Mystery Roundup

I seem to be reading a lot of cozy mysteries lately (when I’m not solving logic problems on my new tablet and telling myself it’s good mental exercise). Here are the three latest offerings in series I enjoy a lot.

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Ivy Get Your GunIvy Get Your Gun is the fourth installment in Cindy Brown’s mystery series set in and around Phoenix and featuring Ivy Meadows (nee Olive Ziegwart), a working actress who moonlights with her private investigator uncle to make ends meet. But it’s one of her theatrical friends who asks her to check out the situation at a newly opened Wild West tourist attraction, where she finds herself in a two-actor, four-character melodrama, and in the middle of trouble. Meanwhile, she’s auditioning for the lead in Annie Get Your Gun, researching the real Annie Oakley, and tracking a pack of feral chihuahuas across the golf courses in pursuit of a missing (male) pug named Lassie. And then there’s her sort of secret relationship with her boyfriend Matt.

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I really love this series. Jump on board now and read them in order: MacDeath, The Sound of Murder, and Oliver Twisted. Great fun.

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Murder, Curlers & Canes is Arlene McFarlane’s second Valentine Beaumont mystery, and it’s just as much fun as the first (Murder, Curlers & Cream). This time around, Valentine’s salon is doing well, thanks in part to the sexy new stylist she’s hired. He’s not only Murder, Curlers & Canesdrawing in a bevy of clients who look like supermodels even before he does their hair, but he’s almost enough to take Valentine’s mind off Detective Romero, who’s been missing with no explanation for a couple of months.

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But then Phyllis, the world’s worst salon employee, marches back in, and Valentine finds one of her retirement home clients, Sister Madeline, dead in a plate of lasagna. The police are ready to call that natural causes, but Valentine suspects something else. But who would want to murder a retired nun?

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Everyone has a secret: the dead nun, the sexy stylist, the returning Romero, and practically everybody at the retirement home. Only one of them is threatening Valentine as she gets too close to the truth, but who is it?

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Add to that a series of disastrous blind dates (engineered by Valentine’s mother), a car chase through the mountains, and Valentine’s improvisational skills with the tools of her trade and whatever else she can lay her hands on, and you have a fast paced and funny mystery with more than a dash of romance.

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Lowcountry Bonfire is the sixth entry in Susan M. Boyer’s series about private investigator Liz Talbot, her husband and partner Nate Andrews, and Liz’s long-dead friend Colleen. Yes, Colleen is the guardian spirit assigned to protect Stella Maris, Liz’s island home off the South Carolina coast near Charleston.

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Lowcountry BonfireThis case stays close to home on the island, when its small community is disrupted by the discovery of a body in the trunk of a burning 1969 Mustang convertible, right across the street from Liz’s parents’ house. The victim (and owner of the classic car), Zeke Lyerly, had clearly not committed suicide. Although Zeke was a Stella Maris native, much of his life was a blank filled with grandiose stories most of his friends took for imaginative fables. But Liz, who doesn’t believe Zeke’s wife knew he was in the trunk (or even that he was dead) when she set the car (filled with Zeke’s clothing) on fire, digs for the truth.

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As Liz hunts through Zeke’s mysterious past, she comes to suspect that the answer to this mystery may lie closer to home, but long in the past.

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Boyer’s Lowcountry series features a great cast of characters and well developed mysteries, but a big part of their charm is the setting. The island community of Stella Maris, which Colleen works to protect from both disaster and development plays an important role in the series, as does the nearby city of Charleston. Very entertaining, and almost as good as an island vacation.

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And a short story bonus, Big Foot Stole My Wife, and other stories: I’ve been a Joan Hess fan forever, and have all the Claire Malloy and Maggody books on my keeper shelf, so I grabbed this collection of short stories when I saw it. The stories were all written in the 90s, but they were new to me. Two are Claire Malloy shorts, two Maggody stories (one with Arly and one with only Ruby Bee and Estelle). The other seven are funny in a very dark and sometimes rather twisted way, most of them rooted in domestic tension. Let’s just say no one in these stories is happily married. I enjoyed them all.

Recent Reading: Mystery

I recently came across Robert Goldsborough’s When Archie Met Nero Wolfe on an ebook special, and downloaded it to my Kindle. Back in my voracious mystery-reading days, I read all of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, but I had not read any of Goldsborough’s books (authorized by Stout’s heirs). The idea of a prequel to the long history of Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe is enough to tempt any Rex Stout fan.

