Guest Reviews

The Widows by Jess Montgomery is inspired by the true story of Ohio’s first female sheriff.  The plot delves into how two women fought greed and violence while overcoming the loss of a loved one.  

The author noted, “This is a darker and deeper style of writing, much more than my other stories.  For example, I examine the Pinkerton men and the violence they used. I read multiple books that talked about how these men would shoot up the striking camps. I put in this book quote by one of the Pinkerton men, ‘A real war, and then, rule of law won’t matter.  Those miners who resist, why, we’ll put ‘em down like rabid dogs.’”

The protagonists Lily and Marvena are based on the real-life historical figures of Maude Collins, the first female sheriff in Ohio, and Mother Jones, the famous activist and labor organizer. Sheriff Daniel Ross, the husband of Lily is murdered and no one knows by whom. Those powerful in the town want to pin it on a coal miner, Marvena’s brother. She has something in common with Lily since she also lost her husband, but to a coal mining accident. Because the mine owners think she will be easy to control, Lily is appointed sheriff pending the next election. But having a mind of her own and a sense of justice she partners with Marvena to find the elusive murderer and Marvena’s missing daughter.

“I wrote both Lily and Marvena as tough.  Lily is sensitive but is also a protector who wants to support her community.  She keeps her emotions close to her heart. Marvena is fierce and persistent, but also has a tender streak.  Although both women were wary of each other at first, they have a common goal to find out what happened. They end up with a strong friendship and recognize that each is balancing their own demons.”

Readers might be curious as to what is real and what is fiction. Montgomery commented, “In real life Collins had five children, and the person who killed her husband was known.  I decided it would be interesting to have Lily take the sheriff position to find out who killed her husband. The similarity is that both women lost their husbands in the line of duty, both were appointed sheriff, and both were elected. The differences: Lily is eight years younger than Maude during that time period and she had only had two children.”

Historical facts are intertwined in this novel that also has strong female characters and an intriguing mystery. Readers get a glimpse into the 1920s-coal mining town in Appalachian Ohio as the author examines women’s rights, prohibition, and the life of a coal miner.

 

Half of What You Hear by Kristyn Kusek Lewis

Harper Paperbacks

Dec 31st, 2018

 

Half of What You Hear by Kristyn Kusek Lewis highlights living in a small town. Moving to her husband’s place of birth, Beth Warner must navigate the many scandals and secrets that make Washington DC look like an honorable place.

Lewis noted, “My last two books were more internal stories where readers are able to get inside the characters’ heads.  This is more dynamic, about a small town. I have some knowledge of the South since my mom is from North Carolina, my husband and I lived there for awhile, and I have a lot of family distributed throughout the region.”

Bess was the social secretary for the First Lady who was unceremoniously fired.  Wanting to get away from the grind and gossip she and her husband take over the running of his parent’s inn and move to Greyhill Virginia. She feels apart from her family and the community.  Shunned as an outsider and having her daughters becoming more independent, Bess is feeling the effects of an empty nest and isolation. 

“I put in this quote at the beginning of the book, from A Bargain For Frances, ‘Being careful is not as much fun as being friends.  Do you want to be careful, or do you want to be friends?’ I wanted to show that when someone has a relationship their choices are the need to be careful and watch their words, or to be truly authentic.  Many times people are defined from one incident.  It is about perception and how we judge people based on that one event.” 

Offered to write a puff piece on one of Greyhill’s most famous and secretive residents, Susannah Lane, Bess quickly accepts.  Besides a Red Chevy truck Susannah loved and crashed, she opens up about her high school sweetheart, Besses’ father-in-law, as well as her best friend who mysteriously died after falling off a cliff.

Lewis describes her main characters, “Bess is driven and is now searching for a sense of identity after her career imploded.  She is placed in a community that really does not want to embrace her and makes her feel like a fish out of water.  In small towns, relationships are developed over years with a strong sense of community.  She sees the town as having stagnant ideas, which comes out clearly during the interview with Susannah who is haunted by her past.  She never felt love and is a broken person.  From the outside Susannah appears to have a charmed life, including driving her red Chevy truck, but reality is very different.”

On a fun note Lewis explained about her passion for red trucks. “I always wanted on old red pick up truck, especially since red is my favorite color.  I have been taking pictures of them for years; although I drive the opposite, a grey Subaru Outback.”  

