Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Merlot Murders by Ellen Crosby

First Line: I have always been fascinated by alchemy, though I draw the line at black magic.

When Lucie Montgomery gets a wee-hours-of-the-morning phone call telling her that her father has been killed in a hunting accident, she leaves her job and home in France to travel back to the family vineyard in Virginia as quickly as possible.

It's Lucie's first trip home since an automobile accident left her dependent on a cane. When she arrives, she sees that the family home and winery are more than a bit worse for wear since her father never seemed to find a bad business deal he didn't like. Lucie's brother Eli is also short on cash and has convinced their younger sister to sell the estate and reap rewards from the valuable ground it sits on. 

Lucie doesn't want to sell-- especially when her godfather tells her that her father's death was no accident. Then her godfather dies, and Lucie is left as the sole holdout preventing the sale-- knowing that she's next in line for an "accident." The trouble is... all the prime suspects are living right on the property with her.

Having read and enjoyed Ellen Crosby's Sophie Medina mysteries, I was looking forward to reading this first book in her Wine Country series-- even if I don't like wine. I found The Merlot Murders to be every bit as intelligently written and absorbing as Multiple Exposure and Ghost Image.

Lucie Montgomery is a complex character, and the plot certainly isn't short of family dynamics with her obnoxious brother Eli, his greedy wife, and their gullible little sister. There's also a head vintner on the property whose motivations aren't very clear. 

Added to the first-rate mystery are fascinating snippets of the history of wine making in Virginia. Between this series and Martin Walker's series set in France, I have a feeling that I'm going to end up being a very knowledgeable oenophobe. Crosby also gives an outline of Lucie's family history as well as the house and vineyard. This information put me firmly in Lucie's No Sale camp, but it also made me wonder why no one else in the family felt the same way. 

See? Although the mystery is taken care of through the course of The Merlot Murders, I'm left with questions about Lucie and her family, and this is definitely going to make me continue reading the series. Bring on the chardonnay!

The Merlot Murders by Ellen Crosby
eISBN: 9780743293891
Scribner © 2006
eBook, 308 pages

Amateur Sleuth, #1 Wine Country mystery
Rating: A
Source: Purchased from Amazon 


Monday, May 23, 2016

Nevada Barr at The Poisoned Pen!

When Tuesday, May 17 rolled around, Denis wasn't very happy. Between being a juror and his regular job, he couldn't join me in traveling to The Poisoned Pen to see one of our favorite authors, Nevada Barr. Nevada was here to sign her nineteenth Anna Pigeon mystery, Boar Island, which is set in Maine's Acadia National Park.

Fans started coming in to reserve seats early, so I was very glad I'd beat them all to the punch. (I knew it was going to be a packed house.)

Barbara Peters in contemplation.
While Nevada was in the backroom signing mail order books, host Barbara Peters joined us early. She sat quietly for a couple of minutes to gather her thoughts, then proceeded to tell us-- as usual-- about some of the upcoming events at the store. Then she started talking about what was really on her mind. 

The Poisoned Pen will often give away advance reading copies of books to people who attend events. It's one of their ways of saying thank you, and they have a special stamp that they use to mark the insides of these books. Well, the winner of one of the books was the very first person to post his (or her) review on Amazon. He trashed the book, which didn't particularly bother Barbara. Two things about the review did bother her. A lot. (1) The reviewer included the entire plot of the book, ruining it for anyone who hadn't already read it. (2) He began his review, "I got a copy of this book from The Poisoned Pen."

"Do you have any idea how many emails I've gotten from the publisher?!?" she asked us. From the look on her face, it was quite a few. Actually there were three things that had made her unhappy. The person's review was anonymous (number three). I don't care for that myself. It's too easy for people to say every hurtful and/or untrue thing they can think of online because they're hiding under a cloak of invisibility and feeling powerful.

While most of us were sitting there thinking unkind thoughts about an anonymous reviewer, Nevada Barr came out like the sun through the clouds.

L to R: Nevada Barr and Barbara Peters

Nevada has appeared at The Poisoned Pen for all but two of her books. "Barbara and I have been together longer than all my marriages put together," Nevada quipped. 

"I got to Rob [Barbara's husband] just before you did," Barbara laughed. "Nevada and I met in the bathroom at the New York Hilton when she'd been nominated for an Edgar." (I should make a list of all the authors Barbara has met in a public restroom. There have been a few!)

