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Amber's Thoughts

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

 

 

Courage and Compassion in a Real-Life Amateur Sleuth

“Amateur” comes from French meaning one who loves, or one who acts for love. It now means an unpaid person, not a professional. In mystery fiction, the amateur sleuth borders on implausible when it comes to investigating murders, so writers come up with ways to get an amateur involved by giving her a personal stake in the case such as being accused of the crime, or a friend being accused, or the death of someone they know. Lissa Yellow Bird got involved because she cared about strangers—about a woman in the far-off state of Washington who had lost her son when he disappeared from Lissa’s land, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. He was one of the outsiders who flooded the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota during the oil boom. Lissa didn’t know him, but she was a mother with sons. That was enough. And she’d seen what the oil boom was doing to her people. She brings love back into the meaning of amateur.

 

Lissa studied criminal justice in college but never worked in law enforcement. She worked as an advocate in the tribal court for a while, but she also was at one time a criminal—a drug addict and a dealer. She spent time in prison. Her insights into how criminals think, her understanding of the law and how to access criminal records, and even her contacts with law enforcement from having been arrested, made her a determined and effective amateur, searching for a missing man and for justice. Her intelligence and persistence, her willingness to give of her time, amazed me.

 

This is not only the story of Lissa’s investigations and searches, but of her spiritual growth, and her relationships with members of her complicated family. It’s also the story of the boom and bust on the Fort Berthold Reservation, and the story of the three tribes that live there and their relationship with their land.

 

The author asks some deep questions in wrapping up this story, challenging the reader to keep thinking and questioning as well. If you need an escape from escapism, a serious read that’s still a page-turner, this is your book.

Crime-Solving Follows the Money

There’s nothing predictable or same-old-same-old about Seamus McCree or the kind of crime he investigates. He’s not a solo PI, but a former stock analyst working with a sophisticated group of investigators with expertise in financial crime.

 

Seamus is likeable and multi-dimensional. He’s a risk-taker when it comes to his own well-being and quite the opposite when it comes to his college-age son, Paddy, a computer whiz and hacker. The father-son relationship adds depth to the story.

 

I appreciated how the energy of the scenes and chapters was orchestrated, with a range from intense and adrenaline-pumping to quietly intriguing. The writing is tight and polished, the plot original, and the characters complex. The romantic subplot was a surprise but believable.

 

Ordinarily, I dislike the anonymous point of view. However, Jackson handles this device skillfully, giving the anonymous perpetrator enough of an identity and personality that one senses a person driving the events rather than the author playing tricks on the reader. In many books that use this device, the villain’s POV scenes could be subtracted without losing anything except spoilers. In Ant Farm, the anonymous POV chapters create a suspenseful layer of events in which the plot advances. I’m impressed.

 

And I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

New Mexico Coming of Age

Bless Me, Ultima - Rudolfo Anaya

The narrator, Antonio, is an intelligent, spiritually-inclined boy, the youngest of a large family in rural New Mexico. The villages and the land around them are drawn with depth and beauty. That’s the strongest aspect of this book: the spirit of the place. Trees, river, lake, sky, and soil are alive.

 

The tensions between farming and the restless life, between Christianity and earth-based spirituality, between compassion and cruelty, dark magic and healing magic, make up the drama of the book. Though the protagonist is a child, this is in no way a children’s book. Tony witnesses adults at their violent worst several times, as well as at their courageous best. The scenes of healing and of curses are extraordinary. Anaya’s portrait of the culture he grew up in is masterful.

 

Tony’s spiritual maturation is true to the ways of childhood, as he searches for answers to questions about the nature of God, of justice, and of mysterious things. The friendships of childhood, and the cruelties and sheer awfulness of some children, are real and vivid. A number of the characters are one-dimensional—Tony’s mother, his sisters, and most of the girls at school—but this is how they’re seen through the eyes of a young boy. Ultima, the curandera, is idealized, the essence of her kind of spirituality, and the tavern-owner Tenorio is the opposite, the dark force. In between is Tony’s friend Cico, who introduces him to a mystical divinity in nature. Cico is just another boy, but he’s one who knows a sacred secret.

