Madam C.J. Walker by Erica L. Ball


Description

Madam C. J. Walker—reputed to be America’s first self-made woman millionaire—has long been celebrated for her rags-to-riches story. Born to former enslaved parents in the Louisiana Delta in the aftermath of the Civil War, married at fourteen, and widowed at twenty, Walker spent the first decades of her life as a laundress, laboring in conditions that paralleled the lives of countless poor and working-class African American women. By the time of her death in 1919, however, Walker had refashioned herself into one of the most famous African American figures in the nation: the owner and president of a hair-care empire and a philanthropist wealthy enough to own a country estate near the Rockefellers. In this biography, Erica Ball places this remarkable and largely forgotten life story in the context of Walker’s times.

I recently saw an episode of Antiques Roadshow where a Black stylist brought in a first edition of Madame CJ Walker’s Beauty Book published in 1920 and valued at $7500. The stylist commented that she still uses some of instructions found in the book. I thought that was interesting and reminded me that I have wanted to know more about Madame Walker. This book satisfied my curiosity.

Author Erica L. Ball is a professor of History and Black Studies at Occidental College and she has produced a scholarly and very readable biography of this multi-talented, complicated woman. Part of the Library of African-American Biography series, this offers a deep look into Walker’s life from her beginnings as Sarah Breedlove right through to her becoming the first Black millionaire in the United States.

Ball addresses the good and bad aspects of Walker’s life and ends up presenting a well-written, well-researched, fascinating look at an American icon. Recommended.

The Scorpion’s Tail by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child


Description

Following the acclaimed debut of Old Bones, this second “happily anticipated” new thriller in Preston & Child’s series features Nora Kelly, archaeologist at the Santa Fe Archeological Institute, and rookie FBI Agent Corrie Swanson, as they team up to solve a mystery that quickly escalates into nightmare (Booklist).

A mummified corpse, over half a century old, is found in the cellar of an abandoned building in a remote New Mexico ghost town. Corrie is assigned what seems to her a throwaway case: to ID the body and determine cause of death. She brings archaeologist Nora Kelly to excavate the body and lend her expertise to the investigation, and together they uncover something unexpected and shocking: the deceased apparently died in agony, in a fetal position, skin coming off in sheets, with a rictus of horror frozen on his face.

Hidden on the corpse lies a 16th century Spanish gold cross of immense value. When they at last identify the body — and the bizarre cause of death — Corrie and Nora open a door into a terrifying, secret world of ancient treasure and modern obsession: a world centered on arguably the most defining, frightening, and transformative moment in American history.

Preston and Child have done it again. Here’s another tautly plotted, adventuresome tale featuring super-cool characters, fascinating archaeological work, and the gorgeous scenery of the American Southwest. I really enjoy the friendship the authors are building between the archaeologist and the FBI agent. Two strong women surviving in fields dominated by men and successfully solving the crimes!

I really, really, really hope the next book finds Nora having left her post and taken a whole bunch of donors with her!

Mystical Stitches by Christi Johnson


Description

Hand embroidery can be a joyous respite from busy daily life. It is an exploration of material, an invitation to slow down, and it allows time for contemplation. Mystical Stitches combines this beloved and accessible craft with a spiritual element, introducing nearly 200 original designs for different symbols readers can use to create personal icons to wear or embellish items in the home. Christi Johnson offers patterns inspired by botanicals, animals, numbers, the cosmos, earth elements, and mythological icons for novice or well-practiced crafters to combine into talismans with personal meaning. Johnson’s folk art style is vibrant and unintimidating and provides a framework for bringing spiritual elements into physical form. In addition to basic techniques, an overview of material options, and an illustrated encyclopedia of stitches, the extensive treasury of symbols is lavishly photographed in hand-stitched, full-color spreads that will inspire readers to create personalized designs to stitch on clothes, hang on the wall, place on an altar, carry with them, or display in a place of prominence.

As a new, self-taught and still learning stitcher, I am interested in learning not just the stitches themselves, but the meaning behind them. Johnson delivers that and more in this fascinating look at shapes, colors, and stitches commonly used throughout history in needlework and art.

Johnson connects to the resurgence of the old crafts and provides historical as well as personal information about stitchery, connecting it to nature and the universe. Her writing style is chatty and colloquial, which appealed to me, and the depth of her knowledge is unmatched.

