Book Review: A Circle of Dead Girls by Eleanor Kuhns @EleanorKuhns @severnhouse @partnersincr1me

A Circle of Dead Girls
A Will Rees Mystery #8
Eleanor Kuhns
Severn House, March 2020
ISBN 978-0-7278-9008-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

In the spring of 1800, a traveling circus arrives in town. Rees is about to attend, but sees his nemesis, Magistrate Hanson in the crowd, and leaves. On the way home he meets a party of Shaker brothers searching for a missing girl. They quickly come across her lifeless body thrown into a farmer’s field.

Rees begins investigating and quickly becomes entranced by the exotic circus performers, especially the beautiful young tightrope walker.

Other murders follow. Who is the killer? One of the circus performers? One of the townspeople? Or One of the Shakers?

Will Rees is a conflicted man. Accused of murder, he and his family fled their town and ended up on a farm in a Shaker community near the town of Durham where they now live safely but Will detests farming. What he does enjoy is being a traveling weaver and, now that spring has come to Maine, he’ll be heading out soon. First, though, he’s attracted to Asher’s Circus and has gone to town to see it. While he does get to see a couple of amazing acts, he’s soon forced to head back home.

On the way, Will runs into a small group of Shaker men who are searching for a missing teenaged orphan, Leah, and he agrees to help look for her; they very quickly find her, dead, clearly murdered. Because he has established a reputation for solving crimes, Will is soon following leads but his interest in the circus, and one performer in particular, distracts him from his investigation while his absence from home is leaving his wife, Lydia, with the burden of his normal farming work. It seems that Will might not be able to carry out his accepted duty and stay focused so well this time but the twists in the case and the memory of the murdered girl won’t let him ignore it all for long.

One of the highlights of this tale, for me, was learning a little about the sort of circus that existed in 1800, before trains and big tents. In my opinion, this series is one that has been greatly underappreciated and deserves much more attention. The stories are intriguing, the characters are vividly drawn and appealing and Ms. Kuhns is a good writer. While I haven’t read every book in the series and it’s natural that reading in order gives a better understanding of the settings and primary players, each one has a self-contained story and is very satisfying. Give it a try!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2020.

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Purchase Links:
Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon // Indiebound

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An Excerpt from A Circle of Dead Girls

Chapter 1

As if God Himself had taken a hand, winter abruptly changed to spring. The six inches of snow that had fallen just last week – the third week of April – was melting in the suddenly balmy air. Instead of hard packed snow, the roads were surfaced in slush and mud. Only on the north sides of the slopes and under the trees did snow remain and even there green spears poked through the white.

Rees had already planted peas and in a few weeks he would begin plowing the rocky fields. He sighed. Although glad to see the spring, he did not like to think about the coming backbreaking toil. He would turn forty this year and his dislike of farm work had, if anything, intensified. His father had died at the age of forty-six, while Rees was away serving with General Washington in the War for Independence, and sometimes he wondered if six years was all he had left. Six years with his arms up to their elbows in mud and manure. Just the thought of it pressed down like a heavy weight. He didn’t think he could bear it.

At least, with the coming warmer weather, he could look forward to a few weeks of freedom as he traveled these roads weaving for the farm wives. Besides the cash he would earn, he looked forward to what he imagined as sunlit days of freedom from the farm.

With a shake of his head, he pushed the gloomy thoughts from his mind. Now he was on his way into town. For the past several days men had been shouting up and down the lanes and byways: Asher’s Circus was coming to town. Rees had brought his children to the Surry road yesterday to watch the circus arrive. First came a man in a scarlet coat and top hat riding a bay. Bells jingled on his harness and feathers danced upon his head. Two carriages followed, the beautiful women seated inside leaning through the curtained windows to wave and blow kisses. At least five wagons followed, wagons that were unlike any that Rees had ever seen. These vehicles looked like the carriages but were bigger and taller and the curtains at their small windows were shut. On every wagon door a bright gold rearing horse glittered in the sunlight. Finally, clowns with colored patches painted over their eyes and vivid clothing walked alongside. One was a dwarf with a pig and a dog and the other a giant of a man. While the little man turned cartwheels, the big fellow walked straight ahead barely acknowledging the crowds lining the street.

Rees’s children were beyond excited, jumping and shouting beside the road. Even Rees, a cosmopolitan traveler who’d visited several large cities, had been enchanted. After a long winter kept mostly inside and occupied solely with mending tack and other chores he was ready for some entertainment.

Now he was on his way into town to see a performance. A sudden wash of muddy water splattered, not only the wagon, but him as well. He swore at the young sprig galloping by, so intent on reaching Durham that he paid no attention to those he passed. But Rees was not really angry. A circus was a grand event and he guessed he could extend a little charity to the eager farmer’s boy. Rees knew Lydia would have liked to join him, and probably the children as well, but no lady would be seen at such rude entertainment, so she must rely on his descriptions.

The streets of Durham were thronged with traffic. Wagons jostled for space next to horses and mules. Pedestrians were forced to cling to the side of the buildings lest they be trampled underfoot. Rees shook his head in amazement; he had never seen the streets so crowded.

