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Book Review: Two To Mango by Jill Marie Landis (Series, #2)

March 26, 2013 Leave a comment

Spilled tropical drink in front of a mango and a tiki head on a blue background.Summary:
Em Johnson, manager of the Tiki Goddess Bar on Kauai, never intended to get involved in one murder investigation, let alone two.  But when the hunky fire dancing detective Roland Sharpe asks for her help looking into some suspicious deaths in a high-profile, competitive halau (hula group), she just can’t say no.  Before she knows it, she’s entering the geriatric Hula Maidens halau into the biggest hula competition on the island to help her get in where she can snoop.

Review:
I’ve dipped my toe in a few cozy series, but this is the first one that’s managed to call me back for a second helping.  They’re all entertaining in their own way, but this series is also unique and engaging enough to keep me coming back for more, and thankfully those unique elements stayed strong in the second entry.

Em is a good cozy mystery heroine.  She’s smart and willing to help but isn’t running amok destroying the police department’s days.  She only helps when asked and even then, she’s a bit reluctant to disrupt her life.  On the other hand, when she does help, she’s good at it.  She lends insight that it makes sense only she would have, such as being able to infiltrate the halau competition.  This lets both her and the inevitably hunky police detective she’s helping seem smart and efficient.  She also has that every woman quality that lets the reader insert herself into the story.

The setting is perfect escapism.  A Hawaiian seaside tiki bar that feels like Hawaii’s answer to Cheers.  If Cheers had a set of geriatric hula dancers who started “rehearsing” aka drinking before noon.  Not to mention an aging hippie who thinks he’s engaged to a dolphin.  The setting represents both the beauty of Hawaii and the diversity of Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture.  I certainly learned a few words of Hawaiian along the way in addition to thinking fondly of how nice it would be to live in a place with such tropical beauty.

The plot was multifaceted and engaging.  Every character really has their own life and they manage to intertwine just the right amount.  The murders (and attempted murders) happened at the right frequency and managed to be a surprise at least part of the time.  The murder weapons are creative and well-thought-out.  The plot is not predictable but it’s also not entirely off the wall.  I felt surprised but also to a certain level knew that I could have figured it out if I’d thought a bit more.  That’s the perfect amount of mystery in my book.

This would have been five stars, but there is one part of the book that I thought was in very poor taste at best.  This is not a plot spoiler, as it is not necessary to the mystery at all.  At one point, Little Estelle (the eldest of the Hula Maidens), climbs into a man’s car and basically throws herself at him.  If the genders were reversed, this would definitely be read as a creepy old man assaulting a pleasant young woman.  But since it’s an old woman it’s written for laughs.  I get it that Little Estelle is presented as a horny, senile old woman, but there’s a way to write that that doesn’t verge into sexual assault territory.  I just don’t find that sort of thing funny, and even though I get it that the intention was oh that silly old woman, it didn’t sit well to me.  If this was my first Landis book, I probably would have stopped reading.  I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, because the rest of the book is 1,000 times more humorous and creative than those few pages.  But I am disappointed that Landis chose to write Little Estelle that way.  Others might find it more humorous than I did.  I just don’t see such things as a laughing matter.

Most cozy books come with an arts and crafts do at home type project.  This series includes drink recipes.  I’m pleased to say that this book has even more drink recipes at the end than the first one, although I have yet to try mixing any myself.  They are creative and fun-looking, though, and let the reader feel a bit like the Tiki Goddess could really exist.

Overall, this is an engaging, humorous cozy mystery.  Readers of the first book will enjoy their return to the world of the Tiki Goddess.  I am anticipating the next entry in the series, although I do hope that Landis will improve the characterization of Little Estelle.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Previous Books in Series:
Mai Tai One On, review

Book Review: The Long Quiche Goodbye by Avery Aames (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

February 16, 2013 Leave a comment

Artistic drawing of a cheese shop.Summary:
Charlotte Bessette is ecstatic that her slightly eccentric French grandfather and grandmother have handed over the running of their small town cheese shop to her and her cousin, Matt.  She and Matt have redecorated the place for the 21st century and have added a wine annex.  Everyone is excited for the grand re-opening but when their landlord turns up dead on their doorstep stabbed with one of their cheese knives and Charlotte’s grandmother standing over him, both the shop and the family are at risk.

Review:
Cozies are, by their very nature, absolutely ridiculous and difficult to explain. I generally default to an explanation like, “It’s murder! With arts and crafts and cooking! But not too much blood and no sex! And the titles are puns!” At this point the person I’m talking to generally looks at me like I’m nuts and wanders off.  But even though the cozy genre is ridiculous and tough to explain, there are things that work for it and things that don’t.  This book is definitely a cozy but it combines the cozy elements oddly, making it fall short of awesome into the decidedly meh category.

