WARNING: Don’t start reading Local Woman Missing late in the evening because you will stay up late to discover what happens!
As noted previously on several occasions, being in a book club pushes readers to read books they might not otherwise choose. Now, I quite possibly would have chosen Local Woman Missing by Mary Kubica on my own, but I had not read any of her books before. With a loooong TBR list, I could have overlooked Local Woman Missing except for the book club’s choice.
As it turns out, Kubica has written a story that I could hardly put down. The story also gives readers in gory details what happens when a person makes a wrong choice and then makes additional wrong choices to cover up the first mistake. While I will refrain from spoilers, suffice it to say that when Shelby Tebow goes missing, three other disappearances also occur rather close together. Discovering how these missing women and girls connect to one another, if, indeed, they do, will keep readers guessing and turning pages.
As the story unfolds in present time and eleven years earlier when the disappearances take place, the pieces begin to fit together. Before the puzzle is complete, however, readers will have many questions. Those questions all have answers, but the answers come in pieces until all the parts fit together.
My book club meets in early December to discuss Local Woman Missing. I am certain the discussion will be wide-ranging and spirited.
The way an author decides to structure a novel interests me. Camille DiMaio in Before the Rain Falls has brought three major, disparate characters together in a small Texas border town. What do these characters have in common if anything? What puts them in the same place, Puerto Pesar, at the same time? The name Puerto Pesar translates to “Port of Regret.” Will the characters found in Before the Rain Falls regret their time in Puerto Pesar?
Della Lee, 90, has just been released from prison serving time for murdering her younger sister, Eula. Della Lee returns to the only home she has ever known except the prison: the farm she inherited in Puerto Pesar.
Dr. Paloma Vega, who grew up in Puerto Pesar, has returned for a few weeks to care for her grandmother who is recovering from a heart attack and to try to connect with her younger half-sister. Then Vega plans to return to NYC.
The final major character in this unlikely trio is Mick Anders, a Boston journalist. Anders suffers from demons of his own making. After starting out with a bang as a journalist, Anders makes a mistake in judgment which costs his newspaper a great deal of money. Anders arrives in Pureto Pesar on his editor’s advice and seeking a story that will redeem his tattered career and restore his reputation.
In addition to the current story of Della’s return coinciding with Anders’ and Vega’s appearance in town, readers also learn Della’s back story, returning to the murder of her sister. Along the way, readers will meet other characters who also play their roles in the story.
What a delight to discover A Girl Like You by Michelle Cox, the first in the Henrietta and Inspector Howard series. Billed as a “cross between Downton Abbey and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” A Girl Like You will keep readers engrossed in the story. Since I am both a Downton Abbey and Miss Fisher fan, I was intrigued by the description of A Girl Like You.
Henrietta Von Harmon, a young teen, finds that she must leave school and go to work to help her mother feed, clothe, and house her seven younger siblings after her father loses his job and commits suicide. It’s 1935 in Chicago, so jobs are hard to find. Clearly, an underage girl will find only menial, low paying jobs.
Henrietta starts first in Poor Pete’s working as a cleaner for Mr. Hennessey, the bar owner who had known Henrietta’s father. Mr. Hennessey is a kind man and gives Henrietta the job of cleaning the bar. A few years later, at sixteen, Henrietta, a beautiful girl, has moved from cleaner to delivering drinks and being a 26 girl.
Now, I had no idea what a 26 girl meant or what Henrietta had to do in that job. In Chicago, 26 was “a popular pastime across a variety of bars and cigar shops.” The 26 girls would walk around the tables, keeping score as the men threw dice. Of course, the girls were also encouraging the men to order drinks. The game includes rolling “ten dice thirteen times in hopes of turning up a pre-designated number, such as sixes, at least twenty-six times or more.” Most often, the prize is a free drink.
Henrietta has little time for socializing or even having a friend her own age, but she meets Polly who works for Mama Leone in a dance hall where men pay ten cents per dance to dance with pretty girls. Polly tells Henrietta she can make much more money in the dance hall than working at Poor Pete’s. Henrietta knows working in the dance hall will not be acceptable to her mother, so she says she is working in a factory and leaves home in her brother’s clothes as if to work in a factory.
At Mama Leone’s club, Henrietta changes into her dance clothes which she keeps at the hall. For the most part, the job simply means dancing with men and encouraging them to come back. She learns quickly now to fend off their unwanted advances. Then one evening not long after she began dancing at the hall, Clive Howard, a new client, shows up and dances with Henrietta.
Howard questions Henrietta making her suspicious. She even asks him several times if he is a cop, a question which he evades. The very next day, Henrietta arrives at the dance hall for a noon dance, something new for her. However, the hall is crowded with cops because Mama Leone has been found murdered in her office.
Now, Mama Leone is not well-liked by anyone, so the suspects are numerous. She is bossy, evil-tempered, and stingy. She has argued frequently with the two band members, brothers Artie and Al and often withholds their pay until they say they will quit if she doesn’t pay them. Mickey, the bartender, is another suspect; he has also been skimming a bit of money from the till. Suddenly, Artie, Al, and Mickey have disappeared. Could they have murdered Mama Leone and fled? What about Polly and Henrietta or even the other dance hall girls?