And Rouge’s inn! The yard swarmed with horses and shouting men. Rees’s hope – that he could leave his horse and wagon there – died. When he turned down an alley that went to the jail, he found this narrow lane almost as impassible. But he could already see a tall structure in the field that the Durham farmers usually used for Saturday market. It was so early in the season that market was just beginning. Later in the spring the grounds would be in use every Saturday.

Finally, Rees parked his wagon and horse at the jail. He watered Hannibal from a nearby trough and joined the mob streaming toward the large field. Affluent townsmen rubbed shoulders with sunburned farmers in straw hats and dirty clogs. At first, except for the arena built in the center, the fairgrounds looked exactly as normal: an occasional ramshackle hut interspersed with large areas of open ground. The farmers usually set up their wares in one of those small squares; this was how Lydia sold her butter and cheese. Rees lifted his eyes to the tall wooden structure, dazzling with colorful flags flying around the roof, that dominated the field. At first, he did not notice how peculiar the building looked. But as he approached the flimsy construction, the lack of any windows, and the slapdash roof became apparent. An arc of roofed wooden vehicles – the circus wagons – curved around the back.

At several yards distant he could see gaps between the splintered boards that made up the walls. Posters, all designed with a crude woodcut of a horse, papered over the widest of cracks. Rees directed his steps to a bill posted on the wall and paused in front of it. “Asher’s Circus”, he read. “Mr. Joseph Asher, trained by Mr. Phillip Astley and Mr. John B. Ricketts, and just arrived from tours of London, Philadelphia, Boston, and Albany, is pleased to present daring feats of horsemanship, the world -famous rope dancer Bambola, clowns after the Italian fashion and many more acts to amaze and delight.”

Rees grunted, his eyes moving to the bottom. Names and dates scribbled in by different hands, and then crossed off, filled all the white space with the last being Durham, show time five o’clock. Since he didn’t recognize most of the names, he suspected they were for very small villages, not the cities mentioned above. Mr. Asher clearly had grandiose aspirations.

Rees walked around to the front. An opening was screened by a shabby blue curtain, dyed in streaks and with the same look as the boards- used over and over for a long time. Now more curious than ever, he bent down and peered through the gap at the bottom. He could hear the sound of hooves and as he peeked under the curtain he saw the skinny brown legs of a galloping horse thud past.

‘I really must begin my journey.’ Piggy Hanson’s whiny drawl sent Rees’s head whipping around. What the Hell was Piggy doing here? Rees had not seen Hanson, or anyone else from his hometown of Dugard, Maine, for almost two years, not since the magistrate had written an arrest warrants for Lydia – witchcraft – and for Rees – murder. His family had had to flee for their lives. He did not think he would ever forgive the people involved, especially the magistrate who had enabled the persecution. Rage swept over Rees and he turned to look around for the other man.

He saw his nemesis – they’d been enemies since boyhood – standing in a cluster of gentlemen, their cigar smoke forming a cloud around them. With every intention of punching the other man, Rees took a few steps in his direction, but then his anger succumbed to his more rational mind. He did not want Piggy Hanson to know he lived here now and anyway there were far too many men for him to take on by himself.

‘I must leave for the next town on my circuit, you know,’ Hanson continued. A magistrate for a large district, he regularly traveled from town to town ruling on judicial issues. He knew Rees was innocent of murder, Rees was certain of it, but he suspected he would still be treated as though he was guilty. And he doubted he could behave with any civility at all, not with this man. He cast around for a hiding place and, quicker than thought, he dashed behind the blue curtain.

He swiftly moved away from the portal, pressing himself against the wooden wall so that no one who came through the curtain could immediately see him. Then he inhaled a deep breath and looked around.

Stones carried in from the field outside marked off a roughly circular ring. The galloping horse thundered past, a woman in a short red frock standing on the saddle. At first scandalized to see the woman’s legs knee to ankle, Rees’s shock quickly turned to admiration. She stood on the saddle in comfort, her red dress and white petticoats fluttering in the breeze. Puffs of dust from the horse’s hooves sifted into the air.

‘Pip,’ said a voice from above. Rees looked up. A rope had been stretched tautly across the width of the enclosure and a woman in a white dress and stockings stood upon it. She wore white gloves but no hat and her wavy dark hair curled around her face. Rees stared in amazement as her white feet slid across the line. She was totally focused upon her task and did not give any indication she saw him. ‘Pip,’ she said again, and went into a flood of French mixed with some other language. Rees understood enough to know she was complaining about the rope.

This, he thought, must be Bambola, the ropewalker, crossing the sky above his head. She was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. As her white dress fluttered around her, all he could think of was angels.

‘Bon.’ A man Rees had not noticed detached himself from the wall and moved forward. He was easily as tall as Rees, if not taller, and lanky. His hair was a peculiar reddish black color. In French he assured the rope dancer that he would fix the rope in a minute.

