Review of Limitless, the film based on The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn

So, I actually got to go see a film. On a real date. With my husband and no one else. We went to see Limitless. The movie was enjoyable, and it created discussion that lasted the whole drive home, which I always enjoy.

The movie's premise is thus: Eddie Mora, a writer struggling with writer's block, is offered a new drug that is supposed to unlock his brain's full potential. It does so, and he gets a large enough supply of the drug to last long enough to completely alter his life and thrust him into a world of money, women, and highly motivated opponents, leaving him to sort his way through while trying not to die from various causes.

The first hint of danger comes right as Eddie's decided to be his ex-brother-in-law Vernon's bitch, doing whatever it takes for Eddie to keep getting the NZT drug from him. He returns from picking up lunch and the dry cleaning to find his ex-bro murdered. Stunned and afraid, Eddie dials 911. But while the cops are en route, Eddie takes a more serious look around and realizes that the killer trashed the apartment looking for something...and maybe he didn't find it, which resulted in the ex-bro's death. Well, glory be, Eddie's contribution to the ransacking is rewarded, with a fat bag of NZT (which look like hard contact lenses, btw).

Eddie goes home, pulls facts out of his arse like rainbows to impress (and lay) the landlady, then opens up a can of Fly Lady on his tiny apartment. And then he decides to sit down and pound out 90 pages of his novel for his editor.

Being a writer, I strove to calculate how much writing that would actually be, and whether he could do it before the next morning, when the following scene began. It wasn't clear whether Eddie stayed up all night or not. Ninety pages @250 words per page, in double-spaced Courier font = 22,500 words. If he was an expert typist and had zero hesitation time, he could have pounded that out in under four hours. But that assumes he had a plot laid out and scenes in mind ahead of time, and it wasn't clear whether he did or not. I got the impression he slammed out his 90 pages in just a few hours, and that's at least physically possible, if not mentally. However, he proceeded to finish the rest of his novel manuscript in the next few days, and I had to wonder where the scene was of him with ice on his wrists. Or maybe that's just me and my tendinitis.

Moving on: Eddie has big plans, though unrevealed. To finance them, he begins to dabble in the stock market. Most of the rest of the movie follows the results of this choice. He does well, he gets a loan from a Russian loan shark to get more money faster, he attracts the attention of Mr. van Loon (De Niro), he works on a merger between van Loon and another mogul named Atwood.

The NZT was having negative effects on Eddie. He got accused of a murder and had to hire a lawyer. He tried to track down what he believed were other clients of Vernon's NZT-pimping business, and found that they were dead or gravely ill. He was being followed by a hatchet-faced, silent greasy type.

It was at the end, when things were supposed to be tying together, that I noticed they weren't. The movie was focused too much on Eddie and what his new braininess was doing for him to bother looking back at plot strands.

It was never revealed who killed Vernon. There were only a couple of killer characters in the movie, and only one probably did it, and his motive was probably X, but why it got to that point, the point where murder seemed the only option, simply reveals another plot hole.

Several characters, on-screen and off, had some experience taking NZT. Yet, Eddie's the only one smart enough to figure out a way around the drug's nasty side effects? Others on the drug can't avoid letting things deteriorate to murder? Sorry, but the throw-away line "it helps if you're already smart" just can't explain that hole away for me. ALL those people were on NZT, and NONE of them realized or attempted to combat that fatal loophole? What, were the pills handed out at the midnight showing of the latest Twilight movie?

A minor but annoying plot divot kicked in with the "no service" issue on Eddie's cell phone. (That's not the divot; it could have been explained in the scene, but wasn't.) He flees into a sort of safe room...and there's a land line phone in there, but he doesn't use it! Cary Elwes and the cell phone much? Gah.

Okay, Twi-hards, I'm sorry I bashed your movie. To make it up to you, let me say that Limitless has the drinking of blood in it. There, happy? Well, I wasn't. The drinking (okay, slurping) has a specific purpose, but in order to achieve said purpose, the amount of blood that needed to be slurped should have been at least a couple of pints. But nooo, the blood pool is nearly untouched when the next bit of action takes over. Come on, people! Especially in a "geniuses everywhere" movie! Shame.

This is definitely a guys' movie. Eddie has a gorgeous girlfriend who dumps him as nicely as humanly possible at the beginning of the movie, even though he's a total unwashed loser. Then he bangs the landlady. Then he bangs a bunch of hot rich chicks at a foreign beach house. Then he gets his girlfriend back and bangs her. Then he has a massive blackout due to NZT and vaguely remembers banging a couple of girls in the same night. This covers about, oh, two weeks? And he never suffers any consequences for his playboy lifestyle. This must be the "oh, shut up, you know you'd do it too, dude" part of the movie. My husband's opinion on the proclivities of the women of New York City makes me wonder whether he's secretly been watching Sex and the City.

