Category Archives: Reviews

Dead in the Water

 

 

 

I’ve lived across the Golden Gate from San Francisco for almost seven decades, and I’ve never ceased to be intrigued  by the sight of people swimming in the bay. As a child visiting The City, I always notice the chilly-looking old men in bathing trunks and swim caps headed down the beach toward the water then wriggle around on my seat in the car to watch them smash into the water as my family motored into the Marina or out along Ocean Beach. Even in the winter. Brrrrr!

Of course I learned early on about the San Francisco Dolphin Club founded in 1877 by two German brothers and limited to only a handful of members. Over the years, the club grew and the first Golden Gate open swim was organized in 1917, but it wasn’t until 1960 the first organized Alcatraz swim took place. It was big news for this ten-year-old, swimmer. Everyone remembers how Jack Lalanne towed a rowboat from Alcatraz to S.F., swimming with his hands shackled, in less than ninety minutes. But by 1974, when the club admitted women, I’d confined my swimming to tropical beaches and heated swimming pools.

Although I’d swum and waterskied in The Bay in my teens, five years in the Rockies thinned my skin. I never participated in a Big Swim or an open water competition, something I have in common with Trisha Carson, protagonist of Dead in the Water. Trisha is the sister of thirty eight year old Lena, a successful graphic designer, and an avid open water swimmer. That’s why Trisha is relaxing in the sun on the shore of Lake Joe when she observes a contestant die in the water. It must be an accident—wasn’t it? When another swimmer drives her car off a cliff into the Pacific Ocean after another swim, she starts to think maybe these weren’t so accidental and starts asking questions.

Trisha hasn’t much else to do. She’d been the happily married wife of a software engineer in Colorado until Brad disappeared. He left for work and never came home, a situation too similar to her father’s leaving the family when she was a child. Devastated, Trisha moves back to California and her sister, and soon takes a part-time, temporary job in the offices Nor Cal Swimming Association, which pulls her into the world of open water swimming and gives her access to people and businesses connected to the sport. And Trisha, naive and relentless, asks too many people too many questions. Soon she finds herself over her head.

Although her sister and friends dismiss her  suspicions, her curiosity leads her into grave danger. “I let go of the rail and plummeted toward the black water twenty-five feet below. The gun exploded behind me. . . . I tumbled into the water with a loud splash. Cold, so cold. I felt my lungs collapse. I couldn’t breath. I tried to grab bites of air, but nothing was coming in. No air. I sank below into the darkness. . . “

Even if it weren’t open season on open water swimmers in this fast-paced thriller set mostly in San Francisco, author Glenda  Carroll‘s deep knowledge of the open water swimming community would satisfy. Dead in the Water is reputed to be the first open water detective novel and captures what it’s like to race in open water. Carroll has a background in both sports journalism and Masters swimming. Her detail of the industry is a character in its own right, but the true brilliance of the book is in Carroll’s plotting and pacing. While Trisha’s motivations for pursuing the investigation are alluded to, I wasn’t always clear why she risked so much when everyone tried to stop her, including her boss, who fired her. I’m hoping we learn more about Trisha’s inner workings in future books. Despite not warming up to Trisha right away (and hence, not quite believing she would push herself on folks out of curiosity and suspicion), I could not put this book down and will read and review the next of the series, Drop Dead Red, soon.

These books will make perfect summer reading for any sports enthusiast, swimmer or poolside lounger.

Glenda Carroll

Excerpted from Women’s National Book Association

Written by Catharine Bramkamp 

Glenda Carroll is a writer and outdoor enthusiast. Her favorite pursuit is open water swimming. She talks with us about swimming in deep water and swimming in words.

GC: Open water swimming means coming home. My dad taught me to swim in a lake in Pennsylvania. I loved the water. About twenty-five years ago, I heard of a two mile swim at Lake Berryessa. I decided to train to swim it. When the day of the swim came and I stepped into the water, I knew why I was there. It felt, looked and tasted like the lake I learned to swim in.

