Review: Mirror Lake by Juneau Black

Review: Mirror Lake by Juneau BlackMirror Lake by Juneau Black
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Shady Hollow #3
Pages: 240
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


The third novel in the Shady Hollow mystery series, in which Vera Vixen takes on her most challenging case yet: solving the murder of a rat who appears to still be alive.

Change is afoot in Shady Hollow, with an unusually tense election shaping up between long-serving Chief of Police Theodore Meade and Vera's beau, Deputy Orville Braun. But the political tension takes a back seat when resident eccentric Dorothy Springfield becomes convinced her beloved husband, Edward, is dead, and that the rat claiming to be him is actually a fraud.
While most of the town dismisses Dorothy's rants as nothing more than a delusion, Vera has her doubts. More than a few things don't add up in the Springfield household, but Vera will have to tread carefully, since, with Orville's attention on the election, she may be more exposed than ever.
A VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD ORIGINAL.

My Review:

And we’re back in the very cozy, slightly twee village of Shady Hollow for one more bloody (as in there’s actual dripping blood) mystery among this (mostly) charming group of people who just happen to be animals.

Don’t let that bit fool you. All stories are about people – even if they claim they’re not. Because people are all we know how to be – and we’re the ones writing the story.

Adora Springfield is dead – but this isn’t about her. Except when it is. Adora was, all things considered, adored by pretty much everyone in Shady Hollow and the neighboring, even smaller community of Mirror Lake. She lived a long life and contributed a lot to both communities. She’ll be mourned and she’ll be missed. And she left an estate worth killing for, tied up in an estate-planning tangle that is going to require both a lawyer and an investigative journalist to unravel.

Chief of Police Theodore Meade is a deadbeat. Not exactly, as he’s earning a decent salary as the leader of Shady Hollow’s two-bear police department. But he’s not doing the job. At all. Pretty much ever. He’s too “busy” fishing, leaving all the policing in town to his deputy-bear Orville Braun.

And Orville is pretty much sick of doing all the work and not being sure whether or not he’s getting any of the credit.

The case and the campaign both revolve – one clockwise and one anti-clockwise – around the person of investigative reporter and fox-about-town Vera Vixen. As a reporter for the local newspaper, the death of one of the town’s leading lights and the first contested campaign for Police Chief in years are both juicy stories that Vera is itching to dig her way into and write all about.

But Orville and Vera are romantically involved, even as they butt heads over pretty much every case. She can’t cover his campaign – no matter how much her boss wants her to use her “inside track” to get the real scoop. Her boss is GREAT at selling newspapers but LOUSY at journalistic ethics.

It’s Vera’s search for a bit of legal cover to protect her job with that leads her into the Springfield case. A case that Orville – and the rest of the town – refuse to see as a real case at all.

Dorothy Springfield, known to all and sundry as “Dotty” for her occasional flakiness, has returned from tending to her now-late mother-in-law and taking care of the funeral arrangements to cause a very public scene by claiming that her husband is NOT her husband. That her real husband is dead and whoever this rat (literally, the Springfields are the wealthiest rats in town) may look like her beloved Edward but he is absolutely NOT her Edward.

Everyone is certain that Dotty is just being dotty again. Vera has doubts. Initially little ones, as Dotty’s reputation has definitely preceded her – but doubts that are worth digging into because they’ll make an excellent story.

A story that nearly gets Vera killed. Again.

Escape Rating B+: This was not the book I originally planned to finish the week with, but that one (Last Exit) turned out to be a bit more book than I had time to chew at the end of this week. (I’m listening to the audio and it’s good but it’s also longer than I thought. The best laid plans of mice, men and book reviewers and all that.)

So I returned to Shady Hollow for one more lovely if murderous time. And it turned out to be a charming way to finish out the week.

On its surface, Mirror Lake is a typical cozy mystery set in a typical if somewhat twee small town. That all the people are animals adds to its charm for me, but may add to its twee-ness for others. YMMV but I like visiting the place.

The two cases are the bread and butter of this kind of story. A minor conflict between the townsfolk, a case of everyone in town knowing everyone else’s business and maintaining their assumptions about the people they know so well, and a twisty little bit of murder, with an amateur sleuth in the middle of entirely too many things for probability to have any bearing whatsoever.

(I always think that Cabot Cove and Midsummer County must have such a ridiculously high homicide rate that newcomers would stay far, far, away – but they never do.)

Series like Shady Hollow, whether featuring humans or animals-as-humans, are more about the town and its inhabitants than it is about the murders that take place. Which is a good thing in Mirror Lake as I figured out whodunnit long before the big reveal at the end.

The fun in the story is watching it all work itself out. Vera is both determined and dogged (whatever her species might be), but she’s also compassionate and caring and has invested herself thoroughly in her new home of Shady Hollow. As an amateur investigator, operating mostly on her own, she’s also very much a “fools rush in” type, putting herself in extreme danger in every book because she tends to figure out whodunnit by poking her nose into the killer’s business without being aware that she’s THAT close to the solution.

Which makes following Vera a lot of fun as she drops into Joe’s Mug for life-giving coffee, consults her best friend, bookstore owner Lenore for advice and crime-solving hints, and flirts and fights with her bearish beau whenever they both have a break between cases.

Unfortunately, this is the last – so far, at least – full length novel in the Shady Hollow series. There’s one very short novella, Evergreen Chase, left to go. It’s a holiday story, so I think I’ll save it for when fall starts to nip the air. Or whenever I need a bit of Vera’s animal magnetism.

Review: Under Lock and Skeleton Key by Gigi Pandian

Review: Under Lock and Skeleton Key by Gigi PandianUnder Lock & Skeleton Key (Secret Staircase Mystery, #1) by Gigi Pandian
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Secret Staircase #1
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on March 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Under Lock & Skeleton Key layers architecture with mouthwatering food in an ode to classic locked-room mysteries.
An impossible crime. A family legacy. The intrigue of hidden rooms and secret staircases.
After a disastrous accident derails Tempest Raj’s career, and life, she heads back to her childhood home in California to comfort herself with her grandfather’s Indian home-cooked meals. Though she resists, every day brings her closer to the inevitable: working for her father’s company. Secret Staircase Construction specializes in bringing the magic of childhood to all by transforming clients’ homes with sliding bookcases, intricate locks, backyard treehouses, and hidden reading nooks.
When Tempest visits her dad’s latest renovation project, her former stage double is discovered dead inside a wall that’s supposedly been sealed for more than a century. Fearing she was the intended victim, it’s up to Tempest to solve this seemingly impossible crime. But as she delves further into the mystery, Tempest can’t help but wonder if the Raj family curse that’s plagued her family for generations—something she used to swear didn’t exist—has finally come for her.

My Review:

Under Lock and Skeleton Key is the first book in the author’s Secret Staircase Mystery series. With that series title, it sounds like this should be a case for Nancy Drew – and it sorta/kinda is.

A grown-up Nancy Drew who grew up sharing her love of puzzle solving and misdirection with her BFF. A BFF she ghosted ten years back. A hurt they’ll both have to get over in order to get this mystery-solving partnership back together.

