Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Guest Blogger Jane K. Cleland

Jane’s Time Management Strategy:
Just Say No to Cookies

In Silent Auction, the fifth installment of the Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery series, Josie spends a lot of her time thinking about ambition and what it does to people and relationships.

The autumn foliage is in full fiery glory on a beautiful day in the little coastal town of Rocky Point, New Hampshire. Josie Prescott arrives at the town’s renovated lighthouse to conduct an antiques appraisal and is horrified to discover the bludgeoned body of her neighbor Zoë’s beloved nephew, Frankie. The owners of the lighthouse are avid antiques collectors, and Josie soon begins to suspect that a scrimshaw tooth from their collection may be the key to solving the crime that has shaken Rocky Point, and broken her dear friend’s heart.

Thinking about Josie got me thinking about time.

For many years, I was the official “cookie baker” for my family’s holiday get-togethers. Chocolate chip cookies were my specialty, but I dabbled in sugar, chocolate, apple, creamy fillings, and other gourmet styles, too.

As the years passed, and I became busier at work, I grew less entranced with the prospect of baking dozens of cookies under enormous time constraints. In fact, to me, baking cookies for the holidays became a duty, not a pleasure. Then came the year when I was up past midnight completing the task. I was irritated and snappy. The next day, I grumbled to my husband that this had to stop. “I’m too busy to bake all these cookies!” I complained. And, cleverly, I thought, I asked him to call my mother and tell her that I was no longer going to bake cookies. He declined.

The next year, as cookie-baking time approached, I girded myself, picked up the phone and said, “Ma, I’ve made a decision. I’m just too busy. This year, I’m not going to bake cookies. I’m going to buy them instead.”

I’d expected a long, sad silence, followed by, “All right, dear,” or some similar, kindly worded phrase that left me feeling inadequate and guilty. Instead, do you know what my mother said? “Sounds smart!”

And in that one flash of a moment, I learned an important lesson. I learned that what I’d perceived as an obligation had never, in fact, existed at all. My family thought I liked baking cookies. And I did! I just didn’t like having to bake them. I’d volunteered once, then a second time, then a third, until finally it became an expected part of family get-togethers. I could have stopped any time, but I didn’t think I could The sense that it was a non-negotiable duty was all in my own head.

I recall that story a lot when I’m struggling with time management issues. I really, really want to spend my time doing things I value—not doing things other people value—or doing things because I think other people value them—or doing things that have become part of a tradition simply because they’re been done in the past.

That’s pretty unconventional thinking, I know. Most people value traditions for their own sake. I don’t. I value traditions for the deeper meaning they convey to me at that moment in time. And those deeper meanings shift as my circumstances and needs change.

For instance, I used to decorate like a wild woman for every holiday. I don’t anymore. For Halloween, as an example, I used to suspend paper skeletons from the ceiling in front of windows, adding backlighting so they’d glow eerily as they fluttered. To say nothing of the spiders and cobwebs and jack-o-lanterns! Now I put a few mini-pumpkins on the fireplace mantle and call it a day.

Why the change? I liked my big-time decorations—a lot. It was fun to do and fun to live with. I don’t do it anymore because I don’t need the joy the decorations provided to fill a void and I’d rather spend my time doing other things.

During the period when I’d decorated every nook and cranny of my apartment, I was enduring a tough time in my life—my mother had died, my brother had died, my beloved cat had died, and I’d gotten divorced after a 20-year marriage—all within a year or so.

Decorating provided joy during a joyless time.

Things are different now. I’m happily remarried and doing work I adore. For the moment, all is well in my world.

Josie likes to cook. She uses the recipes her mother wrote out by hand in a leather bound book as she lay dying, part of her legacy to her beloved daughter. Josie likes it when the recipes take time. She doesn’t want to hurry when she cooks. To her, multiple steps and complex instructions mean that she gets to spend extra time with her mom.

That’s luxury! To be able to spend time as you choose. (Many of Josie’s mom’s recipes are on my website, by the way, in case you want to make Orange Chicken or consider adding vanilla to scrambled eggs!)

Time—we all have only so much of it. If you’re like me, you strive to spend it wisely, by your own definition of “wise.”

But if you bake cookies for the holidays, say, red, white, and blue sugar cookies for Memorial Day, may I please have one?