Dead in the Water was inspired by an organized open water swim in Whiskeytown Lake in Redding. There were two swims that day: a one mile and a two mile. I had finished the one mile swim, was sitting on the beach, waiting for the start of the next swim when people ran by me to a swimmer who was being pulled out of the water at the side of the course. Watching the EMTs try and resuscitate him and seeing his wife helpless beside him never left me. I went over to the finish line and watched swimmers as they finished. One man came through the finish chute, bent over and said ‘I think I’m having a heart attack.’ He was. Both men died. They were the first deaths in the thirty years that Pacific Masters had been sponsoring open water swims. I turned the trauma of that day into my inspiration for Dead in the Water.

I have been a writer of one kind or another my whole life, beginning with writing a gossip column in my middle school newspaper. I learned to sail in my 30s, sailed to Hawaii from San Francisco and raced sailboats for about ten years on the SF Bay. I also headed up an organization called Yacht Racing Association of SF Bay for seven years. I didn’t join a masters swim team until I was in my 40s. I was in my 50s when I learned to surf. So I am a late blooming water woman, but the underpinnings were always there. And luckily, I am blessed with a certain amount of athletic ability (well, maybe more determination than ability). I never wrote about swimming. I didn’t want to. And I didn’t know I was going to write a mystery until one day I sat down and started. Dead in the Water was as big a surprise to me as it was to everyone else.

Writing the novel was not easy. Often I found myself wondering what the next sentence, paragraph, chapter, should be. I would get up from the computer go outside and cut the grass. I had, at that time, an old push lawnmower; I cut the grass a lot. In fact, I must have had the shortest grass in my neighborhood.

I attended the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference a few years back when I started Dead in the Water. It was extremely helpful. I met with an agent who took a look at the first twenty pages of my manuscript. I wondered if she would say, ‘don’t give up your day job.’ She didn’t. She was encouraging and I kept going.

CB: And speaking of outdoor sports – Glenda also works in Guest Services for the Giants.

GC: I do everything from scan tickets, to take care of a section of the ballpark, answer questions or run an elevator.  . . .during that first season, the team won the World Series and I got to be in the World Series parade. What a way to start a job!

CB: Her website is http://www.glendacarroll.com

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If you thought college was killer, well—it just might be!

As an author of recent debut novel, I’m always interested to read others’ debut novels.  I met author Kelly Brakenhoff through my Sisters in Crime, Guppies listserv and after a  couple of emails, I was thrilled to be invited to read and review her first mystery. I’ve been enjoying meeting debut authors on the page and sometimes in person, I’ve decided to make reviewing debut novels a regular feature of Building a Better Story. Blame it all on Kelly Brakenhoff!

Kelly Brakenhoff author of the new Cassandra Sato series. Just released: Death by Dissertation.

The ink is barely dry on Death by Dissertation, released on Earth Day.

Two months into her dream job as Student Affairs Administrator at prestigious Morton College located in Nebraska’s farming country, intrepid Dr. Cassandra Sato wonders if she’s walked into a nightmare instead. She knew before leaving her Honolulu home, she’d have to contend with the cold, but she hadn’t realized how stifled living landlocked could be. And now a deaf student has died suspiciously right before Homecoming and her boss, Dr. Nielson, not only has left her in charge, but wants the investigation to be quick and quiet. The research lab where the deceased worked is coming up for funding and Dr. Nielson doesn’t want to jeopardize it. But as Cassandra, Meg, Cassandra’s friend and the campus ASL interpreter, and campus security, Andy Summers, work with local authorities, the mystery deepens. Cassandra feels responsible for protecting the students caught in the tangled web surrounding the death. She’s still on probation and must prove  she’s worthy of her “dream” job, even as she’s the victim of racial slurs and vandalism.  As the details of the investigation leak into the media and the school is thrown into a public relations disaster, it’s her job on the line.

 

I’m a lover of campus mysteries. As a college instructor, I feel right at home with the endless committee meetings, the rules and traditions, and the expectation that I have nothing else to do but be at the call of the Dean. Cassandra knew this part before signing on. She’s spent most of her 28 years in school and is the youngest PhD ever to graduate from the University of Hawaii.

