Monday, February 28, 2011

The Dangerous Edge of Things by Tina Whittle

Tina Whittle's debut mystery, The Dangerous Edge of Things, introduces two great characters,Tai Randolph and Trey Seaver. And, for the sake of the book and the author, I'm glad it received starred reviews in all of the major journals. I'd give it a starred review, too. I just can't agree with a quote from Kirkus Reviews, though. The quote on the front of the book says, " 'If you're wondering who can give Stephanie Plum a run for her money, meet Tai Randolph.'" That statement is just so wrong for Tai Randolph, and for this book.

Tai Randolph was giving tours of Savannah graveyards before she inherited a gun shop in Atlanta from her uncle. She was temporarily staying at her brother Eric's house there until she found a place of her own. But, a week after moving to Atlanta, she found a woman's body slumped over the seat in a car across from her brother's. Eric, an industrial psychologist, had just left on a cruise to the Bahamas, and Tai was facing police scrutiny on her own. She was new to town, didn't have a place to live, and owned a gun shop.

She wasn't happy to be part of a murder investigation, but even less happy when it turned out her brother knew the victim, and, without telling her, put Tai under surveillance by Phoenix Corporate Services , an elite security firm. And, she doesn't know what to make of the mysterious Trey Seaver, the man protecting her. But, Detective Dan Garrity, who worked with Trey when he was a cop, provided background. Following a car accident that killed his mother, Trey suffered a traumatic brain injury. He was in a coma for five days, and when he woke he no longer knew how to properly act. He could only judge by right or wrong; there were no shades of grey for him. And, he had an uncanny ability to tell if people were lying, a skill that came in useful working for Phoenix.

Tai certainly needed someone she could trust. Her brother wasn't telling her anything. He knew the victim, who had mysterious connections to a powerful Atlanta couple. With their link to a politician and Phoenix, she felt there was something odd going on. And, Tai Randolph wasn't the type to sit still and let some pretty boy security guard take care of her. However, the more time she spent with Trey, the more she felt he might be one of the only honest people involved in this investigation.

I truly admire Tai Randolph, but she's certainly no Stephanie Plum.  She's so much more streetwise and intelligent. She isn't one of those sleuths I despise, the ones referred to as TSTL, Too Stupid to Live. When Tai receives an anonymous phone call, asking for a meeting, she replies, "'Look. I don't know what kind of idiot you think I am, but I don't show up at midnight when some stranger tells me to "come alone."'" Loved that. And, when she asked her friend, Rico, to accompany her, she told him she couldn't be a girl detective without a gay best friend. Tai is a strong woman who is facing major changes in her life, including how she's going to handle her new role as a "liberal feminist gun show owner" in Atlanta. Tai isn't stupid. She isn't a bimbo, and she's willing to learn how to handle guns and how to protect herself. And, she may have to learn to handle her growing feelings for Trey Seaver.

Don't pick up Tina Whittle's The Dangerous Edge of Things expecting to read a Stephanie Plum novel. Pick it up if you want to read an intriguing mystery that introduces two fascinating, original characters. I hope Tai Randolph and Trey Seaver will have many adventures together.

Tina Whittle's website is

The Dangerous Edge of Things by Tina Whittle. Poisoned Pen Press, ©2011. ISBN 9781590588178 (hardcover), 250p.

FTC Full Disclosure - I bought my copy of the book.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Donis Casey for Authors @ The Teague

Donis Casey's appearance for Authors @ The Teague attracted an audience that was particularly interested in her mystery series because the books are set in Oklahoma. They recognized the settings of her mysteries, Boynton. So, Donis introduced herself by saying she and her husband moved to Arizona from Oklahoma about twenty-five years ago. She worked as a librarian at Arizona State University, and when she felt like quitting, she opened a business in Tempe, a gift shop that specialized in items from Scotland and Ireland. But, she'd always wanted to write a mystery, so she closed her business with plans to write. However, her sister asked her to wait to write the mystery until she gave the family a gift by writing a family history for her siblings, since Casey had already done some genealogical work.

As Donis researched, she also remembered her family history, and stories of the family, stories she remembered from growing up in Oklahoma. Her grandfather owned a barber shop in Boynton. Her grandmother ran Mrs. Casey's Cafe. Donis' other grandparents had a farm, the farm described in her mysteries. And, she remembered how they lived on the farm, with no electricity, no running water, but they were self-sufficient. And, even her husband, who grew up at the edge of town in Enid, Oklahoma, grew up with no indoor toilet. Donis saw her grandmother do laundry in the backyard over a big old iron kettle, using blueing, and hanging the sheets on the line or draping them over bushes.  It's a scene she used in her first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. She included a lot of detail as to the laundry.  She uses many of the stories of her family in the books.

Casey said she discovered history was made by her ancestors.  When you're living your life, you don't realize you're making history.

Alafair Tucker is Donis Casey's sleuth.  When the series starts, she's not quite forty.  She has nine children in that first book.  Her oldest children are in their early twenties.  Later in the series, she has ten children.  So, their ages range from early twenties down to an infant.

Originally, Casey planned to center each book on a different child.  She though of the series as having a ten story arc.  Each one of the children would get in mischief, and mama, Alafair, would get them out, whether or not they wanted her to do that.  All of the children have their own personalities.

The first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, is set in 1912. It's centered on Phoebe, who is seventeen in that book. Phoebe is based on Donis' mother, Phoebe. Alafair is the name of her father's grandmother. The second book, Hornswoggled, features Alice, based on Casey's father's mother. She's Phoebe's twin, but she's headstrong, and doesn't want her mother interfering in her life.

In book three, The Drop Edge of Yonder, the story deals with Mary, named for Casey's father's aunt.  Donis told us she's particularly fond of the fourth book, The Sky Took Him. In that mystery, Alafair and her oldest daughter, Martha, take a train ride to Enid, Oklahoma.  This is Casey's mother/daughter story. Since Alafair really isn't that much older than Martha, this is their opportunity to discover each other as human beings, rather than just mother and daughter.  Each of those first four books featured a child.

So, then it was time for the fifth book, Crying Blood. Casey told us she once went to see mystery writer Jerrilyn Farmer, who writes a series about a caterer. Farmer said when she started, she heard it takes about five books to feel as if you've made it. Now, she understands it takes seven books before you feel as if you've made it.

Casey's idea was to write ten books in the series.  She knew where it was going. But, things change, and people want to know about the characters. For her fifth book, she started to write a story set at the beginning of World War I in 1917.  But, her editor wanted her to slow down, and not make everyone grow up so fast. So, Crying Blood is set only three months after The Sky Took Him, in 1915.

Crying Blood deals with Alafair's husband, Shaw.  This one deals with the men in the family.