Reviewing books that rely heavily on illustrations is always tricky in a digital copy on a tablet because formatting is usually all messed up. However, the images come through crisp and clear, for both the stitches and full color photos of projects.

This is one I will definitely buy in print form. Recommended.

Publication Date: June 22, 2021
Published By: Storey Publishing LLC
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Marion Lane & the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg


Description

“This is the most fun I’ve had with a book this year. Every page is a delight and the mystery got its hooks into me from the first chapter.” – Stuart Turton, bestselling author of The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder plunges readers into the heart of London, to the secret tunnels that exist far beneath the city streets. There, a mysterious group of detectives recruited for Miss Brickett’s Investigations & Inquiries use their cunning and gadgets to solve crimes that have stumped Scotland Yard.

Late one night in April 1958, a filing assistant at Miss Brickett’s receives a letter of warning, detailing a name, a time, and a place. She goes to investigate but finds the room empty. At the stroke of midnight, she is murdered by a killer she can’t see—her death the only sign she wasn’t alone. It becomes chillingly clear that the person responsible must also work for Miss Brickett’s, making everyone a suspect.

Marion Lane, a first-year Inquirer-in-training, finds herself drawn ever deeper into the investigation. When her friend and colleague is framed for the crime, to clear his name she must sort through the hidden alliances at Miss Brickett’s and secrets dating back to WWII. Masterful, clever and deliciously suspenseful, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder is a fresh take on the Agatha Christie-style locked-room murder mystery, with an exciting new heroine detective.

What a treat! This first in what I hope will be a series of books about apprentice Inquirer Marion Lane is pure fun and packed with gadgetry, espionage, camaraderie, and just great storytelling. With nods to multiple genre types across formats, Willberg crafts a story that engages the reader from the first few pages and keeps you enthralled to the very last page. At the heart of this is one of the most interesting and admirable female protagonists I’ve come across in a long time. Marion Lane is a character for the ages and one who I hope is destined for many more adventures.

I’ll be recommending this one…a lot!

Two New Elly Griffiths This Spring!


Elly Griffiths is one of my current go-to mystery authors. I first read her Ruth Galloway series which features a free-spirited, independent forensic archaeologist who becomes involved with a gruff police investigator in Norwich England. The blend of archaeology and history with detective work is fascinating, and the Griffiths has skillfully developed the characters over the course of 23 books. Her newest, Night Hawks, is set for release in June.

Ruth is back as head of archaeology at the University of North Norfolk when a group of local metal detectorists—the so-called Night Hawks—uncovers Bronze Age artifacts on the beach, alongside a recently deceased body, just washed ashore. Not long after, the same detectorists uncover a murder-suicide—a scientist and his wife found at their farmhouse, long thought to be haunted by the Black Shuck, a humongous black dog, a harbinger of death. The further DCI Nelson probes into both cases, the more intertwined they become, and the closer they circle to David Brown, the new lecturer Ruth has recently hired, who seems always to turn up wherever Ruth goes.

I constantly recommend this series to people looking for a mystery series that isn’t twee-cozy but also isn’t full of horrifying, gory details. Griffiths has had some ups and downs over the series, but Night Hawks is one of her very best. Ruth, Nelson, and the King’s Lynn gang are back and in good form. The murder mysteries are, as usual, cleverly plotted and offered up in the author’s witty style. The thing that I appreciate the most about this series is that the characters always experience some sort of growth. They are not frozen in time, like Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury. Griffiths has finally found a good balance of the personal storylines of the characters, the forensic archaeology, and the crime and knits all of it together here along with some tantalizing local folklore into an un-put-downable story.

Griffiths has also started a new series featuring DS Harbinder Kaur, a little more gritty than the Ruth Galloway series and just as inventive.

