by Kathleen Costa
This week we have a review of Evil Under the Tuscan Sun by Stephanie Cole, along with a fun interview with Stephanie. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of the book and a link to purchase it from Amazon.
Evil Under the Tuscan Sun: A Tuscan Cooking School Mystery by Stephanie Cole
Review by Kathleen Costa
For two months, now, Nell Valenti has been working to transform the Tuscany Villa Orlandini in Cortona, Italy, into a farm-to-table cooking school. It hasn’t been without its challenges since the property was in dire condition, world-renowned Chef Claudio Orlandini is a bit of a “diva,” and recently the sous chef Annamaria Bari quit. Well, it wasn’t really quitting. She was arrested for murder and, after lots of drama, exonerated, but she’s not going to return to work at the Villa…well, maybe. A Tuscan romance has blossomed with Chef Claudio’s handsome son, Pierfranco Orlandini. “Pete” owns the neighboring property, Silver Wind Olive Grove, and has become a social media sensation after a cover spread in Bellissimo! magazine. Life is very rewarding for Nell, despite a few suspicious deaths, interactions with the local carabinieri, some perilous predicaments trying to catch a killer, and being surprised with Chef’s announcement that Nell is his permanent sous chef. Life is very…rewarding?
Evil Under the Tuscan Sun Earns 5/5 Saucy Ziti-s…Entertaining & Clever!
Nell didn’t think her future would be permanently connected with Villa Orlandini, so advertising for a new sous chef was her first step, but until then, she was glad Annamaria Bari agreed to act as substitute during the upcoming private cooking class, Ziti Variations. With the typical finagling that comes with money, wealthy philanthropist Phillip Copeland reserved the four-day cooking class as a birthday present for his eighty-year-old mother and ziti-enthusiast Mimi accompanied by her friend Muffy Onderdonk. The “Ziti” event is well received by “Copeland Party of Three,” until…loud incidents with Chef, his desire to enter the television show Hot Chef: Italian Style, the appearance of a mysterious woman named Renata sneaking into Pete’s olive grove, overhearing her conversation about development plans for the area, personal threats and physical altercations, and the discovery of her body on Pete’s property….murder!
Buona Lettura! It’s “happy reading” with Stephanie Cole’s third book in the Tuscan Cooking School Mystery series. The delightful cooking class details and ventures into town, grinding wheat guidelines and bread baking, tips on ziti and other Italian delicacies, and lots of Italiano linguaggio added realism to the Tuscan setting. The fascinating three-centuries of history for the Villa Orlandini, the Sisters of the Order of St. Veronica of the Veil, and the Orlandini family created an additional engaging mystery with WWII playing a role as it often does when stories are set in Italy—all of this converging into a compelling and complex murder investigation challenging my need to solve it first—which I didn’t. The victim was the perfect karmic choice due to some shocking connections, past decisions (illegal or unethical), and her antagonistic personality which spotlighted many suspects including Pete himself. The characters were varied in manner and temperament which also seemed to mask well those who had secrets and ulterior motives. Added interest came from the Copeland guests with Mimi’s dementia diagnosis, her life, her friendship with Muffy, and the recent loss of one of her sons. The conclusion was intense with gun play and lives threatened, and although the arrest was a surprise, it was a clever conclusion. Nell is an endearing, strong female lead, and her lack of fluency in Italian was depicted with realistic incidents. Cole’s narrative showed some of the frustration Nell had understanding, but readers not need worry about their own frustration. Many of the phrases are explained in context, words themselves offer familiarity to English, and eBook readers can highlight to find definitions. It never stalled or interred with my enjoyment, instead I almost felt like I was there…goditi il divertimento! Enjoy the fun!
Mangi! It’s a cooking school, so of course, there’ll be a recipe with just the right amount of Italian flair…although surprisingly no “ziti.” Enjoy the easy-to-follow recipe for Gorgonzola con Salsa di Fichi (Gorgonzola with Fig Sauce), a recipe Stephanie Cole adds “in memory of my chef cousin, Lisa Fein Lang.”
