Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Christmas at Tiffany's

Author:  Karen Swan
Genre:  Romance

Five Stars
What do you do when the man you pledged your life to breaks your heart and shatters your dreams? You pack your bags and travel the big, wide world to find your destiny—and your true love . . .
Ten years ago, a young and naïve Cassie married her first serious boyfriend, believing he would be with her forever. Now her marriage is in tatters and Cassie has no career or home of her own. Though she feels betrayed and confused, Cassie isn't giving up. She's going to take control of her life. But first she has to find out where she belongs . . . and who she wants to be.

Over the course of one year, Cassie leaves her sheltered life in rural Scotland to stay with her best friends living in the most glamorous cities in the world: New York, Paris, and London. Exchanging comfort food and mousy hair for a low-carb diet and a gorgeous new look, Cassie tries each city on for size as she searches for the life she's meant to have . . . and the man she's meant to love.

Cassie is married to Gil, a barrister.   He divides his time between the week in Edinburgh and the weekend with her at their massive home in rural Scotland. They are having a party to celebrate their ten-year anniversary together.  During the course of the party, she overhears a conversation between her husband and his girlfriend that sends her life spiraling into a tailspin.  Stunned, hurt, disjointed, she is immediately packed up and hustled out of the house by her three best friends:  Kelly, a high-powered fashion promoter who lives in New York; Anouk, a jewelry designer to the rich and famous who lives in Paris; and Suzy, a wedding planner who lives in London.  It is decided among the three that Cassie will have one year to decide where she wants to live (all hopeful that she will choose near them), and will spend four months with each of them trying out her "new life."
While it is apparent early on how the novel will end, watching it all unfold is pleasurable.  Because this is not just Cassie's story, but also the story of her three friends.  The beginning of her journey is her new life with Kelly in New York.  Her chance meeting in Central Park with Henry, the brother of her friend Suzy, begins her on her search to find what she wants in life, with his help along the way.  A fledgling in the ways of the world, she is brought into the fashion industry and finds new friends and a new love.  A terrible misstep shows her life unraveling again, and it is through Kelly's loyalty and that of her new friends that she manages to hold on.  Although they implore her to stay, at the end of her four months she find herself in...
...Paris, with Anouk, who has gotten her a job at Dior.  Cassie finds that at this point she is honing her skills in the fashion industry, more sure of herself than she has ever been.  Making even more friends and believing she has at last found what she wants, she discovers something devastating that has been secret for a long time, which sends her running to...London and Suzy, where she will finally find who she is and what she truly wants out of life.
This is a wonderful book; about so much more than the title suggests.  Christmas at Tiffany's isn't about Christmas as it is so much about the beginning of a journey which causes changes in the lives of four women, and on the strength of themselves and their relationships to each other.  Highly recommended.


Goodreads:  https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1091654819

Friday, October 24, 2014

Of Merlot and Murder

Author:  Joni Folger
Genre:  Mystery

Five Stars

When the Beckett family decides to make River Bend Winery one of the sponsors at the Lost Pines Food and Wine Festival, Elise Beckett dives into helping out with their booth. Once the festival setup starts, the Beckett family cheer is soured by Divia Larson, a rival vintner and nemesis of Elise's grandmother, Abigail.

But then Grandma Abigail finds Divia dead in her hotel room, and the police discover that all clues lead back to Abigail.  When her grandmother becomes the prime suspect, Elise and her deputy boyfriend Jackson have to work together to clear Abigail.  Will Elise be able to untangle the mess of murder and mystery before it's too late?


While preparing for the Lost Pines Food and Wine Festival, Elise's family realize that their rival vintner Divia has request the booth catty-corner from them, it brings Divia closer so that she can maker her snide remarks and backhanded compliments to everyone.  She also dislikes Abigail because Abby once dated Divia's husband Garrett back in high school.

After a particularly distasteful scene at the festival between Divia and another vintner, Monique, Abby steps in to try and diffuse the situation, and gets right in the middle of it.  So when Divia is found dead later than night, and Abby calls Jackson for help while at the hotel, suspicions naturally fall on her.

I absolutely loved this book.  While it isn't technically a cozy - there is some swearing, though not offensive - it is still a great mystery.  The characters had a lot of depth and it was easy to get into the story and be carried right along with it as the action progressed.  There was a romance going on between Jackson and Elise, but not so much that it overwhelmed the plot; but enough that you knew these two were in a new relationship and trying to find their way around each other.

Yet Elise being who she is: trying to protect her grandmother, even with Jackson's warnings to stay out of it, she manages not only to drag herself into the investigation, but those of her family members and best friend as well.  Which doesn't bode well for them or for her when Jackson and her grandmother find out what she's doing (which doesn't stop her in the least).

The ending took me completely by surprise; I was as stumped as Elise and when I found out who the killer is, it all came together in a nice little package that made complete sense.  I fully intend to read the first book in this series, Grapes of Death, and I suggest you do the same.  Highly recommended.


Catwalk: An Animals in Focus Mystery #3

Author:  Sheila Webster Boneham
Genre:  Mystery

Three Stars

When animal photographer Janet MacPhail gets gets a frantic call from champion dog owner Alberta Shofelter about a "cat-napping," she and her Australian Shepherd Jay jump in to assist. Fur flies when the search turns into a nasty run-in with local big shot Charles Rasmussen, a bully who enjoys throwing his weight around.

As Rasmussen makes good on his promise to cause trouble, Janet tries to keep up with her mom's romantic travails,  figure out her own relationship with Tom, and train her animals for the upcoming agility trials. But when a body is discovered at the Dog Dayz event, it stops the participants dead in their tracks-and sets Janet on the track of a killer.


