by Cynthia Chow
& Sandra Murphy
We have another fun group of 5 Penguin mysteries which includes one perfect for Halloween month, Literally Murder: A Black Cat Bookshop Mystery by Ali Brandon. We also have Off Kilter: A Scottish Highlands Mystery by Hannah Reed, Weave of Absence by Carol Ann Martin, Bless Her Dead Little Heart by Miranda James, and Gilt Trip by Laura Childs with Diana Orgain. Details on how to win a copy of all 5 books at the end of this post, along with a link to purchase them where a portion goes to help support KRL.
Literally Murder: A Black Cat Bookshop Mystery By Ali Brandon
Review by Cynthia Chow
It’s spring break for Hamlet the bookstore cat and his human companion Darla Pettistone, in this delightful fourth Black Cat Bookshop Mystery. Okay, it’s not actually spring break, but Hamlet and the Pettistone’s Fine Books’ owner are on a free trip to Fort Lauderdale at the end of February, the perfect time to escape the last freezing remnants of a Brooklyn winter. Hamlet’s attendance at the Feline Society of America National Championship in Florida wouldn’t seem to be such an unusual occurrence, but while he may resemble a mini-panther, Hamlet is far from purebred. Hamlet’s mimicry of Darla’s martial arts skills, captured on video (and depicted in Words with Fiends) made him a YouTube sensation. The “Karate Cat” has been asked to be the guest of honor, with Darla Pettistone along for the ride.
Hamlet travels with his own entourage including Jacqueline “Jake” Martelli, a former cop turned private investigator to act as his official bodyguard. Jake’s mother Natalie is a volunteer and friend of the president of the FSA, and that has something to do with it, although Nattie has her own reasons for wanting Jake there. It seems that $50,000 has gone missing from her condo association’s accounts. Whispers of blame are being placed on Natttie’s good friend, the association president, Billy Pope. He’s the multi-millionaire head judge for the FSA so it makes things more incestuous, considering that his daughter is the show’s chairwoman.
While FSA volunteers are prepared to handle a runaway kitten, they are less than equipped to deal with half-naked animal rights protestors and acts of sabotage. What seemed like harmless pranks turn deadly when Jake is attacked and Hamlet kidnapped, only to have him show up next to a body. The police detective proves refreshingly competent to lead the investigation so the New Yorkers explore Florida when not enmeshed in cat show events. However, that doesn’t mean that they’ll ignore information that comes their way, especially with pressure from Nattie to clear Billy.
While readers might miss the charming Brooklyn bookstore, rest assured the Florida setting and chaos of a cat show more than compensate. The author, who also writes under her own name, Diane A.S. Stuckart, takes full advantage of the cuisine, people, and obsessions that make Florida enjoyably unique. Descriptions of the complexities of cat show judging are neither extraneous nor confusing, as they emphasize the arduous care and affection owners and judges have for their feline charges. Jake connects with a three-legged kitten, whose condition is all too relatable for the injured-on-the-job Jake.
This fourth book is my favorite of the series. Not only is the investigation so natural and intelligently plotted, but the friendship between Jake and Darla shows the realistic affection and respect they have for each another. Nattie is feisty without being irritating. Her exuberance balances her more grounded daughter. Darla and Hamlet make an unbeatable and entertaining team. There’s never a doubt about who sits in the catbird seat in their relationship. This is Hamlet’s series after all. While he continues to drop literary clues, Darla and the reader will always be one step behind the wily escape artist. Be prepared for a surprising, but satisfying, conclusion.
Off Kilter: A Scottish Highlands Mystery By Hannah Reed
Review by Cynthia Chow
If anyone needs a change of scenery and a break from normal life, it is Eden Elliot. Shattered by the death of her mother and her marriage, Eden is given a gift by her best friend—a round-trip ticket from Chicago to the Scottish Highlands, with a return date six months away. Eden can take the time to refresh, restart, and do research for the contemporary romance novel she wants to write. On the flight, Eden meets Vicki MacBride, a talkative Londoner, who is also going to Glenkillen but for a sadder reason. She’ll attend her estranged father’s funeral and claim her inheritance.
