Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series
One of my rare promotional posts. Here's an opportunity to discover new authors.
Facing the truth of who you really are. Discovering a new role and breaking free from an old one. Inner and outer words getting turned upside down. That’s an identity crisis, and what could be a stronger theme for a novel? I’ve read two of the books on offer and recommend them, Virginia King’s Laying Ghosts and Theresa Crater’s Under the Stone Paw. If you don’t already have the first Mae Martin mystery The Calling, you can get a copy as part of this promotion.
Tewa Pueblo is fictitious. Though Pueblo people welcome outsiders to feast days, they value their privacy. Out of respect for that privacy, the author has created an imaginary place influenced by Pueblo culture in general but not portraying any specific Pueblo. Tewa’s religious and spiritual beliefs are compiled from what little of Pueblo spirituality is shared with outsiders and should be regarded as fiction.
Note: Tewa is actually a language spoken on several of the Pueblos north of Santa Fe, and the Pueblo invented for this series is located somewhat closer to Albuquerque. Its people would probably speak Tiwa or Keres.
Tony Hillerman introduced his book Sacred Clowns and its fictitious Tano Pueblo with a preface explaining the fiction and how he constructed it. Doing so was respectful to both the readers and the Pueblo people. This book needed a preface along those lines for readers who don’t know New Mexico and its nineteen Pueblos. https://www.indianpueblo.org/
I mention this because I read reviews of books in Slater's series in which readers seemed to think they had read about a real place. (Maybe she mentions its fictitious nature in end-notes, but I didn't keep reading past the end of the story.)
I debated whether or not I should review this novella. Usually, I hold back when I can’t give a three star or better. But I did finish it, which I seldom do with books that feel like a two-star, so I decided that potential readers might want to see a critical review that could help them decide if they want to buy and read the book or not.
Overall, I could see how some people may have enjoyed it for the plot, but this book and I were not a good match. Living in New Mexico, formerly on one of the eight northern Pueblos, and having a background in exercise science, I was just too picky to enjoy it.
Perhaps the author was trying too hard to disguise the Pueblo. It came across as generic, not unique. This could be an artifact of the novella length. So could the lack of depth and complexity in characterization. The old man Lorenzo is the only character whose inner life felt real, and the one scene I truly loved in the whole book was the one where he is selecting a walking stick.
The following paragraph isn’t a spoiler unless you don’t want to know what’s in the first chapter. Mini-spoiler:
Charlene stretched my credulity. If an author is going to offer one hard-to-accept item from the narrow end of the bell curve, I prefer the other circumstances around it to believable. A six-foot-tall teenaged girl would be extremely remarkable on any of the Pueblos. (The average height among Pueblo people is below the average for Americans in general.) I could accept this anomaly if it weren’t mixed with other harder to believe things. The physiology of pregnancy—altered center of gravity, joint laxity, increased heart rate and core temperature—would affect an athlete, especially in a sport like basketball where fast changes of direction are important, and in which the female knee joint is already injury prone even without pregnancy hormones. I didn’t believe she could compete at a high level all the way into her eighth month with no injuries, no setbacks, no prenatal care, and no one knowing she was pregnant. That’s the third hard-to-believe thing. Athletes share locker rooms, and the showers are often open as well. There are no private changing areas except the toilet stalls, and if one girl suddenly stopped showering and changing with the others, it would be noticed. Toward the end of the story, she performs physical feats that also seem impossible under the circumstances, but maybe she’s not meant to be realistic.
The plot was predictable. I saw the end coming as soon as I read about the baby doll.
End of mini-spoiler.
The writing is polished (with the exception of the character-looking-in-mirror bit to get a description in). No clunky sentences, no awkward transitions. And the pace is tight, a good balance between thriller-level tension and more inward scenes. The terrifying trouble Charlene gets into is effectively creepy. Her escape, however, is too much of a stretch.
