Wednesday, April 11, 2018

This cozy mystery fires on all cylinders!





Robyn Beecroft’s book started off strong and engaging and only got better as I rapidly made my way through this page-turner cozy mystery. If I didn’t have a fascination with the Fenlands of eastern England, Morris dancing, Oliver Cromwell, and the Straw Bear Festival of Whittlesea, I certainly do now! I won’t go into detail about the pleasant hours I’ve since spent delving into these rich subjects and locations, but will turn to convincing you to buy this gem of a book, which deserves (and will eventually get, I’m sure) a wide readership. I’m already tapping my foot, waiting eagerly for the sequel. Meanwhile I plan to read it again, now that I have studied the area where the mystery unfolds.

From page one I knew I was in the hands of a truly skilled writer, who knows the ingredients of great stories and how to mix them together in just the right proportions. There are two stories here, one a whodunit about a gruesome murder that is discovered at the height of Witchelsea’s Straw Man Festival, and the other about claiming one’s identity.
First, the murder.
 “They looked up in time to see the blackened husk of the Straw Man burst apart and fall in flaming gouts into the center of the fire. The corpse inside sagged forward, but for one long instant its blackened clothes and roasted skin were visible to all. Blood coursed down both sides of its now unrecognizable face.”
A cozy mystery murder scene doesn’t get any better than this, and it shouldn’t get any worse! In this genre, explicit gore is kept to a minimum, sufficient only provide a motivating threat to propel the plot forward, and here the author hits it just right.
The two main characters of the book are Rory, who pieces together a living by writing three blogs about gluten-free cooking, gentlemen’s outfitting and ghost-hunting, and Haley, a Beyonce-lookalike who works at a pub called the Village Inn. They are caught up in the search for the killer to prove the innocence of Haley’s uncle Jimi who is in danger of becoming the main suspect. Haley believes this is partly because of his race. There are many more twists, turns and romantic complications to come, and as we spool through them we are treated to the passing scenery—the wilds of the Fenland marshes, the spectacle of Morris dancing, and plenty of local village color.
Integrally woven into the fabric of the plot are much larger issues, such as the willingness of some people to condemn people of color, trans-gender and gay folk and immigrants. This is accomplished without being the least bit heavy-handed and with a dollop of insight and compassion. The mystery unravels with real suspense and is sprinkled here and there with mischievous humor, lush description, and poignant observation.

On top of the mystery plot, we are treated to a parallel story, watching Rory and Haley evolve from timid and unsure caterpillars into self-accepting and bold butterflies. Through conflict with family members, confronting their own self-doubt, and meeting head-on the challenges of finding the murderer, they manage to claim their identities—Rory as a gay man who can now pursue a romance with Zach, the handsome policeman, and Haley as happily unattached, free to project whatever gender she wakes up feeling like in the morning.

Don’t miss this fast moving and satisfying read! And if you like it as much as I think you will, give it a review. It deserves a wide audience!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Travel's With Chesky, by Heather Phelps



I love the vicarious pleasure of reading travel books, especially by women. True to Heather's oft stated conviction that women need to step up and overcome their fear or ignorance about how to resolve a challenge, she describes how she prepared for the journey and how she solved obstacles as they presented themselves. She whitewashed nothing. I was convinced that I would never have the patience or fortitude to take a dog along on such a journey! And as a matter of fact I recently watched a wonderful documentary, “Expedition Happiness” about a young German couple that took a dog along on a major road trip across Canada, down the West Coast of the U.S. and into Mexico, but before they could complete their journey into South America their dog just couldn’t handle it anymore!

I visited the original blog that prepared the ground for this book and enjoyed the photographs and brief journal entries as she went along. These would prompt her to write this book, and explains the short, episodic entries which make up the text. I thought that worked well.

I finished the book in two days and had no trouble going back to it. It was a great thing to take to bed with me and I would recommend the book to any and all.

There were only two things that I felt might have improved the book. First, a bit less judgment, lecturing and opinion on entire States (including states of mind) and certain types of people she met along the road. A little moralizing goes a long way in a travel book! Second, I would have like to see more personal vulnerability, a key who this woman was and how her journey changed her. Having demonstrated that she was a decent and upstanding woman at the beginning of the book, I didn’t feel I knew her an iota better by the end of the book. The raison d’être of the journey seemed entirely outside of herself, and in the end could have been written by anyone of her general class, social background, geographic origins, and education. I speculated this that lack of personal forthcomingness was perhaps a result of her background in the CIA.

