that night, he’s found, dead, in an open grave.  Not quite the kind of event Presley wanted.

Suspects abound, from Lucas Cruz, to an entertainment reporter who was adamant about covering the event exclusively, to a disturbed man who claims the cemetery is ‘his’ and threatens anyone who ‘trespasses’ in it.  Presley is sure the two deaths are connected, and she can’t believe that Lucas would be the guilty party, no matter how the circumstantial evidence looks at the moment. 

This is another solid entry in a fun series that includes HOW TO HOST A KILLER PARTY, HOW TO CRASH A KILLER BASH, and HOW TO SURVIVE A KILLER SÉANCE.  New readers will have no problems jumping in at this point.  In this one, the supporting cast is really on the outskirts of the story.  This includes Presley’s mom, who was once the party doyenne of San Francisco. (Memo to Ms. Warner: a book about Presley’s mom throwing parties for the Who’s Who of the city would be a treat.)  Not too gory, not too sweet, this series should entertain fans of all types of mysteries.  The story is nicely twisty and ends with a bang.

Rating: 7
October 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23501-5 (paperback)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Liver Let Die - Liz Lipperman

Liver Let Die
A Clueless Cook Mystery
Liz Lipperman
Berkley Prime Crime
Jordan McAllister’s dream is to be a sports writer.  She’s getting there.  Sort of.  At the moment, she’s doing personal ads for a paper in a small town outside Dallas.  It’s a start.  When the editor, Dwayne Egan, summons Jordan, she’s sure that her probationary period is over and she’s being shown the street.  Instead, Egan asks her to take over a food column, called Kitchen Kupboard, whose usual writer is laid up after a mishap.  Of course, the woman could write the column from a bed, but, being the niece of the owner, she’s decided to take some paid time off.  Which means Jordan will be writing the food column (a subject about which she knows nothing) and the personals, for the same pitiful salary.

Her first assignment is to review a four-star restaurant.  Aside from knowing nothing about food that comes without fries on the side, Jordan has an aversion to red meat.  That’s going to make reviewing an upscale steak house problematic, at best.  The waiter, J.T., recommends the foie gras, and Jordan orders it, thinking she’s getting chicken.  She’s wrong: she’s getting fatty duck liver.  Hoping to disguise her (completely understandable) distaste, she actually shoves the offending entrée into her borrowed evening bag.  This action sets off a chain of events that results in J.T.’s murder in Jordan’s apartment building.  And that’s only the beginning.
I’m disappointed to say that I had the main mystery almost completely sussed out by the end of the second chapter.  I don’t think that shows any great detective work on my part; it’s simply that the main mystery is presented in fairly obvious ways.  There is a subplot that’s quite tricky and carries a good deal of the rest of the book, though.  More problematic is the tone of the book: it’s all over the place.  Of course, any cozy mystery needs a bit of levity to balance the more serious scenes; but this story moves from one to the next with nothing in between.  Smoothing out these abrupt shifts would be helpful.
The hook of this series is that a woman who doesn’t know how to cook at all gets a gig writing a food column and presenting recipes. That’s something that may be difficult to maintain past an installment or two.  Jordan can’t keep publishing her friends’ recipes forever.  Learning to cook in future books might be a nice way to allow Jordan’s character to grow.  I hope we get to see more of the neighbors who serve as Jordan’s family away from home.  They’re an eccentric bunch, but a group that seems real and caring.  As far as friends go, Jordan couldn’t have landed in a better place.  Here’s hoping the series grows and evolves with the characters.

Rating: 6 ½
October 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-24404-3 (paperback)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Magic At The Gate - Devon Monk

Magic At The Gate
An Allie Beckstrom Novel
Devon Monk
Urban Fantasy
There’s no way to write this review without spoilers, so read at your own risk.  And don’t miss the previous novels:  MAGIC TO THE BONE, MAGIC IN THE BLOOD, MAGIC IN THE SHADOWS, and MAGIC ON THE STORM.

