Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Rachael Goddard Mysteries

I recently read the second and third books in Sandra Parshall's Rachael Goddard mystery series that started with The Heat of the Moon. I read The Heat of the Moon last year. I found the psychological mystery fascinating and suspenseful. Sandra delves into the details of Rachael's childhood, her relationship with her younger sister, and how she deals with her overpowering mother. What Rachael discovers explains and chills at the same time.

What I missed at the time was the sticker on the book that identifies it as the Agatha Best First Mystery of 2007. Wow. That is a huge honor. This year's awardee for the same honor will be named this Saturday night (and I'll be there to watch!) at the Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda, Maryland, along with the Best Short Story and Best Novel (in the Agatha tradition).

I've been reading mysteries all my life and writing them for almost 20 years. Awareness of the field, the awards, and the support systems for writers has come very gradually, however. Not sure how I missed that sticker, but I figure it's never too late to say, Congratulations, Sandra!

So I was plea
sed to have time during my recuperation from back surgery to read the next two books in the series, Disturbing the Dead and Broken Places. They continue the story of Rachael, a veterinarian who has now moved to Mason County, Virginia, in part to escape the emotions dredged up in the first book.

The Heat of the Moon
is written in first person. The second and third books have Rachael's voice in third-person, and also feature the point of view of To
m Bridger, second-in-command to the local Sheriff. A romance develops between them through both books. It adds to the fun, the psychological depth, and the suspense. Also, Tom Bridger is part Melungeon, an ethnic group part Mediterranean, part native American, part African-American. This is a group I had never heard of, the members of which in the books experience racism and discrimination.

Sandra is a skilled writer who tells a fabulous story. She draws the setting in fine detail and keeps you on the edge of your chair. Sandra, it's your fault my fingernails are now so short as I travel to Malice.
Full disclosure: Sandra is a fellow Sister in Crime, and a very active member of our online group, the Guppies - the Great Unpublished - even though she's moved up into the Great Published. I look forward to meeting her in person this weekend.

And I encourage everyone to read her series. From her web site comes the following description of her next book, Under the Dog Star.
"Disappearing pets, a feral dog pack, and illegal dogfighting make a deadly mix in the mountain community of Mason County, Virginia. When a prominent doctor is fatally mauled, Deputy Tom Bridger and veterinarian Rachel Goddard pursue two killers, one human and one canine, and pierce a complex web of lies and brutality."

What about you? Have you read Sandra's books? Are you interested in the rural Virginia setting?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dance Lessons by Áine Greaney

I'm slowing down on these book reviews, because, happily, I'm doing more of my own writing on Book Two, Murder on the Beach.

But I'm very pleased to report that I loved
Áine Greaney's new book, Dance Lessons. Áine (pronounced 'AHN-ya') is Irish and lives in nearby Newburyport. I have heard about her for years but never made the space to read her earlier book, The Big House, or her short story collection, The Sheepbreeders Dance and Other Stories.

In Dance Lessons, Ellen Boisvert, the young American widow of an Irish man she met in Boston visits her late husband's former village. She grows to know and then take care of Fintan's ailing mother, Jo. Along the way Ellen uncovers the mystery of why he had told her he was an orphan and the story not only of his difficult past but that of his troubled mother and her family.

Áine read from
Dance Lessons recently at the Book Nook in Ipswich and talked about life in Ireland. She even showed us a map of the area, and during the reading gave a rendition of a bit of song in the text in a lovely voice. Áine, like most of the characters in the book, grew up in a village in County Mayo in the west of Ireland. She mentioned that she had to do little research, because she knew the setting so well. It showed in the richness of description and the details of the weather and landscape, both geographical and emotional. The book is beautifully written and the story hard to put down.

She, like me and many authors, writes around the edges of her day job. I asked her how she manages that and was very pleased when she announced that her next publication will be Writer with a Day Job, which details coping strategies and tips for those of us trying to coordinate those two factions of our lives. She interviews nearly a dozen successful writers around the country who have done a good job of integration work-for-pay and publish-fiction-for-satisfaction/fame/pay (whatever it might be). I can't wait to read it.

Do you like Irish-themed fiction? Dance Lessons is for you. Do you want deeply developed characters, a mystery, some finely drawn history? Get the book and read it. And I daresay if you write the author with questions, she'll answer them. She's a really nice person.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Alexandra Styron on Her Father

Next up in my reading during recuperation from back surgery was Alexandra Styron's Reading My Father, due out shortly from Scribner. I was lucky enough to score an Advanced Review Copy (ARC) at the Ipswich Book Nook's grand opening. I was even luckier to have time to read it.

