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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-11-07 22:47
Festive 16 Tasks -- Square #1 -- A book with Rose in the title. (But this one doesn't smell so sweet)
Rose Hill - Pamela Grandstaff

Disclosure: I acquired the Kindle edition of this book when it was offered free on Amazon.  I do not know the author nor have I ever communicated with her about this book or any other matter.  I am an author of adult fiction and general-interest non-fiction.

I read this book for the Festive 16 Tasks Bingo game, Square #1 – Calan Gaeaf:

Book themes for Calan Gaeaf:
Read any of your planned Halloween Bingo books that you didn’t end up reading after all, involving witches, hags, or various types of witchcraft –OR– read a book with ivy or roses on the cover, or a character’s name/title of book is/has Rose or Ivy in it.


Within the first few pages, I knew this wasn't going to be a five-star book, or even four-star. By the time I reached the end of the first chapter, it had dropped all the way down to two stars.  Eventually, I would slot it at 1.5 stars for BookLikes, and I have to say at this point that I have not read any other reviews of the book.  This is solely my impression after reading it cold the first time, then rereading to write this review.

Let's start with that first chapter.

Theo Eldridge is a louse.  The author projects that image of him very well.  He leaves his home (or whatever) in a yellow Hummer, and he is bent on revenge and hurting people.  He's drunk and gets kicked out of the local bar.  A few scenes later, Theo's companion Willy Neff drops Theo off back at the bar, with no mention of why they were in Willy's old pick-up and not the yellow Hummer.  Only later – after I've re-read the preceding dozen or so pages to figure out what I missed and in fact I didn't miss anything  – does the author drop in that oh, gee, Theo locked his keys in the Hummer.

This might not be such a big deal except for the fact that author Grandstaff provides a big Foreword in which she explains that this is the revised 10th Anniversary edition, cleaned up and fixed up for reissue.  Say what???

The rich guy is hanging around with the poor guy . . .  Why?  And why not provide some explanation on the spot that Theo had locked his keys in the Hummer?

Eyes are starting to roll.  Mine.

So then Theo gets murdered, and we start meeting the rest of the people in Rose Hill. . . . Where is Rose Hill?

Rose Hill is the town after which the book is titled.  It must be important.  Yet the author never tells us where it is.  West Virginia?  Colorado?  Texas?  South Dakota?  I have no idea.  

Believe it or not, this is important.  Readers want to be able to "live" where the characters live, and different areas of the country, of the world, conjure certain images.  And if they don't, then the author needs to write in a way that enables the reader to conjure the images the writer wants.  References to fracking, to environmental issues, to a small college in the town, to mountains and valleys are all nice, but they aren't enough.  They apply to the states I mentioned above, as well to others.  So where is "Rose Hill?"

Author Grandstaff never identifies the state or even the region explicitly.  The first clue comes on page 48 when Police Chief Scott Gordon opens Theo's mail and there are statements from a bank in Pittsburgh.  I missed that clue, however, because I was so stunned that virtually all of Theo's financial dealings were on display in one day's mail.  All his bank statements.  Contracts from a real estate deal.  Major legal threats to one of his most lucrative businesses.  And so on.  I just rolled my eyes again at how convenient – how contrived – that was.

Was it also bizarre that the police chief would be opening the deceased's mail without a lawyer present?  Or something like that?  Well, that crossed my mind, too.  And made my eyes roll again.

I didn't connect with the Pittsburgh thing until Chief Gordon goes to the city where Sean Fitzpatrick works to deliver some letters.  Sean's office overlooks the "three rivers," and it's only my baseball fandom that tied the scene to Pittsburgh.  I couldn't tell you what those rivers are, but I know the Pirates used to play at Three Rivers Stadium.

Later there would be a few more references to Pittsburgh, confirming more or less my suspicion that Rose Hill is in the mountains of western Pennsylvania.

It shouldn't have been that difficult!  And of course, wondering about it detracted from my immersion in the story.  

So by the time I finished the book, I had more or less confirmed the locale.  Great!

The story starts on "Saturday," and the rest of the chapters follow the days of the succeeding week.  But when is that Saturday?  Fall?  Winter?  Spring?  Summer?

On page 6, there's a reference to a "freak thaw" in January.  What does that mean, exactly?  What does it mean in terms of the location?  What preceded the thaw?  Lots of snow?  Lots of ice?  What the hell is the weather like?

This is all important, because there's a lot of driving up and down the mountain roads.  One of the main characters, Maggie Fitzpatrick – sister of the aforementioned Sean Fitzpatrick – drives a VW bug.  This is NOT the kind of vehicle that would routinely trek through heavy snow safely, especially on winding mountain roads.  How desperate would a character have to be to risk driving a light-weight passenger car through a blizzard on mountain roads?

Characters have to act logically within the framework the author builds for their personalities.  This can be as simple as mentioning that Theo Eldridge locked his keys in his Hummer because he was rich and used to being careless and on top of that he was drunk and angry, and then he had to bum a ride from loser Willy Neff which made him even angrier.  So if Maggie Fitzpatrick drives her VW bug in a mountain blizzard, she needs appropriate motivation for that kind of risky behavior.  Does she normally engage in risky behavior?  Or does she have a desperate, but unusual motivation for behaving out of character?

One of the problems with developing the characters is that author Grandstaff has so damn many of them.  Soooooooo many.  Way too many to keep track of in a novel this short.

