USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and nonfiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” In addition, Lois is a former literary agent and an award-winning craft and needlework designer who often draws much of her source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry.
Over the past thirteen years I’ve published sixteen full-length novels, five novellas, and several short stories. Most are mysteries. A few are romance, romantic suspense, or humorous women’s fiction (formerly known as chick lit, but that designation is pretty much the kiss of death these days.) However, even though I’ve written in various genres, all my books have one thing in common—my plots always develop from actual events I’ve experienced, read about, or seen on the nightly news. I wrote about this here several years ago https://cncbooksblog.wordpress.com/2015/07/26/a-real-life-mystery/ when I talked about a real-life mystery in my own town, a mystery that still hasn’t been solved and which became a subplot in Scrapbook of Murder, the sixth book in my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery Series.
My penchant for putting a “what if” spin on actual events began with Love, Lies and a Double Shot of Deception, the first book I ever wrote. (It became the second book I sold.) The plot was heavily influenced by a murder that occurred in Philadelphia during the time I was writing the book.
Every book since then has employed elements of actual events—from murders in nursing homes (Revenge of the Crafty Corpse) to the speed dating craze of the early 2000’s (Four Uncles and a Wedding) to my cousin’s infertility issues (Finding Hope) to several murder cases involving Munchhausen by Proxy (A Stitch to Die For) to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme (Death By Killer Mop Doll)—just to name a few.
Which brings me to my latest release, Drop Dead Ornaments, the seventh book in my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series. Anastasia is a woman who had lived the good life, firmly entrenched in the middle class, until at the start of Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, the first book in the series, her husband drops dead in a Las Vegas casino. The biggest shock wasn’t that she believed he was in Harrisburg, PA on business. No. It was discovering that her marriage had been built on a series of lies, thanks to his duplicitous lifestyle. Ever since, she’s been trying to stay one step ahead of the bill collectors and eviction—not to mention her husband’s bookie.
In creating the series, I mined my own less-than-ideal childhood to tap into Anastasia’s feelings of betrayal and how she copes with her “new normal” life. My father didn’t drop dead at a casino, but he never kept a job for very long. Of course, that didn’t stop him from spending money he didn’t have on a succession of mistresses while I and my siblings often went to bed with hunger pangs. However, rather than being that cruel to Anastasia, I gave her two loving sons, a Shakespeare-quoting parrot, and a biting sense of humor as coping mechanisms. She also dreams of one day being free of debt.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if suddenly you had no financial worries? How would it change your life and the lives of those around you? This is a central theme in Drop Dead Ornaments, but telling you more would require a spoiler alert. What I can tell you, though, is that someone’s newfound wealth will most definitely lead to murder. (Hey, I write murder mysteries, so not really a spoiler, right?)
An Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery, Book 7
Anastasia Pollack’s son Alex is dating Sophie Lambert, the new kid in town. For their community service project, the high school seniors have chosen to raise money for the county food bank. Anastasia taps her craft industry contacts to donate materials for the students to make Christmas ornaments they’ll sell at the town’s annual Holiday Crafts Fair.
At the fair Anastasia meets Sophie’s father, Shane Lambert, who strikes her as a man with secrets. She also notices a woman eavesdropping on their conversation. Later that evening when the woman turns up dead, Sophie’s father is arrested for her murder.
Alex and Sophie beg Anastasia to find the real killer, but Anastasia has had her fill of dead bodies. She’s also not convinced of Shane’s innocence. Besides, she’s promised younger son Nick she’ll stop risking her life. But how can she say no to Alex?
Other books in the series include:
Title: Carols and Chaos
Author: Cindy Anstey
Publisher: Swoon Reads
Publication Date: October 9, 2018
Genres: Historical, Romance, Young Adult
From the publisher—
A lady’s maid and a valet become entangled in a yuletide counterfeiting scheme in this romantic Christmas YA adventure.
1817. The happy chaos of the Yuletide season has descended upon the country estate of Shackleford Park in full force, but lady’s maid Kate Darby barely has the time to notice. Between her household duties, caring for her ailing mother, and saving up money to someday own a dress shop, her hands are quite full. Matt Harlow is also rather busy. He’s performing double-duty, acting as valet for both of the Steeple brothers, two of the estate’s holiday guests.
