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Amber's Thoughts

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



Mystery and Mischief

Burglars Can't Be Choosers - Lawrence Block

I read this because a fictional character recommended it. In the Pot Thief mysteries by J. Michael Orenduff, Susannah is a fan of Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr books. I like Susannah and trust her taste in reading, and I believe the Pot Thief series is in some ways a tribute to the burglar series. (The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza, for example.) The law-breaking but nonetheless kind and non-violent protagonist is something the two series have in common, and the witty, quirky first-person narration. In other ways, they are different.


Bernie has no legal occupation and as a consequence somewhat limited social circle, since he can’t tell people what he does. He’s a well-behaved burglar, however. He would never carry a gun. All he wants is to steal from the rich and otherwise stay out of trouble, but he ends up framed for murder when he breaks into an apartment with a dead body in it. His attempts to clear himself are clever, devious, illegal, and funny. While the reader doesn't fear for Bernie's life, there’s plenty of suspense with each escapade, while his freedom is on the line.


The only flaw I found was the convoluted presentation of the solution to the murder mystery, packed into dialogue without much action. The secondary mystery around Bernie’s romantic interest was wrapped up with more style. (I knew she was up to something, though I didn’t figure out what.) Definitely a fun read.


Brilliant Women’s Work

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race - Margot Lee Shetterly

This book taught me aspects of history I hadn't known, and gave me an inside look at NASA and the work that went on there. I lived for a number of years on the Virginia Peninsula, and in reading this learned more about the region’s mid-20th Century history than I did while living there. The stories of the gifted African-American women who became mathematicians and engineers are interwoven with the impact of their work in World War II, the Cold War and the Space Race, and with changes in the society around them through the transition from segregation to Virginia’s appallingly reluctant integration.


Anyone who takes education for granted, takes civil rights or women’s right for granted, or underestimates the importance of an engaged and supportive community, should read this. And if you don’t like math or science, you should read this. The narrative makes the work of women who computed equations for a living exciting. It wasn’t that long ago that “computer” was a job description, not a machine. I was impressed by the level of commitment to helping others and being part of a world outside of work that these hard-working professionals demonstrated.  They were—and many no doubt still are—a sisterhood of strength and social engagement as well as mathematical genius.


Once in a while the author veers around in the timeline, in a way that is momentarily confusing. There are few clunky sentences in the epilogue, as if it was not edited as well as the rest of the book. An occasional reminder of the roles of the less-frequently mentioned members of the cast would have been helpful, especially since popular first names at the time lacked variety and tend to show up repeatedly. These are small imperfections, though mildly annoying, in a fast and fascinating read.

Multi-Genre Mystery

A New Mexico man long missing and presumed dead seems to have come back to broadcast on ham radio, only to fade out as if something terrible has happened to him.


Patricia Smith Wood has crafted another tight puzzle of a mystery in this third in the Harrie McKinsey series, once again blending multiple mystery genres—a touch of cozy, a touch of police procedural, and now a touch of the PI story as well. Amateur sleuths Harrie and Ginger, the Albuquerque police department, and the FBI come together on a complex case with help from a new character, private investigator Bernie Thomas, a former member of the APD. His role as a liaison between the professionals and the amateurs is an effective device. The amateurs take some risks, and they use their brains and their ability to gain trust and talk with people, but they don’t do what’s better done by the pros.


Harrie and Ginger, who are studying to become amateur radio operators, are naturally and believably drawn into investigating the apparent broadcast from the missing Alan Whitney. I like a mystery that gives me glimpse into a hobby or occupation I previously knew little about, and this book provides a fascinating exploration of amateur radio without ever losing the pace. Wood slips the exposition into the energetic dialog as part of a page-turning plot.


Much of the detective works, realistically, takes place through interviews, asking the right people the right questions, and through research and the use of creative intelligence to understand the clues. Most of the violence takes place offstage, though there are suspenseful scenes in which danger threatens characters the reader comes to care about. While this isn’t in the category of a humorous mystery, there is humor in the characters’ banter, and one of the criminals was an incredibly amusing diversion. He’s a bit like someone who walked out of a 1940s black-and-white movie in a way, and yet also wholly original.


Wood is the master of the chapter-ending hook that makes you want to keep going. Surprises kept coming around the corner right to the very end. If you like to challenge your brain to solve a mystery, Patricia Smith Wood is an author you’ll come back to again and again.


Note: I finally added the cover image myself because Booklikes could only supply a blank green square.

Thriller with Heart

A Killing Truth: (A Leine Basso Thriller Prequel) - D.V. Berkom

Leine Basso has a complicated life. In this series prequel novella, she’s a professional assassin for an ultra-secret agency, the lover of a man in her same line of work—and a single mother. Things get even more complicated when her boss at the Agency seems to become more dangerous than her work itself. Berkom’s writing is tighter than ever. The pace is riveting, the plotting masterful, and the characters deep. A shocking twist at the end is gut-wrenching. I’ve read one of the Leine Basso thrillers, The Body Market, and I know I’ll be reading more of them. Berkom is one of my go-to authors. I can turn on my Nook and start the first page assured that not single page that follows will let me down.

