Sunday, January 30, 2011

Review: Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen (2008)

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen:

The tree was situated toward the back of the lot. It wasn't very tall, but it grew long and sideways. Its limbs stretched out like a dancer's arms and the apples grew at the very ends, as if holding the fruit in its palms. It was a beautiful old tree, the gray bark wrinkled and molting in places. The only grass in the garden was around the tree, stretching about ten feet beyond the reach of its branches, giving the old tree its room.

Claire didn't know why, but every once in a while the tree would actually throw apples, as if bored. When she was young, her bedroom window looked out over the garden. She would sleep with her window open in the summers, and sometimes she would wake in the morning to find one or two apples on the floor.

Claire gave the tree a stern look. Occasionally that worked, making it behave.

Synopsis: Two sisters bring their secrets to the old ancestral home and cause all kinds of magical upheaval in a small North Carolina town.

(Not about food per se, but being fed)

Beach reading. That's what this is, beach reading. It's sunny and light and romantic and...uplifting. This book has not one iota of dark in it, despite the fact that one sister is on the run with her daughter from an abusive, controlling boyfriend, and one's an emotional shut-in. Everyone gets what they want, and moreover, what they need, which is rarely the same thing. There's also a wonderful little old lady wandering around giving people things without knowing why, and eventually she attracts a passel of wistful gay men looking for love. Which is how life should be, I feel.

When Claire Waverly's grandmother died, Claire stepped right into her footsteps and turned the family's magical recipes into a catering business, bringing the people of Bascom fine, gourmet charmed foods. After all, cooking and hiding in the Waverly mansion, tending the magic garden and resolutely refusing to interact with the rest of the world are what Claire does best. Right up until her prodigal sister Sydney returns, bruised and shaken, with her daughter Bay in tow. And then there's the staunchly oblivious, madly in love artist who's moved in next door.

So, I've seen this book listed as culinary fiction on more than a few sites, but for me this isn't a book about food per se, but being fed, and who you let feed you. Technically, there's food everywhere in the book, and yet no one really seems to eat, unless it's narratively important. A nifty trick, but one that wears thin about the middle of the book. It's a good thing that Allen can back up the relatively light weight of the narrative with prose that positively sparkles, leaping right off the page.

This house is haunted in a *good* way.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review: A Taste for Murder, and A Dash of Death, by Claudia Bishop

A Taste for Murder by Claudia Bishop:
The statue of the man and his horse had been erected in 1868, two hundred years after the founding of the village. Something had gone awry in the casting process, and the General's face had a wrinkled brow and half-open mouth, leaving him with a permanently pained expression as he sat in the saddle. On occasion, roving hordes of Cornell students on spring break heaped boxes of hemorrhoid remedies at the statue's base, which sent the mayor into fits. Most years the statue sat detritus-free, except for the six-foot heap of cobble stones piled at the foot and used to crush the witch each year.
Synopsis: Innkeeper Sarah Quilliam and her sister must find out who ruined History Days for the town of Hemlock Falls, NY, when an unpleasant guest from the inn is squashed flat in front of a cast of thousands.

Earlier this year I read (and loved) Toast Mortem, the 16th entry in the Hemlock Falls mystery series. I'd tried, years ago, to get into this series and hated it, but have since revised my stance, based on that one book. That's right: I was wrong. I really dig this series.

The Quilliam sisters, Sarah and Meg, run the Inn at Hemlock Falls, a tiny town in upstate New York with a quirky cast of tens. Sarah, the innkeeper, sits on the City Council and is frequently pressganged into volunteering by the other council members. Case in point: she winds up volunteered to get squashed flat at the upcoming History Days, a festival that culminates in the re-enactment of Hemlock Falls' witch-hatin' days. Good call, City Council!

However, Sarah neatly ducks out of it by wrangling in an unpleasant guest who used to be a singing hot dog and now may or may not know who embezzled $300K from the hot dog people. On the day of the big event, however, it's the guest and not her ersatz mannequin who is squashed flat by the bloodthirsty re-enactors of Hemlock Falls. Enter Sarah and, when she's not busy throwing things at passersby, her chef sister Meg, who jump on solving the case.

It's not a bad book at all. I think my quibble with it the first time around is that the City Council members are just so darn mean to Sarah and she just sits there and takes it, which drove me crazy. Now, much less so. And, as a bonus, I totally did not remember I'd read this whole book through, so the ending came as a total surprise YET AGAIN. Three cheers for memory loss, y'all.

Berkley Prime Crime has released the first four books in the Hemlock Falls mystery series as two trade-paperback sized volumes which I am inordinately fond of. They have a nice heft to them, and prop up well on pillows. So of course I kept on reading, A Dash of Death, the second mystery in the series. Which I'd never read.

Okay in point of fact I stayed up til 5am reading it, because I couldn't put it down. So good. It really feels like there's a jump in quality from book 1 to book 2, and I just plopped down with the dogs and read it all the way through. Phenomenally good, even though this time I did guess the murderer correctly about a quarter of the way through.

Of the plot to the second one, I am simply going to leave you with the following quote from the book:

Quill found her patience wearing thin. "Harvey, if the town really insists on doing this, don't you think we should open it to little boys, too?" Neither man looked at her, which told Quill they'd discussed the possibility that she would bring it up.

"Women's lib," said Elmer. "Well, I guess we got to consider you feminists. Now, I'm all for women's lib, Quill, or should I say -- (this with heavy jocularity) -- "Ms. Quilliam, but I don't know as how we could get the town to support a beauty contest for boys. Now, if we had a category like Best Little Fisherman, or Best Little, I dunno, some more boy-like thing..."

"Best Little Bow Hunter?" Quill heard herself say. "Best Little Sport with a Shotgun? Best little penis?"

"Oh, my God," said Elmer.

"It's the gunshot wound," said Harvey. "Saw a lot of it with 'Nam."

"Harvey, you were never in 'Nam," said Elmer, "not even close."