Readers will feel they are imported into this small town with its old money, mansions, and old-fashioned ideas where dirty laundry is not supposed to be washed in public.  

Let The DEAD Keep Their Secrets by Rosemary Simpson brings to life New York City during the 1880s in a historical mystery. It is rich in the culture of the time with a riveting Colombo type crime.  Readers know who has done it and seek clues with the characters to find the proof. 

 

The plot opens with New York opera singer Claire Buchanan calling on the investigative services of Prudence MacKenzie and her partner, Geoffrey Hunter. Claire shows up at their door begging them to find out exactly how her twin sister, Catherine, and newborn daughter died, believing it was not from natural causes. Catherine’s husband, Aaron Sorenson, is a scoundrel and appears to be marrying women, getting them pregnant, and then having baby and mother die in childbirth.  Prudence and Geoffrey find that childbirth can be dangerous to one’s health as they realize that Sorenson’s current wife may also be in danger. His motive, both the late wife and the current wife would inherit a substantial estate, which will go to him upon their death. Sorensen seems to always be in need of money to pay mounting gambling debts. As the tension mounts the investigative team is putting themselves at risk in attempting to expose the murder-for-inheritance scheme.

 

The author noted, “Catherine was emotionally abused.  Women during that time period did not have much choice. In the Gilded Age in New York women were still property of their husbands.  They were very limited to what their husbands wanted.”

 

One of the important clues is a photograph of the late mother and child. Simpson weaves into the story a Victorian Era custom, post-mortem photography. During these scenes readers learn of the spiritualists who believe “about the possibility of capturing an image of the soul leaving a body at the moment of death.” It was during this time that Claire senses something from her twin sister. The author commented, “During my research, I read how twins separated by birth and raised by different families still have the same likes and dislikes and can sense how each other feels.”

 

Through the characters people learn of the Gilded Age era, with a fascinating description of the homes, the period clothing, and the city of New York. Unlike many women of the time, Prudence is very unconventional, desiring to take the bar exam and become a litigator. For now, she is content to be an amateur sleuth to her partner, ex-Pinkerton agent Geoffrey Hunter, as she learns on the job. “I wrote Prudence being raised by a widowed father who looked at her as a replacement for a son.  He did not make an exception for her being a girl and made sure she had a very well developed sharp legal mind.  She is determined to make her own way even though she inherited wealth. I read that the Pinkerton Agency hired a lady detective during the Civil War and knew I wanted to make my heroine an investigator who is constantly challenged by Geoffrey.”

 

The hero and heroine also have flaws.  The author uses events that happened during the Gilded Age paralleling them with what is happening today. Simpson explained, “Geoffrey has left his southern roots, abandoning his culture and family.  He has a lot of contradictions.  Prudence must struggle with her addiction to the drug laudanum.  She was given it by her family doctor to help her cope with her father’s passing and then her fiancé’s death. She overcame the reliance on laudanum but not without a terrible struggle and the knowledge that she would never be entirely free of it.  I parallel it with the opioid epidemic today.  People became accidental addicts because they were given the drugs legally to cope with physical and emotional pain.”

 

The antagonist, Simpson has no redeeming qualities.  He is a cold and calculating thief, a swindler, and bigamist who victimizes rich women. “I wanted to write an absolute villain.  He is unscrupulous, uncaring with no conscience.  He had every vile habit known.  I do not write cozy mysteries, but historical noirs.  My bad guys are really, really bad who cause awful things to happen.” 

 

The author definitely had done her homework. “I want to feel I live in this world for awhile and to get the reader to feel that also.  I read the New York Times Archives and fall into the rhythm of the language used, how they spoke, wrote and thought.  It puts me in the mindset of the character I am writing about.”  With her detailed descriptions and gripping story Simpson has also drawn the reader into the time period through an exciting and action-packed mystery. 

Latest comments

24.12 | 00:28

Always look forward to your weekly blog, Marti ... safe travels this week. Merry Christmas!

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23.10 | 11:23

Awesome interview! B.J. Daniels books are just GREAT!! Always anticipating the next one! Appreciate her talent, and bringing us wonderful hours of reading!

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22.10 | 18:12

For one, I’m glad you can come up with ideas and that the characters talk to you. Keep them talking and thank you and your characters.

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22.10 | 17:30

I adore B J Daniels’ books. She grabs me from the first sentence and doesn’t let go until the last sentence. I loved this interview.

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