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The Undoing of Saint Silvanus

Are we ready for our first Christmas Countdown mystery? Let’s celebrate 20 days until Christmas with:

The Undoing of Saint Silvanus: A Novel by Beth Moore

Thoughts Before Reading:

This is Beth Moore’s first novel after years of nonfiction. It was something new, but something she had been thinking about doing for a while.

It was suggested by my sister blog after she read it for book club. It isn’t a Christmas centered mystery, but does have important scenes that take place at Christmas, so I thought I would set it out for our first review.

Jillian Slater is living in San Francisco in an controlling and very bad relationship. But when she discovers that her boyfriend is cheating on her she is hit hard and unsure of what to do.

Then she receives a call that her long estranged father is dead.

And that her grandmother, the ice queen, who she also hasn’t seen in over twenty years is offering to pay her way to New Orleans so she could attend the funeral.

As her life is currently in shambles, Jillian decides to take it.

However, there is a lot that was kept from her. It turns out that the housekeeper, Adella Atwater, came up with the idea for a family reunion, not her grandmother, Olivia.

It also turns out that she lives in an church turned boarding house-full of all kinds of characters. There is David a forty-year old bachelor and music teacher; Carrie a student in medical school and always studying or working; and an elderly dementia suffering woman.

With no money, no reason to go back to San Francisco, and not sure what to do…she remains in the house.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans Police Department have been looking into the murder of Jillian’s father, Raphael. But while they try to uncover a killer, a lot of other strange things start happening. Baby things are left outside the house, someone tries to break into the house, things go missing, etc. The NOPD spend a lot of time coming to the house trying to figure out what does this all mean? A sentiment shared by the rest of the residents.

Besides that Saint Silvanus holds a secret from its first beginning as a church. Will it be revealed?

Will Jillian ever learn the truth about her fathers death? Will she grow to enjoy living in Saint Silvanus? Will her family rifts be mended? Or torn further apart?

Through in a life changing Christmas concert and last supper, and this book has everything.

Thoughts After Reading:

I didn’t love this book.

Jillian bugged me, a LOT. First she is unsure what to do when she comes across the homeless. She has never had to deal with such things and finds the “sour smells” of the city unbearable. Come on now. I am from California and have been to San Francisco many times. I have been everywhere from the high price areas to the touristy ones and there are homeless EVERYWHERE. They hide in bushes and jump out to surprise you; walk out into traffic; are on every street corner along with “sour” smells. I don’t know what San Francisco Moore encountered but that sounds nothing like the one in California. Jillian should have experienced this numerous times and know how to deal with it.

And what happened with the church?

So throughout the novel, Moore has the story of the church’s beginning and the first pastor intersecting with the story of Jillian. But she never really says why this matters to the characters as they have no connection to each other and they never say who killed the minister. Was it suicide or murder?

There were also a lot of little details missing as Moore doesn’t always describe her characters. For instance she calls Jillian “dark”. Dark hair? Dark skin? Mexican? African-American? Greek? Spanish? Italian? Black hair? Brown? Chestnut? I know it is her first time writing a “novel” so it makes sense there are a few kinks.

The mystery also isn’t very mysterious. I knew as soon as the character entered the picture. It was extremely obvious the way they acted was not normal.

But there was something I did like: the characters.

The characters were amazing! I loved every single one and each felt extremely lifelike and ones you would meet in real life.

They all had their own hangups, issues, and backgrounds that were relatable-either to you or reminded you of someone you know. They made the book interesting, a page turner, and had you feel at home in Saint Silvanus.

This in itself made the book worth reading.

For more Christmas mysteries, go to Gingerbread Cookie Murder

For more mysteries not in a series, go to The Manchurian Candidate

For more Christian mysteries, go to Everbody Loved Roger Harlan

For more mysteries set in New Orleans, go to Triple Six

The Madwoman Upstairs

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The Madwoman Upstairs: A Novel by Catherine Lowell

Samantha Whipple hates the Brontë sisters.

As the last remaining relative, she has found herself hounded by journalists, bombarded at every turn, and told time and time again about their genius and to further study their writings.

