Monday, August 31, 2015

Lynn Kaczmarek Interviews Julia Keller

We're very lucky today. Lynn Kaczmarek, who often interviews authors for Mystery Scene, offered to interview Julia Keller for us. Keller's new Bell Elkins mystery, Last Ragged Breath, has just been released. Thank you, Julia and Lynn for a fascinating interview!

Julia Keller
Have you ever started a book and just a few sentences in took a deep breath and settled in because you knew you’d be there for a while? That’s exactly what happened to me with Julia Keller’s debut mystery featuring Bell Elkins, a West Virginia prosecutor. There are now four books in the series, including that debut book, A Killing in the Hills, followed by Bitter River, Summer of the Dead and Last Ragged Breath, published in August.

Bell Elkins is the prosecuting attorney in Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. She’s feisty, stubborn, and totally believable. You don’t always like her; you don’t always agree with her decisions, but you care about her… a lot. The stories are complicated and incredibly well written. But the sense of place, oh my, the sense of place is remarkable.  You see the poverty and anger and resignation combined with the beauty of West Virginia. Keller knows this place and somehow gets it all down on the page. She’s not new at this – she was the culture critic for the Chicago Tribune and won the Pulitzer Prize while she was there. But I for one am happy that she’s turned to writing fiction. The books are not always easy – bad things happen and bad people exist. But Bell Elkins gives Acker’s Gap just a whisper of hope that things will get better. And Julia Keller gives her readers outstanding books.

What made you want to become a writer? Not only of mysteries, but non- fiction too?

The first time I walked into a public library – I was about five, if memory serves – I felt a sort of funny whooshing feeling in my stomach, like riding a roller coaster and having the flu, both at the same time. I was dizzy, and my palms were sweaty. Just the sight of all those books, rising higher and higher on shelf after shelf, beckoning me, left me woozy and besotted. (I’m a little lightheaded right now, just from the recollection!) From that moment on, I was hooked. Hooked on reading and, shortly thereafter, hooked on writing. I started writing my own books when I was in fourth grade. I wrote a sci-fi novel called "Trapped in a Glacier," and a mystery series with titles like, "The Clue of the Card Tip" and "The Clue of the Caller's Whistle." (I believe the Nancy Drew influence on these titles is fairly apparent.) As long as I can remember, I've been in love with language; certain words give me that fizzy feeling all over again. Words like "luminous" and "capacious" and "restitution" and "trajectory" and "preponderance" still make me shiver and swoon. So I write because I love words. I love the sound of sentences, whether they're written on a page or spoken aloud. I love stories – telling them as well as listening to them. To this day, a stroll through a library gives me heart palpitations (another great word –  "palpitations"!) and the sight of a stack of blank paper sends me into flights of ecstasy.  

You worked at the Chicago Tribune for years and won a Pulitzer while you were there. Were you there in the "good old days"? Tell me what that was like and for what did you win the Pulitzer?

The Pulitzer Prize was awarded to my three-part series about the small town of Utica, Ill., that had been decimated by a tornado. I wanted to explore how each of the victims of that terrifying storm had come to be where they were at the crucial moment. So much randomness is involved in our fates. How, I wondered, do we come to terms with that tragic capriciousness? The victims had done precisely what you are supposed to do, when a tornado threatens; they went to the oldest, sturdiest building in town and they went into the cellar, the lowest point. And then the building collapsed. I interviewed hundreds of survivors, over a four-month period, and then I tried to describe the storm and its aftermath. 
I worked for the Tribune for a dozen years, mainly as the paper's chief book critic. (The Utica series was reported and written mainly on my own time.) It was a glorious time to be at the Tribune. Certainly things have changed a great deal in the newspaper business. I resigned in 2012 – not because I was disenchanted with journalism, but because I wanted to write novels. And I knew I couldn't do a good job at both. I had to choose. I chose fiction. 

You now live in Chicago and Ohio and yet your books are set in West Virginia. What drew you to this setting?

I was born and raised in Huntington, West Virginia. I've long maintained that West Virginia is the most unique state in the union. Many states are beautiful, and many states have grievous social and economic problems. But only West Virginia has both – that stunning natural beauty, and those desperate problems that bedevil its people. That juxtaposition – beauty and sorrow – creates a place where stories matter inordinately, and live in the very air.

You've written four books in this series, Killing in the Hills (winner of the Barry Award for best debut novel), Bitter River, Summer of the Dead and now Last Ragged Breath, all featuring county prosecutor Bell Elkins. Bell is feisty with a chip on her shoulder. Tell us about her and why she came back to West Virginia.

She wants to do right by her people. She knows it sounds corny, but she doesn't care – she wants to do what she can for a state that has often been ill-served by its public officials. Bell has a law degree now, and she wants to put that to good use as a prosecutor. The prescription drug abuse epidemic is tearing Appalachia apart – in real life, as well as in my novels – and Bell wants to fight back. As you say, she has a chip on her shoulder, and she has an anger management problem –  but sometimes, anger is fuel.

I find the relationship between Bell and her sister an interesting, strained one and one that provides an intriguing backstory. Would you elaborate?

Shirley, Bell's older sister, served a long prison sentence for killing their father, an abusive parent and generally wretched human being. Now released from prison, Shirley comes back to Acker's Gap (this occurs in Bitter River, second book in the series) and must start her relationship with Bell all over again. I have two sisters myself, and the older I get, the more I realize how crucial they are to my own sense of myself. They are the witnesses to our shared past. I can't imagine life without them. I wanted to create a sister duo that would reflect this bond, this unbreakable connection. I've read a lot of books about brothers, but not enough about sisters and that very special link.

Your depiction of Acker's Gap and the level of poverty in the area is heartbreaking. How do you balance depicting this and still leave the reader with a glimmer of hope? Mostly...

