Saturday, January 14, 2017

Better Off Thread - Amanda Lee

Better Off Thread
An Embroidery Mystery
Amanda Lee
Berkley Prime Crime


In the days after Thanksgiving, Marcy Singer, owner of The Seven Year Stitch embroidery shop, is looking forward to a quiet evening with her guy, Ted, a detective in the local police force, when the doorbell rings.  To her surprise, it’s Capt. Moe, a local character and the man who makes the best milkshakes for miles.  Capt. Moe has been a great friend to both Marcy and Ted, so when he says he has a favor to ask of Marcy, she knows she’ll say yes.  He’s going to be playing Santa at the local hospital during the week after Thanksgiving, and again before Christmas, and he needs an elf.  Marcy agrees, and even volunteers Angus, her Irish wolfhound to come along wearing reindeer antlers.

The first evening, as Marcy arrives, she wanders into an argument between Moe and Sandra Vincent, the hospital administrator.  Sandra wants Moe to show special attention to one sick child – even give him a special gift – because the child’s father is on the hospital board.  Moe refuses, and pledges to treat all the kids the same.  Despite that, the rest of the evening goes very well.  When Marcy returns the next day for her second performance as an elf, she’s stopped by a large security guard.  The guard says that Sandra was found by Moe with a knife in her chest.  The county police waste no time arresting Capt. Moe and charging him with the murder.  Marcy, Ted, and anyone else who knows him, knows that Moe didn’t do it.  Now they just have to figure out how to prove it, without stepping on the county boys’ toes.

This is the tenth installment in this fun series (see list below.)  It can’t be easy to keep characters and plot lines fresh over so many stories.  But this is one of those stories that feels completely organic to the place and the people.  Capt. Moe has been a friend to Marcy since the first book.  Readers most likely agree with Marcy, that there’s no chance he stabbed someone.  It makes sense that Marcy and others would do what they could to dig into the situation, trying to help out their friend.  As is realistic for small towns, the investigators quickly realize that lives and livelihoods and politics are all tangled together.  Pulling one thread could unravel a lot more than a murder.  Visiting the Seven Year Stitch is always a good time.

Rating: 8
December 2016

ISBN# 978-0-451-47385-1  (paperback)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Stitching Hour - Amanda Lee

The Stitching Hour
An Embroidery Mystery
Amanda Lee


Halloween in the little town of Tallulah Falls, Oregon, usually means a G-rated haunted house at the public library.  It’s their best fund-raising event of the year.  But this year, something new has come to town.  The Horror Emporium has opened in the store next door to Seven Year Stitch, Marcy Singer’s needlework shop.  They’ll only be open in the evenings for the month of October, but Marcy teaches classes three nights a week and isn’t looking forward to interruptions from next door.  She’s also busy getting ready for her one-year anniversary party at the shop and preparing for a visit from her mother, Beverly.

The Atwoods, the flamboyant couple running this new attraction, announce that there will be a sort of open house for neighboring shop owners before the Emporium officially opens for business.  To celebrate, there’s a party, catered by the nearby coffee shop; and manned, with very little enthusiasm, by Keira, one of the coffee shop waitresses.  As the group of shop owners starts the tour, the first room on the tour is the Lair of the Serpent, featuring real snakes.  The rest of the attraction consists of a series of actors and effects that make the experience fairly realistic.  As they exit, they see a female form, crumpled on the sidewalk.  Most think this is a last scare.  Instead, it’s Keira, lying on the ground, with a pair of wounds to her neck.

Marcy feels unaccountably sad for Keira.  Although they hadn’t known each other well, they had a bit of history.  When Marcy first arrived in town, the two women had briefly been interested in the same guy.  Although that’s long past, Keira held a grudge.  She was a generally unhappy person, it seems.  But who would want to kill her?  Was she the intended victim, or just a victim of opportunity?   Before Marcy gets very far in her investigation, a family emergency almost derails everything.

Keira has been a very secondary character since the beginning of the series (see list below.)  The fact that the reader is learning so much background about her only after her death pretty much puts the reader in Marcy’s shoes.  No one is any one thing; and Keira was more complex than Marcy thought.  Getting to the bottom of this mystery requires some input from almost everyone in the cast of characters.  The solution comes about fairly abruptly, but it makes sense and ties up the loose ends nicely.  Beverly’s visit adds an extra dimension to the story, as usual.  And I continue to wish for a shop just like Seven Year Stitch near me.