In The Postscript Murders, the death of a ninety-year-old woman with a heart condition should not be suspicious. Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur certainly sees nothing out of the ordinary when Peggy’s caretaker, Natalka, begins to recount Peggy Smith’s passing. But Natalka had a reason to be suspicious: while clearing out Peggy’s flat, she noticed an unusual number of crime novels, all dedicated to Peggy. And each psychological thriller included a mysterious postscript: PS: for PS. When a gunman breaks into the flat to steal a book and its author is found dead shortly thereafter—Detective Kaur begins to think that perhaps there is no such thing as an unsuspicious death after all. And then things escalate: from an Aberdeen literary festival to the streets of Edinburgh, writers are being targeted. DS Kaur embarks on a road trip across Europe and reckons with how exactly authors can think up such realistic crimes . . .

Griffiths has cemented herself on my bookshelves as an author of favor. This new entry in the Harbinder Kaur series is one of the best I’ve read in awhile. The plot is fascinating and just twisty enough that I did not see the final revelation coming. Griffiths loves quirky but endearing characters, and the trio of amateur detectives here is just a delight. Edwin, especially, made me laugh and admire his pluckiness despite his age; Natalka and Benny are sweet and salty – a winning combination.

I really, really, really want to see one of Griffiths’ series filmed for BBC, and Harbinder Kaur might just be it! I always recommend Elly Griffiths books for people looking for a not-too-gory but not-too-cozy mystery, and these will be at the top of my recommendation lists in 2021.

Cozy Mysteries for a Cold Weekend


There’s nothing quite like an unseasonably cold weekend to make you want to settle into a comfortable chair with a hot beverage and a cozy mystery. There are plenty of them out there – mysteries that feature cooking, antiques, genealogy, libraries, and so many other topics.

Here’s a new one by an author I turn to when I need something clever but light: Deadly Editions by Paige Shelton who writes several cozy series. This one is part of her Scottish Bookshop series and features a Midwestern woman transplanted to Edinburgh and a used book shop. The Scottish Bookshop series is like candy for me, and each one is sweeter than the one before. Delaney, Tom, Aggie, Elias, Rosie, Edwin, and Hamlet are back for more mysterious and deadly shenanigans in the heart of Edinburgh. The mystery here is a treasure hunt involving a priceless copy of The Strange Case of Dr.. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Delaney finds herself smack in the middle of another bookish mystery. The writing is sassy and casual, the characters are like old friends, making this book a winner for me. I keep recommending Paige Shelton to mystery readers, and this one will be no different. Published 4/6/21 so should be in libraries and bookstores.

Coming in May is a new entry in the Witch City cozy series by Carol Perry. Featuring TV news reporter Maralee “Lee” Barrett and set in Salem Massachusetts, this whimsical series includes some of the expected Salem witchy elements but also a set of memorable newsroom characters and a group of retired ladies who thoroughly enjoy a good mystery. See Something is another solid entry in the Witch City series. Lee and Pete are up to their necks in a new, intriguing mystery while also adjusting to some changes in their personal lives. One of the things I really like about this series is that Perry allows the characters to grow and move through their lives instead of keeping everything the same and just overlaying the mystery onto a pre-determined story. In this entry, we see Lee moving on with her career, Aunt Ibby & the “Angels” making progress on their detective work, and Pete making the biggest move of all. Combined with a cracking good mystery, this one will give you a few hours of entertainment

The Avery Ayers Antique Mystery series debuts in June 2021 with Ruby Red Herring by Tracy Gardner. After her parents’ deaths, Avery Ayers takes over the family business, Antiquities & Artifacts Appraised, from the home office in Lilac Grove and a branch in Manhattan. Now living back at home with her younger sister Tilly and their newly moved-in, eccentric Aunt Midge and her Afghan hound, Avery’s life is filled with jewels, tapestries, paintings, and rare finds. But their world is rocked when Avery learns that the theft of a priceless ruby may be connected to her parents’ demise. Perfect to tuck into your bag for a vacation getaway, this charming cozy mystery will help you pass a couple hours with your feet up. The plot will appeal to people interested in antiques and jewelry and the characters will appeal to fans of cozy mysteries and mystery/romances. Nothing unusual or special, but still a lot of fun.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston


New York Times bestseller! Artemis Fowl meets Men in Black in this exhilarating debut middle grade fantasy, the first in a trilogy filled with #blackgirlmagic. Perfect for fans of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, the Percy Jackson series, and Nevermoor.

Amari Peters has never stopped believing her missing brother, Quinton, is alive. Not even when the police told her otherwise, or when she got in trouble for standing up to bullies who said he was gone for good.

