Maureen Ellen O’Leary

Vera Vixen, ace reporter for the Shady Hollow Herald, is a very busy bee. Well, busy, yes, but a fox rather than a bee. As in the previous two volumes in author duo Juneau Black’s Shady Hollow Mystery series, Mirror Lake follows Vera as she juggles work, love and crime-solving in her beloved Shady Hollow, which is populated solely by animals.

Although it is technically her day off (try telling that to her boss, B.W. Stone, a skunk in both fact and temperament), Vera’s delight in the annual October Harvest Festival is somewhat tempered as the day progresses. She learns that her burly bear boyfriend, Deputy Orville Braun, is throwing his cap in the ring for chief of the Shady Hill Police. With claws secretly crossed for his triumph, she determines to remain neutral in reporting on the heated campaign.

Vera’s raven friend, Lenore Lee, owner of the aptly named bookstore Nevermore, also needs support. Lenore is all a-flutter over the approaching book-signing event with Bradley Marvel, a bestselling author of thrillers who thinks rather too highly of himself. In his attempt to charm the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Vera, he proves to be a wolf in wolf’s clothing.

But these intrigues pale in comparison to the possible murder of Edward Springfield, a rat beloved by his eccentric wife, Dorothy. “Possible” because, well, Edward himself (or someone who looks exactly like him?) is standing beside Dorothy as she announces his murder! The most likely suspect is Edward’s older brother, Thomas. But he’s dead, too! Or is he? And whose headless body lies in the deep dark woods? All of Vera’s sly sleuthing skills are put to the test as she tries to solve a seemingly unsolvable case.

Mirror Lake opens with the authors’ plea for us to suspend our disbelief as we enter the realm of Shady Hollow. (Would all these animals be found in the same habitat in real life? How do you square carnivores and herbivores living in harmony?) It’s not hard to do: The anthropomorphizing of the cast is so unobtrusive that this reader often forgot the nonhuman nature of the characters. The occasional reminders of their animal nature add charm and humor to this pleasant tail—sorry, tale.

While some readers might roll their eyes at the simplicity of the plot, others will be chuffed as they attempt to outfox the wily Vera and solve the puzzle before she does. Mirror Lake doesn’t offer much emotional or intellectual complexity, but it does offer the pleasures associated with a cozy, close-knit community. Who wouldn’t want a cuppa at the coffee shop owned by Joe, the amiable moose? Who could resist the fine fare offered by panda master chef Sun Li? What could be cozier than a B&B run by the chipmunks Geoffrey and Ben?

Cold comfort is easy to find in our world these days. It’s much harder to find the humor and winsome warmth of the Shady Hollow mysteries.

Cold comfort is easy to find; it’s much harder to find the winsome warmth one encounters in Mirror Lake, a cozy mystery populated by woodland creatures.

Many novels conclude with the wedding of characters we care about, but Crimes and Covers, the fifth book in Amanda Flower’s Magical Bookshop Mystery series, begins with one: the Christmastime union of Violet Waverly, the charming owner of Charming Books in the charming village of Cascade Springs in upstate New York, to the drop-dead gorgeous police chief, David Rainwater.

Among the guests are Violet’s energetic Grandma Daisy, the village mayor and former “caretaker” of the magic-infused bookshop; Violet’s warmhearted friend Sadie; and, to the bride’s astonishment, her elusive dad, Fenimore. But alas, the newlyweds don’t get to make merry post-ceremony because murder most rude pushes all else aside.

Blame Henry David Thoreau. As in previous volumes in this series, a literary classic lies at the mystery’s center. The murder victim is a strange woman who tried to sell Violet a signed first edition of Walden. Violet is an English professor, Thoreau scholar and bookseller, so she was able to discern that the book actually belonged to someone else, Imogene “Thoreau,” whose life is devoted to establishing her blood relationship to the author. Would Imogene spill blood to prove her claim?

Violet puts her honeymoon on hold and dives into a search for answers, some of which come from “the essence,” the magic that oozes from the ancient birch towering in the middle of the bookshop. Along with ensuring that the right books land in just the right hands (Violet’s customers are always so impressed with her recommendations!), the essence conveys clues to help Violet in her amateur sleuthing. (The bookshop’s star tenants, Faulkner the sharp-tongued crow and Emerson the tuxedo cat, also help.) Copies of Walden periodically float through the air, opening to pages that offer transcendental words of wisdom.

Crimes and Covers hits the right cozy notes: an appealing setting (with snow to boot!), a close community and a credible yet unchallenging plot that includes romance and deaths that break few hearts. Although not all the characters are fully drawn, threads occasionally dangle in ways that don’t feel intentional, and moments of tension or heart-stopping thrills are few, this is a satisfying read, providing hours of quiet pleasure rather than the “quiet desperation” Thoreau speaks of. The whimsical touches of bookshop magic are skillfully balanced by plot lines with more gravitas, like the publish-or-perish element in Violet’s academic community and the challenges of relationships, particularly between parents and children. Most importantly, Violet herself is a winning character and narrator: warm, witty, principled and smart, someone you’d enjoy meeting again. So if the tall birch in my backyard, stubbornly short on essence, were to toss another Magical Bookshop Mystery my way, I would be, well—charmed.

Crimes and Covers hits the right cozy notes and will provide hours of whimsical pleasure.

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