cozy

“Clammed Up” by Barbara Ross

 

Book Cover - Clammed Up

 

Last time I checked, murder is not on a wedding caterer’s official to-do list. They would have a tough time getting paid if bodies started popping up during the reception. But, that’s exactly what happens to Julia Snowden in Barbara Ross’ “Clammed Up.” An already cash strapped family business faces disaster when the groom’s missing best man is found hanged on the island where the clambake reception will be held – before wedding vows can even be exchanged.

 

Why is Ray Wilson dead? How did the body get there? How many people had a motive? Will the murder kill the business or bring the tourists in droves? Will the bank listen to reason? So many questions raised by Ray’s untimely demise, and Ross supplies us with multiple answers for each in this charming cozy.

 

Julia Snowden is back in Maine to save the family clambake business. Her father is dead, her brother-in-law has over-borrowed to keep the operation afloat, and Julia (with her venture capitalist background) seems like the perfect person to save the day. Except that the bank doesn’t want to hear her tale of woe; they will call in the loan of $1.5 million dollars if the business is closed for more than five days during the short Maine tourist season. The pesky murder takes up one of those days. And counting.

 

The murder, the engaged couple with lots to hide, the childhood crush who has grown into a hunky young man, an AWOL son, family accusations and betrayal, the police who seem to be dragging their heels, millions of dollars at stake, the friends who act as sounding boards when Julia can’t figure out why all this is happening – all combine to make “Clammed Up” a very satisfying mystery. The important characters are agreeably drawn – Gus, the restaurant owner, is a gem and his ‘house rules’ are hilarious. He carries the Maine anti-outsider bias to extreme by barring anyone he doesn’t know – and gets away with it.

 

Beyond the inventive storyline, “Clammed Up” introduces us to the behind-the-scenes world of a real Maine Clambake and tells us how the seafood is stored to keep it fresh and cold. We are walked through a dinner prep and service, with the entire staff working to get the food on the tables so that each guest can have the full experience of cracking the lobsters, opening the clams, and wearing the bibs, all at the same time.  Although not really a foodie book, Ross does weave food deliciously throughout the plot with a conversational tone – Julia sharing her story over a bottle of cold Sea Dog ale, chatting about the meals she has eaten along the way to solving the crime.

 

The prominent subplot of the precarious seasonal businesses at the Maine coast is handled effectively. Ross discloses the constantly present issues of bad weather and limited time available to make the yearly income, and it is clear that both play a huge role in the livelihood of both employers and employees alike. Rain keeps the tourists away and everybody suffers. B&B owners give up their own bedrooms for paying customers for the season, just so the bills can be paid for the rest of the year. A few rainy days scattered throughout the summer is bad enough, but if a hurricane hits and homes or businesses are damaged, or the economy slumps and people stay home, then disaster strikes. Not everyone has the cash reserves to come back from that, as has been demonstrated after real-life disasters up and down the East coast of this country.

 

Happily, there are mouthwatering recipes at the end of “Clammed Up.” I can’t wait to try the lobster mac & cheese and the blueberry grunt. I’m already salivating and getting my grocery list ready.

 

Barbara Ross’ thoroughly enjoyable “Clammed Up,” is an Agatha Award nominated book for Best Contemporary Novel. I’ll post the results after the votes are in this weekend.

 

Please visit www.maineclambakemysteries.com for more information about Barbara Ross and her next book in the series, “Boiled Over.”

 

 

 

 

“A Skeleton in the Family” by Leigh Perry

 

Book Cover - A Skeleton in the Family

The cover of Leigh Perry’s “A Skeleton in the Family” intrigued me, so I had to take a peek inside the sample that Barnes and Noble happily provides for would-be buyers. I was hooked as soon as Sid came clattering down the hall.

 

Dr. Georgia Thackery is an intelligent adjunct English professor at a Massachusetts college, who moves into her parents’ house with her daughter, Madison. A skeleton named Sid lives in the attic, as he has since he saved Georgia when she was six.

 

Sid is not just any ordinary skeleton. He walks, talks, reads, can use the phone and a computer, spells better than Dr. Thackery, and can be easily collapsed into a suitcase for traveling purposes. There’s just one problem. He doesn’t know who he really is – or was, in his live past.

 

While on an outing to a manga/anime conference (with Sid in full cosplay – basically looking like himself) Sid sees someone whose face jogs his long lost memory. Sid soon agrees to an examination that reveals his own murder thirty years before. He seems like a nice enough skeleton, so who did it and why?

 

That exam leads to break-ins, suspicious behavior, assaults and more murder, with multiple oddball suspects. The supporting characters are as interesting as they are varied, including a hunky reporter boyfriend, a locksmith sister, a normal teenager, a nasty colleague, a talented grad student and other academic types. In “A Skeleton in the Family,” that mix blends perfectly with the clever interaction between Georgia Thackery and Sid. With occasional nods to bones falling off and dogs taking nips at tasty ulnas, the conversation between these two best friends is as normal as any sleuthing duo could have.