Mystical Thriller

Under the Stone Paw - Theresa Crater

Mystery, thriller, a touch of science fiction, visionary fiction—never mind the genre. It’s a compelling tale. Crater’s writing is polished and fluid, as she takes the readers through everything from chase scenes and fight scenes to transcendent spiritual experiences. She knows both modern and ancient Egypt well, bringing the settings vividly to life. I was fascinated enough to keep going even when I encountered such material as the Illuminati and the Shadow Government. I’m not into conspiracy theories or some of the more sci-fi-ish aspects this book, but I still cared what happened next. The characters are believable, the mysticism is beautiful, and the pace is riveting.


Cooking up Holiday Sleuthing in Santa Fe

This third installment in the Santa Fe Café mystery series is tightly plotted, funny, and as full of local color and eccentric characters as the others. Ann Myers does a great job with the flow of the series—neither too much nor too little backstory. It’s a delicate balance that not all series authors have mastered. A new reader could pick this up and not be lost, and someone who has followed the series can enjoy it without any sense of interruption.


Protagonist Rita Lafitte’s very conventional mother is visiting her in the City Different, encountering Rita’s eccentric friends and colleagues, hot chiles, devils in a Christmas pageant, and of course, Rita’s odd luck—if one can call it that—of running into murder scenes. There is some dark humor in the choice to set a murder in the middle of Christmas festivities, but it works. There’s also plenty of light humor, character-based and authentic.


The mystery revolves in part around the process of repatriating an old family collection of Native artifacts to their tribes. The conflicts in the wealthy heiress’s family—which includes Rita’s ultra-Santa-Fe-spacey-spiritual neighbor Dalia—and between the experts hired to help with the collection lead down some twisting paths, while several intriguing side plots make for more suspects and more motives. I was right in step with Rita in trying to solve the mystery, which to me means it was set up well.


Rita and café owner Flori's amateur sleuthing is written to effectively make the reader suspend disbelief, an important aspect of this genre of mystery. Their interaction with Rita’s ex, Manny, who is so often the cop on the case when she’s investigating on her own, is well done. Manny isn’t all bad, and neither is his police work. He comes across as a competent if sometimes annoying officer, and a caring father as well as the kind of man you wouldn’t want for a husband. Celia, Rita’s artistic teenaged daughter, gets involved in the sleuthing this time, a fun change of pace. I love the relationships in this series, so it was great to meet another member of Rita’s family with her mother’s visit. It was also good to see how her romance with criminal defense lawyer Jake Strong develops. Jake’s character is given more depth and flair in this story. I got to know him better and therefore liked him better.


One thing I especially enjoyed about this book is that it gets outside of the downtown area into some other neighborhoods of Santa Fe, while still giving a view of holiday events around the Plaza and Canyon Road. (I expect it will make quite a few readers want to schedule a Christmas vacation there.) The diverse characters include one of Flori’s old schoolmates—another peculiar octogenarian—and her grandson. To avoid spoilers, I will say no more about them, but they were my favorite new additions to the cast of this series. And Flori’s latest weird hobby is her best yet. As always, there are recipes for some of the foods that are served up during the course of the story. I enjoyed the plot so much I tended to forget the culinary theme, but readers who love to cook will not. (Actually, the fact that I hate to cook and still enjoy these books so much says a lot.)


My Rare Promotional Post: 99 Cent Sale

The Calling (Mae Martin Mysteries Book 1) - Amber Foxx

The first book in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series, The Calling, is on sale for 99 cents through the end of December on all e-book retail sites.


"Great books that are impossible to classify … Mae, the series character, is a psychic, but the books will appeal even to readers who aren’t big fans of the paranormal in fiction. Mae is a very real, very grounded character, and her journey makes for compelling page-turners that will keep you surprised."  Saints and Trees blog, Best Books of 2014

Issues and Policies, Research and Ideas, from the Real Working Class Hero

Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In - Bernie Sanders

The first ten pages should light a fire in discouraged progressives, but I think everyone, no matter who they voted for, could learn something of value and interest from this book. There is common ground for all middle-class and working-class and poor Americans in Sanders’ examination of economic issues. He has done his research. I’ve studied in depth a number of the issues he addresses, and as far as I can see, he is accurate in his assessments, especially on health care. The book could have been more tightly edited, but a little repetition when he’s trying to get a point across is okay with me. There are so many important ideas in this book, instead of a formal review, I’ve posted notes I took while reading. They do not in any way replace reading it yourself. A number of my notes are quotations from the book that I think will make great discussion points when my book club meets after reading this. I hope the notes give you food for thought, a reason to read the whole book, and fuel for becoming an engaged, thoughtful citizen.


