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.


Rachel’s Random Resources Blog Tours

Spotlight on: Circles of Deceit by Paul CW Beatty

From the publisher

Murder, conspiracy, radicalism, poverty, riot, violence, capitalism, technology: everything is up for grabs in the early part of Victoria’s reign.

Radical politicians, constitutional activists and trade unionists are being professionally assassinated. When Josiah Ainscough of the Stockport Police thwarts an attempt on the life of the Chartist leader, Feargus O’Connor, he receives public praise, but earns the enmity of the assassin, who vows to kill him.

Circles of Deceit, the second of Paul CW Beatty’s Constable Josiah Ainscough’s historical murder mysteries, gives a superb and electric picture of what it was to live in 1840s England. The novel is set in one of the most turbulent political periods in British history, 1842-1843, when liberties and constitutional change were at the top of the political agenda, pursued using methods fair or foul.

About the author

Paul CW Beatty is an unusual combination of a novelist and a research scientist. Having worked for many years in medical research in the UK NHS and Universities, a few years ago he took an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University emerging with a distinction.

His latest novel, Children of Fire, is a Victorian murder mystery set in 1841 at the height of the industrial revolution. It won the Writing Magazine’s Best Novel Award in November 2017 and is published by The Book Guild Ltd. 

Paul lives near Manchester in the northwest of England. Children of Fire is set against the hills of the Peak District as well as the canals and other industrial infrastructure of the Cottonopolis know as the City of Manchester.

Selected quotes

Hands were steadied by friends so that older Chartists might sign for themselves. Those who could only make their mark had them attested by others, who initialed the petition forms.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

Of all things, he’s a Policeman, even though he went to grammar school. It’s a very common sort of profession, if you can call it a profession; even lower than being a manufacturer like Pappa.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

So now I know you, in your black and silver uniform. You who have only your fists and your pathetic stick with which to demand obedience. No rifle nor musket. No sharp sword or dagger. Nothing to protect you but the respect of the people. You are a servant, a humble servant, not a soldier, not a man of honour. You know nothing of true honour, nothing of true respect.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

Josiah had often heard it said that good news travels fast, but his own experience was that good news did not often travel faster than bad news.

Paul CW Beatty, Circles of Deceit

Small towns can have big crimes

Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook by Julie Butterfield

Rachel’s Random Resources Blog Tour

r/suggestmeabook: I want a murder mystery in a charming English village with a displaced city girl who’s still learning old-fashioned small town ways.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 222

Publisher: Self

Series: Isabelle Darby Cosy Village Mysteries

Cozy mystery

From the publisher: When Isabelle Darby moves to the delightfully cosy village of Lower Dimblebrook, she’s searching for peace and quiet as well as a chance to escape from heartbreak.

Julie Butterfield has created a lovely world in Lower Dimblebrook, even if there’s a not-so-lovely murderer in the neighborhood. The protagonist, Issie Darby, is easy to relate to—a woman who left her city home for a small town life, but hasn’t quite become part of the town yet. Many of us probably have that fantasy, and Butterfield does a good job of making the transition believable.

She passed the small row of cottages with their uneven thatched roofs, mullioned windows and hollyhock bestrewn gardens, skirted the front of Brook House and arrived on her crunchy, gravel drive to find that she had left her front door slightly ajar. It was a habit quickly picked up in the tranquil backwater of Lower Dimblebrook, a relaxed attitude to security.

Julie Butterfield, Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook

Butterfield also makes Issie’s gradual involvement in solving the mystery quite believable—more so than many amateur sleuths. Rather than jumping into trying to catch a murderer, Issie is more concerned with her murdered friend’s reputation, and that seems like the kind of mystery that a layperson would reasonably get caught up in.

I know Fiona wasn’t having an affair and I’m going to get to the bottom of who started this wicked rumour.

Julie Butterfield, Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook

The “deadly whispers” of the title make for an interesting exploration: how gossip, commonly thought of as a minor infraction, can be dangerous. The novel opens with the local gossips salivating over the murder, and it is easy to see why Issie would want to keep the townspeople at arm’s length. Doris Stokes, the prime mover of news, is saved from being a cutout character, and details of her relationship with Gertrude well-served the story, illuminating her in both good ways and bad.

In Wainwright’s experience, love was not a barrier to murder. On many occasions, it was love that set off the chain of events that resulted in death.

