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Karma’s a Killer by Tracy Weber

Early in January 2016 Midnight Ink Books of Woodbury, MN published a charming little cozy mystery by award-winning author Tracy Weber, “Karma’s a Killer,” featuring amateur sleuth and Seattle yoga instructor, Kate Davidson. Weber lives in Seattle and she’s a yoga therapist, so she knows her subject matter.

The plot starts out at a fund-raiser for an animal rescue called DogMa where Kate has agreed to teach a yoga for dogs class (doga) with their owners.  When a bossy rabbit owner insists on attending the crowded class with her pet, all hell breaks loose.  The same event is invaded by a group of animal rights activists led by a former employee at DogMa and two of her friends.  The older woman in the animal rights group turns out to be Kate’s estranged mother, Dharma, or Daisy.  The younger protester is found murdered and Dharma is arrested on suspicion of murder, based on a presumption of jealousy because the two women were dating the same man.

Karma’s a Killer” is both highly entertaining, and very thought-provoking in ways that make it almost a psychological thriller.  Dharma’s presence forces Kate to examine the nightmares she has regularly and many of the personal flaws of mistrust and deception that have made it difficult for her to open up to others.  It also makes her question the mythology that she has built around her parents and the circumstances that led to her being raised exclusively by her now deceased father.  The difficult task of coming to terms with her mother and why her mother abandoned her is handled very intelligently and sensitively in “Karma’s a Killer” and it sets up this “A Downward Dog Mystery” series to show more growth in Kate’s relationship with her boyfriend, her best friend, her mother, and herself in future installments.

Karma’s a Killer” is a two-thumbs up mystery for me.

Liz Nichols

Reviewed from a supplied Reader’s Advance copy.

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A Three Mystery Review

I have reviews for three of the several books I read during the month of December.  All are by American novelists and all have a strong ethnic presence.  All are part of mystery series of varying degrees of maturity.  While the protagonist of the first is a private investigator, the other two books feature amateur sleuths.  They are:  “Caught dead” by Andrew Lanh, which is a pen name for the experienced mystery writer, Ed Ifkovic (A Rick Van Lam Mystery); “The Puffin of death” by Betty Webb (A Gunn Zoo Mystery); and “Brooklyn secrets” by Triss Stein (An Erica Donato Mystery).  All were published within the last couple months.

Rick Van Lam, as far as I can tell, is the only Vietnamese sleuth in American mystery literature.  He’s definitely not your stereotypical “Charlie Chan” type detective.  Rick is bui doi, an Amerasian product of the Vietnam Conflict who was brought to America at the age of thirteen to be raised by an American family in New Jersey. After attending John Jay College in criminal justice in New York he moved to Hartford, CT to become part of that city’s police force, but wiped out after a close encounter with death and joined a private investigator’s office instead.  He developed close ties to the Vietnamese community in Little Saigon in Hartford and it is with that community that he interacts in trying to solve the deaths of “the beautiful” Le sisters, Mary and Molly.  One sister is married to a small-time Asian market in the heart of Little Saigon while the other is married to a rich and successful Anglo entrepreneur. The separate crimes both appear to be staged in order to blame drug traffickers in a crime-infested neighborhood.  It takes being able to bridge both the Vietnamese community and the community at large in order to solve the crimes and Rick goes about it with a great deal of sensitivity and skill.  “Caught dead” maintains the suspense of “who done it” right up to the last couple chapters.

Betty Webb’s “The Puffin of death” is the fourth in the “Gunn Zoo Mystery” series featuring the professional zookeeper and amateur sleuth, Theodora Bentley.  The setting for this installment of this series is Iceland where Teddy is sent to collect several animals for its new Northern Climes exhibit, including a couple puffins and a polar bear cub.  Because Teddy is invited to stay with an Icelandic zookeeper while she is in Iceland, she has a very up close and personal experience with modern day Icelandic culture.  Her hostess and her boyfriend are both members of an Icelandic heavy metal band.  She also spends a lot of time with a birdwatching tour group from Arizona, and it is the leader of that group who comes up dead shortly after Teddy arrives on the scene.  The body has been badly chewed by a puffin by the time Teddy discovers the body.  Like Webb’s previous books in this series, the author sprinkles a heavy dose of humor in the plot and the memorable cast of characters.  While the book drags a little in the middle chapters, overall I enjoyed “The Puffin of death.”