Most cozies have a moderately ridiculous plot involving a dead body being found and a woman ultimately amateur investigating the crime.  The crime in this one was odd.  A landlord who nobody likes is stabbed directly in front of the cheese shop on grand reopening night. Oh, and he’s stabbed with a cheese knife.  Sometimes I think authors just don’t research and realize how hard it actually is to stab someone in the chest.  A cheese knife wouldn’t cut it. (See what I did there?)  So that had me rolling my eyes from the start.  The ultimate whodunit was also a bit bizarre and had me scratching my head.  It made some sense but it also sort of felt a bit like the author just chose whoever would be the most surprising as the killer, instead of really thinking through the logic and motivation.  It’s also a bit problematic to have the murder victim be some sleaze everybody in town hates.  This felt like a choice to give the mystery more easy suspects rather than, again, based on thinking through logic, motivation, and real crimes.

Then there’s the issue of the main character, Charlotte, who ultimately investigates.  She doesn’t really have the get up and go gumption necessary for someone to start investigating something on her own.  She’s….kind of snooty and prissy.  A good cozy main character should be into her arts and crafts but also possess a lot of independent spirit and gumption.  Charlotte is surrounded by people like that–her grandmother, her shop employee–but she herself isn’t like that at all.  Yes, her grandmother is accused of a crime she didn’t commit and that’s a big impetus to do something, but it just feels out of character for Charlotte to do investigation.  Similarly, Charlotte’s romantic interest felt forced and fake, which was awkward.  In a genre where we get no sex scenes, the romance should be very well done, which it was there, but it wasn’t truly engaging.

The quirky characters in the town, besides Charlotte and her love interest, were interesting and just the right blend of quirks and reality to suit a cozy.  Similarly, I was glad to see some cheese-heavy recipes in the back.  I also thought the pun title was great and played in well to the mystery without giving too much away.

Personally, I think there are better, more engaging and funny cozy series out there to invest my time in.  However, if you are a huge cozy fan and don’t mind the oddly snooty, timid main character and a slightly silly mystery plot, then you should give it a go.  The cheese angle is certainly unique.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Deadly Row to Hoe by Cricket McRae (Series, #6)

November 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Summary:
Sophie Mae and her best friend decided to join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) as soon as the opportunity popped up in their small town.  One day when they’re volunteering at the farm, a dead body is found in the compost heap.  Sophie Mae is determined not to get involved this time, after all, she’s got enough on her plate with her soap making business and trying to make a baby with her husband, Detective Barr.  But Barr’s boss asks her to help identify the body by talking to the folks in the community , and she just can’t say no.

Review:
Cozy mysteries consist of a mystery (that’s not too explicit or bloody) paired with an unlikely investigator, some sort of crafting, a good dose of humor, and a punny title.  In other words, they were basically made for me.  (Some even come with recipes!)  So when this one popped up on NetGalley, I snatched it up, and I’m so glad I did!  McRae successfully pulls together everything that makes a cozy great.

The plot is excellent.  The murder mystery isn’t too gory, but is also realistic.  The body is found in a compost heap, yes, but it’s just a dead body.  There aren’t slashed off heads hanging out in tea kettles or something.  Everyone is appropriately disturbed by the finding.  There’s no ho-hum just another day element at play.  Although I admit I had figured out whodunit before the end, the why and when were still a mystery.  Plus I never felt that Sophie Mae was being stupid and just missing something.  Why it was taking her a bit to see whodunit made total sense.  I also really appreciate that GLBTQ people are included in the plot without a big deal being made out of it.  They are just another character, which is just how I like my diversity in genre literature.

The characters are fairly three-dimensional for a cozy.  Everyone had something I liked and didn’t like about their personality, even the heroine, which is key to characters seeming realistic.  There were also a wide variety of people present from Sophie Mae’s best friend’s daughter to an elderly friend of the family.  This range is something that is often missing in literature, and I liked seeing it here.

What I really come to cozies for, though, I admit, is the integration of crafting.  In this case the theme is participating in a CSA, so parts of the book are devoted to how a CSA works from acquiring your weekly allotment to figuring out how to use it to cooking with it.  I really appreciated the quips about having so much of a certain produce that they’re coming out your ears.  I also really enjoyed the scenes that discussed taking real time out to cook dinner and what that feels like, such as talking about how garlic smells when you first throw it into a hot pan.  I know not all readers enjoy this, but honestly that’s part of the point of a cozy.  Taking the time to linger on crafts and talents that take time to cultivate but are well worth it, and McRae incorporated this element very smoothly into the book.  I do wish some recipes or CSA tips had been included, but it’s possible I just didn’t see them since I had an advanced copy.

