Book That Takes Place At Christmas

Plum Pudding Murder by Joanne Fluke

Here’s my dilemma…  I have a series of books that I can’t say that I like, but I continue to read them.  I mean, really.  I buy all of them, too.  No lie.  I don’t especially like the characters, the setting is very humdrum, the prose is often incredibly annoying – but I sit down and breeze through them when the mood strikes me.  I’m not obsessive about this series like I am with some other book series.  I haven’t read all of them yet, and I don’t sit on pins and needles waiting for the next one in the series to be written the way I do for some authors (I’m looking at you, George R. R. Martin!). However, like some weird low-maintenance, co-dependent relationship, I just can’t walk away.  I go back to this series over and over again.

The specific book in question is Plum Pudding Murder, where a dastardly crime takes place at the local Christmas tree lot and our plucky heroine is there, plum puddings in hand, to save the day.  The premise of the series is not much different from other cozy mystery series where the mystery is light and the local village is full of quirky characters.  Hannah Swensen is the star of this series created by Joanne Fluke.  Hannah’s not too old, not too young, and not too beautiful; very wholesome and very well-liked in her small town of Lake Eden, Minnesota.  Hannah is the proprietor of a cookie shop, The Cookie Jar, and stumbles into detecting in the first book in the series, Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder.  Hannah isn’t without her own dark secret – a heart-wrenching college relationship soured her on premarital sex, so she dates both a sexy cop and a sensible, earthy dentist without giving it up to either one.  Both men adore her and her cat and the male suitors are great friends with each other!  Could it get any happier? No.  Not until murder comes to town in each installment.  Then, Hannah and her suitors pursue murderers and cookies with equal vigor until all is well in Lake Eden again. Each book comes with a host of recipes, which are pretty tasty if you take the time to try them.

There are elements to the series that I enjoy.  I know a large part of the appeal to me is the lack of substance in the series – it’s cotton candy for my mind, which is a balm for me.  My brain tends to be in overdrive most of the time, so the mental relaxation is incredibly calming.  However, there are certainly other “brain candy” books I’ve read that I’ve loved more. The peripheral characters in the book are tame, but enjoyable. The recipes in the series are a draw, plus you have the added fantasy of running your own little cookie shop!  How fun would that be?  Until I had to get up at 4am to start the cookies, but I digress…

So, where does this series go so wrong for me?  We’re boiling it down to two points of contention.  First, the prose is annoying at times.  The author creates dialog for the characters to explains details of references that don’t need explanation.  These side conversations are unnatural and dumb down the reading experience for me.  For example, there is one exchange between unpretentious dentist, Norman, and Hannah’s sister, Andrea, where Andrea asks Norman not to relay some information to her husband.  Norman promises not to relay the information because he knows sometimes the messenger takes the blame, as in “Don’t kill the messenger.”  Andrea, appalled, wants to know if the people who killed the messenger went to jail.  Norman and Hannah, condescendingly and a little sanctimoniously, go into great detail to explain to Andrea (who couldn’t care less) that the phrase has been around for ages and stems from a play by Sophocles.  Also, Hannah goes on to say that such greats as Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde have borrowed the spirit of the phrase in their own works.  When Norman and Hannah finish their lecture, the scene then jumps back to Andrea’s husband’s arrival and the story continues.

Really?  The account of the messenger reference is such a random jump in the story to explain information that, again, does not need to be explained and is apropos of nothing to the rest of the story.  Sure, we might not remember where “don’t kill the messenger” comes from, but do we really need to be reminded here and now?  Hannah’s backstory includes an English degree in college, so Fluke uses every opportunity to have Hannah give grammatical corrections and random factoid lectures that don’t add anything to the story.  Sometimes, she even drags other characters into the trivia circus like poor ol’ hapless Norman in the example above.  It happens throughout the series and is just a big turnoff for me.  I much prefer authors leaving the reader to use their own wits to explore (or not) a random bit of information if they want more encyclopedic knowledge.  That’s part of the joy in the literary journey.

Second, this love triangle between Hannah and Mike, the sexy cop, and Norman, the dentist, has run its course as far as I’m concerned.  We’re about 12 books and a few novellas into the series, and you mean to tell me that both men are content with the openly dating and declaring their love for (and not having sex with) Hannah?  As the series goes along, Mike gets a little more disreputable and Norman gets too sugary-sweet, and I’ve started to be creeped out by both men.  I keep hoping a new and different type of guy will move to Lake Eden and sweep Hannah off her feet, leaving Mike and Norman in the dust.  I’m not asking for 50 Shades of Grey, but a more realistic story would make the series infinitely more interesting.

Another series I used to love but have dropped is the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich.  As much as I loved it, the love triangle in that series dragged on forever and the madcap adventures of Stephanie and her band of misfits became monotonous to the point that I couldn’t differentiate one book from the other by the time book 20 rolled around.  I’m almost to that point with the Hannah Swensen series, but I have a feeling the cookies will keep drawing me back!

Is there a series that you’ve let go by the wayside?

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