A little love, a little tolerance, and a little murder

Death at Rainbow Cottage by Jo Allen

 Rachel’s Random Resources Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a well-crafted murder problem nestled into a tight-knit community of well-developed characters.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 392

Publisher: Self

Series: DCI Satterthwaite Mysteries

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

Contemporary traditional mystery

From the publisher: The apparently motiveless murder of a man outside the home of controversial equalities activist Claud Blackwell and his neurotic wife, Natalie, is shocking enough for a peaceful local community. When it’s followed by another apparently random killing immediately outside Claud’s office, DCI Jude Satterthwaite has his work cut out.

This is the fifth of Jo Allen’s DCI Satterthwaite Mysteries, and as a first-time reader of her work, I can say I’m immensely pleased that this works as a standalone. I generally don’t review books that are several down a series unless I’m going to read the preceding books, but I apparently missed the part of the memo that this was number five, and I’m glad I did, or I’d have passed on this delightful mystery.

Because a murder in an isolated lane was one thing, but there was nothing to put the fear of God into the local population like a violent death on their own doorstep.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

I also generally skip police procedurals, because I’m married to a retired cop and I know enough by osmosis to get annoyed. But since this is set in the UK, not the US, and really fits more into the traditional mode than a mystery that is overly wrapped up in the CSI details, again, I’m glad I didn’t miss this one.

Allen does a marvelous job of the key ingredient that makes mysteries fun to me: she creates a deft puzzle, and I had different suspects pegged throughout the book, changing my mind with new information, but never guessed the actual killer until scant pages before the reveal. All the clues were there, and seem glaring in retrospect, but were laid with such skill that none clicked.

Claud had struck him as a man who never let anything go, who worked long hours and never respected anyone else’s time off and now, it seemed, he had the proof of that.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

As if that wasn’t enough, the book is dense with great characters, none of them overly simple, and she does a good job of avoiding most of the usual tropes. It’s clear there’s more to the story than what is covered within it, but it struck me not as though I’d missed something by not reading the first four (which are now on my TBR), but more like the windup for a larger story arc that had elements yet to be revealed.

Church and folk music were Doddsy’s interests, two things that suddenly made him feel older than he was. The shadow of a mid-life crisis lengthened behind him, stealing ever closer to his shoulder.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

Allen’s prose is straightforward and crisp, with the occasional infusion of dry wit, and the pace is as brisk as that sounds. The insulated world of the police department is well done, as officers do tend to flock together as much as the book implies, and there is a certain disconnect between those on the inside and those family members who just don’t quite get how running an investigation can interfere with your social and family commitments.

Jet lag was a brute at the best of times, bestowing all the privations of a hangover with none of the fun that might have preceded it.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

My quibble would be that I wasn’t sure that DCI Satterthwaite was actually the protagonist, despite the name, although I suppose the same could be said for Hercule Poirot—in the novels, usually someone else is the protagonist, with Poirot managing to confound them. But the shifts of POV took me a little work to figure out who’s story was being told, although in the end, it was effective.

Civil twilight, her father called it—daylight was done, darkness yet to come upon them. Only the glow over the Lake District fells and the light from the car headlights offered her any comfort.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

My other quibble was the representation of various mental health issues: anxiety disorder and OCD in particular. It’s not that the representation was unsympathetic; it just felt incomplete. However, the inclusion of characters with these issues doesn’t mean you have to show the total array of how those mental health issues may manifest; it just that these representations hewed a little closer to some stereotypical representations (which, in all fairness, exist as well as other versions) and may cause some discomfort for those who do have those syndromes.

She wasn’t so simple that she didn’t understand her new boyfriend’s driving passion was a slow-burning determination for revenge on the old.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

This book also is an intriguing look into all the ways people can love and mate. At the core of it, the Rainbow Cottage is what it sounds like—the home of a man devoted to promoting understanding among straight cisgendered people and the rainbow of other sexualities. These themes are brought up explicitly in the sensitivity sessions that are not particularly welcomed by the busy DCI nor the gay officer who feels like he’s being pressured to talk more than he’d like, as well as the murders themselves, which begin with a gay man and a lesbian woman.

Though even the metrosexual parents, the ones who thing they’re right up with it…even those ones are perfectly happy for everyone else to be gay but they can’t help questioning things a little bit when it’s their boy.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

Allen sensibly took the time to employ a sensitivity reader for the topics, because although the protagonists and tone of the book is clearly meant to be LGBTQIA+ friendly, it touches on homophobia, particularly as a motivation for the murders, and some of the statements of certain characters are a bit distasteful. As a cisgender straight woman, I can’t speak for the experience of someone in the community, but it felt like a lot of effort was made to avoid stereotypes or tropes.

It wasn’t always self-doubt that held people back from being themselves, but doubt about the open-heartedness of their neighbors and friends, unspoken judgment behind a mask of tolerance.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

Not only that, there’s the romantic life—and its complications—of Jude and Ashleigh as well as the other members of their circle. The takeaway for me was that although we can be attracted to and love lots of different types of people, the problems we face in relationships seem to boil down to the same short list of problems.

Perhaps a lot of crimes took place behind just such a curtain of perfection, dramas playing out in the heart while the window on the world was one of false happiness.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

I particularly want to give a shoutout for the portrayal of the prickly Detective Superintendent Faye Scanlon. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve worked for this bitch before (although sometimes as a bastard)—and the paranoid, ambitious boss is a great person to love to hate. You just cringe every time she walks into a room.

Faye championed equality and fairness in the workplace but only for others. In personal matters ruthlessness and her own interests held sway.

