by Kathleen Costa
This week we have a review of Murder in the Community Garden by Judith Gonda, along with an interesting interview with Judith. 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.
Murder in the Community Garden: A Tory Benning Mystery by Judith Gonda
Review by Kathleen Costa
Everything’s Coming Up…Murder!
Tory Benning is thirty-five years old, a widow these past two years, loves K-pop music, and roommates with Iris, a cream sable Pomeranian rescue dog, and Otis, a black cat. There’s her BFF/lawyer Ashley Payne, Ashley’s beau and a long-time friend Lieutenant Detective Adrian Ramirez, an aunt and uncle, and a passel of friends and colleagues. She had started to date Jake Logan, a private investigator from Santa Barbara, but the seemingly endless lockdown precipitated by the Covid pandemic, turned that into a long distance relationship. Although they’d kept in contact over the past sixteen months, they are all vaxed up and making plans to connect, but there’s a niggling feeling calling into question whether the heart does grow fonder when absent or you’re starting over from scratch or not sure you want to continue.
By profession, Tory is a landscape architect, and after the death of her father, she inherited Benning Brothers Landscape Design and Nursery in Santa Sofia. Her latest project is designing the grounds of the new Jacaranda Garden Condominium facility. It was a complex project having been plagued by protesting environmentalists, but spearheading a large community garden adjacent to the condos seem to placate the developers and activists alike. With the community garden’s grand opening rescheduled, like most things during the lockdown, inaugural gardeners prepping their plots, and a film crew set to record the event, all seems ready…maybe!
Murder in the Community Garden Earns 5/5 Trowels…Entertaining Fun!
There have been unforeseen delays with opening up the community garden at the new condo facility, but it’s finally here, and everyone is excited. If only Mac MacGregor and Bunny Hare, the two council members, mayoral candidates, and inaugural gardeners, would stop sniping at each other. He stole my cabbage! She stole my cabbage! She’s leaked a damning editorial! He’s sending threatening notes! And instead of highlighting the benefits of having a community garden (fostering a healthy lifestyle and availability of fresh fruits and vegetables) during the Good Morning, Santa Barbara broadcast, the two accuse each other of sabotage and end with a threat! Worse yet, Bunny is later found murdered and Mac is arrested!
Tory is not happy being thought of a success at finding killers, even though the past couple of years is proof of her talent, so being asked by Mac’s wife, Kaley McGregor, to prove her husband not guilty is bittersweet. She’s sure Mac didn’t do it. As chairman of the company that developed the condos, he’s been a target of the protestors, and although he may be quick to fuss, a killer he’s not. Bunny, however, had a few conflicts that might be worth a closer look. She was the publisher/editor of the local newspaper full of controversial opinions, supported the Save the Environment protests to curb development, and her marriage to Hollywood director/producer Peter Yusem and relationships with her children deserve close scrutiny. Tory has a lot to investigate, even though Detective Ramirez advises against it, but will the killer do anything to get away with murder?
“Green” Thumbs Up! Judith Gonda’s third book was an exciting introduction for me and has made me a fan of her Tory Benning Mystery series with plenty of background references and character connections revisited making it easy to get this newbie up-to-speed. Gonda follows the traditional cozy formula I enjoy: the crime discovered early, the investigation as the main element, and an arrest a shocking surprise. The suspect list starts out with the obvious public disputers, family, and colleagues, but wait for it…lots of surprises are thrown in as some are checked off the list and checked into the morgue. Gonda’s writing style is well-rounded with descriptive language and witty banter, diverse characters, and endearing friendships and romantic interests. She doesn’t ignore the pandemic, instead uses it to provide a realistic factor in how events unfold and relationships interact. Along with discussions about landscape designs and drought tolerant plants (pertinent to California) and adding Latin names for many of the plants and trees mentioned, Pomeranians, rescue shelters, and dog adoptions add to the backdrop. Tory is a favorite literary lead. She’s creative and clever, and suffers from the same “What do I do now?” queries related to confidence, relationships, and business that many of us do, but she is portrayed with an admirable strength to make the right decisions. Engaging. Entertaining.
