Nathan and Bub Bright were shocked when their middle brother, Cameron died in the outback’s unrelenting heat. It didn’t make sense that he’d had gone out on foot to the legendary Stockman’s Grave, miles from his truck and the family’s cattle ranch. At forty, Cam was a successful and capable rancher and ran the family’s business. And he knew the dangers of the desert heat. Despite signs that Cam was desperate to find shade, investigators suggest that Cam took his own life.
In the following days, more questions arise as the Bright family grieves and the reader gets a closer look at the family’s dynamics. There is obvious tension between Nathan and Bub. Nathan, forty-two, is divorced and runs a small strip of sub-par land adjacent to the Bright ranch. He’s also a smaller stake-holder in the family’s business. Bub, who is twelve years younger, tends to live up to his reputation as a screw-up and he nurses an unspoken bitterness. Another issue is the transfer of ranch shares from Cam to his wife, Ilse, giving her fifty percent ownership. If Nathan sides with Ilse, Bub will not have a voice.
At the house, Cam’s wife, Ilse and their two young daughters must now begin a new life. And Liz, the family matriarch seems to decline by the minute. Also there are Nathan’s teenage son, a long-time ranch hand and a couple transient backpackers.
Written from Nathan’s point of view, readers learn the long history of the boys’ childhoods and difficulties with their father, now dead, and between the brothers as adults. At the center of Nathan’s problems are events involving his ex-wife’s family and the people of Balamara, as well as a missed potential romance from years ago.
A key part of the story is the isolated setting and its dangers. The Brights and the people from Balamara know how to survive the intense desert heat, dangerous wind storms and seasonal flooding that cuts them off from their not-so-close neighbors. But these conditions generate lonely and helpless feelings, particularly for some of the women. Interestingly, Nathan seems to prefer being on his own, deliberately cutting off connections, but could he be the one who needs them most?
Even after Cameron is laid to rest, Nathan continues to dig for answers, but he may not be ready for what he finds. Will he continue to protect the family’s dark secrets?
I liked this atmospheric mystery, although I would describe it more as a family drama, with interesting character studies. I was surprised by the ending, which made the book even more enjoyable. I’m looking forward to reading Jane Harper’s newest book, The Survivors, published in February 2021.
Bio: I worked in the family bakers business and became a professional actor through amateur theatre. Following my father’s death and my mother’s decline into dementia, I became her full-time caregiver, which necessitated my retirement from acting, but sparked my desire to write more as a means of stimulating my creative side.
What got you started as a writer? I have always written since school just for fun, but my wife suggested I should write a children’s book which led to a collection of eight.
What difficult experience has helped you as a writer? Looking after my mother who had dementia as her full-time caregiver meant I could escape in my head by creating a story which I could later use for a story or a book, but they certainly weren’t the easiest years of my life by any means.
Have you ever participated in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)? If so, how many times and what was your experience? I have never participated in the National Novel Writing Month. I will have to look into it.
What advice would you give a new indie author hoping to publish a book? Don’t give up, it’s a long road, but well with it in the long run.
What has been the biggest challenge for you during Covid? As I am retired, I have to say I have had an easy time during Covid except when I contracted it at Christmas, but luckily it was like a very bad dose of flu and left me with no long-term symptoms. During the first lockdown, I wrote my book The Case of the Grease Monkey’s Uncle, which was relatively easy as there were no distractions as all we could do was stay indoors, so I very much enjoyed writing the book. However, I am writing a second book called The Case of the Punch and Judy Man which continues the story of my detective characters, James Arbuthnott and Archie Cluff. But there are many more distractions. I am assisting my wife with her health and beauty clinic, making it somewhat slower progress this time round.
What are you reading right now? I am reading A Fighter Command Station at War by Mark Hillier. It is about RAF Westhampnett, which is research for my next book set in the 1940s.
Would you rather laugh or cry over a book? I think I would prefer to laugh, but I’m quite happy with any book that stirs any of my emotions.
Have you ever climbed a tree to read a book? I have never climbed a tree to read a book. I have, however, climbed a tree to build a treehouse when I was a child. It was not too far from the ground, though, as my mother was very protective of my brother and me, probably because we were adopted which made us a tad more precious to her.
Have you ever dropped a book in the tub, in a pool or in the ocean? I have never had a book in close enough proximity to any of these things to drop one in.
