Back in August of last year, driven by sheer desperation at not having been able to read pretty much anything for months on end, I requested a bunch of ARCs for mysteries, in the hopes that tweaking my reading a bit would help me overcome the horrible, terrible, no good reading slump from hell.
Like so many good plans, it was derailed by life.
Then, in mid-December, I pulled it up on my phone and started it. Almost a month later, and barely 18% in, I’m throwing in the towel. This is the first book by Ms Cox Bryan that I read. Sadly, it will also be the last, as neither the voice, the setting, nor the gimmick worked for me.
Reader, beware: I did not, and will not, finish this book; however, I will rant about what I did manage to read of it, in detail. If you are a fan of this author’s work, you really want to avert your eyes, and go read a glowing review in GoodReads or amazon.
Death Among the Dolies, by Mollie Cox Bryan
Looking over Ms Cox Bryan’s page in fantasticfiction.co.uk, she has a number of books published, and this is the first installment on her second series, the Cora Crafts Mysteries.
Here, have a blurb:
For thirty-something blogger Cora Chevalier, small-town Indigo Gap, North Carolina, seems like the perfect place to reinvent her life. Shedding a stressful past as a counselor for a women’s shelter, Cora is pouring all her talents—and most of her savings—into a craft retreat business, with help from close pal and resident potter Jane Starr. Between transforming her Victorian estate into a crafter’s paradise and babysitting Jane’s daughter, the new entrepreneur has no time for distractions. Especially rumors about the murder of a local school librarian . . .
But when Jane’s fingerprints match those found at the grisly crime scene, Cora not only worries about her friend, but her own reputation. With angry townsfolk eager for justice and both Jane’s innocence and the retreat at risk, she must rely on her creative chops to unlace the truth behind the beloved librarian’s disturbing demise. Because if the killer’s patterns aren’t pinned, Cora’s handiwork could end up in stitches . . .
Aside, in case any of my readers have missed it: I hate blurbs in general, because they rarely have f-all to do with the actual story between the covers, but I truly despise cutesy blurbs that attempt plays on words.
As I said above, I struggled for weeks to read this book. I wanted to like it, I really did, but nothing, absolutely nothing about it worked for me.
Where to begin…
Okay, the setting first. I’m truly over people moving to small towns to start over, seemingly without consideration for the economic realities of, you know, small towns.¹
In this case, we have a couple of women with little-to-no savings (one was a social worker, who are not known for making big bucks; the other, a single mother who’s recently escaped an abusive ex-husband), who manage to pull enough investment money to buy, repair and re-furbish a rural mansion, and whose business plan is to offer weekend crafting retreats for paying customers. And, gee, they have six or nine (I forget) rooms for them to stay in!
They are not opening a B&B in a region known for tourism. They are not offering any sort of unique, high level, professional experience, such as a work conference, or a professional certification course, worth spending hundreds of dollars on travel, plus room and board.
No, what they are offering is freaking basic crafting classes: pottery, broom making, and so on and so forth. You know, the kind of crafting classes hobby chains like Michael’s offer for a handful of dollars a session. Why, exactly, would anybody spend the money and time going to to nowhere, SC, to learn from no-name Cora and company?
How, exactly, are they supposed to make a profit going forward, and who on earth would be stupid or careless enough to lend them the money to embark in such a brainless venture?
Cue hand waving: we are told–info dump ahoy!–that Cora invested her savings (again: social worker since college, what savings?), and that she convinced other people, most notably her uncle, to invest in her crafting business. Which makes me think uncle is not only rich, but as harebrained as Cora.
Now, let’s look at the premise of the mystery.
We are also told that there has been a murder in town recently, that of the school’s librarian.
(And I pause here to ask, do public elementary schools in small rural towns in the South, actually have full time librarians? Seriously? Where do they get the budget for this??? No, really, I’m curious–when big library systems, such as the one in Los Angeles, struggle with budget issues, how does this small school in North Carolina pay for an actual, full time librarian? And not just someone acting as a librarian; we are told that the person replacing the victim holds an actual degree on library science.)
Then we are told that Jane, Cora’s longtime friend and business partner, was acquitted of trying to murder her abusive ex-husband. However, both Cora and Jane are incredibly surprised and incredulous when, after a routine background/fingerprint check, the local cops zero in on her as a viable suspect for the ONLY murder in the community in decades–which, gee, just happened to coincide with these two strangers’ arrival, one with an honest to goodness criminal record.
After which, it just so happens that the local quirky lady–who, we have been told, came with the house–has a son who a) is a lawyer; b) is a well known criminal defense lawyer; and c) practices locally.
Can you imagine the astronomic level of crime necessary, in a small town, to make it worth his while to practice there? Particularly considering that he was raised by a single mother who made her living as an herbalist and grounds caretaker (or some such), and that he should by all rights have a whooping student debt from law school?
But wait, there’s more!
When rumors start flying, and the local paper prints a story with Jane’s name as main and only suspect/person of interest in the murder, Cora wants first to sue the paper (on what grounds, only she knows); second, she wants to keep Jane in the dark about the problems all of this is creating for the business in which they are partners; and then, she decides that the local cops are taking too long to find the real murderer, so she and Jane should investigate, and beat the cops to the punch.
I can’t even with the level of WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK. Are these people thirteen, and fans of Nancy Drew?
We are only at 17 to 18% of the story, and I haven’t even mentioned Jane’s daughter, London–not that Jane spends that much time thinking about her either. From where I sit, the child is nothing more than a plot device, which annoys me no end.
Mind you, I know I’ve read and enjoyed books with helluva continuity and setup issues before (though I cannot, for the life of me, recall one with this level of wtf-ery right at the moment), but in those cases, it’s because I find the author’s voice and writing engaging. Which was definitely not the case here.
I am not sure how to describe it, except to say that there is simply too much telling, mixed with a disjointed way of narrating the story. For example, we get hints of dark secrets in our two main character pasts in one paragraph, only to have those secrets spelled out, in detail, by one, the other, or both of them, just a couple of paragraphs later. And we go from “oh my god, people are cancelling their registration and demanding refunds, and how will the business survive this?” to “your lawyer is so hot, we should enjoy staring at him in the middle of this crisis,” from one breath to the next.
Giving up on Death Among the Doilies, and on Ms Cox Bryan.
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¹ Coincidentally, Lori and I talked briefly about this just last week.