Brakenhoff gives readers a detailed look at the culture on a campus of higher education as she richly develops the characters. Cassandra Sato is sharp, thoughtful, witty and persistent. She’s also compassionate, forgiving and imperfect. She’s a good friend to Meg and a woman anyone would want on their side.

Brakenhoff knows how to craft a clear, meaning packed sentence. She doesn’t waste words or rely on frivolous detail. Her prose is serious, succinct and packed with exactly what we need when we need it. I’ve really enjoyed working out the clues with Cassandra and colleagues as their investigation progressed through the surprises and revelations. And more, I’ve come to like Cassandra and her allies deeply.

Brakenhoff doesn’t rush. Cassandra has the full scope of student life on campus to contend with and the extra burden of Homecoming planning and minding, as well as a death to solve. If you’re looking for fast-paced action, this book isn’t going to appeal. But if you are looking to get to know a place and the people who inhabit that place with a good dose of murder mystery investigation thrown in, you can’t go wrong with Death by Dissertation.

And if you thought college was killer, well, it just might be.

 

Chin chin!

My hearty congratulations to Kelly Brakenhoff on her debut. I’m tipping my wine glass to a successful series.

Enter to win Kelly’s giveaway!

AM: How did you come to write this book?

KB: As an American Sign Language Interpreter with more than twenty years of experience, I’ve worked in college classrooms for fifteen different majors. My job has also involved traipsing across muddy farm fields, stomach churning medical procedures, and stage interpreting for famous figures. I love the academic world, but strange things happen there that even a fiction writer could not make up. It seemed like the perfect setting for a mystery series.

AM: Is it going to be a series?

 

KB: Yes, I have at least four books planned for the series. Readers will get to know Cassandra’s co-workers and hilarious friends better in each story.

 

AM: Will Cassandra live through the freezing winter?

 

KB: Let’s hope that Cassandra’s winter is better than the six-month long slog we had this winter in Nebraska. As if snowstorms in October weren’t bad enough, we ended with a Biblical flood in March that completely altered the terrain and wrecked small towns and family farms. Cassandra would surely have packed her bags and moved back to Paradise if she’d seen dead cattle floating down the Main Street of her rural Nebraska town.

 

AM: What is your background that allows you to write about both Hawaii and Nebraska?

 

KB: Six weeks after my husband and I got married we moved to Hawai’i for five years where he started his first job out of college building a golf course. We both fell in love with the culture and special people we met there, but eventually we moved back to Nebraska. Between those experiences and my interpreting career, I’ve seen first-hand many of the things I write about in my books.

 

AM: What do you think of families buying their kids into top schools?

 

KB: This is a great question for someone who works part-time at the state university where I graduated from and where my own children attended. Deep down I think many of us know that very wealthy people have privileges and access to opportunities that most of us don’t have. The recent indictments give us proof, but students I’ve heard talking about it were not surprised at all and neither am I. I’d argue that one doesn’t have to attend an Ivy League school to get a good education, but that shows my bias for state school systems.

Kelly Brakenhoff is an American Sign Language Interpreter whose motivation for learning ASL began in high school when she wanted to converse with her deaf friends. Death by Dissertation (April, 2019) is her first novel.

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In Her Own Words

 

hd_sht3_bw_smAs a follow up to my post, Absolution, last week, here’s what author DV Berkom has to say about her latest Leine Basso release via Absolution is Here!

DV Berkom Books

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P.S. Don’t miss Berkom’s Kate Jones series:

Kate and her college friend take a vacation in Mazatlán after graduation before settling into careers. But Kate meets Roberto Salazar at a disco, and doesn’t go home—at least until she steals a case of more than a million in cash from her narco boyfriend and his kingpin boss, Anaya—and flees—with the narcos hot on her trail in the debut, Bad Spirits. For Kate, testifying against a Mexican drug lord and a dirty DEA agent doesn’t turn out to be a life enhancing choice and she’s been on the run ever since, through six more novellas and novels. Kate tells her story in a fast paced narrative that’s part regret, part bravado, part snarky and always entertaining. For audiobook lovers, reader Melissa Moran is perfect as Kate Jones.