The cinematography in this movie was awesome. Whenever Eddie (or whoever) was "on", the light changed from a dry, dark tone to warm and comfy. A play on "suddenly the light came on", and all sorts of references to enlightenment come to mind. Visual effects were sparse, but used to great effect in representing the mental processes that Eddie was going through. I especially loved the letters raining from the ceiling as he wrote those first ninety pages of his novel (the title of which was a nod to Glynn's original).

I had an epiphany after the movie had ended. At the beginning of the film, Eddie's struggling to explain the yet-to-be-written novel's plot to a guy in a bar. He eventually says something like this: "it's masquerading as a sci-fi, but underneath it's all about how we're all struggling". Well, perhaps the movie is smart, after all, being that self-aware. :)

The ending was something I didn't see coming, actually. I was sure I knew who was going to live and who was going to die, but I was wrong. The ending was happier than I was expecting, considering the earlier tone of the movie. So much so that, contrary to my usual preference, I might actually have enjoyed a darker ending. It would probably feel more realistic.

I'd recommend seeing it as a fun strategy/action flick, but don't try to follow the logic. It's followable, of course, but I kept getting frustrated that here, and not there, was where the genius led. Just let it ride. And if someone offers you something that looks like a hard contact lens, maybe ask if they have the blue pill instead.


Flash Fiction: The Coffee Quest

She could smell it--even over the jungle’s heady bouquet of decay and life. Its rich aroma called to her olfactory sense and drew her eagerly to find it. She changed direction, stumbling over rocks hidden beneath the mass of ferns she was struggling through. Her hands sunk an inch deep into the thick soil, crushing young green fiddleheads back into the earth. Her dress, once the epitome of fashion, and now sweat-soaked and reeking, ground into the soil beneath her knees.

Gaining her feet again, she paused to look around. Walls of yellow-green vines rose up the sheer cliff nearby, its top swathed with giant, branching trees. The smell came from that way; she fervently hoped she wouldn’t need to attempt to climb the mass of vines to the top. Her blue satin Manolo pumps lost miles ago, she stepped wearily, determinedly, on aching, bleeding bare feet, toward the vines.

Reaching the cliff’s base, she struggled through thick verdant brush that reached her waist as she searched about for the spot where the smell was strongest. The foot of the cliff was not straight, though, and a faint breeze wafted the scent she sought in and out of the weaving niches in the rock.

And there, miraculously, was her salvation: behind the living green curtain of vines and their small yellow heart-shaped leaves, she found a small cave entrance. The scent was nearly overpowering.

She dropped uncaringly to her skinned and bruised knees, peering into the meter-high, irregular opening. The light-colored stone striated away into blackness, but along the left wall, several meters in, she could ever so faintly see something moving, falling, glinting in the murky dimness. And now there was the sound of it, as well--she could hardly believe her luck, after all this time! She had found it!

Crawling in, minding her head, she made her way breathlessly to her prize. The scent nearly overpowered her in these close confines. It was within reach; hardly believing it was real, she stretched out a trembling hand that clutched a cracked porcelain cup. Her hand got splashed in her excitement.

She flinched.

A scream of sheer and utter devastation rocked the jungle birds from their arboreal homes for miles around.

The Fountain of the Everlasting Quad Ristretto Split Shot Dark Chocolate Mocha Mint Light Foam Coffee was not hot--it was iced!


Amazon Has Discounted My Shanallar Series

I just noticed that Amazon has lowered the price on the print version of The Wicked Heroine, and of Oathen, by four dollars each. The books contain 250k words all told, and used to sell for the full price of $13.99 apiece. Now they're each marked down to $10.07. I have no idea why they've selected this book for such a markdown, nor how long it will last. But if you want a print copy of it, this is your opportune moment.

Reviews more than welcome.


Review for Maggody and the Moonbeams, by Joan Hess

I've read a few of Hess' Claire Malloy books, and this series appears very different, in several negative ways. Or maybe I just got the lamest book of the Maggody series.

Arly gets roped into chaperoning some horny teenagers up at a youth camp for a week, where they mess around, scream, fight, and build a few bleachers. Some cute guy wanders in now and again, and several of the locals at the nearest town and among the Moonbeams have secrets that Arly must learn. And for some reason, a handful of people back in Maggody, 75 miles away, get subplots completely unrelated to the murder. Go figure.

Book themes: everyone either is horny or believes everyone else to be horny; people who have never lived outside Maggody/Dunkicker are uneducated, inbred backwater hicks with thick accents and mental faculties that run slower than molasses in February; all religious people have something to hide/are hypocrites, and the protagonist, being an atheist, is the only sane person around.

