by Cynthia Chow
& Sandra Murphy
We have one last big batch of fun Penguin mysteries this year! All 5 of these are November releases-we have food, bookstores, cats, supernatural & more: Fixing to Die: A Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper Mystery By Elaine Viets, The Quotient of Murder: A Professor Sophie Knowles Mystery By Ada Madison, The Thrill of the Haunt: A Haunted Guesthouse Mystery By E.J. Copperman, Wedding Cake Killer By Livia J. Washburn, and Words with Fiends By Ali Brandon. Details on how to win copies of all 5 at the end of this post!
Fixing to Die: A Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper Mystery By Elaine Viets
Review by Cynthia Chow
It’s taken a lot of time, but mystery shopper and single mother, Josie Marcus, is ready to start a new phase in her life. She’s finally married to the handsome and very nice veterinarian, Ted Scottsmeyer, and the next step towards building their lives together is a new home in St. Louis without moving too far from Ted’s clinic. Unfortunately, finding the perfect home within their budget is proving to be far more difficult than they had expected, so when the perfect fixer-upper seems to fall into their laps they would be foolish not to accept it. The sister of Ted’s business partner, Christine Cormac, has suddenly run off, leaving Chris with an inherited lemon of a house that she is willing to sell to Josie and Ted at a bargain price. Josie may not know how to cook or design a functional kitchen, but years of mystery shopping have enabled her to spot a good deal on a Tudor cottage when she sees one.
What no one could have predicted was that in the middle of renovations the dog of one of the workers would dig up a corpse in the backyard, a body that is quickly identified as being Rain Siobhan Dillion, Chris’s sister and whom everyone believed had run off to join an ashram after a breakup with her latest boyfriend.
When evidence and damning testimony from a neighbor link Chris to the crime, the police believe that they have their culprit, leaving Ted with the burden of supporting their veterinary clinic on his own and Josie scrambling to save their dream home.
The stars finally align when, coincidentally, her boss Harry, at Suttin Services, assigns her the task as working as an investigator for the American Kitchen Contractor’s organization to vet a contractor as well as mystery shop at a green hardware store that sells recycled materials.
With Ted overwhelmed and exhausted at work and her monster-in-law, Leonore, threatening to take her husband’s private plane and descend upon them for a visit, Josie devotes her mystery shopping skills to blend in and find the truth in order to help free Chris and return her three children from her ex-husband’s custody.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of this series is the warm relationships between Josie, her mother and her daughter. Refreshingly, they all get along, as in her mother’s eyes Josie can do no wrong and Amelia has yet to hit that “despising-her-mother-teen” phase. Amelia, in fact displays the same considerable detecting skills as her mother when she and her friends are bullied on Facebook and at their expensive private school by mean girls whom the administration is unwilling to punish.
With a strong belief in justice and admirable strength to stand up for their own beliefs, Josie and her family enjoyably and very cleverly solve their mysteries wielding considerable wit, sarcasm and the occasional sneakiness. Viets is always a reliable author for mysteries whose put-upon heroines ultimately find the strength and humor to ultimately emerge victorious.
The Quotient of Murder: A Professor Sophie Knowles Mystery By Ada Madison
Review by Cynthia Chow
In a brilliant move to squeeze in more classes and tuition, Henley College has begun offering January Intercession classes lasting four weeks during the coldest season in Massachusetts. Mathematics professor, Dr. Sophie Knowles, loves teaching, but not so much in the heat-deprived, freezing Benjamin Franklin Hall. The extra funds to the college though will help with the restoration of the carillon in the formerly closed bell tower, now being reopened after twenty-five years. That was when a young student jumped, fell, or was pushed from the tower, depending on who was telling the story.
When a favored but recently troubled student is beaten on campus and left in a coma, Sophie’s mathematical mind cannot ignore the logical connection between the attack, the new construction, or the death of a woman with a politically promising father. It is completely against Sophie’s nature to allow a puzzle go unsolved, and with two confronting her at her beloved college there is no way that she will allow either to go unresolved. Whether it involves following a path towards Kirsten Packard’s connection with a possible bank robbery or corralling in her students to study surveillance tapes, Sophie will explore every avenue available to both protect her students and tie up every loose end. However, she will face considerable distractions when she becomes the target of a cyber-stalker who messes with her credit rating, floods her email and impersonates a puzzle editor.
Surrounding Sophie are the usual eccentric, brilliant and often odd academics that so enjoyably (for readers) populate the campus. Perhaps one of the strongest elements of the writing is that one always gets a sense that the world continues to go on and the police investigate in the background, even when Sophie is center stage.
