Category Archives: Books

A Life for a Life

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A few years ago, my sister-in-law retired, leaving her urban lifestyle and moving to a cozy cottage in Warrensville, North Caroline on the edge of the Great Smokey Mountains. Her tales of the quaint village atmosphere, the surrounding natural beauty, and the restful pace of life lure me to visit. Out of curiosity I started reading about the state, and recently stumbled across A Life for a Life by Lynda McDaniel, journalist and award-winning author of fifteen books. This is her first novel, a cozy murder mystery set in the fictional town of Laurel Falls in the remote mountains of Appalachia.

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Laurel Falls is a town that hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, including the name of Coburn’s General Store even when newcomer Della Kinkaid buys it on a whim after a stay in the Black Mountains. No one could remember why the store was called Coburn’s and no one was going to call it anything else.

o19-700x466Until she decided to buy Coburn’s, Della hadn’t known how much she wanted a change in her life. She was eager to leave her career as a high-profile Washington D.C. reporter, her cheating ex-husband and all the “big city hassles” for the dilapidated store and apartment in a tiny town known for its waterfall and miles of wilderness hiking trails. It was in the woods Della and her dog, Jake, come across the body of a young woman. The woman is a stranger to Laurel Falls and sketchy evidence points the sheriff to think she committed suicide. Della disagrees and turns to an unlikely group of customers and friends, including a forger and her ex, to solve the crime.

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Although Della hasn’t been welcomed into the community, she has made a few friends. First among them is Abit, the fifteen-year-old son of the previous owners of Coburn’s. Abit’s real name is Vester, but because he’s “a bit slow” he received the moniker as a child and it’s stuck. Abit is a character in the vein of Forrest Gump, but unlike Forrest, he is not well accepted by his family or schoolmates. Abit’s father has removed him from school and the boy has little to do but lounge in his chair on the porch of the store and watch the world ignore him as it passes by. Abit recognizes how Della and he are alike, and their friendship deepens as he helps her with the store and solving the murder.

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The story is a cloze puzzle with Della and Abit meting out information in chapters of alternating points of view. The book commences with a prologue where Abit announces, “My life was saved by a murder.” It’s true. Throughout the narrative Abit and Della form a bond, and both characters journey into self-discovery and growth that lift them from “outsider” status. Each brings skills and knowledge to the investigation and life in a closed society that the other lacks. The dual points of view I found an enhancement to the story. I found their interactions with the varied supporting characters, who add to or hinder the work of living in Laurel Falls and finding a murderer, to be believable. They add color and interest to the story, and several, hopefully, will return in the sequel.

The characters and the setting are as much to do with the story as the mystery. Author, Lynda McDaniel’s attention to detail and adroit descriptions allow the reader to step right into Laurel Falls. You can hear the trumpeting call of the pileated woodpecker and feel the mist rising off the waterfall. Drawing from her “back to the land” years in North Carolina, McDaniel has stitched a patchwork of true and fictional events and people into a thoughtful mystery rooted in race, greed power and sorrow. People from McDaniel’s time in Appalachia crop up in A Life for a Life like the cranky laundromat owner, the gentle giant beekeeper who provides Della with honey, the woman who taught McDaniel to make blackberry jam and can tomatoes, Della’s best friend Cleva.

images-8McDaniel’s writing style, while vivid with detail, is deceptively straightforward. She’s not prone to overwrite her scenes or devolve into flowery dialog. She uses authentic sounding dialog and delivers real down-home southern mountain culture in what one reviewer compared to the style of Fannie Flagg. A Life for a Life has also been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird. I agree that both depict southern mores and southern style small-town living, albeit in different eras, well. Both are character driven and back a strong message of forgiveness, redemption and acceptance.Unknown-1

In A Life for a Life, a tragedy becomes the opportunity for two unlikely characters to re-start their lives: Della accepted into the Laurel Falls community and Abit embraced within his family and offered the opportunity he had dreamed of.

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A Life for a Life is one of the most satisfying books I’ve read this year. Everything about the book delighted me. I want to know more about the quirky folks in the mountains and the southern customs. The sense of personal independence, the strong family ties, and the slow-moving and tight-knit community are characteristics I applaud. Lynda McDaniel claims that everything she values today, she learned in her Appalachian home, and she’s written her love and gratitude into A Life for a Life.