The only item that makes Brontë bearable is that the novels give her a connection to her deceased father.

Samantha has just started at Oxford University and hopes that this will be a way to move out of the past and into a new future. However, things do not go according to plan. Her tutorial involves a very attractive, yet unattainable, professor who is intent on having her study every bit of literature she hates and criticizing everything from her thoughts, to her writing style, and even down to her use of commas.

Really?

She is also being harassed by a writer for the school newspaper, finding her name in print every day; along with her father’s arch nemesis, Sir John Booker.

And to top it off, Brontë books that were believed to be burnt in the fire of her childhood home are mysterious reappearing in her room; along with a dead friend being revived. As Samantha finds herself not only on an extensive treasure hunt to discover her inheritance, but studying and reading Brontë more than ever before; will she find all the answers she is looking for? Will she be able to understand her father’s cryptic messages? Will this cause her to grow to love the Brontë work instead of abhorring it?

Thoughts After Reading:

This has been one of the hardest reviews I have had to write as I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand I enjoy the irony of the main character hating Brontë, yet at the same time reenacting the same features she complains about. For instance falling in love with her professor, James Orville; who is not only tall, broody, and arrogant; having the temperament of Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre; but also as unattainable as Mr. Rochester.

Although in this case the issue keeping them apart is not a mad wife, but the college’s code of conduct between student-teacher relationships. Or when Samantha is stranded in her room from a big storm and starts breaking down similar to the ill governess in Villette.

Hmm…

At one point in the novel, Samantha finds her journey barred by a huge storm and having to reside in the house of her father’s most hated person, Sir John; which is reminiscent of how the narrator in Wuthering Heights finds himself forced to remain with the inhospitable Heathcliff.

The character of Samantha is also very unusual. On one hand we have a very intelligent, sarcastic, logical, and thoughtful person. However, the pendulum swings back with her also being neurotic, anxious, awkward, impulsive, and fanciful.

Not that it isn’t realistic to have a character express so many traits, but for the reader it feels inconsistent, contradictory, and a bit scattered.

Samantha’s love interest Professor Orville is lacking depth within his own character, along with his relationship to Samantha being weak and having no chemistry. Professor Orville is shrouded in mystery as to his history and background; with the reader never really seeing as to who he is, but just him as the Professor or Brontë-like hero. Part of this has to do with the fact that he is a Professor and distances himself Samantha, not revealing much of his personal life, so the quick wrap up the author provides in the end when the two have married seems strange and too quickly sewn up.

After all, most of what we see in the novel between them is Samantha’s fantasies and crush on her professor, hardly anything in the novel showed that he seriously reciprocated.

On the question of the Brontë sisters the book gives quite a lot of information into their individual backgrounds and each of their novels; along with some very thought provoking analysis. Out of all the Brontës, the author spends the most time on the youngest, Anne; with a new viewpoint and direction.

However, as the book so truthfully points out, the novels we read become a part of us. The characters and stories become an active part of our reality, memories, and sometimes even family. So when a character or story is taken in a different direction than the one that you as a reader have perpetuated it can be hard to accept. There are a few ideas surrounding the Brontë‘s leading men, that depending on your own view and relationship with the books, you will find either inspired or idiotic.

The writer has a good voice and the ability to capture one’s attention and maintain it strongly through out the pages; but because I found it lacking in other areas I would have to give this book two and a half out of fives stars.

For more mysteries involving a treasure hunt, go to The Sign of the Four

For more mysteries that take place at Oxford University, go to Decked

For more mysteries that take place at a college, go to Murder at Oklahoma

For more mysteries involving a relationship with a Professor, go to Good, Clean, Murder

For more stand alone mysteries, go to Whistling in the Dark

Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder

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Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder (Hannah Swenson Mystery #1)

So this is the first book in the series but not the first I read. I was introduced to the Hannah Swenson Mysteries by Apple Turnover Murder (Hannah Swenson Mystery #13)And I am glad I did because if I read this book first, I probably would have quit the series.

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Yeah this book was a clunker. I thought it was messy, the characters unrealistic, and the mystery too easy. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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So the book starts off by introducing us to Hannah Swenson. Hannah is in her 30s and was studying English Lit at school. While she was in the midst of going for her masters, she has a bad experience at school and her father dies.

