Blood Orange Brewing

I’m back once again to Laura Childs’ Tea Shop Mysteries. In this seventh installment, Blood Orange Brewing, a local figure meets a gruesome end at an event Theodosia Browning’s tea shop is catering. [Seriously, every book starts this way. Either nobody in Charleston gets murdered in private, or criminals are dumb enough to wait until they know a woman with investigative instincts and lots of connections is present. The set-up is getting a little old.] In this case the event is a fundraiser to restore a Civil War-era house recently donated to the Historical Society, and the victim is a well-loved politician still involved in many local matters. There are plenty of connections between Duke Wilkes and the throngs of people at the house when he died, but no real leads. When the widow asks Theodosia to investigate she cautiously agrees, despite her other obligations like hosting a wives tea for the backers of a smarmy Congressman.

blood orange brewingBad things first: the first chapter was horribly written. I saw at least four fragments masquerading as sentences. Within the span of a few pages Childs described “heroically tall bouquets” and a character’s “heroic teeth;” I’m not sure how the word applies in either case. It also mentioned that Theodosia looked up at the dying man, as if the murder were copy/pasted from the balcony death in the previous book. Luckily either the writing improved, or my brain switched over fully from editor-reading to content-reading. The only other thing that made me wince was mention of a recent newspaper article credited to staff writer C.S. Lewis. That can’t have been an intentional reference, yet no proofreader picked up on it?

The plot was also a little on the weaker side. Though I don’t expect or want Agatha Christie from this series, it felt like there were too many red herrings or loose ends, I’m not sure which. Haley’s contract for a cookbook is in the works and then never mentioned again, though the thread will likely be picked up in the next book. Two unlikeable characters are left as just that, while a built-up character is killed off later. It’s never quite revealed how both victims learned the information that led to their deaths, or how the killer knew that they knew. On the plus side, Childs was able to work in as usual an unconventional motive that comes out of nowhere. She also finally broke the pattern about who she chooses as the culprit, though I was still able to figure it out through process of elimination.

There are plenty of good things about the series that keep me reading, like the charm of the tea shop and the everlasting ode to historic Charleston. Theodosia really does have a believable working relationship with Inspector Tidwell: several steps behind on some aspects of the case but able to provide important information because of her ear for local gossip and snooping skills. She was suitably timid at first, giving the close call her last investigation ended in. There is also a fantastic part where she and Delaine explore a secret passage in the creepy old house, which felt like something right out of a Nancy Drew book.

I’ll probably take a break from the series before picking up with them again in the new year. There are still six more I haven’t read, and I also want to start over again with her scrapbooking mysteries. At least i can chalk this up as a success for the year of the reread.

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Published in: on December 28, 2012 at 3:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Chamomile Mourning

After a brief hiatus I’m back in Charleston with Laura Childs’ sixth Tea Shop Mystery. I love the small town feel of this series. There are lots of little shops and restaurants, and everyone in this sphere of society seems to know everyone else. I’m not sure how realistic it is, but it does make me want to visit historic Charleston!

chamomile mourningIn Chamomile Mourning, the Poet’s Tea at annual Spoleto festival is forced to move indoors due to rain. Worse still is when an auction house owner plummets to his death from the balcony. When the main suspect turns out to be Gracie Venable, a friend of Haley’s from business school who is getting ready for the grand opening of her hat shop, Theo is tapped to help with the investigation. As usual, there are many secret motives lurking beneath the surface–a dispute over a lease, an affair, or even something related to the art world.

Childs still followed her format for choosing the killer, but this climax was probably Theodosia’s most harrowing crime-fighting experience yet, landing her in the hospital. I wasn’t paying as much attention to the mystery plot, though, because relationship bombshell!! Theo’s boyfriend Jory proposes to her, on the grounds that she move with him to NYC for his new position at the law firm, and either go back into advertising or open a new branch of the Indigo Tea Shop. Does he not get how much her shop and her friends mean to her? It just seemed really, really out of character for Jory, who had been fairly complacent and Ned Nickerson-like up until this point. One of the things I liked about this series was the lack of relationship drama. Long story short, Jory goes off to New York without Theo and she takes up with young restauranteur Parker Scully. As blond and charming as he may be, I just can’t like him because of the way this all came out of the blue.