In my opinion, no one writes better beginnings than Orenduff. The opening chapter is a masterpiece. Lured to one of New Mexico’s remote ancient cliff dwellings by a stranger who gives him directions and a unique pot to sell, Hubie Schuze gets into an almost impossible-to-get-out-of situation, stranded in a remote place with only his dog and a wounded coyote for company, after he encounters a dead person’s hand in his search for pots. Having acquired only a single shard, he attempts to get out and ends up with a chipped tooth, a sunburn, and a sprained ankle. And then someone steals his truck.
But of course, he survives to tell the tale to his friend Susannah over margaritas in Albuquerque. A hiker claiming to be a doctor gave Hubie a ride home and treated the uninsured and medically uninformed Hubie by making a cast for his injured ankle with Hubie’s potting clay and telling him to stay off it for six weeks. Doubting that a real doctor would do this, I wanted the guy to turn out to be a grave robber or another pot thief, but he vanishes with a hundred bucks from his “patient, ”and the absurd cast ends up as a comic prop.
Though Hubie learns a lot about Billy the Kid—information which inspires him to solve the mystery of the body at the cliff dwelling—he starts out studying New Mexico territorial governor Lew Wallace’s books, including Ben Hur. His commentary on Wallace’s writing is so funny, I will never be able to read Ben Hur. I discovered hidden aspects of New Mexico history along with Hubie, including what happened between Wallace and The Kid.
The balance between humor, drama, and deep human connections is outstanding. One of the tiny, isolated towns of New Mexico plays an important role in the plot, and Hubie and Susannah’s visits to La Reina—to the bar, the church, and the curandera’s home—are colorful, funny, and at times deeply moving. The nature of the mystery connected with this town is quite unusual for the genre, as far off the beaten paths as La Reina and the cliff dwellings.
This book has been around a while, but it has aged well, with the exception of a few sections in the final chapter in which the author considers the future. Not bad. I read it around the turn of the 21st century when it first came out. At the time, I was an academic, not a fiction writer, so I read it as psychology research. Then as now, I practiced yoga and meditation, so the observations on mindfulness and the relationship of our busy “hare brain” with our slower, nonverbal “tortoise mind” or undermind were meaningful to me both times through the book.
The second time around, however, Claxton’s examination of how the undermind works struck me as relevant to mystery fiction. In a number of well-written series, I’ve noticed how authors integrate their detectives’ intuition with their reasoning. The undermind detects subtle patterns and changes in them that the conscious, logical, reasoning mind doesn’t. When these discoveries surface and both minds meet, so to speak, it can seem like an epiphany. Scientists, inventors, psychotherapists, and other who face problems or puzzles that are complex and ambiguous go through this process.
So do writers, at least those of us who don’t plan ahead with an outline. A pantser” (one who writes flying by the seat of her pants) creates a plot without consciously knowing where it's going, often not knowing who committed the crime let alone how it will be solved, and yet the undermind seems to know, planting clues and connecting patterns. The logical mind has to follow up and cut, revise and polish, tightening the undermind’s creation, but the first draft bubbles up from below the surface.
Claxton cites studies in which research subjects performed worse under pressure and when trying to succeed, and better when they were told to play. If we’re too serious and ambitious, we may be less intelligent. Much learning takes place by simply messing around with things and ideas to see what works. Without leisure, without mental open space in which to mess around and let the undermind play, we miss access to our deeper wisdom.
Next time you have a flash of inspiration in the shower or while washing dishes, thank your undermind. I’ve solved more plot problems and had more ideas on a four-mile run than I ever have by structuring an outline. No headphones. No input. Just me and my undermind. Unencumbered, as Tom Magliozzi used to say, by the thought process.
I flew through this book. Winston knows how to make a reader turn the page. It’s more than a puzzle to solve—I was rooting for people I cared about. Anastasia Pollack is easy to like, a good mother, a good friend, and in a healthy romantic relationship, the kind of person you’d want on your side in a difficult situation. She’s been through some tough times and keeps her head above water with humor and creativity, never wallowing. I like how she’s comfortable in herself, knowing her own strengths and weaknesses, and acting on her convictions, including her conviction that her older son’s girlfriend’s father is innocent of a crime the police think he committed.
Anastasia’s relationship with Detective Spader is one of the many gems in the story. They’re not quite friends, not quite enemies, but teetering in between, annoying each other respectfully. The dialogue between them is brilliant.
