Saturday, April 12, 2014

Movin' Right Along

Hey, there! As you may have noticed, it's been a while since I've posted anything here. You can rest assured that I haven't given up on reviewing, though; I've simply taken my show on the road.

These days, I spend most of my time writing up new mystery releases for The Season E-Zine and Crimespree Magazine. You can get to their respective sites by clicking the links below:

http://theseasonforromance.com/ 

http://crimespreemag.com/

I also occasionally write posts for CriminalElement.com. You can find those by clicking here:

http://www.criminalelement.com/Katrina%20Niidas%20Holm#filter

So there you have it. Thanks for visiting, and happy reading.



Saturday, April 20, 2013

REVIEW: The Beggar's Opera


The Beggar's Opera by Peggy Blair
Pintail (352 pages)
February 26, 2013

Rating:  9 (Excellent!)

When Canadian police detective Mike Ellis takes his wife Hillary to Old Havana for Christmas, he hopes the trip will repair both his damaged psyche and their failing marriage. Mike would have been better off staying home for the holidays, though, for not only does Hillary leave him (and Cuba) on Christmas Eve, but on Christmas Day, Mike is taken into custody by the Cuban police for a heinous crime he didn’t commit. Or, at least, he doesn’t remember committing it…

Cuban law dictates the police have three days from the time of arrest to indict a suspect or they must let him go. Inspector Ricardo Ramirez, head of the Havana Major Crimes Unit, is determined to make a timely case against Mike lest he be freed and flee the island. Mike is positive he’s innocent, but unless he can prove it, he’ll be transferred to prison where he’ll either be killed in his cell or die in front of a firing squad (whichever comes first). 

The clock is ticking. What really happened in Old Havana on Christmas Eve? Does Inspector Ramirez actually care? Will Mike Ellis live long enough to find out? A lot can happen in three days’ time…  

Equal parts mainstream thriller and David-Lynchian fever dream, The Beggar’s Opera by Peggy Blair is a beautifully written, quickly paced, cleverly crafted novel that is singularly unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Blair’s storytelling style is perhaps best described as teasing. Her characters may be under the gun, but Blair herself suffers from no such affliction, instead opting to slowly, methodically, stingily dole out the pieces of her puzzle in order to create an aura of tension, menace, and dread. The Beggar’s Opera is chock full of challenging subject matter, but to her credit, Blair never shocks without good reason; be it sexual abuse, rape, murder, prostitution, poverty, gender reassignment, corruption, physical deformity, or terminal illness, her button-pushing is always done in service of the plot. To a one, her characters are unique, compelling, and fully fleshed, and Blair does a remarkable job of bringing Cuba to life on the page.  She somehow manages to deliver lessons on history, politics, and culture without making them feel like lectures, and successfully highlights the blatant corruption, shocking brutality, and devastating poverty that plague Cuba without appearing to pass judgment on the island or its people; she neither romanticizes nor vilifies, but instead does her best to paint an honest portrait of the country – warts, beauty marks, and all.

The Beggar’s Opera informs, it entertains, it’ll break your heart and then lift your spirits a dozen times over, and it’ll almost certainly convince you the only way you want to visit Cuba is via the pages of a good book. As someone from the Canadian embassy tells Mike after his arrest, “There’s no point sugar-coating things:  Cuba is what it is. If you’d asked me where to go for a Cuban holiday experience, I would have told you to go to Miami and eat a jerked pork sandwich. I wish people would inform themselves a bit before they come here. It would really make things easier.” Consider me informed, Ms. Blair – thank you, and well done.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

REVIEW: Assaulted Pretzel

Assaulted Pretzel by Laura Bradford
Berkley Prime Crime (288 pages)
March 5, 2013

Rating:  8 (Good!)

For fans of:  Paige Shelton

Claire Weatherly loves the life she’s carved out for herself in the small town of Heavenly, Pennsylvania. She loves living in Sleep Heavenly, the bed-and-breakfast owned by her Aunt Diane. She loves running her own gift shop, Heavenly Treasures, and selling local products to the tourists who pass through. And she loves how much quieter and simpler life is in Heavenly, thanks in no small part to the presence of the Amish families who also call the town their home.

But that quiet simplicity is shattered when toy manufacturer Rob Karble is murdered during a visit to Heavenly. Rumor has it that Karble came to town under the pretense of forging a partnership with local Amish toymakers, but backed out of the deal after procuring copies of the toymakers’ designs. Did Karble’s backroom dealings get him killed – or is there more going on in sleepy little Heavenly than meets the eye?

Assaulted Pretzel is the second in Laura Bradford’s Amish Mystery series, and it’s a wonderfully engaging read. The book has a strong sense of place; Heavenly comes to life on the page by virtue of Bradford’s vibrant prose, and in Sleep Heavenly, she’s created one of the warmest, coziest, most inviting retreats a reader could ever hope to visit (in person or via fiction). The story is cleverly plotted and quickly paced, and the mystery is remarkably well constructed, with a nice collection of plausible suspects and a host of expertly deployed clues. 