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Semper Fidelis

There are days when I yearn to sit at my desk and let the muse wash through me onto the screen. Those are the days I rue participating in so many writers’ groups, reading so many blogs and keeping up with all my writer friends on Facebook. Let’s face it, life itself throws enough in the way of getting a novel written, why join all these groups then volunteer to: be treasurer, chair the 1-day conference committee, sell at the book festival, and edit the anthology? Well, once in awhile the universe answers! 118396635-11070003-1

I’m a member of the Sisters in Crime Guppies group, an on-line chapter of an organization devoted to supporting writers through the mysterious and twisting maze from writing the novel to revising to determining how to publish, publishing and finally marketing our books. It was through Guppies that the universe introduced me to Seth and his author, JB Morris. I was assigned to be Morris’s BETA reader and the assignment couldn’t have been a better fit for me. I’m already looking forward to the next book!

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Both the title of the book and the protagonist, Seth is a war-weary Staff Sergeant of the elite Marine Corps Force Recon, recalled home after six combat deployments to care for his aged and infirm father. Highly decorated, but broken from the losses of war and haunted by the memories of Marines killed, Seth now works as a police officer for the Hillsdale, Ohio police department. Unfortunately, fate hasn’t offered Seth respite from his demons. The Hillsdale Police Department is overrun with dirty cops and Hillsdale is ground zero for a bloody war between Mexico’s Los Guerreros and Halcon Cartels for control of this strategic access to the lucrative Eastern drug trade.images

 After a takedown goes bad, Seth’s mission is to clear the department of the cops who have opened Hillsdale to the drug trade. With the help of a ‘clean’ superior and trusted colleague, Officer Kat MacKenna, Seth jumps into his assignment and begins to uncover layers of corruption. As he and Kat get too close, the drug-selling officers threaten Seth’s father and he fights like a Marine.

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The story is about a drug war and Seth’s healing. Seth is a multi-faceted character. Damaged early in life through living with a mentally ill mother, Seth suffers loss after loss. His wife, Allison, betrays him and dies in an automobile crash. He loses men in Iraq, and fails to save his best friend, Billie, who commits suicide after coming home from Iraq. While Kat and his father are constants in his life, his father is fading and he does not love Kat as she loves him. He grapples with guilt on both accounts and especially for Billy’s death. He doesn’t feel Hillsdale holds anything for him, but honor binds him to his job and he goes after the corrupt cops and both warring cartels with a vengeance.

 Seth is told from the point of view of many characters. In the hands of a less skilled writer, the shifts from character to character might be confusing, but I found the transitions clear and the look inside all the players’ heads to be gripping. In particular the assassin, Angel, a Mexican woman aligned with Halcon cartel, to be fascinating. images-4She truly is the Angel of Death and appears almost as a magical being emerging from the jaguar skin of the ancient Aztec warrior cult of the Cuāuhocēlōtl. Angel and Seth are two sides of the same coin—warriors to the core, deeply principled, and doing a job.images-3

Angel yearns to buy her freedom from the cartel and return to her warrior cult, just as Seth yearns to leave Hillsdale and the police behind.

 

Author JB Morris is a master of the battle scene. He also has a sound understanding of drug cartel culture and operations. My heart pounded with the excitement of the gun battles. Like Tom Clancy, Morris gives his readers in-depth details on weapons and battle. I came away from Seth with loads of information and even a great idea for a shoot-out in my own suspense novels. Readers who like specific details of weapons will find Seth satisfying.

 Morris also does a good job with his character’s voices. Seth’s voice is spare—he’s a man of few words. His superior is more erudite. Angel obviously is speaking English as a second language, although her fluency is excellent. Kat sounds like a modern woman. I appreciated Morris’ tight, spare style. He doesn’t drift into flights of lyrical fancy yet I felt the imagery sufficient to feel like that “fly on the wall” in the scene.

 Seth is an intelligent, layered, and fast-paced thriller that will keep the reader turning pages. There is plenty of action and plenty of character development to offer a rich experience for the reader. When things look bleakest for Seth, a savior appears in the form of a “brother in arms” and if Seth makes it through the “mission” his future may be happier. I’m banking on more books!

