Review: DRAGONS OF DESERT AND DUST by Susan Brown

51b30x5tsyl-_sx331_bo1204203200_DRAGONS OF DESERT AND DUST by Susan Brown / Create Space / December 2015

Blurb: A boy with the Heart of a Dragon… Fourteen-year-old Angel Cerillos is stuck living with foster parents at a second-rate desert motel while his mother is in the hospital. Despite threats from a local rancher and his greedy foster father, Angel is determined to scour the harsh desert for turquoise nuggets that could pay for his mom’s care. Without them, all he has of value is a carved, two-headed turquoise serpent, left to him by his mysterious father. It’s a hard life. But the desert spirits are awakening, and the mythic power of his dragon talisman spins Angel into terrifying danger.

Review: Fourteen-year-old, foster child, Angel Cerillos lives at the local motel where he cleans rooms and scrubs toilets as part of his daily chores. The nearby desert calls to him and he escapes into it whenever possible determined to understand its mysteries. The call of the desert helps him come to terms with an ailing mother stuck in a hospital and an absentee father. His foster parents don’t make up for Angel’s emotional loss. His foster mother, Treece, is an enabler who teaches Angel how to steal sodas from the motel office. His foster father, Gary, physically and emotionally abuses Treece and Angel. It makes one wonder how this obviously dysfunctional couple managed to meet the state requirements for taking in a needy child or if there are any such laws in Arizona.

Like many children of single parents, Angel is older than his years. Celsa Reyna, one of his classmates tells him how valuable turquoise stones are and he decides that if he finds enough, he’ll be able to have sufficient money for his mother’s medical bills. With plenty of funds, she could even be cured. This provides more motivation to flee to the desert whenever possible. Warned to be careful of the neighboring rancher and his cowhands, Angel attempts to be discreet. He has to look out for more than two-legged dangers; there are other predators in the desert.

Physical dangers aren’t all Angel worries about – he also confronts psychological ones and his dreams intensify, apparently teaching him new skills or has he always had them? Dream-walking? Talking to snakes? Visions? Why is his amulet so important? Why does his mother ask if he’s turning blue when he finally has an opportunity to visit her? What is going on?

Angel’s drive to save his mother propels the story forward. He and Celsa are two of most clearly drawn, well-developed characters which makes the disparity between them and the adults even more glaring. Angel’s caseworker doesn’t “notice” what is directly in front of her, i.e. the abuse the boy suffers and doesn’t talk to him alone even when she thinks there might be a problem with Gary. Local rancher, John Hydemann accepts all of Gary’s stories far too easily. This guy has a kid who appeared out of nowhere – didn’t the caseworker interview the neighbors before placing Angel at the local motel?

What is wrong with these adults? Shouldn’t they be more discerning? How will the kids in the story and readers of the book learn not to judge by appearances if every adult suffers from the same character defect? Still, as Angel grows throughout the story, he does learn a few life lessons even if the adults in his world remain static. Ms. Brown has a gift for creating a believable world where shapeshifting dragons fly and a boy becoming a man discovers there is more than one kind of talent when he faces maturity. The choices he makes today will guide him down more than one kind of path, but he still needs stronger mentors to lead him.

While this is a companion to Ms. Brown’s Dragons of Frost and Fire, these are single title releases. Hopefully, the next book will link these characters as well as the dragons, hint, hint, hint!

Review: DRAGONS OF FROST AND FIRE by Susan Brown

51jtadefkhlDRAGONS OF FROST AND FIRE by Susan Brown / Create Space Publishing / June 2015

Blurb: “I know she’s still alive!” A year ago her mother disappeared in an Alaskan blizzard, but Kit Soriano refuses to give up. Against all logic, propelled by recurring dreams of ice-white dragons and a magical silver knife, Kit journeys to the wilderness town of Silver Claw where her mother vanished. She’s clearly not welcome, but her knife throbs with heat and her dreams show the impossible – mythical dragons are guarding her sleeping mother. Desperate, Kit has no choice but to rely on Dai, who knows more than he says about the wild magic rippling beneath the surface of the town. She wants to trust him. But is he her friend or an enemy? If she’s wrong, will she too be lost forever in the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness?

