Potions Are for Pushovers, by Tamara Berry*****

I loved Berry’s first Eleanor Wilde mystery, Seances Are for Suckers, and so I looked forward to this one. Ellie, our protagonist, makes a living as a sham medium and pusher of herbal potions. She arrived in this tiny English town in the last book, hired by the wealthy Nicholas Hartford to scam his family, but they fell in love and so she stayed here. Business is on hold, however, until the murder of the local battle ax has been solved; until Ellie can sell her potions again, she can’t make a living, and the heat is on.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Kensington Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The glory of satire is that the most tired, trite elements of a mystery can be trotted out and placed on full display, the more overdone the better. Add into it an overflowing supply of snark, swift pacing, a hint of confusion and the very teensiest, briefest moment of sentimentality and the result is, well, magical.

At the same time that Sarah is murdered, pets begin to disappear. A grisly surprise is left in Ellie’s herb garden, and her cat Beast, a menace if ever there was one, is nowhere to be seen. Cats, pigs…what’s next?  Her sometimes-friend the local constable is irritated that Ellie doesn’t pass along the finer details of what she learns, but she points out to him that witches and law enforcement have a problematic history. Crackle crackle, she says. Burn burn.

The best new element is Lenore, a pesky but gifted adolescent that wants to job shadow Ellie. Together with partner Rachel, she embarks upon local werewolf research, and this thread makes me guffaw out loud multiple times. (At one point Lenore decides she’d rather be called Lenny because it sounds more like a gumshoe; my reading notes suggest that Rachel should then become Squiggy. Boomers will understand this reference if nobody else does.)

My affection for Ellie increases when she eats an entire chocolate cake. I’d been watching that cake since she received it, waiting for the typical cozy plot point to play out. Most authors would either have Ellie serve or gift the cake to another recipient, or have it smashed in some sort of hilarious accident before she got a single bite. Berry, however, is not your typical cozy mystery writer. It’s the slightly edgy bits that make this series so successful.

The series is written for adults, but teachers and parents looking for engaging reading for their own gifted adolescent should be fine here. There are no torrid sex scenes, no use of vivid profanity.

Sadly, my own review copy disappeared with no trace from my kindle, so I can’t access juicy quotes; happily. I did use the Goodreads update system, which provided me with the particulars listed above.

There are few authors that can make me laugh out loud every single time I read their work, and that alone makes this writer more valuable to me than most. I await the next Eleanor Wilde book with gleeful anticipation, and whether you have read the first book in this series or not, I recommend this one to you wholeheartedly.

Who Killed the Fonz? By James Boice***

I was invited to read and review this strange little book by Net Galley and Simon and Schuster, and I thank them. It’s for sale now.

Fonzie is the eternally cool lone-wolf character in the television sitcom “Happy Days,” which was aired during the 1970s and early 1980s, back before the internet and the digital era gave us choices. The show is set in the 1950s, with malt shops, sock hops, and so forth. Richie Cunningham was the main character, an ordinary small town teen who was befriended by the Fonz.  This book morphs forward to the 1980s, which places Richie—er, Richard—in middle age. He’s a Hollywood producer but is called back home by the death of Fonzie.

When I saw this book in my email, I wasn’t sure what to think. How does anyone write this book? Neither Richie nor the Fonz was anything more than a stock character during the series itself. Every problem encountered by any character had to be resolved with humor and warmth within thirty minutes—more like twenty once advertising is figured in. So my first assumption was that this must be some sort of dark satire. But that would be very edgy and risky, and I wasn’t sure Simon would touch something like that. But, it’s an invitation and a quick read, so let’s have a look.

Satire it isn’t. It’s promoted as noir, and it isn’t that either.  I can go sit in the garage. I can say I am a car. I can get my children to all say I am a car. I still won’t be a car, or for that matter a motorcycle. And so I’m telling you right now that this is, in spite of its quirky title and book cover, a cozy mystery, period. It is what it is.

Now, that’s not a bad thing. There are a lot of readers that enjoy a good cozy, and it seems likely that a lot of those readers will fall into the demographic to which this story appeals, namely the Boomer generation, the readers that watched Happy Days when they were young and (hopefully) happy.

