Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Suspense’ Category

The second half of December I treated myself to three dog cozy mysteries. All three are titles my husband bought for me at a library book sale. The first is by an author (David Rosenfelt) whom I know about through the animal rescue world, while the others are by authors with four or five-star ratings at Cozy Mystery List.

My interest in the Andy Carpenter mysteries by David Rosenfelt comes from my having read his funny account of the start of a dog rescue foundation. The series contains sixteen titles to date and features a reluctant attorney who is most likely to be persuaded to take a case when a dog is somehow involved. In Dog Tags, the eighth book in the series, a German Shepherd police dog witnesses a murder. If his owner, an Iraq war vet and cop-turned thief, is convicted of the crime, the dog could be euthanized. Dog Tags didn’t fit my perception of a cozy mystery, which supposedly don’t focus on violence and contains bloodless murders that take place off stage. Instead Dog Tags revolves around a murder case with roots in Iraq, payoffs, hit men, and even a possible national security threat. Indeed, some reviewers have noted that Dog Tales is darker than earlier Andy Carpenter titles. What helps lighten the intensity of the plot is Andy’s sarcastic style, adamant opposition to danger, and obvious love of his wife and dog. I also enjoyed the quirky characters including Pete who is always calling in a favor, Marcus who eats as if there were no tomorrow, and Hike who puts pessimists to shame. Dogs are front and center, with one being on trial and the other being Carpenter’s own pet. Dog training and the building of trust are also integrated into the mystery.

The Chet and Bernie mysteries by Spencer Quinn have the most unusual quality of being narrated by a dog. To date, the series contains eight regular novels and four behind-the-scenes books. In Thereby Hangs a Tail, the second book in the series, Chet and Bernie are hired to investigate threats against the unlikely target of a pampered show dog named Princess. Although the series reads more like a thriller than a cozy mystery, I’ve become a fan due to the style, characters, and the location. More than any other animal book, thanks to his unique style, Quinn had me wondering what goes on in the mind of my dog or for that matter any dog. As a canine partner, he likes to puzzle out what scents mean for the case. He’ll also wag his tail, growl, and bark to turn Bernie onto clues. And he enjoys helping Bernie tackle criminals. At the same time, he’ll also interpret phrases so literally that conversation can be quickly lost on him. He’ll also scavenge places for food and will rarely turn down food—no matter what it’s source. Bernie is an equally multi-layered character. He makes bad financial investments, and proves a tough guy with criminals, but also has a soft heart for his dog and the woman he loves. Thereby Hangs a Tail takes place in remote areas in Arizona, well-suiting it to the cozy mystery genre.

The Rachel Alexander and Dash mysteries by Carol Lea Benjamin is my only selection by a female author. The series contains nine titles to date and features a female detective and her pit bull. In The Wrong Dog, the fifth book in the series, Sophie Gordon hires Rachel because her cloned dog does not possess the skills of a service dog as was promised to her. While Rachel is searching for the Side-by-Side agency that led Sophie astray, she’s thrown into a deeper mystery when Sophie is killed. I found the first two chapters, wherein Sophie recounts her story to Rachel, somewhat confusing and dull. After that, the narrative improves. I enjoyed how the plot unfolded, with Rachel finding herself in more and more danger as she digs deeper into Sophie’s murder. I also appreciated Rachel’s attempts to find Sophie’s two service dogs a home. Although the dogs (and an iguana!) are often in the background, they’re still prevalent in the story. The dogs like playing in the dog park and accompanying Rachel on her sleuthing expeditions.

Now that I have read six animal cozy mysteries, I’m curious about trends. Are dog mysteries normally darker, written by men, and starring male leads? Are cat mysteries normally lighter, written by ladies, and starring female leads? I’d also welcome reader recommendations! For those of you who are fans of animal mystery cozies, who are your favorite authors and why?


A friend of mine and I like to collect cat books. What follows is a review of three books from her collection and one from mine. Two of the books are about homeless cats, a topic dear to my heart. The other two books are simply fun reads.

