mystery

Review: The Chardonnay Charade

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The Chardonnay Charade
The Chardonnay Charade by Ellen Crosby

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars to Ellen Crosby‘s The Chardonnay Charade, her second book in the “Wine Country Mysteries” series. I enjoy wine and I enjoy this series, but I found myself putting the book down a few times without any sense of urgency to get back to it. In the end, I am glad I read it and I will continue a few more in the series, but there were a few times I wasn’t very engaged due to the way the story has been told.


Story

Lucie Montgomery is still healing from the death of her father and a few other family friends in the last book when the wife of her doctor is found dead in Lucie’s vineyard, possibly due to her staff’s negligent activities. Lucie soon learns the victim was bashed on the head prior to having some of the chemicals on her property attack the victim’s body, but the suspects all point to friends of hers which makes it even harder to accept. Lucie supports her doctor who is accused of the murders and helps him prove his alibi, but when another death adds the intrigue of political scandal, Lucie’s confused. Her vineyard becomes a spot for lovers’ trysts upping the game of who is actually having an affair on his/her spouse. Add in a charming British transplant, some sisterly bonding time with Mia and the potential for Quinn, her new winemaker, to abandon her (or kiss her!), and you’ve got tons of stories beginning to burgeon. In the end, the killer is caught but it’s not something Lucie is happy to hear given all that she’s been through lately.


Strengths

If you love wine, you will feel right at home. The author adds in many different background stories about the grapes, processes and EPA oversight regulations. It helps you feel connected with a bit of the past when Thomas Jefferson built wineries from European grapes, something important to these Virginia vintners.

Lucy is a great character who you sometimes dislike and sometimes root for. I like the balanced approach because she seems very real. She is well-written with flaws and strengths, but each time, I find myself wanting to keep learning more.


Suggestions

I really don’t like Lucie’s family, but I’m hoping her relationship with them will change in the next book given what happened to Mia at the end of this one (no spoilers here!). It feels like Lucie is too alone and I want her to have someone on her side for a change.

The plot was a bit predictable. I had 3 potential outcomes (and there were quite a number of suspects) and this was at the top of my list. I didn’t want it to come true, but it did… I think it bothers me because I took it as another blow to Lucie that the killer is someone she knows (not really a spoiler as she knows almost all of the suspects). I was hoping it would go differently.


Final Thoughts

I waffled between a 3 and a 4 on this review, having a few good highlights but also a few “blah” parts… in the end, I think it gets pushed down to a 3 because it took me a week to read and I’m usually done in 3 days with a book of this size. It rolls along without any major cliffhangers or major dramatic moments which can be good but sometimes you need a few surprise nudges. If you’ve read the first one and are on the fence about the second one… if you need suspense and action, this isn’t for you; however, if you enjoy the relaxing story-telling type approach, then you should keep reading this series.

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Review: Carrot Cake Murder

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Carrot Cake Murder
Carrot Cake Murder by Joanne Fluke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 stars to Joanne Fluke‘s Carrot Cake Murder, the tenth book in the “Hannah Swensen” cozy murder mystery series, a series which was made into several fun TV movies called “Murder, She Baked” starring Alison Sweeney and Cameron Mathison. The series continues to delight readers, providing at least 15 to 20 recipes that sound delicious and look fairly easy to make. I recommend you give all three a try — the book, the movie and the food!


Story

As set up in the previous book, Hannah’s protege and part-owner of their shared Lake Eden Bakery, Lisa, and her new husband Herb, traffic cop extraordinaire, are having an extended family re-union on Eden Lake. One of their long-lost relatives, Gus Klein, randomly shows up and begins to cause trouble like he did when he was a child some thirty-five years ago. But this time, his trouble earns him an ice pick to the heart — what some say is cold justice payback! There are tons of suspects in this murder mystery all connected to Herb and Lisa’s family, and at this point in the series, Detective Mike Kingston (1 of Hannah’s 2 primary love interests) no longer pretends to stop Hannah from trying to investigate, he encourages it. With both her sisters’ and mother’s, as well as her other primary love interest, dentist Norman Rhodes, Hannah begins digging up all the dirt she can. Gus is not as wealthy as he claimed, and is only back in town to run some final scam, but it turns out to be his last one. Hannah rounds up the suspects and proves alibis one-by-one until she’s left with the one person she had a gut instinct about along the way… luckily, she’s saved by Mike just before the killer tries to knock her out too.