Could you live in a tiny house? We currently live in a large house but I have lived in a small house and I think I am sufficiently adaptable that I could cope wherever I might live.
What are the small things that make you happy? I love my wife and my classic cars although if I was forced to make a choice my wife would just edge it!
Author Name: Thank you so much, Barb, for having me here on your blog. My author name is Jill Culiner but I also write romance as J. Arlene Culiner
Genre: I write non-fiction, mysteries, as well as romance, and romantic suspense.
Books: My non-fiction book is: Finding Home in the Footsteps of the Jewish Fusgeyers.
My mysteries are: Death by Slanderous Tongue and Sad Summer in Biarritz.
My romances are: All About Charming Alice, Desert Rose, A Swan’s Sweet Song, Felicity’s Power and A Turkish Affair.
Are you a full-time author? If not, what’s your side gig? I am also a social critical artist, a cartoonist, a photographer, and very occasionally I work as an actress.
Favorite authors/books: At the moment I love Kapka Kassabova, Charles King, Robert A. Rosenstone, Stephen Morris, W.G. Sebald and Anita Brookner.
What experiences or people have influenced your writing the most? Wonderful books like those of the above authors.
Do you keep a writing journal and if so, how do you use it? I kept a journal for most of my life and I’m glad I did because much of my writing is the result of what I wrote down. However, unless I’m travelling and working on a project, I no longer keep one. Everything I write is for my books or my podcast. That’s enough writing for me.
Do you belong to a writers’ group? If so, describe your experience: No, I don’t. I live in a French-speaking country and I write in English. I do have the feeling I write in isolation, but that’s just fine.
Are you up with the sun or do you burn the midnight oil? Usually, I’m an early riser. My brain turns itself off at around 9:00 pm and I become lazy and dull-witted.
How do you get over a writing slump? I go do something else. If it is a temporary slump—being at war with a paragraph, for example—I’ll go for a walk. If it is a long slump, I’ll just stop writing for a few months. I know the world won’t come to an end if I take a big pause and let my subconscious get to work.
Do you prefer writing dialogue or descriptive passages? I love both. I love writing down cynical, satirical, tongue-in-cheek descriptions, and conversations.
What are you working on now? I’m editing my two most recent manuscripts. One is a non-fiction about a rebellious poet I fell madly in love with. Unfortunately, he died 130 years ago, but I tracked him down in Ukraine, Romania, Austria, and Turkey. The book, A Contrary Journey: with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard, will be published by Claret Press in October.
The other manuscript, The Room in Blake’s Folly, is a romance that starts in 1889 in a Nevada saloon and ends in 2020. I was inspired by the idea that we’ll never know the sort of mischief our ancestors got up to.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about writing and publishing a book? Read, read some more, read in other genres, read non-fiction, read history, read excellent poetry, read wonderful writers like Anita Brookner or the other authors mentioned above.
Do you listen to podcasts? If so, which podcasts do you find the most interesting? I have my own storytelling podcast: https://soundcloud.com/j-arlene-culiner. But I love old the Podcasts on France Culture (history, analysis, stimulating stuff).
Favorite escape: Cooking, experimenting with food, inventing dishes and eating
Do you prefer a couch with pillows or no pillows? Don’t own one so I can’t answer.
Would you rather rake leaves, shovel snow or weed? I never weed because weeds are simply wild flowers that insects need: we desperately need insects. Ditto for raking, because they provide ground cover for the beasties we need and because leaves are also wonderful mulch. As for snow, I live in such a temperate part of the world (France) that snow only comes around for a day or two each year. It’s so lovely, why shovel it away?
Favorite mask – disposable paper, plain fabric, colorful print or something else? Definitely a reusable mask. We don’t need more throw-away items in the world.
Biggest writing challenge since Covid-19 I haven’t really noticed a difference in my life other than not being able to sit in cafés and restaurants for long lunches with friends.
The Night Swim by Megan Goldin Narrated by Bailey Carr, January LaVoy and Samantha Desz
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Podcaster Rachel Krall is ready to immerse herself in the next season of Guilty or Not Guilty when she arrives in the coastal town of Neapolis, North Carolina. Season 3 will cover the rape and sexual assault case against Scott Blair, a champion swimmer and son of a local prominent businessman. Scott’s accuser, Kelly Moore, has been devastated by her assault and the trial’s lead-up, but the burden of proof will be on her and District Attorney Mitch Alkins. Scott’s lawyer is the successful Dale Quinn, a local who moved away but returned to Neapolis to take on the case.