Little Bo is the first of quartet about Bonnie Boadicea, a spunky and curious little kitten, and co-written by Julie Andrews and her daughter. Little Bo is the youngest of six kittens born to champion Persian but abandoned ten days before Christmas. The Persian’s owner asks her butler to sell the kittens. When that proves difficult, he decides to throw them in a lake, and the kittens escape before that dastardly deed can be performed. I love the full-page paintings which open each chapter, and the charming spot illustrations of the kittens. Just as much I enjoy the story of sweet Bo, who seems to be the only survivor of her siblings. The structured side of me would have preferred Andrews to jump straight into Bo’s story OR to have followed the adventures of her siblings too. That little nitpicking aside, the story is a throw back to days of children’s literary anthologies. It’s full of strong-will characters, unique settings, and adventure. I’m delighted to know there are four books about Little Bo!

Trapped is the third in a trilogy, all written in 2008, about Pete the Cat. Pete is a highly unusual cat that likes to help his owner Alex solve mysteries. In this volume, Pete helps Alex track down the man responsible for illegal trapping. As in every good crime story, Pete ends up putting his life in danger to find evidence. Pete also likes to help author, Peg Kehret, tell his story. The viewpoint switches between Pete the Cat and his owner Alex. As a fan of Peg Kehret, I have read many of her books. One thing I dislike about her fiction is the villains are always one-dimensional. Case in point, in Trapped, the bad guy not only traps illegally, but he also is slovenly in appearance, drives reckless, and isn’t above threatening violence to animals and people. Sure, these people exist, but sometimes people who hurt animals are nice in every other way. Despite my wishing the Kehret would create more complex villains, I enjoy her main characters and the obvious passion of Kehret for animals. Kehret is a long-time volunteer at The Humane Society and often uses animals in her stories.

Animal rescue is hot right now. Ellen Miles ought to know. She made a name for herself with the Puppy Place and Kitty Corner series. In both series, a family fosters a homeless animal and helps find it a forever home. Along the way, readers learn lots of tips about the behavior of dogs and cats. They also realize the plight of shelter animals and maybe even find themselves wanting to give a home to an animal in need. Domino is a title in the Kitty Corner series. Siblings Michael and Mia would like to have a cat of their own, but for now they foster. And their latest foster is a kitten found on a ski slope. The less than 100-page chapter book switches viewpoints between the siblings and Domino, and makes for light-reading. Although the books are formulaic, they’re also cute and true to a kids’ world, and could turn reluctant readers into avid ones.

The Cat Who Came in off the Roof is by Annie Schmidt. It’s my favorite of the four chapter books, because the main character is a shy reporter. Tibbles is so timid that he spends his time reporting about cats and nature, instead of about people. He’s at risk of losing his job, when he meets a lady who can talk to cats because was once had been one. She tells him all the gossip around town, including some secret news, and he writes it all up for the paper. Suddenly he is a star. And she has a home. Except nothing can ever stay perfect. There is a bad guy, a quirky neighbor, a pregnant cat, and…. Next thing you know Tibbles has not only lost his job but also been evicted. To find out how things are all righted, read The Cat Who Came in off the Roof by Annie Schmidt, who is considered the Queen of Dutch Literature. She’s won several awards, including the Hans Christian Anderson, and is included in the canon of Dutch history taught to all school children.

This review is dedicated to Marlo, who regularly surprises me with packages full of all things cat. There might be a toy, a movie, or a book. If you want to read more about her story, follow this link: Bonded Together by CKD.

If the terrorists kidnapped your friend, would you know how to save him? Fourteen-year-old Jane not only knows how to track down criminals, but she also knows how to use a gun. However, Jane Blond International Spy by Stan and Brittany Schatt isn’t just about bad guys and espionage. Jane spends a large part of her teen life battling school bullies and dealing with the fallout from her parents’ divorce. Suspense and teen drama mix in this two-hundred page novel aimed at young adults. Sounds too good to miss, right? Unfortunately, I struggled to finish.

