Thursday, January 24, 2013

Murder For The Halibut - Liz Lipperman

Murder For The Halibut
A Clueless Cook Mystery
Liz Lipperman
Berkley Prime Crime

Jordan McAllister writes the food column for her local paper in Ranchero, Texas.  Her recipes have done a lot to boost the circulation of the paper.  Since Jordan can’t cook more than a Pop Tart (and considers them fine dining, indeed) the recipes come from her friends; mostly casserole dishes with fancy-fied names.  Now her reputation is paying off – or making her pay.  Jordan is on a week-long Caribbean cruise, judging a cooking contest.  It sounds great, especially since it’s all free.  The big catch is that Jordan will now have to eat the gourmet food she hates in order to judge it.  Pretty much the kind of problem anyone would like to have.

On the first night of the contest, one of the chefs, the arrogant Stefano Mancini, drops dead after tasting his own dish.  It’s fairly quickly determined that Stefano had a fatal reaction to ground peanuts someone included in his spice jar.  None of the other jars contained nuts, so it looks like this is a case of murder.  After knowing him only one day, Jordan realizes that there are plenty of suspects: the other chefs each have their own reasons for enmity, some more than others.  Since a lot of people paid for the cruise specifically for the contest, the powers that be decide that it will continue.  That gives Jordan and her band of friends a chance to solve the mystery.
If you’ve been following the series (LIVER LET DIE, BEEF STOLEN-OFF) you’ll be familiar with Jordan’s family-away-from-home.  They’re a lively and interesting bunch.  Each one of them is present on the ship, and each one has a different reason for getting the trip for free.  It strains credulity, but it’s a fairly minor point.  The scenes on board ship and during the off-ship excursions are fun, natural, and serve to move the story forward.  If you've ever wondered why Bacardi uses a bat as its logo, the answer is here.  It’s been cold and rainy here, so I enjoyed the virtual vacation.
The rest of the supporting cast consists of the contestant chefs, and the organizers of the contest and various members of the ship’s crew.  Jordan’s fellow judges, a celebrity chef and a man who made a fortune with alcoholic desserts are complete opposites.  The chef is kind and willing to share tips of the trade (always bring mints to a tasting) while the CEO is a revolting lech who is not above openly flirting with female contestants.  The basic direction of the mystery was pretty clear to me from the get-go, although I admit I would never have guessed at the labyrinthine reasons behind it all.  The story does suffer a bit in the end from a lot of over-explaining and filling-in of details, but overall, it’s a fun and diverting mystery.  Don’t miss the recipes at the end.
Rating: 6
January 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25182-9 (paperback)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Deal To Die For - Josie Belle

A Deal To Die For
A Good Buy Girls Mystery
Josie Belle
Berkley Prime Crime
Since the end of the first book of this series, 50% OFF MURDER, main character Maggie Gerber has been very busy.  As this story opens, she’s still a little frightened to find herself in possession of a store (and the attendant mortgage) where she intends to sell vintage clothing.  It’s a huge step, but with the help of her friends, a group of deal-seekers who call themselves the Good Buy Girls, she’s ready.  At the top of the list of tasks is a visit to the local flea market, to check out the stall of Vera Madison, a woman known for selling vintage couture. 
Arriving at the stall, Maggie discovers that Vera left suddenly to visit Dr. Franklin.  It seems odd to Maggie, since he’s not Vera’s doctor.  It wouldn’t be a huge problem, except that longtime rival and all-around Mean Girl Summer Philips is there, trying to take advantage of Vera’s absence and snag all the swag for her own shop.  Needing an official ruling on who gets what, Maggie heads over to the doctor’s office.  When she enters the waiting room, she’s horrified to discover Vera’s lifeless body on the floor.  Bending over her, holding a syringe, is Dr. Franklin.  This looks bad, and while Maggie is positive Doc couldn’t have harmed anyone, it’s clear that he’s hiding something.
This is a very solid entry in an entertaining series.  The plot revolves around secrets kept and revealed in a small town, and some pretty big skeletons emerge from a few closets.  This time around, Maggie seems a little too immature for her age, becoming completely irrational with anger any time the authorities dare to question Dr. Franklin.  There’s also a love/hate relationship between Maggie and the local sheriff that dates back to elementary school, which becomes repetitive and only drags down the pace of the story.  It looks like that will be resolved in the next book, though.  The supporting cast is full of original and realistic characters and the writing has a breezy quality that makes the pages seem to turn themselves. 
Rating: 7
January 2013  
ISBN# 978-0-425-25185-0 (paperback)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Panic Button - Kylie Logan

