The Swamp Whisperer by Sylvia Dickey Smith

I need another book like a hole in the head, but sometimes I can’t resist a good story in a spooky rural setting with ghosts, feisty female characters and a good old-fashioned whodunit. That’s why I love Sylvia Dickey Smith’s Sidra Smart mysteries. She may not be a household name like Heather Graham or Nora Roberts, but this talented Texan writes like a pro – and I’m just so glad I stumbled upon her books that fateful day at the Texas Book Festival!

I have a theory for why the big publishing houses haven’t signed her on. You see, just like show biz, publishers have to appeal to the masses, and that means gorgeous long-legged protagonists, formulaic plotlines and contrived love triangles. Sure these bestselling authors occasionally include a senior citizen, but the old folks are typically the token “zany granny.”

Never one to follow the lead, Dickey Smith’s books are a welcome departure from the norm.   Boo Murphy, the leading lady in “Swamp Whisperer,” is by far one of the most unique protagonists I’ve come across in crime fiction. She’s cranky, obstinate, and full of piss and vinegar! She’s completely insufferable, but when you peel back the layers, it’s hard not to find a soft spot in your heart for this overgrown tomboy.

The mystery begins when Boo paddles out into the alligator-infested bayou and finds an Atakapa-Ishak brushwood hut. Considering that the Native American tribe of alleged cannibals disappeared from the Texas and Louisiana coastal regions centuries ago, it’s downright impossible for a hut to still remain standing.

All is not well, the cold rain whispered. Boo looked around, expecting to see a ghostly figure floating across the swamp, but no one was there.  This time she knew she hadn’t been imagining things – of that she was most convinced.

To prove she’s not going senile, she grabs her prissy cousin Sasha and heads back out into the murky water in search of the hut. After a boating mishap, they seek refuge in a spooky cabin, where they stumble upon a ghostly apparition and find a frightened woman trapped underneath a dead body.

After a thorough interrogation, the woman reveals that she’s a part of a covert anthropological project. Under the guise of research, an egotistical professor and a group of scholars are recreating the site of an Atakapa-Ishak village. Is this legitimate scientific research, or a self-serving treasure hunt? Good thing Boo was able to pocket that mysterious map from the dead man’s cabin.

Things get complicated when Boo’s beloved hound and cousin go missing. Someone knows she has the map – and Boo needs to piece together the clues to rescue her loved ones and save the sacred silver mine from desecration. With some help from an ethereal spirit within the swamp, she finds the strength and courage to track down the killer…and learns a bit about herself in the process.

The wind’s embrace seeped into her pores and stirred her insides. She sucked in a deep breath, allowing the dampness to fill her lungs with every particle of oxygen available to her. She held that breath as long as she could, hating to let it go, for never before had she felt so strongly that she and the swamp were one entity with one purpose – but what that purpose was, she hadn’t a clue.

Listen, the wind warned. The swamp is at risk, can’t you tell?

I’ll stop right here before I give too much away. If you’re into atmospheric whodunits, I implore you to read this book! What I really love about this author is her knack for character development. Through Boo’s grumbling self-dialogue, readers can feel her strong bond with nature and emphasize with her resistance to love and be loved. Oh how I love Boo! We don’t get many heroines like this one in crime fiction – or any other genre for that matter – but we should. Though this is a Sidra Smart mystery, this is really Boo’s time to shine. But don’t fret; the book sporadically touches on Sidra’s misadventures as she road trips with her eccentric aunt to Santa Fe for a wedding. I won’t give too much away, but I will tell you there’s ghosts involved!

If you’ve never read a Sylvia Dickey Smith book, this one will draw you into the fold. Her love of Southeast Texas comes through in her luscious descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of the swamp. At times I began to wonder if perhaps she might be a swamp whisperer herself!

If you’d like to meet this fabulous author, she’ll be at the Texas Book Festival, which is happening this month. I can’t wait!!!

