Category Archives: Mystery

A Life for a Life

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A few years ago, my sister-in-law retired, leaving her urban lifestyle and moving to a cozy cottage in Warrensville, North Caroline on the edge of the Great Smokey Mountains. Her tales of the quaint village atmosphere, the surrounding natural beauty, and the restful pace of life lure me to visit. Out of curiosity I started reading about the state, and recently stumbled across A Life for a Life by Lynda McDaniel, journalist and award-winning author of fifteen books. This is her first novel, a cozy murder mystery set in the fictional town of Laurel Falls in the remote mountains of Appalachia.

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Laurel Falls is a town that hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, including the name of Coburn’s General Store even when newcomer Della Kinkaid buys it on a whim after a stay in the Black Mountains. No one could remember why the store was called Coburn’s and no one was going to call it anything else.

o19-700x466Until she decided to buy Coburn’s, Della hadn’t known how much she wanted a change in her life. She was eager to leave her career as a high-profile Washington D.C. reporter, her cheating ex-husband and all the “big city hassles” for the dilapidated store and apartment in a tiny town known for its waterfall and miles of wilderness hiking trails. It was in the woods Della and her dog, Jake, come across the body of a young woman. The woman is a stranger to Laurel Falls and sketchy evidence points the sheriff to think she committed suicide. Della disagrees and turns to an unlikely group of customers and friends, including a forger and her ex, to solve the crime.

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Although Della hasn’t been welcomed into the community, she has made a few friends. First among them is Abit, the fifteen-year-old son of the previous owners of Coburn’s. Abit’s real name is Vester, but because he’s “a bit slow” he received the moniker as a child and it’s stuck. Abit is a character in the vein of Forrest Gump, but unlike Forrest, he is not well accepted by his family or schoolmates. Abit’s father has removed him from school and the boy has little to do but lounge in his chair on the porch of the store and watch the world ignore him as it passes by. Abit recognizes how Della and he are alike, and their friendship deepens as he helps her with the store and solving the murder.

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The story is a cloze puzzle with Della and Abit meting out information in chapters of alternating points of view. The book commences with a prologue where Abit announces, “My life was saved by a murder.” It’s true. Throughout the narrative Abit and Della form a bond, and both characters journey into self-discovery and growth that lift them from “outsider” status. Each brings skills and knowledge to the investigation and life in a closed society that the other lacks. The dual points of view I found an enhancement to the story. I found their interactions with the varied supporting characters, who add to or hinder the work of living in Laurel Falls and finding a murderer, to be believable. They add color and interest to the story, and several, hopefully, will return in the sequel.

The characters and the setting are as much to do with the story as the mystery. Author, Lynda McDaniel’s attention to detail and adroit descriptions allow the reader to step right into Laurel Falls. You can hear the trumpeting call of the pileated woodpecker and feel the mist rising off the waterfall. Drawing from her “back to the land” years in North Carolina, McDaniel has stitched a patchwork of true and fictional events and people into a thoughtful mystery rooted in race, greed power and sorrow. People from McDaniel’s time in Appalachia crop up in A Life for a Life like the cranky laundromat owner, the gentle giant beekeeper who provides Della with honey, the woman who taught McDaniel to make blackberry jam and can tomatoes, Della’s best friend Cleva.

images-8McDaniel’s writing style, while vivid with detail, is deceptively straightforward. She’s not prone to overwrite her scenes or devolve into flowery dialog. She uses authentic sounding dialog and delivers real down-home southern mountain culture in what one reviewer compared to the style of Fannie Flagg. A Life for a Life has also been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird. I agree that both depict southern mores and southern style small-town living, albeit in different eras, well. Both are character driven and back a strong message of forgiveness, redemption and acceptance.Unknown-1

In A Life for a Life, a tragedy becomes the opportunity for two unlikely characters to re-start their lives: Della accepted into the Laurel Falls community and Abit embraced within his family and offered the opportunity he had dreamed of.

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A Life for a Life is one of the most satisfying books I’ve read this year. Everything about the book delighted me. I want to know more about the quirky folks in the mountains and the southern customs. The sense of personal independence, the strong family ties, and the slow-moving and tight-knit community are characteristics I applaud. Lynda McDaniel claims that everything she values today, she learned in her Appalachian home, and she’s written her love and gratitude into A Life for a Life.