Review: In this YA fantasy, sixteen-year-old Kit Soriano travels with her father to a small town in Alaska to discover what happened to her mother. Even though everyone around Kit insists that Dr. Nora Soriano noted for her studies in genetics must be dead, killed in a harsh winter storm, Kit knows better. Haunted by dreams and inspired by a family heirloom, a dragon-shaped knife, she plans to find her missing mother regardless of any roadblocks. She hasn’t counted on fighting the entire town of Silver Claw, Alaska, much less her own father who thinks she needs closure, not answers. Kit sets out to solve the mystery beginning in the town library where the elderly librarian thwarts all of Kit’s research attempts. She also must deal with Dai, a “hot” guy who acts as a local guide, but she thinks of him more as a local spy. She must avoid him in order to determine what happened to her mother, however he is so…..cute!

This is a well-plotted story with carefully crafted characters. A discerning reader may catch onto all the clues provided, but it is much more fun to journey along with Kit and allow her to share the conclusions she draws. Her arguments with Dai and the other teens are realistic, but it would be nice to learn more about what happens to some of the supporting cast. What happens to Kirsti? The clues are carefully put in place, but we need to know if she achieves what she most desires.

The setting showcases the story too, effectively describing the solitude of native Alaska. More sensory details would have added depth but Ms. Brown has a deft touch with sounds as well as sights in this short (147 page) novel. One can really hear the ice falling off the glaciers near Silver Claw. The point of view remains with Kit, but would have been stronger with Dai’s input. Still, Ms. Brown, a skilled writer who honed her craft writing for Scholastic has penned an intriguing story that will enthrall readers. She leaves the story open for a sequel or even a series where we can discover and share more of Kit’s adventures, hopefully with Dai. Meanwhile, I’m off to find another of her “Dragon” tales.

New Release: CHASING SHADOWS by Karen Harper

51bp1zq2q0l-_sx314_bo1204203200_CHASING SHADOWS by Karen Harper / Released Nov 29, 2016 by MIRA

The dead still talk if you know how to listen… 

Every case that Claire Britten cracks is a win, not only professionally but personally. The forensic psychologist has spent a lifetime fighting a neurological disorder, and her ability to conquer it is a testament to her razor-sharp intuition.

Nick Markwood is used to winning in the courtroom, so when his latest case is overthrown by Claire’s expert testimony, he can’t help being impressed by her skill. He needs her on the team of his passion project—investigating unusual cases involving mysterious deaths. Her condition doesn’t deter him, and neither does the attraction that sparks between them…even if it should.

As they join forces to investigate a murder in St. Augustine, Florida, Claire is thrust into a situation far more dangerous than she’d anticipated, pushing her disorder to a breaking point. Just when she fears she can’t trust her own mind, she discovers Nick’s personal connection to the case—and wonders whether she can trust anyone at all.

Review: MURDER IN AN IRISH VILLAGE by Carlene O’Connor

51s23vyfr3l-_sx333_bo1204203200_MURDER IN AN IRISH VILLAGE by Carlene O’Connor Kensington, February 2016 ~ 4½ Stars

Blurb: A little slice of Heaven on the Emerald Isle…

In the small village of Kilbane, County Cork, Ireland, Naomi’s Bistro has always been a warm and welcoming spot to visit with neighbors, enjoy some brown bread and tea, and get the local gossip. Nowadays twenty-two-year-old Siobhán O’Sullivan runs the family bistro named for her mother, along with her five siblings, after the death of their parents in a car crash almost a year ago.

It’s been a rough year for the O’Sullivans, but it’s about to get rougher. One morning, as they’re opening the bistro, they discover a man seated at a table, dressed in a suit as if for his own funeral, a pair of hot pink barber scissors protruding from his chest.

With the local garda suspecting the O’Sullivans, and their business in danger of being shunned—murder tends to spoil the appetite—it’s up to feisty redheaded Siobhán to solve the crime and save her beloved brood.

Review: Twenty-two year old, Siobhan O’Sullivan manages her grieving family of five siblings and the bistro they inherited from their parents with determination and brilliance. She has enough to do keeping the “O’Sullivan Six” as they’re known in the small village of Kilbane on track when the anniversary of the tragic traffic accident that killed her mum and da approaches. She doesn’t need Niall Murphy, a known troublemaker returning to create havoc. And she really doesn’t need him demanding money from her to clear his brother’s name since he was tried and incarcerated for causing her parents’ deaths.

Niall claims to have proof that someone else caused the deadly accident. Siobhan doesn’t believe a word he says – he must be lying – his lips are moving. Then, he ends up dead in her bistro, a pair of scissors in his chest. Of course, she didn’t kill him, but she’s determined to discover who did and clear the O’Sullivan name. It doesn’t help that her oldest brother, James is a prime suspect since he and Niall argued at the pub. As Siobhan points out to the local police or garda officer, Macdara Flannery, other people fought with the victim.

