I have got to learn to bake scones.
Scones seem to be a predominant theme in cozy mysteries, or at least in the ones I’ve been reading over the last couple of weeks. First there was The Secret, Book & Scone Society, which features a bakery that specializes in “comfort scones” completely customized to each diner. Then there was Brownies and Broomsticks, whose protagonist regularly bakes cheddar-sage scones. Fortunately for me, Brownies and Broomsticks at least had the decency to include recipes in the back.
I’ve been curious about cozy mysteries for a while and liked the general idea of the genre, so I finally decided to investigate. And I can’t mince this: the writing really threw me for a loop. My judgment of books is generally predicated on the quality of their writing. If the writing is bad or typo-ridden, it’s very unlikely I’ll give the book a good rating. The fact that I gave the first two books I read four stars apiece is a testament to the addicting nature of the stories, and possibly also to my newfound ability to lower my standards. (Look, that tends to happen as you get older and more disappointed with the world. I’m not proud of myself, I’m just saying.) I had originally planned to give each book three stars because that was what I honestly thought they deserved until probably about the last quarter, when everything suddenly became fascinating and the endings turned out to be extremely satisfying*. I don’t know how they managed to hook me in, because the writing was uniformly awful. The prose was dumb. The dialogue was bad. The first two books read like they were ripped off of Wattpad. One of the three seemed to have a typo every other word, either because it wasn’t proofread or because the proofreaders didn’t know what they were doing. Two of the three had at least one serious error involving a homonym. I get that we’re all human and there’s only so much we can do, but the number of errors I’ve found in these books is ridiculous. It’s almost like the publishers are cutting out the proofreaders so they can print these faster, though it wouldn’t surprise me if they were.
In any case the writing clearly hasn’t put me off yet because I’ve read two of these things and am working on a third, so I suppose we’d better get on with it.
Obvious obligatory warning: There are spoilers.
Theme of the week: Cozy mysteries.
*UPDATE 8/7/2020: I’ve downgraded them to three stars because, in retrospect, they really don’t deserve four.
To Helvetica and Back
I’m a graphic designer and a card-carrying type/print nerd, so To Helvetica and Back seemed like a great place to start. This was the one that most convinced me that proofreading is not A Thing anymore, because it has at least one major continuity error, the prose is repetitive, and it gratuitously dips into the pluperfect several times mid-scene for absolutely no reason. There were innumerable typos that I would consider common among native English-speakers on the internet, but which are inexcusable in a professionally published work. It also became clear to me that Shelton doesn’t know the difference between “discrete” and “discreet.”
The valley was spectacular though. You could see part of the monastery’s walls and a few discrete houses around the perimeter.
Generally I take it for granted that most houses are separate units, given that we’d be calling them townhouses if they weren’t, so I’m assuming the intention here was to describe the houses as unobtrusive. I weep for the future of English.
The trouble for me, at least as far as abandoning this book and my headache went, was that the story was irritatingly addicting and I needed to know what was going to happen because I’m nosy as hell. The narrator, Clare Henry, is a mid-to-late-twenties (I think?) dork who works at The Rescued Word, a typewriter repair shop owned by her grandfather, Chester. Her duties also include restoring vintage books, selling stationery, and supervising her 17-year-old niece, Marion, who handles the custom stationery orders. They have a resident cat named Baskerville, son of their first cat, Arial. This shop is fucking GOALS. The details are something that Shelton actually did really, really well, because the type nerd in me was screaming like a little girl and wondering why The Rescued Word couldn’t be real and in Maryland. (And then, like the type snob I am, I started thinking I would’ve named my imaginary cats Avenir and Aperçu. Go figure.)
Clare and Chester generally have a quiet time at the shop, but things turn upside down when they discover a dead body in the alley out back of the shop, and they get swept into a murder investigation. Along the way Clare discovers strange numbers and letters scratched into the bars of a client’s typewriter and meets a hunky geologist, Seth Cassidy, who asks her out after she restores his copy of Tom Sawyer. I normally don’t go for romance, but this one was unobtrusive enough that I didn’t mind it. It was an important part of the story, but it didn’t overtake the plot. Seth was adorably dorky and apparently makes a mean lasagna, and I actually really liked him, even though I was suspicious of him for half the book. Their relationship almost seemed to be going a little too smoothly, though from what I’ve seen from both Helvetica and Book & Scone that seems to be somewhat typical for the genre.
