Monday, October 13, 2008

Mystery Monday!

Vacation blogging is always hit or miss with me, so I have several mystery reviews to post today. I will have to put up a post-vacation-book-shopping photo (despite my piles of TBR books, authors and publishers insist on producing more books). I haven't yet put my TBR books into my LibraryThing catalog, but I really need to start doing that.

Little Shop of Murders by Susan Goodwill: This is the sequel to Brigadoom! and the second Kate London mystery. I've concluded that these are best read once a year (and it's a good thing they come out in the spring, since Plum books are July releases). I still enjoyed this entry, but since I read the first book quite recently, the ghost of Stephanie Plum seemed more insistent this time. A couple of details in particular nagged at me: Kate has an eye twitch to which the author alludes several times, and Aunt Kitty's knobby knees are mentioned when she wears age-inappropriate clothing. Throw in a crazy old guy robbing a bank, and amiable repo man, and a sweetly inept biker gang impersonating hardened criminals, and you have quite a rash of coincidental echoes of Evanovich. And yet...I can't NOT recommend this book.

Aunt Kitty is staging Little Shop of Horrors in the Egyptian Theatre. She and Kate are in line to deposit quite a bit of cash at Mudd Lake Savings Bank when it's held up by Kitty's boyfriend, who makes off with the money the Egyptian needed to pay for its Audrey puppets. A repo man camps out next to the theater, waiting for his chance. Kate (and Kitty and Verna, of course) decide to investigate since the opening is mere days away. When the Audrey puppeteer quits, stage-fright stricken Kate takes over, mowing down the actors in the unwieldy puppet. A convoluted plot unfolds, involving a biker gang, a master criminal with a corporate attitude, and funny money turning up all over Mudd Lake. Will Little Shop of Horrors be an unmitigated disaster, ruining the Egyptian's chances of recovery?

I enjoyed the first book, and I thought this one was quite fun as well. If you think the Stephanie Plum similarities will drive you crazy, maybe check out the first at the library and see how it goes. These are well-written, madcap mysteries with lots of humor and a touch of romance. I really like the characters and the locale of Mudd Lake, and I think there's a lot of originality in the series...just not quite enough.

The Tale of Hawthorn House by Susan Wittig Albert: This is a series I never fail to call "utterly charming" whenever I mention it, but it's not for everyone. If you prefer pulse-pounding suspense or bloody murder scenes to talking animals, fairy folk, precocious children, and details of village life, definitely look elsewhere. I think this is a series I would love to read out loud when Lilah is a bit older--that's how tame it is. There's little death and violence, and the narrator is so sweetly, conversational that these feel (as they are meant to) like Beatrix Potter tales recast for grown-up (and advanced children) to read. They are based on Beatrix Potter's life after the death of her fiance, when she purchases Hill Top Farm in the Land Between the Lakes (in defiance of her parents, who do not want her to be independent of them). Albert uses real and imagined characters to give richness and authenticity to the supposed village mysteries solved by the fictionalized Miss Potter. In this, the fourth entry (the first is The Tale of Hill Top Farm), Miss Potter finds a baby on her doorstep. She sets out to find the parents of Baby Flora. Meanwhile, Jemima Puddle-Duck is sitting on a clutch of eggs that are taking far too long to hatch, Dimity's romance moves along, the village gossip mill gets several things dead wrong, and Miss Potter notices her feelings for Mr. Heelis seem a bit different. The reader knows the answer to Baby Flora's parentage, but Miss Potter, not having read the Prologue, has to use some inventive sleuthing, along with her friend Sarah Barrows. I recommend this to adults who enjoy a gentle mystery amidst richly described village life, and to children who are strong readers and enjoy mysteries.

My review of The Tale of Hill Top Farm

A Holly Jolly Murder by Joan Hess: This was not what I expected at all, but it was fun. The twelfth in the Claire Malloy mystery series (the first in Strangled Prose) sees Claire, accusing by boyfriend Peter as set in her ways, impulsively accepting an invitation to a winter solstice celebration by neo-Druids (Farberville has everything!). This drags her into a contentious group with different worship ideas and hidden agendas, culminating in Claire's finding yet another body. Claire cannot resist the pleas that she solve the mystery, and she snoops and pries as usual. Meanwhile, Caron and Inez have taken on jobs as Santa's helpers at the mall, with predictably (though enjoyably) disastrous results. Claire and Peter's relationship gets thrown for quite a loop, so if you can't stand the cliffhanger, have #13 ready.

A Conventional Corpse by Joan Hess: Can it be possible that Joan Hess has yet to target the mystery convention? It's a scene made for Claire Malloy's acerbic observations and snooping. All Claire wants to do is make a mint selling books for signings at Farber University's first annual mystery convention. But with Sally Fromberger felled by illness, Claire takes the reins of the convention, managing a group of contentious, demanding authors who are thrown for a loop by the appearance of an editor with ties to all of them. The individual authors are funny, but their crass response to tragedy (constantly speculating as though the death were fictional) was a bit tiresome. Caron, Arnie, and the spoiled hell-cat were very funny. The subplot of Claire's relationship with Peter meanders some more, an indication that thirteen books is a long stretch to keep a romance up in the air. But that's never been the central part of this series for me, so that was fine. What I enjoy about the Claire Malloy books is her wordplay, clever observations, and unapologetic snooping, and those were evident in abundance.

Out on a Limb by Joan Hess: Miss Parchester has decided to live up in a tree in the 14th book in the Claire Malloy series. No, she hasn't gone crazy; she's representing the Farberville Green Party, protesting a development that plans to remove the old tree. Meanwhile, Caron finds a baby on the doorstep, and when Claire is seen diaper-shopping, rumors fly that Caron is the mother. Caron, always overdramatic, is really funny in this situation, and when the mother of the baby is arrested for her father's murder, the plot is engaging. There's an evil developer, always a fun potential villain, Miss Parchester clearly hiding something, and Caron acting a bit grown up in her concern for the baby. This was a fine entry in the series.

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