Book Review: Bears With Us by Marilyn Meredith, Murder in the Dojo by Sue Star, and Blind Goddess by Anne Holt

Bears With Us
Marilyn Meredith
Mundania Press, 2011
ISBN 978-1606592649
Trade Paperback

I’m tempted to make puns in regards to the latest Tempe Crabtree mystery by Marilyn Meredith. However, I’ll fight the urge and just be amazed at how much story can be put into 218 pages. Meredith knows how to deliver the fun into reading a mystery. There’s never a dull moment, but how could there be with bears in the mix?

In this latest story, Deputy Crabtree has a full platter. A teenager commits suicide and Tempe cannot quite understand the reaction from his enigmatic family. Another woman wants, nay demands, Tempe do something to keep a young man away from her daughter. A family’s life is repeatedly disrupted by the mother’s dementia. These incidents are on top of the usual drunks and speeders Tempe handles. However, topping the list of problems is an increase of bears rummaging through garbage, breaking into homes and attacking people. When a woman goes missing and later is discovered dead, it is at first thought to be the result of another bear attack. Tempe is on the case, however, and will uncover the truth.

I really enjoyed these characters. Each is so well defined. The action is swift and the writing is tight. Meredith packed so much story into one book I kept turning pages to learn what happened next. She knows how to provide just enough tension and action to move the story. I’m an instant fan. This book is loaded for bear. (Yeah, sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, May 2012.
Author of Night Shadows, Beta and Alpha.

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Murder in the Dojo
Sue Star
D.M. Kreg Publishing
Ebook
Also available in trade paperback

It’s kicking karate action with the first in a new series from Sue Star. Murder in the Dojo brings in the finest of martial arts, betrayal, and of course, a dead body. Karate instructor Nell Letterly is forced to turn detective when faced with the threat of arrest. With a fine cast of characters, this one is sure to get the heart pumping and the punches flying.

On the day Nell Letterly is supposed to meet her new employer, Arlo Callahan, and start as an instructor in his Boulder, Colorado karate studio, she finds the dead body of the former instructor. Within days, evidence and suspicions fall directly upon Nell. With no help from the police, she decides to find the killer herself. There is no shortage of suspects: Callahan’s wife, a jealous instructor, a disruptive student, an ex girlfriend, an enigmatic janitor. With obstacles on all sides, Nell has to use not just her deductive reasoning to fathom out the killer, but her martial arts experience to save her own life.

As a martial artist myself, I must favor anything related to this sport. Weapons, self defense, tournaments, instruction, and philosophy. I think Star delivers a fine tale with all the necessary elements of martial arts to whet the appetite for another round…or would that be round house kick? Either way, Murder in the Dojo is the right combination of mystery and martial arts.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, June 2012.
Author of Night Shadows, Beta and Alpha.

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Blind Goddess
Anne Holt
Scribner, June 2012
ISBN
Trade Paperback

Anne Holt shows that corruption can run deep in places other than Washington and Moscow. With Blind Goddess, the viewfinder is focused on Oslo where lawyer and police are, once again, at odds with each other and nobody is sure how high up the chain crime will climb.

Investigators Hanne Wilhelmsen and Hakon Sand  take on the case of a murdered drug dealer. They even have the killer in custody and a lawyer as a witness. A few days later, the body of a shady attorney is discovered and evidence quickly connects the two killings. Wilhelmsen and Sand must wade through the murky clues, contend with disappearing files, and endure personal attacks only to discover the conspiracy is more wide spread than expected. After they arrest a suspect, they find themselves in a race against time to put their ducks in order.

No real surprises in this book as it seems nearly every lawyer is dirty. It’s the putting together of the puzzle pieces which keeps the story moving and interesting. Holt holds back on the revelations of a pesky reporter and a series of number codes until the very end. Still, Blind Goddess is excellent escapism fun for mystery readers. I highly recommend the Hanne Wilhelmsen series.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, June 2012.
Author of Night Shadows, Beta and Alpha.

Book Reviews: The Twisted Thread by Charlotte Bacon, Bears With Us by Marilyn Meredith, Triple Shot by Sandra Balzo, and A Perilous Conception by Larry Karp

The Twisted Thread
Charlotte Bacon
Hyperion/Voice, June 2011
ISBN 978-1401341503
Trade Paperback

Madeline Christopher has landed a job at Armitage Academy.  Armitage is a prestigious school with many traditions but some of the traditions are not common knowledge among the faculty.  When Claire Harkness is found dead in her dorm room, the investigation brings some of these secret traditions to light.

