Tuesday, January 31, 2012

File M for Murder by Miranda James

Charlie Harris is a librarian and an intelligent amateur sleuth. But author Miranda James is even smarter. James knows the real reason readers love the Cat in the Stacks mysteries is because we love Diesel, the Maine Coon cat in the books. In the latest book, File M for Murder, Diesel has a much larger role, and fans will be happy.

The appearance of Charlie’s daughter, Laura, in Athena, Mississippi, was a joyful surprise. She and her brother, Sean, had kept it a secret that she was coming to teach drama for a semester at Athena College. Charlie couldn’t have been happier, until he learned it was an old boyfriend, playwright Connor Lawton who pulled strings to get her the job. The few times Charlie and Diesel met the man, they had been repelled by his rudeness and unpleasant nature.

When Sean brought a defaced photo of Laura to Charlie’s attention, he was outraged, but she laughed it off, saying it was a jealous actress who hung on to Connor. But, Connor’s behavior toward Laura wasn’t a laughing matter. And, none of the family had reasons to laugh when Connor was found dead, and Laura was the one who found him. Naturally, a former girlfriend would be on the top of the suspect list.

Laura’s hiding something, but Charlie, Sean, and Diesel team up again to protect her. It’s going to take Charlie’s research skills, and Laura’s knowledge of the victim, to uncover the truth.

File M for Murder is only the third book in this delightful series, but Charlie Harris and Diesel continue to grow and become even more attractive as characters and sleuths. Diesel’s personality has blossomed. He chirps and warbles, demands treats, hides his treasures. He remains a cat, one who understands emotions, feelings, and knows when something is wrong. He’s an essential part of Charlie’s life, and a vital element in the charm of these books.

In the first book, Charlie was a lonely figure, a widower, not close to either of his children. By the third book, he’s a father, a landlord, and a cat owner, filled with joy, surrounded by family and friends. And, he’s an intelligent amateur sleuth, who does his research, and realizes he’s getting too involved in cases. “I decided it was the librarian in me, the part that always wanted to help people find the information they needed. I wasn’t a busybody, surely.” Charlie Harris is smart enough to dig for answers, and then turn those answers over to Chief Deputy Kanesha Berry. My kind of sleuth, one who can even laugh with others that this isn’t an episode from a TV show in which the suspects are all brought together, and the amateur detective endangers himself. Charlie was very much aware of the danger to his family, and he did everything he could to prevent it.

Readers who want an intelligent amateur sleuth with a loveable sidekick won’t go wrong if they pick up Miranda James’ Cat in the Stacks mysteries. File M for Murder should be filed under “E” for entertaining.

Readers can visit Diesel at Facebook.com/DieselHarriscat.

File M for Murder by Miranda James. Berkley Prime Crime. ©2012. ISBN 970425246184 (paperback), 294p.

FTC Full Disclosure – The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Home Front by Kristin Hannah

How often do we truly look at the families left behind when we’re watching TV and see troops leaving for war? The media doesn’t cover the injured soldiers who return, unless something goes tragically wrong. Kristin Hannah’s novel, Home Front, is a moving story that shows the tragedy inside families, the tragedies we don’t think of when we send troops off to war zones.

Jolene Zarkades grew up in a dysfunctional family, watching her mother plead for the love of her alcoholic family. At seventeen, she lost both parents when her father drove drunk, and there was an accident. As soon as she could, she enlisted, and found a family, the military, and a role in life flying helicopters. It was her first love, and her best friend, Tami Flynn, was right there beside her for ten years in the army. Both women moved on to the National Guard so they could be home with the men they married, and their families.

Jolene loved her husband, Michael, and her two daughters. At twelve, Betsy was just starting to go through the rough pre-teen years. Lulu hadn’t even started kindergarten yet. When Michael sank into depression after the death of his father, she expected him to “choose happiness” as she did in her life. Instead, he spent more and more time at his office, until one night he changed their world, saying, “I don’t love you anymore.”