Donis told us that she went to college from 1966-70. She was a big feminist. She was not interested in living the traditional woman's life. But, eventually, she realized in denigrating the lives our mothers and grandmothers were living, she was making a mistake. If not for them, she wouldn't be what she is. She couldn't think their lives were any less important than men's. In her opinion, civilization is because of women. If not for them, we would still be living in caves. She wanted to honor her grandmothers, and how they lived with such grace.

Alafair's daughters are coming up in a new world in the 20th century. They have choices. They're hoping for votes for women. Alafair didn't have the same choices, yet she has tremendous power over her family.

Crying Blood is to honor the father, Shaw. It's setting is the fall of 1915, beginning with the men's annual quail hunting trip. They're hunting on abandoned land owned by Shaw's stepfather. Shaw is always melancholy this time of year. It reminds him of his father who took them hunting. Shaw's father died when he was eight. But, this year, he's melancholy because his older children are growing up and leaving home. So, he's already in a state at the beginning of the story.

Instead of bringing back a bird, one of the dogs brings back an old boot. When the boys dump it out, bones fall out. The dog leads Shaw back to an old grave in the woods, where they uncover a skeleton that was shot between the eyes. That makes Shaw uneasy because the land is owned by his stepfather, who he wasn't fond of. They reported the body to the local authorities who said it could have been an Indian or it could have even been from the Civil War, which wasn't that far in the past in 1915. But, when the men return home, things happen on the farm. Shaw is aware that something followed them home, and he wishes they hadn't disturbed that grave.

Casey said the past has long arms. There are echoes of things that happened long ago. Crying Blood is set on Creek land, and she calls it her Indian book. The Creeks believed in Crying Blood. Their Master of Breath, a beautiful term for God, set the world in balance, and it remains that way unless we screw it up. If the world is set out of balance, if someone is killed before their time and it's someone's fault, that person has to make restitution, or the family of the victim is crying blood, trying to set the world back in balance. This story is about setting the past back in balance. And, Shaw takes things into his own hands.

Donis' mysteries talk about the lives of the people, and the way they lived those lives. Food is important in the books. With ten kids, what's for dinner is important. She includes recipes in the back of her books that are directions for making the food they might have eaten. But, this book has to deal with butchering time. They kill hogs and preserve the meat. One of Casey's readers told her she didn't think she'd be making these recipes for things such as head cheese.

There will be another book before the World War I story. Casey's trying to write one that will come out in 2012,Arizona's centennial year, that will bring Alafair to Arizona. She's been researching what was happening here in 1916. It was quite a busy year. The Mexican Civil War was going on, and immigrant were trying to escape from Mexico, pouring into Arizona. There were so many that in 1914 the state passed a law saying all businesses must have at least 80% of the employees who were native born. But that didn't work, because they couldn't find enough workers to pick the crops. They repealed that a year later.

Donis hopes to set her book in Tempe in 1916. There was a Hollywood movie filming there that year, "The Yaqui," featuring a major star, Hobart Bosworth.

Casey said she has the whole storyline arc planned for her books. She has five books out now. She wants them all to be interesting books that hold up. She told us any series writer starts to be desperate after writing five to ten books. Mystery writers refer to the Cabot Cove syndrome, in which too many murders occur in a small community. Cabot Cove became a murder capitol in the Jessica Fletcher series. So, she took Alafair Tucker out of Boynton for the fourth book in the series. She wants to keep the series fresh, so Alafair is going to have to travel again. She feels sorry for Sue Grafton, who is committed to a twenty-six book series. When she started the series, it was a contemporary series set in the 1980s. Now it's a historical series, set in the '80s.

If Donis takes all of her children through the arc of the series, Alafair's youngest will be in her twenties just in time for the Depression.  Casey really didn't want to cover the Depression because that's all anyone thinks of when they think of Oklahoma. But, in this time period, 1912 on, Oklahoma is actually booming with growth, businesses, oil.

Donis Casey hadn't been back to Boynton, Oklahoma since 1979, when she returned in 2006. The town that had boomed with businesses, restaurants, and two banks really isn't there anymore. It's sad. The last census counted 200 residents, and it's probably smaller now. It was a little boom town in the early twentieth century.

Casey's mystery series allows her to preserve a way of life that she only got in at the tail end of.

Donis Casey's website is

Crying Blood by Donis Casey.  Poisoned Pen Press, ©2011. ISBN 9781590588314 (hardcover), 250p.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Cop Hater by Ed McBain

About a month ago, author Gar Anthony Haywood asked a question on the listserv DorothyL. What author have you always wanted to read, and haven't yet read? So, I confessed that as much as I love police procedurals, I hadn't read Ed McBain. The number of books in the 87th Precinct series is intimidating, so I always said I'd read them when I retired. But, not only did Mr. Haywood write back and say I needed to read Ed McBain, so did other authors. Since I'm a mystery fan who starts at the beginning of a series, I picked up Cop Hater, the first 87th Precinct Mystery.

Before I discuss the book, I want to clarify that the edition pictured on my blog is not the edition I read. I was lucky enough to get an edition from Armchair Detective Library from our library. That edition has a wonderful introduction by Ed McBain in which he discusses the beginning of this series. This first book was published in paperback in 1956. The editor-in-chief at Pocket Books said they were looking for a mystery writer to replace Erle Stanley Gardner in their regular rotation. McBain came up with the idea of basing a series around a squadron of police detectives, making them a "conglomerate hero." Then, he created the mythical city of Isola, New York. He made the city a character, and he made the weather a character. I appreciated the opportunity to read Ed McBain's comments about the origin of this series.

McBain skillfully sucks the reader into the story, introducing first the city, then a man who becomes the victim of a killer. But, that victim is a cop. When Detectives Steve Carella and Hank Bush arrive at the scene of the crime, they recognize the victim as a detective in their precinct. The investigation heats up at that point, along with the city itself. The city gets hotter and hotter, as one cop after another is shot. The heat, the tension, and the investigation begins to wear on the cops, and even their wives and girlfriends. No one knows where to look for the killer, although the cops are all looking over their shoulders.

The author does a magnificent job enveloping the story in heat. Take just one scene. "The men in the Squad Room worked in their shirt sleeves. Their shirts were stained with perspiration, large dark amoeba blots which nibbled at the cloth, spreading from beneath the armpits, spreading form the hollow of the spinal columns. The fans did not help the heat at all. The fans circulated the suffocating breath of the city, and the men sucked in the breath and typed up their reports in triplicate, and checked their worksheets, and dreamt of Summers in the White Mountains, or Summers in Atlantic City with the ocean slapping their faces. They called complainants, and they called suspects, and their hands sweated on the black plastic of the phone, and they could feel Heat like a living thing which invaded their bodes and seared them with a million white-hot daggers."

It's fascinating to read this first mystery in the series, a book that's fifty-five years old, and stands up well. It's still intriguing; still realistic. At the same time, the reader is very much aware of the passing of time. When the killer is injured, there's no DNA analysis, although the lab technicians do a magnificent job with the tools they have available at that time. There's a detective referred to as a Negro. But, time really hasn't aged this book too much.  It's evident that Ed McBain knew how to write a riveting story even with the first in this series. It wasn't his first book, but Cop Hater originated so much that would become standard in police procedurals over the years.

If you have a chance to pick up an edition of this book with the introduction in it, I urge you to do it. And, thank you to Gar Anthony Haywood for insisting I read Ed McBain's 87th Precinct books without waiting for another twelve or fifteen more years to pass. Cop Hater is only going to be the first of many enjoyable evenings spent with the detectives of the 87th Precinct.

Cop Hater by Ed McBain. Armchair Detective Library, ©1956. ISBN 0922890064 (hardcover), 166p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book

Friday, February 25, 2011

Broken English by P.L. Gaus

P.L. Gaus originally published the books in his Amish-Country Mystery series with an academic press. Fortunately for readers, they're being republished a decade later by a mainstream publisher.  That's fortunate for those of us who enjoy intriguing puzzles such as Broken English.

It didn't take long for Jesse Sands to kill someone and plan a few robberies after he was released from prison in New Jersey. Somehow he found his way to Millersburg, Ohio, where he broke into Janet Hawkins' house. Despite her 9-1-1 call, Sands killed her before the police arrived. Then Sands was caught by a former security guard as he exited the house.

There's trouble, though, when Janet's father, David Hawkins asks to see Sands in jail. He's accompanied by Pastor Caleb Troyer, who witnesses Hawkins' eruption when Sands whispers something to him. David's disappearance only becomes a cause for alarm when a reporter is murdered. Sheriff Bruce Robertson's investigation reveals David Hawkins was former U.S. Army Special Forces. Robertson suspects Hawkins of killing the reporter to conceal his past, with plans to execute Jesse Sands.

That isn't how Robertson's best friends see the scenario. Cal Troyer knows Hawkins has given up a life of violence, and is prepared to become part of the Amish community, a peace-loving society.  When he asks Professor Michael Branden to look into the story, he knows he's pitting Robertson against the two of them, his childhood best friends. Now, it's up to them to prove the missing Hawkins isn't a killer, but someone out there knows Jesse Sands' secret.

P.L. Gaus' mysteries are quiet puzzles of human nature, perfect vehicles for stories involving Ohio's Amish.  Branden and Troyer are the men who understand the Amish people, accepted by them to help them deal with crimes that affect their communities. Sheriff Robertson represents the English world, the non-Amish, with a different view of the world, and of people. Broken English, like the previous book in the series, Blood of the Prodigal, skillfully brings together Amish life and these three men in a compelling story of mystery and conflict.

P.L. Gaus' website is

Broken English by P.L. Gaus. Penguin Group (USA), Pub date, 2010. ISBN 9780452296619 (paperback), 224p.

FTC Full Disclosure - I bought my copy of the book.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Winners and an Ancient Mysteries Contest

Congratulations to the winners of the last contest. Steven Hockensmith's The Crack in the Lens will go to Helen K. of Winchester, VA. Sandy O. from Milford, OH will receive Tim Dorsey's Electric Barracuda. The books will go out in the mail tomorrow.

This week we'll go back in time for two historical mysteries.  I have an autographed ARC of Kelli Stanley's The Curse-Maker. Stanley takes readers to Bath in Roman Britain, where physician Arcturus is on holiday with his wife. A dead body is found floating in the sacred spring, the body of a curse maker whose curses actually come true. As one murder follows another, it looks like there is a curse on Arcturus. And, to prevent any curses falling on the reader, Kelli Stanley has stamped the book with a blessing.

Or, you could go back in further in time with P.C. Doherty's The Spies of Sobeck. In 1477 B.C., treacherous forces are on the rise in Egypt, threatening the power of Pharaoh-Queen Hatusu. Imperial messengers and members of the elite army are disappearing. When the former chief scout of the Spies of Sobeck is murdered, it's up to Amerotke, Chief Judge of the Hall of Two Truths, to deal with treason and murder.

So would you like to win the mystery set in Roman Britain or ancient Egypt? You can enter to win both, but I'll need separate entries. Email me at Your subject lines should read either "Win The Curse-Maker" or "Win The Spies."  Include your name and mailing address in the body of the email.  Entrants from the U.S. only please.

The contest will end at 6 PM MT on Thursday, March 3. I'll use a random number generator to pick the winners, and the books will go out on Friday. Good luck!

Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King's Daughter by Simon Brett

An author has to be a master of the subject in order write a successful takeoff, and Simon Brett is definitely a master of the Golden Age mystery. Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King's Daughter has so many elements of those mysteries set in England amongst the nobility, but Brett takes every character to the extreme in the first book in this comic series.

The Right Honourable Deveraux Lyminster (Blotto) is the second son of the family.  Brett superbly describes Blotto's intelligence. "Blotto's thoughts rarely ran deep enough to dampen the soles of his handmade brougues." So, when Blotto found a dead body in the library, it's a good thing he had his sister, Twink, to help. The Lady Honoria Lyminster (Twink) was more than eager to play amateur detective.  Twink understood that they would be forced to call in the police, but, as in every traditional mystery, it would be up to the amateur detective to actually solve the case.  Since their mother, the Dowager Duchess, is hosting the ex-King of Mitteleuropia, and the deceased is part of his entourage, there are diplomatic issues.  Then there is the fact that no one in the entourage will admit that the deceased is missing from their party. 

While Twink is ready to solve the case, the Dowager Duchess does everything in her power, even calling the mother of one of the Chief Constable to insist the case be closed. But murder is only the prelude to another crime, the kidnapping of the ex-king's daughter. Since this is a disgrace to the family honor, the Dowager Duchess sends Blotto on a mission to Mitteleuropia to rescue her, warning poor Blotto he'll be expected to marry her if he succeeds, and he'll probably die or be captured if he doesn't. Thank heavens Blotto has Twink on his side.  And, who would know one of Blotto's few skills, as a cricket player, would come in handy?

Brett has done a masterful job poking fun at mysteries with amateur sleuths of the British nobility. I'll have to admit, I've never been a fan of broad humor.  I never cared for the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers. So, although I can appreciate what Brett did, the humor isn't my style.  On the  other hand, a young man at the library today saw my copy of the book, asked me about it, and he's ready to read it.  Don't hesitate to pick up Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King's Daughter because I don't appreciate the humor. I'm sure Simon Brett's fans will welcome his return to his humorous mysteries.

Simon Brett's website is

Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King's Daughter by Simon Brett. Felony & Mayhem, LLC, ©2011. ISBN 9781934609699 (paperback), 211p.

FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, in hopes I would review it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

Does anyone read Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology nowadays? It's a haunting story of the citizens of a town, told through the free verse epitaphs on the tombstones. Over two hundred citizens of the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois told the truth about their lives.  Nothing reminds me of that book as much as Alice Hoffman's latest novel, The Red Garden.

Blackwell, Massachusetts was founded in 1750 when Hallie Brady, her husband, and three other families settled the Berkshire Mountain community. They wouldn't have survived that first winter if Hallie hadn't been strong enough to fish for eels with her bare hands, kill rabbits, and find milk from a bear. Hallie was considered the founder of the town, and following the shooting of a bear, no one was ever allowed to shoot bears again.  The story of Hallie Brady was just one of the stories that grew over the years. John Chapman, later known as Johnny Appleseed, traveled through, planting the tree known in town as the Tree of Life. A young girl drowned in the river, and her ghost was seen, then later commemorated in a pageant in which she was known as the Apparition.  In a book of entwined stories, Hoffman tells the stories that grew over two centuries in Blackwell, stories of the original settlers, and then their descendants.

Hoffman's latest book isn't a happy one, but two centuries of any town's history will have its share of tragedies. But, she picks the romances, even the tragic ones, the stories of longing, to frame Blackwell's story.  In fact, when she says, "A burying ground was the true mark of the established town," she told the story of the entire community, from the love of a bear, and its death and burial, to the final burial of a dog.  There are stories of many strong women who saved themselves. Over time, the women became legends, although they were whispered about in their time. Yes, there's some of Hoffman's magic realism, as shown in Hallie's first relationship with the bear, and the story of the eel woman.  The Red Garden is a melancholy story, a story of love, lost more than found.  Spoon River, Illinois and Blackwell, Massachusetts are two imaginary towns, with fictional people. But, in the subject matter of people's lives, the tragedies, losses, and quiet triumphs, Masters' Spoon River and Hoffman's Blackwell are linked to every community.

Alice Hoffman's website is

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman.  Crown, ©2011. ISBN 9780307393876 (hardcover), 270p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Snare by Deborah J. Ledford

I don't read mysteries or thrillers for the frantic pace. I read for character and plot, which is why I don't read many thrillers.  But Deborah J. Ledfords' Snare offers a depth of character, and an eerie feeling of atmosphere that isn't always present in thrillers.  It's tense, but, at the same time she allows the story to develop at a natural pace, without forcing the suspense. The book deserves its nomination for this year's Hillerman Sky Award.

From page one, we're drawn into the tragedy of young Katina Salvo's life as she listens to her mother's last fight with her abusive father.  And, even at twenty-three, fifteen years later, she's fleeing from her past.  It's no wonder the successful Native American singer/songwriter has never appeared in public.  But, that's about to change, and her first concert will be in North Carolina, where Deputy Steven Hawk is charged with keeping her safe.  It's too bad neither Hawk nor Katina know all the reasons someone might want her dead.

Despite all precautions, Katrina and Hawk are caught in a trap the night of the concert. When Hawk is seriously injured, something prevents a greater tragedy, a presence they both sense. While Hawk has to recover physically, Katrina has to recover emotionally from the events of that night.  She turns to her past, her aunt's home on the Taos Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico for answers, and Hawk accompanies her, not knowing if he's looking for her father or a man from the reservation who comes and goes like a ghost.  But, both of them sense that answers will only be found there.

Ledford's novel is so much more impressive than so many thrillers, with its depth of character.  Hawk is fully developed as a black deputy, very much aware of some feelings against him in North Carolina.  At the same time, his strong family ties gives him a grounding, a safety net in life that Katina lacks.  It's Katina's story that slowly unfolds in the course of the story as the true tragedy of her life is told.  Ledford even tells the parallel story of Katrina's father, an ex-con who only learns of his daughter's success after he's out of prison.

The story has an atmosphere of impending doom that hangs over the entire book. Some of that comes from the use of nature and symbols.  Ledford shows a great respect for spiritual beliefs of Katina's people and Hawk's. Those beliefs are essential to the story, beliefs in spirits and their roles after death, beliefs in the messages sent by the birds and nature. The beauty of the two settings, North Carolina and the Taos Pueblo Reservation, are in stark contrast to the dark atmosphere hanging over Katina's life.

With its atmosphere and strong characters, Snare is a gripping story of a woman trapped by her past, and the past of her dead mother. It's also the story of a lawman who chose his profession to make a difference in his community. For once, he has to leave his life, to help a young woman survive, and find her own community.

Deborah J. Ledford's website is

Snare by Deborah J. Ledford. Second Wind Publishing,  ©2010. ISBN 9781935171577 (paperback), 325p.

FTC Full Disclosure - The author gave me a copy of the book, in hopes I would review it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

March Mysteries from Berkley Prime Crime and Obsidian

No cats in this month's book chat, but once you hear about the books, you'll know why.  Enjoy!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Kelli Stanley at the Poisoned Pen

If you ever have the chance to meet and listen to Kelli Stanley, grab it.  She's warm and friendly, and, talk about knowledgeable!  Anyone who is a fan of history would enjoy hearing her.  Before her presentation at the Poisoned Pen, a few members of Desert Sleuths had the chance to join her and her partner, Tana, for lunch.  Someone recently asked me what writers talk about when they get together.  Well, Kelli is a good example of all of the wonderful mystery authors I've met.  She encouraged everyone there to talk about what they're working on right now.  So, mystery writers talk about books, conferences, publishing. The ones I know are totally supportive of each other.

And, that discussion of publishing kicked off the program at the Poisoned Pen when owner Barbara Peters asked Kelli about a paperback of her first mystery, Nox Dormienda.  Stanley's second book in that series, The Curse-Maker, is out with a new publisher, St. Martin's Minotaur, and she was hoping they would release her paperback at the same time.  They said they wanted to wait to see how this book did.  In the meantime, Stanley is reworking that one to make it more accessible as a relaunch.

The subject of publishers brought up the recent bankruptcy filing by Borders.  Barbara said she's been interviewed a number of times, but actually the closing of stores won't affect Poisoned Pen too much.  They might gain a few customers, but it's not threat to the store. But, she said no one actually discusses the fact that the chain store business design is over in publishing. The problems at Borders and Barnes & Noble will definitely affect publishers.  Borders' problems, and problems with a Canadian distributor have created terrible problems for some publishers.

Kelli said, speaking of Barnes & Noble, a number of people important to authors have been let go there.  The mystery buyer and the Vice President of marketing are both gone. Some publishing is going to be driven to digital. Peters said there's going to be even more to lose as monoliths of publishing distribution fail because publishers designed their companies around them. She also said, speaking of e-book distribution, the Poisoned Pen website is being redesigned, and they will have e-book capability soon.