From the youngest to the oldest reader, who hasn’t wanted to be either a detective or a spy? Or least doesn’t enjoy a good mystery or suspense story? Jane Blond must prevent terrorists from blowing up her school during a presidential visit, as well as protect CIA secrets from falling into the wrong hands. To do so, Jane draws on the help of a friend with Aspergers and a parrot with an attitude. I enjoyed the positive portrayals of those with special needs, as well as found amusing the scenes with the family parrot.

Its target audience will also appreciate how modern Jane Blond International Spy is. Everyone makes ample use of cell phones and computers. They regularly send emails and text. On one occasion, Jane lands in trouble when an unfriendly computer programmer hacks her account to send a nude photo of her to all her classmates. On another occasion, Jane tracks down an incriminating blog of a bully. In addition, Jane uses the internet at other times for seeking out clues to the whereabouts and activities of the bad guys.

With all these positives, why did I struggle to finish Jane Blond International Spy? Mostly, I didn’t care for the character portrayals. The good characters are too inconsistent in their actions. One minute the adults in Jane’s life are praising her and seeking out her help; the next minute they’re disparaging her and acting as if she’s wasting their time. The same rollercoaster is true for how Jane treats her friends. One minute, Jane praises them but the next minute she’s outlining their flaws. In gym class, despite knowing that her friend is viewed as clumsy, Jane doesn’t even use the opportunity of being leader to stand up for Anouk. Instead she picks her second to last. Many people often do send conflicting messages, and so there’s a certain amount of realism to the characters, but I felt too often jerked about like a yo-yo to feel as if any of them were memorable.

As for the bad characters, they’re sadly all stereotypes. The popular kids in Jane’s school call her names, try to fix votes to keep her off the cheerleading team, and even attempt to get her kicked out of school. More offensive is how anyone who isn’t white was depicted. While Anouk (who is Inuit) is portrayed in a somewhat positive way, her parents not only arrange her marriage but ignore that her intended abuses her. In addition, the popular kids follow the Muslim faith, and use the Koran to excuse their death threats on Jane, her friends, and even on the country. While bad can exist in any nationality or race, there’s an imbalance here.

Jane Blond International Spy has been aimed at young adults. I’m guessing the reason for targeting older readers is the violence. Not only do bad guys attempt to kill Jane and her friends, but she shows no remorse in gunning one down when she’s threatened. However, the simplicity of the book’s style feels more suited to a middle-school novel. While at times Jane Blond International Spy does make for an engaging read, I was disappointed in it.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

StanSchattDr. Stan Schatt and his grand-daughter are the co-authoring team of the young adult novel Jane Blond International Spy. Shatt has taught at the university level, spent many years “as a futurist responsible for forecasting future technology products and markets for Fortune 500 companies,” and authored over thirty books. Below is my interview with Schatt.

According to Tiffany Clark Kent, when Shatt’s grandchildren were young, he began making up stories to tell them at night. As they grew older, his stories became longer and more complex, and he ended up inspiring his grandchildren to write too.

His grand-daughter, who came up with the basic plot and major characters of Jane Blond International Spy. She also wrote dialogue that captured the way teenagers actually talk. Tomorrow I’ll review Jane Blond International Spy. Save the date: May 27!

ALLISON: Have you always wanted to write?

STAN: My childhood consisted of lots and lots of reading. I set out at 12 to write a novel because I wasn’t happy with the selection in my school library.

ALLISON: Why did you start to write?

STAN: I loved reading and couldn’t find the book I wanted to read.

ALLISON: What appeals to each of your about spies?

STAN: There is something fascinating about people forced to play secret roles. There’s a lot of drama built into the notion of someone who is in danger should their real identity be discovered.

ALLISON: How easy or difficult was the collaboration process?

STAN: Very easy — Brianna came up with the characters and plot and later added dialog.

ALLISON: Talk about the road to publication.

STAN: The biggest problem was finding a cover that we both liked; Brianna is much more visually aware than I am. The book went through a number of publishers until we hit upon Booktrope.

ALLISON: Sell my readers on Jane Blond.

