Review | Death Loves a Messy Desk (Charlotte Adams 3), by Mary Jane Maffini

DeathLovesAMessyDeskThe mystery in Death Loves a Messy Desk is pretty good. An office manager hires Charlotte Adams to organize the horrifically messy (think old food and rodent droppings) desk of a co-worker, Barb. Except that on her way to the office, she’s almost run off the road. And when she arrives, she gets sucked into office politics that are even messier than Barb’s desk. Then Barb goes missing, one of the office workers is murdered, and somehow, Charlotte is right smack in the middle of it all.

The big reveal took me completely by surprise — I didn’t suspect that person at all, and I like how the reveal of their identity also peeled back some layers into their true personality. There were also some surprising reveals throughout the story, especially once Charlotte digs deeper into Barb’s background, and I found that the minor twists kept the story engaging.

That being said, as an intro to a series, Messy Desk left me somewhat underwhelmed. Charlotte was a pretty good series lead. I think her job in organizing people’s spaces sounds awesome. I also liked the subplot about training her dogs to be therapy dogs, and I’m only disappointed that plot thread was dropped pretty quickly. But Charlotte also came off as whiny and needy with her friends, which at times turned irritating. For example, she kept interrupting her best friend Margaret’s sexytimes, often to insult Margaret’s choice of lover, or to complain about her friend Jack never being around anymore. At one point, Margaret sets a very understandable boundary and demands that since she’s busy, she can only talk to Charlotte about matters that are actually urgent. In response, Charlotte insists on talking about Jack, and because Margaret is such a good friend, she takes a break from her night with her lover to give Charlotte advice.

Worse was Charlotte’s obsession over why Jack is no longer ever around. I figure there’ll likely be a romance brewing between them at some point in the series, but within this novel at least, her frustration about him not spending time with her just comes off as a clingy / jealous / possessive girlfriend. It becomes even more frustrating because it’s unclear (at least to me as a series newbie) what their relationship actually is, and it’s only near the end where I learn he’s only her landlord and friend who once had a crush on her. At one point, Jack’s actual girlfriend answers his phone and says he’s in the meeting, and Charlotte pretends to have an emergency just to get him to talk to her. The story paints the girlfriend as a villain — all gorgeous and mean girl — and Jack later begs Charlotte for forgiveness for ignoring her. But honestly, it mostly just seemed like Jack had a life outside of Charlotte, and Charlotte wasn’t willing to accept that.

I also really disliked the character of Nick, the detective who investigates the crime. Bumbling detectives are a pretty standard trope in cozy mysteries — which makes sense, as it paves the way for the amateur series lead to solve the mystery themselves — but Nick is so incompetent that it’s a wonder he’s lasted at his job for so long. He acts completely lost during the investigation, asks obvious questions, and repeats questions that have already been answered. Even when Charlotte practically guides him through the answers, he still can’t figure out what happened. I can imagine his character being written as comic relief, but it just came off annoying after a while.

Overall, the mystery wasn’t bad, but the series didn’t quite hook me.

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Thank you to Beyond the Page Publishing for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Pup Fiction, by Laurien Berenson

PupFictionOkay, first of all, how adorable is this cover?! One look at those adorable Dalmatian puppy faces, and I knew I had to read this book. And I’m happy to report that Pup Fiction lived up to its promise!

This is the 27th instalment in the Melanie Travis cozy mystery series, but as a total newbie myself to the series, I can attest that you don’t need to read the first 26 volumes to enjoy this mystery. Series lead Melanie raises show dogs for competition, and solves mysteries with her indomitable Aunt Peg, a dog breeder and dog show judge.

In Pup Fiction, Melanie drops off her sons at her friend Emily Grace’s summer camp, only to learn that Emily is being plagued by a mysterious run of mishaps. Fortunately, no one has been hurt so far, but with events like her Dalmatian puppies running into traffic, a truck rolling into a lake, and a kitchen fire, it’s only a matter of time before someone does. And indeed, the body of Emily’s ex-husband — her “biggest mistake” — is soon found in the woods close to camp. Emily is a suspect, and enlists Melanie’s help to prove her innocence.

