Monday, July 30, 2012

Murder For Choir - Joelle Charbonneau

Murder For Choir
A Glee Club Mystery
Joelle Charbonneau
Berkley Prime Crime

Coaching Prospect Glen High School’s show choir is not Paige Marshall’s job of choice.  But, until she lands another role with an opera company, it’s what she’s got.  And that’s how Paige finds herself attending the show choir camp held for various Chicago-area high schools.  During the day, she wanders into the new auditorium/stage space, looking for Greg Lucas, the director of the North Shore High School show choir.  Greg is completely obnoxious, from what little Paige has seen, but his choir wins competitions. 
She finds Greg, appropriately enough, on stage, sitting at the piano.  Unfortunately for both of them, he’s dead, with the microphone cord wrapped around his neck.  The police seem to think, due to a cell phone found in the area, that one of the students is the culprit.  Paige can’t believe it and does what she can to help the kid.  This does not go over well with the detective in charge.  He seems to think he can run his own investigation, but Paige isn’t so sure.  As the ‘new girl’ in town, and the finder of the body, she can ask a lot of questions without looking suspicious.  And she plans to do exactly that.

This is the first in a series that looks to be a lighter, rom-com take on the genre.  Anyone involved in high school choir or music programs will recognize a lot of the players here.  There’s the Prospect Glen choir director, Larry, who makes a good suspect since he’s Greg’s direct rival for the next competition year; there’s Greg’s ex-wife; there’s the football coach who’s extremely unhappy that one of his star players quit football in order to sing and dance.  Plenty of people had plenty of reasons to want Greg out of the picture, it seems, and there are enough twists and red herrings along the way to make the mystery entertaining. 
Rating: 6 ½
July 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-25137-9 (paperback)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Cookie Before Dying - Virginia Lowell

A Cookie Before Dying
A Cookie Cutter Shop Mystery
Virginia Lowell
Berkley Prime Crime

It was a dark and stormy night.  No, really, it was.  And good thing, too, because the heat and humidity in Chatterley Heights has been almost unbearable lately.  A good storm would be welcome.  Just before it hits, Olivia Greyson, owner of The Gingerbread House, is walking her Yorkie through the town square when she stumbles onto a body lying in the grass.  She doesn’t know his name, but she’s pretty sure he’s the guy she saw running out of a neighboring business – The Vegetable Plate – after vandalizing it.
The Vegetable Plate is owned by Charlene Critch, not one of Olivia’s favorite people.  For one thing, Charlene is convinced that sugar is the devil and that it should be eradicated from everyone’s life.  Not a real popular stance, especially when Olivia and her lifelong best friend, Maddie, run a shop based on baking and decorating cookies.  So it’s pretty awkward that Olivia’s younger brother, Jason, is still apparently in love with Charlene from their high school days.  And it’s even more awkward when the dead man turns out to be Charlene’s unmentioned ex-husband and Jason immediately admits to killing him.  Olivia knows that Jason is only trying to protect Charlene, but she’s not going to let her brother go to jail for a crime he didn’t commit.
That’s the bare-bones plot outline of this second installment (following COOKIE DOUGH OR DIE) but, as in all well-plotted mysteries, it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.  Mysteries set in small towns can be tricky: if everyone knows everything about everyone, how could anyone get away with murder?  Here, the author skillfully constructs a place that’s home to lifetime residents; people who moved away, then came back home for one reason or another; and those who are new to town.  Each character is absolutely realistic, and each one has a detailed and understandable history. 

