Round Up the Usual Peacocks (Meg Langslow, #31)

Round Up the Usual PeacocksRound Up the Usual Peacocks
by Donna Andrews
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250760203
Series: Meg Langslow #31
Publication Date: August 2, 2022
Pages: 300
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books

Kevin, Meg's cyber-savvy nephew who lives in the basement, comes to her with a problem. He's become involved as the techie for a true-crime podcast, one that focuses on Virginia cold cases and unsolved crimes. And he thinks their podcast has hit a nerve with someone . . . one of the podcast team has had a brush with death that Kevin thinks was an attempted murder, not an accident.

Kevin rather sheepishly asks for Meg's help in checking out the people involved in a couple of the cases. "Given your ability to find out stuff online, why do you need MY help?" she asks. "Um . . . because I've already done everything I can online. This'll take going around and TALKING to people," he exclaims, with visible horror. "In person!" Not his thing. And no, it can't wait until after the wedding, because he's afraid whoever's after them might take advantage of the chaos of the wedding at Trinity or the reception at Meg and Michael's house to strike again.

So on top of everything she's doing to round up vendors and supplies and take care of demanding out-of-town guests, Meg must hunt down the surviving suspects from three relatively local cold cases so she can figure out if they have it in for the podcasters. Could there be a connection to a musician on the brink of stardom who disappeared two decades ago and hasn't been seen since?

I’m giving this one the benefit of doubt at 4 stars because I went into it with reservations.  As the title implies, this mystery is sort of an homage to the first in the series, Murder with Peacocks, which I loved – and I rarely enjoy attempts at revisiting the well.

Fortunately the homage is more like just a light breeze of familiarity that wafts through the story, as Meg helps her nephew Kevin with his true crime podcast, reviewing several old cold cases in an attempt to figure out who has it in for Kevin and his co-host.  This structure works well, as it keeps Meg busy and the reader from getting bored.  In the background is the preparation for the wedding to end all weddings, with the running gag that everyone is trying to avoid Meg’s mom so they aren’t put to work.

Of course Meg solves the cold cases, and here’s the one area that stretches believability because she solves all of them.  I sort of feel like the story would have worked better had one of the cases been left unanswered; as it stands, everything is wrapped up too neatly at the end, even for a cozy.  Although it was somehow satisfying to see everything tied up neatly, even if it felt over the top.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022 for the Cozy Mystery square.  When Carlito was a young teen kitten, I caught a picture of him I can’t resist including here, because it’s his version of the Cozy Mystery Square cover:


The Study of Secrets (Lila Maclean Academic Mystery, #5)

The Study of SecretsThe Study of Secrets
by Cynthia Kuhn
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781635116151
Series: Lila Maclean Academic Mystery #5
Publication Date: May 1, 2020
Pages: 225
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Henery Press

There could be nowhere more fitting for English professor Lila Maclean to spend her sabbatical than the whimsical Callahan House with its enchanting towers, cozy nooks, and charming library. Unfortunately, it also features a body in the study. The murder on the estate sets the town buzzing. Wild rumors are fueled by a gossipy blogger who delights in speculation, and further crimes only intensify the whispers and suspicions. A newly discovered manuscript, however, appears to expose startling facts beneath the fictions. When Lila steps in to sort the truth from the lies, it may cost her everything, as someone wants to make dead certain that their secrets stay hidden.

This series started out strong, as a great cozy without the cutesy vibe, with strong writing and clever mysteries.  I think, though, with number 5, I’m done. The author broke one of my personal cardinal rules by creating character relationships and dynamics that I like, and then breaking them up and shuffling them about, and then doing it in a manner that was clumsy and awkward.

The mystery plotting was complex enough, but tried to be too clever, so that by the end it felt like a Ginsu knife commercial: But wait! There’s More!.   Had the author – or the editor – pared it down just a bit, it might have offered a more suspenseful ending.