So here we are, back in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Potsie and Ralph Malph distrust Richard because he has become some sort of Hollywood big shot. His career is on the rocks, but they don’t know that; all they know is that he’s come back to the Midwest wearing designer clothes, and when he calls himself “Richard,” they snicker. But ultimately they all work together to unsnarl issues of local corruption as well as the mystery about Fonzie, and Richard realizes he is really still Richie.

So we have corn; we have cheese; and we have cheese corn. But it’s an accessible story that will provide a pleasant level of distraction that doesn’t require a tremendous amount of concentration or analysis. If your gram is undergoing chemo, she can take this into treatment and it will help keep her warm.

I recommend this book to those that primarily read cozy mysteries and are familiar with the series.

The Linking Rings, by John Gaspard****

TheLinkingRingsThis title is the fourth in the Eli Marks series; I read the one before it and loved it, but you will be fine if you’re jumping in uninitiated. Thanks go to Net Galley and Henery Press for the review copy, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book is now for sale.

Eli and his girlfriend, Megan, head to London, where he and his Uncle Harry are attending a sort of reunion with a group of magicians. When one of them is murdered, Harry is arrested and so Eli investigates in order to clear his uncle. Along the way more magicians are killed, and Eli discovers that another magician, a TV magician that holds little respect from his peers, has stolen Eli’s signature act.

Gaspard writes a solid mystery, with a manageable number of characters with a complex but blessedly linear plot. His sense of humor slays me. That said, I blanched a few times at the gender stereotypes, which aren’t entirely redeemed by the brief discussion about sexism in the industry. However, the last fifteen percent of the story is so brilliantly crafted—and so hilarious—that I could only bow in awe when it was over.

Recommended to those that enjoy a cozy mystery.

Watching the Detectives, by Julie Mulhern*****

“’There’s been an incident…Mrs. White in the study with a revolver.”

Mulhern is on a roll. This is the fifth book in the Country Club Murders series, but I plunged in without having seen the first four, and it was still a treat. Thank you, thank you to Net Galley and Henery Press for the DRC, which I snagged free and in advance in exchange for this honest review. It is now available to everyone.

The story is set among the Caucasian upper middle class of the 1970s, and Mulhern renders the period—when this reviewer was a mere, blushing wisp of a girl—so well that I checked twice to see whether it was an older title being re-released.

Ellison Russell is our protagonist, and people keep dying at her domicile. It’s become a nuisance, and there’s a cop that thinks it’s too great a coincidence. Ellison’s in a jam, and her thirteen-year-old daughter Grace isn’t helping. She sulks when they are told they must leave the house for a few days because it’s a crime scene, exclaiming that people have died at their house before and they didn’t have to leave. It’s just not fair!

Ellison is a widow, and a merry one at that; she has a flirtation going with a local cop whose name is Anarchy—a guy who believes in rules– but her main man is Mr. Coffee. He’s always there for her.

I moan when Ellison’s mother is introduced—yet one more overbearing mother, I thought, and authors always blame everything on mothers, just like everyone else does—but then I am surprised by where she takes it. I won’t say more lest I ruin it for you. But I will say this: every overused or overworked plot element is here for a reason, either to take it apart, or to make fun of it. Mulhern considers every word in this dandy novel carefully, and the result is splendid.

As the story unfolds there are other witty tidbits tucked in here and there, such as a character named Margaret Hamilton who is such a witch. But the frippery and snarky humor aren’t the whole package; while the mystery is a romp, serving up the snobbery of the petit bourgeoisie with a sharp skewer, this excellent novel is also a nicely turned feminist manifesto. While the mystery is a fine 4-star beach read, the author’s purpose is a strong one that’s delivered well. It is for this aspect that the fifth star is given.
Highly recommended for strong women and those that love them.

The Violets of March, by Sarah Jio

thevioletsofmarchThe Violets of March is a crossover title, part cozy mystery, and partly—maybe mostly—romance.  I purchased it for myself years ago, back when I was teaching, not advance-reading, and buying all my own reading material. It’s not a bad book, but given that I had paid full jacket price for the trade paperback version after reading some rave reviews, I felt let down. It’s a pleasant read, but it didn’t live up to its hype.

