A review of Bingo Barge Murder (A Shay O’Hanlon Caper, #1) by Jessie Chandler

READ JUNE 2015

ONLINE SUMMARY — As co-owner of The Rabbit Hole, a quirky-cool Minneapolis coffee shop, Shay O’Hanlon finds life highly caffeinated but far from dangerous. That is, until her lifelong friend Coop becomes a murder suspect. The victim was Kinky, Coop’s former boss and the unsavory owner of The Bingo Barge, a sleazy gambling boat on the Mississippi. The weapon? Kinky’s lucky bronzed bingo marker.

While unearthing clues to absolve Coop, Shay encounters Mafia goons hunting for some extremely valuable nuts. Looking for the murderer without help from the cops proves risky—especially with distracting sparks flying between Shay and the beautiful yet fierce Detective Bordeaux. When Shay’s elderly friend and landlady is held for ransom by the mob, all bets are off. Can Shay find the killer before the stakes get any higher?

MY REVIEW — Some time ago at my local library, I came across Jessie Chandler’s Pickle in the Middle Murder, book three of her Shay O’Hanlon series. The unusual title grabbed me, as did the blurb, the cover was kinda cool, and, last but not least, since I’m an ardent hibernophile and main character’s name — Well, you get the idea. Though I hadn’t read the first books in the series, Pickle… worked pretty well as a stand-alone, and I enjoyed it. However, it did leave me wondering how Shay, the protagonist, and JT, her girlfriend, got together.

So, I finally got around to the initial entry in the series, Bingo Barge Murder, and enjoyed it every bit as much — well even more, maybe, than the other book. Not only was the mystery interesting, but the book was also a helluva lotta fun, on the level of Elizabeth Sims’ first two Lillian Byrd novels or maybe Jessica Thomas’ Alex Peres series. A few reviewers on amazon called it slapstick or farcical, but I think that overstates the case; while it is indeed lighter in tone than many murder mysteries, I didn’t find the humor to be that exaggerated. It was, pace Goldilocks, “just right.”

In Pickle in the Middle Murder , Shay wasn’t really even my favorite character, but, here, she definitely is. Though completely out of her element, her loyalty to her friends makes her relentless in solving the mystery. Now that I have a much better feel for Shay, I’m confident that a reread of Pickle… would change my feelings about her in that book, too. Having a little more backstory on her friends Eddy and Coop helped me warm to them, as well; they’re quirky – maybe not Joan Opyr Idaho Code quirky — but quite likeable. And, even though she doesn’t have a huge amount of time “on stage,” I love JT. The diverse nature of the characters in Bingo Barge Murder is one of the major strengths of Chandler’s tale.

The plot of the novel is convoluted, though not in an off-putting way, and the author does a good job handling that complexity. That our intrepid amateur sleuth, coffee shop owner cum Tenacious Protector, has two sets of baddies to deal with ramps up the suspense, giving us basically two climaxes. While both pairs of perps are a few peas short of a casserole – Eddy calls one duo “Ding and Ling” — they’re still clearly dangerous and the sense of menace evoked is absolutely real.

The actual writing is rock solid. None of those distracting gaffes of grammar, syntax, etc. to pull your interest away from the story to the actual words on the page. The narrative style is smooth and natural, colorful with just the right amount of humor sprinkled throughout. In first person POV, the narrative style is literally the narrator’s voice, and here, it simply feels right. The story’s pacing is also a plus, with action scenes effectively alternating with calmer passages that are more dialog-filled.

Finally, there’s the budding romance between Shay and JT. What really impressed me about this was that even though there’s no sex, absolutely none, no, not any at all,  just a brief kiss and, at the very end, a bit longer make-out session, the continuation of which is merely alluded to — Chandler still manages to make every interaction between the two women quite sexy. Very nicely done.

In short, Jessie Chandler’s Bingo Barge Murder is a well-written, interesting and enjoyable mystery with realistic characters who feel more like they could be your neighbors, not just characters in a book. It features a well-balanced blend of drama and humor. I’m particularly glad I read it because of how it changed my feelings about Shay. Unreservedly recommended. I don’t imagine I’ll wait nearly as long to read book two, Hide and .Snake Murder.