Theo Eldridge is the rich boy creep murder victim.
Willy Neff is the loser who becomes Theo's companion
Patrick Fitzpatrick is the sometimes bartender at the Rose and Thorn.  Patrick is described as having a passion for anything Irish.
Maggie Fitzpatrick is Patrick's sister
Ed Harrison is the newspaper owner who discovers the body
Tommy is the 12-year-old who delivers Ed's papers and may have witnessed . . . something
Mandy Wilson works in the bar and she's Tommy's mother.  She also works in the bakery owned by Maggie Fitzpatrick's mother, Bonnie.
Scott Gordon is the chief of police
Sarah Albright is with the county sheriff's department, but I can't remember exactly what her job is.  She has the hots for Scott big time
Skip and Frank are the police deputies
Phyllis Davis is Tommy and Mandy Wilson's neighbor in the trailer park.  Phyllis works in the local diner
Billy is Phyllis's violent and worthless son
Pauline Davis is Phyllis's mother, I think, but I'm not sure.  Pauline also works at the diner.
Hannah Campbell is Maggie Fitzpatrick's cousin, but I don't remember exactly the genealogy.  Hannah is the local animal control officer and is into animal rescue big time.    
Sam Campbell is Hannah's war veteran husband.  He's a cyber security expert
Andrew "Drew" Rosen is the new veterinarian in town
Mitchell Webb is Maggie's employee at the bookstore-and-coffee-shop she owns.
Margie Estep is the postmistress.
Enid Estep is Margie's mother, disabled by rheumatoid arthritis.
Eric Estep was Margie's father and former fire chief of Rose Hill
Ava Fitzpatrick is Maggie's sister-in-law, married to Brian Fitzpatrick.  Ava has two children and runs a B&B.
Brian Fitzpatrick is Ava's husband and Maggie's brother.  He disappeared several years ago.
Sean Fitzpatrick is another of Maggie's brothers.  He is an investment banker (I think) in Pittsburgh.
George Bradley "Brad" Eldridge was Theo's younger brother.  Brad drowned when he was fifteen, supposedly as an accident but maybe murder and maybe suicide.
Gwyneth Eldridge is Theo's sister, a vicious snob who never gets anyone's name – or even the name of the town where she herself grew up – correct in spite of numerous corrections.
Caroline Eldridge is Theo's other sister, who is a perpetual do-gooder, currently in Paraguay on some kind of medical aid mission.
Gail Godwin was Theo's cleaning lady and maybe sort of housekeeper/cook.
Bonnie Fitzpatrick, Maggie's mother (and Sean's, and Brian's, and Patrick's), owns a bakery and is married to Fitz Fitzpatrick.
Alice Fitzpatrick, Hannah's mother, is married to Curtis Fitzpatrick, I think, but I not sure.
Sharon Gordon, Scott's ex-wife
Marcia Gordon, Scott's whiny, over-bearing merrily-martyred mother
Gladys Davis, Marlene Thompson, Alva Johnston are some of the "scanner grannies" who use their illegal police scanners to listen in on cell phone calls in Rose Hill and spread gossip.  Gladys Davis is apparently Pauline Davis's mother-in-law
Owen, the former veterinarian whose practice Drew Rosen purchased
Mamie Rodefeffer, wealthy elderly woman whose family used to own a local glassworks
Richard "Trick" Rodefeffer, local Realtor and descendant of Mamie, I think.
Sandy Rodefeffer, Trick's wife
Curtis Fitzpatrick, owner of local service station, brother of Ian and "Fitz" Fitzpatrick.
Ian Fitzpatrick, owner of the Rose and Thorn bar, I think
Delia Fitzpatrick, Ian's wife
Doc Machalvie, local physician
Knox Rodefeffer, another member of the glassworks family and current bank president and coin collector.  Trick's brother.
Courtenay, Knox's secretary
Tim MacGregor, Maggie's maternal grandfather, Bonnie's father.
King Fitz Fitzpatrick, Maggie's father
Anne-Marie Rodefeffer, Knox's pill-popping wife
Stuart Machalvie, local pharmacist and Doc's brother, also mayor of Rose Hill
Peg Machalvie, local funeral director, Stuart's wife, and alternating with him as mayor
Claire Fitzpatrick, Ian and Delia's daughter, Maggie's cousin
Matt Delvecchio, owner of local grocery store
Lily and Simon Crawford
Cal Fischer, firefighter and water rescue diver, and illegal deer hunter

(Stuart MacHalvie is big on his Scots heritage, as one of the "few" Scots in the area.  Someone with the name "Scott Gordon" would have to be one of them.  And there are comments later on about the Fitzpatricks being Scots, because Bonnie – mother of Brian, Sean, Patrick, and Maggie – is half Scots herself.)

These are most of the characters who have major parts to play in this short novel.  Believe it or not, I had to read the damn thing twice just to get these characters more or less straightened out.  The first time through, I couldn't even begin to follow the story half the time because I didn't know who anyone was.

To make matters worse, too many of the characters are one-dimensional.  Theo is a complete jerk, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  His sister Gwyneth isn't much better.  Hannah is one of the saints, Maggie is another, with Scott Gordon and Sam Campbell (aha! Another Scot!) not far behind.  There's no depth to the characters.  Phyllis is awful, so is Billy.  Oh, wait a minute.  So is Knox and so is Stuart Machalvie.  Peg Machalvie is right up there with them.  As a result, none of them come across as fully human.

The only one amongst that whole cast who does have some substance is Ed Harrison, the owner of the little newspaper.  He alone has a bit of a character arc.  He alone has good points and bad points.  He alone seems to have some wisdom.

The plot is fairly simple, though it has numerous complications due to the various complexities of the characters and their interactions: Theo gets murdered and someone has to figure out who did it.  Very little time is actually spent on the search for the killer, though there's a lot of effort spent exploring Theo's background, which just about everyone in town knew anyway.  In the end the killer is revealed to be pretty much the person you'd expect it to be: there were no major revelations about anyone.  What surprises did come out of the murder and identity of the killer were surprises to other people.

There were quite a few holes in the plot, however.  And here comes a major spoiler.

After Theo's body is found, Willy Neff and his pick-up are missing.  Through the rest of the book, this is a minor part of the mystery, but no one pays much attention to it.  Willy could have been an important witness, or he might even have been the killer.  No search is made.

We know that there was a "January thaw" going on.  What we don't know until toward the end of the book – page 199/245 – is that there is a river running right next to the town of Rose Hill, the Little Bear River, and there is a dam of some sort on this river right at the edge of town.  One would normally suppose that this dam created some kind of pond or lake, because that's what dams do.  Hoover Dam created Lake Mead.  Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell.  And so on.