I’m impressed with how Winston has managed to take Anastasia through so many escapades in a short period of the character’s life without making her readers step back and doubt it. One way she does it is through regional color, the nature of crime and family connections in the protagonist’s part of New Jersey. The backstory is blended so smoothly that a new reader could start the series here without feeling lost, but I recommend getting to know the series from the beginning.
The ongoing sagas of Anastasia’s colorful elder relatives—her communist mother-in-law, her spendthrift, husband-hunting mother—continue, adding more laughs. But I have to say, I hope to read a book in which Anastasia and her sons are finally liberated from Lucille.
I mean this as praise when I say this book reads more like a slice of life than a standard mystery novel. Anne Hillerman sustains suspense while avoiding the familiar ruts of the genre. I liked the fact that there was no “dead body by chapter three,” one of the conventions of mysteries. And since the book doesn’t start with a murder or the discovery of a dead body, the mystery gets its impetus from figuring out what happened and why. Not from figuring out who killed someone. Navajo police offer Bernie Manuelito shows courage and persistence as she becomes involved in several related problems: the puzzling disappearance of a man who worked for a program helping youth through wilderness experiences, a tribal council member’s demands that the program’s accounts be investigated, and the possible looting of ancient grave sites. Bernie’s husband, Jim Chee, is also looking into the fate of a missing man.
I was every bit as compelled to keep turning the pages as I would have been in a more conventional mystery, maybe more so, because I couldn’t guess where the story was going. I was curious about many people’s motives and deeply concerned about whether or not the missing men would be found. I wanted to know why they vanished and what might have become of them. Both of them became real and likeable while entirely offstage, as shown through the eyes of those who knew them—including one’s cranky mother-in-law and another’s disgruntled, critical coworker.
As always, I enjoyed the fullness of the story, the family life, and the friendships that make Bernie a whole person. The settings, from the Malpais lava lands to the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, are vivid. The land itself is a powerful part of the story.
There’s no closing cliché, for which I am grateful. I hope it isn’t a spoiler to congratulate Hillerman on not having her protagonist held at gunpoint by a killer as a way of wrapping up the final questions. Instead, she provides a more original drama that triggers the key revelations, and also more a realistic conclusion.
I thought I caught a timeline glitch relating to some seeds in a drawer, but I might have been reading too fast and missed something. Otherwise, polished and intriguing.
In this mystery with a thread of political scandal, the red herrings are as intriguing as the path to right solution. The explorations of the minds and lives of Washington D.C. residents—public personalities, behind-the-scenes influencers, low-level staff, and people in neighborhoods the power-players and tourists seldom see—give the book much of its strength. Jane Gorman does her research in depth yet never comes across as having to display her efforts. D.C. comes to life in all its dimensions as vividly and naturally as her Polish settings did in A Blind Eye.
Some of the new characters introduced in this book are worthy of their own series, should the author ever be so inclined: Ramona Davis of the D.C. police, her family, and her mentor Sam Burke, now in Diplomatic Security.
I’m a little concerned about Adam’s personal life. (Yes, I’ve become one of those reviewers who write as if the characters were real people.) That’s half of why we follow series, though, isn’t it? We like the plots and the way the mysteries unfold, and we also get attached to the characters.
Here goes—one of my rare promotional posts.
Author Ann R. Tan organizes excellent promotions, checking the quality of the books to be included. Many of them look like the kind of mysteries my readers enjoy, and all are marked down to 99 cents for three days, July 27, 28 and 29. Snake Face, book three in the Mae Martin series, has never been discounted before and probably won’t be discounted again, so this is a great time to get a copy. Happy summer reading!
In case you’re wondering, yes, the pot thief, Hubie Shuze, really does study D.H, Lawrence. I got the impression he preferred a book he was reading on the history of zero, so if you’re not a Lawrence fan, relax, you’re in good company. And Hubie is always good company, unless of course you’re his girlfriend Dolly and he seems incapable of grasping that you’re going into perimenopause and having a very tough time of it. Ah, Hubie, that should not have been a mystery.
