Book Reviews: Cover Me in Darkness by Eileen Rendahl and Dating Death by Randy Rawls

cover-me-in-darknessCover Me in Darkness
Eileen Rendahl
Midnight Ink, December 2016
ISBN: 978-0-7387-5020-0
Trade Paperback

How do you live with yourself when you believe your little brother was murdered by your half-mad mother, apparently with your help? Amanda Sinclair has tried to put her youthful past behind her, has grown into an important job as a lead quality control testing scientist for a new and exciting company.

Out of that past she receives word that her mother has committed suicide. Far from settling her emotions and closing a door on that episode, she slowly begins to realize that the woman’s death may somehow be linked to the upcoming release from prison of the leader of a cult to which her mother once belonged. Beset by emotions, Amanda concentrates on final verifications of a new product in her lab and the results are raising questions about some of the reports already submitted.

Add a wise and sympathetic cop, suspicious but supportive colleagues and the keen observations of a talented author and here is a novel to be remembered.

While I’m not sure about the title, I strongly endorse this dark emotion-filled novel of suspense. It is very well written, insightful, thoughtful and the central character, Amanda Sinclair, comes alive on the page. The pace and the setting are well handled and easily evoke the locale. Although not for the more timid reader of murder mysteries, Cover Me In Darkness, is well worth the time and attention of serious readers.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, January 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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dating-deathDating Death
Beth Bowman Private Investigator #3
Randy Rawls
White Bird Publications, April 2016
ISBN 978-1-63363-151-9
Trade Paperback

Randy Rawls writes a sort of brawling, booted, western-style detective novel. Except this detective is located in southern Florida. Beth Bowman takes no back seat to anyone and in her third adventure actually accepts an insane assignment from the local chief of police. She’s to bodyguard a flamboyant local pol who is due to spill all about crime in their city. Beth is to try to keep the pol alive until he can testify. It doesn’t go well, naturally and now Beth has to try to locate the killer.

That investigation doesn’t go well, either and after a number of fairly exciting adventures, Beth falls in with a homeless shelter operation wherein the street folks domiciled there happen to be the best undercover operatives in the city. So Beth, unable to get necessary help from officialdom, goes to the amateur league. You already guessed it. After stumbling over some pretty obvious clues and missing some others, everybody ends up on the same page and justice prevails, but not before a few dead bodies show up.

Well written and perfectly organized, Dating Death is a good weekend confection.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2016.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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Teeny Reviews: The Sister Pact by Stacie Ramey, Home By Nightfall by Charles Finch, Powerless by Tim Washburn, The Ark by Patrick S. Tomlinson, and Merry Mary by Ashley Farley

The Sister PactThe Sister Pact
Stacie Ramey
Sourcebooks Fire, November 2015
ISBN 978-1-4926-2097-6
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Who holds your secrets?

Allie is devastated when her sister commits suicide-and it’s not just because she misses her. Allie feels betrayed. The two made a pact that they’d always be together, in life and in death, but Leah broke her promise and Allie needs to know why.

Her parents hover. Her friends try to support her. And Nick, sweet Nick, keeps calling and flirting. Their sympathy only intensifies her grief.

But the more she clings to Leah, the more secrets surface. Allie’s not sure which is more distressing: discovering the truth behind her sister’s death or facing her new reality without her.

I never had a sister and my brother and I were too far apart in age to be close when we were growing up—although that changed later in life—but I think losing a sibling through suicide must be so devastating it’s nearly impossible to recover. What an inordinate amount of pain and confusion the survivor must feel, especially as a teen! Ms. Ramey writes this story with an incredible empathy and understanding that brings it to life for teen readers but also for those of us well past those years.

A major side effect of any death is the discovery of the things you didn’t know about that person’s life and that’s the essence of Allie’s journey through all the pain and betrayal and the questions that go with any death but especially a suicide. Her trauma leads her down some dubious paths and I found myself both sad and appalled as I watched her struggle with truths she might not have wished to learn.

I’ve dealt with, and still am dealing with, a lot of grief this year and The Sister Pact has made it all just a tiny bit easier even though my “events” haven’t been due to suicide. Thank you, Ms. Ramey 🙂

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

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Home By NightfallHome By Nightfall
A Charles Lenox Mystery #9
Charles Finch
Minotaur Books, November 2015
ISBN 978-1-250-07041-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

It’s London in 1876, and the whole city is abuzz with the enigmatic disappearance of a famous foreign pianist. Lenox has an eye on the matter – as a partner in a now-thriving detective agency, he’s a natural choice to investigate. Just when he’s tempted to turn his focus to it entirely, however, his grieving brother asks him to come down to Sussex, and Lenox leaves the metropolis behind for the quieter country life of his boyhood. Or so he thinks. In fact, something strange is afoot in Markethouse: small thefts, books, blankets, animals, and more alarmingly a break-in at the house of a local insurance agent. As he and his brother investigate this small accumulation of mysteries, Lenox realizes that something very strange and serious indeed may be happening, more than just local mischief. Soon, he’s racing to solve two cases at once, one in London and one in the country, before either turns deadly.

