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Amber's Thoughts

Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series

 

 

Original Plot, Characters, and Setting

The protagonist, Gabriel Hawke, is an Oregon Fish and Wildlife State Trooper, a divorced middle-aged man dedicated to his work and wary of new relationships. His Nez Perce heritage is part of his complicated background, and the author handles this as well as the overall character development well.

 

Early in the book, Hawke comes across the scene of a bizarre murder in the Wallowa Mountains, and both his wilderness tracking and investigative processes in solving the crime are fascinating.

 

The suspects are all plausible. There’s a ring of truth to every scene and every character: the petty jealousies, the lies, the sexual harassment, the loveless marriages, the good friends, and the gossiping small-town acquaintances. The setting in the rural and the wild parts of Oregon is wonderful, and the relationships between humans and animals—horses, mules, dogs—are especially well-drawn.

 

Jager’s research is impressive, her pacing is excellent, and she brings the case to its conclusion through police work in believable contexts, never resorting to any of the mystery genre’s tired clichés. No confession-confrontation at gun or knife point. No sudden death of the guilty party instead of justice. Not only is the story strong and dramatic, it’s more fully engaging for being free of these clichés. The author gets a five star.

 

The editor, however, doesn’t. The book was proofread (there are no typos), but not adequately edited for grammar, sentence structure, and word choice. Letting these problems slide in such a page-turning book, rather making changes or asking the author for revisions, is like putting speedbumps in a race track. I didn’t hit enough of these speedbumps to ruin the book, but I feel that a writer with Jager’s story-telling skill deserves better work from her editor, and so do her readers.

Mastery of Mystery

The Mysterious Affair at Styles - Agatha Christie

Christie starts not with a crime but with people—the narrator, Hastings, and his friendship with John Cavendish. Each person she introduces is vivid, whether likeable or not, eccentric or conventional, and enough of the characters are likeable that she makes sure the reader cares what happens. There’s also sufficient tension around the household before the murder that she keeps the reader alert to what might go wrong.

 

The book is a puzzle; the characters make it a puzzle worth solving. Every event is woven into the main plot. Every relationship is relevant. There aren’t subplots, only red herrings. The reader is able to keep up with Hastings in his attempts to solve the mystery, but not Poirot, and the limited point of view is effective.

I did find the success of a particular disguise questionable; I doubt it would have looked realistic no matter who was wearing it. But that was the only weakness in the whole story.

 

WWI is in the background, part of the general setting and yet also essential to the plot. Without the war, Poirot, a Belgian, wouldn’t be in England. Cynthia probably wouldn’t be working in a hospital dispensary. Hastings wouldn’t be ‘invalided out” of the service and visiting John. And yet the book doesn’t feel ninety-nine years old. A few things the characters say are jarring to current sensibilities, but overall, it’s aged well. The medicines of the time are fascinating. The language is polished and spare, which no doubt contributes to the book’s vitality as it approaches a century in print.

A Feast of Red Herrings

 This was hard to put down. Gorman knows how to craft a story, relentlessly raising the stakes for her protagonist, while weaving his personal life and the mystery plot together seamlessly. The Philadelphia setting is portrayed in depth without ever slowing the tempo; the details don’t intrude, but add color and intensity.

 

Detective Adam Kaminski has a passionate sense of justice and a strong connection with his family. When his sister becomes a suspect in a murder, he’s determined to prove her innocence even if he breaks some rules to do it. He makes mistakes, creating stress on the job, stress with his family, and stress in his already struggling relationship, while doing his best to follow his sense of what’s right.

 

I liked the balance between Adam and his calmer, steadier partner at work, Detective Pete Lawler, and enjoyed a new character who gets involved in solving the crime, a young ranger at the urban national park, Independence National Historical Park, where the murder takes place.

