Recent Reading

No particular theme today, just three more books I enjoyed. I’ve been lucky so far this year—I’ve enjoyed just about all of the books I’ve read.

The Tropic of SerpentsMarie Brennan’s The Tropic of Serpents is the second volume of Memoirs by Lady Trent, although our heroine remains Mrs. Isabella Camherst, widow, mother, and dragon naturalist. In the first book, A Natural History of Dragons, Isabella and her fellow explorers made their way from their home in Scirland to the mountainous pseudo-Balkans of Brennan’s wonderfully developed world. In Tropic Isabella, leaving her toddler son behind and wondering if she is the worst mother in all of Scirland, leads her party to the world’s pseudo-Africa in search of snakes and swamp-wyrms. Once again, Isabella’s first person narration and Victorian style, as well as Brennan’s fabulous world building, captured me completely.

The preface to Tropic is signed “Lady Trent, Amavi, Prania, 23 Ventis, 5659,” reminding us just how totally not-ours Isabella’s world is. The next volume, Voyage of the Basilisk, is waiting on my shelf.

Checked Out is the latest case in Elaine Viets’ Dead end Jobs mysteries. I love this series. I’ve been following Helen Hawthorne’s adventures since she first appeared in 2003 in Shop Til You Drop. The Checked Outsettings are always fun and well researched, and the characters – Phil, Margery, Peggy, and Pete the Parrot, along with numerous less permanent visitors, continue to hold my interest.

In Checked Out, Helen goes undercover as a volunteer at a small, upscale library, searching for a John Singer Sargent water color (“Muddy Alligators,” signed on the back by Clark Gable, who lost it in a poker game in 1924) accidentally left in a donated book–somewhere in 300 boxes of books. And there appears to be a ghost, or at least a squatter, hiding in the library. Meanwhile, Phil is courting sunburn as an undercover gardener Peggy is worried about Pete’s personal life, and the new tenant at the Coronado Tropic Apartments is showing off his mojitos.

If you enjoy humorous mystery, you can’t do better than Elaine Viets.

Born With TeethOkay, so I’ve been a Star Trek fan since the original series (when I fell in love with Mr. Spock—c’mon, I wasn’t the only one), and I was delighted when Voyager came along with a female Captain. I couldn’t resist when I learned that Kate Mulgrew, Kathryn Janeway’s alter ego, had published a memoir, Born With Teeth. The book is well written, often funny, sometimes sad, always enjoyable. It ends rather abruptly around 1997, but I’m hoping (and the acknowledgments at the end suggest) that Mulgrew has another book in the works.

Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper

I don’t usually binge-read, but recently I realized, when the latest book was released, that I was three books behind on Elaine Viet’s delightful mystery series featuring Josie Marcus, professional mystery shopper living in the suburbs of St. Louis. I picked up the oldest of the three, and enjoyed it so much that I read the remaining two in rapid succession.

In Murder Is a Piece of Cake (2012), Josie’s mystery shopping assignment involves wedding flowers and wedding cakes. Murder Is a Piece of CakePerfect timing: Josie is planning her own wedding to veterinarian Ted Scottsmeyer. Perfect, that is, until a deranged ex-client of Ted’s shows up at the clinic in her wedding dress, insisting that she is Ted’s bride-to-be. What could be worse than that? Well, the crazed bridezilla is murdered—and Ted’s elegant and snobbish mother (who carries a pistol in her purse) is accused of the crime. How can Josie and Ted get married with his mother in jail?

Viets always includes a section of shopping tips in Josie’s adventures, and the tips at the end of this book, of course, cover how to buy wedding flowers and cakes.

Fixing to Die (2013) finds Josie remodeling the house she and Ted (yes, of course they got married!) have bought from his partner at the vet clinic, Christine. When they tear down the hastily built gazebo in the back yard, they find a body—the Fixing to Diebody of Christine’s sister, who lived in the house but supposedly left town months earlier. In between appointments with contractors and mystery shopping kitchen contractors, Josie needs to clear Christine before overwork at the clinic lays her new husband low.