 

One of the nicely drawn subplots addresses the issue of adjunct faculty realities. We tend to think of adjunct college professors as part-timers who are basically working a second job, but not really interested in doing anything more. That may have been true in the past, but Perry makes the point that times have changed. In a cost-cutting move, universities across the country now hire part-timers so that they don’t have to pay the benefits and regular salaries given to full-time staffers (who might only teach one more course than their counterparts). Many adjuncts struggle to make ends meet as they move from school to school in search of that ever-elusive tenure track.

 

Sid the Skeleton, as crime solver? The clattering on the wooden floors might take some getting used to, but I could use an office assistant/puzzle solver that types faster than I do, has a logical mind, and can get from one side of a door to the other without ever opening it.   😉

 

“A Skeleton in the Family” is a very clever, engaging book with several LOL moments. I’m eagerly waiting publication of “The Skeleton Takes a Bow.”

 

Please visit www.leighperryauthor.com to read about Sid, Dr. Thackery and Perry’s upcoming work.

 

 

“An Appetite for Murder” by Lucy Burdette

 

Book Cover - An Appetite for Murder

Foodies rejoice! Lucy Burdette brings us a new cozy series set in Key West that has a wannabe food critic as the protagonist. The first in the series is “An Appetite for Murder.”

 

Our heroine, Hayley Snow, follows her new-found boyfriend (a divorce attorney) to Key West and moves in with him. She wants to escape living at home in NJ and to prove that she’s a bona fide grownup who can handle life on her own. But, mere weeks after arriving in foodie heaven, Hayley finds the boyfriend in bed with his ex, Kristen Faulkner. Rather than apologize for slipping up, he throws Hayley out – her belongings (except for her favorite cookery and treasured recipes) left on the sidewalk. He tells her that he threw the rest into the dumpster. What a cad!

 

Our gal may not be great at choosing boyfriends, but she has a nose for cooking and wants to be the food critic at the new local magazine, “Key Zest.” Hayley works on her restaurant appraisals and along the way, we experience mouth-watering descriptions of lunches, dinners and yummy snacks. Makes me hungry just thinking about the olive fougasse bread with garlicky cheese spread she ate while finishing an audition review.

 

But, wait! The girl seen in bed with the ex-boyfriend? Just happens to be the co-owner of the new magazine. Hmmm… and (of course) Kristen winds up dead, poisoned by pie, after wiping our gal’s name off the list of final contenders for the job.

 

Who did the deed? The police (as well as the ex-boyfriend) like Hayley for the murder because of the “bedroom incident” and the “lost application.” It doesn’t help her case that she is found snooping in the ex-boyfriend’s apartment after the murder. Suspicious break-ins occur, neighbors are mugged, her friendships are stretched to the max and Hayley needs to find out who the culprit is before she misses out on a gourmand's dream gig and gets thrown in jail for something she would never do – poison someone with food.

 

Real estate deals and restaurant openings worth millions, add interesting depth to this cozy as we discover how they are affected by Faulkner’s death. The gritty underbelly of the competitive restaurant scene, with its rivalry between chefs at the top of their game is spot-on in “An Appetite for Murder.” A couple real-life sous-chefs came to mind after reading one of the kitchen scenes.

 

When Hayley gets stuck in her investigations, she chats with homeless guys, a psychologist friend, her ex’s secretary, and a tarot card reader. She tries to feed info to the police, but she is still the one with the best motive – revenge against the girlfriend. The facts don’t necessarily support that reasoning, but the cops need a little nudge in the right direction – away from Hayley.

 

“An Appetite for Murder,” is a fun read with enough quirky, colorful characters and down-home, mouth-watering eats to make the Key West setting authentic. Burdette even includes three tasty looking recipes at the end of the book.

 

I suddenly have a craving for a slice of Key Lime pie. But, hold the poison.

 

Please visit www.lucyburdette.com to see the latest news about her Key West series. You can also find Burdette with the wickedly talented group of authors at www.jungleredwriters.com

 

 

“Violet Dawn” by Brandilyn Collins

 

Book Cover - Violet Dawn

Don’t read the first chapter of “Violet Dawn” if you plan on stepping into your hot-tub in the middle of the night. You might not ever get into it again unless there are floodlights blazing on the deck.