Jo Allen, Death at Rainbow Cottage

Although I wouldn’t call this a cozy, I’d recommend it to cozy mystery fans who also like Agatha Christie and the like. I vastly enjoyed my time in Cumbria with DCI Satterthwaite and the gang, and look forward to reading more of this series from the talented Jo Allen.


Love, healing, and betrayal

Blood and Chaos by Nicole Sallak Anderson

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a tragic tale soaked in mysticism and warfare set in Ptolemaic Egypt.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 398

Publisher: Literary Wanderlust

Series: Song of the King’s Heart

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Historical fantasy

From the publisher: Prince Ankhmakis has left his beloved Natasa for war and treacherous obstacles block his path to becoming Egypt’s last native king. He is the warrior that the men revere, and his orders are followed without question. He is strong and powerful with Natasa on his side, and the fear that breeds in those around him is more dangerous to Ankhmakis than the swords of the Greeks.

The second book in a trilogy, Blood and Chaos almost succeeds as a standalone. The pacing and story is more compelling than the first entry in the series, Origins, and if it had not stopped at point where it feels incomplete, I’d readily champion it as a very good standalone.

There was music and revelry in the distance—the sounds of men letting go of the horrors of battle.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

I’m still not convinced a reader wouldn’t be able to start with this volume, though. The reasons for Hugronaphor’s rebellion against the Ptolemaic pharaoh Philopator might be hazy, as the story begins after the fight for independence has begun, but the story is focused far more on the internal politics of Hugronaphor’s court than on the war itself. There is a good deal of backstory that would enrich a reader’s understanding of some of the characters’ motivations, but those motivations still are recapped in this installment.

The divine pair is what humanity longs for. no man should have to settle for less.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

Nicole Sallak Anderson generally does a convincing job summoning up a culture of which little is known, despite the occasional word choice that sounds a little too modern and pulls me out of the world she’s woven. The Egypt of the Ptolemaic pharaohs began in 305 BCE with the division of Alexander the Great’s empire among four of his generals. Ptolemy Philopator was the fourth of these pharaohs, and many would argue he was the beginning of the decline of the Ptolemaic kingdom. He was also the first of the Ptolemies to have his heir borne by his sister-wife.

The world yearns for a warrior to save us, and the gods send us a little, half-breed girl. Alas, even the gods can be wrong about these things.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

The historic accounts of what has been called the Great Revolt of the Egyptians or the Great Theban Revolt are sparse, and the causes just as hazy in reality. The immorality of Philopator was mentioned in old sources, but probably didn’t have much affect on most Egyptian citizens. The Greeks were definitely the elite, but hellenized Egyptians could find jobs within the Ptolemaic bureaucracy. Egypt was under foreign rule, but it had been for the majority of the preceding 320 years, when Persia first conquered Egypt, with the exception of a period of 61 years well over a hundred years prior to the period of this novel

It is a sin against the goddess to govern a woman’s sexuality…It is wrong to buy women to be sex slaves and concubines…but to force a priestess of Isis to pair with a man she doesn’t love is a sin.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

However, Anderson does a good job of elaborating on what is there to make a convincing world. She recreates two primary sects, that of Isis and Set, representing love and chaos respectively, and gives each an extensive belief system. She recreates a plausible court, with many rivalries and jealousies.

You see the world different than I do. I don’t try to change you, so stop trying to change me.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

The two protagonists, Ankhmakis and Natasa, are well-developed and easy to relate to, and the villains are easy to hate. There are fewer prolonged scenes of graphic sex between Ankhmakis and Natasa in this volume, which I preferred, focusing more of the spiritual connection between them outside of the physical relationship. The petulant sister-wife of Ankhmakis (a purely political union) is particularly well done, as is Eleni, Natasa’s sister, who exudes all the outraged naivete of a tweenie.

Like me, you have no power here. You serve by command of the pharaoh, and we are objects to these people. Nothing more.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

One minor character that really stands out to me is the Ethiopian general who arrives as an ally, Khaleme. As a moral outsider, he seems to have the most clear-eyed view of what is going wrong in the court, and doesn’t hesitate to call them out.

There are many types of people in the world, and each has a right to live. My men will not kill civilians.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

There is a fantastic element to these novels as well: astral travel, telepathy, psychic attacks, and precognition all make appearances. These elements are all linked to the religions of those exercising these powers, and abilities seem predicated more on discipline and practice than mere talent, although the most powerful are also those with a priestly lineage.

The world behind the world is the origin of every action on Earth. We can approach it with humility, ask to be a part of it, and co-create with the divine.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

All in all, this is an absorbing visit to a little-known and rarely discussed period of Egyptian history, and I recommend checking out this installment in the tragedy of Ankmakis.


More things in heaven and earth

A Man of Honor, or Horatio’s Confessions by J.A. Nelson

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to read something inspired by Hamlet, but from his best friend’s POV and set in the aftermath of Hamlet’s actions.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 416

Publisher: Quill Point Press

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

16th century Europe alt-hist


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From the publisher: Surrounded by the bodies of slain monarchs, a dying prince extracts a promise from his friend, Horatio: “Tell my story.” Rival kings of warring nations strive to lay claim to the throne, now vacant, but what will happen to the people who live there, at Helsingør’s Krogen Castle? How will Horatio preserve his honor and the prince’s legacy while surviving this murderous kingdom and the men who would rule it?

It will probably seem odd that I chose to read this book when I have never been a big fan of Hamlet. There are amazing soliloquies within the play, including the arguably best known in the English language, “To be or not to be.” I’ve taken multiple courses that have included study of the play. But I’ve never liked the eponymous “hero.”