  • Bernie discovered in college that there were points of view in various publications, learning to read critically. (I think everyone should learn this. Apply critical thinking, not reactive criticism, to news and media.)
  • “How do we get white working class Americans to stop voting against their own best interest? … (Republicans) get one group to fight another group while their wealthy friends and campaign contributors get richer and laugh all the way to the bank.” Need to bring all Americans of any race or ethnicity together around economic issues instead of dividing them.
  • “…lack of political consciousness is exactly what the ruling class of this country wants. The Koch brothers spend hundreds of millions to elect candidates who represent the interests of the rich and powerful. They understand the importance of politics. Meanwhile, people who work for low wages … don’t see a connection between the reality of their lives and what government does or does not do.”
  • National Nurses United Union supported him because of Medicare for All, single payer. Because current system makes it hard for them to provide the quality of care they want to give.
  • In 2014 63% of Americans didn’t turn out to vote (midterm elections).
  • Agrees with Pope Francis’s call for a “moral economy that addresses “the needs of ordinary people and not just capitalist profiteers.”
  • “Is it moral that, when millions of seniors are unable to afford the medicines they need, the top tenth of one percent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90%? Is it moral that, when we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country in the world, the twenty wealthiest people in the country have more wealth than the bottom half of America—160 million people? Is it moral that, when our citizens are working longer hours for lower wages, 52% of all new income generated today is going to the top 1 percent?”
  • Bernie had no superPACs. Wanted to be personally responsible for the message.
  • “As someone who had never run a negative political ad in his life, my campaign will be driven by issues and serious debates—not political gossip, not reckless personal attacks or character assassination. This is what I believe the American people want and deserve. I hope other candidates agree, and I hope the media allows that to happen. Politics in a democratic society should not be treated like a baseball game, a game show, or a soap opera. The times are too serious for that.” From Bernie’s speech announcing he would run for president. He promised to fight for economic and social justice, environmental sanity and a world of peace. For health care as a right, not a privilege. Access to affordable child care and higher education regardless of income, better health acre for veterans. We can live in a country where “Where every senior can live in dignity and security… where every person no matter their race, their religion, their disability, or their sexual orientation, realizes the full promise of equality that is our birthright.”
  • “Rural people are not as conservative as the Democratic leadership has long believed, and their votes should not be conceded to right-wing republicans.”
  • Clear that Sanders is the one who deserves credit for Clinton’s change of stance on the Trans Pacific Partnership, though Trump likes to claim it was his influence.
  • “… we don’t have national elections. We have elections that are determined state by state.”
  • During a debate, Anderson Cooper asked Sanders about Clinton’s email problem. Bernie said, “Let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the Secretary is right. And that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails. And let me say something about the media as well. I go around the country, talk to a whole lot of people. The middle class of this country is collapsing. We have twenty-seven million people living in poverty. We have massive wealth and income inequality. Our trade policies have cost us millions of decent jobs. And the American people want to know if we’re going to have a democracy or an oligarchy as a result of Citizens United. Enough of the emails. Let’s talk about the real issues facing America.” The audience rose in a standing ovation.
  • Polls showed Sanders defeating Trump. I saw those, too. This is not self-serving spin on Bernie's part. I was a poll follower. Most polls showed Bernie stronger against Trump than Clinton would be.
  • “When you hear a report from an ‘independent non-partisan think tank” telling us that climate change is just an unproven theory, or why we should give tax breaks to the rich, or why we should no join the rest of the industrialized world in in guaranteeing health care for all, are their conclusions influenced by the billionaires and insurance companies who fund those think tanks? Spokesperson form “concerned citizens for this or that” who oppose the EPA, want to cut or privatize Social Security or the VA—check who funded these concerned citizens. Billionaires?
  • Great proposal for automatic registration to vote on turning eighteen or on moving to new state. Burden on the state, not the individual. Make Election Day national holiday or spread it over a two-day weekend, and make early voting and absentee ballots easy. No special requirements and test for requesting absentee ballots. Restore felons’ voting rights when they are released.
  • Kochs subsidized networks of seemingly unconnected think tanks, academic programs and advocacy groups. Activism cloaked as philanthropy, but it was a fully integrated network.
  • In 1979 the top 1/10 of 1% owned 7% of the country’s wealth. Today it owns 22% We have had redistribution of wealth for decades. It’s upward redistribution.
  • In the decades following WW II, the economy expanded. “…the workers in those factories were often unionized, and had good benefits—health insurance, paid sick leave, and vacation time. They negotiated regular pay raises and had defined benefit pensions.”
  • Special interests demanded a bigger slice of the pie. Made it harder for worker to unionize, demanded deregulation of industries, particularly banking. Opposed increases in minimum wage. Political establishment dominated by people for whom “unrestrained free market capitalism was virtually a religion.” “They argued that ‘freedom’ was no longer the about workers having the right to earn decent incomes and live their lives in dignity and security. No, ‘freedom’ was now about employers having the right to pay their employees the lowest wages possible without government interference. … the right of Wall Street hedge fund managers to make incredible amounts of money, without regard for whether their investments destroyed lives or fouled the environment. Freedom was the ability of billionaires to buy elections and create a government that worked for them, not the middle class or working families.” Median income is falling yet we work longer hours than any other major developed country on earth. Because we have those “freedoms.”
  • Millions of American workers need food stamps and Medicaid because they are not paid enough. Public assistance given to them is essentially subsidizing the profits of the companies that pay them low wages. Walmart employees using food stamps at Walmart. Living in subsidized housing. Walmart gets the equivalent of $6.2 billion year in welfare. Makes 15 billion in profit. It can afford to get off welfare. Low-wage employees received 153 billion a year is various public assistance programs. People with jobs. Fast food, Walmart etc. We should provide for the poor, but not subsidize the corporation who keep them poor.
