Book Review: Cozy Mysteries

Review: Key Lime Pie Murder

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Key Lime Pie Murder
Key Lime Pie Murder by Joanne Fluke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3 stars to Joanne Fluke‘s Key Lime Pie Murder. The 9th book in the Hannah Swensen series delivers good cozy fun and is a simple, quick and easy read for fans. But I’m getting a bit concerned with the love story Hannah can’t resolve — choose one, Hannah, or abandon them for Ross!


Story

The carnival blows into Lake Eden full of quirky new folks, interesting little dramas for the townspeople and strange connections to the past. Hannah’s asked to be 1 of 3 judges in the baking contest and consumes tons of different breads, cakes, pies and desserts. When she finds one of her co-judges clobbered to death, Hannah knows she’s stumbled upon trouble once again. Poor Willa Sunquist, a former Lake Eden resident with a few secrets, loses her life and throws Hannah into a panic. Did one of the residents object to Willa’s return? Did one of the traveling carnies exact revenge? Or was this someone stalking the victim all across the country?

Hannah once again solves the mystery alongside her growing assistants with sister Michelle getting more actively involved in this one. Throw in some more romance with Mike and Norman, and Hannah’s life seems to be a non-stop roller coaster. Fun side stories about diets, family reunions, marriage and magic.


Strengths

1. Lake Eden is an amazing town. Let’s ignore all the murders that happen for now. The vivid cast of characters and the realistic setting are a fantastic part of why these books are so successful. Fluke has created a world you can escape to finding both drama and comfort all at the same time.

2. Besides the main plot, there are several smaller plots that are moving the overall story along quite nicely. All of the main characters are starting to have their own stories that draw you in tightly… so even when the primary murder mystery gets a tad frustrating, you have other parts that keep you connected.


Weaknesses

1. Something changed with the style in this book. It’s not a huge change, but everyone has started picking on Hannah for being a bit overweight. In the earlier books, Hannah would comment on it once or twice and a friend who make her feel better, but in #9, everyone has something to say about her weight. And people like Lisa and Andrea who have never really been rude before come across as insensitive. It annoyed me a bit — hope that part doesn’t continue in the series.

2. The mystery plot took more than half the book to actually occur. Luckily, Fluke holds your attention with all the other attributes in the book, but by about page 150, I realized the death had just occurred and we barely had any idea who she was or why she was killed. The actual sleuthing all rushed by in the last 75 pages. It seems this was more about the carnival characters and less about the murder. It eventually comes together, but for new readers, they might think this isn’t the cozy for them if the murder takes that long to occur.


Final Thoughts

I’d put this one near the middle of the books as far as personal appeal. It’s a great character and setting builder. It’s a weak mystery. I wasn’t invested in Willa to care exactly why she was murdered. I think more time should have been spent in building background on Willa and her connection to the town of Lake Eden. Depsite some of the flaws, I’d still recommend to someone who wants a good series and can sometimes ignore the lack of a strong mystery.
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Review: The Skeleton Takes a Bow

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The Skeleton Takes a Bow
The Skeleton Takes a Bow by Leigh Perry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 stars to Leigh Perry‘s The Skeleton Takes a Bow, the second in her Family Skeleton cozy mystery series. With autumn beginning last week, I decided to focus my next few weeks on books with Halloween or Thanksgiving themes, beautiful fall scenery and the quaint, mysterious New England small town appeal. After also having a chance to connect with the author via social media, I moved up this book on my list and happily dived in over the weekend. Due to a little confusion surrounding the reveal at the end, I’d rate it somewhere between a 3.5 and a 4 — but let’s not focus on decimal points — let’s get into the review!


Story

Sid is a skeleton who although murdered in human form many years ago is somehow still alive with an ability to walk and talk. He’s lived with Georgia for about 30 years since she was around 5 years old, and only her parents, her sister and her daughter know about Sid. Sid and Madison (Georgia’s daughter) take roles in her high school’s upcoming Hamlet production which allows for Sid to sit out in the theatre without any concern. When he accidentally overhears a murder being committed, he enlists Georgia and Madison to find the killer before he strikes again. Georgia takes on a part-time SAP instructor role at the high school, in addition to her full-time role as an adjunct English professor at the local college, which both serve to help her meet potential suspects and determine possible motivations. Using the themes and plots from the Hamlet play, Georgia, Deborah (her sister), Madison and Sid draw out the killer but soon find one of their own in grave danger. In the end, the murderer is revealed and all goes back to normal — as it should in a cozy mystery!