 

The dream sequences are long though beautifully written. The children’s Christmas play runs on a bit, too, with no real contribution to the story—I think the author must have found it funnier than I did. All in all, though, the story is intense and compelling except for those sections, and made me feel even more deeply connected with this place I live, this place I love, New Mexico.

A Woman of Action

It’s quite a skill to write a thriller in first person and somehow make the reader feel the protagonist might not make it. This installment in the series is full of surprises and extraordinary settings, from a cruise ship to deserted islands to an island that’s not what it seems to be.

 

 Kate’s character arc is strong as she matures through the series. She's more self-aware, more confident, and still a risk-taker, a woman of action.  Her humor in the middle of life-threatening danger is natural, not contrived or showy.  She has the courage to fight her enemies while remaining unwilling to take their lives—even when she could. Often it’s her ingenuity that helps her survive, not just weapons or daring. I can always count on Berkom for a book that will totally engage me. Her writing is tight and perfectly paced every time.

Intricate Plot Work in a Mystery

Once again, Patricia Smith Wood has crafted an intricate puzzle of a mystery. In short, tight chapters, she reveals the discovery of a death, and the process of solving how a body came to be where it was—but this is no simple question of who done it. The twists and surprises keep coming. Wood’s books always give my brain a good workout trying to follow the clues. The relationships among her cast of professional and amateur sleuths makes the involvement of amateurs more plausible than in the average amateur sleuth mystery. Another reason to get involved is this: Harrie McKinsey has prophetic dreams, and in one of them she sees the dead body at Petroglyphs National Monument.

 

There are so many facets to the mystery, so many contributing investigators—FBI, CIA, and Albuquerque Police Department, as well as Harrie and her friends and colleagues at her editing service—Wood did well not to have major subplots. It’s unusual in what is technically a cozy mystery, but it was the right choice. Most cozies have romantic subplots, but the central characters here are in established relationships. Most cozies are comic. Though many of the characters in this book display a natural and engaging sense of humor, it isn’t a comic mystery. It’s cozy in the sense of limiting onstage violence and having amateur participation, with much mystery-solving taking place over dinner or coffee.

 

I enjoyed the various Albuquerque settings, from restaurants to major parks like the Petroglyphs to local secrets like the Hidden Park, and even an airfield used by drone enthusiasts.

 

Many scenes take place at Southwest Editing Services, Harrie’s business. I was surprised at the importance of paper copies as well as electronic copies of manuscripts in a professional editing service. I’d thought paper was a thing of the past, but apparently not. I learned something.

 

I would have liked a stronger thread connecting the opening and the ending. The title, the cover, the first chapter, and park ranger Nick Ellis’s deep connection to the spirits of the ancient ones made me expect more continuity on this theme. In fact, I initially expected a different kind of story altogether. Harrie doesn’t come across as having a mystical connection to the land and its history, so the sudden transfer of what has been Nick’s spiritual experience to her felt as if an editor said to bring that theme back. Harrie is already psychic about her life and family, and having her new dream come from the spirits struck me as out of character. A couple of backstory chapters and a few chunks of expository dialogue also felt like afterthoughts or requests for additions, rather than integral parts of the otherwise tightly woven plot.

 

The wrap-up of the mystery plot was one-hundred-percent unexpected, even though I figured out the borders of the puzzle. The explanation scene is realistic and well-structured. (I’m always grateful when a book doesn’t have one of these clichéd confessions from a killer holding protagonist at gunpoint.) Wood has real skill with crowd scenes. She can juggle six or eight people in a scene and never let the reader forget any of them.

 

Complexity is what she does best. If you like a mystery that puts your mind to work, you’ll enjoy this one.

Manipulation and Lies—Can Truth Survive?

