Book Review: Booked for Murder by R. J. Blain @rj_blain @XpressoTours

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Title: Booked for Murder
Series: Vigilante Magical Librarians #1
Author: R. J. Blain
Publisher: Pen & Page Publishing
Publication Date: August 18, 2020
Genres: Urban Fantasy, Mystery

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Booked for Murder
Vigilante Magical Librarians #1
R. J. Blain
Pen & Page Publishing, August 2020
ISBN 978-1-64964-003-1
Trade Paperback

From the author:

Life as a bodyguard and driver for the rich, famous, and powerful is dangerous on a good day, and after sustaining a crippling injury while on duty, Janette’s left with few options. Having signed a ‘for life’ contract but unable to work, she uses her skills to disappear.

Her new life as a librarian suits her. Nobody cares she limps and sometimes requires a cane to walk. She’s wanted for her knowledge, not her lethal magic. She’s surrounded by books, a woman’s best friend.

But when her former employer’s best friend is murdered on the steps of her library, old loyalties and secrets might destroy her—or set her free.

Teaming up with her co-workers to find the killer might keep her from being booked for murder, but unless she’s careful, she’ll find out exactly how far her ex-boss will go to reclaim what is rightfully his.

Her. For life.

A mashup of mystery and urban fantasy is one of my favorite reads so I looked forward to this one with great glee but, while I enjoyed many aspects of it, the overall result was not quite as good as I hoped.

The concept of a woman who’s a bodyguard in the top echelons of society, exposed to all kinds of dangers and *stuff* that we can’t quite identify with because this is an alternate universe of sorts, is really appealing. It gets even better, in my opinion, when she decides to take advantage of a dire injury to reinvent the wheel, i.e., herself and what better way to hide out than to become a librarian? Of course, as you might expect, all does not go well for the long run and Janette soon finds herself tangled up with her former boss, Bradley, in a murder investigation. My kind of story!

So why am I not 100% in love with this book? The first hiccup for me is that I didn’t really like some of the characters but, in itself, that wouldn’t be a complete turnoff; I actually think an unappealing character or two makes for a more natural tale. However, the second issue was pacing that dragged in places, largely due to overdumping of info. Sure, the first book in a series needs to have more worldbuilding than later books but this just seemed to take up too much word space.

Bottomline, while this didn’t give me the wow factor, it’s a promising beginning to what I understand is going to be a five-book series and I do want to find out what happens next, particularly since the murder is not solved in this one. Like some other mystery series, Booked for Murder apparently is going to carry that storyarc over at least one more book, perhaps all, so I’ll be watching out for number 2.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2020.

About the Author

RJ Blain suffers from a Moleskine journal obsession, a pen fixation, and a terrible tendency to pun without warning.

In her spare time, she daydreams about being a spy. Her contingency plan involves tying her best of enemies to spinning wheels and quoting James Bond villains until satisfied.

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$50 Amazon gift card

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Book Review: The One That Got Away by Leigh Himes—and a Giveaway!

The One That Got Away
Leigh Himes
Hachette Books, June 2017
ISBN 978-0-316-30570-9
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Meet Abbey Lahey . . .

Overworked mom. Underappreciated publicist. Frazzled wife of an out-of-work landscaper. A woman desperately in need of a vacation from life–and who is about to get one, thanks to an unexpected tumble down a Nordstrom escalator.

Meet Abbey van Holt . . .

The woman whose life Abbey suddenly finds herself inhabiting when she wakes up. Married to handsome congressional candidate Alex van Holt. Living in a lavish penthouse. Wearing ball gowns and being feted by the crème of Philadelphia society. Luxuriating in the kind of fourteen-karat lifestyle she’s only read about in the pages of Town & Country.

The woman Abbey might have been . . . if she had said yes to a date with Alex van Holt all those years ago.

In the tradition of the romantic comedy Sliding Doors and Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, Leigh Himes’s irresistible debut novel tells the funny and touching story of an ordinary woman offered an extraordinary opportunity to reboot her life, explore the road not taken, and ultimately, find her true self–whoever that may be.