Bradford does a fantastic job of introducing the reader to what’s essentially a foreign culture.  The rules by which the Amish live are complex and are vastly different than those followed by their “English” counterparts, but Bradford not only manages to explain them without employing a single info dump, but uses them to enrich and complicate her tale, as well.  The interpersonal relationships alone are enough to make your head spin, and Bradford deserves a ton of credit for choosing such a unique and fertile theme for her series.

Bradford’s character development skills are strong. Claire’s occasionally a little too earnest for my taste, but when she’s not busy channeling Pollyanna she makes for a strong and determined heroine. Good friend and potential love interest Jakob is a skilled and dedicated detective, and is made all the more interesting by the fact that he decided to leave Heavenly to become a cop after he was baptized into the Amish faith – an act that earn him ostracization by his family and his community. And the love triangle that’s developing between Claire, Jakob, and Jakob’s still-Amish childhood rival Benjamin is positively riveting. To call the situation complicated would be a gross understatement, and the relationships forming between the three of them alone are reason enough for me to seek out the next installment of Laura Bradford’s Amish Mysteries.

-Kat

Saturday, February 23, 2013

REVIEW: Sweet Tea Revenge

Sweet Tea Revenge by Laura Childs
Berkley Prime Crime (336 pages)
March 5, 2013

Rating:  6 (Just okay. It had its strong points, but...)

For fans of:  Joanne Fluke

When Indigo Tea Shop proprietress Theodosia Browning agrees to be Delaine Dish’s maid of honor, she assumes her biggest chore will be keeping the high-maintenance bride from melting down long enough to officially become groom Dougan Granville’s problem. Unfortunately, however, that accomplishment isn’t meant to be, for Theodosia finds poor Dougan dead in his room just minutes before the ceremony’s scheduled to begin. Who killed Delaine’s fiancé, and why? Theodosia must help the local police get to the bottom of this particular mystery if her friend’s ever to receive any closure.

Sweet Tea Revenge is the fourteenth of Laura Childs’ Tea Shop Mysteries, and it’s a decidedly ho-hum addition to the series.  Childs’ prose is, as usual, overwrought and preposterously florid; the book is drowning in so many adjectives, adverbs, metaphors, and exclamation points that you occasionally lose track of the plot.  The pace is slow, there isn’t much action or drama, and the stakes are incredibly low, with nobody of import in danger of being killed or arrested, and no real pressing need to solve Dougan’s murder. The mystery itself is hastily sketched and shoddily constructed, with both the circumstances of the murder and the investigation into it straining credulity. There aren’t enough clues, the suspects are woefully underdeveloped, and the Big Showdown between Theodosia and the murderer is nothing short of ridiculous.

That’s not to say that Sweet Tea Revenge has no redeeming qualities, however. Theodosia and the other Indigo employees, Drayton and Haley, are charming as ever, and actually make for pretty great company. For you camellia sinensis aficionados out there, this tale contains a ton of information about exotic teas (and even features some tips and a lengthy list of tea resources). And the book has an incredibly strong sense of place, with Charleston and its homes and businesses coming to life in Childs’ hands. In particular, I find myself wishing the Indigo Tea Shop actually existed; between Drayton’s amazing collection of teas, Haley’s drool-worthy assortments of sweets and savories, and the tranquil and cozy yet still genteel atmosphere of the space itself, I can’t imagine a better place to escape to on a sunny afternoon. Ultimately, that’s what keeps me coming back to this series, installment after installment – because everybody needs a cozy getaway, even if it’s located between the covers of a book.

-Kat

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

REVIEW: Nickeled-and-Dimed to Death

Nickeled-and-Dimed to Death by Denise Swanson
Obsidian (272 pages)
March 5, 2013

Rating:  9/10

For fans of:  Jenn McKinlay, Diane Kelly

When Elise Whitmore shows up at Devereaux "Dev" Sinclair's five-and-dime store and offers her a fantastic price on some antique Easter-candy molds, Dev doesn't think too much of it; the woman is probably either cleaning out her attic or needs some extra spending money. But then Dev learns that Elise is going through a nasty divorce and has been sticking it to her husband by systematically unloading all of his family heirlooms, and she feels a twinge of concern; in buying the molds from Elise, did Dev take possession of stolen property?

That question falls to the back burner when Elise turns up dead, though – particularly since Dev's friend Boone is the one to discover the body and immediately becomes the police’s prime suspect. Dev knows Boone is innocent, but the chief remains unconvinced. Can Dev exonerate Boone and help the cops catch the real culprit, or is her friend doomed to do time for a crime he didn’t commit?

Nickeled-and-Dimed to Death is the second of Denise Swanson’s Devereaux’s Dime Store Mysteries, and it’s a fabulously entertaining read. The pace is quick, the prose is snappy, and the dialogue is sharp. The mystery is incredibly successful, too – elegant in both design and construction. Yes, the clues are smart, the suspects are well developed, and the solution is satisfying, but Swanson also manages to connect the book’s central whodunit to the series as a whole; the Big Reveal not only ties off the book’s loose ends, but casts a whole new light on Dev’s past – and possibly her future, as well.