When Polly and Henrietta are questioned by the police, Henrietta is not completely surprised that Clive Howard is the main detective on the scene. Her suspicions from the previous night are confirmed.
After being questioned, Henrietta slips into the back room to retrieve her dresses. There, Howard finds her and offers her a job with twice the pay she has been receiving if she will work undercover as an usher at the Marlowe Theater. He tells her he will have plainclothes officers stationed outside at all times to keep her safe. He hopes she will be able to discover nefarious activity going on at the Marlowe.
Desperate for money now that her dance hall job is gone, Henrietta agrees to try to get on as an usher at the Marlowe. This decision marks the beginning of an association with Clive Howard, the detective. As readers may guess, a romantic relationship begins to develop between the two once Henrietta discovers she can trust him. Readers will also look forward to other books in the series with the collaboration between Henrietta and Inspector Howard going forward.
What is a blind tiger? By reading Blind Tiger by Sandra Brown, I learned that the term blind tiger is another name for a speakeasy, coined during Prohibition. Brown has written a page-turning story of hardscrabble people just trying to survive. If that means making and selling moonshine during Prohibition, then so be it.
Laurel Plummer, newly a mother, and her husband a WWI vet, return to her husband’s home in Foley, TX. This move is made without input from Laurel. Derby Plummer, Laurel’s husband, tells Laurel she will “thank me later” for bringing her to Foley after they arrive at his father’s rundown shack. Soon afterwards, Derby puts a gun “beneath his chin and pulls the trigger.” Laurel is standing in front of Derby as he pulls the trigger. What a devastating blow to see her husband die before her. Now, what?
Fortunately, Irv Plummer, Derby’s father, is willing to take Laurel and baby Pearl into his ramshackle home. He becomes like a father to Laurel, and he is delighted with baby Pearl, his granddaughter. Laurel and Irv fall into a routine in the home. Laurel tidies up the place and sets up a sheet to afford herself some privacy.
Laurel is hanging sheets on the line when a stranger wanders onto the remote property. Thatcher Hutton, a WWI vet himself, has just jumped off a moving train a few miles from the Plummer home. He asks Laurel for a drink of water and directions to the nearest town. His first and lasting impression of Laurel is that she is a woman to be reckoned with. Readers naturally expect there will be additional meetings between the two, but what will unfold exactly?
The day Thatcher Hutton arrives in the town of Foley, the doctor’s wife goes missing. As the latest stranger in town, Hutton is accused of abducting her. Only, what motive would he have for abducting this stranger, especially one who had been kind to him and given him freshly made shortbread from her kitchen?
This mystery of a missing woman is only one of the occurrences in Foley that warrants investigation. Readers will quickly realize other issues include prostitution, moonshine making and selling, and other nefarious happenings. As I read, I wanted very much to know what happened to the doctor’s wife. Then Laurel and Irv get mixed up in making and selling moonshine so my fears increase for their safety.
The sheriff quickly determines that Thatcher Hutton has had nothing to do with the doctor’s wife’s disappearance. In fact, the sheriff wishes to deputize Hutton because the sheriff recognizes Hutton’s innate ability to read people and also Hutton’s strength of character. Just because the sheriff feels Hutton is innocent, that doesn’t mean suspicion has disappeared.
Too, Thatcher and Laurel continue to cross paths in various ways. Each time they see one another, Thatcher becomes more intrigued with this strong-willed, attractive woman. Clearly, Laurel is attracted to Thatcher as well, but she keeps her emotions tightly under control.
As the story unfolds, more serious crimes occur. Who is behind these crimes and why? Are so-called solid citizens to blame? If so, who is the mastermind? Blind Tiger provides readers with true villains and true heroes; one simply has to read to the end to know which is which.
My book club discussed Blind Tiger in our first return to in-person meetings. And quite the discussion we had too. There is plenty of fuel for discussion: the characters themselves, Prohibition, the law, poverty, mistreatment of women, and redemption along with a bit of romance to offset the crimes.
Readers will have a number of questions regarding Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce. Does Miss Benson find the elusive golden beetle? Does she receive recognition from the British Natural History Museum for her find? What happened to Enid Pretty, aka Nancy Collett, before she joins Margery Benson and on the expedition? Who is Mr. Mundic and why is he part of the story?
Having read and thoroughly enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Joyce, I looked forward to Miss Benson’s Beetle. I was not disappointed.
Poor Margery Benson, now in her forties, is teaching a group of totally disinterested students. One of the students passes a note which catches Margery’s attention along with the laughter associated with those seeing the note. Upon opening the note, Margery sees not words, but an image: “It was a carefully executed cartoon sketch of a lumpy old woman, and this lumpy old woman was clearly Margery.”
After looking at the note, Margery picked up her handbag and walked out the door. In the teacher’s lounge, she found a pair of men’s boots. For some reason she could not explain then or later, Margery picks up the boots and takes them with her. Thus, Margery begins her great adventure.