I confess, the description of this book reminds me of a Hallmark movie (I’m addicted to those things) that came out a few Christmases ago. I don’t remember the name of it but the mom in the story finds herself in the life she might have had if she’d married the other guy. Come to think of it, Hallmark has used that theme more than once but the point is, I liked the movie and thought I’d like this book, too.

And I did, with reservations.

Abbey is a likeable woman, largely because of how she stumbles her way through this new reality/fantasy. She’s funny and inventive and determined to learn how to live the high life. This is definitely a “the grass is greener on the other side” scenario and, as you might expect, the new experience of being part of the social elite of Philadelphia and married to a politician kind of overwhelms Abbey, not to mention the shock of waking up in this fantasy. On the other hand, Abbey did irritate me with her too easy acceptance of the change and the shallowness that creeps out but I also empathized with her dissatisfaction and frustrations with her old life.

I sound conflicted, don’t I? I guess I am, actually, maybe because I too have that question, the what if syndrome. Not constantly, of course, but it’s there, lingering in the background even though I’m pretty well satisfied with the way my life has gone so far. And since I’m unlikely to ever wake up in a different life, it was fun to watch Abbey go through her rebirth, so to speak. There are a lot of books and movies that tackle this premise and The One That Got Away ranks right up there with the most entertaining.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2017.

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About the Author

Author Leigh Himes has spent fourteen years working in the public relations field. Born and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, she now lives just outside of Philadelphia with her husband and their two children. This is her first book.

Website // Twitter // Goodreads

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“An enchanting novel about the choices we make in life and
love–by turns hilarious, poignant, and nostalgic. Himes’s novel
will make you revisit all the “what ifs” you’ve ever contemplated,
from fleeting encounters to almost-weddings . . . a lively debut
that will strike a chord in anyone with a romantic past.”
Nicholas Sparks, author of The Notebook and See Me

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To enter the drawing for a print copy
of The One That Got Away, leave a
comment below. The winning name will

be drawn Saturday evening, July 1st.
Open to residents of the US and Canada.

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Book Review: What the Fly Saw by Frankie Y. Bailey

What the Fly SawWhat the Fly Saw
A Detective Hannah McCabe Mystery #2
Frankie Y. Bailey
Minotaur Books, March 2015
ISBN 978-1-250-04830-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Albany, New York, January 2020

The morning after a blizzard that shut down the city, funeral director Kevin Novak is found dead in the basement of his funeral home. The arrow sticking out of his chest came from his own hunting bow.

A loving husband and father and an active member of a local megachurch, Novak has no known enemies. His family and friends say he was depressed because his best friend died suddenly of a heart attack and Novak blamed himself. But what does his guilt have to do with his death? Maybe nothing, maybe a lot. The minister of the megachurch and the psychiatrist who provides counseling to church members–do either of them know more than they are saying?

Detective Hannah McCabe and her partner, Mike Baxter, sort through lies and evasions to solve the riddle of Novak’s death, while unanswered questions from another high-profile case, and McCabe’s own suspicions make for a dynamite crime novel.

Frankie Y. Bailey is a favorite of mine, going back to May of 2001 when she came to my bookstore for a big mystery author event. Her second Lizzie Stuart mystery was out and I had found the series to be charming and entertaining. Frankie herself was no less charming and entertaining and, over the years, I’ve been glad to run into her at various events and conventions.

When I first heard Frankie was starting a futuristic mystery series set in an alternate universe, I admit I raised an eyebrow because, after all, she’d never shown any inclination towards the science fiction-y book world. I was delighted to find that I thoroughly enjoyed The Red Queen Dies and I liked Detectives Hannah McCabe and Mike Baxter a lot.

Now, they’re back and I’m so happy they are. I confess that the murder of a funeral home director gave me a bit of the heebie-jeebies because I’ve had such a person in my life just recently but I got over that momentary uneasiness right away. Hannah gave me a feeling of indifference at times but no more than many other sleuths, professional or amateur, and there’s no doubt she does her job well. This murder is an interesting one what with arrows, skeletons, arsenic and what not and the two investigators have quite a task ahead of them, filled with twist upon turn.

Mystery fans should not fear the setting in an alternate universe. Other than the occasional anomaly, this Albany is not all that different from the one we know and the time is only a few years ahead of our own so things feel famiilar and comfortable. The setting simply adds an element of novelty now and then and the occasional contraption or  obscure anagram.

