Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Murder With Ganache - Lucy Burdette

Murder With Ganache
A Key West Food Critic Mystery
Lucy Burdette

It’s a busy time for Hayley Snow.  As always, she’s working to complete food reviews for Key Zest.  Her best friend, Connie, is getting married at the end of the week.  Hayley is desperately trying to find time to bake the key lime cupcakes for the reception.  And Hayley’s family (Connie’s surrogate family) is arriving for the wedding.  The family includes mom and her boyfriend, Sam; dad and his wife (and Hayley’s stepmom) Allison, and Allison’s son (Hayley’s stepbrother) Rory.  Having this whole group together in one place is a new experience for everyone.
Hayley hasn’t seen Rory since he was a child, since he lives most of the time with his father.  The sweet child she remembers is gone.  In his place is a sullen teenager who is far more interested in getting on a jet ski than in anything to do with the wedding.  During the wedding shower, it becomes clear that letting him explore the street outside is preferable to having him moaning and whining at everyone.  When he’s not back by curfew, Hayley is worried.  His disappearance, coupled with the report of a jet ski stolen from a dock by a couple of kids, can only mean trouble.   The next morning, they find Rory, unconscious, with the clear imprint of a chain on his hand.  Miles away, the body of a teenaged girl floats in the ocean, the clear imprint of a chain around her neck.

While Rory lies unconscious in the ICU, the police get to work.  It looks pretty bad for Rory.  Of course, his mother claims he’s incapable of something like this, but he doesn’t live with her.  And his father was planning to send him to military school due to discipline problems.  How much do any of them really know about Rory?  How much does any parent know about the inner life of their child?  Or about teenage culture; or, specifically, teenagers’ actions in Key West during spring break?  How do you parse out independence and privacy and safety and guidance?  This installment (AN APPETITE FOR MURDER, DEATH IN FOUR COURSES, and TOPPED CHEF) explores a seedier side of the vacation spot.
It’s a very organic reason for Hayley to get involved in the case.  She remembers the sweet kid he was, and feels guilty for not keeping in closer touch, despite the age difference between them.  The presence of her family both motivates and anchors her.  It’s interesting to watch the dynamics change during times of stress.  Through all of this, there’s a subplot involving Connie and her wedding that echoes, in a smaller way, the chaos around Rory.  As always, there are recipes included.  (I must try the key lime cupcakes.)  The mystery plot is nicely twisty, with the outcome never assured.  Even though a lot of people seem to die there, I’d love to visit this Key West that the author clearly loves so much.

Rating: 7 ½
February 2014
ISBN# 978-0-451-46589-4 (paperback)

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Finding Audrey - Sophie Kinsella

Finding Audrey
Sophie Kinsella
Delacorte Press

Young Adult
After some bad stuff happened at school, and after spending six weeks as an in-patient, 14-year-old Audrey Turner is home.  She’ll sit out the rest of the spring term, then start in the fall.  At a new school, of course.  There’s no way she could go back.  She’s getting better, bit by bit.  She’s been left with paralyzing anxiety and depression.  To help shield herself from the world, she wears dark glasses everywhere.  Inside or outside, rain or shine.  It’s her way of coping.  Eyes have a lot of power.
Audrey is the narrator of her own story, and doesn’t want to give too many details up front.  She’s got an older brother, Frank, and a 4-year-old brother, Felix.  Audrey can talk to them and her parents.  But she still needs the dark glasses.  As part of her recovery, her therapist suggests making a film.  It would be about her family to start, then widen to include ‘outside’ people.  The theory is that it might be easier to look at and talk to people through the camera lens.  Audrey’s not sold, but she’s willing to give it a try.  She’d very much like to be normal.  Especially for Linus, one of her brother’s friends.  Linus doesn’t treat her like a mental case.  And she saw him play Atticus Finch in the play last term, and thought he was great.  She still thinks he’s great.
It might seem that Audrey’s world would be tiny and confined, trapped in the house all the time.  But the truth is, her thoughts and worries take up a lot of her time.  Her story never feels small, just personal.  As she continues filming, we learn more about each member of her family.  There’s her Mum, who takes the Daily Mail newspaper as absolute truth, believing everything in it, and modifying the family’s habits to suit the latest story.  Which often contradicts the last story, so it can be tiring.  Her Dad is the nice, affable guy who used to be in a band and now does accounts.  Her brother Frank, dedicated to computer gaming (too bad, since the Daily Mail just listed the signs of computer game addiction and now Mum is convinced that computers are evil.)  And Felix, who is loved by everyone and leads such a simple, innocent little life.
Her film widens a bit, to include Linus, who is the boy every girl wants to meet.  Nice, understanding, and handsome.  When Audrey is too shy to speak to him, he writes her notes.  It’s an amazingly sweet solution that makes the problem seem like nothing.  Audrey so wants to be well; to be through this whole thing.  While she works through it, she comes to realize that her parents, especially her Mum, have a life apart from the house and the kids.  It’s a revelation most teenagers make, and it makes the story that much deeper.  You can read this as a love story; or you can read this as a family comedy/drama; or you can read it as a recovery story.  It’s all those things, and the ending feels real and earned.  I really like Audrey and loved her story.
Rating: 8
June 2015
ISBN# 978-0-553-53651-5 (hardcover)