I perused an excerpt from this book in the New Yorker a few months ago, and realized then I didn't know much about William Styron, the author's father, or about the author, herself, who has also published the novel All the Finest Girls. Her memoir about his life and her own is a beautiful, bittersweet tale that tells the story of a brilliant and troubled writer and father. His novels included Confessions of Nat Turner and Sofie's Choice, which won him acclaim as well as criticism. His story of going through a serious clinical depression and coming out the other side alive, Darkness Visible, brought him acclaim and appreciation of a different kind.

Alexandra is the yo
ungest child of four, with an eight-year gap between her and her next elder sibling. She was alone with her cantakerous father much of the time she was growing up, and I suffered her wincing at his tirades right along with her, at the same time understanding how she longed for his approval and love.

Many famous personalities - writers, musicians, politicians - were friends of the family. People like Leonard Bernstein, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mia Farrow, and Bill Clinton were guests at their dinner table. Her mother Rose forged her own life while still staying close to her difficult husband. The author researched her father's unpublished writings and early correspondence at the Duke University Library so she could write honestly about the long stretch of his life before she was born and through her younger childhood.

I found this book painful to read, not in the writing but in the continued theme of a man so obsessed with his own career that everyone around him suffered a great deal for a long time. Alexandra's writing is clear, lyrical, and honest. It moved me through her father's life with ease and tears. I urge you to find it and read it. Me, I'm going to find her novel and then look for his.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Power Play by Joseph Finder

Next up in my recuperation reading was Joseph Finder's Power Play. I picked this up at Crime Bake and convinced Mr. Finder to autograph it.

What a great read. It starts out with Jake Landry, who works for a Boeing-like company, troubleshooting a possible flaw in a jet airplane design. I read Power Play right after the roof had flown off of a Southwestern Airlines plane in flight. The topic seemed, shall we say, relevant.

The plot soon becomes much more complex. Landry is asked to accompany a group of the company's top executives to an internet- and wireless-free retreat in British Columbia. Landry's ex-girlfriend turns out to be a high-level assistant to the new female CEO. When a group of apparent hunters takes the entire group and the hotel staff hostage, Landry has to rely on experiences in his past to try to rescue them.

This is a suspenseful thriller and a super read. It's also a sensitive look into a young man's relationship, his dysfunctional family history, and some pretty rough teen years. I liked the way Finder skillfully bounced back and forth between the present and various incidents in Landry's past.

This isn't Finder's first book, nor his last. I'm glad I have almost a dozen more to read.

How about you? Are you a Finder fan?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

On Julia Spencer-Fleming

My Julia Spencer-Fleming streak is complete, that is, until next week when her 7th book comes out.

I had heard about the fabulous Spencer-Fleming for a while from my Sisters in Crime/New England peeps. I finally picked up her 6th book, I Shall Not Want, at Crime Bake last fall, where the author graciously signed it for me, even encouraging me about my first book. I read it without stopping, as I recall.

Now, on my recuperation from back surgery, it felt like a good time to catch up on the first five. And have I ever. In In the Bleak Midwinter, Clare Fergusson is the new Episcopalian priest in small-town Miller's Kill, New York. She's fresh to Reverending, after a stint as an Army helicopter pilot. Already perks your interest, right?

She tangles with the married chief of police, Russ Van Alstyne, while she attempts to take care of her parishioners. The tangling turns into attraction. This is a theme throughout all six books, tantalizing the reader with wanting more from their at-times stormy relationship. Other characters come and go - fellow police officers, members of St. Alban's vestry, the residents of the town. Clare and Russ remain at the center of these suspense mysteries, which Spencer-Fleming writes with lyrical language that draws you into the emotional core of their lives and the vivid details of the setting.

I had to reread I Shall Not Want when I finished book Five, All Mortal Flesh, so I could connect with the bits of backstory that she wove in so expertly I didn't question it the first time through. I'd recommend reading the series in order, but you certainly don't have to. She also changes the storytelling format from book to book. I was astonished to realize that To Darkness and to Death takes place over the course of a mere 14 hours. In 308 pages, that I only put down for the most necessary distractions of real life. In Out of the Deep I Cry, the story goes back and forth between the present, the near past and dates far in the past, to 1930 and possibly earlier. It flows beautifully. She seamlessly connects the character you have met in the present with the one you are now reading about in the far past.