Holding up his hand, he moved toward the ring. The equestrienne dropped down to the saddle, first riding astride and then moving one leg across so she rode sidesaddle. She pulled the horse to a stop and jumped down with none of the hesitation of a lady. She conferred with Pip for a few moments in tones too low for Rees to hear and then she went out the opening at the back. The man leaped easily into the saddle and urged the horse again into a gallop. He stood in the saddle, balancing even more easily than his female partner, and then, in one fluid motion, dropped to the saddle to stand on his hands. His lean body formed a long streak toward the sky. Rees gasped in amazement. Then the performer began jumping from one face of the saddle to the other, riding diagonally on each side with his feet pointing at the horse’s hindquarters. He was even more skilled than the woman and Rees was so enthralled he forgot why he was there and lost all track of time.

Finally, Pip moved his long body into the saddle and slowed the horse to a walk. He dismounted and, taking hold of the bridle, began to walk the animal around the ring. ‘You,’ he shouted at Rees in a heavy French accent, ‘get out. You must pay.’

Rees half-nodded, listening to the chatter floating over the wall; he could still hear Piggy talking outside, his high-pitched voice carrying over the lower tones of the other men. ‘I didn’t sneak in to see the show,’ Rees told the circus performer in a near-whisper. ‘There’s someone outside I don’t want to meet.’ With a grin – he could also hear Piggy – the other man turned and pointed to the curtain at the back. Rees struck across the ring for the screen. Disappointment – for now he would not be able to stay and enjoy the show – fell heavy upon his shoulders. Another crime to put at Piggy’s door.

Before he dropped the cloth over the opening Rees turned to look back over his shoulder. Now the tall man was scrambling up the pole to the small landing above. Rees wondered if the talented rider was a rope dancer as well as an equestrian but he did not go all the way up. Instead, as the girl withdrew to the landing on the other side, Pip began working with fittings. The rope vibrated.

Rees dropped the curtain and looked around. He found himself in the cluster of the circus carriages, horses, and hurrying people. A dwarf wearing a clown’s short ruffled red pants and with red triangles drawn in around his eyes hurried past, quickly followed by a slender fellow with oiled black hair and an aggressive black mustache streaked with gray. The performance would begin soon. No one took the slightest notice of Rees as he threaded his way through the circus performers.

Close to, the wagons looked beat up, scarred with use. Most of the gold horses on the wagon doors were simply paint and the few that were carved wood or sculpted metal were losing their gilding. Rees distinctly saw the tell- tale red of rust fringing the head of one rearing stallion.

He broke into a run. He would never have expected to meet the Magistrate here in this tiny Maine town. And he prayed Hanson would leave soon. Rees would not dare to return until he could be sure that Piggy Hanson was gone.

Leaving Durham proved just as challenging as entering town in the first place. The streets seemed even more congested now than they had been earlier. Abandoning the main road once again, Rees turned down a side street on the southern side of town. There was a narrow lane, little more than a footpath, that went east, from Durham to the Surry Road. He could follow Surry Road north past the Shaker community and then to his own farm. If he could just reach the lane. The side street was packed with wagons coming from the farms on the southern side of town. It took Rees much longer than it should have to drive the few blocks before he was finally able to turn.

But from what he could see of this winding track, there was little traffic here. Because of the narrow and twisty nature of this lane most of the traffic was on foot. Only a few vehicles were heading into town. Congratulating himself on his foresight, Rees settled himself more comfortably on the hard wooden seat. If one were not in a hurry, this was a pleasant ride through the stands of budding trees and lichen spotted boulders. He glanced at the sky; he’d reach home before it was entirely dark. And, although he had not been able to attend the circus, at least he’d seen enough to make a good story to tell Lydia and the children.

The wagon trundled around the last steep sharp curve. From here the road straightened out, cutting through farmland until it reached Surry Road.

And ahead was a group of Shaker Brothers, walking towards him. Rees was surprised to see them. A devout group that rarely left their well-ordered community, they surely could not be walking into Durham for the circus. He slowed to a stop and jumped to the ground.

Chapter 2

The group of men resolved into individual faces. One man, Brother Daniel, Rees knew well. Daniel had been the caretaker of the boys when Rees and his family had sought refuge here two years ago. Promoted to Elder since then, Daniel was beginning to look much older than his almost thirty years. He’d lost the roundness to his cheeks, his face now appearing almost gaunt, and the gray appearing in his hair made him look as though he were fading like a piece of old cloth. Rees, who’d recently discovered white hairs on his chin and chest, felt a spasm of sympathy.

Now worried lines furrowed Daniel’s forehead. ‘Rees,’ he said. ‘If I may request your assistance?’

‘Of course,’ he said immediately. ‘What do you need?’ Not only was his wife a former Shaker but the members of Zion had helped him more times than he could count.

‘When you came through town did you see a Shaker lass?’ Daniel’s normally quiet voice trembled with fear and desperation. Rees shook his head. He had seen few women or children and none clothed in the sober Shaker garb.

‘What happened? Did she run off to see the circus?’

‘Yes,’ Daniel said with a nod. ‘With one of the boys.’

‘Shem,’ said Brother Aaron. Rees knew the cantankerous old man well. and was surprised to see him here, searching for the girl. Although a Shaker, Aaron was not always kind or compassionate. ‘I fear he was easily led by that girl,’ he added, confirming Rees’s judgement.

‘Apparently they took off right after our noon dinner,’ Daniel continued, ignoring the other man. ‘We wouldn’t know that much but for the fact Shem was almost late for supper.’