But if you’re in the mood for a road trip around the dog parks of the United States and their fascinating and sometimes shady denizens, this is the book you’ll want to take along! 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

21 Stories, by Graham Greene

Twenty-one StoriesTwenty-one Stories by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great writers make it look easy. There is so much to say about Graham and his writing, but the best thing for writers to do is just read him. He just pulls you in. No struggle. No bells and whistles. The smoothest language and most personal language I have ever read. A seductive music begins to play in your head from the first phrase, and you enter the story effortlessly. The stories about children appealed to me the most, as they were the simplest in form, and for me, the music played the loudest. I met a woman in a cafe here in Oaxaca where I live now and when I told her I was reading Greene, she immediately recalled what a complete escape he provided her when she needed a break from her studies in graduate school.

I'm sure like all writers I love, D.H. Lawrence, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, I will stumble upon a few Greene stories and novels that I could do without. But I have never felt that a failed effort diminished the best efforts of a serious writer. In fact the ones that struck me as not being quite up to par, instructed me just as clearly. 


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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Excerpt from THE ADVENTURES OF DRAGOS AND HOLMES


High Tea with Dame Müller

Sherlock Holmes, Eton School for Boys
1 November 1867
There’s a new boy at Godolphin House. Rumor has it they sent him over from the commoners’ rooms to fill an opening left by Master Jeffrey Tooms, who was suddenly attacked by disabling tremors in his legs and arms.  Several distinguished doctors visited Jeffrey’s room and tried to cure him. They cut and bled him, wrapped evil-smelling poultices around his extremities, and poured patent medicines down his throat, to no avail.  I myself spent hours buried in stacks of medical books in the library, trying to discover the cause of his affliction. Unfortunately, his family came to take the boy away before I could reach a conclusion.
The only positive aspect of this dreadful situation is that the school term has only just begun, so the sad departure of Jeffrey and the arrival of a new boy to take his place will not cause undue disturbance in the residence hall.
Dragoș Covenu is the new student, a rather exotic-looking boy with an exotic name. He is my age, 13, with tea-colored skin, black hair, large brown eyes with long lashes, and his English is atrocious. Most of the boys give him a wide berth, as I should do, but there is something about him that interests me. He is better built and taller than the rest of us. The muscles on his arms and legs are shapely and well-defined, and he moves with an easy grace, as if he’d just walked out of a Greek myth or a legend from the Crusades. I could envision him as a dark knight in shining armor, or a pirate standing, sword drawn, under the skull and crossbones. 
When Dame Müller, the house supervisor, introduced Dragoș to the young residents of Godolphin Hall, she mentioned he was going in for sports and military strategy, which are not enormously taxing fields of study. He quite looks the part for either profession; strapping and fit, sturdy legs and haunches for marching long distances. I can attest to these pleasing physical characteristics, as I stand behind him during afternoon drills.
Eton students and masters alike wonder how this boy, a foreigner, was allowed to take up residence in Godolphin House, a privilege reserved for sons of the peerage or country gentlemen like my father. I suppose it would have been comparable to a freed slave in America somehow gaining entrance to Harvard University. Toes felt stepped on, naturally. Outrage was expressed. Some believed that in order to have leapt across our social barriers so easily, he must be some kind of foreign royalty. But he doesn’t carry himself with that kind of restraint or sophistication. Not by a long shot.
I have a full schedule this term, playing violin in the chamber orchestra and continuing my Greek and Latin studies. And Composition. What’s new on my plate are Chemistry and Forensics, the latter being a recently established branch of the physical sciences. It should prove useful to my future career as a master sleuth. And there is my membership in the Classical Society, composed of retiring boys like myself who wish to keep a certain distance from the noisy herd.
As an opening salvo to welcome the new term, Dame Müller invited Lord Craven, his boorish friend Baronet Goad, and myself to high tea. I cannot account for why she selected the three of us out of all the Godolphin inmates, except that we are the least popular boys at Eton; Craven and Goad because they are despicable and mean, and myself because I am a friendless hermit. She claims we were invited since we had all three won the lottery held last spring to raise funds for the Chess Club. But I don’t remember buying a ticket, and Craven and Goad wouldn’t know a chessboard from a cheeseboard.
Very well, high tea it is. And I suppose she will treat us to more stories about German children cartwheeling through streets of Düsseldorf after the defeat of the Archbishop of Cologne in 1288. Dame Müller feels it is her duty to impress upon her Eton charges that Germany has a history at least as illustrious as England’s, though I’m not sure cartwheeling boys can compete with the scions of old London.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

All you need to know about Victorian poisonings

The Secret Poisoner: A Century of MurderThe Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder by Linda Stratmann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book as part of my immersion in nineteenth century London and New York, and it had exactly what I needed to write an episode on a poisoning mystery. Poisonings were all the fad during the Victorian era since only a few poisons were traceable. It was an easy way knock off a rich relative who wasn't dying fast enough, a complaining wife, a drunken husband, the boss who fired you. It seems that the leading forensic scientists of the day were in a race with the more creative poisoners to identify especially plant-based poisons in human tissue.

