Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

Protagonist: Claire Roth
Setting: Boston, present-day
Rating: 5.0
There’s not even a murder in this mystery book, but it kept me absolutely riveted, with its setting in the art world — specifically, the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum and the real-life 1990 heist. Claire Roth, a pariah in the art world (even though she was in the right), is asked to paint a copy of one of the paintings stolen in the heist. She does so, in return for a show at a prominent gallery. As events spin out of control, can Claire save her reputation, and perhaps uncover an old art mystery?

This is a book that I read in two days (and which one friend read in one day). The character draws you in so completely — and the topic is so fascinating (especially for art lovers) — that I was hooked from beginning to end.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Interview with Nancy Tesler

Nancy Tesler has written a string of successful mysteries in her “Other Deadly Things” series, but has recently turned to a standalone that’s a bit different. Here, I ask her about the change:

Q. Nancy, can you tell us first about the Other Deadly Things mysteries and the character, Carrie Carlin? Her character seems to be modeled somewhat on yourself: How much of Carrie is you and how much is fictional?

A. The “Other Deadly Things” series is the lemonade I made when life handed me a bunch of lemons and I’m enjoying every drop. The series is pure fiction but the idea for the series came about as a result of my own divorce. My amateur sleuth Carrie is a forty-year- old- suburban mother of two pre-teeners and the “proxy” mom of four animals whose husband of eighteen years has run off with a sexy twenty-eight-year-old wicked witch. Carrie is desperately trying not to fall apart especially for the sake of her children and to build her practice as a biofeedback (stress-reduction) therapist. In Book 1, “Pink Balloons and Other Deadly Things,” just when Carrie thinks her life couldn’t possible get any worse, she is accused of whacking the bimbo. Well, I’m a mother, I’ve been divorced under circumstances not dissimilar to Carrie’s, I’ve been a biofeedback professional, and like Carrie, I’ve had homicidal thoughts about Sirens and their songs. But there the similarity between Carrie and me ends. Carrie is gutsy and occasionally she’s a little reckless. She often gets herself (well, I put her) into situations where even a cop would fear to tread without backup, whereas I’m squeamish. When I was five, I ran screaming from the theater when the witch in “Snow White” poisoned the apple and to this day I avoid scary horror films. I do, however, have a vivid imagination.

Q. You’ve gained quite a following with that series, but now you’ve turned to a romantic suspense novel. Why did you decide to switch in the middle of a successful series?

A. When your protagonist is an amateur sleuth, not a law enforcement professional, it sometimes becomes difficult to have her keep falling over dead bodies and continue to maintain some degree of realism. Her profession does bring her in contact with people from all walks of life which I had originally thought would provide me with endless material but the character herself, took over. By the end of “Slippery Slopes” Carrie has grown. She’s begun to question her motives in continually endangering her own life. She begins to wonder what it is about her that makes her flirt with danger. She has children for whom she is responsible and she has found a man she loves who wants to marry her but who is ready to leave her because of this flaw in her character. When Carrie agrees to marry her cop lover, it seemed a good place to end the series, but it put me in the mood to write a romance. Because I am essentially a mystery writer, it had to be a romantic suspense with the mystery an essential part of the plot.

Some years back I’d been doing research on cults for a TV spec script. When the network cancelled that show, all the research I’d done became useless until the plot for “Ablaze” began to form in my mind. My protagonist in “Ablaze” is Samantha Barron, a victim/advocate working in the prosecutor’s office. Her world is turned upside down when a man with whom she had once been in love shows up at her office. She is forced to work with him to save a young witness to a murder, from the machinations of a malignant cult. Attorney and crisis team leader, Doug Ruark had thrown Samantha off his elite crisis response team for defying his orders and running into a burning building to save a dog. This is a love story about two people who are deeply attracted to each other but whose inability to work through past experience, keeps them apart. In the end, of course, love triumphs. This is, after all, a romance.

Q. What was most difficult about writing this standalone novel?

A. Unquestionably, writing the love scenes. I did not want to write erotic scenes that were gratuitous, sex for sex sake. I wanted them to be real and to grow out of the relationship between the two people. I wanted the moment to be a turning point, to enhance the relationship. To me, if an author is going to have a graphic love scene in a book, it has to be sensitively and realistically written. I’ve read romance novels where those scenes seem written only to titillate which, as a reader, totally turns me off. I worked the hardest on those scenes, editing and reediting over and over.

Q. Will you return now to the Other Deadly Things mysteries, or will you write more standalone books – or both?

A. I am working on Book 1 of a new amateur sleuth. I have been asked by several of my wonderful readers to write a sixth Carrie but for the above-mentioned reasons, I haven’t done it. Occasionally, because I’ve lived with these characters for so long, an idea will surface and I’m tempted. One day perhaps, I’ll choose one of the other characters from the book and base a series on him or her.

Q. You started out with a traditional publisher, but now you self-publish. Why did you make that move and which do you prefer?

A. When the Bertelsmann conglomerate bought Dell and many other houses, quite a few of us newer mid-list authors who were not yet bringing in the big bucks had our contracts dropped. Amazon came along and saved our careers. As the whole world knows by now, self-publishing has really taken off. When I was originally published by Dell, self-publishing was looked down upon by nearly everyone in the industry. Today many indie authors are reaching a larger readership and making more money by going the indie route than if they stay with a traditional publisher. I have mixed feelings. If I were to be offered a traditional contract with a major house for “Ablaze,” I would probably take it for the advantage the exposure to editorial reviewers that would give me, but I would try to hold on to my e-Book rights. And I would want to hold on to my great cover artist as well.

“Ablaze” is available as an eBook; a print book will be available soon.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Protagonist: William Bellman
Setting: England, 19th century
Rating: 2.5

As an 11-year-old boy, William Bellman, out with a group of friends, tries out his new catapault. Against all odds, the rock he slings hits and kills a black rook. Years pass, and William Bellman seems to be a success in all areas of his life: business as well as personal, marrying a woman he loves and raising children. But then a mysterious stranger continues showing up at family funerals. When Bellman's most immediate family is touched by a plague, Bellman makes (in his mind, at least) a pact with this stranger.

This is where the story falls apart. While beautifully written (Setterfield is nothing less than a poet), the plot is very thin and the character of Bellman, on which the story hinges, is not really plumbed. Black rooks, of course, haunt Bellman's life, but in a not-very-scary way.

If you loved Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale, a deliciously gothic tale, you may very well be disappointed in this follow-up book. If you haven't read a Setterfield book yet, then I recommend The Thirteenth Tale. You can skip Bellman & Black.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Other Woman by Hank Phillippi Ryan

The Other Woman by Hank Phillippi Ryan (audio)
Protagonist: Jane Ryland
Setting: Boston
Rating: 3.7

Jane Ryland has lost her job as a Boston television reporter — even though she was in the right, she refused to name a source, costing her TV station millions in a lawsuit and earning her the nickname “Wrong Guy” Ryland. She lands a newspaper job, where she must begin at the bottom and prove herself. In the meantime, her one-time love interest, Det. Jake Brogan, is investigating the murders of young women found under bridges. The media quickly conclude there’s a serial killer loose; Brogan doesn’t think so. The third plotline involves Gov. Owen Lassiter, running for a senate seat. Ryland is convinced he’s having an affair with a young woman who keeps popping up in photos of him at campaign stops. But if Ryland is wrong again, it could really cost her career. All of these plotlines converge, of course, in this great thriller, in which nothing is what it seems.

As a newspaper journalist, I also really enjoyed the descriptions of journalists. Newspapering is far from a glamorous life, and we see Ryland having to share a desk with another reporter and subsisting on drive-through tacos. Then again, you can also feel the adrenalin flow as she works on a big story, the magical part of journalism.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Interview with Eleanor Kuhns

Q. First, congratulations on your success with your debut novel, “A Simple Murder,” which won the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur contest. Had you written anything else before this, and how did it feel to win this prestigious award on your first novel?

A. I wrote science fiction for many years. I always read mysteries though and in retrospect, I realize it was a signal to me about where my true interests lay. I could hardly believe I'd won and even now, when the second book is coming out next spring and I've finished a third, I still have to pinch myself. Accepting the award was one of the best moments of my life.

Q. You were a librarian when “A Simple Murder” was published. Are you still working as a librarian? And what made you take the step into writing?

A. I am still working as a librarian. In some ways it is a good fit with writing. I like to be out with the people. It is in the world of books so I think many librarians are closet writers. Plus, I've always been a big reader, even as a child. I wrote my first story at the age of ten.

Q. “A Simple Murder” is steeped in the 1790s, in a Shaker community. How much research went into this book, and why this specific place and time?

