A Major League Day

A very happy Father’s Day to all dads!

This week Nick Clooney (father of George) joked Father’s Day is a “minor league holiday.” Say it isn’t so!

Let’s show our fathers how important they are to us. Give your dad a hug and tell him how much you love and appreciate him. Enjoy the day with your father and make him the best dinner he’s ever had. Watch the U.S. Open together or hit the links for your own round of golf. Spend time swapping family memories and making new ones. Maybe even crack open a photo album or watch home films of great family moments.

Today I remember my father, who passed away nineteen years ago, and am thinking of friends who are in mourning for their dads. Let’s also keep in our thoughts the fathers who have lost a child. To them we send comfort and prayers.

Have a wonderful day, everyone.

 

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Memorial Day

Americans today honor the men and women who gave their lives in service to our country. Let’s pause throughout the day to remember the brave souls who made the greatest sacrifice for our freedom and democracy. Let us also pray for our military families, particularly those who have recently lost a beloved member in the line of duty. The battlefield may be on another continent, but we must keep our heroes close to our hearts.

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Mother’s Day Wishes

 

Happy Mother’s Day! I want to wish an especially wonderful day to my mother, Oona. Thank you, Mom, for inspiring and loving me every day.

Did you prepare a special meal for your mother today, or were you the recipient of breakfast in bed or a delicious brunch? This morning I cracked open one of the cookbooks I bought at the library sale I wrote about two weeks ago and baked this treat.

  

A committee of three taste testers gave this pound cake, made from a recipe in Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible, high marks. Mom enjoyed hers with a few peach slices. The cake was moist and scrumptious, though the crust was a bit crunchy; a Google query informed me I may have over-beaten the eggs. I’ll tone down my mixing enthusiasm on the next bake.

Whatever your plans and edible goodies, I wish you all a beautiful day celebrating your mothers. And if your mom has passed, I wish you a day filled with happy memories.

Have a great week, everyone!

 

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The Pleasure Of A Book Sale

Yesterday I went to a book sale at my home library. It was as glorious as the summer-like weather we enjoyed. It was my first big sale in a long while.

For many years, I anticipated the book sale another local library held in the same way I eagerly awaited Christmas as a child. This sale, always the first weekend in May, was spectacular. Shelves and cartons crammed with books filled the library’s ground floor and its sidewalk (I could fill a bag with books before I even entered the building). In the main room, there was always one particular table I called “the gold mine.” Rows of paperbacks would be arranged across the table, with book-filled cardboard boxes lined up on the floor under the table. I would circle this table, grabbing titles I had always wanted to read and stuffing them in my bag. I’d move on to shelves and other tables, but would return to the gold mine four or five times, always finding a book I hadn’t seen on my earlier go-rounds.

Deep was my disappointment the year the sale was cancelled because heavy rains had flooded the room where books for the sale had been stored. A few years later, the library permanently stopped holding the sale.

Which made me very sad. I “met” a number of my favorite authors at that sale, writers who  have inspired my own work. I discovered Jan Karon and her wonderful town of Mitford on the gold mine table. Likewise Karen MacInerney and her fabulous Gray Whale Inn mystery series. I gave Stephen King a second chance when I purchased one of his many bestsellers at a sale.

Let me explain.

My freshman year in college, three friends and I went to a showing of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s The Shining. A fundraiser for the campus Knights of Columbus, the movie was shown in the group’s basement.

I hated the movie (so did King, by the way). It seemed interminable, a feeling exacerbated by my seat, a metal folding chair. Two of my friends, newly dating, started making out in the row behind me. I wasn’t so lucky to have such a distraction. I don’t remember, but that evening I may have invented the lament about time lost. I wanted my two-and-a-half hours back.

For decades I blamed Stephen King, not Stanley Kubrick, for the lousy evening. I usually don’t hold grudges for long. It’s too exhausting. But “I hated that movie The Shining, therefore I will hate every book written by King,” was my mantra for years.

Until I thumbed through a hardcover copy of Lisey’s Story at a 2008 library sale. It looked interesting. For a buck, what did I have to lose? I could always donate it to the next year’s sale. I bought the book and read it at Halloween that year.

I loved it. I was a convert. A new fan. I still have the book.

My profuse apologies to you, Mr. King.

