What I Read in July 2016 Part VI . . .
Juliet Capshaw is returning home to Ashland, Oregon, after 10 years away, first at culinary school and then as a pastry chef on a cruise ship. Juliet has returned to decide what to do about her failed marriage and to help her mom run their family bakery, Torte. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is in full swing with theatergoers and actors crowding into the bakery. One customer and OSF board member, Nancy Hudson, has earned the enmity of OSF director Lance and leading lady Caroline but is either of them mad enough to kill? When Jules discovers Nancy in a pool of blood and jam on the bakery floor early one morning, it leads her to learn about old secrets, scandals and reflect on her past romances.
I liked this story well enough. It dragged in parts and there were too many mysteries going on at first. One by one the stories are told and I was left to puzzle out who actually did Nancy in. I was surprised at the reveal. My thought process naturally followed Juliet's. This mystery takes a different path than the usual cozy. There's a lot more specifics about the town and Jules finds herself in danger more than once. I thought that made the story a little repetitive and too long. There's also a LOT of specific details about baking and how Jules and her mom make new creations. I was surprised that Torte is a bakery/cafe and they serve savory as well as sweet. I prefer my bakeries to serve sweets only. I'd rather read about cupcakes and cookies than bread and savories so I probably will not visit this series again.
Also, I had a hard time clicking with Jules. She's a drama queen, like her namesake. I felt she was more than a little bit of a food snob, though she denied she was. She was super critical of the bakery's rival and local businessman who is trying to buy out her mother. The town business is tourism and kitschy decor and poor pseudo-historical foods probably draw in more crowds than a gourmet bakery given the OSF is Ashland's main draw. Juliet's relationship drama was a lot less dramatic than I expected. I can see why she would be hurt and angry but why leave the marriage? My guess is she was infatuated with Carlos and craved his attention but wasn't really in love. She's also a bit snippy towards their customers and her mother's employees. Her mother hired them for a reason and Jules should let her mother handle personnel problems or bring her concerns to her mother. A small town bakery is not a cruise ship. Jules needs to drop her attitude if she plans to stay in the small town.
The townspeople didn't appeal to me either. The only secondary characters I liked were Juliet's mother, the Professor and Thomas. The Professor is quirky in a nerdy way and seems intelligent and kind. Thomas is a smart cop and warns Jules their town isn't as idyllic as it seems and yet she takes kind of a superior attitude and isn't very nice to him. She has some cringe-worthy moments with Thomas for sure. There's not enough of a relationship hook there to keep me interested.
Foodies will rejoice because there are several recipes in the back but sadly none appeal to me. I probably won't be reading more of this series.
A Golden Cage by Shelley Freydont--Historical Mystery
Deanna Randolph is staying with Gran Gwen and the Ballards while her mother and older sister are off in Switzerland curing Adelaide's migraines. Deanna is thrilled to escape her draconian mother and do fun things like wear the latest fashions and ride her new safety bicycle. Deanna's independence drives Joe crazy. He worries she'll ruin her reputation or worse, once she becomes involved in a mystery. After helping to solve a murder a few weeks earlier, Deanna is on the case again after an actor from Judge Grantham's birthday party turns up dead in the Ballards' parlor. The case involves a chorus girl, Amabelle Deeks, who was once a society girl who ran away from home. Laurette Ballard is friends with Amabelle's mother and feels responsible for helping the girl when she turns up one night in distress. Amabelle is gone in the morning when the murder victim is discovered. Deanna worries Belle has been taken by the murderer or killed. Perhaps she IS the murderer, but Deanna doesn't think so. Will is under pressure from the cottagers to solve the case quickly and if he can't find Amabelle, someone else will get the blame.
I only meant to read some of the book but of course I ended up staying up really late reading! I figured out who the murderer was pretty easily and I figured it had something to do with the Comstock Laws. I was a bit surprised by the reveal but not totally. That thought hadn't really crossed my mind. I thought something a little more typical for this period so kudos to the author for making the mystery extra complicated. She also deserves praise for the diversity of her cast of characters. In the first book we had an exotic dark skinned man servant and here we have theater people who are more open about their unconventional lifestyles. They fit within the context of the period and the latest newsworthy gossip of the year. I was a little surprised the author dared to go there. The subject matter of the book is very relevant to our own time as well.
This story is much better than the first. The writing is overall better and I especially liked the mentions of real people and real "cottages." I need to visit Chepstow now! I liked the cameos by Mrs. Astor and Mamie Fish, two of my favorite Gilded Age people. Consuelo Vanderbilt causes gossip with her brief appearances. There are also references to other real life Newport figures. The one thing that I found off was the women's suffrage movement. That was a big issue later on in the early 20th century when Alva Vanderbilt held suffrage events at Marble House. I'm not sure if women were being imprisoned and force fed yet. Mostly middle class women became involved in woman suffrage and not upper class ladies at this time.
The characters in this story are delightful. Deanna is not my favorite sleuth though. She's very young and she often behaves childishly and recklessly. Her reaction to Joe's criticisms is very immature, especially towards the end. I love her relationship with Elspeth. Elspeth adds a lot of comic relief to the story. I love how she is "true blue" to Deanna. Joe behaves very boorishly in this novel. His criticisms are valid but it's not his place to decide what Deanna can and can not do. It's up to his grandmother and she knows what she's doing. He spends the whole book dancing around his real feelings for Dee but I hope he doesn't declare himself too soon because I think she's still too immature and needs to grow a bit. I love Joe's family. His parents are so sweet and such a lovely couple. His mom is very admirable and way ahead of her time. I'm not really sure she's accurate for the 1890s but she champions causes that were becoming major concerns in big cities in America. Gran Gwen is awesome and I would love for her to be my grandmere. She can cut down any society lady or deliver a comment that means the opposite of what she says. I'd love to see an encounter between Gran Gwen and Alva Vanderbilt. Gran Gwen is very modern for the 1890s also.
New characters here are sharply divided between upper crust "cottagers" and lower class actors and actresses of the theater troupe that comes to Newport. Judge Grantham is a well-connected and high placed judge in New York. He is a staunch supporter of the Comstock laws regulating morality. He has strict ideas of what is proper and doesn't hesitate to stomp on anyone he considers behaving immorally - unless that person is one of his own and then he may choose to look the other way. His son-in-law, however, will not let anything slide. The women of the family are very meek and I had a tough time keeping track of which was the Judge's wife and which was his daughter. The actors are an interesting bunch. I felt sorry for Talia to be subjected to the sleazy Mersey and I felt sorry for Noreen. I didn't entirely like her or the complications she introduced to the plot. The actors are a colorful bunch but I had trouble keeping track of who was who. They add to the story and make the story stand out from other typical Gilded Age/Victorian and Edwardian mysteries of this type.
I look forward to reading more about Newport in the Gilded Age in the future, I hope!