Monday, December 10, 2018

Bringing Down the Colonel

Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the "Powerless" Woman Who Took On Washington by [Miller, Patricia]

Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age & the "Powerless" Woman Who Took on Washington- Patricia Miller
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Release Date: November 13, 2018


Synopsis: In Bringing Down the Colonel, the journalist Patricia Miller tells the story of Madeline Pollard, an unlikely nineteenth-century women’s rights crusader. After an affair with a prominent politician left her “ruined,” Pollard brought the man—and the hypocrisy of America’s control of women’s sexuality—to trial. And, surprisingly, she won.

Pollard and the married Colonel Breckinridge began their decade-long affair when she was just a teenager. After the death of his wife, Breckinridge asked for Pollard’s hand—and then broke off the engagement to marry another woman. But Pollard struck back, suing Breckinridge for breach of promise in a shockingly public trial. With premarital sex considered irredeemably ruinous for a woman, Pollard was asserting the unthinkable: that the sexual morality of men and women should be judged equally.
Nearly 125 years after the Breckinridge-Pollard scandal, America is still obsessed with women’s sexual morality. And in the age of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, we’ve witnessed fraught public reckonings with a type of sexual exploitation unnervingly similar to that experienced by Pollard. Using newspaper articles, personal journals, previously unpublished autobiographies, and letters, Bringing Down the Colonel tells the story of one of the earliest women to publicly fight back.

In the era of the Me Too movement, women are looking towards history and politics and wondering: are we the first to stand up?  We know women fought for the right to work, the right to vote, and we earnestly want to know not only what those women went through, but why.  Why did society and politics need the push they needed, and why did it succeed sometimes but not others?  What were all the unwritten currents for and against these pioneers?

Patricia Miller does an excellent job answering these questions in Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the "Powerless" Woman who Took on Washington.  Here she tells the story of Madeline Pollard and Colonel Breckinridge, and the unlikely lawsuit that helped turn of the century America question their double standard of men, women, and sexual morality.  Pollard was in a relationship with Breckinridge for at least ten years while he was married to another woman- and always claiming that were it possible, he would marry her.  But when his wife died, Breckinridge married another woman instead.  Madeline Pollard did what few women of the time were brave enough to do: she publicly admitted the relationship and her "ruin" and sued Breckinridge for breach of promise.  The resulting scandal not only forced society to ask questions it had never asked before, but brought down an elected official and brought thousands of Southern women into the political fray.

As fascinating as the story is by itself, Miller fills modern readers in on the backstory- the social norms of the time and those that were changing- to flesh out a complete world for her readers to understand.  Women were beginning to enter the workforce in increasingly large numbers.  Fathers and brothers were beginning to have to face the idea that a woman unchaperoned in public wasn't announcing her sexual availability, because their own wives, sisters, and daughters were now in those public spheres.  It was not 'just' the radical women who were asking for work equality and the right to vote, or to stand up to abuses happening around them. Miller explores the economic and educational environments that had begun to change, and does a solid job of helping the reader to understand why the mid-1890s was a time ripe for the changes Pollard and others pushed for. 

 Madeline Pollard forced the conversation of sex into public, into politics, and into the home.  She forced society to look at foundling orphanages, homes for fallen women, and the manipulations and social conventions that powerful men used to keep an entire class of women vulnerable to them.  She inspired the first movement of women who (though they couldn't vote) used their opinions and influence to ensure that a sexual predator was not reelected to a government position.  Pollard and the women who financed her battle took on Washington and inspired a generation of women to demand conversations and change in society and politics, morality and ethics.  The Pollard trial certainly didn't end the sexual double standard, but it did begin the conversation we still carry on today.

Although occasionally dry and repetitive, Bringing Down the Colonel is an inspiring, well-researched book, and gives readers an excellent understanding of how women have fought the 'battle of the sexes' - and gives an excellent historical reminder of how far we have come, and how equality is always relative. A must read!