Rating: 7
November 2015

ISBN# 978-0-451-47384-4  (paperback)

Monday, January 09, 2017

Third Time's A Crime - Diana Orgain

Third Time’s A Crime
A Love Or Money Mystery
Diana Orgain
Berkley Prime Crime


Georgia Thornton knows that there’s no way she’ll ever be a member of the SFPD again.  Especially not after appearing on two different Reality TV shows.  Still, it’s not all bad.  On the first show (A FIRST DATE WITH MURDER) she met Scott, who just may be the love of her life.  On the second show (A SECOND CHANCE AT MURDER) shot on location in Spain, Scott sustained a traumatic head injury.  Now physically healed and home, Georgia and Scott will be partners on a third show, back in California, called “Cold Case in the Castle.”  On this show, five teams of two will attempt to solve the decades-old murder of a young woman who worked at the “castle” when it was used as a reform school.

For Georgia, the stakes are higher this time.  Producers of an established show are considering offering her a permanent job as host.  The job offer, and new career trajectory, is contingent on Georgia and Scott either ‘winning’ the show by solving the mystery, or placing in the top two teams.  The first night, as a storm moves in, a flock of black birds pelt the property, thrilling the psychic and ghost hunter team, and delighting the producer to no end.  The following morning, Georgia discovers a body in the empty pool behind the building.  It’s the caretaker of the grounds.  Production must continue, commands the producer, so the filming and investigating resumes that afternoon.  Almost immediately, accidents begin happening to the cast.  Within a couple of days, there’s another body.

This is the third installment in this series, and it does not disappoint.  There are enough unexplained/spooky things that happen during filming to make even skeptic Georgia consider that the paranormal just might be real.  Since Scott is a horror writer, that might be very interesting direction to explore in future (I hope) books.  The underlying mystery is interesting, and the investigation of the huge, old house took me back to being a kid, reading Nancy Drew mysteries.   

In the first few chapters, Scott drops a bomb on Georgia: because of his recent head injury, Scott knows, intellectually, that he and Georgia are in love; but he doesn’t feel it.  For Georgia, this is a serious shock.  It’s frankly too big a shock to work out over the course of a few days while filming a reality show.  This is the only element of the story that didn’t work for me.  To counter that, though, is the behind-the-camera chaos of making a reality show for TV.  The cast, those in front of the cameras, are usually pretty eccentric.  But I find the people behind the cameras – the hair and makeup people, the camera operators, the techs, are quite entertaining.  I’d be happy to see more in this series, but the ending here would wrap things up nicely, too.  I know I’ll be following this author no matter which way it goes.

Rating:7 ½ 
January 2017

ISBN# 978-0-425-27170-4  (paperback)

Saturday, January 07, 2017

The Chocolate Bunny Brouhaha - JoAnna Carl

The Chocolate Bunny Brouhaha
A Chocoholic Mystery
JoAnna Carl
Berkley Prime Crime


It’s winter in Warner Pier, Michigan, a tourist town that sees most of its business during the summer months.  Since Ten Huis Chocolades has a mail-order business, manager Lee Woodyard is able to keep staff employed all year round.  For instance, there’s the order for nine thousand chocolate bunnies just placed by a major customer.  One of her more recent hires is a nervous woman called Bunny Birdsong.  Lee is delighted to learn than Bunny can help with the mail order side of things, and stop wreaking havoc in the production kitchen.

No sooner than that problem been solved, when another shows up in the person of Abigail Birdsong, Bunny’s husband’s aunt.  Aunt Abigail is simply aghast that Bunny has left her husband.  Aunt Abigail is used to getting her way, since she essentially bankrolls the husband’s art work.  Bunny’s explanation that the creep has moved another woman into her home changes Aunt Abigail’s tune.  She declares that she will change her will, making Bunny her beneficiary.  It’s around that point that the Other Woman arrives and more words are exchanged.  By the time this storm passes, it’s time to shut up shop and go home. 

The following morning, Lee is there bright and early to do a walkthrough of her current construction project.  Ten Huis has grown so much, they’ve bought the building next door and are busy converting that building and connecting the two.  To her shock, there’s a dead body on the floor of the unoccupied building.  Lee and the contractor went to great pains to make sure that building is always securely locked.  But someone got in, and laid a very dead Abigail Birdsong neatly on the floor.

This is an interesting and fast-paced mystery.  For longtime readers, most of the characters are quite familiar.  It’s fun to watch their lives change and progress as the series continues.  For readers new to the series (see partial list below) there’s plenty of background given to catch you up on the various characters.  The mystery begins as a sort of Locked Room Mystery, then expands when a second person is attacked just outside the shop.  The eventual solution was innovative and required Lee’s particular brand of non-official investigative flair.  Chocolate trivia and a delicious-sounding recipe are also included.