Tuscan Cooking School Mystery
Al Dente’s Inferno (2020)
Crimes of the Ancient Marinara (2021)
Evil Under the Tuscan Sun (2022)
Be a Big Stephanie Cole Fan!
…where pasta makes perfect. Stephanie Cole, who also writes under the pen name Shelley Costa, is the author of this delightful mystery series highlighting the Italian culture, food, and clever crimes.
Interview with Stephanie Cole:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Stephanie: I wrote my first mystery, The Return of the Doctor, when I was ten. A crazy doctor story, short on development, long on melodrama. Since then, I think of writing as the “through line” in my life, for many decades now.
KRL: When did your first novel come out, what was it called, and would you tell us a little about it?
Stephanie: My first novel, You Cannoli Die Once (Simon & Schuster), a cozy mystery, came out about ten years ago. Set in a tourist-magnet small town in eastern PA, it concerns the high-end Italian restaurant owned and operated by the colorful Angelotta family. When a body turns up in the sacred kitchen, the granddaughter, Eve – who’s the chef – investigates. Bad enough for business when nobody recognizes the dead man… but when it turns out to be Nonna’s latest boyfriend, the murder hits a little too close to home.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense and if not, what else have you written?
Stephanie: I’ve had literary short stories published, plus a book on Edgar Allan Poe, and a couple of plays produced in the Cleveland area – but I love the narrative drive of mystery/suspense, so my stories and novels along those lines have been very satisfying.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Stephanie: I wanted to get back to the Italian cooking world, and I proposed a cozy mystery series set on the Italian Riviera (where my family’s from), on an olive estate. Before shopping the proposal, my agent and his partner put their heads together and convinced me to change the concept. Change the Italian Riviera to Tuscany. Change the olive estate to a cooking school. I’m grateful for their savviness! Right away, their suggestions made (commercial) sense to me, so that’s how the Tuscan Cooking School Mystery Series (written as Stephanie Cole) got its start.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to experience from your work?
Stephanie: Both! I want to engage and entertain readers. But I also want to share with them stories that shine a light on relationships, on characters who struggle and overcome, on the small, surprising moments in our lives that can keep us a-goin.’ The murder mystery is a way of touching in an interesting way on all of those points.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just work whenever you can?
Stephanie: When I’m on a deadline, I can write from about 9 AM – 1 PM, roughly, and then my eyes are tired, and I’m just generally toast. When my time is more flexible, I can often work well mid to late afternoons. By six PM, though, deadline or not, I turn into a pumpkin.
KRL: What is your ideal time to write?
Stephanie: For me, truly, the place is more important than the time. So, mid-morning, stoked with 2—3 cups of coffee, happily ensconced in my favorite booth at my local Panera café. Ever since I hit adulthood, I write in public places. Hard to say what that’s about, although distancing myself from daily responsibilities has something to do with it. (At home, when I’m fishing around for needed distractions from writing, the laundry starts to look irresistible.) Besides, there’s a kind of white noise to public eateries, and if the booth is comfy and nobody bothers me for hours…ahh!
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Stephanie: Nope. For me, outlining kills the story. In the distant past, I tried outlining, and found once I was finished, I no longer felt the need to write the story. That said, plotting a mystery requires wrangling a whole bunch of elements, so what I start with in the Getting to Know You phase of a new book is a bunch of 3×5 cards of various colors, cut in half. One color is devoted to characters’ names, one to little plot elements (e.g., secret sister of victim), and so on. These I spread out on a table and move around until ideas start to click. I see new connections; I see things that really won’t work, etc. Once I’m a few chapters in, things are clear to me, and I put away the cards. This method really keeps the creative process alive for me.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Stephanie: Yes. A story both painful and comical. From the time I started my first mystery novel, it took me twenty years to (a) get an agent, and (b) get a publisher. Important to note that it wasn’t until I moved back from the bloody brick wall (i.e., my dogged idea about writing female PI novels) and opened up to an entirely different kind of mystery writing (cozies) that I had success. The lesson here? Read the signs sooner.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Stephanie: Like most writers, I’ve had an impressive array of rejection letters. My favorite is the agent who had a pre-inked stamp made for herself. She returned my query letter to me, and near the top, in an inked circle maybe one inch in diameter was her response: This is not for me. Although I had to admire her time management skills, the impersonality was a little unsettling.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Stephanie: When Cannoli came out, I was invited by a local, established writer to participate in a group book signing at a Barnes & Noble in Columbus, OH. I was thrilled. At the time, Simon & Schuster and Barnes and Noble were engaged in a highly publicized struggle over more money for the “real estate” in the bookstore. Among the big NYC publishers, S&S was the only one who wouldn’t go along. (Later, they did.) When the national office of B&N got wind of the fact that I was a S&S author coming for the book signing, I was “disinvited” from the event.