After a decade and a half of teaching, Sophie has developed a sharp and acerbic sense of humor to cope with the often frustrating, naive and irresponsible youth. She has never lost her love of mathematics and science though, and this allows her to continue to feel the need to share her knowledge and affection with her promising students. Sophie is a woman who relaxes with brain puzzles, never plans to leave American soil, loves to order the same meal at restaurants (and can’t eat a lobster after watching them battle in a tank in front of her), and prefers staying in the lodge to skiing.
In contrast, her devoted medevac boyfriend, Bruce Granville, who served in the Air Force in Saudi Arabia, ice climbs, never orders the same dinner twice and routinely works at a job where he pilots around telephone poles and towers. Somehow though, their shared sense of humor and love for one another completely meshes into a distinctly mature and very enjoyable relationship.
The author of nearly twenty mysteries, holding a doctorate in physics and writing under the pseudonyms Ada Madison and Margaret Grace, author Camille Minichino has lost none of her edge or her ability to craft ingenious mysteries and complex characters. Sophie is the professor we all wish had had in college and a woman we all want as a best friend. The humor is so wonderfully dry and the author never fails to poke fun at the absurdities unique and ever-present within the academia. Brain teasers at the end of the novel are as complex, witty and enjoyable as the mystery itself, continuing the author’s track record at crafting original and skillfully written novels.
The Thrill of the Haunt: A Haunted Guesthouse Mystery By E.J. Copperman
Review by Cynthia Chow
In the almost two years since purchasing the Victorian guesthouse in Harbor Haven on the Jersey Shore, Alison Kerby has grown accustomed to unusual guests and their eccentric demands. However, with her new reputation as a “ghost lady” with two ghosts in residence, Alison is less comfortable with the daily scheduled ghost sightings for ghost hunting–and paying–tours. Even more disconcerting is the discovery that after a bump on the head, Alison gained an ability to see and communicate with ghosts that always manifested within her daughter and mother.
The two ghosts who reside within the guesthouse have their own demands on Alison, and a very bored formerly-living former private investigator, Paul Harrison, has induced Alison to obtain a P.I. license so that he can play Nero Wolfe to Alison’s Archie Goodwin for both corporal and ghostly clients. Alison is less than enthusiastic about this endeavor, and as a result she rejects the plea by homeless vet, Everett, to help with the ghosts he believes are following him. Only when the poor man is murdered and the bullying former Parent Teacher Student Organization queen bee goads Alison into investigating, does Alison allow her guilt and pride force her into looking into his case.
On the more earthly side, the other resident ghost, Maxie Malone, pressures Alison into accepting an ironically living client in order to prod Paul out of his depression. Helen Boniface believes that her husband is cheating on her with one of his clients, the twist being that Helen wants evidence to blackmail her husband into staying married. It gets even more complicated when the Other Woman turns up dead.
While Paul is grounded in the house Alison owns and where he was murdered, Maxie is unfortunately free to both aid and hinder Alison in her investigations. When a guest decides that it is her duty to exorcise the ghosts from the guesthouse, Alison displays more patience than most by not only diplomatically dealing with the eccentric woman, but in not waiting until Maxie’s immature and self-centered spectral presence is removed first.
The price of all of this paranormal activity is not just a reputation as the Ghost Lady, but the jeopardizing of her relationship with a really good guy. Alison has been keeping a secret from Josh that the ghosts and her ability to communicate with them, is real and not just a marketing ploy. Alison’s track record with men is not spectacular and Paul’s inappropriate and impossible jealousy definitely does not help matters when it comes to her ability to trust.
Once again, the author whose secret identity is that of Jeffrey Cohen, charms readers in this fifth installment in the series with fast and witty dialogue and characters who can be as exasperating as they are endearing. The relationships between Alison, her mother, daughter Melissa and now her ghostly father continue to mature in a loving manner and are a joy to witness. The toll Hurricane Sandy placed upon the Shore is always in the background as the plot takes so many clever twists and turns that the reader will never see the ending coming. When combined with the author’s trademark humor and keen writing, readers will be wishing that the novel and the series never end.
Wedding Cake Killer By Livia J. Washburn
Review by Sandra Murphy
After her husband’s death, Phyllis Newsom opened her home to boarders–other retired school teachers like herself. They settled into a nice routine until Eve meets Roy online. Once he traveled from Houston to meet her, it was love at first sight. Now the wedding is on, complete with bridal shower and all.
Eve’s been married a couple of time before, Phyllis thinks, but a shower is a good idea since Eve has none of her own things for setting up house now. At the shower, two of the older teachers get into a screaming match, one saying the other drank throughout the school day. The other one comes back with an accusation of favoritism for football players. Since they are both right, there’s nothing to do but separate them and open the gifts.
Luckily, the wedding comes off without a hitch. Threatened snow bypasses the area, there’s enough food, guests are plentiful and the bride and groom look radiant. The house seems empty with Eve and Roy on their honeymoon.