Oh, you've put your finger on the central dilemma I face with each book! I want the books to be authentic representations of the terrible, grinding pressure of poverty on human souls – but I also don't want readers to go kill themselves in despair after reading the novels. There IS hope, but it is a hope that must be earned, worked at, struggled for. I think that's the overall message of Bell and her mission: Yes, the light exists, but you have to keep your head up and your eyes open in order to see it.

In the Acknowledgements of Last Ragged Breath, you say that Homer Hickman's Rocket Boys and the 1999 film October Sky, based on the book are national treasurers. Why?

History is so important in a place like West Virginia. The people live with a sense of history inside them; the events, both dark and light, settle in your bones and influence every day of your life.  I loved Homer Hickam's inspirational memoir because it recognized the way history infiltrates a young West Virginian, and can be both a positive and negative force. Hickam left the small coal-mining town in which he was born and became a NASA engineer – but he never lost his love for his home state. 

In my own childhood, the 1972 Buffalo Creek flood – a real-life event – was frightening to read about, and it haunted me and my childhood friends for many years. The idea that you can be sitting in your house on a Saturday morning when, out of the blue, millions of gallons of nasty black water – waste material from coal mines – can come hurtling down on your head, sweeping away homes and cars and lives, is terrifying. But it happened. And it's a central event in Last Ragged Breath.
Midst the tension of the story in Last Ragged Breath, you've dropped these almost poetic jewels. For instance, in describing turkey vultures overhead, Bell observes "The sound was like the sexy rustle of silk or the preliminary shifting of a heavy velvet theater curtain just before the show commences..." Or one character says "To walk each day on ground that had given rise to you: that was a privilege. Not a curse." They give you breathing space. Do you plan these for a reason or do they just appear?

I love this question, because I used to argue with a writer friend of mine about his habit of going back to a story and "putting in" a bunch of poetic metaphors. No, no, no – that's what I'd say to him, with a groan. Metaphors and analogies should never be "tacked on" to an existing story. They should rise organically from the story you're writing. My rule is: any imagery that you have to sweat over should be left out. Period. If it's not right there, on the tip of your tongue (or the tip of your pen), then dump it. Don't go back and "tart up" the story with some pretty language. The lines you mention from Last Ragged Breath all came during the first draft. Yes, I re-write; every writer does. But the re-writing is NOT to add flowery imagery. It's to assure coherence and to get rid of repetition. I can generally always tell when a writer has gone back and crammed in a bunch of metaphors. 

Bell's description of the sound of turkey vultures flying overhead comes from a real moment I experienced, when I was standing in the woods one day and, in the midst of absolute silence, I heard those wing-flaps overhead. A cauldron of vultures was on its way somewhere – to carrion, no doubt. I was transfixed. And when I was writing about Bell's thoughts at that moment in the book, the sound and the image arose, unbidden, from the crucible of my imagination. It wasn't grafted on or trumped up. It was there, waiting patiently inside my imagination for the moment when it found its perfect home. 

Are you writing another book in the series now? If so, would you tell us something about it?

I am indeed. It is tentatively titled Sorrow Road, and it involves a series of mysterious deaths at an Alzheimers care facility near Acker's Gap. I wanted to explore the issue of memory – how it can be a comfort as well as a crippling force. Life is a journey, and as we move along that road, it can sometimes seem to be all about loss – but of course it is not just that. It's also about the wisdom gained in the face of these inevitable losses. We are stronger because of the ordeals we endure.

Let's talk process... When and where do you write? Computer, pen and ink? Do you outline? 

I love writing by hand, but all those years in journalism (and all those deadlines!) required me to become accustomed to writing on a computer. I still miss paper and pen. I've thought of going back, as an experiment, and writing a novel by hand, just as a carpenter might eschew power tools and build his next house with just hammer and handsaw. Perhaps I will.
No, I don't outline. I like to let the story lead me, rather than me leading the story. I'm often surprised by plot developments that I didn't see coming – but once they do, they seem totally inevitable.

Describe the place you write.

After many years of writing wherever I could find space and time – kitchen table, armchair, unmade bed, upended pickle bucket – I finally treated myself to a desk and a chair, and I gave myself the gift of time. Leaving journalism was all about that gift. There is an Irish anecdote I've long loved: When you come to a high wall that you're afraid to climb, the trick is to throw your cap over the wall – forcing yourself to climb it. That's what I did when I left the Tribune to write fiction full-time: I tossed my cap over the wall.
My desk is in a small room in my basement. I'm surrounded by full-to-the-brim bookcases on three sides. In effect, I'm hemmed in by words. I work in a thicket of sentences. And it's wonderful.

What are you reading right now? Your favorite authors/books?

I'm like Sheriff Nick Fogelsong in my series: Unless I have a book in my hand, I feel naked. I always have at least four or five books going at once. I just finished H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald's beautiful memoir about training a hawk as a sort of grief therapy after her father's sudden death, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, the Man Booker Prize-winning novel about prisoners in a Japanese work camp in World War II and the atrocious conditions therein. It's lyrical and harrowing, an immense achievement.

I'm halfway through Aurora, the new novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, and it is exquisite; to call him a science-fiction author is ludicrously inadequate. Yes, he writes about the future, but it's so much more than that. I treated myself to some re-reading this summer and went back to Virginia Woolf's Night and Day, one of her earliest novels. Lovely stuff! Woolf was much wittier than she's given credit for. The image of this depressed, brooding writer lugging around all these heavy, serious books is a myth. Her prose is very light, very playful. The big ideas are all under the surface.
Favorite writers? Woolf, certainly; I wrote my doctoral dissertation on her, and can't imagine a world without To the Lighthouse. Also, Iris Murdoch, John Banville, Joyce Carol Oates, Willa Cather, Margaret Atwood. Among mystery and thriller writers, I love Ruth Rendell, Henning Mankell, Alan Furst, John LeCarre (but of course!), Denise Mina, Val McDermid and Louise Welch.

