Saturday, December 16, 2006

Mainly Mysteries/Chili Pepper Readers holiday bash

Yesterday evening the Chili Pepper Readers joined Mainly Mysteries for our annual December bash, writes Jeannine. Four years ago we discussed “culinary mysteries” and everyone brought some food related to their selection, often using one of the recipes included in the story. This was such a hit that we decided to try something similar once every year. This year the Chili Pepper Readers decided to join us, and we choose a mutually beneficial theme of mystery and romance combined, reader’s choice.

We had a nice turnout with most of the regulars from both groups (which in some cases are the same people), and enough food to feed an army. And not just sweets and “refreshments,” we had REAL food. Homemade minestrone stew (I think it was the home grown tomatoes that really made the difference there) with garlic bread, other hot dishes, salads, layered Mexican dip, cookies and chocolate tea bread – food kept arriving and I lost track. There is one drawback we discovered however, our discussion was quiet and civilized, nothing like the last few meetings. While it’s possible the romance club members softened us up a bit, I think it was actually the full stomachs that made us extremely mellow. Who wants to argue when you can eat?

We have the Staff Development Committee to thank for our Christmas decorations. The staff party was the same day, and the SDC let us use their decorations including a giant and absolutely gorgeous poinsettia in the middle of the food tables. Thank you!

On to the books:

First, we have Sailing to Capri by Elizabeth Adler. Adler is known for writing “travelogue romances,” and Capri also has a murder mystery included. A billionaire dies and leaves a letter that he was murdered, and his personal assistant and a P.I. are supposed to gather the 6 possible suspects along with 6 “red herrings” for a cruise to Capri on the billionaire’s yacht, and investigate to see who the murderer is, and then have a reading of the will at Capri. The first part of the book sets the scene and the two main characters, who you can quickly see will be this book’s romance; and then the middle of the book introduces the other characters and their backgrounds, and interactions with each other on the cruise. This part was well-written and a light fun read. Then we get to the reading of the will, coincidence piles on coincidence with a little unearthly intervention thrown in, and as each shallow, mean, money-hungry suspect’s secret is revealed and that person is given some wonderful whatever from the billionaire, that person transforms into a completely different wonderful person excited about his or her new life. Well, GAG. And the mystery was solved off scene, and was the person barely mentioned (what I call the Murder She Wrote school of villains), and I’m giving away the end and I don’t care. I must say that a review of this book did say her others are much better. Too bad I didn’t read that until after I read the book.


The next person went the Christmas route and reread an old favorite The best Christmas pageant ever by Barbara Robinson . There are a group of really bad kids in town, vandalism and mischief at every turn. Come Christmastime however, and one of the girls wants to play Mary in the pageant which sort of turns the pageant on its ear as these kids become involved. Yet by the end, everyone realizes that they learned more from this new approach to the Christmas story (“Hey, unto us a child is born”) than they ever had before. Highly recommended.

There’s a nice mix of mystery and romance as well as Christmas in David Baldacci ’s The Christmas train. A jaded journalist takes a train trip across the country for an article, and meets all sorts of memorable characters along the way, including an old girlfriend. Our reader gave it a one chili romance rating (romance heat index) and one pepper for the mystery, but said it was interesting and had a nice twist.

A much older author, Rae Foley (1900-78, a.k.a. Elinor Denniston, Dennis Allan, Helen K. Maxwell), had been recommended at a previous CPR meeting and several people read some of hers. The first discussed was Fear of a stranger which was described as a quick, fun read even though you could figure out the mystery a third of the way into the story. There were two accidents with 2 dead fiancés, missing money, and the classic quandary of wondering who to trust.

The combination of romance and mystery brought to many people’s minds the formerly popular “gothic romances” of Mary Stewart and Phyllis Whitney. If you like those two, you are recommended to try Dorothy Gilman ’s Uncertain voyage (she also writes the Mrs. Pollifax mysteries). Our reader says it follows the classic formula in which the protagonist “finds herself” and solves the mystery (though our reader also had to admit that she got to “some psychological stuff and skipped to the end.” Tsk tsk). This same reader had another classic to share that she thought must be a perfect mix of romance and mystery, Nancy Drew in The stolen kiss. This newer edition had what looked like a youthful Fabio on the cover. None of the rest of us remembered Fabio on the cover of our Nancy Drews. And no, our reader (or so she calls herself) didn’t read this one either. Triple tsk.

More humor coming our way. Our next member tried Hugh Laurie’s The gun seller (read excerpt) which is a spy spoof with assassins and even a little romance on the side. Yes, it’s THAT Hugh Laurie, Bertie Wooster/Dr. House himself. (I still can’t get over how convincingly sweet stupid British Bertie Wooster transforms into cranky brilliant American Dr. House… How does he do that?) Our member said it was quite good within its genre and also for its novelty value.

Our next title was read and enjoyed by several members, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (read excerpt). An old man in a nursing home (and hating every minute of it) remembers his life with the circus. Not to give the ending away, we are assured the story includes mystery, romance, and plenty of “yahoo” as well as circus and animal lore, and comes highly recommended. This member appropriately brought circus animal cookies.

We return to the mystery genre now with Witches bane by Susan Wittig Albert, one of the China Bayles series. In keeping with the holiday festivities (but a different holiday), this one is set around Halloween and is complete with Wiccans, Santeria, vandalism, fortune telling, and murder by poison plant. The romance comes with China’s relationship with her boyfriend. An enjoyable light mystery.