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Defending Chloe

Defending Chloe (Mountain Mercenaries Book 2) by [Stoker, Susan]

Defending Chloe (Mountain Mercenaries 2)- Susan Stoker
Montlake Romance/Amazon Digital Services
Release Date- December 4, 2018


Synopsis: Gorgeous women don’t just stumble onto Ronan Cross’s remote property. But this one—vulnerable, victimized, and needing the kind of help only Ronan can offer—tells a story that makes his blood boil almost as hot as his need to protect her.

Since her father’s death, Chloe Harris has become a prisoner. Her own brother, a flesh peddler and low-level player in the Denver Mafia, is forcing her to sell her body for an endgame Chloe never saw coming: control over a vast fortune. Her only way out is to run—straight into the arms of the one hard-bodied man she can trust.
Defending Chloe could rain punishment down on the Mountain Mercenaries. Her brother has Mob connections and the local police in his pocket. But Ronan still has an edge—the unshakable loyalty of his deadly teammates. As well as an unquenchable thirst for retribution…and Chloe.

Readers can count on Susan Stoker (Claiming Felicity) to give us alpha heroes dedicated to protecting their team and the women they love, strong heroines overcoming incredible odds, and (usually) incredibly disturbing villains (I still regret reading some of the villain's scenes in Defending Allye at night just before turning out the lights).  Defending Chloe is no different.  Ronan "Ro" Cross is a British member of the Mountain Mercenaries with scars in his past that he hasn't shared with anyone.  Chloe not only brings out all his protective instincts, she gets him to share his burdens and see them in a new light.  He's the kind of guy you want at your side: good instincts, a man who treats women with respect, and doesn't play games- but is still fully capable of messing things up while thinking he's doing the "right thing".

Fortunately, even after everything Chloe's been through, she remains strong enough to handle Ro.  After years of abuse from her brother and his girlfriend she should be a broken, terrified, mess.  And she is smart enough to be terrified of her brother's Mafia bosses, and scared of her controlling, amoral brother.  But Chloe is also smart enough to know a good man when she sees one, and she trusts Ro and his friends to help her escape.  Both Chloe and Ro are endearing characters, well-written and three dimensional.  You're cheering for them from beginning to end.

Defending Chloe is a fast-paced thriller, full of edge of your seat action.  As with all of Stoker's books, it is part of a larger series (this is book two in the Mountain Mercenaries series) but it can be read as a stand alone book.  The rest of Ro's team and Allye do show up, but I don't see any new readers getting lost if they start with this book.  I find it fun to reader Stoker's series in order if possible because I find it makes the cameos of other characters more fun for me as a reader but long-time fans of Susan Stoker or those starting with this book will enjoy it and be waiting eagerly for the next one! 

received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Mortal World

The Mortal Word (The Invisible Library Novel Book 5) by [Cogman, Genevieve]

The Mortal World (Invisible Library Series 5)- Genevieve Cogman
Ace/Penguin Group
Release Date: November 27, 2018


Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

Synopsis: When Irene returns to London after a relatively straightforward book theft in Germany, Bradamant informs her that there is a top secret dragon-Fae peace conference in progress that the Library is mediating, and that the second-in-command dragon has been stabbed to death. Tasked with solving the case, Vale and Irene immediately go to 1890s Paris to start their investigation.

Once they arrive, they find evidence suggesting that the murder victim might have uncovered proof of treachery by one or more Librarians. But to ensure the peace of the conference, some Librarians are being held as hostages in the dragon and Fae courts. To save the captives, including her parents, Irene must get to the bottom of this murder--but was it a dragon, a Fae, or even a Librarian who committed the crime?


In The Mortal World Irene must once again step out of her role as a simple book thief and prevent war between the Fae and the dragons.  The Library is attempting to get both sides to sign a peace treaty and one of the dragon envoys gets murdered.  Irene and Vale are brought in to solve the murder- as long as they come up with the "right" answer.  The simplest villain (and the one everyone wants to be guilty) is the notorious Blood Countess- a powerful Fae who has taken on the story of Elizabeth Bathory.  But Irene wants to get more than the convenient answer, she wants the truth.  Even if the truth leads her to question the loyalty of some of her fellow Librarians.