Archie Meets Nero WolfeAnd the book is lots of fun. Goldsborough captures the flavor of Stout’s novels and includes many of the supporting characters populating Wolfe’s world: Saul Panzer, Orrie Cather and Fred Durkin, Fritz Brenner, Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Stebbins, and of course Wolfe’s Brownstone on West 35th Street.

He also captures the flavor of Wolfe’s New York City in the 1930s: the new Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building under construction, diners, coffee shops, and apartment hotels, as well as the elegant estate that is the site of the kidnapping Wolfe is hired to solve. Goldsborough includes an Author’s Note explaining how he mined Stout’s work for backstory to use in this novel.

When Archie Met Nero Wolfe made me nostalgic for all those great old mysteries (Stout, Christie, Allingham, Marsh, et al). Given the number of unread books on my shelves, it’s probably just as well I no longer have my Nero Wolfe collection. But I do have a DVD set of the Tim Hutton/Maury Chaykin TV series, and I may just have to watch those again.

These days I stay busy enough trying to keep up with my favorite modern mystery writers (Elaine Viets, Spencer Quinn, Marcia Muller and more). One of these is Diane Kelly and her chronicles of Tara Death, Taxes and Hot Pink Leg WarmersHolloway, gun-toting (and all too often firing) Special Agent of the IRS. I’m a couple of books behind on Tara’s adventures (oh, for an extra reading day every week—why did I ever think cutting back my working days would solve this problem?), and I’ve just recently read Death, Taxes, and Hot Pink Leg Warmers. Yes, the title pretty much sets the tone.

This time around, Tara is after mortgage fraud by day and moonlighting in a strip club by night—no, as a bookkeeper. And her romance with fellow agent Nick Pratt is heating up nicely. Kelly manages to hit me with at least one scene in each book that has me laughing out loud (to the disapproval of my cat). In this book that scene involves Tara’s partner Eddie Bardin and a Vietnamese grandma with OCD and a hand-held vacuum cleaner. Tara’s friend Alicia and DEA Agent Christina Marquez are back, too.

Another current mystery author on my auto-buy list is Joan Hess. Her latest Claire Malloy mystery is Pride V. Prejudice. When a prosecutor with a grudge against Claire’s husband rejects her for jury service, Pride V Prejudicebehaving like a total jerk in the process, Claire decides to investigate the murder in question, for no good reason beyond embarrassing the prosecutor. As usual, she finds herself dealing with more complications than she expected, and her mother-in-law, whom she has never met, is arriving for a visit in three days. This time around Claire deals with aging hippies, organic farmers, and a four-year-old witness with a zombie obsession.

Told with Hess’ usual mixture of humor and mystery, Pride V. Prejudice is a fun read and a welcome addition to the Claire Malloy series, which I’ve been enjoying (and keeping) since it began in 1986 (when hard cover mysteries cost $12.95!).

What mystery solvers live on your keeper shelves?

Recent Reading

I don’t travel very often, and I don’t use my credit cards a lot, so I haven’t paid much attention to rewards point or miles accumulating on my accounts. Recently, rather to my surprise, I found emails from three cards in my in box offering gift cards for my points. Two of them offered Amazon cards, so I now have a nice chunk of credit there to make those Daily Deal and Big Deal emails even more tempting. And yesterday, while looking for something else in my wallet, I found that B&N card from Christmas that still has sixty dollars or so on it. We all know what this means: more books for the ever-expanding To Be Read shelves. Meanwhile, I’ve taken a few more off that list.

Gone TropicalGone Tropical, by Robena Grant, is a romantic suspense story set on the north coast (make that the northeast coast—I just checked my forty-five-year old atlas, practically an historic document by now, but I’m pretty sure Cairns, Cooktown, and Laura haven’t moved in the interim) of Australia, in the sparsely populated rain forest country. American Amy Helms is on the trail of the embezzling ex-husband she has been tracking for years, only slightly hindered by Jake Turner, the private investigator her father has hired to keep an eye on her. Soon they join forces (when Jake realizes there’s no way Amy’s going to wait patiently in Sydney. Or Cairns. Or anywhere else), and discover that Amy’s ex has stumbled into something a lot more dangerous than his typical con game. Throw in Australian friends and allies, a snake in the room Amy and Jake’s cover story forces them to share, and a cyclone named Robert, and you have an action-packed romantic adventure.