"I didn't say 'in' 'Nam, I said 'with' 'Nam."

"Ayuh. You know what you need, Quill? A nice cup of coffee or something."

Quill went into the kitchen to get a nice cup of coffee or something.

"I'm losing it," she told her sister. "It's the gallery business all over again. One-way trips to remote mountain areas are starting to look attractive."

"Explain," said Meg.

Meg demonstrated the proper degree of outrage over the Little Miss Hemlock Falls Beauty Contest, loyally endorsed Quill's proposed category, and immediately began preparing cappuccino as a restorative.

It goes without saying that both books pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors. It's like if Elizabeth Bowen had taken up writing mysteries. And if that doesn't convince you, nothing will.

Lavender Lies, by Susan Wittig Albert (2000)

Lavender Lies by Susan Wittig Albert:
We settled ourselves in the wicker chairs, and I glanced around. The porch might have been a set for a 1930s movie, with an old oak icebox standing against one wall and a bench with a white enameled bucket and wash basin on the other, an embroidered hopsacking towel hanging above it. The painted floor was covered with a worn braid rug, on which lay several napping cats, like orange and white and gray dust mops.
Synopsis: Herbalist/sleuth China Bayles has six days to get her wedding to MacQuaid organized, and the dead real estate agent really isn't helping things.

So inconsiderate.

Man, I am just never going to read these in anything resembling the right order.

Unlike the Travis McGee stories (still hunting that Quick Red Fox and he's damn quick, let me tell you) and the Agent Pendergast books, which I maintain a religious zeal for reading in order, I keep stumbling across these China Bayles mysteries and going hey, that cover looks awesome, gimme. This one's butter-yellow with lavender blossoms on, one of my favorite color combos ever.

Shallow browser, thy name is oddmonster.

This book actually follows the last one I read, Chile Death, like directly, and once I figured that out it was kind of surprising and a little disjointed, like I had to remember the events of the book she was talking about. I think I like my way better.

Anyway, usually I hate wedding stories. Hate them with a passion (yes, I basically had to be kidnapped to attend my own wedding)(although I did get a boat ride out of it) but this one's kind of awesome. Basically, China's not a huge fan of getting hitched but you know, she's willing, and then bam! murder.

It's kind of awesome. Her best friend and matron of honor, Ruby, decides they should solve the murder themselves while organizing the last of the wedding. As you do.

The real charm of these stories lies in the sheer amount of detail Albert puts into describing Pecan Springs, TX, in all its glory. And it is glorious. At one point, she pauses after Bayles has just found body #2 to do a one-page digression on Texas geology. Which is fabulous. I learned something!

Now, there was one drawback to the book.


The solution to the mystery ultimately lies in the discovery of a custodial kidnapping, ie a case where one partner kidnaps their own child against court orders. And the way this is laid out is that the mother who has been diligently searching for her daughter for ten years quietly comes into the nursery and quietly lays out her cards, that her daughter is in town and she now needs to approach the custodian and his wife without undue trauma to her child, etc, and China then turns around and basically calls a town conference to announce OMG MELISSA IS A KIDNAP VICTIM AND HER DAD'S THE KIDNAPPER HOLY BACON IF THIS IS TRUE!

Um, as far as I can tell, that's basically the last thing you want someone to do when you're trying to approach a kidnapper who's been sprinting paranoically from city to city to keep your daughter away. So I did sort of feel China needed a slap there. Or better yet, I just wish the concept had been addressed in the text, as in describing the fallout of China's actions, or even the potential fallout so that the book could present the situation in a way that would be educational or god forbid, helpful.

I know! I want helpful with my fiction, even when it gallops merrily past the Bechdel Test with flying colors. I'm incorrigible.

Overall, a good read with some a minor annoyance near the end. I'll definitely keep reading this series. I think there's one with a blue cover over on the shelves somewhere.

Review: Toast Mortem, by Claudia Bishop (2010)

Toast Mortem by Claudia Bishop:
Adela chaired the library board. Just as John Deere bulldozers were good at moving dirt, Adela was good at fund-raising. So the library was a pleasant, well-ordered place with good lighting, lots of books, and up to date computer equipment.
Synopsis: Simply the best culinary mystery I've ever read.

(Snark! Mayhem! Cats! And a computer-savvy kickass librarian!)

I've seen lots of articles puzzling over the popularity of cozy mysteries, those mysteries where the main character is usually a woman employed in a domestic or semi-domestic sphere, who negotiates between that and the world of crime-solving due to unforeseen necessity. And I think I have the answer: these books all* pass the Bechdel test with flying colors. The protagonist usually has a female sidekick with whom she banters back and forth about the crime. If there's a romantic subplot, it takes a backseat to solving the mystery.

And Toast Mortem, in addition to having a really fabulous title (no I can't explain the popularity of puns in cozies) is an outstanding cozy.

The Qwilliam sisters' upstate New York inn is threatened by the establishment of a culinary school right next door, whose famous French chef holds a grudge. In between deflecting his unfunny practical jokes and trying to keep the city council from killing each other, Qwill, the innkeeper, must also find time to raise her son, Jack, put up with air-heads at the front desk, and stop her chef-sister Meg from throwing frying pans at people. And what's the deep dark secret their pastry chef is protecting?

Cue more mayhem.

And it's glorious.

The town of Hemlock Falls is adorably quirky and better yet, well delineated, with the various tangled relationships between the characters adroitly managed. The Qwilliam sisters are fantastic: Qwill, the pragmatic worrier is the perfect foil for her hot tempered and snark-mouthed sister Meg. The front desk airheads are hilarious. Things fall apart in deliciously ghastly ways and the characters respond to situations in ways I could definitely relate to.

Well-written, interesting loopy plot, passes the Bechdel test, and features both placeporn and madcap good times (did I mention I love madcap? I love madcap).

Plus there's a librarian who manages to be neither a bunned spinster** or a flowing-locked sexpot, but an intelligent and savvy individual who's amazingly good at her job. Bonus.

For a culinary mystery, it's not very food-oriented so much as it is kitchen-oriented, as in the focus remains squarely on what it's like to work in a kitchen, making all the food people squee over. The included recipes are kind of terrible, but that's also a plot point, so I'll let it pass.

Strong contender for book of the year.

*A Rose From the Dead passed, but only by the skin of its teeth. I had to go get the book back to check.
**which is fine but come on. Work with stereotypes if you've got 'em

Review: Sprinkle with Murder, by Jenn McKinlay (2010)

Sprinkle with Murder by Jenn McKinlay:
"Mom, is this another ploy of yours to push Tate and me together?"

"Now why would you ask a thing like that?"

"Because two weeks ago, you locked us in the walk-in cooler in the bakery, and we almost froze to death because you thought a near-death experience might bring us to our senses about our feelings for each other. Or does that little episode not ring a bell?"

"I should have left you in for five more minutes."

Synopsis: The best culinary mystery I nearly didn't read.

Even the recipes rocked.

Now, I really liked this book, even though the first five pages are really, really rough. I mean sanding the door down before painting it rough. The rhythm of the language is very staccato, some of the paragraphs are a little disjointed, and who owns the POV is difficult to establish. Being that I have the attention span of a ferret with a pixy stick, I idly flipped to the back to read the author's blurb. I love author blurbs. They tell you so much: how paranoid an author is about their real identity or other pseudonyms, whether or not they live in the place they're writing about, how seriously they take themselves. And author photos are the bomb. Again with the wealth of information*.

Jenn McKinlay's author blurb begins: "Jenn McKinlay is a dessert freakasaurus. She has been known to eat leftover birthday cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the frozen top tier of her wedding cake didn't stand a chance of seeing its first anniversary."

And I thought, Jenn, I am with you. I will get through your book. And I picked up where I left off.

Which is fortunate, because this book rocks. The characters are well-drawn and interesting, they interact well, they exhibit poor decision-making skills and compassion at the same time, the writing smooths out** and the mystery is mysterious without being overly complicated or draggy.

Childhood pals Angie and Mel open a cupcake bakery in Scottsdale, AZ, with the backing of their other childhood friend, Tate. Hence it's a no-brainer that the bakery will provide cupcakes for Tate's wedding, even if it's to Christie the bridezilla. They send over some samples for her to try, but when she provides no feedback, Mel goes over to her studio and finds the bride totally dead with a cupcake clutched in her talons. Cue the mayhem.

Mel is of course, the primary suspect. This is complicated by her Uncle Stan being on the Scottsdale PD force and Angie's brother Joe being an ADA. Also, her mother painted her bathroom bright orange and the baker across town is hopping mad at being cut out of cupcakes and is stalking the store in a bright pink van. Tate has issues. Angie has issues. Mel's mother has a subscription. Despite all this, at no point does Mel describe herself in terms of extreme narcissistic self-love, and she and Angie keep right on running a bakery while trying to solve the crime and clear Mel's name.

The ending felt a little hm..., but at the same time totally plausible. You really don't know all your neighbors secrets, nor should you.

Will definitely be picking up the sequel.

*For instance, even if you never read Richard Kadrey's Butcher Bird, you should totally check out the author photo. It speaks volumes.
**No, not like the top of a well-frosted cupcake. Give me some credit, I'm not a complete hack.

Review: Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter, by Phoebe Damrosch (2008)

Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter by Phoebe Damrosch:
The gentleman on table twenty-three plans to propose and has arranged for us to deliver a Faberge egg at the end of their meal. Proposals are nerve-racking for everyone involved. While terrified lovers contemplate eternity in sickness, poverty, death, or worse, equally anxious servers imagine ruining what might be the high point of these people's lives together, before the bankruptcy, the Botox, and his affair with the life coach.

Synopsis: Vermont foodie girl in NYC discovers joy of restaurant work, four-star food. Falls in love. Writes good book.

At the start of the book, Damrosch is living in the Williamsburg section of NYC, working at a cafe, pining for her downstairs neighbor and making fun of hipsters. In other words, she's a hipster. This does not make her immediately likeable, but it makes for a vivid and wholistic setting, during which you can settle in and discover that Damrosch really knows how to write.

Then she quits her job (and her downstairs neighbor quits her), moves to a different part of NYC and applies for a job at a new four-star restaurant. But this is no ordinary restaurant. In order to successfully keep her job, Damrosch has to attend all-day courses given by the various chefs and sommeliers, memorize long lists of information about not just food but silverware, table linens and Central Park, and then pass tests on those things, just to serve on the floor.

But here's where it gets interesting: in describing this whole process, Damrosch demonstrates she's the perfect candidate for the job because she's batshit insane for food. All food. Any kind of food. She loves the research, she loves the learning, she loves the eating. And that made the book for me.

It was just like if someone came up to me tomorrow and offered me a job whose requirements were that I had to help people read books, and in order to do that, I had to study books intensely: font-faces, paper weight, binding techniques, ink colors, the Dewey Decimal System, biographies, fiction, genre fiction, new releases, reprints and everything in between. I'd be perfect for that job because I am batshit insane on this one particular subject. That's pretty much what happened to Damrosch with food.

The inner workings of Per Se, the restaurant in question, weren't terribly exciting, but Damrosch is a good writer and keeps you briskly moving with how tightly focused she is on food and oh yeah, there's a love story, which I didn't think I'd like nearly as much as I did, considering I have a cold, black cynical heart. But I really enjoyed it.

It's not a perfect book, by any stretch of the imagination--there's a little too much But What About Me navel-gazing where I was sorely tempted to think, "Oh, look. It's Sex and the Kitchy...en." But I didn't, partly because things never get that bad in the story, but mostly because that pun doesn't work. There's a sort of First World privileged gaze going on that was a little hard to stomach, but that's part and parcel of the sort of dining you start talking about with four-star restaurants. Besides, as Damrosch puts it:
We spent money on two things: food and something we soon named 'everyday luxury'. Under this heading fell things like eight-dollar toothpaste. Yes, toothpaste can be had for a quarter of that, but we decided that if it increased our love of life at least twice a day, it was worth it.

It's a hard attitude to swallow during some portions of the book, but Damrosch at least owns up to her privilege and defends it: this is her crazy. This is who she is. This is equivalent to having a house with more than 5,000 books in it. Everyone has their own priorities.

Overall, it's a better memoir than most, but will really only excite people with a serious bent for food and restaurant reading.

And I'm sure I have a couple books like that around here somewhere.

Review: Town in a Blueberry Jam, by B.B. Haywood (2010)

Town in a Blueberry Jam by B. B. Haywood:
But the fact remained that Sapphire Vine was dead. Someone had killed her. And though Candy found it not only absurd but also literally painful to think that Herr Georg could have plunged a hammer into the back of Sapphire's head (not to mention how painful it must have been for Sapphire herself) the fact remained that he had an excellent motive for doing just that.

Synopsis: Debut of yet another culinary mystery series, this time set on a blueberry farm in Maine, but with bonus "if it weren't for you meddling" middle-aged divorcees speech and deus ex homine handsome.

Does anyone here really investigate their friends and neighbors?

By now I think we are all familiar with the setup: girl with awesome big-city career and husband determines Something's Missing and chucks both items to move back to a smalltown with a family connection and open some type of foodery, where she finds her true calling and oh yeah, a bushel of dead bodies.

Now, if I was the police chief in a small town, I think I'd be watching very carefully to see if any women fitting that description moved in, because they're like the barometer for a murderstorm.

Candy Holliday (please note: everyone in this book has a fairly awesome name. Sapphire Vine, Herr Georg, Judicious F.P. Bosworth, Jock Larson. Work with me.) has moved to a blueberry farm in Cape Willington, Maine with her aging father (Doc...Holliday. See, I told you.) and that right there would be your cue for a homicidal maniac to take over the town. Aging playboy Jock Larson falls suspiciously over a cliff! Gossip columnist Sapphire Vine is blunt-trauma'd in the back of the head! And our girl Candy's immediately on the case.

Lo does she investigate. She investigates so much and so well, in fact, that the police chief of Cape Willington goes from being horrified by her actions (breaking into a crime scene and yoinking key evidence, for a start) to offering her a job at the end of the book. And frankly, I cannot tell you the number of times that has happened to me.

Now, despite all the piss-taking in this review, I do have to say: this is a pretty fun book. It's easy and sunny and likeable. Candy is not wholly terrible and not wholly likeable. Her motivations are sometimes murky, and she's kind of officious and awkward at times, making her both complicated and interesting.

She has a best friend/sidekick who basically steals the book with her one-liners and her sass and her random tearing-aboutness, and I kind of want the two of them to scandalize their town by getting together like the women in Jae's Second Nature but without the werewolf thing.

There were, however, two things that got up my nose.

(Only two, you ask? I know. I feel like I am growing as person.)

Thing the First: There seems to be a terrible trope in these books where the author takes a moment for the heroine to describe herself in detail. And the details are always glowing and the heroine always looks way better than any mortal has a right to look. To wit:
The sun had added some color to her high, full cheekbones this summer and a touch of rosemary honey to the tips of her hair. It contrasted nicely with her eyes, which were a light shade of blue but bright--"the color of forget-me-nots in spring" her mother used to say.

Okay, am I the only person who has never thought of their hair in terms of whether it looks like it's been dipped in honey or not?

Dear authors,

Please stop doing that.

Thank you.

Thing the Second: During the book's thrilling conclusion (which I am not going to spoil for you because it was both thrilling and kind of kick-ass) there's a moment where you think that Candy and her sidekick are about to be saved by the town's Awesomely Handsome Man. They are not, in fact, which is fantastic, but then afterwards they both make a point of going up to said man and cooing at him repeatedly how wonderful it was that he saved them. Um, no. No. That is twaddle on a particularly poky stick. I do not want that.

Overall, though, the book's a darn good read, and I'll definitely be stalking the library for the second in the series, Town in a Lobster Stew.

Review: Coffee to Die For, by Linda French

Coffee to Die For by Linda French:

Alongside Teddy, Sister Bede Kinney sat with hands clasped, the picture of perfect humility and call-to-service. In Bede's eyes danced the question: just how did Asian boys in ballgowns fit into the Lord's great Scheme of Things?

Synopsis: History professor Teddy Morelli has a complicated family, and while she's not quite investigating her brother-in-law's murder, she is trying to clear her sister of all charges. While not getting together with her ex-husband and trying to locate her mother in the Galapagos.

Teddy Morelli's sister Daisy is complicated: the ditzy vegan owner of a stuffed rabbit company, she's being cuckolded by her husband Leo, a botanist developing a $10mil strain of coffee. The humiliation ends when Leo is stabbed to death in his lab, but then the coffee plants go missing, and one of Daisy's sketchiest employees has embroiled everyone in a weed deal with Alaska. No, like three whole very large cities in Alaska. And then he takes off. Good times.

Here's the thing: French only wrote three Teddy Morelli mysteries, and I've read all three. For me, they're the complete package: technically flawless writing, fascinating characters (not all likeable), interesting plot and setting setting setting. The stories roam all over Washington State and rope in a number of the strange small people who live in the cracks in the world.

This installment of the series is possibly the least believable in terms of plot denouement, but I found I was having too good of a time to care much.

Also? Bonus points for safe sex talk. It was not just well-integrated and welcome, but hot and funny too.

Damn I wish there were more than three entries in the series. *sigh*

Review: Oolong Dead, by Laura Childs (2010)

Oolong Dead by Laura Childs:

Delaine slid into a chair across from Theodosia, then reached out and grabbed one of Theodosia's hands. "I've been so worried, Theo! There we were, having a perfectly lovely high-society event. And you go and stumble upon that poor woman's dead body!"