At a rest stop outside the town, Rachel notices a note on her windshield. It’s from Hannah Stills, the sister of a girl who died in Neapolis under suspicious circumstances twenty-five years earlier. Hannah begs Rachel to investigate her sister, Jenny’s death, which she says was murder. Jenny’s death went largely unnoticed while families mourned the death of two well-known teenage boys in a fiery car crash that summer.
In alternating chapters and through Rachel’s podcast, readers learn the details of both cases and will soon wonder if there’s a connection between the crimes. Hannah’s story unfolds in a series of letters to Rachel. When court is not in session, Rachel chases after leads in Jenny’s death, hoping to eventually meet Hannah, who mysteriously avoids a face-to-face.
One of the most interesting parts of the story is the town and its characters’ interconnectedness over several generations. I enjoyed figuring out, through various hints, what the dynamics were between these characters. In addition, the author does a good job covering the different angles of consent, sexual assault and rape, showing the effects of these charges on both families.
I also thought the narrators did an excellent job in telling the story and felt that the podcast element was especially good in audiobook format.
Unfortunately other parts of the book were just not as enjoyable to me. Though it might seem small, I had trouble with the town’s name which doesn’t seem to fit with the names of other American east coast towns. In addition, most of Goldin’s characters, especially Rachel, are one-dimensional. I was also annoyed with how easy it was for Rachel, who is not a police investigator, to get information about Jenny’s death. She went around town and interviewed locals and conveniently connected with people and officials who were around when Jenny died. Although I don’t really care, her portrayal of librarians as unhelpful clock-watchers is not how it is! And, despite producing a podcast, she had time to do all this. I wouldn’t describe The Night Swim as much of a thriller. It moves much slower and a great deal of the book deals with courtroom testimony.
So all-in-all, an interesting, but not very deep read, bringing attention to the important subject of sexual assault and rape.
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
I’m probably one of the last people to read or know the story of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which has also been adapted for film and television many times. It’s also the only Sherlock Holmes novel or short story I’ve read and I enjoyed it very much.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four crime novels and many short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles is the most famous and widely considered his best. The novel first appeared in 1901 in The Strand Magazine in serialized format and was printed as a novel in 1902.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is a story of murder, greed and deception. Set on Dartmoor in Devon, England, it’s centered on the legend of a fierce and supernatural hound that preys on members of the Baskerville family and caused the death of Hugo Baskerville. The story begins years later, when Sir Charles Baskerville dies outside his mansion with an expression of grotesque terror on his face. Nearby otherworldly footprints suggest the hound was in the vicinity.
Sir Henry Baskerville, the next of kin, is called to take over the estate. Sir Charles’s friend, Dr. James Mortimer, notifies Holmes and soon the detective and his assistant, Watson begin to investigate Charles’s death. Meanwhile Sir Henry receives a mysterious letter warning him to stay away and it seems that someone is following Sir Henry. For Sir Henry’s protection and to keep attention away from the investigation, Holmes decides that only Watson should go to Baskerville Hall and report to Holmes by letter everything he sees. On arrival, they learn that a convicted murderer has escaped the nearby prison and is on the loose on the moor.
The story is narrated by Watson and includes letters to Holmes, journal entries as well as the original manuscript explaining the legend and how Hugo met his death. Watson details his impression of the Barrymores, the butler and housekeeper at Baskerville Hall, as well as the Stapletons, Mr. Frankland and other neighbors on the moor. He also tells of strange moans and cries coming from the moor and details the moor’s intimidating landscape.
More than one of these characters has something to hide and Watson soon eyes a second figure on the moor. He’s close to uncovering important details but will need Holmes’s expertise to solve the mystery. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll leave the rest of the plot out, in case you also have never read this story.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the story is the actual setting on Dartmoor, which dates back to the Bronze Age and retains many of the stone structures built during prehistoric times. This area is now a national park. You can learn more about it here.
I’m likely to read more Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Do you have a favorite?
Book to feature: The Undead Mr. Tenpenny, The Cassie Black Trilogy Book One
News to share: I’m thrilled to announce the launch of The Undead Mr. Tenpenny, the first book in my new series, The Cassie Black Trilogy. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but the novel — which is full of dark humor — first came to mind while I was waiting for my grandmother’s funeral to start.