I’ve been reading Joan Hess’ Claire Malloy mysteries since the first one, Strangled Prose, came out in 1986. Murder As a Second LangMurder As a Second Languageuage is the nineteenth in the series, but fortunately Claire and her teenage daughter Caron have aged only a few years. Claire’s circumstances have changed, though. The early books revolved around her bookstore in Farberville, Arkansas, and the local college, but now that Claire has married the deputy police chief, hired a bored graduate student to run the Book Depot, and moved into her dream house, she’s looking for something to do. Caron’s summer plans drag Claire into volunteering at the Farberville Literacy Council, where she is quickly drawn into local intrigue and, of course, a murder. Hess’ books (her Maggody series is another old favorite of mine) combine mystery and humor and are always enjoyable.

Three PrincesI’m afraid I did not love Ramona Wheeler’s Three Princes as much as I had hoped to. Although it started with the alternate nineteenth-century political intrigue I expected, that plot line soon dwindled away as the main characters set off on a trip across the Atlantic, from Egypt to the Incan Empire in Peru, on board a fascinatingly human-powered airship called a Quetzal. The world building in the book is great: history changed when Caesar (why does it always take me three tries to spell Caesar correctly?) and Cleopatra settled down in Memphis to raise a family and rule an Empire. In the 1870s their descendants still rule much of the Old World, and the depiction of a relatively modern Egyptian Empire is well done. The rather bland (and flawless) characters and wandering plot, not so much.

It’s unfair to the author to complain about the things I wanted to find in the book but didn’t. I wanted to know more about the British Isle background of the main character, Lord Scott Oken, loyal Egyptian, descendant of Caesar; what’s going on in Britain, and why are Victoria and Albert ruling Osterreich from Vienna? What’s going on in North America? The obvious (to me, anyway) Aztec influence on the Incan Empire and language wasn’t explained until late in the book, with a throw-away line about a long ago merger between the Incans and the Aztecs, leaving Mayaland somewhere in the middle. I don’t know if Wheeler plans a sequel. Three Princes didn’t leave me with a burning desire to know what happens next to the characters, but I’d read another installment to find out what else is going on in their well-imagined world.

What have you been reading lately?

 

 

 

Welcome, 2013!

The weather has been grey today, the temperature dropping from a morning high of 57 degrees.  I went out to get my newspaper at 8:30 and haven’t been out the door since.  I spent a chunk of the morning (after reading the paper and watching an old Perry Mason episode) dithering over all the Productive Tasks I thought I should accomplish on my day off.  I have lists of them, on my computer monitor, on scraps of paper, in my head.  Pieces I need to write, tasks for my RWA chapter, sections of the house to clean and declutter, and so on.  I’m not very good at relaxing.

I finally convinced myself that this was a Day Off, for heaven’s sake, and I settled on the couch with Nutmeg the cat, a Mysteries in the Museum marathon running on the background TV, and Janet Evanovich’s Notorious Nineteen.  Stephanie Plum’s insane adventures kept me entertained all afternoon, as she and Lula tracked down a few bad guys, blew up a few cars, and made me laugh out loud more than once.

I haven’t had (or given myself) too many chances to sit down and read a book for a while.  I used to read a hundred or more books a year easily, but it’s harder to do that when you work full time at a paying job and take up writing as your other job.  Doesn’t leave a lot of time, and it’s way too easy to fall asleep over even a good book late at night.

This year I read 39 books.  Yes, I keep a list (you mean not everyone does?).  Ten romances (six on paper, four on Kindle), ranging from Regency (Cheryl Bolen) to steampunk (Zoe Archer), paranormal (Darynda Jones) to inspirational (Deeanne Gist), mostly contemporary settings.  I would read more romance–I have stacks of them To Be Read–if I wasn’t writing romance myself.  I suppose I’m afraid of seepage.  And, of course, if I had more time, because I love other genres, too.

I read nine mystery novels (only one on Kindle) this year, mostly on the humorous end, by Diane Kelly, Elaine Viets, Joan Hess, Susan M. Boyer, and Spencer Quinn, with Marcia Muller on the more serious side and Margaret Maron in the middle.   I only read five science fiction novels (one on Kindle), although it’s not easy to draw a line–Zoe Archer’s romance titles are also science fiction, and Sharon Lynn Fisher’s Ghost Planet is also a romance.

I also read four uncategorized mainstream novels, two on Kindle and two on paper, and eleven non-fiction books (six on Kindle, five on paper).  Of the non-fiction, four were on writing topics and three on social media.  The others included a gorgeously illustrated book on all things steampunk and a massive (but fascinating) biography of Queen Elizabeth II.