Spencer-Fleming submitted the first novel she wrote, In the Bleak Midwinter, to the St. Martin's Best First Novel contest - and it won. After I read it, for just a little minute, it made me feel like quitting writing - how could I ever produce something that deep, that good? Of course, I won't, and in fact am more inspired to make my next book deeper, better. Thank you, Julia!

Look for One Was a Soldier, coming out shortly.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fish Tales anthology

I read Fish Tales last weekend, the Guppies anthology that just came out. The Guppies -- which stands for The Great Unpublished -- is a very supportive online subgroup of Sisters in Crime. Much helpful information is passed around on improving our writing, finding out how to get published, tips on conferences and workshops, and so much more. Many Gups who make it to publication generously stay on the list and help those of us still in the search.

All stories in the anthology were written and judged by Guppies. The rule was that if you submitted a story, you had to judge three others according to a common scoresheet. The top-scoring stories made it in. My story didn't make the cut, but I was thrilled to read those that did. The only other rule was that every story had to include water.

Every story in the collection is good, and I don't have recuperation time or energy to review them all, so I'll focus on a few of my favorites here.

Betsy Bitner's "Amazing Grace" features a wife who plans her fly-fishing husband's funeral with loving detail. I particularly liked how the poor fellow died.

"The Truck Contest," by Kaye George, describes recreational activities on a lake in winter. I've been working on an ice-fishing story myself , so this was a fun read. The twist at the end was particularly satisfying.

Gloria Alden's story about "The Professor's Books" shows us a devoted housekeeper and her ailing professorial employer. Read it to find out how she is rewarded for her work.

Patricia Winton sets "Feeding Frenzy" in Rome and tempts us with descriptions of Italian food and chefs. She works in the meanings of phrases and names in Italian in a clever way and uses them as part of the story line.

I bought the Kindle edition of the book on Amazon and read it on my netbook, but you can also get a paper copy. Here's one source, an independent bookstore in Pennsylvania that features free shipping for orders over $10: Mystery Lovers Bookshop

The deadline for the next anthology, Fish Nets, is the end of April. My story is almost ready!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Scent of Rain and Lightning

This recuperation means I finally got to read Nancy Pickard's Scent of Rain and Lightning. I was blown away. It's a beautiful, lyrical, painful novel set in the ranching country badlands of northwestern Kansas. A mystery? Yes, but with a depth of character and evocative setting to win over any reader. Pickard weaves the present with an event that happened 23 years earlier. Gradually the mystery is solved as she takes us back and forth through time in the most skilled of ways.

This is a book that made me rue what a fast reader I am. I loved it, could not put it down, and when I was done I was so disappointed that I couldn't keep reading it for a week.

Picard has written and published almost two dozen books. She is a former president of Sisters in Crime. And she's on Facebook. I dropped her a note on FB about how much I loved the book and she immediately wrote back! We had a little dialog on her wall back and forth for a few minutes. She's very gracious. Then I made my slow way up the hill to the Ipswich library and checked out her just prior book, The Virgin of Small Plains, which I had also heard great things about.

Virgin is similar in that it is also set in Kansas, but in a different area, one of farms and rolling hills. Also similar is the back and forth between the present and an event 18 years in the past, and how you gradually discover the mystery. The most important similarity is how she evokes feelings and sensations with her descriptions of place, and how beautifully she portrays the characters, their loves, their angsts. Otherwise they are two free-standing novels with different people and different problems.

If you don't read any other books this year, read these two. I wish I could reread them over and over. Both are Reader's Circle books (which appears to be a division of Random House Books) and include a discussion with Pickard at the end about her writing, how she came to these particular stories, why she finally started placing her novels in Kansas where she has always lived. It enriched my knowledge of her as a writer. The books also include Reading Group questions and discussion topics. Sign up your group!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Single Deadly Truth

The next book I read during my recuperation was John Urban's A Single Deadly Truth. This also involved a new adventure in reading for me. It is published only an as ebook; I found it here on Amazon. So I downloaded Kindle-for-PC from Amazon (for free) onto my netbook, and sat happily on the couch for some hours pressing the right Arrow key to page through John's book.

