Book Reviews: Notown by Tess Collins and The Widows of Braxton County by Jess McConkey

Book One: The Midnight Valley Quartet
Tess Collins
BearCat Press, May 2013
ISBN 978-1-937356-31-6

The Notown of the story is a nowhere kind of place, a coal mining town set in Kentucky’s Cumberland Mountains. The heroine of the story is a no-good kind of girl, a product of her times in the 1960’s, at least in this particular place. Randi Joe Gaylor’s daddy is a coal miner who, although not always successful, works hard to feed his many children. Her mother is something else, a woman of secrets. But Randi Jo slowly discovers the whole family has secrets, some more gruesome than others, some because once again, these people live in this time and in this place. Murder and betrayal are a part of their history, as well as the history of the people they know. And if you’re born a Notowner, as Randi Jo finds out, you are always a Notowner. There doesn’t seem to be any way out.

Notown is a crime story, although it’s not a mystery. The people, even Randi Jo, as we follow her life from the time she’s a little girl, to young love, marriage and motherhood, to her final degradation and redemption, seems to personify a class of people. Who says America doesn’t have a class system? In Notown it throve, sad and joyless.

Once into the story, the writing is riveting, faithfully reflecting Randi Jo’s voice. Hard reading, at times, because the emotion can only be taken in smaller doses. I think it might be overwhelming in one fell swoop, needing time to be assimilated. Notown is excellent and is sure to make you think about the world and the people in it.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, August 2013.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.


The Widows of Braxton CountyThe Widows of Braxton County
Jess McConkey
William Morrow, July 2013
ISBN 978-0-06-218826-7
Trade Paperback

Kate Krause was a very happy bride as she traveled with her husband, Joe, to her new home in Braxton County, Iowa.  Kate and Joe met online but Kate felt that they were just right for each other.  Kate’s widowed mother had passed away and her grandparents raised Kate. Her grandmother complained endlessly and Kate’s life was not a happy one.

When the new couple arrived at Joe’s farm, a woman that Kate first mistook for a housekeeper met Joe and Kate at the door.  The woman was Trudy Krause, Joe’s mother.   Joe explained that he didn’t tell Kate about Trudy because Trudy was to have moved to a retirement home prior to the couple’s homecoming but there was some problems at the home and her room would not be ready for weeks.

Kate soon found that life was not going to be as she pictured it.  The farm was in bad financial shape and Kate’s savings were used to pay some of the debts but it wasn’t enough.   Joe would not agree to let Kate help him with the management of the farm even though Kate had proven to be an excellent money manager.  Plans for Trudy’s move to a retirement home did not materialize.

As Kate became acquainted with the neighborhood, she finds that the Krause family harbors a long kept secret about a mysterious death.   This secret haunts Kate as dangerous, unexplainable events begin.

A Krause family member, but not one that Joe associates with, owns the local hardware store.   Joe warns Kate not to shop at that store.  Kate ignores his wishes, makes friends with the owner of the store, and finds out a little more about the mysterious past and haunting secret of the Krause family.

The book goes back and forth between present day and the past where the Krause mystery began.  I found this book to be very interesting and I could not wait to get to the end but when I did, I wished the book were longer.

Jess McConkey a/k/a Shirley Damsgaard is an award-winning writer.  Love Lies Bleeding was the first book I read by the author Jess McConkey and it was a good read.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, September 2013.

Book Review: Helen of Troy by Tess Collins

Helen of TroyHelen of Troy
Tess Collins
BearCat Press, January 2012
ISBN: 978-1-937356-00-2

Helen, of Troy Hardware, ends up in the middle of a mid life crisis. Will she stay and work things out with her husband Rudy, the same husband whom she caught kissing her oldest and best friend? Or will she be tempted to give it all up and start a new life with the mysterious but alluring Garland Cookson, a man from her past who stirs up all kinds of memories. Not if Garland’s sister has anything to do with it she won’t.

You know, I read this book a week ago and already I’ve forgotten the exact plot. This title is entertaining, well written and will certainly help you while away a rainy afternoon, but it won’t end up on the English Literature syllabus anytime soon. I’m afraid that it’s another example of a ‘romance’ title that will inevitably be soon forgotten in that oversaturated market. The plot is loosely based on that old epic, Helen of Troy. You know the one. Ended up starting a war involving lots of Greek men and took an age to get home. Well, this book is roughly the same only it’s set in modern day Tennessee and involves Helen, a married woman with a rough and ready husband, various townsfolk and the oft-required mysterious male who strides back into town with a tragic past and has a bitch of a sister.

It’s a gentle enough story that’s very easy to read but I think what let it down for me, was the slightly farcical ending. I just couldn’t believe that most of the town would end up taking sides between husband and wife that often descended into snowball fights and building ice homes. I mean, we do some crazy stuff here in Ireland but basically, if someone is having marital troubles we do the normal thing and talk about it behind their backs. You won’t catch me taking a snowball to the face to defend the honour of two people who should know better. Then again, maybe I’m being too harsh. My idea of a good romance is Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice and consequently, very few modern titles live up to those lofty ideals. And after all, the book is well written with a good pace throughout. The characters are well rounded and there is just the right amount of intrigue and high jinx to keep you interested. If romance or chick lit is your thing, then this is a title that shouldn’t disappoint. Or if like me, you prefer your romance to have mad wives locked away in attics and lashings of high class snobbery, then maybe just stick to the classics.

Reviewed by Laura McLaughlin, October 2012.