The making of the Queen of Mystery

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict

r/suggestmeabook: I want to read a solution to the historical mystery of Agatha Christie’s disappearance.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 383

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

WWI and Interwar Period

From the publisher: In December 1926, Agatha Christie goes missing. Investigators find her empty car on the edge of a deep, gloomy pond, the only clues some tire tracks nearby and a fur coat left in the car—strange for a frigid night. Her World War I veteran husband and her daughter have no knowledge of her whereabouts, and England unleashes an unprecedented manhunt to find the up-and-coming mystery author.

David Suchet, who played Hercule Poirot for 25 years, presciently expressed how I feel about this book in the 2014 documentary The Mystery of Agatha Christie:

When I first heard about Marie Benedict’s The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, I immediately flashed back to a different documentary, which I cannot now find. I couldn’t remember any of the details except that Agatha Christie had disappeared for a short period of time, and that it had never satisfactorily been explained. This wonderful novel gives the explanation I craved; whether it is truly the reason why is irrelevant, because it’s great storytelling. (And much better than the Doctor Who version, although I enjoyed it at the time.)(Warning: Possible spoilers.)

The first section of the book is split between past and the present of 1926, with the past being first person from Agatha Christie, and the present being a third person close from her husband’s POV. The technique works very well, with the past informing the present. Although the chapters from the past have the title “Manuscript” on each, it wasn’t until I reached the second part of the book that I realized those sections were supposed to be from a manuscript written by Christie.

In truth, the only time I felt like myself was when I was writing. No matter how I tried to anticipate his needs, I couldn’t please Archie, and all the qualities he used to admire—my spontaneity, my love of drama and adventure, and my desire to discuss feelings and events with him—now irritated him.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Both Agatha and Archie are well drawn, although it’s not entirely clear exactly how WWI changed Archie’s personality. It’s implied that he suffers from PTSD, not exactly a reach for a man who served in combat (as evidenced by the award of the Distinguished Service Order in 1918). PTSD can cause longterm personality changes, but I would have liked a little more explicit discussion of that process. Perhaps any overt mention was omitted to avoid making him sympathetic; he isn’t very.

Archie walks alone, of course. It wouldn’t be seemly for him to link hands with these regular folks, not in his current predicament.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

One of the factors that comes between them, it seems, is the difference in class. Agatha went to finishing school in France and is well-schooled in the etiquette of the upper class. It’s not exactly clear what Archie’s status is, but he is shown to flagrantly violate the established norms early on in the relationship. What is crystal clear that Agatha’s mother thinks Archie is a terrible match for Agatha.

No matter what happened in the future, I didn’t want her disliking Archie any more than she already did. And nothing had more significance than a man acting like a gentleman and a woman acting her part as a lady in turn.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The other characters in the story are also memorable: Agatha’s mother, the investigator Kenward, their daughter Rosalind, Agatha’s sister Madge, and Rosalind’s nanny (and Agatha’s part time secretary) Charlotte each contribute to the story line and are easy to imagine. The interaction of Agatha with all of these characters, and her husband, as well as the lingering remembrance of financial woes when her father died, move Agatha inexorably to being the author of legend.

Madge exhaled cigarette smoke as she reclined on the sofa even further, ever assuming the pose of the confident older sister and first daughter.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

A couple of themes in the book that I quite liked were that of what are the duties of a wife and the role of the unreliable narrator. The first was a well considered review of what women were taught for a good deal of Anglo-American history, as enunciated by Agatha’s mother, which basically were to ensure that you caught and kept a man to keep your status. The arc of Agatha’s view on this advice is captivating, and I could hear echoes of what I was told by my grandmother and mother in what she was told; indeed, some women are still given the same kind of advice even today.

A wife’s duty is to be with her husband, because her husband must come first, even before her children. If a wife leaves her husband alone for too long, she will lose him.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The saddest application of marital advice was to Agatha’s relationship to her daughter, Rosalind. Archie’s fear of being displaced and her mother’s admonitions to always defer to her husband’s wishes lead Agatha to distance herself from Rosalind in her babyhood. That decision seems tragic for them both.