Julie Butterfield, Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook

Her fellow exile from the city is the detective, DI Dave Wainwright, who can’t wait to get back to a city, and who finds the instantaneous information exchanges of the village remarkably frustrating. I hope that Butterfield will develop him past being pretty but grumpy into a more three-dimensional character.

The lack of mobile signal in many areas was driving him crazy, the relaxed approach and total lack of urgency to any request was making him grouchy and village life, in general, was giving him a headache.

Julie Butterfield, Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook

The novel suffers from a couple of points that are common to cozies (and many mysteries generally, both print and film). First, the identity of the murderer becomes fairly obvious about halfway through the story, so the reader is just left with waiting for the denouement. Second, as a result of this, moments when you want to yell at the protagonist not to be stupid start arising with greater frequency as the story nears the end. Or maybe that’s just me, but I get very frustrated when the protagonists are being dense given the evidence both she and I, the reader, have. However, many readers of cozies aren’t particularly fussed by the puzzle being over early, and even with the aggravation, I wanted to finish the story.

Madeleine always used bone china, she never poured milk from the bottle and the biscuits were usually served on a two-tier cake stand inherited from her grandmother. But it was rarely tea in the teapot.

Julie Butterfield, Deadly Whispers in Lower Dimblebrook

The pleasant atmosphere of Lower Dimblebrook pervades the story, and the concrete details have me ready to book a cottage with the delightful Madeleine Halesowen, Issie’s landlord, murder or no. Save me some rhubarb wine.


Doctor knows best

Review of a classic: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

r/suggestmeabook: I want a classic murder mystery narrated by a whimsical doctor with Hercule Poirot investigating.

Movie rating: G

Pages: 256

Available through Kindle Unlimited

From the publisher: Roger Ackroyd knew too much. He knew that the woman he loved had poisoned her brutal first husband. He suspected also that someone had been blackmailing her. Then, tragically, came the news that she had taken her own life with an apparent drug overdose.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a murder mystery classic from the indisputable master Agatha Christie. The irritating but brilliant Hercule Poirot discloses facts, but never illuminates why they matter until the end, giving the reader tantalizing clues that rarely disclose the ending.

The chains of habit. We work to attain an object, and the object gained, we find that what we miss is the daily toil.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The narrator of this mystery is the primary reason for it being singled out from among Christie’s 82 mystery novels as a standout. For me, the best parts of the novel were the interaction between the narrator, Dr. Sheppard, and his sister, Caroline. He’s constantly exasperated by her nosy attitude and superior attitude. She’s an inveterate gossip, always looking through the windows to monitor the comings and goings of everyone around her.

The motto of the mongoose family, so Mr. Kipling tells us, is: “Go and find out.” If Caroline ever adapts a crest, I should certainly suggest a mongoose rampant.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

As is often the case for Christie, the murder takes place in an estate where there are a limited number of suspects holed up together. The doctor was there for dinner and met most of the suspects there: The grasping sister-in-law, the blushing ingenue and niece, the big game hunter, the personal finance manager, the housekeeper, and the butler. Off-screen is the main suspect, the nephew and heir of the victim.

It is odd, when you have a secret belief of your own which you do not wish to acknowledge, the voicing of it by someone else will rouse you to a fury of denial.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The novel is mostly charming, although there is a moment that stands out as an unpleasant reminder of the period. While the narrator is interviewing the sister-in-law, the sister-in-law describes the bill collectors. Trying to strike a sympathetic note, the narrator derides the bill collectors as having a “Semitic strain in their ancestry.” This casual antisemitism is a cruel reminder of just how commonplace it was in 1926. Sadly, almost 100 years later, this stereotypical gibe has not complete disappeared.

I don’t know exactly what a “proper place” constitutes—it sounds chilly and unpleasant—but I know that Miss Russell goes about with pinched lips, and what I can only describe as an acid smile.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Another stock character of the past is in place: a big game hunter. Christie’s depiction of him is ambiguous. On the one hand, the narrator makes a rather snarky reference to the trophies he’s provided; on the other, he is presented as a relatively honorable man. I get the impression that she’d think of him as roughly equivalent to any other sports fanatic: the activity isn’t objectionable so much as the obsessive response to it.

I am sorry to say I detest Mrs. Ackroyd. She is all chains ad teeth and bones. A most unpleasant woman. She has small pale flinty blue eyes, and how ever gushing her words may be, those eyes of hers always remain coldly speculative.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

As a woman writing in the twenties, Christie isn’t particularly feminist to our eyes. She offers many different characterizations of women, but no one seems to be particularly keen to change their power relationship with men. Class is challenged slightly more, with some women looking outside the class of their birth for mates, but that particular type of challenge is long-standing and not about to threaten anyone’s outlook,

Women observe subconsciously a thousand little details, without knowing they are doing so. Their subconscious mind adds these little things together—and they call the result intuition.

Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

All in all, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a solid example of Christie’s finesse at writing an enjoyable puzzle that keeps you guessing, so try to avoid the numerous spoilers out there which will come up quickly if as part of the explanation as to why this particular novel is significant for her. Best to find out after you’ve read it.


The sins of the fathers

Haze by Rachel Crunden

r/suggestmeabook: I want a contemporary thriller with a young couple trying to overcome their past tragedies.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 267

Publisher: Self

From the publisher: When Eliza Owens gets a phone call in the middle of the night from a girl she’s never met, she doesn’t know what to think. The girl introduces herself as Paige, and says she used to date Erik Stern, Eliza’s fiancé. What’s more, she has something important to discuss. The only problem? Paige has been dead for years.

This absorbing thriller spools off one tragedy after anther before it settles in to solve the mysteries behind them. Rebecca Crunden does a great job of sketching characters quickly so that you become invested early. I was debating whether to call this YA, and after chatting with mavens, will say it’s “adult with YA crossover appeal.”*

The dead don’t care if you’re religious.

Rebecca Crunden, Haze

Eliza and Erik are the protagonists, and they both have demons aplenty. How they deal with them (not well, for the most part) is a large part of the story. Erik wins the worst dad contest, but Eliza’s, although more likable, becomes problematic. Be prepared to read about various addictions, and, if you’ve had panic attacks, you’ll know that Crunden’s descriptions are so good that they almost provoke one.

We talk shit. We talk about Eliza, we talk about this ghost, we talk about the past and the present. We don’t ever talk about you.

Rebecca Crunden, Haze

The pace is rapid enough that it’s easy to overlook that there’s not as much background and development that I usually prefer. My biggest gripe was the ending, which suffers from the Lord of the Rings syndrome: it felt like multiple endings, rather than one. I think it would have been more satisfying to skip the last chapter and go straight to the epilogue; I’d say more, but I don’t want to give anything away.

One of the greatest conspiracies of life is the how and why of the tax system. Right up there with cauliflower and the purpose of wisdom teeth.

Rebecca Crunden, Haze

I don’t read enough thrillers to venture many other comments, but for someone who doesn’t generally gravitate toward them, this was a fun ride.

*Thanks to Fabienne and Eriophora for the genre classification assist, although they should be absolved for any error on my part. Check out their websites for more YA and other goodies.


When knowing is a burden

The Fire in the Glass by Jacquelyn Benson

r/suggestmeabook: I want a mystery set in Edwardian England focused on a defiantly independent and lonely young woman with precognition.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 494

Publisher: Vaughn Woods Publishing

Series: The Charismatics

From the publisher: For as long as she can remember, Lily has been plagued by psychic visions of the future. Never once has she been able to prevent the horrors she foresees from coming to pass. Now a mysterious fiend is stalking London. The tabloids shriek of vampires, but Lily knows the killer is a different kind of monster, one who could be caught and brought to justice before he strikes again.

The satisfaction at concluding a well told tale never gets old, and Jacquelyn Benson delivers that lovely feeling with this marvelous book. The characters are compelling and well drawn, the plot intriguing, and the prose lively. Even though this is envisioned as the first installment in the series, it feels complete in itself.

As she climbed, she watched for Cat, an enormous beast who did not belong to anyone in the house but was impossible to eradicate. Cat had a penchant for sleeping in places designated to endanger the lives of unsuspecting passersby.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

The details of Lily’s estrangement from her fellows may differ from what you or I may have gone through, but the experience of feeling excluded, of being different because of factors you can’t control—that’s not so different. Lily struggles with doing everything herself, taking on more responsibility than she should, just to protect her heart, to keep from being vulnerable.

She kept trying. She fought to win her lonely battle against fate despite the steely opposition of the nannies and the guilt, grief, and gutting frustration—right up until the day her mother died.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

But those details are what makes the story intriguing, as well as the way in which she begins to face up to her fears. There’s Estelle, the neighbor who has wormed her way into Lily’s heart, making her irreplaceable and any threat to her unthinkable. Estelle introduces her to the mysterious Mr. Ash, who asks for more faith than Lily has. Lily also meets the enigmatic Lord Strangford, who has secrets of his own.