The book begins when Cassie Black, who works at a funeral home, finds her “clients” waking up.
Cassie thinks she has the problem under control, until her latest client (Mr. Tenpenny) insists he’s been murdered and claims Cassie’s responsible thanks to a wicked brand of magic she’s been exposed to. The only way for Cassie to get her life back to normal is to tame her magic and uncover Mr. Tenpenny’s true killer.
Simple right? Of course not. Because while Cassie works on getting her newly-acquired magic sorted, she’s blowing up kitchens, angering an entire magical community, and discovering her past is more closely tied to Busby Tenpenny than she could have ever imagined.
The novel earned some happy kudos from a branch of the American PEN Women when it won first place in their novel excerpt contest, and again from Apple who selected it as one of their Most Anticipated Books of 2021.
But what’s truly brought a smile to my face are the responses from my early reviewers who have loved the characters, the humor, and the overall premise of the book.
Anyway, If you like contemporary fantasy with snarky humor, unforgettable characters, piles of pastries, and a little paranormal mystery, you’ll love the Cassie Black Trilogy…a fish-out-of-water tale that takes you from the streets of Portland to the Tower of London.
Brief bio and other books: I’m an award-winning author who turns wickedly strong tea into imaginative fiction. With a creative and curious mind, my stories run the gamut from historical fantasy to modern-day paranormal, and magical realism to humor-laced dark tales.
Are you working on a new book? Have you won an award or a writing contest? Did you just update your website? Maybe you just want to tell readers about an experience you’ve had. Book Club Mom’s Author Update is a great way to share news and information about you and your books.
In this debut thriller/dark humor novel, a picture-perfect marriage has shocking secrets beneath its shiny facade. To outsiders, Millicent and her husband have the perfect life. They live with their two teenagers in Hidden Oaks, the good part of Woodview, Florida. She sells real estate and her husband teaches tennis at the country club. They have friends. They go to work. Their kids play sports. And they are loyal to their traditions: family dinners, movie night, a standing lunch date after Saturday soccer, and guaranteed ice cream after a trip to the dentist. But Millicent and her husband play a secret deadly game. And when the stakes and pressure rise, they take greater risks to keep their secret hidden, until the dynamics of their marriage betray them.
Narrated by the husband, we learn the couple’s backstory, how they met and fell in love, and their early years as young parents. We also learn about their disturbing second life and how it fuels their marriage. When they change course, their actions begin to affect their children and the people in town. Soon, the husband reveals his own secrets and we see the trust between them erode.
Sandwiched between Millicent and her husband’s schemes are the daily activities of a normal American family and the typical problems that arise for working parents, moody adolescents and the ever-growing presence of social media and the news media. Similar in mood to shows like You, Dexter and Ozark, the characters’ mundane problems in My Lovely Wife offer comic relief to stories in which people lead secret lives which would be too dark by themselves.
Despite the obvious creepiness and some disturbing violence, I liked My Lovely Wife. While its main characters are mostly despicable, the husband reveals a glimmer of conscience, something interesting to think about. Readers who search for at least one likable character will find a couple in the side characters. Several entertaining twists, including a big reveal in the final pages will force the reader to look back and decide who is bad, who is worse, who is a little of both and what the future holds.
I recommend My Lovely Wife to readers who like thrillers and dark humor and I look forward to more books by Samantha Downing.
Here’s a very different story about nine people who sign up for a ten-day cleanse at Tranquillum House, a pricey boutique health and wellness resort in Australia. Its guests expect mindful eating, meditation and a break from their bad habits, unhealthy lifestyles and failures. Some of the guests just want to lose weight or cut back on alcohol, one couple wants to work on their marriage, and others have more specific issues. The director promises a complete transformation.
“Right now you’re at the foot of a mountain and the summit seems impossibly far away, but I am here to help you reach that summit. In ten days, you will not be the person you are now,” promises Masha, Tranquillum House’s director.
“You will leave Tranquillum House feeling happier, healthier, lighter, freer,” she continues.
