Saturday, March 31, 2012

How To Be Death - Amber Benson

How To Be Death
A Calliope Reaper-Jones Novel
Amber Benson
Urban Fantasy
Note: If you haven’t read the first three books in this series – DEATH’S DAUGHTER, CAT’S CLAW, and SERPENT’S STORM, this review contains huge and unavoidable spoilers.
Due to recent events, Callie Reaper-Jones is now Capital-D Death.  Her first formal event is the Death Dinner and Masquerade Ball.  The Dinner takes place on Halloween Eve, and attendees include the entire Board of Death, Inc., and pretty much everyone who is anyone in the supernatural world.  The timing in on purpose, since for the twenty-four hours of All Hallow’s Eve, magic essentially leaves the world, reinstated at midnight on All Saint’s Day.
Hosting the party isn’t nearly as glamorous as Callie thought it would be.  And just when she thinks the night is over, she finds a decapitated corpse in her bedroom.  It’s one of the guests from the dinner.  A very shapely Goddess of a guest who was there with Callie’s ex, Daniel.  It might look bad for Callie, but as it turns out she’s never really a suspect.  However, with all the magic being absent, it’s not like this Goddess is going to walk away from this.  She’s really-dead.  In other news, the book that Callie is supposed to keep safe, a book with instructions on how to be death, or failing that, just end the whole shebang, is missing.  Fortunately, Edgar Freezay, a retired member of the Psychical Bureau of Investigation is nearby and quite willing to lend a hand in the investigation.
The first part of the book is all about the party, and Callie’s dress, and how the big corporate parties are never as great as you think they’ll be, especially when you’re the host.  The murder happens roughly halfway through the story, and from there on, it’s essentially a locked-room mystery.  Or maybe a country house weekend murder mystery.  Magic doesn’t figure in much, since it’s unavailable during the day covered here.  That will either be a disappointment, or an interesting departure, depending on your point of view.  A couple of narrative bombs explode in the final pages; cleaning up that mess will clearly be handled in a future volume.
Rating: 7
March 2012
ISBN# 978-1-937007-28-7 (paperback)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Death Of A Kingfisher - M.C. Beaton

Death Of A Kingfisher          
M.C. Beaton
Grand Central Publishing


Superstition still abides in many hearts in northern Scotland.  Unfortunately, so does unemployment.  So, when Mary Leinster decides to transform a wooded area into a Fairy Glen tourist attraction, there’s a mixed reaction from locals.  Mary hired her relatives (after approval of the local council) to build a bridge over the water.  She’s placed ‘fairy footprints’ in the clay around the water for ambience, and a gift shop is under construction.  The brochure for the place shows the resident kingfisher in flight.

Police Sgt. Hamish Macbeth arrives on the scene at the glen after a hysterical call from Mary about a murder.  As it turns out, someone has cruelly killed the beautiful kingfisher and left its body hanging from a tree.  Not long afterwards, Mrs. Colchester, the wealthy widow who owns the hunting lodge adjoining the glen dies in a rather spectacular fashion.  There are plenty of people who disliked her, since she seemed to dislike everyone.  She took a particularly malicious glee in the money troubles of her daughter and son-in-law and even seemed to hate her grandchildren.  It’s up to Hamish to discover the truth about the trouble around the glen.
This novel is the latest in a long-running series, but newcomers will have no problems jumping in here.  There’s a lot of history among the characters, but the author sketches it all in with clear brevity.  After finishing the novel (which I did in an evening, unable to stop reading) I was amazed at the scope of the story.  The prose is almost spare, and the amount of time and action covered in the story seem almost too big to be contained here.  The story unspools with careful pacing, as clues and hints are parceled out or discovered by the investigators.  The setting of northern Scotland is portrayed as stark, yet magnificent, echoing the storytelling talent here.
Rating: 8
March 2012
ISBN# 978-0-446-54736-9 (hardcover)