Tory Benning Mystery
Murder in the Secret Maze (2020)
Murder in the Christmas Tree Lot (2021)
Murder in the Community Garden (2022)
Be a Big Judith Gonda Fan!
Judith Gonda is a psychologist by training and writer of cozy mysteries by passion. She remarked that she has a “penchant for Pomeranians and puns” with a bit of psychology on the side. “My passion has always been trying to figure out what makes people tick and writing about it…I’ve written about motives, relationships, and abnormal behavior in my murder mystery novels.”
Interview with Judith Gonda:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Judith: I’ve been writing all my life in some form or another. I wrote a poem while a student in a tiny private school in London, England about a personified Christmas tree when I was around eleven or twelve. My teacher remarked that it would be a crime if I didn’t become a writer. I find it ironic that I ended up becoming a crime writer. I minored in English but the only “creative writing” I recall in my courses were assignments aimed at mimicking the writing styles of classic writers like D. H. Lawrence. I majored in psychology and went on to get my PhD.
Since I lived the basic grad student life and couldn’t afford a TV, my only breaks from work and study were library books. I devoured classic British mysteries for three years, having been a Nancy Drew fan as a child, all of which nurtured my interest in reading mysteries and eventually writing them.
Early in my career as a research psychologist and jury consultant I wrote articles for academic and professional journals. Fast forward to 2006 when I decided to become a crime writer and took mystery writing courses at UCLA Extension’s Writers Program. It wasn’t until UCLA that I seriously started writing crime fiction.
KRL: When did your first novel come out, what was it called, and would you tell us a little about it?
Judith: My first novel, Murder in the Secret Maze, the first in the Tory Benning Mystery Series came out in February 2020, just as the pandemic was sweeping the world and everything came to a standstill. I’d like to credit my debut mystery for being responsible for making such a big impact but, alas, no relation. So, because of the pandemic, my debut launch was a totally different experience than I had imagined. I’d been scheduled to be at a debut author panel for Left Coast Crime but that never happened.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense and if not, what else have you written?
Judith: Yes, for fiction, it’s always been mysteries because that is my favorite genre. My other writing was all non-fiction for academic and professional publications, as I mentioned earlier.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Judith: Always an interesting question. Thank you. I created the fictional setting of Santa Sofia, California in Santa Barbara County because I adore California, Santa Barbara, and the surrounding areas. I love that California has all the different climate zones and that for Santa Sofia, the differences in climate and representative vegetation, whether it’s the marine layers of the coastal areas or the sunny foothills, make for a rich visual setting.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to experience from your work?
Judith: Purely to entertain! I aim for thrills, chills, and relatable, heart-warming entertainment.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just work whenever you can?
Judith: My whole life is consumed with writing in some way or other. I’m constantly jotting down plot or dialog ideas on a list whether I’m working on a specific project or not. When I’ve got a deadline, I try to pace myself as to how many words I should have by a given date, when the first draft should be completed, and all the revisions. It gets intense, and time seems to stand still as I enter fictional Santa Sofia for several months. Then it’s all day, every day, usually because I’m in the zone and have a lot of stuff I need to hold in my head simultaneously, with the help of an outline and chapter summaries. It’s intense but also a fun, magical experience.
KRL: What is your ideal time to write?
Judith: As I just mentioned, I have some very intense periods where I’m living and breathing my current work in progress. During those times I write usually from the time I wake up until I burn out by around eight or nine o’clock. It depends on how it’s going, but that’s in the thick of it. Leading up to that period and winding things down are usually a little less intense.
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?