Such is the power of the book sale.

I made out like a bandit at yesterday’s sale. Life stories, longtime favorite authors, a couple of new-to-me authors, and some books for my sister. Here’s a shot of my haul, which filled three bags:

Notice the two Stephen King books? The love continues.

I was thrilled to scoop up several of Daniel Silva’s novels. A couple of years ago I plucked his Fallen Angel off the library’s small, year-round sale shelf and was hooked on the series starring Israeli spy Gabriel Allon from its opening pages. I’m also making my way through Leslie Meier’s Lucy Stone cozy series and so was delighted to pick up four of her titles at the sale. I’m betting Laura Childs’ Cackleberry Club will become another favorite series once I read Scorched Eggs. How can you go wrong with a name like Cackleberry?

With three new cookbooks, I’ll have plenty of snacks to enjoy with my reading. Though I’m not much of a cake eater (I’m a dedicated cookie girl), I’ve wanted to take a shot at baking a cake from scratch for a while. I have no excuse now that I have Rose Levy Beranbaum’s bible on the subject. I doubt my family will mind sampling the results of my endeavors.

My ninety minutes at the sale added up to a great mix of books. All for twenty dollars!

How about you? Are you a fan of book sales? What authors have you discovered while perusing tables, shelves, and cartons packed with books?

By the way, though I’m not a fan of The Shining the movie, its source material is one of my favorite King novels. Its sequel, Doctor Sleep, is equally fantastic.

Have a great week!

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Holiday Wishes To You

Happy Easter and Pesach! I wish you a beautiful, blessed holiday.

 

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Take A Cozy Tour


I think I’ve mentioned before one of the things I love about cozy mysteries is the wide range of locales in which they are set. Sit down with a cozy and you can find yourself in Botswana, the Cotswolds, or Amish country. A literary visit to a city might have you plotting your summer vacation or at least taking a jaunt via the Internet. Thanks to Google Earth, I’ve roamed the streets of Edinburgh, passed through Traverse City, Michigan, and strolled around Dublin.

In the past few weeks, my cozy reading has taken me around the country and across the “pond.” Let me take you on a tour.

In my last post, I noted I began March with Patrick Taylor’s latest, An Irish Country Love Story. His tale took me to Ballybucklebo, a fictional village in Northern Ireland. I ended March with a visit to another Irish town courtesy of Alexia Gordon’s fabulous debut Gethsemane Brown Mystery, Murder in G Major. When African-American maestra Gethsemane Brown loses a promised position in Cork, she ends up in the small village of Dunmullach teaching music in an all-boys prep school. She secures lodging in the charming cottage once owned by a composer she has long revered, Eamon McCarthy. Eamon might be dead (supposedly by his own hand), but he’s certainly not gone. He soon makes his presence known to Gethsemane and asks a small favor: prove he killed neither himself nor his wife. Gethsemane finds Eamon’s request difficult to resist, what with his skill at pouring bourbon and the rainbow of colors his aura presents, depending on his mood. A fully absorbing story with an ending sure to bring readers back for more.

In her second Little Library Mystery, author Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli takes readers back to the Midwest and Bear Falls, Michigan, home of protagonist Jenny Weston. In She Stopped for Death, Jenny must sort out a mystery involving local Emily Sutton, a poet who hasn’t been seen in years. With help from her mother, Dora, and neighbor Zoe Zola, Jenny untangles a web of murder while helping draw Emily from her self-imposed exile. This is a well-written book with a nice blend of quirk and gravity, romance and friendship. Check out the first in the series, A Most Curious Murder, for a fine introduction to Buzzelli’s world of Bear Falls.

Do you like books with a southern flavor? Then Ellen Byron’s Cajun Country Mysteries are for you. I loved the first in the series, Plantation Shudders, and eagerly dived into the second installment, Body in the Bayou. The series’ protagonist, Maggie Crozat, is a delightful southern belle who helps her parents run the bed-and-breakfast in their converted plantation house and gives tours at another former plantation, all while also romancing a local cop. Thanks to Byron’s deft writing, readers can practically smell the barbecue and hear the characters’ drawls. Colorful characters on both sides of the law fill the pages and promise to entertain those who seek an escape to the bayou.