So there's this dam on the Little Bear River that we don't know about until the end of the book.  There is some kind of barrier put up to keep people and/or vehicles away from the water, but it's a barrier that can be opened and closed, like some kind of gate or something.  Calvert "Cal" Fischer has one of only two keys to the padlock on this barrier.

On the night of Theo's murder, Fischer opened that barrier so he could put his boat in the water and row across to the other side of the river/lake to go illegal deer hunting at 11:00 p.m.  He did this in the middle of the night.  One assumes he drove his truck through the opened barrier to reach the water and launch the rowboat.  If he had carried the boat, he could have just hoisted it over the barrier then picked it up on the other side, couldn't he?  He apparently didn't think anyone at all would see him, his truck, his headlights, or the spotlight he took with him to "shine" the deer.

(Deer hunting in season is a big thing in western Pennsylvania.  Schools and many businesses used to close for a week at the start of the season, and maybe they still do.)

Fischer rowed across the water but didn't get his deer, so at approximately 2:00 a.m., he rowed back across, closed the barriers, and went home.

We know there's this January thaw going on, so there's either melting snow or melting ground around this barrier thing.  If there had been any kind of search made for Willy Neff's truck, wouldn't someone have noticed tire tracks at the barrier that's supposed to be locked?  And, by the way, why is it supposed to be locked?  That part is never explained.

I would have expected the police or the county officials under Sarah Albright to have combed the area and have found the tire tracks.  

If Willy's truck went into the lake behind the dam, shouldn't there have been broken ice to indicate that?  Lake water freezes in winter.  The position of the truck as described suggests it's in the lake behind the dam.  So why wasn't the lake searched for Willy's missing truck?

But Fischer supposedly rowed across the river/water/lake.  In the dark.  Wouldn't there have been some current below the dam?  How would he navigate that?

The really odd thing was that a week later, a week after the murder, Fischer took the same risk again, opening the barrier to go illegal deer hunting on the other side of the river.  Now, excuse me, but why isn't there a bridge?  Most communities built on rivers are built on both sides, which implies a bridge.

So I just didn't get it that this whole scenario took place.  It defied logic.

(spoiler show)

That's the end of one major spoiler.

There were lots of other things that didn't make sense but are less spoilerish.

The crime scene, which is the veterinarian's office, is blocked off with yellow police tape.  The veterinarian himself has to have a police guard when he goes in to get supplies to continue his practice on a house-call basis.

Theo's house, which is apparently some kind of lodge, is also wrapped up in crime scene tape, but there's no police presence guarding it.  But it's not a crime scene.  Is that normal?  To have the victim's house sealed but not guarded?  It didn't make sense to me.  

Minor spoiler as a result.

Maggie and Hannah, operating on a tip from Theo's sister Caroline, enter the house and locate a "secret" room.  They wear gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints.  They enter the secret room and learn about some of Theo's more bizarre activities.  They also easily open a large safe in the room by accurately guessing the combination.  They remove several items from the room, even knowing that they're possibly removing evidence in the murder case; later, they will actually destroy many of these items.

After they leave, FBI agents also enter the secret room and somehow open the safe.  No mention is made of how the feds opened the safe.  If the case was important enough for the feds to enter the investigation, what was the result?        

As with other events in the book, Police Chief Scott Gordon lets the criminals off.  Oh, they may be petty offenses – destroying evidence, illegal hunting, tampering with the mail, etc. – but Gordon has few if any scruples letting people get away with stuff.  Is that how it sometimes works in small towns?  Yes, of course it is.  Is that how it should be?  Um, no.  And even if it is, there needs to be sufficient motivation.

(spoiler show)

Okay, end of that spoiler.

So there are too many characters to keep track of and the plot has some major holes.  If the writing had been stellar, it might have carried what was otherwise an ordinary story.  The writing is weak and couldn't carry a dandelion seed.

Author Grandstaff tells far more than she shows.

Maybe it's her style, and I as a reviewer have no right to tell her how to write.  But my review is still my opinion.

She intersperses longish sections of unattributed dialogue with longish sections of very dull narrative.  Here's an example of the dialogue:
      During Drew’s recitation of the events of his day, Scott did not interrupt him until he mentioned Theo stopped in his office.
     “What did he want?”
    “He heard I had a stray black lab and thought it might be one of his.”
     “How did he seem?”
    “Same as always,” Drew shrugged, “rude, impatient, insulting.”
    “Theo’s a client?” Sarah asked.
    “He has a dog breeding business, and pays me a certain amount per month to provide medical treatment.”
    “Does he take good care of his dogs?”
    “I haven’t seen any evidence of abuse,” he said.
    “Ever heard about any abuse?”
    “I think Hannah may have heard complaints about him. She keeps an eye on all the animals in these parts. She’d deal with it if there were.”
    “Any chance the lab you neutered could have been one of Theo’s?”
    “This lab has a huge white star on his chest.”
    “The standards for purebred labs allow for a small white spot on the chest, even though it’s not desirable, but this guy has a huge splotch. A breeder wouldn’t want to replicate that.”
    “Was he satisfied the dog was not his?”
    “No. He demanded to see the dog, and got pretty loud. I had other patients waiting so just to get rid of him I told him the dog wasn’t on the premises. He argued with me for a few minutes, then left.”
    “Did you feel threatened at all? Physically, I mean.”
    “I have a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, so I feel confident in most situations. If you stand up to bullies like Theo they usually back down.”
    “Did he threaten you?”
    “He said he ought to beat the hell out of me. I told him I didn’t think violence solved anything between civilized people, but I was certainly willing to defend myself, so he cursed me and left.”

Grandstaff, Pamela. Rose Hill (Rose Hill Mystery Series Book 1) (pp. 15-16). Kindle Edition.

There are three people in this conversation – Drew, Scott, and Sarah.  We are told that Scott enters the conversation and there's a single speech tag that indicates Sarah asked a question.  But from then on, there are no tags to indicate clearly who's speaking, nor are there any stage directions to give the reader an idea of how each speaker reacts to the others' comments.  The snip above is roughly two pages long; three more pages follow, just as lacking in tags and action.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the passages where Grandstaff tells everything without showing a thing.  When Scott goes to Pittsburgh to interview Sean Fitzpatrick, the scene could have been dramatic and emotional; it's instead bland and flat.