The third book I would like to feature is Triss Stein’s “Brooklyn secrets.”  Like the author, the protagonist, Erica Donato, is a researcher who is well-versed in the history of Brooklyn, New York.  Stein is not a native of Brooklyn, but she has spent many years in New York City and once worked at the Brooklyn branch library used as one of the settings for the book.  She is also very familiar with the history of the Brownsville projects and the different ethnic groups that have populated this ghetto area since the 1930s.  Donato spends time in that area in order to do research for her graduate program disseration on the members of Murder, Inc. who dominated the Brownsville housing project in the 1930s.  She finds in the 2000s the deadly gang influence has changed little except in ethnicity and language.  Now the residents are largely Black and those in gangs control drug and human trafficking.  The book is very well written to show a lot of parallels between the Brownsville of then and now.  The author admits that the book is not reflective of the very most current trends and language among Black teens in Brownsville today but Stein does what she can to paint a realistic picture of life in the projects today.  “Brooklyn secrets” is a chillingly convincing page-turner of a mystery.

Reviewed with supplied copies.

Liz Nichols

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Unleashed by Eileen Brady

Unleashed” is the second in the “A Kate Turner, D.V.M. Mystery” series by veterinarian-writer Eileen Brady.  Brady has succeeded in creating a multi-dimensional protagonist in Kate Turner who has the same struggles as many other young professionals who are trying to pay off student loans while building practices, becoming established in a community, making friends and building lasting relationships all within the confines of the 24 hour day in a small town environment.  Kate Turner just happens to add on top of all that an interest in helping the police (mostly without their support) solve murder mysteries.

In “Unleashed” one of Kate’s clients is killed and, once Kate proves it was murder and not suicide that did in her accomplished artist client, a mentally challenged aide at the vet clinic is blamed for the murder.  Kate knows that Eugene could not have been responsible for the death, even though he seemed to have confessed his guilt to the police.  There are lots of potential killers and many blind leads that Kate follows. Possible motives range from lover jealousy, to art forgeries and blackmail, family inheritance, to accidental and unintentional injury. Just as in her first Kate Turner book, there is a lot of tension, both of the legal and sexual kind, between Kate and police deputy Luke Gianetti.

I felt that the first book in this series was stronger, overall, than “Unleashed.”  I did not find the killer very convincing.  Without giving too much of a spoiler, the people who were in the killer’s circle are portrayed as innocent bystanders, and there is even a person who is being kept against his will who certainly would have been noticed in such a small community and might have come forward to spoil the plot. At the very least more should have been developed in the storyline surrounding the killer and his circle of associates in order to justify how the killer could have carried this off successfully.

I just don’t think aspects of the plot were well thought out, and for that reason it would have been better for the killer to have been someone who had equally strong motivation and seemed to fit the clues better.

That being said, I still enjoyed reading “Unleashed” and will look forward to seeing what happens in the next book.

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The Last Savanna by Mike Bond

Mike Bond has outdone himself with the adventure thriller “The Last Savanna” which has just been published by Mandevilla Press.  The saga chronicles the rapid death of the Kenyan savanna as desperate tribal poaching parties from Somalia and the Sudan infiltrate the Kenyan game preserves and wild savanna areas to hunt elephants and rhinos for their tusks.  African elephants and rhinos are fast disappearing and Bond has made the problem starkly evident through the medium of the adventure thriller.