 

Imagine:  a touch, a brush aside of something annoying and ALL OF A SUDDEN YOU REALIZE YOU’RE IN A HOT TUB WITH…” Shriek!!!!! – The scene Collins has written would be a delicious opening for a movie.  (Play ‘Psycho’ music here)

 

Collins’ loyal following has put her on the bestseller list with several faith-based series. “Violet Dawn” is the first in her Kanner Lake group, featuring a small town reminiscent of TVs Cabot Cove – where everyone knows everyone else’s business, but whose residents also stand ready to help when life takes a downturn. The Kanner Lake population seems unfriendly at first, but then we get to know the quirky regulars at the Java Joint and realize that our initial impressions have been filtered through Paige Williams’ eyes, a young woman with a complex past. Paige’s background drives her distinctly odd behavior at the beginning of the book, and Collins keeps the readers’ interest as that past is revealed, a bit at a time, against the backdrop of a missing persons search and then, murder investigation.

 

Although new in town, Paige has the support of both her boss and the owner of the Java Joint when the murder investigation points to her. A fame-seeking reporter finds her humanity and plays a pivotal role in “Violet Dawn.” An honest Chief of Police keeps digging until the truth is revealed. Each of the characters has a story of his/her own to tell and it seems clear that they will be more fully developed as the series continues.

 

The main villain, Black Mamba, slithered through his scenes in a satisfyingly sinister way. The character was a bit over the top at times in comparison with the rest of Kanner Lake people, but he works as a stark contrast between decent townspeople and the creeps who would do us harm.

 

By the way, if I ever buy a hot tub, it’s going to have a transparent cover!

 

Titles from the Kanner Lake series: “Coral Moon,” “Crimson Eve,” and “Amber Moon.”

Collins’ work is sometimes grouped with Christian fiction; other times with cozies.

 

For more about Collins and “Seatbelt Suspense,” visit www.brandilyncollins.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Kneading to Die” by Liz Mugavero

 

Book Cover - Kneading To Die copy

‘Stan’ (short for Kristan) Connor leaves Hartford, Connecticut after being unfairly downsized from her high paying, high pressure PR job. It’s time to take a breather from the fast lane and move her life in a different direction. When she arrives at her newly purchased Victorian in Frog Ledge, a town so small that everybody knows your business before you say hello for the first time, she knows she is home.

 

Her boyfriend doesn’t agree, and pressures her to get another job ASAP before she regrets her decision. Plus, he’s not happy about the commute to see her. He keeps trying to arrange job interviews for her, despite her protests. Not needed, not wanted. She has two years severance pay, after all. This pair is definitely not on the same page.

 

Stan soon finds herself in a fix when she visits the obnoxious town vet with her Maine coon, Nutty. The vet is dead; kibble sprinkled over her body, and hardly anybody misses her. Stan is a suspect in the murder, just because she found the body. Well, small town people do have to blame the outsiders, don’t they?  😉

 

As Kristan seeks to clear herself in “Kneading to Die,” she finds it hard to know whom to trust. Even her childhood friend, an animal rescuer and now the owner of Pet’s Last Chance, Nikki Manning, comes under suspicion as the case unfolds. But, then Nikki delivers some inside info about the deceased and a possible motive for the vet’s death.

 

Colorful characters (and suspects) abound, including alpaca farmers/bed & breakfast owners, a sweetshop owner, dairy farmers, gossipy townspeople, long-lost relatives, a homeopathic vet, and more.

 

Kristan bakes healthy treats for pets, made from scratch like people cookies, but without the additives usually found in commercial cat and dog food. One of my mother’s cats suffered with clumps of hair falling out, traced back to his completely canned diet. As soon as mom put him on a diet of home cooked fish and other fresh goodies, the condition cleared up. Mugavero is definitely onto something with this aspect of “Kneading to Die,” and has generously included recipes for dog and kitty treats at end of the book.

 

The hunky potential love interest, Jake McGee, owns a seemingly untrainable, sloppy, big dog that loves Stan’s treats and shows up on her doorstep at odd hours, waiting to get fed. The dog keeps throwing Kristan and Jake together, at times embarrassing them both.

 

The underlying theme of this dog-and-cat-filled cozy is advocacy for animals. Mugavero weaves the nasty side of pet sales, abandoned animals, questionable veterinarian policies, badly prepared pet food, etc. into the murder plotline and raises awareness of the real-life issues involved. Fortunately, the unpleasant side of the pet industry is balanced with the warm, caring behavior of the assorted animal lovers in “Kneading to Die.”

 

P.S. If you’ve ever owned a cat or a dog, you’ll find the descriptions of the animals in “Kneading to Die” hilarious and spot-on. I was checking a detail at the beginning of the book and reread about Nutty’s tail delivering opinions – still sooo funny. Mugavero clearly knows her animals.

 

“Kneading to Die” is the first book in Pawsitively Organic series, and happily, Kristan Connor will be back in the next.

 

Please visit www.lizmugavero.com for information about this debut author.