Bonefire of the Vanities by Carolyn Haines

 In this 12th installment of Carolyn Haines’ Bones series,  Sarah Booth Delaney slips on her high-heeled gumshoes yet again to investigate a possible scam involving a porn-star-turned ghost whisperer and a “psychic healing” resort. Promising reunions with dead loved ones and opportunities to “invest” in good causes, the shady psychic preys upon emotionally fragile rich people. And their new billionaire client, Marjorie Littlefield, certainly fits the profile.

Shattered after her daughter’s “accidental” drowning, she’s desperate to get some answers. Considering her fragile state, the psychics have ample opportunity to throw her off the deep end. And to make matters worse, she plans on leaving all her riches to her scrappy cat, Pluto.  Sounds pretty cold, right? Well considering her only son is the No. 1 suspect in his sister’s death, he’s pretty much on his own.

 Now on to the tricky part. How can a girl detective probe into the case if she can’t get inside the high-security estate?  Nestled in the backwoods of the Mississippi Delta, the sprawling resort is surrounded by an army of security guards and burglar-proof fences. With no other option but to pose as a member of the staff, she and her fellow PI, Tinkie, grab some brooms and masquerade as maids. In between laundry duty and window washing, the two sassy sleuths snoop around the spooky halls of Heart’s Desire and unearth some rather some rather unsettling clues. Are the disembodied voices a part of the scam? Or are supernatural forces at work? As the body count rises, Sarah Booth and Tinkie must stop at nothing to ferret out the killer and put an end to the charade.  

What I liked most: The creepy atmosphere. Confession – there are some parts in this book that really raised the little hairs on the back of my neck. I didn’t expect Carolyn Haines to creep me out with one of her cozy little Bones mysteries, but she never ceases to surprise me! Some of the happenings in the psychic reading room, located in the bellows of the resort, were really spooky. This particular scene gave me some serious goosebumps:

A soft moaning emanated from the end of the hallway. My mind leaped instantly to the classics of horror written by Edgar Allan Poe. This was a moment the melancholy master would employ to great effect. Corpse in the wall, living person in a coffin, pendulum. Black cat!

Favorite secondary character:  This mystery series is packed with a slew of colorful characters – from a sassy transgender reporter to a local resident psychic to a Southern belle best friend. But of all the eclectic characters, Jitty is my fave. The resident ghost of Sarah Booth’s beloved Dahlia house, Jitty has a way of making surprise appearances in unexpected places.  I especially love her outlandish disguises – and in this book she dresses up as two of my favorite detectives: Jessica Fletcher and Nancy Drew!

The romance: Yes, the romantic tension between Sarah Booth and her actor fiancé Graf Milieu, is pretty hot, but I still hope in my heart of hearts that she gets back together with Cole. They’re destined to be together, but whenever they find a happy place a stupid wrench gets thrown in the works. In Cole’s case, the wrench is his psychotic, control freak ex-wife. But being the Southern gentleman that he is, Cole must always save the perpetual damsel in distress whenever she has a meltdown. Ugh!  That kind of thing can really wear on a girl, so I don’t blame Sarah Booth for calling it quits. But hopefully someday, they’ll find their way back into each other’s arms!

This book is best paired with: A super-sweet glass of iced tea and a Rosanne Cash playlist.

Overall: As I expected, Carolyn Haines delivers a tightly-plotted mystery filled with rollicking adventures, loveable characters, four-legged sidekicks and surprise twists! I’m really good at pinpointing the killer, but this author always gets me at the end! Of all the cozy mystery series out there, this is my absolute favorite. That says a lot because I read a TON of mysteries! The author’s love of the Mississippi Delta clearly comes through in her writing. Through her lyrical prose, I can smell the earthy scent of red dirt, see the sun sparkling through the moss-covered trees, and hear the humming of cicadas on a hot summer’s day. Oh how I love Southern fiction! Want to know more about this fabulous author? Check out her Q&A!

Short & Sweet Sunday: Raining Cat Sitters and Dogs

 
In honor of Sunday – a day I reserve for reading and lollygagging – I bring you a short and sweet book review! For more of my “Short & Sweet” reviews, go here. 
 