I get that this is supposed to be a comedy, but I couldn't ever find the groove where anything that happened in the book amused me. I expect it's just a cultural gap I couldn't bridge, not being familiar with the Southern school of thought. Between hillbillies and the Bible Belt, I'd imagine that a lot of the humor in the book was self-deprecating. But it all felt foreign to me.

I couldn't find much reason to like Arly. All of the youth group kids and chaperones seemed to be little more than caricatures, reduced to a single overblown feature. I had no idea why the book followed characters who had nothing to do with the murder plot or any of its subplots. Their scenes appeared in third person, and occasionally head-hopped. It appeared to be series creep, which I've only encountered in fantasy thus far: the author doesn't know when to stop writing about minor characters' lives (see WoT, aSoIaF), making subsequent books longer and longer and straying further from the central plot.

The plot itself was generally sufficient, but between the preponderance of teenage histrionics, religious freak-outs and other minor distractions of similar caliber, it was hard to make room for the actual case. In fact, the actual guilty party and their motive made for quite an awesome plot. Unfortunately, the reveal was pretty well buried. The dramatic conclusion was related by one character through flashback dialogue.

Lowbrow comedy and murder do not mix for me. Give me Dorothy Cannell's Ellie Haskell any time, but I'm just not the target audience for Arly and her town of Maggody.

1 of 5 stars.


Review for Damsels in Distress, by Joan Hess

A Renaissance Fair is coming to town, and Claire and Caron get roped into helping by a purple-tights-clad Fool. But as they meet the local "nobility" and experience the fun and silly delights of the Fair itself, they realize there are numerous undercurrents. When someone is killed at the Fair, Claire tries her best to keep out of it for a while, but then, once again, delves into the mystery.

I had a harder time accepting Claire's brash actions in this book. She did more illegal things and seemed to care less about them, which, considering the issue her fiancé, Lieutenant Rosen, has with that, seemed especially out of character. Their wedding being only two months away and all. It felt like, to accomplish this plot, the author put Rosen out of town because he wouldn't have let Claire do what she did, and the only reason Claire had to do what she did was because the author purposely wants to portray Claire as Chaotic Neutral in this book. Mission accomplished.

The Ren Fair characters were all larger than life, as well as improbably horny. Sure, any good Ren Fair is full of suggestive jokes, but to imply that everyone involved is taking that literally, well, it felt unnecessary. SPOILER And it ended up being a red herring anyway. END SPOILER

The character set felt a little imbalanced. There were the locals, there were the Ren Fair folks, and there were the victims/murderer, who crossed lines left and right, but those who were involved in the crimes felt unnaturally close-knit and isolated. It felt like a letdown to have them feature so largely in the final details. SPOILER And unlike Sue Henry, Joan Hess does not seem capable of writing a sociopath. END SPOILER

Having attended the Renaissance Faire at Black Rock religiously during my college years, I was excited to get into this book. Probably too excited. The Fair portrayed in the book played a very small role, and most of the characters from it spent their pages in other locations. The plot focuses on their interpersonal relationships quite heavily, which made for a whole new set of mysteries, but I was sad not to spend more time goggling at the awesomeness of the Fair.

The writing was smooth, with only a sprinkling of errors, but, yes, I noticed them, as always. It baffles me that people paid to make sure books are flawless do a worse job of it than I do as a casual reader.

3 of 5 stars.

Review for Beneath the Ashes, by Sue Henry

Ooh, Sue Henry knows how to write a sociopath. Sadly, once I'd had that realization after a couple of the character's scenes, it sort of gave a lot of things away. Even the "twist".

I was surprised that Alex Jensen was out of the picture, not having read the last book. I did read book 4, and his name was plastered on the cover. It surprised me that the series continued without him or his name.

I loved Jessie in this book. Her and her dogs. I know next to nothing about mushing, so it was a real treat to read the easy descriptions and information about it. The regular characters were a little harder to keep separate in my head.

The new characters, they stood out vividly. The husband, the wife, the arson investigator, and his replacement all jumped to the fore.

The plot felt very tight and interwoven. "Beneath the ashes" ended up applying to more things than I usually see tied into a title. Some involved real fire, and others were emotional or psychological. It was a real treat to see all the ways Henry worked that theme into the story.

The writing nearly killed me. A glorious cornucopia of typos, punctuation errors and homonym abuse (my pleasure at seeing "illusive" quickly faded when I realized they meant "elusive") filled this book. I didn't think it was possible for anyone to confuse "retched" with "wretched", though, since they're not even homonyms. But the editors of this book have managed to surprise me with their interesting skill set. It's almost turned into a game, reading this series and looking for which wacky mistakes will crop up next. But the stories are entertaining, so I'll keep reading.