From start to finish Bond makes the reader feel as if each character is being stalked by a lion and that at any moment any person or beast may be swiftly dispatched by the most efficient killing machine on the savanna, the lion.  By comparison, humans are messy killers.  The desperate plunderers from poorer neighboring countries invade the Kenyan savanna just to take the parts of their kill that are most valuable on the black market.  They leave the meat and skin of their prey to the scavengers.  To the Somalian tribesmen the ivory they plunder represent the ability to pay a bride price without having to wait years to build herds of goats.  For other hunters the raids into the Kenyan savanna represents the only opportunity to feed their starving families.  The money from these raids ultimately winds up funding terrorist operations for Al Qaeda and other groups.

From the point of view of the Kenyan authorities these foreign poachers are destroying the Kenyan savanna ecosystem and destroying the Kenyan economy along with their lucrative tourist trade.  They are also sensitive to the international terrorist operations that are funded through the work of the poachers. The government wants these poachers caught or, better yet, killed on sight.  One of the men called into service to hunt the poachers is Ian MacAdam, a former SAS 0fficer and Kenyan rancher.  He is reluctant to go along for he no longer has any taste for killing bad guys, but when he learns that the Somali poachers have killed a party of archaeologists and have killed or captured a former flame of his, MacAdam is on board to track down the poachers clear to Somali if necessary.

Most readers will not be able to put this tense, highly descriptive thriller down.  Those who like to see happy endings will be disappointed, that is, unless the reader is cheering for the lion or the hyena to win.  This is very definitely a tale of the survival of the fittest.

Bond is an authority on Africa.  At the age of 19 he set off on foot across the Sahara and later explored thousands of miles of African deserts, jungles and savannas.  He has also been involved in Kenyan military operations against poachers, so he has poured much of his experience into this story.

Recommended.  “The Last Savanna” is one of the best thrillers of the past year and one that can teach the reader a lot about the current ecological and socio-economic state of sub-saharan Africa.

Reviewed with a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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Cat in an Alien X-Ray by Carole Nelson Douglas

Cat in an Alien X-Ray” is the 25th in Douglas’ “Midnight Louis Mystery” Series.  Authors who follow the alphabet have some difficulty tying in the title that contains a less common letter like X, and I think Douglas was reaching a bit to tie the plot into an alien X-ray.  Of course, since the locale for this series is Las Vegas which is located next to the infamous “Area 54” any number of weird story threads are possible.

I have always considered this a rather silly series.  I don’t especially appreciate animals that voice their thoughts and call the shots that save the day each time, and the cat, Midnight Louis, comes through again to save his person, Temple Barr, and her friends and love interests, Matt Devine and Max Kinsella.  There is a continuing storyline that is laboring toward a climax (perhaps by the time we get to Z in the title).  A reader who just drops into this mystery might get confused, so its primary appeal is to Douglas’ army of existing readers.

Even though I have misgivings every time I sit down to read one of the books in this series, like every other fan of the Midnight Louis series, I can’t seem to stop because I want to find out if Temple actually marries the devine Mr Matt and if Max actually survives his ever-increasing encounters with Kitty the Cutter, the IRA agent who likes to punish men for the abuse she suffered as a child in Northern Ireland.  Both Max and Matt are hurt by this woman in this episode and one wonders why they haven’t turned her in to the ever-alert Lieutenant Molina by now.  Both men appear positively entranced and willing to come under Kathleen O’Connor’s blade just for the privilege of trying to figure out what makes her tick.

I’m disappointed that Temple seems to take a back seat in this installment.  She gets stuck dealing with a rather silly potential client who wants to build a hotel-casino off the Strip that has some connection to aliens and Area 54.  Otherwise, Matt, Max, Midnight Louis and Kitty the Cutter take center stage in “Cat in an Alien X-Ray.”

Loyal fans will read this book, if only to keep up with a long term addiction.

