Monday, August 31, 2009

Shades of Grey by Clea Simon

No one but Dulcie Schwartz may ever see the ghost of her cat, Mr Grey, but thank heavens the grad student sees him. She needs all the help she can get in Clea Simon's new mystery, Shades of Grey.

Dulcie in truly an innocent young woman. She's a grad student at Harvard, a student of Gothic romances trying to find her thesis topic. Mentally, she dwells in that world, while working as a temp at an insurance company. She isn't prepared to find her summer roommate's body in the apartment when she arrives home. But, a cat that looked like Mr Grey tried to warn her not to enter the apartment. She just thought her grief had become too much for her. Instead, she found Tim's body at a time she was mad at him. Suddenly, she's a suspect in the murder of a young, wealthy man she didn't like.

Dulcie isn't prepared to be a suspect. She isn't even prepared for life, spending too many years growing up in arts colonies with her mother, a hippie. She doesn't know how to dress for a funeral; she sees so many men as potential romantic interests; and she tells too many people, including the police, about her suspicions about Tim's activities that may have led to his death. She doesn't even understand that she's being set up for a fall at the insurance company, when suddenly there are computer problems. Thank heavens, Dulcie has Mr Grey, and a few other friends, to look out for her, since she so innocent as to the reality of life.

Computers and murder seem way beyond Dulcie's skills, to anyone but the police, and a murderer. For anyone familiar with Clea Simon's Theda Krakow mysteries, Dulcie is a surprise. She's an innocent dreamer, unprepared for life. But Theda could have been like that before she become hardened by life. But, both characters are bright enough to find a killer. And, both share a love of cats.

The slow paced mystery, Shades of Grey, is perfect for the romantic Dulcie and the ghost of a cat. It has a little too much emphasis on Dulcie's romantic literature for my taste, but that depth of knowledge is worthy of the character. . It's a ghostly mystery, intended to keep the heroine confused and unsure about her friends. But, she can always count on Mr Grey. Shades of Grey is a mystery for the slow fall days almost upon us.

Clea Simon's website is

Shades of Grey by Clea Simon. Severn House, ©2009. ISBN 9780727867810 (hardcover), 216p.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday Salon: Operation Yes by Sara Lewis Holmes

I understand at least one of the reviews of Sara Lewis Holmes' juvenile novel, Operation Yes, wasn't glowing. It's all a matter of taste, of course. But, I thought enough of the book that I'm donating one copy to my library, and sending another to my niece. When a special niece gets a book, I thought it was entertaining and worth passing on.

Operation Yes is set on an Air Force base in Reform, North Carolina, but it could be any base with a school for the children of military personnel. Bo Whaley and his classmates just don't know what to make of their new sixth grade teacher, Miss Loupe. They never had a teacher who crawled on the floor as she called roll. But the large rectangle she taped off became a special place for the class, a Theatrical Space. It was a space that allowed them to be creative, while learning about their schoolwork, themselves, and their teacher. Miss Loupe's students could relate to her stories about her favorite brother, Marc, serving in the Army Special Forces in Afghanistan. And, Bo, the son of the base commander, needed a teacher who could understand how hard it was to live up to expectations.

Bo isn't the only family member who needs understanding. His cousin, Gari, is upset to have to live with Bo's family. She was forced to leave her friends and school in Seattle, when the Army called her mother, a nurse, back into service on a base in Iraq. Gari doesn't understand why that Theatrical Space means so much to the sixth graders. A tragedy in Miss Loupe's life forces her students to face their own fears about their families.

Every time I review a juvenile book, I remind my readers that I'm not the target audience. This story is designed for readers from 9 to 12. I would feel comfortable giving this to boys since Bo is the lead character, a likable boy who worries about his father, his family, and can't help getting in trouble. And, it's certainly interesting to read about the worries and fears of military kids. Holmes is a military wife and mother who has lived all over the world, so she understands the stories. I'm passing this on to my niece, hoping she'll appreciate the wonderful use of improvisational theater. My verdict? Much better than a so-so book, provided the book finds its audience.

Sara Lewis Holmes' website is

Operation Yes by Sara Lewis Holmes. Scholastic, ©2009. ISBN 9780545107952 (hardcover),

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Resurrection: The Miracle Season That Saved Notre Dame by Jim Dent

The week before college football season starts is the perfect time to look back at the storied history of a famous football program. There was a time, for Catholics of a certain age, when you cheered for two college football teams - your favorite state college, and, of course, Notre Dame. Notre Dame had historic teams and memorable coaches, such as Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, and Lou Holtz. But, the memories of the teams of Rockne and Leahy were in jeopardy in the 50s and early
60s. It took Ara Parseghian to lead the team out of the wilderness back to the promised land in 1964. It's that story that Jim Dent tells in Resurrection: The Miracle Season That Saved Notre Dame.

Dent's story is about a group of underdogs, overcoming adversity to triumph. It's the story of a coach, his staff, and a group of dedicated young men who brought a community together. At one time, during the 1963 season, eighteen people showed up for a pep rally for the football team. It was the lowest point of enthusiasm for the Notre Dame football program.

How did a powerful football school, Notre Dame, fall to that place? Blame it on President Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who wanted to clean up the image, destroy the football factory image, and make Notre Dame the Harvard of the Midwest. As he slashed scholarships, and hired poor coaches because they were somehow connected to Notre Dame, he brought the university's football program to the point of collapse. And, young men, who had been actively recruited by Notre Dame, sat on the bench for three years, played just a few minutes at a time, and watched their dreams of playing for Notre Dame collapse. Dent tells how bad the coaches were before Parseghian when he says, "The problem with Kaharich and Devore is that neither knew if a football was blown up or stuffed."

By 1964, Notre Dame was losing students, fans, and monetary support. Ara Parseghian, an Armenian Presbyterian, was hired after Northwestern refused to renew his contract, despite his successful seasons. He came to Notre Dame, and motivated and excited players, such as John Huarte, Jack Snow, Tony Carey, Nick Rassas, Nick Eddy and Alan Page. Dent's book is successful because it focuses on the characters that drove Notre Dame's reputation into the ground, and the people that resurrected the school's football program. He doesn't focus on statistics, but on people. His interviews of those men allows readers to see into their hearts, their despair in the years before 1964, and the changes in attitude brought about by a man who wasn't going to allow them to fail.

The 1964 team was a Notre Dame team that caught fire in the imaginations of the country, but, most of all, in the hearts and imaginations of the players, the students, and the alumni. It was a team that reminded even Father Hesburgh that a university needed spirit.

Jim Dent's book, like so many stories of underdogs that rise to greatness, is inspiring and passionate. Resurrection: The Miracle Season That Saved Notre Dame is a book for all fans of Notre Dame football, and anyone who appreciates the history of an outstanding football program. And, it's a book that can only be summarized in one way.

"Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame
Wake up the echoes cheering her name
Send the volley cheer on high,
Shake down the thunder from the sky

Resurrection: The Miracle Season That Saved Notre Dame by Jim Dent. St. Martin's Press, ©2009. ISBN 9780312567217 (hardcover), 320p.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Reading Rainbow Closes the Book

After 26 years, Reading Rainbow closed the book today on a long-running series about books for children. It won more than two dozen Emmys, and it was the third longest-running children's show in PBS history — outlasted only by Sesame Street and Mister Rogers. During the entire run of the show, which started in 1983, LeVar Burton hosted the show.

I met LeVar Burton in 1992 when I was the library manager at the Captiva Memorial Library on Captiva Island, Florida. The editor of a local newspaper called me and said she had been planning to kidnap me, not telling me where we were going, but thought she should tell me ahead of time, so I would be available for a boat trip. She knew I was a fan of Reading Rainbow. The library bought all of the videotapes as soon as they were available, to share with children. And, LeVar Burton was on Upper Captiva to film an episode of Reading Rainbow.

Here's the description of that episode. Season 10, Episode 8 – Aired: 10/14/1992

Seashore Surprises

"LeVar journeys to the shores of Sanibel Island, off the Gulf Coast of Florida, to witness the tides, feel the sand, and examine some plant life."

Only this description is wrong. LeVar was actually on Upper Captiva, an island reached only by boat. I had the chance to meet him, and thank him for everything he did for books and children. He was passionate about books and reading, saying his mother gave him that love of reading.

I'm still grateful that I had the chance to meet LeVar Burton, and thank him. How many actors would spend so much of their life, even if it wasn't much of his time each year, encouraging children to love books? Thank you, LeVar. Thank you, Reading Rainbow.

Air Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan

Welcome back, Charlie McNally! Hank Phillippi Ryan brings back Charlotte McNally in Air Time. Boston's award-winning investigative reporter is always willing to go undercover for a news story, but this time, it just might affect her relationship with Professor Josh Gelston, and his daughter. For the first time, Charlie has to think about someone else's safety and needs when she digs into a gritty story.

And, Charlie's latest one could be a blockbuster story. Women would just die to own a designer purse, but, when they can't, there are always knock-offs. With the help of her producer, Franklin, Charlie's going undercover to purse parties, visiting designers, and facing her worst fear, flying. Purses shouldn't be dangerous, but there's an on-going investigation by the FBI and the Massachusetts state police.

