Cozy Hats in London

hatAt the Drop of a Hat

Hat Shop Mystery #3

By Jenn McKinlay

Cousins Scarlett Parker and Vivian Tremont’s fashionable London hat shop, Mim’s Whims, is visited by a new customer bearing an old hat box. Ariana Jackson is getting married and wants to restore her mother’s bridal hat and veil for the occasion. The elegant item was made by Scarlett and Vivian’s grandmother over thirty years ago, so Viv is delighted to take the job.

When Scarlett goes to Ariana’s office to consult about the restoration cost, she finds her outside, standing over her boss’s dead body. Though Ariana claims to know nothing about his demise, the investigation unveils a motive for murder. Now, with the bride-to-be in custody and the wedding on hold, Scarlett and Viv must find the real killer before Ariana’s future is boxed up for good.

Via Goodreads

 

I’m very picky about cozy mysteries. I’ll read at least one in any series but I won’t commit to the series unless I like the protagonist. Sometimes the amateur sleuths are a little too nosy for my liking or have too many quirks or problems that make relationships difficult for them. I’m all for complex female characters but the very nature of a cozy, as well as its structure, don’t allow for too much complexity. I enjoy watching characters develop over many books in a cozy series. There simply isn’t enough room in a cozy for a mystery and a deep dive into someone’s mind.

And I read them to escape into a charming world with lovely people I’d like to know so nothing too heavy, please.

Jenn McKinlay succeeds for me on all points. Scarlett has a primary personal problem – a previous relationship that ended spectacularly and in a public/social media way that leads to a vow to not date men for at least a year. Of course the foil is a childhood friend who is clearly interested in her and is quite attractive to Scarlett. This primary problem continues throughout the books, an undercurrent to each mystery.

This installment was nice because as Scarlett starts to resolve her primary problem a new one arises – the question of Vivian’s love life. Her cousin never dates, seems to avoid men who are interested in her and won’t say why. Scarlett is just nosy enough to want to know what is going on with Vivian since she wants her cousin to be happy.

The book ended on an excellent note – as the new problem is explained it impacts the primary problem for Scarlett. This is a great way to keep the tension within the romantic relationship. ‘Will they, won’t they’ can only go on for so long. Introducing a new element is key and well done.

I enjoy visiting Mim’s hat shop in London. Having visited London once, I have enough of a vision in my head to overlay on McKinlay’s story. Tea is constantly prepared, rain always falls and murders must be solved.

Getting Cozy with Beasties

beastiesStudies of Beasties

Iona Adair Scottish Mysteries #1

By Polly Letson

Iona Adair thought she had a simple life, with her job, draughty flat and her sweet, black and white cat. But when you are moonlighting for a secret organisation aiming to destroy all evidence of the paranormal, whilst working as a parapsychologist at the world renowned Diederich Institute of Parapsychology, things are bound to get complicated. Throw into that mix an uncanny ability for mind control, her baffling spirit guide, a fake clairvoyant mother, as well as some naked dead bodies, and mayhem ensues.

Iona is forced out of the safe world of Edinburgh academia by her new Texan boss and is suddenly in the field, exploring a small Scottish town that believes the Beast of Badnoch is behind the spate of recent disappearances. Will her dishy colleague Andy find out that the psychic he’s investigating is her mother? And will that change how he feels about her? In this, the first of the Iona Adair Scottish Mysteries, Iona finds out that the supernatural world is far more dangerous and expansive than she could possibly imagine, even if it does have some very charming characters, like blood drinking Henry, a bonafide ancient techno-geek.

The supernatural world has never been funnier, sexier or more tartan.

Via Goodreads

 

I feel like many female protagonists in cozy mysteries need to have poor social skills and be unable to interact well with others, and that over the course of the book(s) they begin to open up and learn things and trust people. Sometimes that becomes frustrating because a confident woman or an extrovert can be an amateur sleuth as well. Well, I suppose some cozy mysteries I’ve read have extroverts. And maybe it’s because I read so many book themed cozies that the sleuths are introverts. And I get it – I’m an introvert. But it’s a theme I’ve found and I wonder what that means about readers of cozies. Maybe we all feel a little set apart from others or can sympathize with the difficulties in opening up to new people so seeing a slightly heightened version of this in books, and seeing that version succeed, is helpful. Something to keep pondering.

Now, Iona Adair has a good reason to withhold herself from others; her psychic gift sets her apart. She also has a spirit guide she can’t speak about so there is much of her life that is necessarily secret. She doesn’t seem to have any friends, not even her spirit guide.

(That was a little confusing. If you’ve had a spirit guide since childhood, wouldn’t you have worked out the relationship more by the time you’re an adult? Iona learns so much about Rain in the book that it made me wonder why she hadn’t learned it earlier. Maybe that will be addressed in future books.)

She shares an office with Andy, a colleague at a parapsychology institute. There’s more than meets the eye with him. I’d hoped Iona would realize she can’t seem to use her mind control on him but that never happened. Again, maybe in future books.