Liz Nichols

 

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Fox Tracks by Rita Mae Brown

Fox Tracks” is from Rita Mae Brown’s “Sister” Jane Foxhunting Mysteries.  “Sister” is the 60-something master of the fox hounds for Jefferson Hunt in central Virginia in Brown’s books.  When a dead body is found underneath a dead deer near a spot where a fox goes to ground Sister gets involved in figuring out who the dead man was and why he died.  She discovers that the dead man was an itinerant worker who did some hauling for farmers in the area.  Sister suspects that he was hauling contraband– moonshine or tobacco– and did something that got him killed by his employers.  She also believes that the smugglers, who turn out to be moving cigarettes from low tax VA to higher tax states, are familiar with the routines of the Jefferson Hunt and the various barns and storage sheds in remote parts of the hunt territory.

Fox Tracks” is not one of my favorite Rita Mae Brown offerings.  I am not sufficiently interested in the technical details of fox hunting or tobacco growing to follow much of the description.  I also was not convinced that Brown made the best choice for her killer.  I will leave it at that because if I say more about the killer I’ll spill the beans.

Fox Tracks” is more for die-hard Rita Mae Brown enthusiasts and those who really enjoy her books about fox hunting.

Liz Nichols

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The Llama of Death by Betty Webb

The Llama of Death” is the third in Betty Webb’s “A Gunn Zoo Mystery” series.  In this installment, zookeeper, Teddy Bentley, is put in charge of the llama rides at the local renaissance faire near Monterey Bay.  The llama, Alejandro, is on loan from the nearby Gunn Zoo where Teddy works during the week days.  I found myself falling in love with the sensitive llama who became very protective of the children he gave rides to.  Who wouldn’t love that adorable face on the cover of the book? Alejandro is unjustly accused of killing one of the Renaissance players and later of injuring the man who was formerly his abusive owner.  Several others are later suspected of committing the murder, including Teddy and her mother, socialite, Caro.  Teddy’s investigation of the real culprit is hampered by the incompetence of the acting police chief and by Teddy’s own father, an embezzler who comes back from his sanctuary in Costa Rica to see his family and friends.

Webb, a journalist, mystery writer, and apparent expert in zoos, intersperses lots of humor and action into the plot making “The Llama of Death” an enjoyable read, if somewhat predictable.

Liz Nichols

(Reviewed from a supplied copy.)

 

 

 

 

 

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Cat in a White Tie and Tails by Carole Nelson Douglas

Cat in a White Tie and Tails” is about number 24 in the Midnight Louie Mystery series and is one of the most enduring of the mystery series based on the antics of animals.  Midnight Louie is a particularly sophisticated and precocious black cat owned by Las Vegas PR entrepreneur, Temple Barr.  In this rendition, Louis accompanies Temple and her fiance, Matt Divine, to Chicago where they stay with Matt’s mother and they take a look at a potential job opportunity for Matt as a media host in his home town.  Louis is stolen right out from under the couple at Matt’s mother’s house, but the furry sleuth manages to get himself out of trouble before anyone can figure out where he has been taken.

Meanwhile, back in Las Vegas, former magician, Max Kinsella, has been asked by his nemesis, Detective Molina, to help solve the seemingly random murder of Cliff Effinger, Matt Devine’s stepfather.  Molina suspects Kinsella of the crime and is hoping that the master magician will incriminate himself.

As usual, Douglas has laced this mystery with plenty of action of the human and feline variety but one wonders how much longer this series can go.  It appears that in the next installment or two Temple and Matt will get married and Max will ride off into the sunset.  A good many of the loose ends of killings that occurred in the last installment or two are tied up in this book.  We already see Max and Temple going their separate ways now that she has settled upon life with Matt, the former priest… unless, of course, the author introduces some new twist.

The best parts of “Cat in a White Tie and Tails” are the chapters Nelson writes (supposedly) with Midnight Louie. Louis is sophisticated, confident and sassy and at the top of his game.

Liz Nichols

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