Sunday, April 14, 2013

By the Howling (e-novella) by Olivia Stowe

By the Howling is a cozy mystery published by Cyberworld Publishing. All Romance Ebooks says it's 26,132 words long.

Synopsis:

Retired, divorced, and newly-moved to a small village, Charlotte thinks her crime-solving days are over. She gets involved in as many activities as possible (including becoming mayor of the village) in the hope of keeping her mind from stagnating, and she enjoys frequent visits from Sam, her neighbor's friendly husky.

Then life becomes a little more complicated. Brenda, a famous former actress, moves to the village. Susan, one of the village's more annoying residents, is missing and may have been murdered. And several people, including Charlotte, believe they may have had valuables stolen from them.

Review:

I bought this back when I was looking for non-skeevy f/f books. The description sounded promising, more focused on the mystery than on the main character jumping into bed with another woman. Now that I've finished it, I can say that the f/f aspects are pretty light. I think Charlotte has sex maybe once, but you can't even call it a sex scene, because it's completely skipped over.

When I first started reading this, I thought I was going to really like it. Charlotte was relatively new to the village, so I looked forward to seeing her inadvertently (or on purpose) stir up some trouble just by not knowing where all the eggshells were located. She was divorced and retired and, although she didn't really miss either her job or her husband, she worried that dementia might set in if she didn't fill her days with activities to keep her mind sharp. One of those activities was sailing. Another one of those activities was occasionally taking care of Sam, her neighbor's husky, because Susan, Sam's temporary caretaker, could barely be bothered to do anything for him. The sailing scenes were okay, but I loved the scenes with Charlotte and Sam. He was a sweetie.

Unfortunately, there were a lot of things about this novella that didn't work for me, annoyed me, or confused me.

One of the things that annoyed me was how long it took to find out exactly what Charlotte's job used to be. I understood why she kept it a secret from the villagers, but was it really necessary to keep readers in the dark too? Yes, it's mentioned in the book's description that she used to be an FBI investigator, but those who, like me, didn't bother to reread the description before starting the novella only found out exactly what her job was at the 57.7% mark. Prior to that, readers were left to assume what villagers like Rachel assumed, that she used to be a cop.

The 57.7% mark was also when a body was finally discovered. Before that, there was just a missing person, a mysterious woman who was maybe doing some kind of surveillance, and the possible theft of various prized items. I'm okay with the crime part of a mystery taking a while to get going, but only if the characters, their relationships, and/or the setting are interesting enough to make up for it. That didn't turn out to be the case, at least not for me. Yes, several of the characters had some serious history, but there needed to be more opportunities to see them interacting with all those relationship undercurrents at play.

It seemed like this story was mostly red herrings and potentially suspicious happenings, with a good chunk of the real evidence cropping up in the last 6%. I was left wondering whether Charlotte could really have figured out who the murderer was based on what she knew, because it hadn't seemed like she'd had much to go on. Her explanation at the end didn't really help, because a lot of the stuff she brought up had never previously been mentioned, at least not that I could remember.

The f/f aspects didn't work much better for me than the mystery did. Until the moment Charlotte decided “she wanted Brenda for more than just a casual friend” (76.3%, in chapter 8), there weren't many hints that Charlotte considered herself to be either a lesbian or bisexual. She wasn't upset about her divorce, but that wasn't necessarily an indicator of anything. She enjoyed Brenda's company, but that could have just been the joy of finally finding someone in the village who she could easily talk to. Her revelation that she wanted Brenda as a lover seemed...sudden. Or, at the very least, it seemed like it should have felt sudden for her.

I was still trying to wrap my brain around Charlotte accepting her attraction to Brenda so easily when the beginning of chapter 9 made it clear that things had gone from “we like each other's company” to “we're sleeping together.” And Charlotte was still unfazed. Heck, after her weight was brought up throughout most of the novella, I was convinced she'd at least fret about whether gorgeous, famous ex-actress Brenda was really interested. But no, the only blip in the development of their relationship was the possibility that Brenda was a murderer.

It's possible I could like later books/novellas in this series better. Part of me wants to give the series another shot and try Retired With Prejudice, and part of me is unwilling to pay $2.99 for something that's under 30,000 words and sounds a little too complicated for that kind of word count. Plus, there are the editing issues (see "Other Comments" below). I suppose I'll at least keep it in mind for my next e-book buying spree.

Other Comments:

I should also mention that there were some editing issues – typos, word choices that I'm fairly certain were incorrect, and one nasty instance of name confusion. The typos were fairly minor: things like “Their” being capitalized when it shouldn't have been, or an instance of “hove” that I'm guessing should have been “dove.” The word choice issues brought my reading to a halt as I tried to figure out why certain sentences seemed off. For example, after Charlotte asks Brenda to drive faster, there's this bit:
“Brenda smiled, hunkered down in her seat, and muttered a 'You betcha' as her foot depressed on the gas pedal.” (90.3%, in Chapter 9)
Shouldn't that have been “pressed”? There were at least a couple other instances where I debated a sentence's wording. The most confusing moment, however, was when a name was used that shouldn't have been. It would be a bit of a spoiler to include the names, so I'll call them Villager A, B, and C. Villager A got pregnant by B and gave birth to C. Brenda said:
“'[C] wasn't married—and never did marry the father—both of which were the stuff that real scandals were made of in this part of the Eastern Shore at the time. Her father was mayor and ran the only insurance agency around, and they were supposed to be the standard setters. And yet [C] made no bones that she was going to go it alone and be a single mother.'” (52.8%, in Chapter 6)
This passage made absolutely no sense as written, and it wasn't until later that I knew for sure that those two instances of Villager C should probably have been Villager A.

Read-alikes:
  • Miss Zukas and the Stroke of Death (book) by Jo Dereske - I was trying to think of a mystery I'd read, preferably a cozy, that involved sailing, and the closest I could come up with is this one, which stars a librarian who enjoys canoeing. I've written about this book.
  • Death is a Cabaret (book) by Deborah Morgan - I haven't read this, but it popped up when I was looking for cozy mysteries starring ex-FBI agents. The main character is now a professional antique picker.
  • Not a Creature was Stirring (book) by Jane Haddam - Another cozy mystery series starring a retired FBI agent. Like Charlotte, it sounds like this main character is trying to figure out what to do with himself now that his life has changed so much (his wife passed away due to illness). Again, I haven't read this and don't really know what it's like.

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