 

There are many plausible suspects, and I didn’t figure out which one was guilty until Adam did, though I tried. The final discovery of the killer is masterful, as Adam acts on intuition as well as his prior detective work. I congratulate Gorman on a dramatic confrontation scene that wraps up of the mystery plot without resorting to the canned this-is how-and-why-I-did-it confession so many mysteries end with.

 

As in any good series, there are aspects of the protagonist’s personal life that remain open-ended while the mystery gets closure. I wonder how Adam will cope long-term with what he’s so sure he can forgive. I wonder what he’ll continue to learn about his family history.

 

The only aspect of the book I didn’t like was the use of a few scenes in the point of view of the killer. This is a common device—the point of view of one nameless, faceless character while all other characters have identities and contexts—so I assume some readers must like it, but for me it breaks the flow and weakens my absorption in the lead character’s experience. When I read a mystery, I’d rather know only what the characters attempting to solve it know. Fortunately, there were very few of these anonymous-perpetrator-point-of-view scenes, and they didn’t hurt the book overall.

 

Beautiful-Ugly

Wolf Whistle - Lewis Nordan

At times, the author’s language is like poetry. At other times, he enters so intimately into the mind of a violent racist the story becomes repellent. Sometimes there seems to be a plot and a sense of direction. At other times, there doesn’t.

 

In only one scene did the author write with what came across to me as respect and compassion for his characters, the aunt and uncle of the young black teenager whose murder is the raison d’etre for this rambling story. The victim himself, however, is turned into an all-seeing ghost. I struggled to endure scenes in the points of view of various white townspeople and could never decide if they were meant to be satirical or were exaggerated out of contempt. Whatever the case, I wanted to escape these people, but kept forcing my way through the book in case it got better.

 

Overall the only aspect of this novel I can recommend is author’s art of writing. He makes the South come alive in both its natural beauty and its historical human ugliness.

 

In a flight of magical realism, he devotes several pages to ancient buzzards that fed on the bodies of the dead in the Civil War. As a Southern ex-boyfriend used to say, that’s about as subtle as a train wreck. All in all, I would rather have read a nonfiction account of the events surrounding the murder of Emmett Till than this peculiar take on it.

An Urgent Need to Know

 

Singer-songwriter Trisha Straithorne had a bad marriage. Now divorced, she hires PI Zach Barnes to do a background check on her new boyfriend, just to be on the safe side, since the relationship is getting serious. What Barnes turns up changes the just-in-case inquiry into an urgent one. Did Trisha’s lover Jack commit mass murder in the past? Jack is so determined to assert his innocence, he himself hires Barnes to prove it and uncover what the police missed. The premise is riveting. I liked Trisha immediately and wanted her to be safe. Jack is portrayed in a way that made me understand both her attraction to him and the crack of doubt that breaks in on it.

 

The introduction of the mystery plot in the first chapter kept me pushing through a number of scenes and even entire chapters that didn’t pass the lift-out test.* (Details below, in case you want them.)   I felt the author included background he needed about his characters more than the reader did.

 

Once the pace picks up, however, the story becomes intense and page-turning, a speeding train bearing down on the reader and the characters. Even though I realized quite early on who’d committed the murder, I was in suspense waiting for Barnes and Detective Sheena Maldonado to see the clues and prove who done it. The process of their work is fascinating, and a secondary mystery sneaked up on me, providing a sudden twist at the end.

 

Liskow handles the third person present tense narration deftly. It can be distancing and sound like stage directions when not done well, and in a few of the slower scenes it had that effect, but overall, it does what present tense is meant to, increasing tension and the sense of immediate unfolding.

 

Despite the “lift-out-able” material, I found the book well worth reading, and maybe others will find the lift-outs more fun than I did, especially fans of the series who are happy to hang out with Barnes and friends without needing a plot-related reason to do so.

 

*Lift-outs: If you can lift a scene or a chapter out, and the plot doesn’t unravel, it wasn’t needed.

