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Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Author:  Maggie Toussaint
Plot Type:  Paranormal Cozy Mystery      
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality2; Humor—2 
Publisher and Titles:  Five Star/Cengage Learning, Inc.
          Gone and Done It (hardcover and e-book, 4/2014)  
          Bubba Done It (hardcover and e-book, 5/2015)

This ongoing review was revised and updated on 7/22/15 to include a review of Bubba Done It, the second novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of the first novel.

                      NOVEL 2:  Bubba Done It                      

     Baxley Powell’s pet-sitting and landscaping businesses take a back seat to her success as a police consultant, where her dreamwalking talent helps solve murders. Baxley is riding with the sheriff when the 911 call comes in—a stabbing. At the crime scene, they find the knife still protruding from the victim’s chest. With his last breath, the bank president whispers, “Bubba done it." 

     Unfortunately, Sinclair County, Georgia, is chock full of Bubbas, four of them, each with close ties to the victim. When the dead banker is forbidden to talk to Baxley in her dreamwalks, she is forced to sleuth among the living. The top suspects are a down-on-his-luck fisherman, a crackhead evangelist, a politically connected investor, and, worst of all, Baxley’s brother-in-law, the high-school sweetheart of the dead man’s ex-wife. The more Baxley digs, the more connections she uncovers. If Baxley can’t figure out who the killer is, her brother-in-law could go to prison…and the real murderer could walk free. 

     Based on the first novel, I thought that this was going to be a solid cozy mystery series, but in the second novel, Toussaint's writing skills seem to desert her, leaving us with a heroine who verges on hysteria much of the time and a simplistic plot that holds back critical information until the very end, leaving the reader without a chance of figuring out what is really going on.

     Let's start with the heroine, Baxley Powell, and her relationships with two key figures: Sheriff Wayne Thompson and Charlotte Ambrose. Wayne is a crude, bombastic, misogynistic good ol' boy who terrorizes Baxley and other townsfolk by threatening to arrest anyone who either disagrees with him or gets in his way. He constantly treats Baxley in a way that fits the legal definition for sexual harassment, but she trembles with fear and backs away from him every single time. At one point he grabs Baxley and threatens her, "With snake-like quickness, he caught my chin in his hand. He leaned in close enough for his warm breath to brush my cool cheek. 'Don't get in my way, Baxley…I have the authority to arrest you right now for being a thorn in my side. However your incarceration would delay my wife getting a flower garden.'" In the 21st century—even in a sleepy southern village—I can't imagine that this kind of behavior would be tolerated. 

     And then there is Charlotte—supposedly Baxley's best friend. Charlotte wants to be a famous journalist, and she walks all over Baxley to achieve her goals. Baxley constantly makes excuses for Charlotte's rude, thoughtless behavior, but continues to enable her selfish, inconsiderate actions every single time.

     Although Baxley is a hard-working, strong-willed young woman with a terrific work ethic, she allows others to control her every emotion by over-reacting to the simplest things—like a change in tone of voice or a quick glance or an unthinking phrase. When Baxley's young daughter, Larissa, suggests that it would be fun it they moved in with Baxley's parents, "Her innocent remark brought a tidal surge of dismay." Really? A tidal surge? That's a huge over-reaction to the remarks of a child who just spent a happy day with grandma. If an offhanded remark affects Baxley this deeply, how is she ever going to make it through Larissa's adolescence? In another scene, Baxley discovers that her parents gave away all of the money she sent them over the years—money that she couldn't really afford to send them. So Baxley wonders how they are coming up with enough money to live on. Immediately, she jumps to the conclusion that they must be the local drug kingpins: "My gut twisted at the possibility. I staggered away from the table…" Now, Baxley came back to her home town two years ago. Given the gossip mill that prevails in small towns, there is no way that her parents could be selling drugs without her knowledge. Then there's the scene in which a client hands Baxley some magazine photographs to give her an idea of the type of garden she wants. Here is Baxley's immediate over-reaction: "Dread flooded my body at the topiary gardens, wildflower jungles,…lily ponds, natural stone stays, and more. It was too much…" Now, Baxley is supposed to be a professional gardener, and she soon handles the situation. But why the huge "dread flood"? Later in that same scene, the client's husband, who is one of the Bubba suspects, arrives home in search of a pair of shoes, and—immediately—Baxley goes into her usual schtick: "Breath stalled in my lungs as I froze, a gazelle at the watering hole of lions." Even later in the same scene: "Fear trickled down my spine like beads of sweat. The Jamisons' house was…a deadly Venus's-flytrap. One snap of its powerful jaws and I would be dinner." All of this is based upon Baxley's over-active imagination. The point is that Baxley—supposedly a talented amateur sleuth—ALWAYS reacts to every issue with over-the-top, overwrought, frantic feelings that are expressed in a series of clichés. The author should either send Baxley to therapy or have someone tell her to get a grip on herself.