Panic Button
A Button Box Mystery
Kylie Logan
Berkley Prime Crime
Generations ago, girls used to create charm strings.  A charm string is a string of buttons with no two buttons like.  Tradition has is that Mr. Right will arrive along with button number one thousand.  A competing tradition says that bad luck will arrive with that button.  Angela Morningside believes in the tradition of the curse.  Ever since she inherited an antique charm string from her aunt, she’s had bad luck.  There was a break-in and a kitchen fire, just to start.  The only good thing to come along recently is her new boyfriend.

Josie Giancola, owner of the Button Box, doesn’t believe in curses, previous marriage notwithstanding.  She believes in buttons.  This charm string is the find of a lifetime, and she’d love to take it off Angela’s hands.  Angela, though, has decided to donate the charm string to her local historical museum after Josie appraises its value.  The night Angela comes to the store to collect her charm string, it’s clear that something is seriously wrong with her.  She’s distraught and disheveled.  The next morning, Josie is horrified to discover Angela’s body near her shop, strangled with the charm string she believed was cursed.

The tradition of the charm string is old and intriguing.  It’s easy to imagine young girls collecting souvenir buttons, making sure no two are like, and hoping to reach the magic number one thousand.  This is the third installment in this entertaining series, following BUTTON HOLED and HOT BUTTON, and it’s a solid entry.  It makes sense that Josie would become involved, since buttons are clearly at the center of the crime.  There are some scenes late in the book that I won’t spoil, but are truly imaginative and fun.  The author does a great job of transporting Josie (and the reader) to an unexpected place and an entertaining solution to the mystery.
Rating: 7 ½
January 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25183-6 (paperback)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Opening Night Murder - Anne Rutherford

The Opening Night Murder
A Restoration Mystery
Anne Rutherford
Berkley Prime Crime

Historical Mystery
In the past, I’ve complained about mysteries that leave the actual death/detection stuff for the second half of the book.  Not this time, though.  The author cleverly constructs this story so that the murder happens during the Prologue.  After that, we jump back in time a year or so, to find Suzanne Thornton living her life as the mistress of a Puritan in 1660 London.  As a Puritan, William suffers great guilt over having a mistress, and keeps her living just at the edge of poverty.  These two are clearly not in love; it’s simply an arrangement.  The return of King Charles to London after Cromwell’s beheading changes everything.  Suddenly, there’s no need to hide a mistress.  Theaters begin to reopen.  Puritans hope not to be noticed.
For William, this is a disaster.  He visits Suzanne and tells her he’s leaving her, since, as a devout Puritan and merchant to Cromwell’s government, the King will clearly want him dead.  Suzanne doesn’t believe he’s in much danger, but William declares that he’s off the France for his own safety.  Looking for a way to make a living that does not involve returning to her days as a prostitute, Suzanne is overcome with inspiration when she visits the sad remains of the Globe Theater.  She manages to secure funding by making her son, Piers, the nominal head of the place.  During the opening performance, a body falls from overhead onto the stage.  It’s William, with a crossbow bolt in his neck.
This time, the author is so brilliant at evoking the time period, I would have been happy if she’d forgotten about the murder altogether.  I was so absorbed in Suzanne’s current and past life and the details of her London, that I’d almost forgotten the murder myself.  The murder (re)occurs after the halfway point of the narrative, by which time the reader knows Suzanne, her troupe, her past, and her surroundings as if transported there.  The mystery is solved in an ingenious fashion.  Even so, the end result is up in the air until the very end of the novel.  I hope this is the first in a very, very long series.

