Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Review: Murder on the Rocks by Karen MacInerney

I seem to be in the mood for cozy mysteries lately. Maybe it's because it's summertime and no one wants to do too much this time of year. Maybe it's because, after working a full day and doing daily chores and having a neverending to-do list, I just want to relax. Or maybe it's because I like cozy mysteries.

I'm not sure how this book made it to my nook. I've downloaded a lot of books that looked somewhat interesting when they were offered for free or at a steep discount. Frequently the first book in a series is discounted, at least for a time, to entice the reader to try something new, with the hope that they'll like it and buy the rest of the series.

"Murder on the Rocks" is the first in Karen MacInerney's Gray Whale Inn series. According to the blurb, it was an Agatha nominee for 2006. The Agatha Awards are nominated by and voted on by mystery fans and presented at Malice Domestic, a convention held every spring in Bethesda, Maryland. You have to register before December 31st of the prior year to nominate books. The top nominees are placed on a ballot,  which is turned in at the convention.

This is a typical first in a series cozy mystery. Natalie Barnes leaves her native Texas to open a bed and breakfast on the Maine coast, investing all she has to do so. This sets her up as the typical "fish out of water" character, which gives the author an opportunity to explain and describe things to the reader on the pretext of having the character learn about them. Not only does Nat have to overcome the struggles of starting a new business, a potent threat to it comes in the form of a major resort developer who wants to build a huge hotel next door to the inn. When the developer turns up dead, Nat becomes the major suspect, not just because of the threat to her business, but because she's a leader in the "Save Our Terns" group that challenges the hotel's construction because it will destroy a sensitive nesting area.

There are a lot of things about this book that kept screaming "first" at me. These are things that I've become aware of since deciding to write my own mystery novels and I'm not sure an average reader would notice them.

One of these is the overuse of two verbs - headed and fished. Characters in this book are always "headed toward the kitchen" or "headed over to the store" or "headed down the path". Nat "fished her keys out of her pocket" and "fished whatever out of a drawer". I think the author could have found more alternative ways to say these things because it does get repetitious.

Another thing I noticed is that Nat often describes things that a real person may not have noticed. I kept thinking that the author, in her effort to include the five senses in her scenes, worked a bit too hard at this. Smells are usually mentioned every time Natalie enters a new place. Descriptions of flowers around the inn are too detailed for someone who never seems to be working in the garden.

My last objection is a personal thing and what is a negative for me is a positive for many readers of cozy mysteries. Nat is always cooking and baking. She gets up every morning and puts together breakfast for her guests. Now, running a real bed and breakfast, this would be something she'd need to do, so it's logical in terms of story, but I got tired of descriptions of what went into her coffee cake or muffins or fruit dish every day. And, after breakfast is over, she starts all over again with cookies or something to take to her friends or those she wants to interrogate in the course of her investigation. All this activity in the kitchen does give her a chance to ruminate over suspects and things but, as someone whose idea of cooking is popping frozen meals in the microwave or, when I really get ambitious, making sweetened condensed milk fudge like I did yesterday, I felt there was too much time spent on food.

After all that kvetching, what did I think of this mystery? I liked it.

The key for me is that I didn't pick out the murderer long before the end of the book, but it made perfect sense when the reasons were revealed. I had briefly considered this person at an earlier point in my reading, but the person wasn't a stronger or weaker suspect at that point. When you're evaluating a mystery, this is huge.

I also liked the secondary characters. I can see where their roles and relationships will form a nice ensemble cast for the series. The folks of Cranberry Island became like friends over the course of the novel. And that's what keeps readers coming back to a cozy series. You buy the next book because you want to find out what happens next in the life of the characters.

But (and I apologize for more kvetching), will I buy another book in this series? Probably not. My tipping point price for ebooks is five dollars. If I like a light cozy series, a book under five dollars is a no-brainer. I might go 6.99, 7.99 or even 8.99 for a book by an author I really like, and even then the higher price is reserved for longer books, books with depth, by authors like Diana Gabaldon and George R.R. Martin. The publisher has priced the Gray Whale Inn series ebooks at 9.99. If I run into a paperback copy at the Friends of the Library used book sale, I would probably buy it. If I happen to be at the library and see another book in this series, I might take it out. But there are so many books to read and so many already on my nook that I can read, I wouldn't ever pay 9.99 for a light read like the books in this series.

So, recommended, but buying it is pricey.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Doing What You Love

This week Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple because of health reasons. In one of the many news articles about his decision and his career at one of the most successful companies in the world, there was a link to the only commencement address he ever made.