Even the most steadfast, loyal friend could never make Hamlet walk a straight, logical line. No one could have saved him from himself, or from fate.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

So I chose this book out of a hope that I’d find something or someone more likable. I’m unchanged in my views on Hamlet; I still don’t like the guy. But starting with the survivors when the curtain fell and the reality of a rather convoluted path to the bodies all over the room which had to be explained to the new ruler was appealing.

“Pah. You know nothing about the games between a court and a new king taking his enemy’s throne. You have never seen cats claw the dogs, dogs chew the rats.”

“I’ve seen much of that. You know nothing of academia.”

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

J.A. Nelson has taken on an audacious task in retelling a play so familiar to so many, and she has chosen language that usually works to convey an echo of the Shakespearean pentameter. Occasionally, though, I found it seemed to push over the top, resulting in a reaction counter to the intent. The fact that it didn’t happen frequently is a testament to the skill with which Nelson told the story.

Failure’s cursed tendrils squeezed my heart. My legs were as weak as sea froth. Grief burrowed deeper, doubling its possession of me.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

Using Hamlet’s bestie, Horatio, as the protagonist works well. It’s been a while since I last read or saw Hamlet (see “not a fan” above), but IIRC, Horatio is pretty much just a straight man for Hamlet, so it was he was a good vehicle for this expansion. Nelson does a nice job of adding backstory, character arc, and new characters to this post-Hamlet scenario. Nelson also places the story of Hamlet around 1513, with the main action of the book occurring thereafter.

Soon the massive table was crowded with disgorged boxes, their brittle organs extracted, examined, and discarded.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

This is where the alt-history part comes in. Although the play was performed as if it occurred around that time, the legend of Hamlet is much older, and there’s much debate about the extent to which Hamlet came directly from the Gesta Danorum or through other sources. In the Gesta Danorum, the Hamlet character is Amleth of Jutland, and recorded prior to the 13th century. So to make the Hamlet story actually occur in Helsingor, Zealand, Denmark, in the early 16th century, Nelson takes some interesting liberties with the actual history, as the thrones of Denmark and Norway were held by the same person both before and after 1513, Hans and then Christian II.

Reynaldo looked every bit the illegitimate spawn of a wasp and an ass. But he was not stupid.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

Nelson does address that, albeit a little briefly, in her Author’s Note, acknowledging that those plot points do fall outside what facts are known. However, this alternative history doesn’t do too much violence to the real one, as Nelson chooses many actual historical circumstances to weave into her tale, giving it a high degree of verisimilitude.

A shrinking world expanding with idiots.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

However, for all the objective things right with this book, it still fell a little flat with me. I had difficulty in the beginning, when the main plot points of Hamlet are rehashed with my concomitant annoyance at Hamlet. Once that was over, I felt like things picked up a bit, but there were various plot points that I didn’t quite buy, mostly the speed at which relationships developed (positive and negative) and Horatio’s propensity for mastering skills at an unreasonably fast pace. I know time is collapsed in fiction, and I generally can overlook that compression, but there are times where the perceived time still doesn’t gel, usually when those items develop at a different pace than the other aspects of the story.

Chivalry’s stiff etiquette and battery of skills were not taught to commoners. I did not care for the challenge of honesty that Margrete favored, but I would apprentice in knighthood if that meant I could pursue her.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

If you’re a Hamlet fan, you’ll probably find more to like than I. Nelson displays considerable skill in how she crafts the language so that it resonates with Hamlet without mimicking it, and aficionados of the Bard should include it in their reading.


Fighting the man, 1913 style

Big 4+ review: The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

r/suggestmeabook: I want a meticulously told history of the 1913 copper mine strike in Calumet, Michigan, focusing on the woman called the American Joan of Arc.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 339

Publisher: Atria

Progessive era historical fiction

From the publisher: In July 1913, twenty-five-year-old Annie Clements has seen enough of the world to know that it’s unfair. She’s spent her whole life in the mining town of Calumet, Michigan, where men risk their lives for meager salaries—and have barely enough to put food on the table for their families. The women labor in the houses of the elite, and send their husbands and sons deep underground each day, dreading the fateful call of the company man telling them their loved ones aren’t coming home. So, when Annie decides to stand up for the entire town of Calumet, nearly everyone believes she may have taken on more than she is prepared to handle.

Mary Doria Russell has a wonderful afterward explaining what is and isn’t historically accurate, which I always appreciate, and it reinforced my initial impression that this was a meticulously researched book. On the spectrum from narrative history to costume drama, this would be more weighted toward the historical, but it doesn’t shade into feeling like docudrama as some novels can.

They believed their daddies’ wealth was ordained by God and nature, and the Supreme Court told them they were right. A man who accepted a job was servant to a master, that’s what the court said. If he took a wage, he could be treated any way that master pleased.

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

Perhaps that’s because Russell does a great job of making Anna and her main assistant, Eva, so approachable and sympathetic. Here is a woman who takes on a monumental challenge: organizing the women of a copper mining town, where everything is owned or controlled by the mining company. Yet she’s fully human and flawed—she never comes off as someone who is somehow divinely appointed or a creature unlike us mere mortals.

Women who now refuse to tell another generation of children, This is all you can hope for. This is all your labor is worth. This is all your lives are worth.

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

Given that there’s very little about Annie in her own words, Russell has done a great job of constructing a believable person from the facts known about her: she was approximately six feet tall and reached that height early, her father was also a copper miner who was originally from Slovenia, her parents died when she was young, and she married a 30-year-old man when she was 19. Extrapolating that mix in the context of the period, and she’s come up with a convincing version of this young woman.

