This was a stupid purchase – and a stupid thing to read, for that matter, but I did want something brainless in the middle of my Big Giant Fantasy Series. I got it. It is the first in the Hannah Swenson mystery series, which I didn’t know when I started it.) I eventually caught on as the main character reacted to discovering her very first corpse. (She said something to the effect of not making a habit out of discovering bodies, and both eyebrows went up, because that’s the backbone of the whole series, as with all cozies … )
And that, the fact that it took me so long to realize it was the first book, is relevant to this review, now that I think of it. There should be more initial exposition in this *as* a first book, better introductions to the characters and the setting, etc. (I know, I know – if there had been floating chunks of infodump I would have complained about that. Life is tough. So is writing. Deal.) Late in the story there is a mention of how Hannah’s sister asked her to leave school and come home to help out after their father died … but that’s a kind of massive request to make, and a massive decision, and no real motivation or reaction given. Their mother is depicted as pretty much okay, apart from joining every club in town; in fact, Hannah avoids her as much as humanly possible, so what is her role here, apart from cookie baker? Did she resent being yanked away from her chosen course? How did the bakery come about? It is mentioned that it was the sister’s idea; why?
One thing that does pretty clearly indicate a first book is the level of writing. I’m tempted to insert the Opus “It wasn’t good” icon I stole from the Popcorn Dialogues. The stupidity level is high among the characters, and in the plot … and the other draw in a book like this, the cookie recipes scattered throughout, aren’t remotely original enough to make the book worth reading or buying as a cookbook. Woohoo, ginger snaps and chocolate crinkles. I’ve been making extremely similar recipes since I was ten. And I don’t understand the logic of renaming what are basically chocolate crinkles from the Betty Crocker Cooky Book [sic] “Black-and-whites”, when Black-and-whites are usually another kind of cookie entirely.
Joanne Fluke falls prey to one of the things that irks me the most in bad writing: thesaurusitis. Instead of adhering to KISS, certain writers feel the need to keep a thesaurus open at their elbow to “prettify” their prose. Here, for nauseous example, are a couple of bits from the scene where Hannah gives her cat some ice cream: rather than use the words “ice cream” again, it is called “the mound of icy white” and “this intriguing new foodstuff”. (New to the cat, that was. No “frozen confection”? I’m disappointed.) Should it bug me as much as it does when a writer feels impelled to make a lame stab at poetry when feeding a cat ice cream? Maybe not. But it really does. You’re not Lord Byron, love, nor is Lord Byron called for in this instance. Don’t.
The book’s plot runs thusly: Hannah Swenson owns and runs a cookie bakery in a small touristy town, and one morning in winter her milkman doesn’t show up to deliver as he always does – and she finds him shot dead in the alley behind her shop. Her brother-in-law is a cop, up for promotion, and the prevailing logic is that if he – with her help – can solve the murder, he’ll be all set. And he lets her.
Right there I already have a couple of issues, namely that this *is* a small town, and how on earth does the author expect me to believe that this woman survives solely on what she makes selling cookies and coffee? There is no cake in this shop, no bread, no sandwiches – just cookies, yet I’m supposed to swallow that the locals all flock in daily to buy dozens and dozens and dozens of cookies, and have her cater several events per month. (Well, as she ponders several times, some of her customers eat cookies for breakfast. I hope there’s a good gym and/or cardiologist or endocrinologist in town too. But maybe the town’s too small.) For one thing, in every other chapter Hannah is handing out a dozen free cookies here and a batch there; I don’t care if some of these people are family (and the local traffic cop), that would put a dent in one’s profits. For another thing, I don’t care if half that catering is prompted by her mother’s membership in all those clubs (and her brother-in-law’s position), why on earth would anyone want even a small event catered by someone who is going to provide only cookies, coffee, and tea? (“She had tea and coffee, both “leaded” and “unleaded,” and her best silver platters heaped high with cookies.”) And one type of cookie at that, based on what she talks about here: a book club meeting is provided with “Regency” ginger snaps and caffeinated beverages. (Don’t get me started on the character’s laissez-faire attitude toward historical accuracy and how easy it was to pull one over on these stupid ladies… “She’d researched the period, but there were very few published recipes and none of them had sounded like cookies.”) And she has enough money that she doesn’t have to worry about spending a moronic amount investigating the murder, plus lavishing expensive gifts on her assistant.