Bad-SpiritsNEW

 

 

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Filed under Books, Reviews, The Writing Practice, Thrillers, Uncategorized

Absolution

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It’s been months since I posted to Building a Better Story. Every week my posting deadline rolls by and my guilt and shame grow. I needed absolution:   n.  the act of absolving; a freeing from blame or guilt; release from consequences, obligations, or penalties. Toward  that, I committed to reading a favorite author’s entire series and writing reviews. Meet D.V. Berkom.

Reading was the easy part. I had a long round-trip plane ride over the holidays and immersed myself in books .5 through 6. Hardly penance. I can’t get enough of Leine Basso adventures. By the time I finished the series, I was hooked and anticipating the next book. I didn’t have to wait long.  Absolutionreleased on all platforms on January 26th! (Congratulations to D.V. Berkom)2018-1381-dv-berkom-absolution.jpg

And I haven’t wasted any time freeing myself from my guilt. I’ve found Absolution in Leine Basso, the kick-ass former government trained assassin turned “good guy” operative for SHEN, a non-profit group fighting human trafficking. What could be a more noble occupation than rescuing innocent people (and animals) stolen and sold for profit? But Leine doesn’t stop with SHEN rescue assignments, she fights evil where she finds it, including coming to terms with her own dark past.

Leine has encountered the devil herself in the form of the sexy, powerful and really, really mean French-born terrorist, Salome.

In Absolution, Leine must sever ties with her employer and everyone she loves to flush Salome out of hiding and stop her from an attack Leine fears is coming.

But where—and when?

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With her signature relentless pace, author DV Berkom has delivered an international race from London to Edinburgh to L.A. to stop Salome’s mad scheme that hinges on killing Leine, before it’s too late. The story is populated with friends and foes who may, or may not be who they claim, and plot twists enough to cause vertigo. In Berkom’s Leine Basso Thrillers, nothing can be counted on except Leine’s resolute pursuit of justice and dogged persistence in protecting whom she loves— even if it might kill her.

Written in a modern, West Coast casual style, the language is believable, smart and appropriate to the situations and action. Berkom’s story structure is perfectly constructed, the plot unfolds logically yet often surprisingly, and the characters reveal sufficient depth for their roles. I was drawn in by the bright descriptions and detailed settings, at time having to shake myself to focus back into my room.

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Does Leine find the absolution she seeks? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Absolution is an all-consuming, heart-thumping  read, hard to put down, and one of the 7.5 best Leine Basso Thrillers. I’ve loved them all! I can’t wait for number 8.

About DV Berkom:

full_sht_crop-bwAfter years of moving around the country and skipping off to locations that could have been movie sets, she wrote her first novel and was hooked. Over a dozen novels later, she now makes her home in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, Mark, and several imaginary characters who like to tell her what to do.

Her most recent books include Absolution, Dark ReturnThe Last Deception, Vigilante Dead, A Killing Truth, and Cargo. Currently, she’s hard at work on her next thriller.

 

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Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper

 

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Fanny Newcomb, the plucky heroine of Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper, is a woman ahead of her age and from the first sentence, I knew Fanny was my kind of girl.

shoppingThe story opens on a Friday in April, 1889. Fanny is battling with a Hammond typewriting machine and “all hell would break loose” if she hadn’t mastered it by the time her typing students arrived the following Wednesday. Fanny had managed her Father’s law office for a decade but she’d never seen a typewriter before, something she’d failed to mention to her employer, Sylvia Giddings, Principal and Founder of Wisdom Hall Settlement House, at the interview. When her father died, Fanny lost her livelihood, failed as a lady’s companion and run out of resources. The school, located in the impoverished Irish district of New Orleans, offered business classes to the local women and appealed to Fanny’s sense of justice. And besides, teaching was better than marrying and being relegated to home, hearth and afternoon tea with New Orleans society ladies. A life without meaningful work is anathema to Fanny.