‘Well, have you asked him where she is?’

‘Shem had nothing to do with it,’ Aaron said sharply at the same instant Daniel spoke.

‘Of course we did. We aren’t fools.’

Rees held up his hands in contrition. The Shakers were usually the most even-tempered of people. He knew Daniel’s testiness was a measure of his worry. ‘What did he say?’

‘That they were separated.’

‘Shem wanted to see the circus horses,’ Aaron said.

‘Leah wanted to come home,’ Daniel explained, throwing an irritated glance at his fellow Shaker. ‘Well, they wouldn’t allow a woman to enter such a rude entertainment, would they? She was probably bored-.’

‘He is horse mad,’ Aaron interjected.

‘Please Aaron,’ Daniel said in a sharp voice, staring at his fellow in exasperation. Aaron acknowledged the rebuke with a nod and Daniel continued. ‘How could Leah have been so lost to all propriety as to imagine she would be allowed entry, I don’t know.’ For a moment his frustration with the girl overshadowed his fear. ‘What was she thinking? I’m not surprised that rapscallion Shem would behave so carelessly but Leah is soon to sign the Covenant and join us as a fully adult member. The amusements of the World should hold no attraction for her.’

Rees shook his head in disagreement. He didn’t blame the girl. He thought that this was exactly the time when she would want to see something outside the kitchen. After all, he was a man, well used to traveling, and seeing the circus had made him long to pack his loom in his wagon and go.

‘Like all women, she is flighty,’ Aaron said, frowning in condemnation. ‘Attracted to sins of -.’

‘Did you search Zion?’ Rees interrupted.

‘No,’ Daniel said. ‘When we couldn’t find the children, we suspected they’d left . . .’ His voice trailed away and he looked from side to side as though expecting the girl to spring up beside him.

‘Perhaps she just wanted to go home to her family,’ Rees suggested.

‘She has no family,’ Daniel said curtly. ‘Neither of those children do. Shem is an orphan and Leah has lived with us since she was a baby. Her mother brought her to us and died soon after. Leah knows no other family but us. She would not leave our community.’

All the more reason for her to want to experience something of the world, Rees thought but he kept his opinion to himself. ‘I drove to town on the main road,’ he said aloud. ‘I did not see any children at all.’

‘When was that?”

“About four,’ Rees replied.

Daniel nodded and rubbed a shaking hand over his jaw. ‘You were on the road too late, I think. The children left the village right after noon dinner.’

‘That means they would have been on the main road between one and two,’ Rees said. ‘Depending on their speed.’ And if Leah had parted from Shem and started home by two-thirty or three, walking either road, she would have reached Zion by four. Four-thirty at the latest. Anxiety for the girl tingled through him. He thought of his own children and the kidnapping of his daughter last winter with a shudder of remembered terror. ‘I’ll help you search,’ he said. ‘The more of us the better.’ He already feared this search would not have a good outcome.

Daniel turned to two of the younger Brothers. ‘Search along the road,’ he said. ‘And hurry. We have less than an hour of daylight left.’ They started down the lane, moving toward town at a run.

Rees looked up at the sky. The fiery ball was almost at the horizon, and long low rays streamed across the earth in ribbons of gold. In thirty – maybe forty minutes the sun would drop below the western hill and the pink and purple streamers across the sky would fade into black. ‘I’ll park the wagon,’ he said, jumping into the seat.

He pulled it to the ditch on the left side and jumped down, looking around him as he did so. Farmer Reynard had planted the sloping fields on Rees’s right; buckwheat probably given the sloping and rocky nature of the ground. But on the left the buckwheat straw from last year stood almost four feet high, waiting to be cut down and then turned over into the soil. Rees inspected that field thoughtfully. Tall thick stems such as that could hide a girl who did not want to be found. ‘We should check the fields,’ he said as he rejoined the Shakers. ‘And the pastures.’ When Daniel looked at him in surprise, he added, ‘She might have started back to Zion and when she saw us coming gone to ground. She might not want to be dragged back to Zion in disgrace.’ Daniel nodded, pleased by the suggestion and quickly asked the other Brothers to spread out across the fields. Rees and Daniel started walking down the lane.

But before they had gone very far, one of the other Shakers called out.

‘Hey, over here.’ A young fellow whose yellow hair stuck out around his straw hat like straw itself, began retching. ‘Oh, dear God.’

Daniel did not pause to remonstrate with the boy for his language but vaulted the fence into the field and ran. Rees struggled to keep up. Was it Leah? Was she hurt? His stomach clenched; he was so afraid the situation was far worse than that.

They arrived at the body lying sprawled in its buckwheat nest at the same time. She lay partly on her right side, partly on her back, her left arm crooked at her waist at an odd angle. Her plain gray skirt was rucked up to her thighs and blood spattered the white flesh. Daniel turned around, his face white, and shouted at the Brothers approaching him, ‘Stay back. Stay back. Don’t come any closer.’

