Book Review: Coconut Layer Cake Murder by Joanne Fluke @JoanneFluke @KensingtonBooks

Coconut Layer Cake Murder
A Hannah Swensen Mystery #25
Joanne Fluke
Kensington Books, March 2020
ISBN 978-1-4967-1889-1
Hardcover

The population of Eden Lake, Minnesota, is probably the most cookie-eating population in the country. It’s because baker and amateur sleuth Hannah Swensen, owner of The Cookie Jar, gives everyone she comes in contact with cookies.  Butterscotch and Pretzel Cookies, Confetti Blizzard Whippersnapper cookies, Strawberry and Vanilla Pinwheel Cookies—you name it. In the latest book of this long running series, Hannah and her mother travel to California to help a friend pack for a cross country move and to fit in a little sightseeing.

A panicked phone call from her younger sister brings Hannah back to Minnesota. Sister Michelle’s boyfriend, Lonnie, a deputy, is the top suspect in the murder of a friend, Darcy. Darcy had been at a bar and had been drinking too much, and Lonnie drove her home. When he was in her house, making sure she got in safely, he passed out and when he awoke next morning, she was dead. Hannah investigates, with plates of Snowflake and Ice Cookies in hand, interviewing witnesses and suspects.

Readers who like recipes with their mysteries, and who haven’t discovered the delights of Eden Lake, will be pleased to discover this series. With twenty-five books now in the series, there are a lot of mysteries to be solved, and many recipes to be tried. Recipes have detailed instructions, so even the most inexperienced cook will not be intimidated.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, March 2020.

Book Review: A Bad Hair Day Cookbook by Nancy J. Cohen @nancyjcohen

A Bad Hair Day Cookbook
Recipes from Nancy J. Cohen’s Cozy Mystery Series
Nancy J. Cohen
Orange Grove Press, November 2019
ISBN 978-0-9997932-5-1
Trade Paperback

From the author—

Are you having a bad hair day? Whip out your whisk, snatch up your spoon, and prepare your palate. Inside the pages of this cookbook are recipes that will bring you good cheer.

Enjoy 160+ tasty recipes from Nancy J. Cohen’s popular Bad Hair Day cozy mystery series. Included in this cookbook are excerpts, cooking tips, and anecdotes written by hairstylist and savvy sleuth Marla Vail. From appetizers to desserts, Marla offers cooking tips and tricks along with commentary about the dishes she prepares for her family. Whether you’re a skilled cook or an eager novice, this cookbook will unravel the mystery of cooking. Put on your apron and plan to make some killer recipes! Bonuses Include:

• Meet the Sleuth
• Introduction by Marla Vail
• Cooking Tips
• Excerpts from Series Titles
• Themed Menu Suggestions
• “A Sabbath Dinner” by Nancy’s Mother

For Home Cooks, Food Lovers, Mystery Fans and Cookbook Collectors

I can’t think of a better time to bring out a new cookbook than a food-centric holiday season, can you? Ms. Cohen‘s timing really is good for me as my daughter and I are about to celebrate our first Thanksgiving in our new-ish home in St. Augustine. I’ve been rummaging through her (Marla’s) recipes and I’ve found way too many to try all at once but there are a few that will be gracing our table this Thursday:

Garlic Cheese Biscuits—like Marla, we’re big fans of a certain restaurant chain’s biscuits and my mouth is already watering.

French Onion Soup—I’d be just as happy with Potato Leek Soup but Annie has a “thing” about leeks so French Onion it is (not that I’m complaining, mind you). I’ll make the Potato Leek Soup for myself another time 😉

Roast Turkey Breast With Herbs—well, duh! We’ll be doing the whole bird, though.

Sweet Potatoes w/Red Onions & Rosemary—this will be a tasty change from mashed potatoes or sweet potato casserole

Apple Ginger Cake—this is totally new to me and I can’t wait to try it. The recipe includes lots of my favorite flavors and spices, like brown sugar, molasses, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, apple, etc. Yum!

This cookbook is just chock full of recipes that sound delicious but, maybe more importantly, most of them seem really easy and they’re accompanied by comments from sleuth Marla. Try it, you’ll like it!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2019.