Friday, April 23, 2010

A CURTAIN FALLS by Stefanie Pintoff (Minotaur)

The second novel in a series featuring Detective Simon Ziele, Captain Mulvaney and criminologist Alistair Sinclair takes place in New York City during March 1906. A serial killer is targeting chorus girls, dressing them as leading ladies, and posing the bodies on Broadway stages. The author uses early criminal science (not yet fully accepted by the police and courts) and New York politics to create a sense of suspense, and urgency to find the killer before he strikes again. I enjoyed the story as well as the descriptions of 1906 NY. It did make me appreciate how far crime detection has advanced in the past 100 years and how difficult it must have been without the tools we have today. The author does a wonderful job of weaving in the clues and misdirection and bringing it all together at the end.

--Review by Helen Jones
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Thursday, April 22, 2010

GOLD FEVER by Vicki Delany (RendezVous Crime)

Boy, did I have a good time with this one! I got to go back in time to 1898, to the wide-open Canadian Klondike. Fiona MacGillivray is co-owner of the popular Savoy Dance Hall. Fiona's 12-year-old son Patrick saves a young Native American woman from drowning and brings her home to the boarding house where he and Fiona live. Because of her son's gallant actions, FIona feels obligated to help Mary find a job. Mary's story is not pretty—and her former life shadows her current one.

Gold Fever offers murder, mayhem, and mud, and a grand look into Gold Rush history. I look forward to more adventures in the Klondike.

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MOTHERHOOD IS MURDER by Diana Orgain (Berkley)

New mom Kate Connolly is becoming a master juggler. She's trying to start a new career as a private investigator before little Laurie is even sitting up alone. Fortunately for her, her husband is working from home and Grandma is available for occasional babysitting. The rest of the time, however, Kate takes Laurie with her on her investigations. Naturally, when Kate is invited to try out a "mommy and me" group, she's eager to join the group. When one of the moms dies on the first outing Kate and Jim attend, a new case begins.

Kate is a totally believable as a fledging PI and her new mom lifestyle is absolutely realistic. The mystery is solid with good red herrings and just enough clues for the reader. I like this series--it kind of makes me wonder how Mike Shane could have solved crimes with an infant strapped to his chest. Just thinkin'.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Guest Blogger - Rosemary Harris

How well do we really know our neighbors?

I was on a panel recently at the Empire State Book Festival and a young girl in the audience - obviously a fledgling writer - asked how to write a really good villain. From her tone and facial expression it was clear she imagined herself creating a character that who would rival Hannibal Lecter for chill factor and body count. She sat, pencil poised ready to hear the worst, but my fellow panelists and I surprised her.

There was a great line in the 1980s film, Broadcast News. Albert Brooks’ character has just declared that his romantic rival, a never-more-handsome William Hurt, might just be the devil. When questioned further he says, “c’mon, who’s going to be fooled by a guy with horns and a tail?” Bingo. I love that line. And I think of it every time I write a bad guy. Most bad guys don’t drool, have pointy teeth and looked glazed over. In fact if you are a fan of HBO’s True Blood some of them may actually be the good guys. Real villains are generally reasonably normal until pushed over the edge and driven to commit crimes by circumstances most of us – happily – choose to handle in other ways. Those circumstances are frequently caused by what I like to refer to as the three basic food groups – greed, lust and revenge. When you eliminate politics and religion, and most traditional mystery writers do, these three things are responsible for much of the mayhem in our books. And who among us hasn’t been touched, even briefly by one of these?

Granted, the young woman I mentioned was addressing a trio of traditional (or if you must, cozy) mystery writers, who rarely, if ever write serial killers, but I think it holds true for all villains. Aren’t we more surprised by the Ted Bundy, clean cut psycho than we would be by the scarier-looking, leather clad, tattooed biker, who’s probably a big sweetheart? What’s scarier than the monster who lives next door? The person who looks just like us and waves from the garden, but may be leading a double life? How many times – after a horrific crime – have we been told “he seemed like such a nice man?”

Which brings me back to the title of this piece – How well do we really know our neighbors? We see what’s in their shopping carts at the market. We sneak a peek at their garages when we drive by (neater or messier than ours?) In cities we may see what they put in the garbage or which catalogs and magazines they get (hmmmm…CatFancy or Soldier of Fortune?) We see what they let us see, but what aren’t we seeing? How well we know our neighbors is at the core of Dead Head, book three in my Dirty Business mystery series.