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She heads back to her small town, (Lake Eden, Minnesota) , to help her family out, starts a coffee and cookie shop, buys a condo, and adopts a huge orange cat. Things seem to be going good as she is building her business and life.

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Her only thorn? Her mother’s constant drive to marry her off. She is constantly setting her up with men, the latest being the son of her best friend, Norman Rhodes D.D.S. Hannah has barely met him but is rude and judgmental toward him. She thinks he is a loser because he is a dentist and therefore must be obsessed with teeth. And he is horribly ugly because he is balding. How rude Hannah. Like you’re such a prize with your constant judging and criticizing people.

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Besides just because he is a dentist doesn’t mean that’s all he thinks about. For real girl you need to give him credit that he is a person with actual thoughts and feelings rather than thinking he is the dentist from Little Shop of Horrors.

And it’s not like he wants to be balding or can control it. Jeez, girl! I’m sure he wishes he has a full head of hair too.

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Anyways, it’s an average day for Hannah. She’s heading over to open her store and passes Ron LaSalle, a deliverer for the local dairy farm. Ron LaSalle is a loyal customer buying a box of cookies every morning.

Hannah also runs into her friend Claire, the owner of the fancy boutique shop and Hannah’s next-door business neighbor. Claire convinces Hannah to come over and shop for a dress, but Hannah doesn’t want to wear one. She is one of those cliché characters that hates dressing up/doesn’t realize how pretty they are/don’t understand why women act they way they do/etc. I’m really tired of that character and wish authors would stop writing it and do something new.

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Andrea, Hannah’s sister, comes by and drops her daughter off with Hannah while she gets her hair done. Now this is where I have a huuuuuuuuuuge problem. Andrea’s daughter Tracey is great in the later books but in this one she is only four but conversing like a twelve year old! Now I’ve known a lot of four-year olds, and even the precocious ones DO NOT speak that well. I don’t think this author has been around real children if she writes her that focused and well-behaved.

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Anyways, so Tracey saw Ron outside in his car and thinks it is weird. Hannah assumes that Ron is having car trouble and goes out to check when she discovers that he is dead!

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And not just dead but:

Murder

Ron was shot in the head.

Hannah’s brother-in-law, Andrea’s husband, is a deputy with the Sheriff’s department and is heading up the investigation. He gets Hannah’s statement, and while they are discussing what happened, Hannah realizes something important. Ron was behind schedule. This is really odd as Ron was a stickler for being on time.

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Bill then asks Hannah to help with the investigation, as he wants to solve the case and get promoted to detective.

Now here is where I have a huge problem again. There’s no way as a law enforcement he would ask for help in his investigation from a civilian! Come on!

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And to be honest, if he can’t solve it than he doesn’t deserve the promotion.

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He should be telling her not to investigate as she is a civilian.

Now I’m not saying that I do not want her to investigate, I love stories with amateurs, it’s just that there is no way a cop would ask a civilian for help. No way!

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Anyways, at a catering event at the school she discovers that when Ron dropped off the milk, he had a women with him. Apparently the school leaves coffee for him every morning, and when the secretary came to clean it up she found two cups, one of which had lipstick on it.

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Hannah and Bill set out to track it down, with Hannah finding it being sold by an Avon-like woman. There she discovers that the lipstick belongs to Danielle Watson.

Hannah meets up with Danielle later and discovers that she is a gambler going to Gambler’s Anonymous and that Ron was her sponsor. She received a check from her stocks and headed over the casino, running into Ron who was passing out GA flyers. He got her out of there, following her home to make sure she was safe, and the two went to his apartment to talk and make sure she didn’t give in again. He got up late and took Danielle with him on his deliveries.

Hannah also finds out that Ron had a toothache and was going to the dentist that day. She calls around seeing who worked on him, ending up with Norman Rhodes. She tries to ask him questions, but he refuses as he wants to see her in person to discuss everything.

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That afternoon Hannah finds herself being manipulated again, giving into Claire and purchasing the gown picked, planning on wearing it to the Woodley’s annual party.

