by Cynthia Chow
& Sandra Murphy
This week we have four more Penguin mysteries for your reading fun with flowers, thrift shops, farming and the islands! The Darling Dahlias and the Texas Star By Susan Wittig Albert, Buried in Bargains By Josie Belle, Golden Malicious: An Orchard Mystery By Sheila Connolly and Afoot on St. Croix: A Mystery in the Islands By Rebecca M. Hale. Details at the end of this post on how to win copies of all four books.
The Darling Dahlias and the Texas Star By Susan Wittig Albert
Review by Sandra Murphy
Elizabeth Lacy is the president of the Darling Dahlias–Darling, Texas that is. The Dahlias are named for Dahlia Blackstone, gardener extraordinaire, who left her house and gardens to the local garden club to use as a clubhouse. Elizabeth is also the garden columnist for the Darling Dispatch and full time secretary to Mr. Moseley, attorney-at-law. Add in a mother who is the definition of helicopter mom (hovering), a boyfriend who assumes they’ll get married, and an economy that’s tanked–well; Elizabeth hardly has time to take a breath.
This weekend is the Watermelon Festival and surely the Dahlias can do a better job running it than the Masonic Lodge did last year. That’s when Mr. Burley’s milk goats got loose and snacked on all the blossoms in the Dahlia’s booth. The Ladies Club tent collapsed, the Eastern Star ran out of hot dogs before the day was half over and a small fire started when the Chamber of Commerce’s popcorn machine malfunctioned. Mrs. Peabody broke her nose when she fell off the stage while awarding the title of 1931’s Darling Baby to Bluebelle Stark. How bad could this year be? Don’t ask.
This year, the Dahlias have a new event: Lily Dare, the Texas Star and the Dare Devils. Angel Flame will perform the Dive of Death, a parachute jump while holding a smoking flare in each hand. She’ll land on a mattress (provided by Mann’s Mercantile)! For $1, a carload of folks can come watch the daredevils; for a penny a pound, the truly daring can get a plane ride.
Things do tend to get complicated. The bank president is hosting Lily’s stay in his home, but he’s as nervous as a cat and away from home as much as possible. Could rumors be true? Did he know Lily before the event? Are Lily and her flying partner, Rex, a couple? Is Angel a co-performer or competition?
When Lily goes missing, the Dahlias fear the worst–far worse than Mrs. Peabody’s broken nose or the popcorn induced fire.
This is a heavily character-driven story and you’ll be captivated by all of them, especially Elizabeth. You’ll certainly want to stop by Myra May’s diner for fried chicken or meat loaf served with two sides and all the coffee you want for 30c. Add another dime and you’ll have a slice of the best pie you’ve ever tasted! If you want to go upscale and can afford it, have dinner at the Old Alabama Hotel where you’ll have to pay a dollar for a meal of tomato frappe, asparagus vinaigrette, bacon-wrapped filet mignon and a maple nut sundae for dessert.
Texas Star follows the Cucumber Tree, the Naked Ladies, and the Confederate Rose.
Included at the back of the book are depression era recipes for meals like, pulled pork with white sauce (a mayo based sauce rather than barbeque), grits and sausage casserole, pecan jumbles, sweet potato meringue pie and cheese custard pie.
Susan Wittig Albert also writes the China Bayles’ herb shop mysteries (23 of those), Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter mysteries and two non-fiction books. She also co-authors with her husband, Bill Albert, and uses the name of Robin Paige.
Buried in Bargains By Josie Belle
Review by Sandra Murphy
The Thrift Shop Girls are on the move and ready to score big on discounted wrapping paper. Maggie Gerber has a resale shop, so the 75% off bargain will allow her to offer free gift wrap for purchases from her shop. The only thing is they have to get by Summer Phillips first. Summer owns Second Time Around and thinks that bigger and better means best and less is more where clothes are concerned. Her sense of décor and decorum is widely different from Maggie’s.
When Bianca Madison donates a truckload of vintage evening gowns to Maggie’s shop, Summer just about blows a gasket. Bianca wants to continue her mother’s tradition of an annual formal ball and the donated dresses will allow all the invited guests an opportunity to dress in the best without the usual price tag.
One of the Good Buy Girls, Joanne, is pregnant. Her husband, Michael, has hired Diane at the deli and not mentioned it. Is it for a less than acceptable reason or to let Joanne concentrate on baby things instead of work? The Girls kick into high gear when Michael is found unconscious in the deli with Diane lying next to him. When he finally comes to, he’s unable to remember what happened–in fact, he thinks he’s still at the ball and wants to know where the music is?
Add in a little boy whose holiday wish is for Daddy to come home from Afghanistan, two men interested in Maggie but each wanting to stay out of the other’s way plus holiday shoppers, and it’s a wonder the Girls have time to take a breath.