Other than Franklin, is there anyone Charlie can really trust in this investigation? As the Special Agent in Charge says, it's a deadly business. "We're following big money. International smuggling. Child labor. Legitimate companies ripped off for millions."

There's so much to admire in Charlie McNally. She's a strong, independent, gutsy woman. Here's how she sees herself. "I help people. I track down criminals and confront corrupt politicians. Make the world a better place. I've devoted the last twenty-some years to being a good guy." But, it's a dangerous job. And Charlie's just starting to realize that when she puts herself in danger, she might also be endangering Josh, and her best chance for love.

Hank Phillippi Ryan takes readers inside the business of news investigation. Air Time is a fast-paced, intriguing story of a tough investigative reporter. It's also the warm story of a woman learning to love. But, first, Charlie has to survive a deadly undercover story, bringing it to the air, and bringing herself home to Josh. Air Time could be Charlie McNally's killer story, in more ways than one.

Hank Phillippi Ryan's website is

Air Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan. Mira, ©2009. ISBN 9780778327196 (paperback), 280p.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Winners and a Prime Time Contest

Congratulations to the winners of the paranormal contest. Juliet Blackwell's Secondhand Spirits will go to Karen R. from Rockland, ME. The Ghost and the Femme Fatale by Alice Kimberly will go to Stephanie H. of Vinton, VA. The books will go out in the mail tomorrow.

I'm celebrating Hank Phillippi Ryan's Charlie McNally crime novels this week. Hank and Charlie did an interview here today. Tomorrow, I'll review Air Time. And, this week's contest is a special Prime Time giveaway.

I'm running this week's contest, but eight lucky winners will receive prizes directly from Hank Phillippi Ryan. Three winners get a signed ARC of the first book in the series, PRIME TIME, special Charlie lip balm, and official reporters notebooks. Five more winners will get Charlie lip balms, reporters notebooks, and special discount coupons for the series.

Would you like a chance to win a Prime Time package? If you'd like to win one, email me at Email me!. If that link doesn't work for you, the email address is: Your subject line should read "Win Prime Time". Your message should include your mailing address. Entrants only in the U.S., please.

The contest will end Thursday, Sept. 3 at 6 p.m. PT. Jim will draw the winners at that time. The winners will be notified, and you'll receive your packages directly from Hank Phillippi Ryan. Good luck!

Interview with Hank Phillippi Ryan and Charlie McNally

I don't think I've ever had so much fun with an interview. Hank Phillippi Ryan took time from her busy schedule to allow me to interview her and Charlotte, "Charlie" McNally, the investigative reporter in Hank's mysteries.

"Award-winning investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan is currently on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate, where she's broken big stories for the past 22 years. Her stories have resulted in new laws, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosure, and millions of dollars in refunds and restitution for consumers.

"Along with her 26 EMMYs, Hank’s also won dozens of other journalism honors. She's been a legislative aide in the United States Senate (working on the Freedom of Information Act) and at Rolling Stone Magazine (working with Hunter S. Thompson).

"Her first mysteries, Prime Time (which won the prestigious Agatha Award for Best First Novel, was a double RITA nominee for Best First Book and Best Romantic Suspense Novel, and a Reviewers' Choice Award Winner) and Face Time (Book Sense Notable Book), were best sellers. They were both re-issued this summer from MIRA Books. The next in the series are Air Time (MIRA Sept. 2009) (Sue Grafton says: "Sassy, fast-paced and appealing. This is first-class entertainment.") and Drive Time (MIRA February 2010.) Her website is"

I was slightly intimidated to be interviewing two of the best investigative reporters in the business today, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Charlotte “Charlie” McNally. Ryan is the author of the Charlotte McNally crime novels, relating Charlie’s investigations.

Lesa: Hank, would you introduce Charlie to my readers, and, Charlie, would you introduce Hank?

HANK: Charlotte McNally—Charlie—is a veteran reporter at a Boston television station. She’s smart, and savvy, and successful—

CHARLIE: Yeah, well, you never know when that’ll end. I do have a study full of Emmys, just like you do, Hank, but as you well know, you’re only as good as your last story. If I don’t come up with a blockbuster for the next ratings sweeps, it’s goodbye Charlie. And I’ll be replaced by someone younger. And I bet you’ve had that feeling, too, Hank, in your thirty years as a TV reporter. Just guessing here, of course.

HANK: You see how she is.

Lesa: Charlie, how do you see that you and Hank are alike, and different?

HANK: She’s—

CHARLIE: I’m younger. And a better driver.

HANK: Fine. She’s younger. And a better driver. And I do admit, when my husband talks about Charlie, he calls her “you.” As in: when “you” get chased by the bad guys, or when “you” get held at gunpoint. And I have to remind him, “Sweetheart, it’s fiction.” But Charlie can say things I can’t say about the reality of television, and because she’s (whispering) fictional, she can go places I can’t go.

CHARLIE: But Lesa asked me about this, so let me say. I think we’re both devoted journalists. Hank was married to her job for years, really, verging on workaholic, I heard that from everyone. But she was—is—driven to find justice, and to change the world, and to stand up for the little guy. And I know Hank’s found true love—though she was older than I am when it happened. We’ve both wired ourselves with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, and chased down criminals. And we both still do that.

Lesa: Charlie, what’s the most interesting story you ever covered? And, would you tell us about your undercover investigation in Air Time?

CHARLIE: Well, I must say there were moments when I was covering the AIR TIME story when I wondered if it would be the last story I ever did! You know those fancy designer purses you see on street corners and in flea markets? They look like the expensive Pradas and Chanels—but they’re actually cheap knockoffs.

I wondered—who’s making those? Where do they get the designs? How do they distribute them? And who’s getting all the money from purse-addicted women? And even more—how do they get away with selling them right under the noses of law enforcement?

So I went undercover and in disguise to find out. And Lesa, you won’t believe what I found out. Amazing. Scary.

Lesa: Hank, what was the most interesting story you ever covered?

HANK: Well, interestingly! I’ve done a lot of stories on counterfeit designer merchandise! And much of AIR TIME, including the undercover work, is been there-done that, I must admit. (Of course the scheme I devise for the bad guys is completely from my imagination! But when I described it to law enforcement types, they had to agree it would work!)

My most interesting story? Ah, we’ve found serious flaws in the state’s 911 system, which resulted in emergency responders being sent to the wrong addresses. We found federal jury pools without one person of color—and now that system is changing. We’ve uncovered predatory practices in the mortgage and home improvement industry, and our stories led to people getting their homes out of foreclosure and several new laws enacted. (I think every one of my Emmys represents a secret someone didn’t want revealed—and a time when we changed the world a bit.)

But I always hope my most interesting story is just around the corner

Lesa: Hank, what do you know about Charlie’s future cases?

HANK: Let me just say this: It’s lucky Charlie is a good driver. (DRIVE TIME comes out in February.)

Lesa: Hank, what made you decide you wanted to be a journalist? And, what made you decide to tell about Charlie’s career?

HANK: I had some ideas about making a difference with my life. I started out working in political campaigns in my early-early twenties, and then in Washington DC as an aide in the US Senate, then moved to Rolling Stone Magazine. I got my first job as a TV reporter after that, and I was hooked. Being a reporter is such a responsibility—you have a lot of power to expose, confront, and change the world.

And I love to tell a good story.

So—as a reporter—tracking down leads. Interviewing compelling characters. Going after the bad guys. Finding justice. Having a satisfying conclusion. Changing the world. That’s what reporters do. And that’s what mystery authors do, too! So it all worked perfectly.

When Charlie presented herself—she opened the door to a new career for me.

Lesa: Charlie, why did you decide to let Hank write about your career?

CHARLIE: Huh. Try and stop Hank if she wants to do something. But there are times when Hank pushes me in a way I don’t want to go. Like that gun scene in—well, I won’t give it away. But the two of us do have some battles over my decision-making process. And my perceptions of the bad guys. And I can tell you, I always win. She can’t make me do what I don’t want to do.

HANK (whispering): I let her think that.

CHARLIE (rolling eyes) : I’m ignoring her. As usual. But you know, being a television reporter is a high-pressure job. You can never be wrong! You can never make a mistake, You can never be one second late. And you can never have a bad hair day, because millions of people will see you. Women of a certain age are fighting the on-air aging battle. And many of us, who chose to devote our lives to our careers, are now assessing the results of that. I think that’s important.

So I’m glad Hank offered to write about it. And she seems happy about that, I must say.

Lesa: Hank, Josh has a difficult time with the dangers and hours of Charlie’s job. How does your husband handle it?

HANK: He knows I won’t make risky decisions. Usually. And when I’m out on a story, I have a photographer with me. So I just tell the photog—if someone tries to hit me, just make sure you get it on camera.

The hours on the job is a touchier subject. And Charlie’s battles with Josh over her devotion to her work, I must say, do stem from some actual--

CHARLIE: Hey, TV is 24/7. Nothing I can do about that. And Josh is devoted to his job, too, you know. If one of his students were in trouble, he’d be there in an instant. So it’s not just me.

