Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series
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!
I read A Tale of Two Cities in high school and remembered only a few major characters, the setting, and of course, the knitting. Rereading it after decades of immersion in more recent fiction, I was intrigued by things I never questioned or noticed as a high school junior.
The omniscient narrator sometimes has a cinematic perspective. The opening chapters are remarkably like the opening scenes of a movie, especially where the poor people of Paris drink the spilled red wine.
The awareness of privacy and interiority was to some extent still new. Dickens digresses in a fascinating observation of the individual minds and lives within each home, behind each window, each unknowable to the others. In the Pulitzer prize winning The Transformation of Virginia, 1740 -1790, historian Rhys Isaac connected the rise of literacy and solitary reading with this new sense of privacy, a new phenomenon in a largely public society where most people (other than the wealthy) shared sleeping spaces, even in taverns when traveling, and the wealthy were surrounded by servants. The book is set in the late 18th century when the sense of individual self and individual rights arose, and this of course, is part of the plot. So was that rumination on all those unique, unknowable souls really a digression? Yes and no. With private reflection and self-awareness come questions such as Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton ask themselves about their lives. Questions revolutionaries may also have asked themselves, before they lost their self-awareness to the Terror.
Dickens’ linguistic virtuosity is enjoyable in the same way as hearing a great singer hit a note and sustain it or seeing a dancer spin an impossible series of turns. No one told him not to use –ly adverbs. I found three in one sentence, but that line worked. Semicolons were more like pauses for air than the kind of punctuation we now use. His shift from third person omniscient point of view, past tense, into first person plural, present tense, for one suspenseful scene was unexpected yet effective, moving the reader’s consciousness directly into the shared tension and hope of a group of desperate travelers. He wrote at a time when authors were less constrained by an expected word count than they are now, and he clearly luxuriated in language and in scenes that fully develop a setting, character, or relationship. The plot would move along without his humorous and detailed portrait of Tellson’s Bank, but the pleasure in reading the book would be diminished. The plot would move without the full length of the scenes revealing the lives of the French poor and aristocracy who oppress them, but the emotional impact would be less.
Making no attempt to be impartial, Dickens the social reformer is fully present in the narrative.
Most characters are three-dimensional and complex, but the French aristocrats have few traits, serving as representatives of their caste. Of the major characters, Lucie is the most limited, seen through the eyes of men who idolize her—other characters and the author. (I confess I tired of her expressive forehead.) She struck me as an idealized Domestic Female, set in contrast to Madame Defarge and the Vengeance.
Sydney Carton is the most layered and interesting character. He's witty as he spars with the lawyer he works with, Mr. Stryver, but melodramatic with Lucie, and both aspects of his personality are believable. I also liked Miss Pross, though I’m undecided how I feel about her scene with Madame Defarge. It’s satisfying, but I’m not sure it’s plausible. It’s one part of the story that I completely forgot in the decades since I last read it.
If you also read this in high school and don’t remember much except the first and last lines and three or four characters, you may be impressed with it a second time around.
Hunter-gatherers were the original leisure society. It didn’t take as long as we “civilized people” might think to acquire the necessities of a simple life. Life wasn’t all work. And the work people did? Hunting. Modern people do it for recreation. Picking fruits and nuts and wild plants. Again, something moderns do as a special leisure activity, though it may be on a “pick-your-own” farm. The San or Bushmen lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers for centuries, in a society characterized by a lack of hierarchies, a lack of social distinctions or inequalities. When economic life was focused on getting fresh food and water for today, with confidence that there would be more tomorrow, acquisition of excess was both irrational and impractical. The 17 to 20 hour workweek was all it took, with time left for making art and music, visiting friends, playing with children. Life was largely lived in public. Little time was spent inside closed-off dwellings, but rather in in a shared space.
Suzman analyzes the impacts of encounters with agricultural societies, the Neolithic revolution, and the effects of a new economic structure being imposed on a previously egalitarian hunter-gatherer society, bringing with it a new sense of time and work and the concept of money.
The depiction of life in modern Bushmen enclaves in Namibia is central to the book, and it’s used as an anchor for exploration of how the older society functioned, and for historical and anthropological examination of how the San got from point A—affluence without abundance—to point B, bottom of the socio-economic ladder in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.
Perhaps you’ll be curious about the San because you saw The Gods Must Be Crazy (a movie that starred one of their own, and a movie that according the Suzman, the San people embraced) or because you’ve read The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series, and recall that Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni take in two foster children who are Bushmen. The effect of the beloved cattle of Mma Ramotswe’s pastoralist people and those of other cattle-herding African groups on the lands of the nomadic Bushmen is examined in depth in this book, as well as the impact of German, Afrikaans, and other colonizers.