This is just a taste of where I’ve been without leaving my comfortable couch. This year I’ve also spent time in Lake Eden, Minnesota (Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen Mystery Banana Cream Pie Murder), made repeat trips to Tinker’s Cove, Maine (Leslie Meier’s Lucy Stone Mysteries), and stopped by Stoneham, New Hampshire (A Fatal Chapter by Lorna Barrett).

In the coming weeks, I’m going back to Wales for another visit with Penny Brannigan (Elizabeth J. Duncan’s Murder is for Keeps), will catch up with the residents of Maine’s Cranberry Island in Karen MacInerney’s Whale of a Crime, hit Dewberry Farm in Texas in MacInerney’s Fatal Frost, and check out what’s cooking in the Berkshires in Linda Reilly’s A Frying Shame.

What are your favorite places to visit in your reading? Please share! I’m always looking for books that will take me to new settings, whether real or fictional.

Have a great week. Spring is finally here!

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All Things Irish

Every March, I celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day with a trip to the Emerald Isle of Ireland. A literary, not physical (though maybe someday . . .) trip, that is. In recent years, my “journey” has included a week’s stop in the small Northern Ireland village of Ballybucklebo for a visit with Doctor Fingal O’Reilly and his delightful friends. I’m back from this year’s jaunt and am happy to report O’Reilly and his village are as charming as ever.

I write, of course, of Patrick Taylor’s fantastic An Irish Country series. I’ve been a reader of the Bangor(Northern Ireland)-born Taylor’s tales of Fingal and the Ballybucklebo denizens since book one. The latest, An Irish Country Love Story, is another winner filled with wit, sweetness, and a bit of blarney.

Want more stories set in Ireland to fill your month? Here you go . . .

Irishman James Joyce wrote several of the twentieth century’s best books (and its most challenging), including the masterpiece Ulysses. You may have read his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in high school or been confounded by Finnegans Wake. If you’d like a taste of Joyce’s work this March 17, read Dubliners. The short story collection portrays Irish life in the early 1900’s and comprises the best writing I have ever read.

The late Maeve Binchy celebrated the everyday lives of the Irish in more than two dozen novels, short stories, and novellas. She captured the spirit, heartbreak, struggles, and faith of the Irish in her work, including A Circle of FriendsScarlet Feather, and Evening Class. Though two of Binchy’s novels have been published posthumously, Binchy’s legion of fans still mourn her 2012 passing at age 72.

Cecelia Ahern writes terrific novels of life in contemporary Ireland. She has followed up her 2004 best-selling debut, PS, I Love, with more than a dozen books, including Where Rainbows End (if you live in the USA, you might have read this under the titles Rosie Dunne or Love, Rosie), The Gift, and How to Fall in Love.

If you’re looking for a cozy with a Gaelic (not garlic) flavor, look no further than Irish-American Sheila Connolly’s County Cork Mysteries.  The series features an American expatriate solving murders in the small town where her grandmother was born. I get lost in the pages of these mysteries, imagining traveling the winding roads of Irish villages, discovering my family’s roots, and  stopping at a pub (and I’m a teetotaler!) for a bit of craic (pronounced “crack,” it means fun). Check out Connolly’s fifth County Cork mystery, Cruel Winter, which arrived in stores this month.

Chances are you’ve already read Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes, which was published in 1996. More than a few have called McCourt’s account of his impoverished childhood in Limerick depressing, but what I remember from my reading of the book is the humor and grace with which McCourt relates his early years in Ireland. I also recommend his memoirs of life in New York: ‘Tis and Teacher Man.

There are plenty more Irish writers to celebrate. Check out the work of Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, Frank Delaney, Colm Tóibín, Edna O’Brien, Joseph O’Connor, Roddy Doyle, Lucy Caldwell, Lisa McInerney, Claire Keegan, and Nuala Ní Chonchúir. To name just a few!

Have a great week, everyone, and happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

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And The Winner Is

The long awards season for motion pictures ends tonight with the distribution of the prestigious Academy Awards. Today I’ve been wondering this: If Oscars were handed out to mystery books and characters, who would take home a golden statue? Here are my picks from both classic and modern mysteries (Yes, I know some of my selections have already been portrayed on big and small screens. Just play along with me).

