Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Charmed Death

A Charmed Death
Author: Madelyn Alt
Berkley, 2006
289 pages

We last met Stony Mill, Indiana native Maggie O'Neill in The Trouble With Magic. At that time, she'd just started working in the Enchantments gift shop with Felicity, an Englishwoman who happens to be a witch. When Felicity's sister was murdered, everyone thought Felicity must have been involved, but Maggie proved her innocence and helped catch the real killer. A Charmed Death takes place two months later, in early December. Felicity's away on sabbatical and Maggie's running the store, along with part-time Evie, who attends the local high school and secretly hangs out with the N.I.G.H.T.S. (Northeast Indiana Ghost Hunting and Tracking Society).

When an in-store altercation between Goth Girl Tara and Mean Girl Amanda is followed shortly by Amanda's murder, Maggie once again finds herself drawn into a mystery. Clues lead her to an underground sex ring - could Amanda, a daughter of privilege who seemed to have everything, have possibly been involved in something so dangerous and controversial? The more Maggie learns, the more questions she has - and there are lots of red herrings. I actually guessed the murderer early on, but I was thinking: "Nah, can't be this person" and I went down the wrong trail!

But the murder isn't the only story in A Charmed Death. Tara the Goth Girl is a new character, and she seems to have a gift. Unfortunately, the intense, angry young woman hasn't learned all the rules - or the necessity of respecting them. Her attraction to dark energies is of great concern to Maggie. In the meantime, Maggie's still trying to come to grips with her own gifts, and she's learning all sorts of new things from some of the N.I.G.H.T.S. members. When Felicity returns in the second half of the book, she continues her mentorship of Maggie - and that's another story!

You've heard this from me before, but the growth of the characters and the relationships between the characters is critical to the success of the "cozy mystery." Certainly the relationship between Maggie and Felicity is of great importance, but so are Maggie's relationships with her Mom, her sister, and her best friend. Then there are the Dudes. In The Trouble With Magic, Maggie was sort of developing a relationship with Tom the police officer, but it seems to have fizzled in A Charmed Death. Or has it? In the meantime, this second book has Maggie getting to know Marcus, the mysterious warlock who Maggie assumed was Felicity's boyfriend in the first book. Turns out that Marcus and Tara the Goth Girl are cousins, which adds an extra element and additional potential for future books.

This series is a guilty pleasure to me, sort of like the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris. I like it because it's set in Indiana, and also because I can read an entire book in just a few hours. It's fun, and doesn't give me a headache. :-)

It occurred to me as I was writing this review that I haven't read a book with an international focus since early March. Not sure what I'll read next, but it will be set outside the USA. I'm heading to my home library just as soon as I press "Publish Post" to select the next book. Cheers!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Fallen

Fallen
Author: Lauren Kate
Delacourte Press, 2009
452 pages

Recently, I bought several Young Adult novels, with the intention of passing them along to my niece (age 14) so she'd have something to read this summer. I'd seen Fallen in the bookstores, and remembered reading a good review when it first came out - so this was the first of the new books I decided to read.

The plot goes something like this: Seventeen year-old Luce (named after singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams - her yuppie academic parents met at a concert) is the new girl at a very unusual reform school near Savannah, Georgia called Sword and Cross. Luce, who was previously schooled in the finest college-prep institution in New England, has a history of seeing strange shadows that give her a sense of foreboding, followed by some sort of disaster. Her parents have spent loads of time and money on psychiatrists to help Luce, but the visions escalated until the event that sent her to Sword and Cross.

While Luce tries to assimilate at Sword and Cross, she gets to know some of the other students; all of them are strange in one way or another. She finds herself particularly drawn to Arriane and Penn, two very different girls with whom she becomes friends, and the overly pleasant and romantic Cam. But Luce is attracted to Daniel, who seems not only disinterested in her, but hostile.

When the Nancy Drew-like Penn (whose name is Pennyweather Van Syckle Lockwood, one of the coolest names in recent literature IMHO) begins to research Daniel's past, she discovers a book written by someone with his name (an ancestor?) back in the 18th century.  It was about here that things started to get predictable for this experienced reader. However, for some silly reason I kept reading. The more I read, the more annoyed I became with myself for reading!

I know I haven't been seventeen in almost thirty years, but I don't remember ever feeling as if I had anything in common with most of the characters in this book. As much as I wanted to like Luce, there was something about her that rubbed me the wrong way. The only character with any real redeeming qualities was Penn, and I was not pleased with what happened to her (so much that I nearly threw the book across the room - and from there on out, I just skimmed.)

This is not to say that my niece wouldn't like Fallen. Or that you wouldn't like it. But I didn't like it. Don't get me wrong: the idea behind Fallen is pretty cool, and the author writes well. She's just not writing to me. :-)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gunpowder Green

Gunpowder Green
Author: Laura Childs
Berkley, 2002
244 pages

This was another book I took with me on the recent trip to North Carolina, but I didn't start reading it until I got back home. This second book in the Charleston, South Carolina-based Tea Shop Mystery series (I reviewed the first - Death by Darjeeling - last December) was even better than the first, IMHO (in my humble opinion). In fact, I'd love to jump right into Book #3, but that would violate my self-imposed rules of reading. :-)

Gunpowder Green starts out with main character Theodosia Browning and her staff providing tea service for a large gathering of people watching the annual Regatta yacht race. One of the more prominent members of Charleston society has the honor of discharging the antique gun that ends the race, but when the gun goes off, it misfires and kills the man. At first, most people think it was an accident. But Theodosia has her suspicions, especially when the brother of an old acquaintance becomes the prime suspect.

