Friday, July 19, 2019

An Enjoying the Summer Weekly Link Round-Up

Not much to report here at Casa Kittling. The monsoon season has yet to begin. Our new windows for the house are being made. Denis and I are having fun watching trivia game shows and getting fits of giggles. Well, neither one of us actually giggles, but you get the picture. Life is good, and we're having fun.

Deborah DeWit's "Summer"
Speaking of pictures, here's one of my favorites, Deborah DeWit's "Summer." It's a favorite because it reminds me of summer days in my childhood. The outdoors has always been one of my favorite places to read, although growing up in central Illinois meant that there were several months when it was too cold to do so.

I tended to prefer reading in a place of concealment. Not because I was shirking chores or trying to hide what I was reading. No, my penchant for hiding was due to two things. One, I didn't want my reading disturbed by humans. Two, if I stayed still while I was reading, chances were good that critters would come within range. Yep, books and critters have been two very important things my entire life, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

I'd better check on those links in the corral. It's almost pool time, and I have to decide which of three books I'm going to read this afternoon. Head 'em up! Moooove 'em out!

►Books & Other Interesting Tidbits◄

►Channeling My Inner Indiana Jones◄

►Channeling My Inner Elly Mae Clampett◄
  • Biologists have discovered an underwater octopus city, and they're calling it Octlantis
  • Decades after DDT was banned, it still impacts Canadian lakes.
  • Minnesota will pay residents to grow bee-friendly lawns.
  • A survey shows your cat's attitude is closely linked to its breed. 
  • Ancient dogs weren't the workhorses we thought they were.
  • The mysterious bison herd roaming on an island off the California coast.
  • A longhorn steer from Alabama has a horn span wider than the Statue of Liberty's face.

►Fascinating Folk◄
  • Sarah Stewart, the woman who revealed the missing link between viruses and cancer.
  • Joy Harjo has become the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate. 
  • Mitzi Roberts is a real-life Michael Connely character in the LAPD, and she's gunning for Harry Bosch's job.

►The Happy Wanderer◄

►I ♥ Lists◄

That's all for this week! Don't forget to stop by next Friday when I'll be sharing a freshly selected batch of links for your surfing pleasure.

Have a great weekend, and read something fabulous!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

City of Masks by S.D. Sykes

First Line: It was the carnival of Giovedì Grasso, the last Thursday before the Lent of 1358, and I had spent the afternoon in the Piazza San Marco, watching the many spectacles of the day.

It's 1358. Venice's war with Hungary means that Oswald de Lacy, Lord Somershill, and his mother are delayed in the city waiting for a ship to the Holy Land. Staying with an English merchant, Oswald immerses himself as much as possible with the delights of Venice, but no matter how he tries the thing he's running from--some mysterious something that happened in England-- refuses to stop following him.

When he finds a dead man on the street, he is dragged into a murder investigation that draws him deep into the intrigues and paranoia of this mysterious city. Everyone is watching or following someone else. No one in Venice is who they appear to be, and Oswald's investigation could very easily be the end of him, too. There are plenty of dungeons in Venice, you see...

I really enjoy S. D. Sykes' historical series. Oswald is a younger son who was destined for a life in the monastery, but when the Black Death killed his father and older brothers, he found himself Lord of Somershill Manor. Life in a religious order doesn't necessarily condition a person for running an estate, so Oswald has been on a learning curve that's interesting to watch. In City of Masks, ten years have passed, and while Oswald tries to conduct an investigation, readers slowly learn what happened in England to chase him away from his home.

Oswald is an interesting blend of intelligence and naivete. Growing up in the monastery has made him wise in several things ordinary people don't know, yet woefully ignorant in things those same ordinary people take for granted. His mother is a woman of her times who also manages to be thoroughly obnoxious with very little effort, but Sykes gives her some backstory so she's not just a two-dimensional stereotype.

The mystery in City of Masks kept me guessing, but as much as I enjoyed the story and the characters, it was Venice that was the shining star for me. Sykes brought this dazzling city to life in all its glory and filth-- and traveling to those outlying islands wasn't a picnic either. As I read, I felt as though I were in Venice with Oswald in 1358, and that's the best sort of armchair travel a reader can ask for.

If you enjoy historical mysteries with a vivid sense of place, strong stories, and interesting characters, I recommend S.D. Syke's Somershill Manor mysteries. To understand Oswald as much as possible, it would be a good idea to start at the beginning with Plague Land and The Butcher Bird but you could read City of Masks without feeling lost at all. It's up to you!

