The White Magic Five and Dime ($14.99) by Steve Hockensmith (of Holmes on the Range fame) and tarot expert Lisa Falco introduces us to Alanis McLachlan (at least, that's what she's currently calling herself). Raised by a con-artist mother she hasn't seen in 20 years, Alanis isn't surprised to learn her mother has been murdered. Which takes her to Berdache, Arizona, a town with "vortexes" of psychic energy around it and a small herd of occult bookstores, New Age shops, and tarot readers. Now the owner of The White Magic Five & Dime, the apartment above it, a Cadillac, and her mom's bank account, and convinced that her mother was killed by someone she'd screwed over, Alanis decides that the best way to find out who that might be is to reopen the shop. Trained from childhood to cold-read people the better to con them, she figures that tarot is just another con, and she can easily pick up the jargon she needs to do readings for her mother's clients. It's a reasonable plan, but as the plot twists, the people she meets and the readings she does present her with choices other than the cynical, cautious detachment that governed her personality for so long. I can't remember when I've read a book with such fascinating development of a main character. We learn about Alanis from seeing what she's thinking versus what she decides to say, from flashbacks to her unsettling and sometimes perilous childhood and teen years working short and long cons with her mother, and from watching her interactions with people in the present day, as she reflects on what her upbringing tells her to do, and then decides what she's going to do. The woman she is at the end of the book is quite different from the woman she was at the beginning, and we've watched that transition every step of the way. I'm really looking forward to more books in the series.
A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die ($7.99) by Edith Maxwell lured me in with the cover art, lots of lovely fresh vegies. When Cam Flaherty is downsized from her computer job just as her great-uncle Albert has to stop farming, she is happy to take over his New England farm. She spent summers at the farm as a kid and loves growing things. And she's excited about pursuing organic certification for the farm, where she grows fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs. When her farmhand shows up drunk just after Cam has found a jug of pesticide he'd stashed in the barn, she fires him, and then winds up a suspect when he's murdered with a pitchfork on the property. The book has a nice cast of characters, including Cam's Uncle Albert, who has retired nearby, her childhood friend Ruthie, now a local cop with two small daughters, Ellie Kosloski, a Girl Scout who's earning a badge working on the farm, Lucinda DaSilva, a farm volunteer who also heads the town's Locavore Club, and Jake Ericsson, a chef who owns a local gourmet restaurant. I shop at a co-op and buy lots of local and organic food, so it was fun to read a book where the characters are really into local produce, local beer, local wine, sustainability, and supporting local producers. Cam is a geek who isn't really used to dealing with people, so it was interesting to watch her learning to interact with her CSA shareholders and people at the local farmer's market. I also enjoyed the fact that Jake, who seems a likely candidate to be Cam's romantic interest, was described as "substantial" and "clearly fond of his own cooking" - I'm a big fan of characters in all shapes and sizes, who aren't constantly obsessing about their weight. And a plot that deals with immigration issues and a local hate group/militia makes this cozy solidly contemporary.
The Whole Cat and Caboodle ($7.99) by Sofie Ryan (who also writes the Magical Cats mysteries as Sofie Kelly) takes us to North Harbor, Maine. Sarah Grayson spent summers there with her gram and her gram's friends Rose, Liz, Charlotte, and Maddie. Now she's opened a shop selling refurbished and repurposed items, and been adopted by a cat named Elvis. When Maddie is arrested for the murder of her beau, Sarah has no intention of getting involved, but Rose, Liz, and Charlotte are determined to clear Maddie's name. Charlotte's son Nick, who is working on the case for the medical examiner's office, quickly realizes there's no way he can stop the determined women, and drafts Sarah to try to keep them out of trouble. The plot develops plenty of twists as they look into the dead man's less than pristine past. I enjoyed the older characters in this book, each one a distinct individual (rather than generic grannies-who-crochet-and-bake), including Alfred Peterson, Rose's sometimes-comical neighbor at the senior apartments, who turns out to have really excellent computer skills. The younger characters were fun, too: Mac, who can repair anything, gave up financial planning to crew on sailboats and work at the shop; Avery, Liz's teen granddaughter who works at the shop, is independent and speaks her mind without crossing over into brat territory; Sarah's friend Jess restyles clothing, makes quilts, and tries to get Sarah to think about stuff other than work occasionally; Nick is back in town after years away and trying to get his mom to accept his career choice; and of course Elvis, who has excellent people skills and is a really good listener, in addition to the more common cat trait of getting into mischief. I was happy to see that the next book in the series will be out in spring 2015.