In this debut novel, Ms. O’Connor describes the setting consistently and beautifully until the details pervade the story from the language to the food. Siobhan is famous for her “brown bread” not to be confused with “brown” or “wheat” bread in the U.S. Because the author didn’t explain the differences, I had to “google” the details but it looks like it would be fun to make and have with a cuppa tea since actually traveling to Kilbane is more a fantasy than a possibility.

The ensemble cast of characters delightfully enlivens the story especially when ten year old Cieran shares that they have a list of suspects back on the whiteboard in the kitchen and their neighbors promptly begin to reveal their alibis for the night in question. Siobhan suspects someone lies, but who? The suspense builds and Macdara warns her to be careful especially when the killer comes after her. Of course, she can’t back down, but readers will root for her since she’s stubborn not stupid.

Siobhan needs the truth and readers will want her to discover it too. No, that truth won’t bring back her parents, but it will provide much needed answers. Finding a killer isn’t her only concern since her landlady uses the fact that a murder victim was found in the bistro to try and cancel the lease. Hmmm, what if she’s the killer and is all an elaborate, vicious scheme to steal the O’Sullivan’s livelihood.

Readers will undoubtedly make a strong connection with these characters that are well-drawn for the most part. Occasionally, it becomes difficult to keep the siblings straight which are where more physical descriptions would help. It takes too long for us to learn what they look like and at times two of the girls sound too much alike. Yet, these are minor errors in a debut novel. Ms. O’Connor delivers a terrific story with a well-designed setting that never lets us forget where we are and hopefully she’ll return readers to the village of Kilbane for another visit very soon.

THE GRAVEYARD OF THE HESPERIDES by Lindsey Davis

51p5npglhgl-_sx328_bo1204203200_THE GRAVEYARD OF THE HESPERIDES by Lindsey Davis (Book 4 in the Flavia Albia mystery series) / Released July 12, 2016 by Minotaur Books

Flavia’s beloved, the plebeian Manlius Faustus, has recently moved in and decided that they should get married in a big, showy ceremony to begin a proper domestic life together.  Also, his contracting firm has been renovating a rundown dive bar called The Garden of Hesperides, only to uncover human remains buried in the backyard.  There have been rumors for years that the previous owner of the bar, now deceased, killed a bar maid, and presumably these are her remains.  In the choice between planning a wedding and looking into a crime from long ago, Albia would much rather investigate a possible murder.  Or murders, as more and more remains are uncovered revealing that something truly horrible has been going on at the Hesperides.

As she gets closer to the truth behind the bodies in the backyard, Albia’s investigation puts her in the cross-hairs – which might be the only way she’ll get out of the wedding and away from all her relatives who are desperate to “help.”

LINDSEY DAVIS is the author of the New York Times bestselling series of historical mysteries featuring Marcus Didius Falco, which started with The Silver Pigs, and the mystery featuring Falco’s daughter Flavia Albia, which started with The Ideas of April.  She has also authored a few acclaimed historical novels, including The Course of Honour.  She lived in Birmington, UK.

Mystery Reviews

61ge1tk-aul-_sx309_bo1204203200_In Dead End Street, by Sheila Connolly (Berkley, 2016, $7.99) the staid world of the Pennsylvania Antiquarian Society is rocked by 21st Century social issues when its president, Nell Pratt, discovers that the society owns property in one of the worst neighborhoods in Philadelphia. A visit to the site leads to a shooting and a death. The Philadephia police are ready to chalk the incident up to local gang-bangers having their usual fun and games, but Nell thinks there’s more to it, and won’t stop looking until she finds some answers. At the same time, she’s concerned about the use of the property, and how to make her organization more relevant to the parts of Philadelphia that do not have access to cultural beacons like the Museum of Fine Arts. The answer to both questions may lie with the community itself. A good addition to an intriguing series.

51lazfqmwzl-_sx332_bo1204203200_It’s family that causes the upset in Mary Dahein’s Bed-and-Breakfast Mystery Here Comes the Bribe (William Morris, 2016, $23.99). Judith McGonigle Flynn is trying to stage a wedding at Hillside Manor, but everything that can go wrong is. The father of the bride insists that Judith is his long-lost mother. The bride and groom act as if they barely know each other. The mother of the groom is in thrall to a collection of oddballs. The officiants are vague about their religious affiliation. Then the mother of the bride is found dead. Not only that, but there’s someone trying to buy up all the houses in the neighborhood at rock-bottom prices, with the hint of a major condominium development in the works. Judith’s in-laws insist on helping out with the investigation, as family relations get stranger and stranger. It’s a wild ride in the California sunshine, with a twist at the end that will have every reader gasping with laughter.