I do have a minor complaint regarding the way Swanson chose to tell this particular tale. The majority of the book is recounted in the first person from Dev’s perspective. Dev has a very engaging and propulsive narrative style, and her chapters read very naturally. Unfortunately, however, for whatever reason, Swanson chooses to occasionally slip into the third person and tell snippets of the story from Dev’s high-school sweetheart Noah’s point of view. Not only are the transitions from first-person to third-person awkward and jarring, but Noah’s voice never quite rings true, and I actually found that I liked him a little less every time I was forced to spend a chapter in (adjacent to?) his head.

That said, the cast of Nickeled-and-Dimed to Death is flush with incredibly well drawn characters, each with his or her own unique personality, motivation, mannerisms, and background. Dev is as sweet, loyal, and stubborn as they come. Her good friend Poppy, bartender and antagonistic wild-child daughter of the local police chief, is both a supportive sidekick and fantastic comic relief. And Dev’s high-school sweetheart Noah proves a surprisingly likable addition to the group – and does a great job of throwing a wrench into the post-adolescent existence Dev’s been carving out for herself. The relationship between Dev and Noah is at once incredibly complicated and yet very simple, and does a great job of illustrating just how difficult it can be to put the past behind you in matters of romance – particularly when you live in a small town. 

-Kat

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

REVIEW: Evil in All Its Disguises

Evil in All Its Disguises by Hilary Davidson
Forge (352 pages)
March 5, 2013

Rating:  9 (Excellent!)

When travel writer Lily Moore signs on for an all-expenses-paid press trip to Acapulco, Mexico, she expects to spend a few days seeing the sights and being pampered in a ritzy hotel. She does not, however, expect for said ritzy hotel to be owned by her ex-fiancé. Or for fellow travel journalist Skye McDermott to vanish in the middle of dinner, just moments after dropping hints to Lily about a new exposé on which she’s working – an exposé that may or may not be about said ex-fiancé.  And yet…

Before Skye went missing, it was Lily’s plan to decamp to a new hotel ASAP. But since neither her fellow travelers nor the hotel staff will lift a finger to help her find her friend and the police in Mexico are notoriously corrupt, she decides that before she can leave, she must first endeavor to locate Skye herself. That task isn’t as simple as it sounds, though – particularly since it seems Lily’s been lured down to Acapulco under false pretenses and is now essentially a prisoner.

Evil in All Its Disguises is the third of Hilary Davidson’s Lily Moore novels, and it’s her best to date. A twisty, turny tale, full of cons within cons and feints within feints, Davidson’s latest is so compulsively readable, the pages practically turn themselves. Every time you think you've got it all figured out, the story takes another left turn and deposits you back at square one.  And Davidson’s cinematic storytelling style coupled with her prose – at once elegant and refined, yet still lush, vivid, and approachable – only adds to this book’s rather considerable charms.

Most people think of hotels as homes away from home; places of safety and refuge, where at the end of the day, you can lock your door and let your guard down, secure in the knowledge that you’re on friendly soil. In Evil in All Its Disguises, Davidson beautifully illustrates – and then mercilessly exploits – that concept, exploring what it means for one’s sanctuary to become a cell – and a claustrophobic one, at that.  The clouds are low, the air is close, and the hotel in which she’s being held captive is not only isolated, it’s practically deserted, all of which conspire to make it feel as though Lily's trapped in a twisted Hitchcockian nightmare.

Davidson tells this tale with a glorious economy of characters, which helps her to achieve two things.  First, it lends the book an air of intimacy and intensity, making the whole thing feel a bit like a locked-room mystery.  And second, it causes the reader to wonder whether he or she is truly watching a conspiracy unfold, or is instead witnessing Lily’s Poe-like descent into madness.  Because Lily is traveling alone and therefore lacks a trusted ally to ground her and lend her perspective, the reader has no way of knowing whether Lily’s single-minded obsession with Skye’s disappearance is warranted, or is just bugnuts insane. Lily’s suspicions are so elaborate, and she’s so intent on solving a mystery whose existence nobody else is even willing to grant, that you genuinely start to consider the possibility she’s delusional.  And while that’s not great for Lily, it definitely makes for entertaining reading. 

Do yourself a favor and add this one to the TBR pile, and stat.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

REVIEW: One Hot Murder

One Hot Murder by Lorraine Bartlett
Berkley Prime Crime (304 pages)
February 5, 2013

For fans of:  Maggie Sefton

Rating:  7 (A decent read.)

Ever since Katie Bonner inherited the failing artists' co-op known as Artisans Alley, she's had to work extra hard just to keep the place from falling into bankruptcy. The Alley needs to draw in every customer it can to stay afloat, so when one of the neighboring shops is torched by an arsonist and the police find an unidentified corpse inside, Katie worries the negative publicity associated with the crimes could do serious damage to the co-op's bottom line. Can she help the police catch the culprit and close the case before the customers start to flee, or will the criminal's next victim be the Alley, itself?

