by Sally Andrew
Series: Tannie Maria Mystery #1
Publication Date: September 23, 2015
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Text Publishing
Tannie Maria used to write a recipe column for the Klein Karoo Gazette. Then Head Office decided they wanted an advice column instead, so now she gives advice. In the form of recipes. Because, as she says, she may not know much about love, but food—that’s her life.
Everything has been going well. A tongue-tied mechanic wins his girl with text messages and Welsh rarebit. A frightened teenager gets some much-needed sex ed with her chocolate-coated bananas.
But then there is a letter from Martine, whose husband beats her, and Tannie Maria feels a pang of recognition and dread. This may be a problem that cooking can’t solve…
I found this at my local library and the synopsis had me excited to read it. About 25% of the way in, I wasn’t sure I was going to get through it; at the end, I’m eager to get to the library and check out the second book, and likely buy them for my personal library.
The biggest hurdle for me with this book is my almost total ignorance about South Africa. I know it’s in Africa; I know it’s in the south; I know it was colonised by the Dutch, and I know about apartheid and Nelson Mandela. Oh, and they (and the rest of Africa) are tied with Australia for coolest animals. Beyond that, I got nuthin’. That made a lot of the cultural references a mystery to me and there was a time or two where I struggled to understand. The list of things I need to research to cure just a tiny fraction of my ignorance is long. I was helped a bit by a familiarity with Dutch, which allowed me to decipher some of the Afrikaans vocabulary that is liberally sprinkled throughout the text.
The other hurdle I initially had with the book was understanding the MC, Tannie Maria. I just couldn’t get a handle on what kind of character she was meant to be; a time or two she came across as slow of mind, but she’s not. She’s got a tragic background she survived, but she has this kind of passive strength and spirit that frankly leaves me confused. This could be fallout from my cultural ignorance in the same way that my BFF’s husband sometimes leaves me confused (he’s Dutch) and a few Aussies too. Different environments influence different personalities. I liked her; I just didn’t understand her.
I really waffled between 4 and 4.5 stars, but ultimately settled on 4 because of the above and because there was a bit too much sentiment about the power of love towards the end. It’s beautifully written, but not the kind of thing that resonates with me. The mystery itself was pretty good, though I’d argue it’s not strictly a fair-play plot. The style is what I’d call a ‘gritty cozy’ if forced to describe it. There’s a dark side to the crimes and spousal abuse is a strong theme, but the characters and mood are uplifting, with food playing a major role in the story. There’s a side story that almost stole the show for me at the end, and there’s a low-key romance brewing between the mc and the detective that I have a hard time getting excited about because, frankly, he has a handlebar moustache and those things creep me out.
But what really makes the book is the atmosphere; the author brings the veldt to life on the pages in a way that kept me glued to the story when the language and cultural references left me floundering. When I wasn’t sure I cared about the characters, the Klein Karoo kept me coming back for more. By the end, it was the characters, the writing and the Karoo that makes me want to pick up the next book in the series, The Satanic Mechanic.