STAN: Jane is a normal 14-year old girl with a world of problems that most girls her age don’t have. It’s bad enough having a father in prison and a mother who insists on having her boyfriend living with her, but poor Jane finds herself under constant attack at school from a bully and queen bee. What I think makes the book fun is that Jane is forced to use a lot of skills and traits she doesn’t even realize she has in order to save the day. She’s one of the few people who is nice to or pays attention to a boy with Asperger’s. He provides a clue that helps her solve a mystery. She discovers she has courage and intelligence she never realized. So, in that way the story is very satisfying since most of us would like to believe that we are all superheroes just under the surface.

To read more about the process behind Jane Blond International Spy, check out the below links:

Books such as Out of Darkness by Ashley Perez are the reason I read. The atmosphere that Perez creates is so rich that I felt transplanted into the world of Naomi and Wash in New London, Texas, 1937. Racial tension and family conflict and lie under the surface for most of the novel creating a multi-layered complexity not often found in fiction for young people. I read Out of Darkness slowly to savor the story, but also quickly to discover what drama would befall Naomi and her siblings who had recently arrived in Texas from Mexico.

While reading Out of Darkness, I felt hot and cold, isolated and crowded, welcomed and scared…. Whatever emotions the main characters experienced, so did I. That makes for quite the visceral experience! On one occasion, Naomi accidentally burns her arm with splashes of oil. During the entire time that her arm hurt, I felt hot and tortured right along with her. Another moment, Naomi felt too fearful of her stepfather to allow herself to sleep. When her body began to show signs of fatigue, my head ached and my stomach clenched right alone with hers. How exactly does Perez create such an intense atmosphere? One way is she allows herself time to fully explore a moment. And yet she never wastes words. That makes for quite the delicate balance! Another way is she shows a deep understanding of people’s feelings. A favorite passage of mine is near the start, when Naomi’s siblings are walking through nearby woods. Perez eloquently captures the contrast between their old and new environment in these few lines: “The woods gave him the feeling of being inside and outside at the same time. Full of birds and animals but hushed, like a church the hour before Mass. Back in San Antonia, there were no woods. If you were outside you knew it.”

When I picked up Out of Darkness to read, I knew that prejudice and hate would be part of the package. How subtle these emotions would be revealed is not something I expected, and shows the sign of a highly-skilled author. On one occasion, Naomi’s siblings join their father at a restaurant for breakfast. The pancakes were golden-fried and dripped in syrup. In every way, Perez tells us, the pancakes were perfect. The only way I even know that the siblings were feeling uncomfortable is that they chewed their food five times before they swallowed, and by the two sentences that summed up the scene: “Naomi would have loved the pancakes. But he’d read the sign on the restaurant door, and that changed everything.” Even when the discrimination is more overt, the reactions of the characters to it are so quiet that they’re powerful. After Naomi overhears teachers at her school talk about Mexican girls being retarded but also sluts, she stays secluded a long time, “working her fingers through the tail of her braid, fighting to get free of their words.” Many authors when writing about racial tension and other social wrongs tend to structure scenes as to make a point. Perez’s story always feels as if I’m reading a family saga, or a genre of literature that chronicles the lives and doings of a family, rather than a narrative about segregation. And so when the violence does happen, it feels all the more like a gunshot to the stomach.

As I reached about the halfway mark for Out of Darkness, I couldn’t resist sharing some of my excitement about this gem to my husband. At end of my chatter, he asked me to share some sample passages, and then he asked me to save the book for him to read. We have our own tastes, and don’t often read the same selections. However, Out of Darkness is one of those novels that defies labels and therefore becomes universal in its appeal.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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Happy New Year!

Allison’s Book Bag is currently on hiatus. I will return after a much-needed rest with reviews of Advanced Reader Copies including: Freddy Frogcaster and the Flash Flood by Janice Dean, One Two by Igor Eliseev, Incredible Magic of Being by Kathyrn Erskine, Dragon Grammar Book by Diane Robinson, and Wide as the Wind by Edward Stanton.



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