With her big plans and her unshakable determination, her beautiful smile and her relentless bustling, young Mrs. Clements is indeed convinced that far-away shareholders can be shamed into acting decently. You have to love that, he thinks. She hasn’t been beaten down yet. She’s not cynical.

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

There are many characters that are only part of the story for short sections, but are memorable, particularly the governor and the judge he sends to try to settle the strike. Their interactions were amusing and showed that not all of the elite was on the side of the corporation. Another is the photographer, Michael Sweeney, who is fictional.

He is deeply suspicious of those who are hostile to compromise of any kind. Given his own conversation with James MacNaughton, he is inclined to be sympathetic toward the frustration such a man’s employees might feel.

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

And because of him and the role of photography in the book, I decided to look through historical photos to put in the banner and kind of lost my mind. Many aren’t dated, but are from the general period. Any photo specifically strike-oriented is from the 1913 strike. The photo with the women in black? The one carrying the big American flag is Annie. The office and portrait? MacNaughton. If you want to see more relevant photos, the best source I found was the Copper Country Historical Images Database from Michigan Tech.

The character that gave me some pause was the CEO of the copper company, James MacNaughton. He’s just completely irredeemable. However, in the author’s note, Russell does a good job of explaining that he really was that guy. His attitudes about his immigrant workers and his complete indignation about their needs, though, I’ve heard echoed by smallish business owners (in the low seven figures) about other racial groups—or millennials, so those guys are still around.

The Finns are the worst. And the Slavs! Croats and Slovenians. Anarchists, half of them. Socialists. Europe is gleefully exporting its wretched refuse to America. How long, he wonders, before the entire American workforce is undermined and replaced by nihilists and hoodlums?

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

From time to time, it does start sounding like an apologetic for the strikers, which was fine with me because I found all of it stirring and inspirational. However, my personal belief is that more people should realize just how much exploitation of workers there was (and still is) without government or union intervention, so it might be good for those who tend to discount the value of either to offset unbridled capitalism. There’s probably more danger of people thinking that’s all in the past. The efforts to discredit strikers and other people protesting oppression are still in use today.

Capital starts things, but labor brings them into the world. Our men wouldn’t have jobs without the capitalists but without labor, capital is stillborn, dead in the womb. Without labor, there is no return on investments.

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

It’s only a small note in the book, but I was really taken with the reference to Bread and Roses. I’d seen it before in some reference to a worker’s movement in England, but it hit me harder the way that Russell described Annie’s interpretation of the demand. It’s easy to gloss over the phrase, but it’s pretty profound in terms of how those in power view what labor is entitled to versus what labor believes it has earned. The contrast between the lives of those who profit by underpaid labor, with their frivolities, and the bare existence of those workers makes it clear that the powerful somehow feel their lives are worth more and that it is good and just that the cards are stacked in their favor.

You aren’t on strike so your children can have a better life, you’re fighting so that they can have a good life! You aren’t on strike for a better wage, you’re fighting for a good wage—a living wage! You aren’t on strike for less danger in the pits, you’re fighting for safe working conditions!

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

All in all, I quite enjoyed the thoughtful reconstruction of historical figures, some with only scant evidence of their personalities, particularly Annie Clements/Anna Clemenc, whom history should not have forgotten.


Even a Gilded Age heiress can’t always have what she wants

The Heiress Gets a Duke by Harper St. George

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I’d like a steamy Gilded Age romance between an unwilling, independent American heiress and a reluctant, flat broke English Duke.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 320

Publisher: Berkley

Series: Gilded Age Heiresses

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Gilded Age/Victorian romance

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From the publisher: American heiress August Crenshaw has aspirations. But unlike her peers, it isn’t some stuffy British Lord she wants wrapped around her finger–it’s Crenshaw Iron Works, the family business. When it’s clear that August’s outrageously progressive ways render her unsuitable for a respectable match, her parents offer up her younger sister to the highest entitled bidder instead.

If you love the chase in a romance with a good dose of sexual tension, this is your book. Harper St. George creates two strong-minded characters with different goals and does a pretty good job of not moving the constant mistaken interpretation of each other’s actions over the line into the ridiculous or annoying.

New York Society thrived on financial and social matches made in marriage, and one unwilling bride wasn’t going to change anything. A hundred unwilling brides wouldn’t change anything.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

There are some really nice touches to this overall predictable story (given the title, the outcome isn’t going to be much of a surprise). There are the chapter epigraphs with quotes from writers of the era (and before), such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Benjamin Disraeli.

The sharp scent of gin, sweat, and cheap cigarette smoke tinged the air. People yelled to be heard over the cacophony of a hundred different conversation.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

Her detailed descriptions evoke everything from crowded and malodorous Whitechapel to the decaying grandeur of an English country house to the perfumed press of a London Season event. I’m generally not that attuned to descriptions of fashion, but St. George did a great job of describing a dress that would shock her milieu in a way that I could both envision the dress and understand the reaction.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on her mood, which changed from one minute to the next, the gown that had been delivered to their townhome last week had been far more scandalously cut than she had realized.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

The two protagonists, August (I so wanted to make it Augusta) Crenshaw and Evan Sterling, the Duke of Rothschild (I also tended to giggle at this title choice) are generally likable. Their interactions are enjoyable—the fighting couple that falls in love that can be traced back at least to The Taming of the Shrew or Much Ado About Nothing. August is modern enough for us to root for but still has the disadvantages of being a woman in the latter half of the 19th century; Evan is self-aware enough that his privileged position doesn’t alienate us.

