Tag Archives: cozy 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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Scheduled to Death

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images-4In the 1950s in my Dad’s Buick, motoring south along El Camino Real, I looked for the bells marking the Spanish explorer’s route and drank in the sights outside my window: stately pillared homes, bars and strip joints, restaurants, shops and traffic. I tasted the air laced with salt and chop suey as we passed through the endless neighborhoods to visit my grandfather, a retired Stanford chemistry professor. at his tree-shrouded Kinsley Avenue home in Palo Alto.

Even as a small child I recognized the rarified atmosphere of peaceful activity, co-operation and camaraderie we encountered in Grandpa’s quiet neighborhood and in explorations of the Stanford campus with its courtyards and red tiled roofs. Excitement in Palo Alto still centers on Stanford University in the form of discovering a solution to global warming or graduating the next Einstein. But the academic world suffers the same jealousies, greed, and crime as anywhere else. Just ask Mary Feliz and her amateur sleuth, Maggie MacDonald, founder and CEO of Simplicity Itself Organizing Services.

Maggie, her husband Max and their two teen aged boys have recently moved from the Sacramento River delta into great-aunt Kay’s 100 year old California Craftsman house in the fictional village of Orchard View up the ridge from Stanford University. “Efficient organization” is Maggie’s passion and she’s working tirelessly to settle into her new home and re-build her business in the Bay Area. She’s Scheduled to Death, in the latest Maggie McDonald Mystery by Mary Feliz publishing through Lyrical Underground in January 2017.

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Maggie is aware that her contract with Professor Lincoln, “Linc” Sinclair straddles the line between failure and success for her career in Orchard View. Her client, a Nobel candidate with a brilliant mind and no sense of organization, needs her to cull three generations of furniture and “stuff” in preparation to sell the family mansion, which will be showcased at realtor Tess Olmos’s holiday event, and he’s not answering the door. images-8Maggie looks for Linc in the the backyard where she encounters formidable Boots letting herself into the kitchen. Boots is the director of the Orchard View Plotters Garden Club and manager of the community garden adjoining Linc’s property.

Linc bicycles up with his dog Newton. The group troops up to Linc’s workroom to inspect his progress and find Linc’s fiancée and Maggie’s best friend, Sarah, dead in a pool of water, a frayed electrical wire grasped in her hand.

Acting Detective Lieutenant Apfel, a detective so unlikeable he can’t get along with his canine unit, arrests Linc for murder and Maggie applies her organizational skills to investigating the crime. She’s driven to solve the mystery out of loyalty to her friends, moral indignation over the sloppy handling of the police investigation—and if Linc’s organizing job isn’t finished and the event is canceled, Maggie’s fledgling Simplicity Itself Organizing Services doesn’t stand a chance.

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Scheduled to Death is a delightful cozy mystery with enough twists and surprises to keep the pages flipping. Between the taciturn garden mistress Boots, her cadre of garden assistants, all former foster children, Stanford graduate students and professors, a bloodthirsty pickup truck and a threatening black Range Rover, there are enough secrets and suspects, explosions and crashes, to keep readers guessing until the end when the truth is revealed. Maggie has her own team of helpers including Orchard View Detective Paolo Bianchi, and family friend, Detective Jason Mueller, on medical leave from the department. They’re as unhappy about Detective Lieutenant “Awful’s” handling of the case as Maggie. Even the dogs, Belle, Newton and Munchkin, play their parts in creating the backdrop to returning peace to Orchard View.

Author Mary Feliz has created a realistic and believable town in the Palo Alto hills. That Maggie is not a professor or attached to the University works in her favor. That she’s a professional organizer with a strong family and social life gives her credibility and reasons to be in places bodies might turn up. She’s uber-organized herself, a boon for an investigator, and possesses familiar middle-class values. Maggie is a woman we might count as a friend and know through our clubs, PTA, church, and social circles. You can count on her: “But friends helping friends is what life is all about…” Intelligent, logical, organized, determined, personable, kind and motivated, Maggie McDonald is a character that will inspire readers.

I enjoyed Feliz’s easy-going writing style. Her prose is clear, modern and the story moves at a good pace. She doesn’t bog us down with constant repetitions or explanations, nor is the language too lofty or stiff. It’s just right: enough elevated vocabulary to sound intelligent balanced with enough familiar phrases to make us comfortable. I loved her technique of starting each chapter with an excerpt from Maggie’s notebook. For example,

Chapter 2 begins:

        Whenever you’re working with electrical appliances or systems,                  check at least twice to assure the power is off.

     From the Notebook of Maggie McDonald, Simplicity Itself Organizing Services

I appreciated the clear, logical progression of the plot to a breath-quickening climax. The leisurely tying up of details into a hoped-for happy ending and the possibility for more adventures added to my enjoyment of the book:

“I’ve learned my lesson, honey. I promise.”

“Of course dear,” Max said. But then he snorted, ruining the formal and dignified tone of his statement. “So, where does that leave your interest in murder investigations? They’re becoming a habit with you.”

“What are the odds of another murder happening in Orchard View?”

Yes, what exactly are the odds? High, I hope!

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I congratulate Mary Feliz on her second in a promising series of cozy mysteries set in Silicon Valley. Maggie McDonald is a charming protagonist even if she has a thing for tripping over bodies. In her first book, Address to Die For, the McDonalds haven’t even moved into their new home when Maggie stumbles across her first case. For an organizing diva, murder was not on the to-do list. I’m betting author Mary Feliz, who has lived in five states and two countries, has moving to a science. It’s a headache no matter how smoothly it goes. Feliz’s travels have shown her that life in Silicon Valley, is much different than life elsewhere and she’s become a self-proclaimed advocate of “irony, serendipity, diversity, and quirky intelligence,” bringing these elements into her characterizations.

Feliz is a Smith College graduate where she studied Sociology. She’s active in Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and, of course, the National Association of Professional Organizers.

Find Scheduled to Death on pre-sale at Amazon and kick off your new year with an exciting mystery. Look for Scheduled to Death on January 17th, and congratulations to Mary Feliz on her delightful new series.

Look for Dead Storage in July 2017

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