On a more positive note, at one point, while hosting an afternoon tea, Theo puts in a new CD–Lark Ascending, by Ralph Vaughn Williams. I have that CD! His Fantasia on Greensleeves is one of my favorite classical pieces. This reference made up for Parker just a bit.

Fun tidbit: While flipping through this one for the review, I noticed that a very minor character is the wife of the man who is murdered in the next book. She comes across as more annoying here.

Published in: on June 11, 2012 at 2:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Jasmine Moon Murder

When I reread Death by Darjeeling I mentioned that I flew through the first few books right in a row (much like I did now). The fifth book, The Jasmine Moon Murder, was the first one I had to wait for; I received it for Christmas and took it back to college to read.

The latest Charleston society event is a Civil War-themed  ghost crawl through the historic Jasmine Cemetery. The spooky tableaux are meant to raise money for charities earmarked by the Medical Triad, and Theodosia and her friends are catering as a favor to her boyfriend Jory’s Uncle Jasper, vice president at Cardiotech. Unfortunately, not everyone is as kind; Jasper Davis had at least one enemy because he is killed with a fatal injection before the end of the night.

Dr. Davis was in the process of developing the Novalaser, a device meant to improve angioplasty by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, he recently disagreed with his boss about the release timeline, arguing that the equipment should go through more testing before becoming available for general use. This was not the news the struggling company wanted to hear. It also upset a local PR firm that has staked a lot on covering the story. Rivals at the two other major medical research companies also have potential motive, if they fear the device’s success. To top it off, Jasper also has an angry ex.

Theodosia was one of the first to realize the dying man was poisoned, and feels a responsibility to investigate his death for Jory’s sake. Not everyone wants her on the case, though. This is the first time I’ve really seen Detective Tidwell tell Theo seriously to stop investigating. It’s likely because he feels she is too close to the crime, and also that her past record of success will make others more anxious to stop her. He’s half right, because she faces several dangerous situations even before her final showdown with the culprit; someone takes pot shots at her when she’s riding in the fox hunt, and a man she is supposed to meet for information is killed shortly before the assignation. She even receives a threatening note. Coincidentally (or perhaps not so much), this book is the first time Theodosia’s amateur sleuthing is officially compared to Nancy Drew’s.

I thought the plot was interesting, and I appreciate that the author’s corporate experience allows her to bring fresh motives to the cozy mystery genre. My only complaint was with one of the conclusions Theo draws. She finds is particularly incriminating that someone at the riding stables had access to a syringe, and considers this a major clue. However, most of her suspects work at medical tech companies, where syringes are not exactly unheard of. Besides, couldn’t the culprit have swiped one from wherever s/he obtained the drug.

Also, I’m pretty sure Laura Childs has a system for who the guilty person is. I had a guess after the first few books, and the fourth and fifth confirmed my hunch. I’m anxious to test it out in the next book; I almost hope it doesn’t work!

I’ve mentioned before how I love seeing “antiquated” technological references in books that are otherwise relatively contemporary. This was written in 2004, and Theodosia is fascinated that her new phone has text messaging and can also take and send photos. It even turns out to be a helpful feature in the case. I was smirking a little bit at all of this compared to Siri, until I remembered that my own cell phone is seven years old, from 2005. I was also really excited when I got it that it had text messages and a camera. I guess this means it’s time to shop for a new phone…

Published in: on April 28, 2012 at 1:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The English Breakfast Murder

The English Breakfast Murderis the fourth Tea Shop Mystery by Laura Childs, and though probably not my favorite in the series it’s still a good read (or reread). Theodosia and Haley are thrilled to join the Charleston Sea Turtle Protection League to help baby loggerheads make it from shell to sea. Even Drayton in his tweeds and loafers can’t deny the cuteness of the hatchlings scuttling across the sand. The fun abates when the trio spy a dark shape fifty yards out in the water. Haley’s convinced it’s a dolphin in trouble, and Theo’s getting a pretty strong vibe herself, so she swims out to take a look. (And of course she’s a certified lifeguard–there’s that Nancy Drew streak again.)