So when she finds a ticking briefcase in his closet, containing a nomination for a summer tryout at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she’s certain the secretive organization holds the key to locating Quinton—if only she can wrap her head around the idea of magicians, fairies, aliens, and other supernatural creatures all being real.

Now she must compete for a spot against kids who’ve known about magic their whole lives. No matter how hard she tries, Amari can’t seem to escape their intense doubt and scrutiny—especially once her supernaturally enhanced talent is deemed “illegal.” With an evil magician threatening the supernatural world, and her own classmates thinking she’s an enemy, Amari has never felt more alone. But if she doesn’t stick it out and pass the tryouts, she may never find out what happened to Quinton.

I haven’t been this excited about a debut fantasy book for kids since I read the Sorcerer’s Stone ARC way back in 1997. Amari & the Night Brothers is the first in what I hope will be a long-running series featuring a young Black girl and her brother, who are magical investigators. While Quinton, the brother, is a super-talented investigator, it’s Amari who is the magician and has the most power. What a powerful message to send to girls.

When we first meet Amari, she’s confused, worried, angry, and sad for many reasons. She is targeted and bullied at school, her mother works too hard, and her brother has mysteriously disappeared. Like the boy living in the cupboard under the stairs, Amari discovers a whole new, magical world where she suddenly finds power, acceptance, and friendship – qualities that appear again and again in this story.

The author imbues Amari with integrity and loyalty, two traits that help her adjust to life at “camp” and help her through the trials she experiences there. B.B. Alston has captured the magic of a young girl starting to grow up and grow into herself.

Amari is set to become a new and improved Harry Potter for girls and boys who found a hero on the screen in Black Panther. I’ll be buying copies of this and handing them out liberally.

Author Spotlight – G.A. Brandt


Gary G.A. Brandt grew up in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State, where he played sports, attended various colleges, and received several degrees while raising a family in Rochester, New York and Sarasota, Florida. Brandt worked in the private sector, started and ran his own company, served in the public sector as an elected official and a manager, and worked as an instructor and administrator in higher education. He coached men’s and women’s ice hockey at the high school and college levels, winning a few championships over the years. He is a poet and a published writer in local media and has just published his first novel: As Beautiful As This.

You’ve recently published As Beautiful As This, a story about loyalty & duty to country, self, and family.  What led you to write this book? 

I wrote this story because it has lived in my head and heart for years and many of the parts of this book I lived, personally, and with and through relatives and friends. One cannot have grown up in the post WWII culture of the ’50s as a kid, the ’60s as a student and the ’70s as a young adult, and if you were paying attention, not be deeply impacted by the events in your family, in your relationships and in our institutions. But the most important and the most emotional meaningful event was that my best friend, a U.S. Marine, was killed in action in Vietnam. Both our fathers had been in WWII. He quit college to join the Marines and I stayed in school. I have had the sorrow of losing him inside me for decades. We had planned to be the best man in each others’ weddings. I needed to liberate all that pent-up emotion by writing this story.

How do you build your characters? Do you base them on real people, on bits and pieces of real people, or are they completely fictional? 

All the characters in my book are composite characters of people that I have known, loved and in a few cases, despised. I was careful to not be too specific of who they were from my past, but I know that I was as kind as I could be, but still making their best, and in a few cases, their worst points, evident for the reader.

What was your publishing process like?

The publishing process can be quite overwhelming. I am fortunate. My wife is a retired journalist and she had already written and published three non-fiction books, so for me it was “knock on the door to her office down the hall in our house with any questions.”

Describe a typical writing day for you.

Ha ha ha, we all know that there is no typical writing day. For me I use two rules to write: a.) “don’t go down the rabbit hole” which means don’t start doing just a “little thing” because it always turns out bigger and then eats up your writing time, and b.) I use the Stephen King “AIC” maxim, which is to get my “ass in chair” and start writing.

Who are some of your favorite authors and/or books?

I love Paul Theroux, Robert MacNeil (of PBS Newshour fame), Kenneth Roberts, Jill Ker Conway, Pat Conroy and David Halberstam. My five favorite books are “Dark Star Africa”(Theroux), “Northwest Passage”(Roberts), “The Road from Coorain”(Ker Conway), “The Right Place at the Right Time” (MacNeil) and “The Prince of Tides (Conroy).”

