Book Review: Death by Chocolate Frosted Doughnut by Sarah Graves @SarahGraves2011 @KensingtonBooks

Death by Chocolate Frosted Doughnut
A Death by Chocolate Mystery #3
Sarah Graves
Kensington Books, February 2020
ISBN 978-1-4967-1134-2
Hardcover

There are more than 4,000 islands off the coast of Maine; in fact, there are more islands in the Gulf of Maine than on the entire East Coast of the United States.  Pirates have been known to Maine’s shores since Dixie Bull (nicknamed “The Dread Pirate”), an Englishman, operated in Maine waters in 1632.  The other pirate most associated with Maine was Black Sam Bellamy in the early 1800s.  So, why am I telling you this?  Well, it’s because Sarah Graves’ latest book, Death by Chocolate Frosted Doughnut, set in Eastport, Maine, takes place with a Pirate Festival as its backdrop.  And the real town of Eastport, Maine, really does hold a Pirate Festival every September.

So, Jake and Ellie, her best friend and business partner in their bakery, The Chocolate Moose are baking up a storm anticipating crowds of hungry tourists (and locals) from the festival.  Approached by a celebrity foodie, Henry Hadlyme, who wants to film a podcast episode in their bakery, Jake and Ellie decline because he is obnoxious and has not had a good word to say about Eastport eateries so far so why take the chance that he will bad mouth their bakery too?  Henry becomes angry and insistent and Jake tells him in no uncertain terms not to come back or something bad might happen to him.  Unfortunately, Henry is later found dead in the basement of The Chocolate Moose and when the state police arrive to investigate, Jake becomes the prime suspect.  Only an intervention by Bob Arnold, Eastport’s police chief and a friend of Jake and Ellie, keeps Jake out of jail.  Obviously, Jake and Ellie have to find the murderer to get Jake off the hook before she is arrested.  The investigation they undertake has points to several people with possible motives and takes some unexpected twists and turns, not to mention involving others who are also at risk – enough, I think, to add up to an interesting and not obvious resolution.

For anyone who is not familiar with Sarah Graves’ work, she has a 16-book series, “Home Repair is Homicide” in which Jake, a transplanted New Yorker, and Ellie, a native Mainer, solve mysteries while Jake works on restoring her old house.  The author also has a newer series (2 books so far) featuring Lizzie Snow, a police chief who moves to Maine to try and solve what happened to her murdered sister and the disappearance of her sister’s daughter.  I love Sarah Graves’ work and hope she writes many, many more books.  To quote Margaret Maron, “Sarah Graves writes with grace and intelligence….”  I could not agree more, and I can’t wait for the next book, Death by Chocolate Snickerdoodle, due out in 2021.

Reviewed by Melinda Drew, December 2020.

Book Review: Meet Your Baker by Ellie Alexander

Meet Your BakerMeet Your Baker
A Bakeshop Mystery #1
Ellie Alexander
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, December 2014
ISBN 978-1-250-05423-4
Mass Market Paperback

Juliet “Jules” Capshaw left her hometown of Ashland, Oregon ten years ago, to learn how to be an expert pastry chef, and then to travel the world working on a cruise ship. She had no plans to return to Ashland except for visits to see her widowed mother, but when serious issues arise in Jules’s marriage, her plans change. Jules finds herself right back where she originally started – working at Torte, the family bakery business that her parents began decades before.

I know this book was good for a few reasons. The first is that, whether it’s fair or not, I usually steer clear of cosy mysteries with cute covers and a pun in the title. This book has made me question that policy, because it turned out to be a fine mystery  with unexpected twists and turns not only in the plot, but in character development. The second reason is that, although I am normally a tea drinker, I wanted to drink every coffee and latte and espresso shot that was described in the book. Similarly, the third reason is that I generally prefer savoury foods to sweet ones, but as I was reading Meet Your Baker,  I wanted to eat every raspberry danish, scone, oatmeal cookie, lime crescent cookie, and lime mint cupcake described in the story, as well as the delicious-sounding chicken pasta salad and turkey havarti sandwiches. Alexander is clearly a strong writer if she could win me over on all those points.

I have never been to Ashland, Oregon, and until I read Meet Your Baker, I hadn’t heard of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which provides much of the employment for the residents of Ashland. Most of the business for Torte comes from the tourists who visit to see the plays in the city’s three theatres, stop in at galleries, and shop in the distinctive stores. Ashland is also home to South Oregon University, and this also plays a part in the story, since a number of the characters are students with various part-time jobs around town.

The setting was probably my favourite part of the book. Although I haven’t visited Ashland, it sounds very similar to Stratford, Ontario, a Canadian city with a similar population that is also home to a Shakespeare Festival. I love going to Stratford, not only to see the great acting and the wonderful plays, but also because everywhere you go during the season, there are actors and people connected with the theatre – you can’t help but bump into intriguing characters and hearing dramatic discussions in every restaurant and cafe.

This was also what I loved about the descriptions of Ashland. The mystery plot revolves around the theatre, and around the constant fund-raising and endless clashes between producing fabulous plays and ensuring the festival remains commercially viable. Because so many of those involved are actors, directors, and producers, they all have larger-than-life personalities – and often exceptional wardrobes, which makes for a fun read. The dependence of the town’s economy on tourism is clearly described here, and I liked Juliet’s practicality and strong work ethic as she tries to help her mother keep Torte on its feet, even during the slower months.

Although the mystery plot itself is maybe a bit convoluted, I thought this was offset by unexpected developments in the characters’ lives. The reason Juliet has decided to leave her job and her marriage was not what I anticipated when I began reading, and I liked being surprised. Although she is struggling with sadness and confusion as the book begins, Jules is not someone to lie around and wallow in her grief. Instead, she gets busy and bakes, and Alexander’s careful and detailed descriptions of Juliet’s cooking were fascinating to read.

To top it all off, this book also includes recipes. I’m not sure that I’ve ever made a recipe from a fictional book before, but Alexander certainly makes it seem like a tempting idea.

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson, February 2016.

Book Review: Strawberry Shortcake Murder by Joanne Fluke

Strawberry Shortcake Murder
Joanne Fluke
Kensington, 2001
ISBN 1575667215
Mass Market Paperback

Hannah Swensen, cookie baker extraordinaire, is once again on the snoop.  This time, she’s after the murderer of the husband of a friend, struck down right after his judging duty at a dessert bake-off — and he’s literally facedown in Hannah’s own strawberry shortcake. Only Hannah and a few others know just how nasty-tempered this man was and she’s determined to track down the killer before the police decide the wife is the culprit.  In the meantime, a most annoying reporter is behaving strangely and the list of suspects is growing.

In Hannah’s second adventure, Joanne Fluke brings us another winner, a cozy in the truest sense, complete with the wonderful cat, Moishe. This time, Hannah and her sister, Andrea, have resolved their long-standing rivalry and Andrea joins in the sleuthing with enthusiasm. The two of them make quite a team and the reader has the pleasure of watching the sisters discover surprising things about each other. And the men in Hannah’s life?  Well, suffice it to say that batty Moishe is the only one not causing problems of one sort or another.

Strawberry Shortcake Murder is every bit as enjoyable as Hannah’s first story, Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, and Ms. Fluke shows us once again that she is very adept at creating a traditional mystery, replete with small-town characters, multiple bodies and suspects, a little romance and a cat with personality, not to mention some wonderful recipes. If the
author keeps this up, I’ll collapse from overeating but at least I’ll be reading a good book while I stuff myself!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, 2002.  Slightly revised 2010.
Review first published on murderexpress.net in 2002.