Let me tell you first that if you don't like animals, you won't like this book.  But, if you do like animals, as I myself do, you will.  That being said: Janet MacPhail has her dog Jay and her cat Leo, whom she has trained herself, to do animal trials.  This is where (for those who may not know) the animals go through a timed series of obstacles.  Her boyfriend Tom also takes his dog, Drake, through these trials.

When one of her friends, Alberta, makes a frantic call for help because her cat is missing, both Janet and Tom offer to help her look.  They find the missing cat and her newborn kittens at Charles Rasmussen's home, in his wife's painting studio.  Mr. Rasmussen threatens to kill the cats and Janet calls for help, which comes in the form of Officer Hutchinson, who is another animal lover and takes Janet's side, which only infuriates Rasmussen more.  Even Rasmussen's wife Louise takes the womens' side.  So a very angry Rasmussen threatens them all even as they are removing the mama and her newborn kittens.  Then there is Janet's mother who is suffering from Alzheimer's, and has gotten involved with someone at the nursing home, who turns out to be Charles Rasmussen's father-in-law, and Mr. Rasmussen is none too happy about that.

Soon enough, the women (and Hutchinson) are served with legal papers from Rasmussen, and shortly after that, he is killed.  Now the race is on to find out who killed the man, since it appears he had no dearth of enemies.

This is where the book lost me a little.  The murder seemed to have taken second place to the animal trials and the plight of feral cats.  I will tell you that I realize this is serious, and I have adopted a few feral cats myself that wandered into my back yard.   So yes, I do know this is a problem.  But the book goes on and on about the trials, about the feral cats, about ways to help them.  By the time they get back to the murder - which is intermittently throughout the book - you start to wonder who-is-who and have to backtrack as to who was at the dogs' trials the night the guy was killed.  Please don't get me wrong; the writing is very good, but the book was more about the animals and not enough about the murder investigation.  I will say that justice was done, however.


Black Thursday

Author:  Linda Joffe Hull
Genre:  Mystery

Five Stars

When Maddie Michaels is invited by a local news channel to shop on camera for Black Friday, she leaps at the opportunity to share shopping deals with fans of her website MrsFrugalicious.com. Even though a negative comment pops up from Contrary Claire, a naysaying blog follower, Maddie won't let it spoil her first TV appearance.

But as the deals get underway, Black Friday eve turns even blacker when a shopper is crushed beneath a pallet of toasters.  After learning that the victim is Contrary Claire, Maddie becomes caught up in a murder investigation.  Will she catch the killer before someone else is slashed like a sales price?


Maddie Michaels has problems.  She lives in her now-for-sale house with her soon-to-be ex-husband and two sons.  It's Thanksgiving, and his entire family has decided to spend the holidays with them.  She's being stalked on her website, Mrs. Frugalicious - which she started because her cheating husband blew all their savings.  Frank, her husband, has been fired from his television job because, as he is known as Frank Finance Michaels, he made bad investments, to be nice about it.  He also had an affair, which didn't help the situation, and they're trying to sell their house to keep their heads above water.

With a house full of people trying to put her marriage back together, she jumps at the chance offered by a local television station to broadcast live from Bargain Barn; she'll be offering tips for saving through the holiday season.  Frank's family has decided to tag along, hoping they can score some deals themselves.  But while filming the show, a pallet of toasters falls on one unlucky shopper and kills her.  Stunned by the accident, the owner of Bargain Barn leaves the scene to comfort the husband of the victim and Frank somehow pulls everyone together and the show, and shopping, continue on.

Maddie discovers that the victim was none other than CC, her online stalker, and begins to wonder if this 'accident' was more than meets the eye.  She begins to question it, and while she's discovering clues which may point in another direction entirely, she has to deal with the fact of Frank's family deciding to stay on and "help out" and still keep her "Frugarmy" happy through the holidays.

I really liked this book, even if I didn't agree with some of the things going on.  For one thing, I personally don't believe "every man cheats."  I also didn't care for the fact that Frank's family were 'subtlely pushing' Maddie to stay with him.  What kind of family wants someone to stay with a cheating spouse?  I felt that she really couldn't make the decision to stay or go on her own with their interference, and that she might come to regret whatever decision she made once she had time of her own to think about it.  Let's face it, the end of a marriage is a traumatic thing, not to be taken lightly; and if you discovered that that people were trying to coerce you into making a decision instead of coming to it on your own, you might regret it.  (I'm not saying what decision she ultimately makes, just offering my own opinion).

Be that as it may, the mystery was excellent.  I obviously wrestled with the marriage decision along with Maddie (and you'll have to read the book to find out what happens), and as she was discovering more about her stalker and even herself, the murder was still out there forefront, and everything seemed to fall together nicely.  Being the person she is, she put her own troubles aside and tried to help the owner of Bargain Barn keep his business afloat, while still filming more episodes of her frugal shopper program.

Interspersed with the book were many shopping tips for those who like to save money (I'm a coupon clipper myself), so even if you know most of these tricks, there'll probably be a few you haven't heard of.

When we finally know the identity of the killer, the reason it happened made perfect sense to me, and was probably how it would have happened in real life.  I can't give you more than that or it will give too much away and ruin the book.  I think this will be a good read, and especially for the holidays, when you're looking for something that's "seasonal."  Highly recommended.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Country Heaven Cookbook: Family Recipes and Remembrances

Author:  Ava Miles
Genre:  Cookbook

Four Stars
Ava's cookbook serves up a feast of scrumptious, soul-satisfying, cowboy-approved comfort food for the whole family. Included here are recipes for her famous spongy cornbread, decadent gingerbread waffles, and her family's chocolate chip pie. It's a fun hodgepodge of Southern cuisine and family farm recipes.

