Saturday, January 29, 2011

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

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