I know. I know. “Willing suspension of disbelief” is the main requirement for reading fiction, and I as a hardcore fantasy reader should be a very willing suspender. But it’s a two-way street. I *am* a very willing suspender, as long as the disbelief isn’t too heavy to *be* suspended without snapping the thread. In other words, if a writer creates a something utterly unreal but maintains a level of logic in her worldbuilding, I’ll buy into it wholeheartedly. When Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is more believable than Hannah’s Cookie Jar, Ms. Fluke has a little problem.
You’ll notice I’m not even bothering to mention the little fact that this civilian is running about playing Nancy Drew, and her cop brother-in-law is not only aware of it, not only allowing it, but he’s happy about it and grateful to her? Yeah. See, that’s the lifeblood of the cozy mystery, the utterly ridiculous detection, so there’s just no point in dwelling on it.
I know. I know. I’m working too hard at applying logic and sense to a fluffy cozy mystery. But I just don’t understand why anyone would set out to write a book – or a series of books – which purposely ignores common sense.I find it a bit offensive.
Even dumber than the blatant disregard for patient confidentiality – “Call every dentist in town. Did they see Ron yesterday morning?” (HIPAA was enacted in 1996. No. Just no. Oh, and “All information regarding a patient’s visit is confidential. … If you come in then, I’ll tell you all about it.” *facepalm*
THE dumbest thing in this book – even dumber than a woman climbing in dumpsters after evidence, scampering about chasing down suspects:
“Drive to Twin Pines to check out the bouncer” (that would be the possible murderer)), and trying not to get herself shot instead of bringing every scrap of information she finds to her brother-in-law *the*cop* …
“You’re scaring me, Bill. Do you really think it could be that dangerous?”
“Of course it could. Ron was murdered in cold blood and the killer won’t hesitate to take you out if he thinks you’re on to something.”
So why do you keep letting her continue, Bill??
– Even dumber than the idea that Hannah hits a jackpot on a slot machine and doesn’t notice, wondering what all the noise is about (“Hannah stared at the flashing numbers with absolute amazement.”) …
Even dumber than the description of a very swanky party attended by just about everyone – including Hannah’s barely-legal bakery assistant (not an exclusive guest list, however swanky the party)… Dumbest of all is:
“As Hannah opened her dress purse and stuck the card inside, she wished that she’d had cards made”
Why would a writer make her main character this big an idiot?
She’s owned a business for at least months, long enough to be well known locally and to be able to hire a full-time assistant. She has bought a truck and had it painted bright red with the business logo plastered all over it. She has had shopping bags made with the store’s logo. And she doesn’t … have … business cards? Even if every local for a twenty-mile radius knows her and her store well, why would she not want to have her phone number on a readily accessible card so that if one of these locals who already loves her cookies wants to, I don’t know, order something they don’t have to call directory assistance? And what about all those tourists flooding through town in the summer? How stupid do you have to be not to get business cards?
Has she never seen all those VistaPrint ads?
All right, obviously that’s not really the very dumbest thing in the book. There are lots to choose from.
“…Gave a fleeting thought to the difference between the fronts of the shops and the backs. There were no decorative planters in the alley for shrubbery or flowers, no plate-glass windows for displays and signs.”
Captain Obvious is obvious.
“Hannah had done some mental arithmetic as she’d driven home, taking into account the money she’d spent investigating Ron’s murder for Bill. Even after she’d subtracted the cost of the makeup from Luanne, the dress from Claire, and the money they’d spent at Twin Pines, she’d still come out over a thousand dollars to the good.”
– Basic addition and subtraction, there. But it sounds laborious for her – I pictured her counting on her fingers – which is why her later reminiscences about college struck me funny: “she read the classics and knew who Wittgenstein and Sartre were” … “In college, the ability to do an algebraic equation in her head wasn’t considered a personality defect, and no one thought less of her if she knew the atomic number of einsteinium.”
“Of course, there had been a group of incredibly gorgeous, bubbleheaded girls who’d turned male heads, but most of them had either flunked out or left to get their MRS degrees.”
Well, that’s not sexist at all. (A Mrs. degree – get it? Get it???).
“I’m just going to run a currycomb through my hair.” Norman chuckled at her reference to the tool that was used to groom horses.
Mother of God, that’s some laborious humor. Typical example.
“It sounds like such a quaint little shop. I’ll have to make a point of dropping in soon.” Hannah bristled.
But … it is a quaint little shop. It’s not exactly Fortnum and Masons, after all.
