What is this about?: Tannie Maria is a food writer for the Klein Karoo Gazette in Ladysmith, South Africa when budget cuts mean she has to become the newspaper’s agony aunt AND food writer. As you do in a 3-person newspaper in a small town. Then she discovers that one of the people writing to her has been murdered and finds herself unable to rein in her curiosity and her desire for justice. As you do.
What else is this about?: Food and love, seriously. Food is how Sally Andrew write, bringing it to all aspects of her writing and her characters’ worlds, including their love lives.
Blurb: A bright new talent makes her fiction debut with this first entry in a delicious crime set in rural South Africa—a flavorful blend of The #1 Ladies Detective Agency and Goldie Schulz, full of humor, romance, and recipes and featuring a charming cast of characters
Tannie Maria (Tannie meaning Auntie, the respectful Afrikaans address for a woman older than you) is a middle-aged widow who likes to cook—and eat. She shares her culinary love as a recipe columnist for the local paper—until The Gazette decides its readers are hungrier for advice on matters of the heart rather than ideas for lunch and dinner.
Tannie Maria doesn’t like the change, but soon discovers she has a knack—and a passion—for helping people. Of course she shares her recipes and culinary advice whenever she can! Assisting other people with their problems, Tannie Maria is eventually forced to face her own issues, especially when the troubles of those she helps touch on the pain of her past, like a woman desperate to escape her abusive husband.
When the woman is murdered, Tannie Maria becomes dangerously entwined in the investigation, despite the best efforts of one striking detective determined to keep her safe. Suddenly, this practical, down-to-earth woman is involved in something much more sinister than perfecting her chocolate cake recipe . . .
I actually found out about this series when I found the second book: The Satanic Mechanic. With a title like that I had to find out what this series was about, and I did not expect it to be a South African cozy mystery of all things!
Reading about Tannie (Aunty) Maria in Ladysmith and her recipes made me nostalgic — like I’ve eaten my favourite South African food (bunny chow) and been transported back there. But more than a quirk of Tannie’s personality, her recipes are part of the story — helping her help her readers romance their significant others, make new friends, or heal a broken heart. I was particularly impressed with how she helped a reader deal with his problems with er, being too early and weaved a recipe into the solution.
Which for me at least, added another star for the sheer glee and ingenuity with her recipes that Sally Andrew imbued into this book.
There’s a plot, I swear!
It’s not all about food, I promise. Tannie receives a letter from a woman who has an abusive husband and a female friend that she might have feelings for, and soon enough Tannie discovers the woman, Martine, has been murdered. That’s how her investigations begin.
This book nails small-town charm, and I mean the kind where everyone knows everyone else and their quirks and their business. The Gazette is run by Hattie, and staffed by Tannie and Jesse, the only reporter on staff. These three have a wonderfully close relationship, enough that they both help her in her investigations, though Hattie with some reservations.
Slowly but surely, Andrews begins to build this world Tannie inhabits, relying on a funny and charming secondary cast of characters to round out her world. By far the most entertaining were Anna and Dirk, the woman who was falling in love with Martine, and her husband respectively — and believe me I never thought I’d be saying that. Dirk is the abusive husband spoken of in the blurb, but the book lays the foundation for him having PTSD, giving his character a depth I hadn’t expected. Anna is hurting at Martine’s loss as much as he is and together they spend the book mourning Martine — in a wheelchair and casts because they actually do try to kill each other at first, and that too had me unable to contain my laughter in public.
As Tannie’s investigations continue, we learn about the Seventh Day Adventists (preparing for the end of the world and refusing to eat dairy or meat, much to Tannie’s horror), another murder, Martine’s family, including a hot New Yorker who causes a bit of havoc in this little town. There’s a love interest in the form of a hunky policeman determined to protect Tannie from herself and if you put them all together and mix briskly, you get a fun, engaging and utterly charming mystery that I could not put down.
Everything comes together entirely unexpectedly, but in keeping with the small-town-ness of this story. While I hope the seeds of something bigger sprinkled here do germinate into a larger storyline for Tannie at some point, I’m not at all disappointed in how this book ends.
But, there’s another layer to all this South African charm
As I said above, Martine wrote to Tannie telling her about her abusive husband, Dirk, who as it turns out PTSD issues to deal with. But, Martine is really an avenue for Tannie to explore her own insecurities and for readers to learn about her past with Fanie, her husband. He too was abusive, leaving scars that haven’t yet healed in her.
Food is her life, her column is her life simply because Fanie and her marriage burned out the love she had to give for a time, I think. This book explores her insecurities in regards to being perceived as a woman by someone who isn’t her husband, and who will experience an entirely new Tannie than the one who is used to the violence of her husband and how he made her feel. She’s stepping out into an entirely different world with her feelings for a certain hunky policeman, something Martine couldn’t do, and it terrifies her as much as she wants it.
Andrews’ writing is brutally honest, in the most charming way as she explores the different parts to Tannie’s character and her past. You’re going to find yourself mourning for Tannie and the life she had with Fanie, and hoping for good things for her moving forward.
Andrews is one of the most evocative writers I’ve read in a long time. Her imagery is downright exquisite, and she brings the veld, the town, and the wonderful and quirky cast of characters to life with such colour and joy… and yeah, the food. Chocolate cake never read as tastily as it does in this book. Sighs. It’s just wonderful.
Food gives life in this book, and Tannie disperses this magic to the people around her with love and tasty recipes. It’s just gorgeous. Read it.