4 of 5 stars.

Review for Death Takes Passage, by Sue Henry

Alex and Jessie take passage on a small cruise ship that’s re-enacting the voyage of the SS Portland, whose arrival in Seattle WA with two tons of Yukon gold sparked the Klondike gold rush. Alex’s role is purely ceremonial, until crimes begin to occur, leading him to step back into his job and take on thieves and murderers alike.

I’ve been to Alaska only once, but I loved it. I picked this book up because I wanted to experience its vistas once more, and the premise of the novel—a cruise through the Inside Passage—seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. I was not disappointed. The scenery description was awesome; I felt like I was there.

I was interested to read in the massive acknowledgments section at the back of the book that this voyage was actually scheduled to happen. The author got wind of it a couple of years before it was to occur and was inspired to write a fictional account of the re-enactment. That sounds both awesome and loyal to Alaska, and for that I applaud her. But I’m not sure the book was the better for her trying to serve two masters. She included several real-life individuals, and the cruise ship itself, getting permission for each, and having to adapt her plot to individual/company wishes. Between that and the information dumps (see below), the book came across as part-future-fictional-documentary. If that long acknowledgments section had been at the front, it would have helped me understand why the story sometimes took tortured side trips.

Alex and Jessie were really good characters. They were comfortable with each other and their own roles as well. Well, Alex was; there were no dogs for Jessie to mush here, so she just got to play sleuth/babysitter.

The other characters ranged from really quite awesome to “why is this person even in this book?” Some of the red herrings the book presented in the form of suspicious characters were never even explained, leaving me dissatisfied.

Young Lou, apathetic teenager extraordinaire, was apparently so adorable that Jessie wanted to adopt her on sight. Crotchety old Dallas, while eventually growing on me, struck Jessie as a muse of wisdom and affection immediately. The insertion of these characters into Jessie’s and Alex’s lives so that they could later help out with the action was so clumsy that it dragged me out of the story with a mocking snort. In both cases, Jessie states “I like you, a lot,” practically upon being introduced. The book also had a habit of taking a jaunt into the future for a couple of paragraphs and explaining how things went afterward, for sometimes weeks in the future, before jerking me back into the present time. Just because I know that, in the future, Jessie and Lou really get to like each other and hang out, does not mean that I’ll sit back and accept that as a reason for them to bond immediately. Jessie is awesome, but she is not psychic.

In fact, I got to the point of frowning every time “a lot” came up, because of Jessie’s immediate adoration for these two characters. It showed up…a lot.

The character Judy Raymond just seemed to wander through the plot, serving no purpose. Another downside of having this book contain real people is that I find myself questioning all the book’s flaws and wondering whether they’re present because of the two-masters thing again. Sigh. Judy shows up at the beginning and pops in now and again during the whole book, never seeming to have a goal of her own, never seeming to find a resolution. I’m not sure she deserved the end she got, but at least something was finally certain about her.

The bad guys had their own scenes in this novel. I didn’t mind it for most of the book, until the last scene they had all to themselves. In that scene, they blatantly give away the plan they’ve been carefully keeping from us all throughout the book. The next scene they’re in is when they’re beginning to execute that plan. Why couldn’t we just keep that mystery (or at least the illusion of it—it wasn’t that difficult to ascertain) going just a little further? Honestly! If you’re going to keep it a secret for so long, do so all the way to the action-packed reveal. On the other hand, the bad guys didn’t do much more than give us the opportunity to see their bumbling, argumentative selves and some more nice scenery. The book could have done without their scenes entirely.

I loved this plot. The captive audience is one of my favorite types of mystery. The scenery and building suspense were highly enjoyable. The bad guys had a good plan. The good guys had a better one. And there was much sneaking about and kicking ass. It was great. Most enjoyably, the ending resulted in actual arrests. Be still my heart.

There was one plot hole that bothered me, especially when it ended up being critical to the final action. One of the mysterious characters Alex and Jessie had already met had a friend she hung out with. The heroes wondered if he was up to anything. But they never so much as spoke to him, even after voicing an intent to do so. Eventually, Alex requests a background check on the guy while Alex is off the ship in Ketchikan, despite the man’s continued presence aboard ship and lack of attempting to hide in any way. But before it comes in, the bad guys start to do their thing and the good guys figure everything out the hard way. SPOILER I wasn’t even sure why the author kept it a secret, since it was all a red herring anyway. END SPOILER

I was inordinately pleased to find that the book wasn’t written in first person. I got to follow Alex around most of the time, but sometimes I also got to follow Jessie. They both made for equally entertaining main characters.