The private detective I’ve come to know and love so well is back and in fine fettle as he balances his life between the occasionally seedy world of criminal activity and the aristocratic society he and his wife, Lady Jane, are part of. In this latest adventure, Charles Lenox is pulled in two directions, intrigued by the case of a missing celebrity but also needing to help his recently widowed brother in his grief and get to the bottom of a series of odd events in his childhood home.

Charles Finch is one of a handful of authors who, quite simply, never let me down and that holds true here. Lenox is a man who believes he can make a difference in people’s lives and he has great compassion in addition to intelligence and a perceptive mind. That’s the core of a truly good detective, don’t you think?

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

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PowerlessPowerless
Tim Washburn
Pinnacle, October 2015
ISBN 978-0-7860-3653-0
Mass Market Paperback

From the publisher—

Nothing Can Prepare You. . .

It strikes without warning. A massive geomagnetic solar storm that destroys every power grid in the northern hemisphere. North America is without lights, electricity, phones, and navigation systems. In one week, the human race is flung back to the Dark Ages.

Nothing Can Save You. . .

In Boulder, Colorado, weather technicians watch in horror as civilization collapses around them. Planes are falling out of the skies. Cars are dead. Pandemonium and terror grip the Northern Hemisphere. As nuclear reactors across North America face inevitable meltdowns, the U.S. President remains powerless in a heavily guarded White House. From London to Boston to Anchorage, there is no food, no water, no hope. It’s every man for himself. . .and it will only get worse.

Survival Is Everything.

Only one man–army veteran Zeke Marshall–is prepared to handle a nightmare like this. But when he tries to reunite with his family in Dallas–across a lawless terrain as deadly as any battlefield–he discovers there are worse things in life than war. And there are terrible and unthinkable things he’ll have to do to survive. . .

I really do wish this hadn’t been written in present tense because it was an annoying distraction, not an enhancement to a story premise that I usually look forward to. I enjoyed this, in spite of the choice of tense, and in spite of the hyperbole in the book’s description (only one man is prepared to handle a nightmare like this? seriously?). Zeke is a character I came to respect and like very much and the depiction of the devastation is evocative and realistic.

I’m not a particular fan of the Department of Homeland Security but I can’t help but wonder…has any author presented them in a positive light? In Powerless, as in every other thriller I’ve read that features them, incompetence and obstructionism seem to be their strong suits and, to be honest, I’m tired of it. With all their failings, I just don’t believe that this agency is so completely wrong.

All in all, while I felt this was rather simplistic in spots, lessening the tension too much, I do recommend Powerless to anyone who appreciates a good disaster novel.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

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The Ark 2The Ark
Children of a Dead Earth #1
Patrick S. Tomlinson
Angry Robot, November 2015
ISBN 978-0857664846
Mass Market Paperback

From the publisher—

Humankind has escaped a dying Earth and set out to find a new home among the stars aboard an immense generation spaceship, affectionately named the Ark. Bryan Benson is the Ark’s greatest living sports hero, enjoying retirement working as a detective in Avalon, his home module. The hours are good, the work is easy, and the perks can’t be beat.

But when a crew member goes missing, Benson is thrust into the centre of an ever-expanding web of deception, secrets, and violence that overturns everything he knows about living on the Ark and threatens everyone aboard. As the last remnants of humanity hurtle towards their salvation, Benson finds himself in a desperate race to unravel the conspiracy before a madman turns mankind’s home into its tomb.

Oh my goodness, I SO enjoyed this book! It’s got so many of the elements I look for in a good crossgenre—a nifty mystery with the ultimate locked room (can’t get any more locked room than a spaceship racing towards humanity’s hope of a new home), a man who loves his job as a detective (largely because it’s really, really easy), a dark scenario and yet some light humor and a potential end to our species. What more could a girl want?

These people have been floating around out there for something like 200 years and Mr. Tomlinson does an excellent job creating a believable but also intriguing setting which really is a character in itself. Benson is a likeable man and his detecting skills are on high alert now that he has a murder to work with. Can he solve the crime before his fellow travelers meet an untimely end? Well, yes, we know he’ll have at least some success because there’s a second book coming but his detecting is entertaining all the way.

The second book in this duology, Trident’s Forge, will be out in April 2016 and I can barely stand to wait. Time needs to move faster 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

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Merry MaryMerry Mary
Ashley Farley
Leisure Time Books, September 2015
ISBN 978-0-9861672-3-2
Trade Paperback

From the author—

A young woman longing for a child stumbles upon a Christmas miracle. Investigative journalist Scottie Darden is photographing the homeless for her Lost Souls series when she makes a discovery that could change her life forever. Under a makeshift tent in subzero temperatures in a downtown city park, she finds a woman’s dead body with her infant child. Without her cell phone to call for help, Scottie makes the split-second decision to take the baby home. Her initial instinct is to provide the baby with food and shelter until her family can be located. But as her fondness for the baby grows, she finds herself facing a life on the run or worse—prison time for abduction. Curl up with Merry Mary this holiday season. A heartwarming story of the powerful connection between a caring soul and an innocent child in need.

I’ve been a fan of Ms. Farley‘s work for quite a while now but, for the first time, I have to say this one doesn’t work for me. I won’t go into a lot of detail because I think Merry Mary will appeal to others; suffice it to say I didn’t like Scottie and that’s pretty important when it comes to connecting with a story. Scottie seems to be unusually clueless and her behavior is senseless, particularly when she decides to take the baby home with her for some very thin reasons. There are also some noticeable plot holes.

