An Academic Mystery Series

Cynthia Kuhn’s The Semester of Our Discontent is the first in yet another Henery Press cozy mystery series, and just as good as the others I’ve read from that source. Lila The Semester of Our DiscontentMaclean is a brand new English professor at Stonedale University, trying to get her footing in the other side of Academia, a big change from being a student. But surely walking into a faculty meeting and finding the body of the colleague who has been disparaging her research project and curriculum suggestions is not normal. The violence doesn’t stop there, and somehow Lila always seems to be there, as the detective handling the cases never fails to point out. Throw in mysterious symbols that keep popping up, which no one can—or more likely will—identify, and Lila has her hands full.

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I’ve always loved school-based stories, and I enjoyed this one, with its departmental infighting and an interesting layer of feminist scholarship. So I downloaded the next installment, The Art of Vanishing, which takes an entertainingly different approach to academic mystery.

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The Art of Vanishing throws Lila into an uncomfortable situation: trying to get an interview with the notoriously uncooperative but highly regarded writer Damon Von The Art of VanishingTussel, who is scheduled to appear during Stonedale’s Art Week festivities. But Damon vanishes, and Lila is cornered into recruiting her mother, artist Violet O, into helping her corral Damon, an embarrassing situation, since Violet and Damon are ex-lovers. Oh, what a girl will do to stay on the tenure track.

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At one point Lila mentions that she never had panic attacks until she took up an academic career, reminding me that turning my own education toward commercial ends was a wise decision.

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Although there are threats and apparent attacks on various characters, no one is killed. Instead, the mystery turns on academic infighting and fraud (reminding me a bit of Dorothy Sayers). Lila has another run-in with her nemesis, the manipulative Selene, and a much more pleasant meeting with Detective Lex Archer, who suspected her of murder in The Semester of Our Discontent. The descriptions of academic life and the characters populating Stonedale ring true, with sharp wit and humor.

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In the latest installment, The Spirit in Question, Lila has reached her third year on the Stonedale staff, and has taken on (or perhaps been dragooned into) helping with the production of another professor’s play, Puzzled: The Musical, a barely comprehensible mixture of detectives and dancers. The student actors and crew are having a ball—until murder mars the production.

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The Spirit in QuestionAt the request of Lex Archer, Lila stays (mostly) out of the hunt for the murderer, but there are enough other puzzles to keep her busy. The play is being staged in a deteriorating opera house owned, but not much cared for, by the university and protected by the remarkably officious head of the Stonedale Historical Society. The building not only presents mechanical dangers—what with characters dropping from the rafters and popping up through the trap door, what could go wrong?—but it may be haunted by the ghost of a previous owner, who hanged himself on the stage.

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By the time the production opens, no one, least of all Lila, is quite sure who might be a target, or why. Between accidents, a seance, and a missing journal, the opera house is up for grabs—literally. At least Lila has a chance to rekindle her friendship with Detective Lex Archer—if the ghost doesn’t get her first.

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I’ve enjoyed this series. Alas, looks like I’ll have to wait until next year for another installment.

 

Mysteries With Humor

Mystery and humor make up just about my favorite combination in reading for pleasure (which, come to think about is, is just about all of my reading). Here are the latest installments in three series I really enjoy (and usually preorder).

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Killalot is the sixth entry in Cindy Brown’s wonderful Ivy Meadows mystery series. Ivy is a hard-working but underemployed actress in Phoenix, where she also works for her Uncle Bob as an apprentice private investigator. This time around she’s investigating a death at the local Renaissance Faire (jousting accident or murder?) and auditioning for the role of Marilyn Monroe in a potential Kennedy era version of Camelot, called Kennelot by its playwright, John Robert Turner, formerly of the very successful Broadway team of Turner and Toe (think about that one).