511maarv7zl-_sx308_bo1204203200_From California to Colorado, with The Readaholics and the Gothic Gala, by Laura DiSilverio (Obsidian 2016, $7.99). Amy-Faye Johnson’s reading club, the Readaholics, is reading Rebecca, the classic mystery by Daphne DuMaurier, so it’s only natural that they sponsor the Celebration of Gothic Novels in their town of Heaven, CO. Three major authors are appearing, including one who has a connection to a member of the club, one who may have stolen her prize-winning book from an aspiring fan, and one whose love life has become very complicated. When a stranger turns up dead at the costume party that was supposed to be the high point of the weekend, things get murkier than the most tangled web spun by a romance novelist. The Readaholics pool their resources, as they try to uncover the identity of the dead man and his connection to one or another of the three writers. There are digs at the arcane world of mystery writers, as well as small-town politics, gossipy neighbors, conspiracy fans, and the Colorado landscape. The solution to the mystery leads to repercussions for all concerned, and the promise that the next book the Readaholics will tackle will be something more straightforward… like a spy thriller!

51azaqzlall-_sx304_bo1204203200_It’s across the country to New England, where Sarah Winston runs garage sales, in Sherry Harris’s All Murders Final! (Kensington, 2016, $7.99) With winter coming on, Sarah thought that an on-line “virtual garage sale” web site might be a way for her to continue to re-cycle other peoples’ stuff during the inclement weather. Alas, it’s not working as well as she planned. Buyers are not coming through with money, sellers are misrepresenting their goods, and a cleaning woman who adversided on the web site may be involved in a string of local robberies. Then she discovers one of the leading citizens of the town dead, with the very tablecloth she wanted to buy stuffed in the dead woman’s mouth! Things get even odder as Sarah finds herself the target of a stalker. She hates to bring her ex-husband into the matter, but when she’s accused of stealing a car, things really get serious. Sarah’s love life gets even more tangled than the local political scene, as she discovers more about the dead woman than she really wanted to know. Motives abound, but the killer is someone no one even suspected. Tips on running a garage sale are included.

513lm0m6jalFinally, a not-so-cozy mystery in Washington DC: Stabbing in the Senate, by Colleen J. Shogan (Camel Press, 2016. $13.95) Kit Marshall finds her boss, Senator Lansford, in his office, impaled by one of his own desk ornaments. When she pulls the object out of the body, she leaves her own fingerprints and DNA on it, and is immediately accused of his murder. Now she has to prove her innocence, which means finding out who did kill the senator, who tended to make enemies in his own party as well as with the Opposition. It’s a fascinating look at the back-stage world of Big Government, as Kit and her friend Meg search for clues in high and low places. Is this murder purely political, or does the answer to the mystery lie closer to home? And what happens when the murderer is finally unmasked? Kit risks her career and her personal happiness to find out. A resourceful heroine, and a glimpse behind the scenes, even more pertinent in this year of political turmoil.

Reviews provided by Roberta Rogow for her column Roberta’s Ramblings for the Sept/Oct edition of The Book Breeze

Mystery Release: WEDDING BELL BLUES by Ruth Moose

51rtbasan-l-_sx331_bo1204203200_WEDDING BELL BLUES by Ruth Moose / Released August 2016 by Minotaur Books

The town of Littleboro, North Carolina is abuzz with gossip about Crazy Reba’s upcoming nuptials.  Most brides go crazy at some point, but Littleboro’s resident homeless lady has had a head start:  she’s beloved, indulged, and most of all, eccentric.  Crazy Reba’s wedding plans go confirmedly awry when the bride-to-be is arrested for her finance’s murder.

Beloved owner of the Dixie Dew Bed and Breakfast, Beth McKenzie is determined to clear Reba’s name but gets in over her head when a woman who threatened to kill her books a room at the Dixie Dew, and Robert Redford, her neighbor’s white rabbit, disappears.

As if Beth’s week wasn’t hectic enough, Beth has to cater Littleboro’s First Annual Green Bean Festival and a famous food writer becomes deathly ill.  Beth must battle through madcap mayhem to apprehend the culprit and save the day.

RUTH MOOSE is the 2013 winner of the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition.  She’s published three collections of short stories and six collections of poetry.  She was on the Creative Writing faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for fifteen years and received the Chapman Award for teaching.  She lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina.