Friday, June 5, 2020

Now, More Than Ever, We Need Cozy Murder Mysteries


LUCY BURDETTE: If you stop and think about it, writing crime fiction might seem a little weird. Who wants to spend their days writing about murder? And then who wants to read this stuff? Our guest today believes we need murder mysteries more than ever...

JEANNETTE DE BEAUVOIR: Whenever I give a talk—in person in the days before the pandemic, or on videoconferencing since then—I generally deal with the murder and mayhem that permeate my books with a little self-deprecating humor. I’ll say, “Oh, I’m just trying to kill off the population of Provincetown,” or “It would all have been okay if she hadn’t been, you know, dead,” and everybody will laugh, as they do. Most of us see those deaths for what they are—literary devices. Ways to up the ante so the reader keeps on reading, caring about the characters involved, trying to figure out the puzzle.

Cozy mystery authors, on the whole, write about murder that’s very far from reality. That’s natural: we’re the second- and third-generation descendants of Dorothy L. Sayers and G.K. Chesterton and Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey. They taught us that murders happen in drawing-rooms, on trains, in vicarages, at tennis matches. Death is accompanied by lavish meals and solved by eccentric spinsters or dilettante lords, and the stories always seem to bring people home in time for tea. 

That’s the focus of the cozy mystery: in many ways, the puzzle matters less than the people. Chesterton, one of the genre’s pioneers, was wary of popular mysteries that emphasized a crime’s mechanics, opting instead for the humanity inherent in the crime’s motives. “When I tried to imagine the state of mind in which such a thing would be done,” says Father Brown, “I realized that I might have done it myself under certain mental conditions. And then, of course, I knew who really had done it.”

And that’s the essence of the change that came with the advent of the cozy mystery: the amateur figures out the crime by approaching human motivation with compassion, empathy, and humility (something you’d never expect of someone like Sherlock Holmes). So we focus on the people, and the crime itself, in many ways, is a rather decent foil for them: a background, a context. My protagonist Sydney Riley stumbles across murders, but solving them always help her change in some way—it helps deepen her faith, her relationships, her appreciation of her home, her performance of her job.

Of course, in real life, murder is a lot less genteel. People kill for the most mundane of reasons—because of a drug deal that went awry, because they found their spouse cheating, because they want to steal what’s in the till. As we’ve seen most recently, people also get killed in the street, with a police officer’s knee on their neck. They die in places and in ways they should never have died. 

It’s never ever Professor Plum, in the library, with a candlestick.

I launched my new book—via Zoom—a week ago, just as American cities were on fire and their president was stoking the flames. And part of me wondered what I was doing. Real death felt very close; the two murders I’d invented in a story I’d made up that took place during a film festival that never happened seemed at best redundant and at worst opportunistic. 

The truth is there’s a lot of fear and horror out there, out where real death lurks. Murder can happen as quickly and as suddenly and as unfairly as the deaths we read about in the news every day. So why write about imaginary murders? Why read about them?

Here’s what I think. A mystery is set on a continuum; before the story even opens, characters have already been on the journey that culminated in the dead body. We join them on the journey because through skillful writing we care about them, their eccentricities, and their dreams; we go along as the journey continues to its culmination when the murderer is revealed and justice is done. 

And especially in these days, who doesn’t want to see justice done?

Studies have shown that fairy tales, even gory ones (and, honestly, which ones aren’t?), are helpful to children’s developing emotional lives: they give children a format allowing them to safely deal with their fears and traumas and be less troubled by them. And perhaps it’s fair to say murder mysteries are our fairy tales. Our world is overwhelmed by wars, violence, and myriad disasters. But murder mysteries give us reassurance by telling us stories that begin with evil events but call forth the efforts of people who rise to sometimes heroic heights to overcome that evil. We love murder mysteries because they are redemptive, they give us hope, and help us move from fear to reassurance.

And—check the news—we need them now more than ever.

How do you feel about reading murder mysteries during these hard times?

