Monday, April 30, 2012

Magic On The Line - Devon Monk

Magic On The Line
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, MAGIC AT THE GATE, and MAGIC ON THE HUNT.
If you’ve been reading the series so far, it’s not news to you that something is very wrong with magic in Portland.  As this installment begins, Allie arrives at the offices of Bartholomew Wray, the new head of the magical Authority in Portland.  He’s there to investigate what’s been going wrong in the past and to correct the situation.  To Allie’s dismay, she realizes that the Authority is hardly a small group of magic users.  It’s a huge conglomerate, run like the most conservative of corporations, with thousands of employees expected to toe the line.
Like any change in corporate leadership, this one isn’t smooth.  Bartholomew has a much different way of running things, and immediately begins deposing local leaders and installing new ones.  Instead of a severance package, the deposed leaders are Closed; their memories erased.  Watching the people she cares about be lobotomizes is horrific.  During this time, Allie also has to deal with a strange new breed of Veiled.  The Veiled are what’s left of dead magic users.  They’re not acting normal, even for what they are.  The police won’t listen to her, and Bartholomew is strangely unwilling to investigate.
Unlike most of the other installments in this excellent series, this one doesn’t quite work as a standalone.  New readers will be able to get the basic history, and the ending is a clear lead-up to the next novel.  As it is, this one is a great read.  There’s a lot going on here, new characters are introduced, old characters make realistic appearances, and the plot continues to grow.  It’s a mark of how talented this author is that each installment remains new and fresh, while keeping up with the characters.  It’s really amazing how much the plot has deepened and matured throughout the series.
As always, there’s plenty of action to keep things moving.  The set pieces are always constructed very well, with various areas described in truly evocative terms.  The scene of the final battle, in lesser hands, might have seemed ‘done,’ but the author does a wonderful job of keeping things new and interesting.  If you haven’t already started this series, this might not be the best jumping-in place, but once you’re in, you’re hooked.
Rating: 8
November 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-46391-3 (paperback) 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Long Stitch Good Night - Amanda Lee

The Long Stitch Good Night
An Embroidery Mystery
Amanda Lee


It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and over at the Brew Crew, there’s a party.  Owner Todd is hosting a bunch of his frat brothers from college.  Marcy Singer, owner of Seven-Year Stitch, isn’t interested in the party.  She and her longtime friend, Sadie, are going to have a girl’s night in while the guys, including Sadie’s husband, Blake, have a good time.  The good time ends abruptly with a gunshot.  At the end of the evening, one frat brother lies dead in Todd’s office.  The gun belonged to Todd, but quick investigation show fingerprints belonging to both Todd and Blake.  The two men are arrested immediately.  The two men hire attorneys, but the bail hearing won’t happen until Monday morning, so they’ll be spending the weekend behind bars.

Marcy is sure that neither of the two would kill anyone.  Since Blake is Sadie’s husband and Todd is Marcy’s kind-of-maybe-casual-dating friend, she’s got a vested interest in proving their innocence.  This gets a little sticky, though, since the investigating officer, Ted, is Marcy’s other maybe-sort-of-dating friend.  Undaunted, Marcy sets up meetings with each of the remaining fraternity brothers who were present that night.  Someone must have seen something that would exonerate the two.

Up until this installment (THE QUICK AND THE THREAD, STITCH ME DEADLY, THREAD RECKONING) I really liked Marcy’s character.  This one wasn’t quite enough to make me change my mind completely, but it did some damage to our ‘friendship.’  The accused men have attorneys.  It stands to reason that the attorneys told them to keep their mouths shut about what happened in the pub.  Nevertheless, Marcy actually feels hurt and betrayed (to the point of tears, more than once) when neither Todd nor Blake will spill everything to her.  At least twice during the novel, different characters point out her oddly selfish behavior and she seems to acknowledge it, but continues to act in the same way.  It’s more than a bit off-putting.

Since all the guys concerned were at college together, it makes sense that the conflict started there.  What doesn’t make a lot of sense is that these guys, frat brothers who live within an easy drive for the party, and get the alumni newsletters, would be clueless about major aspects of one another’s lives.  It’s necessary for the plot, of course, but it doesn’t quite ring true.  The good news is that the plot contains a couple of interesting twists and surprises, making for an enjoyable mystery read.  As always, the author’s breezy writing style keeps things moving along at a nice pace. 