As for the murder mystery: The setting at the Lawrence ranch and the aspect of the plot that revolves around stealing a Taos Pueblo pot were the best parts. (The usual fun with Hubie, Susannah, Martin, Tristan, et al, was enjoyable, as were the discussions of Lawrence and of cooking with juniper berries.) I confess I struggled to keep track of all the new characters who showed up in a single scene as guests at the ranch. I suspect the author wanted the reader to attempt to use the memory technique Hubie does when he meets them. It didn’t work for me. I had to flip back to the scene a few times to get them sorted out, and one of them still eluded me as to what he looked like and what he did for a living even by the end.(Saunders … Who was Saunders?)
The mystery was solved more as a math or logic problem than a matter of motive, and that was clever. But the killer’s motives are not fully available to the reader until the end, so the unless the reader follows the same logical process Hubie uses to deduce who the killer is, she can’t solve the mystery before he does. (Unless I missed something, but I usually don’t—except for Saunders.)
Was the killer’s method plausible? Not to me. It would be a spoiler to say more, but this will make sense if you’ve already read the book. I’ve seen people doing what this person did in order to get away with murder, and learned how to do it myself, and up close, it’s not convincing. Did it make an engaging plot? Yes. A great puzzle to solve? Yes, even though I didn’t believe it could have happened.
So, I enjoyed the book anyway. While it wasn’t my favorite Pot Thief book—I like the ones before and the later Georgia O’Keefe one better—it nonetheless provided the usual intellectual stimulus, humor, and touches of history.
A few weeks before I started this book, I met a young woman at a local coffeehouse who struck me as paranoid, lost in a world view that stretched our current political reality too far into the dark. She expressed her concern about martial law being declared here and said that liberals should infiltrate the neo-Nazis and keep an eye on them. I thought she was a bit crazy. We have a democracy, despite the obvious problems in our country, and as for needing to defend ourselves against radical right wing militias—it can’t happen here. Now that I’ve finished the book, I still hope she was wrong, but I no longer think she was crazy. After all, Sinclair Lewis wasn’t.
This isn’t his most polished work. The writing style ranges from profoundly beautiful to crammed and hasty. He wrote it, I think, in four months, with some unnecessary scenes included and some needed scenes skimmed over. Some aspects of it—especially a strange speech a young woman makes about the risks of being raped when she spies on the opposition—are dated, to say the least. I found it well worth reading, nonetheless. It made me think. Made me pay attention and notice patterns. Maybe it made me little paranoid.
In 1935, Lewis imagined an America that could elect an authoritarian President, Buzz Windrip, who promises the “forgotten men” better lives, who seeks to grow the military, control the press, and stir up resentment against certain racial and ethnic groups. He campaigns on keeping wages high and prices low, says he’s for Labor but against strikes, and claims the U.S. can defy the world and make its own everything without needing to import anything. In other words, he tells people what they want to hear, even if it doesn’t make economic sense.
The protagonist of this tale is Doremus Jessup, the editor of a small-town paper in Vermont, an imperfect man in his early sixties who never saw himself as having to stand up against tyranny—until it happens. And when it happens, he realizes it was because people like himself allowed it, though accidentally, by not fighting hard enough when its first signs crept in. Casting an editor as the main character is central to Lewis’s message: a free press is the enemy of tyranny, and when people lose the right to share truth freely, they lose freedom of mind. With that, they lose freedom in every other way, in the process of creeping dictatorship.
Windrip has a power of bewitching large audiences, though he’s “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected …while his …piety is that of a traveling salesman for church furniture.” Before the election, the press keeps his name alive constantly, as did a teacher he had in grade school who told him he was thick-headed more often than she praised other students. So he became, he notes, “the most-talked about scholar in the whole township. The United States Senate isn’t so different.” Windrip is master of publicity who doesn’t mind a certain amount of notoriety if it gets him talked about.
Voters see in Windrip “for all his clownish swindlerism, a free vigor which promised a rejuvenation of the senile and crippled capitalist system.”
