Meet the Amlingmeyers. A pair of brothers riding the range from one grub stake to the next. Are they just obsessed cowpokes thinking about food, smokes, horses, women and more food? Nope. Old Red (Gustav) and Big Red (Otto) have other things on their mind. Like detecting. Just like that Sherlock fellow. Welcome to the world of Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith.

Old Red’s obsession with all things Holmes – read to him by his brother from Harper’s Magazine – leads them to adventure. The slightly shady outfit they have signed up with – the Bar VR – ends up having two deaths on the premises. And the foreman really does not seem to care since everyone is supposed to be preparing for the arrival of the foreign owners of the ranch. Just who is lying to whom? And just what is going on with the ranch finances and stock? And those fancy English folks might have a hand in this mess too.
Hockensmith’s characters are great fun. The story is told in Big Red’s voice and he is a perfect doubting Thomas about his brother’s detection skills. But he will stand by him as a loyal “Watson” and family member should. Old Red sometimes doubts himself – he is just an average uneducated cowboy – but he has studied his hero Holmes’ methods.
With wonderful characters and a twisty plot, this series is off to a great start. I’m eager to read the rest. A very fun read!
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There are those that say certain kinds of mystery books are cozy. I think they categorize cozies, by having amateur sleuths, lovely little towns, and having folks getting murdered “off stage”. So what happens when you have a series that has a little Minnesota town, the main character owns a needlework/craft shop, solves mysteries on the side, but the killings are not necessarily pretty. How’s getting tossed off a balcony (Crewel Yule), cut by the throat (Cutwork), and having a knitting needle pushed into your brain (Sins and Needles)? Cozy? I think not.

Monica Ferris has created a great character in Betsy Devonshire. And she has given her a interesting group of friends and neighbors. Betsy has a talent for figuring out the little things that solve cases. And she is not so sure she likes this talent. It does bother her that some of these killers are people in the community. Folks that she knows. (Now, that is why I always find these “malice domestic” books creepier – these are not strangers doing the killing!)

She’s embarked on this path by accident. She really was just intending to stay with her sister and help her in the store, while she was getting over her divorce. And then her sister was murdered. And she inherited the store and estate. So she stuck around for awhile. And got more involved with her employees and her customers.

Ferris does a nice job fleshing out the secondary characters throughout the series; it is a rare “cozy” that has a regular character that is gay. But Godwin grows and develops through the series. He becomes more than the guy who can match the right thread colors. Various members of the store’s regulars – the Monday Bunch – get their own spotlight in the books in the series.

And then there is the needlework. Cozy? Maybe. It has been considered an art form for years. This series is a great way to see how Ferris mixes it in with the mystery. One book has Betsy trying to identify a certain bobbin lace pattern, the next has her researching symbols on a church tapestry. And the store is used as a place where folks in the community can gather. Actually, I wish we had a store like Crewel World locally. These books make me want to take up my cross-stitching again! So do yourself a favor – start with the first three books in order, and then you can mix them around a bit. And discover the world of Excelsior, Minnesota. A fun series.

Monica Ferris’ mystery series featuring Betsy Devonshire:

Thai Die (2008)
Knitting Bones (2007)
Sins and Needles (2006)
Embroidered Truths (2005)
Crewel Yule (2004)
Cutwork (2004)
Hanging by a Thread (2003)
A Murderous Yarn (2002)
Unraveled Sleeve (2001)
A Stitch in Time (2000)
Framed in Lace (1999)
Crewel World (1999)

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Cara Black starts off her series with lead character Aimee Leduc in the book Murder in the Marais. What starts out as a simple and overpaid job of hunting down a encripted website, ends up becoming a case of murder. Aimee finds the body and sets in motion an investigation that goes all the way up to the top level of French politics.

The Marais is the traditionally Jewish section of Paris. And this is where the French Jews were rounded up during the occupation. Memories are long for injustices, and Aimee finds she is sifting through the history of the occupation in order to find out who would want an elderly Jewish woman murdered and who wants her to stop investigating.

This is a fast paced story but Black gives the reader enough time to get to know Aimee and her unusal background. Black hints at the fact that Aimee has secrets of her own that will be revealed in later books. Aimee is a tough character who has been trained by her recently deceased father in the art of detection. And it does not take the reader long to admire her tenacity and skill at going undercover to figure out the case. I’m looking forward to reading the next one in the series. A good mystery and a very good read.

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One of the more delightful surprises in fiction in recent years, this Keyes book was a beach read that turned out to be a little more than that. I’ve read quite a few of Keyes books before but this one is probably my favorite of hers…it’s fresh and engaging and simply delightful. Told from the POV of three London ladies: 1. Gemma, who has a neurotic mother and is still mourning the loss of her stolen-out-from-under-her-by-her-best-friend boyfriend…2. Lily, who is the best friend who stole Gemma’s boyfriend…and 3. Jojo, a literary agent who ends up representing both Gemma and Lily. I loved the way Keyes weaved all three stories together…yet giving each of the 3 enough space for us to get to know them all. Even though each change of character is marked with the ladies’ name before the chapter, towards the end, we knew each of the three enough to know whose part we were reading. A great way to tell a fun, entertaining story!