Those are the words that would haunt both of them when Jolene and Tami’s unit was called up to deploy to Iraq. “She’d always been two women – a mother and soldier – and this deployment ripped her in half, left a bloody, gaping tear between the two sides of her.” As she left behind daughters, knowing she wouldn’t see Lulu's first day of kindergarten or her fifth birthday, Michael was left in a role he was not prepared to play, the parent responsible for caring for two girls. And, they would both remember those words, “I don’t love you anymore.”

Chief Warrant Officer Jolene Zarkades flew helicopters in Iraq, hiding the risks from her family, until it was too late to hide the danger. When disaster struck, no one in the Zarkades family was prepared to deal with the changes in their lives.

Kristin Hannah’s Home Front is both heartbreaking and inspiring. It’s a novel of family, and a story about courage, in so many forms. It’s a story seldom told, that of a woman who is career military, and the family she is forced to leave behind. It’s a powerful story revealing troublesome issues about our returning troops. Sometimes fiction has the ability to uncover issues that aren’t as easily seen in nonfiction. Home Front does that, taking readers inside a military family, before and after tragedy.

Home Front is also available from Macmillan Audio. Here's a clip, if you'd like to hear it.


Note: Tuesday is release date for Hannah’s book. I have an interview coming up soon with her, about this book. And, this week’s book giveaway, starting Thursday night, will be copies of Home Front.

Kristin Hannah’s website is http://www.kristinhannah.com/.

Home Front by Kristin Hannah. St. Martin’s Press. ©2012. ISBN 9780312577209 (hardcover), 390p.

Macmillan Audio. Unabridged. ISBN 9781427212658.

FTC Full Disclosure – I was sent copies of the book in order to participate in a blog tour.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fifth Victim by Zoë Sharp

No one can manipulate tension in the way Zoë Sharp does with her Charlie Fox thrillers. In fact, she does it so well that I’ll confess right here I couldn’t read Fourth Day, the novel in which Charlie Fox and Sean Meyer went undercover into a California cult. I own the book, and it went on to become a Barry Award finalist for Best British crime novel. Even though I normally read books in order, I skipped that one and went right on to the new release, Fifth Victim.

With her partner, Sean, in a coma, Charlie has been under a great deal of stress, going to the hospital every day, trying to talk Sean out of it. Parker Armstrong, her boss, understands Charlie’s need to work, so his latest job offer will come as a distraction, taking her mind off Sean’s condition. The job will plunge her into the lifestyles of the rich and spoiled brats.

 In the last year, three young people, children of wealthy parents with homes on Long Island, have been kidnapped, and later returned when their parents paid the ransom. They were “Rich people who would do anything to avoid bad publicity.” They paid up, never telling the police or the FBI. Now, Charlie agrees to be the bodyguard for Dina Willner, the twenty-year-old daughter of Caroline Willner, a wealthy investment banker. Charlie’s job isn’t made easier by the fact that Charlie likes both Caroline and Dina, despite the ongoing power plays between the two women. And, it isn’t made easier by Dina’s association with all three of the previous kidnapping victims.

Their own horses, twenty-first birthday parties on magnificent yachts, bodyguards, limousines, charity auctions, and Lear jets are all part of the world of these young people. Boredom and anger at their parents also seem to be a part of it. When Charlie foils a kidnapping attempt at the stables where Dina rides, she’s struck by the excitement all the young people seem to share after the incident. As the violence escalates, kidnapping becomes the least of Charlie’s problems.

As I said, no one manipulates tension as Zoë Sharp does. She plunges the reader into the action instantly, beginning her books in the midst of the action, then backtracking to the original story. She kickstarts the action so quickly, and the tension, that the reader never has a chance to grow complacent. There’s trouble coming for Charlie Fox, and we always know that it will get bad, because Sharp clues us in. At the same time, she leaves us dangling. Three kidnapping victims. Three ransom demands. Why is the latest Charlie Fox thriller called Fifth Victim? Take a deep breath, and plunge into another gripping story by a master of manipulation.

Zoë Sharp’s website is http://www.zoesharp.com.

Fifth Victim by Zoë Sharp. Pegasus Crime. ©2011. ISBN 9781605982762 (hardcover), 445p.