Things liven up, so to speak, on their return. Roy found a B&B outside of town that had a great view and he would like to stay there with his new bride instead of at Phyllis’ house. Phyllis knew Eve would find another place to live but harbored hope that Roy would change his mind and move in with Eve instead. Now Roy wants their first night home to be at the B&B–they even checked in before returning to the house. Eve moves a few things to the B&B but the rest will have to wait until they find a home of their own.
Phyllis’ son Mike is a deputy in town. She can always tell something is wrong, just by looking at him. He has to break the news that Roy has been found dead and the police are looking for Eve. She shows up at Phyllis’ house a short time later, unaware of Roy’s death. They are all caught, unaware that the cause was murder. Roy was found in their room, stabbed with Eve’s letter opener, one she swears was still at Phyllis’ house. A lawyer is retained, bail is set and Phyllis is determined to find out what really happened.
A private detective named Tess shows up at the funeral and disillusions Eve even further when she reveals Roy was nothing but a cheap con artist after Eve’s money. Eve refuses to believe it until the proof piles up beyond any doubt. Add in that Eve has been married four times before and more than one husband died under questionable circumstances and no wonder people, including the police, think Eve is to blame for Roy’s death.
Phyllis and Sam (another retired teacher/boarder) have a good, solid relationship. Carolyn can be judgmental and a little shrill at times, but is a good friend to have around. Juliette the lawyer is a nice addition to the cast of characters as is Mike, Phyllis’ son. The district attorney, of course, is someone a reader will love to hate.
There are a lot of twists and turns in this book. I tried to figure out who did it but then settled back and enjoyed the read instead. There are a number of good suspects which include Roy’s former victims. It’s nice to read a book where the characters are retirement age, still active and involved in the community and still falling in love.
Since the series is called The Fresh Baked Mysteries due to Phyllis’ love for baking, recipes abound at the back of the book. They include: Sweet Bacon Crackers, Nutty Caramel Pretzels, Cheddar Garlic Palmiers, Stuffed Mushrooms, Zesty Cheeseball, Mini Curried Turkey Croissant Sandwiches, Blue Punch, Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cupcakes, Buttercream Frosting, Chocolate Buttercream Frosting, Fruit Dip, Veggie Dip, Coconut Wedding Cake, White Coconut Buttercream Icing, Pina Colada Punch (no alcohol), S’more Pie, Grilled Ham and Pepper Sandwiches, Banana Oatmeal Crumb Muffins, Tuna Salad Sandwich, Hard Boiled Eggs, Cobb Wraps. There’s also an excerpt from Fatal Funnel Cakes, the next in the series, available now.
Words with Fiends By Ali Brandon
Review by Sandra Murphy
Darla Peterson owns a bookstore, inherited along with two apartments in the building, has a cat named Hamlet and is pretty satisfied with her life so far. James is a former professor and a great addition to the staff at the store, Robert a former homeless kid, Goth inclined, but with a big heart and a willingness to help. Darla and Robert also belong to the same dojo for martial arts classes, both working toward the first belt, yellow.
There are a few annoying things happening of course. Hamlet is down in the dumps and not in the mood to stalk customers through the store and pounce on them. Mark, one of the book club members, is loud, obnoxious and socially inept. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get away from him since he belongs to the same dojo. On the other hand, Jake, a former police officer (female) who is now a private investigator and Darla’s tenant, share a love for crime, ice cream and a relaxing chat at the end of the day. Too bad her policy is to never discuss her clients.
Darla and Robert are thrilled when Sensei says they are ready for the yellow belt test. They are to meet him at the dojo when it will just be the three of them and that should help reduce their anxiety. However, when they show up, Sensei’s dog Roma, an Italian Greyhound is outside in the bitter cold. The door is unlocked and Robert finds Sensei’s body in the dressing room. Valiant efforts to revive him fail and things go downhill fast after that.
Robert takes the little dog home with him since Sensei’s adult (adopted) sons have never liked her. He hopes the dog can be his always but there are snags in that plan too. Darla doesn’t want to involve herself in another case but then again, she knows the people at the dojo. What at first looked like a suicide, turns out to be murder and the hunt is on for the killer. Could it be Chris, the hot-headed teen who Sensei banned from the next competition? Or Chris’ mom who supposedly has mob ties? The adopted sons look good for it too and the new widow–cold as a fish.
Along the way, the reader will find out a lot about martial arts, but it’s done in such an unobtrusive way, it never gets in the way of the story. The dog and cat are a delightful addition to the cast of characters. I hope we’ll see more of the animal rescue group in future books. Martha and James seem to be hitting it off well and Darla and the detective– that remains to be seen.
The Black Cat Bookshop Mysteries include: Double Booked for Death, A Novel Way to Die.
To enter to win a copy of all 5 mysteries, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Penguin,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen December 21, 2013. U.S. residents only.
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