One of the things I most like about this series is the likeable characters. Tea shop owner Theodosia is just the right balance between the "snooty" and the down-to-earth: she enjoys the finer things in life, but hasn't lost touch with her rural roots. Drayton, Indigo Tea Shop's tea master, is one of my favorite characters in the series. He reminds me of any number of "Renaissance men" I've known in my life. I also like Haley, the tea shop's young baker, who in addition to having a talent for producing delicious baked goods, has a heart of gold.

A few of the secondary characters who made things interesting (challenging?) in the first book were back in Gunpowder Green. Crotchety Detective Tidwell's appreciation of both tea and Theodosia appears to be growing, and I foresee some sort of mutually respectable friendship on the horizon (not sure about anything else at this point, but it seems to be possible if things don't work out between Theodosia and her attorney boyfriend Jory.) The snobby Timothy Neville let down a little of his guard in this book, leading me to believe that Theodosia will win him over . . . eventually.

I also like the Charleston setting. As I said in the Death by Darjeeling entry, Charleston is the perfect city for a mystery/crime series . . . it's got history, interesting people and cultural traditions, and that oh-so-Southern Gothic charm. I'm really surprised that more Hollywood types haven't figured this out. In fact, I predict that a CSI: Charleston would go over really well . . . just in case anyone out there in Hollywoodland is reading this.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Farm Fresh Murder

Farm Fresh Murder
Author: Paige Shelton
Berkley, 2010
304 pages

I needed something to read while I was visiting the farm recently, so I picked up this new, first-in-a-series paperback. To my delight, it was set in South Carolina, in a fictional town that (at least in my mind) seemed a lot like Anderson, where my family lived for several years.

Becca Robins is a thirty-something farmer and jam/preserves maker who sells her products at the local farmers' market. When one of the peach vendors is murdered one morning before the market opens,  all clues point to crusty old Abner -- the fresh flower vendor who happens to be a good friend of Becca's. But Becca knows Abner could never do such a thing, and with the help of her sister (Allison, the manager of the farmers' market) and some friends (including hunky young artist Ian and the increasingly attractive Officer Sam Brion), Becca sets out to find the real killer. In the process, she evolves into quite the amateur sleuth.

Farm Fresh Murder was a fun way to spend a few hours. I liked Becca and most of the other characters, and look forward to reading future books in this series. By the way, I thought I'd guessed the murderer early on, but I was wrong. (You won't see me write that often!)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Club Dead

Club Dead
Author: Charlaine Harris
Ace, 2003
292 pages

Ahhh, there's nothing quite like a short, easy-to-read book when it took you a month to read the previously read book.

We're back with Sookie Stackhouse and the rest of the True Blood gang in this third-in-a-series paranormal yarn about a Louisiana waitress and her two hundred year-old vampire boyfriend. This time Bill the vampire goes missing while working on a top-secret assignment. Unfortunately, Sookie hears rumors that he's reunited with an old vampire flame, Lorena. Needless to say, she's not very happy about that, especially when there are so many other potential suitors around vying for her attention, such as Eric Northman (the vampire "sheriff" of Area 5 in Louisiana, which includes Sookie's hometown of Bon Temps) and Alcide, the really nice werewolf who's been hired to take her to Jackson to look for Bill.

In Jackson, Sookie learns all about werewolves and more about shape shifters, increasing her knowledge of Supes (creatures with supernatural powers). While a guest at Club Dead - the nickname for a mysterious bar frequented mostly by Supes - Sookie meets the vampire king of Mississippi and saves him from an assassination attempt. This provides her access to the king's castle, where with the help of a few friends (including Bubba, the never stated but heavily implied Elvis in vampire form), she learns Bill's fate.

Will she rescue him? Will they break up over his behavior? You'll have to read Club Dead to find out. Which unless you're a True Blood or paranormal romance fan, you probably won't. I realize that. But for some weird reason I'm hooked, and I plan to read this entire series.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Hawaii

Hawaii
Author: James Michener
Fawcett Crest, 1959
1036 pages

I can't believe it's been over a month since I've written a book review. Believe me, it's not because I haven't been reading -- I have -- a very long book!

I'm a fan of historical fiction, and I've heard about Michener all my life, but this was my first book of his. Although I bought Hawaii a while back, it sat on the shelf until I packed my bag for the recent trip. I figured: first time going to Hawaii, first time reading Michener -- and I started reading it on the first leg of the journey. I was sucked in immediately. WOW! Michener knows his stuff! His writing was as amazing as his grasp of history and people.

Hawaii the book starts out with a short chapter explaining how the islands emerged slowly over time from volcanic action. The next chapters are long - hundreds of pages long -- excellent fictional tales of how the first humans might have come to Hawaii from Tahiti, the 19th century Christian missionary and native Hawaiian perspectives, and the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrant perspectives. Surely it was intentional that the book was first published in 1959, the year Hawaii became the 50th state in the USA.

I'm not exaggerating when I say the human drama in this book is unsurpassed in any other fiction I've ever read! I felt like I was in that tiny boat with the Tahitians when they saw "new" (northern hemisphere) stars for the first time. I was seasick with the missionaries during the month it took them to get around Cape Horn. It was as if I was working alongside the imported workers in the pineapple and sugar cane fields.

Covering the evolution of Hawaii from pre-history to just after World War II, this book is a true epic. Very highly recommended. I'm just sorry this review doesn't do the book justice. Truth is, I'm ready for a short, easy read now!