Rating: 6
April 2012
ISBN# 978-0-451-23648-3 (paperback)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dread On Arrival - Claudia Bishop

Dread On Arrival
A Hemlock Falls Mystery
Claudia Bishop
Berkley Prime Crime
The little village of Hemlock Falls is beginning to change and Sarah “Quill” Quilliam-McHale doesn’t really like it.  Quill has run the local Inn for many years, with her sister, Meg, doing chef duty in the kitchen.  They’re starting to see some real success, but it’s come at a price.  The influx of tourists has started driving a demand for fancy upgrades to long-standing businesses and is starting to foster a sense of competition throughout the village that may not be healthy.  Of course, other Chamber Of Commerce types think the upscaling of Hemlock Falls is the best thing to happen in years. 
The latest arrival is a reality TV show called Your Ancestor’s Attic.  The mellifluous host, Edmund Tree, will be valuing the various items brought in by locals, who will then appear on his show.  This sends most inhabitants searching through attics and basements, looking for their big opportunity.  Also arriving (uninvited) is Belter Barcini, the host of Pawn-O-Rama, looking to move his show from last place to something a little higher in the ratings.  Belter causes a near riot at the first day of auditions.  The whole thing results in a “Slap Down” between Tree and Barcini, to be broadcast, of course.  This slapping down will take the form of a cook-off, since fisticuffs are not Tree’s strong suit.  During the tasting, one host drops dead, making for what will clearly be a ratings bonanza.
While this is the latest in a long-running series, new readers will have no problems getting started here.  There are lots of small town politics and outsize personalities, allowing the reader to get acquainted with each person.  The author kindly includes a Cast Of Characters at the front, for easy reference.  Each chapter is preceded by a recipe for various items offered by either the Inn, or the nearby culinary academy.  My main complaint is that the murder itself – and thus, the mystery – occurs roughly two-thirds of the way through the book, leaving not much time for investigating or deducing.  To the author’s immense credit, though, I was entertained enough by the many characters that I didn’t even realize this fact until quite late.  For those looking for a small town cozy, Hemlock Falls is a fine destination.
Rating: 6
April 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-14707-5 (paperback)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Taste Of The Nightlife - Sarah Zettel

A Taste Of The Nightlife
A Vampire Chef Mystery
Sarah Zettel

It’s been ten years since the Equal Humanity Act passed, but there are still plenty of people who don’t want to accept the fact that paranormal creatures walk among us.  Chef Charlotte Caine finds it pretty hard to ignore that fact, since her younger brother, Chet is a vampire.  The siblings co-own the new New York restaurant Nightlife.  Nightlife caters to the paranormal and the normal eaters.  It turns out that vampires can, in fact, ingest various protein-based liquids (but serving human blood is illegal) so it’s always a challenge for a chef to come up with new and exciting ways to serve them.
During a particularly hectic Saturday night dinner service, Chet bursts into the kitchen to announce the arrival of Anatole Sevarin, a well-known paranormal food critic.  And at this, the worst possible time, a disgruntled diner demands to see the chef about a ‘problem’ with the meal.  It’s a human woman, dining with a vampire.  During the embarrassing (for Charlotte) scene that follows, a drunk man staggers into the dining room, tries to pull the woman away from the table, and ends up exploding a fireball in the air.  He’s a warlock, it’s chaos, it’s awful, and it all happened in front of a critic that could make or break the place.  As if that isn’t enough, when Charlotte returns from an early-morning trip to the farmer’s market, she finds a dead body in Nightlife.  It’s the warlock, who happens to be from a very influential family of vampire hunters.  Now the restaurant is a crime scene and Charlotte and her brother are both suspects.

The adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ must be invoked here.  The title and artwork make this look (to me, anyway) like a cutesy paranormal-lite.  It is not. The mystery is intricate and the paranormal elements are appropriately dark. This novel, the first in a series, is labeled a mystery, but it could quite easily be considered urban fantasy.  The author does a great job of world-building, bringing this alternate reality into sharp focus.  Vampires and warlocks/witches are a fact of life.  Not everyone likes that, and there’s a lot of politics and personal agendas at work during the story.  Through it all, Charlotte seems like a real woman who just wants to cook and run her restaurant while juggling the requisite family and social wrinkles of life.  As either mystery or urban fantasy, this one is a cut above the rest and a more-than-solid debut.
Rating: 7 ½
July 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23407-0 (paperback)

Sunday, April 08, 2012

50% Off Murder - Josie Belle

50% Off Murder
A Good Buy Girls Mystery
Josie Belle
Berkley Prime Crime
This is the first installment in a new series starring Maggie Gerber and her circle of friends.  They’re all excited by a sale, a coupon, a deal.  They call themselves the Good Buy Girls and hold meetings to create strategies and plans of attack for the really big sales.  During one such meeting (before the big back-to-school sales) one of their members, Claire, is uncharacteristically late and seems strangely distracted.  Good manners still matter in a small southern town, so no one makes much of it.

Later, Maggie is helping Claire, the assistant librarian, carry books down to the library basement.  When they arrive, they find the body of a man.  Well dressed, but not too lively.  In fact, he’s got a knife in his chest and one of Claire’s personal books next to him.  All evidence points to Claire.  Maggie and the rest of the Good Buy Girls know she couldn’t possibly have done it, so they band together to find the real killer.

Maggie is an interesting character.  Widowed at an early age and with a tiny child, she’s had to make her own way.  She’s done quite well, and now that her child is in college, she enjoys the company of her niece and great-nephew.  There’s a new sheriff in town; a former high school football star who has now returned to his hometown.  The fact that Maggie despises him with an irrational intensity makes it all too clear that the two have a history.  The mystery is interesting, with enough misdirection to keep the reader guessing.  In the end, Maggie makes a couple of personal decisions that should prove fruitful in future volumes.
Rating: 7
April 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-24702-0 (paperback)

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Real Vampires Hate Skinny Jeans - Gerry Bartlett

Real Vampires Hate Skinny Jeans
Gerry Bartlett
Paranormal Chick-Lit

Glory St. Clair has been a vampire for over four hundred years, yet somehow her problems are those of any chick-lit heroine.  For instance, her love life is overscheduled.  Maybe that makes her a chick-lit anti-heroine.  She’s currently torn between longtime love (and maker) Jerry, friend-with-benefits and bodyguard shifter Rafe, and rock star Ray.  And she has an unwanted houseguest.  Alesa, a demon who once briefly possessed Glory, arrives at her door and announces that she’s pregnant and moving in for the duration.  Glory allows this situation to continue because Alesa claims that she became pregnant during her possession of Glory when Glory and Rafe got together.
Putting all of that to the side (the situation is resolved roughly halfway through the book) local paranormal doctor/scientist Ian MacDonald has some big news for Glory.  Apparently, her blood is something extra special, giving vamps who ingest it super vision, hearing, and libido.  In other news, Ian is positive that, whatever Glory thinks she knows about her pre-vamp life, she didn’t start out as human.  The ‘what was Glory’ storyline is resolved fairly quickly, with the remainder of the book devoted to her dealing with it.

I started reading this long-running series with the last book (REAL VAMPIRES DON’T WEAR SIZE SIX) so it may just be that I’m not emotionally invested in the interwoven characters.  I just find it difficult to empathize with Glory, who spends the first half of the book being a doormat for no good reason and the second half being very nearly a Mary Sue.  As in the last novel, Glory is deeply desired and even loved by nearly everyone, including three fairly alpha male types.  It just doesn’t seem realistic that these guys would be willing to sit back and wait for her to decide among them, through action or inaction, so it doesn’t work at all on the romantic level for me.  Again, this may be due to the fact that I’m a relative newcomer to the series.

The paranormal elements are fairly interesting and quite diverse, but there’s so much going on at once that each plotline seems to be given less attention that it deserves.  There are several characters who pop up in this novel who have been absent for some time, and the author’s note at the end kindly points readers to the appropriate installments for their stories.  Written with a very light and humorous touch (meaning: no scares or gore) this series would be a great choice for someone who enjoys chick-lit or romance but wants something with a more supernatural plot.
Rating: 6
April 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-24562-0 (trade paperback)