As always, Betty was dressed in vertical stripes. Someone must have once told her that they were slenderizing and they might have been, for someone less bulky. Betty’s stripes were wide tonight, and they were dark green and burgundy. The colors were pretty, but that didn’t stop Betty from resembling the side of a circus tent.
Wow, I think I hate this author. She’d best weigh 98 pounds soaking wet to write crap like that. In a book in which the main character makes a living off selling cookies, you’re going to rag on the overweight?
Betty was what Hannah and her friends in high school had unkindly called “heavy-duty.” She weighed close to three hundred pounds and she wasn’t known for her grace on the dance floor.
“But I just can’t help feeling that something really bad is going to happen. Remember Charlie Manson?”
… What? I … just … huh?
… Hannah noticed that the red light was glowing on the coffeemaker. She reached out to shut it off and realized that the pot was dry, just inky sludge that once had been coffee in the bottom. “Max left the coffee on.”
For over two days? And the place didn’t burn down?
A plate of these should be in every psychiatrist’s office—two Chocolate-Covered Cherry Delights will lift anyone out of a depression.
Sexism, mocking the obese, and trivializing mental health issues – superb.
“I’m surprised she didn’t suggest suttee!”
Delores laughed. “You’re right, dear. But that’s illegal, even in India.”
I’m surprised the author didn’t take a half a page to explain what suttee is. Shocked, actually.
Lake Eden’s too small to have more than one murderer. … How could we have two killers in a town the size of Lake Eden?”
Oh, that’s too funny. First: it’s also too small for a woman (AND a full-time assistant) to make a living selling only cookies, but I’ve said that already. Second … see the end of this rant.
“…spooned in instant tea…”
What the hell is instant tea? You mean like powdered instant iced tea, only hot? Oh, ew. Ew. Ew.
Wait – I was wrong. That business card thing wasn’t the dumbest part of the book; this is. (Spoiler alert, if you care, but I won’t tell you too much.) Intrepid Girl Detective Hannah goes to see yet another suspect. Said suspect leaves the room and comes back with a shawl over her arm – and the point is made that this is a little odd since it’s rather warm in the room. “Well, she’s got a gun then”, I said. A few minutes later the suspect shocks (shocks, I say!) Hannah by pointing a gun at her.
Trying to stall, Hannah asks: “When did you get the gun? Or did you have it with you when I walked in the door?”
I would have shot her right then. And with any half-decent lawyer I’d walk – it was justifiable homicide, Yer Honor. The woman was too stupid to live. To recap, the suspect walked out of the room. And came back with her hand hidden in an unexplained shawl. Gosh, I wonder if she had the gun hidden under the couch cushions?
All right, that was stupid, but this – – this is even moreso:
“In one of the detective shows she’d watched, the main character had jammed his finger somewhere or other to keep the gun from firing.”
No, sweetie, miss I-can-do-an-algebraic-equation-in-my-head – that was one of those episodes of Bugs Bunny where he was playing detective. Or perhaps Daffy Duck. A cartoon can stick his finger into the barrel of a gun to keep himself from being shot. I seem to remember Mythbusters covered it; I don’t recall exactly how that played out, but I’m PRETTY sure it wouldn’t work for, you know, an actual non-toon human. (ETA – See below…)
Wait – I was wrong again. None of that is the dumbest. Remember how I mentioned this is the first book in the series? Odds are pretty damned good this was planned as a series from the beginning; this isn’t a standalone sort of book. No, it was definitely a jump-on-the-cozy-mysteries-with-recipes bandwagon effort. So this line, as they say, took the cake:
“Finding two dead bodies was more than enough for one lifetime.”
The series is up to 17 books.
Wait. That’s not funny, it’s sad.
From the TLC/MythBusters website:
Explanation: The MythBusters treaded into cartoon territory to work out whether Bugs Bunny could really make Elmer Fudd’s shotgun backfire and explode by plugging his rabbity finger in the barrel.
To ensure no one was harmed in the process, Kari Byron, Tory Belleci and Grant Imahara rigged up a remote-controlled shotgun to test this animated ruse. They also created a ballistic gel mold of Grant’s hands and body that had a density comparable to human tissue, to keep his digits intact.
With the plastic finger blocking the bullet’s path, the gun fired and blew this myth to smithereens. The fake finger didn’t stand a chance against the shotgun shell and exploded — along with the entire dummy arm.
On the second round, the MythBusters used a stiffer wax hand to plug the gun barrel, but it couldn’t beckon a backfire either. If Bugs Bunny were real, Elmer Fudd would’ve slain that wily rabbit a long time ago.