The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale (audio)

Subtitled: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

This book follows the story of the Road Hill House murder and the investigations that follow, back when Britain’s first detective agency was in its infancy.

Confession: Somehow, back when this book was really popular in the blogging world and I kept seeing it everywhere, I never realized it was nonfiction. I’m not sure why! But when I was reading the Ruth Galloway mysteries last month, the book and detective came up and I did some more research. It sounded like exactly the kind of book I’d enjoy, and it turned out that it is!

I really love narrative nonfiction, and lately I’ve been craving mysteries and detective stories. While this book is nonfiction, it’s written (kind of) in the style of an old-fashioned detective story. That mixed all the things I love into one book, and I flew through the audio. It helps that Simon Vance was narrating, and he’s one of the best audio narrators ever!

As far as the case goes, I’d never actually heard of the Road Hill House murder, and reading this book gave me a lot of good information (as well as some conjecture on the author’s part, as the case was never fully solved). The case was then mixed in with cultural history like the public’s reaction to detectives and evolution of crime-related slang. In that way, it reminded me a lot of all the tangents in Les Miserables, which many people dislike but which I absolutely adored. Like I said, my kind of book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! Wish I’d gotten around to reading it years ago!

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Grave Importance, by Vivian Shaw (audio)

As a favor to a friend (and a bit of vacation for herself), Greta Helsing takes over as director at a health and wellness spa for mummies in the south of France. There, she encounters an odd condition she’s never seen in her mummy patients. Unfortunately, that’s the least of her worries. Someone – or something – is still ripping holes in the fabric of reality. The apocalypse is on its way, and despite Hell’s best efforts (God is noticeably absent from Heaven), the damage is too deep to repair by conventional means.

I can’t say just how much I adored this book. It’s the third in the series, and while I was expecting this to be a series that could go for many volumes, I now think this is probably the finale. Boo! I would have loved to see more from this cast of characters. Greta Helsing is a treasure!! And Shaw’s writing – also a treasure. This next sentence is a bit of a spoiler, so I’m whiting it out and you can highlight to read: No other author puts the “deus” in deus ex machina so well! End spoiler.

Usually I can find at least some minor flaws in books that I love, but I don’t remember anything like that offhand with Grave Importance. It was brilliant all the way through – well thought out, with very human flawed characters (even the ones that aren’t actually human) and bad choices and strokes of luck. I adored the way Greta is dying to explore Hell (no pun intended), and how all the different planes of existence cooperate, and the evolution over time for some rather witless angels (ha!). Seriously, this series is 100% amazing from beginning to end. Start with Strange Practice. You won’t be disappointed.

Performance: Suzannah Hampton narrates the audiobook as she did the last two, and once again her performance is spot on.

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September 2019 in Review

I can’t believe today is the last of the month. It’s flown! And while it’s been fairly good, I’m really looking forward to October, my favorite month of the year!

It has been a fantastic start to RIP month!! The month of course was dominated by the Ruth Galloway mysteries, but I read a few other fun ones as well. Altogether, I read 17 books, all RIP-related, and only 6 non-Galloway mysteries, haha! I think I loved all but one of the books from September, and my favorite goes out to Grave Importance by Vivian Shaw.

The new season of the Great British Baking Show has been ongoing this month, and recently the newest season of NCIS (a long-time favorite) began. And of course, my family went to see Downton Abbey in theatre, which was awesome. Plus football football football. Tis the season.

Simultaneous work on the kitchen and garden (chinaberry-killing) continued on, a state which I admit made me feel a bit like I’m in a perpetual nightmare, particularly in the kitchen. I pretty much just avoided going in there until the end of the month, when the majority of it was completed. Jason and I also began looking seriously at smaller houses in the area, despite our initial plans to wait a few years for that. This house is just so expensive, mortgage-wise and in utilities (never, ever get a two-story house in south Texas!!)! I did find a house that I really loved despite it needing some care, but the boys weren’t sold, and honestly I’m not up to trying to move everyone to a place where they’ll complain constantly. I also don’t want to move to a place I don’t 100% love, so for now, we’re just going to try to make this house as cheap and livable as possible. Which may mean more projects and more perpetual nightmare, perhaps, but we’ll deal with it.

