Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Grades 9-11’ Category

The second half of December I treated myself to three dog cozy mysteries. All three are titles my husband bought for me at a library book sale. The first is by an author (David Rosenfelt) whom I know about through the animal rescue world, while the others are by authors with four or five-star ratings at Cozy Mystery List.

My interest in the Andy Carpenter mysteries by David Rosenfelt comes from my having read his funny account of the start of a dog rescue foundation. The series contains sixteen titles to date and features a reluctant attorney who is most likely to be persuaded to take a case when a dog is somehow involved. In Dog Tags, the eighth book in the series, a German Shepherd police dog witnesses a murder. If his owner, an Iraq war vet and cop-turned thief, is convicted of the crime, the dog could be euthanized. Dog Tags didn’t fit my perception of a cozy mystery, which supposedly don’t focus on violence and contains bloodless murders that take place off stage. Instead Dog Tags revolves around a murder case with roots in Iraq, payoffs, hit men, and even a possible national security threat. Indeed, some reviewers have noted that Dog Tales is darker than earlier Andy Carpenter titles. What helps lighten the intensity of the plot is Andy’s sarcastic style, adamant opposition to danger, and obvious love of his wife and dog. I also enjoyed the quirky characters including Pete who is always calling in a favor, Marcus who eats as if there were no tomorrow, and Hike who puts pessimists to shame. Dogs are front and center, with one being on trial and the other being Carpenter’s own pet. Dog training and the building of trust are also integrated into the mystery.

The Chet and Bernie mysteries by Spencer Quinn have the most unusual quality of being narrated by a dog. To date, the series contains eight regular novels and four behind-the-scenes books. In Thereby Hangs a Tail, the second book in the series, Chet and Bernie are hired to investigate threats against the unlikely target of a pampered show dog named Princess. Although the series reads more like a thriller than a cozy mystery, I’ve become a fan due to the style, characters, and the location. More than any other animal book, thanks to his unique style, Quinn had me wondering what goes on in the mind of my dog or for that matter any dog. As a canine partner, he likes to puzzle out what scents mean for the case. He’ll also wag his tail, growl, and bark to turn Bernie onto clues. And he enjoys helping Bernie tackle criminals. At the same time, he’ll also interpret phrases so literally that conversation can be quickly lost on him. He’ll also scavenge places for food and will rarely turn down food—no matter what it’s source. Bernie is an equally multi-layered character. He makes bad financial investments, and proves a tough guy with criminals, but also has a soft heart for his dog and the woman he loves. Thereby Hangs a Tail takes place in remote areas in Arizona, well-suiting it to the cozy mystery genre.

The Rachel Alexander and Dash mysteries by Carol Lea Benjamin is my only selection by a female author. The series contains nine titles to date and features a female detective and her pit bull. In The Wrong Dog, the fifth book in the series, Sophie Gordon hires Rachel because her cloned dog does not possess the skills of a service dog as was promised to her. While Rachel is searching for the Side-by-Side agency that led Sophie astray, she’s thrown into a deeper mystery when Sophie is killed. I found the first two chapters, wherein Sophie recounts her story to Rachel, somewhat confusing and dull. After that, the narrative improves. I enjoyed how the plot unfolded, with Rachel finding herself in more and more danger as she digs deeper into Sophie’s murder. I also appreciated Rachel’s attempts to find Sophie’s two service dogs a home. Although the dogs (and an iguana!) are often in the background, they’re still prevalent in the story. The dogs like playing in the dog park and accompanying Rachel on her sleuthing expeditions.

Now that I have read six animal cozy mysteries, I’m curious about trends. Are dog mysteries normally darker, written by men, and starring male leads? Are cat mysteries normally lighter, written by ladies, and starring female leads? I’d also welcome reader recommendations! For those of you who are fans of animal mystery cozies, who are your favorite authors and why?


