Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Crazy for Cozy Mysteries

When it comes to fiction, my hubby says I don't read books as much as I devour them! With my current job, I often have an hour or two to read, albeit with lots of background noise. Thankfully, I  discovered the Cozy Mystery genre.

Usually written as a series, in a cozy mystery the sleuth is typically an intelligent, observant woman whose business finds her in various locations where a mysterious death occurs. The cast of characters are family, neighbors, friends, and other business owners in a small town and recur in each of the books. [Think: Murder, She Wrote or Nancy Drew] These are fun books I can usually finish off in two to three hours. Cozy mysteries typically also feature a romance and very little, if any, objectionable material. When purchased as an eBook, they are also very affordable. I have gotten books on eBook promotional sites for free or under $1, but usually they are under $10 and often under $5.

Nancy Drew's The Mysterious Mansion taught me about Persian rugs. I was introduced to falconry in the Hardy Boys' The Hooded Hawk Mystery. Cozy mysteries continue this education by offering up tidbits pertaining to the heroine's line or work or interest and sometimes offer recipes as well.  Here are some of my favorite series:

Raine Stockton Dog Mysteries by Donna Ball
     The first cozy series I read and probably still my favorite. Raine Stockton, formerly with Search and Rescue, finds herself investigating mysteries in her small North Carolina community located in the heart of the Smoky Mountains while navigating a complicated love life.
     I'm a dog lover and what I appreciate the most about Ball's writing is the way she captures the personality of animals. Cisco and the other canines are characters, while never being more than dogs.  Another plus: Balls writes like she has actually been to North Carolina and knows Southerners! Her books don't pile on southern stereotype. As a southerner myself, I recognize the traits and tendencies of her characters. As a side benefit, each book contains within the story helpful dog training tips.
     [While not mysteries, another charming series by Ms. Ball is the Lady Bug Farm books and the accompanying Hummingbird House books. These books feature well-developed characters and uplifting stories.]

Tourist Trap Mysteries by Lynn Cahoon
     Jill Gardner relocates to South Cove, California and opens Coffee, Books, and More. She is the business community liaison to the city council, which often puts her at odds with her nemesis, the major. Along with this and selling books, Jill gets involved in solving murders much to the dismay of her police officer boyfriend.
     This is a very close second to the Raine Stockton series. I read these books as much to catch up on the goings on in South Cove as for the mysteries.

Caprice De Luca Home Staging Mysteries by Karen Rose Smith
     Caprice De Luca is an aficionada of all things vintage and the owner of a home-staging business. The De Lucas are a tight-knit family and Caprice's siblings and other family members always play a role in the stories. This series is set in Pennsylvania.
     I'm not as big a fan of  the author's writing style as I am of the above authors, but Smith's stories have a wonderful sweetness to them. I have come to care about the De Lucas and look forward to a return visit with them in each book. As an added bonus, each book features recipes.

Caught Dead in Wyoming by Patricia McLinn
     Former big-time TV journalist Elizabeth "E.M." Danniher finds herself doing consumer protection stories for podunk KWMT-TV in Sherman, Wyoming after a messy breakup with her vindictive ex-husband, a powerful news executive. In between her "Helping Out!" segments, she finds herself investigating murders and juggling love interests while learning the ways of the West.
     After I finished the first book of the series, I quickly downloaded the other three and had read all four books within a week. This series caught my imagination and the characters won me over quickly. I am rooting for E. M. Danniher to get the best of her station's pompous anchor (a written version of Ted Baxter from the old Mary Tyler Moore series).

Mainely Needlepoint Mysteries by Lea Wait
     Angie Curtis returns to her hometown after her long-vanished mother's body is found.Another murder is tied to her mother's case and soon Angie is stitching together clues while working with the Mainely Needlepointers in her needlework business.  Set in the fictional mid-coastal town of Haven Harbor, Maine, the books' location is very picturesque. Plenty of needlework history and tidbits are woven into each story.

Hampton Home & Gardens Mysteries by Kathleen Bridge
     After a rough breakup with her fiance, Meg Barrett flees glamorous Manhattan and her job at a top home and garden magazine to the small to the small town of Montauk on the outskirts of the tony communities of the Hamptons where she begins Cottages by the Sea, an interior design business.  She soon finds herself in the middle of murder mysteries among the rich and famous.
     This new series (two books as of this writing) captured my attention quickly and I finished both books in short order, which means I now must twiddle my thumbs impatiently while waiting for the next entry.  Meg Barrett and her cohorts are fun characters and the location is intriguing. The books include interior design tips and recipes.

These are my favorite cozy series, but I'm always open to suggestions for new ones!

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The Subtle Danger of Me Before You

Her text read something like this: "Please read this book! I'm dying for someone to discuss it with." So at my friend Rose's urging, I was off to obtain a copy of the wildly popular Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. Because the film version is opening this summer, I moved it to the top of my long, long, long to-read stack of books.