Nevertheless, once I had it in my collection, I was glad of it, because at the time, the other books I was reading were the sort that grab the reader by the hair and won’t let go till they’re done. I needed a calmer, more sedately paced novel to read at bedtime, and this was it. It held my attention, but it didn’t keep me awake when it was time to turn out the light.

Our protagonist is Emily Wilson, whose life, up till now, has been lovely. She is a successful author and married to a gorgeous man; what more can she want from life? But then one day he announces he is leaving her for someone else. Boom. Gone. She retreats to the home of her beloved aunt on Bainbridge Island, which is off the coast of Washington State, to lick her wounds. While there she finds herself ferreting out mysteries buried long ago. The plot becomes a story inside a story, and three different narratives are counter posed, two from the past, one from the present.

At the same time, Emily commences dating again. Here I am comfortable, because this isn’t erotica, it is an old fashioned love story, with the protagonist trying to choose between two men, one an old flame from high school, the other a local man she hasn’t known before.

The character development is not what I might hope for, but then this is a debut novel. It’s shallow, but it’s also soothing. It held my attention until I got a little bit sleepy, and then it didn’t anymore, which was exactly what I needed.

In addition, it is the sort of novel one could hand to a bookworm daughter of a fairly young age, if her reading level and interest were there, without worrying about content. Likewise it could grace the shelves of a middle school or high school classroom without a concern that parents would storm the school (as once occurred when I put The Color Purple on my honors shelf).

That said, I won’t pony up full cover price for this author again. But then, I rarely do that anymore anyway.

Those seeking a light romance with some cozy historical mystery elements to read at bedtime or on the beach could do a lot worse for themselves. It’s a matter of taste and priority.

‘Til Death Do Us Part, by Amanda Quick***-****

tildeathdousI was looking for good historical fiction and ran across this novel, which is also a mystery and romance. It’s a little different from much of what I read, and reminds me a bit of Victoria Holt, whose work I read voraciously as a teenager and younger woman. I received the DRC courtesy of Net Galley and Berkley Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review. This title will be available to the public April 19, 2016.

Calista Langley is a spinster, which is what unmarried women were called a century ago. She runs salons in her home for the purpose of intellectual discussion, a chance for men and women to get to know one another in a socially acceptable setting before they commence the courting ritual. But Langley has a stalker. A man has been using a long-disused dumbwaiter to hoist himself up to her bedroom, where he can watch her in the shadows. He leaves grim mementos mori—associated with death—on her pillow for her to find. Her initials are etched in them, a particularly chilling detail. We know fairly early who it is that is doing this, but Calista herself does not know.

“This is what it had come to—a life lived on the razor edge of fear. The sense of being watched all the time and the ghastly gifts were playing havoc with her nerves…Her intuition was screaming at her, warning her that whoever was sending her the gifts was growing more obsessed and more dangerous with each passing day. But how did one fight a demon that lurked in the shadows?”

At about the same time, Trent Hastings has come to see her, convinced that she is corrupting his sister Eudora, a client and frequent guest at the salons held in Calista’s home.

The overall tone of the story is a trifle melodramatic for my taste right now, but if you had given me this book thirty or thirty-five years ago, I would have worn it out re-reading it and then passed it on to my friends. The romantic scenes are steamy yet tasteful . Quick can raise our interest to a higher level just building up to a kiss than many of the writers of erotica are able to do with everyone’s clothes on the ground and explicit information left, right, and center.

In fact, though I often make a point of letting my readers know when a book will be objectionable to conservative Christian readers, in this case I feel confident in saying you should be fine here. The language never gets hotter than an occasional “damnation!”

One thing that was especially interesting to me was the minute detail given to Victorian funeral customs and the odd accessories that were popular then. It never occurred to me, for example, that anyone would spend good money on a tear-catcher, but some folks did. For the more practical purchasers, the coffin bell is a handy way to let everyone know that you’re not dead after all, and would like out of this box, please!