  • Can create more jobs by investing in energy efficiency upgrades than by putting the same amount into coal.
  • Clean Energy Worker Transition Act—legislation to retrain coal miners, provide benefits as they learn to make solar panels, wind turbines , advanced batteries, etc. and have resources directed to cleaning up environmental damage from coal, and build infrastructure to attract new business. This is better for health and for the overall future of coal country than going backwards into higher levels of dangerous and health-harming coal mining.
  • When the super-wealthy get tax breaks, they don’t spend more, invest more in the economy or create new jobs. Under Bush’ tax cuts, no net gain in private sector jobs. Half million jobs lost and the deficit exploded.
  • 68% of the tax break on capital gains and stock dividends went to the richest 1 percent of Americans. Lower rate paid on money earned passively from money than on wages and salaries from work. Exclusion of taxes on capital gains for bequests and gifts subsidizes wealthy families passing assets to next generation. Dynastic wealth.
  • Investor-state dispute resolution system allows a company to sue a government of another nation if its profits are affected. TransCanada can sue the US for an environmental protection choice to deny the Keystone XL Pipeline, a sound policy decision squarely within U.S. law.
  • What about a social tariff? Unfair to have to compete with countries that have abysmal wages, minimal environmental standards and poor records on human rights.
  • Should separate everyday banking functions form investment banking and insurance.   Prohibit taxpayer-insured banks from holding derivatives contracts on their balance sheets.
  • Proposes tax on high speed stock trading. Good explanation of why it would benefit the average person for the country to do this.
  • While the rich and powerful are “too big to fail: and get endless cheap credit, the average American must fend for themselves. Socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for everyone else.”
  • National health insurance saves time and money. Time and money spent while patients and doctors deal with insurance companies, trying to get things covered, or simply processing claims. Not paying claims is how insurance companies make money. (Administrative costs account for 39% of the difference between American healthcare spending per capita and Canada’s. The rest can be attributed to higher salaries, higher drug prices, and more aggressive and intensive treatments. My added data, not Bernie’s.)
  • Insurance CEOs make 10 to 20 million in salaries. 47 million to one pharmaceutical CEO. There is money in our health care system, but it's not going to health care.
  • Despite having the most expensive health care system among 11 industrialized countries, the US ranked last in measures of system quality, efficiency, access to care, equity, and healthy lives. Spend $8,508 per person compared to UK, next highest, with $3, 406. And they ranked first overall on the same measures. We heave a lower life expectancy, more chronic disease, and higher infant mortality.
  • Improved health starts with a healthy society. Poor people die younger than the rich, are exposed to higher levels of pollution. Stress, depression, substance abuse. Health depends on a good education, clean air and water, access to decent paying jobs. Equality for all regardless of race, sexual orientation or nationality. These are all health issues. “The bottom line is that everything is connected to everything.”
  • People with no hope of affording college sometimes give up at an early age. Wasted years in high school, see no point. Free college would change that.
  • 200 million people could be displaced by climate change by 2050. Bigger refugee crisis than any we’ve yet seen.
  • Taxpayers’ subsidies to fossil fuel companies. 5 billion in incentives for fuel extraction a year, 49 billion a year in research development, plus direct subsidies and lucrative leases on drilling and mining on public lands and offshore. The End Polluter Welfare Act would save $130 billion over a decade, and could be directed to transitioning to a clean energy economy.
  • Taxing carbon and methane would require companies to internalize costs they currently externalize. If they add to climate change, the costs are now borne by the cities and countries and town that are going underwater to sea level rise, by the famers losing crops to drought, etc. Other plans explained in detail.
  • Strong integrated analysis of impact of our high rate of incarceration on the economy, democracy. The rate at which we imprison our citizens is shocking when you see graph comparing us to others. We far exceed the incarceration rate of Russia and China, let alone democracies.
  • Line is from MLK, “socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.” Instead of turning middle class against those in most pain—scapegoating the poor and unemployed—we need “to stand together against wealthy special interests who get richer and richer while most everybody else gets poorer.”
  • Payroll taxes are only assessed on first 118,500 of income. So a CEO earning 20 million pays no more in payroll taxes than someone earning 118,500. America doesn’t have a problem with what one Social Security, adversary called “greedy geezers” but with the super-rich not paying their share. Income inequality and regressive taxation affect Social Security.
  • Reporters ask about the campaign as drama, not issues. The horse race details, not the reasons the candidate is running. About the candidate as a person, not the needs of the American people. Youth unemployment, climate change—real issues. 43 million Americans living in poverty. Name calling and personal attacks, the Reality TV approach worked for Trump. 234 network minutes compared to 10 for Sanders during primaries (Tyndall report)
  • “The great crisis we face as a nation is not just the objective problems we face—a rigged economy, a corrupt campaign finance system, a broken criminal justice system, and the extraordinary threat of climate change. The more serious threat is the limitation of our imaginations. It is falling victim to an incredibly powerful establishment—economic political, and media— that tells us every day, in a million different ways, that real change is impossible and unthinkable … That there are no alternatives.”
  • "Yes. We can overcome the insatiable greed that now exists and create an economy that ends poverty and provides a decent standard of living for all. Yes. We can create a vibrant democracy where knowledgeable citizens actively debate the great challenges they face. Yes. We can create a health care system that guarantees health care for every man, woman and child, and that focuses on disease prevention and keeping us healthy, not on outrageous profits for insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry. Yes. We can effectively combat climate change and transform our energy system away from fossil fuel and into energy efficiency and sustainable energy. 
  • No, we will not be able to accomplish these goals if we look at democracy as a spectator sport, assuming others will do it for us. They won’t. The future is in your hands. Let’s get to work.”