Tell us something about yourself that your readers don't know. 
Is this where I'm supposed to confess to some heinous crime for which I was never caught or punished? Alas, as an adult, I'm a notorious rule-follower and goody-two-shoes. I did shoplift once, when I was in second grade; I swiped some Bazooka bubble gum from our local grocery store. I remember plotting my theft, then doing it, and then bragging about it to my sisters, who promptly ratted me out to my mother. She forced me to go back to the store and confess to the clerk. A lesson was learned that day: If you sin, for heaven's sake keep it to yourself.

And so I shall.

Thank you, again, Lynn and Julia.

Julia Keller's website is

Last Ragged Breath by Julia Keller. St. Martin's Press. 2015. ISBN 9781250044747 (hardcover), 384p.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Ghostly Demise by Tonya Kappes

I enjoy cozy paranormal mysteries featuring ghosts, and Tonya Kappes' books have the added feature of Southern humor and lifestyles. Kappes knows Kentucky small towns, and she capitalizes on that knowledge with her latest mystery, A Ghostly Demise.

Emma Lee Raines is the undertaker at her family funeral home in Sleepy Hollow, Kentucky, the Eternal Rest Funeral Home. Family comes first to Emma Lee, so she puts up with her exasperating Granny, Zula Fae Raines. But, it's hard to put up with Zula Fae and her mayoral campaign, as she zooms around town on her scooter. But, it's no easier putting up with Emma Lee's other curse. She's a Betweener who can see ghosts of the murdered dead, people who are stuck between the here and the after. When Cephus Hardy shows up, it's a real shock. Everyone thought he left town years earlier. He was known as the town drunk, a gambler and womanizer. And, no one suspected he was murdered since his body was never found. But, once Emma Lee starts asking questions, someone tries to blow up the old mill with her in it. And, then another person becomes a ghost. It's not an easy life for a Betweener when everyone suspects she's talking to herself.

Kappes' mysteries are delightful with a cast of eccentric Southern characters, beginning with Emma Lee and her Granny. It doesn't get much crazier in a small town than a mayoral campaign between competing funeral home owners at the same time a carnival is in town. Granted, Emma Lee is a little more careless with her own safety than I usually like in a cozy mystery. But, she's already a little nuts. What's a little recklessness? She inherited some of her Granny's spritely mannerisms.

If you enjoy cozy paranormal mysteries with eccentric ghosts and Southern mannerisms, check out Tonya Kappes' latest, A Ghostly Demise.

Tonya Kappes' website is

A Ghostly Demise by Tonya Kappes. Witness. 2015. ISBN 9780062374912 (paperback), 275p.

FTC Full Disclosure - The publicist sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Elizabeth and Fred

Tomorrow I should have a book review for you. And, Monday there's a terrific author interview. But, today I'm celebrating my niece, Elizabeth, and all her hard work with her Pygmy goats, but, especially my favorite, Fred. If you've been following my blog for most of the ten years, you may remember Elizabeth as the young girl who challenged me one year, saying she could read more books than me.

Elizabeth doesn't have as much time now to read over 150 books in a year. She took fourteen Pygmy goats to the Sandusky County Fair, and she, with some help from family and friends, had to transport those goats, feed them a couple times a day, clean out pens, and, of course, show them on Wednesday and Friday.

Friday was the most successful day, when she and her Pygmy goats competed in Open Classes, meaning people of all ages could show their goats. She had a few first place winners, including one class that consisted of three goats, all from the same sire. But, it was Fred, her first goat, and, as I said, the elder of the herd, who carried the day. Fred was first in his class, Wethers 3 years and over, and then he was Reserve Grand Champion Wether.

Congratulations, Elizabeth and Fred. And, congratulations to your family and friends who worked so hard to tend and show the goats.

Elizabeth showing Fred

Elizabeth when Fred was proclaimed the winner of his class

Me with Elizabeth and Fred, The Reserve Grand Champion Wether

Friday, August 28, 2015

Winners and Historical Mystery Giveaway

Congratulations to the winners of Les Roberts' The Ashtabula Hat Trick. The books were mailed to: Sally S. from Antioch, CA, Harvey D. from Winthrop, ME, Jeannette G. of Benicia, CA and Trish R. of Decatur, GA.

This week, I'm giving away two copies of one of the best historical mysteries I've read in quite some time. Nancy Herriman's No Comfort for the Lost is the first in a series set in San Francisco in the late 1860s. Celia Davies is a nurse, originally from England, who served in the Crimea and the American Civil War. Now in San Francisco, she operates a free clinic for those women who cannot afford other care, or who might not be offered other care. One of those in a Chinese prostitute trying to make a better life. But, before she can do that, she's murdered. And Celia's brother-in-law in a suspect. She teams up with Detective Nicholas Greaves who is willing to look for the killer, despite the opinions of his superiors. It's a search that takes them from Chinatown to the Barbary Coast and the homes of the wealthy and influential. And, it's a terrific mystery.

If you'd like to win a copy of No Comfort for the Lost, email me at Your subject line should read, "Win No Comfort for the Lost." Please include your name and mailing address. Entries from the U.S. only, please. The giveaway will end Thursday, Sept. 3 at 6 PM CT.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Pygmy Goats at the Fair

I haven't had time to finish a book in the last couple days, but I have spent time with some favorite animals. My niece is showing her Pygmy goats at the fair this week, so I'm cheering her on. Tomorrow, come back for the book winners and the next giveaway. In the meantime, check out the Pygmy goats.

Six of Elizabeth's Pygmy goats

Elizabeth showing Fred

Elizabeth and Fred
Do you remember Fred? Fred was Elizabeth's original Pygmy goat, and the mascot for the family's barbecue sauce. He's now the elder of a herd that numbers over fifteen

As I said, come back tomorrow for the giveaway winners and the next contest.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Voracious by Cara Nicoletti

Isn't it fascinating to discover what one reader gets out of a book when another misses it totally? I've read a number of the same books as author Cara Nicoletti has, but I never concentrated on the food in the books. She's a butcher, a former pastry chef, and the author of the literary recipe blog, Yummy Books. And, so many of her memories of books involve food as evidenced in her book, Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books.