HANK: As I was saying. What makes it work is that my husband, a criminal defense attorney, is devoted t his job, too. So when he has a big case, or an important trial, I understand the focus and attention he needs to give it. And I think his work is exciting and important, so I actually enjoy it.

Lesa: Hank, do you like to go undercover as much as Charlie does?

HANK: It’s–a necessary tool of TV journalists. A newspaper reporter just needs a notebook and a pen—or even just a good memory. A TV reporter has to get video. And sometimes, the only way to do that is with a hidden camera. We don’t break any laws.

Do I like it? I like the results.

CHARLIE: Let me just say: it can be scary. It can be stressful. And there’s always the possibility of getting caught, which is unpleasant. Hank can tell you that, for sure.

Lesa: Charlie, is there anything else you would like to add to the interview?

CHARLIE: Well, I have a question.

HANK: As usual.

CHARLIE: You should know.

HANK: (shrugging, but with affection)

CHARLIE: I’m thinking I might get a big job offer, from the network, to move to New York. My dream job. What I’ve always wanted. What should I do? What would happen to my love life—which suddenly, surprisingly, seems to exist? In life and in love, how do I tell the real thing?

HANK: I’m sure you’ll make the right decision when the time comes. I hope so, at least.

Lesa: I’d like to thank both of you for taking time for this interview. And, Hank, I have one more question for you. I always end with the same question. I’m a public librarian. Do you have any stories or comments about public libraries?

CHARLIE: Love your blog, Lesa, and thanks for inviting us! Hank’s devoted to libraries. She’s always visiting them, and doing speeches and seminars. As you know, a library and a brave librarian played a pivotal role in my adventure with—

HANK: Charlie, cool it. Someone might not have read that yet. Lesa, I can say with certainty that I would not be where I am today without libraries. Summers, as a kid, I’d lug home the limit—ten books at a time—from our local library. (Indianapolis.) Those blue biographies, and Edward Eager, and anything about horses. The smell of the books. The beautiful stacks. The big wooden desks. The Dewey Decimal system that puts everything in such perfect order—I love it. The devoted librarians who always had one more wonderful book to share. In Massachusetts, as everywhere, libraries are facing devastating financial challenges. I try to do what I can to help.

CHARLIE: Me, too. Libraries? Give Hank a call. We’d love to come visit..

I can't thank Hank Phillippi Ryan and Charlie McNally enough. I hope they enjoyed the interview as much as I did. Watch for Charlie's future adventures. As they said, Air Time is just out, and Drive Time will be out in February.

Hank Phillippi Ryan's website is

Air Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan. Mira, ©2009. ISBN 9780778327196 (paperback), 280p.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Interview with Sandra Dallas

You can't believe how excited I was when I was asked if I'd like to interview Sandra Dallas. I have loved her books since I read The Persian Pickle Club. And, each one of her books has been special. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.

Lesa - Thank you, Sandra, for taking time to answer questions. I’ve been a fan of yours for years, beginning with The Persian Pickle Club, but I don’t know much about you. Would you introduce yourself to my readers?

Sandra - I was a journalist with Business Week Magazine for 35 years and the magazine’s first female bureau chief, in Denver. I wrote nine nonfiction books, mostly on Colorado history and always thought I’d write significant books about the West, you know, explaining water policy and land use. Instead, I turned to fiction, publishing my first novel, Buster Midnight’s Café, about 20 years ago.

Lesa - What brought you to writing, and particularly to telling the stories of women?

Sandra - I never wanted to be anything but a writer. Well, actually, that’s not true. I wanted to be a movie star, but I tried out for the high school play and immediately went to Plan B, which was writing. I studied journalism at the University of Denver, not creative writing. I’d never planned to write fiction—I didn’t even read it—and turned to it as a fluke when two friends and I decided to write a steamy novel. That didn’t work, but I learned that I loved writing fiction. As for stories of women, they are what come out when I write. I thought I was writing an historic novel when I wrote my first work of fiction, Buster Midnight’s Café, but when it was published, readers told me that it was a story of loyalty and friendship. That is not something I plan, but it is what emerges when I sit down at the computer. I have to say that I don’t understand the creative process, but I’ve learned to trust it.

Lesa - Prayers for Sale is a wonderful story spanning the time from the Civil War to the Depression. Would you tell us about it?

Sandra - Prayers for Sale is the story of a friendship between two women, Hennie, who is 86, and Nit, 17. Hennie has lived in Middle Swan, Colo., a gold dredging town in the Rockies, for 70 years, while Nit is a newcomer who is hurting from the loss of her baby. Hennie takes the girl under her wing and in helping her heal, Hennie tells stories about Middle Swan. But the stories are really about Hennie and her life, the hardships and joys and one unresolved issue with which she must come to terms.

Lesa - I’ve read all of your books, but my favorites are Prayers for Sale, Tallgrass, and The Persian Pickle Club. Do you have a favorite book or
character, and why is it your favorite?

Sandra - The Diary of Mattie Spenser was always my favorite, but I think it’s been replaced by Prayers for Sale. Incidentally, Tom Earley, is a character in both books. In fact, characters from virtually all of my other books have walk-on roles in Prayers for Sale.

Lesa - Since the women in my family have made family quilts, I noticed the
the importance of quilting in most of your books. If it’s not a major part
of the story, as in Prayers for Sale and The Persian Pickle Club, it still has a minor role, such as in Tallgrass. Can you tell us about the role of quilting in your life?

Sandra - I taught myself to quilt when my daughters were babies, although I have to say I’m a poor quilter and rarely quilt anymore. But I collect old quilts. I love them as women’s art and symbols of women’s lives. I love the closeness of quilting circles, the friendships that develop over a needle. And as a writer, you can do so much with quilting—have a character hold the needle far away to thread it, lick the thread, prick herself. The colors a woman chooses for her quilt identify her. So does her stitching. A woman who takes big sloppy stitches is different from who takes small even stitches.

Lesa -A number of your books are set in the Depression. Is there a reason you’re interested in that time period?

Sandra - I have trouble dealing with modern technology, so you’ll never see me writing about cell phones and ipods. I was born after the Great Depression, but because my parents had such a difficult time during those years, I was brought up with a sort of depression orientation: pay your bills, pay off the mortgage, save your money, hard times could come again. The Persian Pickle Club, my second novel, was set during that time period because the book is based on an incident in my parents’ lives. And I just liked writing about that era. Of course, there’s all that wonderful stuff—depression glass, girdles, gasoline stations with glass-top pumps, cars with running boards.

Lesa - Would you tell us what you’re working on now?

Sandra - My upcoming novel is Whiter Than Snow, which is set in Swandyke, a mining town on the Swan River not far from Middle Swan in Prayers for Sale. In the spring of 1920, an avalanche thunders down a mountain, sweeping up nine children walking home from school. Four of them live. The book tells the stories of the families of these children. Whiter Than Snow (a Biblical reference) will be published next spring.

Lesa - Before I ask my final question, is there anything you would like to discuss that I might have missed?

Sandra - Your questions are comprehensive. One thing I loved about writing the book was writing the dialogue. Many of the expressions are snippets of mining town conversations that were captured by Helen Rich, an elderly writer who lived in Breckenridge, Colo., from the 1940s to the 1970s. Helen mentored me long before mentor was a verb. Others expressions came from slang books, from reading period newspaper, and from my own recollection of living in Breckenridge in the early 1960s. Middle Swan, incidentally, is based on Breckenridge.

Lesa - Thank you, Sandra. My final question is one I always ask. I’m a public librarian. Do you have any special memories or comments about libraries?

Sandra - Are you kidding! I am a writer because of librarians. I practically grew up in the Park Hill Branch of the Denver Public Library. When I was eight or nine, I passed out in front of the circulation desk and came to with everyone in the library standing around me. It remains one of the highlights of my life.

But I have a more serious connection with libraries. My older sister, Donna Kay, died of polio at the age of 13, in 1948. My mother started a library at our church in her memory. Mother, who’d never gone to college, became a self-taught librarian. She pioneered techniques that were picked up by church libraries all over the country. In 2001, just two weeks before her death, she was given an award for her work by the association of church and synagogue libraries.

Lesa -Thank you, Sandra, for giving me the opportunity to interview you. It's been such a pleasure! And, I'm looking forward now to reading Whiter Than Snow!

Sandra Dallas' website is

Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas. St. Martin's Press, ©2009. ISBN 9780312385187 (hardcover), 320p.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas

Way back in April, I reviewed Sandra Dallas' Prayers for Sale. But, tomorrow, I'm going to share an interview I had with this author that I've admired for years. I usually don't republish a review, but I want to remind you about the book before you read the interview. It's a story of hardship, suffering, tragedy and loss, love and forgiveness. And, despite the tragedy, Sandra Dallas' Prayers for Sale is a story told with joy.

As in earlier books, such as The Persian Pickle Club, Dallas takes readers back to the Depression, this time to 1936 in Middle Swan, Colorado. Middle Swan is a mining community high in the mountains. It's been home to Hennie Comfort for seventy of her eighty-six years, although her daughter, Mae, is now insisting she spend winters with her in Iowa. So, Hennie is not looking forward to her future when she meets Nit Spindle.