At any rate, I think this is just a misstep for me personally and it certainly won’t put me off Ms. Farley‘s future books. In fact, the author is working on a full-length novel featuring Scottie and I’m looking forward to getting to know her better and, perhaps, understand her.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

Book Review: Wrongful Death by L.J. Sellers

Wrongful DeathWrongful Death
A Detective Jackson Mystery #10
L.J. Sellers
Thomas & Mercer, February 2015
ISBN: 978-1477822180
Trade Paperback

This is how it’s done. A murder of a cop occurs near a homeless/vagrant camp. It is winter in Eugene, Oregon, and the cop is on a mission of mercy to hand out warm clothes and blankets. In the next fifteen pages we meet the principal players, understand the scene and a few oddities, and begin to see the complicated lives of several of the principals. The pace is already just short of relentless. And a teenaged girl is attacked in a texted video.

It is clear you are in the hands of an experienced, talented writer with a real sense of how to use foreshadowing, properly set the stage, and embed in readers’ minds important characteristics through judicious use of language in dialogue, and in the underlying narrative.

When a policeman is discovered murdered near a homeless camp, officers react with a wide spectrum of expected responses from rage at the homeless, guilty or innocent, and sincere attempts to discover the killer. Meanwhile a detective related to the dead man would rather be on that unit, but he’s assigned to track someone who is preying on young girls, sexually assaulting them on video and blackmailing the girl’s parents.

Each of the principals in the novel also has personal and relationship circumstances that provide stress and happiness at various times. It all makes for a rich stew with many ingredients that have to be carefully balanced. Sellers skillfully guides the reader through the sometimes gritty and often difficult times experienced by her characters. When the results of careful deductive reasoning and persistent investigation finally begin to resolve into profiles the detectives can grasp and move to conclusion, there are a few times when things seem just a bit rushed.

The novel is extremely well written, has a fine sense of its special location and the characters are all well-defined. This is a mystery detective novel that should satisfy every reader.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2015.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Reviews: Jesus Jackson by James Ryan Daley and The Thrill of the Haunt by E.J. Copperman

Jesus JacksonJesus Jackson
James Ryan Daley
The Poisoned Pencil, October 2014
ISBN: 978-1929345069
Trade Paperback

On page one, Jonathan Stiles, the youthful narrator of this fine novel, meets the nicely dressed title character on the football field of fervently Catholic Saint Sorens Academy. He’s holding a football. On page two Jonathan explains that he does not and has never believed in God or in Jesus Christ. He has, he believes, absolutely no faith. And there readers have the core of the dilemma this novel presents.

This is a novel about the ultimate mystery of the human condition. If God exists in any form, why? And why do certain things happen, or not, when and the way they do? Yet this is not a religious text per se, any more than it is a YA or an adult novel. It is all of those things. Ryan, a professed sceptic, had had numerous discussions with his younger brother about God and Faith. Jonathan, just about to enter ninth grade at Saint Sorens Academy, a conservative Catholic school, is devastated by his brother’s death, as is the entire school. Circumstances lead Jonathan to wonder about his brother’s death, further complicating his mental state.

Jesus Jackson explains to Jonathan that he, JJ, is present to help Jonathan sort out his faith. But it costs something. This is a contract, not a casual operation, and Jonathan pays twelve dollars to Jesus Jackson for the service. Thereafter we follow Jonathan through various adventures and interactions with fellow students, teachers, the school administrators and his sorrowing family.

Occasionally, Jesus Jackson shows up, sometimes in confrontation, sometimes to give direction, but always to encourage and energize Jonathan to persevere in his quest.

This is a fine novel that is a lot of fun to read. It is punchy, emotional, turbulent and insightful. To discover how and whether Jonathan solves the mystery of his brother’s death, read the novel, and watch for your own Jesus Jackson.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, November 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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The Thrill of the HauntThe Thrill of the Haunt
A Haunted Guesthouse Mystery #5
E.J. Copperman
Berkley Prime Crime, November 2013
ISBN: 978-0-425-25239-0
Mass Market Paperback

If you haven’t yet read the earlier entries in this terrific series, of which this is number 5, I urge you to correct that as soon as possible! And to catch you up, I take the perhaps dubious liberty of repeating from my review of the last one, Chance of a Ghost, as follows: Allison Kerby is a single mother in her late thirties who runs a guesthouse in her childhood hometown of Harbor Haven, on the Jersey Shore, inhabited by her and her precocious eleven-year-old daughter, Melissa, as well as Maxie Malone, Alison’s resident Internet expert and former interior designer (during the time she was alive), and Paul, an English/Canadian professor turned detective, both of whom have lived there since before their deaths, and, more recently, Allison’s father. It would seem that Alison and her daughter, as well as her mother, are the only ones who can see, and hear, the ghosts.

At Paul’s urging, about two and a half years ago Allison got a private investigator’s license, and as this new book opens, she reluctantly finds herself hired by not one but two people, the first being a woman who wants Allison to follow her husband to obtain proof that he is cheating on her, and the second, with even more reluctance, by a local woman who relationship with Allison is less than friendly, who demands that Allison find out who killed a local homeless man found murdered inside a locked room (shades of Agatha Christie!). In keeping with that theme, Allison ultimately gathers together all the suspects who have been unearthed in one room in hopes of uncovering identity of the killer(s).