Irene has become much more than "just" a book stealing librarian since we've met her.  She's tangled with both dragons and Fae and come out alive, she's fought the worst politics has thrown at her and come out sane.  Readers to the series know what it seems none of Irene's superiors at the Library know: she might do anything to protect the Library and her friends, but she is also increasingly willing to question authority when she sees something wrong.  In Mortal World she's backed up by Vale, one world's equivalent of Sherlock Holmes, who cuts through politics and authority to reach the truth and sorts out what to tell people later.  It's not an approach the dragon king Ao Ji or the Fae treaty leader the Cardinal really like, which leads to plenty of subtle (and not so subtle) threats against Irene's family, friends, and personal and mental well being. But Irene is quick thinking, willing to walk into a trap to get information, and always thinking outside the box.  I love these characteristics about her (along with her professionally awesome levels of sarcasm and snark in the face of extreme situations of all kinds).  

Mortal World gives us more of Vale than we've seen in many of the other books, which I enjoyed. He's not a Sherlock-clone, but is becoming more his own person and I hope we get to see him develop more in future books.  He and Irene work well together and I think brought out a level of humanity in each other that did a good job balancing against the powerful beings they were investigating, as well as reminding each other that ultimately it is the mortal worlds who would suffer in the peace treaty fails.

I was disappointed that Cogman followed up on one idea she left dangling in The Lost Plot.  That of Irene and Kai becoming lovers.  The idea didn't work for me then, and didn't work for me here.  The two worked well as mentor-student, and now that Kai isn't part of the Library the idea of them becoming more equal as partners (along with Vale) worked for me.  But (in my personal opinion) there is absolutely no chemistry between the two and no good reason to force something that isn't there.  Irene doesn't need a romantic interest, she needs someone she knows she can trust when she finds herself questioning everyone else around her.

Overall a well-written and fast-paced book, possibly second to The Invisible Library as my favorite in the series.  The enemies are sneaky, the mystery is twisty, and while the cats can't top Library's alligators, they get points for creepiness.  By the end Cogman has opened interesting possibilities for future books and characters.  Hopefully in the future we will continue to see more of Vale, drop the Irene/Kai 'ship, and continue to enjoy the overall awesomeness that is the Invisible Library. While you don't need to have read the rest of this series to enjoy World, there are enough recurring characters that I think you'd enjoy it more if you read at least The Lost Plot beforehand.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Driven to Distraction

Driven to Distraction (Road to Love Book 1) by [Foster, Lori]

Driven to Distraction- Lori Foster
HQN Books
Release Date: November 20, 2018


Synopsis: Mary Daniels doesn’t let anything get in the way of her job acquiring rare artifacts for her wealthy boss. But this particular obstacle—huge, hard-muscled, unashamedly masculine—is impossible to ignore. Stuck in a cramped car with Brodie Crews for hours en route to their new assignment, Mary feels her carefully crafted persona—and her trademark self-control—is slipping, and she won’t allow it.

Brodie can’t imagine what secret in Mary’s past has left her so buttoned-up, though he’d dearly love to find out. Maybe then she’d trust him enough to explore their explosive chemistry. But he needs this job, so he’ll play by her rules and bide his time…until an enemy determined to outwit them strikes and he needs to get close—in every way—to protect her. Otherwise they could lose much more than a precious collectible. They could lose it all.


Cool, controlled, and ultra-professional Mary Daniels is horrified by the man her boss wants to hire as a driver.  Brodie Crews is unprofessional, crude, and ultra-aggravating.  Worse, Mary finds that she's physically attracted to him.  The more they get to know each other the more the attraction becomes mutual- and more than just physical.  But when they are threatened because of what they are transporting, the distractions become about more than attraction.  They become about staying alive.

