Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sugar And Iced - Jenn McKinlay

Sugar And Iced
A Cupcake Bakery Mystery
Jenn McKinlay
Berkley Prime Crime

A beauty pageant isn’t Melanie Cooper’s idea of a good time.  As a feminist, she doesn’t like young girls believing that the outside is all that counts.  But, when her best friend and co-owner of Fairy Tale Cupcakes, Angie DeLaura begs her to take the meeting, Mel reluctantly caves.  The two meet the organizer of the Sweet Tiara Beauty Pageant, who wants each contestant to submit an original cupcake recipe.  The cupcakes will be baked by Fairy Tale Cupcakes, giving them some great visibility.  And, the pageant would like a cupcake ‘tower’ in the lobby of the resort every day of the pageant.  It’s pretty impossible to refuse.
Back at the bakery, they’re surprised to learn that Lupe, the skater-girl friend of their intern, Oz, is interested in the pageant.  With her hair-in-the-eyes ‘do and baggy black clothing, she’s not what you’d expect to see in the pageant, but Oz wisely points out that the winner also receives a full-ride scholarship to the university of her choice.  Lupe has been accepted to Stanford, and there’s no way she can pay for college on her own.  Despite her misgivings, Mel hands Lupe over to her own mother, Joyce, and her pageant aficionado friends to see what can be done. 

The bakers arrive at the resort for day one of the pageant and it’s everything Mel both hoped and feared.  There are highly-polished young women and their equally-polished stage mothers everywhere.  It’s clear that no one has spared any expense at any step along the way.  Mariel Mars, one of the judges, is not shy about opining that Lupe doesn’t belong there.  When Mariel torpedoes Lupe’s initial interview score, there’s a yelling match in the lobby.  It’s large and it’s loud, it involves Lupe and Mariel (and Joyce,) and it ends with Lupe threatening Mariel.  The following day, Mariel is nowhere to be found.  Until Angie finds her, under the skirt of one of their cupcake tables, strangled with a pink pageant sash.  Now it’s really going to get ugly.
In the past, I’ve complained about the Tate and Angie will-they-or-won’t-they story.  Even the characters finally seemed to tire of that, so it’s been resolved in the main, to my great relief.  Now we have the Melanie and Joe story.  I won’t spoil it, and I know that many readers enjoy this kind of plotline, but I find it very tedious.  In contrast, I found the Oz and Lupe relationship arc sweet and believable.  Of course Oz would want to protect Lupe from accusers, and of course he doesn’t know how he feels: he’s a teenager.  Oz has been one of my favorites since he was introduced, so I’m glad to see him continuing to evolve.
A beauty pageant, no matter your personal view, is a great venue for a mystery.  There are loads of people with intricate histories, any number of which might have a reason to commit murder.  Some of the girls are under intense pressure from parents; some parents are clearly forcing the girls to enter and succeed.  This is an expensive world; any number of lucrative business deals could be forged or broken, also providing motive for murder.  The author does a wonderful job of bringing together many disparate personalities and motives and making it all work.  Each character, each suspect, is a reasonable choice.  The solution makes sense and will satisfy any mystery lover.  As always (see list below) there are cupcake recipes included.  This series continues to deliver solid entertainment.

Rating: 7 ½
April 2014
ISBN# 978-0-425-25892-7

Cupcake Bakery Mysteries:

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Red Delicious - Kathleen Tierney (Caitlin R. Kiernan)

Red Delicious
A Siobhan Quinn Novel
Kathleen Tierney (Caitlin R. Kiernan)