    Scott was glad to see Sean, whom he hadn’t seen in almost fifteen years. The youngest son of Fitz Fitzpatrick looked like a more refined, compact version of his brother Patrick. His dark curly hair was cut short. He was polished and sleek, and much thinner than his brother, who although muscular and strong, had gone a little soft as he approached middle age.
    Sean greeted Scott warmly with a handshake, and invited him into his glass-walled office, which featured a panoramic view of the famous convergence of the three rivers. Once seated, Scott asked him what he knew about Theo’s death and Sean said Maggie had told him the details. Scott gave him the envelope Maggie sent, saying they were retirement fund forms, and detected a defensive wall sliding smoothly into place as soon as he did so. Scott had debated the whole way there whether or not to open the envelope, but in the end had decided to trust Maggie.

Grandstaff, Pamela. Rose Hill (Rose Hill Mystery Series Book 1) (p. 125). Kindle Edition.

Another scene struck me as particularly in desperate need of a good editor.

    Scott could hardly believe his good luck.  Instead of lounging around, Scott pitched in and mopped the kitchen for her while she took a shower. He went to the front room to wait for the kitchen floor to dry. Maggie had multiple photograph albums and he went through them, ostensibly looking for pictures taken around the time Brad died, but also to look at pictures of Maggie.

Grandstaff, Pamela. Rose Hill (Rose Hill Mystery Series Book 1) (p. 71). Kindle Edition.

To begin with, this is kind of creepy, his going through her photo albums without her permission.  Yes, they're friends, and yes, they've known each other virtually all their lives.  But still. . . . it was creepy.  And it would become creepier later, when another cache of photos is discovered and another voyeur identified.

But what follows immediately upon the paragraph of Scott's exploring the photos are thirteen paragraphs describing the photographs.  Of the thirteen paragraphs, ten began with "There were" or "There was."  Two of the other three began with some reference to "the album."  In all of this description, the author provides virtually no reaction from Scott.  This is just plain weak, ineffective writing.

I struggled through all this because I didn't want another DNF.  The plot was okay in terms of the mystery itself; the solving of it had some major holes that could have been fixed.  The writing was weak but not terrible.  The cast of characters seemed like an endless parade.  The other minor plot holes set the eyes to rolling – leaving the annoying spouse to freeze in the blizzard isn't always fool proof, and there was probably some kind of contract that allowed the college president to reside in the mansion – but they, too, could have been fixed.  (Rose Hill, for all its cast of hundreds of townspeople, does not include any of the college staff and only a handful of the 800 students, nor any of the ski resort visitors who bring in substantial business and cash to the town.)

The overall effect was not encouraging of what might be to follow.  The author stated that this was a revised, cleaned up version of the first of the Rose Hill series.  The rest of the books appear to be titled after streets in the town, all of them named after flowers.  I'm just not in the slightest encouraged to read any of them, even if offered for free.  I can't imagine that they are any better than this more polished version of Rose Hill, and if they are any worse, my walls might not withstand the impact with my Kindle.

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review 2017-10-20 00:49
Be very, very careful what you wish for
The Serpent Scrolls: Rise of the Immortal Snake (The War with Satan Book 1) - Kenneth Harris

Afterwards, he was immediately executed. It is believed by local scholars that his beaten and burned corpse was decapitated limb by limb and buried in the forgotten grounds of Serpent Cemetery just outside of Kilfield, Massachusetts. Reportedly, his spirit awaits rebirth by 99 souls from his own admission shortly before his death.

Harris, Kenneth . The Serpent Scrolls: Rise of the Immortal Snake (The War with Satan Book 1) . Kindle Edition.


Emphasis is mine.  This is from the one-page Introduction.  It is the second or third major grammatical or syntactical error on that short page.


Disclosure:  I obtained the Kindle edition of this book on 19 October 2017 when it was offered free and promoted as such on BookLikes.  I have had intermittent communication on BookLikes with the author, but not about this book or about his writing in general.  I am an author of adult fiction and non-fiction.



The text is absurdly over-written, with four adjectives used where one would be too many. Often, they're misused.


Lots of words are misused.


He inserted the mouth of a rigid bolt cutter over the bulky wrapped chains and bisected it.

Harris, Kenneth . The Serpent Scrolls: Rise of the Immortal Snake (The War with Satan Book 1) (p. 1). Kindle Edition.

(One does not insert something over something else.  Bolt cutters have blades, jaws, and a neck, but not a mouth.  Chains are plural; it is singular.)



I don't know if this is supposed to be a morality tale reminding us of God's love or a Young Adult horror story.  If it's supposed to be a combination of the two, I can only roll my eyes.


The book needs serious editing.  I'm not being paid to do that.


I recommend avoiding this book as if it were a rattlesnake.




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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-10-16 04:51
Suspicious minds -- DNF, half star for reasons
The Semper Sonnet - Seth J. Margolis

(Note:  I originally wrote this review in December of last year, 2016.  BL was having major problems at the time, so this ended up sitting in draft mode until today, when I was organizing some of my shelves and wondered why this review had never posted.  Aha!)


When Stephanie at Stephanie's Book Reviews reviewed this book, I was intrigued enough to check it out on Amazon.  The Kindle edition was only 99 cents, so I splurged and bought it.


Disclosure:  I paid the full retail price for the Kindle edition.  I do not know the author, nor have I ever had any contact with him about this book or any other matter.  I am an author of contemporary gothic and historical romances and non-fiction.


This is not really a review, since I've only read a couple chapters and may or may not read any more.  But I'm so disgusted by what I found that I feel compelled to post this information.  As an author, I cannot post it on Amazon; authors are not allowed to post negative comments/reviews.