Perhaps this was mankind’s fate—to learn that none of our paths were as straight as we believed they would be.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The unreliable narrator was a lovely touch, as it referenced Christie’s groundbreaking use of the same in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which arguably was what propelled her into the front ranks of her field. The observation that we are unreliable narrators of our own stories has a double application: it’s simply an interesting idea about our personal blindspots and also a commentary on the story itself.

As I reread it for a final time, it occurred to me that we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives, crafting stories about ourselves that omit unsavory truths and highlight our invented identities.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Marie Benedict has created a marvelous solution to an enduring mystery that even Agatha herself would have appreciated (if she hadn’t been so set on keeping it secret).


Inferences, or why what you show isn’t what you want to tell

a note to indie authors

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

For most people, “infer” is usually something you only talk about in contrast to “imply.” In one of my previous lives I was a civil litigator, and inferences can be a consideration in trying and appealing a case.

When you try a case, you present a bunch of pieces of evidence (witness testimony, photos, other documents) and then you try to convince the jury of your side of the story. [Sidebar: Drives me nuts when TV shows et al say “It’s just circumstantial evidence.” It’s almost always only circumstantial evidence!] Sometimes the type of evidence you have becomes an issue because the jury doesn’t have enough to make a “reasonable inference,” or judges will decide that the inference wasn’t reasonable.

In other words, the jury came up with an answer that wasn’t warranted based on the evidence before them. Given that the standard advice for fiction writers is “Show, don’t tell,” it seemed a parallel situation: sometimes readers come up with an answer you didn’t mean for them to when you “show” them the story.

Let’s take a concrete example: Here’s a letter sent home from an elementary school. Before the letter, Teacher A and Teacher B split the school day between them, with Teacher A taking the morning and and Teacher B taking the afternoon:

We want to notify you of a staffing change that will affect your child. Effective Tuesday…[Teacher B] will be your child’s…virtual teacher in all subjects. Your assistance in making this a smooth transition is deeply appreciated. As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to call. You may also set up a meeting time at 8:30 am. We are confident that this will be a successful school year for your family.

What did the recipients “see” from this?

  • Teacher A was fired.
  • Teacher A quit.
  • Teacher A was taking all the kids attending in person, while Teacher B was taking the virtual classes.

There wasn’t enough evidence from the letter to decide, so inferences were made. The way you would make those inferences would depend on what you thought of Teacher A–her competence, her satisfaction with work; how you would be reacting to the situation; and what you thought or knew about how the school works with staff.

The more you want to control those inferences, the more you have to either “show” more or tell the audience directly. In this case, if you’d seen Teacher A make many mistakes, then you might think she’d been fired—unless your experience leads you to believe that schools never fire anyone that isn’t convicted of a crime.

On the other hand, if you knew Teacher A was immuno-compromised and was really worried about the recent reports that some other staff members had contracted Covid-19, you might think she quit—unless you didn’t know what her insurance situation was and she’s a “Miss,” and you’d never quit a job without having health insurance.

Or, on a foot, if you knew they were having to rearrange staffing because there were more students returning to in-person classes, you might think it’s just a change in terms of how they staff for virtual versus in-person students—unless you know that Teacher A has always done only math and Teacher B has never taught math and you thought they always split classes by subject.

In this case, it would probably have been easiest for the school to simply state that they were rearranging the class loads because more students were returning to in-person classes. But if this were a story, you’d want to give the reader more of the types of information as illustrated by the sorts of things that would fill in the blank.

The more “evidence” you give the reader, the more likely they are to read the story the way you want them to. On the other hand, there are intangibles, like whether the reader liked the character of Teacher A—if not, the reader would be more likely to want the first scenario than if they would if they did like Teacher A.

So if you’re getting feedback about how readers are perceiving a particular situation that’s different than you’d meant for it to be, consider the evidence you’ve given them so far. You have the choice to leave it ambiguous (“Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.”) or to make it clearer. You can’t control all the inferences, as illustrated above, because of preconceived ideas the reader brings with them to the reading, but, unlike a trial, you can manufacture any evidence you need to get the jury to come to the verdict you want.

Weaving through the Crucchi

The Garden of Angels by David Hewson

 Rachel’s Random Resources Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to go to Nazi-occupied Venice and see it through the eyes of a young man grappling with his identity.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 320

Publisher: Severn House

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

WWII historical fiction

From the publisher: The Palazzo Colombina is home to the Uccello family: three generations of men, trapped together in the dusty palace on Venice’s Grand Canal. Awkward fifteen-year-old Nico. His distant, business-focused father. And his beloved grandfather, Paolo. Paolo is dying. But before he passes, he has secrets he’s waited his whole life to share.

