by Cynthia Chow
This week we have a review of Come Helen High Water by Susan McBride, along with an interesting interview with Susan. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a signed copy of Come Helen High Water, and a link to purchase it from Amazon, and an indie bookstore where a portion of the sale goes to help support KRL.
Come Helen High Water: A River Road Mystery by Susan McBride
Review by Cynthia Chow
When Luann Dupree suddenly leaves town for a romantic adventure, only her best friend Sarah Biddle has her suspicions that it wasn’t because Luann swiped right. The wife of the sheriff in River Road, Illinois, Sarah has seen her share of crime, and she’s more than a little leery of the Mr. Maybe Luann found online. After the director of the Historical Society emails her resignation and packs up her belongings, most of River Road assumes that Luann departed to pursue her own midlife crisis. When even Sarah’s husband refuses to investigate without any reasonable justification, she implores acknowledged snoop Helen Evans for assistance in tracking down Luann.
Helen can’t help but believe that the garrulous Sarah is overreacting, and with the annual spring river flood approaching, there are more immediate threats on hand. While the town prepares for disastrous water damage, the sisters Clara Foley and Betty Winston have their hands full dealing with their own troubles. Betty’s husband Bernie is in the sixth of seven stages of Alzheimer’s disease, forgetting not just the wife he has known for decades, but the man he has become today. His wandering will have Sheriff Biddle and his family frantic, and his mental deterioration makes Bernie vulnerable to con artists preying on the weak. As much as Helen worries about her friends, the puzzle over Luann’s romance—spurred on by lots of prodding by a relentless Sarah—will have Helen tracking down the possible Mr. Maybes who either absconded with Luann or faked her romance entirely. Luann’s discovery of historical artifacts may have played a role in her disappearance, but so may have her loneliness and boredom in her life. It’s a mystery that Sarah’s not about to go unsolved, and she’s going to take Helen along with her for the ride.
This fourth in the River Road mysteries is a delightful read that fully consumes the reader’s attention until the very end. The multiple mysteries are balanced out perfectly, as are the shifting narratives. Alternating viewpoints heighten the tension without confusing readers, a testimony to the author’s skill at crafting a nuanced novel. Even more compelling is the emotional turmoil caused by Alzheimer’s, which so cruelly torments caretakers as it removes the personality of the afflicted. McBride vividly depicts how the disease wipes away the memories and characteristics of the victim, leaving only a shell of who he or she once was. This truly is a merciless disease. Fortunately, the quiet pain caretakers endure is alleviated by the hilarious banter and humor displayed among the local residents and friends. As much as readers might be tempted to speed through to the end to discover the truth, the pleasure of every moment spent with these characters will make them resist. This is a novel that will have readers smiling as much as they will wince in sympathetic pain, eagerly awaiting the next chance to spend more time with the residents of River Road.
Interview with Author Susan McBride:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Susan: It seems like forever! I wrote books in grade school that I’ve kept and bring out for chats with students now and then. Between transferring colleges at 19, I wrote my first full-length, grown-up novel, an historical romance. It was never published, but I did submit to editors and agents, garnering lots of lovely rejections packed full of encouragement. But it wasn’t until I was 35 that my first book was published. It won a contest sponsored by a small press in Illinois. Then I signed with an agent who got me my first three-book deal with HarperCollins in 2002. I’ve been working with HC ever since (14 titles in all). I’ve also written some YA books for Random House, and have a new series with Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. Getting published took forever, but I’ve never stopped working since. I think my middle name should be “Persistent.”
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
Susan: It was called And Then She Was Gone, and it was released in 1999. It’s the story of a missing girl and the effect her disappearance has on her family and the whole town.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not, what else have you written?
Susan: I’ve been writing mystery from the beginning and still do. I’ve got my Debutante Dropout Mysteries (amateur sleuth set in Dallas, Texas), and my River Road Mysteries (senior sleuth set in small-town Illinois) with HarperCollins. I did one young adult mystery, Very Bad Things, for Random House, and my first Jo Larsen mystery, Walk Into Silence, debuted with Thomas & Mercer last December. In between, I’ve written contemporary fiction: The Cougar Club (about three friends in their 40s who happen to date younger men); Little Black Dress (a mother-daughter tale about a magical little black dress that changes the lives of everyone who wears it); and The Truth About Love & Lightning (more magical realism set on a Missouri farm). After my bout with breast cancer at 42 and having a baby at 47, I wrote a short memoir for HarperCollins called In The Pink: How I Met the Perfect (Younger) Man, Survived Breast Cancer, and Found True Happiness After 40. So, I’ve been busy!
