Friday, June 29, 2012

Dead Man Waltzing - Ella Barrick

Dead Man Waltzing
A Ballroom Dance Mystery
Ella Barrick
There’s devastating news in the tight-knit world of professional ballroom dancing: Corrine Blakely, the grande dame of dancing and the woman who spearheaded the movement to get ballroom dancing recognized as an Olympic event, is dead.  She collapsed suddenly during lunch with longtime friend and onetime husband, Maurice.  The two were married briefly in the 60s, but remained friends.  Maurice is an instructor at the studio Graysin Motion, owned by professional ballroom dancer Stacy Graysin.
Stacy has recently had some unfortunate experience with homicide investigations, since her former fiancé was a victim (QUICKSTEP TO MURDER.)  Of course, she knows that Maurice would never kill anyone, let along Corrine, but the police don’t agree.  Maurice is the prime, and as far as anyone can see, the only suspect.  After conferring, the two agree that it must have had something to do with the memoir Corrine was rumored to be writing.  Who knows what long-covered secrets might be unearthed there?  Stacy knows that Maurice is innocent, and, despite orders from the police and protests from friends and family, decides that she’s in the best position to find out the truth.
This is the second in this series, and it’s quite entertaining.  There’s no sign of the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’ here.  The idea of a memoir is a good one, and puts a huge pool of suspects into play, especially since Corrine lived such a full and exciting life.  There are plenty of dancers, judges, and colleagues who might worry about what she’s writing; not to mention the six or seven ex-husbands who might not want their laundry aired.  And there’s her adult son who’s had substance problems, and her entitled grandson who was expelled from several universities for cheating.  So many people who wouldn’t want the truth published for the world to see.

Despite her self-admitted impulsiveness, Stacy comes across as a woman who truly wants to help a friend avoid being prosecuted.  She’s no professional investigator, but she knows a lot of the players and is able to legitimately discuss the dancing world – and, by extension, Corrine – with them.  The writing style is breezy and the pages fly by effortlessly, uncovering one clue (or non-clue) after another.  It’s easy to see why Stacy’s friends and family support her.  She could be anyone you know, just trying to do the right thing.  As before, the supporting cast, including her family and Vitaly, her dance partner, add a real genuine feeling to the proceedings.
Rating: 7 ½
June 2012
ISBN# 978-0-451-23734-7 (paperback)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

An African Affair - Nina Darnton

An African Affair
Nina Darnton


In 1994, Lindsay Cameron is a foreign correspondent for a major newspaper.  She’s based in Nigeria.  The country is run by a military dictator, Olumide, who wields power mercilessly and funds his regime through the drug trade.  Journalists who file stories that he dislikes can be ejected from the country.  Or, worse, they disappear.  Lindsay accepts the inherent danger because she truly believes that she can make a difference by filing her stories; exposing the truth to the world, facilitating change. 

There are opposing factions inside the country.  There’s the local rebel group The Next Step, hoping to replace Olumide’s oppressive regime with a more democratic one of their design.  And there are northern rebels who want a Muslim power structure put in place.  No one has clean hands.  Everyone wants power for their own ends.  And, as usual, it’s the innocent population at large that suffers. 

When the story begins, Lindsay seems to think that her press credentials can protect her from the worst of things, and she might be temporarily correct.  Even with years of experience, she clings to ideals that some might call naïve.  Eventually, she starts filing stories that do not please Olumide and she begins to feel his wrath.  Making contacts and moving deeper into the opposition, she comes to realize that, really, no one is safe.

I can’t imagine choosing to live in such an inherently hostile and unstable area, but, fortunately for all of us, there are journalist who do exactly that.  It’s true that someone has to expose the truth for change to be possible.  Those truth-tellers are often in the line of fire.  Lindsay learns some very hard lessons over the course of the story, but never entirely lets go of her idealism.

To read this book is to spend time in a place that is utterly foreign.  The author, without any overblown prose, manages to convey the incredible heat, the daily inconveniences, the dangers, and the harshness of life. The people she meets are by turns angry, desperate, and beaten down, yet they somehow maintain a certain amount of dignity.  Through Lindsay’s eyes, the reader sees indigenous people, other reporters, traders, diplomats, and operatives of various governments.  In a situation that seems unwinnable, maybe the truth is all that matters.
Rating: 8
June 2012
ISBN# 978-0-452-29802-6 (trade paperback)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Blazing The Trail - Deborah Cooke

Blazing The Trail
The Dragon Diaries, Book 3
Deborah Cooke
New American Library

Young Adult/Paranormal

Warning: If you haven’t read the first two books in this series, FLYING BLIND and WINGING IT, this review contains some pretty serious, but unavoidable spoilers. 