I found the poison I intend to use, and I learned some of the procedures then used in the laboratories to separate the poison and identify it. The main obstacle to solving a poisoning was often the coroner, especially in nineteenth century New York. The position was a political appointment, and many were corrupt drunkards more interested in getting a payoff from the funeral home for the quick delivery of a body than performing a proper autopsy -- which they didn't know how to do anyway. If someone wanted a decent autopsy done, Bellevue Hospital was the only game in town. Hope I am not conflating this bit about coroners with another book...I've been speed reading so many of them for research lately. Anyway, highly recommend this one for Victorianageophiles.


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Sunday, December 24, 2017

My interview with ROMANCING THE BOOK


Regarding the January 1st release of "THE ADVENTURES OF DRAGOS AND HOLMES" on Amazon, here is a portion of my upcoming interview with ROMANCING THE BOOK, to appear on their site on February 2. I'll provide the link later.  Meanwhile, you can preorder it here.


Are you a plotter or pantser?
As impulsively as I have lived my life, and as much as I have always trusted my intuition, when it comes to writing I’ve turned into a downright methodical plotter. I lay the book out chapter by chapter and scene by scene on Scrivener (which I now could not live without!). I write brief descriptions of the action and notes about the comings and goings of characters in each and every scene, even if it is only a sentence or two, all the way through to the end. Then I go back and fill in more information, looking it over carefully for structural problems that I want to fix early, before they get harder to find behind too many words. I print it out in this skeletal stage, and go to a café to drink strong shots of expresso, marking the physical copy with various colored markers. I’m looking for plot points that were left dangling or need reordering, or researched more thoroughly. My writing professors drilled into my head that a good writer takes the hand of his or her reader and leads them through the plot at a reasonable pace, making sure that “red herrings” not withstanding, they never feel abandoned or confused. Once I am confident that I am not going to be embarrassed later by structural missteps, I can relax and let my creativity flow.

Do you have a writing routine? I work about six hours a day, sometimes more, in two sessions: between 9 and 2, and then again after dinner. When my brain announces it is dead for the day, I turn to Netflix, where I am currently binge-watching “The Crown.” I usually keep my writing schedule seven days a week, but in my project completion projection on Scrivener I give myself the option to work only six days. Right now Scrivener tells me I must complete 960 words per day to finish the next book on schedule. No problem!

What kind of research did you do for this book? I read at least forty books, maybe more, before I got very far into writing Dragos & Holmes. I wanted my research on Victorian London, shipping routes, sailing ships, communication (telegrams and mail delivery), and many other details to be resident in my brain so that I didn’t have to pause in my writing to look something up. I had a map of Victorian London embedded in my memory, as well as the major European ports and rail lines. As further research on small details became necessary, I tried to bunch it all up so that I could spend a day doing nothing but research, and then go back to writing. Looking things up as I write can easily send me down a fascinating rabbit hole from which I may not emerge for hours!

As I start the sequel, I am following the same procedure to bone up on New York City in 1895, where Dragos and Holmes will spend the first two episodes rescuing a child and finding a serial killer whose weapon of choice is aconite poison.

At the moment I am reading The Alienist by Caleb Carr, a very badly written (but informative) book that is an instructive example of how not to write historical fiction. Critics have called it “flabby with historical detail.” To me, it read like a high school essay on New York City history with a plot and stiffly drawn characters stuck in around the edges—a cautionary tale for all writers of historical romance.

What writers have influenced you? From a very young age I have been drawn to expansive romance-adventures written by masters like Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo), Miguel Cervantes (Don Quixote), Voltaire (Candide), Lord Byron (Don Juan) and Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn).

