Tag Archives: plot

Book Review – A Midsummer Night’s Scream by Jill Churchill

A Midsummer Night’s Scream is book 15 in what is now, and hopefully remains, a 16-book series featuring Jane Jeffry, a crime-solving stay-at-home mother. The title of each book in the series is a play on a famous book title, cleverly tying the mysteries to Jane’s love of reading and what is probably the author’s love of books.

As this title implies, Jane and her best friend and neighbor, Shelley, are loosely involved with a local college-run theater. I say loosely because Jane and Shelley’s only involvement is catering snacks during the play’s rehearsals so that Shelley can test new catering companies for her husband. During this time, two people associated with the theater, one of the actors and a janitor, are murdered. Jane’s long-time boyfriend, Detective Mel VanDyne, is assigned the two cases.

Despite the series name, A Jane Jeffry Mystery, Jane had almost nothing to do with solving these murders. Most of this book revolved around tasting testing caterers and attending a needlepoint class.

Previous mysteries make use of Jane’s intimate knowledge of all things domestic. In fact, it was her thorough grounding in her domestic life and children that was usually the key to solving the mystery.

Testing the caterers during the theater rehearsals was a feeble way to involve Jane and Shelley in the theater. Having them attend a needlepoint class as a way of befriending two of the characters in the story was equally feeble. Although the catering companies and needlepoint class would fit the description of “domestic,” they were poorly used devices. Neither the caterers nor the needlepoint class had anything to do with the murders, except as a distraction, and served no purpose in advancing the story or the mystery. I was waiting for the tie-in and was baffled when nothing happened.

There was also a slip in characterization, with Shelley feeling “hurt” that she and Jane weren’t working on their needlepoint together. Shelley wouldn’t feel hurt by something so silly, however briefly it was mentioned. The author also slipped in Bell, Book, and Scandal with Shelley’s character. At one point, Jane was worried that her preoccupation with the mystery would annoy Shelley to the point of damaging their friendship. The first reaction after reading these two sections of the novels was, “huh?” Shelley would never overreact like that. She should also know by now, after years of friendship with Jane, that Jane usually does solve the mystery and her instincts for the solution are usually correct.

A Midsummer’s Night Scream is clearly a continuation of the slow downward slide in quality that began with Bell, Book, and Scandal, and ends with the horrible The Accidental Florist.

Bell, Book, and Scandal had, I believe, only one change in viewpoint: we jarringly switch from Jane’s viewpoint to that of one of the victims. A Midsummer’s Night Scream had several changes in viewpoint, mostly to Mel’s view, which is unusual in this series. In the previous books, Mel was never a well-developed character and we never saw the mystery from his point of view, only Jane’s.

Unlike previous mysteries in this series, Jane does very little thinking about this mystery and had almost no input into the solution.

The oddest part of this book: the epilogue. No previous book in this series has ever done a “where are they now” ending to the story. It was out of place, not remotely entertaining, and again, not from Jane’s point of view. None of the “where are they now” statements would be anything Jane could possibly know.

Jill Churchill, if you are tired of writing this series, just stop. Don’t try to wrap everything up neatly for Jane as you did in The Accidental Florist. Just stop writing.

On a scale of 1 to 5, most of the Jane Jeffry Mysteries would get a 3 or 4. The previous book to this one, Bell, Book, and Scandal, would receive a 2, as would A Midsummer Night’s Scream. The final book in the series, The Accidental Florist, would receive a negative number if possible.

Title: A Midsummer Night’s Scream
Author: Jill Churchill
Publisher: Avon Books
ISBN: 978-0-06-050100-6

Mysteries that are not Mysteries

I’ve been complaining lately that I don’t have enough to read. That isn’t true. It is more that I can’t find any GOOD books to read.

What has happened to the publishing industry? Are they no longer hiring editors to reject the books that do not have a plot?

Take the last Jill Churchill book I read: The Accidental Florist, book 16 in Churchill’s Jane Jeffry series. First, the fact that it is book 16 in a series should have told me not to expect much, except that I already own the first eight or nine books in this series and I did enjoy reading them. The Accidental Florist, however, was little more than a recitation of Jane’s daily routine as she gets ready to marry her long-time boyfriend. The author describes what Jane was doing for much of the book instead of letting us “see” the events. The dead body in this story had nothing to do with a florist and Jane had nothing to do with solving the murder. In fact, I’m not entirely sure the author even remembered to tell us why the victim died!

