Monday, March 22, 2021

The First Taste of a New Series is Delightful: Murder at the Beacon Bakeshop by Darci Hannah

As an outsider looking in, there appeared to be certain cliches associated with cozy mysteries. Up until now, just a few books into what I'm calling Cozy College, I had not encountered any of those cliches. Well, with Murder at the Beacon Bakeshop by Darci Hannah, they are all mostly here, and it started with the book description.

"After catching her celebrity chef fiancé sizzling in the arms of another woman, Lindsey Bakewell left big city Wall Street for small town Beacon Harbor, Michigan, to pursue her own passion as a pastry baker--and gets mixed up in someone's sweet taste of revenge."

The rest of the description is just as puntastic as that opener and it truly sets the stage for what I consider my first traditional cozy mystery. Even John McDougall, the curator of Murder by the Book's Cozy Corner subscription service--in which you get a new cozy mystery per month--comments on the cliches in his write-up. And I'll be honest: before enrolling in Cozy College, I would have rarely picked up this book and, if I had, the description would have made me roll my eyes. Now, however, It made me chuckle and I happily dove into the book.

Lindsey is a pretty fun narrator. She tells the story in first person so you get to hear her inner thoughts as she meets all the characters in Beacon Harbor. She buys an old lighthouse and she and her dog, Wellington, move in and set up shop. Her neighbor is Rory Campbell, a local hunk, ex-military, who is writing a book. The pair meet when Wellington takes a bite out of Rory's caught fish. Sparks ignite and the romantic sub-plot ensues. Betty Vanhoosen is the local realtor who sold the lighthouse to Lindsey yet neglected to mention a certain ghost that may or may not be haunting the lighthouse. Kennedy Kapoor is Lindsey's best friend. Kennedy is an uppity fashion and food blogger with her own podcast who stands out in small town Michigan just like Lindsey did when she moved there. Not only does Kennedy have Lindsey's back, but she also is at odds with Sir Hancelot, her pet name for Rory.

Something struck me as I was reading the chapters in the first section of the book: wasn't this supposed to be a murder mystery? I got lost in all the ins and outs of setting up the bakery and meeting the characters that I actually forgot. Finally, when the death occurs--it's her ex-fiance's new girlfriend who arrived in town to disrupt the bakeshop's opening day--it came out of the blue. (Yes, it's on the back cover description, but I hadn't read it since I started the book. One of my little quirks in reading a story is not to go back to the description time and again while I'm reading the actual book. It helps me with the verisimilitude.) But the dead woman is an outsider. If this book follows the true traditional mystery pattern, there will be more bodies.

And there are.

I read and watch so many mysteries with professional detectives that I'd forgotten what it was like to have an amateur sleuth be the lead. Absent is Lindsey with a badge, but present is Lindsey with intuition and a nose for asking the right questions. In fact, there is a little taste from the Sherlock Holmes stories here, with a police force slightly behind our lead character. It added a bit of spice to the mix and I enjoyed it.

The resolution I found nicely surprising and satisfying. Perhaps I wasn't reading closely, but it came out of the blue for me. Other readers might pick up on clues better than I did. What I also appreciated was the supporting cast. Another assumption I made about cozies was that they were populated by over-the-top, eccentric characters. In Hannah's book, I didn't find that. Sure there were some character tropes in play--especially with British-accented Kennedy and snobby Betty in the audio version* narrated by Amy Melissa Bentley--but all the folks in this story came across as real people. It was refreshing and fun.

The best thing about the Cozy Corner subscription service via Murder by the Book** is that you don't know what book you're receiving. It's like a birthday present each month. Murder at the Beacon Bakeshop was the February 2021 selection. As I mentioned before, it was a book with a style and a tone I likely would have just passed over earlier in my reading life. Now that I've read it, I happily look forward to the next book in charming series.

*Interestingly, the audio version has a different image for its cover.


**I highly recommend the Cozy Corner subscription service. It's only $99 (slightly more if you want to have the books shipped to you). There are two other subscription options available. Check the website for details.

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@Barrie Summy

Saturday, March 20, 2021

How Long Until the Murder?

It's funny how various things show up at around the same time.

I'm reading the February book from Murder by the Book's Cozy Corner, MURDER AT THE BEACON BAKESHOP by Darci Hannah. It is the kind of book I expected when I thought of cozy mysteries: a woman discovers her cheating fiancee, leaves her cushy New York financial job, moves to Michigan, buys a lighthouse, and opens a bakery in a small town. 