It's a very personal speech, describing his adoption, his parents, his "failure" to get a college degree, the company he and Steve Wozniak started in a garage, and his subsequent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. And the title of it is "You've Got to Find What You Love."

A few years back, I was one of the millions who viewed "The Last Lecture" by Randy Pausch. This had a profound effect on me at the time and haunts me still. Pausch, also diagnosed with cancer and knowing he was terminal, used a similar theme: achieving your childhood dreams.

This message seems to be pervasive in my life recently. Yesterday morning's devotional said, in part: "I'd rather be ashes than dust. I'd rather my spark burn out than that it should be stifled by dry rot. The proper function of my life is to live, not exist. So I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use every moment."

Maybe I'm more aware of it lately, like when you buy a new car and suddenly every other car on the road is the same one you just bought. Or when you're pregnant, you seem to always be running into other pregnant ladies. Most of my life I've been fortunate to get at least a piece of what I loved. I got married and had a child. I built a career as a computer programmer, a field that used my talents and paid me well, and worked at really good companies. If I didn't like my job, I was able to find a different one with a company more suited to me.

But for the past few years I haven't enjoyed my work. It's become "just a paycheck", with no creativity, no appreciation for my work, no chance for advancement. And the paycheck isn't as large as it used to be. Because of the economy, there are no alternatives without relocating. And, if you own a house, you can't sell it, so relocating isn't really an option. Besides, I like Tucson. I don't want to move to Minnesota.

It's made me wonder how many people go through their entire lives working at jobs that are "just a paycheck." I remember a college roommate insisting that she didn't want to marry a guy who worked on the line at Oldsmobile. That was my first intimation that there were people who had boring jobs and were content to do them for the sake of a paycheck. I always assumed I would find a job I loved.

So now, when I'm doing a job I don't even like, I've been thinking more and more about doing what I love. That, of course, is writing. It's not a new idea, of course. When I was in high school trying to choose a college, I told my mother that I'd like to be a writer. Her reply was that I could be a teacher and write in the summer, ignoring the fact that I had no desire to be a classroom teacher, in fact was terrified of the whole idea of standing up in front of a roomful of children or, worse, teenagers.

Two years back, with a layoff imminent, I started thinking about writing again. Ever practical, I looked into magazine article writing, looked at books about how to become rich as a freelancer. Again, it required doing things that terrified me: pitching story ideas, calling publications, calling experts to get their stories before I could write them up. And, as a writing friend of mine pointed out, if I was doing all that, when would I have time to write the novels I loved?

It seems to me that I've always put off doing what I really loved. I've been practical. I've been risk-averse, like most Americans. Even now, there's a voice at the back of my head whispering, "You can wait two more years until your full retirement age. Or maybe even wait until you're seventy, so you have more Social Security."

But I don't want to wait. I'm tired of waiting. I'm tired of putting things off. Heck, I may not live until I'm seventy and what will it matter then how much Social Security I'd be entitled to?

It's time for a change. I'm committed to doing what I love, not two years from now, not when I'm seventy, but within the next year. I refuse to listen to all the voices telling me to put it off, to be careful, to be afraid. I'm not going to let dry rot set in first.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Book Review: Choke by Kaye George

First, a disclaimer. I know Kaye George. She's a member of the Guppies and we've met in person when she came to Tucson. "Choke" is her first published novel, although she has previously published several short stories, one of which was nominated for an Agatha. The paperback edition of "Choke" is published by Mainly Murder Press, but this publisher allows the author to retain ebook rights (a mistake on their part in my opinion). I read "Choke" on my nook, which I purchased when it was offered as a free selection.

Imogene "Immy" Duckworthy has always dreamed of being a detective. She spent much of her childhood reading mysteries and is obsessed with detection to the point of naming her daughter Nancy Drew Duckworthy. She lives in a trailer with her mother, Hortense, a retired librarian, and works as a waitress at the diner owned by her Uncle Huey. At least, she's doing this as the book opens, but not for long. She's decided that it's time to pursue her dream of being a PI and quits on the same day as another waitress does, leaving just Clem, the cook, and Baxter, the busboy.

When she tells her mother that she quit because Uncle Huey pinched her bottom (He didn't do that to her. He did that to the other waitress.), Hortense storms off to give Huey a piece of her mind. The next morning, Huey is found murdered, making Hortense the prime suspect.

Of course, Immy resolves to prove her mother's innocence, starting off her career as a PI.