Here on my blog, WordPress tells me, I published 81 posts in 2012, with 91 pictures.  I had 21,000 page views (I stand amazed!) by visitors from 96 countries (most of them from the US, with significant numbers from Canada, the UK and Australia).  My most-read posts all concern the TV show Hell on Wheels;  that was hardly my goal when I began blogging, but I do find the show fascinating, and I’m looking forward to the next season.

On the writing front, I’m afraid I’ve been more involved in RWA activities than in actual writing.  I’ve served as president of the West Houston chapter (that’s a chunk of the To Do list on my computer monitor right there), been a finalist in the Golden Heart contest for the second year in a row, and traveled to the RWA national conference in Anaheim.  I’ve written columns and articles for my chapters’ newsletters.  I’ve done quite a bit of editing/revising/polishing, begun a new novel, and I’m learning to use Scrivener.

So, in short, I always have two or three bookmarks in play, even if I don’t get through the books as fast as I used to.  I’m building my “Internet platform,” but only as fast as I enjoy doing so.  And I’m pretty much always planning, plotting, or writing something.  I hope to continue all of this through 2013.  Maybe I’ll even manage to clean the rest of the house and hire someone to do something about my yard.  And remodel the bathrooms.  Maybe.

Happy New Year 2013

Recent Reading

I managed to finish reading a couple of books last weekend, not that I’m in any danger of catching up with the To Be Read shelves, and I can’t even remember what’s on my Kindle.  But I do my best.  This afternoon at work I had a job to do that involved recoding information on an online bookkeeping site (the client and her business are located several states away).  The software is slow to begin with.  My work computer is several years old and still runs Windows XP and IE8.  After each transaction, the screen refreshed so slowly that to keep from banging my head on the desk I pulled out my Kindle and found I could read a page or so while the screen was blank.  I’m not kidding.  I spent an hour and a half making those corrections as fast as the computer could handle them–and reading while I waited for each one to process.  Heck of a way to read, but better than staring at that blank screen in frustration.

I recently finished reading James Scott Bell’s Conflict & Suspense on my Kindle–excellent book.  I really enjoy Bell’s writing on writing–one of these days I’ll have to try one of his novels.  Here’s the review I wrote for the Houston Bay Area RWA newsletter.  (I also posted a review of Bell’s Plot & Structure here.)

A couple of weeks ago I read Darynda Jones’ First Grave on the Right, a book that won a Golden Heart® in 2009.  Three years later it’s on the shelves with two sequels, and another due out this fall.  I’ve only read the first one (but there are two more on my TBR stack), and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  It’s a humorous blend of mystery and romance, with a heroine who is a “part-time private investigator and full-time grim reaper.”  Charlie sees dead people, which isn’t always as much of an advantage in her p.i. work as you might imagine.  As for the hero, if that’s what he is, well, Charlie spends the span of the book trying to figure out what he is. 

Next I read Joan Hess’ latest Claire Malloy mystery, Deader Homes and Gardens.  I’ve been reading this series (and Hess’ Maggody mysteries, too) since it began, and wouldn’t miss one.  Deader Homes moved a little more slowly than most–or possibly I was just reading more slowly.  The large cast was occasionally confusing, but Claire’s daughter Caron and her BFF Inez (approaching their senior year in high school) got themselves into as much trouble as usual while helping Claire in her unofficial sleuthing.  And Claire, as usual, gets to the bottom of things in her own unconventional way.  She continues to be one of my favorite cozy detectives.

Looking for a change of pace, I opened Zoe Archer’s Collision Course on my Kindle.  This is a very short novel, published by Carina Press, and falls into the subgenre of science fiction romance.   It tilts more toward the (quite explicit) romance end of the scale, and I would have liked to see more of the universe Archer created.  But trap an independent scavenger heroine and a military pilot hero alone together in her small space ship–well, once or twice I wanted to tell them to get out of that bunk and get on with the mission.  By the time the story ended, though, I was ready to download the sequel.  If you like steamy action romance, Collision Course is for you.

I’m still reading the new biography of Queen Elizabeth II.  No hurry–that’s my coffee table book.  On my Kindle I’m enjoying Edgar Rice Burrough’s delightfully old-fashioned The Land That Time Forgot

When I finished Deader Homes and Gardens a few days ago, I had my usual what-shall-I-read-next quandary, until I opened the newspaper the next morning to see multiple stories about the movie version of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.  I read the book last year, but I hadn’t revisited the harsh world of Panem.  So I picked up the second book, Catching Fire.  So far, just as harsh and compelling as the first book.   Definitely not an old-fashioned tale.