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Hull House

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Fanny is distracted by the incessant ringing of the infirmary bell and rushes to find twelve-year-old Liam who delivers the news: Dr. Olive Giddings, Sylvia’s sister, is needed at Connor’s Court because someone has been murdered. The women race to the scene and find Nora, Fanny’s star business student, strangled and meet Charity Hospital’s ambulance driver, a doctor whose manner horrifies Olive. As the crowd gathers, rumors start and soon the cry goes out, “Jesus! Joseph and Mary! It’s Jack the Ripper! Here in New Orleans!” The morning edition of the Daily Picayune echoes the crowd at the scene, reporting the woman has had her throat cut. The police don’t think it’s Jack the Ripper and come to Wisdom Hall Settlement House to arrest Sylvia’s carpenter, Karl, for the murder. Fanny knows Karl was working at the school at the time of the murder, added incentive to investigate the crime. She enlists Sylvia and Olive, Liam, beau Lawrence Decatur, tabloid journalist Clarence Holloway and even N.O. Police detective Daniel Crenshaw to help her identify the killer, free Karl and bring Nora the justice she deserves.

 

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Unknown-6Fanny’s investigation reveals more than a murderer. It takes readers through the colorful underbelly of New Orleans’s slums, saloons, prostitution and houses of prostitution. Revealed are the gulfs between the “haves” and “have nots”, the deep prejudices the Irish and German immigrants held for each other and the ingrained racism of white against black, regardless of social standing. Revealed is the rigid class system, hatred of immigrants, lack of concern for the poor and the blatant systems keeping them from rising in station.

 

The story is a fascinating look into the Gilded Age’s society, its hierarchies and mores. Women were at the bottom and unmarried women the lowest. Fanny questions her own motives and place in the world. Should she marry? Should she strive for independence? Fanny, Sylvia and Olive are spinsters and meddling in men’s work: schools, medicine, investigations. Society thwarts them at every turn. They are shunned, ridiculed, patronized and harangued by a priest as “bad women” on par with prostitutes for being unmarried and working, and like prostitutes, deserving of horrific deaths. In this intolerant and compassionless climate, it’s no wonder a wave of terror overtakes the city. Fanny, Sylvia and Olive want to exonerate Karl, but more, they fight the battle against ignorance and oppression for poor women and for their society as a whole. They are early social justice crusaders patterned after British Beatrice Webb, Americans Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Star, and Progressive Era pioneers Eleanor McMain, Eliza Nicholson and Sara Mayo.

At the end, Daniel Crenshaw is lauded as the hero to solve the case although it couldn’t have been done without Fanny and the Giddings sisters. Fanny understood that “Certainly, no one would have believed that Fanny, Sylvia, and Olive could have interjected themselves into a grisly murder, studied pornography, or visited a whorehouse and a prison. No lady could have attempted any of those social offences.”

Although author Ana Brazil’s historical detail is well researched and rich, at no time does her writing become didactic or does history drown-out the suspense and intrigue. Fanny is a risk taker and has a gift for theft. She manages to steal important documents that help her win the respect of her allies and solve the case. Between the three women of Wisdom Hall Settlement House, they bring most of the resources they need—Fanny’s clever, intelligent mind and legal training, Olive’s deep knowledge of the human body and medicine, and Sylvia’s connections and social standing—to solve the case. Each has something to offer, but it’s Fanny who has the mental acuity to see the patterns and put them together, leading her into extreme dangers. My pulse pounded during the story’s harrowing climax (no spoilers!)

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At the end, Brazil leaves readers with hope that there will be another Fanny Newcomb book. “But Fanny Newcomb also knew that she was not finished with investigating or questioning or detecting. And that she would look for any opportunity to seek out justice again. . . .” And what was that frisson I noticed between Fanny and Daniel Crenshaw? I can’t wait for the next adventure to see if Fanny will cave to societal expectations or forge ahead doing what she loves.

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anapat_1505963276_75I want to wish Ana Brazil hearty congratulations on the publication of her first historical novel. It’s a fun, fast, informative, can’t-put-it-down read for anyone who loves New Orleans, the Gilded Age, strong women protagonists, mysteries and the Southern writing tradition. I love them all!

For a photographic exploration of Fanny’s time visit Ana’s Pinterest Board: Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper

 

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Fling!