Synopsis: While riding steeplechase, Theodosia Browning is thrown from a horse and lands next to the murdered body of her ex-boyfriend's sister. And then my suspension of disbelief falls off its tightrope and breaks its dear Aunt Fanny.

Next I suppose you'll tell me the police ask her to investi--

Oh. My. Stars.

There are good things and there are less good things about this book. I think it's just going to be easiest if I revert to a list-style entry and then tally everything up at the end.


  • I love these characters. Like, a lot. I love the tension between them, the bickering, the bantering, the deep currents of friendship and workship and crazy between them all.
  • I admit it. Delaine's growing on me. I no longer want the next book to involve finding her body in a swamp.
  • Jory Davis, Theodosia's stylish ex with a streak of tool a mile wide IS BACK. Parker, you're on notice, buddy. On the plus side, Drayton's still available and looking.
  • Jory's new flame, Beth Ann? Is a BRILLIANT character. She's just tragically failtastic. I so want her to stick around and be terrible to Theodosia. I know that makes me a bad person but look:
    Beth Ann held out a champagne flute and waggled it to no one in particular. "Beth Ann would like another drink. Beth Ann is thirsty."

    "Beth Ann's from New York," said Jory, as if that explained everything.
    I KNOW. \m/ She is so terrible she whips right back round the other side to AWESOME. Book #11 in the series hopefully involves some type of cage match. (Fingers crossed!)
  • In all seriousness, I really, really enjoy Childs' writing style. It is somehow both deeply, incredibly detailed while also being flowing and smooth and fast, and this makes even a bad plot very enjoyable.


  • This is a bad plot. It's convoluted and there's some drag in the middle, and Theo veers towards Mary Suedom. The the classic two-men-fight-over-heroine schtick veers Theo dangerously toward Mary Sue territory. However, yet more bonus points for the hilariously tragic Beth Ann. She sort of stole the book for me.
  • Look, in what world is the lead homicide investigator assigned to the case going to sit one of the suspects down and go um hey, 'sup? So, the victim's family want me to file murder charges against you, so here's what I wanchu ta do: go interview the victim's family and see what you can find out.
  • Is it the same world where the victim's sister (the victim HATED Theo, just as an aside) demands she help find the killer as well?
  • There's a random jet-ski scene where Theo assaults someone and I did not feel it was justified.
  • I have noticed a strong increase in the number of brand names mentioned in the last few books. It's not that someone is carjacked, it's that they're ripped from their CADILLAC ESCALADE. It's not that the victim liked designer jewelry, it's exactly what brands she liked. And in the book before this there's a scene where Theo's getting ready to go out that is so branded that I think I can recreate her look from here. I dunno. It feels cheesy somehow.
  • The very very end, very last page? Veered even closer toward Mary Sue territory. I will be watching this series very closely for that from now on.

Overall: Eh. B-minus. A tea-shop mystery with big plot holes is still a tea-shop mystery.

Review: The Silver Needle Murder, by Laura Childs (2009)

The Silver Needle Murder by Laura Childs:

Delaine took in their little exchange. "I was going to flirt with C.W. myself tonight, honey. But it looks like you made a mighty big impression on him."

"Not my intention," whispered Theodosia. "Especially when Parker is hovering in the kitchen and there are sharp knives all around."

Delaine gave a little shiver. "There's nothing like having two men fight over you. So romantic and thrilling. Reminds me of earlier times when men actually fought duels over women." She got a dreamy, faraway look in her eyes. "Gee, those were good times."

"Not for the men they weren't," replied Theodosia.

Synopsis: Charleston goes Hollywood by hosting their own film festival. Hands up if you know why that's a terrible idea.

(Note: There's a book in the series between this one and Blood Orange Brewing, Dragonwell Dead, which is possibly my favorite in the series. So we're skipping a little ahead here.)

As Detective Tidwell so succinctly puts it: "The images of two people made enormous by a rear screen projection. Five hundred witnesses in the audience. Yet no one can identify the killer."

During the kick-off to Charleston's first annual film festival, a big-name Hollywood director is shot and killed (see above), and as one of the suspects is the granddaughter of a dear friend, tea shop proprietor and dead body magnet Theodosia Browning agrees to investigate.

I'm sure you can imagine what happens next. Sneaking into crime scenes! Recovering vital evidence! Being attacked by unseen predators! Eliminating suspects! Running a tea shop!

Seriously, I continue to really like that Theodosia busts her buns with making her business a success, and that's skillfully worked into the plot. With only three people running a busy eatery, it is really hard to hair around investigating, and Theo gets that. It does help that all her suspects drop by the tea shop on a regular basis, but that too makes sense.

The plot's kind of odd, and a little thin in places, but the quality of the writing is high, which makes me forgive quite a bit. It does not make me forgive the contrived ending, however, where Theodosia pulls facts about South Carolina out of her ass to put two and two together and then has to out-cop a cop. That...there's strained credibility, and then there's my eyes rolling back in my head with a merry clink.

However, as long as you're not a stickler about such things, and enjoy incredibly detailed settings and lush writing, you'll enjoy this book, whether as a standalone or as a solid entry in the series as a whole.


There is also a Grade A all-out *clever* body-discovery scene that I thought was truly jaw-dropping. To wit, during the red-carpet awards night party, there is a long, long buffet box filled to the brim with ice and seafood, which--points right there for imagery--but then as Theo pulls out a crab claw, she brings up a human hand with it.

Sure, it made no sense plotwise as far as why the killer wanted the body discovered in such a manner or, you know, how they managed to get it there under the eyes of all the caterers and guests, but it was indeed, ART.

