Book Review: The Color of Fear by Judy Alter

The Color of Fear
A Kelly O’Connell Mystery #7
Judy Alter
Alter Ego Publishing, May 2017
ISBN 978-0-9990371-0-2
Trade Paperback

From the author—

The Color of Fear marks Judy Alter’s return to mystery fiction and the Kelly O’Connell series after an absence of more than a year. This time, the indomitable Keisha narrates the short tale wherein Kelly and her family live under the threat of infant Gracie’s kidnapping. The story serves as a reprise of many of the previous novels in the series, as Keisha, in her search for the kidnapper, recalls Kelly’s earlier adventures.

Keisha remains outspoken and independent as she balances her need to protect Kelly and her family with her love for new husband, José Thornberry. Some but not all of Kelly’s friends and foes from previous stories appear here, along with such new characters as Clyde, the guard dog, and Cowboy, the homeless guy with a soft heart.

For anyone who hasn’t read all the preceding books in this series or for those who haven’t read any of them, this nifty little novella (or short story depending on your definition) can fill some of the gaps. Besides the current adventure, Keisha also shares tidbits about past exploits so we’re pretty much up to date…although, of course, reading the full length novels will offer much more. Here, we get tiny teasers.

Keisha is the standout character in this particular story, seemingly the only one except Mike, Kelly’s police captain husband, who keeps a level head in the current crisis. Threats are being made against a little baby and everyone has different ideas about who could be making these threats and why but it’s Keisha who does the most to avoid panic. Her sixth sense comes into play and her love for all these people—well, not so much for Miss Cynthia—sees her through to the end.

That end isn’t entirely satisfactory because it’s rushed and a bit out of nowhere but that’s often the case with short stories and novellas, just not enough time to flesh it out properly. This is a story that will introduce or re-introduce readers to Kelly and those in her circle and I hope to see more of these folks soon.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

Book Reviews: Mightier than the Sword by K. J. Parker and Murder at the Blue Plate Cafe by Judy Alter

Mightier Than the Sword
K. J. Parker
Subterranean Press, June 2017
ISBN 978-1-59606-817-9
Hardcover

From the publisher—

An Imperial legate is called in to see his aunt, who just happens to be the empress running the civilized world while her husband’s in his sick bed. After some chastisement, she dispatches her nephew to take care of the dreaded Land and Sea Raiders, pirates who’ve been attacking the realm’s monasteries.

So begins a possibly doomed tour of banished relatives and pompous royals put in charge of monasteries like Cort Doce and Cort Malestan, to name a few. While attempting to discover the truth of what the pirates might be after, the legate visits great libraries and halls in each varied locale and conducts a romance of which he knows but doesn’t care his aunt will not approve.

With enough wit and derring-do (and luck), the narrator might just make it through his mission alive…or will he?

Mightier than the Sword is a sort of Canterbury Tale-like retelling of “Concerning the Monasteries”, the personal document of the narrator that relates how he traveled  in search of the pirates who were attacking and pillaging monasteries throughout the Empire of the Robur in medieval times.  Our somewhat reluctant hero is the nephew of Empress Eudoxia Honoria Augusta and, along the way, he spends time with his aunt’s best friend, Svangerd, Abbess of Cort Doce, and his own best friend, Stachel, Abbot of Cort Sambic as well as others before discovering the truths behind the raids.

What ends with a number of surprises is mostly a pleasant story with interludes of off-scene violence at a handful of monasteries. The surprises, though, turn everything topsy-turvy but what happens to, and because of, our narrator are what had to be to complete the story and his destiny.

K. J. Parker is a pseudonym for Tom Holt, used for his fantasy writings. I first read Holt‘s many novels that are a wacky sort of science fiction and fantasy blend chock full of humor and satire and loved them so much that, when the bookstore was open, I had an account with a British book wholesaler just so we could stock his books (and a few others). The man makes me laugh out loud so I was not surprised to see hints of his comical side in Mightier than the Sword like this exchange:

“Rabanus isn’t a Mesoge name. What do they call you back home?”

He grinned. “I’m Hrafn son of Sighvat son of Thiudrek from Gjaudarsond in Laxeydardal.”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll call you Rabanus.”

Although I don’t read a lot of high fantasy, this novella called to me because of the author but it also sounded like just the sort of thing to while away a couple of hours and, besides, how could I resist a tale that has so much to do with books? 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

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Murder at the Blue Plate Cafe
A Blue Plate Cafe Mystery #1
Judy Alter
Alter Ego Publishing, January 2017
ISBN 978-0-9960131-6-1
Ebook

From the author—

Small towns are supposed to be idyllic and peaceful, but when Kate Chambers returns to her hometown of Wheeler, Texas, she soon learns it is not the comfortable place it was when she grew up. First there’s Gram’s sudden death, which leaves her suspicious, and then the death of her married sister’s lover. Kate runs Gram’s restaurant, the Blue Plate Café, but she must defend her sister against a murder charge, solve the murders to keep her business open, and figure out where the café’s profits are going. Even Kate begins to wonder about the twin sister she has a love-hate relationship with. Gram guides Kate through it all, though Kate’s never quite sure she’s hearing Gram—and sometimes Gram’s guidance is really off the wall.