What’s the most interesting comment you’ve received about your books? I wrote a book many years ago, called “Hair Suit,” which I just revised and republished as “Her Perilous Journey.” Two years after the early edition appeared, a very long, complimentary review appeared on an early internet review site, in which the reader concluded that I must have left the country, or even committed suicide, because I had never followed up with another book. I had led such a perilous life, he said, and seemed so determined to gain experience no matter the personal risk or the foolhardiness of my choices, that exile or suicide were the most logical explanations for my “disappearing.” I wanted to find the gentleman and tell him I had only been distracted from writing by husbands and children and was still quite alive and writing again. But he signed his review, “anonymous.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Excerpt from forthcoming "Her Perilous Journey: A Young Woman's Voyage"



Note to Reader: I've been struggling with this book for many years, and this is the third edition! In this latest and last attempt, my intent was to leave it open for a second and third volume to follow. For those reader who find their way here, I am offering a limited number of free ebooks, in exchange for an honest review on Amazon.  You can find it here:



Below is an excerpt to give you a taste:

The next day, Mary and I met in the playground again. I wasn’t ready to invite her over to my house yet—Mother could be so unpredictable. We sat in the swings again, this time more relaxed and personable.
 “I’ve heard Catholic school is hard,” I said. “Academically, I mean.”
“Harder than your school. But we get lots of holy days off. Like, this is the Month of the Holy Souls, so we’ve spent more time on retreat than in class.”
“Doesn’t sound too shabby.”
“Well, it is! Reeeally shabby! Retreat is, like, being shut up in an auditorium with an old fart priest who’s trying to, like, scare you into staying chaste.” Mary saw my clueless expression.
“Chaste?” I asked.
“It means you are still a virgin. You haven’t had sex.”
 “Oh. That must be weird,” I said innocently. I had crossed the chastity frontier long ago.
 “Yeah. So, he tells us stories meant to keep us on the straight and narrow. Want to hear one?”
 I was always ready to hear an interesting story.
 “Well. There was this guy. He asked this pretty girl out for a date and he took her to a movie. They went for a sundae at Gifford’s. Then he drove her up to Lover’s Lane.”
“Where’s that?”
 “Right. You and I wouldn’t know where it is, because it doesn’t exist—except in the priest’s prurient mind.”
 “Prurient?”
“It’s a Catholic word that means “anything to do with sex.”
“Oh,” I said.
 “So, it’s dark. And the car is parked on this deserted street and the guy makes a play for the girl. Remember, she’s chaste. He lunges at her and she is petrified to death! It was the last thing she expected.
 “Ha!” I laughed, doubtfully.
 “She fights him off, of course.”
Mary’s swing made metallic screeches as she swung back and forth, preparing the next part of her story.
 “He was frustrated, so he turned on the radio. He thought it would distract her for a while and then he would try again. But a news bulletin came on. A convict had just escaped from a nearby prison!”
 “How nearby?” I gasped.
“Like, a five-minute walk from where they were parked. And the convict wasn’t just a thief or pilferer or something like that, he was a convicted murderer. The radio said he would be easy to spot though, because one of his arms had been severed at the elbow and replaced by a steel hook.
 “Did they lock the car doors?”
 “Well, she did. She wasn’t about to lose her chastity and get killed.!
“Right!”
 “But the horny boy had one thing on his mind. Getting into her pants. She fought him off, screaming, ‘I’m scared, I’m scared! Please take me home! So he got really pissed off. He turned the key in the ignition and took off so fast the girl’s neck got jerked out of whack. He pulled up in front of her house. When he went around to open her door, guess what he found?
 “A hook hanging in the door handle!” I yelled, excited.
Mary paused, disappointed. “How did you know?”
 “Because I’ve heard the story before. Like a hundred times. But you tell it better than anyone else!”
 “Really?” Mary skidded her sneakers on the blacktop to stop her swing. “That son of a bitch.” She was talking about the priest.


Monday, December 11, 2017

Excerpt from Dragos and Holmes

For release on January 1st! You can preorder now for the 99-cent sale here on Amazon.