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Dark Chocolate Demise - Jenn McKinlay

Dark Chocolate Demise
A Cupcake Bakery Mystery
Jenn McKinlay
Berkley Prime Crime

Scottsdale’s first annual Zombie Walk should be a lot of good, clean (gruesome, rotting) fun.  The walk ends at the park, where there will a concert and vendors.  Of course, the Fairy Tale Cupcakes van will be there.  Even zombies love cupcakes.  The antics of newly-engaged Angie DeLaura and Tate Harper are wearing out recently-uncoupled Melanie Cooper, but the three have been best friends forever, and she tries to put on a brave (zombie) face.  Going with the spirit of the occasion, Mel is dressed as a zombie chef.  Angie and Tate are, naturally, dressed as bride and groom zombies.
The three decide to get a closer look at the concert across the park.  The crowd is huge, and they get separated.  Arriving back at the van, Mel checks out the loaner coffin they’ve got propped up for photos.  The lid is closed, but there’s a piece of dress sticking out.  She almost doesn’t have to open the thing to know: someone in a big, poufy dress is dead.
I usually enjoy the characters in this series (see list below) but this time, their antics went too far.  They know that there’s someone out there, shooting people.  They’re pretty sure they know why.  Everyone around them is bending over backwards to make sure they’re safe, offering help, begging them to lay low.  So, of course, they ‘escape’ from their ‘minders’ as often as possible, putting themselves in terribly dangerous positions.  To the author’s credit, other characters call them on this behavior, but it’s hard to believe that rational adults would act like this, given the circumstances.
The mystery itself is involving, and the solution was an interesting surprise.  This installment of the series relies very heavily on what I’d call romcom elements.  That’s not my personal preference, but I know other readers feel differently.  As always, there’s a great supporting cast, developed over the course of the series, moving in and out of the story in a very natural way.  The cupcake recipes included are not new flavors, but the decoration ideas are new, very doable, and would be great for a Halloween party.  I’ve been following Fairy Tale Cupcakes from the beginning; I can’t let an instance of bad behavior turn me off this series.  I’ll be back for the next one, and, I hope, many more after that.
Rating: 6 ½
April 2015
ISBN# 978-0-425-25893-4 (paperback)

Cupcake Bakery Mysteries:

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Played By The Book - Lucy Arlington

Played By The Book
A Novel Idea Mystery
Lucy Arlington
Berkley Prime Crime

Everyone loves a ‘local boy makes good’ story, and that’s what Novel Idea Literary Agency is celebrating.  Damian York grew up in the area, left after high school, and now returns as an up-and-coming home and garden guru.  He’s already got a show on public television, and his first book is about to be released.  To mark the occasion, the agents of Novel Idea are organizing an outdoor dinner and book-signing event.  They’ll decorate along the same lines as the photos/suggestions in his book, using reclaimed doors for tables, tinted mason jars to hold wild flowers, and pots of fresh herbs on each table, waiting to be snipped and eaten by the diners.
Of course, Lila Watkins is right in the middle of things.  Although Damian isn’t her client, this is a team effort.  She’s been meaning to clean up her own home garden, so when her boss suggests that she participate in the walking garden tour – also part of the festivities – she’s got the motivation to make it happen.  While her son, Trey, is uprooting some sad-looking bushes, he discovers a human skull.  Lila calls the police, of course, and soon an entire skeleton comes to light.  Tests say that the skeleton has been there for maybe thirty years.  Lila naturally wants to find out who this person was, and possibly bring closure to a still-grieving family.
Finding a skeleton in your garden is a really good reason to launch your own investigation, I’d say.  Lila is hampered this time by a sort of estrangement from her boyfriend, who was just promoted to detective.  That brings me to The Big Misunderstanding, my very least favorite literary device.  Lila and her boyfriend have TBM; one that could be cleared up with a few declarative sentences, and since they’re both past forty, that’s what should happen.  Instead, there are ignored calls and dropped hints and trying to start jealousy.  Not how I’d expect these two characters, who until now have been written like real adults, to behave.  Your reaction will vary, of course, based on your tolerance for this device.

Aside from this issue, which may not impact other readers the way it does me, there are some interesting things going on in this installment (BURIED IN A BOOK; EVERY TRICK IN THE BOOK; BOOKS, COOKS, AND CROOKS.)  Several characters evolve and develop, and others hit new life milestones.  In a longstanding series, it’s nice to see the characters grow this way.  For readers who enjoy seeing the inner workings of a literary agency, there’s a good deal more of that this time around. The mystery was interesting, and there was enough misdirection to make the eventual reveal both surprising and original.  I have to admit, this series is really starting to grow on me.
Rating:  7
February 2015
ISBN# 978-0-425-25224-6 (paperback)

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Sword Of The North - Luke Scull

Sword Of The North
A Grim Company Novel
Luke Scull
NOTE:  If you haven’t read the first book in this series, THE GRIM COMPANY, this review contains numerous, unavoidable spoilers.  Proceed at your own risk.  Or, better yet, go read the first book!