The story is good and there is a lot of talk about the buying of things needed for the bakeshop, the meeting of the side characters, the preparing for opening day, and things like that. But there was a thought in the back of my mind: this is a mystery, right? Isn't there supposed to be a murder?

There is, of course, and it came more or less around the two-hour mark (I also checked out the audiobook from the library and listen to it when I'm doing home things and return to the physical book at night). I remember frowning. The murder didn't take place until the one-quarter mark? That's interesting, especially in light of the seeming penchant for modern novels to kill off a character really quickly, usually in chapter one.

Compare that with your average Perry Mason TV episode. After I read a great article about the joy of Perry Mason, I ended up watching a few. Instead of laboriously reading all the descriptions over the nine seasons and the twenty-five plus episodes per season, I let the random number generator help me. It spit out a random number between one and nine to get the season, and then another random number between one and thirty to get the episode number. And I didn't even read the description. I just let the chosen episode play.

I watched three Perry Mason episodes this past week, all from the latter part of the series. In each, Perry barely, if at all, showed up in the beginning. Instead, we get what amounts to a twenty-minute build-up to the murder with all of the new characters. Only after the murder occurred does Perry swoop in and defend the accused. Heck, these episodes don't even bother with the hiring process. It's just a fade-in to the courtroom. 

So, by reading this one book and watching a trio of Perry Mason episodes, I discovered something new to me: the murder doesn't have to occur on page/chapter one. It's perfectly acceptable to introduce the characters and show their interactions before things get dire. In fact, in some styles of books, it might even be preferred.

All of this played into my current manuscript. I reached a natural stopping point and I printed it out. I gave it to a pair of early readers and asked them to read strictly for flow. It seemed like the story was flowing well, but the exciting parts, while the legwork was being built, were still a little bit in the future. Did the slow build work?

One of the early readers came back with a question: where was the next chapter? "Not written yet," was my reply. Well, get to it then was her last remark. She enjoyed the story so far and she understood the flow. We talked over my outline and I realized many of the next few scenes really didn't have to occur on screen. My main character--and reader--can experience those scenes from afar.

It was a huge boost of confidence for the manuscript and a coincidental bit of learning from Perry Mason and Darci Hannah. A new wrinkle in my ongoing and neverending writer's education. 

What about y'all? Do you hold off killing off characters until deeper into the book or do you have them early in the book?

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Do We Have Too Much Stuff?

Note: this post uses television as an example, but the same could be said of books, movies, comics, and music.

Most Saturday mornings, I go back in time.

Saturday is the day the rest of the family sleeps in. I do, too, considering my weekday mornings I wake around 5:15 am to write. But on Saturdays, I still wake up at the latest by 7:30. The house is quiet, the coffee's made, and the dogs are fed. I run over to my favorite do-nut shop, Shipley's, a Houston institution I've known all my life, pick up a plain glaze and a cherry filled, and return home to watch Saturday morning cartoons.

Now, it's not always cartoons. I watched WandaVision on Saturday mornings. Ditto for Star Trek: Picard and The Mandalorian. Mostly it's because I have the house to myself but also it's just kind of fun to have that Saturday morning vibe like most of us did back in the day when that was the one day of the week with programming targeted directly at kids.

Another thing that's really helped this vibe is MeTV's broadcast of Saturday morning cartoons. For three hours, they show Popeye cartoons (I'm asleep for that), Tom and Jerry/MGM cartoons (I get half of that because of my wake-up time), and a Looney Tunes block. For the Looney Tunes, they even run the opener from the 1970s, a nice reminder of childhood you don't get when these shows are streamed or on DVD.

For the past few weeks, after that week's WandaVision episode, I've added in an episode from the 1977 New Adventures of Batman. This is the Filmation show featuring the return of Adam West and Burt Ward to the roles they made famous in the 1966 TV show. And yeah, this is the series with Bat-Mite. I have the entire run on DVD. 

This being the 21st Century, historical background for this show is only an Internet search away. Turns out only 16 episodes were made. They were first broadcast from 12 February to 28 May 1977. I remember being very excited about this show. I'd watch every Saturday morning with, you guessed it, Shipley's do-nuts.