When Hennie first sees Nit, she's standing in the snow at Hennie's gate, eyeing the sign that says "Prayers for Sale". Nit begs the older woman for a prayer for a baby. Nit quickly left, but her southern accent and her request tugged on Hennie's heart. Nit, a seventeen year old from Kentucky, married just two years, reminded Hennie of her own stories, since she married young in Tennessee, and watched her young husband disappear as a Confederate soldier. Hennie told of her youth, and, then, as she learned Nit's background, she slowly revealed the stories of her life, as the two women quilted together. It wasn't an easy life, but Hennie was a strong woman who overcame tragedy, and she hopes her life stories will help Nit overcome the bad times in her own life.

Sandra Dallas' books are not appreciated as they should be. Perhaps it's because they are books about the lives of women. But, they are not as simple as they appear. Prayers for Sale looks to be a book about an old woman's story, but it's so much more. The book spans the time period from the Civil War in Tennessee through Prohibition and the Depression in Colorado. Hennie's memories include life in a mining community, a brutal life of miners' deaths, whorehouses, and women or infants that die in childbirth. Throughout the book, Hennie's eyes view her life and community with love, and she sees the beauty in the land she has grown to cherish. Maybe Dallas' books aren't appreciated because she knows how important women were to life and death of communities, and how important it was for those women to be there for each other. Quilting is a device she uses in so many of her books, to show the need women have to get together and share their lives.

Hennie Comfort may be the storyteller, but Sandra Dallas puts magic in the words and phrases. When Nit and Hennie first meet, Nit asks about the sign, Prayers for Sale, and Hennie says, "That sign's older than God's old dog." The music in Hennie's words catches the reader up, just as much as it does Nit. Prayers for Sale is a book that will stay with me, just as Dallas' The Persian Pickle Club and Tallgrass still linger in my memory.

Sandra Dallas' website is

Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas. St. Martin's Press, ©2009. ISBN 9780312385187 (hardcover), 320p.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Secondhand Spirits by Juliet Blackwell

Can a lonely witch find friendship and happiness running a vintage clothing store in San Francisco? Let's hope so, because I fell in love with Lily Ivory, and her familiar, Oscar, in Secondhard Spirits by Juliet Blackwell. It's the first in the new Witchcraft Mystery series, and I hope it's the first of many.

After being expelled from her small Texas town, Lily Ivory has travelled the world, studying witchcraft, and learning about her own natural powers. It took a parrot to advise her to go to San Francisco, but he warned her to "Mark the fog." She's only been in the Haight-Ashbury district for six weeks, but Lily loves her vintage clothing shop, Aunt Cora's Closet. She feels comfortable with the eccentric residents, and her two assistants, Bronwyn and Maya. She's never had many friends, and she's hopeful she might find some in this unusual community.

Blackwell catches the reader's attention immediately with the opening sentence, "Witches recognize their own." And, the arrival of Aiden Rhodes, a gorgeous male witch kicks off an unusual week for Lily, beginning with the present he brought her. Lily's suspicious of gifts, and doesn't really want the familiar he gives her, but when the shapeshifting creature turns into an adorable Vietnamese potbellied pig, named Oscar, she has a hard time getting rid of him. And, it's too late when Bronwyn falls for Oscar.

Lily's too busy to worry about a gift. When she and Maya visit a client, hunting for vintage clothing, their trip is disrupted by the disappearance of a young girl. As she probes a little, Lily discovers other children have disappeared from that area, including the client's own daughter. Lily had heard the wailing of a demon, and was shocked to find La Llorona haunting San Francisco. Legends of "the weeping woman" were common to those, like Lily, who grew up near the Rio Grande. Legend says that a woman, left by her husband, drowned her children, and spends nights wailing and calling for her lost children. Latino parents warn their children not to go out at night, because La Llorona would get them. Now, here in San Francisco, La Llorona was walking, and, possibly, taking children.

Do the disappearing children have anything to do with a murder in which Lily becomes a suspect? Once again, Lily fears she might have to go on the run. But, she decides it's more important to stay, find what haunts a troubled house, and fight to save a child. More than anything, Lily is tired of running. She's ready to find a place to call home, and people to call friends.

Secondhand Spirits can be read for entertainment only. It's a fun story, with romance possibilities with a couple hunky men, terrific vintage clothing, and, of course, the enchanting Oscar. But, there is so much more to this book. It has serious depth, with the history of witches, the persecution of practitioners and women who threatened society. Most of all, the entire book has a theme of loneliness. Lily Ivory isn't the only needy, lonely person in this book. She's a witch, forced to move from town to town. But, there's a homeless man Lily barters services with, a Wiccan coven, a reporter. So many people are as needy as Lily. When Lily reaches out, other people offer help.

Read the book for the mystery, for witches, the story of La Llorona, or entertainment. But, you'll end up wanting the sequel to Secondhand Spirits to return to Lily and Oscar. Thank you, Juliet, for a new group of friends.

Juliet Blackwell's website is

Secondhand Spirits by Juliet Blackwell. Penguin Group (USA), ©2009. ISBN 9780451227454 (paperback), 336p.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sunday Salon - The Hanging Hill by Chris Grabenstein

Does your favorite young reader love ghost stories? If they find it fun to scare their friends with stories of ghouls, and blood, and mad killers, Chris Grabenstein's second Zack and Judy adventure, The Hanging Hill, is the perfect book. The sequel to The Crossroads is even creepier than the first book. It's the perfect late-at-night or Halloween book for readers nine to twelve. Creepy, with some humor, The Hanging Hill, has a heroic young man, a terrific stepmother, and, Zack's dog, Zipper.

Zack Jennings, and his stepmother, Judy, thought they were taking a relaxing summer trip to Chatham, Connecticut, where Judy's story, Curiosity Cat was going to be produced as a play. Zack thought he was leaving his adventures with ghosts behind, but The Hanging Hill Playhouse is haunted, and, naturally, Zack can see the ghosts - unusual ghosts of a juggling young girl, a familiar looking woman. But, he also sees horrid ghosts, a Pilgrim who was hung, a woman with a hatchet. He doesn't want to bother Judy before her musical is produced. Fortunately, when the two young leads show up, Meghan McKenna is more than a movie star. She can also see the ghosts, and she quickly joins Zack in investigating the stories behind the haunting of The Hanging Hill Playhouse.

Zack and Meghan will need to dig for the theater's history because something is definitely wrong with the strange director of Curiosity Cat. The man is preoccupied with a strange old book. But, Zack will find a supporting cast of ghosts. He'll need all the help he can get if he's to survive demons such as Diamond Mike Butler, the Butcher Thief of Bleeker Street, and Mad Dog Murphy, who died in the electric chair in 1959. Once again, Zack and Judy will have to use their wits to defend themselves against evil.

Grabenstein combines horrible villains with ghosts and humor for a successful ghost story. As a librarian, and mystery fan, there were two notable points that younger readers will miss. Zack and Judy, Meghan and her mother, a teacher, all appreciate the public library, and head to the local library for research. And, the inside joke for mystery fans is the presence of Doris Ann Norris as the librarian. Norris, the former director of the Kaubisch Memorial Public Library in Fostoria, Ohio, calls herself the "2000 Year Old Librarian" on mystery and library listservs.

Chris Grabenstein is the author of The Hanging Hill and The Crossroads for young readers, as well as the Ceepak mysteries for adults. His website reflects his dual nature as a writer. Check out

And, as an added treat, here's the YouTube trailer for The Hanging Hill, with typical juvenile humor.

The Hanging Hill by Chris Grabenstein. Random House, ©2009. ISBN 9780375846991 (hardcover), 336p.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Fitzgerald Ruse by Mark de Castrique

Mark de Castrique's Blackman's Coffin introduced a fascinating new character, Former Chief Warrant Officer Sam Blackman, a man who lost a leg in Iraq, and, after being sent to a V.A. hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, investigated the murder of a new acquaintance, and a connection to Thomas Wolfe. The story was fresh, and the characters original. The second book, The Fitzgerald Ruse, felt flat in comparison.

Sam and his new business partner and girlfriend, Nakayla Robertson, are just opening their office as private investigators when an old friend at Golden Oaks Retirement Center calls and asks them to meet with Ethel Barkley. Ethel claims to have betrayed F. Scott Fitzgerald over seventy-five years earlier, and asks Sam to retrieve a lockbox from the bank for her. Before he can take the box to his new client, he finds a security guard killed in his office, and another murder occurs. When an old friend from Sam's past in Iraq appears, claiming the two men are targets of rogue mercenaries once employed by Blackwater, Sam is unsure where to turn for answers. Do the murders relate to the lockbox, with a swastika seal, that was stolen from his office at the time of the security guard's death? Or, is someone after Sam?

The Fitzgerald Ruse has too many characters, unlikely storylines, murders that rely on timing. I still like Sam and Nakayla, and I'll read the next book in the series. But, I was disappointed that the final resolution had less to do with F. Scott Fitzgerald than the title and opening suggested. Other readers may not find this mystery quite as cluttered as I did. Mark de Castrique's The Fitzgerald Ruse just left me feeling dissatisfied.