I know virtually nothing about the publisher of this item, Diversion Books of New York City.  They have a website that makes them look professional, and they seem to have a number of authors and titles in their catalogue.  But I personally would never recommend them to anyone, based on my reading of the opening chapters of this book.


Editors are supposed to fix errors.  Although editors are human and make mistakes, they shouldn't make big fat obvious ones.



Screen shot from K4PC





Copied text from later in the same chapter:


Lee Nicholson would not be wounded. She would not bleed.

Margolis, Seth. The Semper Sonnet (Kindle Location 245). Diversion Books. Kindle Edition.


Copied text from the next chapter:


“You haven’t been charged with anything, Miss Nichols.”

Margolis, Seth. The Semper Sonnet (Kindle Location 292). Diversion Books. Kindle Edition.

Copied text from later in the next chapter:


Where would she go?

“Miss Nichols?”

Detective Lowry was staring at her with something verging on concern.

Margolis, Seth. The Semper Sonnet (Kindle Locations 317-318). Diversion Books. Kindle Edition.



And later:


“Leslie Nichols?”

She turned from her dresser to face one of the plainclothes men sifting through every item in her bedroom.

“I’m known as Lee. Lee Nichols.”

Margolis, Seth. The Semper Sonnet (Kindle Locations 365-367). Diversion Books. Kindle Edition.


An error like that is pretty much unforgivable.  I caught it on a first reading late at night when I was tired as hell.


Names are important . They are one of the first identifiers of a character.  They can also stop a reader in her tracks if they're wrong or jarring or . . . too familiar.


From early in Chapter 1:


Her mentor at Columbia, David Eddings, had assured her that it was her looks and not her scholarship that had landed her a spot on the news.

Margolis, Seth. The Semper Sonnet (Kindle Locations 224-225). Diversion Books. Kindle Edition.


David Eddings was a well-known author of several best-selling fantasy series.  Coming across an unusual name of a real person like this is a jolt that pulls a reader out of the make-believe world of the novel.  Had the name been Donald Eddings or David Geddings, I would never have noticed it.  But I did notice "David Eddings" and was immediately on alert.


When the main character's name changed from "Lee Nicholson" to "Lee Nichols," the importance of the other name doubled.  "Leigh Nichols" is one of the many pseudonyms of another best-selling author, Dean Koontz.

(spoiler show)



Had this been a self-published book, I probably would have stopped reading at that point and just posted a DNF review.  There were other elements of the plot that bothered me even at less than 4% into the book, but I could have overlooked those if I felt confident of the writing.  But because it was published by a third party, I decided to do a little more research.


The first stop was Amazon, to see what the reviews were like.  Oh man, oh man, oh man, here we go again.


The Semper Sonnet's dedication:


For Jean Naggar

Margolis, Seth. The Semper Sonnet (Kindle Location 64). Diversion Books. Kindle Edition.


 From the Amazon page for the book:



Full transparency my ass.


Oh, and that 1 comment?  It's Jean Naggar's link to her own book.  Follow that up and you'll find that Ms. Naggar is a literary agent.  I'd be willing to bet she's Seth Margolis's agent.


Full transparency my ass.


So now I have a really bad taste in my mouth about this author and this book.  I regret spending even 99 cents on it and putting 35 cents in Margolis's bank account, 7 cents of which probably went to Naggar.

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review 2017-09-02 20:05
Halloween Bingo -- Monster Mash (without any gravy)
A Spirited Manor (O'Hare House Mysteries, #1) - Kate Danley

Disclosure:  I obtained this book when it was offered as a free Kindle edition.  I do not know the author nor have I had any communication with her regarding this book or any other matter.  I am an author of romantic suspense, historical romance, and non-fiction.


This was one of the gazillions of freebies in my Kindle library that have been sitting there, waiting for me to get around to them.  Halloween Bingo seemed a good reason to dig into the 30 or so titles sorted into my "gothic" folder and see what was there.


As already noted, A Spirited Affair was a total dud.  I saw that the author of A Haunted Manor claimed to be a best-selling author on one of the major lists, so I figured she had at the very least enough writing skills to bind herself with a bunch of other mediocre writers to put out a cheap collection and hit one of the lists.


Okay, the writing technically is fair.  There were a few flubs, but taken one sentence at a time -- the sentence being the basic unit of English composition -- it probably rated a solid B grade.


As for the rest, ugh.  Boring, boring, boring to begin with.  Then just eye-rollingly stupid.


Young widow Clara O'Hare is mourning her husband who died just six months into their marriage.  He has, however, left her financially comfortable so that she is able to purchase a house in a nice neighborhood in London.  The historical period is 1890, and there is a reference to the 1882 Married Women's Property Act that allowed Clara to own and inherit property.  Later there will be use of a "phone." 


Clara soon learns her house is haunted, so she goes to the previous owner, Lord Horace Oroberg, to find out more information.  He invites her to a party (?) at his country home (?) with a bunch of other people including a well-known medium, a professional skeptic, Horace's son and future daughter-in-law and her mother, and some other people, I think.


They have a seance, there are ghosts, there are monsters, some people are killed, Clara falls in lust, and there will be sequels.


The plot is so convoluted, and the characters are so weird (also so thinly cardboardish that they're more transparent than the ghosts), that it makes no sense whatsoever.  And it's still boring.  If not for Halloween Bingo, I probably wouldn't have finished it.  But it was short, and I'd already had one DNF, so I forced myself through it.  Seriously not recommended.


I debated which square to use this book for.  Though I selected it for the called Ghost square, which it certainly qualifies for, I changed my mind and used it for the Vampires square because


the murderer turns out to be some kind of vampiric monster who sprouts fangs and sucks its victims' blood.

(spoiler show)


And I don't like vampire stories so I don't want to have to read another one!  ;-)




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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-05-12 22:18
Good Idea, Atrocious Execution
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane - Katherine Howe


The book has over 500 reviews on Amazon, with a 4.1 star average rating. The five-star ratings account for 41% of those, which is reasonably impressive.  My review isn't going to impact that very much, and that's not my intent.


This review will also be filled with spoilers. Consider yourself warned.


