Friday, April 15, 2011

Review: "The Chocolate Cupid Killings" (2010)

"One of the scariest things I've heard about Belcher -- and I haven't had any connection with the case, of course -- is that he's quite cold-blooded. If he offed someone in the course of his job with the mob, he did it so coolly that the FBI hasn't been able to prove anything. Apparently the only person he ever hit in anger was his wife."

"I don't find that reassuring."

Synopsis: Ten Huis Chocolade, in Warner's Point, MI, once again finds itself the nexus of murder, while Lee's husband starts acting strangely and the town is overrun by possible Goodfellas.

Grade: B-

There comes a time in every relationship where you have to admit to yourself that either you trust your partner unconditionally, or when they tell you they can't tell you where they're going or who they're meeting with, you take it on faith that they're not fucking around on you.

Especially if one of you has a nasty habit of finding dead bodies.

Lee Woodyard has one of those relationships with her husband Joe, Warner Pier's part-time city attorney-cum-boat restorer. Kinda. So when he's meeting with strange men instead of showing up to family dinners, Lee throws only very small tantrums. Part of this is that they've been at this relationship for what, nine books now, and as mentioned, Lee keeps finding bodies, which is what keeps the books selling. But more than that, Lee's a pragmatist: she'd throw a rock through the front window but it's winter in Michigan and all the rocks are covered in snow.

I like that kind of thinking. I like Lee, in fact.

She's a likeable protagonist: smart and kind but a little bit tongue-tied, but not meek enough to let people walk all over her. And usually, I like Joe, too. However, in this book, his I'd Tell You But Then, You Know schtick soon wears thin and I am left solidly in Lee's camp, looking for the last unfrozen rock by the shores of Lake Michigan.

(Btw, as an aside: I love the setting in these books. I love how washed in Michigan it is.)

Okay, so Cupid Killings: a mysterious man comes into Ten Huis and asks manager/owner/accountant Lee if she's seen the woman in the picture. The photo he shoves across the glass looks remarkably like Pamela, a recent Ten Huis hire who's on the run from her abusive husband. The Ten Huis women spring into action, concealing Pamela and dispatching the mysterious man with haste (and a gift-wrapped box of chocolate cupids) but lo! The mysterious man is a P.I. from Georgia and he has the unmitigated gall to get himself killed behind the Ten Huis dumpster while Lee is very much not throwing rocks at Joe for being mysterious about his meetings.

Cue the dueling news stories about a recently paroled mobster in search of the wife he pummeled pre-jailing, and the possible indictment with prejudice of a hometown financial big-wig and away we go. Murder! Mysterious meetings! The trial of marriage! The sting of corporate espionage on a large and small scale! And the fact that every town in Michigan has either a Lake Shore or a Lakeshore Drive!

Here's the problem: Joe.

Joe, who has, for eight books now, been a dashing, charismatic, somewhat difficult but entirely appropriate foil/partner for Lee and her dead-body-findin' ways, turns into a heel in this book. Like, it's one thing to say "Oh, I wish I could tell you but I still love you and I respect that you're not asking" and it's quite another to get flinty-eyed and stomp up the stairs to bed.

Add to that two things:

1. It was pretty obvious who did what at about the 125-page mark.

2. The ending was a trainwreck.

But here are two other things:

1. Even with the both of the above (and I thought it was pretty smart that one of the EMTs at the end even comments, "Hey, that was a pretty stupid decision y'all made back there.") Carl's writing is technically flawless. It just is. It's not like, sentencecraft of the sublime or miraculous metaphors, but it doesn't have to be. It's like the coffee you find at 7-Eleven at ten o'clock on a Tuesday night: sure, it's been cooking all day and a fancy latte might taste better, but that coffee is there to Do Its Job. It will caffeinate you without a big fuss. And that type of writing is deceptively hard to make look easy.

2. Oh setting and characterization how you curl the wee toes of my cold, black book-reviewer's heart!

I have been visiting Warner's Pier for nine books now and I can say that as soon as the tenth book (WITH PIRATES OMG WHEEEBBQ) I will be snapping it up. I like the politics. I like the place. I like the style. I like the architecture. I like the comfort. I could move there and give old whatnot who spies on everyone at the Superette a run for his money, is what I'm saying.

In short, despite the bad decision-making exhibited by our heroes during the ending (and hello, who among us has not made our share of bad decisions?) and despite Joe being a terrible person who possibly should have been pelted by snow-covered rocks, it was a solid and enjoyable entry in the series.