 

 

“Hearse and Buggy” by Laura Bradford

 

Book Cover - Hearse and Buggy

Claire Weatherly has left a fast-paced New York life and a wealthy, absentee husband, to live in a quiet Pennsylvania town in Amish country with her aunt. Aunt Diane runs a bed and breakfast for tourists curious about the Amish and she always knows what’s going on in both English and Amish communities. As Claire settles in to her new, simpler lifestyle, she opens Heavenly Treasures (a gift shop featuring Amish creations), employs Esther (a local Amish girl) and earns the respect of both business owners and Amish alike. After just a few months, Claire is happily rediscovering who she is.

 

A new police detective, Jakob Fisher, comes to town (a detective who is a former member of the Amish community) and heartbreaking secrets are revealed. When Amish friends are cheated, misunderstood, denounced as something other than they seem, accused of murdering the man who cheated them, Jakob is at a loss to investigate, since he has been shunned and the Amish are not allowed to speak to him directly.

 

How will fairness and justice be served? Claire becomes a liaison between Jakob and her Amish friends and is soon actively involved in the pursuit of the truth. What’s at stake is more than catching a killer – trust must be restored between the two communities.

 

Bradford weaves an absorbing look at the Amish culture and value system into the murder investigation. We learn about Ordnung and Rumspringa, about clothing and transportation, as well as the misconceptions outsiders might have. Bradford presents a balanced view, including both defense and criticisms of this way of life, making “Hearse and Buggy” a fascinating read.

 

There are several love stories and family conflicts and surprises in this well-written, character driven cozy. Relationships do not go smoothly for anyone, but resolutions are realistic and satisfying, even when the pairings don’t work out.

 

“Hearse and Buggy” is the first book in the Amish Mystery series, followed by “Assaulted Pretzel.”

 

Visit www.laurabradford.com for more information about Bradford and the Amish Mystery series, as well as other books she writes under a pseudonym.

 

 

“The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith

 

Book Cover - No1LadiesDetectiveAgency

 

Smith has written a series of much-admired bestsellers based in Gaborone, Botswana, where life is enjoyed most when sitting on a porch sipping red bush tea, enjoying the view of acacia trees, listening to Go-Away birds calling, and watching people from the village stroll past. The ‘No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ in the fourteen books, is run by Mma Precious Ramotswe, a sensible woman of traditional size (translation – big woman), so no slinky, svelte types will be found between the pages, unless they happen to be up to no good. Makeup is more or less dismissed as unnecessary (or mostly for those women who are up to no good).

 

Ramotswe guarantees satisfaction for all parties, and as the clever owner of the first detective agency in Botswana run by a woman, that’s a standard she is happy to apply as a matter of personal principle. In “The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” she must find a missing husband, follow an errant teenager, and search for a missing child, while keeping her clients happy and herself safe – not easy when witch doctors and cobras might be involved.

 

The feel-good mystery series has been a worldwide phenomenon and has inspired a BBC TV series as well as a movie. Smith writes from his experience of living and working in Botswana. His descriptions of the countryside make the reader feel that looking for the hippos around the next bend of the river is the natural order of things, where going to the next town is a really big deal and making a 97 on a final exam is cause for endless celebration. Smith has successfully conveyed his love of Africa through Ramotswe’s unabashed pride in her beloved Botswana, whether speaking of snakes or diamonds or witch doctors or the cattle used to buy her business.

 

Happily, the main supporting characters are well drawn and we as readers are pulled into the relationships as Ramotswe makes her decisions. I was angered, dismayed, touched, and ultimately quite pleased by the behavior of the men in her life.

 

A later book in the series (from 2010) “The Double Comfort Safari Club,” is not quite as successful as the earlier titles because of one case involving an inheritance to be delivered to the correct person. The resolution seemed to be an odd stretch and made me question whether I could trust Mma Ramotswe’s usually sound judgment. Perhaps it’s a cultural disconnect, but I kept re-reading that section of the book to see if I had somehow misunderstood the issues surrounding the choices.

 

With that exception, “Double Comfort…” is pleasant, and often demonstrates Mma Ramotswe’s loyalty to the people in her circle. Having been in difficult situations herself, she helps and encourages those in need. Another case, involving a trusted employee whose fiancé has a tragic accident and afterward becomes virtually imprisoned by an aunt, is resolved rather deliciously, underlining Ramotswe’s basic decency. She isn’t always correct in her assessment of the clients, but she is fiercely protective of the ones who need her the most.

 

No shoot-outs, no car chases, no bloody murders, just enjoyable reads about a woman with common sense born out of an abusive early marriage and a knack for understanding the quirky bits of human nature – important characteristics for the head detective in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

 

For more information about Alexander McCall Smith and his other famous series, please visit www.alexandermccallsmith.co.uk

 

 

 

 

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