The gist: This fun little mystery series revolves around an animal-loving ex-cop named Dixie Hemingway (no relation to you-know-who).  Haunted by the tragic death of her husband and daughter, Dixie abandons her life as a sheriff’s deputy and starts her own pet-sitting business.  Everyone thinks she’s crazy anyway –  so why not? What could go wrong taking care of fuzzy four-legged puppies and kitties? Oh you’d be surprised!

When Dixie takes Big Bubba, a smart-mouthed parrot with a big vocabulary, to the vet, she meets a distressed teen in the waiting room. Her father just ran over a poor little bunny rabbit and could care less about his daughter’s tears.  Dixie soon discovers the mysterious teen is in a heap load of trouble when a band of knife-wielding teenage gangsters come looking for her. Why is this girl so afraid of her father? And why is she hiding out at Siesta Key’s most posh seaside hotel? Dixie is determined to find out!

The plot thickens when Dixie’s old high school friend, Maureen, comes out of the woodwork. Her millionaire husband has been kidnapped and she needs Dixie to help her deliver the $1 million ransom. Even though Maureen dropped her like a hot potato after she struck gold with a moneygrubbing sugar daddy,  Dixie can’t help but to rescue a friend in need. Soon she finds herself caught up in a tangled web of druglords, extortion, murder and mayhem!

What surprised me: At first glance, these books look like your typical fun and fluffy chick lit mysteries filled with zany stiletto-wearing sleuths, cute fuzzy animals and steamy romance. But these pet-sitter mysteries are much heavier than you’d think.  Dixie deals with some serious issues – parental abandonment, grief and loss to name a few – and finds solace in the quiet comfort of animals. Despite all the shit she’s been through, she carries on and slowly mends her wounds in each book.

Why I love Dixie Hemingway:  Where do I begin? I love everything about her! Being the crazy cat lady that I am, I immediately fell in love with this character when she professed her passion for all things feline. I’m not sure if the author did this intentionally, but it seems like Dixie is very catlike herself. She loves looking at water, but hates getting in it. She practically purrs when she eats her brother’s luscious cooking. She’s a creature of habit, something I can totally understand.  And when someone sets her off – she roars like a lioness!  Dixie is a force to be reckoned with, and I commend her for her tenacity and strength!  

The setting: Blaize Clement does an amazing job describing Siesta Key’s lush landscape. The ethereal sunsets, the sandy beaches, the wildlife –all captured beautifully in her eloquent prose. Boy I sure am craving a key lime pie right about now!

This book is best paired with: A sparkling mimosa, flip flops and an ocean view. Don’t have an ocean view? No problem, I’m sure there’s an app for that.

Will I read another book by this author again? You betcha! I’m hooked on this series. But  sadly Blaize Clement is no longer with us, so I’m going to slowly savor each of her books. Total bummer, I know. But here’s some good news, her son is writing the next two installments, so we can look forward to a couple more Dixie Hemingway adventures. For more about this amazing author, read this write-up in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

Giveaway, Review and Q&A: Death on Heels by Ellen Byerrum

In her eighth novel featuring the fearless Washington D.C. fashion columnist, Lacey Smithsonian, Ellen Byerrum successfully pulls off another rollicking mystery filled with an eclectic mix of colorful characters and more red herrings than you can shake a stick at!

As the novel opens, Lacey reluctantly returns to her dreary hometown of Sagebrush, Colorado to investigate the murders of three young women – all left for dead on the side of the road without their blinged-out cowgirl boots.

All fingers point to her ex-boyfriend, Cole Tucker, a sexy-as-hell cowboy rancher who still carries a torch for his old girlfriend. Despite the incriminating evidence, which seemed to be carefully placed on his land, she’s certain of her old beau’s innocence. Of course, her current boyfriend and private investigator, Vic Donovan, isn’t all too keen on her rushing to the aid of a suspected killer…who might also be her one true love.

Just as she feared, her heart  melts the second she sees the rugged cowboy in his brown jailbird jumpsuit. And things go from bad to worse when he breaks free of his cuffs, slings her over his shoulder and flees the courthouse in a blaze of glory.

On the run from the law, Cole whisks Lacey away into the rugged plains of Northern Colorado. Traveling deep into God’s country in “borrowed” cars and on horseback, the two ex-lovers shack up in a creepy abandoned cabin and stumble upon an essential fashion clue: a black cowboy bootheel wrapped in silver filigree.