Too often, especially in fantasy, the second book of a trilogy can feel like a long game of moving low-value pieces around the board, to prepare for the big finale that will be the third book.  That is absolutely not the case here.  We follow Northman Brodar Kayne (the Sword of the North) and his friend, Jerek, as they travel back to the Northlands.  The road is long and treacherous, and peopled with individuals and groups still smarting from their southward passage a couple of years ago.  Brodar must return to the north to find his wife.  You may recall (spoiler alert!) that he learned in the last novel that she was not killed, as he had long thought.
Kayne is not your typical hero.  In his day, he was the king’s right hand, the Sword of the North, a hero known and admired by everyone.  Now he’s much older.  He still carries the title and the sword, but he’s also got the creaking knees, failing eyes, and aching back to go with it.  None of that affects his heart or will, which as everyone knows, is the true measure of a hero.  As Kayne and Brodar proceed north, they’re forced to deal with the many dangers of the Badlands.  Some of those are known, and some seem to be new; possibly brought on by the epic battle of Dorminia only three weeks ago.
The people living in Dorminia are still adjusting to the death of their ruler, a supposedly-immortal Magelord, Salazar.  He was a tyrant, no doubt.  They thought that, after his death, they would be ruled by the serene and gentle White Lady.  As it turns out, the White Lady seems to be much more interested in looting their city and taking the treasures back to her city, leaving an increasingly aimless and jobless noble class; and leaving the lower-income inhabitants at the point of starvation.  Eremul the Half-Mage, hero of the recent battle and new appointee to the ruling council, knows that if it’s this bad in three weeks, it’s only going to get worse, fast.  His opinion is bolstered by the fact that a terrorist is fire-bombing the city, seemingly at random.  It’s all a recipe for civil warfare.
As Kayne and Jerek move north, we’re treated to flashbacks of Kayne’s life, beginning when he was just a boy.  These are not just backfilling, they’re episodes that were important in making Kayne the hero he became, and the man he is today.  There are some real surprises throughout this book, both in plot twists and in character development.  Far from just ‘moving pieces around,’ there are big events with life or death stakes in play here in every region of this world.  
If you’re looking for a cute fantasy with elves and hobbits and kindly old wizards, look elsewhere.  This author writes a dark and brutal and utterly believable tale.  There’s violence of all stripes, evil both great and banal, betrayals, casual cruelties, and the occasional acts of heroism and selflessness.  If you haven’t met this author yet, you owe it to yourself to do so.  These are the kinds of books you will get lost in, won’t want to put down, and will feel a real sadness when you turn the last page and begin the wait for the next fantastic installment.

Rating: 9
May 2015
ISBN# 978-0-425-26486-7 (hardcover)

Monday, June 01, 2015

Books, Cooks, and Crooks - Lucy Arlington

Books, Cooks, and Crooks
A Novel Idea Mystery
Lucy Arlington
Berkley Prime Crime


The Taste Of The Town festival is coming to Inspiration Valley and the Novel Idea Literary Agency is running a series of events called “Books and Cooks.”  Celebrity chefs and food writers will be there for cooking demonstrations, panel discussions, and to sign their cookbooks.  Lila Wilkins is thrilled to be involved, since she’s a big fan of Klara Patrick, who cooks comfort food and dispenses homespun and heartfelt advice to her viewers/readers.  Once the chefs assemble for the welcome dinner, though, Lila realizes that there can be a huge gap between a chef’s public persona and the way they act in ‘real life.’  For the most part, though, they all seem to know each other, and squabble like siblings looking for attention. 
Klara, for instance, disappoints Lila by mocking a younger chef, making him question his choices for the demonstration to be held in the morning.  He decides to conduct a practice run that night after dinner, which Klara derides as ‘unprofessional.’  The rest of the group is blocks away when they hear the explosion.  It came from the test kitchen, and investigation quickly shows that it was no accident.  An oven was sabotaged so it would explode.  Although everyone seems shaken, they all (chefs, agents, and vendors) have a lot riding on this weekend of events, so they decide to go ahead with it.  It isn’t long before another chef is dead.
This is the third installment, following BURIED IN A BOOK, and EVERY TRICK IN THE BOOK.  This time around, the characters spend a lot less time in the literary agency.  It’s a bit sad, since the workings of the agency are what drew me to the series initially.  In between dealing with events, Lila does take a bit of time to read query letters and become grounded again.  There’s a subplot involving a secret admirer for Makayla, the owner of the coffee shop, that remains sweet (and not stalker/creepy) until the admirer is revealed.

Since the chefs and their families and staff and travelling companions are all from different places, there’s a lot of different personalities to deal with, many of them abrasive.  I honestly found this refreshing in the context of Inspiration Valley, which can be a little sugary for my taste.  But, here we have people who are greedy and envious and duplicitous and even murderous.  I confess, I had the murderer identified a very long time before Lila did, but getting there was half the fun.  On a personal note, I always check to make sure there’s nothing in the oven before I turn it on.  No reason, I just always do.  And now I always will.

Rating:  6 ½
February 2014
ISBN# 978-0-425-25224-6 (paperback)