This was such a fun book to read, and I’m excited about checking out more titles in this series. I love animals, and I absolutely adore mysteries starring animal lovers, so when Emily comments that Melanie talks more to her dog than most people talk to their spouses, I was immediately hooked. I also love how the Dalmatians featured in the mystery — their arrival at Emily’s doorstep a few months ago accompanied her ex-husband’s re-entry into her life, and while the central mystery didn’t revolve around them, they turned out to be a valuable clue.

I also absolutely adore Melanie’s Aunt Peg. She’s hilarious! She gets involved in this story purportedly to help Emily with her money problems, but really, she’s much more interested in Emily’s Dalmatians, which I can totally relate to. There’s also a fun subplot about Melanie’s older son Davey showing one of Aunt Peg’s dogs at competition, where we get a bit of an inside glimpse into the world of dog competitions. I imagine the other books in the series take us even deeper into that world, which makes me even more excited to dive in.

The mystery itself was interesting. Berenson did a good job in setting up a handful of side characters who may have been involved in the murder, and while I guessed the murderer before Melanie did, I admit the book kept me guessing almost all the way through. The ending of the mystery made me a bit sad, because I’d grown to like one of the characters who I think won’t appear in future books.

Overall, this is a fun book, and fantastic introduction to the series!

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Thank you to Kensington Books for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Not A Happy Family, by Shari Lapena

NotAHappyFamilyI love Shari Lapena’s novels, and I absolutely adore thrillers about dysfunctional families. Bring on the drama, the childhood secrets, the backstabbing over inheritance! Especially in the hands of a writer like Lapena, who crafts vivid, engaging characters, and tosses in a few twists and turns, Not A Happy Family had me flipping through the pages as quickly as I could.

When millionaires Fred and Sheila Merton are found murdered in their stately upstate New York estate, their three adult children quickly become suspects. Prior to the murders, the family had had a rather explosive Easter dinner, where Fred’s cruel remarks sent the children and the long-time family housekeeper walking out early. All the children had motive to want to kill him: oldest child Catherine wants the family home, but learns on Easter that her father plans to sell it. Middle child Dan thought he’d be inheriting the family business, but his father just sold it to someone else. And youngest child Jenna is an artist who lives mostly off her father’s financial support, but he doesn’t seem inclined to keep that going for much longer.

Then there’s their aunt Audrey, who claims Fred had made plans just before he died to leave her half of his wealth, except he was murdered before he could meet with his lawyer to update the will. Pissed that the murder has deprived her of the inheritance, Audrey is convinced one of the children killed their parents, and is determined to find the killer and turn them in. Also on the list of suspects are the housekeeper Irena, who, more loyal to the children than to her employers, is found to have cleaned off the murder weapon. And an unexpected player, who may also benefit from Fred’s death.

It’s a domestic puzzle straight out of Agatha Christie, and I was riveted the entire time! I love the family dynamics. I love how the siblings immediately banded together out of a shared dislike for their father and a shared, illicit happiness at his death… and I especially love how they start turning on each other when the investigation starts narrowing in on each of them. Lapena has done a great job in making all these suspects have believable motives, and also in giving all of them shaky alibis. I didn’t expect the reveal when it came, and to be honest, I didn’t understand why the mother had to die as well when it seemed like most of the siblings’ beef was really with their father.

The epilogue was also *chef’s kiss* masterful. I don’t often pay much attention to the epilogues of these kinds of novels — I think mostly because they’re pretty predictable in that there’ll either be one final twist, or a nice glimpse into a main character’s happy ending. But this epilogue filled me with delight. i think it’s because the ending felt so unjust, and, well, kinda mean, and the epilogue was like a sly little wink that things will turn out as they should. I loved it.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.