Any reader will appreciate the preface of Nicoletti's book. She connects food and books, acknowledging a "profound connection between eating and reading". She says, "I fell in love with cooking through reading, and I learned quickly that being in the kitchen offered me the kind of peace that settling in with a good book did." Nicoletti connected with the characters in books through the food. And, now she has the opportunity to do that for readers, presenting recipes for the memorable food in her favorite books.

The author divides the book into three sections, books of Childhood, Adolescence and College Years, and Adult Years. It's the childhood books that brought back the most memories for me. Nicoletti introduces breakfast sausage with Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods. There's Double Chocolate Walnut Sundae with Nancy Drew. And, of course, there's Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies for If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Nicoletti tells us the story from each book, the one that inspired the recipe. And, she exposes her own childhood fears, and later her teenage angst as she discusses the books.

From classics to contemporary fiction and mysteries, Cara Nicoletti proves to be a Voracious reader, as well as a passionate cook. While I found her anecdotes about her life and the stories about each literary piece to be fascinating, I skimmed the recipes. And, admittedly, there are some strange ones from books such as Lord of the Flies, some recipes that won't appeal to most readers. But, the subject itself is as attractive as artist Marion Bolognesi's appetizing illustrations in the book.

Cara Nicoletti's Voracious welcomes guests into her life, where she shares her love of books, and her love of food with all of us. It's comfortable, and comfort reading with the combination of eating and reading.

Cara Nicoletti's website is

Voracious by Cara Nicoletti. Little, Brown & Company. 2015. ISBN 9780316242998 (hardcover), 283p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Penguin's September Mysteries from Berkley Prime Crime & Obsidian

Lots of Jinx today for those of you who only watch the videos for cat appearances (smile)

For the rest of you, here are the September cozy releases from Penguin's Berkley Prime Crime and Obsidian.

The Marsh Madness - Victoria Abbott (4th Book Collector Mystery)
The Darling Dahlias and the Silver Dollar Bush - Susan Wittig Albert (5th Darling Dahlias Mystery,  1st time in paperback)
The Darling Dahlias and the Eleven O'Clock Lady - Susan Wittig Albert (6th Darling Dahlias Mystery, hardcover)
All Sales Final - Josie Belle (5th Good Buy Girls Mystery)
Cinderella Six Feet Under - Maia Chance (2nd Fairy Tale Fatal Mystery)
Law and Author - Erika Chase (5th Ashton Corners Book Club Mystery)
Night of the White Buffalo - Margaret Coel (18th Wind River Mystery, 1st time in paperback)
The Man Who Fell from the Sky - Margaret Coel (19th Wind River Mystery, hardcover)
Once Upon a Grind - Cleo Coyle (14th Coffeehouse Mystery, 1st time in paperback)
Black Cat Crossing - Kay Finch (1st Bad Luck Cat Mystery)
Death of a Blue Blood - Jessica Fletcher & Donald Bain (42nd Murder, She Wrote Mystery, 1st time in paperback)
Trick or Deceit - Shelley Freydont (4th Celebration Bay Mystery)
Booked for Trouble - Eva Gates (2nd Lighthouse Library Mystery)
Basket Case - Nancy Haddock (1st Silver Six Crafty Mystery)
Knot the Usual Suspects - Molly MacRae (5th Haunted Yarn Shop Mystery)
Murder of an Open Book - Denise Swanson (18th Scumble River Mystery)

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny

Every year it becomes harder to summarize Louise Penny's exceptional books. While How the Light Gets In may have represented a culmination of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache's fight against good and evil, even in retirement in Three Pines, he continues to take part in the ongoing battle. And, Gamache, representing Everyman, stands as witness to the knowledge that we all have the potential for evil, the potential for good, and, in The Nature of the Beast, the awareness of our own cowardice in the face of evil.

It's mid-September in Three Pines, when the weather is so beautiful it's hard to imagine that anything evil can invade the small community. But, Gamache and his wife, Reine-Marie are present at the bistro when nine-year-old Laurent Lepage runs in, shouting he found a winged monster in the woods, bigger than a house. But, Laurent had warned the villagers before, of an alien invasion, of a fire at his house. The boy's stories and hoaxes only grew more elaborate.

And, Gamache and Reine-Marie were in the bistro when Antoinette Lemaitre introduced the play she was directing at the local theater, a play called She Sat Down and Wept by an unknown playwright named John Fleming. It's only Gamache that recognizes that John Fleming may not be unknown in Canada.

So, when nine-year-old Laurent Lepage goes missing, the search reveals that the darkness had reached Three Pines. Poet Ruth Zardo is one of the first to acknowledge that monsters still threaten the world. It's a small circle of friends, acknowledging how the villagers are preparing pitchforks and torches, who call on Gamache. Bookstore owner, Myrna, sees it, and Clara calls. "Nature, she knew, abhorred a vacuum, and these people, faced with an information vacuum, had filled it with their fears. The line between fact and fiction, between real and imagined, was blurring. The tether holding people to civil behavior was fraying. They could see it, and hear it and feel it coming apart."

And, Gamache and the police who once formed his homicide team step in to do battle again, in the face of terrible evil. Penny seamlessly weaves together the multiple storylines, with the kind of climax she's known for, one that leaves the reader breathless. At the same time, she once again forces Armand Gamache to face his own fears and nightmares. His close friend, Therese Brunel, knows why Gamache retired early from the Sûreté de Québec. "He had finally staggered under the emotional burden. He'd had enough of corruption, of betrayal, of the back-stabbing and undermining and venal atmosphere. He'd had enough of death." But, Armand Gamache is our Everyman, the one who steps up in the face of his own fears. He's the man who knows that monsters exist, even in the Eastern Townships, even in Three Pines.