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The RenFaire setting is great fun, as Ivy goes undercover as a belly-dancing mime (or is that a mute belly dancer?), meets a very smart but somewhat addled wizard, and learns about the jousting circuit. Meanwhile, the three-person cast of the potential Broadway play (staying with which would bring Ivy another set of problems involving her loyal boyfriend Matt and her special needs brother Cody) is also full of surprises. There’s something odd about Jackie, and just how is JFK connected to the falcon handler at the RenFaire? And how did the missing jousting horse end up in the playwright’s pool in the middle of the Arizona desert?

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I love this series, which scatters some serious issues among the delightfully wacky settings and stream of hilarious song, movie and play titles. Cindy Brown is one of several cozy authors I follow who write for Henery Press (others include Julie Mulhern and Susan Boyer).

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The Long Paw of the Law (don’t you love those titles?) is Diane Kelly’s seventh novel featuring Fort Worth Police Officer Megan Luz and her K-9 partner, Brigit. This time the action begins when a man drops a newborn baby off at the fire station where Megan’s boyfriend Seth and Brigit’s boyfriend Blast work. This is perfectly legal under Texas’ Baby Moses law, but when Megan unfolds the beautifully hand-made quilt the baby is wrapped in, she finds an embroidered plea for help. There just may be something going on outside the law after all, and Megan intends to find out.

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But Megan’s not a detective—not yet, anyway— and she has the usual patrol cases to follow, including a pair of thieves who specialize in stealing garage door remotes from parked cars. Along the way she meets a cosmetics and clothing consultant and an elderly dressmaker, both of whom would love to give Megan a makeover, goes to a car show with Seth and his cranky grandpa, and helps her mom study for an American History exam. Meanwhile with the help of Detective Audrey Jackson (her mentor), Frankie (her roller derby star/fire fighter housemate) and explosives expert Seth, Megan and Brigit pursue the case of the abandoned baby.

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As always, Kelly alternates police work with humor, and tells the story from three viewpoints: Megan, Brigit (who is mostly interested in food and chasing perps), and the villain. Paw Enforcement continues to be a most entertaining and enjoyable series.

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Stephanie Plum returns in Janet Evanovich’s Look Alive Twenty-Five, tracking FTAs and generally getting into trouble, with Lula at her side. This time around she’s dealing with a deli that can’t seem to hang on to a manager—they keep disappearing out by the dumpster, leaving one shoe behind. Stephanie and Lula find themselves working at the deli (Lula’s approach to sandwich production is especially memorable), hunting for a local rock musician (whose charges include peeing on a dog), and driving a burrito truck. Stephanie’s family are minor players in this installment, but Morelli and Ranger are front and center. There are feral chickens. And a catnapping. A number of seemingly unrelated cases manage to come together by the end of the book.

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Look Alive Twenty-Five made me laugh out loud several times. That’s exactly what I expect from Stephanie, and exactly why I continue to follow her adventures.

Recent Reading: Cozies

I have found so many enjoyable cozy mystery series, it’s hard to keep up. Oh, all right, it’s hard to keep up with any section of my To Be Read shelves. But I’m a real sucker for first-in-a-series sales, and then I get hooked. Here are three from series that have held my attention past the first entry.

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Chihuahua Confidential is the second entry in Waverly Curtis’ Barking Detective series. Chihuahua ConfidentialThis time Geri and Pepe, the talking chihuahua that only Geri can understand, are in Los Angeles for the taping of Dancing With Dogs, the pilot for a potential reality TV series. Dance lessons, costume fittings, dognappings, and the occasional murder keep Geri and Pepe on the go, even more so when Geri’s PI boss, the notably eccentric Jimmy G, shows up looking for a missing package. Pepe and Geri even find some answers regarding Pepe’s rather mysterious past life. The characters, both human and canine, are totally entertaining.

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In Better Dead, the first in Pamela Kopfler’s B&B Spirits Mystery series, Holly Davis helped the ghost of her late (and largely unlamented) husband move on. But with Burl’s departure, her haunted B&B and ancestral home, Holly Grove, is no longer haunted. Or is it?