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Last October I attended an event of the San Francisco Chapter WNBA, Women’s National Book Association.  Member authors presented their lately published books, and I was captured by Lily Iona MacKenzie and her 2015 release, Fling! I ran right to the signing table after the presentations and bought a copy, although later I received an audio version, which I listened to on trains crossing Spain (no plain, no rain.) IMG_4204.JPGDelighted, I wiled away the hours lost in the scenery and MacKenzie’s imaginative and wacky story of mothers and daughters, fulfilling one’s dreams and the magic that comes when you live life to the edge and possibly over. I felt like I was on my own quest, living my Spanish vacation to its maximum, experiencing the magic of discovery and expansion that comes with travel to new places. Everything thrummed with excitement, including my book—Fling!  Life couldn’t have been better.

Several days later, the book finished, and watching the lights coming on from our balcony overlooking La Sagrada Familia, I ruminated on Fling!. IMG_4013Set between three generations of women and four countries, much of the story takes place in Mexico. I know Mexico well and thought about what I’d learned by visiting the “parent” country, Spain. The mysterious twisting cobbled streets of the medieval cities, the ubiquitous artistic expression, the grand churches, the tile work, the crowds promenading through tapas bars in the evenings, the sense of happy self-actualization of the Spaniards—the foundation of the Mexican culture. I even found the magical realism: on the strains of symphonic music wafting through Granada’s cathedral, the phantasms flitting in the gardens of Generalife, the rain-bowed light streaming through the glass of La Sagrada Familia, the voices of antiquity whispering from somber portraits in the Prado Museum, the sensual buildings of the Modernista, a cathedral in the middle of the Mesquita! IMG_4901Then it was November 9th and only the unreal remained. We’ve had almost a year lacking magic. I say it’s time to look away from the devastation of the environment and our rude and hateful world of racism, deportations, killing sprees, and the crumbling of our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s time to find life’s fountain of youth and wonder again. Fling! is full of it.

Unknown-3Like any compelling saga, the story is told in multiple points of view across a span of three lifetimes. It opens with Malcolm MacGregor’s story of how his granddaughter Bubbles, née Heather, “had danced right off one of his paintings, landing in the family potato patch. . . .” in  1906 on the Isle of Skye, where “unpredictable things happen.” Her hippie daughter, Feather, has also inherited the Scottish sensibility of unpredictability, which shows up as  “Manannán  Mac Lirs’s underworld” in her paintings.

Bubbles has convinced Feather to come home to Calgary, Canada from San Francisco to celebrate her 90th birthday, but she has another motive. Bubbles has received a notice from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left seventy years earlier, in the late 1920s. Heather had left her family to go to Mexico with a married man. Bubble wants Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial.

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The story of their odyssey is woven together with the stories of their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The two women travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then in Mexico over six months. In magical Mexico, Feather learns much about her mother. She hasn’t fully believed her mother’s story, but when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, she begins to understand the depth of her and her mother’s magic. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, helped by Indian villagers mistaking Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess and praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again, realizes she’s overlooked her own mother.

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Bubbles’ quest and a new man in her life has increased her zest for life. A life-long entrepreneur, she’s convinced she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral spring outside San Miguel de Allende and she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it. A natural risk taker and believing she’s immortal, Bubbles lives life to the fullest in every way. Feather learns from Bubbles’ youthful spirit that it’s never too late to realize your dreams. Both have found the fountain of youth and they know that they will see everyone again, “if not in the flesh, then their souls hovering as a hummingbird, or fluttering as a butterfly, or floating above the earth as clouds.”

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Mackenzie has created two strong characters who are hilarious and endearing. Bubbles is a zany gypsy who takes after her mother, the ashes left at the dead letter office. She’s tough and tender and wants to reconcile with both the mother who left her and the daughter she left. At 90, she’s finally come of age and found the love of a good man. Feather, née Heather, at 57 is a San Francisco artist who desperately wants to break free of the male dominated world. She loves her mother but can’t quite connect to her as Bubbles lives inside a bubble that Feather feels has never burst. Feather grew up in her mother’s shadow, “. . .a moon, orbiting a planet.” and has worked hard to become her own person. Pragmatic, fearful and a worrier, she’s not much of a risk taker except in her art. She longs to be in charge of her own life. For all Bubbles exuberance, Feather is equally reserved, although she’s got a sharp eye and makes funny observations.  She’s Bubbles’ touchstone and Bubbles is Feather’s catalyst to relax and enjoy life.