City of Masks by S.D. Sykes
ISBN: 9781681773421
Pegasus Books © 2017
Hardcover, 368 pages

Historical Mystery, #3 Somershill Manor mystery
Rating: A
Source: Purchased from The Poisoned Pen.


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten

First Line: The shrill sound of the doorbell sliced through the silence.

Eighty-nine-year-old Maud keeps herself to herself. To the other tenants in the apartment building, they see an old lady who lives in an apartment that's much too big for her, and-- worst of all-- she doesn't pay a penny in rent! What those neighbors don't know would fill an encyclopedia.

Just as Maud entered university at the age of eighteen, her beloved father died. Her mother couldn't cope with the shame of finding out there was no money left, rapidly faded away, and died. Fortunately, a real estate deal was done that gave Maud and her sister their apartment rent-free for as long as they were alive.

For the next few decades, Maud was burdened with the care of an emotionally fragile sister who should've been put in assisted living but refused because, well, that was what Maud was for. Finally, when she was in her sixties, Maud was free to live her life as she chose. Perhaps she should be forgiven for wanting to stay where she'd lived her entire life and for all the traveling she does. Hasn't she paid her dues? (Take that, nosy neighbors!)

All this and more is what you learn as you read Helene Tursten's short story collection, An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good. I've been asked before what my "guilty pleasure" books are, and I've always responded that I never feel guilty about the books that I read. Life's too short and all that. But maybe... just maybe... I should call Maud a guilty pleasure character. In these stories, Maud runs into several folks who take one look at her and think that she's going to be easy to cheat. After all, she's a little old lady who uses a walker to get to the shops. Her mind's got to be going, right? Think again!

In this collection, Maud has to outwit someone trying to take her apartment away from her and someone else who's trying to steal her antiques-- and she's not above a little murder to take care of these people either. It's a pleasure to watch this old lady take care of her youngers and supposedly betters, and lest you get the idea that "it's all about Maud," that's not true. She's also willing to help out others she comes in contact with, although she certainly doesn't seek them out.

When I read one story that was written from an outsider's point of view, I thought to myself, "Why couldn't we get this story from Maud?" The very next story told us the events from her perspective. Tursten read my mind. Tursten also had fun having her two other characters, Detective Inspectors Irene Huss and Embla Nyström test their wits against Maud. An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good is a light, fun read that proves something I've always known: never underestimate the elderly.

An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten
eISBN: 9781641290128
Soho Crime © 2018
eBook, 185 pages

Short Stories, Standalone
Rating: B+
Source: Purchased from Amazon.


Juliet Grames at The Poisoned Pen!

When I heard that Stephanie Barron (AKA Francine Mathews) would be interviewing author/editor Juliet Grames at The Poisoned Pen, I knew Denis and I would have to go. I've seen both women before at Poisoned Pen Conferences and Left Coast Crime when it was here in Phoenix, so I knew we were in for a treat. I just didn't know how delicious the treat would be! I'd always known Juliet in her role as editor for Soho Press, so seeing her as a writer being interviewed by one of her authors was a must-see.

I'm going to skip the chatter and head straight for the interview. I record them now which means not only can I share more of the interview verbatim with you, but also I can enjoy myself more during the event because I'm not scribbling furiously every second. Let's get started!

Don't you just love it when someone tall comes in at the last second and sits in front of you? Stephanie Barron (left) and Juliet Grames (right)

Barbara Peters: Good evening, everyone. Thank you for coming out. I always encourage you to come and meet debut authors because then you will have bragging rights forever, right, in case they turn into a bestseller or a critical hit. The hilarious part of this is that the three of us have known each other for years. She's an editor at Soho which is part of Penguin Random House. Francine, AKA Stephanie Barron, has published many books with Random House, and now I am an editor at Random House. It's just really amazing how it's all worked out.

Anyhow, that's not the point of the evening. Francine and Juliet are here to discuss Juliet's book and also turn the tables and find out what it's like for an author to grill an editor. I'm going to pass around cookies, sit down over here and enjoy it!

Stephanie Barron aka Francine Mathews
Stephanie: I'm so glad all of you joined us tonight because Juliet is one of my favorite people in the world. She is, as Barbara said, my editor. She has edited my Jane Austen mysteries as well as supervised the revision of my entire Nantucket series.