One Hot Murder is the third of Lorraine Bartlett’s Victoria Square Mysteries, and about half of it is a really entertaining read.  Unfortunately, it’s the second half of the book that’s worth your time, which means that in order to get there, you’re going to have to slog through the first 150 pages.  Not that the first 150 pages are unreadable; far from it.  But the pace is slow, there’s not much action or drama, and the drama that is there feels forced and manufactured.  Most of the scenes have little, if anything, to do with the central mystery, and instead only serve to document the petty infighting that’s taking place amongst the vendors and merchants.  As a result, being in Katie’s head for this part of the book makes you feel like you’re tagging along with someone as they progress through an incredibly aggravating workweek, and that’s not much fun for anyone involved.  Nobody really seems to care that someone’s dead or that there’s a killer on the loose, which means there’s no sense of urgency, and Bartlett never quite brings Artisans Alley to life, which makes it even harder to get caught up in Katie’s narrative.

The back half of Bartlett’s tale is actually quite engrossing, though.  The mystery is complex and very neatly constructed, and there are some genuinely clever twists and red herrings mixed in.  Bartlett’s fashioned a puzzle that will definitely keep readers guessing, and if you can make it this far, you’ll have a hard time putting the book down until you’ve reached the end.

Katie is a decent heroine; she’s definitely got gumption and isn’t afraid to take control of a situation to get what she wants, even if it means stepping on some toes or ruffling some feathers.  And I really like the way her relationship with formerly grumpy Detective Ray Davenport is progressing; it’s sweet, and it’s funny, and there’s not an ounce of romance to it, which is kind of refreshing for a traditional mystery cop-sleuth partnership.  Unfortunately, however, she shares almost no chemistry with purported love interest Andy, which makes for some awkward scenes. The couple comes off more like brother and sister than a pair of lovers, and I found myself desperately hoping some new potential suitor would appear on the scene.

The best traditional mysteries are never all about the mystery – I know that; but there should never be so much padding that one occasionally can’t even find the mystery.  Especially if said mystery is good enough to deserve center stage.

-Kat

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

REVIEW: Buried in a Bog

Buried in a Bog by Sheila Connolly
Berkley Prime Crime (304 pages)
February 5, 2013

Rating:  8 (Good!)

For fans of:  Nancy Atherton

When Maura Donovan agrees to grant her grandmother Nora's dying wish and travel to Ireland to visit the village of Leap (where Nora was born), she doesn't think she's signing on for anything that'll take longer than a week. She figures she'll seek out some of her grandmother's old friends, see the sights, and come home again.

Life never works out quite as one plans, though, and before she knows it, Maura's befriending the locals and lending a hand down at the village pub. It's only for a few months, she tells herself – just until the pub's managers can figure some things out, and until Maura decides what she wants to do with her life now that there's nothing keeping her in Boston. But when a body's pulled out of the bog, another villager turns up dead, and Maura starts receiving threats, she's forced to wonder if she's destined to become a permanent resident of Leap – with an address in the local cemetery.

Buried in a Bog is the first of Sheila Connolly’s new County Cork Mysteries, and if the quality of this book is any indication, Berkley has another winner of a series on their hands. Connolly’s latest is a captivating tale – sweet, nostalgic, and full of Irish charm, but also tightly plotted and full of twists, turns, and shocking reveals. There's a strong sense of place; Connolly's lush and vivid descriptions virtually transport the reader to the Irish countryside. And the book reads almost like a love letter to Irish history, culture, and genealogy; Buried in a Bog is as much a mystery as it a story of self-discovery and rebirth – of uncovering one’s history, and in doing so, stumbling across one’s path to the future.

Connolly’s characters are likable and well drawn, but I must admit to mixed feelings regarding Maura as a heroine. On the one hand, you can’t help but feel sorry for her; her father’s dead, her mother abandoned her, and the grandmother who raised her just died of cancer, essentially leaving her both homeless and penniless. And you have to admire her sense of adventure, what with her spur-of-the-moment decision to (at least temporarily) relocate to Ireland and to try and make a go of it. But neither of these things quite makes up for the fact that Maura’s about as judgmental as they come – especially considering her young age, her relatively poor upbringing, and her current station in life. Her critical nature makes it difficult to truly like her, no matter how much you may want to do so, and that’s probably my biggest knock about this book.  She does mellow a bit over the course of this first installment in her tale, and I have a feeling she’ll continue to do so as she acclimates to her new life and the people in it, but for this book, at least, Maura comes off more like a cranky, bitter old lady than she does a young woman with her whole life ahead of her.

That said, Connolly absolutely nails the book’s ending, tying up all the story's loose ends and rather nicely setting up the rest of the series. Sheila Connolly’s County Cork Mysteries have a ton of promise, and I, for one, can’t wait to see where Connolly chooses to take her readers next.

-Kat

Saturday, January 26, 2013

REVIEW: Town in a Pumpkin Bash

Town in a Pumpkin Bash by B.B. Haywood
Berkley Prime Crime (336 pages)
February 5, 2013

For fans of:  Joanne Fluke

Rating:  8 (Good!)