Her job at the institute is a cover for her real job with a secret organization dedicated to keeping paranormal gifts, etc. a secret. She modifies students’ research results to hide legitimate findings, for example. Iona is sent to a location where a rumored beast has attacked and killed several men. While bumbling through that mystery she meets Henry, a vampire; she didn’t even know vampires exist. While she’s attracted to Andy, and he is a lovely man, Henry is someone she can talk about her secrets with. He has his secrets as well. It makes for a nice romantic triangle, although I think she can trust Andy.

The book was an enjoyable enough mystery with likable and engaging characters. I would have liked to feel more of the setting of Scotland but that’s a personal thing since I love that country so much. There were a lot of unanswered questions – about Iona’s abilities, about Rain, Andy, the organization she works for. I know series are meant to have subplots that slowly reveal over several books. I think I wanted to know more about Iona’s world and her struggle between her real, secret job and her role at the institute. Having that information might have grounded the story and her struggles a bit more.

Read it for Iona’s daft mother, her inconsistent spirit guide and her world, which is so much more exciting than ours.

The mystery is in the history

Aunt Dimity and the Summer King

(An Aunt Dimity Mystery, #20)
By Nancy Atherton
There’s trouble in Finch. Four recently sold cottages are standing empty, and the locals fear that a developer plans to turn their cozy village into an enclave of overpriced weekend homes. But for once Lori Shepherd can’t help.

Her infant daughter, her father-in-law’s upcoming wedding, and the crushing prospect of her fortieth birthday have left her feeling inadequate and overwhelmed. Until, that is, she has a chance encounter with an eccentric inventor named Arthur Hargreaves. Dubbed the Summer King by his equally eccentric family, Arthur is as warmhearted as the summer sun. In his presence, Lori forgets her troubles—and Finch’s.

But Lori snaps out of her happy trance when she discovers detailed maps of Finch in the Summer King’s library. Next, a real estate agent comes knocking. Is Arthur secretly plotting Finch’s demise?

With Aunt Dimity’s otherworldly help—and her new daughter in her arms—Lori mounts a crusade to save her beloved village from the Summer King’s scorching greed.

-via Goodreads
My second vacation read was Aunt Dimity and the Summer King. I have loved this series for some time. Lori Shepherd inherited a cottage in a small town in England from her mother’s close friend. With the cottage came a journal that Lori can use to communicate with Aunt Dimity. Lori talks and Aunt Dimity’s responses appear on the page. In some of the earlier books, Dimity is a bit more of a forceful ghost but over time she has turned into a sounding board for Lori, providing information about the village/villagers and giving Lori advice (mostly in the form of reining in Lori’s impulsive urges).
Aside from loving the idyllic village of Finch and the locals who live there, I appreciate that this series doesn’t need murder and mayhem to generate a mystery worth reading. In this installment, the very existence of the village becomes a mystery through Lori’s introduction to Arthur Hargreaves, the titular Summer King, a position he is granted by his grandchildren each summer.
As anyone in Finch and they’ll practically spit after the name Hargreaves. He’s from the next town over and Finchers (?) hate the next town over. There is a long-standing feud that no one can clearly articulate. Lori learns it has something to do with a Hargreaves from several generations back siding with the other town instead of Finch so Finch turned collective back on them.
Lori thoroughly enjoyed meeting Arthur and was charmed by his demeanor, home and grandchildren. She hopes to be an emissary between Finch and the Hargreaves. At the same time, Lori grows concerned that a realtor from ‘that other town’ is convincing potential owners to not purchase the two empty cottages on Finch’s square. Lori wants Finch to survive and decides to investigate the realtor to discover the reason behind her nefarious act.
I am amused that so many of the mysteries within the series are created by the protagonist. Instead of something happening – like a crime – that the (nosy) protagonist needs to solve, Lori jumps to conclusions, makes wild accusations and trots off to prove she’s right. Which she typically isn’t. This tactic makes seemingly benign problems in Finch and in Lori’s lift become extreme obstacles that must be overcome. It personalizes the mystery which invests Lori and by default invests the reader. Nice little trick there, Ms. Atherton.

Suffice it to say that Lori does discover what the realtor is up to and why the Hargreaves have been okay with being reviled by Finch – and they are related. The mystery ultimately comments on the ability of a village like Finch to exist in the modern world. Part of why I love this series so much is the dream of someday living in a place like this with all the gossipy and helpful people it brings. It seems too good to be true and even in the world of the Aunt Dimity series it’s kind of too good to be true. But it’s not going anywhere and that’s why I keep coming back.

A cozy mystery wrapped in the supernatural

Day Shift

(Midnight, Texas, #2)

By Charlaine Harris
There is no such thing as bad publicity, except in Midnight, Texas, where the residents like to keep to themselves. Even in a town full of secretive people, Olivia Charity is an enigma. She lives with the vampire Lemuel, but no one knows what she does; they only know that she’s beautiful and dangerous.

Psychic Manfred Bernardo finds out just how dangerous when he goes on a working weekend to Dallas and sees Olivia there with a couple who are both found dead the next day. To make matters worse, one of Manfred’s regular—and very wealthy—clients dies during a reading.