Juliet and I have worked a lot together. One of the reasons I was so thrilled to find her and have her agree to take me on as a writer is because she actually edits. Those of you who know book publishing won't be surprised to learn that many of the people in New York in publishing are focused on acquiring books but not necessarily on actually editing them. I'm glad that she's getting the hot property treatment and I'm looking forward to having her talk about it. Juliet was the hot property with Stella Fortuna about a year ago and had a dizzying experience with the sale of her first manuscript.

Juliet: It's still pretty dizzy! [audience laughter]

Stephanie: What I love about Juliet's editing is that she's extremely thoughtful and very well versed in the canon of English literature. She's deeply interested in character development... and all these things I've experienced as a writer being edited by Juliet are amply in evidence in her first novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna. Fascinatingly, when I first started working with Juliet, I didn't know that she was a writer as well. It's unusual, obviously, to wear both hats because they're both so time-consuming. Juliet is also an associate publisher at Soho which means that she's responsible for so much of the running of the company.

She mentioned at one point-- I think we were at a bar-- that she was finishing her novel, and I was blown away. Then I learned that the woman who is now my editor at Random House-- because I have editors at both houses-- in fact tried to buy Juliet's book. So it's that sort of six degrees of separation. So, Juliet, if you could, I know you've done this quite a bit because I've seen you on video doing this... if you could explain a bit about your inspiration for Stella Fortuna and how you were compelled to write the book we have sitting here in front of us today.

Juliet Grames
Juliet: Sure, and thank you for your very generous introduction. I hope I deserve all that!

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a novel about two sisters. When we meet them, they're about one hundred years old, and they've been locked in a blood feud for about thirty years. The book purports to go back to the beginning of their lives in a tiny village in southern Italy and unpack what made them go from being best friends to bitter enemies. It tells the hundred-year life story of these sisters, their feud, and specifically the main character of Stella who has really bad luck and lots of near-death experiences.

I come from a very tight-knit Italian-American family. You can see that my parents and baby are here. They traveled from two states on the East Coast in order to be here, so we're just a very tribal people. A lot of Italian families are very tight-knit. My grandmother was, in fact, an immigrant. She came over in the 1930s when she was a teenager. The core relationship between the two sisters was inspired by her and her sister. They were very involved in my childhood. They took care of me when my parents were working before I went to kindergarten. They were a huge part of my life.

When I was five years old, my grandmother had a brain injury that ended in a life-saving lobotomy. She lived an additional thirty years after the lobotomy, but it completely changed her personality and caused this terrible feud with her sister that no one ever understood. I used that heartbreaking family schism as a jumping-off point to unpack the Italian-American immigrant story. I was really fascinated by the region of southern Italy that they came from-- Calabria, which I found very difficult to read about because there's not a ton written about it, so I really wanted to put down something in text for other people to know more. And also to collect some of the lore from other immigrant families who'd come over to live in the Hartford area where my family settled. Those were my two aims. One, to try to represent the Calabrian experience, and two, to honor my grandmother and the lost person she was before this accident that completely changed her personality.

Stephanie Barron
Stephanie: That leads me to a question that kind of haunted me as I read the book, and that is how closely your fictional account is to the actual events in Stella's life, which I know wasn't your grandmother's name, but for the sake of simplicity let's call her Stella.

Juliet: The biggest problem for me in writing this book... I've told many writers whom I've worked with as an editor that when you hit a wall with your story, follow the character. The character will get you through. You should write from character to plot and not the other way around.

In this case, trying to follow the beats of my grandmother's life story and make things hit like the facts actually happened was so hard because I didn't understand the character. My grandmother was a cipher to me. She had had part of her frontal lobe removed, so I had to decide what bits of her actual life I could use and actually understand why they happened. In the end, that ended up being the eight near-death experiences. So those are all fact. My grandmother had eight near-death experiences. Everything in between those deaths is fiction, and especially the character of Stella is fictitious because I don't know who my grandmother was as a young woman. The facts are lost or eroded by the thirty years that followed the accident. She was a person who needed to be cared for-- a burden-- although we loved her and took care of her... my family did an amazing job keeping her alive and taking care of her during that time. Still... you forget, so the deaths are real and the rest is completely invented.

Stephanie: Okay, so that leads me to a question because, having written myself about people who actually lived-- which I do a great deal-- in my work, there's always a moment where you have to step across a line in the sand, which is what you know about the character and what you decide to own and create about the character. Make that actual person your functioning guide through a story. For me, I've always had to identify a moment of vulnerability in that person. Usually, it's a moment in childhood that scars them or defines them and slightly bends the nature of their personality as they move forward through life. That gives me a handle on them.