Shopping tips cover renovating a mid-century kitchen. Apparently this is a big deal these days. My house was built in the 1950s, so I guess I’ve been living with a mid-century kitchen since 1976, but I can’t say I ever noticed. Or renovated, for that matter.

As the wife of a veterinarian, Josie is certainly well-equipped to mystery shop doggy daycare centers in A Dog Gone A Dog Gone MurderMurder (2014). She runs into trouble when the obnoxious owner of one of the daycares is murdered on the premises, and her mother’s new tenant is accused of the crime. (It’s downright dangerous to be a friend or relative of Josie Marcus, sort of like being related to Jessica Fletcher!).

Shopping tips cover what to look for in doggy daycare as well as some good tips on dealing with dogs who don’t do well in daycare.

I’ve been enjoying the Josie Marcus series since it began in 2005 with Dying in Style. The mysteries are always well done, and it’s fun to revisit the cast of supporting characters. Josie’s daughter Amelia has grown from young tween to almost a teen, and has started solving mysteries of her own, taking on the Mean Girls at school in Fixing to Die, and learning some of the dangers of trying to grow up too fast in A Dog Gone Murder.

A Dog Gone Murder also includes a teaser for Viets’ next Helen Hawthorne Dead End Jobs mystery, Checked Out, involving a painting of alligators, once owned by Clark Gable, now possibly hiding in a library book. I’m definitely looking forward to that one!

Elaine Viets’ Catnapped!

Catnapped! is the latest installment in Elaine Viets’ delightful Dead-End Jobs Mystery series. I’ve been a fan since Helen Hawthorne solved her first case in Shop till You Drop (2003), and Catnapped! did not disappoint me.

Catnapped!The detective work in Catnapped! involves two murders and, of course, a kidnapped cat (a four-month old Chartreux kitten), all good mysteries, but much of the charm of this series rests with the recurring cast and setting.

When the series started, Helen was struggling to survive as a newcomer to Fort Lauderdale, working cash-under-the-table jobs and living under the radar to avoid her deadbeat ex-husband and his unjust but legal claim on half her income. Over the course of the series she has settled her old problems and married Phil Sagemont, with whom she now operates Coronado Investigations, and these days she works those awful jobs in the course of their cases. In Catnapped!, she works for a cantankerous cat breeder, washing cats and their litter boxes (ten at a time!) for the princely sum of $8.04 an hour. Helen has been through a long string of fascinating (as long as someone else is doing them!) dead-end jobs, and Viets has worked most of them herself as research.

Besides Helen and Phil, the cast includes Margery Flax, the 70-something owner and live-in manager of the Coronado Tropic Apartments, a building nearly as old as she is, where Helen landed when she arrived in South Florida from her former up-scale life in St. Louis. In Catnapped!, the past catches up with Margery in the form of the ex-husband Helen never knew about and the possible destruction of the Coronado by old age and rusted rebar.

I grew up in South Florida, decades ago, and Viets’ descriptions of life at the Coronado and the changing landscape of Fort Lauderdale always makes me a bit nostalgic. On the other hand, Helen’s adventures among the Persian cats at Chatwood’s Champions makes me grateful for my low-maintenance rescue cat.

I’m a little bit behind on Viets’ other series, starring Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper, but I recently read Death on a Platter (I have two more waiting on Death on a Platterthe never-empty shelves of unread books). In Death on a Platter, Josie witnesses a death-by-poisoning while mystery shopping restaurants specializing in St. Louis delicacies such as toasted ravioli, pig ear sandwiches, brain sandwiches and gooey butter cake. As always, she has help from her friend Alyce, and domestic challenges from her daughter Amelia and her mother (and landlady) Jane.

The Mystery Shopper books always include a “Shopping Tips” section covering Josie’s current assignment. In Death on a Platter, you will learn some remarkable things about St. Louis foods and restaurants. If I didn’t live so far away, I’d be checking them out for myself. (Well, maybe not the brain sandwiches. But the gooey butter cake sure sounds good.)

If you enjoy humor and great characters with your mysteries, you’ll enjoy any of Elaine Viets’ books.

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