David Hewson has created a taut snapshot of a few days in Nazi-occupied Venice through the eyes of a young weaver and those whose stories intersect his own. The frame story is set in Venice of 1999, but the main action is in Venice of 1943, when 18-year-old Paolo finds himself confronted with the world outside his hidden retreat set in the garden of a long-abandoned palazzo. His neighbors thought the isolation was because he was gay, a fact Paolo has mostly stayed unaware of, knowing that his family was also considered outsiders by the insular Venetians.

Imagination was a place he’d usually avoided. Particularly of late. There were corpses there, eyes open, looking at him.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

Paolo must confront the basic question raised by the Nazi occupation: Does he stand aside, and hope the storm passes him, or does he act, whether to collude with the Germans to help himself out of the poverty the war has brought or to resist them? It’s a question most of the book’s non-Jewish characters ask themselves at some point. Paolo’s moment comes at the insistence of the parish priest Filippo Garzone, who believes that inaction is not a choice.

There were occasions, it seemed, when the right decision was beyond a simple man like him. To act or do nothing? Both might end in bloodshed, for guilty and innocent alike.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

I haven’t been reading many WWII era books of late, but I made an exception for this one because it is set in a part of the war I know less about. The invasion of Allied troops helped split Italy in half between the southern royalist government and the northern Mussolini one, which was, effectively, a puppet of Hitler. Venice was in the northern half. This sobering book gave a lovely introduction to the people and geography of Venice. Hewson’s pride of elegant and measured, giving the story the respect it deserves.

The city on the water was spared most of this since it lived at the edge of the conflict, a precious gilded prison too beautiful for the horrors Italy was seeing elsewhere.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The framing works quite well, as Nico provides a counterpoint to his grandfather’s story. No one in the 1990s wants to talk about the war, preferring to boil it down to its barest essence, so Nico is left on his own to puzzle out how the veracity of his grandfather’s account. Not surprisingly, Nico is unnerved by the idea of his grandfather’s sexual identity being something other than completely heterosexual. The frame also helps build the tension for the main story, as Paolo insists that Nico keep it to himself, that he’s not to share it with his father.

If the fact a couple of men in extremis should get close to one another is …weird…I hate to think what you’ll make of life later on. Unless you lead a dull one.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

Hewson manages to avoid creating characters of unrelenting good or evil, allowing us to see that all of them are human, making choices that are good or evil instead. The text highlights how well-meaning people can drift into a totalitarian state, which is part of the enduring fascination with the Third Reich: how do ordinary people end up committing the atrocity of the Holocaust? He also does a good job of presenting the pressures the Germans (which the Venetians call the Crucchi) put on the inhabitants of the country they occupy, and how those pressures warp people.

That was one of the lessons I think he was trying to teach me: evil wasn’t special. There was no need for extraordinary villains with scars and wicked, dark glints in their eyes. It was ordinary, mundane, a part of the city, a lurking virus within us all.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The character who best exemplifies the grays of the story is Luca Alberti, a former police officer turned liaison with the Nazis. Alberti is hard to get a grasp on, as he lies to himself as much as to anyone else. He’s somehow likable despite his alignment with the Crucchi, although the Venetians generally view him with contempt. Perhaps his motives are more than self-serving, but each reader will have to render judgment.

Dust and the remains of insects rose like a golden mist in the lamplight as he unhinged the bronze clasp on the cover and let the contents breathe for the first time in years.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The Garden of Angels is an absorbing tale, both for its imagining of wartime Venice and the themes it raises of how to deal with oppression in the present and with memories of the past.


Spotlight: Random Things Tours

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore

Pages: 413

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

ARC provided by Random Things Tours

Interwar spy novel

Book excerpt

Summer 1928

It all began at a garden party in a leafy provincial suburb. ‘Don’t dawdle, dear,’ called Mrs Gray, hurrying ahead along the front path.

Minnie sighed as she shut the wooden gate then followed her mother round the side of the white-painted mansion with reluctant footsteps. They passed beneath an arch of tumbling pink roses and out onto a sunny terrace overlooking a rolling expanse of lawn dotted with people and stalls selling home- made jam and baked goods.