Asked to write a book about the trial of Ashlyn Bryant—a young woman accused of murdering her toddler daughter and leaving her in a trash bag in Boston Harbor—Mercer Hennessey is finally working again after over a year of grieving the loss of her own young daughter and her beloved husband. An accident she survived. The psychological effects of the new assignment on Mercer are deep and often painful, but she commits to it.

 

Both little girls had favorite toy rabbits, and each in a different way was buried with her bunny. Eventually the mothers go down a rabbit hole of truth and lies and variations on lies together.

 

The mechanics of a criminal trial and the process of researching and reporting are given in authentic detail without excess. Mercer’s research and her attempts to build a story from what she knows are part of the suspense. Once Ashlyn is acquitted, the stories—the one we’re reading and the one Mercer is writing—take a stunning twist, and so does Mercer’s trust in everything she thought was true. She’s now writing Ashlyn’s “as told to” story, and the young woman has a powerful effect on her. Is the book going to be fact or fiction? Was Mercer’s own past fact or fiction? Ashlyn’s personality is disturbingly well portrayed—her shifts from hard to soft, from inarticulate to smart and clear, her changing versions of her past. How Mercer makes her way through the web of confusion is as important as the investigation of the crime.

 

This book has no onstage violence. The crimes are in the past. Yet the threat is intense and the suspense unbearable. Plan on losing sleep to the need to read the next chapter. And the next. And the next.

Some of Them Scare You; Some Are Just Showing Up for Work

This books starts off with Santa Fe, where apparently some of the scariest ghosts in the state reside. A few are bland, but many of them are hair-raising and bone-chilling. Other parts of the state have some dark and terrifying ghosts as well, but not in such concentration.

 

Hospitals are, as one might expect, often haunted, as are private homes. However businesses, especially restaurants, have a disproportionate share of ghosts. A frequent pattern in haunting emerges. The former proprietor or employee of a business, or the former resident of place that’s now a business, stays around and does innocuous but strange things. I’m sure these events are startling and even frightening when experienced individually, but after a while, I began to wonder why deceased women tend to haunt in white dresses and red dresses. And why female business owners in particular are most inclined to keep showing up for work after they die.

 

There are a few gentle, loving ghosts who come back to visit family, and even the ghost of a monkey who died on his way to be in a circus.

 

The author occasionally spends too much time, in my opinion, on background stories that aren’t ghost stories, but for readers unfamiliar with New Mexico, this is probably valuable material. His writing style can be clunky in places, and he overuses exclamation marks, but it’s a minor flaw in an otherwise rich and intriguing book. He collected the stories one by one through interviews with people who experienced each ghost, and his accounts of these meetings give depth to the tales.

Magic is Real

The Fourth Door by Virginia   King

Magic, divination, rituals, and spirits in Hong Kong.

 

Woman rescues man.

 

Do I need to say more to make you want to read this? How about: original and well-researched, a mix of romance, sleuthing, and adventure?

 

The plot spirals out from Selkie and Alister’s search for his son, who was abducted thirty years ago, into a struggle to rescue Alister’s soul from sorcery. As always, Selkie is courageous and intuitive, and helped by a team of friends and intriguing new allies. I loved the scene with the “villain hitters.” And the effect on the villain, if that character can be called one. At times, I found myself wondering how the story might have played out if Selkie’s best friends hadn’t been available, if she’d had to rely only on her new acquaintances in a strange place. But her world is one of connections—emotional, social, spiritual, and synchronistic.

 

After finishing this book, I began reading a conventional cozy mystery and went into Selkie Moon withdrawal. Longing for the truly out-of-the ordinary.

Joe Leaphorn is Back

Anne Hillerman took her time to get to know retired Navajo Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn before writing a book that spends at least half its pages in his point of view, and her study of the character her father created pays off. The interwoven crime stories—a case Leaphorn works on as a private investigator and one Bernie Manuelito and Jim Chee work on for the tribal police—are told with excellent attention to police and PI procedures as well as the personal experiences of the investigators. I appreciate the realism of Bernie’s work days—she’s never just devoted to one case, but is pulled in various directions by minor crimes as well interacting with the FBI on a homicide.