Louise Penny brings back characters from the past, introduces new ones, and leaves us with a new threat. As in all of her books, though, Gamache and his friends unite to face the shadows, the shadows of the past, and the shadows of threats. And, they use light and knowledge and literature to combat monsters, as people always have. Gamache is our Everyman in Louise Penny's new masterpiece, The Nature of the Beast.

Louise Penny's website is, and she can be found on Facebook.

The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny. Minotaur Books. 2015. ISBN 9781250022080 (hardcover), 376p.

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

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

If you follow my blog regularly, you know I read for entertainment, no matter what I'm reading. But, I picked up Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me because it appeared on a bookstore's list for the subject "Black Lives Matter." This forthright book is a letter from a journalist to his fifteen-year-old black son. It discusses racism, history, his own life, his fear, and his fear for his son.

Coates breaks the letter into three parts. First he defines those who think they've found the "Dream", found their aspirations to live a safe, secure life in what they think of as a "white" world. He contrasts that with his own life growing up in Baltimore, where he struggled daily to balance between the streets where boys confronted each other, sometimes with guns, and his school and family life. But, he said a black boy learns early that life is about survival and safety. And, he talks about America, built on the bodies of black people, built so that white people can live a dream, and blacks live in fear. And, even as he discusses that, he admits that the Irish, the Italians, the Catholics, the Jews were not always the "white people" living the Dream. But, unlike the black person, they weren't slaves in this country.

The second part of the book describes Coates' escape into the sheltered world of Howard University, where he met blacks of every hue and nationality. Even there, he was not meant for the prescribed courses of study, classroom work. Instead, he was the type of young man who questioned everything, and searched for books to assist with his quest, saying "I was made for the library, not the classroom." But, even that sheltered environment led young men and women to the world where police would accost them on the streets, in their cars, and not face punishment for their actions. It was the killing of a college friend that tore Coates apart. His friend, raised to believe in the Dream, was tracked through three cities and shot down. Even the college-educated, dreaming young people have to walk the streets in fear.

In the short final chapter, Coates discovers a world without fear, but it's in Paris. When he follows his wife there, he discovers a world where he can walk the streets without worrying about survival, and he takes his son there to share it with him. But, even then, he knows it's too late for him to live a life without fear. And, every day, he fears for his son, a young black man in America.

I'm the wrong person to write a criticism of Between the World and Me. I grew up with that Dream, in an all white community where everyone aspired to college and a solid middle-class life. And, I only know the fear of walking on a street at night as a woman. I don't know the all-consuming walk of survival, the fear of saying the wrong thing or making the wrong move. Ta-Nehisi Coates' letter to his son is a powerful indictment of a country living in fear, people fearing each other because of the color of their skin, or because of the power over them because of the color of their skin. It's sad, and tragic, that Coates and others cannot feel safe and at peace in this country.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Spiegal & Grau. 2015. ISBN 9780812993547 (hardcover), 152p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Find the Good by Heather Lende

I cried over Heather Lende's earlier book, If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name. Her stories about the people of Haines, Alaska, and the obituaries she writes for the Chilkat Valley News are so full of heart, full of love and caring. She's honest about her own failings, and those of the people she writes about. But, her obituaries show the humanity of her fellow townspeople. And, now, she has another beautiful tearjerker, one that again touches on ordinary lives that are all extraordinary as well. Asked to write an essay with wisdom to live by, Lende looked at her own life, and the lives of the people she writes about, and answered with the words that title the new book. Find the Good.

Lende raised five kids in Alaska, is involved in her small community, and writes the obituaries for the local weekly newspaper. She said writing obituaries has taught her the value of intentionally trying to find the good in people and situations. She interviews family members and friends to discover what made the deceased special. She works to find the good.

The book isn't just a tearjerker, though. There's humor here as well. Lende shares some of the lessons she learned from the people she writes about. She learned to relax a little about the state of her house. She's learning to enjoy moments, moments with her grandchildren, with her dogs. When she babysits for the grandchildren, there are blocks around the house, dog hair, and happy children. "My house is getting messier in direct proportion to my growing optimism."

In her stories of children, grandchildren, dogs, obituaries, and old friends, Heather Lende points out how she tries to Find the Good. It's a beautiful, thoughtful book. Author Sharon Salzberg called it "A gem of a book", and she's right. When Lende sums up one lesson with "Life. Love. Loss. Us.", she summarizes all the reasons to Find the Good. It's an exquisite lesson for life.

Heather Lende's website is

Find the Good by Heather Lende. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2015. ISBN 9781616201678 (hardcover), 162p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book

Friday, August 21, 2015

Winners and a Les Roberts Giveaway

Congratulations to the winners of the last contest. Anita Y. of Barnesville, GA won Linda Castillo's After the Storm. Linda R. from Dickinson, TX will receive Donis Casey's Hell with the Lid Blown Off.

This week, Les Roberts' publicist sent four copies of his latest book, The Ashtabula Hat Trick, for the giveaway.  And, you don't have to have read earlier books in this series to read this one. It can easily stand alone. Cleveland private eye, Milan Jacovich, accompanies his girlfriend, homicide detective Tobe Blaine, to rural Ashtabula County. She's been assigned to help the small-town police chief who has no experience with murder investigations, especially when two people have been murdered. Milan and Tobe find a secretive community who don't respect Tobe or her badge. But, the murder victims did respect their minister. It's a timely mystery with political overtones. For more information, check out the link.

Four winners! If you would like to win one of the copies, email me at Your subject heading should read "Win The Ashtabula Hat Trick." Please include your name and mailing address. Entrants from the U.S. only, please.

Important note! Due to my schedule next week, this contest will end Thursday, Aug. 27 at 7 a.m. ET, not in the evening.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Browsings by Michael Dirda

It feels a little odd to discuss a book by a critic who writes essays about reviewing books. It reminds me of those old cartoons about a TV scene inside an identical TV scene inside another identical TV scene. I don't really need to review a book by Michael Dirda. But, I do want to call attention to a book about books since I'm addicted to them. Browsings is subtitled "A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books".