It’s also the story of Tempest Raj and her family’s very special construction company, Secret Staircase Construction. Because that’s what her family builds – homes and offices with hidden doors, concealed nooks and yes – secret staircases.

Tempest Raj is back home in California in her family’s eclectic, multi-ethnic and multi-family, nearly vertical piece of almost-paradise. She’s back licking her still-smarting wounds after the literal explosion of her career as a famous – and now infamous – Las Vegas stage magician. EVERYONE in the industry and on social media blames Tempest for the trick that went catastrophically wrong in both water AND fire, but Tempest is certain that the costly disaster was the result of her body-double assistant attempting to paint Tempest as a risk too dangerous to back or insure, in the hopes that said assistant could finally become the main event.

Instead the show shut down, putting everyone out of work – including said duplicitous assistant – while Tempest has been forced to retreat back home after losing her Las Vegas house along with her reputation. She’s waiting for the other shoe to drop, or should that be shoes, as it seems like everyone involved has threatened to sue her.

But her successful show wasn’t just her success, the money she earned allowed her to keep her family’s business, Secret Staircase Construction, afloat. Now that money is gone and she’s back home hoping that she won’t have to resort to taking a job that doesn’t exist as part of her dad’s somewhat misfit crew. A crew he can barely afford as it is.

When her dad calls her to report to a job site, she’s sure that fate has just come upon her. Instead, her dad needs her to look at the house they’re currently working on because they’ve found something that is more in her professional line than his. They’ve spotted a dead body in an enclosed space that no one has opened in a century – and none of them can figure out how it got there.

That kind of trap door illusion is just the sort of thing that Tempest specialized in, so she’s intrigued by the puzzle – at least until she’s chilled by the discovery that the dead body isn’t merely too recent to have been walled up for a century. When the wall is opened, Tempest recognizes the corpse just a bit too well. Her duplicitous assistant, Tempest’s near-duplicate, is dead – and the woman didn’t wrap her own corpse in a sack and put itself in a locked room.

The woman is dead. The biggest question in Tempest’s mind is whether she was killed for herself – or in place of the woman she resembled so strongly. It’s up to Tempest and her friends to figure out both whodunnit and who was intended to be done before the killer catches up with her!

Escape Rating A-: This cozy mystery thriller – as much of a contradiction in terms as that feels – is a mystery wrapped in an enigma enclosed in a puzzle in a way that is shot through with both magic and suspense. But the magic in Tempest’s life and in her family’s Anglo-Indian history is mostly of the stage magic variety.

This is also a mystery that manages to pay homage to the classics of the genre – from Agatha Christie and John Dickinson Carr to Scooby-Doo, without ever falling into the trap of slavish imitation – no matter how many hidden switches and actual trap doors the story has built into it.

But this is not a fair play mystery, unlike so many of those classics. It’s a mystery of misdirection, both for Tempest AND for the reader. It’s also the story of how Tempest gets her own “Scooby gang” together to help her solve the mystery.

A mystery that manages to contain so many red herrings that it’s a surprise that her grandfather – an excellent cook whose lovingly described dishes are guaranteed to make the reader’s mouth water – doesn’t take the opportunity to cook them up into something delicious. (His recipes at the end of the book all sound scrumptious!)

The initial crime seems impossible – a locked room mystery that would tax Holmes’ famous logic and Poirot’s little grey cells at the same time. But the rules about locked room mysteries point the way to possibilities that make the impossible not quite so impossible. Tempest just needs to color-code those red herrings.

But the story is also hedged around with family fears and family secrets. Everyone seems to be protecting Tempest – and themselves – from a truth that no one wants to talk about. There might be a curse on their family going all the way back to their roots in India under the Raj.

And it all might be just another one of those tasty red herrings.

It’s only once Tempest is able to pull a tiny thread of one of the many tangled threads in this case – in the Locked Room Library no less! – that she is finally able to tease out a solution. Not just to this convoluted case – but to the question that has been plaguing her since the day she came home. The question about what’s next for Tempest. And in working towards a resolution to the mystery, she finally finds her answer.

Tempest’s answer means that this is the beginning of what looks like it will be a fun and fascinating series – one that I am very much looking forward to exploring. In the meantime, I’ll just have to go back to some of this author’s other cozily magical mystery series. I’ve already read a bit of her Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt series (The Ninja’s Illusion) and now I have the perfect excuse to go back!

Review: Cold Clay by Juneau Black

Review: Cold Clay by Juneau BlackCold Clay by Juneau Black
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Shady Hollow #2
Pages: 240
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on March 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


The second book in the Shady Hollow series, in which some long-buried secrets come to light, throwing suspicion on a beloved local denizen.

It's autumn in Shady Hollow, and residents are looking forward to harvest feasts. But then a rabbit discovers a grisly crop: the bones of a moose.
Soon, the owner of Joe's Mug is dragged out of the coffeeshop and questioned by the police about the night his wife walked out of his life--and Shady Hollow--forever. It seems like an open-and-shut case, but dogged reporter Vera Vixen doesn't believe gentle Joe is a killer. She'll do anything to prove his innocence. . .even if it means digging into secrets her neighbors would rather leave buried.
A VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD ORIGINAL.

My Review:

OK, so the Shady Hollow series is ostensibly a story about extremely anthropomorphized animals acting like the standard characters in a small town cozy mystery. In this particular case, the small town is Shady Hollow and the coziness includes more than a bit of fur.

But also more than a bit of quite literal teeth and claws. Even when the victim and/or the perpetrator are not actually equipped with any or all of those accouterments. As it proved in the first book in this series, named for the town where the mystery takes place, Shady Hollow.

In the first story, two of the village’s less popular residents became what everyone believed were the town’s first murder victims in seemingly ever. The case was all about whittling down the list of who might have done it because motives, at least on the surface, were all too easy to imagine.

This time around, it’s more of a case of intrepid investigative reporter Vera Vixen doing her level best to prove that the obvious suspect isn’t the actual guilty party. Because everybody in town loves Joe Elkins and his coffee shop. Not just because he keeps everyone fed and caffeinated, but because he’s just such a nice person and a pillar of the community in more ways than one.

But Joe has ALL the motives for the murder of his long-missing wife. Everyone thought she left town years ago, unable or unwilling to settle down to small town life running the coffee shop with her spouse and raising their son, Joe, Jr.

The discovery of Julia Elkins skeletal remains in the roots of a fruit tree that wasn’t doing all that well puts Joe in the crosshairs of the police investigation into yet another murder. Joe IS the obvious suspect – not just because it’s ALWAYS the husband (except when it isn’t) – but because Julia was so obviously unhappy, she and Joe were constantly arguing, and someone robbed the coffeeshop just before she disappeared. That’s a LOT of motives.

It doesn’t help Joe’s case that relatively few of Shady Hollow’s residents would even be capable of taking down a full-grown moose!

Vera is certain that the police, in the persons of perpetually fishing Chief Theodore Meade and Vera’s possible beau, Deputy Orville Braun have the wrong person in their sights. And she has every intention of proving that her friend Joe is innocent.