When you’re sixteen (almost) your biggest concerns in the deep winter should be getting your homework done and what you’re going to wear to the Valentine’s Day Dance.  Zoe Sorensson has bigger problems.  Much, much bigger.  She’s the Wyvern, the only female dragon shifter of her generation.  That comes with some pretty neat powers (see also: shape shifting, teleporting, flying and fire-breathing, and, hopefully, seeing the future) and a whole lot of responsibility.  Last fall (WINGING IT) the Mages did their best to complete their life’s work and exterminate every kind of shifter, gaining the shifters’ power in the process.  Fortunately, Zoe found their weakness and they failed, miserably.  Now there are only apprentice Mages left, trying to keep that evil dream alive.

In her corner, Zoe has her friends (dragon shifters around her age, and her best friend Megan) and she’s managed to make contact with shifters of the wolf, cat, and Thunderbird varieties.  It’s complicated, but, due to history, there’s not a lot of trust among species.  Too bad, since trust is exactly what they’re all going to need if Zoe’s plan of an alliance against the Mages is going to work.  And it needs to start working fast, because the apprentice Mages have a new plan that looks a lot like the old one, only worse.

This is the third in this exciting series, and it does not disappoint.  Zoe has really grown and matured a lot over the year or so covered in the books, and it’s nice to see her becoming more confident in her abilities.  She has moments of over-confidence, too, making some pretty big mistakes along the way.  It’s her ability to learn from her mistakes and keep up the fight that makes her a good leader, and it’s quite believable that others would follow her lead.  The action in this one is near constant, and the fact that Zoe is now not quite sure what’s a dream and what’s a vision and what’s real somehow brings things into sharper focus.  In the closing lines, she asks if we’re up for more adventure.  I certainly am.

Rating: 8
June 2012
ISBN# 978-0-451-23682-1 (trade paperback)

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Azalea Assault - Alyse Carlson

The Azalea Assault
A Garden Society Mystery
Alyse Carlson
Berkley Prime Crime
It was supposed to be a coup for the Roanoke Garden Society and PR expert Camellia (Cam) Harris, having the world-famous photographer Jean-Jacques Georges provide photo coverage for a feature article in a premiere gardening magazine.  It all seems to well until the welcome party the night before the shoot is to start.  Jean-Jacques appears, is rude, argues, and swats the women’s rears.  This doesn’t go over too well, but well-bred Roanoke bluebloods are too polite to make public protest.
When Cam arrives for the first morning of the photography shoot, she finds Jean-Jacques in the garden.  Unfortunately, he’s face-down with a pair of pruning shears in his abdomen.  The police immediately zero in on Nick, Cam’s brother-in-law, who, with his tattoos and punk-rock vibe, seems an unlikely caterer for the event.  Cam and her sister Petunia are both sure Nick had nothing to do with it, and neither one believes the police are looking at anyone else.  With easy access to the venue and people, Cam decides to investigate.

This is the first in a new series, and it’s a bit of a rocky start.  Cam, Petunia, and Cam’s lifelong best friend, Annie, are not terribly likable for the most part.  Even in the South, there’s a line between eccentric and unstable, and these ladies seem to cross it with regularity.  Their behavior might be understandable for teenagers, but not for thirty-something professional, educated women.  On the very bright side, the mystery is intriguing, with plenty of twists and turns.  The supporting cast of characters is varied and interesting, and, since they’re part of the Garden Society, they should be returning for future installments.  If the ladies manage to mature, this could be a very solid series.