A. I researched the time period and the Shakers for about two years, and the research continues now. I regularly find conflicting information in the sources. I regularly visit Shaker Museums and buy all the self-published materials, which usually has new information. I especially like visiting the community in Maine which still has four living Shakers.
I am fascinated by the Whiskey Rebellion since we are still fighting many of the same issues (state's rights, the role of the federal government, taxation) today. And I wanted to write about our country. Many of the historical mysteries, even those by American writers, are about England, Japan, Europe, not about the US.

Q. Why did you write this as a mystery instead of, say, a straight historical novel?

A. I love mysteries but more than that, the terrible things we do to one another is part of what makes us human (unfortunately). I don't think people change very much, no matter what the social and cultural landscape around them.

Q. I know you are working on upcoming books. Can you tell us a bit about them? Are they part of the same series?

A. I left some loose ends at the end of The Simple Murder. In the next book (Death of a Dyer) I send Will Rees home to resolve most of them as well as to fill in some backstory. It also gives me the chance to talk about dyes and dyeing, something I enjoy as a hobby. (I also weave, which is one reason I made my character a weaver.) The third puts Mouse into danger so I send Rees and Lydia back to the Shaker world, at least tangentially, to investigate.

Q. You wrote a book that is not trendy; it has no vampires and is not a car-chase thriller. It's even set in a community where there's no sex or swearing! Yet it has gotten great reviews (in addition to winning this award, of course). What do you say to writers who ask you what they should write about?

A. I think people should write about what interests them and what they care about. Not necessarily what they know -- I've never been a Shaker, but it has to fascinate them. Also, I read a lot of those mash-ups but the ones that work best, in my opinion, are the ones that involve the reader in the lives of the characters. Does the reader care what happens?

Q. Any lessons you’ve learned post-publication about being a writer?

A. It is a lot more work than I ever dreamed. Writing the book is just the first step.

Q. Finally, the question I ask everyone: Who are your favorite authors, and who are you reading now?

A. I have pretty catholic tastes and read widely. I love both Anne Perry and Barbara Hambly (especially the Benjamin January series) but I also read Michael Connolly, C.J. Box and Linda Castillo. Right now I am reading Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje. I have a Mankell Henning that is next on my list.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Simple Murder by Eleanor Kuhns

Protagonist: William Rees
Setting: Durham, Maine, 1796
Rating: 4.3

William Rees, a weaver, has chased his runaway son, David, 14, to the Zion Shaker community in Durham, Maine, in 1796. The community elders aren’t pleased to see him at first, but later they seek out his help. One of the Shaker women have been murdered; Rees has been known to solve small mysteries and he has an eye for detail.

The Shakers pair Rees with a chaperone of sorts, Lydia Jane Farrell, a former Shaker who is opinionated and outspoken. Although asked to leave the Shaker community, she still lives nearby, although no one will talk about her transgression.

This debut novel by a librarian won the First Crime Novel Award from Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books, and it is simple to see why. The story unspools slowly, and is not only about the murders (more than one, as it turns out). It’s about a father and son’s relationship, and about a community that struggles with its principles as it shuns the modern world.

This appears on its way to becoming a series. I'm looking forward to the second book.

Friday, November 23, 2012

No Corners for the Devil by Olive Etchells

Protagonist: DCI Bill Channon
Setting: Cornish coast England
Rating: 4.5

Sally and Rob Baxter and their three children have moved to a Cornish sea village, where they live in a roundhouse and rent out vacation cottages on the property. As the townspeople like to remark, there are “no corners for the devil in a round house.”

Yet, there is evil out there. Someone has killed a teenage girl not far from their home, along the beach below their home. Their older son, Luke, is the last to have seen the girl and becomes a suspect. Rob begins to act distant and doesn’t rush to support Luke, leaving it up to Sally to deal with the police.

Sally (through whose eyes much of the story is seen) trusts the detective in charge, DCI Channon. There’s even a spark between the two, although neither acts on it. If there’s any fault with this novel, it’s the shifting point of view. Much of it is through Sally’s eye, someone who is connected to a suspect. Then the book shifts to Cannon, as the book becomes more of a police procedural. It’s a strange shift, although it didn’t really affect my enjoyment too much. I do wish, however, that I could have gotten to know Channon and his sidekick, Sgt. Bowles, a bit more. Hopefully I will, in later books.

This first book has all the marks of a promising series. It's a pity, therefore, to see that only three were written in this series.