Monday, December 26, 2016

New England Amateur Sleuths: New Mysteries from Barbara Ross and Liz Mugavero

NEWS FLASH! Special interview tomorrow with the authors!! Read on ...

The magic of a New England winter comes with big challenges too, from fuel oil or logs to icy roads to snowstorms that seem like they'll last forever. And that's part of why New Englanders treasure good neighbors: We need each other in such varied ways, including being able to share fresh-made doughnuts and clam bakes and "boiled dinners" (much more delicious than the term suggests).

Into this world of personal connections and family complications step the protagonists of two of New England's engaging mystery authors, Barbara Ross and Liz Mugavero. Each is releasing a new mystery in her ongoing series, via Kensington, on December 27. And they couldn't be more different!

CUSTOM BAKED MURDER from Liz Mugavero opens at the end of summer in Frog Ledge, Connecticut. I know it's hard to remember back that far just now (or maybe we don't want to!), but that would be the time of year when temperatures cool gently as election fever is heating up. Kristan "Stan" Connor, who's been running her organic pet treats business successfully from her home, faces a new segment of her career: opening a pet patisserie and café. Her boyfriend's moved in with her and is incredibly supportive, but in order to finance the new side of her work, she's accepted financial partnership from her mom -- who seems to want to decide everything, while also dragging Stan into a public engagement party for mom and the town's ambitious mayor, Tony Falco.

To Stan's bewilderment (and, let's face it, anger), the party guests include public relations professionals from Stan's own former career -- recruited to help the mayor advance his own career. One in particular, Eleanor Chang, is what we call around here "a nasty piece of work." Mugavero's deft setup means it's no surprise when sharp-tongued Eleanor gets murdered. But it's a major problem for Stan, because it happens at her mom's party; the mayor is a suspect; and there are drug-related overtones that involve her boyfriend's extended family as well.

This book's perfect for waking you back up from holiday-induced food coma, because every chapter ramps up the stress higher, and the plot twists come fast and furious. Mugavero nails the knack of keeping her amateur sleuth committed to solving the crime, and Stan's so likeable (along with her rescue dogs and smart cats) that each time she's at risk in some way, I can't help paging onward into the next chapter, no matter what time it is. Stan's friends have noticed the trend of her life, though, and feel free to comment on it, as Izzy does:
Neither of them spoke until they were safely in Izzy's car. As she shot down the street Stan held onto the armrest and closed her eyes. Once they reached the main road, Izzy let up on the gas and blew out a breath.

"D**n," she said, trying for humor but unable to mask her shaking voice. "Stan, what is it with you and dead people?"

Unfamiliar with Mugavero's "Pawsitively Organic" mystery series? No sweat -- I like this one best of them all so far, it's easy to jump into, and chances are you'll look for the other titles afterward.

Barbara Ross's new "Maine Clambake Mystery" ICED UNDER features Julia Snowden and her continued efforts to find the right place in her family's business and affections.  Winter with all its complications has deepened into February storms at the Maine seaside town of Busman's Harbor, and considering the weather and a request from her mother, Julia agrees to hike to the post office to fetch the mail, although she has her doubts about how useful the errand is:
"Mom, there's never anything interesting in the mail. It's all junk and catalogs." The trip to the post office would add a triangular, half-mile-long detour to my mother's house. I didn't relish trudging all that way in this weather.


What could I say? She was offering a hot lunch and companionship on a cold winter's day. And she was, after all, my mother.
The incoming mail turns out more interesting than expected, though, with a massive black diamond necklace sent anonymously to Julia's mother -- and the evidence Julia quickly assembles indicates it once belonged in the family, and vanished, along with most of the connections to relatives on that side of the family. A steady series of questions about the value of the necklace, the unexplained long-ago death of a cousin while at the family's island home, even her mother's love life, all of these press Julia into driving to Boston and braving a tangle of old treacheries for both her mother's sake and the possible inheritance that could be the needed piece to save the current family business.

Ross's writing is smooth, polished, and tender, exposing the vulnerable heart of the Snowden family and how, as we say, "No good deed goes unpunished." Could one of the twists in the Snowdens' present implicate a hospice nurse in the early death of a patient? Who mailed the diamond necklace to Julia's mother? Whose secrets are the dangerous ones that put Julia at risk?

I loved the pace of ICED UNDER, steady with just the right balance of tension and release, and the ending entirely satisfied me. If you haven't yet sampled this series, it's easy enough to step into the latest title, then catch up later. And for those already following Ross's Julia Snowden, this book is a must-read, delightful and rewarding.

Finally, a special treat for readers: Tomorrow, on the release date of these two yummy mysteries (and yes, each one includes recipes!), we'll feature here an interview with the two authors. Whether you're an ardent reader or a would-be (or published!) mystery author, or all of the above, don't miss that interview! See you here again, tomorrow morning.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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