What things influence your writing?

Kindness, moral ambiguity, love and the teamwork best exhibited in athletics, compassionate business associates and the military.

Where do you stand on the oxford comma? My readers want to know! 

The same as I feel about a guy wearing a bow tie: “it you like it, wear it,” “your tie, your rules.”

What do you want readers to experience when they read your work? 

I hope a reader will do two things: a.) understand the issues in the story, and b.) relate to the humanness in the characters. This is where your editor comes in to play the key role in completing a book. It has been said that a writer builds a structure (book) and in building it the writer also puts up scaffolding around the structure to work on it. The editor’s job is to take down all the writer’s scaffolding and expose the finished building/structure for people to see, read, admire.

As Beautiful As This is centered on the Vietnam conflict. Do you have personal experience with that period of history?

Yes. It consumed my youth in questions of war, peace, family, friends, public policy and religious values. And in some ways, it still does. Wars have no end, just all the people who were part of it die away.

What kind of research do you conduct for your books? 

The research depends on the central issues that I write about. In this book, I did extensive research on the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Most of the other events or details in the book came from my life, e.g. I did go to Melvin Belli’s office in San Francisco, and I did stay in the Stinson Beach house that Janice Joplin once rented, and I have spent much time in Toronto and Cape Cod, and I have owned a sailboat.

If you are an author and would like to be featured here, please contact me at patricia.uttaro @ gmail(dot)com.

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner


A forgotten history. A secret network of women. A legacy of poison and revenge.

Hidden in the depths of eighteenth-century London, a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo through the centuries.

Meanwhile in present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, running from her own demons. When she stumbles upon a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that haunted London two hundred years ago, her life collides with the apothecary’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

With crackling suspense, unforgettable characters and searing insight, The Lost Apothecary is a subversive and intoxicating debut novel of secrets, vengeance and the remarkable ways women can save each other despite the barrier of time. -From the Publisher

It’s been awhile since a story intrigued me like this one. The juxtaposed stories of the apothecary in the 17th century and the woman in the 21st century blend really nicely, although I will confess I was more interested in the apothecary’s story and the action taking place there.

The 21st century characters are definitely of the time – a little whiny, self-absorbed, and feeling unfulfilled – while the 17th century characters seem to pop. I definitely got the feeling the author enjoyed writing the apothecary’s story more! Nella and Eliza, and even the Lady Clarence, blaze off the page, while I was left with little sympathy for our modern day characters.

Overall, though, this is a captivating and fast-paced story that will appeal to fans of historical fiction.

Publication Date: March 2, 2021
Published By: Park Row
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Turncoat’s Widow by Mally Becker

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The Turncoat's Widow by Mally Becker Banner

The Turncoat’s Widow

by Mally Becker

February 22 – March 19, 2021 Tour

Synopsis:

The Turncoat's Widow by Mally Becker

Recently widowed, Rebecca Parcell is too busy struggling to maintain her farm in Morristown to care who wins the War for Independence. But rumors are spreading in 1780 that she’s a Loyalist sympathizer who betrayed her husband to the British—quite a tidy way to end her disastrous marriage, the village gossips whisper.

Everyone knows that her husband was a Patriot, a hero who died aboard a British prison ship moored in New York Harbor. But “everyone” is wrong. Parcell was a British spy, and General Washington – who spent two winters in Morristown – can prove it. He swears he’ll safeguard Becca’s farm if she unravels her husband’s secrets. With a mob ready to exile her or worse in the winter of 1780, it’s an offer she can’t refuse.

Escaped British prisoner of war Daniel Alloway was the last person to see Becca’s husband alive, and Washington throws this unlikely couple together on an espionage mission to British-occupied New York City. Moving from glittering balls to an underworld of brothels and prisons, Becca and Daniel uncover a plot that threatens the new country’s future. But will they move quickly enough to warn General Washington? And can Becca, who’s lost almost everyone she loves, fight her growing attraction to Daniel, a man who always moves on?

Fans of historical fiction will certainly enjoy this gripping tale of intrigue, betrayal, and romance. While I am no American Revolution scholar, the author seems to have done her research and has presented a story true to the time, peopled with characters who both appeal and repel. The storytelling is skillful, and the author builds suspense while keeping a secret right till the end.