The key fact of this series is the number of episodes. Sixteen. But this series ran in some combination until 1981. That's six years of reruns. Six years of wondering which episode would air and, over time, memorizing the events of each episode. Then again, when I first bought the DVD a few years ago and watched the series for the first time in thirty something years, I didn't remember much of it.

By the time Batman: The Animated Series debuted in 1992, there were a couple dozens episodes per season and, while there were some reruns, they were fewer because there were so many episodes. The likelihood of coming across any given episode was much smaller than the 1977 series. Ditto for The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and Friends (although Friends almost gets a pass on this because the show is now broadcast in reruns on multiple channels and you can ingest many more episodes on any given week).

Now our television habits have evolved to streaming services. And boy are there a lot of them. Within most streaming services are smaller niches. Just Brady Bunch or just Perry Mason or just CSI shows. For example, HBO Max has a DC Comics section where you can watch The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and any number of DC-related films. It's an embarrassment of riches considering that which we had back in the day. In fact, you could mainline any one of these series and watch little else.

But there is so much stuff to watch.

We are not constrained by the sixteen episodes the network broadcast over and over again. If we wanted to watch Batman on TV back then, your options were few. If you want to watch Batman on TV in 2021, you could fill up a few weeks in a row you could fill up watching only Batman. Or Marvel. Or any number of the things we dreamed about when we were kids.

We live in a Golden Age of Television. The content we have is so broad, rich, and with depth. But there is a lot of it. A lot. It's difficult to keep up. I might even go so far as to say almost impossible given how we live our lives nowadays: work, school, family obligations, and everything else. If you're like me and you chat about TV with friends and family, how many times do you arrive at a show you both have watched?

Now, you might think that I'm just a Gen Xer complaining about modern life. I'm not. I'm happy to have all the choices available to us. It's fantastic and there's always something to watch.

But how many of us dig deep into a series like we used to?

Yes, there are some like WandaVision or The Mandalorian or Sherlock or Game of Thrones which get the deep dive. There's probably more I don't watch that have devoted fans that pore over every detail of a show. But I think the casual awareness of shows has dwindled with the rise of cable TV and streaming. With so many choices begging for our attention comes a dilution of common content. Back the day, we all were more or less aware of the exploits of Happy Days, The Simpson, Friends, Grey's Anatomy, Modern Family, and CSI. Now? Not so much, especially if the hot show is on a streaming service you don't buy.

Or maybe all of this is on me. Maybe I'm the oddball now. Maybe I'm the guy who doesn't watch and re-watch the same content all the time because there's always something more to watch. Maybe I've become my parents.

Do you reach an age in which the obsession over a property just wanes or never materializes like it used to? Perhaps, but I think it also boils down to time.

When we were kids, there was loads of time to fill and not a lot of content with which to fill it. Now, kids probably have a similar amount of time to kill but so many more choices. As for us adults, our time has now dwindled to the point where, for me, I'm down to an hour of non-news TV a day on weekdays. And when all my favorite shows are an hour--New Amsterdam, Resident Alien, Prodigal Son, Clarice, Superman and Lois--I'm down to a show a night. So when I'm actually consuming only one show a night, it's difficult to find the time to re-watch a show. Thus, I find myself in a steady stream of one-time viewings. Hard to remember lots of details that way.

I guess that's the main problem. I just don't have the time.

Unless I had a time machine.

Monday, March 8, 2021

The Dog Takes a Turn on Stage in First Degree by David Rosenfelt

Flush with a twenty-two million dollar inheritance, attorney Andy Carpenter seemingly has it made. Well, except for suffering from what he calls "lawyer's block," an affliction in which he's taken zero clients in the time since he inherited the money from his deceased father and won the big Willie Miller case in which he got an innocent man off death row. He's not necessarily upset about it, but he knows he has to get back in the courtroom soon. With his divorce final, he is now openly in a relationship with the love of his life, Laurie Collins, who happens also to be his one and only investigator. And he's got the love and adoration of Tara, his golden retriever. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, this being First Degree, the second novel in the Andy Carpenter series, plenty. A body is discovered, burned and decapitated. When the identification is made, it's linked to Laurie from her time on the local New Jersey police force. It also connected to the strange man who shows up at Andy's office, gets the protection of lawyer/client privilege, and promptly confesses to the murder. Andy's in a quandary.