When Maine blueberry farmer Candy Holliday agrees to help her friend Maggie tend old Mr. Gumm’s pumpkin patch through the fall season, she figures it’ll be an easy way to have some fun while making some extra cash.  She does not, however, expect that she and Maggie will stumble across a dead body buried in a pile of pumpkins just days before Halloween, or that the discovery will land her smack in the middle of yet another murder investigation.  The deeper Candy digs, the more it seems the killer meant for her to find the corpse and become involved in the case.  But if so, who?  And perhaps more importantly, why?

Town in a Pumpkin Bash is the fourth of B.B. Haywood’s Candy Holliday Mysteries, and it’s her best to date.  The previous installments in Haywood’s series have been entertaining, but historically, her attempts to make her books and her characters seem authentically Maine-y have been so over-the-top that I actually found them insulting. (Yes, I’m from Maine, so I may be a little overly sensitive about such matters, but to me, it felt like Haywood spent half of each book waving her hands and screaming, “This is what Maine people eat! This is what Maine people wear! This is how Maine people talk! Isn’t it craaazzzyyyy?” Maine is a state, people – not an alien planet; get a grip.)

I’m happy to report, however, that with Town in a Pumpkin Bash, Haywood has finally written a book that feels like it actually takes place in Maine.  The characters are quirky and colorful, but not too.  The town is small and quaint, but not nauseatingly so.  And she drops just enough Maine facts and trivia into the mix to lend context and veracity to her tale, but not so many as to disrupt the flow of the story.  

Haywood’s prose is artful and fun, her narrative style is engaging, and the two central mysteries (one past and one present) are clever, complex, and connect quite seamlessly.  The story is perfectly paced, with twists, clues, confrontations, and red herrings dropped in all the right places, and Haywood manages to keep the reader guessing until the very end.  I confess, I wish she’d spent a little more time developing her suspects (after I read the Big Reveal, I didn’t recall having met the culprit and had to page back and figure out who said culprit was in relation to the rest of the story), but in the grand scheme of things, that’s a relatively minor quibble.

If you’re sick of the cold and the snow and are yearning to escape to someplace a little more exciting and a little less bleak, look no further than Town in Pumpkin Bash by B.B. Haywood; come for the beautiful Maine foliage, stay for the intrigue and the dead bodies.

-Kat

Thursday, January 24, 2013

REVIEW: Murder Hooks a Mermaid

Note:  This review was originally written for inclusion in The Season E-Zine's January mystery section.

Murder Hooks a Mermaid by Christy Fifield
Berkley Prime Crime (304 pages)
December 31, 2012

Rating: 3.5/5 (Good) (The Season's rating scale now runs from 1 to 5.)

For fans of:  Lorraine Bartlett

When Glory Martine inherited a 55% share of her Uncle Louis’ souvenir shop, Southern Treasures, she didn’t realize she’d also be inheriting the ghost of her Uncle Louis. Or that Uncle Louis’ ghost would opt to communicate with her via the shop’s mascot, a potty-mouthed parrot named Bluebird. Quirks be damned though, Glory’s proud of what she’s been able to do with her new business, and is determined to make a go of things in her old hometown of Keyhole Bay.

Spring break is right around the corner, which means Glory should be dedicating all her free time to preparing for the inevitable influx of tourists. Instead, she’s stuck trying to help her best friend Karen clear the name of Karen’s former brother-in-law Bobby, who’s been arrested for murder. It’s pretty clear Bobby’s been set up – but by who and why?

Murder Hooks a Mermaid is the second in Christy Fifield’s Haunted Souvenir Shop Mystery series, and it’s a bit of a slow burn. I actually wasn’t quite sure what I thought of this book for the first hundred pages or so; the setup is clunky, the story has no real sense of place, and Fifield doesn’t do a great job of establishing the stakes. You never get to know murder suspect Bobby (in fact, I don’t even remember meeting him), which makes it difficult to care whether he’s been wrongfully accused or will be wrongfully convicted, and the pace starts off a bit slow.  The premise is quirky and unique, though (the idea of a haunted parrot amuses the heck out of me), and in Glory, Fifield has created a heroine for whom you can’t help but root, so I stuck with it. And I have to tell you, I’m glad that I did.

Yes, some of the supporting characters feel a bit flat, but the book’s key players – namely Glory, Karen, and Glory’s love interest, Jake – are entertaining and well drawn. The friendship between Glory and Karen rings true, and Fifield does a great job fleshing out the developing relationship between Glory and Jake. The mystery is clever (if a little predictable), and once the action and drama pick up in the third act, the story really sucks you in.

Final verdict? If you’re looking for a fun and easy read (now with bonus haunted parrot!), check out Murder Hooks a Mermaid by Christy Fifield. It’s not going to change the way you view crime fiction or anything, but it’s certainly an enjoyable way to pass an afternoon.

-Kat
               

Monday, January 21, 2013

REVIEW: Fonduing Fathers

Note:  This review was originally written for inclusion in The Season E-Zine's January mystery section. 

Fonduing Fathers by Julie Hyzy
Berkley Prime Crime (304 pages)
December 31, 2012

Rating:  4.5/5 (Amazing) (The Season's rating scale now runs from 1 to 5.)

