This Strange Way of Dying – Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Collection CoverFirst Published: 1st September, 2013
Genre: Speculative Fiction / Short Story Collection
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s collection has stories mostly set in Mexico, with speculative and folkloric themes. My favourite was “Maquech”, about selling live beetle jewellery. The beetle is the last one decorated by a particular crafter, and brings with it dreams of the jungle. Yet it has to be sold to cover basic living costs, to a rich person who only wants it as this season’s shiny thing.

It’s a strong collection, with a range of themes and approaches. Recommended for those who like stories of the quietly strange.

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death – M.C. Beaton

Agatha Raisin CoverSeries: Agatha Raisin, #1
First Published: December, 1992
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Agatha Raisin takes early retirement from her PR job to move to a quiet Cotswolds village. In order to fit in, she enters the quiche competition with a quiche she bought. When the judge dies after eating her quiche, her deception comes out. But was the death an accident or murder?

The main focus is really on Agatha trying to find where she fits. Her life has been very lonely up to moving to the village, and she feels like an outsider (which brings her to cheat, as she thinks winning will help her fit in). She does spend time questioning suspects and the like, but she isn’t fully committed to the path of the amateur sleuth and has her own doubts about whether it was murder. It’s clear this book is setting her up to believe in herself as a sleuth.

The mystery was relatively straight-forward, though there are several suspects (one of my criticisms of a number of the mysteries I’ve read recently is there’s only one possible suspect).

I found the main character interesting. Agatha is someone who’s had to struggle for everything she’s got in life. She’s abrasive, ruthless and not above cheating to get where she needs to go. During the story, she has to acknowledge that she’s not always the nicest person. But the people around her also have to acknowledge that she’s good at getting stuff done.

In terms of inclusion, some of the characters are rather stereotyped. The one that particularly got the side-eye from me was describing one of the characters as “gypsy-looking”. She was also someone with poor personal hygiene and a gambling problem.

Then there’s Roy, who comes across as the stereotypical gay best friend and is described as effeminate. I did like that Agatha disapproves of some of his later actions as chauvinistic (like wanting to marry a woman purely to help advance his career). It’ll be interesting to see where Roy ends up going with that. Personally, I liked his first friend (implied boyfriend) Steve, who was serious and wrote everything down in a notebook. He made a good contrast with Roy… but I suspect he wasn’t being set up as a regular series character.

There’s also Bill Wong the British-Chinese detective, who I imagine will be a reoccurring role, though there wasn’t that much of him in this one (he’s mostly there to warn Agatha not to get involved, rather than working with her).

Overall, I enjoyed the story. It fulfils its cozy mystery aim of providing a lighter read, with nothing too graphic (there’s some mild violence and a few instances of stronger language). It also made me want to eat quiche (though I avoided the spinach one). My main criticism is the stereotyping and some of the language used to describe marginalised people, which did detract from my enjoyment of the book.

Killer Cupcakes – Leighann Dobbs

Killer Caupcakes Cover - Pink with cartoon woman holding cupcakes

Series: A Lexy Baker Bakery Mystery, #1
First Published: 7th May, 2013
Genre: Cozy Mystery / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Smashwords

Lexy’s ex-boyfriend is killed with poisoned cupcakes from her bakery. With the bakery closed for testing by the police, she sets off to investigate. The book also includes recipes for cupcake tops and frosting.

On the positives, I liked that Lexy is mainly surrounded by women. Her best friend is also a woman and she gets help from a group of elderly women. That does tend to be a strength of cozies, but it’s not something to take for granted. There wasn’t a love triangle (it’s obvious who the love interest is and that they’ll end up together), which is a good thing for me as I find love triangles endlessly angsty.

On the negatives, the mystery was barely there. The character motivations were stretching it even for a cozy (like the police took all the ingredients from the bakery to test, rather than samples, which makes no sense even with handwaving police procedure). There isn’t really anything new here in terms of the plot, characters and setting.

I also dislike books where the main character can eat anything and not put on weight, and it’s portrayed as a wonderful thing. I tend to lose weight quickly and put it on slowly. It’s not wonderful. It means sugar crashes where I stop functioning if I forget a meal. It means even mild sickness can mean dropping underweight. This isn’t a trope I can find fun.

Overall, the writing flows well enough and it succeeds at its aim – it’s a light-hearted book that can be read quickly, without a whole lot of attention required. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a strong mystery, but for a bit of light romance and mystery (plus recipes), it might fit the bill.

Diving Belles – Lucy Wood

Diving Belles Cover - Mermaid and ocean illustration

First Published: 19th January, 2012
Genre: Fantasy / Short Stories
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble

Lucy Wood’s debut collection is a series of stories set in Cornwall. The central problems are average ones, such as dealing with moving away from a childhood home, losing a husband, or growing up, with some added folkloric complications. For example, a woman helps out her ex-boyfriend, who needs a lift to see a new house he might be buying, but she’s on a deadline as she’s turning into stone. A boy with a giant father isn’t growing, and frets about it while hanging out with a friend in a giant’s boneyard.

The feel of the stories is generally melancholy or wistful. They build slowly and fade out, rather than ending with a firm conclusion. Recommended for fans of literary fantasy and magical realism.

The Memory Eater – Matthew Hance (editor)

Memory Eater Cover - Cartoon head with pink bird eating the exposed brain

First Published: 19th June, 2012
Genre: Science Fiction / Short Story Anthology
Authors: Myra R. Taylor; John W. Otte; Ken Liu; Matthew Hance; Joe DiBuduo; Kate Robinson; Mike Kozlowski; j l mo; Lisa Martinez; Nicholas Conley; Wesley Gray; Bob Simms; Lisamarie Lamb; Lauren Kocher; Nina Pelletier; Kim Charles Younkin; Holly Day; Alex Shvartsman; Cassie Davies; Chad Jones; Justin Swapp; DL Thurston; Vivian Davenport; Lauren C. Teffeau; Kathie Huddleston
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

The anthology is based on the premise that unwanted memories can be erased by a machine. Themed anthologies can suffer from the stories being too samey, and that was a big problem here. I read the first couple of stories, but after that, I skipped and picked a few at random from the rest. I’d hoped to see more of a range of situations, but the ones I chose all read as though they were set in near-future America, and focused on a heterosexual relationship problem. One story had a gay man being murdered for getting in the way of a different sex relationship, which is a negative trope I’d rather not ever see again, especially in an anthology with a heterosexual focus.

It’s possible there are some standouts in the ones I didn’t read, but I had no motivation to give the rest of the stories a chance.

When I first reviewed this, I said the stories were anonymous. Author names and bios are in a list at the back, but who wrote which story isn’t identified in the bios or on the stories. This was unfortunate as a reader (as I do like to know who authored a story, for better or worse) and bad for the authors themselves. I later realised there was a table of contents, but the book didn’t open to that page and it wasn’t the built-in table of contents Kindle recognises. All round, not a good way to format an anthology.

On the plus side, I didn’t see any issues in the editing and each story was illustrated. If you’re a fan of the themes I’ve mentioned, this might be for you.