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Newsletter #110 June August, 2015

Recommendations
by Elizabeth LaVelle

        I really enjoyed The White Magic Five and Dime ($14.99) by Steve Hockensmith and Lisa Falco, so I was delighted to get my hands on an advance copy of the second book in the series, Fool Me Once ($14.99, expected in August), which picks up right where the first book left off. Alanis is doing tarot readings and trying to make sure her sister does her homework and goes to bed on time, while hoping to identify more of her con-artist mother's victims so she can make amends to them. She has also helped her new friend Marsha Riggs leave her abusive husband. So when Bill Riggs is bludgeoned to death, and the Berdache cops decide that hapless, passive Marsha is the likeliest culprit, Alanis sets out to discover what really happened. Riggs was a belligerent, violent jerk, so there are plenty of other suspects. The fun comes from watching Alanis deploy her formidable con-artist skills while investigating, choosing a persona and creating a backstory that's just this side of outrageous. And she does her best to stay out of danger this time around (of course, not always successfully) and to keep her sister well clear of any not entirely legal activity. For backup, Alanis pairs up with Victor Castellanos, a thoroughly decent guy who seesaws between his growing attraction to Alanis and his dismay (or occasionally terror) at some of her behavior. She also partners reluctantly with Riggs' former jail mate G.W. Fletcher, a charmer with as many shady skills as Alanis. All of which makes for the same mix of absurd encounters and warm-hearted moments that I liked so much in the first book.

        At 22, Billy Boyle ($9.99, by James R. Benn) has just made detective, not because he's a great cop, but because he has family on the Promotions board. When the draft comes along, his family once again pulls strings to get him a safe stateside posting on his uncle's staff. But by June 1942, when Billy finishes his officer training, Uncle Ike (that's General Eisenhower to the rest of us) is based in London, in charge of the European Theater of Operations. And he's planning to have Billy investigate potentially delicate cases that might threaten Allied unity and military operations. Billy is determined not to let Uncle Ike down. His first assignment takes him to the Norwegian government-in-exile HQ in Sussex with his new boss Major Harding, a by-the-book career Army officer. Planning is underway for Operation Jupiter, the proposed Allied invasion of Norway, and Bill is tasked with identifying a spy among the Norwegian forces. Billy realizes he's way out of his depth; luckily, he will be ably assisted by Lt. Piotr Kazimierz, an expat Polish baron whose entire family was wiped out by Hitler. Kaz has an Oxford education and a facility for languages and codes that has earned him a place on the general's staff despite his bum heart. When one of King Haakon's top advisers dies in suspicious circumstances, they also have a murder to solve. Billy is a lively protagonist, very brash and gee-whiz, aware of his flaws and shortcomings but not inclined to fret over them. As an Irish-American from south Boston, he arrives in London ready to hate the British, a plan that does not survive his first encounter with working-class Brits at the local pub: they've already lost so many loved ones to the war, and they are so very glad that the US has joined the fight at last, they completely win Billy over. Kaz is also a great character, smart and witty, delighted to learn Southie slang from Billy, but with a core of sorrow from all that has befallen his country. The book also has plenty of action, both military and investigative.

        Billy's adventures continue in November 1942 in The First Wave ($14.00). Allied forces land near Algiers, naively expecting a quick takeover from the Vichy French. En route to arrange a surrender with a complicit faction of the French military, Billy and Major Harding instead find themselves captured by a vicious fascist militia run by the Vichy police. The militia has also rounded up the participants in the failed uprising, a group that includes Billy's girlfriend Diana, an English spy. Kaz and a team of Royal Commandos soon show up to rescue Billy and Harding, but by then the other captives have been moved to an unknown location. And the delicate politics of the situation make it impossible for the Allies to take any official action against the Vichy police or militia. A murder and theft at the newly set up Allied field hospital sends Billy on the hunt, officially for the hospital's desperately needed supply of penicillin, and unofficially for Diana, both stolen by a murderous Vichy police officer with ties to the Algerian underworld. But he still finds time to comment on Army food and procedures, to reflect on the changes the events of the war have wrought in Kaz, and to wonder what the Algerian natives think about the entire enterprise - whether it's France, Germany, Italy, or the US, their 'liberators' aren't planning to give the country back to its original owners. Much derring-do follows as Billy searches for the missing drugs, tries to figure out which members of the hospital staff collaborated in the crime, and works to locate and rescue Diana and if possible the other captives. The series continues with Blood Alone ($14.00), Evil for Evil ($15.95), Rag and Bone ($14.00), A Mortal Terror ($14.95), Death's Door ($14.95), A Blind Goddess ($15.95), and The Rest Is Silence ($26.95 hc, $15.95 trade pb expected in August).