But her boss, the owner of the Shady Hollow Herald, orders Vera to drop her murder investigation in favor of writing fluff pieces about a new business in Shady Hollow that has tempted the veteran newspaper owner with dreams of full-page ad revenues.

New mink-about-town Octavia Grey, with her striking silver coat and her hoity-toity new “School of Etiquette” has all the local gossips twittering. The newspaper wants a piece of that pie, but Vera is sure that there’s something not quite on the up-and-up about the so-called school and its mesmerizing owner. She thinks taking etiquette classes is a waste of time when she should be looking into the latest murder.

It’s only when she digs a bit deeper into both cases that she begins to suspect the two cases might be one and the same!

Escape Rating B: My reading of Cold Clay was a case of how I felt about the book being influenced by my circumstances as I was reading the book. I was stuck in a small airport for 12 hours and I was looking for stories that would take me away – hopefully far away – from where I was sitting at the time. Having read and enjoyed the first book in this series, Shady Hollow, I knew this was a world that I could step into for a couple of hours and just be gone for a bit. (I read a LOT of books that day!)

The world of Shady Hollow reminds me of the movie Zootopia. The characters are basically humans in fur-suits who populate this small town and this cozy mystery with the stock characters we expect in a cozy – just with a little bit extra.

It’s not nearly as twee as you might think it will be – or at least not any more twee than the usual small town with a much higher homicide rate than anyone would think a town that size would be able to support.

Like in many such mysteries, the reader is aware that the long arm of coincidence just isn’t that long. If a new person arrives in town, and an old crime is uncovered, the odds are that the two are somehow connected. And so it proves in Cold Clay.

In other words, I figured out that Octavia Grey had something to do with Julia Elkins’ long-ago murder long before Vera did – even if I didn’t yet have a clue as to how she done it. THAT she done it was pretty obvious.

And it didn’t matter. What makes this series so charming are its people, as is true of most small town cozies. I liked visiting Shady Hollow, and I like the people who live there, fur-suits and all. I went into this story expecting to be charmed and entertained and I was not disappointed in either of those respects. The story did exactly what I wanted it to do – it whisked me away for a couple of hours and that was just fine.

But speaking of expectations, one of the other frequent expectations of cozies is that the investigators, whether professional or amateur, will find some kind of romance along the way, even if that romance is of the on-again, off-again variety. Vera’s relationship with Deputy Orville Braun has been edging in that direction since the first book, to the amusement of MANY of Shady Hollow’s residents.

As difficult a time as I’m having trying NOT to imagine how that could possibly work in the physical aspects, the push-pull dance of wanting to protect vs. needing to prove oneself an equal has more heart than I expected.

I hope they figure it out. It’s one of the things I’ll be looking for in what seems to be the final book in the series, Mirror Lake, next month when it comes out.

Review: Shady Hollow by Juneau Black

Review: Shady Hollow by Juneau BlackShady Hollow (Shady Hollow #1) by Juneau Black
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Shady Hollow #1
Pages: 240
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard on January 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


The first book in the Shady Hollow series, in which we are introduced to the village of Shady Hollow, a place where woodland creatures live together in harmony--until a curmudgeonly toad turns up dead and the local reporter has to solve the case.

Reporter Vera Vixen is a relative newcomer to Shady Hollow. The fox has a nose for news, so when she catches wind that the death might be a murder, she resolves to get to the bottom of the case, no matter where it leads. As she stirs up still waters, the fox exposes more than one mystery, and discovers that additional lives are in jeopardy.
Vera finds more to this town than she ever suspected. It seems someone in the Hollow will do anything to keep her from solving the murder, and soon it will take all of Vera's cunning and quickness to crack the case.
A VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD ORIGINAL.

My Review:

Shady Hollow (the book as opposed to the town IN the book) is the kind of story that doesn’t lend itself to the easy description and characterization you think it will.

The U.S. cover makes it look like this is going to be a somewhat twee story about animals acting like humans. And it IS a story about animals acting like humans, but it’s not nearly so twee as you think it will be.

The original U.K. cover (at left) does a bit better job of conveying the darkness that is lurking inside the sleepy little town of Shady Hollow. Because this is the opening book in a series of murder mysteries – admittedly pretty cozy murder mysteries – where all of the characters are VERY anthropomorphized animals.

On her way to work one morning, Vera Vixen, new fox in town, discovers the dead body of Shady Hollow’s least popular resident, the cantankerous toad Otto Sumpf. With a knife in his back.

The toad was such an argumentative old curmudgeon that it’s not all that big a surprise that someone finally got angry enough to kill him.

But there has never been a murder in Shady Hollow that anyone can remember. The police – both bears – aren’t so much stumped as completely out of their depth. Which is where Vera comes in.

Vera’s not just a fox – although it turns out that the deputy police bear certainly thinks she is. Vera is an investigative reporter for the local newspaper, the Shady Hollow Herald. Before she came to sleepy Shady Hollow, she was an investigative reporter for a newspaper in a much larger town – where there was, both naturally and unfortunately at the same time – much more crime than Shady Hollow.

So Vera knows how an investigation is supposed to go – even if Deputy Orville Braun is still reading the manual while his boss is off fishing. Again. Perpetually.

When the most prominent citizen in town joins the toad in the town’s temporary morgue – a vacant jail cell, Vera and Orville join forces to find and catch the killer before the creature catches one of them – and adds their body to the pile.

Escape Rating B: I’ve been trying to think of what this book reminds me of, and the closest I initially managed to come was The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde, crossed with an adult version of the Beatrix Potter stories.

At its heart this is still a murder mystery, using those animals-as-people to tell a story that is really about people. Because that’s the perspective all writers have no matter what their characters claim to be.

So, like the Beatrix Potter stories, the author is using animals dressed as humans, doing human things, acting mostly like humans, to talk about what humans do while placing the story at one remove by making all the characters ostensibly animals.

The Constant Rabbit is both closer and further from the mark, as in that story the presence of the anthropomorphized rabbits alongside humans was used as a direct way of talking about shitty human behavior.

It’s possible the closest analogy to Shady Hollow is the movie Zootopia, and I’m a bit embarrassed about how long it took me to get there. And now that I come to think about it, the ending of Zootopia is even a bit of a spoiler for Shady Hollow.

So, we have the animal-citizens of Shady Hollow as the otherwise typical citizens of this cute, cozy and slightly quaint little town. And we have dead bodies piling up, a police chief who is always absent and everyone knows it, an ambitious deputy with no training, a nosy investigative reporter, etc., etc., etc. All fairly standard characters for a cozy mystery.

Viewed as creatures, they are adorable and the little touches that remind the reader these are animals draws the reader into the shtick with a smile. But the way the town thinks about itself, the motives for the crime spree, the investigation and most definitely the way that the nosy reporter nearly becomes part of the spree make this a fun, if slightly furry, cozy with just a bit of a twist.

