Friday, July 17, 2015

Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries by Molly MacRae

Reviewed by Jeanne

Last Wool and Testament by Molly MacRae

Kath Rutledge didn’t expect to be caught speeding by an East Tennessee cop, but then she didn’t expect her beloved grandmother to die suddenly, either.  To make matters worse, the cop refers to her grandmother as “Crazy Ivy” and insinuates that she might have been in trouble with the law.  None of this fits in with the Ivy that Kath knew and loved—but then, that Ivy wouldn’t have deeded away her house without telling Kath either.  All that’s left is Ivy’s shop, The Weaver’s Cat, a host of Ivy’s fellow weavers and fabric artists, and a mystery that Kath is determined to solve to clear her grandmother’s name.

Oh, and deal with a despondent ghost who loves television.

I picked this series up because it had a local setting, and there was a cat on the cover.  I confess to being a bit disappointed in some of the local color or, rather, the lack thereof.  While I recognized some local references (the town is called Blue Plum, for example, and there's a nearby festival by that name), I just didn’t get a good sense of being in this area.   I didn’t want heavy handed dialect or ‘possum jokes or references to Jed Clampett, but on the other hand I didn’t want generic small town America either.  For a page or two I forgot if the book was set in Tennessee or Maine or Minnesota, since I’ve been reading mysteries set in all those places—and yes, all small towns with diners as the heart of town where one gets the gossip and a killer brownie/chocolate chip cookie/cupcake.  To be honest, I wondered if this was a mandate by the publisher to make the setting “relatable” or some such nonsense. A few details came in near the end but not enough for me to really feel that I was in this area.  On the up side, this meant no toothless natives or “Dueling Banjos.” That is definitely a plus for me. 

And by the way, there was a cat but it remained missing for most of the book.  This detail is for my cat mystery reading friends and should not reflect badly for anyone who does not read mysteries for the felines. I am reliably informed that not everyone is concerned about the presence or absence of felines, so those folks may just ignore this entire paragraph.

Because first novels have the burden of setting up characters, I decided to read a second book in the series. Plagued by Quilt sees Kath settled in at the Weaver’s Cat, making friends and succeeding as a shopkeeper.  She’s getting ready to put her background as a conservator to good use as she helps out at the Holston Living History Homeplace, a museum where visitors can tour an eighteenth century homestead and view re-enactors lecturing and performing tasks common to the day.  Phillip Bell, the new assistant director, is an enthusiastic interpreter and is leading an archaeological excavation on the site.  When a human elbow turns up, it seems that some secrets may not be too well buried after all.  

I found I enjoyed Plagued by Quilt much more.  Kath was more settled and comfortable, so I as a reader felt more comfortable.  The Holston museum setting gave more opportunity to build setting, as did Kath’s love for the antique tools and fabrics.  Geneva the ghost is back, dramatic as ever, but she does provide some comic relief with her TV references.  A couple of the characters were more developed than in the first book, though Kath remains someone who rushes in where angels (but not ghosts) fear to tread.  The TGIF (Thank Goodness It’s Fiber) group has some interesting possibilities but limited character development, though they are the source of a delightful stake-out scene.  I enjoy the way that MacRae incorporates bits of information about history and fiber work into her books:  the retting of flax, for example. It’s never a lecture or a chore, just interesting information.

The scraping sound you hear is the dragging of a soapbox.  I had two quibbles with the book that I put up with but found annoying—much like the flies that scoot inside in summer.  The biggest was the librarian who didn’t seem to want to do research and secondly, that when she finally did the research she failed to check online sources which should have yielded clues.  I will grant that it would have made solving the mystery take fewer pages, but I hope that librarian will either polish her skills or else find a new profession. And no, she won’t stop me from reading the next book. End of soapbox!

All in all, this is a solid little series with extra appeal for those who love fiber arts, be it knitting, sewing, quilting, or weaving.  The supernatural elements don’t overwhelm the story, nor do they spoil the detecting. I don’t think this is a series that needs to be read in order, as it’s fairly easy to catch up though Geneva might give one a moment’s pause when encountered for the first time. I have a couple of friends who are fiber artists and I will be recommending the series to them.

The author, Molly MacRae, lived in this area for a number of years and worked for a time in Jonesborough so she does know and like the area. While that didn't come through in the first book, it was much more evident in the second.

(And yes, a cat made more of an appearance in this book.  That did not influence my opinion.  At least not much.)

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