‘Oh no,’ Rees said, dropping to one knee. ‘Oh no.’ Although he’d been told Leah was fourteen, she looked much younger. Under the severe Shaker cap, her skin had the translucent quality of the child. Her eyes were open, the cloudy irises staring at the darkening sky. Rees bent over her. Although it was hard to tell in the fading light he thought he saw marks around her throat. ‘She may have been strangled,’ he said, his eyes rising to the worm fence that separated this field from the road that led into Durham. Leah’s body had been dropped only a few yards from the fence but in the high straw it would have been almost invisible, even in daylight. Rees began walking slowly toward the main road, his eyes fixed upon the ground. There did not seem to be any path from the fence to the body; none of the buckwheat stalks were bent or broken in any way. He did not see any footprints in the soft April soil either. But in the setting sun detail was difficult to see and he made a mental note to examine this section of the field more closely tomorrow.

‘The farmer, did he do this terrible thing?’ Daniel cried, glancing from side to side.

‘Perhaps, but I doubt it,’ Rees said. He touched the girl’s upraised arm to see if he could move it. As he suspected, the body was growing stiff. ‘He would be a fool to leave her in his own field.’

‘It was not Shem,’ Aaron said loudly. Rees glanced up at the man. Why was Aaron so protective of that boy?

‘She’s been dead for about some hours,’ Rees said, returning to his examination. Then he thought about the warmth of the day. Leah would have been lying here, in the sun. ‘Maybe since mid-afternoon.’ And that time would be consistent with the time she’d left town.

‘How do you know?’ Daniel stared at Rees in shock, mixed with dawning suspicion.

‘You told me she was seen at noon dinner,’ Rees replied, ‘so we know she was alive then.’ He rose to his feet and looked at Daniel ‘It must be almost six o’clock now.’

‘Probably after,’ Daniel said, looking around at the fading light.

‘A body begins to stiffen a few hours after death and then, maybe half a day later, the rigidity passes off. I saw this frequently during the War for Independence but any good butcher will tell you the same.’ Rees kept his eyes upon the other man who finally nodded with some reluctance. ‘I would guess that Leah was accosted by someone on her way home.’ He paused. The poor child had probably been lying here when he rode past, thinking of the circus. He closed his eyes as a spasm of shame went through him.

‘She knew she was not to leave Zion,’ Daniel said with a hint of wrath in his voice.

Rees sighed. This was not the first time he had seen the victim blamed. And perhaps, for a celibate such as Daniel, anger was an easier emotion right now than horror and disgust and grief as well. ‘Perhaps she behaved foolishly, but she did not deserve this end to her life.’

‘We will take her home -,’ Daniel began. But Rees interrupted.

‘We must send someone for the constable.’

‘No. No. She is one of ours.’

‘This is murder,’ Rees said, staring fixedly at Daniel. Although shocked and horrified, he had witnessed too many violent deaths to be paralyzed by such evil any longer. His calm voice and stern regard had the desired effect. Daniel sucked in a deep breath. After he had mastered himself, he left Rees’s side and joined the group of Shakers.

‘Run back to the village and get a horse,’ he told one of the youngest Brothers. ‘Ride into Durham and fetch Constable Rouge.’ His voice trembled on the final word. Rees looked at Daniel. He was swaying on his feet, his eyes were glassy and his skin pale and slick with perspiration. He looked as though he might faint. Rees drew him away from Leah’s body and pressed him down into a sitting position. Daniel was little more than a boy himself and had lived in the serene Shaker community most of his life. It was no surprise he was ill-equipped to handle such a terrible occurrence. ‘Put your head between your knees,’ Rees said. ‘I’m going to walk to the farmhouse and talk to the farmer. Maybe he saw something.’

‘I’ll go with you.’ Daniel stood up; so unsteady Rees grabbed him to keep him from falling.

‘No,’ he said with a shake of his head.

‘I need to go with you,’ the Brother said fiercely. ‘I need to do something. That poor child!’ Rees stared at the other man. Although Daniel’s face was still white, and he was trembling he had set his mouth in a determined line. ‘I must do this, Rees.’

‘Very well.’ Rees glanced over his shoulder at the body. From here, it appeared to be a bundle of rags dropped among the stalks. ‘Poor chick won’t be going anywhere.’

Daniel looked at Brother Aaron. ‘You were once a soldier,’ he said. ‘You’ve seen violence and death. Please stay with our Sister.’ Aaron nodded and, withdrawing a few steps, sat down in the row between the stalks. In the encroaching shadows he instantly faded from view. Only his pale straw hat remained, shining in the last of the light like a beacon.

Rees and Daniel set off across the fields for the distant farmhouse.

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Excerpt from A Circle Of Dead Girls by Eleanor Kuhns.
Copyright 2020 by Eleanor Kuhns. Reproduced with
permission from Eleanor Kuhns. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur First Crime novel competition for A Simple Murder. She lives in upstate New York. A Circle of Death Girls is Will Rees Mystery # 8.

Catch Up With Eleanor Kuhns:

www.Eleanor-Kuhns.com
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Book Reviews: Colombiano by Rusty Young, Abby in Wonderland by Sarah Mlynowski and Otherwise Known As Possum by Maria D. Laso @SarahMlynowski @Scholastic

Colombiano
Rusty Young
Havelock & Baker, August 2017
ISBN–AU 9780143781547
Havelock & Baker, February 2020
ISBN–US 978-0648445319
Trade Paperback

You can’t truly know what someone else is going through without walking in his shoes. Unless Mr. Young writes about it. In Colombiano, those of us fortunate enough to be far removed from any war zone, see exactly what living amid battles entails; in day-to-day life, as well the overall impact it has on absolutely everything.