 

The individual stories of the crime victims and the people around them are as intriguing the process of solving the crime. Hillerman skillfully weaves Bernie’s family and Leaphorn’s life situation into the plot. I grew so involved in his and Louisa’s relationship, it was as if old friends were having these difficulties. And for me, they practically are old friends. Hillerman writes as if readers already know her primary characters—what they look like, how old they are, and their history with each other. This far into a series, I prefer it that way. Little to no backstory.

 

The final scene with the killer was, as in so many mysteries, more confessional than struck me as likely, but on the plus side, the context was plausible. Overall, the pace and the complexity were excellent. And the threads of history and culture woven throughout are never dumped, but crafted into the scenes.

 

I’m curious what the next book will bring. No one managed to get through to the overconfident, misogynistic rookie, Wilson Sam. Is he going to get in trouble? And will it be Jim Chee’s turn for a lead role? I love how Anne Hillerman writes his dialogue, especially his humor, but so far she doesn’t get inside his head quite as deeply she does with Bernie, and now with Leaphorn. But I think she could, and I would love to see such a book.

 

Digression: A minor thing confused me. The Navajo custom of not naming the dead doesn’t seem to be observed consistently by anyone in this book. In any culture, there are variations from person to person in adherence to traditions. The museum director Mrs. Pinto says outright she doesn’t believe in chindis, so her naming the deceased fits with her beliefs. Later in the narration the author mentions that the particularly sensitive time after a death, the time during which one doesn’t speak of the dead, has passed. But I thought the name still wasn’t spoken for a longer time after those four days, and characters I thought were more traditional, like one victim’s father, do speak her name. I know Hillerman does her research, so I was puzzled why this seemed different from the way the practice is portrayed in other books in the series. Or maybe it really wasn’t, and this is just my perception, my need for one little piece of backstory.

 

Revisiting Rebecca

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier, Sally Beauman

This book has been described as gothic, and also as romantic suspense and mystery. It has elements of literary fiction was well in its deep interiority. I read it for the first time decades ago, when I was fifteen. Reading it again, I realized I’d held it unconsciously in the back of my mind as the model for a mystery in the sense that the mystery is Rebecca herself. Who was she? What was her true nature? What was her relationship with Maxim? What were her secrets? What secrets do others know about her?

 

Remarkably, I remembered the big revelations. I can reread some mysteries I haven’t looked at for several years—five or ten, not the forty that have intervened since I read Rebecca—and have no idea “who done it,” but that may be because they had less emotional impact. Emotion enhances memory.

 

I’d forgotten most of the details, though, so this second reading was fresh in many ways, and this time I was reading with an author’s attention to craft. I admired how du Maurier builds suspense with environmental detail. Sometimes the weather is bit too sympathetic with the events, or the flowers too obviously symbolic, but overall the effect is immersive and moody.

 

She develops relationships and meaning through seemingly superficial interactions. And there is a great deal of suffocating superficiality in the upper class lifestyle that bewilders and intimidates the second Mrs. De Winter.

 

I was intrigued by du Maurier’s choice to begin with a dream and then a day in the life of the narrator and her husband after the events of the story. We already know from the outset that this is their future. This allows the end to be dramatic, an abrupt surprise without the customary denouement. The reader is left to fill in a few details, but the early chapters have let us know what happens at some distance from that night. The author chose a slow (not dull, slow) beginning over a slow end.

 

The end is foreshadowed early in the book, and so is the big secret. While they’re still courting, Maxim loans his future second wife (the nameless narrator) a book of poetry she finds in his car. The first poem she reads is about being pursued by a hell hound. Not exactly a romantic gift, but it’s inscribed to him from Rebecca. Before marrying him, the narrator cuts out the first wife’s inscription and burns it.

 

A few things about the book are dated, such as beginning with a dream. The term “idiot,” used repeatedly to describe Ben, a man with an intellectual disability, is jarring. But as a period piece, it portrays the times well, especially women’s roles and the assumptions made about class by those who are immersed in class-based society.