For fans of:  Diane Mott Davidson

White House Executive Chef Olivia “Ollie” Paras is no stranger to danger, drama, and intrigue; in the past few years, she’s helped foil terrorist plots, thwart assassination attempts, and has even survived a kidnapping. But none of the crazy situations she’s faced while in the employ of the First Family has sufficiently prepared her for her latest adventure:  the quest to learn the truth about her father, Anthony Paras, who died when Ollie was just a child. 

You’d think it’d be easy for someone with Ollie’s connections to gain access to the information she seeks; unfortunately, though, every answer she procures only raises more questions. Was her father really the victim of a homicide, and not an accident as she’d been led to believe?  If so, who killed him, and why? And if her father truly was dishonorably discharged from the military, how did he end up buried in Arlington? Can Ollie get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Anthony’s death – or is she doomed to fall prey to the same criminals who claimed his life?

Fonduing Fathers is the sixth of Julie Hyzy’s superlative White House Chef Mysteries, and it’s a riveting read from cover to cover. Hyzy quickly and efficiently establishes the mood, setting, and stakes for her tale, and then goes on to build one heckuva fabulous puzzle. Twists, turns, clever clues, and expertly deployed red herrings – Fonduing Fathers has it all and then some, the end result being (as per Hyzy’s usual) an elevation of the genre and one of the best books I’ve read this year.

In a break from form for the series, Ollie actually spends most of the book outside the confines of the White House; I’m happy to report, though, that Fonduing Fathers is no less thrilling for it. Because the subject of this particular mystery is so personal to Ollie, she’s even more invested in seeing it through to its conclusion.   Ollie’s always had moxie; it’s one of her most endearing qualities. But the Ollie of this book is not only tenacious, but, for the first time, she’s angry, too, and this fire only serves to make her all the more compelling and relatable.

That’s not to say, however, that our heroine’s gone hard; to the contrary, Fonduing Fathers offers readers the chance to see Ollie at her warmest and most tender, as well. Her developing rapport with First Kid Josh will warm the cockles of even the hardest of hearts, and the chemistry Hyzy’s cooked up between Ollie and Secret Service Agent Leonard “Gav” Gavin is nothing short of stellar. The couple’s romance has been progressing for at least a couple of books now, but it really comes into its own here. Gav’s the Frank Hardy to Ollie’s Nancy Drew (oh, c'mon – they were SO TOTALLY a thing). He treats her like a partner and a respected equal, which is a refreshing change from the stereotypical cozy (but then, nothing Hyzy does is stereotypical), and I, for one, can’t wait to see what the future has in store for these two.

-Kat

Sunday, January 20, 2013

REVIEW: What a Ghoul Wants

 Note:  This review originally appeared in The Season E-Zine's January mystery section.

What a Ghoul Wants by Victoria Laurie
Obsidian (352 pages)
December 24, 2012

Rating:  4.5/5 (Amazing) (The Season's rating scale now runs from 1 to 5.)

For fans of: Juliet Blackwell

Ghost hunters M.J. Holliday and Heath Whitefeather have traveled all over the world filming their reality television show, Ghoul Getters. They’ve visited some incredibly creepy locations and faced down some extraordinarily powerful spirits, but none of their experiences has sufficiently prepared them for their current project:  a shoot at Kidwella Castle in northern Wales.

Kidwella is haunted by a number of spooks, but perhaps the most legendary is the one known as the Grim Widow.  The Grim Widow is a ghost so dangerous she’s rumored to have claimed nearly a dozen lives in the past forty years – and it seems she has no intention of retiring anytime soon, as a body is found floating in the moat soon after the crew arrives. Their very first encounter with the phantom proves to M.J. and Heath that the Grim Widow's not only real, but is even more malevolent than they were led to believe. But is she actually responsible for all of Kidwella’s corpses – or is a flesh-and-blood killer using her for cover?

What a Ghoul Wants is the seventh of Victoria Laurie's fabulously entertaining Ghost Hunter Mysteries. Laurie's among my very favorite authors and this is my favorite of her two series, so I'm happy to report that What a Ghoul Wants doesn't disappoint.  I've always been a sucker for a good ghost story, and What a Ghoul Wants is certainly that.  The woman knows how to bring the creepy; the spectral encounters she writes are the stuff of nightmares – what you desperately hope for when you tune in to an actual ghost-hunting reality show, but unfortunately never get.  She has a genuine talent for creating unique spirits with compelling origin stories and then using those creations to scare the crap out of her characters and her readers, alike.

That said, What a Ghoul Wants isn’t all thrills and chills; it’s as much a cleverly plotted mystery as it is a ghost story, and there’s plenty of humor and goofy charm to be found here, as well. The setup is marvelous, the pace is quick, and the stakes are high; Laurie wastes no time plunging you straight into the center of the action and doesn't pause to let you catch your breath until she’s got you good and hooked.  This is the kind of book you consider calling in sick just to read, and it will pain you to put it down in between sittings.

