by Cynthia Chow
& Sandra Murphy
Here we are again with another great group of 5 Penguin mystery novels (some from May & others just being released this month) filled with sleuthing cats, dogs, clothes, supernatural, cooking & more! Killer in Crinolines: A Consignment Shop Mystery by Duffy Brown, Cat Nap: A Sunny & Shadow Mystery By Claire Donally, Trouble Vision: A Raven’s Nest Bookstore Mystery By Allison Kingsley, Bled and Breakfast: An Immortality Bites Mystery By Michelle Rowen and Gluten for Punishment by Nancy J. Parra.
Killer in Crinolines: A Consignment Shop Mystery By Duffy Brown
Review by Cynthia Chow
Only a desperate call from Doreen-the-wedding-planner to deliver a bow tie to the groom could drag Reagan Summerside out of her consignment shop, the Prissy Fox, and into the stifling hot August heat of Savannah, Georgia. Reagan has it easy though, as the rest of the wedding party and even guests are costumed rather torturously in crinoline and full skirts for a Gone With the Wind theme at the whim of the bride Waynetta Waverly, the spoiled and indulged daughter of a wealthy ranch owner. Even worse off is Chantilly Parker who was previously engaged to the groom and now comforts herself by stuffing her face with purloined wedding cake, while parked in her UPS hidden in the back of Magnolia Plantation.
As the disasters pile up a desperate and intoxicated Doreen-the-wedding-planner and Reagan discover the missing groom, Simon Ambrose, most definitely dead, face down in the wedding cake with the ceremonial knife in his back. The discovery of the bridesmaid dress worn by the murderer being found in Chantilly’s truck and her still being smeared with cake crumbs, unsurprisingly results in the jilted former fiancé getting arrested for murder.
Despite his success as a loan officer, virtually no one is mourning the loss of Simon, including his almost bride who is more infuriated to miss her ceremony and being forced to return her wedding gifts. Waverly’s father makes a shooting target out of Simon’s portrait, the town baker is baking celebratory cookies of Dead Simon, and his funeral spectacularly culminates in a catfight that sends his casket rather prematurely into his grave. Loyal to a fault, Reagan cannot abandon Chantilly as she was the one who spurred Reagan on after her disastrous divorce to create the Prissy Fox, and promoted it among Chantilly’s friends and UPS clients. Chantilly’s mental instability places her job at risk when she accidentally delivers birth control pills to Sister Donavan in front of the Father Gleason, and somehow Reagan and her dance instructor, Aunt Kiki, find themselves delivering mail for UPS and investigating in the most unlikely of places.
Once again, Reagan is unwillingly rescued by the former bad-boy-turned-mostly-good, Walker Boone, Reagan’s ex-husband’s divorce attorney who helped to fleece her, but now seems overly intrigued and invested in the woman he finds exasperating, embarrassing, and–when teaching belly-dancing herself–alluring. Chantilly will need all the help she can get, as she mostly pity-hires an attorney barely out of law school and spirals between bouts of mournful depression and rage. Although Reagan’s divorce left her financially strapped and forced to work part-time as a tour guide through historical Savannah, she still finds time to investigate, break-and-enter, and imperil herself as she tracks down Simon’s many rejected girlfriends and enraged men. With a judgmental mother who is literally a judge running for city council, Reagan must rely on martini-fueled war councils with her aunt as she wades through dumpsters, crawls through bat-poop, and fends off gators.
When venturing into these , readers will find themselves in an absurd world full of insane eccentrics where the oddest of behavior is looked upon with politeness. Aunt Kiki spouts Cher-aphorisms learned while working as a roadie for the singer, and Reagan’s Uncle Putter is nicknamed for his ever-present golf club. Boone infuriates Reagan as much as she relies on him for advice and information, but she’s not above throwing him to the figurative wolves disguised as predatory senior ladies and lonely bakers. While the mystery of Simon’s murder spurs the plot, readers will enjoy this second in the series for its wild humor, outrageous characters and compassionate heroine with a sarcastic wit. The author has created a rollicking read where realism is set aside and one is ensured the experience of a fun, crazy, and always surprising ride.