And for some extra fun on the side, Hannah spends a lot of time with Norman making us all root for him to win her heart, only to throw a little monkey-wrench into the plan at the end when Ross, the other paramour from a few books in the past, sizzles back into town wanting to see her as soon as possible. Well now what’s Hannah going to do… not only will she have 3 men to juggle but her mother just got a book romance book published starring… her own daughters. Lake Eden is gonna be hopping in book 11!


Strengths

1. Hannah is a really fun character. She has so many great traits and a couple of flaws but it all makes her so real. She is sometimes a little too rude / direct, sometimes a little flaky and sometimes just too independent for her own good. But she is also charming, pretty, a great baker and a very accomplished woman.

2. Author Fluke knows how to integrate so many families and keeps it connected throughout each book in the series. It’s great to see / hear so many faces popping up from prior books that you really feel like you’re part of the story.

3. The mystery has some intrigue and complexity to it for a cozy. There’s at least 5 to 6 possible suspects and you have a few twists and turns that keep you guessing.


Suggestions

1. Hannah’s love triangle and now quadrangle… ugh, heart-breaker… but we really need her to let someone go. I like both Mike and Norman, but I see Norman as the better match for her in the long-run. I also like Ross and am curious to see what happens in the next book. But 3’s too much. I’m not trying to hold my girl back, but she hasn’t done more than kiss any of them and has this much trouble trying to figure out who is right for her??? What’s gonna happen when it gets steamier???

2. Love the recipes but they’re starting to take over the book. I’d like to limit it to 10 per book so you are enjoying the mystery more than the cooking. Don’t get me wrong, I love desserts, but I can’t cook everything she throws out there!


Final Thoughts

The cozy mystery has a certain kind of reader base. You’re not gonna find major romance or suspense, or even a lot of thrilling murders. It’s light and fun… with a few gut punches to keep you paying attention. The Hannah Swensen series has been fairly consistent thru ten books. So if you’re a cozy fan, and you like to stay with the same bunch of characters, you should be reading this series.

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Review: Peril in the Park

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Peril in the Park
Peril in the Park by Barbara Venkataraman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 stars to Barbara Venkataraman‘s Peril in the Park, her third book in the “Jamie Quinn Mystery” series.  I chose to read the electronic version to see if I could switch mediums, but it is also offered as an audio book and in paperback.  I imagine the audio book with Duke’s personality would be a really fun way to spend a few hours before bed or on your lunch break!


Story

Jamie takes on her third mystery alongside friends Grace and Duke where she helps her boyfriend Kip determine who is the “Park Vandal” and who is stalking both of them over Kip’s decisions at his new job as the Director of Parks & Recreation in Broward County, Florida. In his new job, Kip’s made some quick decisions to change up the structure of the department and hired/fired several employees. When the commissioner, his boss and some wealthy entrepreneurs apply pressure for Kip to be the deciding vote in favor of building a new tower on wetlands, Kip’s caught between doing the right thing and keeping his job. After Jamie receives threatening emails about Kip, she enlists her friends help to track down who is behind all the mayhem. Is it the commissioner who wants the money the business man is willing to spend? Is the business man crooked? Is it one of the fired employees? Is it the employee who was passed over for the director position? Many good suspects in this one… plus the Renaissance Fair is just a fun treat to watch unfold. And as a good side-story, Jamie finally meets her father through Skype and attempts to find a way to get him citizenship in the US so he can come back from Nicaragua.