So come for the animals – stay for the mystery. Or the other way around. It’s light, frothy and certainly fluffy either way. I’ll be back to visit Shady Hollow again in the next book in the series, Cold Clay. The amiable local coffee shop owner is about to be caught up in a hotter brew than anything he ever planned to serve.

Review: Grave Reservations by Cherie Priest

Review: Grave Reservations by Cherie PriestGrave Reservations by Cherie Priest
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery, paranormal, thriller, urban fantasy
Series: Booking Agents #1
Pages: 304
Published by Atria Books on October 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A psychic travel agent and a Seattle PD detective solve a murder in this quirky mystery in the vein of Lisa Lutz’s The Spellman Files and Charlaine Harris’s Aurora Teagarden series.
Meet Leda Foley: devoted friend, struggling travel agent, and inconsistent psychic. When Leda, sole proprietor of Foley's Flights of Fancy, impulsively re-books Seattle PD detective Grady Merritt’s flight, her life changes in ways she couldn’t have predicted.
After watching his original plane blow up from the safety of the airport, Grady realizes that Leda’s special abilities could help him with a cold case he just can’t crack.
Despite her scattershot premonitions, she agrees for a secret reason: her fiancé’s murder remains unsolved. Leda’s psychic abilities couldn’t help the case several years before, but she’s been honing her skills and drawing a crowd at her favorite bar’s open-mic nights, where she performs Klairvoyant Karaoke—singing whatever song comes to mind when she holds people’s personal effects. Now joined by a rag-tag group of bar patrons and pals alike, Leda and Grady set out to catch a killer—and learn how the two cases that haunt them have more in common than they ever suspected.

My Review:

Grave Reservations is a “no good deed goes unpunished” kind of story. Or a “may you live in interesting times” kind of story. With a heaping helping of karma being a bitch and being careful what you wish for because you just might get it.

Although not all of those things are visited on Leda Foley. It’s more like she sets all of them in motion with one surprising act. Leda Foley is a travel agent. She’s also a somewhat erratic psychic. Those two things combine when she gets a really bad feeling about one of her (very) few client’s upcoming flight from Orlando back home to Seattle.

She has a really bad feeling that if Grady Merritt makes his originally planned flight from Orlando to Seattle that he’s not going to make it home. Ever. Leda doesn’t know exactly what’s going to happen, only that it’s going to be fatal – at least for Grady.

So she rebooks him through Atlanta. (Leda’s not wrong, if you die in the south your corpse really will have to go through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.) Grady would have missed his flight anyway thanks to accident-delayed traffic on the way to the airport, but Leda rebooked him before he missed that plane. Which has Grady angry and yelling at her on the phone right up until the point where the plane he should have been on catches fire on the runway.

Leda’s relieved. Grady is too – but also a bit spooked. Once he gets over the shock and the gratitude, he turns up in Leda’s tiny office hoping that her psychic powers, the ones that saved his life, might also save this murder case that he can’t get out of his head.

Grady Merritt is a detective in the Seattle Police Department, and he’s got a multiple murder to solve that has been at a dead end for over a year and made very little sense even when it was all fresh. Asking Leda for help is pretty much the equivalent of grasping at straws, but he hasn’t had any better ideas – or actually even any worse ones – for months of digging.

He’s desperate. She’s wary but game. Very wary and not very game at all, so she tries her level best to lower his expectations as much as possible. Like all the way to the ground.

Only to hit paydirt on their very first try. Not much, and not something that he can take to a judge or even to his lieutenant, but enough to give him a place to start looking again.

Leda can’t resist helping – even when she shouldn’t – because her “spidey senses” are telling her that Grady’s case is linked to another unsolved murder – the murder of Leda’s fiancé. But the closer that Grady and Leda get to a solution, the more death follows in the wake of their investigation.

Leda has clearly found Grady a lead that someone else wants to close off – by turning as many investigative possibilities into “dead ends” as possible – before it’s too late.

Escape Rating A-: This was fun. In fact, this was a whole lot of fun. It hits just the right note of seriousness – after all, they are investigating not just one murder but a continuing series of murders – but the tone is still fairly lighthearted. It reminds me a bit of the early Stephanie Plum books with its lighthearted mayhem and quirky cast, while having more of a beating heart – and a few more brain cells – than it seemed like the later books in that series did. (While the blurb compares this to Charlaine Harris’ Aurora Teagarden series, it reminded me more of Harper Connelly. Your reading mileage may vary.)

The beating and broken heart of this story is Leda’s still healing (sometimes badly) trauma over the murder of her fiancé. Her life has gone on, but it’s not the same, it’s not going to be the same. Even if she gets her questions finally answered, her world has gone down a different path than it otherwise would have, and the scene of her in their storage locker still hunting for his scent among his old clothes was heartbreaking. As it should be.

At the same time, the life that Leda has cobbled together, while it isn’t quite working in a financial sense – at least not yet – does give her the emotional support that she needs and she is healing in that heartbreaking two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of way.

Even through her tears, her thoughts and actions are often funny as hell. I’m still laughing about Princess Pookie and Mr. Wiggles, felines who were discovered to be the opposite genders of their names when Princess Pookie got Mr. Wiggles pregnant. The entire scene was just a perfect explanation of cats and their owners and how much we love them and they tolerate us. It was a literal laugh out loud moment that gave just the right amount of lift in the story when it was needed, as Leda reactions often did.

But the story manages to follow the conventions of a cozy mystery – even as it deals with situations that are far from cozy. Leda’s found family among the denizens of the bar Castaways, where she does her “Psychic Psongstress” (the manager’s name for it) act of “Klairvoyant Karaoke” (Leda’s name for it) are sweet and funny and affirming of a talent that Leda used to hide but is learning to use.

There was so much about this story and the people in it that I just fell in love with. It also does a terrific job of representing the Seattle that I used to live in, which made for a much more fun blast from the past than my actual residence there. I was just about ROFL at the description of the downtown Seattle library building where I used to work. It is exactly as the author described. Including the neon and the vertigo.

Main Seattle Library (photo from Wikipedia)

But I will also confess that the conflation of the King County Library System with the Seattle Public Library drove me nuts. They are two separate entities. Not that plenty of residents don’t totally mix up the two, because libraries. But still, it read wrong because I knew better.

That being said, now that my personal pet peeve is out of the way, I have to say that I loved Leda’s story and this opening chapter in a series that looks like it’s going to be Leda’s journey. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

Review: Fixing to Die by Miranda James

Review: Fixing to Die by Miranda JamesFixing to Die (Southern Ladies Mystery, #4) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Southern Ladies Mystery #4
Pages: 294
Published by Berkley Books on October 3, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The New York Times bestselling author of the Cat in the Stacks Mysteries and Digging Up the Dirt returns with the latest Southern Ladies Mystery...
It's autumn down south, and An'gel and Dickce Ducote are in Natchez, Mississippi, at the request of Mary Turner Catlin, the granddaughter of an old friend. Mary and her husband, Henry Howard, live in Cliffwood, one of the beautiful antebellum homes for which Natchez is famous.
Odd things have been happening in the house for years, and the French Room in particular has become the focal point for spooky sensations. The Ducotes suspect the ghostly goings-on are caused by the living, but when a relative of the Catlins is found dead in the room, An'gel and Dickce must sift through a haunted family history to catch a killer.