FTC Full Disclosure – Library book

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Purgatory Chasm by Steve Ulfelder

Since I had only read one book on the list of Edgar nominees, I picked up Steve Ulfelder’s Purgatory Chasm. It’s nominated for Best First Novel by an American Author. It’s one heckuva ride.

Conway Sax owes his survival to the Barnburners. He’s an ex-con, a recovering alcoholic and addict. The Barnburners saved his life. The group started as an outcast AA group that the national organization refused to sanction, bikers and WWII GIs. They might be sanctioned now, but at times, they still needed Conway skills, “Skills I’d picked up in rail yards, alleys, county jails.” He was a mechanic, a NASCAR driver, and the son of an alcoholic. And, Conway helps Barnburners, no questions asked, even when they’re as obnoxious as Tander Phigg.

When Tander asks Conway to help him get his Mercedes out of a garage that’s holding it hostage, Conway thinks there’s more to the story, but he won’t turn down a Barnburner. But, before he can get too far into the Tander’s story, Conway is hit over the head and thrown in the street, and Tander is found dead, supposedly a suicide. One shrewd New Hampshire State Trooper thought otherwise, but no one listened to him. Conway agreed, but, as an ex-con on parole, he didn’t want to mess with the police. So, it was just like Conway Sax to start his own investigation, one that can lead to more than a beating outside a garage.

Conway Sax is complex character. However, his character is perfect for a recovering alcoholic. He has problems with commitment, and can’t decide if he wants to live with his girlfriend, Charlene, or stay in his own house. She’s a recovering alcoholic who pulled herself up through hard work, and she recognizes his issues. He has a hard time dealing with his relationship with his father. When his father shows up in a hospital, he doesn’t know if he should hug him or throttle him. At the same time, this is a man who has two cats who were once abused, and he named them after race car drivers, Dale and Davey. He has a great relationship with his girlfriend’s young daughter. Charlene sums him up with, “You don’t trust anybody until you trust them. And then you trust them too much.”

Conway is the ideal character for this hardboiled novel. He’s committed to the Barnburners, so he’ll throw himself completely into Tander Phigg’s case, no matter how much it hurts him physically and emotionally. And, he’ll chase every convoluted story and crooked character until he finds the truth. He’s a race car driver, a recovering alcoholic who launches himself wholeheartedly into everything he chooses to do.

Purgatory Chasm is a hardboiled, fast-paced novel. It’s an action-packed, solid debut, worthy of an Edgar nomination. Steve Ulfelder deserves kudos for the story. Most of all, he deserves kudos for the creation of Conway Sax, a memorable character.

Steve Ulfelder’s website is www.noparticularorderblog.blogspot.com.

Purgatory Chasm by Steve Ulfelder. Minotaur. ©2011. ISBN 9780312672928 (hardcover), 288p.

FTC Full Disclosure – The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Death on Tour by Janice Hamrick

Janice Hamrick’s Death on Tour not only won the Mystery Writers of America’s/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel Award, but it is also one of this year’s nominees for the Simon & Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award. And, this debut novel deserves to be one of the nominees. Hamrick’s story is an excellent traditional mystery that combines a shrewd amateur sleuth and a fascinating setting, Egypt.

Who is any better at observing human nature than an intelligent high school teacher? Jocelyn Shore is the narrator, a history teacher on her dream tour, a once-in-a-lifetime guided tour of Egypt, joined by her cousin, Kyra. It’s shocking when Millie Owens, one of their fellow tourists, falls to her death at the base of a pyramid, but no one is grieving about the loss of the “old bat,” the pushy snoop on the trip. Jocelyn finds something odd about it, so she’s not surprised to learn from another member of their group, Alan Stratton, that Millie was murdered. And, she’s even less surprised when she finds Millie’s bag, filled with stolen items from her fellow travelers, and a notebook with her nasty observations about each of them.

Jocelyn begins to suspect there is a problem with the group, something that caused Millie’s death. And, despite her attraction to Alan, he’s as mysterious as several other fellow tourists. As Kyra and Jocelyn squabble over Alan’s attention, he seems just as interested in their actions. Why do vendors pick out the two cousins, calling them sisters from Utah? Another death just adds to Jocelyn’s suspicions that someone on their trip is up to no good.