As Lacey pieces together the clues, she encounters a slew of shady characters with ample motives for railroading her old flame. They’re all chomping at the bit for a piece of his land, aptly named  “The Tuckered Out Ranch,” which sits atop a goldmine of mineral resources.

With Vic and a posse of trigger-happy local yokels in hot pursuit, Lacey fears for Cole’s safety and struggles with her unresolved feelings. Could the man she left behind be the one? I’ve always been on team Vic, but this cowboy is H-O-T (think young Scott Glenn in Urban Cowboy), and the romantic tension intensifies every time they lock eyes. Boy is she in for a bumpy ride – and I’m not just talking about riding horseback along the badlands of rural Colorado.

If you’re new to the Crimes of Fashion mystery series, you’re in for a treat! The author  imbues her writing with an addictive sense of wit, and Lacey’s adventures are laugh-out-loud funny. Not only does Ellen deliver a wonderfully quirky yet completely believable cast of characters including Lacey’s spunky little sister, Cherise, who threatens to steal the whole show, but the book’s exceptionally entertaining plot strikes the perfect balance between high-stakes danger and smoldering romance. Oh and I should also mention the delightful “fashion bites” are an added bonus for fashionably-challenged wannabe cowgirls like myself! Here are a couple of my faves:

“So ladies, if the boot fits, wear it. Wear your boots with pants, shorts, skirts, and dresses. Wear them with a swagger and a glint in your eyes. Wear them with a purpose. Wear them with an attitude. Wear them walking toward your destiny. But never wear them with indifference.”

“When you don a Western look, you’re wearing an American classic, a little piece of the frontier, of the Wild West, and the wild imagination as well. Not a Halloween costume.

Now without any further ado, I’m proud to present a Q&A with the fabulous Ellen Byerrum!

Welcome Ellen! Why does Lacey love wearing vintage fashions? And what does this unique style say about her character?

Vintage clothing is attractive to Lacey for several reasons. Vintage gives her the opportunity to wear a suit or a dress that is unusual, if not one of a kind. The clothes from the late 1930s and 1940s, which Lacey prefers, were built for a woman’s figure, not a boyish one. The clothing that survives from 60 and 70 years ago tends to be the better clothes, the pieces that people saved, treasured and kept in good condition. Their “Sunday best,” if you will. The styles were flattering, and because of government regulations that restricted fabric, designers were a lot more creative in the details.  And finally, Lacey likes to think that some of the spirit of the original owner remains in those dresses and suits and coats, the spirit of strong women who kept the country running through World War II.

Will Lacey infuse some country flare into her vintage ensembles while she’s hunting down clues in her hometown of Sagebrush, Colorado?

More likely she takes her big city flair to the country and tries to blend her styles. But you’ll have to see for yourself.

How has Lacey evolved since the first installment of the Crimes of Fashions mystery series?

In the first book, Killer Hair, Lacey was reluctant to get involved in murder investigations, but as time goes by—eight books, but less than a year in book time—she’s more sure of herself and finding creative ways to use her fashion beat to write what she wants to write. Since the first book, Lacey has fallen in love, studied private investigation, and come to appreciate her mother and sister in ways she hadn’t before.

I have to admit, I watched the Lifetime movies before reading your novels. I was quite surprised by how different the books were from the movies. In your opinion, how did they get it right – and where did they miss the mark?

My first reaction when I saw the movies was that I could tell every line that wasn’t mine! Nevertheless, it was a great thrill to have movies based on my books, though not quite a complete retelling. I thought that some of the characters were great. Maggie Lawson made a charming Lacey, Victor Webster was a terrific Vic Donovan, and together they created great chemistry. Stella was nothing like the character in the book, but the actress was endearing, and I loved Brooke as well. One of the best surprises was the actress playing Felicity Pickles. Though she was a blonde and not a brunette like the character in the books, she was wonderful in a very small role. And the killer was really good. In addition, I have to say it was a kick doing a walk-on in the movie in front of the White House! People who know me can spot my big moment on camera.