It wasn’t a bad mystery, or story; it just wasn’t great and certainly didn’t match the caliber of the earlier books.  While it might be a blip, the relationship shuffle has left me uninterested in finding out.

I read this because it showed up in my mail but it fits Amateur Sleuth, Cozy Mystery and Home for the Horrordays as it takes place in the days preceding, and including Christmas.  So I’m using it for Home for the Horrordays.

The Dark Place (Gideon Oliver Mystery, #2)

The Dark PlaceThe Dark Place
by Aaron Elkins
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 0802755658
Series: Gideon Oliver #2
Publication Date: January 1, 1983
Pages: 200
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Walker Publications

Deep in the primeval rainforest of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, the skeletal remains of a murdered man are discovered. And a strange, unsettling tale begins to unfold, for forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver determines that the murder weapon was a primitive bone spear of a type not seen for the last ten thousand years. And whoever—or whatever—hurled it did so with seemingly superhuman force. Bigfoot “sightings” immediately crop up, but Gideon is not buying them.

But something is continuing to kill people, and Gideon, helped by forest ranger Julie Tendler and FBI special agent John Lau, plunges into the dark heart of an unexplored wilderness to uncover the bizarre, astonishing explanation.

I’ve only read one other Gideon Oliver book, and it’s a much later entry in the series (Skullduggery), which I enjoyed.  I wanted to start at the beginning but after a lot of research, everyone who has ever read the first book says it’s not worth reading it, so I’m jumping in at #2.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I didn’t really read it with any particular HB square in mind.  This was a really good story, and not at all the kind of story I expected.  What starts off with 3 disappearances in the rainforest of Washington State leads to dead bodies, an unknown Amerind burial ground, and, for the first 60 pages, Bigfoot is a contender!  So much fun!

The reality, as the story progresses, is much, much more interesting than Bigfoot (no offence meant), and this mystery becomes the most anthropological anthropology-mystery I’ve ever read.  It’s short – 200 pages – but concise and fast paced.  Little is wasted on descriptive filler, although I’d have liked for the sex scenes not to have made the final edits.  I’m fine with sex scenes in general, but in a cozy, written by a man, well, for some reason it just sort of squicked me out.  But they really were the only unnecessary scenes and were pretty PG, for all I’m complaining about them.

Without giving anything away, it was just a really solid, well-written, mystery, with great characters and an even better setting.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022 and beyond the obvious Genre: Mystery square it also fits Amateur Sleuth, Cozy Mystery, Dem Bones, In the Dark, Dark Woods, Monsters, and The Barrens.

I’m going to use it for Monsters because, Bigfoot!  🙂

The Last Curtain Call (Haunted Home Renovation Mystery, #8)

The Last Curtain CallThe Last Curtain Call
by Juliet Blackwell
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780593097939
Series: Haunted Home Renovation Mystery #8
Publication Date: June 30, 2020
Pages: 318
Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Paranormal
Publisher: Berkley

Mel Turner can’t resist the chance to bring the Crockett Theatre, a decrepit San Francisco Art Deco movie palace, back to life. But there’s a catch for Turner Construction: Several artists are currently squatting in the building, and they aren’t the only ones haunting the once-grand halls of the historic theater.…

When one of the squatters is found dead, the police department has a long list of suspects to investigate. Meanwhile, Mel and her fiancé, Landon, are remodeling an old house for themselves, and Mel finds being on the other side of a home renovation project more challenging than she expected.

When Mel discovers that the former owner of the Crockett Theatre died under mysterious circumstances, and that there just might be a connection to the ghost haunting her own attic, the case takes a new turn—one that could bring down the curtain for the last time.

One of the few remaining cozy writers and series I still find dependable.  Juliet Blackwell is a good writer; I enjoy her characters, her imagination for the paranormal, and her plots … well I can’t think of any of her plots that failed to amuse, and I can’t think of one of her books where the mystery was transparent.  Her diversity of characters feels natural (the San Francisco setting probably helps) and I’ve been reading her long enough to know that they existed to greater or lesser extent long before it was ‘on trend’ to do so.

