by Cynthia Chow
This week we are part of the Wedding’s To Die For blog tour with Maggie McConnon & Marla Cooper. We have reviews and giveaways of their latest books-Bel of the Brawl: A Belfast McGrath Mystery and Dying on the Vine: Kelsey McKenna Destination Wedding Mysteries, along with interviews with both of them. We also have a links to order them from Amazon, and from an indie bookstore where a portion goes to help support KRL.
Bel of the Brawl: A Belfast McGrath Mystery by Maggie McConnon
Review by Cynthia Chow
As much as Bel McGrath loved growing up in Foster’s Landing, New York, the traumatic disappearance of her best friend after their high school graduation party forced Bel to leave home as she pursued a career as a talented professional chef. When both her engagement and prestigious job spectacularly and very publicly imploded, Bel returned home to help her family run their Shamrock Manor catering hall. Attempting to elevate the menus of her very traditional Irish family is a struggle as she rebuilds her reputation, something definitely not helped when Bel discovers the body of the latest groom dead in the women’s bathroom.
Bel had recently asked the late private investigator if he could look into the fate of her former best friend Amy Mitchell, whose belongings had recently been recovered from the river. Bel is still haunted by the fight and last harsh words between them, especially as it led to Bel’s breakup with her then-boyfriend, Detective Kevin Hanson. Bel had begun to move on with Brendan Joyce, but a sizzling kiss has her questioning her choices, not helped by the news that her next job will be catering Kevin’s upcoming wedding. Her personal life will have to take the sidelines as Bel deals with the family business, considering that one of their waitresses has apparently absconded with their $10,000 tip, the remaining staff is terrified about their immigration status, and the mystery behind Amy’s disappearance seems no closer to becoming solved.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the author of stellar mystery novels written under her name Maggie Barbieri has crafted yet another series featuring such a realistic, witty, and sympathetic heroine. The Murder 101 series is one of my favorites, and this novel displays the same biting wit and sharp dialogue of cynical but vulnerable characters. Bel’s very Irish parents and four brothers bring their share of comedic moments and chaos, yet they remain entirely relatable and fun. Bel’s father undercuts her with family discounts, is unable to pronounce Downton Abbey correctly, and believes in the customer being right even when Bel knows that they’re wrong.
Yet despite the family Sunday dinners featuring Irish Alzheimer’s—everything is forgotten but the grudges—there is no denying the love and support the boisterous crew has for one another. Bel is closest to her brother Cargan, a former NYPD undercover officer whose own family was unaware of his assignment, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he is often the one she leans on when feeling responsible for cleaning up all of the McGrath family messes. The many laughs and humorous dialogue never gloss over the nuanced layers of family drama and deeper mystery plots, which continue to develop throughout the series. Readers will be left satisfied but eager for the next installment of this highly entertaining, extremely well-written novel by a very reliable and talented author.
Interview With Maggie McConnon:
KRL: In your books, even your suspense novels, humor is often used by your characters as a coping mechanism. How did you develop your own sense of humor?
Maggie: I come from a long line of funny people. We’re 100% Irish on both sides, and I think that humor, as well as a gift for storytelling, is in our blood. We have all types of funny people in our family—the overtly, loud funny people who will make you laugh until you cry, as well as the hang-in-the-back, deliver-a-zinger every now and again funny people. I find it hard to write a story without humor and even in my darker tales, there is always at least one character who breaks the tension with a witty retort or an observation just to keep the story from getting too bleak.
KRL: Why did you choose weddings as a setting for your new series?
Maggie: I love weddings, and I am in that part of my life where I am in between getting invites. When you’re in your twenties and thirties, most of your friends are getting married, and it seems like you are at a wedding every weekend. And at this point, at my age, we’re still a few years off from our friends’ children getting married, but that time is approaching. When I started writing about Bel, I thought about where I would situate her to give her just a little extra drama and I thought, “a wedding catering hall!” But not just any wedding venue, it would one run by her Irish family.
KRL: Bel has a huge Irish family. Do they in any way resemble your own, and if not, whom did you base them upon?
Maggie: I don’t have a huge family, but it’s big enough. With three siblings and a bunch of cousins, we’re big by today’s standards, but we’re not the biggest Irish family I know. I do know a lot of Irish families, with seven, eight, and nine children, so it wasn’t a stretch to write about Bel’s family. I liked the idea of her being the youngest of five with four older brothers because I think that having siblings older than you and of the opposite sex makes for some interesting dynamics.
KRL: Who were your early writing idols? Who do you read today?
Maggie: When I was young, I grew up devouring every single Nancy Drew that was available as well as every Bobbsey Twins book. After that, I graduated to Sidney Sheldon, reading most of his books when I was in my teens. Today, I am a huge fan of Liane Moriarty, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Susan McBride.