Vicki’s half-siblings are less than thrilled with the results of the will and contest her inheritance of the family’s sheep farm. When the sheep shearer who called Vicki back to Glenkillen is found murdered with his own clippers, evidence seems to implicate Vicki. The townspeople are all too willing to lay blame on the outsider. A fire at the inn where Eden is staying, has Eden similarly ostracized.
Inspector Kevin Jamieson is refreshingly intelligent and open-minded. His volunteer Special Constable Sean Stevens, is far more enthusiastic than competent. The charming Leith Cameron further welcomes Eden to her temporary home, although the mentions of “his girl” puts a damper on their flirting. Not that Eden believes in true love anymore, of course. While Eden grew up devouring romance novels, she has since lost her ability to believe in fairy tale happy endings.
One can’t help but sympathize with Eden as she struggles to be accepted, to cope with indecipherable accents and to remember to drive on the left side of the road. The author nicely balances out antagonists with very likable characters, and even the rather flighty Vicki wins one over with her generous spirit and vulnerabilities.
The author, who also writes the Queen Bee Mystery series as well as books under her own name, Deb Baker, presents a grounded book with subtle, but very present, humor. As a former editor and ghostwriter, Eden attempts to craft her Scottish romance novel. Readers get to see the joys and struggles of a writer as words both fall onto the page and stumble into a complete writer’s block. The author revels in descriptions of the country, as well as its more unique cuisine (vegetarian haggis is actually far more palatable than blood sausage).
This is a book to be enjoyed for its charming Scottish setting, a struggling author of a heroine, and characters who reveal multiple aspects of themselves become both real and relatable to readers.
What also makes this novel a standout is the very timely focus on Scotland, just as the eyes of the world fell on the country while it debated its state of independence.
Weave of Absence By Carol Ann Martin
Review by Sandra Murphy
Marnie Potter is getting married. She’s the fiftyish, part-time employee of the Dream Weavers store and full-time baker of the treats served in Coffee, Tea or Destiny, the little shop at the rear of the building. She’s been quiet about her boyfriend. In fact, no one knew about him until they announced their engagement. Bruce is a retired financial consultant who decided to relocate to a warmer, drier climate than Seattle.
Della, Dream Weaver’s owner, throws a surprise shower for Marnie at the shop and is herself surprised, to see Bruce come along. He stays for the party but is seen flirting–in deep discussion– arguing–with several of the guests. The next morning, he shocks Marnie with the announcement that they shouldn’t stay in Briar Hollow (North Carolina), but move further south. Ordinarily that would be a deal-breaker for Marnie, but she’s so besotted with him, it might just happen, and then what would become of Dream Weavers and the coffee shop?
The next morning, Della decides to drop by Helen’s house. She’s the mousy retired librarian who argued with Bruce. If there’s going to be trouble in paradise, Della would rather find out before Marnie gets hurt.
However, it’s Helen who gets hurt. Della can see her lying on the couch, still dressed for the party and it doesn’t look like she’s breathing. The medical examiner calls it strangulation but during the autopsy, it’s found to have been cyanide poisoning. Either way, it’s murder.
Things get tricky as Della tries to find out more about Bruce from Marnie who is protective of him and their relationship. Della’s friend, Matthew, is a crime writer with connections in the police department. Between the two of them and his sources, they’re able to find out Bruce is not Bruce! It’s a case of identity theft. Della panics when she finds out Bruce and Marnie have taken out a million dollar life insurance policy on each other. Will Marnie be his next victim?
Della’s sure Bruce killed Helen. After all, as soon as news of her death was out, Bruce decided Briar Hollow was the right place to stay. His background is full of lies, his motive a good one once they untangle it, and he had the opportunity. Too bad his body is the next to turn up, with Marnie’s engagement ring nearby and her fingerprints on the vase that killed him.