Between February 2012 and February 2013, Dirda contributed a weekly essay to The American Scholar. The essays are collected here, and most of them deal with the author's love of books, or, as he says, it gives "Some sense of a year in the life of an especially bookish literary journalist". For those of us who are passionate about books, it's as if we're meeting a new friend with similar interests. He discusses authors he loves, books he's collected, and presents lists, whether they're his favorite books to give as gifts or Christmas readings. He acknowledges what bloggers and those who share our books know. "I read a lot and enjoy writing about the books and authors that interest me." But, Michael Dirda is widely read with wide interests, and he discusses everything from science fiction to literature of the nineteenth century to Sherlock Holmes. There are comments about music, and used bookstores.

Dirda cautions readers to do exactly what the title suggests, browse through the book. Don't read it straight through, but dip in and sample the essays. If you love books, the adventures of discovery, you might want to sample Browsings. And, if you still love physical books, you'll be drawn to an author who writes the following paragraph. "Despite the rising popularity of the downloadable e-text, I still care about physical books, gravitate to handsome editions and pretty dust jackets, and enjoy seeing rows of hardcovers on my shelves. Many people simply read fiction for pleasure and nonfiction for information. I often do myself. But I also think of some books as my friends and I like to have them around. They brighten my life." To that, I say, amen, Michael Dirda. Amen.

I appreciate Michael Dirda's Browsings for all the discussion of books, collecting, and bookstores. But, there were a few comments that I appreciated for personal reasons. Dirda is from Lorain, Ohio, half an hour from my hometown. He went to Oberlin College, where I spent time doing research when I was in high school. And, he mentioned two people I hadn't thought of for quite a while. Kathleen Ann Goonan is a science fiction writer, who once appeared at the Lee County Reading Festival when I was Authors' Chair of the festival. And, he dedicated the book to a few people, including Clifton Fadiman. Clifton Fadiman was an intellectual, author, critic, and editor for Book of the Month Club, among other things. And, I met him when I was the library manager on Captiva Island. Mr. Fadiman dropped in one day, and said he had too many review copies and could he give some to the library. Of course I said yes, and he and his son brought boxes to the library. I couldn't imagine having too many books, which is ironic considering how many I now receive weekly. I can't imagine how many Clifton Fadiman received.

Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books by Michael Dirda. Pegasus Books. 2015. ISBN 9781605988443 (hardcover), 246p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library Book

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Plantation Shudders by Ellen Byron

The other day, a friend referred to her reading, and said sometimes nothing is as satisfying as "death and mayhem". She's right. And, when that death and mayhem happens in a debut mystery, a mystery in which I don't guess the killer, there isn't anything more satisfying. Ellen Byron's debut mystery, Plantation Shudders, is an atmospheric, delightful mystery.

After her business arrangement with her boyfriend fell apart in New York, Maggie Crozat returned home to Louisiana. Now she works as a tour guide at Doucet Plantation, once owned by her mother's family, and helps out at the plantation her father's family made into a bed-and-breakfast, Crozat Plantation. Since the family is still playing financial catch-up after Hurricane Katrina, Maggie suggested they offer a special deal for the local end of summer celebration, Fet Let. They're completely booked, although it's a strange collection of guests. Unfortunately, the celebration turns bad when two guests die within minutes of each other. Yes, the couple was elderly, but only one of them died a natural death.

He may have started an investigation, but the local police chief, Rufus Durand, always had a grudge against the Crozats. So, he's pleased when Maggie's Gran' appears to be a suspect. And, clues do point to someone in the Crozat household. Fortunately, Rufus' new detective, his cousin, Bo, has more impartial methods of investigation. But, Maggie's determined she'll find the real killer if the Durands can't handle it.

Plantation Shudders is an atmospheric, traditional mystery with a strong sense of place. Bayous, alligators, Cajun food, Zydeco music, and plantations all spell Louisiana. Byron introduces a strong set of characters, beginning with Maggie, who can be a little snarky at times, and her wonderful Gran'. It's Gran' Maggie turns to for advice when she needs "Someone who was comfortable occasionally making a dodgy moral choice." The guests at the bed-and-breakfast are just cast members. It's Maggie's extended family and friends, along with Bo and his son who are the true stars of this mystery. Byron, with her well-developed characters and settings, along with her intriguing mystery, devises a successful, enjoyable debut.

It will definitely be a treat to return to Crozat Plantation and the next Cajun Country mystery. The Crozat family will definitely welcome readers back with Southern hospitality.

Ellen Byron's website is

Plantation Shudders by Ellen Byron. Crooked Lane Books. 2015. ISBN 9781629532509 (hardcover) 288p.

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

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What Are You Reading? Where Are You?

I think books are getting longer. Or, I haven't had a lot of time in the last week. Last night, I spent time on the phone with Southwest Airlines (all good), so that took a little reading time, but I still don't think I would have finished my book.

I'm reading a charming debut mystery, Plantation Shudders by Ellen Byron. It's set in Louisiana, and deals with the surprising death of two guests on a plantation turned bed-and-breakfast. Surprising, because a couple died with minutes of each other. It's "A Cajun Country Mystery", and the characters are wonderful. Love the amateur sleuth's Gran', "Someone who was comfortable occasionally making a dodgy moral choice." We all know I read for character.

So, I'm in Cajun Country with new acquaintances. What are you reading today? Where did your book take you today?

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan

Janice Kaplan's The Gratitude Diaries is a lesson for anyone who wants to change their life for the better. It's a thoughtful book, and the author spent time talking to all kinds of scientists, doctors and experts about gratitude and how it can change someone. But, it all comes down to how it changed her life. It's subtitled "How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Transformed My Life."