Cat Nap: A Sunny & Shadow Mystery By Claire Donally
Review by Cynthia Chow
After she left New York City to care for her father when he fell ill, Sonata “Sunny” Coolidge lost both a relationship and her job as a reporter and now promotes tourism for Maine Adventure X-perience in Kittery Harbor. Winter may be a slow time for business, but it does allow her to spend time with her father who has slowly regained his health and reached a tentative détente with their furry feline roommate Shadow. An evening out together has Sunny and Mike Coolidge witnessing a confrontation between a mystery man and Jane Rigsdale, a former schoolmate turned veterinarian whom Sunny admires, but also can’t help but resent for Jane’s perfect poise and pursuit of their mutual male interest, Constable Will Price. The etiquette that would prevent Sunny from poking her nose into Jane’s business is discarded when a consultation to treat Shadow’s ice melt-damaged paws results in Jane’s venting about her ex, Martin Rigsdale, her former vet partner whose financial schemes ran up debt while he charmed both women and their pets.
With that knowledge Sunny is able to head-off Martin’s attempt to seduce her into convincing Jane to give him some of the funds of the foundation she runs, shattering his smooth façade after which he leaves with veiled threats against Jane. The surprise though, is that when Jane asks for Sunny’s support and a ride to his office, it’s Martin whom they discover dead with his nymph of a receptionist accusing them of murder.
Although Jane herself seems to be unconcerned about her situation, Will’s past history with Jane has him asking–awkwardly and probably quite inappropriately–for Sunny’s help in supporting Jane and acting as a go-between in the police investigation. Having left Kittery Harbor to return years later Sunny, Jane and Will are all looked upon as outsiders in the very protective and insular community. Sunny’s reporter instincts override most of her common sense, luring her to discovery and pursuit of a piece of evidence in the form of Russian cigarettes that leads to East European mobsters, while her father’s girlfriend’s network of gossipers provides additional insight into Martin’s lecherous shenanigans.
In this second of a very well-crafted cozy mystery series, Sunny and Shadow return to work separately but ultimately unite for one exciting conclusion. Alternating sections are narrated from Shadow’s viewpoint and his distinctly feline insight adds a layer of observation on human behavior. His surveillance of Mike Coolidge’s attempt to romance his lady Helena Martinson is a delight, especially when it is foiled by Shadow’s unwelcoming confrontation with her new puppy that literally scares the pee out of him.
Refreshing as well is the author’s glimpse into the psychology of a somewhat damaged cat, prone to jealousy, pouting and abandonment issues. While Shadow does know Sunny as his housemate, he regards the rest of the humans as Old Man, Gentle Hands and One Who Reeks. Jane expresses the frustration shared by many veterinarians who face the difficulties of balancing the needs of animals with the wishes of their owners which are often based on emotional, financial, or selfish motives. Sunny herself has a delightful snarky streak to her and her sarcastic humor highlights her backbone and sharp wit. Despite the sacrifice she made to care for her father, Sunny is no martyr and she has no hesitation in calling out Will on his occasional thoughtless behavior.
Interestingly, for a mystery which features a cat as a main character proper, realistic police procedure is always respected and even Sunny gets reprimanded for her irreverent and investigation-hampering actions. Readers who might falter before venturing into a mystery series with a cat as a main character should not worry about this plot being too unrealistic, as it very believably and entertainingly proves its merit as a well-written novel full of wit, mystery, likable characters, and humor.
Trouble Vision: A Raven’s Nest Bookstore Mystery By Allison Kingsley
Review by Cynthia Chow
Even though the attempt by the mayor of quiet little Finn’s Harbor Maine to conduct an orderly hearing regarding the construction of a new resort hotel goes awry by the disruption of angry protestors, when the construction crew’s foreman falls to his death it is written off by the police as an unfortunate accident. Newly returned resident, Clara Quinn, might also have accepted this were it not for her vision revealing that Scott Delwyn was actually pushed off a beam to fall to his death. Clara is the unwilling recipient of the “Quinn Sense,” a psychic ability to occasionally have visions, sense danger, and recently, hear the thoughts of her adopted dog, Tatters. Much to her dismay, Clara’s powers are growing stronger and causing her to fade out awkwardly in the middle of conversations to have foreboding and unwanted visions.