Immy reminds me a bit of Stephanie Plum. She plunges into action without quite thinking through the consequences. She decides she needs disguises to do her investigations and makes several trips to a costume shop for this purpose. No one is fooled by these disguises and her misadventures with them provide some amusing scenes.

The characters are types the reader will recognize. Baxter is the seductive bad boy and Immy agrees to some things that she knows she shouldn't. His dreamy eyes and sexy body are persuasive agruments. Hortense is quirky in her own way. She uses an erudite vocabulary, sometime to the point where it slowed me down as I attempted to translate, except when under stress, when she reverts to simple speech. She's obese, a condition which resulted from the death of Immy's father in an auto accident. Food is her substitute for love and plays a big part in her life. There's Ralph, the nice guy police officer, who has always had a crush on Immy and keeps wanting to have a date with her.

The biggest problem I had with this book was that it kept feeling like a YA most of the time, but there were things about it that weren't YA. For one thing, Immy is too old a heroine for a YA novel. She's in her twenties with a daughter. There were some scenes that didn't feel YA. I'm having a hard time defining specifically what these were, but there were several times I stopped and thought the tone had changed.

I also have to say I'm not a fan of Stephanie Plum, so this kind of cozy mystery is not exactly my cup of tea.

On the other hand, there are some lovely descriptive passages about Texas. The pacing is very well done. The book keeps moving with no dead spots in the plot. All in all, an engaging, light read that I found enjoyable.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mayor Bloomberg and the First Responders

This week, as I was surfing around the news sites, I read that Mayor Bloomberg announced that the 9/11 First Responders were not invited to the 10th anniversary ceremony at Ground Zero. In my opinion, this is just... wrong.

9/11 changed our world forever. Life in the United States was totally different before the events of that day. Before 9/11 we were safe. Terrorist attacks were something that happened in other countries. Northern Ireland. The Middle East. Even prior attacks like the Oklahoma City bombing and the earlier attempt on the World Trade Center seemed like isolated events. They weren't part of our world.

After 9/11, we will never feel safe again.

I have always felt that September 11th should be a national holiday, a day of mourning, prayer, and commemoration. We mourn not only those who died, but the passing of more innocent times. After ten years, memories fade. There are children who never knew a time when you passed through airport security without having to take off your shoes, allowed to carry water bottles through the gates, and weren't limited to a quart Baggie of liquids. We need to remember.

And, while the towers were burning and civilians were streaming out of lower Manhattan, who was heading into the disaster, rushing up stairwells to bring people out, and sacrificing their lives? New York's Bravest and New York's Finest. It was chaos. No one knew what was happening, communications were scrambled, the immensity of it was overwhelming. But these men and women did their job as best they could and suffered the consequences.





And they stayed there for days, weeks, months afterwards, searching through the wreckage, first for survivors, and later for victims.







They honored the dead.









And they honored their country.







The reason Mayor Bloomberg gave was that there just isn't enough room at the site to include everyone. The families of the victims have to be given priority. But, as so many have pointed out, the firefighters and police were family to their brothers and sisters who died that day.

There were 343 firefighters and 72 police officers who died. I remember watching the funerals for so many of these during the following weeks on television. And at every one there was a huge contingent of their fellow first responders.

Certainly Mayor Bloomberg, who figured out a way to stay in office by changing the law on term limits, something even Rudy Giuliani, who showed what leadership in a crisis looks like, refused to do, can figure out a way to make the heroes of 9/11 a part of this anniversary?

They say that the majority of firefighters will be at the firefighters memorial on Riverside Drive. Wouldn't it be possible for the firefighters and police to have a procession through Ground Zero on their way to this location that would be part of the ceremony? Wouldn't it be possible to have a representative contingent remain onsite for the full ceremony?

On this tenth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack the United States has ever known, we need to respect and honor those who gave so much in its aftermath.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Mudballs and Mortality

Last Sunday afternoon I was sitting at my desk when I heard a loud thunk. It didn't sound like it was inside the house and I wondered if the kids next door were playing some game that involved thunking. A minute or two later, there was another one. The cats and I looked at one another, telepathically asking, "What was that?"

There were no more thunks, so I went back to what I was doing.

It wasn't until the next day that I discovered what had caused the sounds. I went out in the backyard and found two chunks of smooth, rounded concrete on the ground near the back of the house. I looked up at the roof and, sure enough, there was a noticeable difference in color between the two tiles at the peak of the roof... and no concrete. There was concrete on the other side of the peak.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Book Review: Majoring in Murder by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain

There are times when you want a prime rib dinner. There are times when you crave bistro food. And there are times when you just want meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

Just as there is comfort food, there are comfort reads. After the intensity of Dan Simmons' "Flashback" and weeks reading "A Clash of Kings" (which I'll get back to now), I felt like something lighter, something softer, a book that I could cuddle up with and enjoy. For me that means a cozy mystery.