KILLER HAIR was pretty faithful to the book and I thought the climax was well done, well directed, and suspenseful. HOSTILE MAKEOVER followed the set up of the book and then. . . deviated. All I can say is that there is a point to HM about how beautiful people can harbor monsters inside, but the film didn’t get that point. At all. Let’s just say I was surprised at the big finish in the second movie.

As far as what they missed?  I heard from a lot of readers who were outraged that Aunt Mimi’s trunk was not in the movies. I agree, it was a puzzling omission. After all, Lacey often finds her inspirations in the trunk and runs to it whenever she’s stressed or baffled. She has found many of her outfits in the trunk, with its bottomless treasure trove of patterns and materials. About the vintage clothing in the film: While Maggie Lawson’s costumes were some sort of vintage, including dresses looked like they dated from the 1970s and 1980s, there were only a couple of pieces from Lacey’s favorite period, the 1940s. The Lifetime movies were filmed in Canada with many Canadian actors, which is probably why Stella did not have a New Jersey accent. Another key character in HOSTILE MAKEOVER was from West Virginia, but there was no southern accent. It would have been nice to hear the various accents, which provide back story in a character.

(NOTE: The Lifetime Movie Network films were first aired in summer 2009. They’re available from iTunes. There are links on my Web site on the Buy My Books page.)

Lacey’s two best friends, Stella and Brooke, are by far my most favorite chick lit gal pals. They’re smart, they’re sassy, and they always have Lacey’s back.  Why is it important to support the leading lady with a strong cast of friends?

I’m so glad you like them. I enjoy Brooke and Stella too, especially because they both provide counterpoints to Lacey, in their personalities and their style. They have a lot of heart and loyalty. In practical terms, they have strong stories, love interests, and back stories, which gives me a lot more to play with in terms of plot and subplot.

What’s the most important piece of advice you could give aspiring authors?

1). Keep writing! Stop listening to all the negative voices you might hear, including your own, that can stop you in your tracks. Ignore all questions like, What makes you think you could be a writer? 2) Finish your project! Whether it’s a short story or a book, you have to move beyond polishing those first three pages or chapters. You’ll never be published if you don’t finish.  3) Listen to constructive criticism. You don’t have to do everything your critics say, but many times others have the distance to see how you could make your work better. 4) Rewrite. First drafts are never perfect, no matter how brilliant they might seem to us.

Do you plan out your novels with outlines and detailed synopses, or do you take a more freestyle approach to writing?

Outlines are required by my publisher, so I have to turn one in as part of the contract. A synopsis can be useful in figuring out where the story goes, but for me there is a danger that it can drain the energy from my writing, because writing the synopsis can make me feel like I’ve already been there and done that. I always have an idea of where I’m going, but it’s the surprises that occur while writing, whether it is a turn of phrase or a new character that pops up, that keeps me going.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on the ninth book in the series, titled VEILED REVENGE. It should be out in February 2013. That is, if everything goes according to plan. And I’m working on a psychological thriller, THE DOLLHOUSE IN THE CRAWL SPACE, which I really hope to finish this year. So wish me good luck! And thank you so much for inviting me here today.

About the author:

Ellen Byerrum writes the popular Crime of Fashion mysteries, set in bustling Washington, D.C., The City That Fashion Forgot. Featuring style sleuth Lacey Smithsonian, who solves crimes with fashion clues, the eighth book, Death on Heels, takes Lacey out of her comfort zone and into the Wild West where she confronts her past and an old boyfriend who is accused of murder.While researching fashion, Byerrum has collected her own assortment of 1940s vintage dresses and suits, and the occasional accessory, but laments her lack of closet space. She has been a D.C. news reporter in Washington, a playwright, and holds a Virginia P.I. registration. Although she currently resides in Denver, fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian will continue to be based in Washington, D.C.

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GIVEAWAY DETAILS:

The publisher is sponsoring a giveaway for one copy of Death on Heels. To enter, post a comment under this review/Q&A and answer this question:  Which of your fashion staples (footwear, accessories and jewelry included) gives you confidence? The winner’s name will be selected at random.

 The deadline to enter is Friday, March 30. U.S. addresses only.