Falling in love would be a disaster for either of them. But staving off their feelings for each other becomes the least of their problems when a devious counterfeiting scheme reaches the gates of Shackleford Park, and Kate and Matt are unwittingly swept up in the intrigue. Full of sweetness, charm, and holiday shenanigans, Carols and Chaos is perfect for fans of Jane Austen and Downton Abbey.
I don’t usually start reading Christmas-y books before we’ve even gotten to Halloween and I also don’t usually read romances but something about this one caught my attention and drew me in. Partly, it’s the really appealing cover but perhaps I also had a yen to go back to the Regency era, at one time a favorite period for me. At any rate, I threw caution to the wind and I’m glad I did.
Kate Darby is a nice young woman, not a lady precisely, according to the class distinctions of her time, but she works hard, cares for her mother, and is clever and genuinely friendly. Matt Harlow is hardworking, too, and has a certain kind of loyalty to his position and the family he works for. He and Kate have eyes for each other but, really, they don’t have time right now for such goings-on, especially after it comes to light that some nefarious activity is going on at the manor.
Drama ensues, along with holiday frivolity and the expected dynamics between upstairs and downstairs. I especially appreciated having servants as the main characters rather than the high society folks we generally get and the mystery of the missing footman and perhaps related skulduggery brings Kate and Matt together as quite capable sleuths.
Apparently, Carols and Chaos is a companion or spin-off to another of the author’s books which I haven’t read but I never felt that anything was lacking because of that. More dialogue would be nice, especially between Kate and Matt, but this is a charming lighthearted entry to the holiday season and I recommend it for those who enjoy the Regency era, a bit of romance and a good mystery to solve.
Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2018.
She has lived on three continents, had a monkey in her yard and a scorpion under her sink, dwelt among castles and canals, enjoyed the jazz of Beale St and attempted to speak French.
Cindy loves history, mystery and… a chocolate Labrador called Chester.
Chris Sarantopoulos, October 2018
From the author—
Don’t fear the dark. Fear the light.
The end came when light changed. It decimated humanity, leaving scattered bands of survivors stumbling in the dark.
Faced with saving himself or his family during the apocalypse, John Piscus made the wrong choice, and has been living with the guilt ever since.
When a glowing girl shows up at John’s shelter begging for help, his instincts tell him to kill her. After all, light kills.
But when masked troopers tasked with capturing survivors come after them, it’s up to John to protect himself and the girl. Not only may she hold the key to reversing the lethal effects of light, she could also be the one who can save his soul.
Hard choices have to be made when you’re in the midst of an apocalypse no one could foresee and John Piscus made at least one that he regrets badly. Now, he’s faced with another choice, either kill the girl whose glowing light could kill him or join up with her in an attempt to survive what has happened to their world.
I like that the author ventured into unfamiliar territory to create a premise for this story but I have to admit to being distracted by the knowledge that life can’t continue without light. Once I decided to just ignore that little problem, I began to really get into the story, especially because I found John pretty unappealing, something that’s a little out of the norm. Let’s face it, humanity is most likely not going to be universally sane and/or nice should we ever find ourselves in such a situation but he goes above and beyond in his, well, ickiness. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a lot to be icky about, mind you, but the girl with the glow might turn out to be his reason to survive.
Trouble is, John and the glowing girl are about to learn the real meaning of pain and evil…
Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2018.
Robert B. Parker’s Old Black Magic
A Spenser Novel #47
Putnam, May 2018
From the publisher: Iconic, tough-but-tender Boston PI Spenser delves into the black market art scene to investigate a decades-long unsolved crime of dangerous proportions. The heist was legendary, still talked about twenty years after the priceless paintings disappeared from one of Boston’s premier art museums. Most thought the art was lost forever, buried deep, sold off overseas, or, worse, destroyed as incriminating evidence. But when the museum begins receiving detailed letters about the theft from someone claiming to have knowledge of the whereabouts of the paintings, the board enlists Spenser’s help to navigate the delicate situation. Their particular hope is to regain the most valuable piece stolen, The Gentleman in Black, a renowned painting by a Spanish master and the former jewel of the collection. Soon the cold art case thrusts Spenser into the shady world of black market art dealers, aged Mafia bosses, and old vendettas. A five-million-dollar-reward sets Spenser and pal Vinnie Morris onto a trail of hidden secrets, jailhouse confessions, murder, and double-crosses.