This is a character driven series, filled with people you’d like to meet (maybe not Summer, although she’d sure try to get your attention) and stores in which you’d love to shop. Information about vintage clothing is there but not overpowering. It’s the third in a series that I hope continues for many more books. 50% Murder and A Deal to Die For are the first two books. I think you’ll want to read all three.
Golden Malicious: An Orchard Mystery By Sheila Connolly
Review by Cynthia Chow
Meg Corey had been hoping that with her first year as the owner of a Granford, Massachusetts apple orchard under her belt, her next one would be a little easier and run a lot smoother. However, she wasn’t expecting to deal with a summer heat wave and drought that has her and her orchard manager, Briana “Bree” Stewart, driving a tractor to manually spray and irrigate the trees daily, while being forced to ignore the daily upkeep of her home, required by an older farm. As much as Meg as has found herself unexpectedly enjoying her role as an orchard owner, she is definitely feeling the restrictions of budgeting that has her sweltering and parceling out repairs.
Meg’s boyfriend, Seth Chapin, has a far more exciting prospect when he is given the opportunity to restore the home of Donald Butterfield, after a speeding drunk driver took out a corner of one of the town’s oldest houses. On the way to Jonas Nash’s sawmill to search for the proper wood to be used on the project; Meg’s unfortunate track record of being involved in death comes into play when she discovers the body of Donald Clapp hidden nearby. While the police are happy to write the death off as an accident, Meg has her doubts, especially when she spots a very unusual and ugly bug that turns out to be the Asian long-horned beetle in the woods. A declared harmful species, the only method of eradicating the pest is to cut down and destroy the inhabited trees in a process which would destroy the already struggling sawmill, and hamper any plans by Nash to sell. Did Clapp discover the bug and was he killed to prevent him from reporting the sight to the authorities?
As Meg swelters in the never-ending heat wave, she also finds herself at a crossroads in her relationship with Seth. Both she and Bree are similarly guarded with private personalities that have them protective of their independence, but it seems that others aren’t shy about bringing up the fact that Meg has been coasting along in her relationship with Seth and that he may be someone who needs more. While this is possibly one of the worst times for Meg to be forced into confronting her feelings and her future with Seth, she also realizes that there will never be a perfect time.
In this seventh Orchard Mystery, the author nicely balances information about orchard farming with Meg’s personal life and her inquiries into the death she investigates. The procedures implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study and control invasive species is incorporated well into the novel without overwhelming the reader with confusing details and actually meshes with the plot. Meg’s determination to run an orchard on her own without any experience makes her an admirable character, as she faces each new challenge with good humor and a smidgeon of exasperation. A reliable cast of characters support Meg and make this a strong series that continues its streak of compelling plots with this latest having an added twist of an ending that questions one’s definition of justice.
Afoot on St. Croix: A Mystery in the Islands By Rebecca M. Hale
Review by Cynthia Chow
Former Minnesota resident, Charlie Baker, returns to St. Croix after nearly a decade away living on St. Johns, another of the Virgin Islands, in what could be a last ditch effort to reunite with the children he has had no contact with since their departure. A message from his ex-wife, Mira, summoning him to a reunion comes with both hope and definite reservations, as his previous meetings resulted in alarming blackouts and gaps of memory.
Their marriage had already been on the rocks when Mira’s shopaholic tendencies threatened to bankrupt their family, but the true nail-in-the-coffin was Charlie’s impulsive Hail Mary bid on a vacation trip to St. Croix, that had him falling in love with the islands and Mira falling out of whatever feelings she had for her (current) husband. “Femme Fatale” does not quite describe the lengths–and depths–to which Mira will go in order to maintain the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, and even as she has moved on in her life she definitely has not forgotten those she left behind.
Readers are also introduced to two comically inept criminals–whose con of selling stolen coconuts gets them hijacked into far more deadly machinations–taxi drivers who wile away their time wagering on the body count of feral chicken road-kill, and a young girl whose conspiracy plans ensnare her little brother prove to be as convoluted as any bank robber’s. As this is the island of St. Croix, one can also not ignore the legend of the Goat Foot Woman and how a designer green shoe will play into events.
Charlie Baker, who had a brief but impactful presence in the previous Adrift on St. John, is the only character who reappears in this second of the series, but the Virgin Islands setting is not the only other common element. Both novels share the mystery of characters’ identities that are hidden from the reader and very often from each other. Viewpoints change quickly and while most characters may not be likable, they are eminently interesting. This is a mystery where readers are definitely kept on their toes putting together the clues that make up each character’s history and motivations. Hale’s novels are elaborate puzzle pieces where plots at first seem scattered and unrelated, but ultimately weave together into one surprisingly unified storyline. Complex, funny and with darker tones that share more elements with the black-comedy mysteries written by Tim Dorsey than any cozy, Afoot on St. Croix entertains with its many self-centered characters that are flawed, but sympathetic and all-too-human.
To enter to win a copy of all 4 Penguin mysteries, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Fall,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen October 12, 2013. U.S. residents only.
Click on this link to purchase any of these books & a portion goes to help support KRL!
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.