A new series by Lori Foster (Fast Burn) introduces readers to the Crews brothers, Jack and Brodie.  They are growing a small courier business and taking on a client like Mary's boss Therman is a great way to build up business.  Brodie can be all business or all play, loves working on cars, pushing Mary's buttons, and catering unashamedly to his adopted dog Howler.  He is as sweet, hot, and alpha as long time readers expect a Lori Foster hero to be. Mary is what we expect from a Lori Foster heroine: smart, stubborn, and driven.  Her past has made her want to blend into the background and remain separated from everyone by a professional exterior, but eventually Brodie works on getting some of her walls down and showing her it is possible to be both a professional and a woman who is loved.  He introduces her to the concept of a loving family and pushes her to accept the people reaching out to her.  It was sweet to watch Mary struggle to adjust to this new way of looking at the people in her life, and heartbreaking to think of why it was such a struggle for her.  

Distraction's secondary characters were fun and quirky, and I look forward to getting to see more of them in the next book.  I have to admit that I found the threat and the idea behind it a little thin, and kept waiting for something more to happen- but since the point of the book was really more about Brodie and Mary's developing relationship it still worked.  

While not Foster's strongest book, Driven to Distraction is full of fun characters, a sweet dog, humor, and emotion.  A good read for long time Lori Foster fans and those just discovering her.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Heirs of the Founders

Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants by [Brands, H. W.]

Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants- H.M. Brands
Doubleday/Random House
Release Date: November 13, 2018


Synopsis: In the early 1800s, three young men strode onto the national stage, elected to Congress at a moment when the Founding Fathers were beginning to retire to their farms. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, a champion orator known for his eloquence, spoke for the North and its business class. Henry Clay of Kentucky, as dashing as he was ambitious, embodied the hopes of the rising West. South Carolina's John Calhoun, with piercing eyes and an even more piercing intellect, defended the South and slavery.
     Together these heirs of Washington, Jefferson and Adams took the country to war, battled one another for the presidency and set themselves the task of finishing the work the Founders had left undone. Their rise was marked by dramatic duels, fierce debates, scandal and political betrayal. Yet each in his own way sought to remedy the two glaring flaws in the Constitution: its refusal to specify where authority ultimately rested, with the states or the nation, and its unwillingness to address the essential incompatibility of republicanism and slavery.
      They wrestled with these issues for four decades, arguing bitterly and hammering out political compromises that held the Union together, but only just. Then, in 1850, when California moved to join the Union as a free state, "the immortal trio" had one last chance to save the country from the real risk of civil war. But, by that point, they had never been further apart.

The debate over what  certain aspects of the Constitution: who has what authority, and how amendments should be interpreted, are not new debates.  The "second generation" of American politicians, including Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, and Henry Clay, were fiercely arguing over how aspects of the Constitution should be applied before the War of 1812.  What rights did the Constitution grant states versus the federal government? How were new states to be brought into the Union?  Tariffs, taxes, and infrastructure were debated in Congress then as they are now.  Through the early 1800s Congress struggled with the idea of states rights, and what was due to individual states and different geographic sections of the country were often even more bitterly divisive than political parties are today.  Clay, Calhoun, and Webster spent forty years fighting to iron out what they saw as flaws or glaring omissions in the Constitution.  Each had personal ambitions that included the White House, each wanted to make lasting impressions on history, and each wanted to ensure the best for their region.  

A well-researched book, Heirs of the Founders works to help readers understand the battles the so-called "second generation" of American politicians fought in an effort to define the new United States of America.  Brands does a good job of leading readers through the different sides and their thinking, as well as emphasizing that then, as now, there were moderates who were willing to compromise to get things done and the more hard line groups who refused any hint of compromise.  The difference being that men like Clay often succeeded in bringing both sides to accept compromises that today rarely happen.  Brands quotes extensively from speeches each of these well-known orators gave but helps us dig deeper behind the scenes to understand what was going on.  I thought he did a particularly excellent job in exploring the complicated, nuanced, and sensitive aspects of national and individual opinions on the issue of slavery.  