Readers have enjoyed the scrumptious recipes Ava wrote for COUNTRY HEAVEN so much that she wanted to share them all together in a cookbook with some extra family recipes NOT included in the book. The cookbook entries describe her heroine's reflections about her grandmother, who taught her to cook, and Ava's reflections about her grandma as well, who made food come alive for her.

This companion to COUNTRY HEAVEN, the first book in her new Dare River series set in the South, is connected to her bestselling small town Dare Valley series that started with the#1 National Bestseller, NORA ROBERTS LAND. If you haven't read COUNTRY HEAVEN yet, this is a great chance to see how beautifully food is woven into the story between her sassy heroine, Tory Simmons, and her steamy country singer, Rye Crenshaw. Ava has included an extended excerpt of COUNTRY HEAVEN at the end for your enjoyment.

This cookbook isn't very large - only about 67 pages, so there aren't tons of recipes for anyone who is looking for a good-sized cookbook or a lot of lunch/supper menus.  However, the recipes are pure country all the way, and appear easy enough for anyone to make.  Still, they're pretty good and a nice addition to your collection if you are interested in Southern comfort food.


It's the Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood's Golden Age

Author:  Anthony Slide
Genre:  Epistolary/Film/Culture

Four Stars
Golden Age Hollywood screenwriter Charles Brackett was an extremely observant and perceptive chronicler of the entertainment industry during its most exciting years. He is best remembered as the writing partner of director Billy Wilder, who once referred to the pair as "the happiest couple in Hollywood," collaborating on such classics as The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Blvd (1950).
In this annotated collection of writings taken from dozens of Brackett's unpublished diaries, leading film historian Anthony Slide clarifies Brackett's critical contribution to Wilder's films and Hollywood history while enriching our knowledge of Wilder's achievements in writing, direction, and style. Brackett's diaries re-create the initial meetings of the talent responsible for Ninotchka (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), Ball of Fire (1941), The Major and the Minor (1942), Five Graves to Cairo (1943), The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Blvd, recounting the breakthrough and breakdowns that ultimately forced these collaborators to part ways. Brackett was also a producer, served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Screen Writers Guild, was a drama critic for the New Yorker, and became a member of the exclusive literary club, the Algonquin Round Table. Slide gives readers a rare, front row seat to the Golden Age dealings of Paramount, Universal, MGM, and RKO and the innovations of legendary theater and literary figures, such as Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Edna Ferber, and Dorothy Parker. Through Brackett's witty, keen perspective, the political and creative intrigue at the heart of Hollywood's most significant films come alive, and readers will recognize their reach in the Hollywood industry today.

Loving the Golden Age of Hollywood as I do, this book was a must-read for me.  However, I don't believe it will be so for everyone.  Told in a series of diary entries by Charles Brackett, it can, at times, become tedious and uninteresting.  Thus the four stars instead of five.  What Mr. Brackett does reveal says a lot about himself.  He is putting his thoughts down on paper - thoughts about others in the entertainment history, more often than not unflattering to that person.  He doesn't come off as liking many people at all, and certainly not caring for many of the actors.  As an example, he thought Mrs. Miniver was fine, but didn't like the performances by Greer Garson nor Walter Pigeon.  You know, the performance that garnered her an Oscar? 
There are many things I could say about this book, but I am afraid that those many things would be my own opinion of movies and actors against his.  Although I will have to give Mr. Brackett the upper hand, his having known everyone personally; even though I believe that some of his original choices for films (who didn't get the part) would have, in my opinion, been completely wrong for the role.
But it was his stormy relationship with Billy Wilder that gives us an insight into his patience and enduring talent.  Having worked so closely with an "artistic temperament" of Mr. Wilder's persona, Mr. Brackett was still able to turn out some of the best known screenplays ever filmed, the greatest of these being Sunset Boulevard.   I did find it interesting that regarding the two men, Billy Wilder was much a family man, and fights with his wife disturbed him; while Charles Brackett lived much of the time away from his wife and children (one gets the impression that she lived on the East Coast and he on the West, and there were visits from time to time.)

I recommend this book for anyone who wants a personal insight into Hollywood before, during and after the war years.  But be forewarned:  Again, these are entries of Charles Brackett's personal diaries, and read as such.  This means that you are getting his personal opinions on everything and everyone he comes into contact with.  This also means that at times you will find the information uninteresting, and, unfortunately, uncomfortable to read (there were derogatory remarks about people that some might find offensive.)  Good for the student of film and those interested in the Golden Age of Hollywood.


Goodreads:  https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1087579642

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death

Author:  Mark Reutlinger
Genre:  Mystery

Three Stars
Everyone knows that Rose Kaplan makes the best matzoh ball soup around—she’s a regular matzoh ball maven—so it’s no surprise at the Julius and Rebecca Cohen Home for Jewish Seniors when, once again, Mrs. K wins the honor of preparing the beloved dish for the Home’s seder on the first night of Passover.

But when Bertha Finkelstein is discovered facedown in her bowl of soup, her death puts a bit of a pall on the rest of the seder. And things go really meshugge when it comes out that Bertha choked on a diamond earring earlier stolen from resident Daisy Goldfarb. Suddenly Mrs. K is the prime suspect in the police investigation of both theft and murder. Oy vey—it’s a recipe for disaster, unless Rose and her dear friend Ida can summon up the chutzpah to face down the police and solve the mystery themselves.
Rose Kaplan is chosen to make the matzoh soup for the first night of Passover, since she makes better matzoh than most.  Shortly after the soup is served, Bertha Finkelstein dies while eating it, and falls face down in her soup.  When the death is investigated, it is discovered that Bertha choked to death on a diamond earring that was purloined earlier from Daisy Goldfarb.  Since no one was around when Rose made the soup, she becomes the prime suspect, with the police believing that she either put the earring in the matzoh or the soup itself.  So now it is up to Rose and Ida to discover the truth.