First major spoiler:  The dog is okay.  Nothing bad happens to him.  There's another spoiler about him later.


I finished the book, which is more than I do with many of the books I start.  Many of them don't hold me for two pages.  So there's that.


I liked the premise: Academic Connie Goodwin inherits her grandmother's old house in what was Salem Village, Massachusetts and goes on a search for a 300-year-old book with some connection to the Salem Witch Trials. 


The writing was competent, if a little heavy on the description.


That said, it wasn't long before I began to have problems even as I continued reading.


Connie is a young woman, in her early to mid 20s, and she has been in school virtually all her life.  The last few years in grad school have been by choice: she wants to continue to study and earn her PhD.  She doesn't come across, however, as a dedicated scholar.  Once she completes her oral exam and is cleared to begin her dissertation, she seems to forget all her academic training and lose all her scholarly motivation.  Is it because it's summer break?  It shouldn't be, because working on that dissertation should be her single primary focus now if she's truly dedicated to her scholarship.


However. . . .


She receives word from her mother Grace, a free spirit hippie type living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that the house that had belonged to Connie's grandmother, Sophia, needs to be prepared for sale after sitting vacant for 20 years since Sophia's death.  Since the house is in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and Connie is at Harvard in Cambridge, she is delegated to the task for the summer.  She heads there with her roommate Liz and her dog Arlo.


There's no real explanation for why the place wasn't sold when Sophia died or why it's being sold now.


It was at their arrival at the house that I lost my willing suspension of disbelief (WSOD).



The rest of the very lengthy review is at  (but I have moved it to this BookLikes blog for convenience)





Supposedly, back taxes haven't been paid for 20 years, but the town and/or county waived them.  Uh, no, that doesn't happen.  Taxes have to be paid.  Period.  There were ways author Howe could have devised to cover those taxes, but she took a sloppy way out that made no sense.  WSOD went out the window.

The house is so decrepit and overgrown with vegetation that it literally cannot be seen from the road or driveway where Connie and Liz are parked. Arlo the dog uncovers the gate in the fence that ultimately leads to the house.  Connie and Liz enter.

This is where I really gave up on WSOD. 
This little house has been empty, abandoned and untouched for 20 years.  It's so decrepit that Connie sees a snake in the main floor hall, or living room.  Some of the floor boards are so rotten that mushrooms are growing on them.  There are dead plants in hanging pots, dead for two decades.  Upholstered chairs are covered with dust, and probably mouse droppings as well, if there is even anything left of the upholstery.

There are two bedrooms on a second floor loft, each with a fourposter bed, the linens of which have not been changed for a score of years.

And yeah, I'm still thinking about that snake.  At least the snake keeps me from thinking about spiders.

On the night of their arrival, Connie falls asleep in one of the chairs, but Liz goes up to the loft to sleep in one of those antique fourposters.  There's no report that they made any attempt whatsoever to clean anything.  (Toward the end of the book, mention is made that Liz took a sleeping bag and slept in it on the bed that first night.  Why this wasn't mentioned at the time, I don't know.  But still . . . spiders.)

No.  Just no.

Throughout the book, which covers a period from late April to late October, 1991, Connie does almost nothing toward cleaning this house or preparing it for sale.  She occasionally washes some jars and bottles found in the kitchen, and she does clean one or two of the needlepoint upholstered living room chairs.  Sorry, but that's not enough.

Not even in 1991.

A modern young woman, even one who was raised on a commune, is not going to be comfortable living in 20-year-old filth.

Characters have to make sense.  Connie didn't make sense.  Somewhere halfway through the book, she kicks the mushroom growing through the floor.  Hello??  Mushrooms don't last but a few days, so this means more than one mushroom has grown in the house.  NO!

As a result of the living in filth issue, I lost any connection to the main character of the book.  This is not good.

Could I have overlooked it?  Could it have been justified?  No.  And that's a pretty strong condemnation.

Characters absolutely must be believable.

For Connie's first few weeks at the house in Marblehead, she made her phone calls from a pay phone in town.  At no time, however, was there any mention of how she was paying for these calls, several of which were to her mother in New Mexico.  Long distance calls on pay phones in the early 1990s were expensive propositions.  It wasn't just a matter of dropping in a quarter and having unlimited minutes.  At that point, I not only lost my WSOD for Connie, but I lost my faith in Howe as a researcher.

Though the book was published in 2009, the 1991 setting provides cover for certain technological details.  Too much of Connie's research would have been too easy with the Internet developments of the twenty-first century.  But that means Howe had to be faithful to 1991, and she wasn't.

She compounded that problem by doing two things.

The first was tiny, virtually imperceptible.  She made one reference to a bit character's having a huge cellular phone.  This had no relevance to the story and therefore jumped out like a leaping lizard, a huge signal reminding the reader that hey, this is 1991 before everyone had little tiny cell phones!  I didn't like being hit over the head with that reminder.

The second was much more important.

The grandmother's house has no phone, so Connie has a phone installed.  The overt observation is made that a rotary dial phone doesn't require additional electrical power, because the house has no electricity either.

So Connie has the financial resources to have the phone installed, though we're not told how she's going to pay for it  She's a student, so we don't know where her income is coming from.  Fellowships?  Teaching?  We don't know.

So she has the phone installed, requiring someone to come out and run wires through the overgrown jungle of wisteria and other vines and plants -- Connie has cleared none of it -- but she doesn't have any electricity installed.  Now, this might be a bit of a stretch, but she continues to use oil lamps for light, when she could have purchased battery-operated lights.  She doesn't.  She's supposed to be doing research, and she doesn't want adequate light for reading, for writing notes?

Nope.  She uses oil lamps in the summer when it's hot as hell.

Not believable.

And no one urges her to do otherwise.

Although there are hints that the house is very old, no specific details are given.  There's a fireplace with a build-in bread oven.  As an expert on colonial life, Connie should have been fascinated to be living in such a residence.  It was also her grandmother's house, where her mother had grown up.  Why did she not have any curiosity about how her mother lived in this house without electricity?  Her mother, Grace, even mentions that the grandmother had a telephone for a while, but Connie never asks why did she have a phone but not electricity?