Best Supporting Actress: Serena “Renie” Jones (Mary Daheim’s Bed-and-Breakfast Mysteries)

Renie, cousin of series’ star Judith McMonigle Flynn, is an offbeat, often grumpy graphic designer who has been Judith’s sidekick their whole lives. She’s always there to support (sometimes begrudgingly) her cousin whenever Judith discovers a corpse and sets off on a new sleuthing adventure. Like so many supporting players, Renie brings comic relief to both Judith and readers.

Best Supporting Actor: Dr. Watson (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Mysteries)

Every year an actor has a lock on his or her category. Dr. John Watson, Sherlock Holmes’s friend, sometime roommate, biographer, and crime-solving partner is as sure a thing as you can get. The original sidekick, the good doctor has inspired too many characters to count.

Best Actress: Cora Felton (Parnell Hall’s Puzzle Lady Mysteries)

Miss Marple she’s not. The incorrigible smoker, drinker, many-times-divorced Cora would probably scandalize her prim and proper British sleuth counterpart (or maybe Miss Marple would get a kick out of the crime-solving cruciverbalist on this side of the pond). Cora is a constant irritant to everyone in her life, but underneath her well-worn, black “Wicked Witch of the West” dress beats a heart that cares more than Cora will ever admit.

Best Actor: Hercule Poirot (multiple Agatha Christie masterpieces)

Whether the crime scene is a train, ship, hotel, country estate, or English village, the fussy Belgian detective with the high-maintenance mustache never fails to solve the mystery of the moment. With his razor-sharp intellect and keen interrogation skills, Monsieur Poirot dazzles with his ability to parse clues in time to catch a killer.

Best Director: Agatha Christie

Who else but the best-selling author of all time? Every one of her books is a master class for mystery writers and a pleasure from the first page to the last for readers. The Mirror Crack’d From Side to SideDeath on the Nile. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Pick one, any one, grab a cup of tea, and sit back and enjoy.

Best Motion Picture: Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie)

With so many fantastic mysteries to choose from, I’m selecting the one I first encountered in a movie theater in 1974 and then re-discovered years later when I read the brilliant novel on which the film was based. A tight plot, intriguing characters, claustrophobic setting, and best actor winner Hercule Poirot take the reader on a spellbinding trip to a stunning conclusion. A new adaptation, directed by Kenneth Branagh who will also star as Poirot, is due in theaters this November. I wouldn’t be surprised if it picks up an Oscar or two at next year’s ceremony.

Enjoy the Oscars. And have a great week, everyone!

 

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Check Your Facts, Ma’am

A mystery writer must be sure of all the facts of her story. Not only must she be attentive to the elements of the plot—timeline of the murder, alibis, physical traits of the characters—but every piece of information included in her manuscript must be checked for accuracy.

And I do mean every bit of information. I learned this during the second round of edits for Murder, by George. There was a line in the manuscript about azalea bushes planted over pachysandra. In the margin beside the passage Five Star editor Tracey Matthews placed this comment: Technically, the bushes would be planted IN the bed of pachysandra. With a couple of keyboard strokes and mouse clicks, the azaleas were properly planted.

I told this story when I met with my local library’s mystery reading group in September. That prompted one of the women to mention a moment in All Things Murder, when Veronica is shucking corn. I wrote that she was peeling a stalk. “Wouldn’t it be an ear of corn?” the woman asked. There was a minute’s discussion on corn husks, cobs, and silk before the conversation moved to another topic. The woman was correct; I should have written Veronica was shucking an ear of corn and not the whole stem, which would have been removed before Veronica laid her hands on it at the farmstand. Why I wrote “stalk” I do not know; it must have been in my head for a long time and I thought it was the right description. I was wrong and learned the lesson that fact-checking extends to everything, even information of which I’m certain.

Sometimes my research leads to conflicting information. When I wanted to describe a character as doe-eyed, I thought I should verify my understanding of doe-eyes. It was confirmed: innocent and wide-eyed. However, on a couple of other websites I read the doe-eyed look is usually reserved for people with brown eyes. Really? So anyone can be green-eyed with envy, but only those folks with the most common iris color can be doe-eyed? I ended up ditching the doe-eyed description in protest of the unfairness of it all.

