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 it didn’t click.

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.


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.

The elusive definition for “independently published”

“Independently published” is a fairly broad term. The Independent Book Publisher’s Association seems to define it as a state of mind, and includes basically any publisher other than the Big 5.  You know the Big 5, right? They each have bunches of “imprints,” other names they use for certain types of books (and this is not a exhaustive list of all the imprints):

​Whew! Yes, you can probably read nothing but books from the Big 5 for the rest of your life. But since I tend toward the view that megacorps are not healthy for the world, I prefer to look elsewhere when possible (not to say I don’t read their books–that’s not happening). (Sidenote: What is HarperCollins trying to pull, having imprints with Facebook sites rather than regular websites? Trying to look all indie?)

I’m looking for independently published books (including self-published) whose publisher has not yet cracked that New York Times Best Seller List, but whose books should have.

Anyway, the IBPA definition is overly inclusive for my purposes. I’m looking to help those worthy books that aren’t yet mainstream. Reedsy, among others, distinguishes independent publishers from self-publishing. Self-publishing is definitely a different animal than having a separate entity publish your book on the traditional model, but I tend to use the terms “small press” and “self-published” to make that distinction and use indie publishing to include both. If I were a small press, I suppose I might object. to including among my peers those with self-published books (which includes publishers set up just for one author as well as those using what we used to call “vanity presses”). 

Aside from that, I basically agree with Reedsy’s definition: “An independent publisher is a publisher not affiliated with any big corporations or conglomerates — meaning they operate independently.”

But I’m focusing on the smaller denizens of that community, not those who already have the size or prestige to draw attention to their books. For example, Kensington Publishing Corp., with six imprints and a backlist of 5000 titles, calls itself “America’s independent publisher.”  However, Kensington has already managed to place books on the New York Times Best Seller List. So Kensington’s books are probably not going to end up being reviewed here. I will refer to the group of publishers whose books I don’t review as “Big5plus.”

I’m looking for independently published books (including self-published) whose publisher has not yet cracked that New York Times Best Seller List, but whose books should have.

Arbitrary? You betcha. Clear? Probably. It’s a bit of a hassle, checking out each books publisher, but it’s worth it to me.