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JB Morris didn’t imagine he would become an author, although he began writing poetry in high school. When he was offered a contract for a book of poems, he turned it down, too busy with his career as a funeral director and manager of a cemetery. He served as  a commander in the Army Reserves and went on to working as a TV weatherman, a city council member and a state legislator.

But Morris claims that something was always missing. Other than articles he wrote, he wasn’t working on any novels. Much later the vision of Grace an Unexpected Love filled his head and he began work on his first novel. Now JB Morris fills his time writing romance and thrillers in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

Let’s all give him a big hand on the publication of his second novel, Seth. And keep your fingers crossed for the speedy delivery of the next book!

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I Am Providence

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My reading tastes might be described as eclectic but I must confess that I’m pitiably deficient in horror. I do read mysteries and grabbed Nick Mamatas’s I Am Providence when he offered me the ARC to read and review. It turns out the actual mystery plays second to the social predisposition of the group that makes the murder possible. The story is about pulp fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft and his oddball group of contemporary fans: obsessive, insecure, small-minded, and generally weird. It’s told with a droll wit, biting at times, and often laugh-out-loud funny. I remember some of these characters from the last fan conference I attended!

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Alternating chapters, Mamatas tells the story in two points of view. Panossian, the victim, muses on his life, his writing, and H.P. Lovecraft, delivering insight into the Lovecraftian world and his own nature. Panossian’s observations on writers, fans and conferences had me either hooting or feeling a little sick when they hit too close.

 

A narrator chronicles the action from the point of view of Colleen Danzig, the recently acclaimed horror writer, who isn’t “exactly nervous” to attend her first Summer Tentactular, the annual Lovecraft convention held in Lovecraft’s hometown, Providence, Rhode Island. Colleen isn’t sure what to expect, but finds the other writers in the bar, recognizable by the way they “clutched at their drinks with a special sort of desperation. . .” and meets the eccentric group including Panossian, who she’s rooming with during the con. He’s the author of a literary mash-up, which has insinuated him into the fringes of the Lovecraftian community.

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Colleen attends the opening ceremonies, the private themed parties and the midnight visit to Lovecraft’s grave, “A veritable ‘who’s that?’ of horror fiction.” Back at the room Panossian shows her a book, Arkham, bound with the author’s skin. That’s the last Colleen sees of him until she identifies his body at the morgue, his face flayed of skin.

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It’s gruesome but worse, none of the other convention goers care. Other than a bunch of police poking about, the Summer Tentacular continues unabated—even when the next victim is found in the forest where the gang has gone to see if they can discover the burial site of Lovecraft’s cat.

 

No one is allowed to leave the hotel and most of the con-goers are questioned. Colleen is compelled to solve the murder despite that two of the inner circle have been taken into custody. Her investigation may end badly.

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From his drawer at the morgue, Panossian narrates, except he’s in the dark regarding who killed him. He’s alarmed: He hears what’s going on yet can’t speak or move. He’s ready for oblivion. He thought reading Lovecraft would have prepared him for it. “If fiction is a way of inducing an organism to remember experiences it never had, then reading Lovecraft is crucial for understanding the futility of life and the screaming horror of death. . .” He spends a lot of time with unraveling thoughts about Colleen, his relationship to the Lovecraftians and Lovecraft’s work.

 

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H.P. Lovecraft

By the end of the book, Mamatas has spun a new Lovecraft story. I Am Providence is dark and disturbing enough to make Lovecraft proud, but it is also a tongue in cheek romp into a zany subculture. Mamatas’s erudition in the world of Lovecraft shines with his cultivated vocabulary and edgy syntax. I plain enjoyed how his thoughts flowed across the tentacled pages, and have come away with knowledge of H.P. Lovecraft and his work. Did you know in 2005 he was awarded the status of classic American writer with the publication of Tales, a collection of his weird fiction stories?

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If you’re like me and can’t pronounce Cthulhu, don’t worry! I Am Providence is accessible to anyone who loves a thought provoking read, a good laugh, and a look into another world. Oh, and the mystery is great—you won’t see the killer coming. (Hint: it isn’t one of the Elder Gods.)

 Congratulations to Nick Mamatas—I Am Providence has published today!

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Nick Mamatas just might be the new Providence.