The first half of December I treated myself to three cat cozy mysteries. I picked random titles by two authors with whose names I have long heard of (Lillian Jackson Braun and Rite Mae Brown) and the first title in a series by an author (Sofie Kelly) whose books I discovered at a library book sale.

My interest in The Cat Who mysteries by Lillian Jackson Braun books comes from my mother-in-law having a dozen of them on her shelves. The series contains thirty titles and features journalist James Qwilleran and his two Siamese cats Yum Yum and Koko. In The Cat Who Smelled a Rat, the 24th book, the residents of the small town of Pickax located in Moose County “400 miles north of everywhere” have two concerns. The first concern is how late the arrival of the Big One is; residents are becoming increasingly anxious about wildfires, which the first snow storm of the season would help obliterate. The second concern naturally involves murder. I enjoyed Braun’s fast-paced style, her focus on one main character through whom I meet residents and hear community gossip, her creation of a town which bubbles with personality and of course the cats. Although the cats are often in the background, they’re still prevalent in the story. They air their opinions of James’ redecorating efforts, predict changes in weather and newsworthy occurrences and, just as important, provide clues to James as to the murderer’s identity. In reading about Braun, I discovered to my pleasure that she refused to cave to publisher demands to use more colorful language and to my dismay that she died not having ended the Cat Who series.

Other than having heard Rita Mae Brown’s name in connection to feminism, I’m not sure how I came to know of her Sneaky Pie books. The series contains twenty-six books to date and features a cast of characters so extensive that they’re listed in the front pages. However, Mary Haristeen (aka as Harry), her gray tiger cat, and her Welsh corgi appear to be whom the mysteries center around. In Pay Dirt, the 4th book, the residents of the small town of Cozet, Virginia, have two concerns. The first concern is a computer virus that threatens to hit businesses that summer and indeed hits the local town’s bank. The second concern naturally involves murder. It took me several chapters before I started to like Pay Dirt. The mystery is written from a third-person omniscient point-of-view, and that initially left me feeling removed from the story, especially as it started out with a lengthy description of the town. The two pets are not only often in the background, but they also talk with one another, which surprised me in an adult novel. Eventually, I began to like the young postmistress and her two sidekicks without whom the mystery wouldn’t have been solved. Also, Dirt contained the most plausible solution of the three mysteries I read for this review, for which I give it huge kudos.

From my box of cat cozy mysteries, I picked for my third book the first title in the Magical Cats Mysteries by Sofie Kelly because it featured a librarian as the main character. The series contains nine titles to date and features Kathleen Paulson and her two stray cats Owen and Hercules. In Curiosity Thrilled the Cat, the residents of the small town of Mayville, Minnesota, have three concerns. These are: When will library renovations be completed; Will the town’s music festival continue as scheduled; and Who murdered the famous guest in town? I enjoyed the first-person narrative, the complexity of the characters, and of course the cats. Not only do the two cats appear in every chapter, but they have distinctive interests. Oren delights in Funky Chicken toys, while Hercules enjoys joining Kathleen on outings. Kelly also sneaks in lots of info about Trap-Neuter-Release and its benefits to community cats.

If you don’t know what cozy mysteries are, Wikipedia defines them as a subgenre of crime fiction. Good Reads elaborates by saying that, “Cozies rarely focus on sex, profanity, or violence. The murders take place off stage, and are often relatively bloodless.” In addition, the mystery usually takes place in a small town or village. I suspect that I’ll be reading lots of cozy mysteries in the years ahead!

I believe no one should be labeled as ‘crazy’ for loving a pet.—David Williams, MIC

Men with Cats: Intimate Portraits of Feline Friendship is a fun collection of photos and stories by David Williams that breaks the stereotype that only crazy ladies care for cats. Williams himself is a freelance photographer who lives in New York with his wife and their two cats. Men With Cats: Intimate Portraits of Feline Friendship was recognized as a New York Times Best seller shortly after its release in 2016.