The mystery presents a real puzzle.  It’s always just possible that Jason really did kill the victim in order to protect Charlene, no matter what his loving sister and mother believe.  It’s clear that neither Jason nor Charlene is telling the truth, but that still leaves several very viable suspects in play.  The story does start out a bit slow this time around, but by the time Jason confesses, everything starts moving along at a nice clip.  There are several subplots to unravel, and some great new characters.  The author is very good at weaving the various storylines together and creating the kind of mystery that reminds me why I love this genre.
Rating: 7 ½
December 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-24501-9 (paperback) 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Beef Stolen-Off - Liz Lipperman

Beef Stolen-Off
A Clueless Cook Mystery
Liz Lipperman
Berkley Prime Crime
Jordan McAllister desperately wants to be a sports reporter.  Times being what they are, though, she’s content (sort of) to keep slogging away at the local paper, doing two jobs: the personals ads, and the food column.  Writing the food column is much harder for Jordan, since she doesn’t cook.  Fortunately, she has lots of friends and acquaintances who are more than willing to pass along recipes for publication.

As the story begins, it’s the food column that pays off for Jordan when she’s invited to the Cattlemen’s Ball.  Jordan isn’t too fond of beef, but it’s big in Texas, and her host simply wants her to write about the Ball and the food in an effort to prop up beef prices in the area.  One huge perk of the night out is Jordan’s escort, Rusty Morales, a young handsome ranch foreman who looks pretty good poured into a tux.  During the evening, Rusty falls ill, collapses and dies.  The medical exam is inconclusive.  Jordan feels a certain guilty responsibility since she was sitting right next to him when he died.  Add this to the fact that Jordan’s brother, Danny, is in town to investigate a current-day cattle rustling ring, and Jordan has more than enough reason to take a closer look at the cattlemen.
This is the second in the series, following LIVER LET DIE, and it’s the better mystery over all.  This time there’s the mysterious death, with Rusty surrounded by thousands of people who might have a motive.  According to Danny, Rusty may have been involved in the cattle rustling.  About halfway through the story, there’s a new development that opens up a whole new avenue of investigation, making it almost impossible to suss out the killer.  Jordan’s friendly neighbors in her apartment complex make a return appearance and provide her with crucial support.  And the people around the Cattlemen’s Ball might be great new friends or they might have ulterior motives – probably always a risk run by a reporter.  This entry is solid, entertaining, and fast-paced, and I’m completely on board for Jordan’s next outing.
Rating: 7
July 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-25142-3 (paperback)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Sinister Sense - Allison Kingsley

A Sinister Sense
A Raven’s Nest Bookstore Mystery
Allison Kingsley
Berkley Prime Crime


Before I start the latest book in a series, I find it helpful to look over my review of the previous book(s) to refresh my sieve-like memory.  In my review of the first book, MIND OVER MURDER, I mentioned that Clara Quinn has something the family calls the Quinn Sense, but that this could be easily explained as intuition or common sense.  Not this time!  This time, the Quinn Sense is paranormal, front-and-center, and includes hearing voices and possibly understanding animals, too.  With that said, this series has moved firmly into the ranks of paranormal mysteries.
Clara moved back to her touristy Maine hometown about a year ago, after a bad breakup.  She works for her cousin, Stephanie at her book store, The Raven’s Nest.  Stephanie has always been very interested in all things paranormal and wishes she’d also been blessed with the Quinn Sense.  Clara tries to explain that it’s not an on-demand, reliable resource, but Stephanie still yearns for it.  The Sense failed Clara rather spectacularly in regards to her breakup, and she’s only now considering dating again.  And that’s only because Rick Sanders, who owns the hardware store across the street has been waging a low-key but consistent campaign to get her to go out with him.
All of this takes a serious back seat when the police find a dead body in the bed of Rick’s pickup truck.  The truck was parked in front of his house at the time, and the weapon used was a hammer from Rick’s store.  If Rick’s a killer, he’s really bad at covering his trail.  Clara knows that Rick is no murderer.  That’s not only personal judgment talking, the Quinn Sense agrees completely.  Since the police are being pressured by the mayor into making a quick arrest, and Rick seems to be the only suspect, Clara and Stephanie decide to put on their detective hats again.
This second installment is even better than the first.  Clara and Stephanie have been close since childhood, and their relationship seems very realistic.  This time around, they both seem like grownups who take calculated risks to try to save Rick from going to prison.  Adding to the fun is Tatters, the dog who once belonged to Rick but now lives with Clara and her mother.  The domestic scenes between mother, adult daughter, and dog, expand the characters and seem utterly true.  My only quibble is that the case is wrapped up in a whirlwind finale that feels too quick and pat.  Still, this is a fun addition to what is shaping up to be a very solid series.  I’ll be happy to follow Clara and Stephanie (and Tatters) on future adventures.
Rating: 7
July 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-25141-8 (paperback)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How To Dine On Killer Wine - Penny Warner