Strengths

One of the signs of a good author is an ability to push readers through their disbelief at some aspect of the plot and still enjoy the story; this is exactly what happens with a walking and talking skeleton in this book. While on the edge of fantasy (as I don’t personally know of any real life skeletons who act like Sid), I never stop and think “this couldn’t happen.” Sid is so well written that he integrates into the plot and setting, and has relationships with other characters to the point of not recalling he isn’t actually alive. He’s likely to be everyone’s favorite character given his humor and lot in life. When the writer can make that happen, the book is off to a good start.

The setting and characters are really growing on me. I find the college atmosphere and the family life dramas very comfy and readable. There are characters who annoy me in a good way and there are characters I feel like I already know in person. The series is worth investing in given the possibilities of future stories, characters and drama. You’ll find a few connections to different characters that make you feel part of the book, not just someone watching from afar.


Weaknesses

The pacing in this mystery is generally good but the ending was slightly off. Throughout the story, you’ll encounter several potential suspects and a few good red herrings. When you finally learn who the murderer(s) are, you play a waiting game to figure out was it really two people or was one of them just caught up in a situation not fully understanding what was happening — good suspense; however, when the scene moves from the outing at the Hamlet play to the danger at the cabin, it happens “offscreen” due to the book’s narration. I wasn’t certain how the murderer(s) got from “this is bad, we have to take this person out” to which person actually wanted to kill the victim(s) to one of the suspects winking at Georgia over the whole situation. I think it could have been more clearly depicted so that you had a better sense of how both of the suspects fit into the overall actions. It would be more tightly woven and an easy 4 in my scale.


Final Thoughts

If you like the cozy, and you want something a little different than the norm, this is a fantastic read. Start with the first book and then read this one (they take about 3 to 5 hours depending on your readying style). If you haven’t read a lot of cozies, and you’re not looking for something with a little offbeat humor, then this isn’t for you.

I liked it a lot. I’m hopeful for two big things in the series’ future direction: (1) Let’s meet Georgia’s parents. Who wouldn’t be curious about two 60ish college professors who are on sabbatical for a year to work on other things… who just accepted the walking and talking skeleton in their 2 young daughter’s lives, who seem to be highly respected. They’ve got to be kooky, loving and funny… and… (2) Let’s learn more about Sid. While the first book covered who he was when he was fully alive, as a reader suspending my alarm over this fantasy component, I would like to know if he is the only skeleton out there, how is it he is still able to walk and talk, will he ever interact with other people or his own family, etc. I think there’s more to this piece of the story and I hope the author goes there!

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Review: Murder is Binding

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Murder is Binding
Murder is Binding by Lorna Barrett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 stars to Lorna Barrett‘s Murder is Binding debut in the Booktown Mystery series. I had my eyes on this one for awhile as a quaint little village full of bookstores in New Hampshire sounds a bit like heaven. And it didn’t disappoint!


Story

Trish Miles uses her divorce settlement to move from NYC to a Stoneham, a lovely little village on the New Hampshire and Massachusetts border, where she opens a mystery-focused book shop nestled amongst several other book shops. Soon after, the older sister she’s never really been close with decides to show up and build a new relationship after she and her husband also separate.

As Trish gets to know her fellow booksellers and villagers, she’s making both friends and enemies. Some of the folks resent the new store owners for bringing too much traffic into Stoneham but some are eager to help re-build the town.

After The Cookery’s book shop owner, Doris, is found stabbed to death and her valuable first edition cooking pamphlet is stolen, Trish is the prime suspect. She works to clear her name against the town sheriff who seems to have it out for Trish. She eventually does prove her innocence but nearly dies herself.

Trish also goes on a few dates to see what the men are like in the NH town learning quickly she’s got to drop her New York roots in order to surive in New England! Add in a few side stories about a nursing home and a nudist colony, Trish has had more trouble in this small town than she did when she called NYC home!


Strengths

1. Stoneham is an intriguing town with a fine cast of characters. Introducing Trish’s sister into the mix gives her some roots which makes it feel right for them to stay. Having the older characters, like Grace and William, gives some depth to the history and the relationships.

2. Writing style is easy. It took me a few hours to get through the book and left me wanting to hear more!


Weaknesses

1. The inital mystery was too easy to solve. It was clear who was mixed up in the shenanigans from the beginning and as the clues started to come forth, readers could easily solve the puzzle half-way through the book. It was more about how would Trish solve rather than what actually happened.