Mark de Castrique's website is

The Fitzgerald Ruse by Mark de Castrique. Poisoned Pen Press, ©2009. ISBN 9781590586297 (hardcover), 254p.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Shamus Award Nominees

Today, the Private Eye Writers of America announced the 2009 nominees for the Shamus Awards. These awards are given annuallly to "recognize outstanding achievement in private eye fiction". Their announcement says, "The 2009 awards cover works first published in the U.S. in 2008. The awards will be presented at the PWA banquet, to be held Friday evening Oct. 16, 2009, in Indianapolis, Indiana, during the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention."

2009 Shamus Awards Nominees

Best Hardcover

Salvation Boulevard by Larry Beinhart (Nation Books), featuring Carl Vanderveer
Empty Ever After by Reed Farrel Coleman (Bleak House Books), featuring Moe Prager
The Blue Door by David Fulmer (Harcourt), featuring Eddie Cero
The Price of Blood by Declan Hughes (Wm. Morrow), featuring Ed Loy
The Ancient Rain by Domenic Stansberry (St. Martins Minotaur) featuring Dante Mancuso

Best First PI Novel

Stalking Susan by Julie Kramer (Doubleday), featuring Riley Spartz
Swann’s Last Song by Charles Salzberg (Five Star), featuring Henry Swann
The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang (Simon & Schuster), featuring Mei Wang
In the Heat by Ian Vasquez (St. Martins Minotaur), featuring Miles Young
Veil of Lies by Jeri Westerson (St Martins Minotaur), featuring Crispin Guest

Best Paperback Original

Snow Blind by Lori Armstrong (Medallion) featuring Julie Collins
Shot Girl by Karen Olson (Obsidian) featuring Annie Seymour
The Stolen by Jason Pinter (MIRA) featuring Henry Parker
The Black Hand by Will Thomas (Touchstone/Simon &Schuster) featuring Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn.
The Evil That Men Do by Dave White (Crown/Three Rivers Press) featuring Jackson Donne

Best Short Story

“Family Values” by Mitch Alderman (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, June 2008), featuring Bubba Simms
“Last Island South” by John C. Boland. (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Sep/Oct 2008), featuring Meggie Trevor
“The Blonde Tigress” by Max Allan Collins (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, June 2008), featuring Nate Heller
“Discovery” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Nov 2008), featuring Pita Cárdenas
“Panic on Portage Path” by Dick Stodghill (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Jan/Feb 2008), featuring Jack Eddy and Bram Geary.

Congratulations to the nominees!

Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler's Imagined City by Catherine Corman

I love black-and-white photographs. I think they capture a mood, an atmosphere, better than colored photographs. A city, a building, a setting comes to life for me in the details of a black-and-white photo. Catherine Corman intended to bring Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles to life in Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler's Imagined City.

Mystery author Betty Webb, in discussing noir said, "The Internet description of noir describes a crime drama, emphasizing moral ambiguity. It's in black-and-white." That definition works for Raymond Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe, and for these photographs. Corman, the photographer, pairs her pictures with quotes from Chandler's books. In the preface, Jonathan Lethem describes the "scenes of love, strife, and murder that fill Chandler's books." He discusses Catherine Corman's "supremely evocative catalogue of haunted places."

In her introduction, Corman says, "Raymond Chandler was called the epic poet of Los Angeles. He kept the corruption and violence of the city simmering just beneath a surface populated by reclusive millionaires, femmes fatales, secretive bell hops, suspect chauffeurs, and one honest man, private detective Philip Marlowe."

There's a loneliness, a quietness, in these pictures. Black-and-white evokes crime and suspicion so much better than colored photos. The darkness hovers in every photo. Corman walks the reader through Chandler's Los Angeles, location by location, beginning with the General Sternwood residence. The Sternwood oil fields, the Lido pier, Stillwood Crescent Drive. Each photo is connected to Chandler and Marlowe. They are secretive, shadowy pictures. Hotels, clubs and city halls all seem tinged with corruption and darkness in a black-and-white photo. Was this the Los Angeles that Chandler knew, that he saw in his Philip Marlowe stories?

Catherine Corman doesn't need night to allow Chandler's Los Angeles to feel haunted. Her Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler's Imagined City, brings the shadows and moods of his stories to life.

Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler's Imagined City by Catherine Corman. Charta, ©2009. ISBN 9788881587247 (paperback), 128p.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Winners and a Paranormal Mystery Contest

Congratulations to the winners of last week's contest. Lisa Jackson's Chosen to Die will go to Cheryl M. from North Providence, RI. Sweetheart by Chelsea Cain will go to Karen B. of Bloomington, MN. The books will go out in the mail tomorrow.

This week, I'm offering two paranormal mysteries. When Juliet Blackwell appeared at Velma Teague on Saturday, she signed a copy of the first mystery in her new series,
Secondhand Spirits. Lily Ivory is not the average witch, but she hopes to have a normal life when she opens a vintage store in San Francisco. Unfortunately for her plans, she might be the only one who can unravel a crime when a client is murdered and children start disappearing. The winner gets Blackwell's debut paperback in this series, along with her signature, and her own "signature" artwork.

Or, you could win a copy of The Ghost and the Femme Fatale, my favorite book in Alice Kimberly's Haunted Bookshop mystery series. Penelope Thornton-McClure is handling the books sales for guest speakers at the town's first Film Noir Festival. When a legendary femme fatale is almost killed, and other guests die, Penelope works with the ghost of Jack Shepard, the private investigator who was killed in her shop years ago. Once again, Jack helps Penelope with a current case, while she experiences one of his cases from fifty years earlier.

Do you want to win Secondhand Spirits or The Ghost and the Femme Fatale? You can enter to win both, but I need separate entries for each. If you'd like to win one, email me at Email me!. If that link doesn't work for you, the email address is: Your subject line should read either Win "Second Spirits" or Win "Femme Fatale". Your message should include your mailing address. Entrants only in the U.S., please.

The contest will end Thursday, August 27 at 6 p.m. PT. Jim will draw the winners at that time. The winners will be notified, and the books will go out in the mail on Friday. Good luck!

Release Party for Brent Ghelfi's The Venona Cable

The release party for Brent Ghelfi's The Venona Cable packed the ballroom at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. There were so many people it was hard to get near Brent for the book signing before the actual program began. The Poisoned Pen Bookstore and Lisa Ghelfi worked together for the party, providing desserts, drinks, and tables with Russian nesting dolls.

Since the Arizona Biltmore is celebrating its 80th birthday this year, and the Poisoned Pen is celebrating its 20th, they have partnered for four programs. Brent Ghelfi's release party was the first one. Sept. 1 is CSI: Phoenix with Dr. Kathy Reichs signing 206 Bones, followed by Jack Ballentine, author of Murder for Hire, introducing Camille Kimball, author of The Phoenix Serial Killer for her book release. On Sept. 22, Diana Gabaldon will sign her new Outlander novel, Echo in the Bone. The event will even feature a piper. On Nov. 14, John Sandford hosts a Guys Night, a party with Martin Limon, Thomas Perry, James Rollins, and Don Winslow.

Following the announcement of upcoming events, Barbara Peters, owner of
the Poisoned Pen, introduced Brent Ghelfi by quoting Lee
Child. "Brent Ghelfi writes like Dostoevsky's hooligan great-grandson on speed." Brent responded that he was grateful. Not only is Lee Child a bestselling author, but he is a gentleman, and very supportive of other authors. He was very supportive of Ghelfi's first book, Volk's Game. That support is one of the nicest things Child can do for another author. Peters said Volk's Game was the Poisoned Pen's bestselling book of 2007.

Barbara mentioned that, naturally, Ghelfi was influenced by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but she understood there was another author who was a bigger influence. According to Brent, people thing of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, but Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a greater influence. One of the characters is a prison guard, Lieutenant Volkovi, a character no one likes. Ghelfi picked that name, Alexei Volkovoy, for his character.

When asked who else he reads, Ghelfi said he reads almost everything. Naturally, he reads Martin Cruz Smith. But, James Sallis influenced, and helped him. He started reading Sallis in 1990-91, when he wandered into the Poisoned Pen, and Barbara suggested a book. When he returned, she asked what he thought, and he said it was a little light; he wanted something more...And, she said I have an author for you. She gave him one of Sallis' books. Since Sallis was at the party, Brent said he wanted to acknowledge him, saying, in his opinion, he was the most likely candidate to win a National Book Award. Brent said Sallis taught him all he knows about writing.

Barbara Peters said as long as they were discussing Sallis and Ghelfi together, she wanted to mention that Maricopa County is doing Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury for this year's Big Read. She's hoping to have Sallis and Ghelfi do a program together about the book. She said she has a whole new life planned for Brent since he acted as host for Clive Cussler and James Rollins, and did such a wonderful job.