Jocelyn Shore is a terrific amateur sleuth. She’s observant, understands human behavior. At the same time, she’s not stuffy, and not perfect. She and her cousin, Kyra, are competitive, and, at times, taunt and tease each other. She compares herself unfavorably to Kyra. And, she fights her attraction to Alan Stratton, the mystery man, who seems as suspicious of her as she is of him.

For those of us who enjoy armchair travel, Hamrick includes the itinerary for the WorldPal tour of Egypt, and she goes into detail as to the various sites on the trip. Her descriptions of the historic sites are wonderful. She also manages to capture the flavor of a tour group, with its varying personalities, perfectly.

Joyce Hamrick’s book has wonderful descriptions, a likable amateur sleuth, a little romance, and a mystery. Death on Tour is a delightful debut.

Janice Hamrick’s website is www.janicehamrick.com.

Death on Tour by Janice Hamrick. Minotaur Books. ©2011. ISBN 9780312679460 (hardcover), 310p.

FTC Full Disclosure – The publisher sent me a copy of this, hoping I would review it.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Winners and Mysteries set in the early 20th Century

Congratulations to the winners of the last contest. C.J. Box’ Back of Beyond will go to G.S.M. of Houston, TX. Kat B. of Winterset, IA will receive Sandi Ault’s Wild Penance. I’ll put the books in the mail tomorrow.

This week, I’m giving away two mysteries set in the first half of the twentieth century. Irene Fleming’s The Brink of Fame takes readers into the early days of American cinema. Emily Daggett Weiss thinks the film production company she owns with her husband is thriving, until she arrives in Arizona in 1914 to find he lost the studio in a poker game. Left penniless, Emily gets a job in California. It has one catch. She has to find a missing film star before she can direct her first film.

Or you could win Mignon F. Ballard’s Miss Dimple Disappears, a mystery set in Georgia in 1942. No one at the school in Elderberry, Georgia, suspect anything more than a heart attack when the custodian is found dead, apparently of a heart attack. But, when Miss Dimple Kilpatrick, a fixture at the school for more than forty years, disappears the following day, town residents are shaken. School teacher Charlie Carr and her friend, Annie, decide to investigate, and they uncover danger surprisingly close to home.

1914 or 1942, which do you prefer? You can enter to win both contests, but I need separate entries. Send your entries to me at Lesa.Holstine@gmail.com. The subjects should read, either “Win The Brink of Fame” or “Win Miss Dimple Disappears.” Please include your name and mailing address in the body of the entry. Entries from the U.S. only, please.

The contest will end at 6 p.m. MT on Thursday, Feb. 2. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, and mail the books out on Friday

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

I wondered why I was continuing to read Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones, I realized it wasn’t the mystery that fascinated me. And, it wasn’t the characters because there really wasn’t a loveable one in the book. Instead, it was the story of “the invisible ones,” Gypsies in England.

When Ray Lovell woke up in a hospital after running off the road and into a tree, he had no memory of any of it. He had some paralysis, and he couldn’t talk at first. What led the private investigator to that point?

Ray Lovell was half-Gypsy, so Leon Wood, a Gypsy, picked him to look for his daughter. He hadn’t seen his daughter, Rose, in seven years, and he wanted Ray to find her. The last time anyone in her family saw her was at her wedding to Ivo Janko, another Gypsy. Ivo and her father-in-law both said she ran off with a non-Gypsy, but Rose’s father suspected murder.

Perhaps Ray was initially drawn into the case because he never felt as if he was a Gypsy. His father had been rejected by his family when he married, learned to read, and became a postman. Ray grew up in a house, so the Gypsy life of travelers was not one he knew well. The investigation sucked him in, and he was fascinated by the secrets in the Janko family.