Monday, March 26, 2012

If You Were Here - Jen Lancaster

If You Were Here
Jen Lancaster
New American Library

It’s time for Mia and Mac to buy a house.  If you’ve ever gone house-hunting, you will recognize every moment of their ordeal.  Looking at houses starts out as an adventure.  Then it gets funny; finally it turns into a soul-crushing slog through wrong places.  Mia and Mac see a Porn House – a house with mirrored everything.  We saw one, too.  Maybe there’s some universal law that every MLS must contain a Porn House?  The best ‘wrong place’ we saw, though, was a house that contained no oven or stove, but had knocked out walls to create one huge hair salon-cum-tiki bar.  The salon came complete with three styling stations and a couple of shampoo sinks; the tiki bar boasted a thatched roof attached to the ceiling.  No lie.  Amazingly, we did not buy that house.
Mia and Mac have reached the point that many people do: they’re not happy in their rental property.  Their unhappiness stems from a tagger and his gangster-wannabe friends who will not stop, and in fact become dangerous; and their landlord, tabloid staple Vienna Hyatt.  I have to admit, as annoyed as I got with Mac later in the book, his counter-measure solutions to the tagger were things of beauty. 

Since Mia writes a successful YA book series about teenaged Amish zombies in love, they’ve got the means to look for a house in the neighborhood of their choice.  And, since Mia harbors a deep and abiding love for the late filmmaker John Hughes and his body of work, her dream is to live in the Cambs, a Chicago suburb where Hughes did some filming.  When it turns out that Jake Ryan’s house (the house used for filming Sixteen Candles) is for sale, Mia knows the universe is smiling on her.  Never mind that the place clearly hasn’t been updated since the 80s; an addiction to HGTV convinces her that renovations are not a deal-breaker.  In fact, she’d quite like to put her own stamp on the place.  And so it begins.

Anyone who ever bought a fixer-upper (or knows anyone who knows anyone who has) can see what’s coming next.  Despite an enviable bank account, renovations always cost more and take longer than you think.  Imagine The Money Pit, only with more pathos and Amish zombies.  A project like this can really impact jobs, friendships, and relationships, as Mia and Mac discover. 
Narrated by Mia, the story winds through the purchase and renovation phases, with a stop in L.A. to discuss a movie deal, just for good measure.  It’s written in a breezy and sarcastic style, and clearly for laughs.  While I’m not usually a fan of the ‘…and zany antics ensue’ school, somehow the author never quite crosses that line for me.  The frustrations and problems come across as very real and potentially life-changing.  I had a problem putting it down once I became involved with Mia and her friends.  The supporting cast is uniformly entertaining and I’m alternately terrified of and wish I knew Mia’s Babcia.
Rating: 7 ½
March 2012
ISBN# 978-0-451-23668-5 (trade paperback)


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Murder Buys A T-Shirt - Christy Fifield

Murder Buys A T-Shirt
A Haunted Souvenir Shop Mystery
Christy Fifield
Berkley Prime Crime

During a lovely early fall day in Keyhole Bay, Florida, Glory Martine is on a shopping trip.  She and her friend, radio reporter Karen, are visiting out-of-the-way places in search of unique items for Glory’s shop, Southern Treasures.  On the way home, Karen’s scanner broadcasts the news of a fatal wreck.  It’s one car, overturned in the middle of the field.  The driver of the car was Kevin Stanley, the high school quarterback who should have had a bright future in front of him. 
When Glory returns to her shop, it’s a mess.  It looks like Bluebeard, the Amazon parrot she inherited with the shop from her great-uncle, has been active.  Nothing is missing; just vigorously re-arranged.  Quoth the parrot: “It wasn’t an accident.”  And he might have said that using her great-uncle’s voice.

The police are more than willing to call the wreck an accident, but gossip spreads quickly that Kevin was leaving a kegger.  In a small town, it seems more than likely that the polite fiction of ‘accident’ would be maintained.  It’s clear fairly early on who the culprit is, although the details are well obscured.  Glory is a fun new character, with Bluebeard acting as scene-stealer quite often.  This is a very solid first installment in a new series.
Rating: 6 ½
March 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-24886-5 (paperback)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sketch A Falling Star - Sharon Pape

Sketch A Falling Star 
A Portrait Of Crime Mystery
Sharon Pape
Berkley Prime Crime