Jeannette de Beauvoir didn’t set out to murder anyone—some things are just meant to be! Her mother introduced her to the Golden Age of mystery fiction when she was far too young to be reading it, and she’s kept reading those authors and many like them ever since.

She wrote historical and literary fiction and poetry for years before someone asked her what she read—and she realized mystery was where her heart was. Now working on the Sydney Riley Provincetown mystery series, she bumps off a resident or visitor to her hometown on a regular basis. 

Jeannette is a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, the Author’s Guild, and the National Writers Union. Find out more (and read her blog or sign up for her newsletter) at her website. You can also find her on Amazon, Facebook, Instagram, Patreon, and Goodreads.


The Matinée Murders: It’s time for the Provincetown International Film Festival, and wedding planner Sydney Riley has scored: her inn is to host the wedding of the year. Movie star Brett Falcone is marrying screenwriter Justin Braden, and even Sydney’s over-critical mother is excited about the event. The town is filled with filmmakers, film reviewers, film buffs, and it’s all the inn can do to keep up with the exciting flow of people and events.

And then Sydney opens a forbidden door in the mysterious Whaler’s Wharf, and finds the body of a producer—and a lot more questions than she has answers for. Who strangled the innocuous Caroline Cooper? What dark force followed Brett and Justin from LA? Why is her boss Mike looking behind doors at the inn? And is Mirela really leaving P’town forever? Sydney and her boyfriend Ali need to find the answers fast before Whaler’s Wharf claims another victim. 

64 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your new book, Jeannette . . . . I’m looking forward to reading Sidney’s latest adventure . . . .

    I don’t mind reading murder mysteries, even during the hard times . . . in the book, there’s always justice for the victim and the killer always gets his or her comeuppance. And, it’s fun seeing how it all plays out as I read along to see how the case gets solved . . . .

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    1. Well, that's it, isn't it, Joan? That sense that everything will come right in the end. It is comforting for sure.

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  2. I need fiction to escape into. I love a world where things make sense and justice prevails at the end. Keep 'em coming!

    Congrats on the new book!

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    1. Me, too, Mark. Sometimes the real world is just a little too real!

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  3. Jeannette, The Matinee Murders sounds like a great read. And what a fantastic piece on why reading murder mysteries, especially cozy ones, are important to us now, and even comforting. The justice and the redemption features are so reassuringly comforting to me. And, as you say cozy authors are so good at presenting the human side of a story, looking at why the murder happened in the context of it being a reasonable step in the mind of the murderer. A few years back I read a very popular mystery/crime book that was made into a movie, but I didn't care for the book. There was no redemption, no redeeming qualities to the characters, and certainly no justice. Today I wouldn't finish a book like that, because if I want to be frustrated, I'll watch the news.

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    1. Thanks, Kathy, and I'm with you. I don't need to read something that's as difficult and depressing as the news can be. And that's a good way of phrasing it—that the murder is reasonable in the mind of the murderer. Sydney often asks, "What changed, that made this murder the only answer now?"

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    2. that's such a good question Jeannette--it seems obvious, but it's not! And Kathy, you are so right about the news...

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  4. Is Sydney channeling Sidney Reilly, Ace of Spies? I laughed when I saw that name!
    I always enjoy reading a good murder mystery. A crime, suspects, motives, resolution. What’s not to love?

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    1. You're the first person to notice that! I definitely named her for Sidney Reilly as a sort of joke... but until now, no one got it!

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  5. Congratulations, Jeannette on the new book!

    I have always read mystery fiction as my preferred form of escape. Unlike real life, most murder mysteries provided a resolution, and often justice, at the end of the story. That being said, I understand the desire to read more cozy mysteries.

    My own tastes have changed over time. I started with the Golden Age of mystery authors (mostly British) as a tween/teen and then read more espionage and thrillers. But I agree that in the past decade, I now read more cozy mysteries. Partly, this is because there are so many types of cozy mysteries being published to choose from. But I still vary from reading across the mystery genre, reading a cozy, then a PI story, a thriller or a police procedural. Mystery fiction provides the entertainment, escape and closure I am seeking.