Excerpt

He took my hand and pulled me into the bedroom, then disappeared momentarily. When he returned he was carrying the bowl of butter Mrs. Hudson had brought for the breakfast table. She liked to bring it up early so that it would be soft for the biscuits. He set it by the bed. As I watched, he threw off his nightclothes to expose his satiny white skin, and spread an India rubber mat over the mattress to protect it from stains. He placed lengths of rope and a leather whip beside him on the bed and stretched out naked on his belly. I hadn't seen the leather whip before. This was an escalation.
“I have been perusing the works of the Marquis de Sade,” he said, with a hunger in his voice.
I had read them, of course, but was dismayed that Holmes was making ever deeper forays into the world of sexual domination fantasy. What Holmes wanted, what Holmes thought he needed, was to be fucked by some mythical buccaneer of the south seas, his safe version of what we Londoners call the “rough trade.”  That happened to be me, Dragoș the Merciless. Very well. The least I could do was to teach him a lesson.
I tied him securely to the four posts of the bed and smeared his callipygian buttocks so thickly with butter that I could almost see my face reflected in their convex curves. I wiped my hands off on a towel and unbuttoned my trousers, pausing to observe how eagerly Holmes offered himself to me. His glistening body writhed sensually on the slippery rubber mat and his breath accelerated into an animal pant. I feared he would spend himself before I thrust myself inside.
“Holmes, darling. You forgot to tell me the script.”
He hesitated for a moment, the spell broken. “What do you mean?”
“Who do you want me to be? Not myself, certainly.”
“Well, when I saw your eyepatch, I thought you might be…”
“Blackbeard?”
“Yes. He was such an evil man.”
“Before or after he was beheaded?”
“Dragoș,” Holmes groaned, “you mustn’t break the mood.”
“Yours or mine?”
“Ours, silly. You don’t mind do you? I’ve always wanted to be ravaged by Blackbeard.”
“Then ravage you I will! But I need a scenario.”
“Very well,” he said, sounding exasperated. “You have been hiding down by the river, when you see me walk by, and…”
“Not a beach? He was a sea captain, after all.”
“Very well, a beach! Will you stop interrupting?”
“Do continue,” I said.
“You have been hiding in a secluded cove from agents of the British Navy. There is slight rustling noise a few paces to your right. You steal towards it to investigate, alarmed of course. Perhaps you have been discovered! But then you see a slender young man, like those ones you see running around those Etruscan vases.”
“And what is he doing?”
“Eating a pomegranate under a palm tree.”
“Is he naked?”
“Not yet.”
“Do I pull down his trousers?”
“Etruscan boys don’t wear trousers.
“What do they wear?”
“For god’s sake, Dragoș, rip off his clothes, would you?”

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Do we script our own nightmares?


I rarely have nightmares, but I had one last night. Where do they come from? This one made me yelp loudly enough to wake myself up at about 4:00 a.m. And it was perfectly designed to make me yelp, in the sense that as the object of fear approached, it did so slowly and deliberately, cloaking itself until the final moment when it leapt out at me and nipped me on the face. Alfred Hitchcock would have admired the editing (for it was edited, at times it backed up to slightly alter the route and manner of its approach to make it scarier).

The action can be briefly and incompletely described.  You know how dreams are. There was a man and he was looking for something that had frightened me, perhaps in a hole in the ground? The man was not my friend. He was not trying to help me or make me feel more secure. When he found the creature I was afraid of, he extended his arm towards me. The creature was hidden in the folds of his sleeve, and as it approached I strained to see what it was. The thought of running away, or the possibility of avoidance didn't occur to me.

When the man's sleeve got very close to me, a jet black creature, some kind of lizard or amphibian emerged suddenly and nipped me on the cheek. 

But who designed this little nightmare?



Friday, November 3, 2017

Saul,
I haven't quite recovered from seeing you at the airport yesterday. I think it has been thirty years since I knew that you and Mary had moved to the Continent somewhere, Sicily? Greece? Someplace warm and sunny I remember. The letters stopped a decade before that, didn't they? I kept yours bound carefully by date with a rubber band and stuffed in two shoeboxes. I don't know where they are now, probably in the very back of the mountain of belongings stacked in my second-ex-husband's garage, collecting mold. That's not what I intended to do with them. I truly thought we would both be great writers by now, and those letters would be published by one of the big houses, sitting on the shelf beside the letters of Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer. Did you keep mine? No, don't tell me. I don't want to know. If I had truly believed I would be famous one day I would have kept carbon copies as the great writers did. It just didn't occur to me.

But I poured more of myself into those letters than into any other person or endeavor of my life, and I wish I could see them again. Since that is an unlikely scenario, I want to ask if you and I could take up our correspondence again, restart the conversation we dropped so many years ago. Letters are a forgotten part of our human heritage, what made us human and defined ourselves to ourselves, and to a select group of others, expressing and critiquing each others deepest thoughts and doubts. I have been lonely without them.

So think on it, dear friend. And Mary of course is welcome to chime in. Who would have imagined you two would stay together so long? I was sorry to miss her. You said she was in the bathroom and I had to run to my gate, but I hope you told her about our brief encounter. I want her to feel included, not like the old days when I believe I wanted to keep her separated from our precious philosophical discussions and arguments. It wasn't very nice of me, and I regret it. Tell her that.

Now that I have returned from my ten years in Mexico and you from Europe, and as we enter a new phase of life in our (argh!) seventies, I hope we can dig a new Panama Canal between our two oceans and send our tiny ships back and forth with missals from the other side.

If you say yes, I will celebrate by buying myself a quality fountain pen and some India ink. Remember that I was the only one who could read your handwriting? I hope you have mercy on me now, for my eyes are terrible.

All my love,
X