KRL: Oh wow. What are your future writing goals?
Stephanie: Good question. Down the road, maybe more short stories?
KRL: Who are your writing heroes?
Stephanie: Mark Twain. Graham Greene. Edith Wharton. (I’m actually an egghead.)
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Stephanie: Depends on what the story needs from me. I like research, a lot, but it is certainly the ultimate rabbit hole. In the current series, I had to research the fate of a couple of famous paintings in Berlin Museum during WWII. That led me to having to research art restoration, abbeys and nuns, routes between Berlin and the Vatican, how long a painting hidden in a certain way would withstand the elements before deteriorating. . . Down the rabbit hole!
Even foreign language research can be difficult. I could look up the Italian translation for a word, but am I sure I’m using it correctly in an idiomatic way? Finally, with research, I conclude I can only do the best I can – due diligence and all that. There will always and inevitably be mistakes. I’d like to think readers are forgiving.
KRL: What do you like to read?
Stephanie: I’m picky – partly naturally so, partly trained that way. Best of all, I love mystery and suspense written by great writers. And I mean great writers. Writers who are wonderful novelists who occasionally include murder. For example, Graham Greene. In addition, I love the Nero Wolfe series, and Jeeves and Wooster romps. I like smart silliness. I have never cared for biography or memoir.
KRL: What are your favorite TV shows or movies?
Stephanie: I don’t watch much TV at all. Too violent. For me the keepers are Friends. Cheers. Frazier. You get the idea. Old, slow, smart, snappy dialogue, good story arcs. Oh: Steve Martin and Martin Short in the newish Only Murders in the Building. Movies? Rain Man. The Lives of Others. A Few Good Men. As Good as It Gets. Midnight Run. Some Like It Hot. A Very Long Engagement. Actually, I love documentaries. Probably my favorite genre. So, practically anything by Ken Burns.
KRL: Have you any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Stephanie: Nothing you haven’t already heard, I imagine. Read, and read some more. Keep your mind open to other ways of being a writer. Get a day job that (best, by me) keeps you in the same wheelhouse as writing (e.g., teaching English, working in a bookstore, etc. etc.). Be realistic about how crushingly hard (sorry) the industry is and be truthful to yourself about how much you want to spend a lot of years in the work itself, the effort to get it Out There, the effort to keep it Out There. Most importantly, work toward excellence.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Stephanie: I’ve been taking violin lessons for six years. The goal is to fiddle. I love the tune “Ashokan Farewell” from Ken Burns’s Civil War series, and I wanted to learn how to play it. That’s how it all began. And it took me five years before I could turn out a respectable “cover” of that heart-wrenching tune. What I love about fiddle lessons is that learning an instrument has absolutely nothing to do with words.
Stephanie: At present, two beloved cats. Edgar, a golden tabby, is almost ten. Calvin, an orange tabby, is six months.
KRL: Is there anything you would like to add?
Stephanie: Thanks for this opportunity to reach new – and, I hope, some old—readers.
KRL: Thank you for chatting with us! Website? Twitter? Facebook?
To enter to win a copy of Evil Under the Tuscan Sun, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, with the subject line “tuscan,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen March 19, 2022. Only US entries and you must be at least 18 to enter. If entering via email please include mailing address in case you win. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
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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.