Rating: 6
June 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-25130-0 (paperback)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Hearse And Buggy - Laura Bradford

Hearse And Buggy
An Amish Mystery
Laura Bradford
Berkley Prime Crime
Claire Weatherly has, admittedly, made several bad choices in her life.  Getting married to her ex was one of them.  Trying to live in the fast-paced New York City life was another.  The best decision she ever made was moving to Heavenly, PA, to stay with her Aunt Diane, who runs a bed and breakfast.  Heavenly is a mix of Amish and English (non-Amish) and life there is slow and simple.  After months of savoring the simple life, and realizing she loves it, Claire decided to open a shop called Heavenly Treasures and stay.
It’s fortunate for Claire that her Aunt Diane is so well known and liked by the local Amish.  The previous tenant in Claire’s store space was English, and a crook.  Walter Snow sold hand-crafted furniture from the Amish, then left town with the money.  The Amish don’t believe in violence, but the entire community felt the sting of that betrayal.  Even the family of Claire’s employee, Esther, was affected.
Now there’s another uncharacteristic problem along Lighted Way, the road that runs between the Amish and English communities.  Someone is vandalizing the Amish-owned bake shop next door to Heavenly Treasures.  At first, the acts seem like pranks.  Then Walter Snow is found dead behind Claire’s shop.  He was strangled.  Although the Amish are pacifists, the list of Amish suspects is fairly long and includes Eli, the brother of the bake shop owner.  Esther, who is in love with Eli, but constrained by custom against saying anything to him, begs Claire to help.

This is the first in what promises to be a long and successful series.  The atmosphere is evoked so clearly that I feel I’ve walked down Lighted Way.  The contrast between English and Amish is presented as fact, and not played for any kind of humor or derision.  The town exists because the two peoples live side by side, each respecting the other.  The presence of Jakob Fisher, a detective recently returned to the town, only underscores this.  Jakob is a member of an Amish family, but left after his baptism.  This, to the Amish, is unforgivable.  His reason for leaving was sound – he felt called to police work, something disallowed by the Amish – but he will remain separated from the Amish for the rest of this life, shunned by even his own family members. 
Because she’s English, Claire wants to help Jakob and his family reconnect, but rules are rules, as her Aunt Diane sadly reminds her.  Seeing both sides of the question makes for a very sympathetic character and really draws in the reader.  The solution to the mystery is fairly easy to see, but the background and characters more than make up for that.  Here’s hoping for many returns to Heavenly in the future.
Rating: 7 ½
June 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-25131-7

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Hot Button - Kylie Logan

Hot Button
Kylie Logan
Berkley Prime Crime
This year, the International Society of Antique and Vintage Button Collectors are holding their annual conference in Chicago.  Josie Giancola, button expert and owner of the Button Box, is serving as chair for the first time.  To say it’s not going well would be an understatement.  And it all seemed so promising.  First, was the coup of convincing Thad Wyant to be the keynote speaker.  Thad is the top expert in Western buttons.  In fact, he owns a button cut from Geronimo’s shirt (more on that later.)  He’s also something of a hermit, so getting him to appear is a huge draw for the conference.
Turns out, he might be a hermit for a reason.  He’s offensive and demanding and actually calls Josie “little lady.”  But everyone present wants to see that button in person, so Josie is determined to put up with his eccentricities.  She also has to put up with her charming user ex-husband, Kaz, who shows up and worms his way in as her ‘assistant’ for reasons that are clearly all his own.  All of this fades into unimportance, though, when Josie goes looking for Thad (who is late for a banquet in his honor) and finds him in the hotel laundry room.  He’s very, very dead.  And the button isn’t on him.
This is the second entry - following BUTTON HOLED - in an entertaining series, and it’s a good, solid mystery with plenty of suspects.  In fact, the author does an almost Christie-like job of moving the suspects around right before the murder, giving them all what looks like clear opportunity to go along with motive to commit the murder.  There are some very nice twists to the story, too.  I admit, I saw a couple of the twists coming, and was disappointed that Josie didn’t, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of this story, since there will still plenty of turns I never expected.  Ms. Logan writes mysteries that remind me of the old who-done-its, even gathering suspects together near the end.  It’s all a lot of fun.

Adding to the fun is my delight at learning what was to me an obscure piece of American history.  Apparently, Geronimo was a businessman and a shrewd showman long before the terms were even coined.  He was canny enough to capitalize on his notoriety by appearing in Wild West shows, for a fee, of course.  And, when people came to visit him, he would cut a button off his shirt to sell to them as a memento.  Then he’d sew another button right back on in anticipation of the next visitor.  This is part of the joy of reading widely: you never know what interesting facts you’ll encounter.  And since Josie will be returning, I’m hoping to learn more next time.
Rating: 7
June 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-25135-5 (paperback)

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Winging It - Deborah Cooke

Winging It
The Dragon Diaries, Book 2
Deborah Cooke
New American Library

Young Adult/Paranormal
Warning: If you haven’t read the first book in this series, FLYING BLIND, this review contains some pretty serious, but unavoidable spoilers. 
After spending time at ‘boot camp’ with her fellow dragons (FLYING BLIND) summer seemed pretty anticlimactic for Zoe Sorensson.  As the Wyvern – the only female dragon of her generation – Zoe is still coming into her powers.  It hasn’t been easy, and for some reason, it seems to be stalled.  There’s plenty more she should be able to do, but so far, it’s just not happening.  It’s clear that the Mages are still out to get the Pyr (dragon shape shifters) just like they’ve gone after nearly every other shape shifter population.  Apparently, wiping out a population transfers their power to the Mages.  Zoe figured they’d continue their attack, but everything has been suspiciously quiet. 
Until she opens her locker one day to find an invitation to a Halloween party.  First of all, Zoe is not popular, so she’s not used to getting invitations.  Second, the invitation is from Trevor, a known Mage apprentice.  So, third, it’s clearly some kind of trap.  The obvious solution is to ignore it and not go.  Unfortunately, Zoe’s best friend Meagan, has a huge crush on Trevor; and, as a human, Meagan has no clue about the whole Pyr-Mage thing.  To keep her friend safe, and to follow the rules, Zoe is trying desperately to keep Meagan in the dark.  But with the Mages up to something, and her own parents having their own problems, Zoe knows it’s up to her to set things right.

This is a great follow-up to the first installment, expanding Zoe’s world and deepening the conflicts faced by the Pyr.  The stakes are exponentially higher this time around, and Zoe has to work a lot harder to find her path.  The only read downside to this story is that, when friends (I won’t say who) are taken by the Mages, Zoe spends nearly two weeks doing nothing but going about her normal high school life instead of trying to find and/or free the captives.  This makes no sense at all and really distracted me from the story.  I have to say, though, that the final battle more than made up for this.  There’s more to come, and I will definitely be there for it.
Rating: 7
December 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23489-6 (trade paperback)

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Lost Fleet: Beyond The Frontier: Invincible

The Lost Fleet: Beyond The Frontier: Invincible
Jack Campbell

Military SciFi

Note:  If you missed the previous novel in this series, DREADNAUGHT, this review contains unavoidable spoilers.  Proceed at your own risk.
This novel picks up immediately following the epic battle that ended DREADNAUGHT.  The Alliance Fleet, let by legendary John “Black Jack” Geary is still on mission, exploring the limits of human-controlled space and searching for sentient life.  Humans know about the enigma race, and both encounters have led to battles.  Clearly, the enigmas are determined to stay just that: unknown.
A jump to another star produces a shock: another sentient species.  Much like the enigmas, this species doesn’t want anything to do with humans, either.  This mind-set is one of the strong points of the story.  While humans, even in the far future, have a romanticized notion of making contact with aliens, we’ve completely overlooked the fact that aliens may not be interested in us at all.  They may want to stay separate; they may not want to contact us; they may view us as a threat, or simply a nuisance. 

The truth is, there’s no way to know how an alien species would react to humans.  As one character points out, it’s difficult enough for various human cultures to co-exist in peace.  After all, the Alliance and the Syndicate Worlds – both human cultures – have only just emerged from a century-long war.  This novel, like its predecessor, is full of big ideas.  The idea of first contact, of that contact going badly or not at all, of trying desperately to communicate simple concepts with a species whose use of language may be utterly different than our own. 
For readers who may be hesitant to try ‘military scifi,’ this author provides a perfect introduction.  There are the big ideas, the huge battles in space, the hardware, the scientific and political developments; but all these are filtered through characters that seem completely realistic.  It’s the characters and their decisions that drive the action here.  Each of them has a point of view, and they’re all trying to cope with unknowable situations, on the fly, light-years from home.  According to the Author’s Note at the end, the next volume will deal largely with the Syndics, who were the nominal ‘bad guys’ in previous books.  Watching how their story plays out should be fascinating.
Rating: 8
May 2012
ISBN# 978-1-937007-45-4 (hardcover)