The story features Steve Decatur,
professor and part-time harbormaster. He lives on a sailboat in the town of Harbor Point, Massachusetts. The nephew of a friend of Decatur's, a lobsterman and diver, is found dead off Cape Cod. When Decatur goes to retrieve the man's boat. he becomes entangled in a murder and an illicit international ring of treasure recovery, and more.

This book knits things together beautifully. The action was well done, the characters full and believable, and while it is full of boating jargon and I didn't understand some of the terms, they added to the flavor and didn't get in the way. A special bonus for those in the Boston/Rhode Island area is reading scenes set in familiar territory.

Decatur is clearly a competent "man's man." I also felt, as a woman, that I liked him and his tender/human side. One reason I often steer away from mystery/thriller books written by men is the constant focus on how women look, and I didn't find that in Urban's work. I can't wait to read the next Steve Decatur book.

Disclaimer: John is in the Salem Writer's Group, of which I am also a member. He had read most of this book to the group before I joined, and I had heard and offered critique on only a couple of scenes. I was very happy to get my hands on the entire story.

John posts on the group blog, Write on the Water, on a regular basis, always weaving his stories of boating in with his stories of writing. (Plus he's a really nice guy, and a great critiquer.)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Girl I Left Behind

The non-fiction book I've read during my recuperation (so far) is The Girl I Left Behind by Judith Nies. I didn't know of Judith Nies, and her previous works, Nine Women, Native American History, and other books. (See an earlier post for the explanation of why I don't usually read non-fiction books.)

A friend loaned me The Girl unsolicited last fall after her book group had read it and said she knew I would like it. I never got around to reading it, and mentioned the book when I ran into her at the gym a couple of months ago. She shook her head and smiled. "You'll really like it."
Luckily I never got around to giving it back. This week I looked at it where it sat near the door, ready to hand back to her next time she stopped by, and thought, "Why not now?" I'm so glad I did! This is an important book.

It's a history of the sixties from a woman's point of view. Not any woman, but a woman who was a thinker, a scholar, a political speechwriter, a journalist, and an early second-wave feminist. She describes running into the brick walls of being prohibited from apply for certain jobs while in foreign-relations graduate school because "They won't interview a woman." She talks about Eleanor Roosevelt convincing President Kennedy to start the President's Commission on the Status of Women and how that led, ultimately, to the laws against discrimination and to the founding of NOW. She weaves in political themes, personal stories, tales of the CIA, and the contents of her own thick FBI file. And so much more. It's a history book written in an accessible, conversational voice.

I thought of Hank Phillippi Ryan's anecdote about landing a newsroom job instead being hired for the Women's beat by telling the hiring boss that he wouldn't want to get in trouble with the new anti-discrimination laws for not having a woman in the newsroom, now would he? I thought of all the women who struggled for us, the early newsprint editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which Nies mentions, the "First Wave" feminists Nies describes so ably, and pioneers like Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Simone de Beauvoir, Robin Morgan. I, myself, was a little past the crest of the wave, starting college in 1971. But I threw myself wholeheartedly into being a feminist, into a self-help group, into promoting the title "Ms." I felt like I'd been waiting for this movement my whole life.

I want everybody to read this book. I want all our young adults to read it. Thank you, Carolyn, for not coming to get your book before I had time to read it!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Come and Find Me

I'm continuing on my reviews of books I'm reading during my recuperation from back surgery (see Reading While Healing).

The second book I finished was Hallie Ephron's second suspense novel, Come and Find Me. Hallie is an established author of a mystery series, books on how to write, and other books on books. She reviews mystery books for the Boston Globe and is active in Sisters in Crime. I have had the good fortune to study writing under her in several venues.

Come and Find Me weaves a compelling story of hi-tech hacking, the alternate reality of 3D virtual worlds like Second Life, and emotional trauma. The protagonist, Diana Highsmith, copes with tragedy in her life by locking herself in her house and working and living through her avatar online. She has to leave this self-imposed seclusion and brave the anxiety of the r
eal world when her sister goes missing. This is a suspenseful tale that I found really hard to put down. It is based in the Boston area, which is additionally fun for those of us who live here.

Hallie's fir
st venture into suspense was Never Tell a Lie, which was made into the Lifetime Movie channel film, "And Baby Will Fall." It involves a different set of characters, but kept me fascinated and reading in the same way. The movie was well done without too much change of story. I hear Hallie liked it.

These are both works of psychological suspense from a woman's point of view. I can't recommend them enough. What's next, Hallie?

What about you? Have you read Hallie's books?
Did you see the movie?