For some reason I had allowed myself to fall behind in reading the “new” books in this wonderful series, just as wonderful when authored by Ace Atkins, of which this is the newest. The preceding entry in the series was Little White Lies, which I finally caught up to in the last few weeks. With apologies for redundancies, as I said in my review of that book, “the author has captured many of the expected patterns of Robert B. Parker’s writing. But Mr. Atkins, besides giving us a very absorbing tale, has retained some of the most typical Parker patterns, e.g., nearly every character’s choice of clothing and headgear is noted, particularly caps declaring the owner’s love for a particular local sports team, whether Braves or Red Sox. (In fact, very near the end of the book we find Spenser escaping a close call and thinking “I’d hoped these guys didn’t plan ambushes like Branch Rickey planned ballgames.”) One character appears dressed in a “light blue guayabera, his white hair loose and scattered as always, with some black reading glasses down on his nose.’ There is also a lot about food. When he prepares a Cobb salad for himself and Susan, and she hands him a vodka martini, he thinks “You couldn’t eat a Cobb salad without [it]. It was a law in California.” Then there are the nicknames, e.g., “Fat Freddy,” “Famous Ray.” The terrific plotting and action are always present, as Spenser goes about solving “the biggest theft in Boston history,” a painting worth sixty or seventy million.
Spenser’s love of jazz is always present, from Coltrane playing from speakers in a restaurant, to the final scene where Tony Bennett “reached for the tree of life and picked him a plum,” and Spenser saying “The Best Is Yet to Come,” to which Vinnie replies “You better believe it.” I loved the author’s tip of the hat to another terrific mystery writer, Hank Philippi Ryan, reporting on Boston’s Channel 7 with a live shot from a crime scene. Set against the high-society art scene and the low-life back alleys of Boston, this is classic Spenser doing what he does best. As was Little White Lies, Old Black Magic is also highly recommended.
Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2018.
Pick and Chews
A Barkery and Biscuits Mystery #4
Linda O. Johnston
Midnight Ink, May 2018
In Pick and Chews,Barkery and Biscuit owner Carrie Kennersly is busy planning a rescue animal adoption event, but when her boss at the aniaml clinic she also works at is accused of murdering his fellow veterinarian, Carrie again begins to investigate.
There are a few things that really stand out in this series. The author has really developed the community of Knobcone Heights. It is the idealistic community many readers would like to visit. And for the most part, the characters are well fleshed out so that readers feel like they are people. And of course, as one would expect from this author, there are many animals most of whom are adorable. The animal shelter was for the most part heartwarming as well. The series takes the issue of pet adoption very seriously, another plus.
However, there are some issues as well. Carrie and Dr. Reed Stone are apparently in a relationship of sorts, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. In fact, aside from their obviously “intimate” relationship it often doesn’t seem like the two of them are much more than acquaintances. The author seems to do a better job with animal-human relationships than she does with human-human relationships.
Another issue I had with the book is the way Carrie was involved in the investigation. I understand that in cozy mysteries with amateur detectives the person investigating is not a police officer and is often a major thorn in the police’s side, but here is our Carrie going beyond subtly investigating facts. Instead, she is running around interrogating people and raising a lot of unease. Subtle she is not.
Lastly, for me at least, the book had more dog and dog rescue in it than actual mystery. There were clues, though I found the actual murderer more than a bit of a surprise. Looking back, yes there was a point or two pointing in that direction, but it seemed more of a last minute “who shall I have be the murderer” than a plot plan.
However, if readers enjoy animals, believe in animal adoptions and want a easy way to spend an afternoon, Pick and Chews might be just the book.
Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St. Clair, September 2018.