Peters told Ghelfi that his books, set in Chechnya, almost seemed as if they were written from today's headlines. According to Brent, in 1995, Grozny, Chechnya had a population of 600,000. After the Russian tanks rolled in, only 50,000 people lived there, most of them in burned out buildings. Chechnya has been fought over for years. Tolstoy wrote about Russians invading Chechnya. Recently, a human rights advocate was accosted, dragged away, and shot in the back of the head. Her purse, with contacts intact, was left by her body. It was strictly an assassination. Volk is a part of that Chechen politics. Modern Russia is a place where history, life, politics, and religion collide. The outlandish stories that come out of Russia are true.

Ghelfi's first book, Volk's Game, was his art book, about lost da Vinci painting from the Hermitage Museum. Volk's Shadow is his Chechen book. The new book, The Venona Cable, deals with untold stories of World War II. The British and the Americans deciphered cables sent back and forth from Russia. They were able to identify spies. The Soviets had the greatest spy apparatus in the world, after the Revolution until the '90s. So, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia was the jumping off point for this book.

If you go to the NSA's website, and search Venona, you can find stories of 1943. Roosevelt and Churchill had a private meeting, with just a couple other people in attendance. Stalin knew the result of that meeting before anyone else, including Congress. They made the decision not to open up the second front. The actual cable is reproduced on Brent's book, altered just a little.

There's a Hollywood film director in the book, who is a foil to talk about Hollywood and the Communist Party in the U.S.A. A number of people from Hollywood explored Communism in the 50s and 60s, and some ended up on the Hollywood blacklist. Ghelfi explores a little of that history in the book. And, the story includes Volk's father, a veteran of the Cold War air wars.

Peters said it was strange to read this book, back-to-back with Joseph Kanon's forthcoming book, Stardust. (Kanon appears at the Poisoned Pen on October 14.) That book deals with a Hollywood director in 1944, and the beginning of the blacklist. Kanon sets his book in 1944, and Ghelfi writes his book looking back at that period.

Ghelfi asked how many in the audience grew up thinking the Rosenbergs might have been innocent. He said they were not. Julius had a darkroom, and he actively recruited spies. Ethel probably knew about it, and, allegedly typed the notes. The U.S. had the Venona Cable saying this. Julius was a spy.

When Peters mentioned that Ghelfi's books were anchored in history, she said Volk's Game dealt with da Vinci, Volk's Shadow has a stolen Faberge egg, this one deals with the Venona Cable. Brent said he likes to start with something that actually happened.

He went on to say that Russian life seems to change very little. There's a saying, "Joseph Stalin straddled the oceans and filled the skies." The people yearn for that kind of powerful figure, which is why Putin is so popular.

Peters said a killer thriller also has to have sex. Ghelfi went on to talk about Valya, Volk's lover. They have a stressful relationship. She is a Chechen refugee. The tribes turned on each other in Chechnya. Valya was one of the disenfranchised tribes. They have a stormy relationship. She's unpredictable, and it's a surprising relationship.

When asked what was next, Ghelfi said the fourth book in the series is in the works. It's due to his publisher in late October. It deals with Russia's terrible record with nuclear technology. They had one plant explode in 1957, before Chernobyl, but they not only denied the explosion, they denied the plant existed. Gary Power's u2 was headed to take pictures of it when he was shot down. The book is tentatively titled The Burning Lake.

Before turning the questions over to the audience, Barbara Peters said discovering new authors is one of the pleasures she shares with her staff. She said Brent Ghelfi is one of the finest new writers she's read because he entertains, and makes you think.

The first question was whether Ghelfi's books were available on e-books. He said no. All three are available on Kindle. He said the first two are also unabridged audios, but he doesn't know when The Venona Cable will come out.

He was asked how we learned about the Venona Cable, and he said American researchers in Moscow found out through Russian KGB files. They also learned about American Communist spies there. In 1995, those researchers brought it back to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who chaired the Commission on Government Secrecy. Moynihan secured the release of the FBI's Venona files. Researchers know dates and times from the KGB files.

Barbara reminded everyone that Russia was our ally during WWII. In the 1930s, many people embraced Communism as an ideal. Ghelfi told the story of The Lost Spy by Andrew Meier. It's the true story of a Princeton/Yale graduate who was caught up in Stalin's secret service. They arrested him, sentenced him for being a double spy, and sentenced him to seven years of hard labor. He was released exactly seven years later. But, he was immediately picked up, taken someplace, tortured, and killed. Meier's book includes notes from Stalin saying he needs to die. But, at that time, people who believed in Communism, such as that idealistic young man, thought they were working to build a brave new world.

Someone asked when the movie was coming out. Brent said Volk's Game has been optioned, and it even has a script. But, there's a slim to none chance of filming unless a major star, director or producer wants to get it made. When asked who should play Volk, he said he could see Jason Statham in the first two books, and
Clive Owen, as he appeared in Inside Man, in the third.

He was asked if there has been any interest in publishing his book in Russia. Brent responded that it's unlikely to get a Russian language publisher because he's critical of Putin, but it has been published on the Western edge of Russia, in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Before returning to sign books, Brent Ghelfi ended the program by thanking everyone, particularly his wife, Lisa.

Brent Ghelfi's website is

The Venona Cable by Brent Ghelfi. Henry Holt, ©2009. ISBN 9780805088946 (hardcover), 336p.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Terrific Wednesday!

What a nice Wednesday!

When I went in my email this morning, I discovered that I was named 1 of the 100 best Twitter Feeds for Librarians of the Future, from Very nice! And, my name was just underneath Michael Stephens', which I find really exciting. If you're a librarian, grab the chance to hear him speak.

My blog has been nominated as Best Blog in three categories for Book Blogger Appreciation Week (#BBAW on Twitter). It's been nominated for Best General Review Blog, Best Mystery/Suspense/Thriller Blog, and Best Publishing Industry Blog. I can't believe it! That's so nice.

On top of that, I'm about to leave for my favorite day of the quarter - the librarians' brown bag luncheon. I have 15 to 20 books I'll talk about while library staff from the system have lunch. It's always fun!

It's been a great day, and it's just 11 AM!

Roses by Leila Meacham

It's actually a little early to review Leila Meacham's Roses, but I understand it was one of the hottest Advanced Reading Copies at BEA this year. This is the reprint of my starred review from the Aug. 15 issue of Library Journal, reprinted with permission.

Meacham, Leila. Roses. Grand Central. Jan. 2010. c.624p. ISBN 978-0-446-55000-0. $24.99. F

It's been almost 30 years since the heyday of giant epics in the grand tradition of Edna Ferber and Barbara Taylor Bradford, but Meacham's debut might bring them back. This story of two founding families in a small East Texas town spans the 20th century. When Mary Toliver inherits her family's cotton plantation, Somerset, in 1916, it tears apart her family; her mother turns to alcohol, and her brother leaves. Mary's obsession with Somerset even causes her to lose the love of her life, timber magnate Percy Warwick. By the time she's 85, Mary is determined that the family curse will not continue and, despite her grandniece's love of Somerset, plans for the plantation to be sold after her death. Mary Toliver and Percy Warwick can't share anything more than friendship, but Mary's actions might allow Rachel to see past Somerset to the man who loves her. VERDICT Readers who like an old-fashioned saga will devour this sprawling novel of passion and revenge. Highly recommended.—

Lesa Holstine, Glendale P.L., AZ

Copyright © 2009 Cahners Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tim Hallinan, Guest Blogger

Today is release date for Tim Hallinan's latest Bangkok thriller, Breathing Water, so we're lucky to have him as guest blogger today. I hope you find his topic as interesting as I do. Thank you, Tim.

Question Marks and Fish Hooks

Okay, so it's a dumb title, But it refers to something I noticed a few days ago – that a question mark is shaped like a fish hook. And that resemblance seems to me to have something to do with the way mysteries and thrillers work.

The “hook” in a mystery or a thriller is a question: whodunit for mysteries, and how do you get out of it for thrillers. By setting up this question in the early chapters – and by making the reader care about the people the question affects, the writer hooks the reader. From that point on, the writer's objective is to reel the reader in, so to speak, across tens of thousands of words, sentences, characters, settings, plot developments, reversals – all without breaking the line.

Because when the line breaks, the reader gets away. Life and/or television intervenes. The book gets closed, set aside, and returned to the library, put on a pile for the homeless, or re-sold on eBay. In any case, two things have happened:

First, the writer has failed to accomplish his or her primary responsibility: to keep the reader hooked.

Second, the writer has lost a reader for future books.

Now, I don't know about you, but my readers aren't so numerous that I take lightly losing any of them. It's a small club, growing but definitely requiring lots of water and TLC. If I think of my books as magic tricks (and sometimes I do), then the trick had better be seamless, or as seamless as my skill and experience allow me to make it. I do NOT want any of the people who visit Bangkok via my books to start flying John Burdett instead.

So how, as writers, do we keep the hook set?