     An additional problem is Toussaint's word choice, which tends toward the melodramatic and is often incorrect in its usage. For example, when Baxley looks at a dead body, she says, "My omniscient gaze returned to the dead man on the floor." No, Baxley's gaze is not omniscient, which means all-seeing or all-knowing or having infinite knowledge. And here is an example of the frequent melodrama: "I'd stood in this chasm of grief myself, and the winds of loss still howled through my belly." Not only melodramatic, but clichéd

     If you were hoping for a resolution of the story line involving Baxley's missing/dead husband, you will be disappointed because Toussaint continues to keep Roland's disappearance simmering away on the back burner.

     I had a difficult time finishing this book, and I'm not sure that I will be reviewing the next one. I will, however, add the publishers' blurb to this ongoing review when it is available. Click HERE to read an excerpt from chapter one.

     Baxley Powell, the series heroine, is a 28-year-old single mom with a 10-year-old daughter named Larissa. As the series opens, Baxley has moved back to her home town and is barely making ends meet with the proceeds from her small landscaping/pet-sitting business, Plants and Pets. Baxley's husband, Roland, is/was a military man who went missing two and a half years ago and is presumed dead. Unfortunately, the U.S. Army has been stone-walling Baxley about her widow's pension, so times are hard for her and Larissa. Additionally, Baxley is dealing with the constant threat that her in-laws will sue to take Larissa away from her. Here, Baxley describes her situation: "Two survivors, slogging down the highway of life. We had food, shelter, and people who cared for us, but we'd come to this place broken." (Gone and Done It, p. 61)

     The series is set in (mythical) Sinclair County, Georgia, in Marion, the small coastal town in which both Baxley and Roland grew up. Her parents still live there. In fact, her father is the county dreamwalker. That means that he can contact the dead in the dreamworld. If anyone in Marion needs to communicate with a dead friend or relative, they ask Baxley's dad to do it for them. Neither Baxley nor her father believes that Roland is dead. Dad is certain of this because he's never seen Roland in the dreamworld. Baxley has inherited her father's dreamwalking abilities, and she knows that, sooner or later, she will have to take on his job. 

     Dad has allowed Baxley to grow up ignoring her psychic skills, but now he's not sure he did the right thing, because Baxley is sadly unschooled in using her powers, which (in addition to dream walking) include highly sensitive hearing, the ability to know when a person is lying, and getting psychic sensations from both people and inanimate objects (psychometry). Here, Baxley explains the extent of her talents: "My gifts seem linked together. Hearing is the strongest, but that's accentuated through touch. I can hear more and see more if I touch an object that someone with highly charged emotions handled. Other sensations come through distorted. And I have odd dreams on occasion…" (Gone and Done It, p. 70)  

     Meanwhile, though, she has to make a living, so she pesters the sheriff to pay her to consult on criminal cases that would benefit from her dream-walking skills. Most of the townspeople in Baxley's age group are former classmates who have known one another all their lives. Unfortunately, some of them demonstrate the very worst of southern good-ole-boy sexist behavior, which Baxley must deal with on a daily basis.  

                      NOVEL 1:  Gone and Done It                      
     As the first novel opens, Baxley is finishing up a major landscaping job at a McMansion built by Carolina Byrd, a wealthy, persnickety widow. As Baxley digs a hole for a weeping cherry tree, her shovel hits something round and hardnot a rock, but a human skull. After being tasered by one of the sheriff's over-zealous deputies, Baxley eventually is able to identify the victims (turns out there are three skeletons) as colonial settlers who died several hundred years ago. Then, a few days later, Baxley finds yet another body, but this one is a fresh kill. Once again, Baxley dreamwalks to learn the woman's identity and the circumstances of her death. The rest of the story follows Baxley as she investigates both murdersone very old and one brand newand manages to solve them both, with a little reluctant help from the sheriff.