Kaplan's decision to live gratefully started on New Year's Eve, as so many resolutions do. She tried to decide what would make next year different. She decided life was about how she responded to it. "I could passively wait for the wonderful to occur - and still find something wrong. Or I could accept whatever events did come my way and try to appreciate them a little more." What could she appreciate more? How about her husband, her sons, the money she has, the food on her table, her sister, the ability to live the life she has? Her husband acknowledged it was a good goal for the year. "You probably don't appreciate what you have as much as you should. You pay too much attention to what's wrong rather than what's right." Kaplan devoted each month to appreciation, gratitude for a part of her life, but she built on the previous month at the same time.

And, there's probably a little Janice Kaplan in all of us, that tendency to pay too much attention to what's wrong. Is Kaplan's book a marvelous revelation of something new? No, but she concentrates on gratitude, reframing our reactions to life. She gathers together anecdotes about her life, the lives of others, along with literature and science, to suggest it might be worthwhile to try an attitude of gratitude, or "grattitude" as an artist said. Who knows what magic could occur in your life if you emphasize gratitude? Gratitude changed Kaplan's life. It might work for others as well.

In Kaplan's book, The Gratitude Diaries, she doesn't point out what we've been doing wrong. Instead, she shows how she changed her life, keeping a gratitude journal, not every day, but every few days. And, she expressed her gratitude to people she loved. What is she grateful for in her life? What can she see that turns an ordinary moment into a moment to celebrate and appreciate? Today, I'm grateful that I received Kaplan's book. It's a book that makes me think, and try to show a little more gratitude in my life. Who knows how it will change my life, and my perception of it?

Janice Kaplan's website is

The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan. Dutton. 2015. ISBN 9780525955061 (hardcover), 320p.

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

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Between the Living and the Dead by Bill Crider

Looking for the perfect escape? It doesn't get much better than a new Sheriff Dan Rhodes mystery by Bill Crider. There's investigations of crime in a rural Texas county. Justice triumphs. And, there's lots of humor including the groaner of a pun in the last line of Between the Living and the Dead. Oh, and I didn't even mention the haunted house.

Rhodes' dispatcher, Hack, always seems to wake the sheriff up in the middle of the night with an emergency. This time, there's something going on at the town's haunted house. Rhodes is a little suspicious because Seepy Benton, a local professor, is opening up an office as a paranormal investigator over the summer break. But when Rhodes and a deputy check out the house, they find a dead body there, a local meth dealer who was out on bond. Rhodes might not believe in ghosts, but he feels as if something is watching him every time he returns to the crime scene. And, it's not the mice his staff jokes about.

Crider's mysteries are delightful homespun stories with a quirky set of characters. What would the sheriff do without Hack and Lawton, his dispatcher and jailer, with their off-beat stories, weird imaginations, and knowledge of the local community? And, where else do you get a county commissioner interested in getting a drone to locate meth dealers and feral hogs? Only in Blacklin County, Texas will you find a college math professor taking up paranormal investigation.

Sheriff Dan Rhodes may be the long-suffering Blacklin County sheriff, dealing with eccentric townspeople, runaway bulls, and murder and other criminal investigations. But, don't worry about the sheriff. He's levelheaded, even as he deals with the day-to-day life of a rural sheriff. But, he also has his own brand of humor, as evidenced in Between the Living and the Dead. And, the humor doesn't get much better than the laugh aloud stories in Bill Crider's mysteries.

Bill Crider's website is

Between the Living and the Dead by Bill Crider. Minotaur Books. 2015. ISBN 9781250039705 (hardcover), 272p.

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

Saturday, August 15, 2015

What are you reading this weekend?

No lunch hour yesterday. Instead, I went to the dentist. (Look, Ma, no cavities!) But, that took my reading time, so I didn't finish Bill Crider's Between the Living and the Dead.

Since I'm also reading a nonfiction book, Janice Kaplan's The Gratitude Diaries, I'll phrase it this way. I actually find myself grateful that I'm reading Bill Crider's book this weekend. The Sheriff Dan Rhodes mysteries are terrific police procedurals. But, they're also so funny! I was laughing aloud last night when reading a scene with a bull heading toward a Walmart.

So, I'm grateful for Bill Crider's book. It makes me laugh.

You have a choice today. What are you reading this weekend? Or, if you're really enjoying this weekend's book, what is it, and why are you grateful for it?

(And, I'm always grateful for a good book.)

Friday, August 14, 2015

Winners and a Twister Giveaway

Congratulations to the winners of the Ann Cleeves giveaway. Dead Water will be going to Mona B. from Fort Worth, TX, and Donna S. from Milford, CT will receive Silent Voices. The books will go out in the mail tomorrow.

Although tornadoes can happen any time, the dates for tornado season this year are over. That doesn't mean I can't give away books that feature tornadoes, mysteries by two favorite authors. Hell with the Lid Blown Off is an Alafair Tucker mystery by Donis Casey. If you haven't yet discovered this series featuring a ranch wife in early twentieth century Oklahoma, now's the perfect time. In the summer of 1916, a big twister cuts a path of destruction through Boynton, Oklahoma. Alafair's family and friends are not spared, but no one is going to mourn for dead Jubal Beldon. Then, it's discovered that Jubal was already dead when the twister hit, murdered. And, Alafair fears the killer is someone she knows well.

Or, what about a tornado in Ohio's Amish country? Linda Castillo brings us After the Storm. When a tornado hits Painters Mill, it brings death and destruction in a trailer park. However, Police Chief Kate Burkholder also has to deal with the body uncovered when a group of scouts are cleaning up an Amish farm after the tornado. It's a powerful story mixed together by strong forces.