I was not disappointed by this book in the "Murder She Wrote" series. I loved the television series and, although I haven't read many of the tie-in books, this one was exactly what a cozy mystery should be. There are no recipes or knitting instructions. We don't have quirky characters a la Grandma Mazur. What we do have is a well-crafted mystery with multiple suspects, clues ably planted, and characters you can identify with.

In this one, Jessica Fletcher, retired English teacher, mystery writer, and incredibly nosy amateur sleuth, is invited to teach a class in mystery writing at Schoolman College in Indiana. While there, a colleague is killed during a tornado when the building he's in collapses on top of him. Jessica, of course, suspects foul play almost from the outset. When the sister of the victim arrives in town, bringing a letter from him where he says his life is in danger, Jessica is even more convinced. But, as usual, local law enforcement thinks that the two women have overactive imaginations and doesn't want to investigate.

Since Jessica is new to the campus, it's believable when we get to know the people at the college by her asking questions. Anyone who's familiar with Murder She Wrote knows that Jessica jumps right in and helps people she just met, even though there may be long-term friends and acquaintances who, in real life, would fulfill this role. And we know she always pokes her nose in places she doesn't belong. With these characteristics as a given, Jessica Fletcher is a very believable amateur sleuth.

After writing that, it has me trying to identify why a retired English teacher is a more believable amateur sleuth than, say, the owner of a bookstore or a baker or a knitter. I suppose there's no reason inherent in the occupation of the amateur sleuth. I think the problem with all the craft and cooking mysteries is that the author (and probably their readers, since the books are popular) is just as interested, if not more so, in the crafts or recipes as they are in solving the murder. A troubled romantic relationship seems to be a required subplot as well. And, of course, the obligatory quirky character.

In "Majoring in Murder", the focus is on solving the crime. Classroom lectures on how to write a mystery don't overwhelm the plot. Jessica doesn't meet a handsome, widowed professor who tries to woo her. And we don't have anyone who brings a juggling baboon to class.

Donald Bain knows how to write a traditional mystery with all the elements of a good whodunnit. I'll definitely be reading more in this series.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Bookstores

When I first came to Tucson six years ago for a job interview, one of the things I wanted to do was see the local mystery bookstore. I have always had a fondness for bookstores of all kinds.

As a teenager growing up on Long Island, one of the treats of going into Manhattan with my friends was a stop at the Scribners Book Store.  As far as I know, we didn't have a bookstore in my home town, much less anything the size of Scribners.

I will never forget that magnificent staircase that led up to the second floor or the shelves and shelves of books of all kinds. It was a magical place, better than a library.

Unfortunately, Scribners disappeared decades ago.

I remember a used bookstore in Sea Cliff, New York. Mr. Thompson's I think it was called. That was a totally different experience. It was a small store, crammed with gently worn volumes, shelves so close together you could barely walk down the aisles.

It was natural that one of the things I would look for in a potential new home town was a bookstore. Yes, I knew there was a Barnes and Noble and a Borders store, but was there a store that was unique to Tucson?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Book Review: Flashback by Dan Simmons

The last book I read by Dan Simmons was "Hyperion", published in 1989. I own the paperback edition, which didn't come out until 1990, so that's probably when I bought it.

When I finished it, I was tempted to throw it across the room. I've only done this literally with one book, but I've done it mentally several times. The reason? It wasn't because it was a bad book. On the contrary, I had gotten totally wrapped up in the story and, since it's 500 pages, I'd spent a number of hours in its world. As with most good books, I'd read faster as I got to the end, eager to find out the resolution to the story... only to find out that there was no resolution in this book. It ended on a cliffhanger and the next book wouldn't be available for another year.

I hate when that happens. I hate it so much that I refused to read another book by Dan Simmons. (I will confess to buying the next two sequels, but I didn't read them. I was waiting to know for sure that when I got to the end, it would really be the end. There's a fourth book that I don't own. Why buy a book that you're not going to read? After several years I realized that I'd have to read the first book over again to remember enough of the story in order to continue. That hasn't happened yet.)

Then recently I saw a glowing review of "Flashback" and learned that Dan Simmons writes mysteries as well as science fiction. It sounded intriguing, so I reserved it at the library.