Della and Matthew have to step up their snooping to rescue Marnie. Luckily, there are other suspects. Melinda was seen in a tense discussion with Bruce, Nancy knew him years ago, Liz is acting weird and then there’s the possibility his death came about because of his lies and con artist lifestyle. The question is–did Bruce kill Helen and then someone killed him or is there one killer? Either way, a murderer still walks among them.
Margaret still works in the coffee shop for Jenny, who reads the tarot cards or tea leaves between pouring coffee and serving scones. Marnie is a weaving machine herself as she uses the loom even faster when she’s upset. Matthew–well, he’s being more affectionate to Della, which is a good thing. Della’s mom believes they belong together and she’s finally come around to Mom’s way of thinking. Now they’re just waiting for Matthew to catch up. Winston, Matthew’s French bulldog, steals every scene he’s in and thankfully, there are a number of them. He even gets to show his guard dog personality and be a hero more than once.
Winston is not the only reason I enjoy this series so much, but he’s a big part of it. The characters squabble at times, but the love they have for each other shines through. Each of the women is finding her way to happiness and making adjustments as needed along the way.
Dream Weavers is a place you’d like to go for lessons on weaving or at least to watch someone else do it. Coffee, Tea and Destiny would be a great place to hang out and find out your own future.
The previous two books, Looming Murder and Tapestry of Lies, were reviewed for KRL. There are weaving tips at the back of this book. My only disappointment is that the recipe for Melinda’s pecan rolls wasn’t there too.
Bless Her Dead Little Heart By Miranda James
Review by Sandra Murphy
You may remember Diesel, the Maine Coon cat from the Charlie Harris Cat in the Stacks mystery series? His friends, the Ducote sisters, An’gel and Dickce figure prominently in those books (Murder Past Due, Classified as Murder, File M for Murder, Out of Circulation and The Silence of the Library).
This is the first book in a spin off series (Southern Ladies) where the Ducote sisters get all the limelight, though shared with Diesel, who is visiting while Charlie and his family vacation.
An’gel has laid down the law, as forcefully as one can with a thirty-six pound cat! No scratching the rugs or furniture, no begging at the table and be sure to use the litter box. Diesel is too well-mannered for scratching and too cute for begging not to work. Things look like they’ll proceed smoothly–until the doorbell rings.
An’gel and Dickce should have hidden behind the couch instead of answering the door. Outside stands Rosabelle Sultan, a former sorority sister. They haven’t seen her in years and haven’t missed her a bit. Rosabelle can take Drama Queen to a whole new level.
It seems she’s run off from her family in California. Rosabelle claims they are trying to kill her; water on the stairs, food poisoning–nothing that can be proved, but the incidents are too frequent to be accidents. She’s come to ask for sanctuary with the sisters since her family will never guess where she’s gone.
Either the family is smarter than Rosabelle gives them credit for, or she left a set of blatant clues for them to follow because before dinner is served, relatives start to show up. Of course, they have nowhere to stay…and are hungry…and a drink would be nice after the long drive and so much worry.
Rosabelle has said she’s a three-time widow, which makes things more confusing when Husband Number Three shows up. He’s an Italian count, just back from Italy where he swears his inheritance and title have now been restored to him, thanks to financial aid from Rosabelle.
Once she can lord her title of Countess over the family again, things get a lot worse. Rosabelle has no empathy and seemingly, no maternal feelings. Considering there are now the sisters, Diesel, Rosabelle, her husband, two daughters, a son, daughter-in-law, grandson, step-grandson, granddaughter and hubby’s valet prowling about the house, you need a scorecard to keep up with the players. Of course, when the daughter-in-law (a nasty woman), takes a fatal fall down the stairs, it’s not her ill-advised choice of high heels that did her in. The stairs were wet and the railing greased with Vaseline.
Motives? There are plenty. Rosabelle announces she’s moving to Italy with Number Three which means her children can’t afford to live in the family home because taxes and upkeep out-distance their allowances. Hubby was heard talking to someone about a divorce. Does he have a lover? Does Rosabelle have a clue? Could she be behind the incidents just for the attention and one’s now gone wrong? Of course, with her, it could be she’s bumping off her own children so their trust funds revert to her.