The words resonated. Lily knew that fear. It had lingered at the back of her mind for as long as she could remember. Humanity was not kind to difference.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

The pace builds well over the course of the story, and the anomalies of Lily’s life as an Edwardian woman are dealt with head-on—mostly by her class and background justifying her refusal to act completely within society’s dictates.

The ton was generally happy to presume that a child conceived in sin carried the same loose morals in her blood like some sort of hereditary disease, one they apparently thought contagious.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Fire in the Glass

The theme of the willingness of powerful men to sacrifice powerless women is explored within the novel, and although most of those men still find themselves justified, there are some who are enlightened in the process. There’s a darkness at the heart of the story, but it’s a darkness which is being fought.

The Fire in the Glass was a pleasure to read, and I look forward to the next installment.


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

.

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.


Not your lit class’s Jane Eyre

Prepublication Big5+ review of The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

r/suggestmeabook: I want a thriller inspired by Jane Eyre narrated by a not-unwarrantedly suspicious, impoverished alumna of the foster care system.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 304

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 1/5/2021

From the publisher: Meet Jane. Newly arrived to Birmingham, Alabama, Jane is a broke dog-walker in Thornfield Estates––a gated community full of McMansions, shiny SUVs, and bored housewives. The kind of place where no one will notice if Jane lifts the discarded tchotchkes and jewelry off the side tables of her well-heeled clients. Where no one will think to ask if Jane is her real name.

In the rivalry between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (which I get), just as passionate as the Star Wars vs. Star Trek arguments (which I don’t), I’m definitely a Jane Eyre girl, so this new novel got my attention quite quickly. Rachel Hawkins’s clever reworking of Jane Eyre is an homage to the original but manages to be fresh. She’s not just dressing up the classic in modern clothes, but picking and choosing elements to create a new and fascinating whodunit. 

The reworking also forces you to think of things that were formerly hidden behind Charlotte Brontë‘s polite Victorian prose. Foster homes of her period were no kinder then than now, and the soot filled past obscures much of the permanent damage the original Jane would have sustained from her environment. Brontë’s novel was ground-breaking at the time, and does not portray Jane’s childhood as rosy, but the consciousness of what was done is different, probably because we actually discuss the effects of trauma more openly now than then.

I don’t miss the hard look in her eyes. One thing growing up in the foster system has taught me was to watch people’s eyes more than you listened to what they said. Mouths were good at lying, but eyes usually told the truth.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

Like the original, it’s a first-person narrative; unlike the original, it’s not just Jane we here from. Bea (Bertha’s nickname) is also heard from, and even Eddie gets a turn at the mike. The multiple points of view are well-marked and separate, adding rather than detracting from the story. It’s a little odd (and jolting) when the text shifts from first- to third-person in Bea’s sections, but the publisher has used italics to separate the two perspectives, so they’re easy to follow. I think I’d have preferred to have those first person as well, realizing Bea might be an unreliable narrator, but it works well enough in Hawkins’s capable prose.

Mrs. Reed looks sympathetic. She looks like she absolutely hates that I have to walk her collie, Bear, on a cold and stormy day in mid-February.

She looks like she actually gives a fuck about me as a person.

She doesn’t though, which is fine, really.

It’s not like I give a fuck about her either.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

Jane’s discussion of privilege, in the sense of wealth and education, is deft. It’s enough to make you aware of the issues of class without descending into an overt morality play. The role her formative years had in her ability to trust pervades the narrative, making her understandably cautious. This was a prime example of a character giving you a way into a different perspective and making actions you might ordinarily find morally indefensible suddenly becoming, if not justified, at least understandable.

Wanting things? Sure. that’s been a constant in my life, my eyes catching the sparkle of something expensive on a wrist, around a neck; pictures of dream houses taped to my bedroom wall instead of whatever prepubescent boy girls my age were supposed to be interested in.

But I’ve been dodging men’s hands since I was twelve, so wishing a man would touch me is a novel experience.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

The world in which the story unfolds is well built. Hawkins chooses her details well, and you can viscerally feel the comfortable, elegant, and monied world. It’s also a very Southern world, set in Birmingham, Alabama, where Southern Living is the magazine of choice and magnolias and gossip framed in sympathy. It’s a very white world, though, which surprised me a little, knowing the demographics. But the setting is a wealthy, white microcosm, so I personally didn’t find it problematic.