Ethically, he can't break the bond he has with the mystery man, so he takes up the case for the man arrested for the murder. Even though that man is innocent--and has history with Laurie from when she was a cop which complicates things--Andy is struggling to find a way to represent him when news arrives that makes Andy's case much easier: the man was released from prison. Naturally Andy asks why. The lawyer from the DA's office is only too happy to comply: it's because Laurie herself has been arrested and charged with murder.

First Degree is my third Andy Carpenter novel since I discovered him back in December 2020 (see my review for Open and Shut) and a nice, comfortable pattern has emerged. Andy gets a case that looks hopeless and he has to figure it out to save his client. It's the stuff of novels from as far back and the pulp days of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason to the recent novels of Michael Connelly and John Grisham. Granted, having read the 20th book in the series first, I knew the ending of the second book before it even started. Then again, I think pretty much everybody can guess the ending of this book, but it's how Rosenfelt takes Andy through the case that is so darn entertaining. And Tara gets a lot more screen time in this one.

Rosenfelt's novel is part of my 2021 education into traditional and cozy mysteries. It's a genre I'm barely familiar with but one I want to read more of. While some might categorize Rosenfelt's books as cozy, I prefer to think of it as traditional. Not sure there's a distinction, but I think there is. When I see dogs on the cover and cutesy titles with puns (not one here but they show up soon in the series), I expect canine intervention at the most crucial time possible. We actually get one scene of that in this book, so Tara has her moment on stage.

But this is still not the kind of book I expected. Hold on: let me rephrase. It's not the kind of book I expected when I thought of cozy mysteries before 2021. Now that I've read three of these charming novels featuring Andy Carpenter, I know what to expect: the kind of story you might find on network television.  No on-screen violence, barely a swear word, and the hero solving the crime without resorting to violence and borderline legal territory. At this time in my life, it is exactly what I want to read.

Narrator Grover Gardner is rapidly growing on me with this series. I'm used to him reading history books, one of my favorites of his being Master of the Senate by Robert Caro. That book was over 56 hours and Gardner's voice was the calm guide through the entire thing. Here, Gardner gets to expand his vocal reptertoire, and it's great. Even when I read the books, I heard Gardner's voice as Andy Carpenter.

Astute readers might recognize that my review of Open and Shut was published two weeks ago today. I haven't read multiple books by a single author this quick in a long time. I have Reading ADHD where I can sometimes get distracted by other books very easily. It's why my To Be Read stack is so high. I can't say that I'll keep up this reading pace of an Andy Carpenter story every two weeks because there are other books I want to read. But I can say that I've already downloaded the third book in the series, Bury the Lead, from the library via the incredibly awesome Libby app. ;-)

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Ever Have One of Those Chapters?

We writers know all about the vicissitudes of writing prose, the good, the bad, the frustrating, and the glorious. Most of us know that for every valley in which we find ourselves mired in will soon vanish when we reach the mountaintop of “The End.”

There are, however, little victories along the way, and I experienced one this week. See if this rings true for you.

My current work in progress has been gestating on and off for about eight years. I completed Version 1.0 back in 2013 but stuck it in a drawer. I picked it up again a few years ago, but it still wasn’t gelling. Last fall, I picked up that 2013 printout, re-read it with a yellow notepad right next to me. Then, I completely revised the outline, exporting it onto 3x5 index cards that now live on the cork board in my writing room.

Those notecards carry the plot. They don’t always carry characterization. That’s for the writer, his fingers, and his imagination.

I’m something like 30,000+ into this story. I’m enjoying it, layering in the various threads for my awesome conclusion. And I’ve got a main character I really enjoy. She’s a woman of a certain age. One of her funny lines goes something like this. “You’re never supposed to ask a woman about her age. And there’s also a certain age when you’re not even supposed to guess.” 

I know her backstory and what makes her tick, but I reached a particular chapter in this book that ended up taking me the bulk of the week to complete. Why? Well, I ended up fighting with how the chapter was flowing versus the text I had written on the index card. I kept trying to steer the chapter toward what I had written on a 3x5 card last fall when I didn’t have the broader understanding of character in place. I kept hitting a wall, no matter what I did.

Finally, I relented. I stopped reading the card and just re-read the first half of the chapter. Then, picking up steam by the words I had written, I just let the two characters talk to each other.

Guess what? My lead became even more alive than before. So did the other character. They both were on a date, just talking to each other, in that typical getting-to-know-you vibe of all first dates. 

For me, my fictional protagonist became a real human this week. And boy am I excited to continue on with the story.

Y’all have chapters like that?