I was a little worried when I started to read this new series. I love Charlie and Diesel and wasn’t sure if the Ducote sisters could carry on alone. I shouldn’t have worried. Dickce makes friends with Benjy, the step-grandson, and carries out a plot to help him after the rest of the family leave (surely they’ll leave sometime!) Benjy, Peanut and Endora (a Labradoodle and cat found by the roadside) will make excellent companions for the sisters.
I loved the book until the last few pages. The ending felt rushed. It’s also confusing to have so many characters and for Rosabelle to be called so many names–Rosabelle, Mrs. Sultan, Contessa, Mom and Grandma. Knowing James’ track record with the other series, I expect book two to be a smooth read and one I’m looking forward to.
Gilt Trip By Laura Childs with Diana Orgain
Review by Sandra Murphy
Carmela and Ava are at it again. They seem to be in the right (or wrong) place at just the right time. They’re at the Welcome Home party for Jerry Earl Leland who has been in prison for some kind of fraud or such. His wife, Margo, has pulled out all the stops and that’s saying something in terms of a New Orleans party.
There was a time when Carmela would have been invited as Shamus’ wife but since the divorce, her lavish evenings are fewer and farther between. Margo enlisted Carmela to make the invitations. After all, that’s what Memory Mine, her scrapbooking/craft store is known for. Margo was so delighted with the results she invited Carmela and a guest to join the fun.
Just after the welcome back speech, Ava spills a bite of Cherries Jubilee on her silk blouse. Carmela is off to find a towel and soda water to remedy the situation when she stumbles across Jerry Earl’s study. It’s a historical dream come true. Who knew Jerry Earl had any depth?
Unfortunately, his depth didn’t extend past his love for history. Carmela’s next stop is the laundry room where towels and napkins are spinning in the dryer, along with a man’s boot–with the man still in it.
Jerry Earl is dead and permanent pressed.
Usually when Carmela finds herself in these situations, she can call on her boyfriend in blue, Detective Babcock. This time, he’s out of town so she decides, finding the body or not, she’s not going to be involved. Margo has other ideas and she knows how to get her way. Despite her misgivings, Carmela and Ava are dragged into another murder investigation.
Ava, as always, finds a new love interest, at least for the moment. Carmela tries to operate under the radar so Babcock won’t hear about her latest escapades. Shamus—well, he never changes.
There’s one thing about Carmela that never changes either and that’s her willingness to put herself in danger to find out what happened. Some risk is inevitable of course but she goes way beyond what is acceptable and usually more than once. This time, she and Ava go to visit former prison buddies of Jerry Earl’s. That visit goes better than expected.
However, the next day, Carmela decides she needs to talk to them again and goes alone. Once there, she texts Ava so “at least somebody will know where to look if I go missing.” Her back-up safety plan? Take her two dogs along. If that’s not bad enough, she leaves her car, takes the dogs and hops in the ex-con’s truck, off to parts of the swamp unknown for more information.
As characters, I like Carmela and Ava. New Orleans is as much a character as anybody. Memory Mine would be a place you’d never want to leave. The regulars would welcome you right to the craft table and explain what to do next. Gabby is not so much in the background, so getting to know her is fun too. The thing that spoils the story is Carmela’s headlong rush into dangerous situations without any thought. Margo is an acquaintance. Getting involved is a stretch, but believable. The trips to the swamp and confrontations with the suspected murderer are not.
This is the eleventh book in the series, the paperback version of last year’s hard cover. Gossamer Ghost, the next in the series, is currently available in hard cover. Recipes in Gilt Trip include: baked shrimp with parsley, banana nut bars, oven-fried Cajun chicken, grilled peanut butter shrimp, crock-pot meatloaf, Juju Voodoo peanut butter cookies, Cajun honey spiced nuts, quick
Childs has also written fifteen Tea Shop Mysteries and six Cackleberry Club books.
To enter to win a copy of all 5 Penguins, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “October,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen October 25, 2014. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
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