Also set in Maine is the Lucy Stone series. I recently read the first book, Mistletoe Murder ($6.99, originally titled Mail-Order Murders), and I can see why the series has been so popular for so long. The town residents are a mix of long-time inhabitants and younger people who moved there a decade or so ago to get away from the rat race, like Lucy and her husband Bill, idealistic college graduates who wanted to get back on the land. Now they're living in the old house they refurbished, and raising a family together. Bill works days, and Lucy works the late shift taking phone orders for the booming local mail-order business. When she finds the business owner dead in his car, it looks like suicide, but when it turns out to be murder, her curiosity lures her into investigating. But that's almost incidental to everything else going on: holiday preparations, Scout events, school pageants, finding a new kitten for her kids, trying to help her mother adjust to widowhood, and finding time for her husband and her friends. I really liked Lucy's warm-hearted approach to life - a trip to get a kitten takes her to a trailer on a dirt road outside town, and leads to a return trip to give the young woman there some groceries and kids' clothes. I loved the fact that when her neighbor Officer Culpepper brings the state police to Lucy's house to talk to her, Culpepper washes the dirty dishes while Lucy answers questions. And I enjoyed the wide range of local characters both young and old, and the way people pulled together to help each other out. I can look forward to lots of return visits to Tinker's Cove. We stock the entire series, books 2-19 are $6.99 or $7.99 each, with Christmas Carol Murder ($7.99, #20) and French Pastry Murder ($25.00 hc, #21) arriving in October.
I enjoyed my return visit to Miracolo Italian restaurant and the Angelotta clan. Basil Instinct ($7.99) by Shelley Costa opens with Maria Pia, Eve's nonna (as Eve says, Italian for "annoying grandmother"), being invited to join Belfiere, an exclusive secret society of Italian women chefs. To do this, she'll have to get a tattoo on the wrist of her stirring hand, and cook a lavish meal members at the restaurant for the other 49. Eve and her cousin Landon research the society, and find some alarming information. When the sous chef they've hired to help out is found dead in the restaurant the day of the Belfiere event, it looks like a natural death, so Eve and Landon decide to hide the body until after the event. When hunky lawyer Joe Beck shows up partway through this process, and points out signs of electrocution, things get more complicated. And the fact that the woman has a Belfiere tattoo further convinces Eve she will need to protect Maria Pia from this dangerous organization - by crashing the upcoming initiation ceremony at a spooky mansion. In addition to the loopy hijinks at the restaurant, Eve has also been talked into teaching a cooking class at the local community center, only to discover that several of the students are from a nearby school for problem kids. When two of the boys act up big time, Eve decides to solve the problem by inventing mobster Don Lolo Dinardo (portrayed by her cousin Choo Choo channeling Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone). But, as is common with Eve's plans, things don't work out quite as expected. The book had plenty of funny moments, but Eve spent a lot of time doing things on her own, which wasn't quite as funny as the group comedy of series opener You Cannoli Die Once ($7.99).