(Just look at this porch – I want this house!! I wish my boys loved it as much as I do!)

As the month began, it turned out that my insurance approved the higher dose of Ozempic for me. I was skeptical and wary, but I gave it a go…only to wind up with nausea and increasing attacks of hypoglycemia. I also had a lot of stomach pain that appeared the same whether I was nauseous or hungry, which doesn’t really work!! So mid-month, I stopped taking the injections. The medicine stays in your system for about five weeks, slowly getting less and less, but I started to feel better about 10 days after the last injection.  I’ve begun to feel real hunger, and less depression, and less problems with fatigue. I’m slowly reintroducing more complex foods into my diet after nearly two months of living on bagels and crackers and cereal. My weight has remained stable within a three-pound range during the entire time I was on injections that were supposed to help me to lose, and have stayed the same since getting off them as well. And as for exercise, I was unable to really do much while crippled by this medicine, and it’s felt good to get out and try some running and yoga and such again. I need to rebuild my strength and endurance. I just hope that October brings decent weather!

Highlights of September
When mired in an illness or health condition as I have been most of 2019, it’s sometimes really hard to see the positive. It doesn’t help that those injections I was taking really effected the efficacy of my antidepressant, making most of the last two months dark and miserable and hopeless. I still tried to remember the light as much as possible, and I’m thankful that I’m coming out of the darkness in the latter half of September. There have definitely been some good things this month.

  • Downton Abbey advanced screening fancy party!
  • our orchid growing a new shoot to bloom again
  • Morrigan starting his first job
  • discovering that I can still run a mile without stopping, even if it’s super slow
  • first Halloween decorations (yoga skeletons!!), and finally making an outdoor ghost circle for the first time since 2004!
  • some fun new clothes for the fall
  • finally making some plans for my future career, and feeling really good about the direction I’m heading toward
  • Ambrose was nominated for homecoming king!! My weirdo child, who wears his hair in curly pigtail bunches and his socks mismatched on purpose and who also wears either a purple or gold cloak to school twice a week, has been nominated for homecoming king. There goes the old stereotype, right? He’s got a good chance for ending up on the court, too. Everyone knows him, and people either love or hate him. The whole situation tickles me pink and makes a bold statement about how being confident in yourself can definitely take you places, even in high school.
  • attending Siclovia with my friend Stephanie, and getting a free tree to plant while there

Coming up in October
My hope: cooler temps. September remained above 70 in the mornings and above 90 in the afternoons, sometimes above 100 (!!!), and I’m dying for a break in the weather. I’d really like to get back out to walking and running, both in my neighborhood and at my hiking trails. This is also the month of Halloween, Readathon, Morrigan’s 19th birthday, NaNoWriMo prep and meetups, and the second half of RIP. October is usually a month of happy frenzy for me, and I’m looking forward to it!!

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Sunday Coffee – Money, and Debt, and Panic

One of my big goals this year was to work to get our family out of debt. For most of our marriage, Jason and I have managed to stay out of credit card debt. In fact, from 2006 until our moves began in 2014, we paid our balance to zero every single month. But moving is expensive, and Boston was expensive, and for the first time, we began to struggle with debt. Several times, we’ve gotten back to zero, most recently in February 2018. Then Bad Things would happen, and we wouldn’t have had time to build up our savings to deal with said Bad Things, and credit cards would be the only choice. I mean, really, who would expect to have to pay nearly $100k in repairs to houses over three years, plus need to replace both cars within six months of each other, plus have to deal with a major layoff and two months of no employment??