In most cases, the novel flowed effortlessly, especially in the scenery description. I could feel a deep love of the land and the sea in those words. But every now and again, the book would pause, and an info dump would back up, beeping, and bury me in facts which were described in present tense. It was as if the author copied and pasted from an encyclopedia. Most of these sections were, thankfully, given over to the cruise coordinator as she spoke over the public address section, so there was a reason for the info dump. But some of them were separate from that character. I ended up skipping most of them anyway, because they just droned on for paragraphs. I’m usually one who reads every word in a book. But these paragraphs had nothing to do with the plot, so I made an exception.

The author apparently loves italics, though not for internal dialogue, which remain unmarked in this novel. All the cruise coordinator’s info dumps were delivered in italics. All the lines in the re-enactment mystery plays were also given in italics. I couldn’t see a connection, nor really a reason, but there it was. Odd.

Still, I really enjoyed the main characters and their world. I think I might be safe with a nice toffee—er, another Sue Henry book sometime soon.

4 of 5 stars.

Review for Dead Guy's Stuff, by Sharon Fiffer

Jane Wheel gave up her day job, and now spends her time picking. When she stumbles across a basement room full of tavern paraphernalia from thirty years back, she takes it all…including a man’s finger, floating in a jar of formaldehyde. Believing somehow that the finger has a mysterious secret, Jane pushes into the past, discovering a web of secrets and lies that comes far too close to home.

I really enjoyed this book, but for the longest time I couldn’t put my finger on why. Sure, the main character spends her time engaged in activities I’ve recently come to enjoy watching on shows like American Pickers and Auction Kings. But that wasn’t it. Then, finally, it dawned on me: absolutely none of the characters in this book are typical 8-to-5 people. They’re those who serve them, or those who prey on them, or those who simply live alongside them. But none of these characters are the “average” American. There aren’t even any retired old ladies (in the sleuth department, anyway). It was such a fresh approach to the genre that it made reading all the more enjoyable.

That said, I did find Jane a little inconsistent. Sometimes, she’d figure out a clue in an snap, worthy of Adrian Monk. Other times, she’d be baffled for pages and pages on what seemed a simple deduction.

Her husband Charley and son Nick made for an interesting family dynamic, though they didn’t spend a lot of time standing out in this book. The fact that Charley and Jane start the book as separated but living in the same house was intriguing, and Charley sounded like an awesome guy. I wished there were more of him in this book.

Jane’s mother, Nellie, featured in this novel, but I found myself torn between not getting her at all and laughing at her unrealistic actions. SPOILER At one point she is kidnapped, and bustles around making breakfast for her captors, because that’s what she’s used to doing. But she slips some crushed Valium into the eggs and then duct tapes everyone up, all as if it’s no big deal. END SPOILER Hilarious! But it felt that Nellie had barged in on the plot with a short story of her own, so that what happened to her wouldn’t be “too scary”.

The plot started off slowly, with nothing but Jane’s concerns about the severed finger driving it forward. The middle section provided a good balance of entertainment and suspense, though unrelated to the finger yet. By the time the finger had been proven to be relevant, I admit the plot had leaped to a new level that I wasn’t entirely enjoying. That’s because its focus had left Kankakee, where everything else had been happening. It felt as if the author was shooing in bad guys from afar because she couldn’t find a way to make them be local. Which is neither here nor there, to have local bad guys. It was the way that they were the only bit of the plot that felt out of place, that felt off.

And once again, SPOILER the killer’s success is not punished. What is it with these books? I don’t remember this annoying trend in cozies when I started reading them a couple decades back. Little old ladies getting away with murder because “he deserved it”, over and over again! END SPOILER What. The. Heck. I didn’t know there was such a large demographic of retired, vigilante women in this country.

I enjoyed all aspects of the fund raiser house. To have it tie into the plot as well was just bonus.

The writing was enjoyable to read and flowed smoothly. There were, unfortunately, far too many errors for my enjoyment, however, and of a disturbing variety. If I were proofing a book that would represent the publishing company I worked for, and it had a single error, I’d be absolutely mortified. Come on, people. This is your job, and you're making the author look bad.

Lastly, I was puzzled by the choice to write in a fully omniscient POV. The scenes wandered from one character’s view and thoughts to another’s with the flick of a paragraph. Some included three different people, one after the other and back again. Others just led from character A to character B. I had no trouble following, but I did have trouble settling down and identifying with any of the characters because the interruptions of each other’s thoughts postponed a true feeling of knowing any one of them on their own separate terms. It was a little like reading about three amoebae rather than eight separate characters. It was a minor annoyance, but one that never went away.

4 of 5 stars.