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I’ve never taught at a university, but I know what schools are like. After I won my MA, I accepted a position as a non-credit teacher at a local community college. Wow! I was stoked—I planned to put all that theory into practice and knew my school would celebrate my work and dedication.

Let’s just say I was delusional. It didn’t take long to discover I was regarded lower in status than that broke second cousin on the doorstep. Like credit staff, non-credit teachers are expected to attend meetings, plan, assess and report but for half the hourly pay. As Alma, a character in Oink, says, “It’s all work, low pay, and no respect.”

It’s always a delight to meet a protagonist that embodies my own values. Emily Addams is a professor of women’s studies at Arbor State University. Founded as an agricultural college in Northern California, it is rapidly shedding its reputation as an easygoing and humane community as the university adopts the worldviews of the corporations funding research into new technologies and cuts funds to the small programs.

A new Vice Provost has come aboard and Emily and her colleagues from the interdisciplinary programs face a difficult and perplexing choice for funding purposes. If they don’t choose, they may lose their programs, but even if they come in under the umbrella of Humanities or Social Sciences, they will have to prove their programs worthy of receiving funds. One way or the other, the warm community built over the years looks doomed. Building community and fighting injustice are important to Emily and she’s spent her career doing both, especially through cooking and eating.

PigBaby1Emily learns that Peter Elliott, a Professor of Plant Biology has been found face down in one of the school’s pigpens, presumably poisoned. The rumor says a group opposing genetically engineered crops is behind the poisoning as Elliott is researching GMO corn and a staunch supporter of Syndicon, the major GMO seed controller. Emily had learned about the GMO issues at a panel on GMOs and wondered, “was it GMOs themselves or the policies of the corporations that produced them— the relentless focus on profit, the resistance to regulation, the absence of concern for harming, or even helping, others… “ that gave GMOs a bad name?

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But Emily has other worries. Forty something with a young daughter and recently divorced, she’s getting into the dating game. As we meet her, she’s worried that her hair-do has flattened (I empathize with that) because she’s meeting mathematics professor Wilmer Crane after work for their first date. Crane tells Emily about finding Elliot in the pigpen clutching a piece of cornbread, which turns out to contain goat cheese and caramelized onions—Emily’s signature recipe.     2077366

Emily is named a suspect and rallies her community with food and camaraderie to investigate what really happened. She learns Elliot was receiving secret corporate funding for his new strain of genetically modified corn, he’d betrayed two of his women students and his highly accomplished wife through his philandering, as well as the Save the Fields organization gunning for him.

Named one of the funniest books coming this spring by BookBub.Com, author J.L. Newton describes the first of the Emily Addams series, “Culminating in a twist as curvy as a pig’s tail, Oink: A Food for Thought Mystery is at once a sly send-up of the corporatized university and a reminder of why community belongs at that heart of human life.” She makes a good case for community and organic food, punctuating her points with delectable recipes at the end of each chapter. Her language is both accessible and intelligent, Emily and her colleagues sound like professors, parents and friends in realistic dialog and witty narration. I appreciated the thoughtful and often humorous look at two important themes, the corporatization of campuses and GMOs.

Newton does not support corporate influenced universities, but she does make a case for the potential for GMO foods to feed the world. Respected scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences and thebc2f1ddf99da4c777b98768be883078e_400x400 World Health Organization, have concluded that the GMO crops on the market are safe to eat. Even pundit Michael Pollan said recently the technology itself may not fundamentally pose a greater health threat than other forms of plant breeding. “ I think most of the problems arise from the way we’re choosing to apply it, what we’re using it for, and how we’re framing the problems that it is being used to solve.”

Cozy mystery fans, fans of food novels, and readers concerned with the health of our world and its people will enjoy the twisting plot and the delicious dishes shared throughout the novel. I’m working my way through the recipes and reliving the scenes as I cook. Part of that enjoyment comes through the vivid sense of place Newton has created. At times her description becomes lush and lyrical as she details the flora and fauna, the climate and the bucolic campus.