Each two-page spread of this 140-page delightful photo book consists of a professional photo, identification of the male cat owner and his cat companion(s), and a quote that highlights the feline friendship. How each met differs: A mother cat followed Louis home; A burned cat slated for euthanasia was rescued by Al; Cats abandoned at an auto shop catch Alex’s attention. How the bond developed is unique: Brent loves how his cat jumps on his chest, kneads his paws in his beard, and licks his face; Reuben appreciates how relaxed his cat is and tries to emulate that lifestyle; Dennis admires the array of sounds his cat will use to communicate, with his favorite being a chirrup that acknowledges his presence. The way the men describe the friendship devotion varies: Benn refers to his relationship with his cat at being like an old married couple; Brian jokes that his cat is a dog except evil instead; Dustin shares that when he and his cat make eye contact there is a deep inner connection.

Photo books are not my typical fare. I’m more of an information sort of reader. One of my favorite parts of Men with Cats: Intimate Portraits of Feline Friendship is the section labeled “What is the hardest part of cat ownership?” I wanted to see several other spreads like this. But I must admit that a couple rereads of Men with Cats: Intimate Portraits of Feline Friendship revealed more than I expected about living with cats.

Williams started this photography project back in 2009 not only to shuns stereotypes, but also to celebrate feline friendship. In his preface, he expressed the hope that his book would inspire readers to rescue and adopt pets or donate time and resources to animal welfare groups. Men with Cats: Intimate Portraits of Feline Friendship certainly increased my appreciation for the quirky and intense bonds that can exist between men and their cats.

A good owner is just anyone that shows love and compassion towards their pet — whether it be a cat, dog, or rabbit.—David Williams, Refinery 29

If you like cats, romances, and mysteries, check out Mayhem and Mystery at the Kitty Kastle by Malynda McCarrick. The downside is the writing could use some editing and polish. The upside is a portion of the proceeds from the purchase of this short fun read goes to support Midwest cat shelters.

Too many strange things were happening at the Kitty Kastle for anyone to dismiss them as just anyone’s imagination. First, there were the unexplainable noises such as that of footsteps when there’s no one else around. Then there was the lack of noise. On the fourth floor, especially in an old house, one should the wind or the rain but instead the build is sound proof. Third, there are walls that are located where they shouldn’t be and a foundation that doesn’t line up with the rest of the building. Finally, there are the gifts that mysteriously appear. The mystery is my favorite part.

One black cat knew that something was afoot and kept trying to provide clues to Jay Carpenter, the man hired to bring the shelter up to code. He’s also a growing source of comfort to Miranda, the owner of Kitty Kastle. She’s recovering from a messy divorce, but apparently can’t resist a hunk in a toolbelt. Jay turns out to strong in build and gentle in character. Soon, the two are dreaming up a multitude of ideas for how the building could be renovated. Moreover, because Jay knows the shelter couldn’t cover the cost of major repairs, Jay has volunteered to help for free. Just as important, a dog lover at heart, Jay is slowly being converted to a cat lover. The romance is unrealistic but does make for a light-hearted read, which we all need at times.

Finally, there are the cats of Kitty Kastle. They live in a dream shelter. Each floor has varying levels of padded condos. In addition, the walls have ledges and cubby holes in which the cats can play and hide. On the first floor is a central playroom, filled with climbing structures and tunnels for the cats to explore. There’s also a large kitchen with multiple refrigerator for the specialty foods and various medicines the cats would need. Finally, the owner lives on the premises and so she is available 24/7 to check on the feline residents. The shelter’s inhabitants serve as a pleasant backdrop and the mystery wouldn’t have been resolved without Minx.

Author Malynda McCarrick is Midwestern country girl who grew up with a love for books. She’s also an avid animal lover. One day, the arrangement of vendors at a cat show put her and The Cat House (a no-kill cat shelter) next to one another. Afternoon conversations between the two led to McCarrick taking an interest in The Cat House and eventually self-publishing a cat cozy dedicated to its hard-working volunteers. Run-on sentences, missed punctuation, and some stereotype characters diminished some of my enjoyment of Mayhem and Mystery at the Kitty Kastle. Otherwise, McCarricks’ novel served as an evening of escapism.

