A Curious Woman by Jess Lea

(9 customer reviews)

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Book One in Murder Under the Gum Trees

Author: Jess Lea


A fabulous cozy mystery filled with quirkiness and a sweet serve of lesbian romance.

Bess Campbell has escaped to the windswept Australian coastal town of Port Bannir, determined to begin her life again. She is loving her fresh start, thanks to her fun job running a hip gallery, her territorial chickens, and a lot of self-help books to find her new, better self.

Port Bannir local Margaret Gale runs an austere maritime museum, and rules her staff with an iron fist. She has no time for that crazy modern gallery or upbeat, earnest Bess sweeping around town on her hipster bicycle.

After a heated dispute over an antique collectible dildo, there’s little hope Margaret and Bess will ever see eye to eye.

But when Port Bannir is rocked by a senseless murder, both women find themselves implicated. Can they work together to expose the truth––or will the truth prove far too dangerous?


Additional information

Publication Date

April 2019


epub (for Kindle Reader/Kindle Apps, for iBooks, Nook etc.), mobi, and pdf


100,000 words




978-3-96324-161-1 (mobi), 978-3-96324-162-8 (epub), 978-3-96324-163-5 (pdf)


Ylva Publishing

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9 reviews for A Curious Woman by Jess Lea

  1. cheekybugger13


    I was really looking forward to Jess Lea’s debut full-length novel, “A Curious Woman,” ever since Lee Winter mentioned it and having recently read its excerpt on Ylva. To say that I was excited and thrilled about exploring the tale after reading the excerpt would be an understatement! I must say, when I finally received my ARC copy and read the entire story, Ms. Lea didn’t disappoint. Not at all! Not with her writing style nor her storytelling method and certainly not with all that eccentricity oozing out of literally every page, all those oddball characters, and quirky surroundings, that kept me entertained until the every end! So, well done, Ms. Lea!

    This story, right off the bat, was one eccentrically original and creatively intriguing tale weaved in the world of mystery. I mean, I can safely tout that I’d never come across a book in lesfic that was written THIS atypically before and Ms. Lea sure had some fascinatingly creative juice flowing in her story-weaving of this particular story of mystery and intrigue, nevermind that little hint of romance, too! I certainly never came across anything quite this original in lesbian fiction, which is reason enough to pick this one up to read and explore its thrilling oddities yourself, not to say there aren’t other reasons to do so, mind! Once you read it, you’ll know!

    Lea quickly painted a visual description of the world Margaret and Bess were living in from the start, which was nothing short of colourful, whimsical, odd, quirky and weird, to say the least! I immediately knew I was reading something unique here. The visual images that popped inside my mind as I read Lea’s descriptive words were vivid, real and strangely hypnotic, because of their peculiar, Bohemian-like quality. The one that really stood out for me was Bess’ workplace, “Cabinet of Curiosities,” which instantly reminded me of Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop” (shop of odds and ends where Nell Trent lived, if you’ve read the classic novel) and the 16th century literary landmark shop of the same name in Holborn (if you’d seen or visited it), arguably an influence to Dickens’ novel.

    I was captivated by all the weird oddities sold and exhibited at the Cabinet of Curiosities that Lea described so well. And then there was Margaret’s maritime museum, which was described as the polar opposite of the Cabinet. What was colourful, unorthodox and artistically bizarre (or just plain weird) at the Cabinet was positively contrasted with grey, old, historical, antique artefacts that were dull in comparison. But to each their own, innit? Lea nailed the stark differences between the two competing shops, nevermind the two polar opposite owners in persona, character and all-around likeability in a small quaint town that was filled with secrets and lies. Obviously, when a murder most foul occurred, seemingly out of the blue, right smack in the middle of the two shops involving Bess and Margaret, the entire town erupted with hidden rumours and unsavoury characters coming out of the woodwork! Just like any other small, sleepy town, innit?