Madeline is one of the first to view Claire’s body and was shocked that it appeared that Claire might have just given birth.   Madeline’s intuitions turn out to be accurate but the baby has disappeared. Not only is Armitage faced with the death of a very popular student but a student who has managed to keep her pregnancy hidden from the faculty.  Only a few trusted friends were aware that Claire was pregnant.

The only student deaths that Armitage had experienced were that of three other students.  One student died in a car accident, one died of leukemia and another in a climbing accident.  Now the police were out on the campus in full force.  Both the students and the faculty were in turmoil.

Three of the students came to Madeline’s room frightened and unsure what to do.  The students confided in Madeline about a secret society that Claire and her friends were involved in.  As soon as they confided they were sorry that they had revealed their secret and pressed Madeline not to report their conversation to the police.

The detective in charge of the investigation was a former Armitage student now employed by the police department.  Madeline was quick to fill in the police on the information that had been revealed to her in spite of the warnings she received.

This is a book that takes a good long look at college life and the teachers committed to educating children.  The end was a surprise for this reader.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, July 2011.

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Bears With Us
Tempe Crabtree Mystery Series
Marilyn Meredith
Mundania Press, LLC, August 2011
ISBN 978-1606592649
Trade Paperback

Bears are all over Bear Creek, the small mountain community in the southern Sierra where Tempe Crabtree lives with her husband Hutch.   Hutch is a pastor in the local church.  Tempe is a deputy in the small community and it seems she is being called out so much that she hardly has time to eat or sleep.  The bears are preparing for their period of hibernation but are having a hard time finding sufficient food so a few have decided that they will forage for food wherever they can.   Tempe has been called when a bear is tearing up a Bear Creek resident’s kitchen and helping itself to whatever is available in the refrigerator and creating quite a mess.   A local apple orchard attracts a bear that is dead set on eating the entire crop before the owner of the orchard can get the apples picked and sent to market.  Some new residents of the community find a bear on their deck enjoying a nice big roast.  A bear even tries to get into the local school.

But it isn’t all about bears.   Tempe is called to the home of a new family who has moved into the community.  Their son has committed suicide.  Although Hutch, serving in his capacity as a minister, tries to offer comfort and help to the family he is not very well received.  The family is acting very strangely and seems to want the death of their son kept very quiet.

The mother of a young girl calls upon Tempe to investigate the young man her daughter wants to date.  That isn’t exactly in the line of duty for Tempe but she tries to reassure the mother that the boy is a nice young man and well liked in the community.  When Hutch invites the daughter to attend his youth group and the young man is in the group the girl’s mother decides to file a complaint with Tempe’s boss.

The most tragic of the episodes that Tempe becomes involved in is that of an older woman who is suffering from dementia.  The woman keeps wandering away from home.  The first few incidents turn out okay but finally the woman wanders too far and Tempe has to try to figure out what has happened to the woman.

This new Tempe Crabtree novel brings Hutch into the action.  If you want a few tips on how to keep a bear away from your residence and your food this is the book for you.  A very entertaining way to learn bear habits and understand what it is like to work in a small community as a Deputy.  When a hitman attempts to harm a local resident, it is even more dangerous than trying to scare away a big bear.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, September 2011.

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Triple Shot
A Maggy Thorsen Mystery
Sandra Balzo
Severn House Publishers, LTD, December 2011
ISBN 978-0727880796
Hardcover

There is story after story written about the Mafia.  Many of the stories are fact and have been proven true.  Others are tales that have been passed around by word of mouth and might have some basis in fact but are mostly legends.

Maggy Thorsen and her partner Sarah Kingston have Uncommon Grounds, their Brookhills coffee house up and running in the town’s historic train station.  The current specialty at Uncommon Grounds is the store’s autumn drink, Triple Shot, a drink full of caffeine and sugar. Customers coming into the coffee house are complaining about the odor.  Although Maggy and Tien Romano, a coffee house employee, have investigated the source of the odor remains a mystery until Sarah remembers the waiting room underneath the coffee house. This is a special waiting room designed for members of the Mafia to wait for the trains to Chicago without having to associate with any of the other travelers.

When Ward Chitown, a faded Chicago television personality, arrives in town to film a show,   He joins Sarah and Maggy in the investigation of the waiting room.   The group discovers the corpse of Brigid Ferndale, a sales apprentice for Sarah’s Kingston Realty.  Jake Pavlik, Maggy’s boyfriend, is not at all surprised to find that Maggy has found a corpse. She seems to have an uncanny ability to stumble into situations that other people would run from.  Pavlik has been investigating the deaths of a couple of real estate brokers who have met their death while showing homes and he feels that this victim is another to add to the list.

