Three Mysteries

Valentine Beaumont goes to sea in Arlene McFarlane’s Murder, Curlers & Cruises. When Murder, Curlers & Cruisesshe wins passage on a beauty cruise for her salon, she sets out with Max, Jock, and Phyllis, all of them competing in an onboard makeover contest (with Valentine’s family tagging along). When one of the contestants turns up dead in an ice sculpture and Valentine’s great aunt goes missing, Valentine’s sleuthing skills rise to the occasion, along with a bottle of nail polish remover and a very sturdy nail file. To add to Valentine’s dismay, she’s pretty sure something’s going on with Romero and a cop named Belinda, and who’s leaving that trail of Tic Tacs around the ship? And just how did Valentine’s stilettos end up on that ceiling fan? Another fun adventure, number three in the Murder & Curlers series.

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Lowcountry Bookshop, the seventh book in Susan M. Boyer’s Liz Talbot series, begins with what appears to be a simple hit-and-run case (not that the circumstances in which Liz and Nate enter the case are so simple) but quickly morphs into something far more Lowcountry Bookshopcomplicated. Was the hit-an-run victim an abusive husband? Is the slightly eccentric mail carrier as innocent as she appears to Liz, or as guilty as she appears to the Charleston police detective handling the case? What’s going on at the bookshop, where there appears to be an inexplicably high demand for The Ghosts of Charleston? Why is the blonde in the Honda stalking the mail carrier? And that’s only the beginning.

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Most of this story takes place in Charleston (one almost needs a street map of the city to follow the action), but we do visit Stella Maris long enough to see what antics Liz’ father is up to (involving a pig, three goats and a large hole in the backyard). Liz’ brother and sister pop in, as does Colleen, Liz’ long dead but still active best friend. Another excellent entry in the Lowcountry series.

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Julie Mulhern’s Shadow Dancing is the seventh installment in the Country Club Murders series,set in Kansas City in the 1970s. Ellison Russell and her sixteen-year-old daughter Shadow DancingGrace have an uncomfortable habit of finding bodies, but as this book opens, it’s been quite a while. It’s also been quite a while since Ellison has seen Detective Anarchy Jones. And she’s not entirely sure how she feels about that. The situation changes when Ellison’s socialite mother finds an unidentified box of ashes in her hall closet. A visit to a psychic and a minor traffic incident lead Ellison back into the world of investigating murders, especially when a body turns up on her own driveway. All this may upset her mother, but it also brings Anarchy Jones back to her door.

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Shadow Dancing includes Mulhern’s usual wit and humor, with Grace’s wisecracks, her friend Libba’s terrible taste in men, and some unwelcome surprises for her mother. Mulhern also investigates the serious subject of human trafficking an teen prostitution, as Ellison and Grace do their best to help a girl who calls herself Starry Knight.

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The Country Club Murders is one of my favorite series, with its pre-Internet and cell phone setting. I have not yet read the first book in Mulhern’s new series, Fields’ Guide to Abduction, but it’s waiting on my Kindle.

 

Hollywood and Texas

A while back I read an excellent book on The Searchers: The Making of An American Legend, by Glenn Frankel, so when I saw a review of Don Graham’s Giant, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film (wow, what a subtitle!), I ordered a copy.

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I enjoyed both books very much, but they are quite different in their approaches. Frankel’s The Searchers devotes half the book to the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, the historical background/inspiration for Alan Lemay’s novel, and another section on adapting that novel for the screen (I’ve read the novel, and the second half differs wildly from the movie), with the last third covering the actual making of the movie (which is set in Texas but was filmed in Utah).

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GiantGraham’s Giant, on the other hand, has no real background history to deal with, although both films, released in the second half of the 1950s, deal strongly with the racism of the time. Graham does deal with the troubles inherent in adapting Ferber’s long novel (which I have not read) to the screen in such a manner that it would not be blackballed in Texas (the novel was very cutting in its treatment of the state) and that it would not provoke law suits from the King Ranch and the Kleberg family (moving the setting from the coastal plain near Corpus Christi to barren West Texas near Marfa was a big part of that effort, and gave us that iconic image of the mansion surrounded by . . . nothing).

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The bulk of Graham’s Giant is about the people involved: Taylor, in her early twenties, on her second marriage, barely out of her child actress status; Hudson, in his late twenties, still learning his craft; Dean, in his third and last picture, a maze of contradictions; Ferber, who participated actively in the adaptation but hated much of it, feeling it softened the core of the novel too much; and director George Stevens, trying to make an epic film while wrangling so many personalities.