    Before I delve into the mystery, I want to mention Lea’s protagonists – Bess and Margaret. First off, I applaud Lea for creating, in Bess’ character, one of the most idiosyncratic and nonconformist, original lesbian characters – in appearance and persona – I’ve ever come across in lesfic. I won’t elaborate in detail here because you have to read and visualise her yourself when you read the book because when you read Lea’s description of Margaret’s character (inside and out), you’ll realise and appreciate that rare visual contrast between two lesbian characters in lesfic that not only screamed quirky and peculiar but also aesthetically whimsical with an air of chemistry that bizarrely worked! Highly irregular but totally enthralling, to say the least! We always hear this “opposites attract” term, don’t we? But this pairing takes on a whole new level of the term with a refreshing perspective! Margaret and Bess’ pairing shouldn’t work but it did! Resoundingly so, I might add! You simply have to read it to recognise it yourself! I, myself, utterly loved it and couldn’t get enough of them! I love me some oddball, unusual, bizarre, quirky, freaky, weird when it comes to characters because these terms almost always spell individualistic. Always embrace the different, the individualistic, the non-conforming, the original, the unique. My personal mantra. Both Margaret and Bess’ characters personified these qualities. 

    As a huge fan of ice-queen personas, I was dead chuffed about Margaret’s character. But Lea took the ice-queen persona to a whole new level, cranking down the icy temperature to a solid deep freeze, really! Read it and find out for yourself just how subzero Margaret’s “ice-queen” status was! The level of awkwardness, aloofness and detachment that Margaret embodied made her all the more fascinating and captivating to me because beneath all her caustic and sardonic behaviour lied a layer of innocence, purity and adorableness, something which she desperately tried to hide from the public. But clearly Bess didn’t get the memo because nothing about Margaret repelled her, much to her own puzzlement. Same sentiment with Margaret when it came to Bess, too. I thought their chemistry was very organically structured, matching their personalities to a tee – awkward and clumsy, tentative but the invisible thread of connection between them seemed to be present from the start, slowly pulling them together, the energy flaring more powerfully as their relationship deepened whilst the mystery they were knee-deep in took a turn for the worse, getting more threatening. Needless to say, I simply loved their pairing so much! Ice-queen, or rather, Subzero-queen meets Ms. Eccentric! Oh, what delicious pair of characters Lea had created here – so unique,  so different and simply too adorable for words! And did I mention there’s an age-gap twist, too?  You simply must read it to discern and appreciate their intriguingly esoteric journey from the beginning to the end yourself!  I can venture to assume that you’ve prolly never come across a pairing like this, let alone their highly irregular romantic journey! Even if you have, you won’t regret exploring their story, is all I’m gonna say.

    Back to the murder mystery, I thought the mystery-solving flavour with a couple of amateur sleuths in Bess and Margaret that Lea crafted felt very Agatha Christie-esque with a dash of “X-Files” quirks and oddities, I might add! Not just that, at every end of the episode there would be a new revelation, making the reading experience all the more thrilling and exciting. I couldn’t help reminiscing about Agatha Christie’s mysteries as I explored Lea’s effective mystery-writing style. Well done, Ms. Lea! This story’s right up Ms. Christie’s alley, if you ask me!

    As far as secondary characters went, they were all interesting, with some I wanted to strangle or shake because of their lousy demeanour and bigotry! Urgh! Lea did a fabulous job in crafting out personalities that would garner a reaction from her readers. Well, it did to me! But my absolute favourite ones were the Midnight Hags. Yup, apart from their nickname paying homage to Shakespeare’s three witches in “Macbeth,” for me, I immediately equated those teen trio to “The X-Files”‘s “Lone Gunmen.” Oh yeh. If you’re an X-phile, you’ll instantly recognise the similarities these three hackers had with the Lone Gunmen! I literally squealed with delight when the Hags were introduced! Now, if only they were confirmed to be lesbians, too! Then, hurrah, we’d have our very own lesbian-Lone Gunmen, innit? Heheh! Well, since Lea didn’t specify, I imagined them to be, in my mind, so there! Nonetheless, cheers, Ms. Lea!! I utterly enjoyed their interactions with Margaret which was totally different than how they behaved with Bess later on. I had a blast reading all their bickering and sneaky activities! So very Lone Gunmen especially with their verbal sparring and quirky squabbles with each other! LOVED them!! Wonder if Lea would give the trio their own so-called spin-off novels, eh? Awww…that’d be simply wicked! Oh well, a reader can wish, can’t she?