Urban Fantasy
Quinn (do NOT call her Siobhan) has had a rough year.  She went from a heroin-addicted runaway to being Twice Dead, or Twice Damned.  That’s because, after accidentally offing a couple of supernatural beasties, she was bitten by both a vampire and a werewolf, giving her the best of both worlds, so to speak.  That little party was six months ago, and she’s dealing with it.  She does odd jobs for a fixer who calls himself Mr. B.  These jobs almost always have something to do with the supernatural world and its denizens.  And they almost always involve severe personal risk, even to someone who’s already dead.  Twice.
This fine day (check all your previously-known vampire facts at the door) Mr. B has another job for Quinn.  It seems that a teenaged girl is missing.  She just happens to be the youngest daughter of one of the most powerful necromancers anywhere.  So why isn’t he looking for her?  Because her sister is the client, and she’s anxious to keep this grim news from Dad for as long as possible.  Adding to the thrill of this case is the fact that Mr. B already assigned his best tracker to the case.  That tracker has disappeared, too.  Quinn reminds B that she’s not a detective, but he’s sure that she’s the right one for the job.  Or the only one.  It doesn’t really matter.  What B wants, B gets, one way or another.
The book starts with a warning from Quinn, who tells the story in first person.  What it boils down to is: if you don’t like bad language and bad attitude; if you think vampires are romantic and/or tragic and/or sparkle in the sunshine; then you need to find another book.  Which instantly made me like her.  She’s as good as her word.  She doesn’t romanticize vampires or any other supernatural being.  They’re bad and good and terrible and honest and grasping and chiseling, just like humans.  The case starts with the missing girl, and then spirals into something altogether larger and far more interesting.  The depth of the supernatural world here (and on other worlds) is truly impressive.  There's not one Big Bad; there are several, depending on your plane of existence.

Around the middle of the book, there’s a short story, written in a parallel reality, to illustrate the point of the whole endeavor.  The short story alone is worth the price of admission, and it quite nicely sets up the rest of the action.  And there’s plenty of action.  If you like your urban fantasy more on the gritty, noir side, with a generous helping of dark, led by a foul-mouthed narrator, this is the book for you.  For series purists, I haven’t read the first book in the series, but Quinn grudgingly gives an adequate recap and gets on with things.  I plan to find the first book, but you can start here with no problems.  I hope to see a lot more of Quinn in the future.

Rating: 8 ½
February 2014
ISBN# 978-0-451-41653-7 (trade paperback)


Wednesday, April 02, 2014

V-S Day - Allen Steele

V-S Day
A Novel of Alternate History
Allen Steele

Alternate History/SciFi

In 1941, the Americans learned that the Nazis were attempting to build a rocket.  Not just any rocket, but a manned rocket, carrying a payload of missiles.  With a weapon like that, the Nazis would be able to strike at any spot on the globe.  There would be no possible defense against such an attack.  Suddenly, Dr. Robert H. Goddard and his theories seem much more plausible.  He’s put in charge of assembling a team for an unprecedented project.  Simply finding the right combination of men with the right backgrounds is a huge task.

At the same time, in Germany, Dr. Wernher von Braun is working on his own project.  Both he and Goddard had dreams of exploring other planets, not destroying this one.  But von Braun is careful to conceal his distaste in order to preserve his life and his craft.  The two scientists know each other a bit, and, as the two foremost experts in a very new field, corresponded in the past.  Now they each work on a craft, watching lifelong dreams become twisted into something else by the necessity of war.

This story, a stand-alone novel, is clearly a labor of love for the author.  He wrote it first as a short story in 1988, and continued to play with and expand the concept until it became the novel.  The way he writes Goddard and other members of the team, it’s clear he’s spent a long time with them, crafting them into the three-dimensional characters that they are.  He even manages to make von Braun a real and empathetic character.
The way he tells the story suits the material perfectly.  It begins in 1943, with the launch of an experimental craft.  Seconds before liftoff, the narrative moves to the present day, to a writer who wants to tell the whole story now that it’s no longer classified.  From there, we spiral back to 1941, to tell the story on both sides of the Atlantic.  This is the perfect book for those who love alternate history, scifi, rocket history, or just enjoy a great adventure story. The best alternate history makes you wonder what's real and what's 'alternate.'  This one made me forget to wonder and just enjoy the ride. 
Rating: 9
February 2014
ISBN# 978-0-425-25974-0 (hardcover)