Margery’s father had introduced Margery to a book called Incredible Creatures shortly before he took his own life. One of the pictures he pointed out was the golden beetle of New Caledonia. He says, “Imagine how it would be to find this one and bring it home.”
In her teens, Margery begins visiting the British Natural History Museum and learns more and more about beetles. Then life intervenes and she becomes a teacher after floundering for a bit. Now, she is at a crossroads, having left the school and taken the boots which did not belong to her! Margery decides she MUST go to New Caledonia and find the golden beetle.
Margery sells everything she can to raise money for the trip. She plans what she needs to take with her and she advertises for an assistant. After interviewing several candidates, she chooses the most likely one and is all set to begin her journey and quest when the assistant backs out. In desperation and at the last minute, Margery contacts Enid Pretty, whose application was less than stellar and full of weird spellings. Still, Margery needs an assistant.
Margery meets Enid Pretty on the day they are to depart. The two make a most unlikely pair. Still, Margery is determined to make the best of the situation. The journey begins with trouble since Enid has no passport with her. That marks only the beginning of a series of misfortunes to beset the pair. However, they persist and arrive in New Caledonia.
The story will take readers on an imaginative and wild chase of an elusive beetle. Over the course of the trip, the story becomes much more than seeking to find the beetle. It becomes the story of overcoming difficulties and of a budding friendship between two unlikely people.
Read Miss Benson’s Beetle to discover answers to all the questions posed above and to see two women, initially strangers, who find ties to one another in a foreign country.
Miss Benson’s Beetle is an excellent choice for a book club discussion. The issues of two women traveling to a remote area of the world alone will start the discussion. Other topics will naturally arise: dangers, friendship, lies, and betrayals.
Two of Christina Baker Kline’s previous books, The Orphan Train and A Piece of the World, are favorites of mine and books I chose for my book club. The Exiles, her newest offering, is a difficult book to read and yet compelling because of its nod to history and women.
Kline’s research into female convicts’ harrowing journey from England to Australia and Tasmania forms the backdrop for The Exiles. Incarcerated for as little as stealing bread, the women received unbelievable sentences: a six-month ocean voyage, seven to ten years hard labor and exiled from England for life. Upon arrival, the women were sold for as little as a bottle of rum or sent to the Cascades Female Factory. Some were hired as domestic workers in wealthy families. The punishments were harsh, severe, and life-threatening.
Incarcerated for as little as stealing bread, the women received unbelievable sentences: a six-month ocean voyage, seven to ten years hard labor and exiled from England for life. Upon arrival, the women were sold for as little as a bottle of rum or sent to the Cascades Female Factory. Some were hired as domestic workers in wealthy families. The punishments were harsh, severe, and life-threatening.
Evangeline, a governess, becomes a prisoner after her employer accuses her of stealing a ruby ring. Also, in a fit of anger at the maid who reported the supposed theft, Evangeline pushes the maid down the stairs, so the charge of attempted murder is added. In truth, Evangeline, a naïve young woman raised by a vicar, has been seduced by the young master of the house who gave her the ring. Unfortunately, he is away at the time, and he probably would not have spoken in Evangeline’s favor anyway. To add to Evangeline’s trouble, she is also pregnant, another crime.
Reading The Exiles, I had to wonder how any of the women survived being in the prison. The conditions are horrible, the food is not only inedible, but laced with insects and dirt. Some women are then chosen to be exiled to Australia since the American colonies are no longer open to England’s prisoners. The voyage on the ship is equally awful, but the women do get some fresh sea air on the deck unlike their stay in the prison where they had little chance for fresh air.
Evangeline makes friends with several unlikely women on the voyage. Hazel is really a child herself, imprisoned for stealing a sliver spoon which she hoped to sell to obtain food for herself. Olive is another prisoner from the prison whom Evangeline has come to trust. Olive is a hardened soul, pushed by the difficulties of life to survive. This unlikely trio works together to help one another. Hazel also has knowledge about midwifery because she has attended her mother in delivering babies. Her knowledge of herbs to help cure sores and other ailments is also invaluable.
Readers will recoil in horror at the many incidents on board the ship and after the women arrive in Australia. The fact that they DO survive is a miracle and a testament to human strength.
In a dual story, Kline gives readers a look at what happens to an Aboriginal girl, Mathinna, when the English governor’s wife decides to take her into their home. Lady Jane Franklin is a silly woman who believes Mathinna is a plaything for her to dress up and show off. In truth, Mathinna is intelligent and quick to learn, yet Lady Jane and her friends talk in front of Mathinna as if she cannot understand them. Mathinna’s story is as heartbreaking as that of the female prisoners and provides another look at how native peoples have been mistreated in many places.
Because I don’t want to spoil any reader’s enjoyment of discovery, I will stop by saying The Exiles gives readers a glimpse into a history in the 1840s that many may not know. Christina Baker Kline’s research shines through the story and readers learn much about the treatment of female prisoners and their being exiled from England. Even in the darkness, Kline has provided a ray of light and hope.