In Chapter Three, Detective Maldonado endures the tedious conversation of her annoying colleague Garry Stout. Maldonado plays an important role, and so does Stout, but the set-up of their working relationship could have been woven more tightly into the narrative. Chapter Ten is focused on Barnes’ girlfriend Beth, her writing career, and her public appearances as another author’s pen-name persona (she does this for a man who writes romances). Some dialogue provides backstory, but the introduction to Beth and Zach’s friend Svet, who plays a key role later, could have fit into a paragraph in another chapter. Chapter Eleven is devoted to Trisha’s song-writing process in response to a wind chime. In Chapter Thirteen, Maldonado goes out to eat with her girlfriend and they discuss house-buying plans. And finally, in Chapter Thirty-Six, Beth weeds her garden and then gets a story idea so exciting she rushes from the shower without bothering to dress and writes naked for an hour or more. This chapter is the most lift-able of all.

 

I received a copy of this book and had a character in it named after me for contributing a band name. Reviewing was optional.

 

Mythic Mystery

Rio Grande Fall - Rudolfo Anaya

The second Sonny Baca novel is not just a sequel, but a continuation of a journey through the four seasons and the four sacred directions that began in book one, Zia Summer. Sonny, the great-grandson of legendary New Mexico lawman Elfego Baca, grows as heir to his bisabuelo’s role and also in his spirituality and capacity for love.

To recover from the soul sickness caused by a murder he dealt with in the first book, Sonny seeks healing from a curandera. The healing is his initiation into the spirit world and shamanic experiences, and it introduces the most compelling aspects of the story.

 

This private investigator character far from noir. Sonny is colorful, a flawed but basically virtuous young man strongly connected to his family, culture, and community. He’s realistic in many ways and yet also a larger-than-life hero who has mythic-scale adventures in his archetypal battle with Raven, the cult leader and domestic terrorist he pursued in the first book.

 

Sonny is hired by the Alburquerque International Balloon Fiesta when a balloonist who could have been a witness in a case involving Raven dies. (Get use to that extra r in Albuquerque as you read the series. It’s not a typo. Anaya restored it, though it fell off the city’s name a long time ago.) An intriguing aspect of the crime plot is the time period, in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal and the arms-and-drugs deals of that era. One of the themes is corruption.

 

The balloon fiesta itself, the city’s diverse neighborhoods, and the glory of October in New Mexico, are as central to the story as the characters. The author is so passionate about them he gets carried away sometimes, re-describing them more often than necessary. He also restates his themes a bit too often. I guess his editor didn’t dare tell the master cut, but these repetitions slow the pace. A reflection on autumn in the Rio Grande valley isn’t needed when lives are at stake. The book overall is still powerful. I mean this as praise when I say it has an occasional comic book quality—a fight scene with a leap off a balcony, a mad scientist scene, the invocation of special powers—because myths, archetypes, and superheroes are closely related.

 

The most complex characters aren’t the good ones or the evil ones, but two women who are torn between: Madge, the balloon fiesta director, and Tamara, Raven’s former follower. The Good Women aren’t filled out as well. Though their roles in Sonny’s life differ, his lover, Rita, restaurateur and herbalist, and the curandera, Lorenza, are virtually identical. This may be due to Sonny’s idealization of them—or the author’s.

 

Lorenza is Sonny’s new spiritual teacher. His neighbor don Eliseo, a traditional elder, was his teacher in the first book and remains one in this. I’ll be interested to see if each book in the series adds another teacher and how these teachers balance his spiritual wholeness by the end. Despite some excess verbiage, I’ll follow the rest of the series. After all, it’s excess verbiage by Anaya.

A Dark-Spirited Child

The expectations of fiction—a meaningful goal, a struggle against adversity in pursuit of it, and an ending either healing or tragic, with the quest either succeeding or failing—are cast aside here. With beautiful language and compelling though far from likeable characters, the author tells a tale of poorly understood impulses and incomplete connections.