What makes this book as outstanding as it is (and it is that!),besides the very real mysteries underlying the plot, is the humor and dry wit of the author, which makes the novel a distinct pleasure to read. Added to the mysteries is the book’s more personal aspect, with Allison filled with ambivalence at her budding romance with a man who she has been seeing for a record-setting four months, added to her ambivalence about her detective business, or should I say sideline, with her main source of income coming from the paying clientele at her guesthouse (most definitely NOT a bed-and-breakfast, btw, as Allison makes clear).

(I must add that I loved the ‘tip of the hat’ which the author gives to Sea Haven Officer Daniel Boyle, the protagonist of his fellow Jersey Shore mystery author, Chris Grabenstein.)

In sum, The Thrill of the Haunt is an absolutely perfect beach read, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, July 2014.

Book Review: Murder Strikes a Pose by Tracy Weber—and a Giveaway!

Murder Strikes a PoseMurder Strikes a Pose
A Downward Dog Mystery
Tracy Weber
Midnight Ink, January 2014
ISBN 978-0-7387-3968-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

When George and Bella—a homeless alcoholic and his intimidating German shepherd—disturb the peace outside her studio, yoga instructor Kate Davidson’s Zen-like calm is stretched to the breaking point. Kate tries to get rid of them before Bella scares the yoga pants off her students. Instead, the three form an unlikely friendship.

One night Kate finds George’s body behind her studio. The police dismiss his murder as a drug-related street crime, but she knows George wasn’t a dealer. So Kate starts digging into George’s past while also looking for someone to adopt Bella before she’s sent to the big dog park in the sky. With the murderer nipping at her heels, Kate has to work fast or her next Corpse Pose may be for real.

I don’t read a lot of cozy mysteries these days—not because I don’t like them but because the edgier stuff tends to appeal to me more (a cycle that I’m sure will change as it does from time to time)—but, every now and then, I feel the need. It’s sort of like occasionally indulging my craving for peppermint patties rather than being on a continual sugar high. The timing of my stop on this blog tour was perfect because I was in the mood for it and I really wanted to check out Tracy Weber’s first book.

This mystery suffers from two failings that are quite common in cozies—there is the seemingly requisite TSTL scene and the amateur sleuth is 100% convinced she can do a better job investigating than the professional detectives; to me, that makes her occasionally very annoying. I was especially irked by a scene in which Kate thinks Detective Martinez is gullible because she actually believes several alibis after having verified them and then Kate accuses her of being apathetic with absolutely no reason. In short, Kate can sometimes be so arrogant and full of self-pity that I would momentarily lose any rapport I had with her.

Fortunately, there are just a few of those episodes and Kate is usually likeable and involved in snooping for admirable reasons. I especially appreciated her dedication to doing what’s right for Bella, a dog who is in dire need of help, but also her willingness to re-think her own pre-conceived notions when it’s called for. On the other hand, the men in this story surprised me because every single one is overbearing or worse at one time or another. Still, Michael makes quite the nice romantic lead in spite of having the “manly man” attitude once or twice. Kate’s girlfriend, Rene, is a terrific buddy and made me envious with her ability to eat and eat and eat with no apparent consequences.

At this stage, you might think I didn’t really like Murder Strikes a Pose but that truly isn’t the case.  There are some uncomfortable scenes, some involving the plight of the homeless but even more focused on Bella. Animal lovers may—no, will—cringe sometimes but I urge you to persevere; Ms. Weber has points to make that matter, not least of which is the idea that we simply must do what we can to take care of the four-footed creatures who need us and only want to be part of our lives. Sometimes, that obligation comes about because of the evil that people can do and I applaud the author for not being afraid to show that evil.  It’s this sort of thing—mingling life lessons in with a good mystery—that lifts this cozy above many others. When all is said and done, putting annoyances aside, I enjoyed this series debut and will be looking forward to Kate’s next adventure, Killer Retreat, in January.

Oh, and I learned quite a bit about yoga 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2014.

An Excerpt from Murder Strikes a Pose

I laid my body on the cool wood floor, covered up with a blanket, and prepared to die.

Metaphorically, that is.

Corpse Pose’s ten-minute rest always soothed my stressed-out nerves, and for once I didn’t feel guilty about the indulgence. My to-do list was blank, Serenity Yoga’s phone was silent, and I had a whole blissful hour between clients to do my favorite activity: practice yoga.

Even my eclectic Greenwood neighborhood seemed uncharacteristically quiet, lulled by Seattle’s rare afternoon sun. The residents of the apartments above the yoga studio were off at their day jobs; the alcohol-addicted patrons of the block’s two dive bars slept off their Jim Beam breakfasts; the soccer moms shopping at next door’s upscale PhinneyWood Market purchased the day’s supplies in unusual silence.

I wiggled my toes under a Mexican blanket, covered my eyes with a blue satin eye pillow, and inhaled deeply. The ooey-gooey smell of Mocha Mia’s chocolate caramel cake wafted from across the street and filled my nostrils with sweet toffee-scented bliss—my all-time favorite aromatherapy.

Paradise. Simply paradise.