August was the bluestocking. The one who, while pretty enough, would only marry when she could find a man who could overlook her many shortcomings. She was too opinionated. Too intelligent. Too mannish.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

What was more interesting to me was the other relationships these two had: August’s protective relationship with her little sister, who’s more astute than she gives her credit for; everyone’s relationship with August’s mother, an American Mrs. Bennet; Evan’s feelings about his brother and father; and the sweet relationship of Evan with his mother and sisters.

Bloody hell, this was to be his mother-in-law. Visions of endless holidays filled with her constant boasting stretched out before him. Perhaps bankruptcy would be worth it to avoid that fate.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

Of all of them, the most intriguing is that of August and her father. He has allowed her to be a part of his business, keeping books and evaluating financial opportunities. She feels valued to him as a result, and this burgeoning relationship with Evan complicates August’s relationship with her father in unexpected ways. This was, to me, the emotional core of the book, and it lifts this romance out of the humdrum.

My lord, although Miss Crenshaw is my daughter, she is also a trusted employee of Crenshaw Iron Works. I trust her discretion and her advice implicitly. you did say that this was a business issue?

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

If you’re not a fan of explicit sex scenes, there will be quite a few bits you’ll have to flip past, but the rest of the book makes it worthwhile. if you do like them, you should find plenty here to like.

As he held it tight, something had become clear to him. He wanted to win her on his own merit. He wanted her to choose him. And, more importantly, he did not want to hurt her.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

All in all, The Heiress Gets a Duke is an exemplary version of the love/hate romance with the commoner and a Duke, so if that’s a read you enjoy, put this one on your to-be-read list.


A funny thing happened at lunch in Panera’s

A Big 4+ review: Finlay Donovan Is Killing It by Elle Cosimano

r/suggestmeabook: I want a well-plotted mystery with a tinge of romance, a splash of humor, and a woman who’s finding herself as well as the perpetrators.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 368

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 1/12/2021

ARC courtesy of NetGalley

From the publisher: Edgar-Award nominee Elle Cosimano’s adult debut Finlay Donovan Is Killing It is the first in a witty, fast-paced mystery series, following struggling suspense novelist and single mom Finlay Donovan, whose fiction treads dangerously close to the truth as she becomes tangled in real-life murder investigations.

It’s not the first time I’ve read the premise: someone overhears a mystery author talking to someone else at a restaurant about her novel and thinks they’re talking about a real murder. This is the first time I’ve seen it taken on so effectively, and the novel is an enjoyable jaunt as Finlay Donovan considers the unthinkable because she’s been pushed into a corner.

The brochure had featured photos of happy families hugging each other on quaint front porches. It had used words like idyllic and peaceful to describe the neighborhood, because in the glossy pages of a real estate magazine, no one can see through the windows to the exhausted stabby mommy, or the naked sticky toddler, or the hair and blood and coffee on the floor.

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

Elle Cosimano’s descriptions of the struggles of a mother with young children are quite funny; the opening segment of how Finlay is trying to deal with her five-year-old’s attempt to cut her own hair is one of those insane things parents do when sleep-deprived. Not everything in the book is as original, though. The cheating asshole of an ex and the conniving bitch the ex left Finlay for are fairly standard characters (perhaps because they’re not unknown in real life), but other characters in the book make up for it, and the writing is crisp.

Sylvia was everything you’d imagine New Yorkers to be if you watched too much television. Probably because she was from Jersey. Her office was in Manhattan. Her shoes were from Milan. Her makeup looked like it had flow in on a DeLorean circa 1980, and her clots might have been skinned from a large jungle cat.

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

Probably my favorite character in the book is Vero, the nanny cum accountant who is completely unflappable and utterly competent, able to wrestle babies, exes, criminals, and cops with equal aplomb. Finlay, by comparison, is just making it up as she goes along, and doesn’t seem to have a clue about much of anything. However, it’s her growth over the course of the book that makes it stand above the typical murder mystery of its type.

Because banging your real estate agent isn’t a reason to want your husband dead. It might be a legitimate reason to want his balls maimed in an accident involving a Weedwhacker, or to wish him a horrific veneral disease hows symptoms include the words “burning discharge.” But killing a man for cheating on his wife would be wrong. Wouldn’t it?

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

The mystery itself is fairly far-fetched, but executed well enough that it didn’t make me feel the need to stop reading. Most people can believe that a woman would be willing to do anything to hold onto custody of her kids, but the mechanics of the deaths in here give me some pause. On the other hand, it was hard to sympathize with the level of guilt as much as the anxiety about being caught, as the victim was a terrible human being.

My back stiffened, one chilled muscle at a time. As I lifted my head, my focus jumped from the van to the garage door. The details of the night before were still fuzzy in my mind, blurred by champagne and panic, as if someone had taken an eraser to the edges, but I remembered.

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan Is Killing It

My biggest gripe about the book is that it felt like it had ended at least three times before it actually had. You shouldn’t turn the page and think, “What, it’s not over?” It would have been nice had not each of the next to last three chapters hadn’t ended with lines that sounded like the ending, but rather lead into the next one. But that’s a relatively small complaint.

All in all, it’s a solid, enjoyable read.


Philadelphia freedom: magic and mayhem

Big 4+ review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

r/suggestmeabook: I want a book about a formerly enslaved couple, previously conductors for the Underground Railroad, who practice magic and detection in Philadelphia.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 432

Publisher: Houghton Millan Harcourt

Series: Murder & Magic

Publication date: 3/2/2021

Historical fantasy mystery

From the publisher: As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Hetty Rhodes helped usher dozens of people north with her wits and magic. Now that the Civil War is over, Hetty and her husband, Benjy, have settled in Philadelphia, solving murders and mysteries that the white authorities won’t touch. When they find one of their friends slain in an alley, Hetty and Benjy bury the body and set off to find answers. But the secrets and intricate lies of the elites of Black Philadelphia only serve to dredge up more questions.