Once again, Ms. Bailey has brought us a well-constructed mystery full of all the investigative convolutions we fans love so well but, unfortunately, we now have to wait a year or so for the next book, much to my dismay ;-).

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2015.

Book Review: The Red Queen Dies by Frankie Y. Bailey—and a Giveaway!

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Title: The Red Queen Dies
Author: Frankie Y. Bailey
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: September 10, 2013
Genre: Mystery

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The Red Queen DiesThe Red Queen Dies
Frankie Y. Bailey
Minotaur Books, September 2013
ISBN 978-0-312-64175-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

The year is 2019, and a drug used to treat soldiers for post-traumatic stress disorder, nicknamed “Lullaby,” has hit the streets. Swallowing a little pill erases traumatic memories, but what happens to a criminal trial when the star witness takes a pill and can’t remember the crime? When two women are murdered in quick succession, biracial police detective Hannah McCabe is charged with solving the case. In spite of the advanced technology, including a city-wide surveillance program, a third woman is soon killed, and the police begin to suspect that a serial killer is on the loose. But the third victim, a Broadway actress known as “The Red Queen,” doesn’t fit the pattern set by the first two murders.

With the late September heat sizzling, Detective Hannah McCabe and her colleagues on the police force have to race to find the killer in a tangled web of clues that involve Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Disclaimer: I have known Frankie for years, having first met her when she came to my store in May 2001 for a mystery author event, and have thoroughly enjoyed her previous books. That has had no effect on this review.

Favorite authors surprise us sometimes by heading off in a direction we don’t expect and that’s the case with The Red Queen Dies by Frankie Y. Bailey. The beginning of a new series, it made me sit up and pay attention because it never crossed my mind that she would add a science fiction flavor to her mysteries.  Does it work? Yes, I really think it does because it’s not the least bit heavy-handed and true mystery fans are unlikely to be miffed by it.

In essence, Ms. Bailey has created an alternate universe that’s just a little different from our own world—well, except for the little detail of a UFO visit a few years ago. Mostly, we just see small technological changes that could very well happen in my lifetime. The reader doesn’t have to struggle to understand all the fancy stuff, although I would like to know what the acronym ORB (a sort of glorified smartphone) stands for.

Meanwhile, we still have a standard police procedural with detective partners Hannah McCabe and Mike Baxter investigating what appears to be a serial killer. The first two murders are rather mundane at first glance but the public’s attention is drawn to the investigation when a famous actress becomes the third victim. The public’s fear is also being heightened by the provocations of a well-known “threader” (a sort of reporter) who seems to have a very low opinion of the Albany Police Department. (It should be noted that the serial killings that take place in this book are not nearly as gruesome and lurid as can be found in other police procedurals.)

Two other crimes, both involving citizens who were the victims of assaults, are part of the story but neither has any real effect on the primary investigation, nor is the drug called “Lullaby” of any particular importance (but I suspect it will be in future books). There are some interesting and very diverse elements that come to light regarding the serial killings including the actress’ affinity for Alice in Wonderland and a summer camp that took place years ago but the real crux of the story is the workings of a police investigation that appears on more than one occasion to be heading nowhere.

Character development takes something of a backseat to the plot in this first title in the series but there is an interesting revelation about Hannah’s childhood that leads the reader to an understanding of Hannah’s personality but also to more questions. I’m looking forward to getting to know Hannah and Mike and their colleagues much better in future volumes.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2013.

About the Author

fybailey@albany.eduFRANKIE Y. BAILEY is an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany (SUNY). Bailey is the author of mysteries as well as non-fiction titles that explore the intersections of crime, history, and popular culture. Bailey is a Macavity Award-winner and has been nominated for Edgar, Anthony, and Agatha awards. A past executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime, she is on the Albany Bouchercon 2013 planning committee.