This one made me ache to explore an old, abandoned theatre, although I’d prefer mine to be ghost free, thanks; especially the kind of ghosts who fill the theatre seats and follow you around with their blank, unseeing stares.  The connection between the theatre Mel is renovating and the house she’s renovating for herself felt a bit too coincidental, but it bothered me so very little that it amounts to nit-picking.

A fun book, and a fun series that would be perfect for several Halloween Bingo squares.

Skull Duggery (Gideon Oliver, #16)

Skull DuggerySkull Duggery
by Aaron Elkins
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780425227978
Series: Gideon Oliver #16
Publication Date: January 1, 2009
Pages: 281
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley Prime Crime

Gideon is happy to be in Mexico with his wife-until he’s asked to examine the mummified corpse of a drifter thought to be shot to death. Gideon’s findings reveal that the cause of death is far more bizarre. Then he’s asked to examine the skeleton of a murder victim found a year earlier-only to discover another coroner error. The Skeleton Detective knows that two “mistakenly” identified bodies are never a coincidence. But if he isn’t careful, unearthing the connection between them could make him another murder statistic in Mexico.

Years ago – years and years ago now – this series was recommended to me by someone on BookLikes.  I never got around to hunting down the first book, but ran across this one at a used book sale a year or two later and bought it intending to hang onto it until I’d read the first 15 books.

Fast forward to last week, when I accepted that wasn’t going to happen and decided to just dive right in.

Turned out that was totally fine, I don’t feel like I missed anything at all, and best of all I was presented with a really good, solid mystery.  The pacing was leisurely, which frustrated me a bit at first, making me realising that even in books our attention spans have shrunk, but I found the characters and the writing interesting enough to dig out my store of patience.  I also put it down to read The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir when I was about 25% through, so obviously my store of patience could use some building up.

Once I picked it up again, though, it just all started working for me.  I like Gideon Oliver, a forensic anthropologist, and I loved the plot structure.  I knew from the start what the first plot twist would be, but that reveal was made so early it was clear there was far more coming.  It was all so laid back I kept wondering how the author was going to manage the moment in any mystery where the MC is in peril.  When it did happen it was so fast and furious and wtf? that it seemed anti-climatic, but from there the story just got more and more nicely twisty until the ending was just clever and satisfying.

I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have found a new series to seek out and enjoy – and it’s one that I’ll be happy to acquire at the same leisurely pace as the writing, with a sense of anticipation but not urgency.

Familiar Motives (Witch’s Cat Mystery, #3)

Familiar MotivesFamiliar Motives
by Delia James
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780451476593
Series: Witch's Cat Mystery #3
Publication Date: October 15, 2017
Pages: 321
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

After learning that she comes from a family of witches—and adopting a familiar named Alistair—artist Annabelle Britton has made beautiful Portsmouth, New Hampshire, her home. Together with her coven, this good witch is trying to put a stop to magic and murder most foul.

When Anna takes Alistair to see local veterinarian Ramona Forsythe, they meet the most famous cat in town: Ruby the Attitude Cat, spokes-feline for a pet food brand. But then Ramona turns up dead, and Ruby goes missing. It seems like the murderer used magical means, so it’s up to Anna and Alistair to catch a killer and cat-napper as only a canny cat can.

I’ve been trying to make a dent in my TBR piles recently, mostly, if I’m being honest, because I’m waiting for the new books I’ve ordered to arrive.  No matter my true motive, it’s a good feeling knowing there’s at least one or two fewer books languishing about.

This one had not only been loafing about on the hills of tbr, but it was the final book in a short-lived series, so the satisfaction of getting it read was doubled.

Unfortunately, that’s about the only real satisfaction I received from reading Familiar Motives.  The story itself was another ‘meh’ mystery – or else it was just me.  It really might have been me.  I liked the characters, I loved the cats, and the plot-line wasn’t frivolous.  But the pacing felt manic – not fast; manic – and the witty writing felt forced at times, adding to the manic feel.  I skimmed large sections of internal narrative because the pacing left me feeling manic to get to the end.