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    1. I love the thrillers too, Grace. Gavin Lyall and Adam Hall and Geoffrey Household and of course le Carré... I think it's a grand idea to change things up a bit with one's reading!

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    3. Oh, yes, I loved reading the authors you listed above, Jeannette! Also Ambler and Deighton and Anthony Price for British espionage.

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    4. And modern day American thriller authors I love reading include Gregg Hurwitz, Nick Petrie and Glen Erik Hamilton.

      Sorry I keep deleting comments Reds...my laptop continues to act up and kick me out mid-reply!

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    5. Great suggestions, Grace, thank you!

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  6. Best of luck with the new book, Jeanette! I'm in complete agreement with you about cozies, of course, since that's what I write. I find writing them provides me the same kind of escape - and closure - which has been hugely comforting the last few months.

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  7. It's not a bad reason to read them *and* to write them.... life isn't big on closure, is it? And frankly I'd rather read about a genteel death at the church fête than read the news!

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  8. Welcome— So wonderful to see you here, and with such a wise essay! And I have completely latched onto your idea of the continuum. I never thought about it that way, but you are so right!
    And I am baffled now… Who is the ace of spies?

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    1. Sydney Reilly was supposedly the spy Ian Fleming used as his model for James Bond—dashing and debonair and all that. He's on Wikipedia, check him out.

      As a reader I never thought about the continuum. But once I started writing mysteries I realized the writer can't start where the protagonist starts!

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    2. Oops... and I misspelled it there: he was Sidney Reilly.

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    3. It was adapted for TV, starring Sam Neil as Sidney, and it was wonderful!

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  9. Good points, Jeanette. I like reading murder mysteries for all the reasons you say. There is something reassuring in the fact that it *can* come out okay - if we make it happen.

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  10. And wouldn't it be nice if e had that same power over real events! I find science fiction unsettling for some of the same reasons—it's rarely familiar, or comforting, or clear, and I *like* those qualities in mysteries.

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  11. Congratulations on the new book, Jeanette. It sounds like there's another series out there I'm not familiar with, but should be! And I think you're exactly right about why we like to read mysteries in general and cozies in particular. We want the reassurance that things are going to be tidy in the end. These days I find myself not only reading mysteries, but re-reading mysteries I've enjoyed in the past. I already know whodunnit, and why, but I enjoy revisiting characters I've come to love.

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    1. Oh. Gigi, me, too! I recently re-read the entire Dorothy L. Sayers opus, and even though I knew exactly what would happen, I enjoyed it tremendously!

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  12. For me, character is the main ingredient in a good cozy. Because often the answer to the question "Would a normal person do this?" is NO... the best cozy writers make it possible for the reader to suspend disbelief.

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    1. Right. I can forgive an author for plot holes, but not for poorly portrayed characters!

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  13. Oh Jeanette, I really enjoyed this essay! I agree that in cozy mysteries, it is all about the characters -- and that's why I love them. And I also strongly agree with your final point-- murder mysteries are redemptive. When so much of the world is not only out of my control but seemingly, out of everyone else's, too, it is such a comfort to immerse myself in a world where the murderer is always revealed and justice done.

    Like Grace, I do read from across the mystery genre, and I enjoy almost all of them. But I am drawn to the cozies -- they help me truly escape the present and reassure me that yes, good people can thrive and justice can be done.

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    1. Thank goodness for fiction! It's both escapist and at the same time gives us hope that perhaps the world can become a better place.

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  14. As the title says: " now, more than ever, we need cozy mysteries ". I do.
    For me, the characters make the difference in a book. When I care for them, they become part of my life and I want to know what happens to them from one book to the other. Of course, the story around them has to catch my attention and intrigue me and at the end , I have to know they are all right.
    In this post, you enticed me to know more about Sidney ( I'm partial to the name, having visited Sydney,BC and Sydney,Nova Scotia in Canada before visiting Sydney in Australia) . I'll begin with the first in the series and follow her evolution.
    I have to know they are all right.