KRL: Instead of asking you to choose which is your favorite child, which character, or series is your favorite to write?
Maggie: Oh, I love them all! That’s a tough question. Alison Bergeron will always hold a place in my heart because she is the first character I ever wrote about so fully. There are seven books in the Murder 101 series, in which she is the protagonist, and I never tired of putting her in sticky situations. Maeve Conlon, the baker in the Once Upon a Lie series, was also fun to write about because she was so different from me and so unpredictable…mercurial really. I found myself wondering what she would do next, and I was her creator. I have to say that I’m really enjoying writing about Bel right now, though and have many more of her stories to tell. She combines all of the things I love: sleuthing, weddings, and good food.
KRL: What led you to make Bel an award-winning chef? Do you love to cook as well?
Maggie: I do love to cook. And I love to read about food and watch shows about food and cooking. I didn’t realize what role food played in my Murder 101 series until readers starting pointing out to me how much I talked about it. Alison always seemed to be eating or thinking about her next meal. I explored food a bit more with Maeve, but it seemed only natural with Bel to go whole hog, no pun intended, by making her a chef. It allows me to explore new types of food and cooking while writing, the research for some of her meals is a nice diversion from murder.
KRL: The events and people from high school continue to impact Bel years later. Why does it seem that even a “normal” high school experience is so influential on who we become as adults?
Maggie: High school is a very pivotal time for everyone, I think. You start to find out who you are and begin to explore who you are to become. Bel has a traumatic experience in high school that haunts her, but that has also shaped who she is and forced some of the decisions she’s made along the way and I think that’s interesting.
KRL: What was the first gift you bought for yourself after you received your first writing contract? Do you regret buying it now?
Maggie: I bought a pair of shoes. Gorgeous, pointy-toed stiletto pumps. I have no regrets about buying those shoes and still wear them. They remind me of that first contract and fill me with happiness. The tradition continues: Every time I get a new contract or submit a new book, I buy a new pair of shoes.
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Maggie: I have been writing my whole life, starting with mysteries when I was just eight or nine years old, but it wasn’t until about thirteen years ago that I started taking writing seriously and began my first novel. That book was Murder 101, and I have written at least one, if not two, books every year since.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries?
Maggie: I have always written mysteries. My father was a police officer, and I was fascinated by his work, so I think that listening to his stories played a role in my development as a writer and lover of the mysterious.
KRL: What is one thing your readers would be surprised to learn about you?
Maggie: I can’t swim! I don’t think that’s strange, but anyone who I have ever told is shocked. My husband learned of this on our tropical honeymoon, but fortunately, it wasn’t a deal-breaker. Still married twenty-eight years later.
Learn more about Maggie on her website!
Dying on the Vine Kelsey McKenna Destination Wedding Mysteries by Marla Cooper
Review by Cynthia Chow
Kelsey McKenna loves being a wedding planner. Not only does it allow her to travel around the world, she helps to ensure that couples have one of their happiest days of their lives. What Kelsey does not appreciate is being harassed by a rival wedding planner and accused of stealing clients. Haley Bennett’s father had fired the self-proclaimed Queen of Wind Country Weddings Babs Norton, leaving Kelsey just one month to deliver a dream wedding. Babs seemed to accept Kelsey’s new role, but when Kelsey goes to Babs’s office to pick up Haley’s files, Marla instead finds the wedding planner dead.
Not only does Babs’s petulant assistant Stefan Pierce vengefully cancel previously signed vendor contracts, he publicly accuses Marla of being a murderer. Fearing that her reputation and business could be destroyed, not to mention be arrested by the San Francisco Police Department, Marla is determined to clear herself of suspicion and still provide the perfect wedding. Combining forces with her best friend, wedding photographer Brody Marx, the two use Marla’s perfect penmanship to craft a murder board of those with motives to have wanted Babs dead. In between investigating Babs’s sister and staff, Marla searches for last minute caterers, florists, and wedding venue. Happily, the latter involves exploring the Higgins Estate, a Napa Valley winery owned by charming Lucas Higgins and his far less accommodating brother, Miles. Marla may find Lucas just a little too handsome, but her assistant/substandard lookout has no problem overlooking that flaw.
This follow-up to Terror in Taffeta is just as funny and clever as the first of the Kelsey McKenna Destination Wedding Mysteries series, with Marla being a character one can’t help but adore. Marla’s controlling issues and obsessive scheduling skills prove to be essential tools in her efforts to uncover a killer, especially when an additional crime not only further implicates her, it puts a massive roadblock in her rushed wedding.