All told, this was a fun, accessible read. I rate it 4 stars as a YA novel, and 3.5 stars rounded up for general audiences.

The Last Good Place, by Robin Burcell****

thelastgoodplaceWhat a treat! They say all stories have already been told once, but I’m telling you, this one hasn’t. Oh, trust me! And my thanks go to Net Galley and Brash Books for a wonderful DRC. This one will be up for sale November 3.

Some may recall the TV series “The Streets of San Francisco”; the show was based on a set of police procedurals by Carolyn Weston. Characters Casey Kellog and Al Krug became TV characters Steve Keller and Mike Stone. In bringing the series back to us in the twenty-first century, new co-author Robin Burcell was asked to update it, since some of the over-the-top methods used originally could get a cop fired these days, and the old methods would not resonate with the public. Burcell has a lengthy background in law enforcement, and now I know that she is also a capable novelist. The pages flew by, and I enjoyed her improvement of the old series.

As the story commences, there have been a series of murders at famous landmarks in San Francisco, and it has been inferred by the media that tourists are at risk. While sometimes life may be cheap, the tourist industry is key to the local economy, and there’s heavy political pressure set to find someone and solve this crime, preferably accurately, but if not…just get someone, haul them in, and charge them.

So when Marcie’s neighbor and good friend Trudy turns up dead, there is speculation. Has she been a victim of this killer, or is it a copycat killing?

We find out right at the get go that Marcie knows a thing or two. For example, she knows that Trudy and her husband are getting a divorce; they are no longer in love. And Marcie also knows that her buddy has been spending some private time with Marcie’s husband. And so while Trudy and her soon-to-be-ex are going to sell their house as part of dividing the spoils of a marriage gone bad, Marcie won’t sell her house. Because it is her house, along with the eucalyptus grove out in the backyard. Her grandfather left her the house, and he left her the trees. He used to tell her that this humble, quiet spot out back was “the last good place”, and Marcie won’t part with it. Not ever. Not even to increase the property’s value—for herself and also for friend Trudy—by making their homes bay view property. Her grandfather preferred the trees to the water view, and so does Marcie.

It’s time to go jogging with Trudy, but Marcie hangs back and hides for a bit. We aren’t quite sure why, apart from the fact that she is suspicious that things are not what they seem to be. Trudy’s been a little strange toward her lately. And what do you know…Trudy dies on the morning jog before Marcie catches up to her.

This is a really accessible story, and I thought I ought to be able to solve the mystery. Goodness knows I read enough of them! And yet, I really didn’t get it. The author doesn’t pull the rug from beneath the reader by introducing a lot of new information at the end, or any of the other unfair devices writers occasionally use in order to make their story’s ending a certain surprise; I had a reasonable shot at it, but I didn’t get it. And I loved the ending!

The characters—the experienced, fatherly, crafty interrogator Al Krug, and his ambitious partner, Casey Kellog, are well developed and personable, but their personal lives don’t distract from the problems at hand. There are a couple of red herrings, but the plot is essentially linear and easy to follow.

All told, this one is a humdinger, and you should read it!

The Suicide Murders, by Howard Engel****

thesuicidemurdersThe cops said Chester killed himself. The gun was there, and he had powder burns on his head, powder on his hand. Everything tested out right. But he’d ordered himself a brand new bicycle just two hours earlier. Does a suicide do that? And then there was the very lovely wife that had been to see Cooperman, our detective protagonist, just before the unfortunate event, concerned that her man had perhaps been unfaithful. She’s caught him lying to her, and that makes a lady suspicious.

These things leave a guy like Cooperman with questions. True, he’s not a cop: “Me? I’m just a peeper. Divorce is my meat and potatoes.” But when something stinks, it’s in Cooperman’s nature to go find the source of the smell and air it out. And when others die after Chester, it makes Cooperman, who’s nobody’s fool, ask even more questions.

I received the DRC for this vintage novel, now available digitally, from Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media. It became available for sale August 24, so you can get it now.