Strengths

This book increases the page count and ties the stories more tightly together. Jamie is quickly becoming a fun heroine you want to root for, and her friends and colleagues make you laugh. The series is developing quite well and brings levity and humor in all the right places. There’s a good balance in showing “a day in the life of Jamie Quinn” without overdoing all the mundane items people deal with besides the fun drama we all want to read about. Before you know it, the story has blossomed and you are invested in the characters. Duke’s antics are always a treat, but he takes it to a new level when he revisits the past in this one.


Suggestions

I would love to see the book extend about 25% longer, but each book has added about 20 pages so it’s definitely progressing in the right direction. The stories have a good plot, but could use a little more mystery, red herrings and suspense to fully complete the hook to drag in a new reader base. If the intended audience is for people who only want a short 1 to 2 hour read, then it’s exactly on target, but with some additional story and plot, advancing to the 3 to 4 hour read, I think it would pick up a much larger fan base.


Final Thoughts

I’m very supportive of this series because you see the growth over the first three books. I will definitely purchase the fourth one (under $4 bargain!) as it’s a great electronic read.

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Review: The Case of the Killer Divorce

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The Case of the Killer Divorce
The Case of the Killer Divorce by Barbara Venkataraman

3+ stars to Barbara Venkataraman‘s The Case of the Killer Divorce, her second novella in the “Jamie Quinn Mystery” e-book series. It fell a little short of a 4 because it’s not quite a traditional cozy mystery or romance mystery given there’s very little romance and a small cast of characters involved in the murder. But it had some good fun, quirky characters and sharp dialogue so it was better than a 3 in my world. (I rarely give out a 5 just to set the scale).


Story

Jamie’s a family law attorney who took off a couple of years when her mother passed away. In the first book in the series, she’s thrust into a criminal case to save her cousin, but in this second book, she’s helping her client Becca get through what seems like a rough divorce from her husband Joe — that is, until Joe turns up dead from an overdose of Becca’s sleeping pills hidden in a Tylenol bottle. Did Joe accidentally kill himself? Was it Becca hoping to ensure she retained fully custody of their children? Or was it Becca’s new boyfriend (and previously a good friend of Joe’s) trying to get the ex out of the picture?

In this short novella, readers experience drama both in and out of the courtroom with this case, including Jamie’s budding friendships with the DA Nick and PI Duke. Throw in her Aunt Peg and her criminal lawyer best friend Grace and Jamie’s got tons of folks to help her get through her re-acclimation to the legal world. But in this book, we learn Jamie never knew her father and is looking to find out more about him. When she stumbles upon a few leads, and a gift from her late mother, Jamie’s world begins to turn upside down as she embraces all sorts of change in her life.


Strengths

For a novella, there is a lot of action and multiple side-stories packed into the plot. It’s quick-paced and you’ll find yourself enjoying the read in about 60 to 90 minutes — perfect for when you can’t fall asleep quickly but are afraid to start an entire new 300 page novel that threatens to keep you awake all night! The characters are funny and the easy dialogue makes you feel like you’re talking to or reading about a friend. It’s simple and straightforward without any fluffy language that attempts to send you off into complex literary bliss — which is a good thing when you just want a fun little mystery to solve.


Suggestions

I am not sure I’d call it a mystery though! There is certainly an element of “who killed Joe” and “will Jamie find her father” but if you’re a traditional cozy mystery buff, this may seem out of character. It’s still a good story, but doesn’t have a cast of 5 or 6 characters who could be the killer, and you don’t get a lot of clues to try to figure it out yourself. I’d like to see maybe one more potential suspect to build up a little more suspense and reader involvement in the story (but that’s just me!).


Final Thoughts

I enjoy the series. It’s fun and easy to read. Jamie seems very real and Duke is a blast. I can hear his accent and see him parading around whenever he’s in a scene. I look forward to watching this series build and grow into a more substantial story.