She’s been gone nearly a year, but the arrangement of lilies and magnolias on the front table of my house were hers, and every time I walk past them, it’s like I’ve just missed seeing her, that she’s just stepped out for a second.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

The novel moves along at a nice clip, but still allows things to unravel slowly enough to build tension. The story jumps along timelines, but Hawkins is always in control of them, so there’s never a moment when you’re confused about when you are.

Overall, a masterful book that even a Wuthering Heights fan might love.


Sins of the past

The Jade Tiger by E.W. Cooper

r/suggestmeabook: I want a Prohibition era mystery with a woman who’s trying to escape her past.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 276

Publisher: Lanternfish Press

Review copy courtesy of BookSirens

From the publisher: NEW YORK, OCTOBER 1928. The Big Apple teems with the glitter of Bright Young Things, Prohibition, and scofflaws-the perfect place for Penelope Harris to start her life over.

Reading the blurb, I thought the book would be more of a historical fiction, but if I’d paid attention to the cover, I’d have realized it was more of a mystery with a historical setting. The period was nicely evoked, though, with judiciously chosen details about New York City just as prohibition started, much about the alcohol itself, but also of the clothes, attitudes, and decor.

This was one of those books that was almost really good, but missed on a few fronts. First, the main characters, Penelope and Lund, were not as fully developed as I would have preferred. I was mostly supposed to empathize with them for extrinsic factors, such as Penelope’s attempts to avoid the press because they kept exposing her to public scrutiny, rather than really learning about their motivations.

Guests passed the windows in groups, laughing, talking. He wondered if he would see Penelope there, in a moment or two. Dancing past on another man’s arm. The quick pull of regret made him certain it had been a mistake.

E.W. Cooper, The Jade Tiger

The second problem I had with the story was the unnecessary switches of points of view. As I’ve said before, multiple points of view are tricky. For example, there was really little reason to include the point of view of the police officer McCain. I can only think of one scene in retrospect that couldn’t have been shown from one of the other protagonists, an argument between McCain and his supervisor about the course of the investigation, but that didn’t add enough to the book to justify the jarring nature of that additional POV.

A small clutch of guests stood near the radio without turning to take note, their laughter a little too loud, their drinking just a little too messy. That’s where Renee would be, all right—in the middle of everything, at the center of the music, where the chaos always began.

E.W. Cooper, The Jade Tiger

The mystery itself was more of a justification to expose the “Big Secret” that Penelope is trying to conceal than a traditional murder mystery. The “Big Secret,” when completely disclosed, is a bit anticlimactic because of the multiple retellings, diminishing the impact as each additional detail is exposed.

Last, too much of the characterization deals with things told rather than shown. Most characters are described by summarized stories of their past, rather than seeing them act in the present.

However, the plotting is good, and the writing evokes the period well, so I would expect to see books I’d like better from E.W. Cooper in the future.

Anything you can do, I can do better

A Boldly Daring Scheme by Lynn Messina

r/suggestmeabook: I want a frothy Regency mystery tinged with romance told by a female protagonist coming to grips with her own shortcomings.

Regency cozy mystery

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 263

Publisher: Potatoworks Press

Series: Beatrice Hyde-Clare Mysteries

From the publisher: Finally, Flora Hyde-Clare has wrest the narrative from Beatrice by finding her own compelling murder mystery to solve. Well, it’s not entirely her own because the victim is her cousin’s former beau.

As usual, Lynn Messina delivers. I’m pretty sure you could read this, the seventh in the series, without having read the others, as the protagonist is, as indicated by the cover and the blurb, the cousin of the Beatrice for whom the series is named.

Flora’s voice is different than that of Beatrice, upon which Messina should be congratulated. Beatrice, much more self-aware, would not make the kinds of accidentally funny comments that Flora does.

To be caught—gasp!—breathing hard was really beyond the pale of acceptable behavior. Mama might as well pack up my things and send me back to Sussex in disgrace.

Lynn Messina, A Boldly Daring Scheme

She could be unsympathetic, with her overweening concern for her standing in the ton and her desire for a particular red dress, but she is beginning to interrogate her own attitudes and actions which helps overcome the moments of small mindedness. She’s flawed, but redeemable.

Men can be so prickly in matters involving their integrity, for they are always so concerned about how others perceive them. They worry about appearing caddish more than acting caddish.

Lynn Messina, A Boldly Daring Scheme

The novel follows the usual formula of the woman trying to act independently in a world that won’t allow her to, requiring the intervention of an amused and charmed male, but that’s part of the joy of these books. There are times when a little security, a little romance, and a little formula is just the comfort read you need, and Messina excels at granting that bit of ease.