Our credit cards, at the start of this year, were around $26k-$27k, and getting worse monthly. Between our too-high mortgage, insane utility bills, major medical expenses this year (four surgeries plus some emergency room runs??), double car payments, and Morrigan not leaving for school after all, things are NOT where we were anticipating when we started the year. Each month, frickin $400 goes into credit card interest (ie NOWHERE AT ALL). We’re having to balance the cost of supplies needed to repair the house so we can downsize, and the cost of those supplies in credit card interest. Originally, we were thinking we could wait out a few more years in this situation before looking at houses to try to get somewhere smaller and cheaper, but as each month gets worse, we’re beginning to look.

The problem is, as I’ve said before, house prices have gone up astronomically in this area, and the whole goal is to bring our mortgage payment down. Jason and I know about what price range we’ll be able to better afford, and it’s difficult to find houses in the area for that price. What houses we’ve found have either needed major work, or have been extremely scary (neighborhoods trashed and full of graffiti and burglar bars, bullet hole smashed through a window…um, NO). We’ve found one house that I absolutely LOVE, and it’s been on the market long enough that I think we can talk them down close to our price range, but the boys hate it and that’s not a great situation either. (They may just have to lump it, though.) On top of all that, the housing market has just started to turn, and our current house has lost a little value over the last six months. It’s still worth about $25-30K more than when we bought it, but a year ago, that number was closer to $50k. I have a feeling the market here is about to crash, which is going to get us stuck stuck stuck.

Jason is looking into debt consolidation loans (legit ones, ones we’ll be sure will actually save us money longterm). He just got a tiny raise, which is nice. Morrigan is contributing a little money each month as token “rent” now that he has a job. We have bonuses coming up in December and spring, and hopefully this year we’ll break even on our taxes (stupid changed tax laws!!). And I’m working on getting into school, getting a decent job, and watching for houses. It feels…far more frantic and scary than I’d like it to, to be honest. But so far other plans have failed to help us, and we don’t like living this way. So hopefully we can get this house on the market soon, and find a good house to buy soon as well, and end up in a much better situation. Fingers crossed.

PS – I need a time machine. I need to tell the Amanda of 2014 NOT to sell that house. That house was great, and that mortgage was insanely good, and that decision to sell was probably one of the worst decisions 2014-Manda ever could have made. Sigh.

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Ruth Galloway mysteries 9-11, by Elly Griffiths

And once again, I sped through the rest, so here are the last of my mini-reviews. In general, I have LOVED this series so much!!

The Chalk Pit (audio)
A homeless woman goes missing, and when the police begin to investigate, a few homeless men end up murdered. Meanwhile, a hole has opened up in a road when an old mining tunnel under it caves in, and Ruth Galloway is called in to investigate some bones found inside. What follows is a story of cannibalism, secret societies, and the realities of sleeping rough.

Once again, the series has moved beyond traditional mystery and into a more political bent. There’s a lot of comparison between press coverage when a middle class woman disappears vs when a homeless woman disappears, that sort of thing. The climax was particularly intense because the focus was on disappearance more than murder, and the possibility of saving several people. I enjoyed the book, but need to take a moment to mention the audio performance. The book was read by Jane McDowell, who read the first few books of the series. While she reads fine, I didn’t like the way the production added extra flare – phone calls that sound distant as if you’re hearing through the receiver, radio program audio that has static and tinniness, etc. I would have preferred to go back to the original, plain way of reading, personally.

The Dark Angel (audio)
Ruth Galloway is called away to Italy to help a colleague with a particular find, but finds herself wrapped up in the tiny town’s history and secrets.

On the positive side: This had the best opener of the series so far, hands down. It’s also the first book to take place outside of England, and the change in scenery was fun. Unfortunately, the negatives outweighed the positives. The change in scenery was fun, but it meant that the mystery mostly involved new-to-the-reader characters, and it was difficult to get invested. Ruth’s colleague was so ignorant about history and archeology that I had a difficult time suspending my disbelief about him. Plus the history of the town was all wrapped up in WWII politics, which I’ve said before is one of my least favorite things to read about. But honestly, I think I would have enjoyed the book well enough if not for the audio. Not only did it have the same weird “enhancements” of the last book, but McDowell read all the Italian characters with grating exaggerated accents. This, as I’ve said before, is one of my audio pet peeves. I honestly wish I’d returned the book to Audible, read this one in print, and used that credit to get the next book in the series! Lesson learned.