The attendees are indeed strangers, but as expected, they will soon learn a great deal about each other. Frances Welty is a successful romance novelist, but she’s been burned in a relationship and she may be losing her touch as a writer. Ben and Jessica are a young couple whose lives should be great after winning the lottery, but their marriage is in big trouble. Napoleon, Heather and Zoe Marconi are there to brace the third anniversary of Zoe’s brother’s death. Tony Hogburn, a former football star, is divorced and out of shape. Carmel Schneider is a single mother of four young girls, whose husband left her for someone new. And Lars Lee is a handsome divorce lawyer struggling with relationship problems.
The cleanse includes the expected smoothies, fasting, massages and meditation. Masha and her assistants Yao and Delilah also impose an unexpected “noble silence” which forbids talking and eye contact with each other. And there’s more to come.
Frances knows that some of the practices at Tranquillum House are unconventional. Her massage therapist warned her and said, “Just don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with.” But other than fasting and silence, which is pretty uncomfortable, Frances feels pretty good. And so do others. They have all put their trust in Masha, mostly.
Here’s where the story gets interesting because Masha isn’t an ordinary health resort director. She’s a Russian immigrant who’s undergone her own major transformation. Once an aggressive corporate star, she didn’t take care of herself and nearly died. Her eventual awakening motivated her to reinvent herself and teach others how to do the same.
What comes next for the guests is indeed unconventional.
I downloaded Nine Perfect Strangers on a whim, looking for something to listen to while I walked. I’d listened to Truly Madly Guilty a couple years ago and liked it. And I read What Alice Forgot in 2014 and enjoyed that story too.
Nine Perfect Strangers is described as a mystery, suspense and thriller and that is basically true. But it’s a bigger story about flawed people who change in some ways, but also embrace who they are. I enjoyed listening to this story and the narrator does a great job with the voices. I think the audio version is all the better because of her portrayal of Masha, who to me is the most interesting character in the story. I recommend Nine Perfect Strangers to readers (and listeners) who like a good, long story about relationships, overcoming grief and personal and family crises.
Sadie Hunter is nineteen and missing. She left the Sparkling River Estates trailer park in Cold Creek, Colorado and the only clue is an abandoned car found in Fairfield. Where is she? On a revenge trip, hunting for the person who killed her thirteen-year-old sister, Mattie.
When podcast producer West McCray and his boss learn of Sadie’s disappearance, they know they have a story to tell and create a serial podcast called “The Girls.” While McCray conducts interviews and follows leads, Sadie follows her own leads, desperate to catch up and kill the man responsible.
Sadie alternates between a script of McCray’s podcast and Sadie’s personal narrative of her search for justice. In telling, she reveals painful details about her alcoholic and drug-addicted mother, Claire, who hooks up with a string of move-in boyfriends. She ignores Sadie, who develops a paralyzing stutter, and favors little Mattie. When Claire abandons her daughters, young Mattie is nearly crushed, and Sadie steps in. Determined to give Mattie a decent upbringing, Sadie drops out of high school to be around for her little sister. The sisters are close because, besides May Beth Foster, their surrogate grandmother and manager of the trailer park, they’re all they have. But by the time Mattie is thirteen, she’s resentful and rebellious, sure she can handle herself.
Sadie had done her best, but she was just a girl too. Now she wonders what more she could have done to protect her sister.
In her search, Sadie makes risky connections, but she’s ready for anything, with a switchblade in her pocket, vowing to carve her name into the killer’s soul. She’s not afraid and reasons,
…here’s the thing I tell myself to dull the sharp edges of everything that’s surely left to come: The worst has already happened.
She meets and befriends others, seeking information, but also getting a taste of the privileged life in Montgomery, Colorado. Sadie has only known hardship and neglect and at one point when she connects with a boy her age, she wonders,
why can’t I let myself be worth a moment’s tenderness?
Sadie’s narrative and the podcast reveal details about the sisters and advance at a similar pace, but from different angles, until they nearly intersect in Fairfield. By this point, the reader has the full dark story of the sisters’ childhood and Mattie’s death.
I enjoyed reading this fast-paced mystery. At times I wanted to pull Sadie out of the story and give her a good home and at other times I was right there with her, chasing after her sister’s killer. Sadie’s story is dark and heavy, but full of tender and raw feelings. Readers will be surprised and maybe unhappy with the story’s finish, best left alone in reviews. I was a little disappointed, yet I find myself thinking about Sadie days after I’ve finished, always a good sign of a book.
Sadie is the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Young Adult, which honors the best in mystery fiction, nonfiction and television.