From here she surveyed the busy gathering with dismay. There were a few people she recognized, but they were mostly her mother’s friends, middle-aged women in frumpy hats and floral frocks, some with their husbands in tow. At twenty-one, it seemed that Minnie was the youngest person here. How she wished she’d never come.

‘Look, there’s Sarah Bowden. Come on, Minnie!’ Mrs Gray, bright-eyed and purposeful, propelled her daughter across the grass to where a willowy lady in navy was queuing by a snowy canopy where teas were being served.

‘Betty darling,’ Sarah Bowden cried in welcome, carmine lips curving in her foxy face. ‘And Minnie. So sweet of you to keep your mother company. I’m here on my own. Ernest had a bowls match, wretched man.’

‘I’m not being sweet, Mrs Bowden, there was nothing else to do.’ Minnie had never warmed to beady-eyed Mrs Bowden. ‘Tennis was called off and Mother wouldn’t leave me moping at home, would you, Mother?’

‘Really, Minnie,’ her mother muttered. ‘Do you have to be so honest? I’m sorry, Sarah, sometimes I don’t know what to do with her.’

‘Poor dear Minnie,’ Mrs Bowden murmured, patting Minnie’s arm. ‘It won’t be much fun for her here.’ She glanced around and her voice dropped. ‘Honestly, Betty, look at the men. The ones that aren’t old and married are hardly a young girl’s dream.’

Mrs Gray scanned the crowd with a predator’s eye. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she said briskly, ‘there are one or two nice younger ones. Don’t slouch, Minnie. It’s not attractive.’

They took their turn at the rows of white crockery and there was a pause while they collected cups of tea and finger sandwiches. Minnie slid a slab of warm marble cake onto her saucer then licked her fingers, causing her mother to frown.

Mrs Bowden narrowed her eyes and whispered above the rattle of cups, ‘Did you hear that Mr Chamberlain himself is expected?’

Mrs Gray’s expression clouded. ‘His wife didn’t mention it when I saw her at last week’s committee meeting.’

‘Didn’t she?’ Mrs Bowden said happily. ‘There are rumours, you know, that he’s to switch to our constituency in the next election to be sure of a good majority.’

‘I know about that. Minnie, I’ve told you how important Mr Chamberlain is becoming in the House of Commons. It would be something for you to meet him.’

‘If you say so,’ Minnie murmured, long bored by the sub- ject of the Chamberlains, though secretly she supposed that encountering Neville Chamberlain would be special. Not only was he one of Birmingham’s MPs, but he was the son of the renowned Victorian statesman Sir Joseph Chamberlain. Now what was wrong? Her mother was inspecting her in a critical manner. My hair, probably. Minnie touched a hand to her new blonde crop and worried whether the style suited her.


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.


DampPebbles Blog Tour Spotlight

Historical fiction: WWI

Pages: 228

Publisher: Brigand London

Advance Reading Copy provided by DampPebbles

From the publisher

1917: with her father in the British secret service and her brother Alfie in the trenches, under-age Poppy Loveday volunteers against her parents’ wishes to drive ambulances in France. We follow her adventures, racing to save wounded men driven to the Casualty Clearing Station, and back to the Base Hospital.

“Jon Wilkins gets to the very heart of the mud and the blood of the battlefields and then with the same ease the gaiety of the ballroom in a thriller that will keep you entertained for hours.” Stuart Hill, author of The Icemark Trilogy.

During one battle she finds Élodie Proux, a French nurse, at a roadside clutching a dead soldier. Poppy rescues her. Élodie becomes her dearest girl as they fall in love.

Poppy and Élodie encounter frightening adversaries at the Western Front as well as away from it during the closing weeks of World War One.


From the author

Jonathan loves to write. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstones’ bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for 20 years and coached women’s basketball for over 30 years. 

He regularly teaches creative writing workshops in and around Leicester.

You can follow him on social media at:


Drugs, sex, and a poisonous toad

Review: Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead by Christiana Miller

r/suggestmeabook: I want a mystery about a witch who is learning about her powers and trying to deal with a curse.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 372

Publisher: HekaRose Publishing

Series: The Toad Witch Mysteries

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From the publisher: Mara is having the worst month of her life. At least, that’s what her tarot cards tell her and they’ve never been wrong. Before she knows it, she’s evicted from her apartment, fired from her job and banned from Beverly Hills.