Juliet Grames
Juliet: That sounds very realistic to me!

Stephanie: Well, I'm interested because you know about the eight near-deaths and yet you say that you know very little about who she was. Yet the character of Stella in the book is such a strong woman, and she's strong against the backdrop of everyone around her. She is a distinctly defined personality whereas her mother, her sisters, her brothers, her father seem to fall into more generalized patterns. Not that they aren't distinct characters. The sister who's so close to her is a very biddable girl. She doesn't strike out on her own, she's a follower... but Stella is such a distinct persona that I felt like this was your grandmother. I'm interested in the choices you made and how you made them to create that person out of what you've suggested was a void.

Juliet: Part of it was imagining, but I have to be honest with you. I've never felt like a very creative person. I don't think I'm good at coming up with things from scratch. At heart, I'm sort of the history major type, and when I was really at a loss for a thing would have happened in the plot, my solace was usually research. The more I read about topics, the more I would find the arcane points, especially the women's lives that don't always make history books that would have vastly affected a day-to-day scenario.

When I was probably in fourth grade, my grandmother came to school to talk to my class about her immigration process. We were talking about where we had come from. She gets up in front of the class. My mother had come with us in case she needed to translate if my grandmother became confused and spoke the wrong language. So in front of the class, my grandmother starts talking about worms. My teacher redirected her because it was incoherent. So we talked about what it was like to go to Napoli to catch the boat, the Statue of Liberty, and New York Harbor. When we got home, my mom said, "Ma, why were you talking about worms?" My grandmother said, "You wanted to ask me about what my life was like in Italy, so it was about these silkworms." and we're all like, "What?!? Silkworms are from China. Everyone knows that!" Then my mother went to ask my great-aunt who said, "Oh yeah. When we were little, it was our only source of income. We raised silkworms all summer long." This is a totally lost art because, after World War II, it all went to the factories in the north.

Available Now!
In these remote villages-- in Calabria especially-- peddlers would come to these mountain villages, they would sell these pouches of eggs which the women would tie under their dresses against their bosom. When the eggs hatched, they would spend twenty-four hours a day for the life cycle of the worm feeding them mulberry leaves-- which needed to be harvested. It's a very demanding process that takes up a month of the year. This is how they saved up money to buy their trousseaux which were the only things they ever had in their lives. They're not allowed to own land; only the men could own land. Women are not citizens so they can't have bank accounts or income. They can only work for in-kind payment like a bottle of olive oil.

But suddenly when you understand that probably all the women in this village during the month of July are operating in a kind of fever trance of sleeplessness because they're trying to make their income for the year, it makes it much more likely that you're to have a near-fatal accident when you're not watching your child and they get into something like boiling oil. This is just one kind of extreme example, but more I learned about life and these little tiny details, the more the plot organically clicked into place. There's usually a historical explanation for why something weird happened, you just have to keep digging.

Stephanie: I completely agree with you. I think it has always been the research that has both compelled me to write a story... usually I'm interested in something and I start reading about it and peeling back the layers of the onion, and then I come to the story that is calling me to write it. That's the great gift of loving history, I think.

Juliet: This is why we like each other. [audience laughter amid the mutual agreement]

Stephanie: The arc of the story is fundamentally that Stella's childhood in Italy is radically changed by immigrating to New York and then Hartford, Connecticut, and her immersion in a new culture. You've woven that against a backdrop of a somewhat tortured romance. I was curious about your choices with that.

Juliet Grames
Juliet: That romance was an invention. But that was one of those things that came out of asking myself why. I knew I had to get her from Point A to Point B, and the more I dug into her character, the more I understood about her attitudes toward romance and marriage and sex. I would love to say more, but I don't want to spoil anything, so let me self-censor here a little bit.

I think that if you're growing up in the world Stella is, which is the 1920s, in extreme Catholic patriarchy... it's not the modern Catholic Church. The southern Italian Catholic Church, in particular, was deeply affected by four hundred years of  Spanish colonialism which was extremely exploitative. The Church is not just the church we think of, it's also the fact that it owns 80% of the land. So most people are essentially feudal slaves working for the Church, albeit through a middle man who collects a fee. Things like sex and social mores become so binding and grinding. There is no freedom anywhere you go. You don't have the power to work for yourself. I think you get a system where men are... yes, they are empowered over women-- they own their wives and their children, the wives have no personhood-- but the men own nothing else. They toil for sixteen hours a day in these miserable conditions, and often at the end of the year there's not enough money left over to pay for medicine for their children. There's just misery on every side because of this exploitative system developed under the Spanish rule.