Review for The Goodbye Body, by Joan Hess

Claire Malloy, bookstore owner, smells a rat. And sees it too, sneaking about in her own house. After throwing the book at her landlord, who grudgingly agrees to make extensive cleanup and repairs to her duplex, Claire and her daughter find themselves out of a home for two weeks. In steps Dolly, loyal customer, to offer her place to them as she jaunts off to visit her sister in Austin. And that's when the bodies start showing up--with most of them being the same body.

Not being a fan of mobster, well, anything, this book didn't excite me as much as the previous Claire book. The mob characters all began to blend together, since I don't possess the experience with such characters to detect minor differences in their makeup. Everyone came across as overly inquisitive, to hide the characters who were trying to pump Claire or one of the girls for information. I could see one random stranger asking curious questions, but four? Thankfully, most everyone had perfectly good explanations eventually.

Dolly was the linchpin character to this whole story, but she was painfully boring when in a scene. Sure, she was supposed to be secretive in order to draw out the plot. But every time it was "fake laugh, lame excuse, admit a lie, leave abruptly". On top of that, this plot ended with a double reveal after the climactic action ended: one for most of the suspect characters, and one after that for Dolly. It just felt like she never fit well with her own story.

I really enjoyed Cal, Caron and Inez in this book. The girls were amusing, believable, and entertaining with their chosen hobby. The rich girls who entered the story at the beginning seemed to be treating the plot as a strip mall, and only showed up in it reluctantly, afraid to really interact with anything they saw.

The plot seemed unnecessarily complicated for a mystery novel of this caliber. Perhaps that's due to my lack of Soprano-esque experience, though. It continued to feel like a stretch to involve distant doings in Farberville; nothing felt exceptionally immediate or clear much of the time.

The writing left me wanting, honestly. There was, unfortunately, a nice crop of typos. Baffling. I also noticed a tendency to flip-flop on Claire's level of intelligence between scenes.

3 of 5 stars.

Review for A Conventional Corpse, by Joan Hess

Claire Malloy, owner of the Book Depot bookstore, finds herself suddenly in charge of a weekend murder mystery convention when the organizer is hospitalized. Five mystery authors, strong personalities intact, swoop into town, clashing with each other, their B&B owner, and a surprise guest who crashes the convention: their agent. A local girl crashes her car on the way home from the first night of the convention, but it's more than just a simple accident. And then the theories get really creepy, as the authors begin to speculate on death and murder as only they can.

While I generally enjoyed this book for the mystery convention concept, I wonder whether Ms. Hess wrote it on a dare, or possibly as a cry for help, or even as a satire on the ins and outs of her own genre. I'm probably kidding about the cry for help, but this one line from page 227 makes me wonder: "Authors are powerless in the overall scheme of the publishing industry." She's right, you know. It's one of the reasons successfully published authors are going indie in this new era.

The characters in this book were well done: the authors, naturally, overpowered everyone else except Claire, who, while she confessed to feeling lost and/or ignorant occasionally, held her own in the "sit down and STFU" line delivery category. The insulting in this book was delicious. And I enjoyed the little inside issues the authors had to deal with, such as being ignored by their editor, or having books trapped in a backlist, inaccessible to readers. Motives for murder abounded.

The only character who felt flat was Peter Rosen. There tried to be a whole subplot between him and Claire, but with the vivid author characters dominating the book, it came across as reduced to a series of similar "I'm not talking to you" conversations and forced insertions of baby/babymaking references.

The plot itself, as I said, was fun. But it felt pretty unrealistic, even more than the usual serial cozy plot. A handful of bestselling mystery authors popping into a tiny town? Hmm. The subplot with Peter wasn't terribly gripping, but the one involving Arnie was surprisingly endearing, and had a tie-in with the Peter-Claire subplot.

The end was disappointing, however, and in a way I've found disturbingly often in the cozies I've been reading recently. SPOILER The killer is urbane, collected, makes no attempt to flee or fight, is in fact an adorable old woman. In addition, other characters come up and thank her for this or that, or try to persuade her not to confess, while she's actively confessing. She seemed to indicate she'd lie about what happened, and she may or may not have been poisoning herself with the tea she was drinking the whole time. END SPOILER And that's where they left it. That's too cozy for me, really. Consequences, people!

One thing that came across as a little jarring was the tendency for the authors' thought processes to leave so much assumed between the lines, in contrast to the rest of the plot. Whenever they'd talk amongst themselves, you'd have to fill in a few blanks around their dialogue in order to keep up. Which was cool and made sense; their job is to think on that level. But the rest of the book was more simply written, and as a result, the "regular" characters seemed a bit slow.