Book Review: Treble at the Jam Fest by Leslie Budewitz

Treble at the Jam Fest
A Food Lovers’ Village Mystery #4
Leslie Budewitz
Midnight Ink, June 2017
ISBN 978-0-7387-5240-2
Trade Paperback

Jazz guitarist Gerry Martin, one of the headliners at the Jewel Bay, Montana, jazz festival, falls to his death from the rocks above the Jewel River. Local police call it an accident, that Martin slipped while out hiking, but Erin Murphy has her suspicions. Erin is manager of Murphy’s Mercantile, a general store in this food lovers’ town. There seems to be bad blood between Martin and Dave Barber, local musician who upstaged Martin in the concert on opening night. Newcomer Gabrielle Drake and her pushy stage mother also seem to have a problem with the headliner.

When Erin examines the crime scene, she notices a discarded coffee cup overlooked by the police, as well as the footprints left by the victim. Would Gerry Martin wear dress boots when setting out for a hike along rugged terrain? No, but he might if he was planning to meet someone.

Subplots and supporting characters surround Erin and her store—she hires a new salesperson, finally gets to meet her boyfriend’s best friend from childhood, and her mother has news of her own. Erin is more level -headed and believable than many of the protagonists in cozy mystery series, and Jewel Bay is a setting than carries the story along. Who wouldn’t like to visit a town with such a variety of restaurants, shops, and festivals, set in the natural beauty of Montana? Recipes are included, rhubarb fans will be especially pleased. This is the fourth book in the series, but it stands well on its own.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, May 2018.

Book Review: Cozy Food edited by Nancy Lynn Jarvis—and a Giveaway!

Cozy Food
Edited by Nancy Lynn Jarvis
Good Read Publishers, May 2014
ISBN 978-0-9835891-7-4
Trade Paperback

Cozy Food is a collection of favorite recipes from 128 (!) cozy mystery authors along with a section giving information about the authors and their books (as of 2014). The recipes are as varied and interesting as the authors and, while I’m not heavy-duty into cooking, I did try a few of them and they turned out to be as good as they sounded. Besides all the dishes for me and my family, I think I might try the pet food recipes for my kitties and granddog and grandkitty. This is a great way to find some new authors and some new food.

Mel’s Texas BBQ Mop Sauce by Sparkle Abbey is high on my list to try and I actually have every ingredient on hand except celery which I wouldn’t put in anyway 😉

Chickapoo’s Peanut Butter Treats from Marian Allen is one of the easiest recipes in the book and is OMG good.

Suzanne Young offers a quick Edna’s Easy Herb Spread with enough herb options to keep me taste-testing for a long time—because somebody has to do it, you know—and it’s equally good as a potato chip dip.

There are so many scrumptious recipes in this cookbook, they’ll keep you busy for a long, long time but never fear; if you find yourself just wanting to kick back with a delicious libation at the end of the day, you can hoist Sandra Balzo’s Murder on the Orient Espresso Martini while you check out some of the authors that are new to your list of must-reads.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2018.

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To enter the drawing for my very, very
gently used copy of Cozy Food, just
leave a comment below. The winning
name will be drawn on Thursday
evening, May 3rd, and the drawing is
open to residents of the US and Canada.

Book Review: Murder with Fried Chicken and Waffles by A.L. Herbert

Murder with Fried Chicken and Waffles
A Mahalia Watkins Soul Food Mystery #1
A.L. Herbert
Kensington, January 2018
ISBN: 978-1-4967-0502-0
Mass Market Paperback

Murder With Fried Chicken and Waffles was first released in 2015, but has been re-released this year in mass paperback form. I don’t know how I missed this book the first time around but I am glad I caught it now. The author, A.L. Herbert, has given readers a  mystery with a likable protagonist in Mahalia Watkins.

Halia, as she’s known to her friends, took a chance and opened an upscale restaurant serving soul food  in Prince George’s County Maryland. Being a life long resident of the county she wanted folks to be able to go out for a nice meal without having to drive into Washington. By all appearances, her gamble has paid off. Mahalia’s Sweet Tea is packed most days for both lunch and dinner. They come for the fried chicken and waffles, macaroni and cheese, corn casserole and airy light biscuits and stay for the banana pudding and red velvet cake. The fly in the ointment was that Mahalia had to borrow some money from one smooth talking Marcus Rand to open her restaurant. This leaves her at his beckoned call. So when Marcus comes by asking for special dinner items for his guests, no matter how inconvenient she feels she must oblige.