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As Downright Dead opens, the reality show producer who made Holly Grove famous is Downright Deaddemanding a sequel episode, spurred on by a dedicated debunker who plans to expose the whole story as a fake. The original haunting was real, but with the ghost gone, Holly does feel like a fake, and has no idea how to honor her option contract without destroying her business.

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And that’s not Holly’s only problem. Her handyman has an accident, her ICE agent boyfriend is AWOL, and her cook has taken an inexplicable dislike to a perfectly inoffensive guest. The portrait of the Unknown Ancestor keeps jumping off the wall, a visiting psychic predicts a dire future for the debunker, and Bayou St. Agnes rises, cutting Holly Grove off from any way out.

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And then there’s a murder. Or two.

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What’s a girl to do? Holly deals with it all with charm and aplomb, and help from her band of loyal friends—and a ghost or two.

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In Back Stabbers (number 8 in Julie Mulhern’s Country Club Murders series), Ellison Back StabbersRussell discovers a body. Not a surprise. Ellison has developed quite a reputation for discovering bodies. This time it’s her stockbroker, siting behind his desk, with his pants around his ankles. And that’s not the last of the disasters plaguing the firm.

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Meanwhile, Ellison’s half-sister Karma comes to visit, staying with Ellison at her dad’s insistence. After all the only other choice would be for Karma to stay with Ellison’s parents, and if Ellison is surprised by Karma’s existence, she can hardly imagine how her mother will react.

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And then there’s Ellison’s relationship with Anarchy Jones, who is all too previously acquainted with Karma. And Ellison’s daughter Grace, who has brought home a rescue cat. Max, the dog in residence, does not approve.

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As always, Mulhern has written a good mystery, populated with quirky and amusing characters, and set in the upper social circles of Kansas City in the early 1970s, back before cell phones and computers changed life so much.

 

Mysteries & Mayhem

The Man Who Lived By Night is David Handler’s second mystery featuring ghost writer Stewart (”call me Hoagy”) Hoag and his basset hound Lulu. Hoagy’s celebrity assignment The Man Who Lived By Nightthis time around is faded rock star Tristam Scarr, now living in isolated grandeur on his estate in the English countryside. Originally published in 1989 (most of the series was republished in ebook format by Open Road Press in 2012), the book is a travelogue through the music scene of the 60s and 70s, British and American, peppered with real people. Handler tells chunks of the story through tapes of Hoagy’s interviews with Scarr and his associates, peeling away the past until the motives for current murders are revealed.

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Somehow I missed this series completely when it was first published, but I’m enjoying it now: I identify with both writers and basset hound owners.

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I haven’t missed one of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mysteries since the first one came out in the 1970s. The latest, The Breakers, follows Sharon’s search for a missing friend. We first met Chelle Curley in earlier books as an enterprising teenager who often pet sat for Sharon’s cats. Now she’s in her early twenties and has had some success The Breakersrehabbing old buildings in run down sections of San Francisco. When her parents call Sharon from Costa Rica because they haven’t been able to get in touch with Chelle for days, Sharon takes up the search.

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The investigation leads to an assortment of characters, friends and/or possible suspects, and to other crimes. Sharon’s husband Hy and her various employees work mostly in the background on this one, which is primarily Sharon’s story. The Breakers, the one-time hotel, now a deteriorating and nearly empty apartment house that Chelle is living in while rehabbing it, holds a number of clues, if only Sharon can puzzle them out in time. A little slower and less complex than some previous entries (and fairly short at 260 pages), The Breakers is still a solid addition to the series.

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Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigate the advertising business in Robert Goldsborough’s Fade To Black. I read all of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series back in the day (when I apparently had more time for reading), and I enjoy Goldsborough’s continuation of the series just as much, as he brings Wolfe and Archie into the computer age (without aging them a day). In this one Archie and Wolfe work to discover who’s passing ideas about the ad campaigns for one cherry soda (yuck) to the ad agency for another. Lots of familiar characters, and the routine at the brownstone never changes.