This almost feels like two different books: the first half, in Los Angeles, is the tale of Mara’s impending eviction, desperate need for cash, and a fear of exercising her magic. The second half, in Wisconsin, Mara no longer has the same pressures, no longer fears her magic, but has become involved with a haunted house.

As I flipped through the Templar deck, I noticed Lyra’s face blanching at some of the images: horned gods holding skulls, winged angelic figures challenging humans, lusty women cavorting with skeletons.

“It’s a question that’s always plagued me. Is forewarned really the same as forearmed?” I tapped the deck. “Can this give you the power to turn the Hand of Fate to your favor? Or is it just another way to ruin a perfectly good week?”

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

Mara is generally likable, and the first person narrative is breezy and fun for the most part. Mara’s bad luck, her run-ins with the judgmental Mrs. Lasio, and the backfiring of Mara’s magic is all entertaining. The second part of the book dragged a little more for me—rather than building tension, the repeated instances of supernatural heebie-jeebies got a little repetitive, and I was ready to get some explanations and resolution.

It didn’t take me long to drive through Devil’s Point. There was a small shopping district that included a mom and pop grocery store, an antique store, an old-fashioned diner, the movie theater J.J. had mentioned, and a bookstore. On the other side of the street, there was a hardware store, a thrift store, a bait-and-tackle shop and a mechanic’s shop that was right out of the 1950s, with an old-fashioned gas pump out front and vintage automobiles for sale. It really was an adorable, old-fashioned slice of Americana, preserved in time.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

I’m a CIS hetero woman, so I can’t say how the book would affect a gay man, but there were a few things about it that gave me pause. Mara’s best friend is a gay man, and it almost devolves into the sassy gay friend trope but for the fact that Gus often saves the day (but he could be seen as the fairy godmother, so I’ll leave it up to those affected by this trope to judge). Because Gus is heavily involved in the first half, and a frequent cameo in the second, and is portrayed mostly in a positive light, it seems clear there’s no malevolent intent, but it still could be taken negatively in execution.

I still didn’t want to do it, but Gus had his heart set on being the center of attention. I had tried to talk him out of it, but it was useless. He had been dreaming of this moment ever since he got booted out of the last coven he was in. To be the biggest deal in the center of a large pagan gathering and thumb his nose at the people who had betrayed him, (at least, that was Gus’s version of events). And he had been doing so much for me this week, I just didn’t have the heart to stomp on his inner diva and destroy his fantasy. Especially after he spotted some of his ex-coven members roaming around.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

The most problematic quote for me is the one below; the usage of “queer” in this manner by Mara, even if possibly quoting someone else, made me very uncomfortable. I can deal with pejoratives when they are used sparingly and for a particular purpose (such as illuminating the past or if the context is such that it would seem like white washing or inauthentic if it were omitted), but this didn’t seem to meet any of my internalized criteria.

But according to Lupe, the guy is a raging queer. I thought Mamma Lasio was going to wash her mouth out with laundry detergent and pool water. This place has been like a soap opera ever since they moved in and I’m the one getting evicted.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

The quote refers to Mrs. Lasio’s priest. Again, the description may be Lupe’s (Mrs. Lasio’s daughter), but it still bugged me (clearly, or I wouldn’t be talking about it here). I can’t say categorically that it’s offensive, because it’s not my life experience here; I can just say that it bothered me.

Unlike most of the fantasy I read, this is not a wholly imagined magical system. Rather, this one appears to be derived from Wicca, as the author notes on Amazon that “For Wiccan readers, who are curious about the quarter system used in the book, this story uses the Northern Quarter system which is based in Traditional Witchcraft, rather than the Golden Dawn Quarter system, which is more widely used in Wicca.”

Ah, yes, the toad. I almost forgot. The toad is a recurring background figure, but his magical abilities are never quite substantiated. It’s unclear if he’s really doing anything or not, but as the series is named for him, I’m guessing that will be cleared up in future volumes.

Gus was beside himself. “Grundleshanks ate! Damn you, Grundleshanks. You treacherous amphibian. Traitor of the first degree. The minute my back is turned!”