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    1. Danielle, your timing is good—if you read ebooks, as a celebration of the new book, my publisher lowered the price of DEATH OF A BEAR, the first in the series, to .99 through tomorrow only on Amazon, so go for it! And of course you put your finger on why writing a series is so rewarding... because you get to shepherd the character through the changes in their life!

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    2. Thank you Jeannette, I will.

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    3. The price at $0.99 doesn't work in Canada. Usually, it does. It won't keep me from buying the book.

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  15. Jeanette, this is probably the best, most thoughtful essay I've read on why we read and enjoy mysteries so much. Every word rings true for me.

    Of course I read mysteries as a child, but as an adult I tended more towards thrillers, a la le Carre', Sidney Sheldon, et al, until I joined the Mystery of the Month Club, an offshoot of the Book of the Month Club, which included a much wider genre that encompassed "mystery". I'd never really read cozies before, except for the Miss Marple kind, and it changed the way I chose my reading entertainment forever. Around the same time I gravitated towards more women mystery/thriller authors, like Cornwell, Brennan, Paretsky, and Faye Kellerman. I had to quit reading two of those authors, whose plot lines began getting darker and darker, with a lot of graphic torture of women. Nope, nope, nope.

    Cozies never include torture of any kind, thank you very much. Real life is hard enough right now, I don't need to make my nightmares any worse than they already are. And the character aspect of that genre is appealing in a whole other way.

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    1. Hey, Karen, thank you! I certainly don't advocate reading nothing *but* cozies (good heavens, how boring!), but I do think that we read different genres at different times for different reasons. Right now feels like a good time for something predictable, not graphic, and reassuring!

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    2. In May I read through the entire Shetland series by Ann Cleeves. Darker than I usually read, but I was utterly drawn to it, and the darkness is all in the setting and the characters.

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  16. Danielle, your timing is good—if you read ebooks, as a celebration of the new book, my publisher lowered the price of DEATH OF A BEAR, the first in the series, to .99 through tomorrow only on Amazon, so go for it! And of course you put your finger on why writing a series is so rewarding... because you get to shepherd the character through the changes in their life!

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  17. Congratulations on your new book.

    I love reading murder mysteries because I know there will be justice.

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    1. Yeah, there's something incredibly reassuring about knowing it will all come right in the end. Real Life doesn't give us much of that, I'm afraid.

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  18. Personally, I love reading murder mysteries regardless of what is going on the real world.

    I mean it is better to escape to a world where justice is (usually) done and there is a resolution involved.

    Also, it helps serve as an outlet. Despite diligent work on trying to live a very calm life, I haven't gotten rid of the volcanic temper I can sometimes have. But when some jackass in a murder mystery gets a richly deserved death, it's like a soothing balm to said temper.

    And it sure is better than going out and doing the killing yourself. I mean if nothing else, that would be a lot of hard work and frankly, I'm just way too lazy for that. I'll let you all do the killing for me...on a fictional basis of course.

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    1. I hear you, Jay... and then they put you in prison for years and years, which really could be inconvenient! In this series, I occasionally feature real people as "extras"—and I can't tell you how many folks have told me they have a strong suggestion for who my next victim should be!

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    2. Such a good idea to let the writers do the killing Jay, we'd hate to have to take turns visiting you in prison!

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  19. "We love murder mysteries because they are redemptive, they give us hope, and help us move from fear to reassurance."

    Jeannette: This is why I read mysteries, exactly. Thank you for saying it so clearly. I'm off to find your new book now. Many years ago, I spent a happy few days in Provincetown. I'd love to get myself back there...

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  20. Oh, Amanda, thank you! And do come visit us again sometime.... I don't think Ptown ever loses its charm!

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  21. Definitely what Amanda said! Jeannette, I just bought your first book, planning to hunker down with it tonight. We were in PTown last September, the week after Labor Day, and are hoping for another visit this year. I look forward to reading about one of our favorite destinations.

    Amanda, you could join us!