Nicole Glover has executed a wonderful debut novel, creating a world in which there are two magic systems, as segregated as the society in which they are found. Despite the suggestion of the cover and title, this story does not live in the period of the Underground Railroad, but in the immediate aftermath, with a couple celebrated as conductors trying to get on with their lives in a community that seems to wish to forget the past.

Sorcery overpowered. It devoured. It put people in chains and destroyed nations in the name of gold.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

There are many layers in Glover’s world, with Hetty and Benjy not quite at the bottom of their social order, but not near the top, either. The formerly enslaved and the always freedman don’t always mix, and Hetty and Benjy’s old friends, many of whom they personally conducted out of the slave states, seem to be trying to rise to the top of Black society, which means downplaying their former condition.

Hetty took another deep breath, and as she had done many times in the past, she pushed down her thoughts and feelings until they were tucked away and out of sight.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

It’s a dark world in this Philadelphia after the Civil War, and they are troubleshooters within it, trying to make sense of murders and kidnappings and body snatching. Not surprisingly, there’s bigotry to contend with, but also how to make a society among the various Blacks in this population: always free, freed by buying themselves out, freed by running away, and freed in the wake of the war. This particular story revolves around the murder of one of the first men they brought to Philadelphia, a man all about making a fast buck, feeling that money will make him more secure, but many other concerns radiate from that central story.

We aren’t slaves anymore. No more slipping away in the night to hastily dig graves and whisper prayers. We should be able to take care of our dead.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

As a typical admirer of the Underground Railroad, it threw me when there was a scene where a woman excoriates them for having helped people escape slavery. But it makes sense; those left behind probably did have to endure more for the sin of deliverance of a few, and some were probably bitter, either because they were left behind or they had complex feelings about not running. I just hadn’t thought of it as being anything more than inspiring, and it was good pause for thought that no matter how we now take something for granted as a positive, most activists in any era have detractors, even from those they are trying to benefit.

All these conductors. They were looking for a fight and didn’t care about the harm it caused, and they still are. Pushing people to vote, staging protests, making too much noise, attracting too much attention, and then they die.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The magic systems are quite interesting. There’s Sorcery, used by wand-wielding whites and forbidden to Blacks. There’s not too much about it, which makes sense, as neither Hetty nor Benjy practice it. Then there’s Celestial magic, which Hetty and Benjy practice, based on drawing sigils based on the constellations, which can be used for mundane tasks or impressive feats of defense. The magic takes discipline as well as talent, and appears to mostly be generationally transmitted.

No laws stopped white folks from trying to use Celestial magic, just jeers and taunts. There were stories of genuinely curious who attempted to learn, and books written by well-meaning abolitionists talking about what they called Primal magic found in slave quarters. In these same books, the writers were puzzled by this branch of magic. But that was their own fault. They had this idea that magic existed to make their lives easier.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The protagonists are complex, and even after the conclusion of the book, it feels as though there’s more to learn about them. I had difficulty at first keeping the other characters straight, as the in media res choices lead to the narrative reeling off names as if you should know who they are, so it took a while to get into it because I was busy trying to figure out who was being discussed. However, after a few chapters I started getting more comfortable with them and enjoyed the cast.

Benjy was smart in a way Hetty did not have words for. It was something greater than the books he read, or his ability to craft something out of metal. It was in how he saw the world, not just for what was there but what it could become.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The other quibble I have is with the denouement, which felt a little hurried and not as clear as I would have liked, and the clues to the murderer were a little murky, but there, once you know the answer. But this was a book in which I had over 30 passages highlighted, so it’s truly just a quibble. Glover touches on so many social aspects of the world with insightful observations that it was a challenge to decide which ones to include here.

A story is a living creature, and they need a personal touch to live on. You breathe in your woes, your loves, your troubles, and eventually they become something new.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

All in all, an engaging book in an interesting alternate reality and a world I’ll be happy to return to.


Polluted town, polluted lives

To The Dark by Chris Nickson

r/suggestmeabook: I’d like a mystery with a strong sense of place and pacing set in Leeds in 1822.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 238

Publisher: Severn House

Series: Simon Westow

ARC provided by Random Things Tours

Publication date: March 2, 2021

From the publisher: Leeds, 1822. The city is in the grip of winter, but the chill deepens for thief-taker Simon Westow and his young assistant, Jane, when the body of Laurence Poole, a petty local thief, emerges from the melting snow by the river at Flay Cross Mill. A coded notebook found in Laurence’s room mentions Charlie Harker, the most notorious fence in Leeds who’s now running for his life, and the mysterious words: To the dark. What was Laurence hiding that caused his death? Simon’s hunt for the truth pits him against some dangerous, powerful enemies who’ll happily kill him in a heartbeat – if they can.

This murder mystery is definitely atmospheric, as the darkness, pollution, and smell of industrial Leeds is hammered home. The pace is like a thrum of a machine, the beat of it steady and measured. Chris Nickson does an excellent job of creating a sense of place.

All her anger and frustration had faded, hammered down in footstep after footstep. Men would always think the worst of women. There was nothing she could do to alter their minds.

Chris Nickson, To the Dark

Simon Westow and Jane are living through their slow season when they are enlisted by the unfriendly constable to investigate the murder of the small-time thief. The phrase “to the dark” is repeatedly used, but the mystery is not solved—not in this book, at least, which is disappointing when it is built up as part of the focal point of the story.