My Review:

What is it that makes cozy mysteries just so cozy and so much of a comfort to read? You’d think that the fact that they all start with a dead body would act against that, but it doesn’t. At all.

I’m caught up in this question because so many of my “comfort reads” are cozy mysteries. Because this has been a week where the weather has been so wet and gloomy that it makes a person want to curl up with a good book, a hot cup of tea and a cat and just wait for it all to go away – which won’t be until Saturday at the earliest and it’s been raining since Sunday. I couldn’t focus on any of the things I planned to read and ended up looking for a cozy mystery to sink into.

And here we are, Fixing to Die. Because this is the last book in the author’s Southern Ladies mystery series, although the adventures of the Cat in the Stacks seem to be continuing. Thank goodness.

So, on a damp and chilly autumn evening, when I couldn’t get into anything else, I found myself, along with sisters An’gel and Dickce Ducote, traveling from their home in Athena Mississippi to Natchez to help the granddaughter of an old friend out with her haunted antebellum bed and breakfast.

Only to find themselves in the midst of an acrimonious family drama – although thankfully one not even remotely their own this time, unlike the events in Dead with the Wind.

The practical-minded An’gel is certain that the ghostly happenings at Cliffwood are the result of a worldly rather than an otherworldly agent. Dickce is a bit more open-minded about the whole thing. After all, their own antebellum home has its share of inexplicable door-closings and perambulating knick-knacks.

But the humans who have gathered at Cliffwood make both the sisters more than a bit suspicious. Mary and Henry, the owners of the house, are fighting over just how much of their lives should be devoted to the care and feeding of the house and the guests they need to keep on keeping the house up to the standards of the Historical Society.

Mary’s cousin Nathan believes he’s entitled to the contents of one of the rooms in the house – based on an old will that he can’t find. That the room contains priceless antiques just adds to his motivations to make his cousin Mary and her husband Henry’s lives even more miserable. Nathan’s sister invites herself and her lawyer to the house in the hopes of loosening her brother’s grip on her trust fund.

Then a psychic medium knocks on the door, claiming that the spirits in the house have called to her to give them peace, and it’s clear that some kind of fix is in. If not multiple fixes.

When Nathan’s dead body is found in the morning in the room he claimed he owned, it’s more of a relief than it is a surprise. One of the lovely things about this series is that the person you most want to end up dead usually does in short order.

But with a corpse on their hands – again – the Ducote sisters can’t resist playing Nancy Drew in order to figure out how the murderer got into and out of the locked room containing the victim. So they can figure out whodunnit, and why, and how.

Because that’s what they do. They help the police solve murders – even when the police would much, much rather NOT be helped!

Escape Rating B: And we’re back to what makes cozy mysteries cozy, and why this particular series – and this particular author – have turned out to be such a cozy and comforting read for me.

I think what makes cozy mysteries cozy is a combination of two factors. A big one is the gang or group or family (found or birth or a combination) that surrounds the detectives, whether amateur or professional. An’gel and Dickce have each other of course, but they also have their 19-year-old ward, Benjy, and their companion animals, the Labradoodle Peanut who thinks An’gel hung the moon, and the Abyssinian cat Endora, who is certain that Dickce provides the best lap in the universe.

The sisters know everyone in Athena, and their friends and friends of friends, especially Athena’s chief homicide detective Kanesha Berry, extend their reach far and wide. And make everyone they come into contact with feel familiar – only because in a way they are.

There’s also the element of cozy mystery that’s sometimes referred to as the “romance of justice”. The reader knows going in that someone who might deserve it is going to die, and that whoever murdered them is going to get what’s coming to them. And that the murder will happen safely off-screen and that the murderer will receive their just desserts legally as well as righteously. No vigilantes, very little blood and gore, and everybody walks away, with the perpetrator walking away in handcuffs in police custody.

All’s well that ends well. And cozy mysteries invariably end well. It’s part of their charm, and it’s part of the comfort they provide, that the world can be rational, that good triumphs and evil gets an appropriate punishment.

Fixing to Die turned out to be exactly what I was looking for on a very rainy autumn night. The cast of characters is a lot of fun, the family shenanigans are interesting and are somebody else’s, the murder victim needed to be taken out of the gene pool and his murderer got their just desserts. The sisters saved the day – as they always do – and their animals are along to provide just the right touch of comic relief.

This series has just the right amount of sass mixed in with the sweet, and I’m sorry that it seems to have ended with this story. Although I wouldn’t mind visiting with the Ducote sisters again, either in a future book of their own or whenever Athena’s amateur detective and professional librarian, Charlie Harris and his big Cat in the Stacks Diesel need a bit of the Ducote’s local knowledge or wide span of influence around town.

I’ll be back to visit Charlie and Diesel in Athena early next spring with Hiss Me Deadly, and I’m definitely looking forward to the trip!

Review Digging Up the Dirt by Miranda James

Review Digging Up the Dirt by Miranda JamesDigging Up the Dirt (Southern Ladies Mystery, #3) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery
Series: Southern Ladies Mystery #3
Pages: 296
Published by Berkley on September 6, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The New York Times bestselling author of Dead with the Wind and Bless Her Dead Little Heart is back with more of those sleuthing Southern belles, the Ducote sisters...
An’gel and Dickce Ducote, busy with plans for the Athena Garden Club’s spring tour of grand old homes, are having trouble getting the other club members to help. The rest of the group is all a-flutter now that dashing and still-eligible Hadley Partridge is back to restore his family mansion. But the idle chatter soon turns deadly serious when a body turns up on the Partridge estate after a storm...   The remains might belong to Hadley’s long-lost sister-in-law, Callie, who everyone thought ran off with Hadley years ago. And if it’s not Callie, who could it be? As the Ducotes begin uncovering secrets, they discover that more than one person in Athena would kill to be Mrs. Partridge. Now An’gel and Dickce will need to get their hands dirty if they hope to reveal a killer’s deep-buried motives before someone else’s name is mud...

My Review:

Honestly, I picked this one up because I just felt like it. I was looking for something that would be both familiar and new at the same time, and this seemed like it would be it. And it was.

Also, I really enjoyed the first book in this series, Bless Her Dead Little Heart, so even though I was a bit disappointed in Dead with the Wind I like this author more than enough to want to see if the third time would be the charm. And I had high hopes for a cameo from the main characters in the author’s other series, Cat in the Stacks, so I was very happy to see a bit – but not too much – of librarian Charlie Harris and his gentlemanly Maine Coon cat Diesel.

The story in Digging Up the Dirt reads like it’s at the intersection of two “old” sayings. The first is from the late, much-lamented Terry Pratchett, who said in the book Moving Pictures that “inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.” More likely wondering what the HELL happened, but the thought is definitely there.