I released my weight into the earth and silently coached myself, exactly as I would one of my students. OK, Kate. Feel your body relax. Notice the random fluctuations of your mind and—

A vicious snarl ripped through the silence, startling me out of my catnap. I sat straight up, eye pillow falling to the floor with an undignified thump.

What the heck?

When had a dog fighting ring moved into the neighborhood?

A dog fight was the only plausible explanation for the commotion outside. Bursts of deep, frantic barking were followed by high-pitched yelping, all punctuated by the peace-shattering sounds of angry yelling. The phrases I could make out confirmed my suspicions. This had to be a dog fight, albeit one-sided.

“Control your dog!”

“Get that vicious beast out of here!”

And even a simple, “What the hell?”

I closed the door between the yoga room and the studio’s lobby, hoping to block out the intrusive sounds. Snarls, shouts, and an occasional ear-piercing shriek continued to reverberate right through the wall.

Undaunted, I imagined that the sounds were merely clouds floating across my mental horizon. Most of those clouds were dark and ominous, like the deep thunderclouds preceding a hailstorm. But every so often I heard a soft voice, more like the fluffy clouds of childhood summers. I couldn’t quite make out his words, but I could tell that the speaker was a man. From his tone, I assumed he was trying to calm beasts both human and animal.

It wasn’t working.

Neither, for that matter, was my attempted meditation.

I’d obviously have to shift tactics.

I tried drowning out the clamor with low, soft chanting. Then I increased the volume. But even as I belted out Om Santi, my favorite mantra for peace, I felt my jaw start to tighten. My fingernails bit deeply into my palms. My shoulders crept up to my ears.

An entirely different mantra began pounding through my head: Don’t get me angry; you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

A series of yelps and the words “I’m calling the cops!” zapped me like a cattle prod. I leapt from my mat and stormed across the floor, determined to put a stop to that infernal racket. I hurled open the door and came face-to-face, or rather face-to-snout, with the source of the commotion. Not more than five feet away from the studio’s entrance stood a paunchy, dark-haired man and the biggest, skinniest, meanest-looking German shepherd I had ever seen. Don’t get me wrong. I like dogs. I love them, in fact. It’s their human counterparts I could sometimes do without. But this frothing breast was no Rin Tin Tin. A long line of drool oozed from its mouth. Its sharp white teeth glinted in the sunlight, and its black wiry topcoat still stood on end from the prior scuffle. The dog was obviously rabid. I didn’t recognize the man standing next to the frightening creature, but I did recognize his activity. He worked as a vendor for Dollars for Change, a well-regarded local newspaper that published articles about homelessness and poverty while employing those same homeless individuals as salespeople. Ordinarily I would have welcomed one of their vendors outside my business. If nothing else, supporting the paper demonstrated yoga’s principles of kindness and compassion. But this was not an ordinary circumstance. I absolutely could not allow that disgusting dog to raise a ruckus outside my studio. The prenatal class would have a fit. Suffice it to say that pregnancy hormones didn’t always leave expecting moms in the best of moods. My moms-to-be liked their yoga practice. They needed their yoga practice. And they needed to be serene while doing it. If a noisy dog fight disturbed their peaceful experience, I’d be the one getting barked at.

Thinking less than yogic thoughts, I marched up to the pair, determined to put a stop to the chaos.

“What in the world’s going on out here?”

The human half of the dastardly duo held a leash in one hand, newspapers in the other. He smiled at me and said, “Sorry about all the noise. I’m George, and this here’s Bella. What’s your name?”

“Kate Davidson, but—”

“Well, nice to meet you, Kate. I’d shake your hand, but mine are full, so Bella will have to do it instead.”

The vicious beast walked up and calmly sniffed my hand. I prayed she wasn’t about to ingest my fingers.

“Bella, say hello!”

Upon hearing her owner’s command, the giant hairy monster-dog immediately went into a perfect sit and sweetly offered me her paw. Maybe she wasn’t rabid after all. Just huge and ill-mannered.

“Don’t mind Bella,” he continued. “She’s very friendly to people. She just doesn’t like other dogs much. She’d be fine if people kept their unruly mutts to themselves, but they think if their rude dog wants to play, Bella has to as well.” He shook his head in disgust. “I don’t understand some people!”

I tried to interrupt, to tell him that his dog was the problem, but he didn’t give me the chance.

“Bella and I are new to this neighborhood, and we’re supposed to sell papers near the market. I tried setting up by the north entrance, but there’s a pet store at that end. Pete’s Pets, I think it’s called? The owner was a nice enough guy and all, but selling there was a disaster with all those dogs going in and out. Bella wasn’t happy at all.” He shrugged. “So I guess we’re going to have to hang out here instead.”

I bit the inside of my lip and considered my options. Up close, George wasn’t exactly the paragon of health I wanted standing outside my business. His friendly smile exposed yellowed teeth in need of significant dental care, and if the sharp, ammonia-like smell was any indication, neither he nor Bella had taken a bath in quite some time. At three-thirty in the afternoon, I could smell whiskey on his breath, and I suspected this most recent drink hadn’t been his first of the day. It would also likely be far from his last. I only knew one thing for certain: if George didn’t frighten my students away, his loud, intimidating, fur-covered companion would.