If you haven't read the book: READ NO FURTHER. SPOILERS AHEAD.

The book opens like a typical romance novel. We are introduced to Will Trayner, a strong virile man with implied serious wealth, enjoying the morning after with his equal female specimen of perfection. However as the Prologue ends, we know this is no typical romance novel.

We next make the acquaintance of Louisa "Lou" Clark, she of eccentric fashion sense and newly joined to the ranks of the unemployed. Lou's family is somewhat dependent upon her wages, although curiously not all that supportive or edifying of her. It is this need for money and her limited job prospects that sends Lou to Granta House, the stately home of Will, who is now a quadriplegic requiring constant care following an accident. We discover Will lives in the home's annex, a visual picture of his diminished life. With no discernible skills pertinent to the job (or so the reader thinks), Lou is hired.

An unlikely friendship develops between these two disparate characters and one might assume a new spin on the Romeo and Juliet story is about to unfold until the plot twist is revealed. Will has attempted suicide in the past and still has this intention. Lou's contract is for six months, not as a trial basis, but because that's the delay Will promised his parents before carrying out his plans. Upon learning of this, Lou first resigns before being begged to stay by Will's mom.  Mrs. Trayner has seen the difference Lou is making in Will and pleads with her to find a way to change his mind. Thus begins Louisa Clark's mission to give Will a reason to live. Along the way, as we already suspected, the friendship deepens and Lou falls in love.

There will be no happily ever after ending. Will Trayner flies to Switzerland to a hospital that provides assisted suicide services. After initially walking away from Will devastated, Lou comes to terms with his decision and at the last minute joins him there to say goodbye. When Lou's mother learns of this, she is appalled by her daughter's decision:
It is not my decision, Mum. It's Will's. The whole point is to support Will.
Support Will? I've never heard such rubbish. You're a child, Louisa. You've seen nothing, done nothing. And you have no idea what this is going to do to you. How in God's name will you ever be able to sleep at night? You'd be helping a man to die. Do you really understand that? You'd be helping Will, that lovely, clever young man, to die.
When Louisa doesn't change her mind, the scene continues with:
If you go, Louisa, you needn't come back.
The words fell out of her mouth like pebbles. I looked at my mother in shock. Her gaze was unyielding. It tensed as she watched for my reaction. It was as if a wall I had never known was there had sprung up between us.
I mean it. This is no better than murder.
Louisa's father and sister try to intervene and plead Lou's case, but her mother is unmoved. This is the exact moment Moyes lost me.

Don't misunderstand - I finished the book, going through a box of tissues in the process. This is a well-written, page turner with characters you grow to care about. And there's the problem.

Assisted suicide sounds so noble. Choosing how to end one's life in light of suffering or, in the case of this fictional character, life-altering injuries. We are heartless if we stand opposed to this choice. Or are we?

Will Trayner, a man with seemingly unlimited means and a high degree of intelligence, chooses to die rather than live a life disabled. His disability has rendered his life meaningless. He can't handle being dependent on others, not scaling mountaintops, or the inability to do all the other things in his previous active life. Louisa's mother opposes Will's choice, so of course, she's wrong. The whole second half of the book builds to the reader's coming to acceptance (and endorsement?) of his suicide. Why can't Louisa's mother see this?  Heck, Louisa is going to travel and be wealthy as a result of his death! Even Will's mother comes to terms with it. By opposing the book's hero and heroine, it is implicit we are to see Louisa's mother as wrong. But she's not wrong; she's principled. And she sees Will as he is - a selfish coward.

Murder is wrong, including self murder. One reviewer called this "tragedy porn," which I found to be very insightful. The book subtly tries to persuade you Will's disabled life is not worth living. His life had setbacks, serious setbacks, and so now he doesn't want it. He has an attractive woman in love with him, a supportive family, means to accommodate his limitations so he can still be active in different ways, but that's not enough. He can't have the life he had, the life he wants, so he's going to end the life he does have.

As a Christian, I believe when the Lord's providence for our life is hard and painful, we still must cling to the promise it is for our good and His glory. We must insist the disabled person has worth. We must insist suffering has worth. Caregivers bless and are blessed. If we still draw breath, we still have purpose. My husband and I  have each cared for a dying parent. It is painful, frustrating, exhausting, and emotionally wrenching, but after their deaths we each were richer. The experience taught us things we wouldn't, or perhaps couldn't, have learned otherwise. Our parents' suffering had purpose.

The book's ending sends the wrong message about how to measure a person's quality of life, a life's worth, what love is, and the possibility of overcoming obstacles and challenges to live a fulfilled, if altered, life. The ending didn't just make me sad; it made me angry.