The quote it intersects with is something that a friend used to say fairly often when her spouse had just done something she wished he hadn’t. Her comment was that “the problem (with spouses) is that you can’t live with ‘em and you can’t bury ‘em in the backyard because the dogs will dig them up”

The Ducote sisters, An’gel and Dickce, along with the rest of the Athena Garden Club, have been rather abruptly confronted with the truth of the Pratchett quote when Hadley Partridge returns to Athena after a four-decade absence.

When Hadley left Athena all those years ago, he left the entire Garden Club in a veritable tizzy, as he was charming, handsome, rich and flirting with every single member of the club. When he left town, rumor had it that his brother threw him out of the family mansion in a fit of jealousy. Everyone in Athena, including, unfortunately for Hadley, his older brother, was just absolutely certain that Hadley was having an affair with his brother’s wife.

So when that same woman, Hadley’s sister-in-law Callie Partridge, disappeared without a trace a few days after Hadley’s abrupt departure, everyone just assumed that she ran off after Hadley.

At least that’s what everyone assumed until Hamish Partridge died and left the family manse to his brother Hadley. When Hadley returned to Athena, and got the entire Garden Club into pretty much the same tizzy he left them in, he claimed that he had not seen Callie in the intervening 40 years.

Then the Ducote sisters’ labradoodle, Peanut, digs up a body in the backyard of the Partridge estate. A body that goes a long way towards explaining where Callie Partridge has been “hiding” for all these years.

But doesn’t get either amateur sleuths An’gel and Dickce Ducote or Sherriff’s Detective Kanesha Berry much further in their hunt for the person who is killing the members of the Garden Club in the here and now.

Escape Rating A-: Except for the Ducote sisters, whose ages seem to be fixed at 80 and 84 for the entirety of this series, we don’t actually know the ages of the rest of the Athena Garden Club. Just that all of them were adults and Garden Club members 40 years previously, making all of them somewhere north of 60, if not quite as far north as An’gel and Dickce Ducote.

What I loved about all of them, even the ones that are crazy as betsy bugs, is that they are all, to a woman, vital and independent and healthy and active. (Physically healthy at least although there are one or two whose mental health may be – and have always been – a bit iffy.) And that it seems like everything they felt 40 years ago is just as alive in their heads and in their hearts – and possibly other places – now as it was then.

Their spirits are all still as willing as they ever were, even if the flesh occasionally creaks a bit. A feeling I can empathize with all too well – even if, or especially because, some of them were being really silly with it. Every bit as silly as they were 40 years ago. As another old saying goes, “we are too soon old and too late smart.”

The red herrings in this particular story are also steamed to a delectable turn. That there are murders to be solved in both the past and the present just adds to the number of different ways that the detectives and the reader can be led delightfully astray.

And we are all the way to the end. I was convinced until the very end that the present-day murderer was an entirely different party than the person who turned out to be guilty after all, although I did figure out Hadley’s secret slightly earlier than the Ducote sisters. Of course I wasn’t having any nostalgic or romantic ideas to cloud my judgment the way that they were.

There were two things that put this one head and shoulders over the previous book in the series. Except for the Ducote sisters and their traveling household of ward, dog and cat, there were very few likeable characters in Dead with the Wind. Which combined a bit too neatly with the second thing, that the story took An’gel and Dickce away from their home in Athena, robbing them of their usual support network and eliminating several people that the reader could have – and has – happily followed along with.

Which leaves me a tad worried about the final – at least so far – book in the series, Fixing to Die, which also takes the sisters and their household out of Athena. I’ll still be back for it, the next time I need the Ducote’s particular brand of reading comfort.

Review: Deadly Summer Nights by Vicki Delany + Giveaway

Review: Deadly Summer Nights by Vicki Delany + GiveawayDeadly Summer Nights (Catskill Summer Resort Mystery #1) by Vicki Delany
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, historical mystery
Series: Catskill Summer Resort Mystery #1
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on September 14, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An immersive setting with details of running a Catskillsresort in the 1950s (think Kellerman's in Dirty Dancing) beautifully frame a story with plot twists and a cast of well-delineated characters.--Booklist
A summer of fun at a Catskills resort comes to an abrupt end when a guest is found murdered, in this new 1950s set mystery series.
It's the summer of 1953, and Elizabeth Grady is settling into Haggerman's Catskills Resort. As a vacation getaway, Haggerman's is ideal, and although Elizabeth's ostentatious but well-meaning mother is new to running the resort, Elizabeth is eager to help her organize the guests and the entertainment acts. But Elizabeth will have to resort to untested abilities if she wants to save her mother's business.
When a reclusive guest is found dead in a lake on the grounds, and a copy of The Communist Manifesto is found in his cabin, the local police chief is convinced that the man was a Russian spy. But Elizabeth isn't so sure, and with the fate of the resort hanging in the balance, she'll need to dodge red herrings, withstand the Red Scare, and catch a killer red-handed.

My Review:

Remember the movie Dirty Dancing? That romantic drama was set in the same location as this cozy mystery series, just ten years later. Things don’t seem to have changed much in the Catskills summer resorts during that intervening decade, but that was kind of the point.

One of the real Catskill resorts during its glory days

Back in the 1950s, the time period of this series, the Catskills resorts were in their storied heyday, not just a place but an entire experience, a setting where middle and upper class New Yorkers could retreat from the city’s heat to a beautiful mountain location upstate, close enough that the husbands could come up on the weekends to visit their families but still work in the city on weekdays.

And the resorts were self-contained enough to keep the wives and children entertained and cosseted for as long as the family could afford. An entire summer if they could manage it. Kind of like a cruise ship, just without the shore excursions.

Elizabeth Grady, manager of Haggerman’s Catskills Resort, and her mother, retired Broadway star Olivia Grady, are new to the Catskills. The summer of 1953 is only their second season, and Elizabeth is determined to make a go of the only asset she and her mother have. No matter who, or what, gets in her way.

They seem to be on track to profitability this year – or at least they are until the dead body of one of their guests is pulled from the lake one night.

That a guest might die while at the resort is not unheard of. Many of their guests are neither young nor in perfect health. Families have come to the Catskills resorts for at least two generations at this point, and sometimes those generations pass while at the resort.

But a murder is entirely other matter. Guests come to the Catskills to GET away from it all, not to be done away with as this one certainly was. This pot of scandal is further stirred when the local police chief searches the guest’s cabin, discovers a couple of maps and a copy of the Communist Manifesto, and calls the FBI in on suspicion that the “Reds” that Senator Eugene McCarthy is screaming about in Washington have made their way to the Catskills.

Elizabeth needs to find the murderer before the scandal takes her fledgling business right under the water along with the corpse. While her competition from the other resorts cheer on her business’ demise.

Some of them, at least, are absolutely salivating at the very though. After all, it will just prove what they’ve been saying all along, that running a business like Haggerman’s is simply not a suitable job for a woman.

Escape Rating A-: There is a lot to like in Deadly Summer Nights, and one thing that niggled at me a lot. I’ll get to that in a bit.

What I really liked about this story was the way that it dug a bit deeper into what the real world was like during the 1950s, as opposed to keeping reality at bay as the Catskills resorts were famous for doing in their heyday. Which were, after all, the 1950s.