And do not let me forget to mention the gaping plot hole that pretty much destroyed the credibility of the first killer's motive! SPOILER In sum, the first killer taught the first victim in college years ago, and apparently saw one short story of hers in particular. Fast forward several years, to where the first killer, now an editor, has apparently used some details gleaned from that short story to pump up a new mystery author's debut novel. When she meets up with her old student unexpectedly, she realizes she needs to kill her before she gets her hands on that debut novel, on sale the next day, because it'll somehow expose the killer/editor as an idea thief. I'm sorry, but that's just nonsense. The novel clearly stated that the first victim learned all sorts of interesting stuff like forensics and police procedures AFTER the killer had moved away from town. Also, she's had ten years to work on that short story and expand it to a novel. Surely the mystery genre suffers from the occasional trope just like every other genre. I completely fail to see what fully formed plot idea could have been stolen from a short story ten years previously, and which would still be immediately recognizable to the original writer and drive her to sue, let alone win. END SPOILER I actually re-read parts of the book, trying to figure out if I'd missed something, or if I'd misunderstood the motive/timeline. Nope.

The writing was so tight that it seemed to tear in a few places, leaving a gap just a bit wider than I enjoy crossing to continue the story. I also counted several typos of the sort that are also words (a for at, Rose for Rosen, etc), and a couple of completely omitted words, which for me really detract from the enjoyment of a book.

Overall, a fun read with the mystery convention in town, but the authors' vivid and weighty presence seemed to unbalance the plot and the writing both.

3 of 5 stars.

Review for Dead Man's Bones, by Susan Wittig Albert

China Bayles is at home in Pecan Springs, working with Ruby in their herbal shops. A new playhouse has been erected, and is putting on its first performance, starring Ruby in a play written by the rich donor of the playhouse itself. Meanwhile, China's stepson, Brian, discovers a set of bones in a remote cave near town.

Alas, while the premise of the plot promised awesomeness, the delivery fell flat. Much of the story was given over to daily life details, such as Ruby's mysterious new boyfriend, who seems to have some sort of history with both the police chief and with China's husband McQuaid, but naturally one won't say and the other can't remember. There's also the introduction of Cass as a potential replacement for Janet, the aging help in the shops. A lot of business talk goes on: China and Ruby are expanding their horizons, offering catering now, to make up for slow business in the shops. Cass steps up and says she'd like to work with them. They talk about it. They think about it. They talk some more. Sure, it's somewhat relevant to the protagonist's life, but in that much detail? It just watered down the mystery.

As far as that mystery went, what I saw seemed too transparent to be the actual truth, so I kept looking for other explanations. Alas, there were none: the killer was who I thought, and the bones belonged to who I thought. It seems, from reading just two of Ms. Albert's books, that the villains don't come anywhere near the level of complexity as the protagonist, making the books less interesting to read and the resolution almost boring. Ruby's new lover's past was never explained, so it feels he's a setup for the next book, yet he appeared in this book throughout, diluting this case as well.

2 of 5 stars.

Review for Bloodroot, by Susan Wittig Albert

China Bayles goes home, to her ancestral manor house in the swamps of the South, looking for answers to the mysteries of her own family tree.

This was my first China Bayles mystery, and I enjoyed it. The herbalism, the pervasive, odorous mugginess of the swamps, the heavy feel of generations of conflict and mystery--it was all good, baby.

The plot, a straightforward investigation into whether a newly-missing man possessed a claim to the land under China's ancestral home, quickly spun off into curling detours and tangents that delved into previous generations and their secrets, as well as hereditary illnesses they may have passed on to the current generation. There were several characters who had vested interests in various outcomes. The only real letdown was the killer.

For the most part, the characters were awesome in this book, both the living and the ancestors. From Aunt Tullie, with her Huntington's chorea, to the mysterious Marie Louise, to the Chocktaw gardener, Judith. Other characters were flat or forgettable, never really connecting with me throughout the book. The killer never really felt fully fleshed out, as if the point of the book wasn't who killed the victim, but China's history, and the killer was just an excuse to bring that into the light. A pair of sisters, Dawn and Alice Ann, had the same effect on me; they seemed to float through the book without ever really seeming real.

There were several smaller themes throughout the book, which tied in nicely with herbal notations at the start of the chapters: herbal abortifacients, lily of the valley's various meanings and uses, plantation behavior on the part of the master, and of course all the implications and uses of the bloodroot plant itself. In most regards, these sort of gave away the secret, as it were. The same thing happened with the killer, whose name was given as a nickname for a certain plant, far earlier than they were listed as a suspect. As the only character with a plant name, that made them stick in my mind, and ruined the surprise; it was just a matter of figuring out why they did it.

This type of foreshadowing starts at the beginning of the book, where it's revealed who died, as well as a couple other facts, before the story technically even starts. Talk about ruining the surprise! In a mystery book, that seems like the sort of thing you specifically want to avoid doing.