Engel is an experienced writer, and as he plays the thread out, with murder upon murder integrated deftly into the everyday life of Benny Cooperman, he strikes an excellent balance, building suspense and driving the plot forward with the occasional humorous reflection to keep things from becoming too ugly to be fun for the reader. And his character descriptions are particularly memorable, as with this local politician:

“He was a big man by anybody’s scale. His face looked like a roast beef dinner with all the trimmings, with a huge portion of nose in the middle. “

There were a couple of moments when the predictable occurred, but it wasn’t so dead obvious—excuse the pun—as to be an eye-roller. Rather, I experienced the satisfaction of having seen it coming and been right. And to me, as long as there isn’t too much of it, and there wasn’t, that is a sign that the writer has been fair to his audience. There are no sudden introductions of new characters during the last ten percent of the novel that change the solution in a way impossible to predict, and a lot of us like working the puzzle as we read. There are a couple of sexist references—“the kind of girl”, “bimbo”—that were commonly used in 1980 when this was first published that I didn’t care for, but they were infrequent enough that I was able to make a note to myself, and then continue to read and enjoy the story. In the end, the wry humor and up-tempo plot line makes this one a winner.

Although there are vague sexual references and infidelity is part of the plot, there is no graphic sex that should prevent a parent of a precocious adolescent mystery maven from handing the book down once they have finished it themselves. It’s hard to call any story that contains multiple murders a cozy mystery, but this one is in or near that ballpark.

Altogether a satisfying read.

Cold Quarry, by Andy Straka**


This is 1.5 stars rounded up. No, no, and no.

I received this DRC free from Brash Books in exchange for an honest review.

I was attracted to this mystery, which is set in West Virginia, because it has the novel element of hunters that use falcons, in addition to white Supremacist bad guys known as the Stonewall Ranger Brigade. And it started out as a promising read, with detective Frank Pavlicek and his former Navy Seal partner, Jake Toronto, looking to find out who shot Chester Carew in the back, leaving him dead on his own land. The birds of prey stand as metaphors for Pavlicek and Toronto, who will now hunt the killers as “cold quarry” in order to exact justice.

Who was to expect, then, that the entire novel would be riddled with blantant sexism, with only one positive depiction of a female? It is this one redemptive moment that saved this mystery from a one star rating, a rating I save for the illiterate and the blatantly offensive.

Before I explain further about the stereotyping of women in this work, I should also mention that the N word is used twice–once by a bad guy, once by a more complex figure–and our hero is known to have shot and killed a young African-American man when he was a cop. We are told this was a righteous shooting that gives our hero terrible nightmares nevertheless.

What timing.

But back to the women. Because I wanted to enjoy this book–who picks up a murder mystery without wanting some escapist enjoyment?–I withheld judgment until the 75 percent mark, and even then I read the whole thing to see whether there would be some sly move in which the sexist behaviors of the main characters were called out, or in which the protagonist found himself reflecting that he’d misjudged some women and situations. But the entire narrative was loaded with it, not just the main character’s dialogue and behaviors, so I didn’t think it was likely, and in the end, there was only one good moment for a female character, and the rest were endless cliches.

We have Betty in her apron (“It’s all right, I’ll just be in the kitchen”); nutcase bar owner Roswell Parker; seductive reporter Kara Grayson, who goes to pieces during a violent scene in which she is not injured.

“You stay here with the woman…” Frank tells Jake.Kara tends to an injured animal, and when the dust has settled the two menfolk rush out to save the world while “A female sergeant had also arrived and seen to it that Kara Grayson and the German Shepherd were taken care of.”

We often hear of women that occupy professional positions; we just never see them do their jobs, or if they do, they mess it up. Federal agent Colleen Briggs is one such character, and everyone feels great when she is openly dissed by the deputy sheriff, since she is “a robotic clone of a federal agent”.

Pavlicek has a grown daughter who’s out of state doing some work for him online, but when he gets her on the phone she “pouts”, and he tells her, “You let me worry about that, honey.”

