Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Review: "The Teaberry Strangler" (2010)

"Do you know anything about the language of roses?"

"What do you mean?" asked Theodosia.

"During the Victorian era," said Drayton, "the use of rose symbolism was extremely popular. It became a subtle form of communication."

"Like text messaging today," said Theodosia.

"Not exactly," said Drayton.

Synopsis: The indefatigable Theodosia Browning continues to run her merry crew of teashop irregulars and solve murders all over Charleston's historic shopping district. This time it's Daria, owner of an antique map store, who turns up dead and Theodosia's unlucky enough to witness the crime. So, between running her teashop, hanging out with her dog and trying to close on her new cottage, Theodosia solves the crime.

Grade: C+

Okay people, listen up: I am willing to put up good money for one of the next books in this series to feature Delaine Dash (owner of the Cotton Duck!) as the corpse. Good money. I just can't remember a character who got under my skin like she does. It's amazing. I just...she... flames...on the side of my face...burning--heaving--

Oh this is such a good series, people. It just is. I would have tea at that teashop in an instant, no matter if they were brewing Darjeeling in a dead man's open skull when I got there. The books are just that fun.

It is all about the sense of place, I think, that Childs gives to this series that makes me love it so much. I was trying, the other day, to think of mystery series where I can't think of the series without immediately thinking of the city. Like for me, Sharon McCone will always be San Francisco. And V.I. Warshawski will always be Chicago; Tess Monaghan is Baltimore, the Liquor boys are New Orleans, Archy McNally is Palm Beach and NYC is sort of in a three-way toss-up between the 87th precinct, Claire Cosi and Edward X. Delaney. In exactly the same way, Theodosia Browning is Charleston.

It's a great, iconic series.

But this is not a great, iconic book. It's a good book. It's a solid entry in the series and with a lot of the plot strands, I felt like Childs has a beautiful long sheet of butcher paper tacked up along one wall of her house with all these interwoven strands and Teaberry Strangler is one section, and the next book is another, and there are certain dots that have to advance in certain ways.

For instance, the reintroduction of Jorie Davis, who, while an unfortunate romantic choice (I keep wanting Drayton to pour hot tea in his lap) also keeps things interesting much more than the milquetoast restauranteur Theodosia took up with on the rebound. And the way Theodosia kept wistfully saying "Oh Haley, I do so hope I won't LOSE YOU SOMEDAY WHEN A BIG CATERING OPPORTUNITY COMES ALONG."

Seriously, she said it like four times. Hi. Thanks. I think we now safely know what you've got planned for Haley. Gotcha. Right there with ya. Keep going with the story.

And I liked the story. I liked the cast of weirdos surrounding the victim, and I liked how they were more than they seemed, some of them. I loved how Theodosia gets her big girl heels on whenever someone intends to hurt her dog, because if anyone ever comes after my dogs, you will be able to buy jars of that person as a paste in supermarkets everywhere, I'll tell you that right now.

But two things went wrong here:

1. Okay. No less than five different people were all OH THEODOSIA PLEASE SOLVE THIS MYSTERY YOU ARE SO AWESOME. And then Theodosia blushed and simpered. That is Mary Sue territory. I do not like that. I am not saying Theodosia was a Mary Sue this time out, I'm just saying we can all see that land from here and it's not a good place.

2. The ending. OY the ending. Was not supported by the plot in the least. Noooooo. I went back and looked for clues I'd missed, people, because I spell anal-retentive with a hyphen. It did not make the least sense at all, and took like eight pages from boss fight to glass-clinking resolution and then fin. Like, if you stand up from a fistfight, wipe your hands on a linen napkin then serve punch for guests, I'm sorry, but you're the Cylon. It's you.


And humbug.

Which in no way means I'm not going to read the next entry in the series, it just means that if you have a really strong, iconic series -- and I do think it's fair to say this series is iconic at this point -- you can get away with a fair amount of missteps. Just not often.

Review: "If You Can't Stand the Heat" (2011)

I hate favors. I hate doing them and I hate asking for them. They always sound so quick and innocent at first. A favor. Like a squeeze. But favors replicate, taking on a life of their own. Lending a hand in the kitchen for a few hours turns into a murder investigation, and then one night your house is set on fire. But how could I refuse after what they had done for me?

Synopsis: Poppy Markham caused a rift in her family when she left their Austin restaurant to become a health department inspector. But when a famous French chef is murdered at Markham's, Poppy hurls herself into the investigation. Joined by her hunky ex-boyfriend and her gay neighbors, Poppy squares off against a murderer. And her stepmother. And her stepsister. And the restaurant's general manager. And the sous chef. And...

Grade: B

Poppy Markham is an incredibly likeable amateur detective even when she's being wishy-washy about her ex-boyfriend, Jamie, and obstinate about her stepmother's effect on her father. This is no mean feat. And it's obvious the author has served her time on the line in many, many restaurants, and is very familiar with Austin. These are all good things for this book.

In fact, 3/4 of this book is great fun: light, frothy, funny, snappy and well-written.

And then there's the ending.

Look, I get that endings are hard, and this one actually made a great deal of logical sense; all the pieces in the story fell together and it was completely plausible. So what happened?

Two things. One, the fight with the murderer at the end. It was short and the murderer folded with one well-placed blow by a small health inspector and then the next thing you know, we're having the tearful family reunion at papa's bedside, where he explains everything (conveniently glossing over the ramifications of the solution, which were huge), then everyone hugs, even the people who were at each other's throats for most of the book.

I was like...that's it? I read 230 pages of a great mystery and you just Scooby-Doo'ed me?

Two? Hannah Swensen Syndrome. You heard me, I've now seen it so often in cozies, I'm giving it a name. After The Cookie Jar's own legendary crime-solving absent boss, it's when an amateur detective gets so caught up in solving a mystery that they forget where they work, and the author forgets, too.

Apparently Poppy Markham is a health department inspector who inspects restaurants, so maybe during the book at some point she should...inspect restaurants. She inspected a grand total of one, even though there's a scene where she mentions she's exhausted but has to go check on whether to issue a closing at a restaurant across town; she goes so far as to put the coffee on so she can stay awake for just that, then ...Poppy wakes up the next morning bright and early and makes no mention of whether she did the inspection.

This problem's made worse by the early introduction of Poppy's boss Olive, who we're told is incredibly controlling and micro-managing and calls Poppy at all hours, and then is never heard from again.

Do you know? If I just didn't go to work for a couple days, like three or four, with no explanation, I would definitely hear from my boss, and he's not in the least micro-managing and controlling. So what gives?

With those minor problems aside, it's still a great read, for the most part and I'm very much hoping that there'll be a sequel. The whole concept of the health inspector as detective really gives and gives, so here's to hoping for the next go round, the next person to find a body at a restaurant actually records an infraction or two.