Overall this book has a dash of everything enjoyable about a cozy mystery.  Recommended to cozy fans, particularly those in or considering a CSA.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Previous Books in Series:
Lye in Wait
Heaven Preserve Us
Spin a Wicked Web
Something Borrowed, Something Bleu
Wined and Died

Book Review: Mai Tai One On by Jill Marie Landis (series, #1)

July 28, 2011 3 comments

Sunglasses and drinks on orange background.Summary:
Newly-divorced Em jumps at the chance to move to Kauai, Hawaii to assist her aging uncle in running his tiki bar.  She hires a young, punk-style waitress who seems to be running from bad choices, and she gets to know the aging hula dance group that performs for free (it’s not like anyone would willingly pay them).  Em is managing to increase business for the tiki bar and is starting to feel refreshed from her new life when the tiki bar’s neighbor shows up dead in their barbeque pit–with a machete slash through his skull.  The gorgeous fire knife spinning detective Roland sees Em, the waitress, and her Uncle Louie as the prime suspects, so clearly Em and the hula group must work together to find the real culprit.

Review:
This was my first foray into the fairly newish cozy mystery genre.  A cozy mystery is one involving something violent, but the violence is never particularly shown in a gruesome way, and the characters handle the situation in a humorous fashion.  It’s kind of like a modern version of Agatha Christie.  They also are really well-known for having puns in the titles.  (Another one that springs to mind is The Long Quiche Goodbye, which features a murder in a….wait for it….cheese shop).

So what about this particular cozy?  Well, the pun in the title is cute but doesn’t really have anything to do with the story.  I can’t quite figure out what, exactly, is supposedly being tied on or tied up or what have you.  No one is killed by ties.  Basically, the title is a bit witty, but confusing.

The humor is excellent.  I found myself laughing out loud multiple times while reading.  In fact, this is the strong point of the book.  Think of the wittiest, snarkiest person you know, then imagine that everyone around you has that same sense of humor.  It’s delightfully funny and relaxing.

The characterization ranges from really well-done to painfully one-dimensional or lacking in vividness.  For instance, all of the Hula Maidens are richly drawn elderly women who still have a lot of spunk and life left in them.  Yet the main character, Em, is so dull that I kept mixing her up with the waitress.  Similarly, some characters are so over-the-top as to be a bit offensive.  For instance, a new addition to the island are Fernando and his boyfriend Wally who are both quite possibly the most flamboyant characters I’ve ever seen in a novel.  Now, given the extremes of the Hula Maidens, that’s fine, but Wally is never given another element to his character.  Whereas it is later revealed that a lot of Fernando’s flamboyance is an act for his career, Wally is such a gay stereotype he even repeatedly faints and is never given any other realm of possibility besides fabulous gay boyfriend.  This is odd because the situation certainly arose to make him more compelling and well-rounded without diverting from the main storyline.  Although I appreciate the inclusion of gay characters in the book that the other characters simply accept, I do wish Landis had been a bit more careful with her characterization of them.

The mystery itself isn’t too mysterious.  Landis’s one attempt at misleading the reader into believing someone else is the murderer is so obvious as to be painful.  I actually cringed on her behalf when reading the passage.  The characters and humor are allowed to be obvious, but the mystery shouldn’t be.

I can give a pass to both of those issues considering that this is a cozy, and from what I’ve heard from friends who are fans, these sort of things are common in them.  The one big problem though is that this book sorely, direly needed better editing.  There were mistakes everywhere, which is baffling considering it comes from a publishing house (who supposedly are better because of the “professional” way they handle things….but that’s an issue for a different post).  There were multiple sentences with verbs in the wrong location or written twice.  Spelling errors and typos were present throughout.  This really distracted me from my enjoyment of the story, because the flow would be interrupted while I double-checked that I read the sentence correctly.  There is simply no excuse for such shoddy editing, although it is obviously the fault of the publishing house and editor, not the author.

These things said, though, looking at the book overall, it is still an enjoyable read.  Ignoring the editing issues, it is an enjoyable cozy, but not an amazing one.  The setting and rambunctious characters of the Hula Maidens hold much promise for future entries in the series.  Hopefully it will go uphill from here.  I recommend it to people who already know they are fans of cozies, but those who are uncertain should probably give it a pass.

3 out of 5 stars

Source:  Amazon

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