How To Dine On Killer Wine
A Party Planning Mystery
Penny Warner


 Event planner Presley Parker is in the final stages of planning a wine-tasting event.  The party will take place at a small winery in Napa Valley to launch the winery’s new vintage, Purple Grape.  It should be a great party that will bring Presley more business if all goes well.  The night before the party, there’s a private dinner at the California Culinary College.  Everything is lovely until JoAnne Douglas crashes the event.

JoAnne claims to be an environmentalist, but the small vintners around Napa see her more as an expensive nuisance.  The truth is, it’s nearly impossible for a winery to be as green as JoAnne demands.  And she backs up her demands with lawsuits.  For small wineries, it’s a real problem, especially with the huge conglomerate Napology trying to buy up all the small places in an attempt to WalMart-ize wine production.  JoAnne manages to escape the private party with nothing worse than a face full of thrown wine.  The following day, she’s not so lucky.  After the party, the clean-up crew finds her body under a serving table, with a corkscrew in her chest.

The main, and most obvious, suspect is Rob Christopher, the owner of the winery and Presley’s host.  His prints were on the corkscrew and a search of the house turned up one of JoAnne’s shoes (also with Rob’s prints) under his bed.  This makes no sense to Presley, for all kinds of reasons.  Despite warnings from the local police and those around her, Presley can’t stop herself from asking questions that need answers.  This time around, she has her mother, Veronica, San Francisco’s grande dame of parties, to help her.

The relationship between Presley and Veronica is really the heart of this series.  Veronica was a great lady in her day, and can tell stories about everyone who was anyone in San Francisco.  She’s also in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  Presley dreads the future, but in the present, she’s wonderful with her mom.  I’m still holding out hope for a spin-off series starring Veronica in her heyday. 

Travelling with her mom does quite a bit to help Presley uncover the truth in this case.  The residents of Napa Valley are like characters in a soap opera, and that’s not a bad thing.  The characters are all very entertaining, and the final resolution of the twisty case makes sense once all the facts are known.  Presley/the author begins every chapter with tips on throwing your own wine-tasting party, and there are more party tips at the end.  This series is unfailingly entertaining, with unique settings and casts of characters for each party/case.  I wouldn’t miss one of Presley’s parties for anything.  If you’ve missed previous parties (HOW TOHOST A KILLER PARTY, HOW TO CRASH A KILLER BASH, HOW TO SURVIVE A KILLER SÉANCE, HOW TO PARTY WITH A KILLER VAMPIRE) you’ve missed a lot of fun.

Rating: 7 ½
July 2012
ISBN# 978-0-451-23786-6

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Red Velvet Revenge - Jenn McKinlay

