Sunday, December 08, 2019

Getting Ready for Holiday Relaxing, with "Cozy" Mysteries from Bree Baker, Lucy Burdette, Denise Swanson

Lists, guests, expectations ... the big year-end holidays can be overwhelming. Even the moments of loving kindness, grace, and appreciation for the holy (especially one's neighbors) can wear a person a bit thin on energy or social pleasure.

Which must be why "cozy" mysteries fit so perfectly for so many in this time of year! Relax, chuckle, ride a small wave of suspense, have confidence that almost everything will come out right -- and even, with some in this genre, pick up an extra delicious recipe to add to your festive kitchen.

Amateur sleuth Hayley Snow is always good for a new recipe, from seafood to dessert. The protagonist of Lucy Burdette's very popular Key West Food Critic Mysteries, Hayley writes a regular column for a community newspaper on the south Florida island famous for Hemingway, festivals, parties, and restaurants. Although she's technically not a "hard news" reporter, her editor often assigns her to take a broad view of a food or restaurant or vacation trend -- and Hayley's ongoing romance with police officer Nathan Bransford helps her justify her urge to climb into risky situations for the sake of justice, or a good friend.

As A DEADLY FEAST (number 9 in the series) opens, Hayley's struggling to get a final assignment done for Key Zest magazine before leaping into the family-complicated celebration of her long-planned wedding to Nathan. Of course there's still the question of whether their home will be ready in time, not to mention a family-and-friends Thanksgiving feast to pull off. But murder, alas, intervenes, and the suspense swings back and forth between who's done the deed, who might be next, and surviving to walk down the aisle!
I couldn't keep my mind from circling back to Nathan's mysterious case. I felt intensely curious. Why wouldn't he tell me more? The answer wasn't obvious like the time last winter when he'd been in charge of security for the Havana/Key West event and its major celebrities ... The more secretive he acted, the more curious I got.
This is one of Burdette's best yet, with steady tension, some quick grins at the turns that friendships take, and well-plotted clues and investigation. The recipes at the end of the book, for Key lime pie, smoked fish dip, and more, are the icing on a terrific cake. For good entertainment that will let you kick back and breathe, no matter how much snow does or doesn't fall, pick up a copy. (And an extra for the gift stack, maybe? From Crooked Lane Books.)


Bree Baker's Seaside Café Mysteries, set in the seaside town of Charm, North Carolina, provide consistent delights: light sweet romance, deftly twisted mysteries that pit members of the close community against each other, and protagonist Everly Swan's warm-hearted life as owner of a tea shop next to the beach, within easy reach of her two endearing great aunts who mentor her and help out in the kitchen.

Two titles in the series arrived in 2019: NO GOOD TEA GOES UNPUNISHED opens with Everly catering a beach wedding and providing a new tea blend for the occasion: "Hibiscus tea, cinnamon sticks, a dash of sugar to taste, lemon for garnish. I call it the Blushing Bride. It's a signature creation for your special day." That's Everly, enjoying every moment -- until there's blood on the cake knife and death in the sands.

By the time the friction explodes into the community (politics! great aunts!) and Everly's barely-started love life, the triangle of motive-means-opportunity is ringing nonstop. Hang on for the ride, ignore any to-do lists (pizza is best when delivered, right?), and read to the end to get the reward of a pair of tea recipes and another for "signature pineapple chicken wraps." Why not stage a beach party for the New Year? (I'm thinking.)

Then Baker also brought out TIDE AND PUNISHMENT this fall, and since the first words of the book are Merry Christmas, it's a perfect fit for this season. In this third in the series (the review for book 1, Live and Let Chai, is here), Baker puts Everly's great-aunt Fran onto the suspect list right away -- which in turn means both Everly and Fran are at increasing risk, as evidence about the mayor's murder piles up. It's easy to lose track of the "cozy" aspect of this mystery, since the tension never lets up. But of course the ending is faithful and just, and there's a recipe for (yumm!) gingerbread bars as a reward. [These are both from Sourcebooks, with the latter coming under this publisher's Poisoned Pen Press imprint.]


Denise Swanson's Scumble River, Illinois, mysteries got a reboot a couple of years back, so COME HOMICIDE OR HIGH WATER clocks in as the third in the "Welcome Back to Scumble River" group. Protagonist Skye Denison-Boyd has just six weeks left of her maternity leave as a school psychologist, and she's already working part time because her fill-in person is a bit scared of the tough cases ... but Skye also has twin babies, a police chief husband, a pushy mom and a controlling father-in-law (they both mean well and are usually sweet, but totally overwhelming too!), and a not-yet-finished house, with Christmas around the corner. (Feel better about your own situation for the holidays now? I do!)

Murder strikes all too soon, and Skye herself discovers the body -- of a woman who'd just filed suit against her school:
Skye knew she wasn't being logical. She knew that the murderer would have attacked Earl or her rather than wait for an armed police officer. But now that she and Wally had kids, some protective instinct had kicked into high gear, and she worried about everyone even more than she had before becoming a mother.
The plot twists are intense and unusually surprising; this is still a great book to unwind with, because Skye has such amazing support people in her life and enough insight to head the investigation toward a good solution. But COME HOMICIDE OR HIGH WATER whips so much suspense that it calls for an occasional break to grab some hot chocolate with a candy cane or a couple of holiday cookies (sugar? almond? rugelach?) for extra comfort. Of all the ones on this page, this is the one to grab for energy! Oh, it won't come out until December 31, but can be pre-ordered of course, from a local bookseller or online. Consider it recovery fuel, for yourself and a best friend or book club.

No need to read the others before this one, but for a taste of Denise Swanson's other titles, check out the reviews here.

Here's wishing you a "cozy" set of holidays ahead!

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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