    This book was primarily a mystery. The romance was minimal, seemed more like an afterthought, really. If you took it out, it wouldn’t affect the overall feel of the story or its characters at all because whether or not there was any romance between Margaret and Bess, their affinity, friendship and camaraderie, at the end of the day, would have sufficed already because the mystery plot took centre stage which they were heavily involved the entire time. So, Lea’s injection of a romance between this unlikely pair was icing on the cake, really. Nevertheless, I thought their romance bit gave the story more purpose, though, increasing its thrill and intensity as the mystery was reaching fever pitch. I appreciated that Lea spent time providing me with Margaret and Bess’ back stories at intervals. As they slowly converged when Lea revealed more, especially about Margaret, I found that both of them experienced similar predicaments and problems in life (shunned, misunderstood, gossiped about, blamed) – they were more or less outcasts trying to escape life’s cruelty but were instead stuck in the mud, what with all the circumstances thrown at them at the most inopportune times. So, their connection was fascinating to explore. Whilst clearly Bess was the main protagonist, hence, Lea delivered more of Bess’ POV, I appreciated that she also included Margaret’s, however limited. Bess’ home deserves a mention because it was literally hidden away from civilisation, in the middle of nowhere and her pets? OMG, chooks?!! Yup, chooks as pets! Bloody ingenious!! I’m not a fan of the avian species but Genghis changed my mind! Oh, that rooster!! Feisty and adorbs at the same time, if that’s even possible? Strange, innit? Well, I have Ms. Lea to thank, me reckons! And then, there was also the antique dildo…or as Margaret insisted…the faux-Roman fertility symbol! Guffaw!!! Won’t divulge any more here. The standing issue stemming from this “artefact” needs to be read in order to appreciate the hilarity of it, starting from how the whole incident came to be involving Margaret and Bess, no less! Lea even created a motif for this artefact, ffs! Yup, its introduction marked the start of Margaret and Bess’ journey, circling back to it at the end of the book! Ingenious, I must say! Well done, Ms. Lea!

    All in all, I had so much fun with this story and I thought Lea’s ingenuity in crafting this mystery was brilliant especially with all the twists and turns – honestly, it read like an Agatha Christie mystery with similar tone of intrigue, surprises, quirks and thrills. Except, Lea’s level of quirkiness and oddities was positively more pronounced, giving the story and its characters more “oomph” in general, so to speak, hence, increasing the level of my curiosity, engagement and all-around FUN!! YEH! In terms of Lea’s style and tone, I could detect some influence from Lee Winter’s style, especially in the crafting of the ice-queen persona. Wonder if Winter was Lea’s mentor… If so, what a fantastic influence, indeed, imo. Another thing worth mentioning is, this book sure didn’t read like a debut novel to me. Exceptional writing, confident storytelling and skilful weaving of the intricate web of secrets, lies, mystery, and a touch of romance, with a satisfying conclusion in the end. I’m going to be keeping a look out for Lea’s future work, that’s for sure!

    “A Curious Woman” is a MUST-READ if only to appreciate its utter originality and uniqueness, tbh! It’s not often I come across something so different and non-formulaic in lesfic writing. And I highly recommend this book to all fans of mystery especially if you’re a fan of Agatha Christie’s type of mysteries. If you’re also a fan of quirky, offbeat, different, unique, geeky/nerdy, pure eccentric characters and surroundings, look no further. This book gives you all these delish nuggets to chew on and then some! Read it and judge for yourself, why don’t ya? Congrats, Ms. Lea for a brilliant debut effort!

    *An ARC copy of this book was given to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

  2. stephasselin


    A Curious Woman by Jess Lea
    The story sets in a small town, and we get to know two main characters Bess Campbell and Marguerite Gale. Marguerite being the weird-ish woman, who people are most afraid of. She has an impressive way of handling negotiations and her employees, which makes her an easy target to blame for every bad thing happening in town. At first, she is portrayed as such that you almost believe what is being told about her. But a few chapters in her universe and it’s easy to see how there are always two sides to every story and that sometimes, what you see is not necessarily what happens.
    Bess Campbell is a born Australian, who now lives in Port Bannir. She is fun and seems like a positive person. When there is a murder in town, their lives change forever.
    When every data you have on the murder is inconclusive, and every proof point you in a certain direction, while other data points in the opposite, finding the true person responsible is hard and the story gets even more interesting.
    I loved how the story was written. I was not used to Jess Lea full-length stories, and I am gladly surprised by how great it was. I wasn’t expecting much while starting it since I was not originally a fan of her written style, and suspense stories are often predictable, but Jess Lea proved me wrong strong and fast.