Note: I read the digital copy of an old paperback edition that’s out of print but it appears the ebook listed above, with the same 2013 copyright date, is unchanged with the possible exception of some minor editing.

Judy Alter has written a ton of books including mysteries in three series and, when she wrote this one in 2013, it was the first in the Blue Plate Cafe series. Now, there are three books and it’s my own fault I lollygagged around for so long and have just now read this.

When Kate’s grandmother dies, she decides to leave her job as a paralegal—and an uncomfortable situation—and run Gram’s cafe but her twin, Donna, has her sights set on opening a bed and breakfast. That’s a good thing because the sisters are not at all alike and working closely together could be disastrous but it also adds to Kate’s growing suspicions about what really happened to Gram. Surely Donna didn’t do anything she shouldn’t, right?

Still, Donna’s attitude towards her life and family, her greed and her unrealistic ambitions are only part of Kate’s unease and Gram whispering in her head is unsettling at first until Kate begins to appreciate it. Is it possible that someone might have poisoned her? Then, when Donna is suspected of murdering her new B&B partner, all bets are off and Kate’s paralegal instincts kick in.

Now that I’ve met Kate and the people of Wheeler, I’d like to know more so I think I’ll pick up the second book as soon as I have a chance. Ms. Alter puts together a good mystery and I’m ready to see what’s happened with these folks and this little town while I’ve been dawdling 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

Book Reviews: Mrs Pargeter’s Public Relations by Simon Brett and Desperate for Death by Judy Alter

Mrs Pargeter’s Public Relations
A Mrs Pargeter Mystery #8
Simon Brett
Crème de la Crime/Severn House, April 2017
ISBN 978-1-78029-092-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

It is her characteristic generosity rather than her love of animals that finds Mrs Pargeter supporting her friend, Jasmine Angold, at a charity reception for PhiliPussies, whose worthy aim is to rehabilitate stray cats from the Greek island of Atmos into caring English homes. But the evening is to have unexpected consequences. At the event, Mrs P is taken aback to meet a woman who claims to be the sister of her late husband, the much-missed Mr Pargeter.

This surprising encounter leads to unwelcome digging into past secrets, the discovery of a body in Epping Forest, an eventful trip to Greece – and unexpected danger for Mrs Pargeter. In the course of her investigations, she learns the true nature of charity and the dubious skills by which Public Relations can make evil look good.

The Mrs Pargeter series is beguiling and delightful and this particular installment is no exception. Once again, the very wealthy and very kind widow finds herself in the midst of a puzzling crime and perhaps more.

Mrs Pargeter is always ready to help worthy causes with her money and her time but the latest, a cat rescue program, doesn’t really speak to her as she’s not particularly fond of cats. She agrees to go to a fundraiser because it’s important to her friend, Jasmine Angold, and Mrs Pargeter is all for supporting friends and those who are good to her, people such as Gary, her driver-on-call, and a security expert, Parvez. She found both in her late husband’s little black book full of experts in all sorts of activities. These experts were all connected in one way or another to her husband’s, er, illegal enterprises and while Mrs Pargeter would just as soon not know anything about said enterprises (to the point of not allowing anyone to mention them), she certainly appreciates the resulting wealth and the contents of the little black book.

When a very expensive necklace disappears from the charity auction, Mrs Pargeter is intrigued but even more so by the out-of-the-blue appearance of Rochelle Brighouse, a sister-in-law she never knew existed. Now, she has two mysteries to look into, the theft and this rather unpleasant woman, and she begins with a few questions to Gary and Parvez but is stymied by their surprising unwillingness to talk.

When Rochelle makes her agenda known and Mrs Pargeter realizes her husband’s reputation is at stake, she’s mobilized to do something about it. Add to that a murder connected to the cat rescue and our intrepid sleuth is soon doing what she does best.

 Mrs Pargeter is a woman wedded to fighting for good and against evil and this crime caper is as entertaining and full of dry humor as one could wish despite a bit of silliness (it’s puzzling why Brits would feel compelled to rescue cats from Greece when there are plenty of needy felines at home). She also is an unusual sleuth with her vast wealth and her ability to call on some of her husband’s very capable associates with their particular talents. All in all, it’s really easy to be charmed.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2017.