She ran her fingertips over the scars on her forearm. A rising ladder of lines, the places where she’d cut herself. Her catalogue of failures, the punishments she’d inflicted.

Chris Nickson, To the Dark

The characters are not all that well-developed. Simon and Jane are explained by the significant traumas in their pasts, but not much else. Rosie, Simon’s wife, is mostly a placeholder. The bad guys are pretty much all stock characters. Perhaps there will be more in later installments, but there was little depth or growth from the characters.

At their age his home was in the workhouse, every daylight hour spent working in the mill. Beaten, abused, feeling like he was going to be trapped there for the rest of his life and wanting to die so it would be over.

Chris Nickson, To the Dark

Despite these shortcomings, the murder mystery and the atmosphere are enough to carry the book, making it worth finishing, and the writing itself is strong enough that I’d check out another installment.


Rachel’s Random Resources Blog Tour

Spotlight on: Mint by S.R. Wilsher

Historical Thriller

From the publisher: It’s the summer of 1976, and after nine years in prison, James Minter is home to bury his mother. A history of depression and a series of personal issues has seen her death ruled as suicide. His refusal to accept that conclusion means he must confront his violent stepfather, deal with the gangster who wants his mother’s shop and, of course, face the family of the boy he killed.

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

Excerpt from Mint

The shop is all so familiar. This place I should have called home, yet only ever thought of as a place to return to. The address where my mother and half-siblings lived. Never home, more an approximation. I’m not connected to it like I imagine others are theirs. I hadn’t been safe here, nor welcome. My mother had been too controlled by her husband, and Sam too in his thrall. Lara had kept me here. All the time, I’d felt like the small bird being pushed from the nest by the bullying interloper. While he’d called me the cuckoo.

I restock the fridge with some milk and butter from the nearby shop and put the bread and cereal on the worktop. I open a new jar of coffee and put the kettle on.

Outside, I hear the whine of heavy machinery starting up, and the contact of whirring metal on stone.

I leave the kitchen and go out into the back yard, through the gate and into the alleyway running along the back of the houses before entering the yard of the Mason’s next door.

Along one side, slabs of rough-cut granite lean against the high wall, while black marble and white marble are stocked horizontally, kept apart by thick wood battens.  A corrugated plastic roof built off the garden wall opposite the stacked stone extends over the yard, shielding the work bench and tools and bench-saw from the elements.

White dust fills the air, billows fussily around the head of a man in a grubby blacksmith’s apron, safety goggles, and blue facemask, who’s guiding a huge slab of white stone along a bench and through a whirling rotary saw. Water sprays onto the slab and throws globules of wet white dust onto the floor. The saw reaches the end of the cut and, as the slab breaks free, he presses a red button on the wall and the machine shuts off.

The man notices me but doesn’t pause to invite me to speak, or offer to himself.

“I’m Abigail’s son,” I say, when the whine of the slowing blade ends. The dust has reached me and the air clears slowly with little breeze to disrupt it.

The man pulls the mask free. Dust has turned his thick black hair grey and clogged the deep lines of a weathered face. Years of wrangling stone slabs has built a powerful upper body with square shoulders, and large hands that hang at the end of strong forearms.

“I know who you are. I have to make the noise. Can’t work without it. That’s the last of the cutting,” he offers, as if there’s one purpose for my visit. “Your mother didn’t mind the noise, it soothed her.”

“I’m not here about the noise.”

“She liked the idea of hearing there were other people about.”

My mother had once admitted her weakness to me. ‘I don’t like being on my own, and I don’t like the company of women much. Which means I’m vulnerable to the attention of men. And women like her see only the baser reasons for that’. It had been her explanation for why Mrs Ayles had called her a harlot.

“Thought I should introduce myself, tell you I’ll be living in the shop while I’m here. In case you see the lights on.”

“None of my business.”

We face each other with our exhausted chitchat, whilst sensing there should be more.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” says the Mason, in the unpractised way of a man who doesn’t express emotion.

“I hear you found her?”

“Yes.”

“How come it was you?”

The Mason frowns, as if the answer has a multiplicity of paths for him to choose and he’s afraid he might opt for one it will be impossible to find his way back from.

“You mother and I…” He stops, already regretting the path taken. There is no way back. “We were friends.”

“Since when?”

“Since I arrived. More so after George moved out. Not before,” he adds, as if it might be important to me. “We were neighbours, so we’ve always talked. After George left, I used to go in and watch some TV with her in the evenings. She didn’t like being alone, certainly not since all you children have grown.” He stops talking abruptly, in the way of a man who’s aware he’s over explaining.

“Did George know?”

“He didn’t need to. Our relationship wasn’t improper. It was perfectly respectable.”

“I suspect George would see it differently.”

“I’m not afraid of him.” It’s a jarring boast, stuck into the conversation like a lone weed in a flowerbed. “We watched TV, that’s all.”

I don’t challenge his statement; can’t know if it’s truth or lie. It means little if it had amounted to more than his claim. My mother had been free to live the life she chose. But what had this reticent man talked to her about? Or had she talked and he simply listened. It struck me as the likely scenario of a relationship between them if sex wasn’t involved.

I catch movement in the right rear quarter of the image in front of me. A yellow flash through the doorway, and a slender woman wearing a sunny shirt tucked into jeans, bare ankles with flat shoes, and short brown hair hitched behind one ear, comes out.

“Dad, dinner’s ready,” she declares, before turning to me. “Hello,” she says shyly, and steps forward to offer her hand.