She almost wishes she hadn’t when she realizes the object is a dead body–and the body of one of Drayton’s friends, no less. Harper Fisk was a local antiques dealer and also a member with Drayton of the English Breakfast Club, a group of historians who got together every week. The official verdict is death by drowning, but to Theodosia and Detective Tidwell that seems a far-fetched about a sea dog.

Theo is able to enlist the help of her boyfriend Jory, and avid yachtsman like herself, to help track down the boat, and along the way they find plenty of motive. Harper Fisk’s antique store was extremely successful; perhaps his young assistant wanted a bigger share, or perhaps his friends and fellow store owners were getting jealous. In addition, Fisk was an amateur treasure hunter intent on locating a valuable wreck rumored to be just offshore. If his theories were valid, someone may have wanted to claim the treasure for him or herself.

Whenever I feel overwhelmed with all the work I do teaching, tutoring, and chaperoning, I just think of Theodosia. Talk about a full calendar! She’s running her own store with all that entails, helping Delaine organize a fashion show luncheon for her clothing boutique, visiting with Earl Grey is his capacity as service dog, attending functions about town, and trying to solve a mystery on the side. I have to admit, I’m a little envious of all the society events she gets to go to, especially with her connection to the Historical Society. I would love to attend art galleries, concerts, exhibits, and luncheons, but it seems like no one really dresses up and goes out at more.

Laura Childs (aka Gerry Schmitt) is a former marketing CEO just like Theodosia, and she’s put her expertise to good work in the series. So far, as a small business owner, Theo has started a website/online store front (which was a big deal in 2001 when that book first came out), expanded to outdoor seating, developed a line on T-bath products, hosted several themed teas (like a mystery tea), called on Drayton to create new tea blends each holiday season, as well as various iced teas, and given Haley free range to perfect the use of tea as a flavor when cooking. To me this aspect is just as intriguing as the actual mystery. I used to work part time in an artisan’s cooperative and was constantly around people with creative ideas for products and marketing, so perhaps that’s why this appeals to me so.

Fun tidbit #1: Theodosia and Drayton decide to start stocking Rooibos (Redbush) tea because it has been getting a lot of media buzz lately. Perhaps this is a nod to the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency series?

Fun tidbit #2: In the previous book, the teaser called this volume “The Last English Breakfast.” I wonder who decided to change it, and why?

Published in: on April 11, 2012 at 1:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Shades of Earl Grey

Delaine’s pleading eyes bore into Theodosia. “Oh please, you’re so terribly good at this kind of thing.”

I have to start out by saying that whenever I mentioned what I was reading, people would respond with “oh, that book…” and I’d have to tell them it was a different Shades of Grey!

You come to expect that a dead bodies will crop up in a mystery, but some cases are sadder than others. In this book, Theodosia and company are at the engagement party for her friend Delaine’s niece Camille. Unfortunately, the storm raging outside causes the roof of the glass-enclosed room to collapse, killing the young groom-to-be. To top it off, the couple’s priceless heirloom wedding disappeared from its display in the aftermath of the accident. Theodosia has a hunch that the collapsing roof could be the symptom of a theft gone wrong, and Delaine begs her to do a little investigating.

Since a cat burglar would likely strike again, Theodosia and Drayton urge their friend Timothy to take extra precautions at the Heritage Society’s upcoming display of antique European jewels. Unfortunately, their simple security system is not enough. Soon shops and homes all over the Historic District are victimized. The case is out of Burt Tidwell’s hands because it is not officially murder, but Theodosia and her friends will need all the help they can get to trap a cat.

I don’t know why I never thought of it before, but maybe one of the reasons I love these books so much is Theodosia’s uncanny similarity to Nancy Drew. She’s fairly tall, with blue eyes and curly auburn hair. She lost her mother at a young age (eight), and her father was a lawyer. She has a pair of trusted friends always ready to help with the case, and a loyal boyfriend who stays offstage unless needed. She even has a brave and intelligent dog (and Earl Grey helps plenty with this case especially).