This is a scholarly book, but a readable one, with portraits of individuals, towns and settlement farms, as well as broader research spanning economics, anthropology, nutrition (he gets one thing wrong in this area—he overlooks the omega three content in the fat of game animals compared to feedlot animals, but aside from that, he’s on solid ground) and sociology. The resources listed at the back of the book for further exploration of his subjects’ history and culture are substantial, taking up the last fifty pages or so.
I’ve been reading this series out of sequence, starting with book three, The Body Market, then the prequel novella A Killing Truth, and now book one. I recommend reading the prequel first. Although the books work well as stand-alones, and the author handles backstory well, giving short doses where needed, Leine Basso is a complicated woman with a complicated life. I understood this story better for having met some of the off-stage characters previously.
The other books I’ve read so far by this author (I’m also a fan of her Kate Jones series) are pure thriller. This one, due to the macabre nature of the villain and the crimes, has an element of horror, including the dark humor that’s often found in that genre. Leine is hired as security on the set of a reality TV show that pairs ex-cons with beautiful “bachelorettes.” The concept is bizarre, a satire on the culture of reality television. When one of the contestants is killed, the show’s ratings go up, and one of the contestants' reactions is the ultimate commentary on the loss of reality that can happen in this part of the entertainment industry. I wish I could share it, but it would be a spoiler.
Leine is a compelling, unique character. Her emotional life, her relationships, and her professional skills are drawn with finesse. She’s tough, but she’s multidimensional, not just an action figure with an occasional emotion. Detective Santiago Jensen is a perfect complement to her character, and their relationship feels real.
Berkom is an unpredictable author, in a good way. I can count on a riveting pace, but I don’t see her falling back on a formula the way some thriller writers do. Each book is different. I plan to keep moving through this series and to read book two soon.
This memoir reminds us that not that long ago—in the 1970s—it was novel for a young, married, pregnant woman to be working in a profession such as the law. In vivid, well-crafted prose, Melanie Russell relates her venture in solo practice as a solicitor, working from her home in a small English village, portraying the people of her town with compassion, wisdom and humor. The remarkable situations she encountered make good enough stories, both the solemn ones and the comical ones, but the style in which she tells them makes them all the more engaging. I laughed out loud at several scenes, and was as caught up in others as if I were reading a mystery.
I often enjoy a mystery regardless of solving it myself or not, for various reasons. In this case, the pacing and the humor kept me so amused I forgot to try to solve the murder.
Talkative, a bit flaky, and quite attached to her designer shoes and handbags, Gracie Elliot is one of those characters who would drive me crazy if I had to meet her, but she’s hilarious in print. Her inner dialogue shows enough self-awareness that her flaws become funny rather than obnoxious. Her involvement in solving a crime is refreshingly up-front and intentional. She thinks the fastest way to get the murder of a client in her senior match-making service solved is to jump in and do it herself—and make her husband help. As with any amateur sleuth mystery, there’s an element of the implausible requiring suspension of disbelief, but within the context of the plot, characters and setting, Gracie's actions and motives work, and so does her husband Blake’s more reluctant involvement. Their marriage is a delight for the reader, full of wit and affection.
That said, there’s nothing saccharine about this cozy mystery. Some cozies are just too cozy to live, and I can’t finish them. This one is tart rather than sweet. Gracie is a sharp and critical observer of her fellow humans’ appearances, personalities, mannerisms, fashion sense and home decor—which is an asset in the both the mystery and the comedy departments. As well as being an aficionado of quality handbags and shoes, she’s a former fabric designer (laid off and desperate to make a living—hence the senior dating business), and she can assess a woman’s income and lifestyle from her living room and her clothes and accessories, which makes Gracie a suitable detective for the particular crime she’s looking into. I was so amused by the parade of suspects, especially the ones with bad taste, that I didn’t care which one of them had done it.
Gracie aspires to become a romance writer, and her observations on learning the craft of writing add an extra layer of enjoyment for a writer reading the book.
This review is written by someone who seldom watches movies. I never saw Titanic or The Unsinkable Molly Brown, so I’m not comparing it with anything. I’m interested in history, but the rich and famous tend to escape my notice and I had to look up some of the more celebrated survivors. I’d never heard of some of them. Reading this made me learn more about popular culture of the times.
The best part of the book is its exploration of women’s roles and how they were changing in the early 20th century, the contrast between American and British views of class and rank, and the use of the Titanic disaster as a symbol and an anchor for these themes.
The story focuses on a young working class Englishwoman, Tess Collins, who survives because of working for a first class passenger, the designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon.
The description of the night of the ship’s sinking is stunning and vivid. The characters are worth following. I kept hoping the story would go longer, following Tess’s career, but it wraps up with the romance plot. A woman’s life is not wrapped up with the romance plot, and the story seemed headed in a more intriguing direction. Nonetheless, it was a good historical read, and I was delighted to discover Margaret Brown and her place in history, and to read about the Suffragists, and the investigation into the Titanic’s lack of preparation.