I found it odd that Daisy hadn't mentioned at dinner that her earrings were missing - I would think she would have mentioned it to someone, but no one seemed to know about it until after Bertha died and the discovery was made.  Since the earrings were kept in plain sight by the door, she should have noticed immediately; I would have; although it is possible she didn't notice.

I understand that Rose and Ida were meant to be funny, but they just weren't.  They were two older (in their 70's) Jewish women who don't have blue hair or wear outrageous clothing or jewelry, nothing to make them funny characters.  They are, in fact...normal.  Ida, who narrates the story, spouts a lot of Yiddish (with explanations at times), and some of the things she says I am sure are meant to be funny, ("the cast is dyed,") but that's just a malapropism.  The mention over and over of the Julius and Rebecca Cohen Home for Jewish Seniors unfortunately downgraded the rating.

There is also a side story of another resident and her daughter, Doreen, and Doreen's maybe-married-or-not rude boyfriend that seems superfluous.  Mrs. K solves this problem also in record time, in what I figure is an attempt to show how smart she is (like Sherlock Holmes, her hero), because it doesn't seem to belong in the story anywhere, and doesn't have any relevance to the death.

When Mrs. K solves the murder and informs the police, it doesn't really make sense.  To see the spoiler, please read my review on Goodreads.  But the two investigating officers (one who looks like Inspector Dalgleish and the other Lieutenant Columbo, according to Ida) don't have a lot to do here, they're just figureheads.  The story is Rose and Ida's, and the action completely centers on them.  In fact, the officers act as if they're doing nothing at all, since the two women aren't involving them in any way - not asking questions or talking to them at all - it is just as if they have made up their mind Rose is guilty and that is that.  But, as I stated before, Sherlock Holmes is her hero, and she goes about investigating in the way she thinks he would, and I believe she is supposed to come off as some elderly female Holmes.  Normally I enjoy elderly female sleuths, so this wasn't an issue.

I honestly can't say what it was about the book that just seemed "off," but perhaps it was all the Yiddish, I had to keep looking up the words.  A good rule of thumb in a book is if the reader has to look up meanings every five minutes, eventually they're going to find it annoying.

The book is definitely Ida and Rose, and everyone else is cardboard and secondary.  But the book is written to sort of make Rose and Ida female Holmes and Watson, of which a certainty they are not.  Mildly entertaining. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Snow Angels, Secrets and Christmas Cakes

Author:  Sue Watson
Genre:  Romance/Christmas

Five Stars
Snow Angels, Secrets and Christmas Cake is a truly heart-warming and hilarious read about sisters, love and finding the courage to be yourself – one snowflake at a time.

For Tamsin Angel, Christmas is always the biggest and best… chic parties and a little showbiz sparkle are a must. This year though, things aren’t going quite as planned…

With bailiffs suddenly at the door and her husband nowhere to be found, it looks like Christmas just got downsized. Moving into her sister’s one-bedroom flat, she wonders whether things will ever be the same again.

After losing her husband on Christmas Eve, Sam Angel has rebuilt her life around her son Jacob and her new business – The White Angel Bakery. She’s also found herself a very handsome, loving boyfriend, but is struggling to let go of the past.

Thrown together with a sprinkle of Christmas magic, Sam and Tamsin might just learn a little more about each other – and themselves. But when disaster strikes at the bakery, will they be able to save the day in time for Christmas?
Tamsin Angel has everything:  Successful husband, two children, a home in an exclusive neighborhood, and more money than you can count.  At the moment she is attempting to top her last Christmas extravaganza, having this one completely in white - including buying new white furniture.  She spends her days shopping and trying to outdo her snotty neighbors.  Tamsin appears to be completely social conscious, only concerned with clothes, shoes, and how she looks to others; but we soon learn that than meets the eye, because...one day her world falls apart when the bailiffs show up at her door and tell her that her mortgage hasn't been paid in over a year and the bank now owns her home.  On top of that, she can't locate her husband Simon anywhere, and she soon discovers that he hasn't been paying anything.  Her 'friends' won't have anything to do with her, she's gone into denial, and the only thing she can now do is move in with her sister Sam and Sam's son Jacob into their tiny apartment above Sam's Bakery, The White Angel.
Sam Angel is a young widow with a six-year-old son.  She has a fledgling bakery and practically nothing.  She has been keeping the memory of her dead husband Steve alive through her small son, including refusing to cut his hair, even though it is causing problems at school for Jacob.  She has a sort-of relationship with a divorced father, Richard, who wants to make it more permanent.  But Sam isn't sure that she wants to, because she is still living in the past and thinking what if something happens and Richard leaves her - she is afraid something will go wrong and the relationship will fail and she'll be left alone again. 
But now her older sister Tamsin has moved in with her (fortunately, Tamsin's college-aged children Hugo and Hermione have been able to stay with friends), and has completely turned her life upside down.  Barely able to keep herself above water, Sam must now deal with a sister who still wants her old life back and convince her it isn't possible.  Tamsin, for her part, must learn to live in the real world without money, a huge home, no husband to take care of her and try to make a life for herself.  So when Sam suggests that they become business partners, Tamsin jumps at the chance and vows to make the White Angel Bakery the best there is.
This is a story of two completely different sisters who, while living in the same household, had two completely different upbringings and it colored their lives.  It is a story that could happen to anyone anywhere (in fact, if you talk to siblings, you will probably find that their recital of the same events at home are completely different, a 'vantage point' if you will.)  They have both lost things in their lives which were important to them, and must not only learn to move on and look to the future, but are learning the importance they have to each other as well.
The story is told in alternating chapters with the sisters narrating.  With each chapter we get first one sister's view, then the next.  It is different, and I liked the fact that we are getting both their viewpoints, not just one or the other's.  You get to see what is happening through both their eyes.  Throughout the book, you see the sisters growing, changing, and learning to love and trust again during the Christmas holiday.  Even when there are what seems to be catastrophic setbacks, they move on with each other's help and love.
It is a wonderful story of loss, hope and redemption.  Tamsin and Sam manage to find new lives for themselves and a new beginning with each other.  Tamsin finds out who her real friends are, and Sam finds out that holding onto the past isn't the best thing you can do for yourself after all.  It is a story that is heartfelt and warm, and perfect for the holiday season.  Highly recommended.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Death by Blue Water (A Hayden Kent Mystery Book 1)