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A chance encounter with a book by Charles Lamb, leads to a inquiring letter written to an author, who just happens to be looking for her next project, and her curiosity leads her to the island of Guernsey in the The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows have written a book that is full of characters that we want to get to know – right away- and the format that the authors use – personal letters between characters – gives us the opportunity to be eager (and inquisitive) for the next missive.
Their letters give us the chance to examine the relationship between the characters, as it grows from being formal strangers, and moves to becoming beloved friends. They contain a lot of the minutia of life, and give the reader a bit of the background of the main writer – Juliet and what her life has been like during the war. All of the characters are experiencing the recovery of Great Britain from the war, but those on Guernsey have a special reason to be grateful after the sorrowful years of occupation.
The Literary society came about because of a special pig dinner. Special because it was being hidden from the Nazis. And as the islanders bonded over dinner and being in trouble, the society grew to be more than just a group of people talking about books. And one person, Elizabeth, seems to be the catalyst that brings them all together. When Juliet learns about their stories, she wants more than ever to bring their tale to light in a book because she is falling in love with the island too.
Filled with war stories, book references, British slang, and good humor, the authors have a definitely created a great story to tell. If you don’t like the style of the book – personal letters – you might have trouble with it. But I think it is splendid! A very good read.
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I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book which is being released in June. And, wow! I loved this book! Jim Lynch’s descriptions of landscape and nature are pure poetry! If you have read Cormac McCarthy’s books, the scenes describing the nature of the landscape and the wildlife reminded me of his books.

Set at the border of Washington State and Canada, this book is poetry blended with quirky characters right out of the movie “Fargo.” The main character is a bird-watching, bird-calling, dyslexic giant of a man named Brandon who is pushed into the Border Patrol by his cow-farmer father who needs Brandon to make money. And, oh, yeah! Brandon paints birds and portraits of the people he captures crossing the border! Intrigued? Hopefully, because this book is a jewel of a read! Brandon is a natural-born farmer forced into a career he excels at but is not passionate about.

Other characters in this book include Brandon’s father who has across-the-border arguments with his Canadian pot-smoking retired professor who lives behind the farm (and, oh, yeah, the professor spends his time recreating inventions such as Edison’s light bulb); Sophie, the masseuse who “heals” people from both sides of the border and is chronicling everyones’ lives; Madeline, the pot-smoking professor’s daughter; and the list goes on and on.

What is so amazing about this book is how it seamlessly blends the quirky, hilarious moments with the touching, thoughtful, and sorrowful moments. If this intrigues you – definitely get on the waiting list for this book! It is a wonderful read!

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When the dead body of a stranger lies in the garden of an disheveled ancient family home, what’s an eleven year old girl with a passion for chemistry (and a unnatural knowledge of poisons) supposed to do? Solve the mystery of course. Welcome to Flavia’s world.

Flavia de Luce is 11 going on 40. She’s the neglected youngest daughter of an absent minded stamp collector in Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. With her trusty bicycle Gladys, Flavia is determined to solve this crime. When her father is charged with the murder, it becomes even more important. She doesn’t realize that the investigation will lead her to finding out more about her father’s past.

Bradley does an excellent job showing us an eccentric dysfunctional family and manages to make it seem “normal” to Flavia. And when her older sisters lock her up in a closet or tell her she was really brought home as a baby from a store, she does what any normal youngest child does. She takes revenge. She just does it a little differently, with poison ivy in a lipstick.

I’m excited that this is to be a series. There are too many de Luce family secrets that have been hinted at and need to be uncovered. As a reader, I am looking forward to seeing Flavia and her sisters growing up in this odd environment. Perfect for traditional mystery fans.

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The Family Man by Elinor Lipman (2009)

Here is a great beach read: a light, and bright, and sparkling comedy of manners with little profanity and no graphic sex. Here is the story: A buttoned-up, divorced gay man meets up with his former step-daughter Thalia, an aspiring actress, and falls in love, in a familial way. To further the plot, he meets the true love of his life (Todd) and reconnects with his wacky ex, Thalia’s mother Denise. The story is mainly about Thalia’s adventures as the faux fiance of a D-list actor who is trying to improve his image. Denise’s ongoing feud with her daughter and step-sons and Todd’s belated coming out to his mother round out the action.

Lipman writes chick lit in the same way as Jane Austen. Like Austen, Lipman is gently satirical and sometimes subtly cruel in her examination of contemporary customs and mores. Her novels usually have serious intent hidden under frothy skirts. The underlying theme of this novel is prostitution. This theme is multiply manifest running from Denise’s penchant for marital infidelity with rich men, through Thalia’s slutty hook-ups and her willingness to sell herself for a mention on Page Six, to the way Todd uses his personality to sell housewares at retail. Every one is for sale in one way or another. And like Austen’s as well, this story has the kind of ending where everything finds its proper place and order reigns.