I needed them to leave, but honestly, I didn’t want to say it out loud. After all, I taught yoga for a living. People expected me to be calm and collected at all times. I wasn’t allowed to be mean, or even irritated, for that matter. I hesitated as I tried to come up with the perfect words to make him want to move, if not out of the neighborhood, then at least across the street.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), one of my favorite students picked that very moment to walk up with her five-month-old Lab pup, Coalie. “Hey, Kate!” she said. “I hoped I’d run into you! Do you still have space in your Core Strength class tonight?” Coalie was as rude and friendly as Labs everywhere. She couldn’t stop herself if she tried. She ran up to Bella, wiggling her entire body with glee, and covered Bella’s muzzle in sloppy wet puppy kisses.

Bella wasted no time. Faster than a 747 and stronger than a freight train, Bella pinned Coalie to the ground between her front legs, snarling and air-snapping on either side of Coalie’s neck. I heard the sound of canine teeth chomping together and imagined soft puppy bones shattering between them. My student screamed. Coalie yelped. George grabbed Bella’s collar while I reached in between razor-sharp teeth to pull Coalie from the jaws of death. The three of us wrestled the two dogs apart, but not before my student almost died of heart failure.

“What’s wrong with you?” she yelled. “Keep that vicious monster away from my baby!”

George quickly apologized, but said, “No damage done. Bella was just teaching that pup some manners.” He pointed at Coalie. “See, it’s all good!”

Coalie, oblivious with joy, seemed unscathed and ready to dive in again. Tail wagging and butt wiggling, she pulled with all her might, trying desperately to get back to Bella.

Bella had other plans. She sat next to George, glaring directly at that pup with a patented Clint Eastwood stare. Go ahead, she seemed to say. Make my day. My soon-to-be-former student ran off as quickly as her legs would move, dragging the still-happy puppy behind her.

“See you in class tonight!” I yelled to her rapidly retreating back. I doubted I’d be seeing her any time soon.

Yoga reputation be damned. I had to get rid of this guy.

I put my hands on my hips and stood nice and tall, taking full advantage of my five-foot-three-inch frame. “Look. I can’t let you stay here with the dog. She’s obviously frightening people. You have to leave.” I paused a moment for emphasis, then added, “Now.”

George stood a little taller, too. “Look yourself, lady. The last time I checked, I’m standing on city property. I have every right to be here. You don’t own this sidewalk, and you can’t stop me from making a living on it.” He glared at me, sharp eyes unblinking. “We Dollars for Change vendors are licensed, and no matter how much you don’t like us, the city says we can be here.”

“There’s no ‘us’ I don’t like,” I replied, frustrated. “It’s your dog. And you may have every right to be here, but the dog is another story. What do you think Animal Control will do if I report a vicious dog attacking people outside my store?”

George stepped back, pulling Bella closer. Seattle had the toughest dangerous dog laws in the nation. We both knew what would happen if I made that call. “You wouldn’t do that!” he said. “Bella’s never hurt anyone.”

I planted my feet stubbornly. “Try me.”

George gave me a wounded look and gathered his papers, shoulders slumped in depressed resignation. “OK, we’ll go. But I thought you yoga people were supposed to be kind.” He shuffled away, shaking his head and mumbling under his breath. Bella followed close by his side.

“Crap,” I muttered, watching their slow departure. “Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap.” He was right. Like all good yoga teachers, I had extensively studied yoga philosophy and tried to live by it. The teachings were clear: A yogi should respond to suffering with active compassion. And George was clearly suffering, whether he realized that fact or not.

Threatening to call the cops on George’s dog may have been active, but it wasn’t all that compassionate, to him or to Bella. I felt like a cad. My solution probably wasn’t what the teachings had in mind, but it was the best I could come up with on short notice. “Hang on there a minute!” I yelled as I ran to catch up with him. Out of breath, I said, “You’re right. I overreacted, and I’m sorry. How many papers do you have left to sell today?”

George stopped walking. When he turned to look back at me, his eyes sparkled with an unexpected hint of wry humor. “About thirty.”

The calculations weren’t difficult. I wasn’t completely broke—yet—but thirty dollars wasn’t a drop in the bucket. On the other hand, my Monday evening classes were popular, and I had to get this guy away from the front door. Mentally crossing my fingers that the toilet wouldn’t break again, I said, “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” I hurried back to the studio and grabbed thirty dollars from the cash box.

“If I buy all of your papers, will you be done for the day?”

“Yes ma’am, and that would be very kind of you.” He gave me a broad, yellow-toothed smile. “Bella and I appreciate it very much.” He took the money, left the papers, and wandered off, whistling. Bella happily trotted behind him.

“Well, that wasn’t so difficult,” I said, patting myself on the back. “I should follow the teachings more often!” I went back inside and finished my considerably shortened practice. I chose to ignore the quiet voice in my head telling me I’d just made a huge mistake.

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About the Author

Tracy WeberMy writing is an expression of the things I love best: yoga, dogs, and murder mysteries.

I’m a certified yoga teacher and the founder of Whole Life Yoga, an award-winning yoga studio in Seattle, WA. I enjoy sharing my passion for yoga and animals in any form possible.

My husband and I live with our challenging yet amazing German shepherd Tasha and our bonito flake-loving cat Maggie. When I’m not writing, I spend my time teaching yoga, walking Tasha, and sipping Blackthorn cider at my favorite local ale house.