The irony is that while Clara fears her “curse,” her cousin Stephanie, the owner of the occult and paranormal-themed bookstore the Raven’s Nest, is obsessed with the Quinn Sense and can’t help but envy Clara for her abilities. With the police writing off Scott’s death as an accident and his wife afraid that his strange behavior leading up to it may indicate suicide, Stephanie convinces Clara to investigate the many residents of Finn’s Harbor with reasons for wanting the construction stopped.
Stephanie is more of an encourager than a planner with the result being that she, Clara, and their store assistant Molly often find themselves shortsightedly interrogating witnesses and suspects in shady bars and unsafe construction sites. A seemingly unrelated bank robbery has Clara catching a glimpse of Scott’s ghost haunting the area, hinting that his death and the more recent crime may actually be connected. While Clara often enacts questionable behavior in hiding evidence and not disclosing other witnesses’ testimony to the police, the fact that most of her proof comes from her Sense pretty much supports her beliefs that she will be not be taken seriously by investigators.
Clara’s visions, her cousin’s obvious frustrations at not having them, and Clara’s spurts of conversations with her dog all make for highly entertaining cover-ups, as the two women are the only ones who know about Clara’s Sense. Clara’s inability to predict or control her visions have her highly distrustful of her talents, especially as she blames it for not clearly foretelling the heartbreak that sent her fleeing from New York City back to her hometown in Maine. Her wariness about her instincts also has Clara leery of starting a relationship with hardware store owner Rick Sanders despite her mother’s relentless pleas, prodding, and dictates to start living again.
Although this is a paranormal mystery that is motivated solely by Clara’s visions, it is also a novel about learning to take risks and the close relationship between the two cousins. While the narrative that is mostly from Clara’s point of view indicates that Stephanie often seems to have an overly jealous attitude towards her cousin because of the Sense, a few sections written from Stephanie’s viewpoint reveal a much more sympathetic side and bring the reader around by witnessing her chaotic life of three children, a loyal but somewhat boring husband, and the frightening possibility that she could lose it all.
Allison Kingsley, the prolific author of the third in this series and who also writes under the names Kate Kingsbury, Rebecca Kent, and Doreen Roberts, has written another enjoyable mystery with very likable characters and a light, humorous tone sure to please fans of cozier mysteries.
Bled and Breakfast: An Immortality Bites Mystery By Michelle Rowen
Review by Cynthia Chow
An Elvis wedding in Vegas followed immediately by an assignment in Salem, Massachusetts is not the ideal honeymoon for newlywed and newly dead Sarah Dearly, but as a consultant for the mysterious ruling vampire cabal the Ring she has no choice. It seems that master vampires have been disappearing in the town and Sarah and her seven hundred year-old but still very hot husband, Thierry de Bennicoeur, must investigate who or what is responsible. Upon arrival they are met by the charming lothario vampire, Owen Harper, who after accompanying them to their charming Booberry Inn bed and breakfast is unfortunately assassinated and melted into a puddle of yuck. Their host witches Heather McKinley, her familiar Toad Hoppy and her grandmother Rose aren’t powerful enough to help, especially when Sarah discovers that the Inn is being haunted by the ghost of a Salem Witch Hunter.
The investigation soon takes a sideline when a body switch enforces a three-day time crunch on the crew and Markus Reed, a Ring enforcer and occasionally ally, demands that Sarah discover more about Thierry’s missing fifty years when even he has no recollection of his actions. A spell takes Sarah back to the time when witches were hunted in Salem and Thierry’s less progressive morality may test their love and impact their, and the world’s, future.