Review: Blood Orange Brewing, by Laura Childs (2007)

Blood Orange Brewing - Laura Childs:

"Fascinating," declared Theodosia Browning as her quizzical blue eyes roved about the hexagon-shaped room. Packed with antique medical instruments, colorful jars, and old anatomical charts, the tucked-away alcove must have been the old surgical suite back when this Victorian-style Charleston home had been a hospital almost a century and a half ago, Theodosia decided. Its builder and owner had made a fortune in early pharmaceuticals and patent drugs. Because, lord, have mercy, she told herself, this is what medical facilities were like in the 1860s.

Synopsis: Tea shop owner Theodosia Browning must deal with a PR nightmare when one of Charleston's most prominent citizens drops dead in the middle of her catering set-up. She investigates and some people die. Others drink tea and have sandwiches.

So here's the skinny on this series:

Theo is one of those independent, business-owning women who happen to trip over dead bodies all the time and yet inexplicably have not been arrested for murder or lost all their friends. In this book, she has to solve two murders and a Dread Conspiracy as well as saving her protege from making a bad business decision, keeping her tea shop open, contributing to the Charleston Heritage Society, and not slapping a fellow business-owner repeatedly about the head and shoulders.

Now, the series as a whole has had its ups and downs--I've reviewed the first six books here, and some were admittedly better than others. This seventh book is not my favorite in the series, one because it features way too much of the horrible other shop owner, Delaine, and two because it clogdances on my animal-harm trigger, so I spent some quality time fanning the pages and skimming with squinty eyes, but I think if you don't have that trigger, you'll enjoy the book very much.

Seriously. I loved the first 221 pages of the book, and then the other 45 I just fanned on. Doesn't make them terrible pages, it just makes me a wiener.

For anyone who's read some of the books in the series, I offer the following observations:

--Damn I miss Jory Davis. He was a really great bf for Theo to have. Sure he was kind of a tool sometimes, but the bad-boy thing was part of his charm. This new fellow, Parker? Is too milquetoast for Theo. She's going to burn through him like fire in a canyon.

--Given my druthers, I want to see Theo end up with Sheriff Tidwell, or better yet, no one at all. She's happy alone, we see that in every book, but Tidwell's a fantastic character. He's never described in terms of physical attractiveness, but Theo admires and respects his brain and work ethic, and in this book, his soul. I'm rooting for Burt to bring home the bacon, so to speak.

--I think few things about this series would give me more pleasure than if Delaine was knocked off in one of the future books. She works every last nerve of mine. And considering I've run into a couple of series where beloved minor characters meet unfortunate ends (Diane Mott Davidson and Margaret Coel, y'all break my heart) why not have a really un-loved one snuff it? Is there a petition I can sign somewhere?

--I really like how crisp the writing is, and moreover, how it doesn't take itself too seriously. To wit:

And...finally...the nasty glint from a jagged piece of metal protruding from the right side of Duke's scrawny neck even as his ruined carotid artery pulsed and pumped a final glut of blood.


Maraschino cherry scones and apple muffins emerged from the oven looking golden-brown and smelling delicious.

Boo yah.

--I keep loving how all the shops in the historic district keep changing hands. It's very true to life and keeps bringing us interesting new characters. The district of wee small shops knit together is, as a whole, a huge part of the draw that keeps me reading. It's a devilishly clever conceit that's pulled off with great success.

This is the 7th book in the tea shop mystery series, and I have to say, I'm still reading. I have books 8 and 9 on the headboard, so I'm keeping on keeping on.

Review: The Chocolate Snowman Murders, by JoAnna Carl (2009)

The Chocolate Snowman Murders by Joanna Carl:

I hit the snowman with twenty pounds of chocolate.

Synopsis: She totally did. Then she had to run screaming through the snow like Jason XI: Jason Freezes His Tail Off.

Life in Warner's Pier isn't much like a box of chocolates at all.

When series heroine and chocolate entrepreneur Lee Woodyard agrees to sit on the board of the Warner's Pier, Michigan Winterfest, she's expecting a little bickering with the other board members and hopefully a lot of great publicity for the chocolate shop she runs with her great aunt. What she gets is, say it with me, a dead body. No scratch that, two dead bodies.

She also gets a mercifully plausible reason for being suspected by the police, and a chance to tell the story in her own uniquely mellow and readable voice.

See, I used to be mighty fond of culinary mysteries, and then as the field saturated, I either burned out on them or just read a whole string of them that sucked it, hard, so I don't read as many as I used to. But I'm a sucker for well-written small towns, for a start, and I have a thing about first-person narratives: they have to be really well done for me to go near them. Weird, right? Well, I do very much like Lee's voice. She's strong and capable and snarky and arrogant and sometimes she's just flat-out wrong, which are all characteristics I find myself empathizing with a great deal. Make of this what you will. :)

The scene in the blockquote is probably my favorite from recent cozy-culinary memory, btw. Lee's lured out to the abandoned conference center at dawn and then chased by a homicidal life-sized snowman over hill and dale. The scene is executed flawlessly, and it's only later, during The Big Reveal, that I realized there is no earthly reason for the murderer to have dressed up like a snowman. I sort of still don't care. It was that much fun of a scene.

But a facile voice can't carry a whole book. Facile doesn't mean artistic or compelling, and luckily this book was only a quarter (yes $0.25 and gods bless my crazy Hannafords used book bin) because it's headed right back out there. Notice that the title and quote are one and the same. That's because really, there were no other sentences in the book that made me perk up and take notice, made me stop and just admire the way the author wrote. It was almost as if oh hey, deadline for the next book's coming up, better take a week and crank this out. Soulless, kind of.

Just like a box of chocolates, I'll read one more from this series and then I'll stop, I swear.

Review: Chile Death, by Susan Wittig Albert (1999)

Chile Death by Susan Wittig Albert:

"Sure, come on over," shae said, when I reminded her that our morning conversation had been interrupted. "In fact, come for supper. I made potato salad and marinated some chicken. Clyde's gonna put it on the grill so's I can take a load off my tired feet. We won't have a thing in the world to do but sit in the yard and criticize his cooking."