    It was one of the great books I’ve read lately; It ranks high on my list of favourite mysteries. I suggest it to all the mystery lovers, I think this one will at points make you feel like you are on a C.S.I episode, searching for clues going in all directions. Jess Lea can write mysteries in a quality similar to Lee Winter’s writing, and that says much about how great the book was.
    I do hope she keeps on this line of work since I clearly have more affinities with her writing complete novels instead of her previous releases.

    I’ll happily reread it sooner than later.
    RainbowMoose’s Reviews

    *ARC received in exchange of an honest review*

  3. Karola


    ***free ARC
    At first I thought this book is a little bit strange, but page after page I was wondering what happens next? And suddenly there was murder, a second dead body, suspects and threats, disclosures of the past and inbetween a growing friendship between Bess and Marguerite. Finally I liked that book, I‘ll surely can recommend it.

  4. Carrie


    A murder mystery that keeps you guessing. I truly did not guess the culprit

    Bess lives in a tiny home with her chickens. She works at an odd ball museum until something terrible happens resulting in her and a rival museum operator become suspects.

    This story carefully unfolds little by little. What I really liked was the quirkiness of all characters in this small town. Usually I get confused when there are so many players. But that never happened. Every single person was unique and purposeful to keep the reader trying to solve the case.

    I’m not a fan of time gaps. The epilogue takes place 3 months later. While it wraps everything up nicely, I was a little disappointed with how the main romance was handled. It didn’t seem consistent with how the main book ended.

    I recommend to those who like murder mystery, quirky characters, tiny houses, and chickens.

    I received an ARC from YLVA Publishing for an honest review

  5. Karen


    I don’t even know where to begin. There is not one formulaic thing about this story. It took me about eight hours to read, and I love a longer book, especially when the level of detail, character development, and story arc all come together like this. This is the kind of book that requires a few days to recover from while turning it over and over in my mind.

    Margaret, the iciest of ice queens cannot believe she is bowled over by Bess, a quirky, younger, fat woman who works for the competition. Following their relationship as it blooms is a thing of beauty. But the mystery is the star here, and it is brilliant. Just when you think you have it figured out, you don’t.

    This book is a masterpiece, and although it may not be for everyone, it deserves to be read by a wide audience because there is so much to appreciate.

  6. Betty Harmon


    I’ve waited a while to write a review for A Curious Woman by Jess Lea. I’m really conflicted about this book because while there were several things I like about the story, in the end I really struggled to read it. I actually stopped about a third of the way through and went to something else for a while. I did come back and finish though, and I’m glad I did.

    The quirky characters are well defined and do add to the story. The setting is also well developed and seems to add to that quirkiness. It makes the story different and refreshing. The murder mystery is a good one and the author keeps you guessing until the very end. There is a small, slow-burn romance between the two main characters, but it is a minor part of the plot. This is mostly a mystery.

    I think the biggest problem I had with the novel was the pacing of the story. The more I read, the more I struggled with the tale. I also didn’t quite connect with the main characters in spite of their well-developed personas. I also wished there had been more romance. I’m a sucker for romance even if it is a fade to black kind.
    I will mention again that the mystery in this book is well done. Those of you who like a good murder mystery that keeps you guessing will probably like this book. Even though I struggled with this book, I think the author shows promise, and I will look for future books from her.

    I received an ARC from Ylva Publishing for an honest review.

  7. payanke_


    🏳️‍🌈👩‍❤️‍👩📚⚢ 🚴‍♀️🐓👩‍❤️‍💋‍👩📖👭🏳️‍🌈

    That’s in exchange of an honest review that I received an ARC of « A Curious Woman ».
    So, here it is !!