     In this story, Baxley's life is complicated by several obnoxious people, all long-time locals: 

Sheriff Wayne Thompson: A life-long womanizer who keeps hitting on Baxley and minimizing her abilities, although he eventually realizes just how valuable her talents are. Wayne's behavior goes way over the sexual harassment line, which turns his character into a repellent creep. I mean, really, the man has a wife and kids, and Baxley knows them all—has known them for years. Late in the story, we learn the supposed reason for Wayne's randiness, but the rationale that is given (in a shocking "reveal" moment) doesn't ring true at all. 

Buster Glassman, Carolina's realtor and local lady's man: He wants Baxley to help him out by using her psychic talents to increase his odds of winning in on-line gambling, his addiction of choice.

Duke Quigley (aka DQ, aka Dairy Queen), Carolina's builder: He believes that when Baxley discovered the bodies she cost him his job. Plus, he blames her for the death of one of his snakes.

Charlotte Ambrose, newspaper reporter and Baxley's best friend: Perhaps I shouldn't list Charlotte as "obnoxious," but really, that's how she comes across. Her career is uppermost in her mind at all times, and she doesn't mind leaking sensitive facts or walking over people's personal feelings to get a story, something she keeps trying to do with Baxley. Although she is presented as Baxley's BFF, I didn't like her much at all.

Gail Bergeron, the state archaeologist: This prickly and pretentious woman comes in to take over the investigation of the original set of bones and stays to supervise all of the deaths. She really gives Baxley a hard time every step of the way through the investigation.

     One story line that percolates in the background is the one involving the watcher in Baxley's woods. Baxley has seen this mysterious person in shadow and from afar, but never close enough to see his face, although she is sure he is a man. She is also pretty sure that her watcher is actually her husband, Roland. But Roland is supposed to be dead. And if this is Roland, why is he hiding from her? The watcher protects Baxley from harm several times, but he always manages to keep his identity hidden. What's going on here? Although this story line did add some suspense to the story, it also added some dissatisfaction because there is absolutely no resolution (except for the fact that at the very end Baxley discovers that someone else in Marion may have some information about Roland's current status). I'm sure that future books will eventually resolve this mystery. 

     Another mysterious presence is the unidentified person(s) who leaves food on Baxley's doorstep every day after she takes over her father's position as county dreamwalker. While Dad was the dreamwalker, her parents received the same daily gift. At one point, when Baxley senses that her benefactor is still in the vicinity, she opens up her senses and sees "White light. Lovely, embracing white light." (p. 126) 

     Although the plot has one or two minor bumps, this turns out to be an engaging, fast-paced story that includes an interesting cast of characters. One oddity is that Baxley's mother appears to be a good cook, but the only thing that she cooks is soup. She is CONSTANTLY putting on a pot of soup—ALL THE TIME—in nearly every chapter. Another bump occurs when Baxley's father turns the dreamwalker job over to her without giving her any training and then criticizes her when she runs into trouble the very first time someone comes to her for dreamwalk assistance. This seemed improbable and quite harsh on her father's part. 

     Also, the author throws in a few well-worn fiction tropes, like when Baxley suddenly knows just what to say when confronted by a bunch of bad guys in the dreamworld, although no one ever taught her those words. And here's another one: Early on, Baxley sees something significant that she thinks she's seen before, but can't remember where. Although this significant thing keeps reappearing as a "notice me" clue for readers, Baxley herself never seems to notice.

     Just one more nitpick: Several references are made to a recent burglary that Baxley solved by identifying the perpetrator as Maisie Ryals. This incident was mentioned so frequently that I thought at first that this was the second book in the series rather than the first. Then I thought perhaps there may have been a prequel novella. But no…I could find neither, so I'm not sure why the author inserted this irrelevant and superfluous bit into the plot.  

     Other than those minor missteps, this looks to be a solid cozy mystery series and I'm looking forward to learning more about the identities of the watcher and the food gifter. Click HERE to read chapter 1 of Gone and Done It.

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