Before Barbara discussed Stanley's latest book, The Curse-Maker, she asked Patrick Millikin, the store's expert in noir, to talk about Kelli's last book, City of Dragons. Patrick said he liked the voice of the book.  It's a challenge to write about the '40s with a female protagonist, but Stanley got the voice right.  She also covered the social issues of the time.

Kelli thanked Patrick, and said feels it's important to discuss the social issues in her books.  Some of those same issues are relevant today.  Perhaps they are still important because, as a culture, we don't pay enough attention to history.

Stanley said she tries to be fair to the past.  She doesn't romanticize it.  The '40s did have wonderful art and creativity.  People were more gregarious. Entertainment was out of the home. People went to hear big bands. That was all part of the past. But, so was bigotry, and racism, sexism. Harassment and rape were facts of life, and something women were just supposed to put up with. Social conditions were appalling in some parts of the country, such as Appalachia. There was a lack of schooling and education in many areas. Brutality was accepted.

Kelli Stanley's character, Miranda Corbi, isn't an anomaly. She's modeled after reporter Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn was Hemingway's third wife, but she would have hated to have been known that way. She was actually a better reporter than Hemingway. Stanley said City of Dragons is an homage to an idealistic generation that felt they could make a difference.

We all grew up with a censored version of the '40s, based on the movies.  But, the movies themselves were censored.  We can recognize the commonalities and differences between our times.

Patrick told Kelli he admired the way she turns the tables on the noir role of women, such as Brigid O'Shaughnessy as the evil temptress. Kelli said beautiful women are stigmatized in crime fiction of the '40s. She wanted to create a noir where the femme fatale is a hero. Miranda is strong, assertive, sexualized, beautiful, and a gumshoe. Asked if there would be more of Miranda, Stanley said yes. The second book, City of Secrets, is scheduled for a September release, just before Bouchercon. The first book did well, and she's writing the third Miranda now.

Kelli Stanley is actually on tour for The Curse-Maker, the sequel to Nox Dormienda.  It's a mystery set in Roman Britain, in Bath. The Romans were into spa tourism. Peters said it may have been the only time they were either warm or clean.

Peters said Bath is the one place you can see traces of the Roman city, the Georgian city of Jane Austen's world, and the modern city all in the same place. In fact, of all places, the Sally Lunn Historic Eating House & Museum have remains of the Roman, Medieval, Georgian and modern times all in the same place, the oldest house in Bath.

There are few mysteries set in Bath. Peter Lovesey lived there at one time, and set his Peter Diamond series there. But, the pollution is really bad there, and they have terrible weather inversions, so he moved.

Kelli said Bath was supposedly a pig wallow. Stanley was a scholar, getting a Masters degree in classics. Information about Bath was peripheral, but the combination of ancient cult, religion, and magic there excited her. She liked the idea of curses as part of religion and cult.

Cult was legal in Bath, but curses were frowned on. They were a way for the common people to control the uncontrollable. People would buy curses that were supposed to cause physical pain. Or, if you had a bet on a chariot race, you might buy a curse to be put on the favorite horse or chariot drive.

Kelli then gave us a scenario.  Let's say Barbara was at the spa without her servant. There were rituals there, the hot plunge, a cold plunge, bad poetry, food. It was like the malls, and people spent the whole day there. When Barbara came out, her favorite slippers were gone. So, she wanted to put a curse on the person who took the slippers. It's as if you filed a police report after a theft, and it would you feel better.

Bath was a little spa town, a tourist town. There wasn't much recourse for theft. Buying a curse was the equivalent of filing a police report. So the victim (Barbara) would go to the market, and find a curse-maker who would put a curse on the person who took the slippers.

Curse-makers were people who lived on the fringes, like carnies. They preyed on the desperate. There was an element of seediness about curse-makers.

Curses went into the channel to the deity, Sulis, the goddess of the spring where everyone went to get well. Curses were thrown into the sacred spring, along with an offering to Sulis. Then, people waited for the curse to come true. And, based on Kelli's research, this could be just as effective as reporting a theft to the police. The curse-maker would post a notification of the curse, and the person who took "Barbara's slippers" might think twice, and return them.  At which point, Barbara Peters said, see, publishing was the key element in a curse.

Bath was one of two places where curses were legal. They bound people to do certain things. Curses weren't legal in the rest of the Empire. Kelli said she was inspired to write about the curses when she was in England, and made a presentation at the University of London. She made a side trip to Bath, where she was allowed to touch curses and go behind the scenes at the Bath Museum.  Two items that were found in the sacred spring have puzzled people. One was a valuable bag of gemstones, including cut stones. The other was a tin mask. Stanley uses both of them in The Curse-Maker.

Kelli proceeded to show us a curse. They were usually made of lead, the metal of choice to reach the gods. Romans were polytheists, and they called on a number of gods to curse people, including Jesus. The better class of curse-makers would have extremely thin sheets of lead. Then they would use a stylus to write on it. Stanley didn't think they would allow her to bring lead on the airplane, so she used aluminum foil. She had an actual crucifixion nail to use as a stylus. Then the curse would be folded, and sealed with a binding curse. It would be bound by force to bind the deity to do the bidding of the curse-maker. That would fix the magic in place, and compel the deity. So, Kelli stabbed the nail through the curse.

The curse had to get to the hand of the god.  In places where there was not a sacred spring, people would go to a Roman graveyard, find a fresh grave, dig it up and put the curse in the hand of the body so it would get to the gods. There were grave curses against people who dug up corpses. In fact, Shakespeare had one on his stone, "Cursed be he that moves my bones."

Stanley's sleuth is a physician, Arcturus. Ruth Downie also has a series that features a Roman Britain doctor. Kelli said she uses a physician because that seemed the most logical person to get involved.  She needs a solid, logical reason for investigating.  At the time she had the idea, and wrote her first book, no one had done a Roman Britain doctor. Arcturus had been to war, so has seen sickness, death, and murder. He brings expertise to the investigation. Nox Dormienda was already written and accepted for publication when Ruth Downie's book came out. And, Kelli said she worried because her book was coming out from a small press, Five Star, while Downie, who was British, had J.K. Rowling's publisher. Then Nox Dormienda went on to win the Bruce Alexander Award for historical mystery.

Kelli said she was emphasizing style more than character because writers have to be able to say what sets your book apart. Nox Dormienda means A Long Night for Sleeping. It's in the noirish style, and a tribute to The Big Sleep.

Jane Finnis is another author who writes about Roman Britain. Her character is a woman, an innkeeper, and a refugee who fled Pompeii. Peters said since there was no police force in Rome, that period really doesn't have police procedurals.

Kelli Stanley said The Curse-Maker is lighter and funnier than City of Dragons. It's an homage to noir, not serious noir.