4 of 5 stars.

Review for Bridesmaids Revisited, by Dorothy Cannell

Ellie Haskell receives a message from friends of her deceased grandmother, saying the ghost has something to tell her. When she does go and see them, she learns far more than she expected to about her own family's past.

I feel like I cheated, reading this book second out of all the Ellie Haskell books. I'm guessing that the early death of Ellie's mother was mentioned more than once in the previous nine books, and only now is Dorothy Haskell getting around to explaining what happened. Ten books is a long time to wait, yet I sort of jumped the line here. Still, it was a great read.

The plot drew me in right from the start. Three old women say that Ellie's grandmother has a message for her, yet she's been dead for decades. As soon as Ellie arrives at their monstrous old home, the murder and mayhem begin. It's got all the fun hallmarks of the old castle mysteries: poison, family secrets, secret passageways, yet those tropes have been rewoven into a modern tale that is entirely enjoyable to read. The only part that was a little off was the Daddy Warbucksian ending, but from what I can tell of this series, each book does its faithful part in actually changing the characters' lives.

Oh, the characters were lovely. Aside from a tendency to confuse two of the "bridesmaids", I had no trouble visualizing each character. That made it all too easy to figure out who the killer was early on, unfortunately. But in this book, that wasn't so bad, as much of the plot revolved around mysterious family history, rather than it being entirely about murder.

The writing fell neatly between heavy and light, containing moments of humor as well as serious and tense episodes. The subplot involving Mrs. Malloy was nearly entirely separate in this book, but the tie-ins were perfect and necessary, and her plot as it fit into the larger one was excellently done.

4 of 5 stars.

Review for The Spring Cleaning Murders, by Dorothy Cannell

Ellie Haskell tackles spring cleaning at Merlin's Court, her home, as well as solving the murders of several charwomen in her village.

I really enjoyed this book. The characters were vivid and entertaining, and the list of suspects was lively and full of secrets. The absence of slapstick and the nice interweaving of plotlines made for an excellent read.

The plot, at first, seemed straightforward, but there was plenty of obfuscation, and by the end, I was pleasantly confused. Mrs. Malloy's subplot was a great addition to the book.

I really enjoyed the characters. Ellie tells it like it is to the killer at the end, which struck me as something not seen often--we're somehow supposed to infer the character flaws for ourselves most of the time. However, there's something deeply and viscerally satisfying in seeing a spade called a spade.

The twins were especially darling as a counterpoint to the adult situations going on over their heads, as I have a son that age right now.

I had expected a lighter level of writing when the book claimed it was a comedy. It turned out better than I expected, and I really enjoyed the book.

5 of 5 stars!

Review for The Body on the Beach, by Simon Brett

A fun case of mixed up corpses, but I was disappointed in the "villain".

The novel starts off with the exceptionally proper Carole discovering a body washed up on the beach where she walks her dog. By the time she gets back home, washes the salt off the dog, cleans the kitchen, and reports the body, however, it's not there anymore for the police to find. And the next morning it's back...or is it?

The plot started off smashingly. Probably two different bodies, a bohemian neighbor with secrets of her own, and a lovely collection of interesting characters with their own issues and motives. Perhaps it was just that I've been into mysteries lately, but I saw through a few of the plot lines right away. I didn't see through the main one, though, and I confess that's because I was expecting something...bigger, in some way. The original motive, while prepared for well, seemed to have been executed horribly, for what struck me as a bizarre reason (does that mean I'm not killer material? I'm crushed). So many of the plot-enforced delays ended up being entirely avoidable that it seemed a wonder the bad guy even got started.

The subplot involving the teenagers really seemed like it was just there to toss so many red herrings across my path. It worked, but when all was said and done, I didn't really have a feeling of satisfaction from solving that mystery. In part, it was tragic, but in another regard, it seemed overblown.

I liked most of the characters, and those I didn't were generally fleshed out enough to make me decide not to like them on their personality, rather than because they weren't fleshed out enough. The group of teenage boys felt a bit awkward as it pertained to the rest of the characters, but I think that was the point.

Carole and Jude both have POV scenes in this book (it is written in 3rd person, thank God), and I really enjoyed how the author managed to work in Jude's investigations without giving away her secretive past very much. Jude basically operated entirely in the present moment, and thanks to her neighbor Carole's English reticence, no major questions ever got asked, and so were not answered, leaving Jude smugly ensconced in her mystery.

I think she's a former spy, myself. :P

As previously mentioned, this mystery was written in 3rd person, which I always prefer to 1st person. So many of the cozy mysteries I read are 1st person POV, and while that usually works for the genre, it gets on my nerves. I really enjoyed this break, with its two disparate protagonists.

3 of 5 stars.