Ward Chitown is quite excited about finding Brigid’s corpse since he thinks it will add something to his show on “The Brookhills Massacre”.   He plans to televise the incident that occurred years ago at a local restaurant where the FBI broke up a Mafia meeting and lots of money disappeared.

Maggy can’t help sticking her nose in the investigation and although she finds facts that will help Pavlick, she puts herself in a lot of danger.  Her maneuvers make for good reading.  This is a good addition to the Maggy Thorsen series.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, December 2011.

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A Perilous Conception
Larry Karp
Poisoned Pen Press, December 2011
ISBN No. 978-1590589731
Hardcover
Also available in trade paperback

In vitro fertilization is a common occurrence now but in 1975, the subject was very controversial.  Dr. Colin Sanford, an obstetrician in Emerald, Washington, is determined to be the first doctor to produce a baby by this method.  He has recruited Dr. Giselle Hearn, a laboratory geneticist-embryologist to work with him.  Because of Hearn’s department chair, their work must remain a secret.  Joyce Kennett, a patient of Dr. Sanford, is determined to have a baby.  With the help of Sanford and Hearn, Kennett gives birth to a healthy baby boy.

Dr. Sanford has assured Kennett that when he is in a position to make a public announcement about the baby’s birth, there will be no end to the publicity and Kennett will gain financially through the publicity.

However, before any announcement can be made, James Kennett, Joyce’s husband and the baby’s father, goes on a shooting spree, kills Dr. Hearn, and then kills himself.  This is where Detective Ernie Baumgartner steps in and determines to discover what motivated James Kennett to murder a doctor and then commit suicide.

The reader hears the story from the viewpoint of Dr. Colin Sanford as well as from the viewpoint of Detective Baumgartner.  Detective Baumgartner’s superiors keep pressing him to close the case since they feel it is obvious that James Kennett is simply a man who suffered a mental breakdown but Baumgartner is sure there is much, much more to the story.  Not only risking the wrath of his superiors Baumgartner neglects his wife to the point where she leaves him and he has to beg a place to sleep from an old acquaintance.

Larry Karp, in my opinion, has written an outstanding and intriguing book.  A Perilous Conception is a mystery I am very glad I read and would recommend the book as an exciting read.  The conclusion is a surprising and satisfying end to this excellent book.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, January 2012.

Book Review: Chomp by Carl Hiaasen

Chomp
Carl Hiaasen
Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, March 2012
ISBN 978-0-375-86842-9
Hardcover (ARC)

Teenager Wahoo Cray doesn’t live the life of the average kid. Having a dad who’s a wildlife wrangler with a private zoo, Wahoo has grown up with alligators, monkeys, birds of all sorts, giant tortoises, snakes, you name it. His dad, Mickey, hasn’t done much running of the business, though, since he got a concussion from being hit on the head by a falling iguana that died in a hard freeze. With money running low, Wahoo’s mom has gone to China on a two-month teaching job and she’s depending on Wahoo to keep an eye on his dad.

Wahoo has always looked after all the animals, including a twelve-foot alligator named Alice with movie credits to her name, and he has—or actually doesn’t  have—the missing thumb to prove it (he was showing off to a girl so he can hardly blame Alice). When he takes a call from Expedition Survival! looking for a place to shoot an episode of  the reality TV show starring fake wrangler Derek Badger, Wahoo accepts the job on his dad’s behalf.  After all, a thousand bucks a day plus animal rental fees is awfully hard to resist when you can’t pay the mortgage.  Badger especially wants to shoot scenes with Alice and with Beulah, a fourteen-foot python with a penchant for biting (although she can be persuaded to let go with a slug of liquor).

Who could predict that Derek would go missing in the Everglades after being bitten on the tongue by a bat that crashlanded into his cheesecake crumbs (of course, she wouldn’t have bitten him if he hadn’t tried to eat her for the camera) or that he would convince himself he was going to turn into a vampire? Misappropriated airboats, a drunk with a gun, and a kidnapped Mickey lead to more mayhem and there’s no one ready to come to the rescue except Wahoo and a girl named Tuna Gordon. Can they learn to drive an airboat to get there in time? Will Derek turn into a half-vampire because there’s a half-moon?

Carl Hiaasen never fails to be entertaining and Chomp is no exception. It might be written for young middle-graders but adults will love all the action and craziness, too, and will sort of wish they could visit Wahoo and the family zoo.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor,  December 2011.