Stanley ended the program by reading from The Curse-Maker, setting the scene in the spa town of Bath. Arcturus is there because his wife seems to be in a state of deep depression, but he distrusts spa towns. They promised something they can't deliver, and those involved in spas prey on people.

As I said in the beginning, readers who have an interest in history might appreciate Kelli Stanley's books.  I know I'm looking forward to reading The Curse-Maker.  And, she even stamped the book with a blessing, "May good fortune bless and protect you always," and a stamp based on a picture she took in Bath of the image of the goddess Sulis.

Kelli Stanley's website is

The Curse-Maker by Kelli Stanley. St. Martin's Minotaur, ©2011. ISBN 9780312654191 (hardcover), 320p.

Desert Sleuths with Kelli Stanley - Left to Right - Chantelle Aimee Osman, Kelli Stanley, Deb Ledford, R.K. Olson & Lesa Holstine

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction by Barry Forshaw

I only came across Barry Forshaw's The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction because a friend donated it to  the library in memory of Jim.  I wish I had it in hand months ago.  It's a little gem for anyone interested in the history of crime fiction, and the movies made from outstanding books.

Ian Rankin wrote a short preface in which he argues that the crime novel is "The perfect vehicle for a discussion of contemporary issues in the most unflinching terms." And, then he turns the book over to Forshaw to discuss those issues in the context of crime fiction.  Forshaw, a critic of crime and literary fiction, is also a film critic, and he combines both of those interests in this fascinating book.

Forshaw takes readers through the history of crime fiction, beginning with the Bible, Sophocles and Shakespeare.  Then he moves on to the men who established the genre, Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  There are short sketches of the authors, sidebars listing their best books, and sidebars describing the movies made from the books.  From the origins, we move to the Golden Age; Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L. Sayers.  The fathers of the American hardboiled school are covered, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, along with the detectives that followed them. 

Private eyes, police procedurals, professional and amateur sleuths, even serial killers are covered in individual chapters that highlight authors while summarizing the book Forshaw considers the best example of their work. Anyone interested in reading some of the best of the genre, or learning more about the history of crime fiction would appreciate this book.  As I said earlier, I wish I had read this earlier.  Forshaw's The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction is a keeper for any fan of the history of crime fiction and crime fiction films.

The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction by Barry Forshaw.  DK Publishing, Inc. ©2007. ISBN 9781843536543 (paperback), 320p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Sean Keefer, Guest Blogger

Today, I'm pleased to have the opportunity to introduce you to a Sean Keefer, author of the debut novel, The Trust.   According to his website, "When Sean is not writing he practices Family Law and works as a Domestic Mediator."  He lives in Charleston, South Carolina, the setting for his novel.  Since he's used some of his own background to create his character in The Trust, I'll let Sean talk about that.

Bringing a Character to Life.

My first novel, The Trust, was recently published. I typed the final period on December 31, 2004. I’ve been through a few agents and came close on one prior occasion to having it published before it was finally released in January of 2011.

The interesting thing is that after I finished editing in late 2005, I didn’t read it in total until it was being readied for publication.

With the rereads, it was an interesting experience – quite eye-opening. Going back through it allowed me to re-discover subtle aspects of the different characters and to again focus on the method I used to impart specific traits to individual characters.

Let’s take a look the main character, Noah Parks. He is a Charleston, South Carolina attorney. He owns his own general practice law firm where he is the only attorney.

Being from a similar professional background, I had the ability to draw from experience as to the basic attributes Parks’ would have. However the last thing I wanted was a generic, cookie cutter attorney, so he needed some work.

I wanted Parks’ personality to have a degree of nostalgia. I wanted him to be tied to his past, but grounded in the present. To accomplish this I used a focal point from his law school experience and created a mechanism for him to organize physical reminders of his past thoughts and emotions. From time to time Parks revisits this focal point. I found the process helped to move the plot along without seeming forced or contrived.

I wanted Parks to be independent, but reluctantly, if not guardedly, so. I also wanted him to come across as compassionate and caring without simply coming out and saying so. To accomplish these attributes I developed a sub-plot that tied together several characters who collectively explored one of Parks’ past relationship which left him, at least in the eyes of his friends, vulnerable and somewhat cautious with future relationships.

To further his compassion and caring nature, Parks has a dog – a rescued Australian Shepherd. It was terribly enjoyable the way the canine fit effortlessly into the story and also helped to bring certain characters together.

I did something with The Trust that I’m not sure if I would recommend to others as an overall method for writing, but it was a process that worked for me.

Rather than formulating an outline or summary of the entire book prior to writing, I started with the following simple proposition.

The Executor of an estate comes into a law office and demands to see the attorney who owns the firm. The Executor shows the attorney a will that directs the attorney to provide legal work for the estate and provides that the attorney receive the contents of a certain safety deposit box when the estate is closed. The Executor has never heard of the attorney and the attorney has never heard of the Executor or the deceased. Neither knows what is in, or even that, the safety deposit exists.

When I started, that was all I had and the rest developed from there.

It was quite amazing and enjoyable to not only see where the plot would lead but also to watch the characters develop and take on a life of their own. Initially I found myself having to be careful not to have my personal decisions be those made by the characters.

As I developed Parks from a basic blueprint into a fictional character I began to sense, when he was placed in certain situations of my creation, how he would react. Ultimately though I was the hand creating Parks’ fictional reality, it was Parks who made the actual decision as to how he would react.

So this process has become a benchmark of sorts for me when I create a character. When I sense that the characters are making decisions for themselves, then I know they have taken their place in the book and while I may have to step in and decide their final fate (after all, it is my book!), I’m comfortable that they will be able to take care of themselves with whatever I throw them.

Thank you, Sean.  As readers, I know we're always fascinated with the writing process, and the way authors create their characters.  Thank you for including us in the process.

Sean Keefer's website is

The Trust by Sean Keefer.  Old Line Publishing, ©2011. ISBN 9781937004170 (paperback), 352p.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Agatha Award Nominees

It's hard not to be excited about the list of nominees for this year's Agatha Awards.  I've read so many of the books, and several of the authors are friends.  Congratulations to everyone.

The Agatha Awards are presented each year in the Washington, D.C. area.  This year's convention is April 29 - May 1 in Bethesda, Maryland.  The awards are named in honor of Agatha Christie.  According to the website for Malice Domestic, "The 2010 Agatha Awards will be given for materials first published in the United States by a living author during the calendar year 2010 (January 1-December 31), either in hardcover, as a paperback original, or e-published by an e-publishing firm."