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The book contains mini-biographies of Taylor and Hudson (both interesting people who remained lifelong friends), but at the center of the story is James Dean, who would be killed in a road accident on September 30, 1955, at the age of 24, before the picture was finished (and before Rebel Without a Cause was released) turning him into a Hollywood legend and a lasting enigma. Was he a sullen, scruffy bad boy? A lost child? A potentially great actor? Who knows? Graham appears to have interviewed everyone who knew Dean (and dug up old interviews with those no longer alive), and found no consensus. Humphrey Bogart may have been right when he said, “Dean died at just the right time. He left behind a legend. If he had lived, he’d never have been able to live up to his publicity.”

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I haven’t watched Giant in many years, and I don’t have a DVD copy, but one of these evenings (when I have three hours plus to spare) I’ll stream it on Amazon. There is also an excellent PBS documentary on the filming of the movie and its effect on Marfa, Children of Giant, available on Amazon Prime.

 

Scattered Science Fiction

The science fiction genre encompasses as much variety of content and style as any other, and I enjoy most of them. Here are three quite different examples I’ve read recently.

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Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series (which treats its dragons as wild animals rather than Within the Sanctuary of Wingsthe sentient beings so popular in science fiction and fantasy) is set in a world comparable to our own in many ways but wildly different in others. I let Within the Sanctuary of Wings sit on my shelf for a long time, and took my time reading it, knowing it was the last of the series; I didn’t want it to end. This fifth volume of Lady Trent’s memoirs started a bit slowly, but in good time Isabella makes her greatest discovery, and with the help of her loyal supporting cast solves the problems that come along with it.

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I wouldn’t recommend this as a stand alone–you want to read the whole series. In fact, I want to read them all again, one of these days, without the yearly wait for the next volume. My only complaint about the series is with Tor’s decision to print the books in odd-colored inks (brownish, reddish, or blueish) probably to better serve the wonderful illustrations, but a bit hard on older eyes.

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If you’ve been following the action in Veronica Scott’s science fiction romance novels set in the Sectors universe, adventures on far flung star ships and colony planets, you’ll Songbirdrecognize some of the supporting actors in Star Cruise: Songbird, a novella originally published in the Pets In Space anthology, but the story works perfectly well as a stand alone. The pet in this tale is Valkyr, a telepathic Qaazimir war eagle bonded to Grant Barton, recently retired from the Sectors military and now working security on the cruise ship Nebula Zephyr. Grant finds himself handling ship-board security for celebrity entertainer Karissa Dawnstar, a famous and widely beloved singer. Not exactly what he signed on for, but his instincts—and Valkyr’s—take over in the face of developments. What is more dangerous, a mob of adoring fans, a lovelorn stalker, or a pair of strangely devoted monks?

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I thoroughly enjoy Scott’s tales, and this one was no exception. Valkyr is as much a character as the hero and heroine, and even manages a bit of romance himself. I’m not sure I’d want to sign on for a cruise on the Nebula fleet—you never know what disaster awaits—but they certainly are fun to read about.

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Lois McMaster Bujold’s long standing series centered around Miles Vorkosigan has been a favorite of mine for a long time. She writes of humanity (if sometimes genetically modified) spread widely through the universe, and the books vary from military science fiction to science fiction romance.

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The Flowers of VashnoiThe Flowers of Vashnoi is a novella, a little gift from Bujold to her legion of fans. Set after Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, it follows Ekaterin Vorkosigan’s discoveries in the radiation-riddled Vashnoi territory and her attempts to bring about restoration of the land. Miles makes a brief appearance, but this is Ekaterin’s story. Someday I’m going to find the time to reread the entire Vorkosigan saga.

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As the years go by (that is, since 2011, when I bought my first Kindle), I find myself reading more and more on e-readers. Along with the general ease of handling and reading, access to hundreds of books on a gadget that fits in my purse, and the instant gratification of downloading a book the instant I want it, I find the easy availability of novellas like Scott’s and Bujold’s to be a real benefit.

 

The Earl, the Vow, and the Plain Jane

The second installment in Cheryl Bolen’s Lords of Eton series finds Jack St. John, known to his friends as Sinjin, elevated to the title Earl of Slade. Lord Slade has enthusiastically taken his place in the House of Lords as a Whig, and has made a success of his public life, but his personal life is something else. The family coffers are lower than low, and Slade has three sisters to present and dower, and a crumbling ancestral home, not to mention the promise he made to his dying father. He’s leased out the family’s London house and rented rooms for himself, but he can’t even afford to keep a carriage. It seems the only solution must be to marry an heiress. A very wealthy heiress.