“Gus, chill. It’s just a toad.”

“I have been watching him for weeks. I have fed him and watered him and watched him and waited and nothing. Nothing. He’s shy, he says. Doesn’t want to eat in public, he says. But let a pretty girl come over…” He glared at Grundleshanks. “Show-off.”

The eyeballs on top of the mud lump calmly blinked back at him.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

Overall, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead was not a book I regretted reading, but I don’t think I’ll pick any more in the series because, by the end, I’d spent enough time with Mara in Wisconsin and am happy to move on to a new world.


A Harlem ghost story

A Little in Love with Death by Anna M. Taylor

r/suggestmeabook: I want a novella about a deadly haunted house that came between lovers.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 97

Publisher: Self

Series: Haunted Harlem

The woman in the banner photo is Hazel Scott, who doesn’t actually appear in the novel, but the photo is from the correct time period. She shouldn’t be erased, as she was a pioneer, the first black woman to host her own television show.

From the publisher: Ten years ago no one — not even the man who said he loved her — believed Sankofa Lawford’s claim she had been brutally attacked by a ghost. Ten years later an assault on a new victim brings her back to Harlem to a mother going mad, a brother at his wits’ end and a former love who wants a second chance. Sankofa longs for her family to be whole again, for love to be hers again, but not if she must relive the emotional pain created by memories of that night.

This is the story of a couple haunted by the past—more literally than most. Sankofa and Mitchell were the loves of each other’s lives until the incident in haunted Umoja, the house Sankofa grew up in. Reunited at Sankofa’s mother’s bedside, they have to decide how to confront the past, which includes confronting some ghosts.

The pain of the separated lovers provokes any pain of separation in your heart, as Anna M. Taylor’s skillful descriptions burrow in past your defenses. It’s hard not to root for the couple to reunite, even though you can feel the frustration of each side’s point of view. In many ways, this novella is more romance than ghost story, although the ghost story is intrinsic to the couple’s problems.

I didn’t believe you before, but I do now. Is that apology enough?

Apology enough for calling her loony when she tried to get him to see the spirits she saw? Apology enough for laughing when her mother and aunt alike tongue-lashed her for hearing voices, for repeating information she had no business knowing?

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

The shifts of point of view from Sankofa to Mitchell were occasionally a little abrupt, but overall served the story well. The atmosphere of the haunted house is evocative. However, despite the fact that the characters fear the house, I never was afraid; there’s more of a sense of uncovering mysteries than facing unknown terror.

Its gothic facade contrasted majestically with the soulless brick, glass, and steel make-up of the neighboring buildings. Umoja’s four-cornered tower looked between two four-story wings topped with crenellated walls. Arched windows framed in contrasting white keystones gave the gray-stone exterior a bejeweled aspect. However, unlike City College and Cannon Pres, no amount of sunlight dispelled the exterior bleakness Umoja retained.

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

Themes of faith and rationalism are deftly explored with an apparent attempt to reconcile them. I’m not convinced by the recitations of faith, but I can respect them. The notion of family secrets and who should be told the truth is more intriguing to me; a refrain through the book is the saying, “Them that tell don’t know, and them that know don’t tell.”

Mitchell dry scrubbed his face. Could he accept his answer wasn’t the truth? He studied his friend. A scientist and an evangelical believer, John Mortimer was Mitch’s bumblebee: the thing defied all the reasons it shouldn’t exist by its very existence.

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

Mental health issues are also explored, in particular the stigma it creates. Can someone who has mental health issues be trusted? The novella raises the question through the mouths of various characters, most notably Sankofa’s brother, but never quite resolves the question.

As always the memory of the attack thrust Sankofa into the wintriness of insanity. She shuddered, despite the sunshine bathing the spot where she stood.

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

Overall, this novella is an absorbing story demonstrating how ghosts, both figurative and literal, affect the people that live with them.


Awards season, indies, and the tyranny of numbers

the ides of indies, a recurring discussion of indie publishing matters

Let’s talk about awards season and how indies have been faring in fiction. as well as the state of inclusiveness for people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.* Kirkus Prize and the World Fantasy Awards have already announced their winners, Goodreads is in semifinal voting, National Book Awards will announce their winners on 11/18/2020, and the Booker Prize will be announced on 11/19/2020. I got award fever, so I’ll announce the Bibliostatic 2020 Year of Doom awards at the end (going to have to rethink that name—open to suggestions).