If only the special menu items were the only problems Marcus brought down on Mahalia’s Sweet Tea.  But sadly it isn’t. That fast talking smooth operator ended up dead on the kitchen floor of the restaurant apparently clunked on the head by one of Mahalia’s heavy duty cast iron skillets. If the body is found in the restaurant, the restaurant might be closed for days as a crime scene. And the customers! Would people still come to a place where a person was found murdered? On impulse, Mahalia and her cousin Wavonne lug the body outside and down the alley to behind the bookstore. Problem solved right? Wrong. From there the story takes off with plenty of twists and turns until Mahalia figures out who killed Marcus.

There are plenty of reasons to love this book. The protagonist, her cousin and mother are all very likable, well defined characters. The three of them make up a household that will resonate with some readers. In some families, adult children live with an aged parent to help out and for everyone to save money.  Mahalia is a strong, ambitious African American – a character mostly missing from the cozy genre. She runs a highly successful business but she hasn’t forgotten where she came from. She employs her less than reliable cousin Wavonne to help keep her on the straight and narrow. She chose to put her restaurant in her home community so the town could have something nice. Mahalia is a person of character.

The mystery – who killed Marcus, takes some interesting turns. Mahalia is perhaps a bit more vested in finding the killer than some because Wavonne acts impulsively and ends up as a suspect so Mahalia is trying to solve the case to get Wavonne off the hook. If I have any quibble at all with the book, it is that the author didn’t really give readers ample clues to solve the murder completely, but the end solution does make sense.

Cozies are often set around food establishments, but this is the first that I am aware of with soul food as the focus. I have to say, as a bit of a foodie, my mouth was watering reading the descriptions of the food. There are recipes sprinkled throughout the book. I hadn’t even finished reading the book when I tried out the cornbread recipe and it is melt in your mouth good. The fried chicken has a surprising ingredient and the banana pudding has a different twist to it from what I have made before. Both are on my try list in the near future.

Murder with Fried Chicken and Waffles is a wonderful start to a series. I know there is a second book already out, and I hope there are many more to follow.

I received this book from the publisher for review.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St. Clair, February 2018.

Book Review: Devonshire Scream by Laura Childs—and a Giveaway!

Devonshire ScreamDevonshire Scream
A Tea Shop Mystery #17
Laura Childs
Berkley Prime Crime, March 2016
ISBN 978-0-425-28166-6
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Catering a high-class trunk show at Heart’s Desire Jewelry is a shining achievement for Theodosia and the Indigo Tea Shop. After all, a slew of jewelers, museums, and private collectors will be there to showcase their wares and sip some of Theo’s best blends. But just as Theo settles in to enjoy the fruits of her labor, the party is crashed by a gang of masked muggers who steal the precious gems and jewels on display. The thieves disappear almost as quickly as they arrived, leaving shattered glass, scattered gemstones, and a dead body in their wake. 
 
Although the last thing Theo wants is to get involved, she can’t help but intercede when her dear friend Brooke, aunt of the victim and owner of Heart’s Desire, begs for help in figuring out who committed the brutal burglary. Though the FBI believes this daring “smash and grab” is the work of an international gang of jewel thieves, Theo is convinced that the felon is someone much closer to home…

Right off the bat, let me just say I love this cover. It’s so…so cozy 😉 Seriously, though, the combination of colors was just the thing to bring spring to my mind and I send kudos to designer Lesley Worrell and artist Stephanie Henderson.

Laura Childs juggles three longrunning series and I have endless admiration for her ability to do that and do it well. I enjoy them all but, of the three, I like the Tea Shop series the best. (By the way, she’ll be debuting a fourth series in July and there’s a preview at the back of this book. That one’s definitely not cozy so she’ll be using her real name, Gerry Schmitt, and I can barely stand the wait.) Anyway, there are a lot of reasons this series strikes a chord with me—I love tea of all sorts, Charleston is one of my favorite cities, the included recipes always sound and are scrumptious and the main character is a woman I can relate to.

Theo has a lot going for her in her personal life and in her shop and catering a high-end jewelry show is sort of the icing on the cake. When violent thieves strike, Theo is as confused and frightened as everyone else but she quickly gathers herself together and does what an experienced amateur sleuth should do, taking charge until the police and ambulances arrive and trying to keep people calm. When the first responders get there, Theo sets right in to help wherever she’s needed and it’s this kind of behavior that makes me like Theo so much.