 

Tatiana, who calls herself Pluta, is a gloomy girl of fourteen who runs away from boarding school to live on the streets of New York. Isolated at school, cut off from her father—one of Argentina’s disappeared in the late 70’s—and unable to relate to her mother, she has reasons to be unhappy. Exactly why she chooses this way to express her unhappiness is unclear. She was a dark spirit even before her father vanished, before her mother sent her away to the school in Connecticut. It’s Pluta’s nature. Though she’s fascinated by things that fly, she’s neither light nor free. One of the more bizarre things she does is killing a large night-flying insect with one of her aunt’s dictionaries and tasting the stuff that oozes from its body.

 

The emotional tone of the book is relentless. Even the brighter moments have steel gray overtones, and the explorations of grief and pain are profound. Isabel, Pluta’s mother, seems shallow, and yet her suffering is deep, and it’s dissected and examined, exposing the workings of a heart and mind with both limited insight and strong feelings.

 

When remarkable, surreal events began about half-way through the book, perhaps planted by Pluta’s consumption of the bug, I wasn’t surprised. The foreshadowing was heavy in that and many other ways. But when this phenomenon emerges, it’s not fulfilled. The exploration came across as if the author changed her mind, but perhaps she intended a theme of unfinished attempts and missed potential. The story could have transcended into magic or descended into hell at that point, but it does neither. Pluta has already been through the worst before this event.

 

After what she goes through, some sort of transformation or complete dissolution might have resulted, but her crisis, in the long run, seems to leave her unchanged. The only resolution is that we find out what we always knew from the beginning had happened to her father, and that at some mystical level he was connected with his daughter at that moment.

 

Though many chapters kept me engaged, overall I was left with the feeling of looking at a half-painted canvas by a gifted artist, or the literary equivalent of an unresolved musical tri-tone.

 

Thriller with Compassion

Bad Traffick - D.V. Berkom

Leine Basso, former professional assassin for a secret government entity known simply as the Agency, finds herself involved in desperate attempts to rescue Mara, a twelve-year-old runaway, before she’s trafficked into the sex trade. The topic is distressing, and you can feel that the author cares deeply about the issue. The victim is never shown in an exploitive scene, though often in danger, as she escapes her captors and struggles to stay free. Leine is once again working security in Hollywood, this time as a bodyguard for a naïve and gullible actor, Miles Fournier. He’s Mara’s idol, and after all the rough times in her life, all the betrayals by adults around her, she’s convinced he’s only the one she can trust to save her.

 

While Leine fights to protect Miles from apparent kidnappers and save Mara from the traffickers, she’s also haunted by false accusations about crimes she didn’t commit, and the temptation of a passionate relationship that should be off limits. Leine is tough as hell, a skilled fighter with weapons and in hand-to-hand combat, but she’s not heartless. Far from it. Berkom portrays Leine in all her complexity, including showing her as a mother.

 

The end is satisfying rather than too good to be true, happy for some characters and not for others. As always in Berkom’s books, the pace is compelling. She’s an author I can always count on, a master of her craft.

 

This is the newer cover, below.

 

Discover New Authors in the New Year

 

This is the last big multi-author giveaway that I'll participate in for a while, perhaps the only one this year, so dig in.

 

I recommend Virginia King’s Laying Ghosts, the prequel to her Selkie Moon Series. Fans of my Mae Martin books will probably like this series, mystical mysteries with strong settings and psychological depth.

 

Theresa Crater’s Under the Stone Paw has elements of mystery, science fiction, and fantasy. I don’t normally read the latter two genres, but I was so caught up in her portrayal of Egypt and its ancient sites, I broke my normal genre reading boundaries.

 

British author Jordaina Sydney Robinson has been my critique partner for years. I’m not being biased when I say she’s one of the funniest and most original writers in the mystery genre. Beyond Dead is more fun than you ever imagined the afterlife could be.

 

You can download these and many others, including my book Shaman's Blues, the first and only time it ever will be free. Happy reading in the new year.

