Ahhh, October! When our thoughts turn to pumpkins, apple cider, falling leaves, and… Christmas celebrations?
Yep, you read that right. New holiday-themed books are coming out and I’ll be reviewing a few in the coming weeks! Today I’m featuring a title I first shared as part of a trio of cozy mystery releases.
Christmas Cake Murder by Joanne Fluke is the latest release in the Hannah Swensen series of cozy mysteries. If you’re not familiar with them, Hannah is a baker in small-town Minnesota, who (along with her family and friends) gets involved in all kinds of mysteries.
In this story, we venture off the main series and go about a decade back in time, to when Hannah is in grad school and her bakery, The Cookie Jar, doesn’t even exist yet. The town of Lake Eden is preparing for Christmas, but the Swensen family isn’t in much of a holiday spirit since Hannah’s father suddenly passed away. Hannah and her sisters are managing, but they’ve tried everything to engage their mother, Delores, without much success. But then friends come by with the perfect Yuletide project that will help Delores and her girls rekindle the holiday spirit: the chance to fulfill a dream of Essie, an elderly friend, by recreating a Christmas Ball from Lake Eden’s days gone by, complete with a Christmas cake parade!
As they plan this magnificent event, the Swensen women uncover a set of Essie’s old notebooks, in which she’s penned an amazing mystery story. But as they progress through the tale, they come to believe it’s not all fiction, and they have to figure out what that means for Essie, Lake Eden, and the Christmas Ball!
Now, if you don’t want spoilers, proceed with caution, especially if you aren’t caught up on the full series but plan to read in order!
There are two things I really liked about this book. One is the twist of the mystery… usually in Lake Eden, someone is found dead and the residents have to solve the case. But in this case, the mystery comes to them in writings from the past. I was hooked on Essie’s writings from the very beginning and though I suspected the answers, it ended up a little differently and it was fun to figure out.
The other thing I enjoyed was the look at a younger Hannah. It was interesting to see how events unfolded to send her on her baking path, and it was refreshing NOT to have her in the middle of a romantic mess. (Well, there are some references to a relationship gone bad for her, but it’s before the Mike-Norman-Ross fiasco that has everyone frustrated.) We got to see Hannah with her mother and sisters, finding new family dynamics after the loss of Mr. Swensen, and new paths for some of the characters.
What I didn’t love as much: the writing. Many long-time fans of this series have noted in reviews that the writing seems to have changed in recent years, and that the quirky conversational tone of the earlier books has been replaced by somewhat stilted dialogue. Unfortunately that’s still true here. Conversations between characters didn’t flow naturally, and there were some sections with long unwieldy descriptions. One example was when it took Hannah a page and a half to tell another character how to turn on a gas fireplace and how that worked. It was distracting.
The interesting thing about this was that Essie’s tale (the story-within-a-story) wasn’t this way… it was well paced and really interesting. I assume the same person or team wrote both the main book and Essie’s story, so it perplexes me that Hannah’s dialogue has become so cumbersome.
Now… this wasn’t my favorite title in the series. But I care about this community and these characters (isn’t it funny how real they become to the reader?!?), and I’d really love to see the story, with another book or two, come to a satisfying end, or at least get back on course with the plucky Hannah and snappy dialogue. So I will continue to read and hope this series comes full circle. I give this 2.5 stars, rounded to 3 because I’m still invested in Hannah’s story!
If you love a good holiday-themed mystery, and if you’re a loyal reader of this series, you’ll want to pick up this title for the sweet story and the insight into Hannah’s background and Swensen family history! Christmas Cake Murder is available now!
(Thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for a complimentary review copy of this title. All opinions are my own.)
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