Previous Jane Jeffry mysteries had Jane integrally involved in solving the murder, even if the reason she was involved was as transparent as how Murder She Wrote‘s Jessica Fletcher gets involved in each murder. Churchill’s previous books revolved around the murder, with Jane’s life occurring around the murder. This particular story was the opposite.

My first thought was that the original author had died and the publishing company had someone else trying to continue the series. If Jill Churchill/Janice Brooks is still alive, she must have just written a quick outline of a possible plot and passed it along to some flunky to turn the outline into complete sentences, because that’s all this book was: a bare outline of a possible story idea.

Luckily, this was a library book, not something I had purchased. After reading book 16, I went to Amazon.com and read reviews for this book and the three previous books in the series. Everyone agrees: these books are no longer worth purchasing. Unfortunately, I had come to the same conclusion. As curious as I am about how her children turned out, I’m not willing to pay much more than half the cover price to find out, and I would probably never re-read these last few books.

I’ve also been disappointed in the Aurora Teagarden series by Charlaine Harris. I’ve read books 1, 2, 4, 5, and 8 (not necessarily in that order) and they are all equally boring. There is at least a mystery in these books, and they are not badly written, but it is hard to really like the main character. She not a bad person, but she’s boring, invisible, and almost impossible to care about. I’ve also tried to Harris’ Harper Connelly series, but haven’t really been able to relate to that main character either.

One similarity between the two characters, Aurora Teagarden and Harper Connelly, is that they spend much of their time alone, not interacting with anyone else. I think that makes for a boring story. It is much more interesting to see the story and the characters interacting with the mystery than it is to read about them thinking about the mystery. It is more interesting to learn about characters from the way they react to events than to read their thoughts about the events.

The disappointment in these some of books cannot be related to the continuation of the series for more than three or four books. The Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb Eve Dallas series of books is well into the 30s now and book 34 is just as engaging as book one. Why? Is this the difference between a good writer (Harris) and a great writer (Roberts)? Is it is something more?

I can definitely say that Eve Dallas has changed and grown as a character. Her life has followed a progression, her relationships with her life, husband, and friends are more complicated, and she’s changed over the time of the series. But there is always a mystery that dominates the story. The mystery IS the book, not tossed in as an afterthought for an excuse to pick up a royalty check.

And don’t get me started on what has become of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books. I don’t even consider purchasing them anymore. They used to have a plot and mystery and now they are little more than erotica loosely tied with a bit of a story.

What I Want in a Story

When I read a story, I’m a “journey” reader. I want to read the “hero’s journey” or the “personal journey” story. I’m starting to believe more novelists and short story authors should read screenwriting books. Too many novels are poorly paced, with no compelling character development. I’ve admitted that I’m not a literary reader. Give me a fun story.

I am not every reader, but if you look at book sales the ones that are chart toppers are the ones with great character development. Young adult literature authors are particularly aware of the need to tell compelling journey tales.

If you aren’t familiar with the journey structure, read about screenwriting. Why do I suggest screenwriting books? Because they are about structure: Hollywood readers reject scripts that don’t follow standardized structures. In feature film scripts, the mythic journey is a standard formula. In screenwriting, the journey goes by many names with slightly different models, but these differences aren’t nearly as substantial as their proponents claim.

Chris Huntley, author of the essay “How and Why Dramatica is Different,” describes six popular “journey” models in these words:

  • Syd Field describes a dramatic structure he calls The Paradigm, which is a plot structure with a Main Character woven in.
  • Michael Hauge describes two throughlines as the Outer Journey (plot) and the Inner Journey (journey to fulfillment for the Hero).
  • Robert McKee describes two throughlines blended together—collectively called The Quest and the Central Plot.
  • Linda Seger describes an “A Story” or “story spine” as the major thread of a story coupled with Main Character development.
  • John Truby describes two throughlines blended together in his “22 Building Blocks” of story (which is an expansion of his 7 Major Steps in Classic Structure). These two throughlines are similar to Vogler’s hero’s inner and outer journeys.
  • Christopher Vogler describes two throughlines as the Hero’s Journey and the Hero’s Inner Journey.

My point is that blockbuster films (as opposed to art films or experimental films) are generally stories about personal development and discovery. There is a clear plot “spine” of events in a main character’s life upon which the story is constructed. The story is about a person becoming something, someone, different.

I’m not suggesting any one screenwriting book over another. I have a shelf of them. Read them all. I also recommend reading blogs by screenwriters and every screenwriting magazine (all two or three of them) you can locate in a bookstore.

In a future blog entry I will explain why the journey model is such a compelling model for mass market novels.