Final Exam (Murder 101 Mystery, #4)

Final ExamFinal Exam
by Maggie Barbieri
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 0312376774
Series: Murder 101 #4
Publication Date: December 8, 2009
Pages: 336
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur

Well, this book was better than the last one, Quick Study, but it wasn’t as good as the first two books.  Allison, our now-fearless MC, is back to being thrust into situations beyond her control, albeit with some serious authorial license – in the first book Allison was tenured.  Now, she’s not, which I guess gives the administration the power needed to force her into being a Resident Admin at one of the dorms when the current RA goes missing.  Allison is determined to find out where the missing RA is, so she can move back home and off the dry, catholic campus.

When Allison moves into her room, her toilet explodes, revealing a brick of pure heroin.  This only spurs her on, of course.

What results is a bit convoluted, and the story is further muddied by a side plot involving her best friend’s marriage which didn’t quite work.  Ultimately, the plot, distilled down to its essence, is a good one involving unwitting college students, drug runs and what a less-than-ethical parent will do in the name of ‘what’s best’ for their child.  No dead bodies in this one, just a lot of chases and head wounds.  But in my opinion, it could have been better with, perhaps, a different editor.  This author writes good crime mysteries, and efforts at high-jinks just fall flat.

Quick Study (Murder 101, #3)

Quick StudyQuick Study
by Maggie Barbieri
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 0312376758
Series: Murder 101 #3
Publication Date: December 9, 2008
Pages: 336
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur

This is where the series falters; at least short-term.  While the first two books in the series were excellent stories about our very-human MC shoved into circumstances beyond her control, Quick Study is all about the hubris.  Allison thinks she’s a one-woman crime-fighting team, taking on all comers.  It’s silly and it cheapens what was a good series (and might be again, I can’t remember).  Looking at the publication date of 2008 (about the time cozy mysteries started becoming derivative) I can’t help but wonder if the author just hit a dry patch inspiration-wise, or if she was following the dictates of big-publishing in it’s single-minded pursuit of the bandwagon.

Either way – poorest entry of the bunch so far.

Extracurricular Activities (Murder 101, #2)

Extracurricular ActivitiesExtracurricular Activities
by Maggie Barbieri
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 0312355386
Series: Murder 101 #2
Publication Date: November 27, 2007
Pages: 294
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur

 

Well, I didn’t think I’d be able to refrain from immediately picking up the next book, but I’m a bit surprised by how quickly I devoured it.  Almost as good as the first one, though the action got a little bit over the top.  I found the premise believable, but the number of times Allison, the MC, found herself in peril stretched the boundaries of believability, even for a cozy.  Not cozy peril either: she’s shot, she’s stabbed, she’s kidnapped … her insurance rates must be hell.

Still, it obviously kept me riveted.  I miss mysteries like this; I know they’re still out there, but there just harder to find, which makes me all the happier that I can revisit the keepers on my shelves from time to time.

I have the rest of the series on my shelves too, but I’m going to try to hold off starting #3 so I can get some Halloween Bingo reading in.  We’ll see how long that lasts.

Murder 101

Murder 101Murder 101
by Maggie Barbieri
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780312355371
Series: Murder 101 #1
Publication Date: October 31, 2006
Pages: 288
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur

Safely away from the chaos of Manhattan, St. Thomas, a small college on the banks of the Hudson River in the Bronx, is supposed to be tranquil, bucolic, and serene. Unfortunately, English professor Alison Bergeron has found it to be anything but. Recently divorced from a fellow professor and even more recently without a car---it was stolen---she has been hoofing it to school. One Friday evening, two NYPD homicide detectives drop by her office. The good news is that they found her beat-up Volvo; the bad news is that the body of one of the students in her Shakespeare seminar was in the trunk.

Not only are Alison's chances of getting the car back bleak, but suddenly she's the primary suspect on a list that includes, among others, the murdered student's drug-dealing boyfriend, Vince, and the girl's father's business rivals (he's head of an old Italian family . . .).

Accused of a crime that she didn't commit, Alison enlists her best friend, Max's, emotional support and services as an amateur sleuth. Their fumbling efforts to clear Alison's name could land her in even hotter water with Detective Bobby Crawford, the handsome investigating officer (and former altar boy)---not to mention the nuns at St. Thomas. . . .


This was a re-read of a book I’d read years ago, the first in a series that takes place on a private, catholic college campus.   Our MC is a professor of English literature and the formula is fairly basic: she’s an unwitting suspect in a campus murder, and the investigating detective is a tall slab of gorgeous.  Peril and protection follow.

Same old, same old right?  Yes, and no.  When Barbieri wrote this 14 years ago, this formula wasn’t yet so much a formula as it was a trend, and as such, this book doesn’t feel derivative – at least not to me.  This story was written before ‘cozy’ became synonymous with ‘fluffy’ and ‘vapid’.  So we have likeable characters we genuinely cheer on, that are going through some rather heavy duty events involving very real violence.  When the MC sees crime-scene photos, she passes out, then vomits all over the detectives shoes – twice.  But instead of being played for laughs, the author makes us feel the mc’s embarrassment – and the detective’s embarrassment for her.

The plotting was good; not spectacular, but this is a first book, and it was adequate enough that I didn’t guess the culprit. The author did well with presenting an array of viable suspects, and when it came down to it, the solution made sense.

I’m glad I re-read this; I’d forgotten why I loved cozies so much; it’s nice to see that what I fell in love with is not the derivative nonsense cozies have become today.  Of course, I now want to re-read the entire series.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2020, specifically for the Dark Academia square.