After all, the path of true love is strewn, it seems, with dead bodies.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Fairy Tale Bakery: It's Kiss or Kill

(written as part of Jen Forbus' Moonlighting for Murder blog tour. Check it out!)

This is the true story of six strangers, picked to live in a house, to find out what happens when people--

Wait a minute, that's not right.

Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the--

Hang on, bear with me. It's been a long day and all I really want to do right now is curl up in a comfy chair with a good book and a giant cupcake.

Oh that's right! That's what I was going to talk about! Murder!

Here's the thing: I could get on my little electronic soapbox here and tell you all about how awesome Jenn McKinlay's Fairy Tale Bakery series is, but let's face it, I'm just some random dude whose book-review blog you stumbled across while trying to avoid processing a travel reimbursement. I feel you. It's Friday. So, while I've already reviewed both books in depth earlier -- Sprinkle with Murder and Buttercream Bump-Off, let me take only another thirty seconds of your time, then you can go watch awesome videos on YouTube and elsewhere. (Trust me: I feel you on those travel reimbursements.)

So here's the scoop on this series: IT'S AWESOME.

Three reasons why!

1. It's character-driven and complicated.

Hey, you know what would be better than just having bakers stumble across corpses every now and then, get them suspected of the crimes and then try to solve it themselves? If you gave them messy personal lives on top of that.

Mel, Angie and Tate are great, memorable characters in and of themselves, but McKinlay's really created something special by combining them and hitting FRAPPE. Make them stubborn and a little broken and a little more stubborn and kind of crazy -- in other words, realistic.

Oh, and the first book's about Tate's fiancee getting murdered. Gutsy!

2. McKinlay writes really bomber physical comedy.

Yeah, I know it's old-fashioned, but I really love those classic old screwball comedies from the 40s and 50s (Duck Soup, anyone?) but it's really damn hard to get that kind of energy down on the page and make that scene come alive in the same way. There's a frankly *genius* scene in Buttercream Bump-Off where Mel and her new assistant are trying to outwit the hilariously unhinged Olivia, and I'm not going to spoil it for you, but it involves seltzer and sliding under things and screeching and -- and it's all just so VIVID. Sometimes I pull that book down off the shelf and just reread that one section.

The beginning of the third book features something similar (including Olivia, who is possibly my favorite villain ever at this point) and jumping and throwing and rolling ...and screeching.

So sue me, I'm a girl what knows her ticklespots.

3. The recipes make me really, really want to make cupcakes.

They all sound good. Holy tar. I don't bake a ton, but I might have to start. Mojito cupcakes. Tinkerbells (lemon cupcakes with raspberry buttercream frosting, rolled in pink sugar). Orange Dreamsicle cupcakes. White chocolate cupcakes with raspberry frosting.

Mojito cupcakes.

Happy Friday, y'all...

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Review: "Murder Can Wreck Your Reunion" (1997)

"A what?"

"A divorce party," my niece repeated. "Sybil's divorce became final a few weeks ago -- you remember Sybil, my friend from college, don't you?"

"I never met her, but is sounds familiar. I think I remember hearing about her."

"That's what I meant. Anyhow, she's throwing this big bash over the weekend to celebrate her divorce."

"How very nineties of her," I remarked sarcastically.

Synopsis: Plus-sized Manhattan PI Desiree Shapiro leaps into action when her beloved niece, Ellen, attends a college reunion weekend and becomes a suspect in a murder.

Seriously, this type of thing never happens to me. That might be for the best.

Grade: A

The fourth book in the series, this is easily my favorite. There's no recipes, per se, but there's a lot of food that gets eaten in very telling ways. The forced consumption of a lousy meal before a difficult conversation; the death grip on a coffee cup when the way ahead gets hard; escargot and when people feel compelled to comment on them. Who you invite (and don't) to share your French fries and how many shrimp your date snags from a shrimp cocktail he then puts on your tab. This book's got a lot on its plate.

Desiree Shapiro's beloved niece Ellen winds up suspect in a murder when she attends a reunion weekend (the divorce party, above) and one of the guests takes a header from the balcony into an empty swimming pool. There's nothing for it but for Desiree to toss on her best wig and head into battle.

This is a pretty simple, straightforward, incredibly well-managed book. Desiree only has five suspects to investigate (not counting Ellen) and as she works from one to the next, she also works on cases for her other clients, because she's very much the epitome of the hard-working, hustling P.I. She does the jobs other P.I.'s don't like, she does the ones that seem a little scummy or get her yelled at and she does them because she's gotta eat, just like everyone else.

This is also easily the darkest of the series so far, touching on child molestation and gang rape, homicide, pettiness, infidelity and spousalcide.