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Review: Candy Cane Murder

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Candy Cane Murder
Candy Cane Murder by Joanne Fluke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3 stars to Joanne Fluke‘s Candy Cane Murder, a short novella edition for the holidays between books 9 and 10 of the “Hannah Swensen” mystery series. Given this is only 100 pages, and just a teaser in between full-length books, I adjusted my expectations, but it still fell a little short for me. I’ll keep reading the series, but nothing really changes in the overall series with this book, so if you skip it, not a huge deal.


Story

Hannah’s preparing for Christmas in Lake Eden by volunteering as an elf to help the local department store owner who is playing Santa Claus this season. Unfortunately, he’s a bit of a tightwad who rubs some of his employees and the villagers the wrong way. After the mall’s Christmas party, Hannah finds him face down on the corner of the street in his Santa suit. It’s the tenth body she’s found in about two years (yikes, stay away from her!), but still gives her the frights. Is it his new younger wife? Her friendly brother? An angry employee? Or someone else with a grudge? Hannah dives into the investigation behind Mike’s back and finds herself right in the middle of mayhem. Of course she survives, but the fun along the way keeps readers in suspense in between her normal shenanigans.


Strengths

By keeping the count of characters smaller, we are treated to more in-depth relationships among Hannah’s sisters and boyfriends (yes, she has a few). The plot has subtle humor and it gives readers readers something to noodle over among the villagers we’ve come to know and love. And there are good recipes!


Suggestions

It was rushed and Hannah didn’t even pretend to let the police track the killer. It felt too much like writing a long short story to keep fans entertained rather than release a full-length complex story that would make them wait a few extra months. It took me less than 90 minutes and while I was entertained, it was too basic.


Final Thoughts

If you’re just looking to read more about Hannah and don’t need a lot of substance in your mystery, then jump on in… but if you want intrigue and complexity and a big ole’ candy cane to chew on, don’t expect much. Worth the read because Hannah is just a fun character, but go in with your eyes open.

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Review: Death by Didgeridoo

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Death by Didgeridoo
Death by Didgeridoo by Barbara Venkataraman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 stars to Barbara Venkataraman‘s Death by Didgeridoo, her debut novel in the “Jamie Quinn Mystery” series about a lawyer who investigates murders while protecting her clients from all the trouble they encounter. I enjoyed reading this book, but it is a very short read to introduce you to the main characters, setting and background — definitely worth the read to give you a taste for what’s to come in the series.


Story

When Jamie’s cousin Adam, a 22 year old with Asperger’s Syndrome, is accused of killing his music teacher with a didgeridoo (a musical instrument), his mother Peg calls Jamie for help. Jamie’s own mother passed away which is why Jamie feels more closely connected to her aunt and cousin as some of her only remaining family; however, Jamie is a family law practitioner, not a criminal lawyer. She uses her sharp wit, intelligence and connections to determine the potential real suspects and finds herself embroiled in a mystery of a music band where a number of members and their fan groupies may have been responsible. In the end, Jamie saves the day with help from her bestie Grace (a criminal lawyer) and PI Duke, who is also a former client of hers when he had his own womanizing ways!


Strengths

The story is narrated in first person which gives the author valuable liberties with Jamie’s personality. Jamie can easily tell you what she’s seeing and thinking while also giving her opinion and stepping out of the story to make you laugh. There are a number of funny lines that quickly give you a sense of Jamie’s personality making you wish you had a friend just like her — especially when many are at her own expense. It’s just the right balance of humor/fun without causing any intrusion into the overall story. I enjoy cozies that can go that extra step but still keep everything moving along.

Having a lawyer as the protagonist (especially when the story is written by a lawyer) also helps with storyline potential — think of all the murders, court room dramas and legal proceedings you as a reader will get to experience. The author does a good job at not using too much legal-speak to make the read cumbersome which helps keep the story flowing along.

The murder, in traditional cozy format, happens off screen. There is very little focus on the description other than knowing about the blood and the weapon. For the most part, I think this is a good approach, as the reader has a lot to go on with his/her own imagination. I also like the ingenuity with the murder weapon as I think this may be the first time it’s ever been used in a book (reviewers note — I surprisingly have not read every book in the universe so I cannot be absolutely certain on this!).