But, J.J. Smith, a fourteen-year-old, knew nothing other than the Traveler life. He was part of the Janko family, a small family with five trailers on a site. Many of the men in the  family suffered from a hereditary disease, making J.J. the only healthy young one. The role as a healthy young man, helping to care for a great-uncle in a wheelchair and a cousin with the family disease left him oddly responsible at times, but immature when it came to relationships with other teens.

Penney alternates narrators in The Invisible Ones. Ray’s viewpoint tells of his investigation into the the secrets of the Janko family, who don’t want him looking for the missing Rose. J.J.’s story is the inside look at a Gypsy family, but, as a teen, J.J. doesn’t really understand the interplay between the adults in his life.

The Invisible Ones unfolds slowly as Ray looks for answers that no one wants to share. And, in fact, most of the Janko family members really have no clue as to the answers. Ray Lovell continues on in a case that never seems to end, although tragedy leads to  a conclusion that satisfies him.

Penney’s novel is intriguing and dark. It’s really the story of two men changing and growing into their lives. It’s more literary, more descriptive than the mysteries I usually read and enjoy. There is hope for both narrators by the end of The Invisible Ones, but there is hope for them, despite the Gypsy lifestyle, not because of it. Even so, it’s that lifestyle, still part of the English and Irish cultures, that made this story compelling to me.

Stef Penney’s website is http://www.stefpenney.com/.

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney. Penguin Group (USA), ©2012. ISBN 9780399157714 (hardcover), 401p.

FTC Full Disclosure – The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale

Shannon Hale’s Midnight in Austenland was everything I had hoped P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley would be. Granted, I shouldn’t be comparing the two, but I was so disappointed in James’ book. And, Hale’s, although it is set in modern times, is a joy. The heroine overcomes her fears, and saves herself. That’s my kind of heroine.

Charlotte Kinder is a nice woman, but after her divorce, she no longer thought she was nice. She had been so busy building a million dollar business, and taking care of her two children that she didn’t notice her husband slipping away. She was shocked when he asked for a divorce because he had found someone else. Charlotte was just numb. Only Jane Austen could save her.

It was a list from her teen years that saved Charlotte, who was going through life feeling nothing after the divorce. On that list of things to do before she turned thirty, was “Read Jane Austen.” Maybe, Charlotte was past thirty, but when she took the time to delve into Austen, she could finally feel again. And, her kids’ visit with their father gave her the time to take her own vacation, a two week stay in Austenland. At Pembrook Park in Kent, England, it was always 1816, and the men and women lived by Regency etiquette. Everyone had a role to play. Charlotte could become Mrs. Charlotte Cordial for two weeks, a widow and a houseguest, while she flirted with actors who played the gentlemen.

Perhaps Charlotte spent too much time reading Northanger Abbey. Her first thought upon seeing Pembrook Park was, “This is the sort of house where murders happen.” She found herself enjoying the company of the actors, and the friendship of the other women who were there as houseguests. She was fully prepared to spend two weeks enjoying a little romantic dalliance. As part of the entertainment, they were all caught up in the story of Grey Cloaks Abbey and the mystery of the death of the nuns there. Charlotte thought it was great fun, until, after a fire, she began to suspect that there really had been a murder at Pembrook Park, and one of the actors might be a killer. Suddenly, she had the chance to become a victim, or a heroine in her own life.

Shannon Hale’s Midnight in Austenland is fun, with a great deal of humor, a mystery, and romance. Charlotte Kinder is a wonderful heroine, smarter and stronger than she gives herself credit for. Hale turns Charlotte’s entire experience at Pembrook Park upside down, but it’s still an experience that Charlotte appreciates. And, readers who enter the story with Charlotte’s sense of adventure and anticipation will find the story meets expectations. Midnight in Austenland is a joy to read.

(Oh, and, if Shannon Hale reads this, I loved the dedications to both books, Austenland and Midnight in Austenland. I always read the dedications, even if a certain British actor might not.)

Shannon Hale’s website is http://www.squeetus.com/stage/main.html

Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale. Bloomsbury USA. ©2012. ISBN 9781608196258 (hardcover), 288p.

FTC Full Disclosure – The publisher sent me an Advanced Reading Copy, hoping I would review the book.