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Amber's Thoughts

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



Best Bacon Yet! (Francis, that is)

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.


Buy links

Beat Noir

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. 

Laugh out Loud Science

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife - Mary Roach

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.

Free books and Favorite Authors


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.

Nonstop Thriller

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.


Fellow Mystery and Thriller Fans ...

Shaman's Blues - Amber Foxx

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!

Rediscovering a Classic

A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

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.


Uprooted by Settling

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.

Thriller with a Touch of Horror

Serial Date: A Leine Basso Thriller - D.V. Berkom

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.

Memoirs of a Lawyer with Humor and Heart

Soliciting from Home: How things have changed since the 1970s! - Melanie Russell

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.

Definitely Funny

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.

Before and After the Titanic: A Woman's Life in 1912

The Dressmaker - Kate Alcott

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. 

Your Book Club Should Read This

Crater tells hard truths with beautiful language, in voices unique to each of the two narrators: Maggie, a black woman who came of age in the late nineteenth century, and Caroline, a white woman who was a child in the 1950s. The reader is given Maggie’s spoken voice as heard by Caroline in spirit and memory, and Caroline’s written voice, her story told for a very personal audience.


This is not light reading, but there’s no heavy-handed message, either. Just the truth. Without a shred of nostalgic illusion about the Old South or about the fifties, Crater explores the reality of women’s lives in those times. This book travels through history on the inside, from the post-slavery years when its shadow hung heavy on society and the Klan could rampage through the night, to the civil rights years, when it took courage to confront the segregationist norms, and when women’s rights were barely on the horizon. Caroline is speaking of delusions about love when she says, “We still sleepwalked under the sway of romantic myths, even though we were the victims of them.” But this line also speaks to me about the way Americans sometimes cling to romanticized views of the “good old days” and underestimate their legacy.


The unpleasant things in the back of our country’s closet are aired out in this book, but so are the strengths of ordinary people. I never found the story depressing. The darker events the characters endure are woven through with a sustaining breath of love and occasional flashes of humor. Communities and friendships keep the women going when life hits them with the unbearable.


If you’re in a book club, your book club should read this. The discussions will be deep. And despite the serious subject matter, it’s fluid, effortless reading, hard to put down. Some people might class this as “women’s fiction” since it is about women’s experience, but a male audience will find it just as profound with its insights into the traumas some women survive, and the historical context of being an American woman.


An image that stayed with me was Caroline’s fascinated childhood observation of the outfits her mother wore to work—once her mother managed to convince her husband and in-laws that she should be allowed to work: the armor of undergarments, the layer of make-up, and the high-heeled shoes that constituted looking properly feminine. The author doesn’t say anything critical about this, simply describes it through a child’s eyes, but I couldn’t help seeing all this uncomfortable accoutrement as a symbolic little prison a woman carried with her, right next to her skin.


Author's web site:https://theresacrater.wordpress.com/

You can find background on the book here and buy links for purchasing it.

New Mexico Mystery, Mysticism and Myth

Zia Summer - Rudolfo Anaya

A mystery with many layers, the first of Anaya’s Sonny Baca novels is crime fiction and also literary fiction with mythical depths. At one level, it’s the story of a young private detective’s search for his cousin’s killer; at the other level, it’s the story of his spiritual development and reconnection with his traditional culture and his ancestors. The story also reflects on the ecological and ethical challenges facing New Mexico as some seek to develop it and others to preserve and protect it. The sacredness of earth, sun and water, and their spiritual place in human hearts, is as important as the question of who committed the crime, and even inseparable from it.


Sonny Baca, great grandson of the famous Elefgo Baca, is—like his bisabuelo—a flawed hero. Sonny is still maturing as a man and in his profession, learning from his mistakes, but at the same time he’s smart, perceptive, and courageous, and he thinks a lot about both the world around him and the struggles within him. For a reader used to the pace of most crime fiction, this occasional descent into deep wells of thought may feel digressive, but Sonny’s insights are part of the story. Most of the time, the pace is intense and the story flies along.