The Stone Circle (audio)
Mysterious letters, highly reminiscent of those DCI Nelson received in The Crossing Places, begin to show up, leading toward the discovery of a skeleton and the reopening of a cold case nearly 40 years old.

Ahhh! It’s the last of the series currently published, and while I wanted to make the experience stretch out – the next one won’t release until June – I sped right through it. This one was soooooo good! Lots of very intense moments and misdirections, excellent psychology, really creepy characters. I loved it, and I’m sad that it’s so long before I can read the next volume.

Also, I haven’t commented on it much in previous mini-reviews, but one of my favorite things about this series is that the characters, when put into extremely difficult situations, never get an easy way out. There is no deus ex machina, even when it could be really easy for the author to set that up. Real life is hard, and so the characters have to face those difficulties head on, making choices or falling back on the more timid “do nothing” path. The characters and their lives have interested me far more than the individual mysteries, and that’s why the series has been so amazing. I really can’t wait to read more.

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Wellness Wednesday – Rebuilding My Story (Part 2)

Last week, I talked about school, career, and finding a path for my future. It has been very hard for me to focus on what I want to do going forward, because at present, and for a long time now, my job has been focused on my children and home. In my head, I’ve always had this idea of becoming a publish author, and being a stay at home mom allowed me to work toward that. But as I’ve gotten older, the role of a published author has appealed less and less. I might still publish one day, but I’m not looking to be a full-time author as a career. Much of the sales and marketing aspects of that career just don’t appeal. And with that dream gone, combined with it being time to transition away from my role as a stay at home mom, I’ve had a lot of thoughts about what I want to do next. It’s rather hard to start over again at 40, you know?

For the past five years or so, I’ve considered and even worked toward certain professions, including taking a paralegal certification course through UT Austin, researching the local massage therapy school in SA, studying realty textbooks and exams, and looking into the excellent sign language interpretation program we have here in San Antonio. None of it felt 100% right, and I never felt able to fully commit. Then, a couple months back, I realized what job – if it were possible to get – would be absolutely perfect for me, one I’d be both excellent at and would make me very happy: a continuity editor. I’m detail-oriented to an extreme, I love organization, I love making connections, I’m excellent at research, and I’m very good at piecing things together. But come on, there are like five people in the world who have that job and who knows if it’s even a full-time paid gig. It’s too specialized. It was a jumping off point for me, though.

So I thought about all the reasons why I would love being a continuity editor, and what skills were involved, and that led me back to something I’d considered ten years ago. Back then, I was running a book club at my local library, volunteering there, and attending ALA conferences with other librarians. I actually started looking into what I’d need to do to become a librarian, with the thought that I could eventually go into something specialized, a collections archivist or research archivist or along such lines. Ten years ago, finishing both undergrad and grad school wasn’t something I could consider, not as a stay at home mom with small children. Also, I didn’t have any particular direction in mind for my bachelors. And now I do.

Sometime in the next year, my plan is to start school at SNHU (online) and major in sociology with an emphasis on community health, which is one of their special majors. I also hope to start volunteering again at my library after Morrigan has shipped out to the navy. Then, after getting my bachelors, I’d like to get a job (hopefully within the library system here, but I know that’s really competitive) where I can get tuition reimbursement for grad school. I’m not sure yet where I’ll go for my MLS, but that will come in time. Which direction I go with my MLS will also come in time, but there are a ton of options, all of which sound really good to me. I like having a broad career in mind.

For the first time, I really feel good about my future plans. I feel safe, in a way that would be difficult to describe. I don’t look at the future anymore and see a big blank space. The last few years, as this time of life approached – and as my family moved and moved and moved and moved – I’ve been spinning in circles, weaving around trying to find a path through the woods. (To use some mixed metaphors.) And now I’ve stopped spinning. I’ve found which direction leads out of these woods. And I’m happy about that.

