On its surface UNCOMMON GROUNDS contains all the elements required for the traditional cozy --- small town, mysterious death, amateur sleuth --- while keeping the level of requisite suspension of disbelief to a minimum. The small town in this case is Brookhills, Wisconsin, where the grand opening of Uncommon Grounds, a gourmet coffee store, will be celebrated. A pall is cast upon the event, however, when Patricia Harper, one of three partners in the new business, is found face up and stone cold dead in front of the espresso machine on the morning of the grand opening. It appears that Harper electrocuted herself while brewing her daily, eye-opening latte. But we then learn that the newly installed espresso machine had been tampered with, resulting in Harper's sudden demise.
The immediate suspects are Caron Egan and Maggy Thorsen (who is the book's narrator), the remaining partners in the coffee shop venture, as well as Harper's husband David. The police scrutiny places Thorsen in contact with newly-minted county sheriff Jacob Pavlik, which of course causes sparks of all sorts to fly, especially when Thorsen, dissatisfied with the investigation into her friend's death, starts kicking over investigative rocks on her own, much to Pavlik's consternation. Thorsen finds that her investigation is uncovering more suspects than she can eliminate. She also discovers, to her dismay, that her deceased friend and business partner had a secret that she never shared with Thorsen and that might have resulted in her death. Thorsen, already dealing with the pressures of opening a new business and a pending divorce, soon finds that she is placing herself in danger as well, until salvation --- and more --- come from some unexpected sources.
UNCOMMON GROUNDS is a fun, addicting read, with Balzo striking a nice balance between the everyday and (occasionally) extraordinary. Her narration and plotting is extremely strong and confident throughout. She is careful not to fall into some of the traps that novels of this genre can create. As a result, Thorsen's dog is cute, but not too much so; Pavlik is a ready, but imperfect, love interest; and Thorsen's soon-to-be ex, a despicable cad who has left her for a twentysomething dental hygienist, never even makes an appearance.
Sandra Balzo's first short story, "The Grass Is Always Greener," won the Robert L. Fish Award and was nominated for a Macavity Award. UNCOMMON GROUNDS, won nominations in the "Best First Novel" category from a number of organizations.
It is evident from UNCOMMON GROUNDS that Balzo's talent runs strong and deep. We will see more manifestations of it, and soon.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011