The last installment in this fantastic series ended with a cliffhanger: Allie Beckstrom, strolling into the realm of death to rescue the soul of her lover and Soul Complement magic user, Zayvion Jones.  Almost as soon as she crosses the border into death, Allie realizes that her time is severely limited.  Even with the ghost of her dead father in her head (I told you, you need to read the previous novels) giving her advice, she’s at serious risk.  The truth is that no living person has ever walked out of death’s realm alive.  Allie, though, is determined to find Zay’s soul, carry it back to the living world, and reunite it with his still-living body.  No problem at all.

I will not spoil how things go in the death realm.  I will say that the author, as usual, does a great job of creating a unique landscape.  In Allie’s view, death looks like “some twisted version of Portland.”  Each building or street is just slightly wrong, except when it’s really, terribly wrong.  The journey through the realm of death takes up the first several chapters, and the whole thing is riveting.  Ms. Monk really knows how to write fantasy sequences and keep the reader glued to the pages.
Once Allie returns, the problems really begin.  The previous novel ended with a huge free-for-all battle among magic users during a wild-magic storm.  The cracks and unspoken differences among members of the magical Authority blew apart in a fairly spectacular fashion, with magic used against former friends and students.  One of the Death magic users (Death magic, here, is simply an exchange of energy, and not necessarily a negative thing) stole a large quantity of experimental disks that were developed by Allie’s dad.  The disks would make magic portable and usable by anyone without paying a price. 
In the wrong hands, these are weapons.  Clearly, they’re in the wrong hands now, because Allie is seeing the Veiled all over the city again.  The Veiled are like ghosts, or echoes, of dead magic users.  The Veiled want to absorb more magic to become more real.  The problem is that, with the disks, the Veiled are now solid and look as real as anyone else.  So there are a lot of pissed-off, solid, magic-using, magic-absorbing ghosts running around.  And there are gates between realms popping open all over the city.  This is bad, because things can come through the gates, and those members of the Authority left standing after the wild-magic storm are needed to continually close these gates.

There’s a lot going on in this installment, but the action sequence at the end seemed somewhat truncated for some reason.  That could just be in comparison to the last few novels in the series, which were really amazing.  Most urban fantasy series have some system of magic.  You learn the rules, you move along.  This time, though, the magic users themselves are constantly learning and growing within the system of magic.  It’s possible that even those at the top don’t know everything there is to know about how magic works.  It gives the author a lot of latitude, and makes it that much more exciting for the reader.  There’s a lot of ‘bridge’ material presented here in service of the overall story arc, but it’s laid out in a way that continually moves the story forward.  This just may be the best urban fantasy series out there right now.  I know I’m on board for as long as the author continues.
Rating: 8
November 2010
ISBN# 978-0-451-46362-3 (paperback)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Magic On The Storm - Devon Monk