The characters are fantastic to a one. I adore M.J. as a heroine; she’s strong, smart, loyal, brave, and incredibly resourceful. She’s also doggedly determined without being reckless, and that’s a rare trait amongst traditional mystery heroines. For his part, Heath is both a perfect partner and a perfect love interest (and a darned intriguing character in his own right), and the developing relationship between he and M.J. just serves to make the two of them even more likable.  Best friend, technical advisor, and all-around-scaredy-cat Gilley is, as usual, completely over the top, but he's great comic relief. And bit player Inspector Lumley very nearly steals the show. He flies in the face of everything you've come to expect from a traditional mystery cop, and his presence adds a goodly amount of heart to the tale, as well.

The upshot? Buy this book. Buy it now. Who needs Dickens and his lame assorted Christmas ghosts when you've got Victoria Laurie and her merry band of ghostbusters?

 -Kat



Thursday, July 26, 2012

REVIEW: Heads You Lose

 Note:  This review originally appeared in The Season E-Zine's April mystery section.

Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward
Berkley (300 pages)
April 5, 2012

Rating:  4.5/5 (Amazing) (The Season's rating scale now runs from 1 to 5.)

For fans of:  Christopher Moore, The Coen Brothers, and Dave Barry

Orphaned twenty-something siblings Paul and Lacey Hansen lead a pretty quiet life.  Or rather, they led a pretty quiet life – until the decapitated corpse showed up in their backyard.

Most people would probably call the police if something like that happened to them.  Then again, most people don’t have a marijuana farm located in their basement.  So Paul and Lacey do what any two rational, legally challenged people in their situation would do:  they relocate the body under the cover of darkness and leave it for somebody else to find.

That should be that.  But then the (ever ripening) dead body reappears in front of their house, and Paul and Lacey are forced to admit that this is a situation they’re going to have to face head-on…

As you may have gathered from the above synopsis, Heads You Lose is a murder mystery.  What you may not realize, however, is that it’s also the tale of two exes (crime novelist Lisa Lutz and poet David Hayward) collaborating to write a murder mystery.  When they started the project, the pair agreed to alternate chapters (with Lutz writing the odd-numbered chapters and Hayward writing the even) and to refrain from doing any outlining whatsoever.  That, it turns out, is all they could agree on, as is evidenced by the hilariously antagonistic e-mail exchanges between the authors (featured at the end of each chapter), the sniping editorial footnotes the two append to each other’s work, the fact that Lutz takes great delight in killing off all of Hayward’s favorite characters, and Hayward’s attempt to paint Lutz into a corner before leaving her to write the final chapter.  If the Editor’s Note is to be believed, when the book was finished, the authors refused to come together on revisions, so the manuscript was published in its original form.  As the Note says, “[w]hile unorthodox in structure, it is nevertheless a novel.  It just happens to tell more stories than either author intended.”  Indeed.

This is a book that succeeds on every level.  Yes, the attempted collaboration between Lutz and Hayward is endlessly entertaining; watching the two of them battle for control over the novel will fill you with a perverse sort of glee, and every time you stumble across an in-story pot-shot, you’ll feel like you’ve just won a game of literary Where’s Waldo? 

But the mystery they’ve crafted is incredibly compelling, as well.  I mean, okay, the plot is wild and woolly and takes more turns than a driver at Indy, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work.  For all their literary shenanigans (and the resulting epically high body count), the characters are incredibly well developed, there’s a very clear through-line to Lutz and Hayward’s story, and the ending is nothing short of genius. 

Read this book.  Do it now.  And prepare to enjoy the hell out of the experience.



Sunday, July 8, 2012

REVIEW: The Diva Digs Up the Dirt

Note:  This review originally appeared in The Season E-Zine's June mystery section.

The Diva Digs Up the Dirt by Krista Davis
Berkley Prime Crime (290 pages)
June 5, 2012

Rating:  5/5 (Chart Topper) (The Season's rating scale now runs from 1 to 5.)

For fans of:  Diane Mott Davidson

Domestic diva Sophie Winston knows that her boyfriend, Detective Wolf Fleishman, used to be married.  She also knows that Wolf's wife Anne disappeared without a trace four years ago, and that a lot of people – many of them fellow cops – believe Wolf was responsible for that disappearance.  But Wolf insists Anne left of her own accord, and Sophie believes him; Anne's body's never turned up, Wolf was never charged with any crime, and most importantly, Sophie knows that Wolf is incapable of murder, so she's never felt unsafe in his company, nor has she ever doubted his innocence.

But then one afternoon she slips into Wolf's backyard to surprise him by planting a rosebush and instead unearths Anne's purse, and everything changes.  Thanks to her discovery, Wolf is once more the center of a homicide investigation.  Sophie’s still relatively certain her boyfriend’s not a criminal – but why would any woman bury her own wallet in the ground before leaving town?  Sophie can't seek solace in her party-planning work, because all hell has broken loose on her current job and someone appears to be trying to poison her clients.  And then there's the small matter of the home improvement show her friend Natasha’s sicced on her quiet little refuge of a backyard...
    