Judith: I do outline. I start with a synopsis, even though I hate writing them, but once I have a detailed synopsis, I break it down into an outline of chapters. I also have a series bible to help me remember all the details from the previous books in the series and a character list.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Judith: Not just in the beginning. I think it is always hard to get published. There are so many competing ideas and authors out there. It is difficult in terms of sheer volume.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Judith: Since my first two books both came out during the height of the pandemic, I just had my first book signing event this past April at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Great place to start. I signed at both the Mystery Writers of America and the Sisters in Crime booths. The most wonderful experience was when one reader bought all three of the books in the series.
KRL: What are your future writing goals?
Judith: I always have a lot of ideas for the future, both for the Tory Benning series and for new series. So, we’ll see if I’m lucky enough to execute them in the future.
KRL: Who are your writing heroes?
Judith: Sue Grafton. I love her Kinsey Milhone series and her lowkey humor. I was privileged to hear her present at the California Crime Writers Conference several years ago and meet her at a book signing afterwards. Her death was a huge loss and still saddens me.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Judith: Mainly online research, but interviews, and visits too. My older daughter is a landscape architect, and my husband is an architect, so I ask them to check the accuracy of portraying what Tory does as a landscape architect. I’ve been visiting and staying in Santa Barbara County all my life and we held a wedding at the Four Seasons Biltmore which is the inspiration, along with the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles, for my fictional Hotel Santa Sofia in the books.
KRL: What do you like to read?
Judith: I read mysteries primarily. Also, I like autobiographies or memoirs of political and celebrity figures.
KRL: What are your favorite TV shows or movies?
Judith: Looking forward to Season 2 of Only Murders in the Building. I’ve always loved Steve Martin and Martin Short and love Selena Gomez too. Currently, I’m heavy into rom com K-dramas. Lately, I’ve enjoyed A Business Proposal, Touch your Heart, and Romance is a Bonus Book, among others. Especially loved A Business Proposal because it reminded me of the old Doris Day rom coms. Silly but a great escape!
Touch your Heart is in a legal setting and Romance is a Bonus Book is set in the publishing industry, two of my favorite settings. I am also obsessed with Schitt’s Creek which helped brighten my outlook during the pandemic. I’ve probably watched it at least eight times. Love their humor, I’ve always been a big Catherine O’Hara fan and my kids tease me by saying I’m like some of the characters she’s played. Plus, I love its positive vibe and message of love, acceptance, and inclusivity.
KRL: I love Schitt’s Creek and Only Murders as well! Have you any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Judith: Persist. If you love writing, it’s not the writing part itself that’s so hard to be persistent about, it’s all the rejection you meet along the way. If your love for creating fictional worlds with characters who become like old friends is strong, it will outweigh the downside of facing possible rejection around every corner.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Judith: I’m a K-pop fan girl. Specifically for the K-pop boy band the Stray Kids. Wonderful music with inspiring lyrics about their quest for success and how to focus on your goals, be yourself, and let criticism roll off your back. Plus, they are the sweetest souls around. Their positivity is so charismatic.
KRL: How fun! Do you have any pets?
Judith: I’m a huge animal lover. I have two older rescue Pomeranians who’ve inspired characters in the Tory Benning books. I’ve always had dogs. Prior to my Pom era, I had several Yorkies who were my companions in college and grad school and beyond. As a young child I had a string of (if I recall correctly) beagles and corgis, all named Mitzy, who ran away. Later in my childhood I had Dachshunds, a miniature Doberman, and rabbits. When my kids lived at home in addition to Yorkies, we had cats, fish, hamsters, guinea pigs, and even butterflies.
KRL: Is there anything you would like to add?
Judith: Thank you so very much for inviting me to be interviewed for King’s River Review. I hope your readers will enjoy the latest book in the Tory Benning Mystery Series, Murder in the Community Garden, that released this month.
You can learn more about Judith, and find links to all of her social media, on her website.
To enter to win either an ebook or print copy of Murder in the Community Garden, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “garden,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen May 28, 2022. US only, and must be 18 or older to enter. If entering via email please include your mailing address in case you win. BE SURE TO STATE IF YOU WANT EBOOK OR PRINT. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
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