Certainly, most people know that the Guerilla evoke evil with their aggressive cocaine manufacturing and distribution. The gross misunderstanding is that the Guerilla are fighting the army and law enforcement; not citizens. Leading to the false conclusion that, if folks go about their business, there’s no real reason for this pesky fighting to bother them. The carefully controlled propaganda supports this theory. Even having the place of worship utterly obliterated by “errant” fire is only an unfortunate consequence.

Pedro has listened to placates until he thought his head may explode. Papi made sure he contained, or at least properly channeled, his rage. There was Camila to consider. Rounding out the small group of people close to Pedro is the somewhat goofy, undeniably adorable, Pallilo. Pedro can push his anger aside for them.

Right up until the Guerilla descended on his father’s farm. In front of his disbelieving eyes, Papi is surrounded as accusations are hurled. The feisty fifteen-year-old cannot watch the depraved tirade and hold his tongue. Boldly, stupidly, Pedro demands an explanation. His father’s crime was revealed with a hint of glee. The farmer had the audacity to allow soldiers from the army to drink water from his well.

The resulting punishment is a defining, dividing moment for Pedro. There are men like Papi. Those who believed, as people of God, it was never right to deny a thirsty man a drink. And there are monsters masquerading as men—the Guerilla.

The situation that Pedro is forced to face is tragic. His retaliatory actions, atrocious. And yet…the author manages to demonstrate how a furious and yes, frightened, adolescent can morph into a ruthless mankiller—all the while reminding the reader that Pedro remains, essentially, a boy.

Reviewed by jv poore, November 2019.

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Abby in Wonderland
Whatever After Special Edition #1
Sarah Mlynowski
Scholastic, Inc., October 2018
ISBN 978-0-545-74667-0
Trade Paperback

Sustaining a series is no simple task. Inserting a special edition story that is somehow as fresh and fun as the very first book seems insurmountable. Except to Ms. Mlynowski.

This fairy-tale-esque fantasy adds adventure and humor absolutely appropriate for younger readers, while maintaining a subtle, something-more; making it compelling and quirky enough for older audiences as well.

I enjoyed being the proverbial parrot-on-the-shoulder as four friends share a day off from school. Per usual, Penny’s parents are not around, but her house is huge and her nanny is happy to host. Penny has planned the entire day and she is not going to let a little cold air or a brisk breeze ruin the card game on the patio.

But when the wind whipped a card across the yard and into the neighboring golf-course, Abby abruptly abandoned the game to give chase. The other three follow until Frankie falls into a hole. Penny’s agenda is pushed aside. The girls have a real problem to solve.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2019.

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Otherwise Known As Possum
Maria D. Laso
Scholastic Press, August 2018
ISBN 978-0-545-93196-0
Trade Paperback

Possum, to me, is kind of a country Pippi Longstocking. Both young girls are wise to the ways of the world, if not properly educated. Tough, fiercely independent with lasting loyalty and a heart bigger than her small body should be able to hold, Possum is another exemplary young lady.

Certainly a smile-through-tears kind of story combining spunk, mischief and intuitive, undeniable kindness, I thoroughly enjoyed the bitter-sweet reflections from the late 20th century in this captivating Juvenile Fiction from Ms. Laso.

Reviewed by jv poore, December 2018.

Book Review: Below the Tree Line by Susan Oleksiw

Below the Tree Line
A Pioneer Valley Mystery #1
Susan Oleksiw
Midnight Ink, September 2018
Trade Paperback

Felicity O’Brien has taken over her father’s farm, raising vegetables and fostering a few sheep to pay her dad’s way in an assisted living facility. Occasionally, a logger (timberer?) comes in and thins the forest that grows on the farm’s poor soil. But just lately, Felicity, who lives alone except for her cat, has become aware of someone, or something, coming around at night, digging holes and snooping. Jeremy Colson, with whom she has a relationship, has his own business to run and isn’t always there to provide backup. And then two women are killed in separate occurrences, one just outside Felicity’s house in a car wreck, and one found dead on Felicity’s land. Both deaths are suspicious, and since she⏤or her land⏤seems to be involved, she feels called upon to investigate. If she doesn’t, she may be the next to die.

There’s an interesting premise for the motivation of this crime, which I’ll leave for the reader to discover for her/himself. But I’ll tell you what threw me for a loop, and it’s nothing that concerns the story itself, which is well-written, interesting, and moves along well. But who knew that in Massachusetts logging is evidently called timbering, and the log itself is called a timber? In my neck of the woods, harvesting the timber is called logging, upon which the cut timber becomes logs. I have to say the nomenclature threw me off every time and I found myself distracted. But that’s just me.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, September 2018.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder, Four Furlongs and Hometown Homicide.