Emily Addams comes alive on the page. She is intelligent, caring, witty, concerned and a great cook. She connects with people through sincerity and food and doesn’t try to be more than her capabilities. She fears, questions herself, doesn’t give up easily and does what is right. I’m really pleased to find a new voice in Emily Addams who I can both identify with and share a corn and cherry scone!

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Congratulations to J.L. Newton for her debut of what I’m hoping is a long-lived series of Food for Thought Mysteries. Smart, timely, readable but not dumbed-down—“Oink is a celebration of community connected to the joy of food and fellowship.”—Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, authors of The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Oink is out today.  Pick up your copy at Amazon or your local bookstore. And if you’re local, join J.L. Newton for her launch of Oink In Berkeley.-1

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Dying on the Vine

 

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I didn’t think it could get any better than a wedding in Mexico turned murder mystery, but Marla Cooper has proven me wrong with the second Kelsey McKenna, Destination Wedding Mysteries, Dying on the Vine. This time Kelsey and her intrepid crew solve a crime close to home—the Napa Valley—Wine Country.

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3eaf37254262351bb62495396d14dbaaThe Napa Valley is possibly one of the most beautiful places on earth. I’m lucky enough to drive through it every week to work, and lately the vines have broken into bud, the mustard has begun to bloom and the fruit trees have exploded into clouds of flower. The wineries have put on their party dresses, welcoming the start of tourist season— locals are flocking out to partake of the spring bounty exuberantly sprouting around us.

Even I left my computer to attend a medieval

birthday party at St. Helena’s Castello di Amarosa, a 13th century castle brought over and assembled by the Sattui family, I pictured the disaster if barrels started rolling. Kings, queens, ladies, nuns, even the Pope wouldn’t be safe—I was reading Dying on the Vine at the time.

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Ok, so they don’t wear medieval costume in the book, but danger lurks in the real lives of wedding planners! Kelsey McKenna isn’t coddling a bride in an exotic setting as the story opens; she’s helping out her friend Brody, a wedding photographer, at his booth at the Wine Country Wedding Faire. She isn’t looking for clients, more interested in the cupcakes, but she’s approached by Haley Bennett and Christopher Riegert in a pinch because her father has fired the planner, Babs Norton. Kelsey can’t say no but, as Babs is the “Queen of Wine Country Weddings,” she calls on Babs to smooth the water and collect Babs’ files. Unfortunately, Babs lies dead on her office floor.images-5

 

The wedding planning community is small and buzzing by the time Kelsey attends the funeral. There, she is accused by Babs’ assistant, Stefan, of murdering his boss. Because she found the body, Kelsey’s a person of interest. She will have to clear her name and enlists Brody and her new assistant, Laurel, to help.

Meanwhile, the wedding looms and Kelsey and Laurel don’t know any of the details. Simple things like who is the caterer? Where are the flowers coming from? The couple left everything up to Babs and the file isn’t accessible. Kelsey needs to do some sleuthing just to find out what still needs to be done for the wedding and as she uncovers the plan, she also uncovers secrets that send her down one wrong turn after the next.

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It’s when another planner is attacked that Kelsey starts to fear for her own life, but it’s too late to turn back. The wedding must go on. And in the end, it does, but with that expected Cooper twist!

Cooper has crafted another funny, smart and on trend cozy mystery. This book may be better than the last, pointing to an author who takes her craft seriously. While the Dying on the Vine is often hilarious, Cooper has woven chilling suspense and heart thumping pacing throughout, balanced out with plenty of descriptions and opportunities to slow down and get to know the characters. The twists and turns kept me reading almost all night and the big climax was a total surprise. I didn’t see it coming—those Cooperesque red herrings again (but I missed the tequila donkey this time).

I fell in love with Kelsey and Brody in, Terror in Taffeta, and I’m pleased to get to know them better in this second of the series. Kelsey proves her integrity and again demonstrates her professionalism, but we also see her more vulnerable side. She needs her friends to help solve this murder. The three, Kelsey and her two sidekicks, Brody and Laurel are well characterized and create an agreeable synergy. Each personality is distinctly portrayed through their actions and the crisp, modern dialog. Kelsey’s and Brody’s banter reminds me of siblings or best friends, funny and familiar. Laurel is new to the scene, but she holds her own, proving her mettle through her trustworthiness, initiative and competence.