Author:  Kait Carson
Genre: Mystery/Suspense

Five Stars
Paralegal Hayden Kent knows first-hand that life in the Florida Keys can change from perfect to perilous in a heartbeat. When she discovers a man’s body at 120’ beneath the sea, she thinks she is witness to a tragic accident. She becomes the prime suspect when the victim is revealed to be the brother of the man who recently jilted her, and she has no alibi. A migraine stole Hayden’s memory of the night of the death.
As the evidence mounts, she joins forces with an Officer Janice Kirby. Together the two women follow the clues that uncover criminal activities at the highest levels and put Hayden’s life in jeopardy while she fights to stay free.

Hayden Kent is a paralegal in the Florida Keys and a highly experienced diver.  In fact, any time she has off from work, she is out diving.  Reeling from a recent breakup with her boyfriend Kevin, she can't wait to get back in the water, hoping it will take her mind off her misery.  She decides to make one of her favorite dives, to a shipwreck of the Humboldt.  Just before she is to return to the boat waiting above her and its owner, her friend Cappy, she spots something:  Looking down, she sees the body of a man, floating below her, sans eyes.  Not a pretty sight, and one that leads her to an instant scream.  When she recovers and makes her way back to the boat, she informs Cappy and he in turn calls the Coast Guard and the Patrol Boats.
At first disbelieving her story, the two officers of the respective agencies, Janice Kirby and Lt. Paul Muller, find out she's right when Lt. Muller makes the dive again with Hayden and sees the body.  After the discovery, Hayden's life begins to go downhill.
Being questioned again, this time by the local police, they are slightly concerned she might have had something to do with the murder.  This is because they have discovered the dead man is no less than the brother of her ex-boyfriend, Richard Anderson.  Stunned by the news, Hayden can't figure out why they keep insisting she knew the dead man, and everywhere she turns it appears the evidence is just piling up against her.  What Hayden didn't tell the officers is that she suffers from blinding migranes - one of which she had the night before Richard was killed, and the fact that when she woke up, she was on the beach, soaking wet.
This book had me riveted to the end.  Hayden's confusion at the events surrounding her life, her breakup with Kevin, and why anyone would want to frame her for a murder she didn't commit sends her reeling.  She never puts herself in danger by acting like others - going for long walks alone, for instance - but things keep happening and she can't figure out the reason why.  Even Kevin tells her he's convinced she killed his brother because she was jealous of the fact that he moved on with his life.
The situations are not unbelievable, and you get drawn into the action almost as if you are watching it in real time.  I found it difficult to stay with the current story and not turn to the end to find out the conclusion ("whodunit").  But all the twists and turns are worth it, and don't give in, because you'll enjoy the ending more if you wait.  A great book, highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Misdirection: The Rusty Diamond Trilogy Book 1

TAuthor:  Austin Williams
Genre:  Thriller/Suspense

Four Stars
A street magician needs more than sleight-of- hand to survive getting embroiled in a murder case in this blistering novel of suspense.
After years of chasing fame and hedonistic excess in the bright lights of Las Vegas, Rusty "The Raven" Diamond has returned home to Ocean City to piece his life back together. When he finds himself an innocent suspect in his landlord's brutal murder, Rusty abandons all hope of maintaining a tranquil existence. Acting on impulse, he digs into the investigation just enough to anger both the police and a local drug cartel.
As the unsolved case grows more complex, claiming new victims and inciting widespread panic, Rusty feels galvanized by the adrenaline he's been missing for too long. But his newfound excitement threatens to become an addiction, leading him headfirst into an underworld he's been desperately trying to escape.
Austin Williams creates an unforgettable protagonist in Rusty, a flawed but relatable master of illusion in very real danger. As the suspense builds to an explosively orchestrated climax, Williams paints a riveting portrait of both a city-and a man-on the edge.

Rusty "The Raven" Diamond has returned to Ocean City, Maryland after years away.  Several of those were spent performing in Las Vegas as a magician.  When he finally returns home, he discovers his landlady dead, her throat apparently ripped out.  After being cleared by the police, he returns to her house and discovers something else:  an empty prescription bottle that once contained lidocaine, and a baggie that once contained drugs, something so powerful it causes hallucinations and violent acts.  Convinced this has something to do with his landlady's death, and the police not acting on any tips he gives them, Rusty sets out to find where the drugs come from and who is manufacturing them.
First the bad: I didn't understand the fact that no one knew who he was.  As a Las Vegas resident, when you mention the name Criss Angel, people across the country pretty much know he's a headliner in Las Vegas.  So why wouldn't they recognize the name Rusty Diamond from Caesar's?  Also, there's a Caesar's in Atlantic City (not too far from Ocean City) and I would think there'd be ads for their sister property.  Especially with his look; Criss Angel has a similar look and people recognize him.  But I guess if you live in Maryland you have no idea what's going on in the world.  You can't headline in Las Vegas and expect to remain anonymous.  (Even if his cop friend Jim never visited Las Vegas, chances are that one of his coworkers did and probably saw the marquee with his name on it - if you're a headliner, your name is on the marquee.)  That bothered me, also the fact that his friend Jim didn't know what he'd been doing since he left.  Again, he's a cop - he knew Rusty's parents worried about him, but he never thought to look him up or find out anything about him?  But yet Janice Garrett, the victim's niece, works at an advertising agency in Manhattan, and Rusty notes that if he recognized the name, it was recognizable all over the country.  Personally, I couldn't name any ad agency based in Manhattan, so why would everyone else in the country, but have no idea of who headlines in Las Vegas?  I have relatives on the east coast, and they know who's headlining in Las Vegas, but I'm sure they couldn't name a big New York ad agency - it's just not one of those things you commit to memory unless you do business with one.  (Yes, these are things that I think of when I review a book.).