Personally I think Nevada is one of the most limber authors to appear at my favorite bookstore-- and she always wears colorful shoes. (At least until she sits down!)

Partial view of the crowd courtesy of Jeff K. of The Poisoned Pen.

The main focus of Boar Island is cyber bullying. Nevada was alternately fascinated and disgusted by cyber bullying, especially the fact that there is really no way to defend against it. "I liked having a villain who was so built into the social media," Nevada said, "that you could not extricate him... and then extricate him."

One of the trickiest things for Barr to accomplish in this book was to get all her characters to the place where she wanted the mystery to unfold: Acadia National Park in Maine. Acadia is one of the most heavily used national parks in the country.  "I've been working on this book for a long time. I was constantly being derailed by other books," Nevada said. 

"This is a follow-up to Destroyer Angel, isn't it?" Barbara asked. 

"It's not a follow-up in that it doesn't start up right after Destroyer Angel left off, but I do bring several of the characters back in Boar Island. I fell in love with Heath and Elizabeth, and I wanted to spend more time with them," Nevada replied. "I also wanted Anna to have a position where her duties would not interfere with her work in my book."

Nevada Barr
Barbara mentioned how many awful things have happened to Anna Pigeon through the course of the series. "Yes, it's so much more fun to beat up an older woman-- but it's harder!" Nevada joked. 

Talk segued to some of the earlier books in the series, like two of my particular favorites, Firestorm and Blind Descent. Barbara asked the author if she were writing through her own personal fears. "I'm kinda out of fears now. I need some more neuroses to write about," Nevada said. 

After Nevada told us that she created Boar Island and placed it next to the real-life Bear Island in Acadia, Barbara asked her, "So what happens to Anna? She arrives...?"

"She prevails. And all is well," Nevada responded. (No spoilers at The Poisoned Pen!)

After the laughter died down, Barbara said, "You're right, there's not a lot we can say about the story without spoiling it for everyone here."

Several of us were wondering where Anna will be going next. "I just got back from Olympic National Park-- and I still haven't done my Grand Canyon book!" the author said.

Nevada knew it was time for her to retire from the Park Service when she stopped a man to give him a speeding ticket on the Natchez Trace in Mississippi. "You have to have the person sign the ticket, so I handed it to him. He looked at my signature and said, 'Nevada Barr?!? Can I keep this?' I thought that was a sign that if I continued to write and work in the Park Service, I might be getting into a conflict of interest."

Nevada Barr sharing a joke with us.
Another fan wanted to know how she discovered the Dry Tortugas because he went there specifically because he'd read her book.

"I almost had to be slapped upside the head to go," she replied. "There is the most fantastic snorkling there! Going there was a gift that was forced upon me." 

The book that takes place in the Dry Tortugas, Flashback, deals with Dr. Mudd, the man who took care of John Wilkes Booth's injuries after Booth assassinated Lincoln. "That book was very interesting for me to write," Barr said. "Wouldn't you hate to be known for the worst decision you ever made?"

When asked what parks she would like to set future books in, Barr mentioned Voyageur National Park in Minnesota, and Florida's Everglades ("although I'm mosquito bait")... "Not Alaska because it's already been done so well by several others. But there's an employee exchange program with parks in other countries that has a lot of possibilities."

What follows are bits and bobs from the Q&A....

Barr likes to keep Anna Pigeon in a self-contained world, which means that there will be no technological deus ex machina, just Anna's wits and knowledge and experience to save her. 

Available Now!
"When working with the national parks, you can't kill the animals and you can't do ghosts."

"I absolutely love words. I love words for revealing things, and I love words for concealing things." Barr has 1600 books on her Kindle that she brings with her on tour. "I love holding my finger down on a word, and the definition magically appears."

Nevada briefly worked with Ken Burns on his National Parks series.

How does she write? She picks the park first, then a crime that's intrinsic to the park, and then she "injects" Anna. She tried to outline a book once, and that turned out to be like "the English assignment from hell!"

A fellow writer and friend called Nevada to chat. Nevada said, "I thought you were busy writing?" "I was, but two of my characters got into a long conversation about masturbation, and I can't use it!"

The evening always ends too soon when Nevada Barr is in town. If you'd like to watch the entire event, go to Livestream and be prepared to laugh!  

Signing those mail orders! Courtesy of Jeff K. of The Poisoned Pen.