Marla’s friendship with Brody is the highlight of this novel, as they have hilarious banter that can only occur between best friends. Marla has a delightful voice and sense of humor, bringing a welcome sense of fun to the entire novel. While the focus falls more on the investigation than the chaos of wedding planning, there are more than enough details to entertain fans of this engaging genre. Marla is more than capable of delivering the best wedding possible despite unwelcoming vintners, gossipy rivals, and possibly murderous clients. Unexpected romance adds to the sheer entertainment of this novel, which never fails to deliver its share of laughter and suspense.
Interview With Marla Cooper:
KRL: What was it that made you decide to switch your majors and focus on writing?
Marla: I think it was my accounting class that broke me. I was a business major, with no specific career path laid out for me except, I guess, to be a business person who works for a business. When I learned that advertising copywriting was a thing, I knew immediately that was what I wanted to do.
KRL: What in particular led you to write your first novel about a destination wedding?
Marla: So, right around the time a friend of mine sold a cozy mystery series, I got a freelance job ghostwriting a book for a destination wedding planner. As she was telling me about her job—which involved flying off to other countries with people she didn’t know very well, dealing with weird family dynamics, and having people looking to her to solve any problems that might arise—I realized I had the perfect amateur sleuth!
KRL: How long have you been writing? And have you always written mysteries?
Marla: I’ve always written one thing or another. In high school, I wrote absurdist essays. In college, I wrote for the yearbook. My first job out of college was copywriting, and the title on my business card was simply “Writer”—which I loved because then it was official. I also work as a travel guidebook writer. The mysteries were a more recent development—and by far the most fun of all!
KRL: Did you have a destination wedding? If not, what would be your dream destination wedding?
Marla: I didn’t! When we got married, destination weddings weren’t a thing yet; your choices were either to get married locally or elope. So we got married in Austin in a beautiful old historic home called the Caswell House. I love fantasizing about where I would have a destination wedding, and although a white sand beach at sunset or a vineyard in Tuscany are recurring favorites, I’m going to say a castle in Ireland. Also? The castle would have to be haunted because what would be cooler than that? Find me a haunted castle on a white sand beach with a fully stocked wine cellar, and I’ll send my deposit check ASAP!
KRL: Kelsey McKenna has the outstanding organizational skills necessary to be a wedding planner. Do you share those same traits?
Marla: There are few things I find more satisfying than whipping something into shape. My left brain really gets into labeling, color coding, alphabetizing, and containerizing. I can be remarkably detail oriented. And then there’s the right side of my brain. That side embraces chaos and is responsible for the spare table in my office that was meant to be my craft table, but has become a repository for all the things I haven’t figured out where to put.
KRL: Who were the writers that first influenced you? Who do you read today?
Marla: Like a lot of authors, I grew up on a steady diet of Nancy Drew. But I never really pictured myself writing a novel until I read Armistead Maupin, who wrote the Tales of the City series. I love his sense of humor and his use of dialogue, and he has a great way of describing people and places so that you can picture them perfectly, but it never slows down the pace. As for who I read now, I end up reading a lot of books by my friends I’ve met at conferences, with some nonfiction and YA thrown in for variety.
KRL: What was the most entertaining story you’ve heard about a destination wedding gone wrong?
Marla:I love the story a friend told me about being the mother of the bride in Anchorage, Alaska. The kids had called off the wedding and cancelled all the contracts. Then, they reconciled and threw together a new plan: they got married on a soccer field. A baby moose crashed the wedding—which would actually be fairly adorable—but based on the animal’s sudden entrance, they were concerned that he was being chased by a bear.
I also love the picture that made the rounds of the internet a few years back of a couple getting married on a beach. They’re in formal wedding wear, but the couple strolling behind them are completely naked. The lesson here? Don’t plan your destination wedding on or near a nude beach.
KRL: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?
Marla: I’ve taken to playing the ukulele in my spare time—a hobby I picked up a couple of years ago after ducking into a ukulele shop in Kauai during a sudden afternoon rain shower. It’s really fun, and I love the ephemeral nature of it, which is a fancy way of saying there’s no record of my failures (unlike the sweater I made that has sleeves that hang to the ground or my lopsided attempts at wheel-thrown pottery). I’ve fallen in with a gang of ukulele players, and we have loud and enthusiastic sing-alongs.
KRL: What is one thing your readers would be surprised to learn about you?
Marla: I grew up on a ranch in Oklahoma, and spent hours every day riding horses. (It’s such a departure from my current life, I’m practically surprised to learn that about me!)
Learn more on Marla’s website!
To enter to win a copy of both books, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “weddings,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen April 1, 2017. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.
Click on these links to purchase these books & a portion goes to help support KRL & an indie bookstore Mysterious Galaxy:
You can use these links to purchase the books on Amazon. If you have ad blocker on you may not see the links:
Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.