He also does a very stupid thing somewhere toward the middle of the book - you know, as in the person who goes into the house and confronts the killer about what they've done while knowing it's the killer but doesn't tell anyone they're going to do it?  Yes, it's along those lines.  Something someone who is 'all there' wouldn't do in the real world.  But one gets the feeling Rusty isn't part of the real world: it's not that he has a death wish, exactly; it's that his feelings have numbed for reasons we're never told.

Now the good:  The book is well-thought out.  I myself wouldn't be attracted to Rusty, our unlikely hero.  He's on the grubby side, with long hair and a goatee.  He sort of looks like an escapee from a disbanded motorcycle gang.  (But some women go for that type of thing, I know.)  Anyway, there is no doubt he is a compelling protagonist:  He is brave, of that I am convinced.  He is also determined and has a strong moral compass - he will do whatever it takes to right a wrong.  Intellectual to a fault.  He can see what is behind peoples' motives, and he also has strong will power.  These attributes make him human and impressive.

That is what makes this a very good book.  The fact that as you read, pieces of Rusty are put together, almost like a puzzle.  And you are drawn to the pieces, wanting to know more about this man and his past.  The few glimpses we are given leave us needing to find out his history.

We are with him when he pieces together the murder, we watch him as he goes through his own thought processes and his actions, when he takes chances he shouldn't and wonder how he will escape (for we know beforehand he will, as protagonists do.)  Although there isn't a lot of fleshing out of the secondary characters, it doesn't seem to matter:  This is Rusty's book, by and far.  He is the central pin to the action, the one who gets things done.  He is the one we are interested in, and want to see find the answers.  And he does, even if it means skirting the law and doing it in his own way.

When you come to the conclusion of the book, you are left wanting more.   The scenes leading up to it are suspenseful and enticing, and you are drawn into the action, never knowing what is around the next corner.  Exactly what a suspense novel should be.  Recommended reading.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Red Book of Primrose House: A Potting Shed Mystery

Author:  Marty Wingate
Genre:  Mystery

Five Stars
Pru Parke has her dream job:  head gardener at an eighteenth-century manor house in Sussex. The landscape for Primrose House was laid out in 1806 by renowned designer Humphry Repton in one of his meticulously illustrated Red Books, and the new owners want Pru to restore the estate to its former glory—quickly, as they’re planning to showcase it in less than a year at a summer party.

But life gets in the way of the best laid plans: When not being happily distracted by the romantic attentions of the handsome Inspector Christopher Pearse, Pru is digging into the mystery of her own British roots. Still, she manages to make considerable progress on the vast grounds—until vandals wreak havoc on each of her projects. Then, to her horror, one of her workers is found murdered among the yews. The police have a suspect, but Pru is certain they’re wrong. Once again, Pru finds herself entangled in a thicket of evil intentions—and her, without a hatchet.
Pru Parke is a transplanted Texan.  She has moved to Great Britain to seek out her heritage - the English half of her upbringing, her mother's relatives.  Since this is the second book in the series, she has moved along:  She has decided to remain there, having fallen in love with CID Inspector Christopher Pearse.
In this book, she has been hired by a couple who are restoring the grounds of their newly purchased home, and Pru has the great fortune to be able to do so because she has the Red Book of Humphry Repton, a famous gardener/illustrator/etc. in England. 
Shortly after beginning the job, she realizes there is dissent among her workers: Robbie, the mentally challenged son of the cook, brothers Liam and Fergal, and Ned, an elderly gentleman who knows much about the area and seems a little resentful of Pru.  She attributes this to the fact that she is a newcomer, but things become muddled not soon after.
When a local reporter begins to write a blog about the progress on the gardens, accidents follow. Every time Hugo, the reporter, writes an article, something befalls the garden; for example,  he writes about the primroses and the next day the flats are discovered all overturned.  For awhile it appears that it is merely acts of vandalism - until the day Pru discovers a body in the garden.
Adding to this is the fact that Pru is still searching for her relatives - and may have found some - and that she and Christopher only have weekends together since he must work in London during the week.  While their relationship is still fairly new, and they are fighting for time together, he can't help but worry about her, knowing still that she must progress with the work, since her employers have told her they expect the garden to be ready for "Open Day."
This is a very good book.  In the beginning, I wasn't sure, since the first pages started out slow.  However, I've learned over time never to make snap judgments, and I wasn't disappointed this time out.  Pru is likable, and she doesn't take unnecessary chances, as do a lot of amateur sleuths.  She uses caution, and doesn't go off 'into dark places' by herself.  She does question people in order to find the murderer, but her heart is in the right place.  When she knows someone is accused that isn't guilty, she is careful in her questioning, never combative or downright stupid.
When we finally learn who the murderer is - and we have plenty of clues along the way - it doesn't matter that we may have guessed it long before she did.  What does matter is the fact that it was an enjoyable ride in the journey.  Highly recommended.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Vintage Pies: Classic American Pies for Today's Home Baker