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In their next adventure, they become reluctantly involved with murder at a megachurch in Silver Spire, but only because long-time associate Fred Durkin is accused of the killing.

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In The Missing Chapter, Goldsborough has a little fun with his own career, as Wolfe and Archie investigate the possible murder (or was it really suicide?) of a “continuator,” an author who has taken up the pen of a well-loved mystery writer, producing new cases for the homespun Sergeant Barnstable and making lots of enemies, including his editor and agent, a fellow writer who borrows his “word processor” (this one was published in 1993), a missing cousin, and even his fiancee. Needless to say, Wolfe and Archie winnow out the truth.

 

And More Cozies

You will have noticed by now, if you are a regular visitor, that I enjoy cozy mysteries. Here are three I’ve read recently, two new (to me, anyway) series and one I’ve been reading for quite a while.

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Rock BottomRock Bottom is the first in Jerusha Jones’ Imogene Museum cozy mystery series. I picked it up after seeing it on one of the several ebook sales emails I get every morning—I couldn’t resist the idea of a heroine who is the curator of a small town museum. Meredith Morehouse has left Seattle to live in a fifth wheel RV and run the museum in a small town in the Columbia River Gorge. The museum is a beautiful but old mansion—most of the plumbing in the fourteen original bathrooms has been disconnected for fear of leaks—and the globe trotting owner, Meredith’s boss, has just shipped another mysterious collection of crates from Europe. All is well with Meredith’s world, until her graduate student intern, Greg, vanishes somewhere between the museum where he works on weekends and the university where he studies anthropology.

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In a bit of a switch for a cozy mystery, Meredith doesn’t stumble over a dead body among the exhibits (although she does wonder about those chamber pots that insist on switching places when no one is watching). Instead, the story focuses on Greg’s disappearance, while Jones introduces a range of supporting characters who will, I presume, play their parts again in the six following books. The action doesn’t really heat up until fairly late in the book, but I enjoyed the build-up and the characters and setting—mystery fans will appreciate a dog named Tuppence rescuing a cat named Tommy—and I’m sure I’ll be reading more of the series.

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Here’s another new-to-me series by Waverly Curtis: The Barking Detective. Yep, anotherDial C For Chihuahua dog detective, and this one is a talking chihuahua. In the first installment, Dial C For Chihuahua, down on her luck recent divorcee Geri Sullivan adopts a chihuahua, part of a shipment of tiny dogs sent to Seattle from Los Angeles, where the fad for purse pups has apparently run its course.

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Imagine Geri’s surprise when little Pepe starts talking to her—and she understands every word. Well, nearly every word—her Spanish isn’t that great, so Pepe switches, mostly, to English. Geri has bigger things to worry about than possible sanity questions. She’s almost out of money, desperate enough to apply for a job with a private detective of questionable repute. In between recounting wild stories of his previous careers (as a search and rescue dog, a bull fighter, a circus performer, and a starlet’s pet, the last one possibly true), Pepe proves to be a surprising asset in the detecting business.

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Given the ridiculous premise, Waverly Curtis (actually a two-person writing team) did a dog-gone good job of pulling me into the story. Pepe is such a charmer, dragging Geri into one loony situation after another (not to mention his swaggering interactions with other dogs), that I’ll be following his further adventures.

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A Touch of MagicA Touch of Magic is the seventh novel in Annabel Chase’s charming Spellbound paranormal cozy mystery series, continuing the humor that runs through these tales of Emma Hart adjusting to her new life as a witch. This time around Emma tackles the case of the murder of a vampire mayoral candidate, helps a teenage nymph accused of animal cruelty, and uncovers some secrets about her own background. All the familiar characters are back, as the remedial witches try to create inventive spells of their own, with the expected—or rather unexpected—results.

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So many fun and entertaining series! How will I ever catch up with the ones I’ve started when I continue to find more?

 

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-and-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.

 

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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