Elizabeth is a woman running a business at a time when women were expected to stay home with the children and not “worry their pretty little heads” about such things as payrolls and suppliers and invoices and contracts. She’s every bit as competent and capable as any man around her and knows they’re being stupid and ridiculous but she plays as much of the game as she must in order to get by.

And she’s very good at asserting her authority when she has to – as she all too frequently does. That she can’t assert any authority over her mother is an entirely different matter. Most of us can’t manage that particular trick no matter how necessary we feel it might be.

I loved the way this story dealt with McCarthyism and the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. The police chief’s witch hunt is bogus and everyone knows it’s bogus. At the same time everyone has to take it seriously out of fear of very real consequences.

I also enjoyed the way that this series opener creates Elizabeth’s world, the resort and it’s annual three months of frenzy, the relationships between Elizabeth and her mother and her aunt, the way she treats her employees, how she deals with the guests, including the demanding divas, and the symbiotic relationship between the resorts and the towns that they are not quite a part of.

I have to say that the focus of the story is on the worldbuilding rather than the mystery, and that works for a series opener. The red herrings are certainly tasty, but Elizabeth has so many fish to fry on an average day that her investigation gets a bit lost in the chaos. I liked her more than enough to enjoy watching her work, whether on the murder or just keeping the resort afloat.

About that thing that niggled at me.

Although this review is being posted around the publication date of the book, I actually read it back in July. On the weekend I read this one of the last of the “Borscht Belt” comedians, Jackie Mason, passed away at the age of 93. I know this seems like a non sequitur, but it’s not. Because the “Borscht Belt” where Mason and so many others honed their stand up routines was just another name for the Catskills summer resorts where this story takes place. The Catskills resorts catered to a Jewish clientele, served Kosher food and gave a lot of Jewish comedians their start or bolstered their careers.

As is mentioned in the story, Milton Berle really did perform in the Catskills. The comedian who gets caught up in the murder investigation was probably based on Lenny Bruce, who also performed there during his all-too-brief but controversial career.

At first, I couldn’t figure out what was missing at Haggerman’s, until I realized that the context of who the clients were and who many of the owners were was entirely missing. If it was subtext it was so sub that I missed it. And I feel like a lot of the flavor of the area was lost.

Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

But I really liked Elizabeth, her family and her resort, more than enough that I’ll be back for her next Catskills season in Deadly Director’s Cut, coming next March. Just at the point where winter’s doldrums will make reading about the summer sun seem like a real getaway!

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

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Review: Dead with the Wind by Miranda James

Review: Dead with the Wind by Miranda JamesDead with the Wind (Southern Ladies Mystery, #2) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Southern Ladies Mystery #2
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley on September 29, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The New York Times bestselling author of Bless Her Dead Little Heart and the Cats in the Stacks mysteries brings back the Ducote sisters, two spry Southern sleuths.
An’gel and Dickce Ducote tend to stay put in Athena, Mississippi, but a wedding is a good reason to say a temporary farewell to Charlie Harris’s cat Diesel and go visit relatives. But while their stay in Louisiana is scorching hot, the atmosphere at the wedding is downright cold, with bride-to-be Sondra Delevan putting her trust fund above little things like love and loyalty.
When a violent storm supposedly sweeps Sondra off a balcony to her death, the sisters discover that many of the guests attending the wedding had major reasons to object to Sondra’s marriage. Now, it’s up to An’gel and Dickce to use their down-home instincts to expose dubious alibis, silver-plated secrets, and one relentless murderer who lives for “till death do us part.”

My Review:

On what was feeling that Mondayest Monday ever, I needed a comfort read. Since I’m currently caught up with the Cat in the Stacks series, I turned to the same author’s Southern Ladies Mystery series to sink into a whole lot of cozy, with animal companions both around me and between the pages – along with just a couple of dead bodies to add a bit of excitement. But not too much.

Dead with the Wind is a story about family ties. The ones that bind get the Ducote Sisters into this situation, but it’s the ties that strangle that lead to the murder. Not that someone shouldn’t have strangled Sondra Delevan a long time ago.

The Ducote Sisters are in St. Ignatiusville, Louisiana at their cousin Mireille’s antebellum city mansion for Sondra’s wedding. An occasion that does not get off to an auspicious start when An’gel Ducote righteously dumps a vase filled with water on Sondra’s overreacting head.

I’d say Sondra was a bridezilla, but that implies that she’s normally a halfway reasonable human being and is only being such a demanding bitch because of the wedding, and that’s not remotely the case. Sondra is demanding bitch 100% of the time and always has been. She’s one of those adults that people other than her immediate family look at and think that the universe would have been better off if she’d been disciplined instead of indulged a few – possibly a lot – of times in her childhood when it would have done some good.

So when Sondra is murdered, it’s not so much that the reader is surprised that someone killed her as amazed that it didn’t happen a whole lot sooner.

But the circumstances of Sondra’s death are rather suspicious, because her death and the manner of it fall all too closely on the heels of the housekeeper proclaiming that the wedding is ill-omened as it resembles a long-ago tragedy much too much. There’s a long arm of coincidence here that is way too long to convince either of the Ducote Sisters.

That before her death Sondra was such a heartless little bitch as to stage a scene that drove her grandmother, the Ducotes’ Cousin Mireille, into a heart attack and her grave does not help anyone to think well of the recently and spectacularly departed Sondra, but it does make the Sisters wonder just who benefits from both of those deaths.

There’s something rotten in Cousin Mireille’s beautiful mansion. It looks like there’s someone close to the family circle determined to bump off everyone in their way. But in the way of what, exactly?

The Sisters – along with the local police – follow that first rule of investigation. They follow the money, and it leads them straight to the killer. Or does it?

Escape Rating B-: I went into this because I wanted something familiar but not quite so familiar that I’d know every single thing before it happened. And that is kind of what I got. The Ducote Sisters of Athena, Mississippi, introduced in the author’s Cat in the Stacks series, are the power behind nearly everything going on in Athena, and have been for decades. An’gel is 84 and Dickce is 80. They live in a palatial family mansion, they’re the last of their direct family, never married, never had kids, and pretty much keep Athena running, sometimes it seems all by themselves.

So it was fun to see them out of their element in this story, which is kind of a locked-room mystery. Not that the room or the house is literally locked, but rather that everything that happens seems to happen in the house and inside the rather tight family circle. Even if all the members of the family aren’t related by blood.

What made this story a bit less fun than I usually find this author, or even the first book in this series, Bless Her Dead Little Heart, is that no one involved is all that likeable except for Sondra’s little girl Tippy and the family butler and general factotum, Grayson. All the rest of them are pieces of work, from Sondra the spoiled sociopath to her on-again-off-again fiancé to her stepfather and unfortunately but definitely including her mother and grandmother (Cousin Mireille). The mansion seems to be a veritable hothouse of all sorts of -pathy. Except sympathy as there really isn’t a whole lot of that going around.

