Review Contest -2005

2005- The Winners:

Ann B., Perry
Priest Clare Fergusson finds northern New York winter challenging in her
new parish. Finding a baby on the church steps leads to further
challenges. Contrary to her parishoners’ wishes, Clare gets involved
with teen mothers, the police, and a murder investigation. Clare finds
that her conscience demands that she put her ethics into practice, even
as she clashes with members of the church and the police chief.
Spencer-Fleming writes convincingly of both a newcomer’s exposure to
“bleak midwinter” and of her protaganist’s internal struggles with her
duties and role in her new community. Fergusson’s challenges are
external and internal, social, professional, and personal, and, as
another character says, she “jumps feet-first without thinking” into
them all. Clare is a fallible, believable character who faces her duties
with strength and wit.

Linda D., Batavia
Webster’s defines “mystery” as “any thing or event that remains so
secret or riveting as to excite curiousity …”
Could they have had “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Julia Spencer-Fleming in
mind? What a wonderful way to escape from our Western New York midwinter
– curl up with a mystery so captivating that you are immediately caught
by it and find it difficult to put down. I found myself at once drawn to
this story; wanting to know what would happen next, yet knowing that
when in fact I did finish this novel, I would no longer have the
enticing pleasure I found as I read it. What a fix – the relationship I
formed with this wonderful whodunit would end when the mysteries were
solved! “In the Bleak Midwinter” is one of those special novels that
immediately catches you in its world. It serves the mystery genre well.

Paul L., Albion
Just as the book’s title is the first four words of the poem/hymn “In
the Bleak Midwinter” (one of my favorites), so the books itself shows
folk who “give him my heart,” the last four words of this poem/hymn.
Especially Clare Ferguson and Russ VanAlstyne, the principal characters,
become heartily engaged in determining the identity of the baby’s
parents and who murdered Katie McWhorter. Along the way, Geoff and Karen
Burns are putting their hearts into adopting Cody, and even those
revealed to have been Cody’s parents had a very heart-felt relationship.
This book includes a wide assortment of believable ordinary folks, many
of are living according to their hearts as much or more than their
heads. It is a well-told, gripping story that reached out and involved
my heart in caring for the characters and a positive outcome. It moved
me so engagingly that I have acquired the author’s next book in the
series, “A Fountain Filled with Blood,” and will begin reading it as
soon as I send off this review.

Frances M., Batavia
The Reverend Clare Fergusson. Readers will be introduced to a strong,
intelligent, sensitive, and very human individual. Clare faces
challenges encountered by many woman today. Her career, which has
traditionally been a man’s field, presents additional obstacles. These
may be greater because of the location in which she finds herself.
Millers Kill is a conservative, rural, small town.
Conducting her work for church and community, we watch Clare’s dealings
with people at many levels. She witnesses crime, family dynamics, and an
array of personalities, temperaments, and social class distinctions.
From her early introduction to the town’s police chief, readers can
watch their relationship develop into one of friendship and mutual
respect. Each benefit equally from the other, in the way a true
friendship should exist.
The book offers insight into a character that is, above all else, a fine
example of today’s modern woman, one I would truly enjoy knowing.

David S., Le Roy
“In the Bleak Midwinter” keeps us in suspense right up to the end.
Finally, after the other suspects are eliminated, Vaughn Fowler is
revealed as the true murderer. Is he a credible character? Do such evil
people actually exist? From my own experience in this world, I would
definitely have to say yes.
As presented by Julia Spencer-Fleming, Vaughn Fowler is all too
believable and all too tragic. Here is a man in the position to do a
great deal of good but instead does a great amount of harm. He could
have helped his son Wes and the girl Katie raise their baby Cody and
continue their education. As the poem by Christina Georgina Rossetti
goes: “If I were a wise man, I would do my part/Yet what I can give him;
give him my heart.”
But despite his West Point background, he is not a wise man and he does
not do his part. Instead of giving his heart to his grandson Cody, he
tries to kill him, just as he killed Katie and her father. Lost in a
cloud of ignorance, Vaughn Fowler follows his evil, midguided course
right to its tragic end: murder on murder, “snow on snow.”

Joyce T., Pavilion
I really enjoyed the book “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Julia
Spencer-Fleming. The main characters were ones you could easily relate
to and you were soon caught up in their lives. The author skillfully
interwove the characters with the storyline making each chapter flow
smoothly into the next, making you want to read on and on. Humor and fun
bantering between the two main characters were interspersed throughout
the book, sometimes even in the midst of a really tough problem solving
situation. One minute it was just a story of small town everyday life
and the next moment you had an important fact about the investigation
emerging. Along with all of this the author would interject something
that her grandmother used to say, which gave you a real feeling of
respect for the wisdom of someone who had lived life and learned many
valuable lessons. The author not only made you really get involved in
the story, but the characters seemed like you really knew them.

Other entries
Tally A., Bergen

It was Christmastime. A baby was left on the steps to the kitchen door
of Saint Alban Episcopal Church in Miller’s Kill, NY. Rev. Clare
Fergusson, the new priest, found him as she left an evening reception.
The baby was taken to the hospital emergency room where the chief of
police, Russ Van Alstyne, met the baby and the new priest. The chief, a
retired army infantry man, and the priest, a former army helicopter
pilot, soon found common grounds of interest …
Lured into the Adirondacks, Clare’s foolish high heeled fashion boots
and light jacket in her little red “82MG” almost caused her demise. It
took all of Clare and Van Alstyne’s skills for her survival and for them
to find the identity of the baby and his parents. False leads, murder,
blackmail and more made for an interesting mystery.