If I can be presumptuous enough to make some suggestions:

Make sure the question works. Is the ghost at the beginning of “Hamlet” really Hamlet's father or a demonic presence sent to mislead Hamlet? Did Uncle Claudius really kill Dad? This question matters. It matters more because (a) there's a kingdom at stake, and (b) because we care about Hamlet himself. So another suggestion:

Remember that nothing matters if the characters don't work. If I were asked to list the three most important components in a mystery or a thriller, I'd say this character, that character, and that other character over there. Books (or at least the books I like) are about people, not situations. Alfred Hitchcock, who knew something about keeping his audience's attention, famously referred to the thing at stake in his films as “the McGuffin.” He didn't particularly care what it was; what mattered to Hitchcock was that we cared about the people who needed to find or avoid the McGuffin at all costs. In my favorite book of 2009, Number9dream, the brilliant novelist David Mitchell suggests that movies are good in inverse proportion to the number of helicopters they contain. All the plot reversals, double-backs, identical twins, shiny hardware, pseudo-science, new viruses, Egyptian gold, ancient curses, treasure maps, alternative realities, active verbs, and postmodernist narrative innovations won't keep the reader hooked unless he or she wants to know what is going to happen to your characters.

In my core, I think most readers accept or reject books based on the answer to a single question: do I want to spend time with these people? If the answer is “no,” they're gone.

And to me, that means that the writer has to honor the characters, not force them to do things they wouldn't just because it's necessary for a plot twist. They won't suddenly get stupid because a scene in the dark, flooded basement would be cool. They won't suddenly get smart because the author has thought of something cool for them to say although they never would have thought of it in a thousand years. And all the dynamite plot developments in the world aren't enough if they depend on things I don't think the characters would actually do.

But if you fashion a good, strong hook, based on a terrific question, and drop it into the middle of a fully-imagined world with lively, convincing characters, the reader will be hooked – hooked enough to let you drag him or her right out of “real life” and through several hundred pages taken directly from your imagination. You can introduce themes, ideas, arcane areas of knowledge, obscure historical periods, pet peeves. You can get even with people, even the fourth-grade teacher who told you that you couldn't write. The reader will accept all of this, even enjoy it, if the hook is strong enough and the characters are real enough.

And when you've hooked a reader once, he or she will come back for more.

Thank you, Tim! Tim Hallinan's website is

Breathing Water: A Bangkok Thriller by Timothy Hallinan. HarperCollins, ©2009. ISBN 780061672231 (hardcover), 352p.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Brent Ghelfi's Book Release Party - The Venona Cable

I'm going to a book launch party tomorrow night, and you're invited! Of course, I received my invitation personally from Brent Ghelfi, but he said I could invite anyone I wanted. So, I'm inviting all of you to the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix for the book launch for Brent's new book, The Venona Cable.

Here's the invitation, as written by The Poisoned Pen Bookstore.

"The Poisoned Pen and Brent and Lisa Ghelfi invite you to the National Launch for Brent's third thriller, The Venona Cable (Holt $25)

"The party starts at 7:30 pm (doors open at 6:30) at the fabled resort at 2400 E Missouri. It's free! Look for us in the Grand Ballroom.

"Much praised by James Sallis, Brad Thor, Lee Child, and Greg Iles, Ghelfi works in Martin Cruz Smith territory but with a kind of anti-hero in Alexei Volkovoy. First met in Volk's Game ($14) and Volk's Shadow ($14 signed firsts), Volk becomes involved in Cold War espionage and disinformation when a famous Hollywood filmmaker is found dead in Moscow and decrypted documents from the Venona Cables are released. The Soviet messages had implicated the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, Kim Philby, tons of other Soviet spies. How crucial is a difference on one marked-up intercept, and why must Volk suddenly clear his long-missing pilot father's name? It's a great read."

I'm going! If you're in Phoenix tomorrow night, I hope to see you!

The Venona Cable by Brent Ghelfi. Henry Holt, ©2009. ISBN 9780805088946 (hardcover), 336p.

The Desert Hedge Murders by Patricia Stoltey

It takes a great deal of patience for a sixty-year-old former judge to accompany her mother's travel club to Laughlin, Nevada and Oatman, Arizona. Sylvia Thorn was a reluctant recruit to her mother's trip. But, it will only get worse in this mystery, reminiscent of the Keystone Cops, The Desert Hedge Murders by Patricia Stoltey.

How could Sylvia ever expect to keep tabs on the Florida Flippers, a group of seventy and eighty year old women? They're independent, opinionated, and out of control. And, it only makes it worse when Sandra Pringle finds a body in her bathtub, soon after check-in at the hotel in Laughlin. While the Florida Flippers are excited about the body, and want to investigate the murder, Sylvia suspects Sandra and her roommate, Patsy, know a little more about the dead man than they're letting on. It only takes one evening of the Flippers running around the casino, asking questions, for Sandra to take the opportunity to slip away from the group.

Patsy's stories about Sandra's whereabouts are a little suspicious, but the Flippers' vacation plans aren't squashed by Sandra's absence. The women all board the bus to Oatman, Arizona, anticipating their visit to the ghost town. But, their tour of the Lone Cactus Gold Mine is disrupted by a grisly discovery. Between the dead man, and the tour group's problems, Sylvia suspects the Flippers might be in danger. A visit from an FBI agent confirms there's something more involved than a suspicious death. Sylvia may think something is wrong. The Flippers see it as more to investigate, getting in the way of the police and FBI as they scatter all over.

Back in Florida, Sylvia's brother, Willie, knows his sister is in trouble. After his experiences in Vietnam, Willie suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But, he is also psychic. His comments to his octogenarian father, Peter, and their inability to reach Sylvia, sets the two men on a wild-goose chase. After flying into Las Vegas, they team up with an old friend of Peter's from World War II. A trip in an old motorcycle sidecar on Old Route 66 isn't quite what Willie had in mind when he knew he needed to reach his sister.

Since the Flippers need to return to Oatman a couple times, Stoltey has the opportunity to capture the town with all of its charms. She includes the ghost stories, the hotel and restaurant, the old gold mine. Sylvia's reaction to the wild burros that actually roam the streets is priceless. She feels quite threatened by the animals. So much of the town is included in the story, including Oatie the Ghost, and the Gable/Lombard honeymoon suite.

Stoltey's madcap mystery is highlighted by the odd group of seniors. Sylvia's mother is right. The former judge comes across as too prim and stuffy. She needs to loosen up. The Flippers could manage do that for her. Poor Sylvia. Trying to keep tabs on them is as hard as trying to herd Oatman's wild burros. Willie, with his lovable quirks, is a more likable character. The Florida Flippers, and the motorcycle ride from Las Vegas to Oatman, add humor to a complicated story. The Desert Hedge Murders is called "A Sylvia and Willie Mystery". Sylvia is overshadowed by the Florida Flippers and Willie. But, the ending leaves possibilities for future adventures for the brother and sister. Sylvia's already an avid fan of mysteries. If she learns to loosen up, she might even enjoy future cases.

Patricia Stoltey's website is

The Desert Hedge Murders by Patricia Stoltey. Five Star Publishing (A Gale Group), ©2009. ISBN 9781594147852 (hardcover), 278p.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sunday Salon - The Deadly Combination @ Velma Teague

(left to right, Juliet Blackwell, Sophie Littlefield, and Ann Parker)

The Deadly Combination of Juliet Blackwell, Sophie Littlefield, and Ann Parker were a hit at the Velma Teague Library when they appeared to discuss "Strong Heroines in Crime Fiction". They themselves exemplify strong women showcasing their talents. And, it was obvious they're having fun touring together. They brought that sense of fun to the library program.

After introductions, they thanked me, and said how pleased they were to be at the Velma Teague Library. They said they told other people in the mystery community they were coming to Glendale, and everyone said, oh, you're appearing at the Teague. Sophie told the audience the library was lucky to have so much community support, and it was good to see people turn out for a library program.

Each author introduced their books and characters. Ann Parker said she
almost feels as if she's local because her publisher is Poisoned Pen Press in Scottsdale. She told the audience that she writes a historical mystery series set in Leadville, Colorado during the biggest silver rush in the world. People came from all over, but weren't prepared for Leadville. At 10,000 feet, it's winter for nine months of the year there. Some people thought they could just pick silver off the ground. Ann's character is a woman who runs a saloon in Leadville, Inez Stannert. She calls her a woman in a man's world. The three books in the series all have rhyming titles, Silver Lies, Iron Ties, and Leaden Skies. She said they've had a good time teasing her about future titles. She thought Golden Thighs might be going too far, but the others assured her it might be a hit.

Juliet Blackwell is actually Julie Goodson-Lawes. She said she wrote her first mystery series with her sister, using a family name, Hailey Lind. Those books made up the art forgery mystery series. The fourth book in that series will be out next summer, with a new publisher. The first book, Feint of Art, was nominated for an Agatha for Best First Mystery Novel, and then, after three books, the series was dropped. Juliet said she's writing her new books by herself. It's a paranormal series, beginning with Secondhand Spirits. Some readers have told Julie this is the first paranormal book they ever read.

Julie said Secondhand Spirits was fun to write. When she first decided to write a book about a witch, she said the only fun witch she knew was from Bewitched, and she didn't want to write Bewitched. But, her background is in anthropology, so she researched the history of witchcraft. There has been a lot of mystery, and atrocities still committed in the name of witchcraft. Witchcraft is important to women's issues because most people accused are women. Witchcraft is often associated with healing. The wise woman is respected in villages until things go wrong, and then she takes the blame. There are serious themes about witchcraft and culture. Juliet showed her cover, and said you can tell it's a fun book because of the sparkles on the cover. But, she said she thinks it's a little more serious than the cover indicates.