After we hear from the president of the academy and the PriceWaterhouse guys, there’ll be awards: Most inclusive award, Most indie friendly award, Sole SP award and much, much more!

But first, the analysis. I got out my handy spread sheets and did a whale of a lot of cut and paste as well as some heavy Googling (sounds like a weird sex act, but never mind). I’m sure errors have crept in, but I wanted to share what I’d learned. And, yes, I realize, it’s not a scientific sampling, but it’s still interesting.

Quick note on the data: I only took the Goodreads data from the semifinals for fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. The Kirkus Prize was based on fiction nominees only. The Booker Prize information is from the longlist. For determining POC and LGBTQ+, I looked at the authors and protagonists as described in the summaries, and at the shelves on Goodreads. This is probably the part most subject for debate, because I have no idea what criteria was used for shelving.

83% of the nominations, unsurprisingly, are Big5 publications.

Not surprisingly, the Big 5 dominated the awards overall. Of 94 nominations, constituted of 90 separate books, the Big 5 took a respectable 83% (or 78 nominations) through all their various imprints. Sometimes it’s like following pirate maps to figure out which are Big 5. During my first run at researching, I thought Bookouture and Sourcebooks Landmarks were independent publishers, and congratulated them on being the only indies nominated in the Goodreads Mystery category.

Turns out, Bookouture used to be an indie, but was acquired by Hachette a few years ago. The founder was a former Harlequin marketing guy, but the website doesn’t have anything that would make you think it’s a Hachette subsidiary. It’s not until you do a little digging that you find Hachette is the parent company. Yeah, I’m a bit embarrassed about that tweet now.

Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, says it’s an independent publisher on its about page. Seems straightforward. As you, a seasoned reader will have guessed, it’s a little more complicated. Penguin Random House has a 45% ownership share in Sourcebooks. Is it then still an indie? Sourcebooks says yes; I’m not convinced, and I’m moving them to the Big 5 pile.

I just can’t bring myself to call Amazon’s imprints indie publications.

Then there’s Amazon. Not one of the traditional Big 5, but it’s hard to argue it’s an indie when it’s bringing in cash for book sales comparable to those hoary veterans: a whopping $5.25 BILLION compared to Simon & Schuster’s measly $830 million. (I’ll take that version of measly, please.) Granted, Amazon’s not making even most of that wad of cash from their own imprints, and it may not be quite the same kind of conglomerate as the Big 5, but it smells more like a Big 5.5, so its nominations are counted with those guys.

Genre fiction was a minority among the non-genre awards. Only a dystopia and a few arguably crime novels were nominated. Genres don’t get no respect.

And I have to talk about Shuggie Bain, and not in terms of its content. Shuggie Bain is listed as a publication of Grove Press in most awards—except the Booker Prize, which lists Picador, an imprint tracing back to Macmillan. So which one is it? Well, the novel is published in the US and Canada by Grove Press, but by Macmillan in Commonwealth countries.

That wasn’t terribly helpful to me when I was trying to decide what bucket to put it in, so I decided to look at the publication dates. Voilà! Picador/Macmillan: August 6, 2020. Grove Press: October 13, 2020. The widely recognized Shuggie Bain goes into the Big 5 pile. What a disappointment!

Follow the money.

Why do the Big 5 get so many more nominations? If you look at the total number of titles released in a year (around , they only publish around a third of all the different books published in the US each year, over 30,000 titles of the estimated 2.2 million worldwide and over 100,000 in the US alone. Oddly enough, when you look at the total sales, though, the market share of the Big 5 is (drumroll, please) 80%, fairly close to that of their nominations. Together, they make over $7 billion each year.

So, of course, they have the pull to get more attention for their books (and to make it pretty and neat). If you’ve tried self-publishing (or even book blogging), you’ll know that the challenge is being heard over all the noise. The Big 5 (and Amazon) have air horns and rock concert sound equipment. They’ll get heard.

There’s a world of difference between Grim Oak Press with its $6 million annual sales and Bloomsbury Publishing with nearly $214 million, right?