Synopsis: Breezy, sassy culinary mystery featuring the unsinkable China Bayles, this time helping her shot-in-the-line-of-duty boyfriend get out of his depression by assisting when he judges a chili cookoff. Which totally would have worked had someone not dropped dead in the middle of the contest.

When the book begins, China Bayles has been knocked for six, as her longtime companion Mike McQuaid has been shot and paralyzed while chasing bad guys. More than the physical injury, the accompanying depression McQuaid feels at the long road to recovery is threatening the relationship. Good thing life gets complicated.

Chili cookoff. Lottery winnings. Dead body. Nefariousness at the nursing home. Small-town gossip. Unexpected partnerships and new beginnings. Skydiving. Arson. Ranching.

I really look forward to finding these books at the library. They're long, easy reads that function the way cozy mysteries are supposed to: it feels like someone's telling you a story, with all the asides and meanderings that entails. The best parts of life are the asides and the meanderings, I say. The vast majority of the book is written in present tense, which is a darn hard thing to pull off, but China Bayles has the voice to do it. Also, China's such a well-rounded and appealing character that I definitely think of it as her voice, rather than Albert's.

It's that voice plus the straightforwardly meandering storytelling (there is a whole lot of Texas placeporn in this series) that keeps me reading, even when, at one point in this story, in real life China would have gotten the tar beaten out of her for making the choice she did.

This is not real life. This is a cozy mystery. A darn good one.

Review: Death Takes the Cake, by Melinda Wells (2009)

Death Takes the Cake by Melinda Wells:

Briefly, I wondered if one of the other contestants had tried to kill me but I quashed that thought. It was just too ridiculous. This was a cake contest, with a prize of only $25,000.00. That amount of money meant a great deal to me, but it wasn't one of the million dollar prizes the broadcast networks offered on their reality competitions. We bakers weren't being made to live in jungles, or build our own shelters, or eat revolting things, or let slimy creatures crawl all over us. In my opinion, those people earned the big prizes, and I hoped they'd used some of the cash to pay for therapy.

Synopsis: Della Carmichael, host of a cable network cooking show, agrees to enter a televised cake bake-off at the behest of her producer. Unbeknownst to her, the organizer is a woman who's hated her since college. And who winds up dead in a bowl of cake batter.

See, this is why I don't enter baking contests.

I really wanted to like this book more that I did. I mean I really, really, *really* wanted to like this book. The protagonist is appealing, as is her emotional baggage, and the mystery was well thought-out, and the setting immersive and the supporting characters meaningful. So what happened? Subplot overload is what happened.

Look. It's a wee mystery book, okay? 125 pages in, 125 out, give or take 40. If you add in more than six supporting characters--yes > 6--and give them all drama, and backstory and then try to feed them all into the main plot while still creating an immersive setting, your reader will, like me, throw their hands in the air and pray for the book to end. In other words, skim. Skim skim skim. This book just wanted way too much from me, caring-wise, and thus I am not likely to either reread it or pick up any of the others in the series. Overall, the characterization just wasn't strong enough to carry the load it had been assigned. Meh.

Review: French-Pressed, by Cleo Coyle (2008)

French Pressed by Cleo Coyle:

"Oh? So now the flatfoot is more than a passing law enforcement fetish? He's potential husband material? And this happened after a month of his not sleeping with you?"
I threw the second shoe.

Synopsis: Please clean up after your love life. Your mother doesn't work here.

There's apparently a new phenomenon in higher education, the "helicopter": the parent or parents who hover over their kid's shoulder as they go through school, doing everything for them, making sure their way is not just clear but paved with diamonds and rose petals, so special are they.

It's sort of a boggling phenomenon to me, but then I encountered this book. Clare Cosi is part-owner and proprietor of a successful West Village coffeehouse, but has a nasty habit of stumbling over murdered corpses. As you do. When her daughter Joy begins sleeping with the older, married chef at her cooking internship, Clare leaps in at every turn to tell Joy how to handle her life, scolding her for her choices, actively trying to break up the couple and then--here's the kicker--confronting the guy and asking him to break up with her daughter.

Then he's killed and Joy's found wailing over the corpse. Good parenting, there.

Apart from the first 100 pages, this book isn't all that bad. It's decently written, there are several intersecting subplots and Clare's messy life is appealing to read about. Eventually she calms down, but basically only dials it back to "light glider". Also, her descriptions of food are somehow unappealing, but the coffee descriptions delicious.

However, for the mother thing, I am handing out the dreaded silver unicorn. It just made me grind my teeth like crazy. However, I was sort of trapped with this book after I'd started it, and Coyle does do a good NYC, I'll give her that.

Review: Biggie and the Fricaseed Fat Man, by Nancy Bell (1997)

Biggie and the Fricasseed Fat Man by Nancy Bell:

The day it rained feathers in Job's Crossing, J.R. and Rosebud were gathering pecans in the front yard.

Synopsis: In rural Texas, the tiny but imposing Biggie Weatherford does her best to raise up her grandson, J.R., while keeping a handle on everybody else's business. All the murdered bodies, though, make that a bit challenging.

Texas is all kinds of dangerous, it turns out

Good book. Not an awesome book, but a good solid mystery. I'd read an earlier one in the series, Biggie and the Poisoned Politician which was a little better, but still, a quick and solid read. Bell's strength is really her characters, and specifically that each book is narrated by ten-year-old J.R. I think it's hard to write really convincing kids, but J.R.'s voice always sounds spot-on.

Technically a culinary mystery, since it includes one recipe in the back, but as with Politician, it was not the recipe I'd been hoping for.

Review: D*U*C*K*, by Poppy Brite (2007)

D*U*C*K: a tale of men, birds and one's purpose in life by Poppy Z Brite:

Shake knew his family was coming in for dinner, but he hadn't expected their arrival to be heralded by his father's loud and unmelodious voice singing the jingle that had advertised the family's pest control business since 1953. 'Don't let termites cave your WALL IN! Dial five two two six thousand, DAWLIN!'
A few minutes later the hostess ducked into the kitchen, a haunted look in her eye. 'My God, Shake, your dad--I just asked him where I'd heard your family name before, because it's so unusual, and he started, like, bellowing at me--'

Synopsis: Latest in the Liquorverse saga so far, Rickey and G-man take their kitchen crew to Opelousas to prepare 150 wild ducks for Rickey's childhood hero, Bobby Hebert.