Beyond outward similarities, Theo has both a strong desire to help people and a true talent for investigating, just like Nancy. Her mind tends to pick up on clues and see all possible hidden meanings in ordinary scenarios. She is calm and collected at all times, even when in dangerous situations. And if at thirty-five she’s a little bit older than the teen sleuth, we can overlook that difference. Laura Childs is a self-professed Nancy Drew fan, so I wonder if that really was part of the inspiration behind Theodosia’s character.

Published in: on April 2, 2012 at 1:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Gunpowder Green

“Just like her marvelous tea,” said Timothy, “you discover what she’s really made of when you put her in hot water.”

I decided to continue with Laura Child’s Tea Shop Mysteries right away, just like I read them all back-to-back the first time around. Gunpowder Green begins with Theo waiting anxiously at the finish line of Charleston’s annual yacht race, both to see the winner and serve refreshments. When Oliver Dixon shoots the antique pistol to signal the end of the race, however, it explodes and kills him.. Most are inclined to write it off as a horrible accident, but Theodosia is not so sure, and the fact that Inspector Burt Tidwell is assigned to the case confirms her suspicions.

A lot of people had potential motive for the death of the the wealthy investor, however. What he lacked in outright enemies he more than made up for in money. His brand new wife is a beauty pageant queen forty years his junior. His family has a long-standing feud with the Cantrells, and he was seen arguing with Ford Cantrell shortly before his death. His recent focus, a tech company called Grapevine about to release a new Blackberry-like PDA, has been receiving a lot of media attention lately.

I’m less of a tea drinker than I wish I was, but I do enjoy herbal teas and white teas. I find all the little tidbits sprinkled throughout the books fascinating, and the recipes are of course mouthwatering. I’d like to try to make some of Haley’s scones.

I love these books so much that it’s easy to read them all right in a row. The downside is trying to write about them all in a row! I can’t think of anything else to say here that’s not already in one of the drafts for the other books, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less good.

Published in: on March 22, 2012 at 1:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Death by Darjeeling

Ten years ago I was just getting into buying my own adult books. I had read some before, of course, mostly classics and gothics, but the territory of books with primarily grown-up characters was still relatively new. With my Borders gift card burning in my pocket, I began browsing the shelves of mysteries and found two series that appealed to me: Lillian Jackson Braun’s extensive Cat Who series, and a couple paperback books by Laura Childs billed as the Tea Shop Mysteries. I started reading Death by Darjeeling and was hooked; I have a vague memory of staying in the car after school one day while my mom was running errands just so I could keep reading. Everything about these books is utterly charming, from the delicate matte covers to the recipes included in the back.

The series is centered around Theodosia Browning, or Theo, who six months before the first book left a lucrative but stressful career in advertising to open the Indigo Tea Shop in the Historic District of Charleston. She is assisted by professional tea blender Drayton Connelly, and Haley Parker, a part-time business student who mans the register and works wonders in the kitchen. Drayton is also on the board of the Historical Society, so it often functions as a feature throughout the series.

In this first volume, Theodosia, Drayton, Haley, and Haley’s friend Bethany are catering at one of the houses for the annual Garden Tour. When Bethany goes to collect the teacup from the final guest, she notices with a scream that he is dead. Theodosia soon realizes that she has more than just a bad reputation for her tea to worry about; the deceased, Hughes Barron, was poisoned. Barron was a building contractor unpopular among the locals, not only because of the ugly condos he built on the nearby nature preserve but also for his recent plans to acquire property in the historic district. The police, including homicide detective and former FBI agent Burt Tidwell, seem fixated on Bethany as the prime suspect because of words she and others had with Barron at a Historical Society meeting. Theodosia is convinced of the girl’s innocence, however, and decides to do a little investigating of her own.

This series was my first introduction to themed “cozy” mysteries and really set the gold standard for me; I’ve found very few since that can measure up. It stays clear of madcap territory, and all the characters stay rational and grounded. Flighty heroines who do stupid things and get themselves into trouble are one of my pet peeves, and fortunately Theo couldn’t be further from that. The plot has suspense without drama. It is squeaky clean in a good way; Theo even does hospice work with her gentle rescue dog Earl Grey. Overall, the books leave me with a happy, peaceful feeling. I’m glad I decided to start rereading them!

Published in: on March 4, 2012 at 8:52 pm  Comments (1)  
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