        Buy a Whisker ($7.99) by Sophie Ryan is a great follow up to The Whole Cat and Caboodle ($7.99). It's winter, and things have slowed down in North Harbor, Maine, aside from an occasional tour bus of Canadian skiers. So a proposed waterfront development that would increase tourism and bring more revenue to the area has local business owners thrilled - except for young bakery owner Lily Carter, and without Lily's property, the development can't go ahead. Sarah's shop isn't near the waterfront, so she's not directly involved, but several of her nearest and dearest have a stake in the matter. Quite a few folks in town are irate about Lily's stubbornness, there's been petty vandalism at her shop, and there are rumors that the developer might go broke if the plans don't proceed. So there's plenty for police detective Michelle Andrews and investigator Nick Elliot to look into when Lily is found dead. Despite the fact that the pros are doing their jobs well, there's no way Sarah will be able to stop 'Charlotte's Angels' once they decide to investigate. The most she can do is try to make sure her Gram's friends Charlotte, Rose, Liz, and geriatric hacker Arthur Peterson don't do anything dangerous. The mystery plot is nicely developed and convoluted, but for me the real enjoyment in this series is watching Sarah's family and friends as they work together, enjoy food together, head to the weekly jam session at their favorite local bar, and generally take good care of each other. It's also fun to watch the team at Second Chance bring new life to stuff that would otherwise end up in a landfill. And I really enjoy Sarah's discussions and arguments with her cat Elvis, and her reminiscences: what happened when Gram and her friends took thirteen-year-old Sarah and a friend to see Aerosmith (hint: it involves Steven Tyler and Rose); or how Sarah danced the Macarena with the skeleton in her high school biology class. The author does a great job of giving her characters breadth and depth and warmth, and the humor is always friendly. It's also great to read a cozy series where the police are capable, and people cooperate with them.

        Elizabeth Peters is one of my all-time favorite authors, and one of very few that I can point to and say I'm a different person today because I read her books. At a time when most romance novels featured helpless and frequently clueless heroines in humorless peril, Peters' romantic suspense and mystery novels specialized in intelligent, independent women, attractive but aggravating men, entertaining supporting characters, plenty of humor (ranging from dry wit to sarcasm to slapstick), and smart plots. And I particularly love the Vicky Bliss series. First up is Borrower of the Night ($9.99), published in 1973. A very tall, very intelligent blonde with the proportions of a Playboy bunny, Dr. Bliss struggles to be taken seriously as a historian in a world that believes anyone who looks like her must be an airhead. Landing a teaching position at a small Midwestern college, she meets Tony, who is tall, smart - and really fixated on getting married and having children, two things Vicky is entirely uninterested in. When Tony decides that the way to win her over is to prove he can dominate her intellectually, Vicky is flabbergasted. The two end up competing to see which of them can locate a lost masterpiece by a German artist who died in 1525. The search takes them to Germany, to a decrepit family castle turned hotel being run by Irma, the last of the Drachensteins (hello, petite brunette heiress in distress). Throw in Irma's decidedly nasty aunt, a rival treasure hunter from back home, a romantic rival for Tony, some mysterious ghostly happenings, a seance or two, and chubby old Professor Anton Schmidt (supposedly vacationing but often to be found in the thick of things), and you have all the trappings of a gothic romance. What you get is a lively story with plenty of twists (modern and historical), plenty of skulduggery (modern and historical), some deadly peril, and the indomitable Vicky (with some help from Tony) finally sorting the whole mess out.

        Next in the series is Street of the Five Moons ($9.99). Vicky is now working for Schmidt as an art historian at the National Museum in Munich. A man has turned up dead in an alley, in his pocket a spectacularly good forgery of a piece of antique jewelry in the museum's collection. Worried that there is a plan afoot to rob the museum by replacing original artworks with forgeries, Schmidt asks Vicky to figure out where the fake came from. A note in the dead man's pocket points to a street address in Rome, where Vicky finds an antique shop, and John Smythe (last seen in The Camelot Caper, $9.99), an Englishman with flexible ethics and a number of criminal associates, some of whom are both unintelligent and unsavory. When they kidnap Vicky, John rescues her - an act of enlightened self-interest with perhaps a touch of chivalry on the side. He also warns her to stop investigating and head back to Munich. But Vicky figures out where they took her, and heads back into the fray. In John, Vicky has found an opponent worthy of her. He has a highly developed instinct for self-preservation, a pragmatic approach to most things,and no qualms about his criminal activities, although he abhors violence - particularly against him - and refuses to carry a gun, because the penalties are so much more severe. He's also handsome, intelligent, well-educated, and flippantly witty, with a sense of humor that gets him in trouble more than once. He's a very appealing rogue, and Vicky's dislike of his criminal activities doesn't entirely overcome her attraction to him. Nevertheless, she's determined to put a stop to the forgery gang - a task that turns out to be much trickier than she expected. Vicky and John's adventures continue in Silhouette in Scarlet ($9.99), Trojan Gold ($9.99), Night Train to Memphis ($7.99), and The Laughter of Dead Kings ($9.99).
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