Suggestions

It was too short and quick. I read this on my iPad Kindle program on a plane trip from Atlanta to NY and finished it in less than two hours (it’s about 100 pages). The story is good and has a definitely murder setup, multiple cast of suspects and a few side stories — it’s a direct path to solving the whodunit with a few red herrings along the way. I would have liked to see some additional details surrounding the different band members so that I could try to figure out which one may have been the culprit. It sometimes felt a little bit like it went too quickly to finding the actual killer, especially when a second victim shows up and the story is quicky solved. But I believe since this was a debut novel, it was done to get interest in the characters and setting and will expand more in future books.


Final Thoughts

This debut was a good example of humor in a cozy and will delight readers who like a strong female lead character with the right group of friends in the legal and police fields to help her solve the cases. This particular story had many different characters who could have been the killer and you clearly know from the beginning it couldn’t be the one suspect the police blamed. I’m looking forward to seeing a longer and more complex story in the next two books in the series. I’ve already downloaded them and will probably switch back and forth between a few series over the next couple of weeks. Nice debut work!

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Review: BED, BREAKFAST, and BONES: A Ravenwood Cove Cozy Mystery

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BED, BREAKFAST, and BONES: A Ravenwood Cove Cozy Mystery
BED, BREAKFAST, and BONES: A Ravenwood Cove Cozy Mystery by Carolyn L. Dean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 stars to Carolyn L. Dean‘s BED, BREAKFAST, and BONES: A Ravenwood Cove Cozy Mystery, the first in this series about Amanda Graham’s adventures in opening up a bed and breakfast on the coastal shores of Oregon.


Story

When Amanda Graham inherits an old bed and breakfast from her uncle who recently passed away, and she ends a relationship with a cheating boyfriend, a move from LA to a small sleepy town sounds exactly like what she needs. After arriving, she quickly learns it’s anything but sleepy. The new mayor has it out for her, the town won’t let her re-open the inn and a dead body turns up in her garden. After getting to know the various villagers, Amanda falls in love with Ravenwood Cove but she can’t afford to stay unless she can open the inn for business. She quickly finds her allies, determines who may be out to stop her and solves the mystery of who put the dead body in her garden. Along the way, she learns her uncle was not a well-liked man, and she has a mysterious neighbor who has something to hide…


Strengths

For a debut cozy, this story sets up a wonderful little town full of good characters and lots of potential for drama, conflict and depth. The various shop owners’ plights make you root for them to survive in a town where tourism is non-existent, but they have a hope for it to change. The history and relationships of all the villagers are intricate and appear to have some traction for future stories. Amanda’s immediate ties to the town are strong and give you a good sense of why she wants to make this new life work.

Often in cozies, the protagonist talks a lot about how (s)he has no experience in searching for the killer — almost to the point of it being too direct; however, in this series, even though it’s obvious she’s not trained in detective work, Amanda’s instinctual skills and talents kick in very naturally. I never questioned why she was searching for the killer because it just happened along the way in a very realistic manner. I liked this change in a cozy.

The introduction of her potential suitors went well — and I’m actually rooting for two men she has interacted with thus far – James and his brother Derek. It was only a small introduction, but fighting over 2 brothers would definitely be a good setup of trouble for the future.


Suggestions

I’d like to know more about her uncle and what happened to push him out of the town 8 years ago. I’m not sure if this was deliberately left open in book 1 to have a story to reveal in a future book or if this was just not anything of importance, but I found myself wanting a stronger and more immediate conclusion to this part.


Final Thoughts

This is the first book I’ve read by this author, and I definitely enjoyed it and will read another one soon. It has a lot of potential as a debut novel in this series, especially with likable characters, a strong background and setting to tell a story and a direct plot with some hidden clues and some guess-work. You can read it in a few hours one afternoon and walk away with a smile and a wish to visit your own sleepy little town. (But don’t go finding your own dead body!)

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