Comic Mystery Genius

The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein - J. Michael Orenduff

My delight in reading the Pot Thief books never fades. As I dive into each story, I find something cozy and familiar and yet full of surprises, a quality much like pot thief Hubie Schuze’s happy hour conversations over margaritas with his friend Susannah.


This book has the best opening I’ve read in years. It sets the tone, revealing Hubie’s sense of humor, while introducing the instigating event for the mystery immediately. “I was trying to remember if I’d ever been blindfolded before. I didn’t think I had, but the cloth over my eyes felt vaguely familiar, almost nostalgic. I couldn’t imagine why. The only images I could connect with blindfolds were kidnappings.”


Hubie is brought in this mysterious way to appraise a pot collection. In that collection, he finds something that shouldn’t be there. And the appraisal fee gets sneaked out of his pocket on the return trip. The lengths he goes to in order to get it back are clever (and illegal), and get him into trouble for something he didn’t do: kill the pot collector. Unexpected new romance comes out his attempts to sort out his situation.


Orenduff does something I’ve seen one other author do successfully (Martyn V. Halm, in his Amsterdam Assassin thriller series, which in all other ways is as different from the Pot Thief series as it could be, though just as good). He inserts interludes. These are short chapters which tell a story within the story, about a personal aspect of the main character’s life. These interludes are few, well-crafted and beautiful, revealing details about life in New Mexico and showing Hubie’s appreciation of old friends and of the place he lives. They aren’t unnecessary, though it may sound as if they are. The nature of these books is such that this is the pace. This is the personality. There is suspense, but it’s suspense from the point of view of a man who has some amusing opinions that he freely shares, and who savors the taste of life, from traditional New Mexican cooking and Gruet champagne, to friendships, the scenery on Sandia peak, and the unexpected companionship of a funny-looking dog.


As always, the story is full of fascinating information about what Hubie is studying. The book he’s reading on Einstein and quantum physics plays a key role in the plot and in his thinking, as he struggles to understand the uncertainty principle and figure out who really killed the pot collector.


If you haven’t started this series yet, begin at the beginning and make friends with Hubie in The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras.

The Microbiome of Democracy: A Life at the Roots of the Tree of Liberty

Washington: A Life - Ron Chernow

As I finished this book, the following image came to me: At the roots of every tree are bacteria and fungi, life forms we may think of as “icky” which are essential to the health of the tree. In and on our own bodies as well, innumerable tiny organisms thrive, and this population keeps us functioning. Democracy, the tree of liberty or the body politic, is no different. We may find some of its components disagreeable, even repellent, and yet taken as a whole, they promote a thriving democracy as long as they remain in balance.


Ron Chernow’s extensive biography of George Washington reveals the complex human being and the social ecosystem in which he matured. There was never a golden age in American history and there was never a president or leader who didn’t have shortcomings or make mistakes. The press was always full of leaks and partisan diatribes, and the American public has always been, since the birth of the nation, susceptible to conspiracy theories founded in fear of big government. Newspapers and pamphlets were the Twitter, TV and talk radio of the day. Backstabbing under pseudonyms, outright lies, and biased editorial policies were as common if not more common than the objective journalism modern media outlets sometimes aspire to. Washington was elected unanimously, but that doesn’t mean he was president of a nation free of minor squabbles or deep divisions.


Chernow makes it clear that Washington’s genius lay not in being perfect but in knowing when to speak and when to say nothing (he ignored attacks in the press), and when to act and when to wait, as well as being tactful, listening, taking time to think, and discerning talent in others and promoting the right people.


Here are two of my favorite quotations from Washington’s letters:


In this, he was writing to his adopted grandson: “Where there is no occasion for expressing an opinion, it is best to be silent, for there is nothing more certain that it is at all times more easy to make enemies than friends.”

The following is an excerpt from a letter Washington wrote to a Jewish congregation in Philadelphia. Note that the word “demean” back then related to one’s demeanor and didn’t have its modern meaning of debasing. It meant comport or behave. “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunity of citizenship. It is now no more that tolerance is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives bigotry no sanction, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” He found religious tolerance to be too weak a concept, too condescending toward religious minorities.


Perhaps you’ve read this much of the review and think, “Okay, got it, I can skip the book.” Maybe. But I think many people will enjoy reading it. Here’s why.


One of many things I love about being in a book club is the diversity of genres we explore. For October’s read, we chose this 800-plus page book. As you might expect with a book that long, we felt the need to postpone our discussion into November so we could finish it. Many times, we chose a book that one or two members decide not to finish or that someone feels no need to have completed before we meet. This book was different. We all wanted to read every page before we talked about it. What makes this enormous volume so compelling? After all, we know the plot—the main character’s career, who he marries, who won the war, and of course, who won that first presidential election. I’ve tried to identify the features of this biography that make it a page-turner above and beyond the question that keeps a lot readers going in fiction—“how will it end?”


Friendships make great stories. It’s easy to think the strongest drama is in romantic love, but in some lives it isn’t. George and Martha Washington’s marriage was long, affectionate, stable and free of scandal. His friends provided more drama—not that he liked drama, but a reader does. Alexander Hamilton was a powerful, valuable and difficult friend, a needed ally but not an easy one. Lafayette was loyal and affectionate, almost like a son to Washington. The contrast between his emotional, open personality and the reserved Washington makes for good reading, and makes the reader care about both of them and understand their rapport. A story about friendships could be filled with enough variety that no romantic drama is needed: Friends who support the main character and friends who undermine or disappoint him; friends who fail in their struggles; friends who challenge and refine his character and ideas. Washington had all of these.