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The Earl the Vow the Plain JaneMiss Jane Featherstone has long felt a tender admiration for Lord Slade, but she and her father, a leading Whig in the House of Commons, are poor as the proverbial church mice, and Jane believes herself to be hopelessly plain. Her cousin and dearest friend, Lady Sarah Bertram, however, is beautiful, extremely wealthy, and about to be presented to society.

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Small wonder Lord Slade should focus his interest on Lady Sarah.

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As if that weren’t distressing enough to Jane, Slade proceeds to ask for her help in courting her cousin.

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Heartbroken in spite of her conviction that a poor plain Jane could never be the wife of an earl, Jane agrees to help, on the condition that Slade refrain from offering for Lady Sarah until he can honestly say that he loves her.

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As Slade finds himself in competition with the many young men swarming around the gorgeous Lady Sarah, he spends more time than he should with Jane, with whom he shares many political and intellectual interests, while Sarah seems rather taken with Slade’s younger brother, Captain David St. John. And Jane finds herself seriously considering the worth of a successful businessman and would-be politician, Mr. Cecil Poppinbotham.

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Add an inside look at period electioneering, an amusing cast of supporting players, and the support of Slade’s long-time friends Harry and Alex, and you have another entertaining tale of life, love, and politics under the Regency.

 

The Reign of King Henry IX

Laura Andersen’s The Boleyn King set the stage for the reign of Henry IX, son of Henry VIII and his queen (and eventual widow) Anne Boleyn.

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The Boleyn Deceit brings on more alternate Tudor history. Political intrigue, star-crossed The Boleyn Deceitlovers, military action, enough characters to be confusing at times, thoroughly enjoyable. This volume veers a bit farther from our history, of course, and I found myself hopping onto Wikipedia from time to time to check on the real lives of the historical characters. As this is the middle volume in a trilogy, the cliff-hanger ending was not a surprise, and thanks to the immediate availability of ebooks, it took only a moment to grab the third book.

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The Boleyn Reckoning continues the reign of Henry IX, still known as Will to his sister Elizabeth and their close friends Minuette Wyatt and Dominic Courtenay. But the relationships between the four are changing rapidly, and not for the better. Meanwhile tensions rise with both France and Spain, people move in and out (the lucky ones) of the dread Tower of London (some innocent, some guilty), and William becomes more like his father—and more unpredictable—as time goes by.

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I don’t want to give away any of Andersen’s plot twists. I love being surprised by books. The Boleyn ReckoningBut in this case I’d accidentally stumbled over spoilers myself. I read the beginning of The Virgin’s Daughter, the first volume of Andersen’s Elizabethan trilogy, before realizing it was really the fourth book in the series. So I knew the fates of several characters ten years later. I’m not going to share the details, but instead of “spoiling” anything, that knowledge raised the suspense and kept me racing through The Boleyn Reckoning.

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The main action of The Virgin’s Daughter picks up some twenty years after The Boleyn Reckoning. I fought its efforts to drag me back into Andersen’s glittering and all-too-believable alternate Tudor world (it wasn’t easy). I’m going to save the second trilogy for a while—I’m afraid I’ll race right through it.

 

The Portrait of Lady Wycliff

Cheryl Bolen begins a new series (The Lords of Eton) with The Portrait of Lady Wycliff, the story of Harry Blassingame, the Earl of Wycliff, as he searches for the missing portrait of his late mother. Harry has spent the last eight years restoring the family fortunes lost by his late father, a decent man sorely lacking in ability as a gambler. Harry would prefer to keep his own counsel as to exactly how he has refilled the Wycliff coffers, but it wasn’t through gambling. Well, not exactly, anyway.

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The Portrait of Lady WycliffThe last property on Harry’s list is the London house on Grosvenor Square, now in the possession of a young widow, Louisa Phillips. Surely it won’t be difficult to convince her to sell.

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Louisa holds no admiration for the aristocracy, and no grief over the loss of her much older and unloved husband, who bought her from her unscrupulous father when she was fifteen years old. In fact, she holds very little admiration for men in general. She prefers to be an independent woman, with a secret of her own.

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But, she discovers to her great distress, she can’t sell the house to Harry because she doesn’t own it. How will she and her younger sister Ellie manage now?

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Against her better judgment, Louisa teams up with Harry to peel an onion of mysteries: Who is the shadowy “benefactor” who actually owns the house and apparently owned Louisa’s husband, too? Did Phillips and his secret backer deliberately set out to ruin the Wycliff family? And what has become of the missing portrait of Lady Wycliff, which should have been hanging in the Grosvenor Square house?

