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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: Mind Over Murder by Allison Kingsley

Mind Over Murder by Allison Kingsley is the first in the Raven's Nest Bookstore Mystery series. I have to admit that I didn't read the synopsis carefully before purchasing the book, I saw the word "bookstore" and added it to my stack. What I missed was that this is a paranormal cozy, featuring a main character that can read minds. I feel that it's only fair to point out that I'm generally not a fan of paranormal mixed into my cozies, and that probably had an impact on my enjoyment of the book as much as the writing did.

Clara Quinn and her cousin grew up together in Finn's Harbor, knowing that one or both of them would inherit the family "sense" and be able to read minds. While Clara moved away and tried to ignore her mind-reading ability, her cousin Stephanie (who did not inherit the family trait) embraced her dream of owning a bookstore. Now Clara is back in town, resolutely avoiding any discussion about her abilities, or why she has returned after years in New York City. When Stephanie and her store run afoul of the local busybody, and then the busybody is found dead in the back of the bookstore, Stephanie convinces Clara to use her powers to hunt down the killer before someone on her own staff is arrested for the murder.

Characters: B  The characters in Mind over Murder are your basic cozy-stock: Nice people, a few really nasty people (one of whom is of course the victim), a rebellious young shop employee and some very aggressive cops. One of the most important jobs for a cozy writer is to create a cast of characters who have motives to kill, and while it's easy to do, it's not easy to do well. This is definitely one of the strongest points I can make in favor of this book. The nice people are nice without being one-dimensional. The nasty ones have some level of complexity to their awful-ness. The real key to a good cozy is usually the main sleuth character. Unfortunately the entire book is written in third person and Clara's personality simply doesn't ever come across, making her an un-compelling character.  And we'll talk about the "Quinn Sense" in a minute here...

Plot: C Overall the plot was fairly straightforward and readable, but two things stuck out in my mind as very distracting from what was going on. As I mentioned above, the main female "baddie" is an aggressive, successful businesswoman. She's been making increasingly tempting offers on a local business and finally sweeps into town hours after the owner is murdered to announce she's taking over the store. This makes her a great potential murderer, especially when she gains an instant reputation in town for being rude and generally unlikable. As much as I hate to see the "she's a bitch because she's a successful single woman" stereotype playing out yet again, it's a popular stock character in cozies. However, the character intimates to Clara that she has made all her decisions simply so she could work in a store across the street from a handsome hardware store owner. Not only is that a pretty extreme thing to do (even in a cozy), no successful business woman would make their decisions based on possible future romance with a stranger. Since the majority of the plot hinges on this character's arrival and her reasons for being in town, I felt like this reveal somewhat deflated the tension prematurely.

The "Quinn Sense" was the most negative aspect of the book, and again, a lot of plot hinges on Clara's mind-reading so I found this to be a fairly large detractor from the storyline. The "sense" seems to have about the same power as some good body-language reading or a 101 course in psychology. Quinn senses that people are hiding things. She has feelings that she should look further into certain comments. She can tell (sometimes) when someone is lying. She has the exact same amount of perception that your average cozy sleuth has, except hers is apparently paranormal. I'm sure this is not the actual case, but reading the book I kept wondering if the "sense" was simply some very lazy writing. (ie "I don't know how Clara would know this guy was lying to her about having a girlfriend. I'll just make her psychic!"). Clara also doesn't want the "sense" and spend half the book trying to ignore, suppress or down-play the very ability that is eluded to in the TITLE OF THE BOOK!

Romance: A Much like many of the characterizations in the book, the romance was surprisingly satisfying. (On a side note, I read this book immediately after watching one of the GOP primary debates, and could not stop the love-interest Rick from looking like Rick Perry in my head. Very confusing.) Against my normal inclination I not only rooted for the poor guy to get Clara's attention, I looked forward to watching this sub-plot develop.

Accuracy: D Sigh. I know I'm very tough on books that take place in bookstores, because I work in bookstores myself. I'm sure that often bookstores just make a great staging area for  murder and the intricacies of a bookseller's life are irrelevant to most readers. In this case, I'm betting even the most non-retail enabled reader saw a few glaring problems. Clara doesn't actually work at any point. She is in the store, she is sometimes dusting or straightening. Clara doesn't put books away, she doesn't seem to interact with customers unless they are potential suspects, and most importantly, she spends the majority of her time sitting in a little coffee nook in the store snacking, caffeinating, reading and thinking. There is also a disturbing moment (disturbing for me, not for normal people) when Stephanie tells Clara to grab the new occult bestseller from the stock room because people have been asking for it. As the plot develops it becomes clear that this stack of books sat in the backroom for a period of time, even though people had been eagerly awaiting it. Again, I think the point of this little sub-sub-sub plot was to place certain people in certain areas at certain times. But all I could think was "There isn't a bookseller in the world who would keep a stack of books in their backroom when they could be selling them."

Overall, I wouldn't recommend this book to others, but I have to admit that I'll probably read the second book in the series when it comes out, to see if Clara's character (and her "sense") develop into something more readable. I believe that this is the author's first book, so while I found it lacking in some key areas, I think the strong writing in others could point to much better offerings in the future.

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