Final Thoughts

A good debut novel. Has many charming highlights. I suspect it will continue to get better.
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Review: Charmed to Death

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Charmed to Death
Charmed to Death by Shirley Damsgaard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 stars to Shirley Damsgaard‘s Charmed to Death, the second book in the Abby and Ophelia series, for brewing up an even better story and turning on the ways of the witch. While a fun and good example of a cozy and has a lot of potential as a popular new series, it needs another book to fully round out the setting and the characters before I can push it to a 5.


Story

Ophelia has a dream which her grandmother Abby interprets as a need to solve her best friend’s murder from five years ago which was the ultimate driver for Ophelia’s move back home to her small Iowa town from the Iowa big city. Ophelia begins to accept that she and her grandmother are witches and partially embraces her powers to discover who killed Brian. At the same time, Abby is leading a group of townsfolk to stop a big company from changing the landscape of their town and potentially causing disastrous results. Ophelia develops relationships with a few new male characters testing the waters to see who might be a good love interest, but Abby warns that one is dark and one is good. Which one will the witch pick? And what happens when the suspected serial killer who murdered Brian seems to be lurking in Ophelia’s hometown? All the stories come colliding together revealing more bubbling beneath the cauldron’s surface than actually appeared.


Strengths

1. The story was quite clever. It had some complexity but also some simplicity which made it spot on for a cozy mystery read. You know from the beginning that one of the new characters is too good to be true, but you can’t quite figure out what’s going on until the big reveal.

2. Ophelia’s softer side comes out in this book. She’s not as harsh as she was in book 1, especially seeing her worry over her grandmother who has an accident and when she turns to her mother (who makes an appearance!) for comfort.


Weaknesses

1. One of the sub-plots had no conclusion: what happens with the big company coming in to takeover some of the farmland and turn it into a hog breeding facility? After Abby’s accident, her cause seems to have dissipated along with Harley and Edna. I’m hoping this is picked up in book 3 but it was definitely left too open for readers just starting a new series.

2. When one of the charactes falls victim to an accident/killer, no one mourns his death and it really isn’t discussed a whole lot. There is no funeral, no town gossip, no sadness, etc. In order to build the appeal of the town and the people, I think it’s important to incorporate these side stories and themes into the overall series in order to build a large readership. Unfortunately, this example felt mechanical and not emotional.


Final Thoughts

The series really took off in this book from the debut. Characters are developing personalities and rivalries. Families are being integrated with Ophelia’s return home. The town is being flushed out. It has a lot of potential. And if you have any interest in witch history, it’s connecting the story back to the Salem Witch Trials which helps ground it in history. I’ll definitely move on to book 3 to see if this series flies off the handle!

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Review: Dead Wrong

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Dead Wrong
Dead Wrong by Leighann Dobbs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3 stars to Leighann Dobbs‘s Dead Wrong, her debut novel in the Blackmoore Sisters Mystery series. I selected this book as it was a free electronic iBooks read on my Apple iPad and because I had read another debut novel in a different series by the author. It’s a fun, short read, contains a direct path to the resolution and begins to drop a few hints about potential magical ways that run through the town and in the Blackmoore family.


Story

Four sisters, living in huge cliff-side Victorian home belonging to their family for centuries, are barely scraping by to afford the taxes on their inheritance when one of them is thrown in jail for killing an elderly fuddy duddy who accuses them of being witches. Morgan, who jokingly told Prudence how she’d kill her, finds herself the primary suspect when the woman winds up dead in the same manner she’d threatened the previous morning. The sisters unite to find the real killer while fighting off the persistent real estate broker attempting to buy their home and offer them a way out of maintaining the family land. As the sisters question the neighbors, search their attic full of mysterious boxes and tchotchkes, and commiserate on their love lives, the mystery comes to a quick resolution leaving the sisters even more curious about their family history.


Strengths

1. Noquitt, the Maine town setting, has all the classic characteristics needed to charm readers. Think “Practical Magic,” the movie about a witch family starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, and you’ll instantly know what you’re dealing with!

2. It’s a very quick read with little in the way of sub-plots and side-stories. If you are a reader fond of just the mystery without any distractions, you’ll love it but you’ll also probably guess it fairly quickly.


Weaknesses

The story has so many hints and clues about future things to come, it’s almost too simple. We already know 3 primary characters are keeping secrets but don’t know exactly what they are. We already know they are witches even though nothing has come right out and said it. It does build a little suspense but too obviously.


Final Thoughts

I do like the story and the setting. I see potential. These are the kinds of books I’ll squeeze in when I need something fairly light and quick as you can run through it in about 3 hours one evening before bed or on a Sunday morning before you start your day!

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Review: Dead & Buried

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Dead & Buried
Dead & Buried by Leighann Dobbs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3 stars to Leighann Dobbs‘s Dead & Buried, the second in the Blackmoore Sisters Mystery series. Another short and quick read with bits of humor, romance, “magic” and fun!

This was the third short mystery I’ve read by the author and am noticing the trend… as she publishes multiple stories each year, her books tend to be shorter than a full length novel. They also tend to have less complex plots with very few suspects. It’s almost as if you’re setup from the beginning to know who the killer is but your goal is to figure out why.


Story

A dead man shows up on the Blackmoore sisters property. The sheriff who has it out for the sisters picks one of them to arrest based off a potential clue. The sisters band together to determine if it’s truly a case of pirates seeking ancient treasure buried on their property. With the help of some new and old friends, they solve the puzzle and find some of the treasure once again obtaining a way to pay the taxes on the land they inherited from their deceased parents.


Strengths

The sisters are a quirky bunch that will make you smile. The cast of supporting characters provides humor and a fun backdrop to the story. The mystery behind the Blackmoore family gets more puzzling with each book in the series.


Weaknesses

The plot is very simple. The murderer isn’t really ever called out behind the “team” they worked for. It’s not like a traditional cozy where you have varied suspects who live in or around the town and interact with the village folk. If you’re looking to cut your teeth on a bone of a mystery, this isn’t ideal for you.


Final Thoughts

Given the length and frequency of the novels, they deliver a charming environment you’d love to be part of, but with the mystery lacking any real depth or complexity, you won’t find yourself embroiled in a challenging plot.

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Review: The Skeleton Haunts a House

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The Skeleton Haunts a House
The Skeleton Haunts a House by Leigh Perry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 stars to Leigh Perry‘s The Skeleton Haunts a House, her third release in the Family Skeleton Mystery series. Fans of the author and this cozy mystery series will not be disappointed with the expansion of the cast of characters, college setting and multiple sub-plots.


Story

It’s Halloween on the McQuaid College campus in this small Massachusetts town and the Thackeray family is managing this year’s Haunted House. Unfortunately, someone is murdered during one of the exhibitions and at first look, there are very few obvious clues. As Georgia and Sid, the not-so-dead skeleton that’s been a member of her family for the last 30 years, investigate, they stumble upon a McQuaid family secret that could return ownership of a large piece of the college’s campus back to the McQuaid family. When a missing heir is discovered, Georgia and Sid suddenly find too many plausible suspects but soon realize nothing is what it seems. Georgia’s parents return early from their sabbatical and assume responsibility for a wayward student whose been trying to close on her dissertaton to earn a PhD. Then Georgia begins dating a fellow adjunct who turns out to be part of a carnie family who has been losing business due to the college’s Haunted House. Her life just gets more and more confusing but in the end, Georgia trusts her instincts, includes her entire family in the sleuthing and determines the killer narrowly missing being murdered herself.


Strengths

1. Family is at the core of this novel. We meet Georgia’s parents, see the bond developing between sisters and learn what happens when they’re all forced to live under one roof. But it doesn’t end there as a new carnie family is introduced showing a completely different style of life but one where the love and trust among members is strong. It’s a big theme in this novel and really holds the story together.

2. This was a true mystery. There were tons of suspects and just when you narrowed it down to the 2 or 3 top suspects, a new logical one emerges. Right from the beginning, you think you know where it’s going but you’re quickly re-routed to several other complex potential options. When the story finally comes out in the last two chapters, you want to kick yourself for not realizing it.


Weaknesses

I honestly found very little to want to change or that I didn’t fully enjoy in this one. Humor and writing are in good shape. Characters are well defined. Multiple plots and sub-plots. Perhaps there wasn’t enough Sid given the addition of several new characters who will likely appear in future books. I think it’s time Sid had an online love affair as he needs his own story too.


Final Thoughts

Each book in this series has gotten better along the way. After three, the author has really found her groove. As she’s changing publishers due to the shifts in the industry, I’m sad it may take a bit longer for the fourth to be released, but when it does, I’ll grab it once it hits the shelf rather than throw it on my online “To Read” shelf and get to it in the future. Great series!

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