Owl be Home for Christmas (Meg Langslow, #26)

Owl be Home for ChristmasOwl be Home for Christmas
by Donna Andrews
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250305312
Series: Meg Langslow #26
Publication Date: October 19, 2019
Pages: 304
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

This was the only Christmas story I read this year, and I started it just as everything started going pear shaped in RL, so it took me forever to read it.  I know this is a ‘me’ problem, but the longer it takes me to finish a book, the more scattered the story feels to me, so this entry by one of my favorite current authors got short shrift from me this year.  Still, it was good; the mystery was well constructed and the holiday spirit was high.  The Christmas dinner almost made me misty eyed and made me love Donna Andrews as an author just a little bit more than I already did.

Lark! The Herald Angels Sing (Meg Langslow Mystery, #24)

Lark! The Herald Angels SingLark! The Herald Angels Sing
by Donna Andrews
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250192943
Series: Meg Langslow #24
Publication Date: October 16, 2018
Pages: 288
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

What can I say – I love this series because it features a strong woman MC, with strong supporting characters, solid family relationships and tons of humor.  The Christmas ones have become an annual tradition (no pressure Ms. Andrews) I look forward to every year, and I always save them to read in the day or two before Christmas.

This year’s involved a baby in a manger, a paternity allegation, and some dark dealings in a neighbouring county that lead to some very dangerous events in the lead up to Christmas. The mystery was pretty much over by midway, and the rest of the book was more rescue mission with shades of three stooges.

The finale was … the very best kind of holiday wishful thinking.  This was definitely Andrews taking the opportunity to create the kind of reality she’d like to see and I loved it; it was outrageous and wonderful.  Not my favorite of her Christmas books, Duck the Halls still holds that place of honour, but an excellent, festive read nonetheless.

Toucan Keep a Secret (Meg Langslow, #22)

Toucan Keep a SecretToucan Keep a Secret
by Donna Andrews
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250115478
Series: Meg Langslow #23
Publication Date: August 7, 2018
Pages: 304
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

I was going to save this book for Bingo, but I’m hoping to attend a few panels Donna Andrews is on at Bouchcon, and it seemed appropriate to be up to date on my favorite series beforehand.

The story didn’t work as well for me as others have, but it did feel edgier, which was a compelling surprise.  The criminal suspects are really criminals, and at one point someone shoots at Meg.  Not the standard fair for Meg and her eccentric and fabulous family.

Even though I say it’s not as strong as others in the series, it’s still better than most cozies out there right now.  It’s definitely the best humorous cozy series you’re going to find, and Andrews has the awards to prove it.  The plotting is still strong too, even after 22 books – I certainly never came close to guessing the ending.

Opening one of these books is like coming home to your favorite people, where everyone is kind, funny, competent and believes in something bigger than themselves, whether it’s family, community, God, or all of the above.

How the Finch Stole Christmas (Meg Langslow mystery, #22)

How the Finch Stole ChristmasHow the Finch Stole Christmas
by Donna Andrews
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250115454
Series: Meg Langslow #22
Publication Date: October 24, 2017
Pages: 320
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

I’m an unrepentant fan of this series, but I got about half way through this book and sort of resigned myself to a good read, but not a great read.  Admittedly, to my way of thinking Duck the Halls is a pretty hard book to beat in terms of holiday spirit and humour, as well as a solid mystery.

The mystery in this one is, it pains me to admit, weak.  The lady doth protest too much, sort of, and it made the culprit feel obvious.  But I suspect that if you got Andrews drunk, she might admit that the mystery wasn’t the point of this story.  The series has always been about the characters, and to a lesser degree, about animals, but How the Finch Stole Christmas is almost all about the animals.  The front flap leads a reader to think it’s about the town’s holiday play of A Christmas Carol and the shenanigans of the lead actor, but from the beginning the story really revolves around:

View Spoiler »

This is where the finches in the title come into play, and at least one of them plays a much larger role towards the end of the book.

So the book was good, but not great.  Until the very end.  And Andrews’ managed to get me in the feels.  I’m not sure how, because the scene isn’t one I’d normally be moved by, so credit has to go to her writing, I think.  No matter the reason, I found myself a little misty eyed as I finished, and once again feeling like she’d given me exactly what I was looking for: a Christmas mystery full of Christmas spirit.

 

By the way, this book works PERFECTLY for the Bodhi day square: Book themes for Bodhi Day:  Read a book which involves animal rescue.  (Buddhism calls for a vegetarian lifestyle.)  I, however, am counting it towards Book themes for Saint Lucia’s Day: Read a book where ice and snow are an important feature.  — A snow storm and impending deep freeze causes all sorts of havoc with rescues, murder victims, and suspects and is the primary complication in the plotting of the mystery.

 

No Nest for the Wicket (Meg Langslow Mystery #7)

No Nest for the WicketNo Nest for the Wicket
by Donna Andrews
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9780312329402
Series: Meg Langslow #7
Publication Date: August 8, 2006
Pages: 259
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur

 

Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series is one of my all time favourites and a series I re-read with regularity.

No Nest for the Wicket is one of the best (extreme croquet – really!), as I really enjoy the ones where Meg’s wacky family plays their part (and boy they are the best sort of whack-jobs!). I’ve read no author who can so perfectly write such three-dimensional characters – even the most out there of the relatives seems believable (ok, almost believable).

I think the plot was solid, with lots of red herrings and the murderer ultimately not easy to guess.

I hope Ms. Andrews finds many, many more plots within her as I’ll be devastated when this series ends. (This review reflects the third time I’ve read this book.)