 

The protagonist’s namelessness is bit contrived, but it suits her lack of a strong identity except as a wife. Her artistic abilities are dismissed by others as a nice hobby, and she seems to lose interest in creating art as soon as she gets married except for sketching her costume for the fancy dress ball. Her life is about her marriage and her husband. If she weren’t that sort of woman, the rest wouldn’t be possible. Her devotion to him when he reveals his secret is almost as disturbing as the secret itself. How it affects her and changes her is only possible if she starts out as timid and lacking confidence as she does. And her timidity also prevents her from taking actions and asking questions a more confident person would have, and which would have prevented many of her troubles. She endures Mrs. Danvers. She fears her. She doesn’t ask simple questions, such as what Ben means about never saying anything, or why Mrs. Danvers is suddenly being helpful and suggesting a costume.

 

The narrator shows herself to be brave and compassionate occasionally, such as the time she defies Maxim to make sure their dog is all right, and when she feels real concern for servants. She’s more comfortable visiting her maid’s mother than people like the Bishop’s wife.

 

Later, once she knows the big secret, she finds it easy to be severe with servants. To picture herself as the mistress of the great house, taking on its routines and responsibilities. Nothing scares her because she has new confidence in being loved. Not in her own abilities, but in her identity as wife.

 

In this process, she loses her fear of Mrs. Danvers, whose identity is totally invested in her closeness to Rebecca. When Rebecca is dethroned as a memory, the power dynamic changes between the second Mrs. De Winter and the housekeeper. They’re surrogates for Maxim and Rebeca in their power struggle, one that carries on after Rebecca’s death.

 

Maxim’s character is shown for what it is when Rebecca’s is revealed. He’s strong but not heroic. He valued his great house and his reputation and so endured the painful bargain of his marriage. He shows himself to be incredibly adept at taking risks that end up in his favor and being cool in situations that would crack another person. The second Mrs. De Winter proves love is blind. Their relationship is powerful but not admirable. I felt empathy for the narrator at first, when she was shy, lost and confused, overwhelmed by her new circumstances, but she changed. In twenty-four hours, as Maxim notes, the young, lost look he loved is gone.

Outstanding Female Leads

Betrayed - Donnell Ann Bell

The two strong women who carry this story, Irene Turner and Kinsey Masters, are some of the best characters I've read in a long time. And I’ve been reading some good books, so that’s says a lot. Irene is an original—independent, passionate, determined, and gifted with genuine humor. I want to know her and hang out with her. Kinsey is equally independent, deeply compassionate and loving. Both excel in their sports, Irene as a sharpshooter and Kinsey as a former soccer star, now a coach and teacher. The male characters are excellent also—especially the detectives Nate Paxton and Sammy Lucero—but the women steal the show.

 

The level of betrayal Irene endures is extraordinary. The mystery involves uncovering not only how her infant daughter was stolen from her at birth, but also murder and attempted murder—and another kidnapping. The intersection of Irene and Kinsey’s stories with Nate and Sammy’s efforts to take down a dangerous gang creates stay-awake-page-turning suspense. There’s also a touch of romance, believable and charming, perfectly fitted into the pace of the story, giving the reader a chance to catch her breath and even more reason to root for the characters.

Thriller on the Border

There’s a lot to like about this book. The setting comes to life—Tucson, the Tohono O’odam reservation, Nogales, and the Sonoran desert. Shane knows the world she writes about, in Arizona, Mexico and also China. The realistic diversity of characters appealed to me, and the complexity of the plot was fascinating, integrating current issues into the story with compassion, not politics. There’s a good balance of romance, action, and detective work. I cared about the characters and the outcome of the story. I’m curious about the future for Letty and for Zhou—and yet I don’t know if I’ll read the rest of the series. If I could be assured that a better editor worked on the subsequent books, I might read them.