Book Review: Forty Dead Men by Donis Casey

Forty Dead Men
An Alafair Tucker Mystery #10
Donis Casey
Poisoned Pen Press, February 2018
ISBN 978-1-4642-0937-6
Hardcover

This latest of the Alafair Tucker mysteries sees Alafair’s son, Gee Dub, home from WWI.  Unfortunately, although he reconnects with his large family and puts on a good face, Alafair knows something is wrong with her strong, quiet son. When he finds a young woman in a field behaving oddly and brings her home to his mother, the situation only grows worse. Alafair befriends the woman, but then a murder is committed and suspicion falls on Gee Dub. Even Alafair has her doubts when she finds an ammunition case that generally holds forty bullets, but now holds only one, which then goes missing.

Soldiers have always suffered from PTSD. In WWI it was called shell shock and Gee Dub has more reason to suffer from it than many. He often struggles with what is real and what is not, but even so, this story holds some surprising twists and turns.

This is a powerful story of family, love and kindness, and hardship, too. Not to be missed.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, July 2018.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder, Four Furlongs and Hometown Homicide.

Book Review: Dead Loudmouth by Victoria Houston

dead-loudmouthDead Loudmouth
Loon Lake Mystery Series #16
Victoria Houston
Tyrus Books, June 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4405-6845-9
Hardcover
ISBN 978-1-4405-6844-2
Trade Paperback

From the publisher: It’s a bright summer morning in Loon Lake when Police Chief Lewellyn (“Lew”) Ferris is called to the scene of a horrific accident that occurred in the dead of night at a local “gentlemen’s club.” The club is owned by one of the victims, a member of the private Deer Creek Fishing and Hunting Club and the scion of a wealthy Wisconsin family.  When the country coroner is unavailable due to a car accident, Chief Ferris deputizes her close friend and fellow fly-fisherman, retired dentist “Doc” Osborne, to step in.  Osborne’s discovery of mysterious footprints confirms Chief Ferris’ suspicions.  This is no accident; it’s murder.  Leaning on Doc Osborne for his forensic and interrogation skills, Lew also hopes to enlist the help of Ray Pradt, fishing guide and expert tracker.  But Ray’s time is limited as he is coaching Wisconsin State College’s fishing team in a muskie fishing tournament.  Things get complicated when Doc Osborne’s granddaughter disappears on the first day of the tournament.  Sunny June days turn dark as a desperate search ensues.

Lew’s ability to investigate the murders is hampered by the fact that she has only two full-time officers on her staff; and the assistance of Doc, Lew’s deputy coroner, is enabled primarily because he was the mayor’s brother-in-law. She finds no shortage of suspects, at least with regard to the dead woman; the second victim not so much.  The Deer Creek Club is a fascinating entity:  A private preserve, with three private lakes stocked with some of the Northwoods’ largest walleye and bass, it is off-limits to locals, including employees, it is comprised of over a thousand acres where never a living tree has been cut down.

The setting is lovingly made palpable.  Fishing is the background music running through the tale, as a preoccupation of the characters and most of the local residents.  The characters are wonderfully vivid as well, especially Doc’s 11-year-old granddaughter, Mason.  The plot is well-developed, and the novel as a whole is a perfect beach read; for those whose summer days include fishing, even more so.
Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2016.

Book Review: Beulah’s House of Prayer by Cynthia A. Graham—and a Giveaway!

beulahs-house-of-prayerBeulah’s House of Prayer
Cynthia A. Graham
Brick Mantel Books, July 2016
ISBN 978-1-941799-33-8
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Some storms bring destruction. Others bring salvation.

In 1934 the tiny town of Barmy, Oklahoma, is in desperate need of a miracle. The cows are hungry, the rain won’t fall, most of Main Street is boarded up. Young aspiring trapeze artist Sugar Watson is dumped unceremoniously into this bleak setting with little money and only one thing on her mind—escape. Beulah Clinton, a Holy Ghost preacher, has dedicated herself to helping the distressed in this ragged little wasteland, and Sugar soon finds herself thrown in with Marigold Lawford, the simple-minded widow of the richest man in town, and Homer Guppy, a boy trouble follows like dust after a wind.

Despite Sugar’s immediate distaste of Barmy, Beulah’s patience, Marigold’s kindness, and Homer’s unconditional love make her reconsider the meaning of home.

On Black Sunday, the worst dust storm in history brings with it a choice: Sugar must decide whether or not to return home, leaving the hospitality—and love—of Barmy’s inhabitants. A stunning Depression-era literary novel with a touch of magical realism, Beulah’s House of Prayer captivates until the very end.

When I first began hosting stops on blog tours, it was because I wanted to participate in the broader community of people who love books and want to spread the word. A side benefit is that I’ve been introduced to a lot of authors and books I probably wouldn’t know anything about without these tours and some of them have really blown me away. When I reviewed Cynthia A. Graham’s Beneath Still Waters back in February, I knew I’d found a real gem and I feel even more strongly about that now that I’ve read Beulah’s House of Prayer.