Bonnie B., Corfu
“In the Bleak Midwinter” by Julia Spencer-Fleming, is the book of choice
for “A Tale for Three Counties,” an initiative designed by creative
librarians from the Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties. These
librarians certainly found a stunning selection for this year. Any
young, middle-aged or elderly mystery buff living in Western New York or
up in the North Country, will not be able to put this debut novel down.
Spencer-Fleming obviously follows the first rule of any good writer:
Write about what you know. Her subjects range from women’s lib, small
town politics, die-hard biases, military bonding and dirty family secrets.
The author speaks for many of us who have moved to rural counties to
flee the complexities and crimes of city life. She writes of tranquil
woods and fields, rolling hills and vanishing farms. Her writing also
reflects other realities: plenty of town meetings, surprisingly long
Police Blotters in local news, and even the likes of a Timothy McVeigh.
Spencer-Fleming shows us that mystery happens no matter where we live.
Her interplay and church and state is most provocative.
I have recommended this book to at least five other people in the past
two weeks. Excuse me now I have to call my friend Bernie in Little
Falls. She is an Episcopal Deacon and I know she will be delighted to
hear about this new find.

Bonnie B., Wyoming
If you enjoy reading a good mystery with an ending that’s totally
unexpected, then you will not be disappointed when reading the latest
“Tale for Three Counties” selection, “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Julia
The novel begins when the recently appointed woman priest finds an
abandoned infant outside the parish door. What she and the local police
chief, who leads the investigation, don’t realize is that this is just
the beginning of the lies, secrets, mystery and murder they will find
surrounding their small community and the parish members.
The main characters are very likable and you almost cheer each time they
discover another clue that brings them closer to finding who abandoned
the baby and their reasons for doing so.
“In the Bleak Midwinter” is a suspense filled book that I wanted to keep
reading right to the end.

Meghan H., Perry
Julia Spencer-Fleming’s thriller “In the Bleak Midwinter” will enliven
you winter routine and make you thankful that all you have to contend
with is some shoveling, slippery streets and snowdrifts.
As the story unfolds, newcomer Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson and
police chief Russ Van Alstyne discover and abandoned baby. As they
search for answers, they unearth bodies, hunt and are hunted by a killer
amidst the howling winter of northern New York.
Readers will enjoy the mystery’s rapid pace, its plot twists and its
realistic details of a Miller’s Kill winter. Although the story’s
characters would benefit from more complete development, Fergusson is an
original – single priest, former army helicopter pilot and amateur
detective. She and Van Alstyne have enough depth and sparks to warrant
future adventures.

Joyce J., Wyoming
Rejoice readers and mystery fans. Tale for Three Counties has come up
with another winner.
“In the Bleak Midwinter” by Julia Spencer-Fleming begins with the
discovery of a newborn child left on the steps of St. Alban’s Church in
Miller’s Kill. The mystery of the child’s identity brings together Clare
Fergusson, priest of St. Alban’s, and Russ Van Alstyne, village police
Quite unlikely they discover common ground: both had served in the Army
and both are dedicated to caring for the people of Miller’s Kill.
Their search for clues initiates a series of murders and brings them
closer together as they struggle to find the guilty.
Townspeople seem very real, and there is a good sense of place for
fictional Miller’s Kill and the real Adirondacks nearby.
Clare’s impetuosity leads her into great danger but with tough
resourcefulness she identifies the evildoer.
This book contains pathos, humor and excitement. I couldn’t wait to read
sequels to and three.

Janet L., Batavia
I enjoyed reading “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Julia Spencer-Fleming. It
brought back memories of days that I spent in the Hudson Fall and
Adirondack Mountain region of New York State. This was especially true
when Clare Fergusson was learning to cope with the winter cold. Clare
was certainly unprepared for the cold. I know how cold that region can
get. She had the wrong kind of car and the wrong clothing for the
midwinter cold.
I feel that the author did an excellent job in building the character of
Clare Fergusson. I especially enjoyed the little messages she received
for her sergeant and grandmother. They were her guardian angels.
I have already read the first two books. I am waiting my turn to check
out book three at my library. I am interested in the relationship that
is developing between Clare and the chief of police.

Liz M., Castile
My hat is off to the person or persons who choose the books that become
the “Tale for Three Counties”! Each year I look forward to the featured
book and each year I am not left disappointed.
This year’s choice, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” introduced me to a
character, Rev. Clare, who gave me the personal opportunity to place
myself into the story. Clare faced all the problems and difficulties
that women called to the clergy find appearing and reappearing in daily
life. Author Julia Spencer-Fleming caught the feeling so well when the
characters first meet …
“I’m Russell Van Alstyne, Miller’s Kill chief of police.”
“Clare Fergusson,” she said, “I’m the new priest …”
“Can you tell me what happened, um … What was he supposed to call her?
“I go by Reverend, Chief. Ms. Is fine, too.”
This sets the stage for the interaction of two people approaching the
same problem from two different lives, sacred and secular.
The story and its cast of potential murderers is approached in much the
same way as any ordinary person would see it, treating each person that
enters into the mystery with suspicion and a certainty that THAT person
is the one! Then you meet another person and wonder, “Could THEY be the
I found that the character that were introduced with each successive
chapter, kept my interest peaked and the book more and more difficult to
put down. As the book begins its final chapters and winds towards the
solution, the reader is still not “let off the hook” and finds that one
cannot read fast enough to resolve this page turner.
I enjoyed the Adirondack references and was familiar with many places
described. I recommend this book to anyone who would enjoy a good
mystery filled with twists and turns and a difficult to unravel plot.

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