The fault of the opposing candidates for President in this tale is that they “represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate was hungry for frisky emotions … all the primitive sensations they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.”
Jessup finds that some voters are motivated by the way Windrip “condemned the Negro, for nothing so elevates a dispossessed farmer or a factory worker on relief as to have some race, any race, to look down upon.” Windrip gets the votes of “kind people, industrious people, generous to their aged, eager to find any desperate cure for the sickness of worry over losing the job. Most facile material for any rabble-rouser.” Economic insecurity and inequality get exploited for Windrip’s self-serving agenda.
Once he’s in office, his supporters turn blind eyes to his failures to make their lives better. They think he can do no wrong, and many look to advance through his private troops who begin to run everything. Meanwhile, he sustains a high level of profitable corruption behind the scenes.
One of Jessup’s acquaintances claims that Buzz isn’t the problem, but rather “it’s the sickness that made us throw him up that we’ve got to attend to.” They talk about three percent of the people owning ninety percent of the wealth, and how intellectuals as well as working class people belong to the “ninety-seven percent of the broke.”
However, Jessup feels that the tyranny isn’t primarily the fault of big business or “the demagogues who do their dirty work,” but his fault, the fault of people like himself “who let the demagogues wiggle in, without fierce enough protest.”
“A country that tolerates evil means—evil manners, standards of ethics—for a generation will be so poisoned that it will never have any good end.”
Windrip’s strategy includes not only controlling the press but limiting free association. Without facts, without knowledge of what’s really going on, and unable to form groups that might oppose him, the people are easier to control.
Jessup watches what he thinks of as the “biology of dictatorship” unfolding.
“Anyone who did not play valet to his (Windrip’s) ego … he suspected of plotting against him.”
“Windrip had promised to make everyone richer, and had contrived to make everybody, except for a few hundred bankers, industrialists and soldiers, much poorer. He needed no higher mathematician to produce his financial statements; any ordinary press agent would do.”
“In order to bring and hold all elements of the country together by that useful Patriotism which always appears upon threat of an outside attack, the government immediately arranged to be insulted and menaced…”
After the election, as the bricks of freedom are knocked down one by one, a resistance forms. The opposition to the Windrip regime includes “hundreds of the most capable professional journalists in America, (but) they were cramped by a certain respect for facts which never enfeebled the press agents for Corpoism.” (Corpo is the term for Corporatist, the political ideas of the Windrip government.) Jessup endures strains and shocks he never envisioned in his pre-Corpo days. And so do the people who elected a dictator. They don’t foresee that trusting one charismatic leader to change the way the country is organized and demolish the norms of civil society can open the door for other leaders far worse than him to take over and do even more harm.
Jessup says, “I am convinced that everything that is worthwhile in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.”
I’ve tried not to give any spoilers while sharing provocative quotations. You’ll need to read to find out what happens, and if this 1930s dystopian USA is saved—or not.
In this fourth Francis Bacon mystery, author Anna Castle strikes a perfect balance among her lead characters, each pursuing his or her own life goals and his or her unique approach to solving the same mystery, the murder of a several writers hired to counter the pamphlets of a popular and witty critic of the Church of England sometimes. (Pamphlets were the popular media of the day.)
The reader is onto a secret known to Lady Alice Trumpington but not to Bacon or his clerk and her close friend, Tom Clarady. I won’t say what it is, even though it’s revealed to the reader fairly soon. Even at that point in the book, it’s such a wonderful revelation, I won’t spoil it. The secret adds a layer of fun to the men’s attempts to solve this aspect of the puzzle. It was a hard mystery to solve overall, with believable red herrings, and I never did figure it out, but when the solution was revealed, it made sense. I could see the clues and motives.
The themes of women’s roles and restrictions, the complexities of the law, and the politics of church and state may sound dense and heavy, but they’re not—not in Castle’s hands. The story is lively and colorful, with diverse settings ranging from the offices of the most powerful people in Elizabethan England to the rough neighborhoods and taverns where writers could be found. Sometimes collaborating, sometimes keeping things from each other, the three leads take the reader on a lively journey peopled with historical personages of the day.