If you're a very very good man, maybe you survive that by being a good husband and father, but if you have any personality damage done by four years of terrifying war experience or any other number of hardships that befell this generation, you may go home and take out your anger on your wife. What you may see here are a lot of demented family structures. The men are exploited by this system and then they turn around themselves and exploit. I think if you're a woman who has absolutely no power in this situation other than over her own sexuality, that's the one thing you get to hold onto. Stella sees her one path to freedom as not ever having to subject herself to a man.

Stephanie Barron
Stephanie: I found this fascinating because you chose, in writing this book, to insert yourself as a narrator so the book feels very much as though it bridges both fact and fiction. You allow readers to feel as though you are the granddaughter in the story-- and you are to a certain degree-- but also that you are our guide to this world which you created.

Juliet: I did a ton of book research. I wrote the second half of the book first because I felt that I knew it well enough. Meanwhile, I was reading everything I could on Calabria and the south in general. In English and Italian-- which I had to learn for this project. There's just so little written history. Because of the Spanish colonialism, Calabria was basically an illiterate region until the 1920s. Until recently no one was writing their own stories. Now they are, but it's about the Mob, which is a shame because there are a lot of other stories.

I got what I could out of books but ultimately the real research was in going back to my grandmother's village. I took a leave of absence from work and I lived there in the house she grew up in which is now owned by a second cousin who is a retired postman. It was really neat! The first time I met him, I was on an exploratory vacation trip, and he said, "Oh, this is your house, too. You must come and live here for a minimum of one month!" [audience laughter] He meant it, and it was great. He found out relatively early in my stay that I loved the proverbs he shared which are a huge part of Calabria's culture. It's their way of making everything funny.

He'd be taking me around. We'd be meeting people and collecting their histories. I had my tape recorder and I'd have interviews with old people, but the first thing before we sat down, he would say to them, "Tell us your favorite proverbs" and I would write them down in my notebook. By the end of my stay, I had 130 of them. I only got to use twelve in the book, but I'm saving those others! [audience laughter]

Barbara Peters. Juliet's mother is behind her.
Stephanie: Can you share some of them with us?

[Juliet would first say the proverb in Italian then repeat it in English. Want to see and hear this? Check out the event on The Poisoned Pen's Youtube channel!)

Juliet: "The old wolf loses its fur but not its wiles," which I think is great. Another one which is funny or not funny depending on how you're interpreting it is "Which do you want, the full bottle of wine or the drunk wife?"

Stephanie: Oh man, what a choice!

Juliet: These are important cultural, sociological research things that I got a lot of Calabria's character from. It was hard to actually work them in. Something else that I gathered during my time there doing research was folk songs. I learned so much folk music while I was there.

Stephanie: Which is a theme in the book.

Juliet: It is a theme in the book, but it's so hard to work everything in. There's only one song that's actually in the text which is kind of like Calabria's national anthem as I call it--"My Beautiful Calabrese Girl." It so matched the theme of the book, and the tune got stuck in my head, so it sort of wrote itself into the story. Can I sing a little of it?

Stephanie: Oh, please! [audience agreement]

Juliet sang the song in Italian, and after a verse or two, her mother, who was sitting in the audience, joined in. It was so beautiful that tears came to my eyes, and I've since learned that I wasn't the only one who had an emotional response to the song. Please... watch (and listen) to it! The song begins around the 24-minute mark.

Juliet Grames
[audience applause]

Stephanie: I have to commend you because part of the time I was reading The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, I was actually listening to it on Audible, and of course, the narrator does not know how to sing that song. It's interesting to hear the differences between Italian and Calabrese.

Juliet: They are very different. Calabrese is called a dialect, but I think that's disrespectful. Just because it's not a written language, it is a language. It's full of classical and Byzantine Greek, there is a ton of Arabic. There is a ton of Albanian, and of course, Spanish.

Stephanie: I want to get back to your choice to insert yourself as a narrator, why you felt it was important to frame the book with your voice.

Juliet: Because Stephanie, we can't all do what you do! I have the very highest respect for actual historical fiction writers because what you have to do is pick your period and your theme and then stick with it and actually tell the story staying within the rules of that time period. I just couldn't do it because there were so many things I wanted to say that would not have been native to Stella's point of view. I did try to write this in first person from Stella's point of view, but I realized that I was leaving so much in the margins of the text that was making me angry to leave out. So a very modern fictional narrator began to interpolate, and I just let her stay.