Next is another Rae Foley title, Girl on a highwire . This was read by one of the CPR members and had far too many murders in the very first chapter, so she skipped it. Who needs blood and gore for the holidays? Instead she read Debbie Macomber’s There’s something about Christmas (read excerpt) in which a woman who dislikes flying, dislikes men, dislikes Christmas and dislikes fruitcake is assigned to write a feature about Christmas fruitcake, and must fly (with an attractive male pilot) to her interviews, and – shocker – she discovers she doesn’t dislike any of them as much as she thought.

Another mystery with romance is the Cater Street Hangman by Anne Perry, which was made into a TV movie. This is the first of her Thomas Pitt series set in Victorian London, and introduces Thomas and Charlotte to one another. The mystery explores the dark underside of the Victorian world, with detail and shading, whereas the romance is in the burgeoning relationship between Charlotte and Thomas, a loving relationship that continues with great sweetness and loyalty between them throughout the series.

We return now to the gothic and Mary Stewart. The next reader remembered loving Stewart in the past and wondered how a reread would be. She read Wildfire at midnight about a divorce who goes on holiday on the Isle of Skye. There is murder, and mysterious fires in the hills, and, oddly enough, her ex-husband is vacationing there as well. Our member says it has it all – cliffs, fog, drama. What more can you ask?

Prime cut by Diane Mott Davidson is part of her Goldy Bear Catering series, and focuses on the murder of a local inept building contractor and the disappearance of some historical cookbooks from the museum. All manner of other crises beset Goldy who still manages to solve it in the end. The “romance” is supplied by her teenage son.

The next title attracted the reader’s attention because the cover said “in the style of Daphne Du Maurier and Mary Stewart,” and she couldn’t resist. Caroline Llewellen’s Life Blood is about a woman who is left a cottage in the Cotswolds which she discovers was the site of a recent murder. The story is mostly mystery and suspense, but there is a bit of romance late in the book (page 200+). While not quite Stewart, it was enjoyable, and she will try others by the author.

Our final Rae Foley title is Where is Mary Bostwick? Part of the Mr. Potter series, it takes place during two days sometime before Christmas. Mary Bostwick is due to inherit a several million dollars if she shows up before a deadline in two days, at which point the money will go elsewhere, but so far she cannot be found. There are many characters, mysterious and appealing, and all the pieces and people come together and find their places before the end of the story. The reader found it very satisfying.

Our next reader was bamboozled into sharing a title despite not being prepared for the theme. So what HAVE you read? Well, if you just want to know of a good book… try Orbit by John J. Nance (listen to an interview with Nance about the book). A man wins a contest to orbit the earth, but once in orbit, the pilot is killed by a meteor and the radio is destroyed. He finds a laptop, and never expecting to be recovered, starts writing his innermost thoughts. Unknown to him, he is on a live feed that is picked up by some kids, and pretty soon becomes an international phenomenon. And international phenomenons need rescuing, don’t they…. So it sort of has some mystery (will he survive) and there is a definite romance element in the background – that qualifies, right?

The newest Amelia Peabody mystery by Elizabeth Peters (a.k.a. Barbara Mertz, Barbara Michaels) is Children of the Storm (read an excerpt). The adventurous Egyptian archaeologist family is in Egypt for a family reunion – so all the characters are together again and part of the story. There’s everything there in the plot as well – theft, murder, abduction…. According to our member, it’s the best in the series yet.

Our next title also advertised that it had it all: Love, lies and liquor by M.C. Beaton. Sounds good, but the reader was disappointed. It’s part of the Agatha Raisin series, one of the newer titles in which Agatha has her own detective agency. While the member has enjoyed the series in the past, she thought the humor was missing in this one, the mystery was just okay, and the lack of romance a let down (evidently Agatha normally chases anything in pants – this time she wasn’t answering the phone). So while the title promises a good time, the story fell short.

Our next member (of both clubs) had highly recommended a series by Brenda Joyce which offers what she thinks is the perfect combination of mystery and romance (with a 4 chili pepper rating – hot!), but decided to move out of her comfort level and try something she wouldn’t normally read. In this case it is the thriller series by J.A. Jance Hour of the hunter; Kiss of the bees, and Day of the dead. These are far darker than Jance’s detective series, and put the main characters into some intense situations. She was very impressed with how strong the main character has to be (and is) to survive. The setting is near Tucson, and the novel gave great insight into local Papago culture, and the blending of ethnicities in the area. Things are very dark and very evil, but good triumphs in the end. She highly recommends the entire series.

Our final title is Sacred sins by Nora Roberts. The reader was thrilled to use the title for our group because she had been told it has “too much mystery for the Romance Group.” Now was her big chance! Though not written under her mystery writing pseudonym of J.D. Robb, it still qualifies as a mystery complete with a serial killer, five murders, an “insane twist” at the end, as well as the romance between a criminal profiler and a detective. It’s her favorite, and she’s reread it countless times.

A good time was had by all. We all gained several pounds and have a longer list of books we don’t have time to read. It was so civilized, I’m thinking we need to go about this differently next year. Making an open choice like this meant people were mostly reading books they liked. We do much better when we have books someone doesn’t like (fight! fight!). Perhaps next year our Christmas gift can be a list of books to stay away from like the plague. Do not buy these books for Christmas. An excuse for us to be BAD for Christmas. What do you think?