Book Review: Captivity by Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Captivity
Debbie Lee Wesselmann
John F. Blair Publisher, 2008
ISBN 0895873532
Hardcover

Recently, the US Congress endowed retirement homes for chimps used in medical laboratory experiments. The facility in Shreveport, LA offers playtime and even TV–not surprising since these animals’ contact was with researchers, their favorite show is “General Hospital.” The reason for this endowment–we have come to realize how human chimps are and cannot simply euthanize them like a dog or a cat.

The South Carolina Primate Project is one such institution. Their primate residents are refugees from medical labs and roadside zoos. The chimps come from a wide variety of different backgrounds–some were born and bred in captivity, some captured in the wild. Some are loving and gentle, and others like “Benji” have been so brutally treated, they require sedation for a human to even treat a wound.

Dr. Dana Armstrong presides over this precariously funded project. She’s a natural for the job, since her family was one of the first to have a chimp member. Her psychologist father, Dr. Reginald Armstrong, was one of the University of Oklahoma professors who adopted a chimpanzee and took the primate in as a family member. The Armstrong family’s interactions with Annie were videotaped and shown all over the world. To this day, the Armstrong children are still haunted by their ‘sister’ and wonder what happened to Annie when the funding for their project ran out.

Captivity opens with a crisis at the sanctuary. Someone’s broken in and set the chimps free. Benji, one of the HIV-positive chimps is loose. He’s their most dangerous resident, having suffered serious abuse from a prior roadside zoo owner. Even the familiar handlers approach Benji with extreme care. If he bites or harms someone from nearby Harris, SC, it’s conceivable he could infect them with HIV.

The break-in exacerbates a problem brewing for some time prior. A former colleague of Dana’s father has been spreading rumors about the SCPP for some time. Now, he’s openly saying that Dana’s an unfit caretaker for the chimps and is bidding to become the next SCPP director. Add to that, a journalist has come to town and is asking Dana about Annie, and Dana’s younger brother, Zack’s come to visit as well.

Debbie Wesselmann deftly teaches us about the trials and tribulations of university funding and heading a controversial project in the Deep South. She treats the chimpanzee issues with an even-handed honesty and compassion. Captivity‘s tension carries strongly to the end. Like the best of stories, we’ve left with a satisfactory and reasonable conclusion, but questions of our own to ask.

I’d recommend Captivity to anyone who’s interested in animal stories and seeks an understanding of human-animal interaction. While the book has some mature themes, it’s suitable for young adult readers past 9th grade and would be an excellent read for students in that age group interested in zoology or veterinary science.

Reviewed by Rebecca Kyle, March 2008.

Book Review: Ape House by Sara Gruen

Ape House
Sara Gruen
Spiegel & Grau, September 2010
ISBN 0385523211
Hardcover

Water For Elephants was a magical read. That book had the capacity to bring together humans, animals and history and transport the reader into an unfamiliar world. Obviously, I’m going to compare every elephant and circus book to “Water” and I’m pretty sure most will fall short. Sadly, I’m going to have to compare Ape House to “Water” as well and come to the same verdict.

What happened here? Well, to start with, the book’s titled Ape House but we don’t get to the apes for 100 pages. Our introduction is to the human characters: of the four, the one least influencing the apes is the most interesting; however, I suspect many writing coaches would consider ‘Amanda’ a darling that Ms. Gruen probably should have killed in favor of the story.

When we finally get to the apes, we learn that animal rights activists have bombed their research facility. The apes are running free. Unfortunately, they get captured and sold to reality television creators who decide to make a television show about their activities. Doing what’s natural to the animals becomes pornography to the prurient-oriented viewers.

The primary quartet of human characters fall short of their potential. Isabel, the ape researcher, is badly damaged by the bomb blast and is forced to undergo extensive plastic surgery. A fascinating storyline about character identity is sacrificed so we can see how Amanda is attractive to men. John, the ape reporter and Amanda’s husband, spends his time divided between trying to follow the apes’ story and hopefully recover them and staking his territory with his overly-attractive wife. Peter, the man who dumped Isabel is about as unnecessary as Amanda.

The story does pick up as John and Isabel desperately try to find the apes. A lot of fascinating character studies straight from the pages of the papers. But, do we have to have the ‘Eastborough’ Baptist Church picketing the apes because they are touching each other and thus, potentially bisexual?

In contrast to the humans, the apes come off as the more compassionate and ‘evolved’ species. Their conversations and plight are amusing and touching. The small interactions with the apes are the portions of the story that had me riveted to the page while the remainder of the story left me hurrying to return to the animals.

Now, in conclusion, I’m going to mention the fictional work that I consider the Water For Elephants of the ape world. It’s Captivity by Debbie Wesselmann. This is the story of a South Carolina ape research institute with strong human and ape characters.

Reviewed by Rebecca Kyle, September 2010.