Author:  Anne Collins
Genre:  Cookbooks

Five Stars
Now it's as easy as pie to make delectable desserts from centuries past.
From Wet Bottom Shoo Fly Pie to basic American Apple Pie, you’ll find them all—transparent pies such as Butternut Maple; cake pies such as Quakertown Pie; custard pies such as Union Pie; cream pies such as Cherry Cream Pie; and fruit pies such as Crabapple Pie. Each recipe has been carefully tested and brings with it a veritable trip down memory lane. Pies have graced American tables from the days of the Pilgrims, and variations have evolved into regional favorites around the country. Now you can recreate those pieces of history in your own kitchen.
I love to cook.  I love to bake.  I love pie.  Three combinations that drew me irrevocably to this book.  I am glad to say I was not disappointed.  These pies are not the average pie that you will find in every cookbook - yes, there is the standbys of pumpkin, lemon meringue, and apple.  But this book is so much more:  Ms. Collins begins with, of course, the art of making a crust, which can be served in any of these pies.  I like to use different variations for each pie, but this basic crust stands the test of time.  The recipes are as authentic as they can be, and although I haven't tried every one in the book, given enough time, I am sure that I will.
She then begins with transparent pies - those pies when sliced, have an almost opalescent filling: rich, clear, beautiful.  She then moves on to custards, berries, fruits, etc.  The recipes are mostly easy enough for anyone to make, but there are a couple that new bakers might find daunting.
The end result is a lovely book that will make a nice addition to any baker's cookbook collection.  Highly recommended.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Elvis Presley: A Southern Life

Author:  Joel Williamson
Genre:  Biography

Three Stars
In Elvis Presley: A Southern Life, one of the most admired Southern historians of our time takes on one of the greatest cultural icons of all time. The result is a masterpiece: a vivid, gripping biography, set against the rich backdrop of Southern society--indeed, American society--in the second half of the twentieth century.

Author of The Crucible of Race and William Faulkner and Southern History, Joel Williamson is a renowned historian known for his inimitable and compelling narrative style. In this tour de force biography, he captures the drama of Presley's career set against the popular culture of the post-World War II South. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Presley was a contradiction, flamboyant in pegged black pants with pink stripes, yet soft-spoken, respectfully courting a decent girl from church. Then he wandered into Sun Records, and everything changed. "I was scared stiff," Elvis recalled about his first time performing on stage. "Everyone was hollering and I didn't know what they were hollering at." Girls did the hollering--at his snarl and swagger. Williamson calls it "the revolution of the Elvis girls." His fans lived in an intense moment, this generation raised by their mothers while their fathers were away at war, whose lives were transformed by an exodus from the countryside to Southern cities, a postwar culture of consumption, and a striving for upward mobility. They came of age in the era of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, which turned high schools into battlegrounds of race. Explosively, white girls went wild for a white man inspired by and singing black music while "wiggling" erotically. Elvis, Williamson argues, gave his female fans an opportunity to break free from straitlaced Southern society and express themselves sexually, if only for a few hours at a time.

Rather than focusing on Elvis's music and the music industry, Elvis Presley: A Southern Life illuminates the zenith of his career, his period of deepest creativity, which captured a legion of fans and kept them fervently loyal for decades. Williamson shows how Elvis himself changed--and didn't. In the latter part of his career, when he performed regular gigs in Las Vegas and toured second-tier cities, he moved beyond the South to a national audience who had bought his albums and watched his movies. Yet the makeup of his fan base did not substantially change, nor did Elvis himself ever move up the Southern class ladder despite his wealth. Even as he aged and his life was cut short, he maintained his iconic status, becoming arguably larger in death than in life as droves of fans continue to pay homage to him at at Graceland.

Appreciative and unsparing, culturally attuned and socially revealing, Williamson's Elvis Presley will deepen our understanding for the man and his times.
When I grew up, Elvis lived in our household.  My sisters and my brother loved his music, and we listened to it all the time.  I myself came to a later appreciation for him.  I discovered him later in my life, and, watching his movies and listening to him I developed the same fascination and love that they have.  Living in Las Vegas I see his influence around me.  Elvis changed music.  He was the influence for countless others.  He lives on, still influencing, people still fascinated by him.  He was, and is still, The King.  There was a quality about him that cannot be defined, cannot be parsed, even though Mr. Williamson attempts to do so.
He begins his book with the death of Elvis.  In graphic detail.  It was enough to know how Elvis died without having it set out before us, detail upon detail.  After reading, I believe that Mr. Williamson doesn't like Elvis very much.  He gives us details of Elvis' upbringing, offering insights into his life; but he also tells us that Elvis was a 'sex-crazed' man (you do come away with that feeling).  Elvis may have had a healthy appetite for sex, but I don't believe he was sex-crazed.  No, Elvis was not perfect as none of us are, but Mr. Williamson paints the picture that he was something he was not.  Elvis was a gentle Southern man, devoted son, generous and loving to his friends and family. 
He was overwhelmed by his success and dealt with it the best he could.  Unfortunately, it ate him up at too early an age, and his coping mechanisms were not strong.  Elvis did not have an appetite for drugs.  He had an addictive personality, and it is unfortunate that he couldn't be helped.  No, Elvis was no saint.  No man in his position would be.  But I believe that he was the best he knew how to be.
Please don't get me wrong:  This is a complete biography, as biographies go.  It details his life quite well.  There was evidently a lot of research that went into this.  But it is not the best book there is about Elvis (nor is it the worst).  I just don't believe he captured who Elvis really was, or what he meant to the entertainment industry or to people.

