Wine, Dessert, and Desperation

Author: Mia P. Manansala

Lila is starting to move away from her despair (depicted in Homicide and Halo-Halo) and slowly enjoy life again. She has a new relationship with Jae (a handsome doctor), the café she co-owns with her best friend is doing well, and Christmas is coming to Shady Palms, meaning some special new Filipino desserts. But all good things must come to an end. Lila’s black-sheep cousin, Ronnie, is back in town and as usual, he is bringing trouble. It starts well enough – maybe Ronnie has finally learned a thing or two about responsibility and family. Ronnie and his new cohorts are buying the local winery, and their special Filipino wine is actually very good. But soon the good vibes turn bad. Ronnie still has secrets, his new business partners have endless issues (including his very alcoholic backer and her backstabbing assistants), and Tita Rosie is starting to get mysterious emails wanting money to cover all of Ronnie’s past sins. Where will it all end?

In murder of course! It’s a cozy mystery, and what is a cozy without a little murder and mayhem to get the pulse started and the sleuthing underway? This time the vic is Ronnie’s backer; she does not die from alcohol poisoning, like everyone thought, but from a very specific poison in her wine. Wine that Ronnie gave her. With the family in emotional shambles, Lila is once again drawn to examine the mystery, but with new endorsement of the Brew-ha Café on social media and planning for the Christmas season, it’s hard to concentrate (or care about) her ne’er-do-well cousin.

Blackmail and Bibingka is the slowest in the series so far. Lila and the aunties do some investigation, but it is more happenstance than initiative. Still, the writing captures readers and the foodie atmosphere teems with delicacies. So far, I haven’t tried any of the recipes (although I did attempt an adobo that All Recipes labeled as a good beginner recipe), but I really want to learn more Filipino recipes. The way the food is described and the atmosphere of the story, the writing and relationships and inter-relationships, is just decadent. As with the first two books in the series, every time I picked up this story, I wanted to just stay emersed. I also wanted to really, really wreck my diet.

But . . . some of the observations other reviewers reported are more than true. For one thing, the investigation is less structured here, more of a backburner issue than a continual concern. The social media and advertising for the Brew-ha café just takes up altogether too much time, and unless you are also working to grow your own business on social media, it isn’t especially engaging. And, admittedly, there are some logical foils here. How exactly is it that Adeena’s girlfriend has a plant / cosmetics / soap section in a café (a café!!) and actually makes sales? These things don’t go together. What next – a car dealership and bait shop? Get the latest Dodge 1500 and some great tackle? Come on . . .

Lyra Ecuacion, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

There are also a LOT of people to keep track of here, and not all of them are as well developed as the others. Three books in and honestly, I can’t keep the aunties straight. Perhaps that is because I’m always reading several books at once, but when I get a Mia Manansala book I tend to just sit and read it exclusively for hours, so I’m not convinced that my fractured mind is the sole issue. Here Ronnie’s cohorts make up a large cast. We have the donor and his alcoholic wife, her assistants (who are also step-kids and twins), Ronnie’s close friend that is engaged to his other friend, and then the usual huge cast of Lila’s family and friends. It’s a lot to keep up with, and most of the cast doesn’t get the time they deserve.

Lila’s issues with her mother gets a little more time, but her relationship with Jae is an afterthought. This is disappointing after we waited for the love-triangle to end and her to choose. I personally wanted to see more of her relationship, but in Blackmail and Bibingka the characters mostly go between the family restaurant and the café, claiming they have no time for other interactions.

The ending is a bit perplexing. I probably should have read it again (I certainly read some bits of it again). It was a nice twist, but not 100% earned. I needed a little more to make it believable and cohesive with everything that had come before. As it was, it was a little too villainous without having the full substance of a real plot and the full humanity of anger and grief.

Still, despite not being quite as perfect as the first two books, Blackmail and Bibingka was a solid addition to the series. It brought me much reading bliss (and many, many daydreams of beautiful restaurants and delicious food). The main character (Lila) was still vibrant, and the writing was tight and engaging as usual. Highly recommended to cozy mystery fans (although, start with the first book, Arsenic and Adobo, or you will be lost).

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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