Stephanie: Did you ever consider framing the book differently?

Juliet: No! [audience laughter] You mentioned that you didn't know I was writing when we first met, and at first I was really gunshy about confessing to anyone in my publishing life or wider life that I was writing because if it didn't go well, I thought it would be not only embarrassing for me but maybe reflect poorly on my career as an editor.

Juliet Grames
During the tortured years of writing this book-- because I think all the years of writing any book are torture [audience laughter]-- but in this particular situation, I had some beta readers and even an early agent read... I sent it to the person I thought would really like it and then she didn't like it, so I didn't show it to anyone else for about two years.

Stephanie: So what you were hearing was publishing's conventional wisdom...

Juliet: Yep!

Stephanie: ...about how you structure a story...

Juliet: Yep!

Stephanie: ...and yet you as an editor... bought that, and that's interesting.

Juliet: I think now, in retrospect-- and I should have known better, I've been in publishing for fifteen years-- but I think a lot of agents are looking for things... agents only make 15% of the sale-- so often they are looking for books that remind them of ones that have done well. So if you're doing something very different, it becomes harder to see how you're going to position it. On the flip side, I think editors are bored by seeing the same things over and over again, so I think they wanted the thing that didn't remind them of what they'd already seen before. My advice to aspiring authors is don't give up. The agents were the most difficult part of my publication process, but I think that's the case for many people.

I also think that if you know what your book is you should trust yourself. If it turns out that your book is only for five people, that's fine. [audience laughter]

Stephanie: Wow. That goes against everything any writer is told on a daily basis.

Juliet: Now I'm going to wear my editor hat. When I edit authors, I hope I never tell them that they're telling the wrong story or that they're telling it in the wrong way. And if that does happen, it makes me wonder if maybe we shouldn't be working together because we don't have a similar vision for the book.

Juliet Grames
I don't have the arrogance to think that what I like to read is what everyone likes to read. I think this is why we're surrounded by so many different genres right now. There are readers who are looking for different things. I think if you're a writer, you have to stick to your guns about what you want to say. I knew what I wanted to say.

Stephanie: How did you, as an editor who probably has to submit to market considerations, how you were willing to buck market considerations to a certain degree in writing your own book?

Juliet: I'm never willing to submit to market considerations which is maybe why I work at an independent press. [audience laughter] I know. I can't. As a reader, I don't want to read things that remind me of other things. I think everyone should be free to follow their hearts. [audience applause]

Stephanie: The counterpoint to this is that most large publishing houses are governed, not by editing, but by their marketing departments, and the marketing departments are focused on whether you have a platform on social networks that you can use to sell your books. They are obsessed with that. Your reach, your followers... it's all done by the writers now. It's highly unusual-- and you usually find this only in smaller publishing houses-- the willingness to allow writers to follow their hearts.

One last question: what are you thinking of focusing on next besides your beautiful baby, Carlos?

Juliet: In my research for this book, I found that villages are so remote and disconnected in Calabria during this period that you could find all this interesting information about another Calabrese village that has absolutely nothing to do with the world you're writing about, which was a great disappointment-- because I found some amazing content-- but I also found inspiration for another book! So that's where I'm at.

As you may know, I'm a crime fiction editor at Soho and that's what brings me here today via that connection. I'd like to write a crime novel after carefully studying the form for ten years, so we'll see if I can pull it off! [audience laughter] It's really hard to plot responsibly! I'm writing a book set in the 1960s in the very deep south of Calabria in a mountain range that's home to the Calabrese mob. They are one of the largest and most heinous crime syndicates in the world, and they've really flown under the radar.

I will tell you that I did drag my very good sport mother on a two and a half week exploratory tour of these Mafia villages in Calabria during the summer of 2017.

After a short Q&A session, the event was over. What a fun and informative evening-- just as I knew it would be. I wish all of you could go with me to The Poisoned Pen-- it's a little slice of heaven for book lovers!

Monday, July 15, 2019

Cliff Hanger by Mary Feliz

First Line: "Mom, you sure those directions are right?"

Professional organizer Maggie McDonald has found the perfect summer job: helping Renée Alvarez set up her property management office in a condominium complex on the shores of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Maggie will have a condo for the summer, her two sons and their golden retriever will enjoy the beach, and her husband will join them on the weekends. Fantastic, eh?