Like Joanne Freeman's The Field of Blood, readers know where the country is headed.  Many contemporary Americans were surprised less by the fact that the Civil War happened and more by the fact that it didn't occur at least a decade earlier.  In Heirs we see the men who fought to hold off the break of the Union, but we also see, as they saw, that the extreme regional sectionalism of the first half of the 19th century made it inevitable.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Holiday by Gaslight

A Holiday By Gaslight: A Victorian Christmas Novella by [Matthews, Mimi]

A Holiday by Gaslight- Mimi Matthews
Perfectly Proper Press
Release Date: November 13, 2018


Synopsis: Sophie Appersett is quite willing to marry outside of her class to ensure the survival of her family. But the darkly handsome Mr. Edward Sharpe is no run-of-the-mill London merchant. He's grim and silent. A man of little emotion--or perhaps no emotion at all. After two months of courtship, she's ready to put an end to things.

But severing ties with her taciturn suitor isn't as straightforward as Sophie envisioned. Her parents are outraged. And then there's Charles Darwin, Prince Albert, and that dratted gaslight. What's a girl to do except invite Mr. Sharpe to Appersett House for Christmas and give him one last chance to win her? Only this time there'll be no false formality. This time they'll get to know each other for who they really are.

Sophie Appersett is trying to be a modern woman.  The world is changing rapidly all around her and she is trying to take Mr. Darwin's theories to heart and change with them.  While her family has no money, she is a baronet's daughter and has been raised to expect a marriage of convenience instead of love. When the wealthy Edward Sharpe shows an interest in her, it doesn't bother Sophie that he isn't an aristocrat.  But after two months of courting, it does bother her that she still knows nothing about Ned.  He never says more than a few words and always seems to wish he was somewhere else.  While Sophie might not expect love, a vague liking would be nice! She's ready to call it off if they can't get to know each other during her family's Christmas house party.  What Sophie doesn't take into account is the gaslight . . .

 Sophie is a wonderful heroine: smart, independent, kind, and warm.  While on the surface she and Ned Sharpe seem to be complete opposites, once Ned realizes he needs to break down and be a little more himself around Sophie, it becomes obvious they are a perfect match.  She has shouldered the burdens of her family: her spoiled sister and her father's mania for modernization of the family home even when it means spending Sophie's dowry to make it happen.  The idea of having a partner in life, a man who will treat her as an equal, is more beguiling than any romance to her.  Ned doesn't believe in romance or love, but Sophie teaches him that both are exactly what he needs.  They just need a little plain speaking between them, and a little relationship advice from Charles Darwin.  

Blending the rapidly evolving scientific discoveries of the 1860s with changing societal ideas and prejudices makes for a fresh approach to the Victorian Christmas novella. Romance and high family drama allow Sophie and Ned to evolve naturally in front of us, often surprising themselves as much as us.  A sweet, delightful holiday novella, Gaslight brings all the charm and magic of a Victorian Christmas to life on each page. Fans of Lisa Kleypas' Wallflowers series will love Mimi Matthews' A Holiday by Gaslight!

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Author Interview: Karen Odden

USA Today Bestselling author Karen Odden

 Historical mystery writer Karen Odden's debut novel, A Lady in the Smoke, hit the USA Today bestseller's list and won the New Mexico-Arizona 2017 Book Award for e-Book Fiction.  In her newest release, A Dangerous Duet, Odden returns to Victorian England with Nell Hallam, an ambitious pianist who stumbles across a disturbing mystery while playing piano in a Soho music hall.     Karen took a break from her crazy schedule of writing, book promotions, and family to talk with me about Dangerous Duet, her writing, and more!

Nell Hallam isn't a traditional Victorian young woman.  She doesn't balk at dressing in men's clothing, working in a rough music hall, or facing danger to help friends and family.  What inspired you to create the character of Nell? 

