Wednesday, June 30, 2010

June summer reading review pt 1 – the good

I spent June absorbed in a large number of chick lit mysteries.

(Thank you county library system. If you love to read please consider donating the cost of a new book to your local library, their budgets are being slashed across the country this year & every little bit helps keep their programs active)

Chick lit mysteries, with their modern settings, are not my usual taste in books. I like historic mysteries with lots of period details and witty dialog. Chick lit usually manages the dialog but I find the period details annoying because of the rapid pace of technology.

For instance, in two different series’ the characters were suddenly overcome with fascination at these things called ‘digital cameras’.

Both books were published in 2005.

By 2005 I was on my SECOND digital camera. I’m hardly on the cutting edge of technology either. So the gasping awe shown by both sets of characters upon seeing a digital camera was disconcerting and threw off the pace of the book.

Then there is the suspension of disbelief issue. I grew up reading fantasy & sci fi books along with numerous stories of saints’ miracles, so my ability to suspend disbelief is rather high. I can overlook all sorts of impossible, improbable or highly unlikely things in a plot, along with gaping holes in it if I like the people & setting enough.

But. The problem with mystery series that revolve around a single sleuth is explaining why dead bodies keep turning up around this person and why they are solving the crime. Historically there was no police force or it was small, overworked & often corrupt. So your whoremistress in 1100’s London, your traveling peddler in 1400’s York and your private detective in 1920’s Melbourne could reasonably be expected to encounter dead bodies and be inclined to solve the murder because they were either the prime suspect or getting paid to solve it.

However, explaining why a woman in 2001-2010 tiny American town is suddenly hip deep in dead bodies over a 12 month period is hard. And explaining why the police are not looking very hard at her as a suspect, if not actually arresting her for interfering with them is harder still.  Some series manage this better than others.

The best of the bunch for me is the Meg Langlslow series, which is currently 11 books long with a 12th due out July 6th. It is a measure of how much I enjoyed this series that about 5 books into it I went out on and bought all 11 of them for $9.85 (plus $17 in shipping but still...11 hardback books for $27 is a heck of a deal). Meg is a blacksmith in modern day Virginia. Murder with Peacocks is the first book in the series. She is organizing 3 weddings - for her mom, sister in law and best friend. An unpleasant woman, the SIL of the man Meg’s mom is marrying, is found dead and Meg gets involved with solving her murder in between dress fittings, parties and decorating. There are a bunch of well crafted secondary characters in the book, many of whom reappear regularly in the later ones. There is also some romantic tension as Meg finds time to meet the ‘wrong man’. It is a wonderful read, very funny, sometimes over the top, with a well plotted mystery. The other books for the most part can be described the same. I thought Murder with Puffins and Owls Well that Ends Well fell a bit flat, with Owls suffering from a certain degree of self imposed blindness on Meg’s part that someone who has already solved 5 murders ought to be over by now. But that is a problem most chick lit sleuths seems to suffer from  - “Someone *I* know can never be the murderer” - no matter how many times they are proved wrong. It’s still a wonderful series though and I highly recommend it.

The second best of the bunch is the Gourmet Girl series, which has 5 books so far and feature grad student and food lover Chloe Carter as a reluctant sleuth starting with Steamed.  Chloe finds her blind date with his throat slit in the bathroom of the fancy restaurant where they had been dining.  She then becomes involved with the restaurant employees and their friends including Josh, a chef under suspicion for the murder (his knife had been used). Spoiler… Josh didn’t do it and he and several other friends, family & acquaintances become regulars in the next few books.  I enjoyed this series for the most part. It helps if you are a foodie because all the stories involve chefs or restaurants and you get lots of behind the scenes details about restaurant life. If that doesn't interest you the books probably won’t either. Each book also includes about a dozen recipes for dishes that were mentioned in the story. The characters are for the most part well developed, the mysteries are interesting, the sub plots add to the overall story & they all tie together fairly well. I like that Chloe is perfectly willing to believe people she knows could in fact be the murderer even while she is hoping to clear them. There are some flaws, with some characters being too much of a caricature or stereotype & some having no motivation at all to do the things they do (why is Josh keeping his job hunting a secret from Chloe? that makes no sense) and little things like that do grate on me because I can suspend disbelief for plot but not for basic human interaction. I haven’t bought this series yet. But probably it is only a matter of time before I do. I’m waiting on the 5th book to decide. I have it on hold but someone else is ahead of me in line for it.

The one thing both these books have in common is in the first book the sleuths end up involved with someone and while the relationships may have their ups and downs in subsequent books there is none of that “Am I dating a murderer?” or “who will she choose?” going on to detract from later books. Don’t get me wrong, both of those subplots are nice when well done, but they are hard to pull off believably in book after book with the same characters. Janet Evanovich does it well in the Stephanie Plum books, with Stephanie, Morelli and Ranger, most of the time but even she can’t make it work in every book. (books 14 & 15 come immediately to mind).

Those two series are the best of what I have read so far.

Part 2 will cover the decent – The Blackbird Sisters mysteries, Murder 101 and two books by Kay C Hill – books I liked reading but not enough to own.

Part 3 will be the bad – the Hannah Swenson series and the Molly Forrester series, both of which I really thought I would like, yet didn’t.

***note – my links are a mix of Amazon affiliate links, which net me pennies if you buy the book after following the link, and Library Thing links, which net me nothing. Library Thing is like GoodReads but has a one time fee.


Carrie said...

TFS. I am working my way through The Cat Who...series. Will check these out.

Rinda1961 said...

Wow - what a great review!

Cate said...

thanks for sharing - I've now got some new books on my list to have a look at... oh, and I was behind the times, I didn't get my first digital camera until 2005...

LizzieMade said...

That's a good and detailed review of your reading. I don't read mystery/detective books - but now I think that Ishould!

Have been e-mailing you about your Stamp Giveaway prize. Don't know if you have received them - could you check your "spam" box? x

Andrea Chamberlain said...

This is such a great post, Stacey - I really appreciate the depth of detail you go into when you do a review. Did you ever consider starting a book review site? You've read enough books, you would have material for a zillion posts already to start with!

Carole said...

That's a great review!
I've just checked on UK Amazon and both series you recommend are on there. I'm very tempted to get Steamed and Murder with peacocks and you know I really shouldn't add any more to my To Be Read pile.
Can I blame you? :)