There are a lot of characters to keep track of, which might deter a casual reader. However, the action involving the main characters remains constant and can easily keep a reader engaged. This could also appeal to upper level middle school and high school readers.

Recommended.

Praise for The Turncoat’s Widow

The Turncoat’s Widow has it all. A sizzling romance, meticulous research, and an exhilarating adventure. Becca Parcell is too independent for both 18th-century Morristown and her feckless English husband. Her individual plight when she is pressed into service as an unwilling spy after her husband’s death reflects the larger situation of colonists during the American Revolution, whose lives were upended by a political fight they cared nothing about. Becker balances the ruthlessness of George Washington and the underhanded charm of Alexander Hamilton with the excesses of the British, as part of a detailed picture of how the colonies were governed during a war that was far from a simple fight between two opposing nations. But historical exactitude is balanced by dashing romance between Becca and Daniel Alloway, the escaped prisoner charged with protecting her, and plot full of bold escapes and twists. A great series debut. I can’t wait for the next installment.
– Erica Obey, author, Dazzle Paint (coming 02/2021), The Curse of the Braddock Brides, and The Horseman’s Word.

An exciting Revolutionary-era thriller with a twisty mystery, great characters, and historical accuracy to boot.
– Eleanor Kuhns,author of the Will Rees mysteries

The Turncoat’s Widow reminds readers that treachery from within and without to our republic were real, and those early days for American independence from the British were fragile, the patriot cause, unpopular. This is a rousing debut novel with insights into the hardships of colonial life, the precarious place of women in society, while giving fans of historical fiction a tale with suspense, surprises, and anoutspoken and admirable heroine in Becca Parcell. Mally Becker is an author to watch.
– Gabriel Valjan, Agatha and Anthony-nominated author of The Naming Game

Book Details:

Genre: Historical Suspense / Mystery
Published by: Level Best Books
Publication Date: February 16, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-953789-27-3
Purchase Links: Amazon || Goodreads

Read an excerpt:

Chapter One

Morristown – January 1780

There was a nervous rustling in the white-washed meeting house, a disturbance of air like the sound of sparrows taking wing.

Becca Parcell peered over the balcony’s rough, wood railing, blinking away the fog of half-sleep. She had been dreaming of the figures in her account book and wondering whether there would be enough money for seed this spring.

“I didn’t hear what ….” she whispered to Philip’s mother.

Lady Augusta Georgiana Stokes Parcell, known simply as Lady Augusta, covered Becca’s hand with her own. “Philip. They’re speaking of Philip.”

Becca couldn’t tell whether it was her hand or Augusta’s that trembled.

“The Bible says, if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee, does it not?” The preacher’s voice was soft, yet it carried to every corner of the congregation. “They’re here. Amongst us. Neighbors who toast the King behind closed doors. Neighbors with no love of liberty.”

Philip was a Patriot. He had died a hero. Everyone knew. Minister Townsend couldn’t be talking about him.

The minister raised his eyes to hers. With his long thin arms and legs and round belly, he reminded her of a spider. She twisted her lips into the semblance of a smile as if to say “you don’t scare me.” But he did.

“Which of your neighbors celebrates each time a Patriot dies?” Townsend’s voice rose like smoke to the rafters, took on strength and caught fire. “Their presence here is an abomination.” He rapped the podium with a flat palm, the sound bruising in the quiet church. “Then cast them out. Now.”

Men pounded the floor with their feet.

Becca flinched. It wouldn’t take much to tip the congregation into violence. Everyone had lost someone or something to this endless war. It had been going on for almost five years.

Townsend’s thin arm rose, pointing to her.

Becca’s breath caught.

“And what of widows like Mrs. Parcell? Left alone, no longer guided by the wise direction of their husbands.”

Guided? Becca pulled her hand from Augusta’s. She rubbed her thumb along the palm of her hand, feeling the rough calluses stamped there. She had learned the rhythm of the scythe at the end of the summer, how to twist and swing low until her hands were so stiff that she’d struggle to free them from the handle. She’d fallen into a dreamless sleep each night during the harvest too exhausted even to dream of Philip. She, Augusta and their servant Annie were doing just fine.