The Diva Digs Up the Dirt is the sixth in Krista Davis' Domestic Diva Mysteries, and it's one heck of a fantastic read.  Davis’ latest fires on all cylinders; the plot is tight, the setup is smart, and the mystery is rich and multi-layered and really will keep you guessing until the very end.  The pacing is perfect and she sets just the right mood and tone in every scene, knowing exactly when to undercut heavy with humor and when it’s better just to let a serious moment stand.  The book has a strong sense of place, and her characters are so strongly developed and skillfully drawn they practically come to life on the page. 

Sophie is one of my absolute favorite traditional mystery heroines.  She’s smart, she’s kind, she’s funny, and she’s strong, and she has a down-to-earth quality about her that makes her incredibly relatable.  She has a fantastic narrative voice that sucks you in and forces you to become emotionally invested in the tale she’s telling.  The relationships she shares with her neighbors, friends, and even her clients all feel genuine and earned, and each adds something unique and worthwhile to the story.  In particular, her rivalry (and reluctant friendship) with the high-energy, high-maintenance Natasha adds the perfect amount of comic relief to an otherwise intense plot.  And the way Davis paints Sophie’s relationship with Wolf in this book is nothing short of brilliant.  She loves him and is determined to do everything in her power to save him, but the fact that she’s uncertain as to the truth surrounding his wife’s disappearance, coupled with the fact that he refuses to even discuss the matter with her, makes it exceedingly difficult for her to determine what’s a help and what’s a hindrance.  Regardless, her dogged determination to do what’s right in the face of her certainty that the outcome of the police investigation will ultimately have a serious impact on her future with Wolf adds layers of intensity, uncertainly, and melancholy you don’t often find in a traditional mystery.

The fact that the B-story involving her rich, crazy, back-stabbing, poison-happy clients is just as complex and wonderfully developed as the mystery surrounding Wolf and Anne is just icing on the cake.

I’ve long been a fan of Krista Davis’ Domestic Diva Mysteries, and The Diva Digs Up the Dirt is without a doubt the finest installment thus far.  Buy it, read it, love it.

-Kat

Saturday, June 30, 2012

REVIEW: Murder for Choir

Note:  This review originally appeared in The Season E-Zine's July mystery section.

Murder for Choir by Joelle Charbonneau
Berkley Prime Crime (July 3, 2012)
304 pages

Rating:  4.5/5 (Amazing) (The Season's rating scale now runs from 1 to 5)

For fans of:  Diane Kelly, Wendy Lynn Watson

Paige Marshall is a struggling opera singer.  A struggling, out-of-work opera singer with bills to pay, to be more precise.  Which means that until her manager can find her a paying gig, she's stuck living with her Aunt Millie in Lake Forest, Illinois and coaching the Prospect Glen High School show choir.  The job should be easy money, but unfortunately for Paige, it’s anything but; her students neither like her nor have any confidence in her ability to lead them to the championships, and her co-coach, Larry DeWeese, is utterly lacking in creativity and completely intimidated by Greg Lucas, the slimy, egotistical coach of their show choir rivals from North Shore High.

Paige is determined to win over the kids and lead them to victory – or, at the very least, to make a go of it until something better comes along – but then Greg Lucas is found dead, a microphone cord wrapped around his neck, and she’s forced to wonder just how much more impossible that task can become.  Not only is Prospect Glen’s best male singer at the top of the police’s suspect list, but Paige’s co-coach has been acting awfully suspicious, as well.  Paige knows Prospect Glen doesn’t stand a chance of winning this year if either man winds up behind bars (and she’s pretty sure neither of them is a murderer), so she decides to do some digging and solve Greg’s murder herself.  That should win her brownie points with her students, right?  If her investigation doesn’t get her killed first, that is…

Murder for Choir is the first of Joelle Charbonneau’s Glee Club Mysteries, and if the debut is any indication, Berkley’s got a winner of a series on their hands.  Charbonneau writes with a young, hip voice that’s witty, engaging, and perfectly suited to the story she’s telling.  The book has a strong narrative drive and the prose has a snappy, staccato rhythm to it that keeps the pace moving right along.  The setup is fun; the mystery is cleverly constructed with viable suspects, clues, and red herrings galore; and the book manages to be riotously funny without falling into farce, which is no mean feat.  The book contains just enough music and show choir references to earn its theme, but not so many as to turn off the non-musically-inclined among us; Glee, it’s not (and that’s a good thing).

Charbonneau’s character work is strong, as well.  Paige is everything you could hope for in a leading lady.  Strong, smart, funny, and charmingly self-deprecating, she’s the kind of character you’d happily befriend if you met her in real life, and her sweetly antagonistic relationship with her Aunt Millie's misanthropic poodle, Killer, is both hilarious and heartwarming.  Aunt Millie is a hoot and a half, and (like her poodle) adds equal measures of heart and comic relief to the story.  Curmudgeonly Detective Mike Kaiser and rakish drama teacher Devlyn O’Shea make for compelling potential love interests, and the triangle developing between the two of them and Paige promises to provide no shortage of drama for books to come. And poor Larry manages to be at once pathetic and threatening – an entertaining and unexpected combination in a murder suspect, to be sure.

Like a little harmony and humor with your homicide? You’ve found your match in Joelle Charbonneau’s Murder for Choir; it’s heckuva fun read, and a great way to kick off your summer reading season.