Enemies make great stories, too, of course, if they are well-developed characters. Washington’s colleagues who wanted to supplant him in the army provide some lively incidents. The way he let these ambitious fellow generals destroy themselves without his taking any action against them is amazing. He could foresee how his enemies might trip themselves up and then wait and let them do it. Once in a while, however, he failed to read character well. Benedict Arnold and his wife Peggy are fascinating, more so than any British general. Betrayed trust makes a more complex story than frank, constant opposition. (Historical fiction writers: There’s potential for a novel in Peggy Arnold.) Do you know if Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were Washington’s friends or enemies? Did he know? Read the book and find out. It gets complicated.


Unexpected characteristics are engaging: Imagine a president who hopes he’ll only be needed for two years and can then resign. (Obviously, he didn’t get his wish.) Washington described being elected in terms comparable to being condemned to death. Martha dreaded being first lady, too, and felt like a prisoner in that role. The aversion this couple had to being famous and powerful is a trait that contrasts with common expectations of people in politics.


Minor characters can be compelling—and reveal a lot about the main character. Washington’s mixed feelings about slavery show in his relationships with his slaves, refusing to permanently separate married couples or to break up families. His personal attendant, William Lee, who went through the war with him, married a free black woman in Philadelphia and asked that she be brought to Virginia when Washington returned home. He didn’t like Lee’s wife and still he did as Lee asked. (What a complicated life this couple must have had when she arrived. Lee is another figure would make an intriguing central character for a historical novel.) In many ways, Washington treated Lee like a valued employee, but he owned him. He showed solicitude about all of his slaves’ health and family relationships, but they still were slaves and he expected them to work as if they were being paid for the labor, and tried to reclaim those who ran away to join the British during the war. The inconsistency in his behavior reveals the conflict he felt inside. It took him his whole life, literally, to resolve his inner conflict about slavery.


Washington’s attitude toward women was positive. He found them better company than men socially. A dinner party was disappointing if it was lacking ladies. He admired female historians and poets, and never seemed to think them inferior to male writers. Even while he conversed with intellectual women like Elizabeth Powel as his equals, he advised a headstrong niece that she should learn to submit her will more to her husband’s. The idea that women might vote never came up, of course, no matter what political insights Mrs. Powel could give him.


Family conflicts create empathy. Who would imagine that a great leader had a whiny, you-never-take-care-of-poor-me mother? Think of the Dwayne-and-Mom sketches on Prairie Home Companion and take them back to the 18th Century, and you have an idea what it was like for our first president to deal with Mary Washington.


Flaws and failures are important. If the main character doesn’t have pain and weakness, there’s no interest. No matter how strong someone is, that person has troubles—family, health, finances, all of the above—and sometimes makes major blunders. A character who can hold a reader’s attention usually has more virtues than flaws, but the balance can be close to fifty-fifty, if the flaws are traits readers can identify with and are paired with the opposite virtue, or are its shadow side. Washington tried to keep his temper but he couldn’t always. He tried to be honest, but he could tell a lie, even though he preferred not to. His respect and admiration for women was a virtue, but it was a blind spot that let Peggy Arnold get away. His generosity was a good trait though he often spent money he couldn’t spare, being short of funds due to crop failures and because he shopped, redecorated and remodeled far more than he reasonably should have. This didn’t stop him from paying for the college education of various young relatives and other deserving young men, and entertaining every stranger who dropped by Mt. Vernon. It would be hard to like a character who only spent too much on home décor, but when his extravagance his extended to paying tuition also, the reader’s feelings lean in his favor. Some of the provisions made in his will say even more about his character, but to reveal them would be a spoiler.


I opened the first page already knowing how the main character lived and died, but all of the features above kept me turning the pages.


Ice Age Mystery

Death in the Time of Ice (A People of the Wind Mystery) - Kaye George

Neanderthals, in this original and fast-moving tale, live in small bands led by an elected female chief. They have abilities we lack, traits that author Kaye George imagined as possibilities due to their larger brain size. She handles this fictional world with such deftness, I immediately fell into the rhythm of the characters’ “thought-speak” and accepted her well-researched speculations about the lives of our very ancient ancestors. * George believably creates her fictional tribe’s culture, customs, religion, language and the sagas their story-teller uses to give meaning to crucial moments in the life of the struggling band.


In the Hamapa tribe, women are considered the only ones patient enough to be spear-throwing hunters. Considering the powerful build of Neanderthals, I can easily imagine the women having this skill. I occasionally marveled at some of the physical feats the characters achieve, but then, I remembered: they’re Neanderthals. They are stronger than us. Not only were their brains were different from ours, so were their bodies.


The tension of the story depends as much on the challenges of hunter-gatherer life in an encroaching ice age where giant mammals roam as it does on solving the murder of a cherished leader in a close-knit community. I say this as a compliment: this book doesn’t stick to the formula for a murder mystery in a setting where to do so would be unrealistic. Enga Dancing Flower, the protagonist—like most of the young women of her tribe—is a hunter. Her patience and skill help her solve the mystery. If you like strong female leads, you can’t find one stronger. One of the things I loved about this book is that the characters are free from confining gender roles as we know them.