 

I struggle when I write reviews like this, in which I want to give the author a high rating and give the editor a low one. The author has many strengths—research, characters, plot, originality—and deserves a more conscientious editor. Proofreading for typos and grammar was done well, but that’s not editing.

 

The editor could have served the author better by doing the following:

 

Asking for revisions on backstory. Shane handles Letty’s backstory well, inserting it naturally with a line or two here and there as the story progresses, giving no more than needed. However, other major characters, even the dog, arrive with large blocks of introductory biographical information told in narration. Most of this could have been cut since they eventually share their stories in dialogue (or people tell the dog’s story). Readers don’t have to know everything about a character up front to empathize with them. In fact, knowing only a little at first makes readers curious.

 

Giving more attention to dialogue. I’m sure it was challenging for the author, going back and forth between characters who grew up speaking English and those for whom it’s a second language. She does well with the second-language characters, but sometimes the native English speakers fall into a pattern of short, stiff sentences and don’t use contractions. The editor should have made sure those gears shifted more smoothly.

 

Correcting and cutting repetition. Not only repetition of backstory, but of plot information shared by characters, and of the same distinctive word twice in the same paragraph, and of the same sentence structure used too often back to back. In a fast-paced book, things like this break the story’s stride. And that’s frustrating, because this book tells a great story.

 

Author: four stars.

Editor: Two stars.

Average: three.

 

An International Love-Hate Relationship

A romance spanning the centuries. Despite manipulation, lies, and broken promises, the pair finds each other charismatic and irresistible, perpetually hoping the other will change.

 

The dysfunctional geopolitical love story of the U.S. and China makes great reading because of the characters. The focus is on the people who interacted at influential levels of both societies, but not exclusively on government. Female missionaries finding freedom in China they didn’t have in the U.S. A colorful hippie stoner on the U.S. ping pong team. Nineteenth century Chinese business leaders . Revolutionaries from the Boxer rebellion to the Communist revolution and in between. The Soong sisters, including Chiang Kai-Shek’s American educated wife. Political leaders whose names I know well doing things I had no idea they did. They and many other intriguing individuals kept me fascinated, even though I know how history turns out.

 

Who will like this book: anyone interested in Chinese history and culture and in international relations. Who will not like this book: people who think a book has to be short to be good.

Brilliant Psychological Suspense

 

The plot is so tightly woven I can’t say much about it without giving something away. After I finished, I kept reflecting on various scenes and realizing how perfectly they set up the end, and how masterfully each character had been plotting, as well as the author. Every scene has a goal, and it’s the character’s goal in service of the author’s goal, perfectly aligned. The reader never once senses the author at work. I went back over the book a second time to study the craft, but while I was reading it the first time, there was only the spell of the story. The Boston settings, the inner workings of the courts, state politics, a DA’s office, a defense practice, and the news media covering them are portrayed with an insider’s knowledge.

 

Rachel North, a Harvard law student in her thirties preparing for a second career, is the primary character. As a first person narrator, Rachel isn’t telling the reader a story. The reader is inside Rachel’s head as she’s telling herself a story. My first impressions of Rachel weren’t positive, but her occasional humor and her intensity kept me engaged. She’s driven. Her lack of a healthy ego, a sense of self, or an inner life, combine to make her obsessed with work and accomplishments and how others perceive her. She seems to live on a tightrope of proving herself or proving something to herself, even in her marriage. By the end, I understood why. Understood why she finally seemed strong and confident when she did something in her internship that was out of line, confronting a man she once worked for and once worshiped.

 

Ryan doesn’t dig into Rachel’s early life in order to explain her, a good choice. We meet Rachel as she is, attracted to powerful older men, and determined to become a defense lawyer like her husband, Jack Kirkland. He’s so good he’s on the ‘murder list’—one of the lawyers assigned to those accused of murder who can’t afford their own attorneys.

His nemesis is district attorney Martha Gardiner, and this prosecution-defense antagonism is part of an extraordinary triangle with Rachel—as Martha’s intern—at its apex.