Years ago, when I was doing research for the Introduction that I wrote for Charles Dickens’s Hard Times(for the Barnes & Noble classics series) I came across the story of Fanny Dickens, his older sister, who was a brilliant pianist and attended the Royal Academy of Music in London in the 1820s. Their father was an irresponsible spendthrift, always in debt, which resulted both in Charles working in the infamous bootblack factory, and Fanny having to leave the Academy because she couldn’t afford tuition. Eventually she was allowed to return in exchange for providing lessons to other students. But it got me to thinking—what would happen if she hadn’t been offered that position? There weren’t many professions open to women in the 1870s in England, and most of them weren’t particularly remunerative: seamstress, governess, companion, nurse—and prostitute. Some female performers were paid decently, but that depended upon having a particular skill or what we’d now call “street cred” from graduating from a school like the Academy. So I wondered, could Nell earn the tuition by playing piano? Were there places she might be hired? That brought me to the music halls, of which there were hundreds in London by 1875.

One of the things that I think really sets you apart as an author is your ability to describe London as if it is a living, breathing character.  How do you immerse yourself in the city to describe it in such sensory detail?

Images are a great help. You can go online and find dozens of images for Victorian music halls, the Pantechnicon on fire, the sheet music Nell might have used, costumes, and London itself. I was very lucky this time in that there is still one Victorian music hall standing: Wilton’s, in Graces Alley, Whitechapel ( In 2012, when I was researching for this book, I had the chance to tag along with my husband on a business trip, and I went not only to the Royal Academy, where I was lucky enough to find an exhibit on music halls, but also to Wilton’s. I prowled all over the place, including the basement where the plaster was falling off the bricks and the floors were uneven. I stood at the back of the music hall and could envision Nell in the corner at stage right with her piano. From there, it was easy to imagine the Octavian.

Do you carefully plot out every scene in your books or see where the characters take you?

I begin with a premise and a character. After that, it’s an uneven progression among careful plotting, adventurous research, and letting my characters lead. I often write plot points on sticky notes, which I lay out on my floor; then I move them around to find the best order to create tension and build suspense. But let’s say there’s a scene that I know has to happen. For example, in my first book, A Lady in the Smoke, I knew that Elizabeth and Tom Flynn had to meet; I needed a scene in which he gave her a piece of information about her father that she didn’t know, and she convinced him that she was willing to help find the truth. But as I sat at my desk to write that scene, I felt as though both those characters were so clear in my head, I could just push Elizabeth into the room where Tom Flynn has been waiting … and then they did the moving and talking; I just wrote down what happened.

People who have read A Lady in the Smoke will notice the brief cameo in A Dangerous Duet of Mr. Flynn and Jeremy at the Falcon newspaper offices. Was that a coincidence? Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book? Should we expect surprise "guest appearances" by previous characters in future books too?

Yes! I want each book to stand alone, but I love the idea of creating a world in which characters live beyond the pages of a single book. To be honest, I feel wary about writing a series in which the protagonist remains the same. I know many other mystery/suspense writers manage to do it, and do it well—Susan Elia MacNeal, Rhys Bowen, Anne Perry, and G. M. Malliet, to mention a few. But I am afraid it might begin to feel formulaic—and I might get bored! So for now I plan to remain in the world of 1875 London, and while I may revisit characters, I don’t anticipate writing a series of books with the same protagonist every time. However, in my third novel, about a young woman painter at the Slade in London, Mr. Flynn has a cameo—and Inspector Matthew Hallam (Nell’s brother) becomes one of the main characters. 

So much of A Dangerous Duet focuses on the importance of music in Nell's life? Do you play an instrument? What are your favorite kinds of music? Composers?