Dying on the Vine is a delicious late harvest Zinfandel boasting notes of humor and suspense, full-bodied character and a sweet finish. Marla Cooper and Kelsey McKenna don’t disappoint.

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Congratulations Marla Cooper! Dying on the Vine published yesterday and I’m already hankering for my next destination. Might it be Kelsey’s own dream wedding? Where will we cozy-up next?

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Lovers at the Alhambra, Generalife, Spain

P.S. Don’t you love Cooper’s book covers?! Read my review of  Terror in Taffeta here.

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Small Town Lies

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Texas Hill Country. Thanks to xtri.com

I was stymied when my niece moved her family to a small town in the Texas Hill Country some years ago. Why would anyone leave the Bay Area for a couple acres of scrub oak and a pickup truck in a town so small you’ve missed it if you yawn? Not that I have anything against small towns. I grew up in Ross so long ago it still retained a small town character. We knew everybody, and people looked out for each other. Eddie’s Ross Grocery and the Sunday social in the Rectory after church were rich in gossip. Officer Flowers kept the peace and investigated crimes—usually something to do with petty theft.

But still—my family has taken up residence in a small town several states away? I didn’t get it—that is, until I discovered Terry Shames’s delightful mystery series set in a small Texas town.

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Congratulations!

Shames won the Macavity Award for best first novel in 2013 for A Killing at Cotton Hill, the first Samuel Craddock mystery set in Jarrett Creek. She has since published The Last Death of Jack Harbin, Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, and The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake, all chronicling the slow as molasses lifestyle and the dark secrets festering below the veneer of peacefulness of this sleepy town.

Shames’s fascination with the town where her grandfather was mayor and where she grew up is clear through her precise documentation of the details of small town life in Jarrett Creek. She’s created a cast of characters that could represent any small American town, yet are inextricably bound to Jarrett Creek, starting with the hero, Samuel Craddock. He’s an unpretentious widower, the town’s retired police chief, who has been called out of retirement after Jarrett Creek runs out of money. He’s old fashioned and gentlemanly, prefers the company of women and his cattle, and is at home sipping lemonade and eating berry-filled buns in his neighbor, Loretta’s, kitchen while she gossips about everyone in town. In fact, she’s a prime source of intelligence when Craddock is investigating a murder.

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It’s Loretta who has her finger on the pulse of the town when Nonie Blake returns to Jarrett Creek after a twenty-year stint in a private mental institution. She’d tried to hang her little sister when she was fourteen. Loretta declares, “She was a dangerous girl and she’ll be a dangerous woman.” Within a week, Nonie turns up dead in the Blake family’s stock pond and Chief Craddock finds few clues. One thing is certain, Nonie was murdered and her reclusive family remains tight-lipped about her, the committal, and why she had come home.

Samuel Craddock’s method of investigation is  from the old school. He’s stumped, and he’s saddled with a rookie cop, Maria Trevino, who comes with attitude and ideas about how police work should be done. Trevino wants to look for hard evidence using methods that make Craddock uncomfortable and worse, make him feel old. He begins to question himself and fears he’s losing his edge to age. It takes some detecting but the two (and a little dog) uncover the layers of lies and cover-ups that go back a generation to finally reveal why Nonie Blake’s murder was necessary.

I fell in love with Samuel Craddock and Jarrett Creek in A Killing at Cotton Hill and the feeling has persisted through five books.  It’s the authentic small-town vibe and the folksy dialog combined with Shames’s adept ability to plot a surprising and quirky murder investigation, coupled with her masterful characterization that makes the series shine. I feel like I’ve lived in Jarrett Creek—and now my darling (and only) niece and her brood (dogs included) live there.

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To read my entire review, please visit:

The Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 32, No. 34, Winter 2016-2017

And be sure to catch up with Terry Shames. Book 6 of the Samuel Craddock Series has just come out:

Excerpted from the Publishers Weekly:  New crime novels delve into policing’s sordid underbelly, merging classic genre themes with zeitgeisty plots By Jordan Foster, Nov 18, 2016 unsettling-crime-thumb

 

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