Of course I loved it.

Reread. One of the books I turn to when it's 2am and I'm trying to be virtuous and go to sleep and yet failing badly. I love it because it's like a warm bath, these familiar characters in this familiar world, and this sweet story that's part of Rickey and G-man's history together, this swan song to a pre-Katrina New Orleans. I love Rickey and G-man together, being there for each other, but even more so, this book is all crew, about having people around you to count on. Anything more would spoil it, so I'm going to shut up now.

Review: Killer Pancake, by Diane Mott Davidson (1996)

Killer Pancake by Diane Mott Davidson:

Arch knelt on the kitchen floor and tried to attract the cat. Scout, however, wanted a fresh bag of cat food. This he indicated by standing resolutely next to his bowl, which held only undesirable, four-hour-old food. Receiving no response in the meal department, Scout sauntered across the floor and rolled onto his back.

Synopsis: Catering assistant Julian has his heart broken when his makeup salesgirl girlfriend is mown down by a truck, driven by one of several unscrupulous people involved in makeup espionage. Yes, makeup espionage.

150 pages of pretty darn good, followed by 200 pages of meh. When will I learn?




That is all.

Review: Dying for Chocolate, by Diane Mott Davidson (1993)

Dying for Chocolate by Diane Mott Davidson:

Schulz shook his head. 'No second golf course, but a dry sailing club. Houses here look like boats. Great big yachts tied up on the grass.'

I looked out at the pale gray and tan mini-mansions sailing past. While the other houses in Aspen Meadow were generally stained dark tones of rustic green and rustic brown, here the palette was light. The magnificent dwellings here were indeed like ships made of pale wood and glass; they perched on waves of mountain grass rolling down from the tops of the surrounding hills.

Synopsis: Caterer Goldy Bear flees her abusive ex-husband's stalking behaviors by taking a summer job as a rich retired couple's live-in cook. With her free hand, she raises money for her son's new school's pool and copes with a dead (new) boyfriend.

Per a discussion in comments from a review of another, later book in this series, Killer Pancake.

This is the book where we pick up Julian, the 18-year-old catering assistant, and in contrast to Killer Pancake, this is a pretty good book. It's a pretty darn good book. And about halfway through, I spotted the reason for this: the earlier books, in contrast to the later ones, feature a lot more placeporn, and I am a sucker for placeporn. In the first three books, Goldy is much more in love with the landscape of Colorado, and describeds it more fully and richly at nearly every turn. In Killer Pancake, a lot of the action takes place in a mall in Denver, which I think really hurt the cause.

Also, there's a lot of genuinely tenseful menace courtesy of The Jerk, Goldy's ex-husband. That man is out of control. And Goldy's responses are so in-character for the situation. She's powerless against his menace because he's got all cards and she's left protecting their son from him.

Overall, I really liked this book. It may be my favorite of the series so far. It's definitely convinced me to read just one more...

Review: Talking Rain, and Steeped in Murder, by Linda French

Talking Rain by Linda French:

Next noon, under the campus bus shelter, a tiny flutist played a melancholy phrase. She was having trouble with the grace notes and couldn't master their time. Teddy turned up the collar of her brown velvet trenchcoat and stared at the sumptuous purple lining of the flute case. She thought about grace notes, and rainy November days.

Synopsis: A college professor, a knee surgeon, a professional wrestler and a madwoman walk into a bar...

The first of a pair of genuinely intriguing mysteries: first-person POV done well, lots of lovely Seattle-environs placeporn, and scuba diving. If you like mysteries, this does not suck. It's a well-written and enjoyable, very much above-par entrant into the field, of a college professor and her tangled love and family life. Very nice. I think I read it in an hour and a half. Good scuba decription, though.

Steeped in Murder by Linda French:

Teddy glanced up at the sun-kissed Californian. Herb Patchett had the most amazing head of hair for a middle-aged man she had ever seen. Still blond as a beach boy's, the hair was wavy and gorgeous, gleaming with champagne highlights in the sunset. Herb had important hair, executive hair.

Synopsis: Academic politics are lame.

Same series as above, only much less successful. The worries of the lady academic trying to make tenure, when someone offs the chair. Oof, if I had a nickel for every time I found myself in that situation...

Although to be fair, I did not see the murderer's identity coming at all. I'd definitely read another in the series, but I can't say either of these would be a reread.

Review: Chocolate-Dipped Death, by Sammi Carter (2006)

Chocolate-Dipped Death by Sammi Carter:

Reminding myself that the search for Savannah was more important than staying in my comfort zone. I led Max up the sidewalk. Nod needing a haircut was just the top item on my list. I also didn't need waxing, buffeting, or polishing, nor did I need any part of my anatomy covered with acrylic. I just wanted to find out if Delta knew where to find Savannah.

Synopsis: Cheap, 200-page foodie mystery, set in a small-town candy store.

Eh. Eh.


Took me 45 minutes to read. On the one hand, swoopy fast read. And I did appreciate that the author was mean to her protagonist, because you know what? When you're down, and you feel like crap, when you feel like, well, chocolate-dipped death for example, the first people to kick you when you're down will oftentimes be your family. Oh hands up anyone who's never had that happen.

And things get worse from there! So go Sammi Carter for poking her protagonist with a stick. You open your mouth and snark off, your family and friends will turn on you.

At the same time, about 75 pages in, this book took a huge nosedive and started sucking. Which frankly, I blame on editing, not writing. Someone should have taken the plot in hand and returned it to the author to fix, because the first 75 pages are really, really good, so you know she can write.

Poor editing, dude. It's avoidable.