Once again, Ms. Graham takes us back to earlier times, to a period significant in our past, and she pulled me right into the center of this dusty town called Barmy and into the lives of a collection of people who completely stole my heart, each in his or her own way. Beulah is an elderly woman who has decided to settle in this town that she believes needs her ministry and her first “parishioner” is a boy named Homer who will go to nearly any lengths to show the town what a delinquent he can be. Homer has reasons to be the way he is, particularly considering his parentage, and it’s easy to understand and sympathize with his deep-seated pain and the way he copes. Beulah is out to save this young man before the devil wins his soul and nothing will stand in her way; Homer has no idea how this old woman is going to impact his life.

Marigold Lawford has also been trampled by life and she has her own way of getting along, mainly just by accepting the lousy hand she’s been dealt. When Beulah offers her a place to sleep. Marigold has no real options and moves in but she’s soon joined by 15-year-old Sugar Watson who’s landed in town with a few dollars and a coffin holding her circus performer father. And thus begins a story of desperation and love and redemption.

I can’t speak highly enough of Ms. Graham and her ability to write her story and her characters with a passion that drew me in till I felt surrounded by this town and its inhabitants. In her beautiful use of language, she made me experience the dust and the overwhelming destitution as well as the hope that never quite dies, and Beulah’s House of Prayer will be joining Beneath Still Waters on my list of favorite books read in 2016. I hate that I have to wait to see what this wonderful author will offer us next 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2016.

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Goodreads

Purchase Links:

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Beulah’s House of Prayer blends the stark reality of
Steinbeck and the grace and imagery of Willa Cather
into a beautifully-rendered story of struggle and faith
in Depression and Dust Bowl era Oklahoma a place
where ‘communion is the wheat I grow and the blood
I sweat.’  Steeped in metaphor, this moving novel is at
once compelling and poetic. It is the kind of story that
often finds its way onto the big screen. One heck of a good
read!” —Dixon Hearne, author, From Tickfaw to Shongaloo
and Delta Flats: Stories in the Key of Blues and Hope

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About the Author

Cynthia A. GrahamCynthia A. Graham is the winner of several writing awards, including a Gold IPPY and a Midwest Book Award for Beneath Still Watersand her short stories have appeared in both university and national literary publications. She attained a B.A. in English from the Pierre Laclede Honors College at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Cynthia is a member of the Historical Novel Society, the St. Louis Writers’ Guild, the Missouri Writers’ Guild, and Sisters in Crime. She is the author of two works of historical mystery: Beneath Still Waters and Behind Every DoorBeulah’s House of Prayer is her first foray in the land of magical realism.

Connect with Cynthia

Website Button     Twitter Button     Facebook Button     Goodreads Button 2

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Follow the tour:

Tuesday, September 6th: Bewitched Bookworms
Wednesday, September 7th: SJ2B House of Books
Friday, September 9thBuried Under Books
Monday, September 12thMockingbird Hill Cottage
Thursday, September 15thKahakai Kitchen
Monday, September 19thFictionZeal
Wednesday, September 21stWrite Read Life

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To enter the drawing for a print
copy of Beulah’s House of Prayer
by Cynthia A. Graham, just leave
a comment below. The winning

name will be drawn on Monday night,
September 12th. This drawing
is open
to residents of the US and Canada.

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TLC Book Tours Button

Book Review: Beware the Wild by Natalie C. Parker

Beware the WildBeware the Wild
Natalie C. Parker
HarperTeen, October 2014
ISBN 978-0-06-224152-8
Hardcover

Swamps make stellar settings for the spookiest of stories. “The meanest swamp in Louisiana” however, disdainfully dismisses “spooky”. This arrogant, angry bog is far more frightening than the orneriest of angry alligators. A petulant presence, tinged with wicked lurks within.

Following an epic sibling squabble, Sass’s revered brother, Phin, belligerently explodes from the sanctity of their backyard into the eagerly awaiting quagmire. She dreads the worst. Not “the worst” as it relates to the average, hazardous marsh. It isn’t images of the one person she loves unconditionally, who loves her right back: sinking into quicksand, being bitten by a venomous snake, hopelessly lost, slowly succumbing to the elements that plague her.

Whispered legends. Volumes of collected Swamp Stories. Knowing looks exchanged over children’s heads. The unimaginable horror that is never actually addressed, always alluded to. These fears fill her mind and freak her out. As if insulted by her tame, unimaginative worries, the glade grabs Sass by her chin, jerks her head up and shoves the unspeakable, tortuous cruelty into her stunned face.

Ms. Parker explodes into the Young Adult literary world, boldly and courageously with an authority that won’t be denied. I’m a little bit in love with her and I’m pretty sure she had me in mind with the shout out to my beloved Phish and the perfect use of a term that needs to come back: spaz attack.

Amid a tale that unapologetically reaches out and with a quick tug, pulls the reader into the sticky, steamy swamp; enters dark-skinned Abigail, the “girl who prefers girls” in a very small town. This diversity is not gratuitous nor is it the point of the story. Rather, Ms. Parker’s natural inclination to include characters of differing ethnicities and sexual orientation seems simply indicative of her norm; yet feels utterly refreshing.

Superbly depicted southern stereotypes lend a feel of authenticity while the dynamics among the characters enrich this brilliantly written, compelling, creepy and captivating story. Absolutely, all-the-way awesome, Beware the Wild is a book that I look forward to re-reading and sharing with my bookish pals both Young and Not-So-Young Adults.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2015.