When I did get to the end, I liked it.  It was a good denouement, although the plot had too many pieces rather clumsily put together.  But to be fair, that could have been a product of the skimming I did, so I’m giving that a pass.

While it wasn’t a winner, I’m ok with that; the completist in my is happy that I haven’t left a series unfinished, and the responsible adult in me is happy to see one more book off the TBR range.  The reader thinks the book could have been better, but really, it didn’t suck either.

A Dark and Twisting Path (Writer’s Apprentice, #3)

A Dark and Twisting PathA Dark and Twisting Path
by Julia Buckley
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780425282625
Series: Writer's Apprentice Mystery #3
Publication Date: July 21, 2018
Pages: 290
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

Lena’s best friend, Allison, is in a panic. On a walk in the woods by her home, Allison discovers the body of her mail carrier, an argumentative man who recently had a falling out with Allison’s husband. Lena quickly realizes that Allison has nothing to worry about as the murder weapon points to a different suspect altogether: Lena’s embattled boyfriend, Sam West.

Sam was cleared of his wife’s murder when she was found alive, and now someone is trying to make him look guilty again. Surveillance video of a break-in at his house shows a shadowy figure trying to incriminate him by stealing the weapon from his desk. Lena and Camilla work on a suspect list, but a threatening note and a violent intrusion at Graham House prove that the devious killer has decided to write them into the plot.

I read and liked the first two in this series quite a lot; as a duology they worked really well.  This book could be considered the third of a trilogy, because it wraps up the series arc, but it was far less satisfying and a lot more ‘meh’.  The author dedicates the book to Victoria Holt, who has obviously had an impact on her, and it’s clear that she’s attempting to imbue this series with that same gothic atmosphere, but what works in 1970’s romantic suspense struggles a lot in a modern setting.  The result feels a bit melodramatic; not so much that I could convince myself it was a pastiche (it wasn’t meant to be), but enough that the MC’s character started to grate on my nerves here and there.  I thought her calling a couple of other characters “outsiders” and claiming they shouldn’t be trusted because they were outsiders a particularly bold authorial choice in today’s climate.  In the context of the story, I didn’t disagree with her reasoning, but found the baldly stated phrasing jarring and odd.

The plot also harkens back to the 70’s with a suave, charismatic villain and accomplice who do everything short of rubbing their hands and cackling.  In a book I know is dated, this type of thing is fun.  In a book that’s contemporary, it just feels over the top and … well, it just failed to sell it in any context.

Still, not a bad book, just … meh.  I think I’ll probably leave this series here, at least for now.  It’s good enough that at some future point I might want to pick it up and see where the author takes the series.

Murder à la Mocha

Murder à la MochaMurder à la Mocha
by Sandra Balzo
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780727888242
Series: Maggy Thorsen Mystery #11
Publication Date: September 28, 2018
Pages: 198
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Severn House

Maggy Thorsen’s evening with her fiancé Sheriff Jake Pavlik and his parents in Chicago takes a dramatic turn when Jake’s mother falls ill, then a Chihuahua jumps in front of Maggy’s car on her drive back to Uncommon Grounds, her Wisconsin coffeehouse. Attempting to return Mocha to her owners, George and Marian Satterwite, the following day, Maggy comes face-to-face with Arial, their dog-sitter and her business partner Sarah’s niece. But something doesn’t feel right . . .

Returning to the property, Maggy and Marian make a shocking discovery. And where are George and Arial? With Jake still in Chicago and Sarah desperate to find her niece, Maggy is soon drawn into another deadly puzzle.

This is one of those cozy series that is always satisfying, but not so gripping that I’m chomping at the bit to read the next one. That sounds a bit back-handed, but I don’t mean it that way.  The characters, plotting and mysteries in this series offer me a nice balanced pleasure when I’m looking for cozy without the cloy.  They feel like a healthy habit, as opposed to the series that I binge or feel the need to purge.