Fugitive Mom…that’s the headline that rocks a small suburban town when one of its favorite ladies is discovered to be a fugitive from the law living in town under an assumed name – for decades. When amateur sleuth Paula Holliday is hired by the woman’s distraught family to find out who dropped the dime and why she learns more about her neighbors than she ever dreamed and some of it is pretty scary.

Like my other books, Dead Head is laced with plenty of humor. That’s another tried and true device for making a villain and his crimes pop – the juxtaposition of something bad with something funny or mundane.
No horns or tails necessary.

Get a taste of Dead Head
Rosemary Harris is the Anthony and Agatha-nominated author of Pushing Up Daisies and The Big Dirt Nap. She splits her time between New York City and Fairfield County, CT where she is a master gardener. She is past president of Sisters in Crime New England and a board member of Mystery Writers of America’s New York Chapter. With her husband and through the generosity of many friends in the publishing industry, she has founded a community library in central Tanzania. Visit her at www.rosemaryharris.com to find out how to get a free limited edition Dead Head hat or sportssak.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Great Author Interview

There's a great interview with my friend Diane Madsen at Chris Redding's blog. Check it out!

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Quick Notes on Recent Reading

It seems that my life is getting busier and busier as I age—and I don't spend all my time looking for my glasses or going to doctor's appointments! I've just resigned from two extremely time-consuming volunteer positions, but have replaced them with more author escort work and my new position as editor of inSinC, the newsletter of Sisters in Crime. I still read a lot and give mystery talks every month at the Cary Library, but I don't seem to have as much time to write individual reviews.

I still try to read across the board in the mystery genre—light cozies, traditional mysteries, thrillers, private detective, and even a few biographies of crime fiction writers. It's great to have so many options available, and I enjoy picking books to suit my mood.

I enjoyed Richard Hack's Duchess of Death: The Unauthorized Biography of Agatha Christie (Phoenix Books). Were it not for the numerous footnotes that pepper each chapter, the book would almost read like a novel. The book is nominated for an Agatha Award.

David Ellis's The Hidden Man (G.P. Putnam's) forces a young attorney to look back at a crime that happened during his childhood. Could he, even as a youngster, have done something to prevent it? Like all good thrillers, this one held me captive until I'd turned the last page.

Faces of the Gone (Minotaur) by Brad Parks features Carter Ross, a self-deprecating investigative reporter in Newark, NJ. We meet him just after four bodies, each with a single bullet to the back of the head, are discovered in a weedy lot. The crimes are bloody, but Carter's narration adds a much-needed comic relief, often in his descriptions, "Not many women would have been big enough to envelop Tynesha…. But Miss B was living on the bottom right corner of the panty hose size chart." I love it when I laugh out loud while reading!

Maggy Thorsen is looking for a new site for her coffeehouse, Uncommon Grounds (Severn House), in Sandra Balzo's From the Grounds Up. Just as she finds a perfect place in a historic depot in the oldest section of Brookhills, wouldn't you expect a dead body to show up? Compelling characters in believable situations, snappy dialogue, and a well-crafted plot—what more could you want? Bring your own coffee!

I never get tired of going to Maggody, Arkansas! Fortunately, Joan Hess is sponsoring a tour of that wacky world of Buchannons for the first time in four years! The cast is the same in Merry Wives of Maggody (Minotaur), but the scheme is different: Mrs. Jim Bob Buchannon Buchannon is bringing a charity golf tournament to town. You won't be surprised to learn that nobody in Maggody knows how to play golf, but Mrs. Jim Bob has never been known to let the facts get in her way, and there's no need to start now. Even Mark Twain would love golf in Maggody!

Happy spring—and very happy reading.

FTC full disclosure - books provided by the publisher.

BLOOD VINES by Erica Spindler (St. Martin's Press)

Spindler takes us to the famous wineries of Sonoma Valley, California. The mummified, skeletal remains of an infant have turned up on the property of Harlan Sommer. The discovery is about to open a 25-year-old unsolved kidnapping. Daniel Reed, the chief homicide detective assigned to the case was only 13 years old when the abduction occurred. He actually lived nearby and his family were friends of the Sommers.