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Louisa and Harry set off on a wild tour of Cornwall in search of answers, posing as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and (definitely against Louisa’s better judgment) sharing rooms—and, chastely, beds—in country inns along the way, fighting their growing admiration for each other, convinced an aristocrat and a bluestocking have no future together.

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Will they find the benefactor? The portrait? The answers? True love? Well, this is a romance, of course, but the road to Happily Ever After is always an adventure. In this case, a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, populated with charming characters—Louisa’s sister Ellie and Harry’s cousin Edward have a few adventures of their own—and the always interesting background of Regency England.

 

More Cozies

I’ve read been reading cozy mysteries lately, so here are a few I’ve enjoyed, one from a brand new series by Kate Parker, plus series entries from Annabel Chase and Cindy Brown.

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The Killing at Kaldaire House begins a new series from Kate Parker, this one set in Edwardian London and featuring Emily Gates, a young, talented, and reasonably The Killing at Kaldaire Housesuccessful milliner who inherited her shop from her mother. Unfortunately some of her aristocratic clients seem to see no need to actually pay their bills, and Emily is forced to take extreme measures, using the burglary skills she learned from her father’s disreputable (but highly successful) family to take their valuables (some of which turn out not to be valuable at all) hostage.

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On a late night visit to Kaldaire House, Emily discovers the dying master of the mansion lying on the floor of his study. Unwilling to abandon anyone in that condition, she alerts the household. When Lady Kaldaire promises to vouch for her (and pay Emily’s bill herself) if Emily will help her solve the mystery of Lord Kaldaire’s murder, Emily has little choice.

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She doesn’t have much choice when the attractive detective assigned to the case, James Russell, recognizes Emily as a member of the notorious Gates family and promises not to arrest her if she will help him keep an eye on her relatives. Needing her income to send the relative she cares most about, her younger brother Matthew, to a special school for the deaf, she finds herself juggling her investigating for Lady Kaldaire, her family, and her growing attraction to Detective Inspector Russell.

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With a range of entertaining supporting characters, lots of period detail, and a good mystery, The Killing at Kaldaire House promises another fun series of cozy mysteries from Parker.

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Better Than Hex is the fifth installment in Annabel Chase’s Spellbound series of humorous paranormal mysteries, following the adventures of Emma Hart, who didn’t know she was Better Than Hexa witch until she stumbled into Spellbound, a community of paranormals trapped in their town by a very old spell, and found she couldn’t leave. In this tale, Emma, now the local public defender (and witch in remedial training) takes on the case of a young were-lion who won’t explain why he was caught in possession of deadly nightshade. Meanwhile she frets over the impending marriage of her not-so-secret crush, fallen angel Daniel Starr, to mean-spirited (but gorgeous) fairy Elsa Knightsbridge. Has Daniel really fallen back in love with his ex-girlfriend, or has he been the victim of an Obsession potion administered by Elsa?

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Better Than Hex ends on something of a cliffhanger, so I immediately downloaded the Cast Awaysixth installment, Cast Away, in which Emma is only slightly distracted from her concerns about Daniel by a new client (a macho young werewolf accused of peeing inappropriately in a peony bed) and a new mystery (the death of a likable troll found frozen under a bridge). Emma’s experiment with potions at the nightclub hosting Elsa’s bachelorette party goes awry, of course. Will she break the Obsession spell in time to stop the wedding? Or will the secret she’s been keeping trip her up? Chase answers these questions while leaving plenty of story lines for the next books in the series.

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Cindy Brown’s The Phantom of Oz is another fun theatrical mystery, this one set in an elegant old theater haunted by the Lady in White. Ivy Meadows is a hardworking young The Phantom of Ozactress who also works for her Uncle Bob’s PI firm (Duda Detectives), so naturally when her best friend, Candy, disappears from the touring company of The Wizard: A Space OZpera Ivy dives in to investigate, landing herself an understudy role with the company in the process. Props include spaceships and Trekian costumes, and the cast includes munchkins and flying monkeys (played by children ranging from adorable to creepy), a famous director, a toxic reality star, a costume mistress who might be a witch, and Toto. Misunderstandings with her boyfriend and her brother only make Ivy’s life more complicated, not to mention the wardrobe mistress’ well-intentioned cold remedies. I love this series, with its madly scrambled theatrical productions and hilariously close-but-not-quite-there movie titles.

 

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