Review: Death Threads

December 31, 2013 at 7:55 pm (cozy mystery, mystery)

Death Threads
Death Threads by Elizabeth Lynn Casey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A librarian main character and a sewing circle of friends – what’s not to like, at least for this particular reader? I haven’t read the first book, but it’s copiously referred to in this one since its events happened only a short time before.

I admit I was completely taken in by the incorrect explanation for what was going on with Calhoun’s disappearance. I’m not entirely convinced about Tori Sinclair as an amateur sleuth, but her lessons in How to Be Southern are actually quite interesting to this northerner. I enjoyed it just fine, for what it is – a little light reading.

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Review: Aunt Dimity and the Duke

December 9, 2013 at 8:52 am (cozy mystery, mystery)

Aunt Dimity and the Duke
Aunt Dimity and the Duke by Nancy Atherton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very pleasant, mild-mannered, and amusing mystery. The conceit of the series is not a secret: Aunt Dimity is a ghost, who uses her contacts among the living to gently manipulate people, for their own benefit.

The big reveal in this one actually had me greatly distressed for a few minutes, until it was resolved. I’m also, full disclosure, quite biased toward this one by its main character’s passion for gardening. Even better, English country gardens, and there’s a great English country house, too. By the seaside, no less.

Overall, though, the various elements of the story worked quite well together, despite their apparent heterogeneity. I was impressed.

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Review: Death at Daisy’s Folly

October 29, 2013 at 8:05 pm (cozy mystery, historical mystery, Reviews)

Death at Daisy's Folly
Death at Daisy’s Folly by Robin Paige
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A pleasant historical mystery series continues, this one featuring prominent historical figures (the duke and duchess of Warwick and the Prince, perhaps amongst others). Murder at a big high-society weekend house party – what could be more routine for a British mystery? It’s the characters and the progress of the investigation, and the fiddling details of the plot, that make such things fun to read.

And to my relief, it only took the authors three books to get Kate and Charles engaged! Some of these fictional romances in series books drag on for so long I just want to kick both of the characters, but these two face up to facts and decide to charge ahead, maternal and societal disapproval be damned. Huzzah!

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Review: Death at Bishop’s Keep

October 27, 2013 at 1:31 pm (cozy mystery, historical mystery, mystery)

Death at Bishop's Keep
Death at Bishop’s Keep by Robin Paige
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A nice, solid cozy-type mystery, set in 1890s Britain – with a short period in New York City to establish the character of Kate Ardleigh, the American niece of gentry spinster Sabrina Ardleigh. Kate is a self-possessed and independent young woman who wants to try making a living as a writer, but the lure of being invited to travel to England to meet and work for her previously-unknown aunt is irresistible. Besides, she can always mail her stories to her editor.

Things in Essex are not the tranquil country idyll that she was more or less expecting, what with deep-running hostility between the house staff and the mistresses (for it turns out that there are two aunts, one of them a bitter mean-spirited widow) and some unknown man being murdered and dumped in a local archaeological dig.

Kate is not the only point-of-view character; the other important one is Sir Charles Sheridan, gentleman scholar and photographer, as well as one or two others to help flesh out the story a bit. His point of view does drag on a bit with internal conflict over what women “ought to” be like versus what they’re actually like – specifically Kate, for obvious reasons.

An interesting and engaging mystery which drags in bits of actual history quite naturally, for the most part – from the occult/spiritualist craze to the ongoing efforts to development working automobiles (that bit about autos being restricted to 4 mph on town roads and having to be preceded and followed by men waving red flags? Absolutely true). So it’s good from the story, character, and history points of views.

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Review: Out of Circulation

October 15, 2013 at 6:34 pm (cozy mystery, mystery)

Out of Circulation
Out of Circulation by Miranda James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think this one took too long to get going – the murder victim wasn’t even found until Chapter 13, something like a third of the way through. Which is not to say that the social combat before then wasn’t interesting, but it took too long to get to that point, as well.

Except that, on the other hand, it turned out that much of what went on toward the beginning was more relevant to the subsequent investigation and plot than I first assumed. Or perhaps it was just my mood, so that the low-key development of the story frustrated me more than it could have otherwise.

At any rate, Charlie Harris is still a pleasant fellow to spend a few hours with – though some might find his conflict-averse nature stultifying – and so is his cat. Kanesha Berry continues to provide some “edge” in a setting that would otherwise be too nice for words.

The payoff for my decision to pick up and finish the book was good though – some archival research, some serious cogitating, a health scare, and a difficult decision for Charlie to make.

The next one in this series is expected out next January (2014).

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Scrapbook of Secrets by Mollie Cox Bryan (2012)

April 17, 2012 at 4:30 pm (cozy mystery, negativity)

This cozy mystery brings us to Cumberland County, Virginia.  (Apparently by reading a lot of these things, I’ll be able to vicariously visit the whole country.) And it’s also one of two series I’m aware of that have scrapbooking as the, hmm, creative focus of the characters.