I’m struck by the contradiction of the diffidence set against the confidence of instigating a handshake. The skin is dry and the hand firm.

“Mint,” I say, and feel stupid, as if it’s a meaningless bark of a word. “Jimmy Minter,” I explain.

“Beth. Elizabeth Green.” She mimics my awkward delivery and smiles.

I’m not sure if she’s mocking me, or sympathising with me. I’ve spent nine years apart from women and I’m like a man who’s forgotten how to walk in a straight line. The need to leave overwhelms me, her presence making me feel unwelcome.

“Anyway, I’d better go. If your dinner’s ready.” I recall a long-forgotten line from the manual of social interaction.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

Their eyes are on my back as I leave the way I came, and I’m in the shop before I remember my unasked questions. I want to return, need to get to the end of that particular conversation. I battle with the pull of curiosity and the contra-tug of my self-consciousness. 

I’ll go back tomorrow, when my sudden retreat has faded from their minds.


Seriously, don’t judge this book by its cover

Big 4+ review: Transformation by Carol Berg

r/suggestmeabook: I want a character-driven tale of a man who’s lost everything having to help those who took it.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 452

Publisher: Roc

Series: Rai Kirah

Fantasy

From the publisher: Seyonne is a man waiting to die. He has been a slave for sixteen years, almost half his life, and has lost everything of meaning to him. Seyonne has made peace with his fate.  With strict self-discipline he forces himself to exist only in the present moment and to avoid the pain of hope or caring about anyone.

I’m glad I didn’t pass this up because of the execrable cover (a different edition is on the banner, but the one I had was the terrible one). If Para hadn’t recommended it, I’d not have looked again after an initial shudder. I’d have missed out on a great book.

How could something so complexly wonderful and mysterious as human intelligence devise a world so utterly, absolutely absurd?

Carol Berg, Transformation

Seyonne has a terrible dilemma. He’s been a slave of the Derzhi since they conquered his homeland and took him as part of their profit for doing so. He’s been stripped of all the rituals that his people taught him would keep him clean before the gods, as well as the talents and powers he once had. He keeps alive by suppressing his past through a visualization taught to him by an experienced slave. Now sold to the crown prince of the Derzhi, he’s looked into the man’s soul and found that he will have to help him retain his birthright.

I am indeed afraid, Your Highness. Every moment of my existence carries such a burden of terror you could not imagine it. I fear I have no soul. I fear there are no gods. I fear there is no meaning to the pain I have known. I fear I have lost the capacity to love another human being or ever to see goodness in one. Among such fears as these, my lord, there is little room for you.

Carol Berg, Transformation

That premise is an amazing one to work through: having to willingly help a person directly benefiting from your suffering. How does one find the will, not to mention the compassion, to do something like that? Wouldn’t it be easier to curse your gods and refuse? The idea of gritting your teeth and serving a higher purpose, even if it assists your personal enemies, is explored at length in this lovely book, but not at the expense of an absorbing tale that moves forward at a pace to make the transformation indicated by the book’s title believable.

It was the ultimate expression of subjugation—to be forced to give up the most personal, most private self to one who had no claim, no right of friendship or kinship or guesting, to one who had no idea of the power of names or the dangerous entry they gave to the soul.

Carol Berg, Transformation

Seyonne is a protagonist to root for. He has too much experience with pain to invite it lightly, and still wants to survive, despite the seeming hopelessness of his predicament. When life has taught you that to trust is to be betrayed, and loneliness is a shield, how much harder to open yourself up to anything or anyone new?

The Derzhi were a warrior race, and though they prized the literacy of their scholars and merchants, it was much in the way they prized their dogs who did tricks, or their birds who could carry messages unerringly, or their illusionists who could make rabbits turn into flowers or sultry maidens disappear. It was not something they would want to do themselves.

Carol Berg, Transformation

And his prince? Aleksander is a reckless, petty prince. The idea of Seyonne having to help him fills him (and the reader) with disdain. No wonder you would wonder at whether gods exist, when they seem to snicker at you from their lofty heights by giving you the burden of helping this bastard at the expense of your own heart.

Ezzarian prophets say that the gods fight their battles within the souls of men and that if the deities mislike the battleground, they reshape it according to their will.

Carol Berg, Transformation

Slavery is difficult to write. Berg has chosen to go with the type of slavery more commonly found throughout history: making slaves of war captives. She doesn’t go into enough detail to let you know if the slavery is hereditary, but, on the face of it, there’s no indication that it is. It may be a little quibble for many readers, but for me, it was easier to cope with a civilization with that kind of slavery than the chattel slavery of the 17th-19th centuries of the Western Hemisphere. However, it isn’t an easy life, and Berg does a good job of portraying the powerlessness, pain, and isolation that slavery would inflict.

The merchants glared at me in warning, but a slave learns quickly to pick and choose the points of honor for which he is willing to suffer. As the years of servitude pass, those become fewer and fewer.

Carol Berg, Transformation

The world-building is convincing, with enough details to make you see a world with civilizations not unlike our own, but with different outcomes. Berg doesn’t litter the book with a huge cast, but enough to give you an idea of the complexity of the society. It works; with this first person narrative, Seyonne wouldn’t have interacted with all the various segments of the world, and his keyhole view is sufficient.

Survival was still of interest to me, though it was not the passion it had been when I was eighteen and still learning what manacles and whips were all about.

Carol Berg, Transformation

Demons, sorcerers, believers and unbelievers all populate this book. Berg doesn’t offer easy hope or redemption, but she does offer both, convincingly. If you want a book to affirm that good can still be found in the worst of situations, or, in Peat Long’s terms, a tale of healing, this is the read for you.