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by Frankie Y. Bailey, leave a comment below. The winning name

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Book Reviews: Dark Passage by Marcia Talley and Undercurrent by Paul Blackwell

Dark PassageDark Passage
A Hannah Ives Mystery
Marcia Talley
Severn House, September 2013
ISBN 978-0-7278-8278-3
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Hannah, her sisters and fourteen-year-old niece Julie set sail from Baltimore on a bonding cruise, and have a dramatic first night when Pia Fanucci, a bubbly bartender magician’s assistant whom Hannah befriends, narrowly escapes injury during an illusion. But while Pia may make light of the incident, it’s no laughing matter when Julie suddenly disappears. Has she gone overboard, or is she injured somewhere on the enormous ship?
 
To make matters worse, Hannah meets David Warren, a grieving father whose twenty-two-year-old daughter vanished without trace from an earlier cruise. With claims of a proper investigation proving to be an illusion too far, Hannah teams up with David and Pia in desperation. Can they see through the ship’s smoke and mirrors to reveal the identity of a dangerous sea-faring predator?

In the interest of fair play, let me say this first—I know Marcia Talley although I haven’t seen her in years. She used to come to my bookstore for events and I have been a fan of her books for a long time. So, yes, I can’t help but be a little bit biased, but I believe you’ll find this a balanced review.

Hannah Ives has grown a lot over the years. We walked along beside her after she survived breast cancer but lost her job and discovered that she has a talent for solving crimes. Since then, Hannah has gotten family members and friends—even herself—out of one criminal crisis or another and branched out into helping others, all the while doing her sleuthing quietly and with a lot of thought. She’ll need all her experience and knowledge of human nature to get to the bottom of a cold case while she and her sisters are on a cruise. Once Julie, her 14-year-old niece, on the cruise with her mom and aunts, becomes a victim, Hannah is even more determined to ferret out the killer.

The feeling that jumped out at me about this story, almost from the beginning, is comfort, in an odd sort of way. Partly, that’s because I’ve been on cruises so the setting was very familiar. The sisterly bonding thing affected me, too, although I have no sisters; as my daughters have become mature women, I’ve found that we have a similar kind of bond and I enjoyed seeing Hannah, Ruth and Georgina spending some much-needed time together without the distractions of husbands and homes and jobs.

As for the sleuthing, I kind of think this is not Ms. Talley‘s strongest entry in the series largely because Hannah was not quite as efficient as she usually is and she was actually wrong about a few things, jumping to some very quick and inaccurate conclusions while I had it pegged fairly early. On the other hand, this is a nice riff on the locked room mystery trope and I did thoroughly enjoy myself. Dark Passage is a fun vacation read for fans of suspense with a lot of wit and red herrings and I’m already anticipating Hannah’s next adventure in crime.

One last thing—as a former and, hopefully, future cruiser, I really appreciated the chapter-heading notes about security and safety on these ships. they’re worthwhile for anyone planning a trip on the high seas.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2013.

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UndercurrentUndercurrent
Paul Blackwell
HarperTeen, July 2013
ISBN 978-0-06-212350-3
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Sixteen-year-old Callum Harris survives a plummet over a waterfall, but wakes to find himself in a life that’s totally different from the one he knew.
 
His parents were separated. Now they’re together. His brother Cole was a sports star. Now he’s paralyzed. And Callum, who used to be quiet and sort of unpopular, is suddenly a jock with two hot girls after him.
 
But there’s one difference that matters more than all the others combined: His former best friend wants Callum dead. And he isn’t the only one.

From beginning to end, Undercurrent is a puzzle, starting with Callum waking up in a world that’s just not quite right. It’s the little things that seem off at first but then the problems begin to mushroom. Most horrifying is his discovery that his brother, Cole, who’s a jock and a bully, now lies paralyzed and Callum has no idea what happened to him.

Callum begins to realize that people don’t even know him by his “real” name—they call him Cal—and that he is suddenly one of the popular guys and, yet, some people want him dead. Why? Even his dog doesn’t want to be around him. And why is his dad living at home again? Why do classmates Willow and Bryce treat him so oddly now? Perhaps most of all, why did he go over that waterfall?

From then on, it all just kind of meanders along and the behavior of certain people, especially Callum and his parents (much too casual about what happened), just didn’t keep me engaged very well. To me, the intended point of this story is to highlight how everything in one’s life can hinge on one small decision, much like the ripple effect of a stone thrown in a pond but getting the reader there is something of a drag. Callum now has one more decision to make but this one might have even more significance; he may die.