Alexandra Owens Clarkson lives in San Francisco,where she works and is studying for a graduate degree. She also has an on-again, off-again relationship with her ex-husband, Tim. She remembers little about her childhood and her only known relative is her mother, Patsy Owens, a manic-depressive who often skips her meds and spends her days painting multiples of drawings that she never seems to finish. Alex remembers little of her childhood, but on occasion experiences weird dreams that suggest some dark secrets or memories. Alex’s world is about to come crashing down after receiving a frantic phone call from her mother. On arriving at her mother’s house, she finds that her mother has committed suicide. A newspaper article is circled on the kitchen table. The article is about the remains found on the winery grounds. The wine growers' community is tightl knit and many people know much about their neighbors, but some long-buried secrets are about to surface. Spindler has given readers another fascinating murder mystery.

—Steve Bank

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Saturday, April 03, 2010

CAUGHT by Harlan Coben (Dutton)

I had the pleasure of introducing Harlan last week when he was at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. He was on tour talking about his latest thriller Caught. As always in his thrillers, Coben takes good people, causes bad things to happen to them, and then kicks it up a notch. This time, a TV reporter is bent on exposing a pedophile; a young girl (top of her class, totally organized, excellent soccer player) disappears; and a group of downsized power brokers try to cope.

Always good natured, Harlan literally had stars in his eyes from posing with fans after his self-deprecating, hilarious talk. Cary librarian Steve Bank and I were at the end of the fan line.

FTC full disclosure - book provided by the publisher.

THE DIVA PAINTS THE TOWN by Krista Davis (Berkley)

Columnist, caterer, event planner, amateur sleuth—Sophie Winston does it all! When she's roped in to decorate a room in the home of a recently deceased neighbor for the statewide Spring Home and Garden Tour, she has to wear all her hats. When Professor Mordecai Artemus died, he left the sprawling home to his Pomeranian—who's missing. Sophie is asked to cater the reading of the will and her directions are specific. When the acrimonious crowd assembles, the stage is set for the inevitable murder.

Davis has created a strong series with just the right amount of tension, romance, good food, and, most importantly, murder.

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THE MIRROR IN THE MASK by Ellen Hart (Minotaur)

The latest Jane Lawless adventure is a finalist for the 2010 Lambda Mystery Award—with good reason. This, the seventeenth in the series, is perhaps the strongest yet. Jane is at a major crossroads in her life and is trying to determine which road she'll take. The love of her life has left her. Her popular restaurant is running well, so she's more and more interested in exploring changing her amateur detective status to professional. When a young girl asks her to help her find her father, Jane thinks this simple, safe job will help steer her to a resolution. The simple job, however, turns into murder and kidnapping.

Fortunately for readers, the page turner is relatively short, so no one should become too sleep deprived. A word to the wise: Start reading before bedtime.

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WHERE ARMADILLOS GO TO DIE by James Hime ( Minotaur)

I waited to read this because I thought this was going to be a funny, slapstick-type book—and I just wasn't in the mood for that type. As soon as I cracked the cover and read the first page, I knew I was wrong—and that I was in for a great read. Retired Texas Ranger Jeremiah Spur's wife has been on a health kick lately, and he misses the good ol' home cooking he's eaten all his life. It's no wonder he looks forward to Friday (no rabbit victuals) nights, "since he'd given up on cigarettes and never took to drinking with enthusiasm, fried foods were near about the closest thing he had to a vice…" Unfortunately, the best place for fried catfish belonged to one of the town's nastiest residents—who had invented a machine that interested… Well, I'll let you read about who the machine interested.

The characters, while not over the top, stand high up there. The story is fast paced, scary, and believable. It's no wonder Himes was an Edgar finalist. Now I've got to look for his backlist—those books will be high in my TBR pile!

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FARM FRESH MURDER by Paige Shelton (Berkley)

While I'm not a fan of reading because of a "hook," I'll admit to grabbing this one because this new series is a "Farmers' Market Mystery." (My daughter has a booth at our state farmers' market in Raleigh.) I was delighted to find a well-plotted mystery with well developed characters and a young woman protagonist who enjoys being a farmer. Becca Robins is well educated, farms her own land, and drives a pickup—much like my daughter. Although Erin doesn't have a twin who manages the market, she does enjoy the fellowship of the other farmers. Fortunately, though, there hasn't been a body discovered among the booths in Raleigh.

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