Nick Mamatas is the author of six and a half novels, including The Last Weekend (PS Publishing), Love is the Law (Dark Horse), The Damned Highway with Brian Keene (Dark Horse), Bullettime (CZP), Sensation (PM Press), Under My Roof (Counterpoint/Soft Skull), and Move Under Ground (Night Shade/Prime). His latest collection is The Nickronomicon, from Innsmouth Free Press. His novels have been translated into German, Italian, and Greek. Nick is also an anthologist and editor of short fiction: with Masumi Washington he co-edited the Locus Award-nominated The Future Is Japanese (Haikasoru), and with Ellen Datlow he co-edited the Bram Stoker Award-winning Haunted Legends (Tor Books). Nick’s own short fiction has appeared in genre publications such as Asimov’s Science Fiction and Tor.com, lit journals including New Haven Review and subTERRAIN, and anthologies such as Hint Fiction and Best American Mystery Stories 2013. His fiction and editorial work has been nominated for the Bram Stoker award five times, the Hugo Award twice, the World Fantasy Award twice, and the Shirley Jackson, International Horror Guild, and Locus Awards. His writing guide Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life (Apex Publications) has been excerpted in The Writer, and he has also published two joke/reference books: Insults Every Man Should Know and Quotes Every Man Should Know (Quirk Books).
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A Dangerous Game in a Mysterious World

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I’ve always loved spy stories, from my first Mad Magazine Spy vs. Spy right on through Dad’s shelf of Cold War political thrillers, which we devoured and discussed. I’m sorry he’s not here to share Diana R. Chambers’s Stinger with me. He would have ranked it in his top ten favorites, right up there with Robert Ludlum, Len Deighton, Jack Higgins and Frederick Forsyth. And, like me, I think he would have loved the audio version.

Stinger is my idea of the classic spy thriller: a shadow world populated by people who aren’t what they appear to be with hidden identities, hidden agendas, and lies enough to obscure the trail for even the most dogged of investigative readers. The twists and turns of the tightly-woven plot, kept me sitting in my car listening long after I closed the garage door. At times I completely forgot I was listening to fiction as my heart raced up to one suspense-filled peak after another. The story could be true.

Several reviewers have dubbed Stinger a romantic spy thriller. There is a romantic element, but what drew me in was the political intrigue seemingly taken right from the historical record of the Soviet-Afghan War in the mid 1980s. Set in Central Asia at the border of Pakistan and the mountainous tribal nomad region of Afghanistan, the action opens with the disappearance of six U.S. Stinger missiles that have secretly found their way to Peshawar. The Stingers are in high demand. The Soviets want to keep them from the Afghan Mujahideen, Pakistani and Chinese dealers want to sell to the highest bidder, the Afghani freedom fighters desperately need advanced weaponry, and the U.S. must want something.

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Rogue CIA officer Nick Daley is charged with keeping an eye on Robin, a San Francisco journalist, looking to make her career through her interview with her former lover, now an Afghan Mujahideen leader, but Nick’s reasons for wanting to find the mujahideen leader differ. A tragic love triangle forms and is played out against manipulation, swindle, drug deals, murder, betrayals, ambush, courage, loyalty, and the history and culture of this Muslim region. It’s a dangerous game in a mysterious world that comes together in a surprise climax and ending.

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Stinger is more than a finely crafted political thriller; it helped me to understand Afghanistan’s recent history and the Taliban’s rise to power. I knew little about Afghanistan or the role both the Soviet Union and the US played there, and even less about its conflict with Pakistan. The depth of Chambers’s research impressed me. It’s obvious she knows her stuff. The story is concise yet rich—just the right amount of action and narrative, perfectly balanced with images that lead the mind in unexpected directions. Her language is straightforward yet often lyrical, and her ability to describe her setting is superb. I’ve come away from the book feeling as though I’d really visited Peshawar and traveled the Silk Road. I can smell the dust and cooking fires, tea, and the oily heat of the weapons. Her characters have depth and distinction. Even secondary characters are crafted to stand out individually. I came to like Nick Daley as he revealed himself and his motivations. I look forward to meeting him again.

