Danika reviews Twisted at the Root by Ellen Hart

Twisted at the Root by Ellen Hart

I’m pretty new to reading mystery novels, but I picked up Ellen Hart’s previous book and enjoyed it, so I thought I would give this a try. It’s part of the Jane Lawless series, which has been going since 1989! Jane is a part-time restaurateur, part-time private investigator. There is a big cast of characters, obviously growing in size as the series continues, but I found it pretty easy to jump in at this point.

I can definitely understand why cozy mysteries are popular! Reading about Jane sitting in front of a roaring fire, dog curled up her side, going over her thoughts about the case–I can see how this subgenre got its name. It was a book I wanted to read leisurely, not racing to find out the final reveal, but enjoying the ride to get there.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this as much as A Whisper of Bones, and that was primarily because of the characters involved. Although there were some that carried over who I enjoyed seeing again: Cordelia, her theatrical (in every sense) best friend, and Julia, her on-again-off-again girlfriend. Jane and Julia’s relationship is flawed and intriguing; I’d like to see how it began. The new characters, though, grated on me. Jane’s brother makes an appearance, and I’m not sure if he is a regular in the series, but I didn’t connect with him, partly because he seemed almost interchangeable with one of the suspects, Eli. [spoilers: they are both ex-drug addicts with a marriage that fell/is falling apart, and they both want to be with Kit despite that clearly being a terrible idea.]

Kit was a character who grated on me. It’s not that she wasn’t believable: I’ve known toxic people like this, and I get the allure. But it’s not just one person who is so attracted to her that they don’t notice her flaws: it’s basically every guy she runs into. This is the woman who married her boyfriend’s dad while said boyfriend was in rehab. There are some definite red flags there! [spoilers: I hope we’re not supposed to be invested in Jane’s brother as a character, because I lost all respect for him when he continued to be pulled in by Kit despite overwhelming evidence that she was in the wrong.]

I think the Jane Lawless series is strong, and I will come back to it (maybe from the beginning this time), but this one felt like a weak point to me. The mystery didn’t feel like much of a puzzle, and the introduced characters were forgettable and sometimes interchangeable. Characters are a big part of what I concentrate on in a book, so that was a letdown for me.

Maddison reviews Bingo Barge Murder by Jessie Chandler

I have a major soft-spot for cozy mysteries and am always on the lookout for one featuring a lesbian protagonist. So imagine my joy when I discovered The Shay O’Hanlon Capers by Jessie Chandler. Even better than a finding a single cozy mystery with a lesbian protagonist, I had managed to stumble across a whole series.
Bingo Barge Murder is the first in the series and introduces Shay O’Hanlon and her wacky gang. Shay runs and co-owns a coffee shop in Minneapolis with her best friend, and fellow lesbian, Kate. Shay’s quiet existence is thrown into chaos when her best friend Coop shows up at the coffee shop begging for Shay’s help after his boss is murdered and Coop is a suspect. Things only get more complicated when JT, Minneapolis detective and heartthrob, enters the shop on her way to work. Shay is forced to find the real murderer to save Coop all while balancing her growing romance with JT. Shay welcomes the help of Eddy, Shay’s mother figure, and her gang of gambling grannies. The stakes are high, and I ended up plowing through the book in one sitting.
I fell in love with Shay, Eddy, Coop, and JT throughout the story and rooted for Shay and JT’s romance the whole way through. Within the rules of the genre, there is no explicit or gory violence and, in later books, no explicit sex. This is part of why I love cozies: you get the tension and thrill of mysteries without the gore of crime fiction.
However, Bingo Barge Murder was clearly a debut novel, and the inexperience showed in the writing. Pacing was rushed during the novel, and it came in rather short at under 200 pages. There is also a character to whom I have mixed feelings. Rocky has an unnamed intellectual disability at at times through the books is used as a sort of comic relief character–the characters of the book think on him fondly, and his character arc does go through some development, but his character is somewhat of a caricature. I feel like Chandler is trying to be inclusive when writing Rocky, but it can sometimes come across as disrespectful and ableist.
Following Bingo Barge Murder, the issues with pacing and novel length improve. While Chandler might not be the most impressive writer I have ever come across, her novels are well within the standard quality of cozy mysteries.
All in all, I would recommend The Shay O’Hanlon Capers if you are looking for a light mystery with lovable characters and, of course, lesbians.