Also, a big part of the story is that Sondra is marrying Lance because, frankly, Sondra is looking for someone she can control, getting married gets her control of the substantial fortune she inherited from her father, and there’s something not quite right about Lance. There are multiple things about Lance that aren’t quite right, but his maturity level and that of Sondra’s three-year-old daughter are about on a par. The family treats it as an open joke, but are still allowing the marriage because no one wants to cross Sondra. The situation did not sit well, or rather the way everyone treated did not sit well.

This turned out to be one of those stories about families that pretend everything is fine but where things are really, really wrong. Like Sondra’s extremes of behavior and self-centeredness. And Lance’s undiagnosed but joked about issues.

So I felt a bit more discomfort than desired for something I picked up as a comfort read. Even though Sondra’s death was very cathartic. Some characters just need to be let out of a story at the very first opportunity. By the time the killer’s identity was revealed it wasn’t much of a surprise – nor was I expecting it to be as this is not that kind of book.

But the way it got revealed – now that was a surprise. And it made a wonderful ending for a story that had a few more downs than ups.

I’m glad that the next book in this series, Digging Up the Dirt, places the Sisters back home in Athena where they belong!

Review: What the Cat Dragged In by Miranda James

Review: What the Cat Dragged In by Miranda JamesWhat the Cat Dragged in by Miranda James
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Cat in the Stacks #14
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on August 31, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Librarian Charlie Harris and his faithful feline companion, Diesel, have inherited Charlie’s grandfather’s house, along with a deadly legacy: a decades-old crime scene, in this all-new mystery in the New York Times bestselling Cat in the Stacks series.

Charlie has always believed that his grandfather had sold his house to his longtime tenant, Martin Hale. So when Martin dies, Charlie is surprised to discover the house was not left to Martin but instead belongs to Charlie. As he and Diesel check out the house he remembers fondly from his childhood, he is pleasantly surprised that it is in better condition than expected. That is, until they find a literal skeleton in a closet.

While the sheriff’s department investigates the mysterious remains, Charlie digs deeper into the past for clues to the identity of the bones and why they are there. But the cold case heats up quickly when Martin’s grandson is found dead on the farm.

As Charlie delves into his own family history, he encounters many people who might have been motivated to take a life. But Charlie and Diesel know that things are not always what they seem, and that secrets seemingly lost to time have a way of finding their way back to haunt the present.

My Reviews:

This book has been calling my name, loudly, with increasingly more high-pitched meows, until I finally just gave in and read it. The series features a 50-something librarian with the last name of Harris and his now two feline companions – one of whom is pictured on the cover of every book in the series. How could I possibly resist?

Librarian Charlie Harris has a tendency to get himself involved in investigating local murders, no matter how much Detective Kanesha Berry really, really wishes he could manage to keep his much too inquisitive nose out of police business.

But this time Charlie’s involvement is kind of baked in, along with his own investigation into a surprising number of skeletons in his own family’s closet. Secrets that have been buried for not just years but decades, stuff that Charlie never knew about and now wishes he had learned at his grandparents’ knees back when those knees were still available.

Charlie begins the story surprised to inherit his grandfather’s house and farm outside of town. He thought that the property had been sold long ago, and it’s only upon the death of the man who turns out to have been a life tenant and not the owner that Charlie learns that he’s just inherited another house.

What he discovers, or rather what his Maine Coon cat Diesel discovers when they visit the new/old property, is that Charlie has inherited a literal skeleton as well. Diesel finds a cache of human bones in the attic. Nobody is pleased at this development, least of all Detective Berry.

The discovery of those bones opens up, not just one proverbial can of worms, but can after can after can. Especially when another dead body is found on the property – this one considerably more recent and very nearly as puzzling.

Charlie, who can’t resist any sort of puzzle especially once he’s in it, is caught between multiple mysteries. Those bones might be old enough to be laid at his grandparents’ feet – although the revelation that the body in question has neither feet nor hands just adds to the macabre feel of the whole mess. The new body has something to do with a secret that his grandfather kept long ago and Charlie’s dive into the family tree turns up secrets left, right, center and on the wrong side of the blanket.

While Detective Berry has her hands full with the recent killing, it turns out to be up to Charlie to uncover the identity of not just the old bones but how they came to be in the attic. And when the new case intersects with the old, the answer very nearly adds Charlie’s bones – along with Diesel’s – to the family skeleton pile.

Escape Rating A-: This series is always a comfort read for me. It helps that librarian Charlie Harris, besides sharing a last name, also feels like “one of us” librarians, probably because his author is a real-life librarian. He has the kind of job, or at least the kind of work environment, that many of us wish we had in real life. He’s inherited enough money that he does not have to worry about the librarian’s lament, that “librarians get paid weekly, very weakly.” And of course there are the charms of Charlie’s two cats, the large, in charge and quite well-behaved cat-about-town Diesel, and the rambunctious just-barely-out-of-kittenhood Ramses.

Ramses reminds me a lot of our George, except that our cats are not tempted by “people food” and they don’t beg for any. They’re more interested in the plastic wrappers that some of our food comes in. But I digress.

In this entry in the series, I discovered that the case that Charlie was investigating was way more interesting than the one that Kanesha Berry was dealing with – in spite of the two cases intersecting at the end. At very nearly Charlie and Diesel’s end.

But Charlie’s half of the investigation was wrapped up in family secrets. All the stuff you think you know about your family that turns out to be not what you thought it was. Like discovering, at my grandfather’s funeral, that he was married before he married my grandmother, and that my dad’s sisters were actually his half sisters – if they were related at all. Which they might not have been. Apparently grandpa’s first wife played around, which was why he divorced her. I didn’t find out until I was in college, but it explained so much about the way my grandma treated me as a child. I was her only grandchild, after all.

That’s the kind of secret that Charlie discovers when he starts looking into his own family history. He remembers visiting his grandparents when he was a child in the house he’s just inherited. His dad and his aunt both said granddad had sold it, but clearly he didn’t. What Charlie digs into uncovers a whole bunch of fascinating family secrets that you’d – and he’d – think wouldn’t have much bearing on the present. But they do, otherwise his search wouldn’t be such a big part of the story.

I really liked following the progress, and the two steps forward one step back, nature of his search. The result was a surprise, especially to Charlie, but his reaction was all the more heartwarming because of it.

This series as a whole is very cozy. It’s a small-town, Charlie is one of those accidental amateur detectives who can’t seem to stop stumbling over murders. His friends and family are a big part of the background action and serve as his support team, cheering squad and occasionally attempt to warn him off to no avail. Relationships in town are complicated, everyone knows everyone and knows everyone’s secrets – or at least thinks they do.

And the cats are adorable. Still realistically cats and not super-felinely able, but absolutely adorable. I’d read this series just for Diesel, and sometimes I have. But I like all the characters, I find Charlie’s life and investigations soothing – in spite of the times he nearly becomes part of his own case – and I’ll sign up for another whenever the next one comes out, which looks like it’s going to be Hiss Me Deadly, hopefully next March!

In the meantime, the next time I’m looking for a fix of Athena Mississippi I’ll have to go back to the author’s Southern Ladies Mystery series. They’re a hoot!