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  • Writer's pictureFive Directions Press

Books We Loved, July 2021

Linda Browning, It Otter Be a Crime (Amazon, 2021)

If you enjoyed the Emmy-award-winning The Golden Girls TV series back in the day, then you are in for a treat. Browning’s newest Leslie & Belinda Mystery is narrated by Leslie Barrett (who has narrated the other novels in Browning’s Leslie & Belinda Mystery series), a spunky seventy-year-old widow who enjoys sleuthing in her free time, which she has plenty of—too much, some might say. Her sidekick and best friend Belinda accompanies her, as does Leslie’s yappy little dog, Riff Raff. In this latest installment, Leslie and Belinda, who live in nearby units in a senior residence neighborhood in Tennessee, take off in the early chapters on a mercy mission to rescue a child they believe was inside an inflatable bounce house when the wind picked it up from the local fairgrounds and sent it flying. Since it landed in the community lake, they drove to the adjoining marina and got someone to take them out in a boat. As it turns out, the child they thought they were rescuing had exited the bounce house before it blew away … so their heroic mission moment is initially bashed. But when Leslie accidentally falls into the lake and Belinda dives in to rescue her, they make another discovery, one that appears to indicate a serious crime.

As in the The Golden Girls series, there is a lot of fun here. Leslie and Belinda are aided in their sleuthing by Mrs. Towers, who is eighty, and Mrs. Towers’ nurse, who must always accompany her, and Mrs. Towers’ little yappy dog. Since Leslie and Belinda have solved previous mysteries, the local Investigative Bureau people already know them and will do almost anything to keep them out of their hair—including sending them on what they think will be a wild goose chase. But unlike The Golden Girls, which dealt mostly with domestic issues, It Otter Be a Crime has a sound mystery plot, which—all the antics aside—keeps the reader turning pages.—JS

Rivka Galchen, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021).

Katharina has been accused by a hysterical and jealous neighbor of being a witch. Katharina says, of course, that she isn’t one, but her meddling, sharp-tongued, and unsolicited advice all over town—and her unnatural affection for her cow—aren’t gaining her any local support in post-Reformation Germany.

Her daughter-in-law, Gertie, scours the broadsheets for salacious and disaster-mongering news (Internet-scrolling, anyone?), giving her updates on the latest in tortures and executions of other accused witches; and her son-in-law, a preacher who has a bromide for everything and trouble hanging on to a congregation, would just as soon not have her in the house, because folks will talk.

Her children, though, do stick with her: her younger, hot-tempered son gives her bad advice (though to his credit he stays with her all the way, giving more and more bad advice as he goes); her brilliant misfit of an eldest son, Hans, mounts her defense while wondering if he’ll ever get paid for his inventions; and her daughter, the always-smiling Greta, gets to live happily ever after. The next-door neighbor stands by her, writing her story for her (Katharina can’t read or write) until, well, you know how it is …

This is a fable for our time, cloaked in a funny, sad, fascinating historical portrayal of the witch hunts of Germany in the early 1500s. It’s hard to describe the appeal, but you’ll find yourself shaking your head, laughing out loud, and OMG-ing through the whole thing.—CHL

Jessica Barksdale Inclán, The Play’s the Thing (TouchPoint Press, 2021)

One evening, Jessica Randall is doing her best to stay focused on a dreadful amateur production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, while flirting with her fellow English professor, Dan Gordon. She allows herself a brief escape—only to end up in an Elizabethan theater, watching an original performance of the play with (as she realizes only later) the Bard himself in the role of Shylock. She stumbles out of that setting and back into her seat in the twenty-first-century auditorium, but later that evening, turned somnolent by student essays and one too many glasses of wine, Jessica finds herself locked in what turns out to be William Shakespeare’s cupboard. When he at last deigns to unlock the door, he informs her that she is the latest among hundreds of screaming Jessicas who have been making his life hell for months.

Will assures Jessica that she will soon vanish into the ether and return whence she came. She’s convinced it’s an elaborate dream, but when dawn arrives, she is still in 1598, Will is asleep on the mattress next to her, and she can hear rats rustling under the filthy straw. Perhaps it’s not a dream after all. At that point, to keep herself sane on the off-chance that she can’t find a way home, Jessica decides she’d better apply her knowledge of the future to clean up Shakespeare, his rooms, and her own act before those rats in the corner give them both bubonic plague.

Barksdale Inclán, herself a former English professor, explores Jessica’s dilemma with a deliciously light touch. The dialogue sparkles, Jessica’s struggles and flaws never fail to ring true, and the contrast between her unmistakably modern views and Will Shakespeare’s Elizabethan take on life are simultaneously revealing and thought-provoking. The novel is, in every respect, a fun read. It will stay with you long after you reach the end. As to why the character and her author have the same name, you can find out from Barksdale Inclán’s interview at New Books in Historical Fiction.—CPL

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