Here are this year's nominees:

Best Novel:
Stork Raving Mad by Donna Andrews (Minotaur)
Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard (Ballantine)
Drive Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Mira)
Truly, Madly by Heather Webber (St. Martin's Paperbacks)

Best First Novel:
The Long Quiche Goodbye by Avery Aames (Berkley)
Murder at the PTA by Laura Alden (Signet)
Maid of Murder by Amanda Flower (Five Star/Gale)
Full Mortality by Sasscer Hill (Wildside Press)
Diamonds for the Dead by Alan Orloff (Midnight Ink)

Best Non-fiction:
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (Penguin)
Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks: 50 Years of Mysteries in the Making by John Curran (Harper)
Sherlock Holmes for Dummies by Stephen Doyle & David A. Crowder (For Dummies)
Have Faith in Your Kitchen by Katherine Hall Page (Orchises Press)
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Best Short Story:
"Swing Shift" by Dana Cameron, Crimes by Moonlight (Berkley)
"Size Matters" by Sheila Connolly, Thin Ice (Level Best Books)
"Volunteer of the Year" by Barb Goffman, Chesapeake Crimes: They Had it Comin' (Wildside Press)
"So Much in Common" by Mary Jane Maffini, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine - Sept./Oct. 2010
"The Green Cross" by Liz Zelvin, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine - August 2010

Best Children's/Young Adult:
Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer by John Grisham (Dutton Children's)
Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus by R. L. LaFevers (Houghton Mifflin)
The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee (Candlewick)
Virals by Kathy Reichs (Razorbill)
The Other Side of Dark by Sarah Smith (Atheneum)

Congratulations, again!

Winners and A Comedy Tonight Contest

Congratulations to the winners of the last contests.  Copies of Julia Spencer-Fleming's One Was a Soldier go to Joyce D. of Bayville, NJ, Susan M. from Williamsburg, VA, and Kay M. of Lubbock, TX. Diane K. from Crown Point, IN won Chelsea Cain's books, and Michael Palmer's A Heartbeat Away goes to Charlotte W. of Covington, GA. The books will all go out in the mail tomorrow.

These heart-stopping books were a little heavy, so I'll lighten it up this week with some humor.  You could win a copy of Tim Dorsey's Electric Barracuda.  It's a non-stop ride across Florida as Serge Storms leads the police on a merry chase.  Please don't enter this contest, though, if you are easily offended by crude language or situations.  Tim's Serge Storms is a lovable antihero, but he and his sidekick, Coleman, are also coarse and outrageous.

Or, you could enter to win Steve Hockensmith's The Crack in the Lens.  Travel back in time to 1893, when Otto "Big Red" Amlingmeyer and his brother Gustav "Old Red" have the time to investigate the murder of Old Red's girlfriend.  Her death at the hands of a brutal killer was swept under the rug by authorities.  When the brothers decide to find out what really happened, everyone in town wants to keep those secrets buried.  Maybe they'll try to bury the brothers with the secrets.  It's a twisted puzzle that would have baffled even the brothers' hero, Sherlock Holmes.

So, would you like Tim Dorsey's book or Steve Hockensmith's?  You can enter to win both, but I need separate entries.  Email me at  The subject lines should read, either "Win Dorsey" or "Win Hockensmith."  Include your name and mailing address in the body of the email.  Entries only from the U.S., please.

The contest will close Thursday, Feb. 24 at 6 PM MT when I'll draw the winners using a random number generator.  The books will go out in the mail on Friday.  Good luck!

Electric Barracuda by Tim Dorsey

I am the perfect person to kick off the virtual tour for Tim Dorsey's thirteenth book, Electric Barracuda.  When I was in Florida, Tim appeared at every one of the Lee County Reading Festivals as a guest author.  He and I debuted the same year.  I was Chair of the Authors Committee for the first six years of the festival, and he appeared with his very first book, Florida Roadkill, and then returned with each of the following books.

Now, Tim Dorsey's books aren't for every reader, and that's a warning.  These are wild chases across Florida with Serge Storms, an antihero who kills pedophiles, and turns in cop killers while he himself runs from the cops with his sidekick, Coleman.  Coleman's high most of the time; the language is quite coarse; there's bathroom humor in the book.  At the same time, Serge is taking out bad guys while the cops, in Keystone Cop scenarios, miss capturing him by inches.  It's hard to dislike Serge.

Electric Barracuda finds Serge and Coleman crisscrossing Florida as Serge creates a Fugitive Tour of Florida.  On his website, he tells people how to enjoy the state by hiding out as a fugitive, and escaping from the cops.  To the chagrin of Agent White of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), Serge manages to keep people informed as to where he is in the state, but still remains one step ahead of the police.  They even add an additional member to the task force, an agent named Mahoney, who swore to bring Serge down.  Oh, but there are surprises in store for Serge and Mahoney both.

This book truly is a screwball comedy, but it also includes fascinating details about so many locations in the state.  Florida residents are Dorsey's biggest fans, since it's easy to recognize the sites and history of the state, every place from St. Petersburg to the small Gulf islands such as Pine Island.  I even recognized the names of the roads. Dorsey includes the state's unusual history including Al Capone, the Everglades, stories of the mob.  Every bit of Florida's odd history is fodder for Dorsey.  Even the other writers of the state are fodder for Tim, as Brad Meltzer becomes a crooked attorney, and Randy Wayne White shows up in a bar. 

Remember that warning.  Don't pick up Tim Dorsey's books if the language or crude situations will offend you.  But, if you like screwball comedies, understand that Florida really is as strange as Dorsey's books, and enjoy wacky situations and characters, you might want to try Electric Barracuda.  It's a book that even manages to surprise Serge Storms in the end.

Tim Dorsey's website is

Electric Barracuda by Tim Dorsey. HarperCollins, ©2011. ISBN 9780061876899 (hardcover), 357p.

FTC Full Disclosure - I received my copy of the book from the publicist in order to participate in the TLC Book Tour.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lucky Stiff by Deborah Coonts

Deborah Coonts' debut novel, Wanna Get Lucky? impressed me as original, with a unique character and a terrific setting, Las Vegas.  But, her second mystery, Lucky Stiff, shows that she has mastered her craft.  Coonts sucks us into Lucky O'Toole's world of casinos and crime and Las Vegas in the opening paragraph.  She takes us through suspense, tears, smiles, romance, and lots of laughter in the course of this wonderful book.  Even with its dark underside, Coonts gives us the magic of Las Vegas as seen through the eyes of Lucky.

It's hard to put down a book that begins with, "Millions of enraged honeybees had done the impossible.  Single-handedly they had brought the Las Vegas Strip to a standstill."  As Head of Customer Relations for the Babylon, "the most over-the-top casino on the Las Vegas Strip," it was Lucky's job to handle that problem when it was an exhibit at that hotel that stopped traffic.  But, that problem was just a bump in Lucky's day.  She had to successfully handle a championship fight during Fight Week, manage the situation of a naked district attorney in a closet, and deal with her mother's current media production.  Then there was the love of her life, set to become a star in the music world, with the possibility of leaving her behind while he toured.  So, why shouldn't she launch an investigation when a hated odds maker ended up as a meal for sharks in the tank at Mandalay Bay Resort?