“He hardly slept at home, as I hear it,” a woman behind her sniffed to a neighbor.

Becca’s spine straightened.

“No wonder there were no babes,” the second woman murmured.

Becca twisted and nodded a smile to Mrs. Huber and Mrs. Harrington. Their mouths pursed into surprised tight circles. She’d heard them murmur, their mouths hidden by fluttering fans: About her lack of social graces; her friendship with servants; her awkward silence in company. “What else could you expect from her?” they would say, snapping shut their fans.

Relief washed through Becca, nonetheless. This was merely the old gossip, not the new rumors.

“Some of you thought Mr. Parcell was just another smuggler.” The pastor’s voice boomed.

A few in the congregation chuckled. It was illegal to sell food to the British in New York – the “London Trade” some called it — but most turned a blind eye. Even Patriots need hard currency to live, Becca recalled Philip saying.

“He only married her for the dowry,” Mrs. Huber hissed.

Becca’s hand curved into a fist.

Augusta cleared her throat, and Becca forced herself to relax.

“Perhaps some of you thought Mr. Parcell was still a Tory,” the minister said.

The chuckling died.

“He came to his senses, though. He was, after all, one of us,” Minister Townsend continued.

One of us. Invitations from the finer families had trickled away after Philip’s death.

“We all know his story,” Townsend continued. “He smuggled whiskey into New York City. And what a perfect disguise his aristocratic roots provided.” The minister lifted his nose in the air as if mimicking a dandy.
“The British thought he was one of them, at least until the end.” The minister’s voice swooped as if telling a story around a campfire. “He brought home information about the British troops in the City.”

Becca shifted on the bench. She hadn’t known about her husband’s bravery until after his death. It had baffled her. Philip never spoke of politics.

Townsend lifted one finger to his chin as if he had a new thought. “But who told the British where Mr. Parcell would be on the day he was captured? Who told the Redcoats that Mr. Parcell was a spy for independence?”

Becca forgot to breathe. He wouldn’t dare.

“It must have been someone who knew him well.” The minister’s gaze moved slowly through the congregation and came to rest on Becca. His eyes were the color of creosote, dark and burning. “Very, very well.”
Mrs. Coddington, who sat to Becca’s left, pulled the hem of her black silk gown close to avoid contact. Men in the front pews swiveled and stared.

“I would never. I didn’t.” Becca’s corset gouged her ribcage.

“Speak up, Mrs. Parcell. We can’t hear you,” the minister said in a singsong voice.

Townsend might as well strip her naked before the entire town. Respectable women didn’t speak in public. He means to humiliate me.

“Stand up, Mrs. Parcell.” His voice boomed. “We all want to hear.”

She didn’t remember standing. But there she was, the fingers of her right hand curled as it held the hunting bow she’d used since she was a child. Becca turned back to the minister. “Hogwash.” If they didn’t think she was a lady, she need not act like one. “Your independence is a wickedly unfair thing if it lets you accuse me without proof.”

Gasps cascaded throughout the darkening church.

From the balcony, where slaves and servants sat, she heard two coughs, explosive as gun fire. She twisted. Carl scowled down at her in warning. His white halo of hair, fine as duckling feathers, seemed to stand on end. He had worked for her father and helped to raise her. He had taught her numbers and mathematics. She couldn’t remember life without him.

“Accuse? Accuse you of what, Mrs. Parcell?” The minister opened his arms to the congregation. “What have we accused you of?”

Becca didn’t feel the chill now. “Of killing my husband. If this is what your new nation stands for – neighbors accusing neighbors, dividing us with lies – I’ll have none of it. “Five years into this endless war, is anyone better off for Congress’ Declaration of Independence? Independence won’t pay for food. It won’t bring my husband home.”

It was as if she’d burst into flames. “What has the war brought any of us? Heartache, is all. Curse your independence. Curse you for ….”

Augusta yanked on Becca’s gown with such force that she teetered, then rocked back onto the bench.

The church erupted in shouts, a crashing wave of sound meant to crush her.

Becca’s breath came in short puffs. What had she done?