(Funny thing: So perhaps I don’t want to have a career as a published author anymore, but this whole finding-the-right-direction thing feels exactly the same as when a novel idea I’ve been thinking about idly for years sudden solidifies into shape and becomes ready to write. Often it comes down to realizing something that you weren’t able to see before, which gives the whole novel purpose and direction. This is the same: finding the thing I wasn’t able to see before, and now knowing exactly which way to travel. Kinda awesome.)

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Ruth Galloway mysteries 5-8, by Elly Griffiths

Well, in the beginning of all this, I was planning to not read all these back to back, but yeah that’s not happening. Here are the next few mini-reviews…

A Dying Fall (audio)
When a former university friend of Ruth’s is killed in a house fire, she’s surprised to get a letter from Dan sent shortly afterwards. The letter, postmarked before the fire, sounds afraid, and Ruth gets DCI Nelson to check in with Dan’s local constabulary. Neither Ruth nor the police think the fire was an accident.

Once again, this is a book that gets political, dealing with white supremacy groups. It also goes into Arthurian legend and the Raven King, all mixed up with far-right groups, anti-immigration sentiment, antisemitism, and all sorts of other nasty business. The climax is incredibly suspenseful, and for the first time in the series, I had a moment of fear-for-characters so strong that I was holding my breath. I don’t know if I can say that the books are getting better and better, because they’ve been strong from the start, but the more time I spend with these characters, the more I connect. I think I’m going to be heartbroken when I get to the end of the series.

The Outcast Dead (audio)
Dr. Ruth Galloway uncovers the bones of what may be a famous historical female killer, Mother Hook, and is swept up in a TV production that wants to do a profile on the Victorian-era murderess. Meanwhile, children begin to go missing in Norfolk.

Oh I loved this one! Each volume continues to vary the stories. After two highly politically-charged novels, this one focuses more on historical facts and modern-day psychology. There are some really tense scenes and end up leading to some great developments in the characters, and more intrigue is introduced in the present day to stir things up. It was awesome. One note, though: For this book and the previous, Clare Corbett reads the audio. Previous volumes, when I’ve managed to get them on audio, were read by Jane McDowell (as well as future volumes, from what I can see). Of the two, I prefer McDowell. Some of Corbett’s accents and voices are a bit over-the-top for me.

The Ghost Fields
During the course of construction, an old WWII plane is found, the dead pilot still inside. Only this pilot is miraculously preserved given the soil content all around him and his plane, and records show that the actual pilot of the craft ejected before the crash. The body has clearly been dead for decades, but who is he, where has he been kept, and why has his body been moved into this macabre setting?

I’ll admit – for the first time, I had difficulty getting into a book in this series. Personally, I think it was the history involved. I’m not a huge fan of war history, and I don’t like books that center on either of the world wars. So much of the book focused on the history of the found “pilot” and around Norfolk’s involvement during WWII that I found my eyes glazing over quite a bit. It wasn’t until midway through the book, when enough intrigue in the present-day story overshadowed the past, that I began to enjoy the read. In the end, I liked it and felt the book was well-written and all, but just not a personal favorite due to content. Also, I was sad that this book, as well as the next volume, simply aren’t available in audio format. Boo!

The Woman in Blue
Female priests, a religious pilgrimage, a cult that worships the image of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding, threatening letters, and a series of murders…can it get spookier than that?

This volume of the series was phenomenal! Religion and politics play into this series quite a bit, and this one dove into a few really dark sides of Christian splinter groups. It also showed the more human face of the clergy, which I really liked. There’s also a lot of major tension going on in the lives of Harry Nelson and Ruth Galloway, the former discovering an unpleasant secret and the latter torn between several loyalties. Very well put together. Also: fun fact – since I began blogging, I’ve read The Woman in White, The Woman in Black, and now The Woman in Blue, ha!

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