 

Ryan skillfully does things most writers can’t pull off. She changes from first person present tense to the same narrator’s voice in the past tense and then back to the present, and she eventually widens the lens to take in Jack’s and Martha’s points of view in third person past tense. But with all these shifts, Ryan never has to retell anything in the next point of view. Everything is revealed in the order of the unfolding of events, legal and psychological, from the most effective point of view. There’s a reason she broadens the scope to take the reader outside of Rachel’s head exactly when she does.

 

By the end, Rachel has what might be called an inner life of sorts and an identity, finally, not attached to any man. But this isn’t what it sounds like. Nothing in this book is what it starts out seeming to be. Nothing.

 

Note: I read an advance review copy. The book comes out in August.

Another Lost Hat, Texas Adventure

Photographing her boyfriend Ty’s ranch and future eco-spa, Penny Trigg climbs an old windmill and falls onto an oddly soft piece of ground. A fresh grave. The suspects for putting a pushy developer in that grave include Ty, his sister Diana—who’s gone missing—and some local officials Penny has been photographing for their campaign posters, including one who works in law enforcement. Since she ends up photographing a couple of crime scenes as well, her investigations occur so naturally I never once questioned an amateur’s involvement. She gets enthusiastic help from Ty’s cousin Perline, co-owner of a local diner. Perline and her husband Cracker are great additions to the Lost Hat cast, and their diner is so eccentric I wish it were real. Penny’s brother Nick is another lively new character, with a past that enables him to grasp a clue Penny wouldn’t have understood.

 

As in the other Lost Hat book, there are some elements that aren’t typically cozy—in this case, characters with a history of drug and alcohol problems and those who currently use drugs. This isn’t just backstory; it’s central to the story. And it’s a tightly crafted story, with the right balance of humor and suspense.

 

I again enjoyed Penny and Tillie’s friendship, and the way they work together in spite of the stresses it puts them through. Penny’s efforts to solve the crime run her into some uniquely local types of dangers, such as her encounter with a bull named Blackberry. Though there is one of those confrontation-and-confession scenes, it’s an original variation on that convention.

 

I hope there’ll be more books in this series so I can spend more time with the characters.

 

Colorful Cozy with Texas Sass

Black & White & Dead All Over (Lost Hat, Texas Mystery #1) - Anna Castle

I love Anna Castle’s way with words. The first person narration of this book has so much personality, humor and style, I could have enjoyed it for the writing alone, but the setting, characters and plot are equal to the words. The fictional town feels true to the region, a mix of Anglo and Hispanic, of Southern and Western. Athletic, witty, and independent, photographer Penny Trigg stands out among cozy mystery protagonists, and the book as whole is refreshingly free of the features that have made many cozies too much alike in recent years. If you’re allergic to cuteness, no worries. You can read this book with pleasure.

 

Being a little too impulsive for her own good, Penny makes some decisions that get her in trouble, and her path to getting out of it leads her into the citizens of Lost Hat’s secrets, the investigation of two murders, and of course, more trouble.

 

The first character to die was so real and likeable, I had no discomfort at all with Penny’s involvement in finding out why he died and who did it. Amateurs’ motives need to be plausible, and her stakes are high. She has additional good reasons to investigate murder and blackmail, as does her new friend Krystle, an equally original character, not the typical sidekick. I especially loved the scene where Krystle talks Penny into a reckless attempt at sleuthing, and Murphy’s Law kicks in with hilarious results.

 

There's a third member of the sleuthing trio: intelligent, cautious, and self-effacing Tillie. She's an asset as well as a contrast. Their investigative teamwork ranges from adventurous and funny to patient and still funny, and their encounters with their suspects take the reader on a colorful tour of Lost Hat. I didn’t figure out whodunit. The last two suspects stayed in the running right up until the end.

 

The romantic subplot is tightly integrated into the mystery plot, as are Penny’s work as a photographer and her boyfriend’s computer expertise. Every element serves the story and gives the reader’s reasons to care what happens.

 

I seldom binge read a series, but I’m already on the second book. Stay tuned for the next review.