Manfred returns from Dallas embroiled in scandal and hounded by the press. He turns to Olivia for help; somehow he knows that the mysterious Olivia can get things back to normal. As normal as things get in Midnight…

-via Goodreads

I purchased Day Shiftspecifically to take on my vacation to Maine last week. I like having a handful of books to read on vacation and often look for something familiar – an author I’ve read before, a book in a series I know I enjoy. I enjoy a challenging and/or new read as much as anyone else but for me, on vacation, I want comfort and relaxation.
Which is exactly what I got from a book about a vampire, two angels, a witch, a psychic and an assassin dealing with a string of deaths that threaten their strange little Texas town.
That sounds a kinda weird, even to me. A murder mystery might not seem relaxing but in many ways the Midnight, Texas series is very much a cozy mystery. It’s set in a small town with a protagonist new to the town so is, in essence, the reader’s point of view and the reason for questions to be asked and answered. There is a central cast of characters in the town with distinct roles and personalities. And there is a strong sense of community that binds everyone together to solve a problem.
I don’t care who lives in a town like that, it sounds like my idea of a lovely place to live.
When I read the first book in the series, Midnight Crossroad, I immediately entered the supernatural world created by Harris and felt that her writing and storytelling had improved since the Sookie Stackhouse series, which I enjoyed. Maybe improved isn’t the correct word. The plotting and character development felt stronger, and that brought me into the world in a bigger way.
Harris does a good job of escalating the stakes. It starts small in Day Shift – the psychic (our newcomer) is out of town to meet clients in person, one of whom dies during a reading. A couple down the hall are also found to be dead (possibly a murder/suicide) but the psychic saw the assassin in the hotel the night before with that very couple. The stakes raise when the son of the psychic’s client accuses him of murder which brings unwanted attention to Midnight, TX.
Another obstacle is the redevelopment of an abandoned hotel as a long-term hotel and elderly center for those waiting to get into a permanent home situation. More people in Midnight equals more opportunities for the secret identities of the inhabitants to be revealed.

Smaller obstacles are placed along the way, such as the appearance of a boy who ages multiple years each day. They all coalesce in the final encounter to protect the town. And I appreciate that the full nature of the intent behind the hotel’s development is still left unknown. There should be long-term things to discover about the town and those who live there.

A cozy mystery about cozy mystery writers

Book Fair and Foul

(An Ashton Corners Book Club Mystery #4)

by Erika Chase

The members of the Ashton Corners Mystery Readers and Cheese Straws Society are all chipping in as Molly Mathews, now owner of the bookstore the Book Nook, prepares the first annual Mystery Book Fair. While gossip circulates about the guest authors, club member Lizzie Turner is unpleasantly surprised to see a certain book publicist make an appearance. It seems Lizzie has a history with Ashley Dixon—a chapter of her life she’d rather leave closed.

But when someone gives Ashley a death sentence, Lizzie becomes the prime suspect in a murder mystery she can’t put down. Now Lizzie and her fellow book buffs have to read between the lines of the publicist’s past and catch the real killer before Lizzie is written off for good.

-via Goodreads
I picked up this book with several other cozy mysteries as research. I am working on a cozy mystery set in a bookstore because I gravitate toward that sub(sub?)-genre. Book Fair and Foul circles around a book club, one of whom owns a bookstore. Good enough for me to check out.
I had a hard time knowing who the protagonist was. I thought it was Molly Mathews who owns the bookstore. Then I realized it was Lizzie Turner, a literary instructor at the school and Molly’s friend. Maybe Lizzie is the protagonist in the other books in the series so this shouldn’t have been a surprise but it was tricky in the first scene set at a high tea with four female characters. I also presumed that the book club would be a large part of the story. There were a couple of scene with the members and an abbreviated “official” book club meeting scene in which they discuss the monthly book. There were references to other club members being suspects in murder cases. That could be what strings the series together. I’m not sure.
The bookstore is hosting a festival featuring four cozy mystery authors who are all staying at a local B&B. Several events are planned for them to read, interact with fans and sell books. A surprise guest arrives – Ashley Dixon, the publicist for the authors and a college roommate of Lizzie’s. There is bad blood between them and they eventually fight in public. Naturally, when Ashley turns up dead, Lizzie is the first suspect.
Lizzie suspended from her job pending the investigation which gives her time to conduct her own inquiries. She visits the authors often as they have been asked to stay in town. She tries to learn more about Ashley since she last knew her in college. All the while Lizzie must be careful – she is dating the police chief and the case must stay above board.
Book Fair and Foulkept the murder plot central while maintaining subplots specific to the book and the apparent larger subplots of the series (such as Lizzie’s romance). However, the subplot specific to the book doesn’t appear to tie into the main mystery. Lizzie helps a friend who is receiving mysterious threats. Nothing in that mystery ties in with Ashley’s murder, except maybe that secrets will out – but I’m not sure that was the point. It could have had a stronger influence on Lizzie’s personal quest to clear her name and solve Ashley’s murder.

I don’t think I’ll be going back to read other books in the series. I didn’t connect with Lizzie or the other characters. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. If nothing else, I’ve learned that I need to create characters that the audience will connect with. Knowing that is the easy part. Pulling it off is the mystery.