While Desiree's social calendar (clients, romantic life, Ellen, clients, Ellen) is a whirl, but she never lets it go to her head. The whole slew of supporting characters move across the page with ease but never dominate, and the ending, while narratively satisfying, leaves the reader with no doubt that sometimes there's just resolution and no closure. It's wonderful.

For me, this book hit the trifecta: unforgettable characters, tight plot, technically clean and polished writing style. All that and nary a recipe to be found. Definitely going on the re-read pile.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Review: "Murder Most Frothy" (2006)

Never one to miss the opportunity for a morbidly inappropriate thought, my mind began to replay the opening of Jaws -- the scene where a young girl is eaten alive during a midnight skinny dip -- and I began to worry whether there were any dangerous sharks in these waters. On the other hand, considering that I was probably chasing a professional hit man who had killed before, I realized that marine life probably should not have been my primary concern.

Synopsis: Manhattan coffeehouse manager Clare Cosi summers in the Hamptons and finds yet another dead body. While disapproving of her (ex-)mother-in-law's and her daughter's love lives, Cosi finds time to uncover an embezzling plot, break into people's houses and not solve the murder.

Grade: B-minus


In this fourth entry in Cleo Coyle's Coffeehouse Mystery series, protagonist Clare Cosi has been hired by an uber-wealthy restauranteur to be coffee somelier at his newly opened Hamptons eatery. During a July Fourth party, someone shoots one of the waiters, a guy who looks suspiciously near-identical to the restauranteur. Cosi investigates!

This is really a hard series to get a handle on. On the one hand, the writing is technically crisp and fluid, with lush and flourishing descriptions. On the other, Clare Cosi is driving me bugnuts.

Here's the problem: she doesn't come off as a very likeable person, and it's hard to tell whether Coyle is writing her that way on purpose. Clare meddles in police business and does so badly, like when she's standing over the dead body in the bathroom and yelling at everyone to stay back, because it's a crime scene, or when she's blithely justifying breaking & entering a random stranger's home, simply on the offchance that he's the guy she saw skulking round the edges of a party.

More than that, though, she very actively disapproves of her (adult) daughter, Joy, dating anyone at all (the scene where she very publicly up the phone number some guy gave Joy was excruciating to read) and has a tendency to do a lot of public haranguing. She also disapproves when her (ex-)mother-in-law has a romantic dinner with an old friend:

Of course, they'll share, I thought, heading back to the coffee bar to prepare their order. They're sitting so close to each other, they're practically sharing each other's laps!

Needless to say, I was less than thrilled to see Madame with a new man. Dr. MacTavish had been her steady beau for over a year, and I had become used to that...comfortable with that. She hadn't broken up with the good doctor, of that I was sure. Yet here she was tonight practically giddy over Edward.

Now, to be fair, Clare immediately follows that thought with the realization that Madame has a right to make her own choices, lead her own life, that it really was her business and no one else's....but then right after that Joy appears with the same questions and Clare turns the tables on her daughter, asking after her date and making it known that she disapproves of both relationships. Joy stalks out, aggravated.

It's a tightrope act, I think, managing Clare's attitude.

Madame takes her to task for it, Joy takes her to task for it, and even Clare's ex-husband takes her to task for her meddling, but there's no evidence that Clare takes any of their words seriously. She blithely continues to do exactly how she pleases, providing unasked-for and unwanted advice, snapping at people, etc etc.

BUT, it's nearly brilliant.

For Coyle to have created someone like Clare, and given her this serious character flaw AND have other characters go hey, that's a honking big character flaw you've got there...I really like that. It makes Clare complicated and difficult and very, very believable. If she was just sailing round being unpleasant to her family, that would be a problem. But she sails round being unpleasant to her family and they call her on it. I love that. She may not be changing any time soon, but neither is my mother, so you know, ten points, Cleo Coyle.

Now, there's a plot twist at the very very end (which I am not going to spoil) but I will simply say that I thought it was entirely out of character for the protagonist. I think it was meant to show that she had gained some empathy for Joy and Madame and calmed down a little bit, but instead I felt like it was just Clare wanting to have her coffee and drink it too. I was hoping [the plot twist] would happen, but when it did, I felt like something was seriously missing.

Recap: very, very nice writing style; fascinatingly horrible protagonist. The plot of this one I thought played a little too loosely (at some point, is someone going to lock Clare up for, oh, I don't know, BREAKING THE LAW? Also, her ex-husband only shows up when he has things to do to advance the plot, then he's never heard from again) than some of the other entries, but overall it makes for a decent beach read and a very telling look at Clare's interpersonal relationships.