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As a child library patron, and a good reader, I found my sweet spot when I saw the colorful Andrew Lang fairy book series on the shelves. Lang, who died in 1912, was a serious author and literary scholar. He collected hundreds of folk and fairy tales from around the world and published them in a series of 10 or so well-written and well-edited books named after colors: The Green Fairy Book, The Violet Fairy Book, etc.

Since discovering Lang, and later Anderson and the Grimm Brothers, I have loved fairy tales and to this day, as an aged woman, I love them still. I especially relish re-told fairy tales where the imagination of a present day fantasy writer intersects with the magic of a well-worn tale to produce a story that resonates with the past and speaks to us in the present.

Rumpelstiltskin is a story that always stuck with me. It’s creepy, scary, and features the heroine’s breath-stealing last minute escape from doom. Also, as an avid knitter I have lately been fascinated by the spinning, yarny aspects of the story as well.

In The Crimson Thread, published in 2008, Suzanne Weyn delivers a non-magical version of the story, but retains a flavor of magic in the character of Ray Stalls (Rumpelstiltskin) and his prodigious tailoring ability. Set in New York city at the end of the 19th century, the story centers on Bertie Miller, a young Irish immigrant to the United States and a talented dressmaker. She finds her way into the rag trade on her own ability, but requires the secret help of Ray Stalls to keep her position as chief designer and dressmaker for a fashion house that sets the trends of the day. Married to the boss’s son, Bertie also needs Ray’s protection when her marriage turns sour. While the story is naturalistic, I can’t figure out how Ray turned one yard of crimson thread into eye-dazzling embellishments that made ladies of fashion mad for the dresses he sewed. A bit of magic after all.

In A Curse as Dark as Gold, also published in 2008 by Elizabeth C. Bunce, dark magic pervades the textile mill currently run by nineteen year old Charlotte Miller who inherits the factory from her late father. Brave, hard-driving Charlotte will forfeit her beloved baby son to a spinning ghoul unless she can lift the curse that has doomed her family’s mill for many years. This is a strongly suspenseful and well-researched story that provides a glimpse into the workings of a late 18th century textile mill. Bunce, a first time novelist, won the 2009 William C. Morris YA Debut award for this book.

In Spinners, 2001, Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen create a stark retelling of Rumpelstiltskin in the tragic story of a spindler who cripples himself spinning straw into gold for the woman he loves. Following the outline of the original story, the girl marries a rich man, but the child she bears is the spindler’s daughter. The subsequent life of the crippled spindler is so loveless and lonely that he later tries to find a child that will belong to him and fill the void in his life. This story is non-magical and grimmer than Grimm, but it is also a moving tale of loneliness and valor

The strangest, most magical, and best of these stories is The Witch’s Boy by Michael Gruber, published in 2006. Like Spinners, it is told from the viewpoint of Rumpelstiltskin, creating sympathy for the man who is blighted in all ways. In The Witch’s Boy a goblin-foundling called Lump is raised by a loving witch. Raised in Faeryland, when he later encounters the cruelty of the human world his heart turns to stone and he seeks a child to make him human. Along the way, Lump meets characters from many familiar legends and tales. My favorite character is Falance, the witch’s familiar who is sometimes a graceful magician and wily card shark and sometimes a cat.

All of the books discussed above can be found in the Young Adult section of the library except for The Witch’s Boy which is in Youth Services. All are eminently suited for adults.

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The Arcane Society continues in Amanda Quick’s The Perfect Poison. Quick (who is Jayne Ann Krentz) has written her sixth book in the series – the third historical one. And much to this reader’s joy – she keeps the excitement in the series. (Can I tell you how many times books within a long series, have clunkers through out because the author can not keep up the quality?) Finally Quick brings us Colin’s story. Colin Jones’ talent is a difficult one – he has a talent for strategy and making connections. He sees the patterns in his head and connects the dots so that the Society and his new project, Jones and Company can figure out what is going on in the battle for the founder’s formula. He doesn’t have Miss Lucinda Bromley in his pattern however.

Lucinda has a talent for botany – more specifically figuring out what botanic ingredients have been combined to create potions for good or for evil. She’s been helping a member of Scotland Yard, with various cases that involve poisons and she discovers that one of the ingredients she has figured out was stolen from her greenhouse. She decides to enlist Jones and Company to find out who the thief is and where is her plant. She also has a bit of a reputation – she is rumored to have poisoned her fiance, and wants things handled as quickly as possible. When they meet – they end up surprising each other – with their talents and intelligence. And when Colin figures out her thief is connected to his quest – the hunt is on.

Quick once again gives us great characters, with pithy dialogue and a roller coaster ride of a plot. And she brings us an excellent subplot of an Arcane Society matchmaker in action. (It would be fun to have her again in another book!) Along the way she manages to deftly fill in more details about the Jones family, the Arcane Society, their history, and their members’ talents. I can hardly wait for the next installment! A very good read!
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