Death in the Time of Ice could be enjoyed as historical fiction by readers who aren’t normally mystery fans. I read both genres, and this book succeeds as an innovative blend. It didn’t feel like a whodunnit in mammoth skins, but like a genuine and natural story for its setting. Understandably, it takes the author years to research and create a new book in this series, so there is only one other so far, Death on the Trek. I bought it the day I finished this one and am definitely going to read it.


* Neanderthals are not everyone’s ancestors. Asians and Europeans have 1% to 4% Neanderthal DNA. Indigenous sub-Saharan Africans don’t. Modern humans apparently migrated out of Africa and met Neanderthals and made babies with them. It’s possible this is how Neanderthals “died out.” They gradually blended into the general hominid population.

Imaginative and Original Psychic Mystery

The narrator, Darnda Jones is a bug psychic. She can tune into bugs and inspire them to go away, keeping people from spraying and killing them. This charmed me immediately, since I love insects. That someone so gentle she literally won’t hurt a fly could get involved in a murder investigation seems unlikely, so the juxtaposition is inventive. In Stung, Darnda is engaged to de-bug an outdoor wedding in Houston. She’s not only communicates with insects, birds and other creatures, but she’s learning to move her perception inside of theirs, to quite literally take a bird’s eye view. While in the point of view of a scarlet tanager, she witnesses a murder at the wedding.


Using her psychic gifts, her granddaughter Zo’s complementary intuition with human energy and emotional material, and her skill with people, Darnda investigates the death while also cooperating with the police. This is an amateur sleuth mystery in which it actually makes sense that the amateur can learn things the police can’t. Her psychic experiences are beautifully written and thoroughly researched, showing insights into the ways plants, birds and insects communicate with each other and sense the world.


The humor in the book comes authentically from relationships, events, and Darnda’s offbeat outlook on the world. The murder and other crimes are not made light of. In fact, Darnda and Zo are so sensitive to human cruelty that I felt that the awfulness of certain acts more vividly than I have in other light or cozy mysteries.


Darnda’s self-acceptance and wisdom as well as her unusual talents make her stand out from the run-of-the mill cozy protagonist. This is one of those books that made me care more about the characters than the plot. It wasn’t hard to figure out who done it, though that didn’t in any way affect my enjoyment of the book.


Houston is portrayed well. The city’s various neighborhoods, its unique character, and its climate, vegetation and insects, all come to life.


My only tiny quibble with the whole novel is a little too much phone business in a chapter near the end, with several scenes back to back that consist of a series of phone calls.


A great read, polished, fluid, and unique, a change of pace in mystery.


Note: Once again, Booklikes had no link for the book I was reviewing, and I had to find and provide the cover image. Am I reading things that are that obscure?

Art and Murder in 1950s Santa Fe

Review of Done From Life by Elspeth Grant Bobbs


Note: Booklikes did not have any link to this book available.


Rumor has it that a number of the characters in this book are based on real people who were part of the art scene in Santa Fe in the fifties. The author was part of that scene, married to an artist, but she didn’t write the book until 2011 when she was in her late eighties. Her ability to immerse her perspective in a fifties mindset without a single slip or anachronism is impressive. It makes the book fascinating and often startling, as the narrator, feisty young Mary McIntyre—Mac to most people—takes the sexism around her for granted, casually describes a fashion of the time as a “squaw dress” without the slightest sense that the word could be offensive, and tiptoes around the fact that someone is gay with what was no doubt open-mindedness and acceptance for those times. I’m not complaining about these features of the book; it’s realistic and well-done. The time period is neither romanticized nor denigrated, shown as it was in society overall, and in particular in Santa Fe (fictionalized as Villa Real, part of the city’s full name, La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis, the Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi).


The characters are irresistibly both likeable and flawed, none of them fatally. Except, of course, one—the killer. Mac, who moved to Santa Fe for her health after spending time in a sanitarium (a true-to-life aspect of fifties New Mexico), works for the local art association. Three of its senior members, established artists, have recently died in accidents. During her illness, Mac read a lot of mystery novels to pass the time. For a lark, she and her neighbor, struggling artist Bill Thorpe, start plotting a mystery novel as if the deaths had been murders. Then, the more they think about it, the more they suspect it’s what really happened. Mac’s problem: she knows and likes all the suspects. Including Bill.


As Mac recovers her health and her looks, she basks in male attention, not hesitating to date two men at once, one of them married, taking unabashed pleasure in the situation and at the same time learning more about the murders that the police are sure were accidents.


As I read, I absorbed new information about an artist’s life and work, got a feel for a city I know and love as it was sixty-odd years ago, and enjoyed working out the puzzle in Mac’s engaging company. I suspected who had done it, but not how or why, though all the clues were well laid. So were the red herrings. Bobbs handles what is normally the worst scene in any mystery—the confession scene—with genuine originality, eliminating almost all of the clichés. At the end, Mac’s decision how to handle her knowledge is morally ambiguous, but her reasoning is clear.


A special charm of this book, for those who know Mrs. Bobbs’ contributions to Santa Fe, is that Mac’s hobby is gardening. Mrs. Bobbs’ gardens at La Querencia are legendary, making her a Santa Fe Living Treasure. The gardens, in fact, are her claim to fame, and it’s quite possible there are many people who know of her for this achievement and don’t realize she wrote a mystery.