Well, fantastic until her two sons try to rescue a badly injured man who crashed his ultra-light on the cliffs. The man dies, and Maggie's family become suspects in a murder investigation and the target of a lawsuit. It's a good thing Maggie's specialty is managing chaos because she still needs to do the job she's being paid for, keep one step ahead of the media, and avoid the attention of various criminal elements. Will Maggie be able to keep everyone safe and solve the crime?

Mary Feliz's Maggie McDonald series is one of my favorites when I need to read a mystery but want to read one where all the major characters are The Good Guys. The latest, Cliff Hanger, falls right into that category. The McDonalds are Good People. They use their common sense. Maggie and her husband Max are teaching their children to be good citizens. They pitch in when their community needs them. They have a good support system with their family and friends. Even more important, they have no qualms about doing the right thing.

There are organizing tips at the beginning of each chapter that are truly useful and easy to implement, and the mystery is a good one that kept me guessing. One of the things I enjoyed the most in Cliff Hanger was the setting: the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. I could practically smell the salt air and hear the waves pounding the beach. This is Maggie's first experience living in a small town (where you're one or two introductions away from knowing all the residents), and she really likes it. Having spent the first eighteen years of my life in an even smaller town, I smiled as I read this... and bided my time. Sure enough, Maggie's opinion of small-town life evolved just as I knew it would.

Cliff Hanger is another strong entry in this feel-good series that's such a pleasure to read. I'm looking forward to seeing what sort of trouble Maggie gets into next.

Cliff Hanger by Mary Feliz
eISBN: 9781516105274
Lyrical Underground Press © 2019
eBook, 226 pages

Cozy Mystery, #5 Maggie McDonald mystery
Rating: B+
Source: Net Galley


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Relaxing in Ramsey Canyon, Part Five: Hummingbirds

It's time for the fifth and final installment of posts about the days Denis and I spent relaxing in a cabin in Ramsey Canyon, Arizona. In the sky islands of the Huachuca Mountains, Ramsey Canyon is just a few miles from the Mexican border, and it's a paradise for anyone who loves wildlife.

Turkey gobbling would wake me in the morning, and I'd spend most of the day out on the deck trying to see how many camera batteries I could wear out. I'm sharing some of the photographs I took of the resident hummingbirds in this final installment.

On our first full day there, I was impressed by the internecine war between the broad-billed hummingbirds and the black-chinned hummingbirds, but that soon passed when I learned that the real king of the area was the blue-throated hummingbird. At twice the size of the others, it's easy to see why the blue-throated ruled the roost. Other than its size, the main thing I noticed about the blue-throated was its vocalizations; it even had one that sounded like a good old fashioned Bronx cheer. I'm used to two types of hummingbirds in Phoenix: the Anna's which stay here year-round and the black-chinned which leave to winter in Mexico. I know the sounds they make quite well, so it was a bit of a thrill for this critter lover to hear unfamiliar bird sounds and deduce which sound went with which bird.

But enough yakking-- let's get to those photographs!

A juvenile blue-throated hummingbird. One of the first identifiers that caught my eye was the white streaks above and below their eyes. You'd think the colors of their feathers would be the first thing, but the sun isn't always shining on them at the proper angle.

An adult blue-throated hummingbird. The white streaks are more pronounced, aren't they?

It's not polite to stick your tongue out at your photographer!

You can see why it's called a blue-throated hummingbird, that's for sure!

The blue-throats liked to perch up in a scrub oak to protect "their" feeders. Many an unwary black-chinned and broad-billed hummer got chased away while we were there.

It looks to me like this one's getting a bit sleepy. Time for a siesta!

You never know where the next threat is coming from. Must. Be. Vigilant.

An adult broad-billed hummingbird.

That bump on its beak is a bug carcass. Insects provide valuable protein for hummingbirds.

The blue-throats were around, so this broad-billed didn't waste time perching.

This time it looks as though "Godzilla" (what I called the meanest blue-throat) wasn't around; otherwise, this little guy wouldn't be napping!

Broad-bills are gorgeous, and this photo gives just a hint of that. Emerald green. Royal blue. I tried like a crazy person to get a photo when the sunlight turned its head into a fiery purple, but I never did manage to. When all three colors are blazing, these little flying jewels are glorious!