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A review of Lucky Stiff by Elizabeth Sims

READ June 2015

ONLINE SUMMARY — There is what you believe, and then there is the truth. For Lillian Byrd, a chance encounter with an old friend means that everything she thought she knew about her shattered childhood is about to be revealed as a lie. One summer day when she was 12 years old, her best friend, Duane, left for summer camp. Later that night, flames ripped through the Polka Dot, a bar owned and run by Lillian’s parents. Three bodies were found in the ashes: those of her mother, her father and Trix Hawley, a bartender and Lillian’s frequent babysitter. Or so she has always thought. But Duane’s story reveals something shocking. After summer camp, his father moved him to Florida, telling Duane that his mother had left, and for a short time Trix Hawley lived with them. Now Duane’s father has disappeared as well. Who was the third body in the ashes of the Polka Dot? Was the fire an accident or arson? Where is Trix now? And where are Duane’s mother and father? Lillian and Duane set out to find the truth about their parents, a truth that has been hidden well by members of both their families. The author of the best–selling mysteries “Holy Hell” and “Damn Straight” has crafted another nerve-tingling thriller rich with characterization, humor and humanity.

MY REVIEW —

Elizabeth Sims’ Lucky Stiff is a departure from the lighter tone of the first two novels in her Lillian Byrd series, Holy Hell and Damn Straight, which doesn’t necessarily make it a better or a worse book. That depends on the taste of the individual reader. One reader commented that Lillian appears to have lost most of her sense of humor. I’ll return to this topic in a bit, after getting a few basic thoughts out of the way.Lucky Stiff is, as anyone familiar with Sims’ work would expect, mechanically well-written, logically plotted, fast-paced – if you pay attention, even in the more laid-back scenes, things are constantly happening – with well-drawn, believable, if somewhat unusual characters. The mystery itself is more than enough to keep you reading, but various other plot threads make this a multi-leveled story, enriching the reading experience.The most interesting of these secondary plot lines is Lillian’s relationship with Blind Lonnie, a street musician in Detroit’s Greek Town. Down on her luck again, our heroine busks alongside the more experienced Lonnie, her mandolin to his guitar, and he becomes her mentor not just in musical improv, but in life’s lessons as well. Lillian learns you must truly “let go” to succeed at musical improvisation just as letting go of her past,by finding the truth about it, frees her to live more fully.

Lillian’s connections to the events of her past are her Uncle Guff and her childhood friend Duane. The latter deserts her in their quest to find out what happened to their respective parents and, forced to continue without him, she finds an inner strength she wasn’t aware of. Things come full circle when Lillian relates all she’s learned to Uncle Guff who is not only aware of most of what she’s unearthed but who reveals perhaps more than she ever wanted to know, giving her a secret she feels compelled to keep.

There’s also Lillian’s rekindled romance with Minerva Le Blanc, who is recovering from the assault in Holy Hell. The “romance” is mostly on Lillian’s part; Minerva seems more interested in sex and the possibility of a lucrative new book and she’s more amused by Lillian’s naiveté than in love with her. If their relationship continues in the next book, to quote Han (and Luke, Anakin, Obi-Wan, Leia and C-3PO) “I have a bad feeling about this.”

To return to the opening topic, Lillian’s (disappearing?) sense of humor, Lucky Stiff is, indeed, darker than the earlier books. Given the principal theme, the death of Lillian’s parents and the disappearance of Duane’s mother, how can it not be? Clearly, humor can coexist alongside murder – Kate Allen’s Alison Kaine series is a prime example, but in Sims’ third novel the relationship between the narrator and the crime victims is too intimate for that sort of humor to work. However, Sims’ novel does have wit aplenty, often generated, as in the earlier two novels, by Lillian’s interaction with her pet rabbit, Todd.

So, while there may not be any guffaws, there’s still humor, and I think Sims gets the amount of it just right. Again, Lucky Stiff is different from the first two books in the series but, bottom line, Lillian is still Lillian, She’s changed as a result of the circumstances she encounters but at some level she’s still the impulsive, error-prone, caring, inquisitive character we loved in Holy Hell. I especially enjoy when an author allows her protagonist to grow from book to book, and that is definitely what happens here. Personally, I would expect the next novel to return to the lighter tone of the first two bucks, but for Lillian to have more depth after the events of this novel.

To sum up, Lucky Stiff is very well-written, interesting on several levels, compelling at times, and moving without being sentimental. It is well worth your time and money.