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    1. Ann -- that's a lovely idea to daydream about...Who knows: Sometimes daydreams come true; except when that pesky day-job gets in the way...

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  22. Sam Neill starred in a mini series called Reilly, Ace of Spies back in the early 80’s. It is very entertaining. I’ve seen it offered on either Amazon or Acorn recently. There are probably a lot of liberties taken but it is a fascinating story.

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    1. Oh, I'll have to look for that! I like Sam Neill a lot. Reilly was a fascinating character.

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  23. Jeannette, well said! A really excellent column on cozy mysteries in hard times, whether widespread or personal I think we need comfort reading, whatever that is for any reader, in these times more than ever, not less.We need a break. We need something that says - at the very least - "This moment is not all of life." That justice is done at the end of traditional mysteries (cozy or less cozy-I don't think of mine as cozy, really)is the usual explanation of why mysteries are so loved, and I agree, of course. I also think there is something else at work and have blogged about it myself: right after food, clothing and shelter, a basic human need is "tell me a story."As far back as cave paintings, that is true. So we tell stories. And PS< yes, lots of us need to care about characters. For me, I don't have to like them, but I need to find them interesting. Wanting to understand suspense better, I started a hugely popular one and am struggling. I honestly don't care what happens because I don't care about the stick figure protagonist at all!

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    1. Absolutely true about storytelling... Stories comfort, they challenge, they invite us to lose ourselves—and, once in a great while, to find ourselves as well. I like your phrase "this moment is not all of life." I'm going to shamelessly steal it!

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    2. You are more than welcome to steal it. I am flattered.

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  24. Jeanette, what a wonderful essay. I think the more the world feels out of control, the deeper our need to see order restored. I've just bought Death of a Bear--looking forward to it!

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    1. Thank you, Deborah! I agree... we need to feel some control, even if only in fiction!

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  25. Jeannette, welcome to Jungle Reds and congratulations on your new book! Love your pen name or is it your real name? Great name - Sydney Riley. Sydney reminds me of the doctor daughter of the tv dad Mike Farrell in a tv series years ago. And Riley means courageous.

    Yes, I like to read murder mysteries, though I generally prefer cozy mysteries. Once in a blue moon, I could read a gory mystery if it is well written. I met a new to me author at the mystery conference in Canada and I read all of his books after I met him. His Van Shaw series are wonderfully written. I would recommend these mysteries. I also am a big fan of Louise Penny's three pines mystery series, which are more like psychological thrillers.

    However, I do draw a line at women being victims of serial killers. I hate that and it is too close to real life. Unfortunately, that happens in real life.

    When I read murder mysteries, I want to escape from the real world for a few hours.

    Lucy, thank you for introducing us to Jeannette!

    Stay safe, everyone!

    Diana

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    1. You're very welcome Diana! And you are the winner of Victoria Gilbert's BOOKED FOR DEATH. email me at raisleib @ gmail dot com and I'll put you in touch.

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    2. Wow! Wonderful surprise! Thank you. Physical or ebook?

      Diana

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    3. Hi, Diana. Actually, this is my real name (if I were choosing a pen name I'd find something easier for people to spell!) And of curse you're right—the genre is less important than whether the author is a gifted storyteller.

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    4. Hi Lucy, thank you! I just sent you my contact information to forward to Victoria Gilbert.

      Thank you, Diana

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    5. Hi Jeanette, your name is so beautiful that I thought it was a pen name!

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  26. Jeanette, sorry to be late to the party! I've never thought of mysteries having the same emotional space as fairy tales, but as soon as I read your words, I thought, of course, that's right. And I, too have been drawn to 1) reading more cozy mysteries and 2) rereading favorites. I experience enough suspense when I look at the Washington Post, I don't need more when reading!

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  27. Most mysteries provide a puzzle with closure and justice. Most cozies have wonderful settings with an interesting sleuth who has supportive(and sometimes a little crazy) family and friends with an occasional frenemy. Plus food, pets, crafts provide lots of fun. Stay safe and well.

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