But how does that play out among indies? There’s Bloomsbury Publishing, home of Harry Potter, with the wealth that series brought, and then there are others that make far less than the million dollar magic goal. Grim Oak Press and Bloomsbury are both semi-finalists in the Fantasy category of the Goodreads Awards, along with lonely Hidden Gnome Press, Will Wight’s self-publishing alter ego. What are their chances against the other 17 books? I’m really asking; I’m no good at calculating odds—where are C-3PO or Spock when you need them?

Similarly, people of color and other traditionally underserved populations (what do you think of that euphemism?) are fighting that entrenched policy of racism and other nasty -isms. Money, power, elite…you get the picture.

Mystery, do better.

Overall, a rather surprising 35% of the titles (a total of 32) were either authored by and/or had a character in the novel that was a POC; LGBTQ+ rated 17% representation (total of 15). The standout for least inclusiveness was Goodread’s Mystery category, with no LGBTQ+ and only one Black protagonist written by the only Black author from the 20 titles in the semifinals. Interestingly, Mystery was the only group of nominees that had zero indie publishers.

And the winners are…

Award for the most nominations for a single book: Go, Douglas Stuart and his Shuggie Bain, nominated for four different prizes: Goodreads Historical Fiction category, the Booker Prize, the National Book Award, and the Kirkus Prize. Honorable mention to James McBride for Deacon King Kong, which received nominations from both Goodreads Historical Fiction category and the Kirkus Prize.

Award for double appearance by single author: Jim Butcher appears twice in the Goodreads Fantasy category. Butcher’s double appearance was a result of the publisher splitting the intended single novel into two halves, Peace Talks and Battle Ground, because of the total length, to much muttering and grumbling among fans of the Dresden Files.

Award for only self-published: Will Wight is in the room, ladies and gentleman, and he brought his own damn self with Wintersteel.

Award for the greediest Big 5: Okay, perhaps I should say “most successful.” I’ll give you a hint: Unsurprisingly, it’s the largest of the Big 5. Yep, Penguin comes out on top with 28 nominations. Then there’s nearly a three-way tie: Macmillan and Hachette with 13 and HarperCollins with 12. Simon & Schuster, what the hell happened? You only got 4.

Award for most titles nominated from a single indie publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (do you see my surprised face?) takes this home with four titles: House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas and Piranesi by Susanna Clark in the Goodreads Fantasy category and Apeirogon by Colum McCann and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid on the longlist for the Booker Prize.

Award for smallest of the presses to receive a nomination: Scrappy Tin House Books, whose annual revenue is an order of magnitude away from the next closest traditional indie publisher, has a nominee for the National Book Award, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Christopher Beha.

Award for most inclusive genre: Hello, Historical Fiction—13 total titles over more than one awarding group with either a POC character and/or author and/or LGBTQ+ characters. (I”ll give you a minute to sort out that sentence; suggested rewrites welcomed in the comment section below.) However, Fantasy had the most titles with both POCs and LGBTQ+ characters and/or authors.

Award for managing to avoid any indie nominees: We have a tie for the big fat goose egg. The Goodread’s Mystery category included all of the Big 5 plus Amazon, but no indies. The World Fantasy Awards listed books from Redhook, Orbit (both Hachette imprints), Tor.com (Macmillan), and Pantheon (Penguin Random Books). The tie-breaker: the award will go to the one which had the most total opportunities to include an indie. Congratulations, Goodread’s Mystery category, for your second raspberry, since you failed to include one indie among the 20 choices. (And, no, your own imprint doesn’t count.)

Award for most inclusive Award: Kirkus Prize, which only had one nominee that wasn’t either a POC or LGBTQ+ and awarded the prize to Raven Leilani for Luster. Yeah, it’s Macmillan book, but whatcha gonna do?

Award for the Award with the most nominations for indie publishers: Although several got up to 4 indie published nominations, only one had a significant percentage of them: Kirkus Prize, which nominated a striking 2/3 (or that annoying 66.66%) of its list from indie publishers. That would be more significant if it weren’t for the fact that Kirkus makes its money from reviewing books ($425-$575 a pop) and book editing ($500 minimum), and there’s potentially a huge indie market for them.


Although I had fun with this, the takeaway was all too depressing: $$=respect. Damn.

*Or whatever term you prefer; as a straight, CIS, white woman I don’t and shouldn’t have any preference, but can’t determine what the consensus is at the moment.