Deb Coonts has created characters that are larger than life, fitting their roles in Las Vegas.   Lucky O'Toole is sarcastic, strong, with a big heart, and a need to be loved.  Even the minor characters in this book can hold their own with her.  However, I'm a big fan of all of her returning characters, the Great Teddie Divine, the Big Boss, Lucky's mother, Mona, her assistant, Miss Patterson, the private detective, the Beautiful Jeremy Whitlock.  All of these bigger than life characters fit in the city, and the life of the casino.  And, Deb Coonts brilliantly assigns them roles in her latest mystery, Lucky Stiff.  It's a fast-paced, fun mystery with a great cast, a great setting, and an intriguing mystery. 

If you haven't yet discovered it, I hope you take a gamble, and visit Lucky O'Toole's world, the Las Vegas of Wanna Get Lucky? and Lucky Stiff.

Deborah Coonts' website is

Lucky Stiff by Deborah Coonts.  Tom Doherty Associates, ©2011. ISBN 9780765325440 (hardcover), 368p.

FTC Full Disclosure - The author sent me a copy of the book, in hopes I would review it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Keys to the Castle by Donna Ball

Donna Ball's author bio at the back of Keys to the Castle says she "Has published more than eighty works of fiction since 1982, both under her own name and under pseudonyms Rebecca Flanders, Donna Carlisle, Leigh Bristol, Taylor Brady, and Donna Boyd."  Yet Keys to the Castle is the first book of hers that I've read, although I've recommended her Ladybug Farm series.  I think I've been missing something.

At forty-six, Sara Graves ranted at her sister that she had been plain old Sara Graves, a middle-aged workaholic who finally took a chance at adventure by marrying a French poet who lived in the U.S., and suddenly she's the widow of a man she only knew for three months. Even worse, she has to make a trip to France to settle her late husband's estate.  She barely knew Daniel Orsay, and she doesn't think she deserves an estate in a country where she doesn't even speak the language.  "It wasn't that she didn't want to go to France.  She didn't want to say good-bye."

Ash Lindeman wasn't looking forward to greeting Sara Graves, either.  As Daniel's closest friend, and his lawyer, he was responsible for handling Rondelais, Daniel's estate.  It might be run-down, but it is a castle with a great deal of problems.  One of the problems is Ash's ex-wife, Michele, Daniel's cousin, who wants the estate for herself.  Since Michele was one of the biggest mistakes of his life, Ash is determined to see that Sara knows all of her options in selling or handling the property.  Ash just didn't realize Sara's own determination.  She planned to leave France, but she fell for the property.  And, there seemed to be a spark between her and Ash.  It's too bad Daniel left behind one secret that could ruin everyone's plans.

Keys to the Castle is a warm, charming story with two needy main characters.  The characters, the gorgeous French setting, the castle itself, are all well-developed.  And, it's refreshing to see the relationship between two middle-aged workaholics.  Donna Ball's book swept me away to another world.  She says,  "Keys to the Castle is a grown-up fairy tale for those who no longer believe in second chances."  I'm sure it will be only the first of her books that I'll read.  If it's any indication, I've been missing some enjoyable stories.

Donna Ball's website is

Keys to the Castle by Donna Ball.  Berkley Books, ©2011. ISBN 9780425239308 (paperback), 336p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book

Monday, February 14, 2011

Julia Spencer-Fleming, Guest Blogger

It really is a pleasure to welcome award-winning mystery author, Julia Spencer-Fleming, today.  It's been three years since the last book in her Reverend Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alystyne series, and we've all been impatiently waiting.  But, three lucky winners won't have to wait much longer.  Details on the giveaway later.  Now, I'd like to welcome Julia, author of the forthcoming book, One Was a Soldier.

Why write mysteries?

When readers ask, I usually tell them I write mysteries because crime fiction today has greater breadth and depth and quality than any other type of novel being published. And it’s true--crime fiction deals with all times, all places, every variation of the human condition, every social ill and grace note of redemption. It’s practiced by writers fanatical about the sometimes-forgotten craft of storytelling; writers who labor like kobolds in the mines over plot and characterization, setting and language. I revel in being one of them. But that’s not the real reason I write mysteries.

When I’m hanging with writer friends, I’ll sometimes say I write mysteries because they’re one of the few genres in which an author can reliably make a living. According to Booksense, mysteries account for 40% of the fiction purchased in this country. Mystery lovers flock to conferences to meet with authors and talk about the books they love. Libraries consistently report mysteries among their best-circulating collections. In an economy that's taken the axe to many independent bookstores, mystery booksellers from coast to coast are thriving by supplying their customers with the newest fix for their jones.  But truthfully, that’s not the real reason I write mysteries.

Just between you and me, I’ll give you the real reason: sheer bloody-mindedness. I started a science fiction novel once. There was a dead body on the floor by the end of the first chapter. Another time, I made a lot of character notes for what I hoped would be a literate study on the effect of materialism and constant striving on a modern marriage. But then the husband took out a contract on the wife, who ended up on the lam after he was whacked by mistake. Once on a book tour, I stayed with a lovely family in a quintessentially middle-American town in Ohio. They have nine adult children, and I thought, wouldn’t a novel based on them make a delightful reading experience about enduring family bonds? Then I started to think, what if one of the daughters was killed? And her husband was the prime suspect? What if one of the brothers was a police officer, being kept off the case? And what if someone else in the picture-perfect family had wanted her dead...?

So that’s it. The reason I write mysteries: no matter what the character and situation I conjure up, sooner or later, somebody gets plugged. Thank heavens I have the outlet, because who knows what might happen to a murder-minded author who can’t keep killing people on the page? Hmmm...something to think about.

Julia Spencer-Fleming is the Agatha and Anthony-award-winning author of the upcoming One Was A Soldier, the seventh Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery. You can find her at Facebook, on Twitter, and at her Reader Space.

One Was A Soldier is available for preorder at: Amazon      Barnes & Noble      Books-A-Million Borders      Powell's Books and your locally owned independent bookstore.

Thank you, Julia.  I think we're all quite glad you turned to mystery writing.  And, maybe your husband and other family members are too!

The release date for One Was a Soldier is actually April 26.  But, Julia was kind enough to send me three Advanced Readers Copies to give away right now.  So, three of you will have the chance to win it, and read it early!  So, you need to email me at Your subject heading should read, "Win One Was a Soldier."  The body should include your name and mailing address.  Entries only from the U.S. please.

This contest will end Thursday night, Feb. 17 at 6 PM MT, when I usually end my contests.  So, you have four days to get your entries in to be one of a small group who can find out right now what's going on with Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne.   Good luck!