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Actor and voice-over artist Charles Kahlenberg is the reader of Stinger. His deep sonorous voice added depth, mystery, excitement and plenty of tension to the story. I listened to the book twice, first just for the reader’s voice and again to catch-all the details I’d missed. Listening to a well-interpreted book is like seeing a film even as you watch the road—I do most of my audiobook listening while I drive. Kahlenberg is a professional actor with credits going back to his first role in the Coal Miner’s Daughter. His gorgeous voice has been heard internationally on TV and radio in countless commercials and he’s appeared on TV and in films.

If you are interested in recent history and want to understand more about how Afghanistan got to where it is today, read Stinger. If you’re a lover of Casablanca-style love affairs, read Stinger. If Cold War-style spycraft is your thing, read Stinger. And if you just want to try something twisty, shocking, and fast-paced—try Stinger. Does it show that I loved this book? I’m giving Diana R. Chambers and Stinger five stars and I just downloaded The Company She Keeps, the next Nick Daley adventure. It hasn’t been recorded for audio so I’ll read it on my Kindle. I’m betting it’s another five-star read—I’ll let you know.

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The Killing Vote

The Killing Vote Cover

My Medicare card arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago. I’ve joined the ranks of the federally insured. Medicare claims to serve 50 million recipients—now 50 million one. But turn on the news; Social Security and Medicare systems are going broke. What will America do? Northern California’s writing team, Bette Golden Lamb and J.J. Lamb, give readers a chilling solution to the problem in The Killing Vote, a near-future political thriller set in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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The Killing Vote opens with the intentional bombing of the offices of CORPS, the Coalition of Older and Retired Persons. A volunteer, is severely injured. Meanwhile, retired journalist and current political blogger, Ted Yost, is on his way to meet CORPS head, Nathan Sorkin to talk about the D.C. rumor that there may be a move to scuttle Medicare—or at least significantly cut its funding. But Sorkin is convinced Hygea, the health insurance giant is behind the bombing and convinces Yost to investigate.

The story is told from each of the characters involved on Hygea’s Galen Hospital ethics committee to introduce and push the bill through Congress: the lobbyist, W. Wade Wilson, the Washington officials, and the team working to stop the vote. The bill will save Medicare billions. Why keep old, poor patients alive when they have no hope of recovery and no one to go home to. Galen Hospital has already selected the first two patients to be euthanized, one the volunteer injured at CORPS.

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As Yost’s team closes in on the conspiracy, bill stakeholders start making bolder moves, even kidnapping Yost’s wife. A senator is blackmailed to attach the bill to one she is presenting in the final session before the winter break. It’s going to be rubber-stamped into law. As time runs out, each character reveals his or her true feelings as the horror of this proposed bill comes to light. Things start going wrong and the major stakeholder turns to desperate measures. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the book, so let me say that I locked all the doors and turned on all the lights in the house then stayed up all night reading.

I don’t know if it’s because that little red, white and blue Medicare card with my name on it has me feeling old and powerless, but The Killing Vote really frightened me. The language and voices are believable. The characters could be folks I know. Hygea/Galen Hospital’s procedures to develop and introduce a bill to save Medicare billions are straight out of the corporate boardroom, and the dirty Washington politics are in the news everyday. In fact, with the Presidential debates, Medicare is a hot topic. “First of all, I’m not for phasing out Medicare,” A republican presidential hopeful told NBC Nightly News anchor, Lester Holt after a debate in August. “I said that we needed to reform it so that it exists for people who are anticipating getting it later on, and then I laid out exactly what that would look like.” Sounds reasonable and far-sighted, doesn’t it? But read The Killing Vote—you’ll get the true picture.

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The To-Do List by J.C. Miller—A 5 Star Read

The To-Do List published January 2015 by Booktrope Editions December, 23, 2014

The To-Do List published January 2015 by Booktrope Editions December, 23, 2014

By JC Miller

We meet Ginny Cooper in her kitchen where she’s contemplating a stale donut and negotiating the day’s calorie count with herself. Her husband, Cal, browbeats her for her weight and she dumps the donut into the garbage, belittled. Her two kids don’t offer her any more respect than Cal, and her tedious job in a town that is dying doesn’t offer Ginny any relief. She needs an Arbys. But she’s a busy woman—she needs a list to keep track of the myriad details of her day: Buy milk, walk the dog, clean the garage, kill Cal.