Readers may very well treat this book on two levels. Some will see it as a somewhat simple story about a rift in dimensions while others will look for a deeper meaning, more navel-gazing, if you will. I enjoyed Undercurrent but I’m not sure it really reaches that more significant plane. The plot is really rather thin and slow and I would expect a moderately intelligent teen to come to grips with his different reality sooner than Callum did. Perhaps the premise would have been better suited to a novella format so that the author would have had to step up the pace.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2013.

Book Review: The Lazarus Machine by Paul Crilley

The Lazarus MachineThe Lazarus Machine
A Tweed & Nightingale Adventure
Paul Crilley
Pyr, November 2012
ISBN 978-1-61614-688-7
Hardcover

I really enjoyed The Lazarus Machine.  It is not the type of book I normally read, but I’m a fan of good writing and this certainly fit the bill.  The main characters, “Tweed” and “Octavia” make a great pair and work well together.  The book grew on me and kept me reading, which is a big plus.

“Tweed” and “Octavia,” as well as a few other key characters, work toward stopping a sinister man intent on ruling the world.  The dialogue and scenes are interesting.  I felt like the author did a great job of showing instead of telling.

The Lazarus Machine is well worth the read.  The ending was great and I did not see it coming.

Reviewed by Chris Swinney, June 2013.
Author of the upcoming Gray Ghost.

Book Review: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

The Last DragonslayerThe Last Dragonslayer
The Chronicles of Kazam Book One

Jasper Fforde
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group, October 2012
ISBN 978-0-547-73847-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

In the good old days, magic was indispensable—it could both save a kingdom and clear a clogged drain. But now magic is fading: drain cleaner is cheaper than a spell, and magic carpets are used for pizza delivery. Fifteen-year-old foundling Jennifer Strange runs Kazam, an employment agency for magicians—but it’s hard to stay in business when magic is drying up. And then the visions start, predicting the death of the world’s last dragon at the hands of an unnamed Dragonslayer. If the visions are true, everything will change for Kazam—and for Jennifer. Because something is coming. Something known as . . . Big Magic.

Jennifer Strange, who will be 16 years old in two weeks, is an indentured servant till 18 and, as such, runs Kazam Mystical Arts Management. Jennifer has a knack for handling fractious practitioners of magic and is always accompanied by a loveable critter, Quarkbeast. Quark is 1/10 Labrador and 9/10 velociraptor and kitchen blender and absolutely adores Jennifer for taking him home when she found him at Starbucks.

Then, one day, Jennifer meets a fellow named Brian Spalding who lives at the Dragonstation and drives an armored Rolls-Royce he calls the Slayermobile. Brian is  the outgoing dragonslayer and he is intent upon making Jennifer his apprentice. Apprentice for what? Well, it seems an old dragon, Maltcassion, lives in a sanctuary/wilderness known as the Dragonlands and he is supposed to die next Sunday at noon at the hands of a Dragonslayer wielding a sword named Exhorbitus. Unfortunately, Brian disappears rather precipitously before Jennifer feels quite prepared so she hires her own apprentice Dragonslayer, Gordon van Gordon Gordonson ap Gordon-Gordon of Gordon.

So why does Maltcassion have to die next Sunday at noon? Come to find out there have been three Dragonattacks and that voids the Dragonpact that has protected him. One minor detail—by ancient decree, a dragon’s land belongs to whoever claims it when he dies and that brings out the worst of greed in an awful lot of people. In this world, commerce is mightier than kings and celebrities and The Consolidated Useful Stuff Land Development Corporation is ready to take advantage of the decree.

Jasper Fforde is one of my favorite authors and I so wanted to love this book but I just can’t quite say that I do. There’s not much joy in this story even though there is a lot of humor. Heavyhanded agendas like greed, environmentalism, trashy media and product endorsements got in the way of the pure enjoyment I usually get when reading a Fforde tale and I also felt there were far too many characters, making it difficult to care a lot about most of them. Have I been permanently turned off? Of course not—the author may not have been at the top of his game with this one, his first young adult novel, but it’s just as possible that I read it in the wrong mood. The second in the series, The Song of the Quarkbeast, is already out in the UK so it should be showing up here in the US next fall and I’ll definitely be reading it.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2013.