Overall this book was kind of a mixed bag. It was riddled with typos, the dialogue was clunky, and the prose was just cringey, which is a shame because the book was actually genuinely funny.
Jodie honked the horn, causing Seth to jump and turn toward us.
Jodie smiled and waved. Seth waved hesitantly, until Jodie pointed at me in the passenger seat. Then Seth smiled and waved back confidently.
“It’s a wonder anyone has ever wanted to date either of us,” I said without moving my lips from a smile.
JFC. This is what I meant when I said these books read like they were ripped off of Wattpad. I loved this exchange until I got to “without moving my lips from a smile.” That sentence should have ended after “I said.” If Shelton was really convinced that I, the reader, would not understand that Clare was joking without her help, then she maybe could’ve written “‘It’s a wonder anyone has ever wanted to date either of us,’ I said, still smiling,” or something similar.
My other major gripe was that the plot was pretty predictable. There were a couple of twists that I didn’t see coming, but the general shape of it isn’t hard to grasp when you see these numbers:
I’m not sure why everyone in the book had such a hard time figuring out what these were. I mean, come on, those are clearly coordinates. Even if you don’t know how many digits there are in coordinates – I didn’t – the NW should give it away, and did give it away in my case. Given that there were coordinates scratched onto the typewriter and given that somebody was murdered shortly after demanding said typewriter, it wasn’t a big stretch to figure out that those coordinates probably led to a treasure of some kind. (Spoiler alert: I was right.) It also seemed clear to me that Seth would be able to identify those numbers, which he was.
Despite all these problems, I thought this was a good first installment: it was interesting, it was funny, it was easy to read, and it introduced me to an engaging cast of characters. I love The Rescued Word and I wish I could live in it. I probably won’t be pursuing this series, because I read the synopses of the next two books and wasn’t wildly intrigued, but I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things during this quarantine and may very well change my mind about this.
The Secret, Book & Scone Society
I usually don’t buy scones unless there’s literally nothing else to eat in the bakery case. This book is going to change that because Merlin’s Beard I really want a scone right now.
The story is narrated by Nora Pennington, a thirty-something woman living in Miracle Springs, North Carolina. Miracle Springs is a healing destination, and Nora has established herself as the owner of Miracle Books, a defunct train depot that she bought and turned into a bookstore. Her store is packed with books and shelf enhancers (tchotchkes used to brighten up the bookshelves), and she also provides comfortable chairs and coffee for those who want to sit and read. She calls herself a “bibliotherapist,” which means she helps people overcome their private issues by recommending a certain set of books for them to read. When a prospective client is murdered, Nora is called in to give a witness statement and connects with June Dixon and Hester Winthrop, who also met this client shortly before his death. Despite their testimony, the death is ruled a suicide by the corrupt sheriff, and the three women form the Secret, Book & Scone Society along with Estella Sadler, who owns the salon next door to Miracle Books. Together they make it their mission to solve the case and ultimately succeed, sharing their most intimate traumas with each other throughout the course of the book.
Bad news first: The writing in Book & Scone was just as cringey as it was in Helvetica, and the dialogue was pretty bad. On the other hand, there weren’t as many typos, so maybe it went through some form of proofing, and the book overall is funny and interesting, though the characters tend to fall into archetypes more easily than they do in Helvetica. There’s the shy, traumatized woman who just wants to keep herself to herself and avoids men like the plague. There’s the “town Jezebel,” who dresses provocatively and dates whatever she can get her hands on but – surprise! – has daddy issues. There’s the one obligatory character of color, who literally seems to be on her own as far as diversity goes. There’s the former “good girl” who made a mistake and became estranged from her family. And there is, of course, the evil real estate agency whose leadership has been popping in and out of each other’s beds and defrauding local townsfolk on a grand scale.