    1st of all : Thank you so much Ylva Publishing for providing me this book, I really appreciated my trip in Australia …
    ❤️ Wow! ❤️ Attagirl Jess Lea !! That’s a great debut novel you offered us… It’s original, unique and both intriguing & eccentric !! 👍👍

    My rating : 4 ⭐️

    The story is located in the windswept Australian coastal town of Port Bannir and focuses on :
    ° Bess Campbell an openminded young woman who came here to begin a new life after a traumatic event & works in a gallery owned by a hipster known for his controversial exhibitions. &
    ° Margaret Gale an Ice queen who acts like a Disney villain while running an austere maritime museum. After more than two decades away, she came back in town ten years ago to take care of her ailing father and stayed after his death to be closer to her baby sister who suffers from psychatric problems. Seems everyone in town is afraid of her .. Oh, sorry, not everyone since Bess doesn’t seem to be impressed by this « witch with a capital B » …
    The brutal & senseless murder of Bess’s boss and the events which follow it implicate them … So they decide to work together to expose the dangerous truth.

    The pros :
    ° the title … « A Curious Woman » is just perfect to describe the main character’s behaviour. Bess Campbell’s curiosity is huge and it’ll lead her to a hell of an adventure …
    ° the not fantasised perfect toned bodied characters … Finally !!! So glad to find an author who lives in a more realistic world when it comes to her characters (this kind of author exist, of course, I know some of them but they are too rare …) => That’s really great to have, for once, not one but the 2 MCs who are like everyday women so … physically believable : a « voluptuous » woman (like millions of women in the world) and an over 45 (almost 50) year old woman, aging but who’s well « preserved » who doesn’t try to undo the time « damages » and is able to stay natural …
    ° a great intrigue (clever and complex in the same time) and some very good suspence… IDK why since the topics are totally different, but sometimes, it made me thought a lil bit to the movie « Usual Suspects ».
    ° a romance which doesn’t look (at all) like a romance but which brings the idea of an HEA in the end ….
    ° the good wording & style + some good (but not always likeable) secondary characters, (including Genghis the rooster)
    ° a great humor . Gosh !!!! There are some really funny stuff & I giggled & laughed out loud … a lot !! (OK .. I think that my cats and dogs are now convinced that I’m crazy, LOL)
    ° some really interesting vocabulary (including some slang aussie terms … I had a blast working on it !!)

    The cons :
    ° the quite unhygienic side of B & M’s 1st « intimate encounter » … => Bet almost everyone won’t care about this « detail » but I do …
    ° the non realistic side of the Hags .

    If I had to make a very short and quite different version of my review it’d be something like this :
    Did I enjoy this book? => Yes !!! A lot… it’s really fun & captivating (Seriously, I wasn’t able to put it down …)
    Did I find the characters believable? => Definitely …
    Is this book now included in my « must be re-read »-list? => Yes, absolutely …
    Will I purchase the paperback? => Yes …
    Would I read another book by this author? => Yes ! I’ll definitely check out her next novels …
    Would I recommend this book => Yes, mainly to all fans of mystery but, of course, everyone can give it a try …

    Hey guys and gals, you know that now it’s your turn … So … Grab your own copy and make your own opinion …
    Enjoy (or not) your reading …

    🏳️‍🌈👩‍❤️‍👩📚⚢ 🚴‍♀️🐓👩‍❤️‍💋‍👩📖👭🏳️‍🌈

    Additional remark : If you don’t mind, I’d like to add a lil remark ‘cause something about the cover bothers me, a lot :
    What ??? => its illogicality when it comes to the chinese shadow of the woman on a bicycle
    Why ?? => ‘cause, all the novel long, Bess, the one who rides her bike all the time, is clearly described as a very curvy /plump / voluptuous / rounded bodied woman with heavy breasts & hips but on the cover, it’s not that kind of woman we find. So since the character on the cover is supposed to be her, it doesn’t make sense (to me) to have a skinny lady on the bike instead of a plumper woman …

  8. Kiwigirl55104


    Good but…
    I was quickly drawn into this book. It held my interest, was a good who-done-it and was really well written. The descriptions were good I liked the characters and the settings. I felt the romance could have been a bit more… there. This was a good book however the ending was a bit of a disappointment. I felt things wrapped up too quickly. We went from Bess nearly being killed and the reclusive Hags calling the police to Margaret being on a train with nothing in between. Yes, we find out what happens to the bad guys but it just seems lacking. Im glad I read it but I don’t feel the need to do it again.

  9. Word Saviour


    4.5 stars
    Well written, very captivating mystery plot, I loved both protagonists and more than once I found myself laughing out loud. The only thing why it’s not a full five stars for me is that I really would have loved a little bit more romance (but that’s a personal preference issue)

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