Ginny remembers a time in college, before she and Cal met when she was self actualized and she wants to become that woman again. That woman didn’t manically count calories or soothe herself with Arbys. That woman wasn’t a doormat for an uncaring and arrogant man. She fantasizes about meeting someone new who will affirm her and joins an on-line dating service, but she submits a photo of someone else.

Ginny’s journey to empowerment is rough at times, bittersweet at times, and inspiring at times. Readers may feel impatient for her false starts and back-sliding, but ultimately Ginny takes charge of her own happiness. This is a story that doesn’t come with a predictable ending, but it delivers satisfaction. Her last to-do-list might read:

  1. Breathe
  2. Relax
  3. Smile

And she’s sure to do just that. Even if the garage still needs cleaning.

At the launch of The To-Do List February 1, 2015

At the launch of The To-Do List February 1, 2015

The To-Do List and JC’s other books, Believing in Bigfoot, and Vacation are available through Amazon

I loved them too!

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Eat local. Shop local. Read local.

Everybody knows I have some favorite local authors, but do you know that my reading list is made up of mostly Left Coast writers? We’re a talented bunch here in the land of “fruits and nuts.” Maybe it’s all the fresh food, or maybe you just have to be a little crazy to be a writer. Whatever it is, some of the best writing today is coming from the west coast.

I paused to think about this phenomenon after a student suggested I post a list of local authors I enjoy on Building a Better Story. I’ve echoed the saw that ‘a good writer is an avid reader’ for ages, so a list sounded like a great idea. OMG! I didn’t realize the task would turn into a major research project and make my brain explode with the vast numbers of authors and books I’ve read or have stacked on the shelf yet to read. Alas. Too many books, too little time. You might call me a biblio-loca-maniac.

I wish I could take a sabbatical and just read. Here is the list I’d start with. In fact, this is my current reading list—

First, I’d finish David Corbett’s Do They Know I’m Running? Of his books, I’ve read:

                        The Devil’s Redhead

                        Done for a Dime (my favorite)

                        Blood Paradise

Also unfinished, Susan C. Shay, The King’s Jar.

Then I’d read Lisa Brackman’s Ellie Cooper series (is there a third on the horizon?):

                        Rock, Paper, Tiger

                        Hour of the Rat

Lisa’s Getaway is one of the books that inspires my own series. There’s a sequel coming out soon.

Next in the queue:  Kelli Stanley:    City of Dragons  and  City of Secrets,  followerd by Cara Black’s Aimee Leduc mystery series set in Paris. I’ve read 5 of 11. The latest is Murder in Passy. Start with Murder in the Marais and read in order.

 You probably are noticing that I’m interested in thrillers, mysteries and noir. Not a local boy, but my number one favorite author is Arizonan, Clark Lohr. Follow Manny Aguilar and a trail of blood and corruption from Tucson to Mexico and back in Devil’s Kitchen, and, in The Devil on 85, ride along with Manny on State Highway 85—a smuggling corridor where guns and money go south and drugs and migrants go north. Lohr blends noir with magical realism to create a fresh voice in crime novels. I’m hooked! When’s the next book, Clark?

But I don’t read only crime fiction, and although she’s a Southern writer, I’ve just added Sue Monk Kidd’s newest, The Invention of Wings to my must read list.

Here are some of my favorite local authors:

JC Miller                                    Vacation            

Jordan E. Rosenfeld                 Forged in Grace

Susana Solomon                        Point Reyes Sheriff’s Calls

Laura McHale Holland            Reversible Skirt      

                                                      The Ice Cream Vender’s Song

Ransom Stephens                     The God Patent    

                                                     The Sensory Deception

Amanda McTigue                      Going to Solace

Amber Lea Starfire                     Not the Mother I Remember

Gigi Pandian                                Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt mysteries

P.S. Foley                                     West Newport Blues                       

Terry Shames                             A Killing at Cotton Hill                                                   

Sheldon Siegal                          Mike Daley/Rosie Fernandez mysteries             

Persia Wooley                            the Guinevere trilogy

Jody Gehrman                           Summer in the Land of Skin

Lynn Freed                                Reading, Writing, Leaving

                                                    Home:   Life on the Page


My goal for 2014 is to read 26 books.

Join me!

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