Castle handles backstory well, giving just enough to keep the story flowing with clarity, so if you should decide to start here and go backward, the other stories wouldn’t be spoiled. However, I recommend beginning the series at the beginning and getting to know the characters.
You could read this book just for the words. The language is powerful and often beautiful, with sudden, piercing insights, making this as much literary fiction as a detective novel. In that way, it reminded me of Rudolfo Anaya’s Sonny Baca novels. In other ways, with its the cast of musicians and restless outlaws, The Dark Window reminded of Kerouac.
James Jones, private detective, drinks to excess, uses drugs, and has a lot of friends who are dealers and users. Durham recreates the vibe among that tribe with such accuracy that I felt I had to read the book outdoors; I didn’t want to take these people home with me. That’s how real they are! Jones’s flashes of self-awareness and humor make him tolerable, but never likeable, so it’s high praise of Durham’s art that I felt compelled to keep reading about Jones and his friends and girlfriends, and wanted to know what happened next.
On the surface, the first person narrator, reminiscing and dropping names and anecdotes, seems to ramble, but you’ll quickly realize this under-the-influence voice is telling a tightly plotted tale with as many sharp turns as a mountain road. It comes to a well-crafted and startling end, and wraps up with a softer, more thoughtful surprise in the epilogue. If you like noir detective stories, this one is as noir as it can get.
Mary Roach explores current science on reincarnation, soul weighing, out of body experiences, and also the history of mediums and other interactions with the spirits of the dead. She’s one of the funniest writers I’ve come across. She manages to find the strangest items in the historical record—her chapter on ectoplasm, for example. The fact that it was regarded so seriously at the time it was a popular mediumistic trick is as fascinating as the methods used to produce it.
Roach participates in a training for becoming a medium; takes part in a study on creating the perception of a ghost through infrasound; goes along on reincarnation research trips in India; visits a small North Carolina town where a ghost helped a man win a lawsuit; and more. Her inquiries are serious, but she never takes herself seriously. Much of the humor comes from her ability to laugh at herself, and to notice the workings of her own mind.
Whether or not you believe in ghosts or life after death, you can enjoy and learn from the author’s journey.
The genre of supernatural suspense is broad, with varying types and degrees of “paranormality” (I think I just invented a word), so there’s something here for all tastes.
I’ve read and can enthusiastically recommended three of the books in this promotion.
M.L. Eaton and Virginia King are my mystical mystery sisters, and we share a reading audience. When the Clocks Stopped is a time-slip mystery spanning two centuries in a small English village on Romney Marsh. The language is beautiful and the plot truly original, a blend of history and mystery. I totally fall into the settings, swept away, and feel as if I know the characters as real people. Laying Ghosts, like all of Virginia King’s work, is powerful psychological suspense influenced by folklore and mythology while set in current times. When I read her books, I always stay up later than I mean to, wrapped up in Selkie Moon’s adventures, and then have profound, provocative dreams.
The other book I want to rave about is Beyond Dead, a paranormal cozy mystery by Jordaina Sydney Robinson. What if when you died, you didn’t go to hell, but to work? Her style and humor are incomparable, especially the dialogue.
The Calling, book one in my Mae Martin Psychic Mystery series, is part of this promotion as well.
Happy reading! I hope you discover some new favorite authors.
Berkom’s writing and Kate’s character keep getting stronger with each book I read. Kate is still Kate even as she matures: complex, caring, passionate and willing to take risks most people would run from. She makes some impulsive mistakes, but she also acts with extraordinary courage when she heads back into cartel territory to help save two young hostages—the daughters of someone very close to her. If you like thrillers, I recommend you read this whole series from the beginning. I’m hooked on it, and I think most thriller fans will be, too. It’s different enough to stand out, while fulfilling the genre’s promise. When it seems the danger can’t get worse or the tension get higher, it does.
I review so much in this genre, I think my blog followers may appreciate this sale.
While it's organized on the link above to emphasize Amazon, my book, Shaman's Blues, is available on Apple, Kobo and Barnes and Noble as well, and some of the others may be also. Try a new author for 99 cents. You might make a great discovery!