That concludes our stay in Ramsey Canyon. I hope you enjoyed it. If all the places we've stayed here in Arizona, I have to admit that it's my favorite. If you missed the other installments, here are the links to Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

Friday, July 12, 2019

A Nest Constructing Weekly Link Round-Up

Humans aren't the only ones on the planet who are trying to reuse and recycle. Denis found proof of that the other day. Well, perhaps he found proof of an attempt to upcycle. Too bad it all went wrong.

I used to hang a wire suet basket filled with yarn scraps out on one of our shepherd's hooks. I read somewhere that birds would appreciate the nesting material. Today I read that it wasn't a good idea, that baby birds could actually strangle themselves on the yarn, so the basket is gone.

But take a look at what some young nest builder tried to construct! The softest yarn was chosen in a color that wouldn't call attention to the nest. I can also see fresh grass stems in there which definitely didn't come from our property, which is desert landscaped. This bird wanted a soft, cushy, fashionable-looking nest for its babies. It's too bad that the bird was a novice. Not only was the yarn lumped in one spot instead of being woven throughout, but it also wasn't attached firmly enough to the tree to withstand the wind gusts that ripped this one loose and threw it to the ground. I do have to admit that I'm chuffed that a bird wanted my contributions as a part of its nursery.

But the world turns, pool time beckons, and I'd better check that link corral before I jump in cool water. Head 'em up! Moooooove 'em out!

►Books & Other Interesting Tidbits◄

►Channeling My Inner Indiana Jones◄

►Channeling My Inner Elly Mae Clampett◄

►The Happy Wanderer◄
  • Naples, Italy has its first book hotel where you can sleep in a suite surrounded by books.
  • Dutch artists painted a giant bookcase on an apartment building featuring the residents' favorite books.

►Fascinating Folk◄

►I ♥ Lists◄

That's all for this week! Don't forget to stop by next Friday when I'll be sharing a freshly selected batch of links for your surfing pleasure.

Have a great weekend, and read something fabulous!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Salt Lane by William Shaw

First Line: 1995. We Are Water.

Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi has done little to ingratiate herself with her new colleagues in the Kentish countryside. She had her first partner arrested on murder charges and now she's been assigned to look after a young constable named Jill Ferriter. Babysitting isn't the only thing on her agenda when a woman's body is found floating in local marshland. No one seems sure how the woman died or who she is.

And it gets stranger from there. Once the woman is identified and Cupidi notifies the next of kin, the man tells her that he'd never known his mother until a homeless woman knocked on his door, claiming to be his mother just the night the same time her body was being dredged from the marsh.

Cupidi must discover who the dead woman really was, who killed her, and how she managed to connect with her long lost son, apparently from beyond the grave. It's not going to be easy; she's also got her aging mother and a misbehaving daughter to contend with.

Alexandra Cupidi first appeared in Shaw's superb The Birdwatcher. I loved that book even though I couldn't stand the character of Cupidi. I am thrilled to report that several of Cupidi's rough edges have been filed down in Salt Lane. She's still impulsive. She still shoots her mouth off without thinking, but with the most abrasive parts of her personality smoothed down, I was spending more time focusing on the investigation and the other characters and less time fuming about Cupidi's behavior.

Shaw knows just how to get readers involved with his characters. Alex is trying to fit in with her new community. She's even joined a book club, and her opinion of the chosen crime novel doesn't surprise me a bit. But it's her reaction to the landscape that is most telling to me. While her daughter Zoë has completely embraced the marsh, Alex looks around and sees that "the sheer scale of nature here was awesome; disturbing," and when she must go out into nature, she is completely out of her element. And speaking of Alex's daughter, Zoë, Zoë is a big girl now, and she's smart. She needs to be told why she can't leave her phone at home and roam the marsh for hours. (Yes, there's a reason she shouldn't, folks, and you'll have to read the book to find out what it is.)

Salt Lane's mystery is a good one. It kept me guessing even though I should not have been surprised when the bad guy's identity was revealed. That's the best kind of mystery, though, isn't it-- when the bad guy is right out in plain sight? It's also a serious mystery, so the occasional flash of humor ("If it's Dolores Umbridge from the IPCC, tell her I'm busy.") is welcome.

A rock solid mystery that keeps readers guessing. A wonderful, atmospheric setting. Characters with layers that you have to peel back like onions. And Acknowledgements at the end that shed some interesting light on the author. Two excellent books in the series so far. I am really looking forward to book number three!

Salt Lane by William Shaw
eISBN: 9780316563468
Little, Brown and Company © 2018
eBook, 465 pages

Police Procedural, #2 Alexandra Cupidi mystery
Rating: A+
Source: Purchased from Amazon.