Coming of Age in the Wild Northwest

A Knucklehead in 1920s Alaska - Norma Huss, Norma Collins Huss, William A.  Collins

If you like memoirs, history, and humor, you’ll love this. I bought it because I have a friend in his eighties who tells colorful stories about his early life. Our elders are living history, especially when they’re gifted story-tellers. Mystery writer Norma Huss, an elder story-teller herself, wrote up her father’s memoir, which he recorded for her. It’s in his voice and vocabulary, and you can feel Bill Collins’s personality and presence in every page.

 

In the early 1920s, Collins took off for a summer job in Alaska to make money for his second year of college. Not quite a hundred years ago, the risk and adventure of such an enterprise was extraordinary. Alaska was the Wild West. The wild northwest. Can you picture a college sophomore turned loose in a place like that?

 

It turned out Collins was suited to the place. Self-aware but not too introspective, fun-loving, hard-working, and impetuous, he was unafraid of a fight, of working with dynamite, of going underground, or of walking insane distances in the snow. He tempted fate a few times, but he survived.

 

There’s not a dull sentence in this story. I could hear a voice not unlike my raconteur neighbor's, telling tale after tale of his youth. It’s a coming of age story, as Collins matures from a self-described knucklehead to an experienced Alaska man, and it’s part of our country’s still-imperfect coming of age as well. We think differently about mining today—and about many things—than an educated young man of his times did. We choose different words. Part of the vitality of this story is that Collins tells it with only a little of his elder self’s perspective, staying inside his late teens and early twenties point of view instead.

 

Thank you, Norma Huss, for sharing your father’s story with the world. I feel as if I knew him.

Art and Humor in a New Mexico Mystery

As always in this series, the opening is brilliant, followed by a colorful and intriguingly circuitous journey. If you’ve not yet discovered the pot thief books, think of them as off-beat cozies with an intellectual bent: nonviolent, humorous, character-centered, with a lot of cooking (some of it very funny—yes, recipes can be funny), and a romantic subplot. Unusual in the cozy mystery genre  are the male protagonist and the illegal nature of some of his activities.

 

In this book, for once Hubie is not stealing ancient pots (rescuing them, in his opinion) but teaching students how to make copies of them, and he’s doing it at the college that kicked him out of graduate school for digging up pots where he wasn’t supposed to be digging.

 

The portrayal of students, faculty, and administrators is satirical but rings true. Hubie, long out of touch with academic life, has a lot to learn to get back into it. He’s kind, but he’s also a tad opinionated and not a stickler for rules, so he gets off on the wrong foot with a few people—something Edward Abbey would understand.

 

The department meeting is hilarious (and made me glad I no longer have to attend them), but the best comic scene is the culmination of one of the romance subplots. A few of the discussions over drinks ramble on a bit, but they’re still entertaining.

Hubie’s reading of Edward Abbey assists his thinking, as the pot thief’s topic of study in each book does. I especially liked how his friend Susannah’s background in art history plays a key role in solving the murder. The mystery plot keeps turning. Each time I thought it had wrapped up, another twist came around.

 

Although this is basically a humorous book, it has some serious moments, and they’re handled with grace, in both the subplots and the mystery plot. The victim of the crime is given a place of honor in the story.

 

A new reader of the series could start here and not feel lost, but I recommend beginning with The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras and getting to know Hubie and his friends from the beginning.

Mystery, Suspense and Thriller with an Identity Crisis Theme

One of my rare promotional posts. Here's an opportunity to discover new authors.

 

Free Books: Mystery, Suspense and Thriller with an Identity Crisis Theme

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.

 

 

Too much of a stretch

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.

Mystery off the Beaten Paths

The Pot Thief Who Studied Billy the Kid - J. Michael Orenduff

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.

“Unencumbered by the Thought Process”

Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less - Guy Claxton

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.

Fast-Paced Christmas Comedy and Mystery

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.