This is, however, a cozy and, as we all know, that means our intrepid sleuth needs must do some sleuthing. In this case, Theo is reluctant to meddle as the curmudgeonly “real” Detective Burt Tidwell would call it but her friend Brooke, owner of the jewelry shop and aunt of the dead girl, makes it impossible to refuse her pleas. She soon finds herself involved with not only the local police (Tidwell knows it’s in his best interest to share information with Theo because of previous cases) but also a pair of FBI agents and they all have a lot to do to solve this case and prevent another heist, that of a Fabergé egg that’s on its way to town.

Amongst all the snooping…er, detecting…we’re given a good look at the inner workings of a tea shop in Charleston and I always love this part. It’s a curious blend of murder, mayhem and the tranquility that goes along with such an oasis of gentility and peace, a blend that’s hard to beat, and it’s extra fun to watch Burt Tidwell become a marshmallow when confronted with delectable scones and tea. I think I would enjoy having a cup with Burt at the Indigo Tea Shop and I’m definitely going to have to try the recipes for Drayton’s Devonshire Cream and Haley’s Beef Stroganoff 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2016.

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To enter the drawing for a hardcover
copy of Devonshire Scream,
leave a comment below. Two winning
names will be drawn Sunday evening,
March 13
th. This drawing is open
to residents of the US.

Book Review: Meet Your Baker by Ellie Alexander

Meet Your BakerMeet Your Baker
A Bakeshop Mystery #1
Ellie Alexander
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, December 2014
ISBN 978-1-250-05423-4
Mass Market Paperback

Juliet “Jules” Capshaw left her hometown of Ashland, Oregon ten years ago, to learn how to be an expert pastry chef, and then to travel the world working on a cruise ship. She had no plans to return to Ashland except for visits to see her widowed mother, but when serious issues arise in Jules’s marriage, her plans change. Jules finds herself right back where she originally started – working at Torte, the family bakery business that her parents began decades before.

I know this book was good for a few reasons. The first is that, whether it’s fair or not, I usually steer clear of cosy mysteries with cute covers and a pun in the title. This book has made me question that policy, because it turned out to be a fine mystery  with unexpected twists and turns not only in the plot, but in character development. The second reason is that, although I am normally a tea drinker, I wanted to drink every coffee and latte and espresso shot that was described in the book. Similarly, the third reason is that I generally prefer savoury foods to sweet ones, but as I was reading Meet Your Baker,  I wanted to eat every raspberry danish, scone, oatmeal cookie, lime crescent cookie, and lime mint cupcake described in the story, as well as the delicious-sounding chicken pasta salad and turkey havarti sandwiches. Alexander is clearly a strong writer if she could win me over on all those points.

I have never been to Ashland, Oregon, and until I read Meet Your Baker, I hadn’t heard of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which provides much of the employment for the residents of Ashland. Most of the business for Torte comes from the tourists who visit to see the plays in the city’s three theatres, stop in at galleries, and shop in the distinctive stores. Ashland is also home to South Oregon University, and this also plays a part in the story, since a number of the characters are students with various part-time jobs around town.

The setting was probably my favourite part of the book. Although I haven’t visited Ashland, it sounds very similar to Stratford, Ontario, a Canadian city with a similar population that is also home to a Shakespeare Festival. I love going to Stratford, not only to see the great acting and the wonderful plays, but also because everywhere you go during the season, there are actors and people connected with the theatre – you can’t help but bump into intriguing characters and hearing dramatic discussions in every restaurant and cafe.

This was also what I loved about the descriptions of Ashland. The mystery plot revolves around the theatre, and around the constant fund-raising and endless clashes between producing fabulous plays and ensuring the festival remains commercially viable. Because so many of those involved are actors, directors, and producers, they all have larger-than-life personalities – and often exceptional wardrobes, which makes for a fun read. The dependence of the town’s economy on tourism is clearly described here, and I liked Juliet’s practicality and strong work ethic as she tries to help her mother keep Torte on its feet, even during the slower months.

Although the mystery plot itself is maybe a bit convoluted, I thought this was offset by unexpected developments in the characters’ lives. The reason Juliet has decided to leave her job and her marriage was not what I anticipated when I began reading, and I liked being surprised. Although she is struggling with sadness and confusion as the book begins, Jules is not someone to lie around and wallow in her grief. Instead, she gets busy and bakes, and Alexander’s careful and detailed descriptions of Juliet’s cooking were fascinating to read.

To top it all off, this book also includes recipes. I’m not sure that I’ve ever made a recipe from a fictional book before, but Alexander certainly makes it seem like a tempting idea.

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson, February 2016.