Which mystery would you like to win? You can enter to win both, but I need separate entries. Email me at I'll make it easy this time. Your subject heading should read either "Win Casey" or "Win Castillo." Please include your name and mailing address. Entries from the U.S. only, please. The contest will end Thursday, Aug. 20 at 6 PM CT.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Ashtabula Hat Trick by Les Roberts

If I was author Les Roberts, I wouldn't be heading to Ashtabula County, Ohio in the near future. His latest Milan Jacovich mystery,The Ashtabula Hat Trick, describes the people and county in not-so-favorable terms. And, I've never read about a community and had more sympathy for the killer than the other citizens. Admittedly, Milan and his cohorts have the same problem, sympathy for the killer.

Milan Jacovich, a private investigator in Cleveland, is really along to help out on a case if needed. His significant other, Homicide Detective Sergeant Tobe Blaine, is sent to Queenstown in Ashtabula County, a town of 3,000, because the small-town police chief can't handle a murder investigation. There have been two murders in sixteen days, and, soon after Milan and Tobe arrive, there's a third murder. What do two men and a woman, all killed in different ways, have in common? They are all members of a local conservative church, one that spews forth a message of hatred for gays and blacks. But, the racism is not unusual in the town where Milan and Tobe, a mixed-race couple, are made to feel unwelcome everyplace they go. When Milan's assistant, K.O., joins them, he notices the atmosphere there as well. "Something's going on in this town, and we're not getting it."

The Ashtabula Hat Trick is a timely, issue-oriented story. Roberts has captured the desperate nature of an area defined as Appalachia by the federal government. It's an area defined by poor-paying jobs at McDonald's and Lowe's, no industry, but there is a privatized prison. In an economically deprived area, it's easy for people to turn to hatred, drugs, drinking, and the church. If it's a church with a racist message, there's even more hatred. All of these issues are elements in this disturbing mystery.

Over the course of the series, Milan has suffered losses and dealt with the changes in Cleveland and the world, including the changes in the types of crime he deals with. When he went from cop to private eye, he thought he'd deal with security issues, so he called his firm Milan Security. Instead, he deals with personal problems, kidnappings, murder, theft. In this case, he and his friends deal with murder, racism and bigotry.

I've always read the Milan Jacovich mysteries because Roberts brings the Cleveland area to life, with its beauty and its dark side. The books always have a strong sense of place. This one is particularly thought-provoking and sobering. But, Ashtabula isn't unique. We just think of hatred and bigotry in big cities. But, "Bizarre crime happens not only on the mean streets of metropolitan cities, but in peaceful towns and villages, too." Milan Jacovich; a detective who walks the mean streets of Cleveland and the supposedly quiet streets in Ashtabula County, Ohio in Les Roberts' compelling mystery, The Ashtabula Hat Trick.

Les Roberts' website is

The Ashtabula Hat Trick by Les Roberts. Gray & Company. 2015. ISBN 9781938441714 (hardcover), 243p.

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

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What Are You Reading?

I have a terrific cup at work that the former library director gave me. I can write on it, and erase it. It
says, "Today I'm reading...", and one of my co-workers expressed surprise at how often the title changes. I told her that's because I read fiction, and she reads nonfiction, and it takes longer to get through a nonfiction book. I did warn her I probably wouldn't finish my current book yet, and I was right.

Today I'm reading...Les Roberts' The Ashtabula Hat Trick. Cleveland PI Milan Jacovich accompanies his girlfriend, a police detective sergeant, to Ashtabula County in Ohio, where a small police force can't cope with a string of murders. It seems they also have a hard time dealing with interracial dating, as evidenced with the surprise when Milan and Tobe show up together. Queenstown isn't really far from Cleveland, but the racist attitudes are miles away from what Milan and Tobe are used to. And, along with Milan's employee, K.O., they find themselves facing an uncooperative community.

So, I'm reading a detective novel set in Ohio. What are you reading today? I'd love to know!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Fudging the Books by Daryl Wood Gerber

I love so many elements of Daryl Wood Gerber's Cookbook Nook mysteries. Jenna Hart is a caring, warm amateur sleuth. The Crystal Cove, California setting is charming. The latest story, Fudging the Books has not one, but two appealing young cats. And, the store itself! The Cookbook Nook is filled with cookbooks, and books about cooking and food, including numerous cozy mysteries with recognizable titles and authors. There's constant talk of food, and recipes included. I enjoy most of Jenna's family and friends. But, her best friend, Bailey, drives me nuts.

It's February, time for two celebrations in Crystal Cove, Pirate Week and National Chocolate Month. Tourists and townspeople alike enjoy the antics of Pirate Week. But, oh, National Chocolate Month! Local sweet shop owner, Coco Chastain, invites her publisher, Alison, to return to her hometown, and  participate in the chocolate observances. But, when Alison is murdered at Coco's house, the atmosphere isn't quite so sweet. When Coco calls for help, Jenna turns up at the crime scene. But, even Cinnamon Pritchett, the chief of police, admits Jenna's snooping is helpful. "It comes naturally to you. You're good with people, and you care about them." Someone isn't so happy, and tries to shut Jenna's inquiries down. However, Jenna really does care about Coco and Alison's mother, and finding the truth.

Gerber's latest mystery is a non-stop, amusing story with a great cast of characters. And, as I said, I love Jenna and The Cookbook Nook. But, Bailey! While Jenna admires her for her plucky attitude and spunk, I see her as impulsive and pushy, pushing Jenna to ask questions and get in trouble. I'm with Jenna's Aunt Vera, her father, and her boyfriend, Rhett. Jenna needs to be more careful.

Saying all that, the two cats are adorable and heroic. Most of the characters in Gerber's series are appealing. Jenna Hart is an interesting amateur sleuth who continues to develop.  There's just the right amount of romance. And, this is my favorite of Daryl Wood Gerber's mystery series. What's better than a bookstore mystery, especially one that specializes in cookbooks and food? Gerber's at the top of her game with Fudging the Books.

Daryl Wood Gerber's website is

Fudging the Books by Daryl Wood Gerber. Berkley Prime Crime. 2015. ISBN 9780425279403 (paperback), 287p.

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