I am a member of Sisters in Crime, The Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and the Dog Writers Association of America.

 

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Book Reviews: Sinner by Maggie Stiefvater, The Stone Demon by Karen Mahoney, and Hold Fast by Blue Balliett

SinnerSinner
Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press, July 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-65457-9
Hardcover

While Sinner, the recently released, highly anticipated, companion book to the Shiver trilogy didn’t take me back to Mercy Falls, it most certainly allowed me an enchanting opportunity to revisit Cole St. Clair and Isabel Culpepper. If you, like me, loved absolutely every single thing about the Shiver trilogy, my best guess is that you will revere Sinner. On the other hand, if this is the very first you’ve heard of said trilogy, I can still unabashedly recommend Sinner as a remarkable stand-alone novel packed with the punch that only Ms. Stiefvater can deliver. Even if you are “not really into the whole werewolf thing”, I stand by my recommendation. To me, the werewolf in Sinner is more an allegory than a creature to be feared or envied.

Ms. Stiefvater’s newest novel is a fast-paced, engrossing read that ebbs and flows with generosity and narcissism, love and hate, determined clinging and letting go. There is love and laughter, heart-ache and tears, mistakes, self-realizations and forgiveness. It is about life, growing up, being true, acting brave and accepting that; sometimes, walking away isn’t a cowardly act; but rather, the hardest and most definite thing you will ever have to do. Lessons generally learned much later in life become imperative in the formation and revelation of the true self as both Cole and Isabel; separately, yet simultaneously, become a bit more open and a little less jaded. Not embracing, but almost acknowledging that options aside from black or white, wrong or right, indeed exist. Grey comes in many shades, the road less traveled still delivers the traveler to his destination; and sometimes, pausing to ponder “what’s the way?” is the only way to keep going forward.

As always, within a Stiefvater saga, there are serendipitous seeds of wisdom that, when nurtured, bloom with breath-taking splendor. The brief glimpse of family on the beach is beautifully brilliant, encapsulating both a smiley and a teary moment (this author is a sneaky, clever, creator). If you’ve read this book, but weren’t captivated, amused and delighted….you may not have been paying close attention.

Leon. Leon’s pictures. The insightful inclusion of this quiet, soft-spoken man adds depth and a certain melancholy, elevating the book to a new level.

Sofia, because every darkness deserves a ray of light; and every home, a little hope.

I closed Forever four years ago with mixed emotions and a heavy heart. I had fallen for these characters, accepted the finality; but longed for just a little bit more Cole and Isabel. The two characters are so vibrant; filled with energy, anger, frustration, confusion, yet appearing confident and collected. They required their very own story and Sinner is it, spot on.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2014.

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The Stone DemonThe Stone Demon
An Iron Witch Novel #3
Karen Mahoney
Flux, April 2013
ISBN 978-0-7387-3340-1
Trade Paperback

Ms. Mahoney epitomizes the ideal conclusion to a trilogy with The Stone Demon. Thankfully void of loose ends, neither was each and every situation systematically closed out, as if checking off a list. Admittedly, some resolutions and explanations are needed; and answers were provided in a very satisfactory way, with any remaining questions providing excellent points to ponder long after the story has been told.

The first book, The Iron Witch, introduces Donna Underwood who wants nothing more than to be a regular teenager. Such a simple request, yet utterly impossible for her. She has been shrouded in mystery and secrets since she can remember. Flashes from her distant memory serve only to remind her that her father died trying to save her; the magical iron tattoos used to restore her arms will forever make her an outcast; her mother is in an asylum and she is left with only her aunt.

Further, Donna isn’t being raised as a typical teen. Rather, she is being “trained” for her rightful position within a Secret Order of Alchemists. So secret, in fact, that she knows almost nothing about the Order, which means she can’t really trust them. One more, tiny detail: Donna is being pursued by faeries and she has no idea why.

Yes, readers. I am telling you about a unique, intriguing story that features Fey, Alchemy, Demons and Ley Lines (oh, my)! Mixed in with the wizardry, and accompanying Donna on her journey of discovery we have her best buddy Navin. He is, hands down, one of my favourite fictional characters of all time. His sharp tongue, quick wit, and self-admiration make him amusing and delightful; particularly when situations are dark and dire. He provides the stability and balance Donna needs, and their friendship typifies the strength, support and unparalleled loyalty that so many teens sweetly maintain.

With a rich, compelling cast of characters, a tantalizing mystery unraveling, and just a dash of romance, The Iron Witch Trilogy is a must read for any fan of Fantasy, Mystery and/or YA. If you have a teen-aged reader in your life, turn him/her on to The Iron Witch Trilogy and you will be revered. You’re welcome.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2014.

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Hold FastHold Fast
Blue Balliett
Scholastic Press, March 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-29988-6
Hardcover

Step back, Wonder Woman, I have a new heroine in Early Pearl. Captivating, courageous and thoughtful, this spunky eleven year old is simply amazing. Throughout this story, Early’s soft, quiet determination, fueled by hope alone, astounds. And what a story this is.

A mystery of epic proportions unwinds quickly, enveloping the entire Pearl family. From an outsider’s view, it may appear that this family of four is down on their luck; but the love, admiration and respect that they share for each other is a true treasure that eludes so many.