Magic On The Storm
An Allie Beckstrom Novel
Devon Monk
Urban Fantasy

If you’ve missed the first three novels in this series (MAGIC TO THE BONE, MAGIC IN THE BLOOD, and MAGIC IN THE SHADOWS) then you’ve missed the start of what is shaping up to be a truly epic urban fantasy.  I’d honestly advise you to read the first three before continuing this review; otherwise, you’re going to be spoiled on some fairly major issues.
Usually after using large amounts of magic, Allie Beckstrom loses her memory.  It’s her price for using magic.  Lately, though, she’s been in training, and things have changed.  She still carries her notebook around to record events of her life, just in case, but things have been good for the past few months.  Even her relationship with Zayvion Jones has been going well.  Of course, that means that something big is coming.  That thing is a wild magic storm. 
Allie’s world is a world very much like ours, except that magic is ever-present.  So much so that its use is regulated like any other resource or utility.  Allie’s late father (mostly late – he’s still hanging around in her head, sometimes, which is awkward, to say the least) was at the forefront of melding magic and technology.  He invented a sort of magic-lightning rod to collect and direct the flow of magic.  It made him incredibly wealthy.  At the time of his death, he was working on something infinitely more powerful and potentially dangerous: portable disks that hold magic.  These disks could be used by anyone, anywhere, without the usual consequences magic exacts. 
Her dad was also part of a secret community of magic users called the Authority.  They’re a kind of shadow group.  Unless you’re a member, you’d have no idea who the other members are or what they do or how much influence and power they have over magic and its use.  For the uninitiated – which, until quite recently, included Allie – magic is limited.  Which brings us to the current problem.  It seems that, while the wild storm comes closer, magic is draining from the world.  No one knows exactly what will happen when the wild storm arrives and re-ignites it all, all at once.  The Authority is on it, but Allie is beginning to realize that even such a powerful and focused group has internal politics and conflicts.  It couldn’t happen at a worse time.
Up to this point, each of the novels has been part of an overall story arc, but each one still read as a complete story.  This time is so very different.  It ends on a cliffhanger that is a stunner.  Everything that leads up to the storm feels, fittingly, like a race against time.  Allie’s world is expanding, and she’s juggling a lot more responsibilities at this point.  She’s not on her own anymore, and that’s both a blessing and a curse, when so many people need her and the hits just keep on coming.  This is one of those series that I’d love to re-read, back-to-back, just to watch the story unfold.  Someday, I might get to do that.  But, for now, I’ve got a cliff that’s hanging, and I’ve never been more grateful to have the next volume at hand.  I see very little sleep in my immediate future.
Rating: 8 ½
May 2010
ISBN# 978-0-451-46327-2 (paperback)

Monday, October 03, 2011

Death By The Dozen - Jenn McKinlay

Death By The Dozen
A Cupcake Bakery Mystery
Jenn McKinlay
Berkley Prime Crime

It’s time for the Scottsdale Food Festival and every chef is town is gearing up to participate.  This will be the first year that Melanie Cooper and Angie DeLaura will enter their cupcake bakery, Fairy Tale Cupcakes, in the cooking competition.  The cash prize ($10,000) is nothing to sneeze at; but the real prize is the local prestige and the possibility of being covered by the Food Channel.  One of their celebrity chefs, Johnny Pepper, will be acting as emcee for the event. Another star, Vic Mazzotta, was Mel’s favorite instructor when she attended the local culinary academy.  He’ll be one of the judges.
With all the chaos of competition, and the success of their bakery, Melanie and Angie have to find someone to fill in while they’re gone.  Angie’s many brothers are willing, but the ladies decide it’s time to hire an intern from the local school.  What they get is Oz, who looks like a towering goth/punk/thug.  With few options, and less time, they decide to take a chance.
The competition is based on using a mystery ingredient to create a dessert.  There will be several elimination rounds, culminating in a final four, with the winner taking all.  During the first day, Vic Mazzotta’s frozen body tumbles out of an ice truck.  Melanie is devastated, and her grief turns to anger when she hears that rumors claim it was some kind of suicide.  She knows that wasn’t Vic’s style.  But Vic was an outspoken kind of man and he made plenty of enemies, personally and professionally.  In fact, several of them are in town for the festival.  In between crazy cooking challenges and trying to run her bakery from afar, Melanie decides to find out what really happened.
This is the third in a series (SPRINKLE WITH MURDER, BUTTERCREAM BUMP OFF) and, so far, the best as far as good old entertainment value is concerned.  Anyone with even a passing familiarity with food/cooking shows will understand the characters and undercurrents going on here.  And if you’ve ever watched “Iron Chef” or “Cupcake Wars” or any of the competitive cooking shows, you’ll immediately understand the idea of cooking with a mystery ingredient and barely enough time.  The challenges are realistic, and Melanie comes up with some great desserts.  For those who’d care to give it a try, the recipes are included at the end.
The mystery is well-written and woven into the fabric of the competition setting quite nicely.  There are lots of new faces in town for the event, meaning lots of possible suspects and motives.  For those who’ve read the series from the start, local arch-rival Olivia is there, apparently determined to win at any cost.  She adds a bit of lunatic comic relief to the proceedings.  Oz is a great addition to the series, and I already have a soft spot for both him and the charming Captain Jack.  A great mystery, an entertaining all-or-nothing competition, and some real danger make this one the best installment so far.
Rating: 7 ¾
October 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-24405-0 (paperback)