The reader learns along with the eight-month newborn vampire Sarah the lore and allure of this world. Vampires can walk in sunlight but get a nasty sunburn, they don’t have reflections, dislike garlic, can’t eat solid food and the hierarchy of power is headed by old Master vampires and powerful Alpha witches. The Ring looms in the background as the mysterious rulers once founded by Thierry, but now alternately threatens and aids their relationship. Mean Girl
Witches and floating head ghosts add elements of humor, while the confusion of just who can and can’t be trusted maintains a high level of suspense and anticipation.
This mystery is so cleverly written and takes so many left turns that the reader is continually surprised and caught off-guard by the many twists and turns the author throws into the plot. Rowen has taken what was initially a paranormal romance series and transformed it into a new, extremely complex, “paranormal” with nuanced mythology and very complicated characters. While this is the second in the Immortality Bites Mystery Series, it is actually the seventh in the Immorality Bites Paranormal Romance series featuring Sarah Dearly, with readers easily able to catch up without having read them all. The dialogue is extraordinarily witty, with Sarah never sounding too snarky or snippy but instead understandably exasperated with an enjoyable touch of sarcasm. The relationship between Sarah and her much, much, much older husband is just as naturally and believably constructed, and their level of love and trust is so refreshing to observe. This is one of the most enjoyable fantasy mysteries being written today and I look forward to every new installment with huge anticipation.
Gluten for Punishment by Nancy J. Parra
Review by Sandra Murphy
You’d think it takes some kind of nerve to open a gluten-free bakery in the middle of wheat country, but maybe it just takes an inheritance which includes the childhood home, all the relatives and especially a Grandma who bears watching.
Toni Holmes hopes to get enough publicity to draw people into the bakery. She should have wished for only good publicity because, during her welcome speech, someone in the crowd threw two bags of flour that hit the building and burst. The unflattering photo on the paper’s front page shows Toni and the members of the Chamber of Commerce with mouths open, covered in white, ribbon cutting scissors still in hand. Flour can cause more than embarrassment for Toni, who has celiac disease (no tolerance for gluten).
The vandalism escalates with the discovery of a dead guy in the water trough in front of the bakery. He’d been spray painting the storefront when someone bashed him over the head and left him in just enough water to drown. Toni seems a likely suspect since he’d heckled her welcome speech the day before that, and who else is at work at 4 a.m.
Sales at the bakery are up and newspaper sales have tripled as residents read the latest escapades. Half the town turns out to wait in the bakery when word gets out a search warrant will be served. Toni’s the only one who is not allowed inside.
Broken lights, slashed tires, more spray paint and finally vandalism at Toni’s home are enough to drive a person to drink. Tasha, Toni’s BFF, takes her in when her house is deemed unsafe, helps her shop for a new wardrobe to replace what was slashed and helps all she can, in spite of a special needs child, a job, a B&B, a new boyfriend and the worry about the mortgage on the B&B. It was sold by the bank and the new mortgage holder says higher interest rates or twice monthly payments, neither of which are in the budget.
Toni has vowed no more men for her, so of course she’s got two handsome hunks interested. Add in the amount of trouble Grandma and her boyfriend Bill can get into and there’s not a spare minute in the day.
The killer stayed a mystery to the end and that makes for a satisfying read with just enough clues to give the reader some ideas, but not enough to give away the identity of who did it.
The side characters are good. Meghan who now works part-time in the bakery, Tasha and her son Kip, Grandma and Bill, brother Tim and more. There are an overwhelming number of relatives and Toni’s mom put a codicil on her will when she left the huge house to Toni: take in whoever needs a place to stay. That should make for enough characters for a long series to come.
Information about gluten-free eating is included, but not in an information dump or distraction from the story. Recipes for chocolate chip pumpkin muffins, mini salmon quiches, cream cheese mini quiches, Danish, apple cinnamon raisin muffins, and blueberry coffee cake are also included! Parra recommends starting with a gluten-free mix and once you get the hang of gluten-free baking, mixing your own.
To enter to win a copy of all 5 Penguin mysteries, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “June,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen June 15, 2013. U.S. residents only.
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More mystery reviews, short stories, articles and giveaways can be found in this issue, and those and others can be found in our mystery section.