Chester Carew’s son Jason is just old enough to read The Cat in the Hat, but he is old enough to protect his mother, who is helpless, apparently.(Remember Betty? In the kitchen?) Pavlicek gets her permission to speak to her son alone, but he doesn’t tell her what the kid knows or what the kid has seen. And the kid doesn’t want her to know.

We meet Jake Toronto’s girlfriend, who is an attorney, but when we run into her at home, she is cradling a baby. Frank’s daughter Nicole, who has arrived in town, takes time for “the appropriate oohing and ahhing over the baby”, and then follows her father and Priscilla into…where else? The kitchen. At this point–and I don’t want to give a spoiler, so I’ll use broad strokes–Frank needs to take care of something for Jake that Jake isn’t available to do, and this includes getting confidential material out of the house. Priscilla is concerned because Jake keeps that door locked; of course she wouldn’t have a key, right? But Frank does. When his daughter asks what is in there, he says, “It’s just Jake’s little office.”

Priscilla does help, though, by getting “‘Just, um, some personal stuff I already knew about in the bedroom’…she looked at Nicole and the two of them giggled.”

Oh, but it isn’t over yet. Not by a far sight. “Priscilla’s hands were dwarfed” by Jake’s shotgun, so of course, Frank took it from her.

It occurs to me during all this that since Priscilla is–we are told–an attorney, perhaps Frank is protecting her professional credibility by having her not know some things, or else maybe Jake was, but the word “attorney” is mentioned just once and never comes into play again.

We have a number of promiscuous women, all of whom are morally compromised. We have lazy nurses. And in a confrontation with bad guys, the uglies hurl the ultimate insult and Frank and Jake by calling them “little girls”.

Excuse me now. I am going back to my DRC of Gloria Steinem’s memoir. I need something to read that will remind me that women are worthy of dignity and respect.

If your ideas about gender are lodged in the 1950’s, by all means, get this book, and have a real good time.

As for me: no more Andy Straka!

The Miser’s Dream, by John Gaspard*****

themisersdreamThe Miser’s Dream is the third in a series featuring magician Eli Marks. Once I got into it, I did a forehead slap because I could also have read the first two in the series free and reviewed them, had I been paying attention. Thank you to Net Galley and Henery Press for hooking me up with this enormously entertaining novel. It’s billed as a cozy mystery, but were the humor placed around the killer rather than the sleuth, it could have been a comic caper. The title will be for sale October 27.

Marks runs a magic shop and works as a magician locally. He lives over the shop, and the quirky placement of its windows permits him to see into the projection booth of the adjoining theater. Imagine his surprise one fine day when he looks out his window to see a corpse—the projectionist—on the floor of the projection room. It is a locked room mystery, since the man could not have killed himself; the weapon is there in the room; and the door is locked from outside, showing no sign of forced entry.

Just like magic.

Gaspard occupies common country with Grand Master James Lee Burke in his cleverness at choosing engaging, oddball names for his characters. In addition to Detective Sutton-Hutton, we also have the sinister Mr. Lime and his assistant Harpo. The latter two seem to have some inside information. Whereas the character descriptions for these two were a trifle overdrawn, putting me in mind of a Tim Burton animation, the dialogue was sometimes quite splendid, and their role in the story is interesting and well played.

For the first half of the book, I didn’t care at all who the killer was. I was having such a good time with the double features, which I highlighted in my DRC and added to at length, but you’ll have to get the book because I’m not going to post a spoiler. There were other odd bits of hilarious detail in unexpected places, perhaps the best, in my view, being the scene with the flower pot. I had begun to wonder whether there was so much extraneous hilarity here that the murder was becoming obscured, but then it all came into focus just when it needed to, and I didn’t have to retrace the thread to figure things out. The plot is mostly linear and Gaspard has used just the right number of characters, not enough to confuse or clutter.

If you need a good laugh, get this book when it comes out. If you like a good cozy mystery, I likewise recommend it. And for those that have precocious pre-teens and adolescents that sometimes read adult-reading-level material, this one has no explicit sex and relatively clean language, and so it is safe to pass on to your budding bibliophile.

To sum up: this is hands-down the funniest thing I have read in a long time, expertly paced and hilariously detailed. Do it.