One of the reasons this is such a big deal and such a big inconsistency is that at some point in the house's history, it was plumbed for running water.  There is an added-on kitchen with an iron cookstove and sink, and upstairs another addition with a bathtub and a toilet.  When Connie and Liz arrive on that first night, the water is on.  That means it must be either a municipal or a private commercial water supply system with a meter and a shut-off valve, which would not have been left on for twenty years.  Are the pipes even safe?  How old are they?  Where is the water draining to?  Is it a septic system or a municipal sewer system?  Who's been paying the bills?

Most readers won't pay any attention to this, won't notice or worry about it.  But that's no reason for the author to just ignore it.

The house, after all, is an important part of the story, and it bothered me all through the reading that Howe had done such a terrible job on it, and on Connie's relationship to it.  The dust and dirt, the old jars of unidentified substances that she just blithely dumped onto a compost heap, and so on.  No electricity, but relatively modern plumbing?  The kitchen and bath were added on, but isn't Connie curious about what the house was like beforehand?  How old it is?  I guess not.  Inconsistent and unexplained.

It's bad enough that Connie does so little about the house itself.  It's worse that she does so little about her research.  She never even researched the house's history, its ownership!  She's supposed to be an expert on colonial history, and here she is living in a house in a village that goes back to colonial times and she doesn't even check out the deed for the property?

Oh, wait, that would spoil everything.

I hate books in which the author manipulates things for dramatic effect so that characters end up doing things they would never do if they were rational, sentient beings in real life.

On that first night in the house, Connie discovers an old bible which she identifies as seventeenth century.  She has no curiosity about how her grandmother came into possession of this antique.  When an old key falls out of the bible, Connie obtains what turns out to be the first clue to the existence of a book written by one Deliverance Dane, a woman who lived -- and supposedly died -- during the 1692 Salem witch hunt.  Yes, that's a spoiler, because the real Deliverance Dane was not one of the individuals executed for witchcraft.  Author Howe fudges on that, but she doesn't even bother to acknowledge it in her Postscript.  Anyway, Connie learns about the existence of Deliverance Dane's book and realizes that it is crucial to her dissertation research.

If Dane had died on the scaffold, Connie should have known about it.  The names and history of the Salem witch craze are well known and well documented.  Connie does eventually find documentation that Dane was excommunicated, but never documentation of her execution!  Nope, not consistent.  Those Puritans kept records.

But instead of actually doing the research or even searching for the book itself, Connie does . . . nothing.

Howe's novel is broken into chapters that are set at "the end of June" or "early July," with quite lengthy gaps, sometimes a week, sometimes as much as a month, between the events depicted.  What does Connie do during these periods?  Apparently nothing.  She doesn't have a job.  She doesn't work on preparing the house to be sold.  She doesn't do research.  And she doesn't look for the physick book of Deliverance Dane.

Other reviewers noted the absurdity of Connie, the PhD candidate, who doesn't seem to recognize that receipt and recipe are two spellings of the same word.  There are a gazillion other things she doesn't seem to recognize that most well-informed readers would.  But as crucial as the book is to her academic career, why isn't she actively looking for it??  This makes no sense.

It makes even less sense toward the end of the book.

Connie acquires a boyfriend, Sam Hartley.  They spend a night together in the old house -- dear heaven, did she EVER wash those linens? -- and the next day Sam falls from a steeple in the church he's painting.  He suffers a severe injury and also comes down with a mysterious malady that causes him to have violent seizures and uncontrolled vomiting.  He is literally strapped into a hospital bed to keep the seizures from doing more damage to his broken leg.

Now, I'm not a medical professional, but wouldn't this kind of restraint put him at risk of choking to death on his own vomit if he were flat on his back?

Okay, that's gross enough to consider, but it didn't get written into the story.  I felt it should have been, and by its absence, I began to doubt Howe's research even more.  (She herself was supposedly a PhD candidate.  Hmmm.....)

Connie somehow figures out that Sam is the victim of witchcraft.  Now her need to find Deliverance Dane's book is even more urgent.

Sam's accident happens between the end of July and the beginning of August, according to Howe's chapter headings.  At this time, Connie has learned the approximate location of the physick book -- somewhere in Harvard's library -- but does not have her hands on it yet.  Even though she believes it may hold the key to Sam's recovery, she doesn't go looking for it.

The next chapter is labeled mid-August, so Sam has been in the hospital for give or take two weeks, slowly dying of either poisoning or a curse, and Connie is just moping around her old, dirty, dark house.  For two weeks??  When she could have gone back to Cambridge and looked for the book???

Now, there are two other things that need to be mentioned here.  The first is that Connie has discovered she can do magic/witchcraft.  Without going back to the book and looking up the details -- which I may do later -- she accidentally charms a dandelion seed so that it sprouts and grows and blooms and dies in her hand in a matter of seconds.  It all has to do with some recipe cards her grandmother wrote out, which may be recipes or may be spells.  But if Connie has this power, how come it never manifested itself before?

The second is that someone has burned or branded a complex witchcraft symbol onto the front door of the house.  When Connie first discovers this horrible thing, I was afraid something had happened to Arlo the dog, but instead it's this image on the door.  She thinks it's a curse or hex, but doesn't research it.  Sound familiar?  Eventually, through some help from her friend Liz, she learns that it's much more likely to be a protection spell than a curse.  The source is never identified conclusively.

So she goes back to the house and tries her magic on one of the dead plants, and within seconds it comes back to flourishing life, green and lush.

Connie still doesn't go looking for the book.  She plays around with some other witchcraft stuff.  Meanwhile, Sam is dying.  When she finally figures out what's going on, she tells the dog Arlo that she now knows what she has to do.

A week or two later she finally starts doing it.

The next section is identified as taking place in "late August," so even giving Connie the benefit of the doubt that this isn't the tail end of August, she's at least been dawdling for a week or ten days since her revelation the middle of the month.  Sam has now been in the hospital for nearly a month.