“Now that’s just grief speaking, gentlemen. Mrs. Parcell is still mourning her husband. No need to get worked up.” The voice rose from the front row. She recognized Thomas Lockwood’s slow, confident drawl.
She craned her neck to watch Thomas, with his wheat-colored hair and wide shoulders. His broad stance reminded her of a captain at the wheel. He was a gentleman, a friend of General Washington. They’ll listen to him, she thought.

“Our minister doesn’t mean to accuse Mrs. Parcell of anything, now do you, sir?”

The two men stared at each other. A minister depended on the good will of gentlemen like Thomas Lockwood.
The pastor blinked first. He shook his head.

Becca’s breathing slowed.

“There now. As I said.” Lockwood’s voice calmed the room.

Then Mr. Baldwin stood slowly. Wrinkles crisscrossed his cheeks. He’d sent his three boys to fight with the Continental Army in ’75. Only one body came home to be buried. The other two were never found. He pointed at Becca with fingers twisted by arthritis. “Mrs. Parcell didn’t help when the women raised money for the soldiers last month.”

A woman at the end of Becca’s pew sobbed quietly. It was Mrs. Baldwin.

“You didn’t invite me.” Becca searched the closed faces for proof that someone believed her.

“Is she on our side or theirs?” another woman called.

The congregation quieted again. But it was the charged silence between two claps of thunder, and the Assembly waited for a fresh explosion in the dim light of the tired winter afternoon.

With that, Augusta’s imperious voice sliced through the silence: “Someone help my daughter-in-law. She’s not well. I believe she’s about to faint.”

Becca might be rash, but she wasn’t stupid, and she knew a command when she heard one. She shut her eyes and fell gracelessly into the aisle. Her head and shoulder thumped against the rough pine floorboards.

Mrs. Coddington gasped. So did Becca, from the sharp pain in her cheek and shoulder.

Women in the surrounding rows scooted back in surprise, their boots shuffling with a shh-shh sound.

“Lady Augusta,” Mrs. Coddington huffed.

Independence be damned. All of Morristown seemed to enjoy using Augusta’s family title, her former title, as often as possible.

“Lady Augusta,” she repeated. “I’ve had my suspicions about that girl since the day she married your son. I don’t know why you haven’t sent her back to her people.”

“She has no ‘people,’ Mrs. Coddington. She has me,” Augusta’s voice was as frosty as the air in the church. “And if I had doubts about Rebecca, do you think I’d live with her?”

Becca imagined Augusta’s raised eyebrows, her delicate lifted chin. She couldn’t have borne it if her mother-in-law believed the minister’s lies.

Augusta’s featherlight touch stroked her forehead. “Well done,” she murmured. “Now rise slowly. And don’t lean on me. I might just topple over.”

“We are eager to hear the rest of the service on this Sabbath day, Minister Townsend. Do continue,” Thomas Lockwood called.

Becca stood, her petite mother-in-law’s arm around her waist. The parishioners at the edges of the aisles averted their eyes as the two women passed.

As they stepped into the stark, brittle daylight, one last question shred the silence they left behind: “Do you think she turned her husband over to the British?”

Someone else answered. “It must be true. Everyone says so.

***

Excerpt from The Turncoat’s Widow by Mally Becker. Copyright 2021 by Mally Becker. Reproduced with permission from Mally Becker. All rights reserved.

 

 

Author Bio:

Mally Becker

Mally Becker is a writer whose historical suspense novel, The Turncoat’s Widow, will be published in February 2021 by Level Best Books. She was born in Brooklyn and began her professional career in New York City as a publicist and freelance magazine writer, then moved on, becoming an attorney and, later, an advocate for children in foster care.

As a volunteer, she used her legal background to create a digest of letters from US Supreme Court Justices owned by the Morristown National Park. That’s where she found a copy of an indictment for the Revolutionary War crime of traveling from New Jersey to New York City “without permission or passport.” It led her to the idea for her story.

A winner of the Leon B. Burstein/MWA-NY Scholarship for Mystery Writing, Mally lives with her husband in the wilds of New Jersey where they hike, kayak, look forward to visits from their son, and poke around the region’s historical sites.

Catch Up With Mally Becker On:
www.MallyBecker.com
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Instagram – @mallybeckerwrites
Twitter – @mally_becker
Facebook – Mally Baumel Becker

 

 

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