There’s a lot to like about this book, such as: characters ranging in age from youngish moms to outright elderly; a Jewish point-of-view character who actually struggles with issues related to being Jewish in exurban Virginia; acknowledgment of racial issues (at least in the past); generally matter-of-fact dealings with issues of sex and sexuality and infidelity.  And I’m okay with the slight supernatural element (ghosts).

Unfortunately, it has no narrative tension.  The story meanders through multiple points of view, which is generally interesting but does little to advance the plot.  I think the author’s goal was to explore the repercussions of the victim’s murder and of her activities prior to her death.  Laudable, certainly, but the result is a series of incidents that connect poorly to each other and don’t create much of a feeling of progress toward the goal of solving the mystery.  This may be like reality, but reality doesn’t make a good narrative.

Also, I was really annoyed by certain characters’ decision to go off and confront the probable murderer.  They’re both smarter than that … and then the whole confrontation fizzled rather than exploding.

The bones of a good story are here; it just needed to be executed better.  I may give the forthcoming second volume of the series a chance, but I’m not sure.

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Four Cozy Mysteries

March 30, 2012 at 9:17 am (cozy mystery, mystery)

My public library got me through the first part of my illness earlier this week – by pure happenstance, I got these four books out a day or two before it started.

Wendy Lyn Watson’s A Parfait Murder (2011) is the third of her “Mystery à la Mode” series (the other two of which the library doesn’t have!).  I was short on emotional resources when I first started reading it, however, so heroine Tallulah Jones’ emotional pyrotechnics were a bit too much and I had to put it aside till I felt better.  Set in Texas, it features the hard-working divorced owner of an ice-cream shop (“Remember the A-la-Mode” – don’t judge, it’s memorable, at least) and her equally hard-working family: cousin, niece, and tough-as-nails grandmother.  And a murder committed on a carnival ride.  The book offers more of an emotional roller-coaster for the characters than a lot of the cozies do, and with its strong characters and multitude of plot twists, I suspect the series will make a nice change of pace for a lot of readers.

Really, the only thing it was missing was a recipe for actually making ice cream.  Ah well.

Next up: another Texas-based book, A Peach of a Murder by Livia J. Washburn (2006), first of an intended Fresh-Baked Mystery” series.   Here, heroine Phyllis Newsom is a retired schoolteacher whose peach cobbler is the last item one of the festival food judges tastes before he keels over, poisoned!  The other two deaths don’t appear to form a pattern … but there is one, and a rather sad one at that.  With a hint of potential romance arriving with a new boarder in Phyllis’s house – another of several retired schoolteachers – and comfortingly competent law enforcement, it looks like a series with solid potential.  (A little further investigation reveals that though this book is new to me, the series has already gone on for several additional books!)

The second “Magical Cats Mystery” by Sofie Kelly is called Sleight of Paw (2011), and it was just as fun as the first one (Curiosity Thrilled the Cat).   It’s possible that I’m more biased toward librarians as heroines than toward ice-cream entrepreneurs or retired schoolteachers (even retired history teachers).  Or perhaps I just like the presence of a little magic in this one – part of the relatively new trend that’s been gently folding urban fantasy elements into cozy mysteries.  Kathleen Paulson, library director in a smallish Minnesota town, is pretty sharp, if a bit handicapped by the fact that telling anyone about her cats’ peculiar abilities would make folks think she was nuts.  (Though I do think she’s a bit too anxious over what people will think about her occasionally carrying her cats around with her.)  I also like her unusual background as a child of theater people.  Anyway, the apparently-accidental death of a retired school principal leads to a lot of anxiety, as multiple well-regarded members of the community seem to be potential suspects, including a close friend of Kathleen’s.  I’ll admit I was pretty sure who the real culprit was, but the author kept it uncertain enough to hold my interest.  Definitely a series I’ll be keeping an eye out for.

Finally, Monica Ferris’ fifteenth “Needlecraft Mystery” is Threadbare (2011), and it seems to me that her basic writing level has definitely kicked up a notch.  I thought this was happening with the last one (Buttons and Bones), but now I’m positive.  There are multiple points of view that are deftly handled, the pacing is excellent, the characters seem indefinably more definite, and the range of topics explored is firmly branching out from “just” needlework to parts of the world around – in this case, the lives and options of homeless women, two of whom are the victims.  Betsy Devonshire, the small-town Minnesota needlework shop owner and amateur sleuth of this series, works hard to figure things out and is eventually able to apply logic and evidence to the problem, sorting out who the culprit is in a believable fashion.  But I’m most pleased about the author’s step up in skill level – it’s a great pleasure to see an already-accomplished person get even better.

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It Takes a Witch by Heather Blake (2012)

February 14, 2012 at 9:24 am (cozy mystery, fantasy)

I can’t find parts of the basic premise credible – witches with hereditary powers have kept this fact a secret for hundreds of years? Considering what happened with the wombat, I really doubt it.

However, the book has a nice breezy style and diverse and interesting characters, and the murder mystery’s not bad either. I could wish for less ignorance being forced on the main character, Darcy, but I suppose it’s a reasonably effective way to avoid the dreaded infodump.

I can’t imagine why they put a cover on it that looks like it’s aimed at teenagers, especially since Darcy is pushing thirty, but whatever.

All in all, pretty good light reading.

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