As much as I love reading mysteries (and selling them to people), sometimes I'm just not in the mood for a string of dead bodies, so recently I've been reading Alexander McCall Smith. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency ($14.95) and The Tears of the Giraffe ($14.95) are the first two books in his kinder, gentler mystery series featuring Precious Ramotswe. With the money Mma Ramotswe inherits on her father's death, she decides to pursue her calling - to help people solve the mysteries in their lives - by becoming the first woman private detective in Botswana. So she opens an office, puts out a sign, and soon finds herself in demand, checking on the creditworthiness of potential business partners, investigating suspected fraud, and more. The first book includes some back story about the rigors of her father's life working in the mines in South Africa, as well as Mma Ramotswe's experiences during her early, short-lived marriage to an abusive husband, but soon moves on to her detective cases. She discovers the truth about a missing husband, exposes a con man, and searches for a missing boy who may have been taken by witch doctors. In the second book, she looks for the truth behind a young U.S. man's disappearance ten years earlier. She also promotes her highly observant and capable secretary Mma Makutsi to assistant private detective and assigns her first case, trailing a wife whose husband believes she is having an affair. What they learn leads them to an ethical dilemma, to which Mma Makutsi devises a surprising solution. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni heads over to the local orphanage to do some repairs, and is talked into bringing home two orphans, then realizes his wife-to-be Mma Ramotswe is likely to be surprised by this development. Meanwhile, Mr. Matekoni's lazy and unpleasant cleaning lady can see that his marriage to Mma Ramotswe will mean the end of her cushy job unless she can come up with a scheme to prevent it, but her plan to get Mma Ramotswe out of the picture backfires in a most satisfying way. These books have intelligent, big-hearted characters who work hard to provide the best possible outcomes for everyone involved - whether it's detective work, an engine repair, or providing a future for a child - and a refreshing lack of violence and corpses, as well as philosophical musings about topics both large and small, from Africa's politics, history, and future to the difficulty of refusing a request from a strong-minded orphanage matron. We carry the entire series, books 3-14 are $14.95 or $15.00 each, and The Handsome Man's Deluxe Cafe ($24.95 hc, #15) is expected in November.
Many years before she opened the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Mma Ramotswe solved her first cases while she was a schoolgirl. Alexander McCall Smith is now sharing these early stories with us in a delightful series of chapter books for ages 7 and up, illustrated by Iain McIntosh. In The Great Cake Mystery ($6.99), cakes and other treats are disappearing from the children's lunches. When two of the children jump to conclusions and falsely accuse a third, Precious hopes to prove his innocence. She finds a clue to the real culprits, but how can she catch them in the act? With great ingenuity, she sets the perfect trap in her very first case. In The Mystery of Meerkat Hill ($6.99), Precious makes friends with two new students, a brother and sister, and goes to their house to play with them and their pet meerkat, who loves to sit on the back of the family's cow. When the cow disappears, she helps them search, following the cow's tracks to a big herd of cattle. The men who own the herd insist the cattle all belong to them, but Precious figures out a way to prove which cow belongs to the family. The books include gentle lessons about being kind and fair to each other, and are infused with love for the culture and landscape of Botswana. The Mystery of the Missing Lion ($6.99), the third book in the series, will be arriving in October.
Tamar Myers provides a less tranquil but equally entertaining view of Africa in The Witch Doctor's Wife ($13.99), first in her series set in the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s, just as the independence movement is gaining ground there. Myers draws on her experiences living there with her missionary parents during that era. The Belgian government controls everything, especially the lucrative diamond mines. The native tribes live in a perilous world: a trip to the river to bathe or do laundry may mean death by crocodile attack; being caught away from home after dark puts you at risk of jackal or hyena attack; raising crops brings the daily risk of death by snakebite; and malnutrition caused by lack of protein is common. Young Amanda Brown from the southern U.S. has just arrived here to run a guesthouse for missionaries. She's in for a massive dose of culture shock, starting with the fact that her blue eyes lead to the natives naming her Mamu Ugly Eyes (the guesthouse housekeeper is a man called Protruding Navel, and the servant she soon hires is called Cripple). And that's before she learns about all the animosities: between the educated, Europeanized natives and the traditional tribal natives; between the various native tribes; and between the Flemish Belgians and the Walloon Belgians, both of whom look down on the Portuguese. The plot, told from multiple viewpoints, includes power struggles within the Belgian diamond consortium, a tangle of love affairs among the European residents, jealousy between wives, mysterious deaths and disappearances, and one spectacular diamond that never seems to be where it should be. By the end of the book, Amanda is less naive than when she arrived, but no less idealistic. The series continues with The Headhunter's Daughter ($13.99), The Boy Who Stole the Leopard's Spots ($14.99), and The Girl Who Married an Eagle ($13.99).