Honestly, I don’t mind the archetypes too much. The characters were still fairly engaging, even if they were a bit flat. I don’t really know what it is, but I didn’t get into them as much as I’ve gotten into others; still, they weren’t unsympathetic, and they didn’t ruin the story, though they could on occasion be irritating.
“If you threaten those things, Estella, he’ll be your enemy. And what if we’re not around to rescue you the next time he gets angry?”
“I’ve never needed rescuing. I’m no helpless princess,” Estella snapped.
Before June could reply, Nora performed a referee’s time-out gesture.
Gag. Personally I would’ve said “Nora made a time-out gesture,” but that’s just me. And the thing is, Estella did need rescuing. She baited a terrible man and then started asking him stupid questions like “Just how ruthless are you, Fenton? Would you pay someone to push your partner in front of a train?” What the fuck? I thought these women were supposed to be smart. It’s true that Estella was smart enough to make sure she wasn’t truly alone with this man, but luring an entitled prick to a pool at night, stripping naked, and asking him really unsubtle questions about his possible role in a murder doesn’t seem smart to me. What exactly was the plan if her friends hadn’t been there? Would she have been able to fight him off, or was she banking on her friends to save her? Did she have any plans in the event that he, oh, I don’t know, maybe came to her salon after hours and tried to assault her again? Fill me in, Estella, because I’m kinda lost. I’m a huge fan of the “I Rescue Myself” thing, but I really don’t think the poolside interrogation would’ve ended well if June hadn’t intervened.
Of course, none of this really matters, because I will be continuing with this series. I can complain as much as I want, but in the end I can’t resist a series based around a bookstore and a scone shop. There’s two more books after this one, so I’ll be all set when the fourth one comes out in January. Maybe I’ll even have learned to bake scones by then. We’re still in lockdown and you can learn a lot when you’re bored, so the sky’s the limit.
Brownies and Broomsticks
I’m only on page 123, but Cates writes better than Shelton and Adams and I’m a sucker for witches and bakeries. The story is narrated by Katie Lightfoot, a 28-year-old pastry school graduate who’s just signed on as the head baker at Honeybee, a Savannah-based bakery owned by her Aunt Lucy and Uncle Ben. Aunt Lucy and Katie’s mother are hedgewitches, which means Katie is too, because it’s hereditary. Their powers deal primarily with herbcraft, which is why Katie has always had a green thumb, to the point where she jokes that she couldn’t kill a plant if she tried. While preparing for Honeybee’s grand opening, Katie meets Mavis Templeton, a grouchy old bitch who threatens to shut down Honeybee before getting her neck broken, most likely by somebody whose life she ruined. To be clear, I am 100% onboard with this. The back cover describes Mavis as “curmudgeonly.” This is an extremely generous term. I was picturing an endearingly crabby old man with a heart of gold. Mavis Templeton is a wealthy, entitled c*** who has no qualms about using her money and influence to shut down businesses, get people blacklisted within their industries, and just generally destroy lives. She can’t even be bothered to pay the full catering fee she agreed to in writing, and that kind of behavior infuriates me. She gets bumped off on page 32 and that’s still not soon enough because she is genuinely awful and I will be so pissed off if I get asked to feel sorry for her later. The book is kinda hinting that she might become more sympathetic later.
My overall impressions so far have been positive. I really really really love the premise. I had a feeling going into this book that this might be the one cozy mystery series that really gets me invested in the genre, because it’s pretty much what I was looking for. It’s funny and easy to read, it’s not badly written, and it has a magical bakery and a little black Cairn terrier named Mungo the Magnificent, who might or might not become Katie’s animal familiar. (I figure it’s either that or he’s a human who crossed the wrong witch, but I’m okay with that as long as he stays a dog.) If you don’t know what a Cairn terrier is, look them up because they’re seriously adorable. There are amazing foods scattered liberally throughout the 123 pages I’ve read, including but not limited to fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, crab cakes, spicy rice and beans, and peanut butter swirl brownies. There’s a couple recipes in the back, which I fully intend to try because SCONES. There’s even more than one character of color.