If the Shoe Kills

Author:  Lynn Cahoon
Genre:  Cozy Mystery

Five Stars
The tourist town of South Cove, California, is a lovely place to spend the holidays. But this year, shop owner Jill Gardner discovers there’s no place like home for homicide…
As owner of Coffee, Books, and More, Jill Gardner looks forward to the hustle and bustle of holiday shoppers. But when the mayor ropes her into being liaison for a new work program, ‘tis the season to be wary. Local businesses are afraid the interns will be delinquents, punks, or worse. For Jill, nothing’s worse than Ted Hendricks—the jerk who runs the program. After a few run-ins, Jill’s ready to kill the guy. That, however, turns out to be unnecessary when she finds Ted in his car—dead as a doornail. Detective Greg King assumes it’s a suicide. Jill thinks it’s murder. And if the holidays weren’t stressful enough, a spoiled blonde wants to sue the city for breaking her heel. Jill has to act fast to solve this mess—before the other shoe drops...

Jill Gardner, owner of Coffee, Books, and More is the liaison between South Cove's merchants and the mayor's office.  Mayor Baylor has contracted with Ted Hendricks, director of a work program, to have several of the people in his program work with the various businesses.  Although most of the other owners are against it, Jill talks them into it, even though she's not too sure about it herself.  Once she meets the workers, though, several things start to come to light, and they're all about Ted, who is a most unsavory character.  After a nasty first encounter with Jill (which is interrupted by Toby, the police officer who is also her part-time employee), Ted doesn't stop - he makes a not-so-nice late night call to Jill threatening her.

When she later finds him dead in his car in front of City Hall, it turns out that Ted was indeed a not-so-nice person.  His reputation among the workers wasn't the best, and more than one person had a reason to kill him.  While Jill is again counseled by her boyfriend, Detective Greg King, to leave the investigation alone, she is unwillingly drawn into it when someone leaves a "present" on her front doorstep.

Adding to this is her Aunt Jackie's idea of hosting a book drive and holiday party for the children of a nearby childcare facility - something their parents would not to be able to afford themselves; the fact that the mayor's wife Tina has decided to take over the town's holiday decorating from Darla, the person who has done it every year (and the fact that Tina has no experience and her ideas are less than welcome), Jill's decision to host her first Thanksgiving with many of her newfound friends in attendance, and meeting Greg's ex-wife Sherry (with disastrous results).

I really love this series.  Ms. Cahoon has a way of drawing you into the story so that you want to read it straight through without stopping.  Her characters are lively and fun to be around.  The only drawback this time around is I think Jill has enough problems and drama in her life without adding the ex-wife to the mix, and it isn't a good idea.  Sherry is unlikeable, and I, for one, don't want to have to spend time with her.  Somehow I think Jill wouldn't want to have to spend time with her, either.

Aside from that, I look forward to the next book in the series.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Christmas on Chestnut Street (An Island Christmas)

Author:  Nancy Thayer
Genre:  Christmas/Fiction

Four Stars
As Christmas draws near, Felicia returns to her family’s home on the island to marry her adventurous, rugged boyfriend, Archie. Every detail is picture-perfect for a dream wedding: the snow-dusted streets, twinkling lights in the windows, a gorgeous red and white satin dress. Except a lavish ceremony is not Felicia’s dream at all; it’s what her mother, Jilly, wants. Jilly’s also worried that her daughter’s life with daredevil Archie will be all hiking and skydiving. Wondering if their handsome neighbor Steven Hardy might be a more suitable son-in-law, Jilly embarks on a secret matchmaking campaign for Felicia and the dashing stockbroker.

As the big day approaches and Jilly’s older daughter, Lauren, appears with rambunctious kids in tow, tensions in the household are high. With the family careening toward a Yuletide wedding disaster, an unexpected twist in Nancy Thayer’s heartwarming tale reminds everyone about the true meaning of the season.

Jilly is distraught because her youngest daughter Felicia has moved so far away from home, and blames it on Felicia's fiance, Archie.  Archie is into outdoor sports, and his idea of a good time is white-water rafting, which Felicia also enjoys.  Now they are getting married, and Jilly thinks that if Felicia marries Archie, she'll never see her.  So, while discussing this situation with her friend Nicole, she also mentions that the boy who took Felicia to prom, Steven, has moved back next door, is a highly successful stockbroker...and single.  Since Felicia has agreed to hold the wedding on Nantucket for Jilly's sake, her plan is to throw Steven and Felicia together as much as possible and she will "see the error of her ways" and dump Archie for Steven.
However, once Felicia arrives, things begin to go awry.  Felicia doesn't appear to be interested in Steven in the least, Archie convinces Jilly's husband George to take a boat trip around the island with him, with disastrous results, and Jilly has recently adopted a cat from the local animal shelter that insists on doing exactly what he wants to do no matter what.
Let me be clear for those of you expecting a love-triangle-sort-of-thing:  it isn't one.  There isn't a whole lot of interaction between Steven/Felicia/Archie.  In fact, it sort of becomes only a few pages in the entire book, hence the four stars instead of five.  The blurb kind of hints otherwise, and there really isn't a "secret matchmaking campaign" anywhere in the book.
That notwithstanding, it is an enjoyable book, full of descriptions of the Nantucket area and how they 'deck out' for the holidays,etc.  We are given not only that, but interactions between people that could happen in any family, especially at the holidays.  The only thing I took exception to was that it appeared to me that the cat was "handy" for causing disasters where there might not have been any otherwise.  A cat new to a household, as this one was, and unsure of people, as this one was, would more likely make itself scarce rather than spend time with all these strangers.
Other than that, it  is a nice addition to books being read at the Christmas season, and recommended for anyone who enjoys holiday stories, and those about weddings held at Christmas.

Dance of the Scarecrows (A Jonathan Wilder Mystery #1)

Author:  Ray Sipherd Genre:   Mystery Hardcover; Paperback; ISBN #:  9780312143060; 9780373262878 Worldwide Mystery 252 Pages Various...