So in late August -- the 25th?  the 28th?  the 31st? -- Connie finally, finally, finally acquires Deliverance Dane's Book of Physick.  The special collections library let her check out this 300-plus year old book and take it home with her.  Riiiiiight.  But does she do anything with it?  Is she worried enough about Sam to take action?

Not until "early September."

Author Howe's imprecision rankles.  The 27th day of August would be considered "late" in the month; the 4th day of September would still be "early" in the month, even though more than a week separates the two days.  Would Connie have waited a whole week to effect her witchy cure of her lover?

It's not just the long or vague passages of time that irritate the close reader; it's also the inconsistency.  Some of the chapters are very precisely dated.  The 3rd of July, for one.  Many of the sections that present the seventeenth and eighteenth century portraits of Deliverance Dane and other historical characters are given by month and date.  If Howe's intention was to reverse-telescope the action to spread it out over the summer so that Connie's adventures were framed by the academic vacation, couldn't she have done it better?  I kept thinking that she could have.

At the same time that all this was bothering me, I was very much aware of how and why a book like this would have acquired best-seller status and hundreds of great ratings on Amazon -- it's a good story.  Most readers aren't writers and have no clue how novels are constructed.  They don't see yawning plot holes or egregious anachronisms.  They stumble through crude attempts at phonetically reproduced dialect, or they skip over them.  (Howe's attempt at New England dialect is terrible.  Anyone who hasn't actually heard it -- and with mass media's homogenization of language, that may be questionable -- would probably not be able to figure out a lot of it, especially when Howe uses more than one phonetic spelling for the same word!.)

Who was at fault for all this?  Well, certainly as the author Howe has to take a huge responsibility.  But so do all the editors who handled this book along the way.  Because there are all kinds of ways these problems could have been fixed.

So whether Connie waits one day or eight days or something in between or something even longer to put her newfound magical knowledge to work, even when she does she never exhibits any real sense of urgency.  There's very little emotion around Connie.  Very little curiosity.  Very little passion.

On page 308, Connie collects certain items in the house that she needs for her witchcraft and puts them in her purse.  It is still "early September."  There is then another seventeenth century "interlude," before we pick up Connie again, still in "early September," as she acquires the rest of the materials necessary to the process of casting the spell or spells that she hopes will bring about Sam's recovery.

When she finally, finally begins the actual casting of the spell, we are at the autumnal equinox!  Has she waited as long as three weeks to do this?  Or even just two weeks, if we stretch "early September" to the 7th of the month?  Sam has been lying in this hospital bed, dying of who knows what and dehydration -- don't they have him on intravenous fluids or something? -- for almost two months!

If it's a matter of hoping readers pay no attention to the chapter headings, then why have them?

At that autumnal equinox point, the book had become a figurative wallbanger for me.  I realized I was reading less for the story and more to see how badly the author had screwed it up.

Connie casts the spell, following the directions in this 300-plus year old book that she's borrowed from the library.  The spell works by bringing the true malefactor to Connie.  It's her slimy, suspicious-from-page-one mentor, Manning Chilton.

Chilton is one of those characters, or rather caricatures, who is so obvious from the very beginning that it's laughable.  He reminded me of Leigh Teabing from The DaVinci Code.  Just too smarmy and one-dimensional.  All through this fictional summer, he's been pressuring Connie to find the book, and she never gets suspicious.  She even overhears a suspicious phone call and doesn't get suspicious!

But here's the thing:  Chilton has apparently also been looking for the book, and he's had better access to the library for years and years than she has.  If the book was there, why hadn't Chilton found it himself?

(This device is similar to the manuscript at the heart of Deborah Harkness's A Discovery of Witches, except that at least Harkness provides some explanation for why her character is the only one able to find/access it.)

The spell draws Chilton to the old house, where he confronts Connie and demands that she give him the book, this 300-plus year old manuscript that she's borrowed from the library.  Now that she knows witchcraft is real and that she has some kind of remarkable powers, she can't allow him to have it, even though she knows he doesn't have the power to use the knowledge in it.  Even so, rather than let him have it, she throws the ancient book of physick into the fire, like the One Ring.

Chilton is exposed and ultimately self-destructs, to be relieved of his position as head of the history department.  Sam recovers, and Connie goes on to success with her dissertation.  Her mother Grace decides to leave Santa Fe and return to Marblehead and the old house, which Sam begins to restore, claiming it was built of good materials and therefore built to last.

And at the end, as the good guys are celebrating their happily ever afters on Halloween, Connie reveals that the library has a microfilm record of the book so all is not lost.

Well, duh, then why didn't she just access that and not destroy the original?  Why in the name of all that's magical and holy did the library ever let the book out of their possession?

Last fall, when a bunch of us on BookLikes did a group read and analysis of Barbara Michaels's Ammie, Come Home, we found so many errors that the book became more laughable than scary.  But Michaels went on to sell gazillions of books.  The aforementioned A Discovery of Witches was likewise a huge commercial success, even though many careful readers found it almost unreadable.  (I got through maybe 150 pages before I gave up.)  Katherine Howe has gone on to write several more best-selling books.  So it's not as if poorly written books can't become popular or mediocre writers become successful.

But it's very discouraging when these things happen.  And I think it's also worth taking the time to do the analysis so that other writers can, perhaps, avoid the same mistakes and then go on to even better success.

Author Howe posits that witchcraft and magic are real.  Connie uses witchcraft to identify Professor Chilton's evil deeds and to cure Sam Hartley.  Did her mother use magic to brand the protective symbol onto the door of the old house?  We don't know.  Is Arlo the dog more than just a stray mutt who attached himself to Connie one day?  Is he, in fact, her witch's familiar, and does he have a generational connection to the old house as well?  We don't know.  It's easy to suppose so, and I guess that's okay.

But the bottom line was that I ended up not liking this book at all.  I wanted the story to have been written better.  I wanted the character of Connie to have been more three dimensional, more consistent, more realistic.  I wanted Katherine Howe and her editors to have done a better job with what I thought could have been a really great story.


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