My main problem is pretty major, but I’m not actually sure if it’s a problem. Shortly after moving to Savannah, Katie mentions that she only sleeps for an hour at night but doesn’t seem to suffer for it.
For a while I’d wondered whether I was manic. However, that usually came with its opposite, and despite its recent popularity, depression wasn’t my thing.
Not gonna lie, I had a full-on “You wanna run that by me again?” moment with this one. I had to wait almost a full 24 hours to cool down. I don’t want to rush into judgment, because I know I wouldn’t want my entire character to be judged by one misfired joke. Cates is clearly trying to be funny here. I know a failed joke when I see one, and this one is a failure of monumental proportions if it means what I think it means.
The trouble here is that Cates is suggesting that depression is a choice. She is implying that people decide to become depressed because they think it’ll make them cool. As somebody who has been living with a mental illness and will continue to do so despite the large body of people who think mental illness is self-indulgent and can be overcome through sheer force of will, I find this incredibly offensive and patronizing. Depression is not suddenly “popular.” The fact that celebrities have been increasingly talking about their struggles with depression and other assorted mental health issues doesn’t mean that depression is trendy or cool. Depression has probably been around since the dawn of man. We just notice it more nowadays because it is becoming more socially acceptable to talk about your feelings. The stigma is by no means gone and it’ll take a lot of hard work and social change to improve general attitudes towards mental illnesses and the people who have them, but we’re sort of getting there.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily what Cates meant to say. I don’t want to assume ill intent from bad phrasing. Maybe she just wanted to point out that more people are openly suffering from depression than before and it came out more flippant and dismissive than she intended. Maybe she thought it would be funny and didn’t have the background to consider the full ramifications. Maybe she’s suffering from depression herself and this is how she copes with it. Maybe in the future Katie will meet someone with mental health issues and acquire deeper empathy. (That one doesn’t seem too likely because these things aren’t that deep, but you never know.) I don’t have the context to make this call. This is the first book I’ve read of the Magical Bakery series, and the first of Cates’s works. I don’t know her, and I don’t know her style well enough to say if she was poking fun at depression. She hasn’t mentioned it since page 8, so I’m trying not to let it ruin my enjoyment of the rest of the book. On the other hand, if she did indeed mean it exactly how it sounds, then she and this series can go to hell. She is of course entitled to her own opinion and she has every right to write what she wants, barring hate speech, but I have the right to choose not to read things that piss me off.
My only other problem so far has been the slightly old-fashioned attitude towards courtship (Katie meets two hunky-dunkies, one of them keeps insisting on opening the car door for her and helping her down from his truck), but Katie likes it and that’s all that matters since she’s the one being wooed. The book has a host of promising female characters who all have names and talk to each other about something other than men and the men have all been playing supporting roles, so I don’t really care about this one.
Overall I’ve been enjoying this new genre (which isn’t new to other people, but is new to me). Cozy mysteries haven’t really been on my radar until fairly recently, and, yeah, they’re silly and cheesy and kinda dumb, but they’re also engaging, addicting, and pretty fast-paced. I like that each installment is quick and doesn’t require you to pay too much attention. I like reading about all the foods these characters eat, particularly in Brownies and Broomsticks. Of course the problem with that is that it makes me hungry, but yesterday I was prepared. I feel like I’m going to end up pursuing the Magical Bakery series with or without my qualms because any book that gives me an excuse to bake brownies is all right by me. For some reason I was really in Kitchen Mode yesterday and I wanted glass noodles and brownies, so I ended up making a three-course dinner for myself and my parents. We started with tofu with pickled mustard greens, which I made with both silken and medium-firm tofu, then had spicy glass noodles with ground pork (ma yi shang shu [蚂蚁上树], “ants climbing a tree”). I know, weird names, but I swear they’re both amazing and they don’t have ants in them. After dinner I made the brownies and omg they were AMAAAAAAAAZING. ❤️ We usually don’t make brownies but I’ve been craving them recently, so my mom brought home the Ghirardelli chocolate chip brownie mix.
So good. ❤️❤️❤️