I played piano (badly and briefly) as a child; but my father was a classically trained pianist and played the organ at churches and gave piano lessons. We had a baby grand in our living room at home, and piano is still my favorite instrument, with the cello a runner-up. Of myself and my three siblings, only my brother Kevin inherited my father’s enormous talent. He can hear a song once and play it by ear on the piano; he played violin when he was young and still plays bass and guitar and keyboards. One of my favorite things about him coming to visit is he’ll play the piano in our den! My son plays piano as well, and one of the pieces he is working on now is the Mozart Sonata in C that is one of Nell’s audition pieces and will be familiar to many of my readers ( The second piece of audition music is Chopin’s Scherzo, which I picked on the advice of a professional musician; after I heard it a few times it became one of my favorite pieces of classical music. Here’s a link to a performance:

What kind of research do you do and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

I usually begin with a premise and research as I go. For example, when I was researching for A Dangerous Duet, I didn’t originally have an inspector character in mind. But when I realized I wanted one, I found several books and articles about Scotland Yard, the best being Haia Shpayer-Makov’s The Ascent of the Detective. After the first draft was finished, I realized I needed to bring the injured character closer to Nell than a random patient, to make her desire to help more personal; so I invented Nell’s friend Marceline—which meant a whole new round of research into trapeze artists of the era. So I don’t do all my research up front; the story often dictates when I have to take a break and start reading around on a particular topic. But research is a delightful rabbit hole! 

What was the most interesting thing you discovered while doing research for this book?

Music halls were astonishing places. People attended them the way we attend movie theaters today. The variety of acts is astounding—everything from trained animals to trapeze acts to knife-throwers and musicians and songstresses. But they also provided a place for the lower classes to consolidate their class identity—not merely in terms of what they weren’t (middle class, rather serious, aspiring to bettering themselves, pursuing their work ethic)—but what they were: bawdy, robust, gleeful, wry, cynical and practical. In tone, most of the acts were more along the lines of a Saturday Night Live skit than a beautifully produced Broadway show.

Did publishing your first book, A Lady in the Smoke, change your writing process?

Oh, gosh yes—in about a million ways. I made so many mistakes writing that book! But bad mistakes make for efficient learning. For example, when I first wrote Lady, the railway disaster—the inciting incident that kicks off the action—didn’t appear until chapter 8! Now (in its finished version) it appears at the end of chapter 1. Those first seven chapters were important to have in my head; but they didn’t belong in the book. It took me some time to see that the inciting incidents need to happen early. With A Dangerous Duet, it starts a bit slower than Lady—there is no trainwreck right away, so to speak. But Nell finding Marceline half-dead in the alley happens in chapter 1. It just takes a little while to see why that’s important and what it means. Lady also taught me the importance of making sure that the stakes are personal for the protagonist. The question I always ask is: what does she stand to lose if she doesn’t solve the puzzle? It can’t just be for the “greater good” of society. I also learned about the importance of writing backstories, even for the minor characters. I need those in order to feel as though my characters aren’t merely foils or helpers or suitors for the protagonist. They have to live and breathe their own concerns, or they feel hollow, and I get an uneasy feeling in my gut.

What particular challenge do you face in your writing?  What is difficult for you?

Many aspects of writing are challenging—in a good way. But what is most difficult for me is humor. I am the least funny person I know. (Seriously!) That’s not to say I don’t laugh—I do! When I get the New Yorker, I read the cartoons first and chortle over them. I love a funny story; I love funny movies; I even like my son’s terrible puns. But let me explain: a few years ago some friends and I were sitting around drinking wine and playing Cards Against Humanity. It’s sort of like Apples to Apples, except for adults, and it’s pretty profane. The idea is that the dealer lays down a card and then all the other players anonymously put down a card from their hand that makes a “match”; usually the aim is to be clever or funny. The person who makes the best match gets to be dealer for the next hand. Well, we went twenty rounds and I was never the dealer. My friends began to feel sorry for me and let me deal a few times, so I’d have a chance! You wouldn’t think humor is important when writing a mystery, but I think the best mysteries do have some humor—dark, or wry, or sideways. It’s necessary to leaven the tale. 

Karen and her hiking partner, Rosy the beagle
When you aren't writing, what else do you enjoy doing?

I have two kids, so a lot of my time the last decade was spent just being a mom. But now that they’re older, they need less of my time, so I take time to hike in the beautiful desert, read (always!) for fun, bake, and binge-watch Netflix! The dark series Ozark, with Laura Linney and Jason Bateman, is my latest catnip.