While Dash’s job in a Chicago Public Library may barely cover the bills, it is the right place for him. This is confirmed when he has a chance to make extra money on the side by simply cataloguing old books. Stumbling onto an original print of the Langston Hughes’ The First Book of Rhythms inexplicably sets off a whirlwind of events.

With Dash missing, their tiny one-room apartment broken into and trashed, forced to move into a shelter while being dismissed by the police; the Pearl family seemingly has no reason to hope. Early refuses to let her family down. The lengths that Early would go to while valiantly trying to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance deeply affected this reader.

Although this would be more than enough for one young girl to tackle, the compassion and empathy that fill Early do not allow her to focus on only this goal. Rather, her acquaintances and her new life in the shelter give her ideas bigger than any she could have imagined. Her tireless efforts to make a difference not just for the small Pearl family right now; but for shelter kids in the future are beyond admirable.

Ms. Balliett shares Early’s tale with such phenomenal presentation that the book-steeped mystery becomes almost secondary, in the way that the lyrics to a beloved song fade into the background when sung in a haunting, melodious voice.

I fully admit to feeling somewhat guilty while reading this book; as if I was getting more than I deserved….I got the chocolate and vanilla twist in a waffle cone, when really, I only should have gotten only a small vanilla one. I can’t fathom how a mere human is capable of writing, incorporating so many layers, in sneakily simple prose. Possibly, this book was created by a magic that only Ms. Balliett can harness and control, or maybe Ms. Balliett herself has super-powers, either way, she has a new fan in me!

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2014.

Book Review: Killing Silence by Peg Herring

Killing SilenceKilling Silence
The Loser Mysteries: Book One
Peg Herring
LL-Publications, November 2012
ISBN 978-0-9571527-9-3
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Is It Possible to Be a Rescuer When You Live Among the Lost?

Loser, who sleeps on the streets of Richmond, Virginia, washes up in gas station bathrooms, eats when an opportunity comes along, and spends her waking hours in front of the local drug store, watching the world pass by and speaking less than thirty words per day.

When a child is murdered and Loser finds herself in the company of the prime suspect, can she pull herself out of her own pain to help catch a killer? Her investigation is hampered by her inability to hold a normal conversation and her inner demons.

Why should anyone believe her anyway? She is Loser. A nobody. A freak who can barely speak.

Every street person has a story, and Loser is no different. Her past haunts her present.

Besides, Loser has good reason to avoid the police…and it goes way beyond loitering.

Once in a while, I come across a book that can only be called an unexpected gem. Killing Silence is one of those wonderful surprises. In many ways, it’s a standard mystery but Peg Herring has crafted a novel that is much more than just “standard”.

Tucked in with the mystery of what happened to this child that Loser barely knows is her more personal mystery of who committed a terrible crime in her past, a crime that drove her from a normal life into the streets, and here is where this author’s work takes a step up. I’ve always felt badly about all the people who are homeless but I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so much understanding of how some of them come to such a pass. It is Ms. Herring‘s own compassionate writing of Loser’s existence that made that possible .

“Loser” is, of course, a nickname, one that she bestowed upon herself, and she had some very painful reasons for doing so. One trait that really sets her apart from you and me is that she allows herself only a very limited amount of speech and yet she manages to communicate quite effectively. When she decides she has to ferret out the truth about this death because she simply doesn’t believe the logical suspect could have done it, her quick mind comes to the fore and the reader learns that there is much more to this homeless derelict than you might expect. Her mission is full of twists and misleading behaviors but Loser is determined to get to the bottom of what has gone on in a very dysfunctional family.

The author has a quite effective way of telling the story of this current crime as well as the one that has had such an impact on Loser. The storyline easily drifts from one to the other and back and the reader can see how the earlier crime preys on Loser’s very being and, yet, we also see how she is perhaps coming back to life because of her need to do what is right. What’s even better is watching the her develop the beginnings of connections with people like Verle and the adorable Bryn despite her best efforts to keep others at arm’s length.

Plot and character development are both masterfully handled by this author but setting also was in the forefront for me. The book is set in Richmond, VA, and having an author choose one’s hometown has two primary effects on the resident reader. One is a sense of coolness, a tiny bit of pride that others will get a taste of my town. The other is a quite natural inclination to look for the mistakes the author has surely made and, in fact, I did find one that’s fairly significant but, let’s face it, only to Richmonders or those who have lived here in the past, perhaps for college. There were also a few very minor slips, such as calling a particular street a boulevard rather than an avenue but I bring that up only because I want to point out that this author has done a fine job with her setting with remarkably few errors. A reader who doesn’t know this area can rest assured that the visual pictures created by their imaginations based on Ms. Herring‘s words are quite accurate.

Note: If you have a strong aversion to reading about bad things happening to a child, you may want to skip this book but you should know that the crime is treated with full consideration for readers’ sensibilities. The murder is handled quietly and largely off-page and I was not overly distressed beyond the great compassion I felt for the innocence lost.

It’s pure serendipity that I just finished this book in time to have it be my last review for 2012 but I’m delighted to say it will be on my list of best books read in 2012. I can hardly wait for Loser’s next book, Killing Memories, due out in April 2013. I’m so glad there won’t be an endless wait ;)

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2012.