Rating:  7
November 2016

ISBN# 978-0-451-47382-0 (hardcover)

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Kingdom Come - Jane Jensen

Kingdom Come
An Elizabeth Harris Mystery
Jane Jensen
Berkley Prime Crime


Detective Elizabeth Harris grew up around Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Later, she left for the bright lights of New York and spent ten years with the NYPD.  Her love for the city died when her husband was senselessly gunned down during a robbery.  It felt right to move back to Pennsylvania, and she brings her years of experience with her.  Lancaster County is home to a large community of Amish, who live and work very much the same way their forefathers did.  They drive buggies into town, dress very plainly, and are still an insular community.  They don’t want the “English” (anyone who is not Amish) to influence their children or way of life.

One early morning in the depth of winter, Elizabeth is called to an Amish farm.  That alone is highly unusual; what she finds there is even more so.   A young boy, going into the barn to milk the cows, discovered the body of a young woman.  She’s beautiful, she’s definitely English, and she’s dead.  How could she possibly have ended up in the barn?  The Amish swear they don’t know who she is.  In fact, it takes a few days to identify the girl.  Checking her record, they find that she filled out a Missing Person report on a friend, just a few months before her death.  That friend, an Amish girl, is still missing.

This novel offers a fascinating and nicely balanced look into the life of the Amish.  The author takes care to present each person as an individual, not just a cardboard cutout, spouting typical facts about Amish life.  Each character seems to be a real person, dealing with the English with varying levels of belief, warmth, or suspicion.  Some are aggressively resistant to even speaking to the English, especially a woman who carries a gun.  Some are simply curious.  One man, a widower, is interested in Elizabeth on a personal level.   She’s surprised to find herself returning that interest.  This subplot is something I was initially reluctant to go along with; it just seemed so clichéd.  But, I have to admit, the author did a great job of developing both characters in ways that made the whole thing believable.

Elizabeth, despite her boss’ protests to the contrary, is convinced that the murderer must be part of the Amish community.  She has no real hard evidence, just circumstances and her gut.  Transporting the body to the barn, at night, in the dead of winter, for example, is something that must have been done by someone who knew the farms’ layouts.  The police start with not much evidence.  Leads are slow to come, and the detectives get frustrated.  This all reads as very real in a place like Lancaster.  Elizabeth won’t give up, though, keeps working on both the English and Amish sides.  The eventual denouement is not quite what I thought it would be, but it was very satisfying.  And, as a final note, bravos to the Art Department for a perfect cover image, and for the map at the end of Chapter One that kept me on track with the neighborhood layout.

Rating: 8
January 2016

ISBN#  978-0-425-28289-2 (trade paperback)

Monday, January 02, 2017

A Spring Betrayal - Tom Callaghan

A Spring Betrayal
An Akyl Borubaev Investigation
Tom Callaghan


Months ago, in the depths of a Kyrgyzstan winter, Murder Squad Inspector Akyl Borubaev solved a case.  The case involved a police superior, and the daughter of a high-ranking Minister.  After solving the case, Akyl was sent to the place farthest away from the city of Bishkek.  It’s a remote place, almost on the border with China.  It’s a quiet place until a farmer, readying his field, turns up the corpses of seven children.  Each child wears only an orphanage-issued identity bracelet.  

He speaks to a man who runs an orphanage in Bishkek.  Hours later, that man is dead, in an unconvincing suicide.  He left a note for Akyl, with a contact.  The contact is Saltanat, a female security service agent who helped Akyl on his last case.  The two have a common goal now.  Saltanat tells Akyl about a shipment of pornographic movies that was intercepted recently.  The movies involved children who were murdered in the final moments.  The children in the films were wearing the bracelets.  From that slim lead, grim as it is, Akyl and Saltanat embark on a mission to get justice for the dead and protect the living.

This is the second novel in this series, following A KILLING WINTER.  I haven’t read the first installment, and while I will seek it out asap, that was no impediment to my enjoyment of this one.  The setting is quite unique in my experience, but the author did a wonderful job of describing the landscape, both physical and psychological of the country and its peoples.  Akyl comes across as a very real human being; one with a past, who is dealing with the baggage of a lifetime, one who hopes for better from life but doesn’t expect it.  Don't start this one late at night.  The plot never seems to stop moving; you'll be up far later than you intended!  

Rating: 8
October 2016

ISBN# 978-1-681-443782 (hardcover)