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Desperate for Death
A Kelly O’Connell Mystery #6
Judy Alter
Alter Ego Publishing, January 2016
ISBN 978-0-9960131-7-8
Trade Paperback

From the author—

Just when Kelly’s life has calmed, she faces yet another of life’s puzzles. Except the pieces in this one don’t fit. First the apartment behind her house is torched, then a string of bizzare “accidents” occur to set her off-balance. Who is stalking her? Where does the disappearance of a young girl and her disreputable boyfriend fit in? And why are two men using the same name? Is the surprise inheritance another part of the puzzle? At a time when she is most vulnerable, Kelly can’t make the pieces fit. Before Kelly can get the whole picture, she helps the family of a hostage, rescues a kidnap victim and attends a wild and wonderful wedding.

Most of the time in a cozy, I get irritated with the love interest who’s a cop and he demands that his lady, our amateur sleuth, stay out of his business. This time, I’m irritated because Mike, the cop in question, blows off Kelly’s suggestion that the fire in her unoccupied guest house might have been set by someone out for revenge against him, a convict perhaps. Instead, he wants Kelly to think of someone who’s out to cause her trouble while he’s off doing his thing. Sure, she’s gotten involved in murders and other nefarious activities but surely any cop must know he’s a prime target. Weirdly, while dismissing any connection he might have, he also tends to disregard Kelly’s thinking about the case.

On the other hand, Kelly has a few other things on her mind.

My favorite character is definitely Keisha, Kelly’s completely indispensable assistant who’s flamboyant, nosy and very intuitive, not to mention streetsmart. I didn’t care for others quite so much, including Kelly and Mike, but the story was engaging. The action was a bit choppy but that actually kept things moving and the various leads and hunches gave me plenty to think about before all became clear.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2017.

Book Reviews: The Perfect Coed by Judy Alter and Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

The Perfect CoedThe Perfect Coed
Judy Alter
Alter Ego Publishing, May 2014
ISBN 978-0-9960131-0-9
Trade Paperback

A coed, one of Professor Susan Hogan’s American Lit students has gone missing, and a few days later, her body is finally discovered in the trunk of Susan’s car. Why was this particular coed,who seemed the perfect student, daughter, girlfriend, murdered? Why was Missy Jackson’s body hidden in her car? That’s what Susan and her boyfriend Jake, a security officer at the university, wants to know. However, they’d better work fast because she may be fated to be the killer’s next victim. Unless the cops hurry up and arrest her for the murder.

Lots of suspects are introduced for the reader to choose among in the quest to deduce the murderer. Lots of twists and turns and red herrings to either help or to hinder. Lots of threats and scary, tension filled scenes thrust the story along, and the ending is a satisfactory conclusion with just the right amount of final explanation.

The only thing that bothered me–and I’m not sure that’s the right word–is why Susan is so “prickly,” (a word used in the back cover blurb to describe her) especially with her loved ones and her supporters. I found her reluctance to accept help or to even discuss measures to preserve her own life distracting at times.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, November 2014.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

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Elizabeth Is MissingElizabeth is Missing
Emma Healey
Harper, June 10 2014
ISBN 978-0-0623-0966-2
Hardcover

“Elizabeth is missing” is the sole notation made on most of the innumerable notes that Maud Horsham constantly makes and puts in any available pocket, as a hoped-for aid to her increasingly failing memory.  Maud is in an advancing state of dementia, and more often than not cannot remember where she is, or with whom, even when the latter is her daughter, or her granddaughter (sometimes mistaking the latter for the former).  But she knows that her best friend – – indeed, just about her only remaining friend, as she remembers “The others are in homes or in graves” – –  appears to be missing.  She takes any path she can conjure up to try to solve the mystery, resorting to putting an ad in the local newspaper for any information anyone may have as to her whereabouts.

And her friend Elizabeth is not the only ‘disappeared’ person Maud is trying to track down.  Even 70 years later (which doesn’t matter so much when one has no idea of time frames), Maud is still trying to find her sister, Sukey, missing since the time after the London blitz, when Maud was 15 years old and England was still trying to recover from the war, enduring rationed food and bombed-out homes.  The narrative, such as it is, jumps back and forth in time, from looking for her sister to searching for her friend, sometimes for both at seemingly the same time.  It is often difficult just to follow where Maud is, both for Maud herself as well as for the reader.

This book is unlike any I have ever read.  Maud is the first-person narrator, and that narrative is as disjointed as Maud’s mind, conveying, quite convincingly, that state of being.  I must admit to a feeling of ‘there but for the grace of G-d go . . .’ well, I, or indeed any of us.  The novel is one that literally haunted me well after I had finished reading it, and I suspect it may do that for many readers.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2015.