I’ve learned I must also check the facts in the quips and jokes I sprinkle in a manuscript. When I asked my friend Charles to read my latest work, he went above and beyond the call of duty and checked several details in the manuscript. Or I should say proofed. In one passage, Veronica gripes she is going to need a stronger alcoholic beverage than her usual Seven and Seven after meeting with two characters. I didn’t check the proof of her new drink because I thought I was certain it was more potent (based on my observations at family gatherings) than her usual mixed beverage. Charles calculated the proof on both drinks and gave me a thumbs up. Thank you, Charles!

I could go on about ad hominems, evergreen trees, and profit versus revenue, but I’ve taken up enough of your day. I’ll just leave you with this: when you’re not in doubt, check the facts anyway.

Have a great week!

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Kicking Bad Writing Habits To The Curb

Happy New Year, everyone! It’s resolution time, when many of us commit to eating healthier foods, getting eight hours sleep, cleaning the closets, and watching less television.

I haven’t yet made a life-improving resolution for the year. What’s been on my mind these last few weeks are the bad habits I and many writers develop that, if left uncorrected, will result in manuscripts loaded with words and expressions that do nothing to advance or enhance the plot. They slow the story and make reading the work a chore rather than a pleasure.

Here are a few habits I’m mindful to avoid when I’m working on a Veronica Walsh mystery.

A Big As Problem

Type “Writer’s Overused Words” in Google and the search engine will provide links for the four, eight, ten, or thirty (pick a number, any number) words most abused by writers. You will also find articles offering plenty of advice on how to strengthen your writing if you just stop using “just.”

A word I have been guilty of using too much is “as.” It took me a while to realize I overused this two-letter word that can be used as (there it is again) an adverb, conjunction, and preposition. “She said as. . .” “As I walked . . .” “As if . . .” “It was as good as . . .” It’s so easy to load up a manuscript with the vocabulary equivalent of diet soda. All filler, no substance.

Along with “as,” “that,” “just,” “really,” and “very” are words that will boost word count but glut a manuscript.

Just say no to them in a really loud voice.

Giving Adverbs the Heave Ho

Adverbs are another class of overused words and, according to every article I’ve read on writing no-no’s, the scourge of manuscripts everywhere. The bane of every editor’s existence.

So why were adverbs invented if we can’t use them to describe how a line of dialog is said, or how the heroine ran up the street? Who knows, but “She sprinted down Broadway” and “He screeched in my ear” are more effective than “She ran quickly” and “He said loudly.” Don’t you agree?

I’ve divorced the adverb from my writing life, though we see each other from time to time. Casually, of course.

Too Much Description Can Be a Bad Thing

Writers use descriptive language to bring characters to life, plop readers in the middle of a setting, and put objects integral to the plot in the readers’ hands. Description deftly applied will leave readers salivating over the plate of lasagna a character feasts on, longing for a visit to a fictional country estate (despite the murder that takes place there), and twitching their noses for a scent of the femme fatale’s enticing perfume.

A little bit of description goes a long way, though, doesn’t it? I think it’s good to leave some things to the reader’s imagination. Draw the sketch and let us color between the lines, right? Let’s take, for example, a dinner party at the aforementioned country estate. It’s important to give readers a mental picture of the gathering, but we don’t need a head-to-toe physical description of all fifteen characters in the room, the minute details of every item on the mantel, and what type of booze is in every glass. Talk about information overload!

Writers sometimes use description to increase word count, but too much will stop the flow of the narrative and lead readers to skipping the paragraphs, sometimes even pages, of the writer’s meticulous reporting.

Eyes All Over the Place

“And please be careful about a character dropping his or her eyes. They could get stepped on.”

Thanks to that remark by editor Deni Dietz (the fabulous lady who opened the door to Five Star Publishing for me), my characters glance, stare, and gaze at each other and their surroundings. Their eyes never lock, fall, or, yes, drop, on any person, place, or thing. I smile and think of Deni whenever I encounter hyperactive eyeballs in other writers’ work.

I wonder, though, if I could occasionally write, “Her eyes popped out of her head” or “His eyes fell on the alligator-skin boots the woman wore” without causing irreparable damage to a character’s body. Maybe at the end of a scene, when everyone’s stopped moving around and the eyeballs can be retrieved and replaced in the proper sockets?

Here’s to a great 2017 for us all. And for today I wish you a good Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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