Rating: 9
January 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25586-5 (trade paperback)

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm - Philip Pullman

Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm
A New English Translation
Philip Pullman

Fairy Tales
You know a lot of the stories already.  Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Cinderella.  But you may only know the kid-friendly mouse-ified versions.  This is the real thing, pared down and polished to a gleaming shine by Philip Pullman.  Don’t miss the Introduction that gives insight and historical context to the tales.  And be sure to read Mr. Pullman’s notes after each story, telling what aspects he changed and what aspects have been changed over the years and re-tellings.   

Possibly not suitable for small kids at bedtime, but perfect for everyone else.  There’s a reason these stories endure, and the timeless quality shows through in each page.  Each story is a tiny jewel.  Readers looking for meaning will be just as satisfied as those looking for entertainment.  Be sure to pass the stories along, too.  As Mr. Pullman notes, the beauty of these tales is that they can be changed and adapted by each storyteller while still maintaining the essence of the story.
Rating: 10
November 2012
ISBN# 978-0-670-02497-1 (hardcover)

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

A Haunting Dream - Joyce and Jim Lavene

A Haunting Dream
A Missing Pieces Mystery
Joyce and Jim Lavene
Berkley Prime Crime
If you’ve been reading this entertaining series (A TIMELY VISION, A TOUCH OF GOLD, A SPIRITED GIFT) you’ll know that the last book ended with quite a surprise.  If this is a spoiler to you, you should probably stop reading now.  If not, you’ll be glad to know that the current novel begins mere seconds after the end of A SPIRITIED GIFT.  Everyone is still at the party, and Mayor Dae O’Donnell is face-to-face with someone she thought she’d never meet.  Ann Porter was once an FBI agent who used her own psychic gifts to do her job.  She was partners (in every sense) with Dae’s current flame, Kevin Brickman, until she ended up in an institution.  Now she’s in town and clearly plans to start up her relationship with Kevin again, as if nothing had happened.
Sometimes it’s great to be the mayor in your tiny hometown.  Sometimes it’s not.  Like when your boyfriend’s ex crashes a party and you have to put on your ‘happy and understanding and not-at-all heartbroken’ face when it happens.  In a case like this, Old Man Sweeney is a welcome distraction.  He found a medal in a grocery store parking lot and would like Dae to find the owner, using her unique gift.  When Dae uses her gift to find the medal, she sees that it belongs to local realtor, Chuck Sparks.  And she sees, very clearly, that Chuck is dead.  To her shock, the Chuck in her vision seems to look right at her and say, “help her.” 
This is a new and fairly unwelcome twist to Dae’s talents.  She quickly finds that Chuck has (or had) a young daughter, Betsey.  No one seems to know where the child is, including her mother.  The FBI arrives to investigate the kidnapping, and quickly takes over from Duck’s own law enforcement.  They also seem to think that Dae must be involved; how else would she know the things she does?  Adding to the stress is Ann’s almost malevolent presence.  Ann’s mental breakdown occurred after an unsuccessful search for another missing child.  She actively discourages the search, claiming to know that the child is already dead.  Naturally, Dae is not taking ‘dead’ for an answer.

A HAUNTING DREAM is the fourth mystery in this series, and it adds some interesting depth to both Kevin’s and Dae’s characters.  It’s clear Kevin thought Ann was out of his life, until she appeared unannounced.  Kevin and Dae both react to this impossible situation like the adults they are, which is pretty refreshing.  There’s hurt, but they put it aside in order to pursue the far more important goal of finding the missing child.  The mystery takes several unexpected twists and introduces a few new characters.  The pacing is brisk and there’s a real sense of urgency; time is running out for the missing girl.  The story seems very full, taking into account small town politics, with all the inherent ups and downs.  The authors have built a compelling world here, full of realistic characters. Fans of mysteries that contain a bit of the paranormal will find a lot to love in this series.
Rating: 7 ½
December 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-25179-9 (paperback)