Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Gluten For Punishment - Nancy J. Parra

Gluten For Punishment
A Baker’s Treat Mystery
Nancy J. Parra
Berkley Prime Crime

In this first book of a new series, Toni Holmes returns to her Oiltop, Kansas roots after a bitter divorce.  Her mother’s passing left her a huge Victorian house (and a stipulation to shelter any member of her huge family that needs it) in her hometown.  A newly-constructed dam is creating a new lake in the area and the chamber of commerce hopes that this will bring an influx of tourists to the town.  At present, most of the townspeople either work at one of the refineries (thus, the town name) or farm the outlying lands.  But the new lake signals a need for more tourist-friendly businesses.  Toni’s best friend, Tasha, runs the only B&B in town, and urges Toni to think about transforming her huge house into another B&B.
Toni has just about all she can handle with her new bakery.  She started it as an online business while she lived in Chicago.  Moving back to Oiltop meant opening a storefront, and the online part of the business moved right along with her.  Baker’s Treat is a gluten-free bakery.  It’s not something that’s popular in the Midwest, but Toni lives with celiac disease – meaning she can’t digest wheat products – so it seems like a natural fit for her.  The residents of Oiltop are wary of gluten-free, thinking it’s some oddball fad diet.  And the farmers who grow wheat seem to think she’s trying to drive them out of business.  During the ribbon-cutting for the bakery, someone throws flour bombs.  The next morning, Toni finds a man who seems to be passed out drunk in front of the bakery.  There’s a can of spray paint next to him and graffiti on her storefront.  To her horror, it turns out that the man, a local wheat farmer and gluten-free opponent, is dead.  Even worse, Toni is the prime suspect.
The investigation by the local police seems less than capable, so Toni and her irrepressible Grandma Ruth (at the age of 90, she’s still looking to get back on the staff of the local newspaper she loves so much) begin their own investigation.  This works better than you might think, since Grandma Ruth has her finger on the pulse of the town.  She knows everyone, and if there’s gossip she hasn’t heard, she knows how to get to it.  Fortunately, her character never becomes a caricature.  She’s an independent woman who’s seen a lot and is impossible to shock.  Toni’s friend Tasha helps out, in between running her B&B and caring for her autistic son, Kip.

Parts of this story seem a little on the dark side for a cozy mystery, but I found that refreshing.  The story is constructed quite well, with events building bit by bit after the initial shock of finding the body.  The townspeople and business owners are all individuals – some are likeable, some are not, and some just need time to grow on you.  I felt that Toni’s incipient love triangle (she doesn’t want to date, but the two hottest guys around are completely smitten) was very much overdone, but then, I always feel that way about the romances in mysteries, so your mileage will most likely vary.  Overall, this is a very entertaining first installment in a new mystery series.  There are gluten-free recipes included that look easy and tasty enough for any home baker to try.  I know I’ll be headed back to Oiltop and Baker’s Treat as soon as possible.
Rating: 7 ½
May 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25210-9 (paperback)


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