KRL: Wow you have been! What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Susan: The setting for Come Helen High Water, the fourth River Road Mystery featuring Helen Evans, is a fictional town in Illinois. It’s loosely based on a place called Chautauqua, where my family has had a cottage for generations. It’s very picturesque, sitting on the Mississippi River with a harbor and a little-bitty lighthouse. I spent lots of summers there growing up, and I soaked up the whole small-town atmosphere. It was a little bit like Peyton Place: full of gossip! Come Helen High Water takes place during the spring flood, something that’s become pretty much an annual occurrence. The historical society director disappears—purportedly she ran off with her Internet Romeo—and a man with Alzheimer’s goes missing, so there are two mysteries involved. My dad recently died from Alzheimer’s, so that thread of the story hits very close to home. The main character, Helen Evans, is my own grandmother in disguise. She loved mysteries, crossword puzzles, knitting, and quilting, as does the Helen in my books. She’s a widow, still smarting from the loss of her husband, and the grandma of nine. She knows everyone in River Bend and can’t stop herself from helping when someone’s in trouble, which tends to get her into trouble sometimes.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Susan: I definitely write to entertain: both myself and readers! I also write because my brain won’t keep quiet. If I didn’t have a way to channel all the insanity in my head, I’d be in bad shape. I love to tell stories. I love to create characters and put them in situations that I wouldn’t know how to get out of. But they do, and I learn from them. I often say that writing is my therapy. I never say the right thing at the right moment. But when I write, my characters can say those things for me. I can fix their relationships and get the bad guys on the page. I can’t always do that in reality.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Susan: I haven’t been on a regular writing schedule in five years, since my daughter was born! I’ve pretty much worked around her, which means any kind of “me” time is a luxury. When my daughter starts kindergarten in August, I’ll have more time to write than I’ve had in ages. It’s definitely going to feel strange to be able to work so much again!
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Susan: I don’t outline. I’m more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer, although I usually give editors a synopsis before I sign a new contract, and I use that when I write. It contains major plot points, which is very helpful.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Susan: Before I had a child, I would’ve said “night-time.” But since becoming a mom, I realize I’m much more alert in the morning hours and very, very tired by the time I go to bed!
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Susan: Yes, very! It took almost a decade post-college before I had my first contract. It was tough, because there weren’t a lot of alternatives then to traditional publishing…and I wanted to be traditionally published besides. I know everyone these days wants things to happen fast, but I’m glad it wasn’t instant. I needed time to write different books in different genres and really become better at my craft. I can look back at books I wrote 20 years ago (like the first three in the River Road series published by HarperCollins), and I realize how much I’ve learned as a writer since then. Which is why I’m so happy to have a fourth in that series out! If you read the earlier ones and then Come Helen High Water, I’ll bet you can see the difference.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Susan: I remember getting two rejections in one day once, when I was submitting directly to editors about 25 years ago. One letter said, “This is well-written but better suited to a hardcover publisher.” And the other said, “This is well-written but better suited to a paperback publisher.” I think at that point I understood how subjective the publishing business is!
KRL: Most interesting book signing story, in a bookstore or other venue?
Susan: Well, I vividly remember flying to Dallas to do a bunch of signings when Blue Blood came out (the first of my Debutante Dropout series set in Big D). I was just getting over a stomach virus. I made it to Dallas okay, though I’d packed a gallon-sized Ziploc baggie in my carry-on just in case! I was feeling okay by the time of the event and did my spiel about the book, only to get shaky by the end. I felt the blood drain from my face, and I said, “Excuse me!” I ran to the bathroom and promptly threw up. Then I washed my hands, gargled some water, and went back out to sign books.
KRL: Oh my! Future writing goals?
Susan: Just to keep working and telling more stories that are rattling around in my brain!
KRL: Writing heroes?
Susan: I adore Sarah Addison Allen and her novels of magical realism. I’ve read them all, and I’ve enjoyed every word. She was diagnosed with breast cancer after I was, so we had some online conversations about that. She even sent gifts when Emily was born. It is lovely to have a writer you admire who turns out to be a really wonderful human being.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Susan: I do whatever I need to do to gather information in order to make my plot feel real, or real enough. I do a lot of research online, but I will reach out to individuals if they have knowledge I need to tap. It’s amazing the things I learn in the course of writing a book.
KRL: What do you read?
Susan: These days I read a lot of children’s literature with Emily, although she’s doing a lot of reading by herself. I try to keep up with mysteries, but I’m woefully behind in my reading, about as behind as I am in my writing!
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Susan: I don’t watch much TV until bedtime. Then I really enjoy HGTV and some of the makeover shows. Emily’s favorite movie is The Lego Movie, so I’ve seen that one a bunch, and it’s very cute. You can tell I have a five-year-old, can’t you?
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Susan: Write a lot and write different kinds of stories, just to stretch your literary muscles. Go hear authors speak at libraries and bookstores, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Do have someone you trust to critique your work if you don’t have an agent. It’s very important that you learn to listen to criticism and mull it over, even if you don’t agree. One of the hardest things I think a newbie author encounters is the editorial letter and revision process. It’s a bit daunting and soul-crushing at first, until you realize the only intent is to make your work stronger. In the end, it always does!
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Susan: I’m a big fan of ‘80s rock, particularly Def Leppard, old Van Halen, AC/DC, etc. If Emily’s not in the car, that’s what I listen to. When she’s in the car, it’s The Lego Movie Soundtrack or Barney. I’m also a breast cancer survivor (diagnosed at 42), a late-in-life wife (married at 43 for the first time), and a late-in-life mom (pregnant at 47 without fertility treatments, which I could not do because of the history of breast cancer, so yay for that last good egg!).
KRL: Wow quite the story!
Website? Twitter? Facebook?
Susan: My website is at susanmcbride.com
My Author page on Facebook is at facebook.com/susanmcbridebooks
I’m a reluctant Tweeter at twitter.com/SuzMcBrideBooks
I’m also on BookBub: www.bookbub.com/authors/susan-mcbride
And GoodReads: www.goodreads.com/author/show/41316.Susan_McBride
Thank you so much, Lorie! Now I’d better get back to working on Walk A Crooked Line, which is due in about five weeks, and I’m only about a quarter done. Ack!
To enter to win a signed copy of Come Helen High Water, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “high water,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen August 12, 2017. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
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