Wrapped by Jennifer Bradbury ($8.99, ages 12 and up) takes us to 1815 London. Napoleon is once again on the loose, England fears invasion, and 17-year-old Agnes Wilkins is not as excited as her mother thinks she should be about making her debut into polite society. Agnes would rather be learning languages (10 so far), traveling abroad (Egypt particularly interests her), or reading a book (preferably by A Lady, known to us in modern times as Jane Austen). The very eligible Lord Showalter hosts a mummy-unwrapping party, and chooses Agnes to be one of the guests invited to slice into the wrappings and keep any trinkets they find. Annoyed at being thrust into the spotlight, when Agnes finds a carved jackal's head with a strip of linen knotted to it, she impulsively tucks it away without showing it to anyone - an act that will lead her into an adventure involving ancient artifacts, cryptic messages, French spies, and Napoleon's plans for world conquest. Agnes is intrepid and resourceful, and the fact that she finds aspiring Egyptologist Caedmon Stowe more intriguing than Lord Showalter is just one more thing to like about her.
by Gerri Balter
I love animals even though I don’t live with any. One of the things I enjoy about Cookie Dough or Die by Virginia Lowell ($7.99) is the mischief Olivia Greyson’s dog Spunky gets into. He’s the comic relief in what starts out as a sad story. Clarisse Chamberlain is a close friend of Olivia’s. When she dies, Olivia is very sad. She has a feeling that Clarisse’s death isn’t an accident but murder. Clarisse has left her a message she doesn’t understand. She thinks it has something to do with why Clarisse has been murdered. Then she finds out that Clarisse has left her a large sum of money and some valuable antique cookie cutters. There are those who wonder if Olivia is the killer. When the nosy postman becomes ill after eating some of the cookies from their cookie store, Olivia becomes the prime suspect in lots of people’s minds. She’s going to have to find out who the killer is before the killer finishes her off.
A Deal to Die For by Josie Belle ($7.99) begins with Vera Madison’s murder. She’s found in the home of Dr. John Franklin by Maggie Gerber. Maggie is fond of Dr. Franklin, but something is wrong. His wife openly expresses her hatred for Vera Madison. He says he’s responsible for Vera’s murder. Maggie refuses to believe that. She is convinced he’s lying, but doesn’t know why. In the meantime, Vera’s daughter, Bianca, is trying not to lose her home and inheritance. It seems that a woman has come to town who claims that everything belongs to her because she is the daughter of Vera’s dead husband. Could she have murdered Vera to make sure she gets everything? Maggie isn’t sure, but she won’t stop until she finds out the truth.
Poor Mace. All she wanted to do was help her mother find her wedding ring that she lost after she drank too much in Mama Gets Trashed by Deborah Sharp ($14.99). Mama thinks it got dumped in the trash. While Mace and her mother looking for it in the dump, Mace finds the body of a librarian wearing very sexy clothes. The people in town are more shocked by the sexy clothes than the murder. Mace’s younger sister worked in the same library and wants Mace to find out the killer. While Mace’s older sister thinks her husband is cheating on her and she wants Mace to prove it. Mace is so busy helping her two sisters that she ignores her fiancé and her job working with animals while the killer wants to be sure Mace doesn’t find out anything.