Red Velvet Revenge
A Cupcake Bakery Mystery
Jenn McKinlay
Berkley Prime Crime
Cupcake bakery owners Mel Cooper and Angie DeLaura are used to chaos and short notice.  But there’s not much that can prepare them for their teenaged intern, Oz, showing up with a van he’d like to incorporate into the business.  His idea, bolstered by fellow employee Marty, is to sell cupcakes from the van.  Not a terrible idea, but it’s 115 degrees in the shade in Scottsdale, business has slowed to nearly nothing, and the van needs an enormous amount of work.  A short and ill-fated test ride in the van leads to a break-down, which, in turn, leads to a rescue by Slim Hazard and his wife.
Slim Hazard runs an annual rodeo in Juniper Pass.  The rodeo is really the lifeblood of Juniper Pass, and Slim is a local legend.  He’s also got quite a sweet tooth, and suggests that the bakers bring their wares to sell at the rodeo.  In the van, of course.  It takes heroic efforts on both the mechanical and culinary fronts, but the group arrives ready to sell.  During the parade that opens the festivities, a bullet fired from the crowd injures Slim.  Undaunted, he declares the rodeo will proceed.  When Mel and Angie find the star attraction, bull rider Ty Stokes, dead, it’s clear that someone doesn’t want that to happen.
The mystery takes a background spot for much of this installment, but the author does such a wonderful job filling in the characters and events of the rodeo that it really doesn’t matter.  Longtime readers (SPRINKLE WITH MURDER, BUTTERCREAM BUMP OFF, DEATH BY THE DOZEN) will definitely side with Mel and her exhaustion on the whole “Tate and Angie Show” will-they-or-won’t-they issue.  It’s gone on far too long at this point and needs to be resolved one way or another.  On the very bright side, intern Oz has become an integral, and very welcome, member of the cast.
This story finds the usual cast of characters is in an entirely new atmosphere with new challenges (spending most of the day crammed into a cupcake van together) and new people.  There’s the rancher, Slim, his former beauty queen second wife, his barrel racing champion daughter, and the daughter who’s adopted an anti-rodeo stance because it’s ‘cool’ with the Hollywood crowd she desperately wants to join.  Even the most minor characters are written well.  Everyone has something to contribute, and by the time I finished the book, I felt that I had been to Juniper Pass.  This is entertainment that’s as light and fluffy as Mel’s buttercream frosting; perfect for summer reading.
Rating: 7
July 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-25138-6 (paperback)

Monday, July 02, 2012

Magic Without Mercy - Devon Monk

Magic Without Mercy
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, MAGIC ON THE HUNT, and MAGIC ON THE LINE.

This installment, the eighth in this great series, begins just after the events of the previous novel.  If you haven’t read them yet, you need to do so immediately.  Magic is somehow being poisoned.  The Authority, the ruling body of magic, the people who decide what information and magic gets released to the general public, has been denying this truth.  If it was dangerous before, it’s deadly now.  The Veiled, ghosts of dead magic users are wandering the streets of Portland, attacking people.  Those people are infected by the tainted magic and die.  This will affect everyone, magic user or not.  But the Authority (now missing its leader, thanks to Allie) refuses to act.

Allie, Zayvion, and Shamus decide to take a reasoned, scientific type of action this time.  Which only goes to show exactly how desperate they are at this point.  They plan to take samples from natural magic wells around Portland and analyze them.  That’s about as far as the science goes, but it’s a start.  They need to do this without being caught, since the Authority has labeled them criminals and is actively hunting them.  In the meantime, one powerful magic user will travel to the Overseer, the head of the world’s magic-using community, to explain the situation, and, they all hope, get help from that quarter.  One more little problem?  For some reason, using magic is making Allie sick.  A simple spell knocks her out.  That means she’ll have to count on others to protect her.  She hates that.

If you’ve been reading the series up to now, you’ll realize that this novel is, in many ways, the culmination of many previous plotlines.  For new readers, there’s so much history, so much going on with various characters, that an encapsulated ‘recap’ is pretty much impossible, but the author does a nice job of throwing in background information where applicable.  Each novel builds on the one before it, both in terms of plot and character, making this the kind of thing that makes me remember why I love long series done right.  And this is definitely done right.  The action sequences – physical and magical – are written extremely well.  The scenes in between are paced with a swift and even hand.  There’s clearly more to tell in this story, and it’s a mark of how entertaining this series is that I’m really excited to read the next novel.  In the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with the author’s new Age of Steam series.  Watch this space.

Rating: 8
April 2012
ISBN# 978-0-451-46448-4 (paperback)