A Bad Day for Sorry is Sophie Littlefield's first published book. She said it's considered part of St. Martin's hardboiled publications. When she thinks of strong women, she thinks of the middle-aged woman, often overlooked by society. Stella Hardesty is fifty, and she suffered from domestic abuse. She kills her husband, and that unleashes a part of her she never knew she had. Sophie said she herself went through a mid-life crisis, and had a bad attitude. She was frustrated with her experiences, needing reading glasses, etc. She complained that no one warned her about changes - she can't see to put her mascara on. Women of a certain age are not respected by society.

The authors asked the audience what they thought when they heard "strong women". Responses ranged from determined, problem solver, goes against convention. Julie said if anyone watched The Closer or Saving Grace, the characters were more mature women. They said the people buying books are women, grown-ups. One woman in the audience commented, "We have time to read." Another word thrown out was flexibility. Julie said at one time women protagonists, such as Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, were just women put into the male role as a private investigator. Now, female characters are strong, and very individual. Sophie said that might have been the source of some of her irritation. She used to have to wear men's suits, with the floppy white bows that women wore. Now, books celebrate that women are themselves.

Juliet summed that part of the discussion up, saying women show strength in culture, family relationships, romantic relationships, physical, beauty and self-image, strong opinions and politics. Sophie said culture focuses on physical beauty. Her character, Stella, is twenty pounds overweight, ordinary-looking. She acknowledges that she's aging. Some agents were willing to take Sophie on as a client, but they wanted Stella to be more attractive. Fortunately, she found an agent comfortable with the character.

Juliet said her books always have an element of romance. She said a woman can still be strong with an interest in romance. Blackwell said she's willing to argue that men's fiction also has romance, but in a different form. She said readers want well-rounded characters, and life had romantic relationships, connections with friends and community. For a witch, romance is an issue, because women are the most dangerous when sexual. In Europe, the traditional belief is that the more sexually attractive one is, the more dangerous. Isn't it the sexy ones who are likely to kill you?

The Malleus Maleficarum was a witch-hunter's handbook that covered sexual magic. Part of the handbook covered those who believed in witchcraft, and those who didn't believe. The more people believed, the more likely they were to turn in their neighbors. If a witch cast a spell sexually, someone would fall for them.

Blackwell's character, Lily Ivory, is a natural witch. She was born with powers. Lily is afraid of romance and sex because it might stir up something primal in her. Her feelings are part of the character arc in the series. How do you let yourself become vulnerable? In her previous series, Hailey Lind wrote of a character with two love interests. It reflects contradictory desires and interests, and provides tension.

Ann Parker said she wanted to provide context for the world Inez Stannert lives in, her woman in a man's world. The 1870 census said there were 300 saloons in Leadville. Three of them were run by women. So, she plays around with assumptions when people come to town, assumptions that a female saloon keeper might be easy. It's a boomtown in Leadville, and, like Inez, people are coming from all over to make new starts and shed their pasts. In the 19th century, everyone came to Leadville, investors, prospectors, women who followed the miners, as prostitutes, bakers, launderers, and miners themselves. Inez walks a knife's edge. She is a saloon keeper, but she's also spiritual. She attends church, but can handle herself in a brawl at the saloon. Her husband disappeared. He's been gone eight months. People often disappeared back then, just took off, or fell down a mine. Inez doesn't know if she's a married woman or not. In Silver Lies, she meets a man, and almost has to seduce him. How does the outside world view her? She wants to make her position public with the man she's seeing. At the same time, she wants to be perceived as a successful business woman.

According to Juliet, when writing women in mysteries, family becomes an issue. It's better to have characters without small children, because a mother wants to protect her children. Lily Ivory, Blackwell's heroine, was run out of a small west Texas town at seventeen. She's spent her life traveling, looking for a place to settle. The Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco is safe for a witch. Lily runs a vintage clothing store. The book, Secondhand Spirits, is about motherhood. Lily was rejected by her mother, raised by an elderly woman who was a witch herself, so was comfortable with one. She provided Lily with a sense of family. The book also includes La Llorona, a demon. Spanish-speaking cultures have variations of the legend about her, that she was a woman of humble means who had children with a man who left her. In Mexico, the story says he left her with the children, and she drowns the children in the river, and then herself. She wanders the riverbanks, calling for her children, and wailing. La Llorona means "the weeping woman", and she takes children if they're out at night. The stories of La Llorona are like the Bogeyman. In Secondhand Spirits, Lily deals with a mother of lost children, and comes to grips with her own fears.

Sophie Littlefield brought up Robert Crais' Elvis Cole. When she thinks of physical strength, she thinks of a bad ass such as Elvis. She said all of the male protagonists in crime novels are strong, and they never seem to work out. Littlefield's character, Stella Hardesty, tries to intimidate men into not being abusive. It's unrealistic for a fifty-year-old woman who hasn't worked out to have physical strength. So, Stella starts a fitness program. She looks for ways to handcuff men, so she buys herself bondage items for restraining men. Sophie said she knew her character needed to restrain them, and she was looking for the plastic handcuffs police use, but the Internet led her to bondage sites, and that's what happened with Stella. When creating women characters, physical strength must be considered. Julie pointed out that Stella has another weapon, a gun. Lily Ivory doesn't need a gun. And, Inez Stannert has guns, and her words.

According to Ann Parker, Inez is a woman with strong opinions, and she uses those against others' opinions. She said, if we think politics are bad now, the politics of 1880, as shown in Leaden Skies, included shady dealings. Grant was expected to run for a third term as president, but he didn't get the nomination. In 1876-77, there was a push for the woman's vote, but it didn't happen in Colorado. In 1880, there was a woman running a woman's newspaper, in Colorado, that was for woman's suffrage, and supported prostitutes. These are elements in Leaden Skies. Inez doesn't get suffrage. Characters were not interested in women's rights because they were making their own way.

The authors were asked about their writing schedule. Sophie said she had been a stay-at-home mom, and volunteered. Once her children were 12 and 14, she transferred her energies to writing. So, she gets up, writes, takes the kids to school, writes, picks the kids up, and she yells at them, and they yell at her, then she writes. Once she was published, the writing time was cut in half. It's important to be part of the book community. She works all the time, but, if she's not writing, she's working on promotion.

Juliet responded that it takes absolute determination to write constantly. She gets up at 4, and writes. She's a Peet's Coffee addict. It's a very strong coffee. She has no transition time. She just gets up at 4, and starts writing. Nobody talks to her at that time of morning. She's discovered nothing is open, so there are no distractions. She gets more done in those first two or three hours than later. She has a day job; she works for herself. She writes for several hours, gets her son up and off, works at her job, takes a nap at 2, and gets a second wind. She'll research later in the day, and does her blogging, Tweeting, and correspondence with her editor. She's president of her local chapter of Sisters in Crime. She spends time reading other people's manuscripts (as they all do). She doesn't watch TV. It's hard to tell friends that work (writing) is what she loves to do, and she'd rather write than go out with a friend. When writers get together, they talk writing.

Ann told the audience she doesn't write at the pace of the others. She has a job, two kids and a spouse. She said it takes a while for her to write. She's always motivated to write the book, and is all excited to start, and then she loses steam. Then life hits, and then she'll get a call or contract from her publisher that nudges her. Once she has a deadline, she's propelled by panic. She blasts through to the end of the book. When readers told her Leaden Skies was fast paced at the end, she knew it was because she was rushing when she wrote it. She has a friend, Margaret Grace, another writer, who lives nearby, and invited her to her house to get away and have the chance to write. So, she went to Margaret's house, disappeared into the guestroom, and wrote big chunks of the book on weekends.

When asked if they ever run out of ideas, Sophie said she wrote eight books before her first one was published, and they were all kinds of genres, inspirational, horror, everything but science fiction. She said as you learn one thing, other things fall into place. Now she understands more as to the process of writing mysteries. She has mental muscle memory. But, she won't run out of ideas.

Juliet said she has to trim back ideas, rather than worrying about running out of ideas. She does research, and said she could write 100 pages on a topic. Stephen King called it "killing your little darlings", saying there are sections of your writing that you loved, but they just don't fit. If it doesn't fit, you have to kill it. They said they all have files for rejects, thinking they'll use them someday. Juliet said she has scrap paper with ideas on them. It's only the new author who doesn't know what to write.

Ann Parker, Juliet Blackwell, and Sophie Littlefield are definitely a deadly combination. It was a treat to bring them to the audience at the Velma Teague Library.

Ann Parker's website is

Leaden Skies by Ann Parker. Poisoned Pen Press, ©2009. ISBN 9781590585771 (hardcover), 298p.

Juliet Blackwell's website is

Secondhand Spirits by Juliet Blackwell. Penguin Group (USA), ©2009. ISBN 9780451227454 (paperback), 336p.

Sophie Littlefield's website is

A Bad Day for Sorry by Sophie Littlefield. St. Martin's Press, ©2009. ISBN 9780312559205 (hardcover), 288p.