One way Anaya sustains the flow is that he never translates or explains the Spanish words and phrases his characters sprinkle throughout their conversation. This not only kept the pace and the authenticity, but taught me. I began to understand them as I read. (If you’re not a Spanish speaker, notice how you figured out bisabuelo already.)

Though they have full personalities, there’s an archetypal quality to the characters. Sonny’s neighbor don Eliseo is the Wise Old Man, human and believable, not idealized. His spirituality is both transcendent and earth-bound. Rita, Sonny’s girlfriend, comes close to seeming too perfect, a strong, loving, nurturing goddess, but she’s written as seen by a man in love with her. The villains of the story are the inversions of these benevolent archetypes, making them some of the most disturbing criminals I’ve come across in a mystery.


The writing is engaging, as one would expect from a literary master like Anaya. The first chapter, however, is the weakest, heavy with backstory. Don’t let the slow start deter you. After that, the story comes alive. While the crime is horrific, the fullness of Sonny’s life and circle of friends balance this element with humor, love, and mystical wisdom.


New Mexico Magazine recently profiled Anaya in a wonderful and thorough article, linked here.

Ice Age Adventure and Mystery

 I love mysteries that go off the beaten path, and a Neanderthal Ice Age trek is wonderfully far from that old, too-familiar path. In another fascinating genre blend of historical, adventure, and mystery, Kaye George again succeeds in bringing her Neanderthal characters and their land and culture to life, complete with their religion, their language, and their female-led social structure. Having just read Dean Radin’s Supernormal, on scientific research into telepathy and other psi abilities, her portrayal of Neanderthals as using shared telepathic imagery more than spoken language was even more intriguing. According to Radin’s research, this ability exists and seems to be latent in most of us, but becomes more pronounced through intimacy, emergency, and spiritual practice. The Neanderthal tribe in this book, the Hamapa, is closely bonded, and they practice this skill as a normal part of life, saving speech for special occasions. George shows how telepathy could be a liability as well as an advantage. Since the Hamapa seldom use spoken language, she effectively uses a simple vocabulary and such structures as “most tall” and “more strong” to imply the nature of the Hamapa language and their way of thinking. It has the effect of hearing an ancient saga around a Neanderthal fire.


She acknowledges that she moves various early humans who were not known to be in North America into her chosen setting for the sake of the story, and it works well. This is well researched historical fiction, but it is fiction, after all.


The mystery plot is secondary to the adventure plot, the tale of the trek itself, the tribe’s long journey to avoid the encroaching glaciation of the Ice Age. But, needless to say, under such stresses, people snap, and someone is killed. The process of identifying the killer has to take second place to the need to keep the tribe moving, alive and united, leaving them uneasy as they travel with a possible murderer among them.


The normally perceptive protagonist makes a foolish mistake toward the end, one that I wanted to yell at her for making, but it leads to a satisfying wrap-up for both the mystery and her personal story.


I recommend reading the first book in this series before this one. It will give you grounding in the ways of the tribe. I know it takes the author years to write these, with the amount of research involved, but I look forward to the next one.

L.A. Cops, Murder, and Reality TV

 I enjoyed the fast pace, the working friendships, the portrait of a marriage that thrives despite the police careers of both partners—or maybe even because of the shared stresses and the way they understand each other. The in-depth details of police work are fascinating, and the story engages with the issue of conflicted police-community relations without taking sides or preaching. It’s part of the realistic setting. And it relates to the apparent motive behind a vigilante reality TV show that makes cops look bad.


I loved the way Hitchens and Scully cracked the case through attention to subtle clues. Hitchens is more likeable and interesting than Scully, but that’s partly an effect of point of view. The narrator, Scully, is more observant of others than he is self-revealing, so he is harder to get to know even though he’s telling the story. The first person POV blunts a certain amount of the tension, because obviously the narrator survives, but there’s enough tension to go around that this seldom weakens the suspense.


I suspect the author consciously chose to build a scene around a certain old-fashioned form of peril that was used in a number of late nineteenth century plays and satirized in several popular silent comedies. It doesn’t seem possible that he wrote this particular scene without awareness of its historical antecedents, and I bet he had fun plotting it. I would have fun saying what it is, but that would be a spoiler. (No, the protagonist does not hang from a cliff.)