Rory McCain has an unusual partner in her PI business: Zeke Drummond, once a Federal Marshall, now a ghost.  She inherited her uncle’s home and the spirit that dwells there.  Rory and Zeke have fashioned a working relationship, and Rory has promised to try to discover who killed Zeke more than a century ago.  To that end, she’s taking a trip out to Arizona, where Zeke’s final case began.  Of course, there’s no way she can explain the real reason for her trip.  So, when her Aunt Helene decides to plan the whole thing to coincide with a group outing for her community theater group, Rory just gins and goes with it.
While Rory is looking for anything to do with Zeke, Helene and the Way Off Broadway Players take a tour.  During the trip to a slot canyon, there’s a flash flood.  Aunt Helene is fine, but one of the players, Preston Wright dies in the flood.  Rory quickly finds out that ‘Preston’ was an alias. He was a con man and all-around bad guy, but his mother still wants Rory to investigate the death.  She has no illusions regarding her son’s character (or lack thereof) and the local police have closed the case as accidental, but she needs to know what really happened. 
This is the third in a series, following SKETCH ME IF YOUCAN and TO SKETCH A THIEF, and if you’ve missed the first two, you’ll be fine here.  The author provides plenty of background to get new readers up to speed.  If you’ve been reading from the start, you’ll want to know that the identity of Zeke’s killer is finally revealed in this installment.  Sadly, the sections of the book detailing Zeke’s last case – a real highlight of previous books – are sparse here and seem like an afterthought compared to previous outings.
The mystery itself seems to get off to quite a slow start, and it’s hard to care a lot about the fate of a guy who, by his own mother’s admission, was a psychopath.  On the bright side, since he was such a jerk to everyone, there are plenty of motives: broken affairs, investment scams, blackmail.  There’s an interesting addition to the case in the person of Eloise, an older neighbor whose recent stroke has given her a kind of second sight.  In the end, it’s Zeke who solves the case for Rory.  I guess that’s only fair, though, since she solved his murder for him.
Rating: 6 ½
March 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-24669-8 (paperback)

Friday, March 09, 2012

Magic On The Hunt - Devon Monk

Magic On The Hunt
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, MAGIC ON THE STORM, and MAGIC AT THEGATE.
As this novel opens, it’s a very rare period of downtime for Allie and Zay.  It’s been nearly three days since the last huge magical emergency, and they’re using the time to recharge and reconnect.  Of course, it’s not going to last.  And it comes to an abrupt end when Dane Lassiter breaks the wards on the apartment door and enters, armed with a gun and several other magic users.  Dane was essentially the right hand of Sedra, head of the magical Authority in Portland.  Allie’s memory is sometimes spotty due to the price she pays for using her magic, so it takes her a while to remember that, at one time, Dane did his level best to kill her.
According to Dane, he’s looking for Sedra, who was kidnapped in the last installment by persons unknown.  Uncharacteristically, he’s chosen to use a gun to extract the information from Allie.  It all goes south fairly quickly, when Allie’s dad (whose spirit is possessing part of her… it’s a long and very interesting story) recalls that Dane did, in fact, kill him, and takes action.  The Authority, still fractured from the events of the recent wild magic storm, realizes that Sedra is being held prisoner for some reason, and determine to find her.  The trail leads them to some dark and terrible places, but giving up is not an option.

The fact that the Authority has a boss, and that boss is arriving in Portland to do a sort of magical performance review, just underscores how real and embedded magic is in this universe.  It’s pretty much regarded as a utility, with non-users being able to purchase spells for everything from energy to looking younger/better.   The author has done a wonderful job of laying out the groundwork and rules of this magic, while making it clear that there are still people who want nothing more than to use magic for their own personal power.
This is one of those series that I plan to re-read someday, back-to-back, just to see how all the different storylines twine together.  It’s quite rewarding to recognize the outcome of events set in motion back at the start of things.  The author does a great job at balancing character development with great action sequences.  The magical battles are fantastical and yet somehow realistic.  Maybe because magic isn’t free; everyone pays a price for using it.  Don’t start these books late at night: you won’t be able to sleep until the last page turns.
Rating: 8
April 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-46391-3 (paperback)