It’s been awhile (years) since I read about Maggie and Sarah and Pavlic, but everything came back nicely and I was able to fall right back into things in Wisconsin.  The mysteries are solid, but the narrative is easy and light; the dialog crackles with wit and sarcasm as Maggie and Sarah trade affectionate barbs and play off each other verbally.  Maggie is the resigned owner of her college age son’s Old English Sheepdog, and finds a long-haired Chihuahua runaway one night on her way home.  The interactions between sheepdog and chihuahua guarantee laugh-out-loud moments as do the scenes at a local dog park.  Dog lovers may or may not like the mystery, but will probably find a lot of relatable moments in all the scenes involving dogs.

I was delighted to discover that I’m three books behind this long running series; I’ve ordered the next two already, happy in the knowledge that once I get them, they’ll sit comfortably on my TBR, neither nagging nor languishing, until I’m ready for another well-written cozy.

Our Lady of Immaculate Deception (Roxy Abruzzo, #1)

Our Lady of Immaculate DeceptionOur Lady of Immaculate Deception
by Nancy Martin
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780312573720
Series: Roxy Abruzzo Mystery #1
Publication Date: March 7, 2010
Pages: 310
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books

This is the first book in a spin-off series, of sorts, from the Blackbird Sisters; it involves a completely different member of the crime family Michael is the heir apparent to, and takes place in Pittsburgh, rather than Philly.

It’s also a much rougher, seedier flavour of cozy mystery, set in a low income area with a high crime rate.  Roxy owns an architectural salvage company, trying to support her daughter and avoid working for her uncle Carmine in the family business.

Martin created Roxy as a deeply flawed, broken woman who uses an active sex life as a weapon, but seems to enjoy it not at all.  She obviously cares a great deal, as she goes out of her way to shelter abused women, support her daughter, and keep her dim-witted friend from violating his parole, but her uber defensiveness is grating and her inability to connect with anyone makes it difficult for the reader to connect with her.  It’s a very different take from the Blackbird Sisters, which didn’t shy away from dysfunction, but still managed to engage the reader.

Different too is this story’s multiple POVs.  When it works, it works brilliantly, offering an ending that might not be expected, but when it doesn’t it leaves the reader wondering why Martin bothered, or at least wondering why certain POVs were included.

The parts were there for a very excellent read, but they just didn’t come together in a way that left me caring at all about any of the characters.  I have the second book of what ended up being a 2 book series, but when I finished my re-read of this one, I found that I just didn’t have it in me to dip into this kind of dysfunction a second time.  Maybe someday.

Murder Melts in Your Mouth (Blackbird Sisters Mystery, #7)

Murder Melts in Your MouthMurder Melts in Your Mouth
by Nancy Martin
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780451223111
Series: Blackbird Sisters #7
Publication Date: March 4, 2008
Pages: 282
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: NAL / New American Library

Down-to-earth debutante Nora Blackbird is having a meltdown. A noted Philly philanthropist has taken a swan dive from an office balcony and Nora’s friend Lexie stands accused of the murder. Then her scheming parents reappear, sending all three Blackbird sisters into a panic. Now Nora must uncover her parents’ scandalous high jinks before she winds up taking the heat.

This was a gut wrencher; again, Martin touches on edgy subjects but this time in a more seductive way.  Nora’s best friend’s business partner is found dead on the sidewalk minutes after his exposure for serious financial crimes has been made public.

Nora’s efforts to clear her friend of any suspicion are clouded by a number of factors involving her own family and the cloudiness of the victim’s family life, both of which reveal some rather startling revelations for everybody.

I remember reading this the first time and the feelings of dread and shock I felt as answers to the myriad questions were discovered; there were no happy endings for anyone in this book, although there were some hilarious moments along the way.

Having read the entire series, I think I’d say this is the best entry of the 10.