So Hannah and Andrea head over to have lunch with Norman, Hannah planning on keeping his attention while Andrea snoops. Hannah discovers that Ron got his tooth taken care of , but even more interesting is that Norman is a funny, sweet, nice guy. She agrees to go with him to the Woodley party.

Hannah continues her investigations and discovers that Danielle’s husband Boyd has been dropping a lot of cash on glitzy gifts, too much for his job as a high school football coach. She also discovers that he was gone for the window of the murder. Could he be the killer?

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Hannah and Lisa decide to go investigate the casino where Ron was passing out GA flyers as he got into a fight with a bouncer. While there we get this long rant on how stupid gambling is and how Hannah doesn’t understand the drive for it. Or the superstitions that people have. Another cliché as guess who wins the grand prize, her of course. I understand not liking gambling or believing that one should do it, but not understanding the draw? Come on, everyone knows what draws people in, is the hope for winning!

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Then we get a flashback as Hannah reminisces about her and her sister’s lives growing up and how things changed when she went to college. Here is where we get the whole story of why Hannah left. She had a fling with her professor, only to discover that he didn’t love her but was actually engaged to be married, his fiancee walking in on them.

AAAAHHHHH

Hannah goes to the Woodley party and has a lot of fun with Norman. Unfortunately, Benton Woodley, son, heir, Andrea’s ex-boyfriend, and the bane of Hannah’s existence is back in town. He says he missed the small town experience and loves Lake Eden, but something is fishy to Hannah. He always hated being here before and swore never to come back.

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At the party, Hannah talks to the dairy secretary, Betty, to get more info on Ron and finds out that Max, the supervisor is missing. He was supposed to go to a convention and give a speech, but he never checked in and no one has seen or heard from him. Could Max have killed Ron for some reason and gone on the run?

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Hannah mentions Max to Norman and discovers he can’t stand the guy. It turns out that Norman’s father, who was also a dentist, needed money to get improvements for his practice but all the banks turned him down. Max lent him the money, if the Rhodes put their house up for collateral. The Rhodes took the deal and when they were only one payment away from owning their house, Max called in the full loan. Luckily, Norman was able to get a loan from a bank, which he gave his parents, who paid Max. But clearly Max was a shark up to no good. But, is he a killer?

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Hannah decides that of they can’t get the answers they need from Max, as no one can find him, that she is going to break into his house. Andrea comes with her and the two break into the garage first. There they find Max’s car, with everything needed for his trip to the convention. Odd, as that must mean he didn’t leave. They check his house but there is no sign of him. Hannah steals his keys and decides the two need to set out to check the dairy.

When they get to the dairy, they find nothing. Hannah has not given up yet and decides to check out the remains of the old dairy. The building was burned and rebuilt with only one section of the original left. They head over there and find Max…Dead

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They also find his stash of loans. This means someone killed him over it, but who? And how is Ron connected? Did he see something? Did he walk in on them?

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Thoughts After Reading:

I really didn’t enjoy this book at all. The characters were all bland and generic Midwestern clichés. The main character was annoying, judgmental, cocky, and rude.

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The police were incompetent, but what made it really sad was that they knew they were incompetent. I mean it is funny to see them match wits when the police officer is arogant and totally missing something, or, as in Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple; over time and succesful stream of solved mysteries they realize that this is someone much smarter and one they should work with. But when someone is incompetent and knows it, asking for help to get PROMOTED when they clearly stated before that they were not ready as THEY CAN’T DO IT ON THEIR OWN BUT NEED HELP FROM AN ENGLISH LIT AND COOKIE BAKER (that’s right, she doesn’t even read mystery novels, or teach psychology, or do something slightly relevant) it is just sad, just sad indeed.

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The mystery was extremely obvious as to what they answer is. Now it is one thing if you have a mystery where it is easily solved, but the characters are fun and adorable so you don’t care. This was neither, it was just a disappointment. And the recipes weren’t all that intriguing either.

This one was a stinker, but some of the later ones are actually really good. I guess you just have to decide how invested do you want to get.

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For the previous book review, go to The Emperor’s Edge

For more Midwestern mysteries, go to Fatally Frosted