Monday, August 06, 2007

Vacation Reads Predictable, Disappointing

I just returned from a 2 1/2 week, 4,678-mile trip through 7 states and I am exhausted! Unfortunately, I can't read in the car without getting nauseous, so I only managed to finish 2 books while on vacation. One of those was not Harry Potter, but I did have HP mailed to my mom's house, so I could get it on its release day! I haven't read it yet, but it's definitely on my list. I may have to read Eclipse first, so we'll see...

Anyway, back to the two books I have finished...First up is Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth, the first novel in the Pennsylvania Dutch Murder Mysteries series by Tamar Myers. This murder mystery with recipes features Magdalena Yoder, a Mennonite with an attitude, who runs the PennDutch Inn in Hernia, Pennsylvania. Thanks to a positive newspaper review, the Inn has become a haven for the rich and famous, who are only too happy to pay for the "Amish Lifestyle Plan Option," which means they clean their own rooms and Magdalena saves on overhead. According to her, "You'd be surprised how much people will pay for abuse, provided they can view it as a cultural experience." (p. 11) Anyway, when Magdalena's new crop of guests shows up, she realizes that she may have a problem on her hands. Included on the guest list are 3 members of an animal rights group, 1 animal-rights saboteur in disguise, 1 Congressman, 1 wife of a Congressman, 1 aide to a Congressman and 1 reporter. Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad any other time of the year, but it just happens to be the opening day of deer-hunting season. An explosive situation indeed. To make things even more complicated for Magdalena and her temperamental cook, the guests all seem to have different dietary demands, and have barely gotten settled before they start complaining. When Magdalena discovers a dead body in her inn, things quickly go from bad to worse. Good police investigators are hard to find in Hernia, so Magdalena takes it upon herself to solve the crime, all the while trying to placate her grumbling lodgers. The discovery of another body at the PennDutch certainly doesn't help things. Suddenly, Magdalena finds herself in a dangerous race against time to find a killer that has chosen her as his next victim.

My favorite part of this book is the way it deals with the Amish/Mennonite experience. I've read my fair share of books about this culture, and this is the first time I've seen an author deal with it in such an honest, lighthearted way. Myers is able to laugh at her own people without devaluing their religion or way of life. Through Magdalena Yoder, the reader discovers a realistic Mennonite woman (not that I know any Mennonites, but still...) who is a little greedy, a little lazy and needs a big attitude adjustment. I thought she was a hilarious character, although I didn't think she reacted very realistically to finding dead bodies in her inn. My least favorite part of the book was the plot, which was sloppy and predictable. My rule of thumb for mysteries is that the person you least suspect is always the killer, and Too Many Crooks followed this formula to a T. I also didn't think the clues pointed conclusively to the ending, which they should in a well-crafted mystery.

Needless to say, I'm still trying to find a solid series in the mystery-with-recipes genre. I place Tamar Myers only one wrung higher than Joanne Fluke, whose Hannah Swenson series is redeemable only because it is fun and the recipes look good. Otherwise, these cozy mysteries seem to lack solid plotting and tight writing. I'm looking for a well-written, fun murder mystery with delicious recipes - is that too much to ask??

Okay, sorry, I didn't mean to ramble on about that one. I was just hoping to like it more, which leads me to my next read: When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin. I had heard so much about Martin that I guess I was just expecting more from this book.

The story concerns Reese, a man with a past, who is most content quietly restoring old boats or rowing in Lake Burton. Although he actively avoids other people, Reese finds himself in town one day buying parts for his boats. He is drawn to a little girl in a yellow dress, who is raking in the dough at her lemonade stand. When he gets closer to her, he realizes why - the child has a deep scar in her chest, signifying heart problems. It dawns on him then that the money has nothing to do with lemonade and everything to do with getting the child a new heart. Something in Reese's own heart responds, unleashing painful memories of Emma, his childhood sweetheart who died waiting for a healthy heart. He is haunted by her memory, scarred by his own inability to save her. Yet, he is drawn to this girl, 7-year-old Annie, who remains hopeful despite her damaged heart. When a bread truck careens around the corner heading straight for Annie's lemonade stand, Reese's heroics kick him out of anonymity and straight into the very situation he never wanted to be in again. But, here he is, caring about another girl with an irreparable heart. As Annie waits desperately for a new organ, Reese becomes her biggest cheerleader. Still, he can't quite bring himself to reveal all of his secrets to Annie and her caretaker aunt (who is becoming disturbingly important to him) even if it means saving the little girl's life. As Annie's life drains away, Reese must face his past and make the decision that could change all their lives forever.

Although I enjoyed Martin's writing style and appreciated the inspiration he was trying to impart, there were several things that really bugged me about this book. One was the character of Reese. I thought he was realistic, except when he did things that were totally out of character, which happened constantly in the book. For instance, why would a man intent on hiding his identity stop at a stranger's lemonade stand and have a prolonged conversation with her? Or why, after causing a scene which would reveal the identity he has tried so hard to conceal, does he continue to visit with Annie and her aunt? Wouldn't it be more in character for Reese to run and hide, shaking with fear? I also think it's out of character for a man like that to purposely reach out to a troubled teenager (Termite), who seems to only be in the book so that he can rescue Reese in a later chapter. In short, I found Reese confusing and inconsistent, and not in a realistic way. My other problem with the book is its complete and utter predictability. Nothing in the plot surprised me. Make no mistake, I like a happy ending, but I think it should be achieved only after some good plot twists which make it seem absolutely unattainable.

Despite my issues with the plot and characters, this is a book I plan to keep on my shelf, if only because it's a clean story about faith and love. I also plan to give Martin another chance - I just hope it's worth it.

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