Before I started to blog, if you had asked me to name jobs that pets do, I could have named several … and all of them would have been related to dogs. Should I have even thought of cats, I might have pointed out their ability to catch rodent. Yet cats are much more clever and versatile that most of us give them credit. You just need to read Lisa Rogak’s Cats on the Job to discover not just one or ten but fifty ways that cats purr, mouse, and even sing for their supper. In her colorful and photo-rich book, Rogak shares well-written true tales of cats around the world who are happily earning their keep.

Through blogging, I had heard of a few famous cats. Granted most of them were known for their quirky looks or unique talents such as the ability to play a piano. But there were also cats who starred in movies and even those who had run for mayor. The more I kept my ears open, the more stories I heard. And so, I knew about cats in bookstores, hospitals, libraries, and train stations. I’d also glimpsed stories of the current trend of cat cafes. I highly enjoyed reading Rogak’s examples of cats performing these jobs, as well as multiple accounts of cats that catch rodents.

Rogak also wrote about a host of jobs that cats perform which are new to me. One is that of Acro-Cats, a group that is devoted to “promoting the mental and physical health benefits of cat training through clicker training…a positive reinforcement based training method”. Learning about them inspired me to renew my own efforts at clicker-training my cats, and seeing the circus act in-person is on my bucket list. Another story that piqued my curiosity is that of rescued cats in Australia that create paintings. I’m sure at least one of my cats would be up to the challenge! I also found intriguing the idea of catflexing, a fitness routine that involves exercising with a cat. One of my cats has already shown interest in this! Another notable tale is of Carlow, a cat who works at a firehouse. Anyone remember Esther Averill’s story The Fire Cat from their childhood? Sometimes there’s truth in fiction!

Aside from the quality writing and design of Cats on the Job, what stands out most to me is the broad scope of jobs that cats can perform. To name a few in America: In Washington, a cat named Sable shows up like clockwork twice a day to serve as a school crossing guard; In Michigan, two lucky cats serve as furniture testers; and in New York, cats have a long history of acting as hotel concierge. Rogak didn’t just limit her tales to American cats either: In England, a toy company hired a cat to guard its warehouse of toys; In Great Britain, a cat named Jessi helps an autistic boy to express himself. In Japan, a cat named Iemon serves on the police force and helps fight crime. For some of these positions, it may seem obvious how the cat does its job. For example, cats who test furniture are cats who are encouraged to scratch, bite, and jump on furniture to test its durability. For other positions, such as that of how a cat that serves on the police force, you’ll have to check out Rogak’s book to learn how exactly cats can fight crime.

Now that I’ve read Rogak’s book, if anyone were to ask me to name jobs that pets do, most of them would be related to cats. Cats on the Job is an informative and fun read about an idea which is gaining popularity. Working cats are both a way to help the homeless cat population and to develop comradery with cats.

Through email, I asked Rogak how she found out about the cats she profiled. Her answer?

“I found the cats online, in older books–many of them were sadly long deceased–and by posting queries online. There were several that didn’t make it in because there wasn’t enough information or the photos weren’t great.

“The occupational hazard of writing books about cats is that several are not going to be around by the time the book comes out. The train stationmaster cat died a few months before publication date… but I’ve also discovered that having their stories immortalized in the pages of a book is a great way to honor their memory.”

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Happy New Year!

Allison’s Book Bag is currently on hiatus. I will return after a much-needed rest with reviews of Advanced Reader Copies including: Freddy Frogcaster and the Flash Flood by Janice Dean, One Two by Igor Eliseev, Incredible Magic of Being by Kathyrn Erskine, Dragon Grammar Book by Diane Robinson, and Wide as the Wind by Edward Stanton.



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