I do have to point out a shortcoming in this book. I wish the copyeditor had done justice to it. Sunstone Press should have someone who is more attentive to detail do it over, fixing simple things like run-on sentences, a few unclear lines of dialog, etc. that the original editor should have corrected before publication. These oversights annoyed me considerably at first, but I became so immersed in the story that although I still noticed the problems, I ceased to be so distracted by them. The author earns a four star, but the editor does not.



Putting the Thrill in Thriller

The Kate Jones Thriller Set (Vol. 1) - D.V. Berkom

True or false:

“Bad boys” are sexy.

Dangerous men are exciting.

A man with money and power can make a girl’s life magical.


False, all the way through. Ask Kate Jones. She made the youthful mistake of believing these things were true. This series of novellas chronicles her attempts to escape the consequences of a very bad romantic error, from her first break-out to the follow-ups years later. Each episode is hair-raising and intense. Even though I knew Kate would survive—after all, it’s told in the first person, in her irresistibly frank and sometimes sassy voice—I still couldn’t stop reading, feeling as if she somehow might not make it. I was glad these are novellas so I could reach a stopping point and get some sleep.


In the first novella, an old man in Mexico warns Kate that she has ‘bad spirits.” Without this set-up, some of her extraordinary bad luck in subsequent episodes might not quite work, but instead, it creates a subtle shamanistic element in the series. Kate not only attracts danger but also seers. Their presence reminds the reader that she’s enmeshed in a web of forces largely outside her control, some spiritual, some all too physical, as she keeps fighting, and sometimes running, for her life.




Breaking Rules

Just One Evil Act - Elizabeth  George


I love long books when they’re done well, and this one is. This in-depth police procedural is as much an exploration of the many chambers of the heart as it is a crime novel, and it inhabits both roles equally well. The forms love takes—from gentle attraction to friendship to passion to unrequited devotion; from the love between couples to the love between parent and child, and even an interlude with a religiously obsessed form of love—fill the story. George keeps the pace engrossing while going deep into the souls of her characters. She also goes deep into the work the police officers do. There’s no quick and easy solution to the crimes being investigated. Every trail leads to new questions.


Set in both London and Italy, this mystery is original and free from predictable genre formulas. Not the standard dead body by chapter three canned plot. No hackneyed confrontation and confession at gun-or-knife-point. The author breaks rules and has the skill to do it.


As well as the theme of love, the book explores the breaking of rules and conventions, which love often moves people to do. Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, more than Inspector Thomas Lynley, drives the story. She’s somehow irresistible, though she’s a mess, or maybe because of it. She does what she isn’t supposed to do, whether it’s the way she dresses, her unhealthy habits, or her on-the-job behavior. When she’s determined to help a neighbor, a close friend, whose nine-year old daughter has been kidnapped, Havers pushes the limits professionally and risks her career. Her friend has broken with conventions in many ways himself. A Pakistani Muslim, a professor of microbiology, the distinguished and gentle man has left his family for passionate affair with a stunningly beautiful English woman, the mother of his beloved child. When she leaves him and takes their daughter with her, it’s the first twist in a winding plot.


One mystery leads to another. The cast of characters ranges from the usual main players at New Scotland Yard to a private detective and his assistants—a colorful lot—to the Italian police as the inquiry into the missing girl becomes an international affair. The mystery plot is full of surprises and suspense, and the variety of subplots layered into it show it taking place in the lives of real people; it’s not just puzzle to be solved. Havers has a profoundly moving scene alone toward the end as she experiences the aftereffects of her long efforts on her friend’s behalf.


This book could stand alone. The backstory is handled smoothly and doesn’t spoil any prior books, but it will be even more appealing to readers who already know and care about Lynley and Havers.

Love, War and Medicine

The Doctor's Daughter: The Choice - Belle Blackburn

Finally—the sequel! And it’s even better than the first book in the series. The dialogue flows more naturally, the characters are intriguing, and the historical research is once again solid in every detail, including the important aspects of the two types of medicine practiced in the nineteenth century—traditional herbal folk doctoring and academic medicine (which was in its infancy). The narrator, Kate, is as lively and passionate as ever, with an earthy sense of humor that enlivens this tale of difficult times. She matures through the challenges she faces in this next stage of her story, and her sister-law Carolina does as well. The Civil War forces Kate and her wealthy in-laws and their slaves to take refuge from Nashville at her mother’s simple rural home. Kate’s medical doctor husband and her folk doctor or “yarb doctor” mother have to live together—and that’s not the only conflict. Imagine having your entire family with their varying views on politics, their personalities and their habits, sharing one small house.


The complexity of the war, with good and bad soldiers and supporters on both sides, is portrayed in living depth. The effects of the war on various social classes are also shown vividly, from poor farmer to slave to wealthy lawyer. This series would make an amazing TV miniseries. I’d love to see it dramatized.


So much happens in this story, in a true-to-life blend of tragedy, comedy and romance, the pace is riveting. At times it seems that too much happens, but it’s war time—and everyone is together. It's not only the conflicting views of the war and slavery that share a small space, but all the events in the lives of one family and their close neighbors also are compressed into a kind of intimacy where sometimes the only privacy is in the outhouse.


The theme of choice goes far beyond Kate’s personal life. I was particular moved by choices the slave George had to make. I recommend reading the first book before this one, to get to know Kate and her mother. The second book could stand alone, but the evolution of the relationships and the changes characters undergo through extraordinary trials will mean more if you meet them in The Doctor’s Daughter: Journey to Justice first.


Note: I received an ARC of this book for an honest review.