 

The story is told in both past and present tenses. Mackenzie’s skill in sliding in and out of tenses and in and out of voices is superb. Chapter headings clue readers into time periods and goddess images separate scenes. In the audio version I listened to in Spain, Anna Crow, the reader, modulated her voice sufficiently to follow the changes and determine the speaker. I had no problem keeping up with her reading.

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Mackenzie’s language is straightforward and sensory. Her descriptions are vivid and progress to surprising comparisons and existential observations throughout the book. For example, On the plane to Mexico City they encounter a storm: “Lighting rips open the night sky, ragged edges illuminating patches of earth below. She [Bubbles] tries to ignore the severe turbulence. It reminds her of riding horses on the farm. . . . She could be going along, enjoying the ride, when suddenly all hell would break loose. . . . But then, life is like that. Everything seems fine. Then suddenly, it isn’t.” It’s these observations that are the real charm of the book. It’s like living inside the characters’ minds. And of course, these characters think the wildest things!

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In part, the collision of their Celtic roots and lore with the rich blend of Spanish colonial and indigenous Mexican characteristics and culture they encounter in Mexico is what makes this all work. Of course, magic happens! The dead come to visit, old ladies are mistaken for long awaited goddesses, and people change while finding their dreams. Ultimately, it’s the joy of life, la alegría de la vida that is the Fling! fountain of youth and it can be found or re-found at any age. Rereading passages of Fling! as I write this review has lifted me above my profound sadness for the most recent gun violence in our country. I’m feeling kinder toward our leadership. I feel like dancing, in fact. Maybe a Mexican Hat Dance? Fling! is a perfect book for now. As renowned author Lewis Buzbee puts it, Fling! is both hilarious and touching. Every page is a surprise, and the characters! I especially loved Bubbles, one of the most endearing mothers in recent fiction. A scintillating read.” ~Lewis Buzbee, award-winning author of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshopg review and faculty at University of San Francisco MFA program.

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The Dating Bender

 

34738880I get it. Discovering who we are, what we love and transcending our crappy upbringings (or just escaping them) can be an arduous journey fraught with difficult trials and disastrous errors. We’re inculcated with our parent’s values, unfulfilled desires and bad behavior from our earliest memories. What Mom tells us we are is what we believe, and for many of us, me included, how she defined us was totally disconnected to what we knew to be true—deep down in our pure hearts.

Growing up wasn’t a smooth ride, and I longed to be able to strike out on my own (on Dad’s dime, of course) and become my true self. This true self involved a handsome prince who would rescue me from my lowly status  of  “difficult child” and restore me to my rightful place as Queen of the manor. All I need to do was learn the piano, learn tap and ballet, get straight As, speak French, demonstrate debutante manners and gracious hosting (physician husbands expected a wife who could entertain) be kind, sweet, chaste, God fearing, and compliant. Oh, and I was expected to also become a June Cleaver level housewife, cheerfully vacuuming the house in pearls and heels with my hair perfectly coiffed while a gourmet meal baked in the oven and hubby’s shirts lined up, starched and wrinkle free in the closet. I hated ironing and this was the Summer of Love. Who the hell coiffed their hair? Needless to say, tensions escalated at home and I couldn’t wait to get out.

“Go to college and find a husband. Learn how to do something practical in case you ever have to support yourself,” was my father’s advice. I loved school, it was an easy out, but the husband part was more difficult. Having been directed in all my decisions from birth, even in which gloves to wear to shopping in San Francisco, I lacked skill in making good ones. Add the fact I had no idea who I was or what I loved beyond Beat poetry, fairytales and fiction, I made horrendous choices in potential husbands. Unfortunately for me, my dating bender lasted until I turned fifty.Unknown-1

 

Samantha Serrano, adult daughter of good Catholic alcoholics, flees her dysfunctional family into a marriage that’s all wrong for her in The Dating Bender. It’s not that Sheldon is a bad guy, he’s just too busy building his career to be a husband and Samantha is too immature to do anything but run away, her patterned response. This time she runs to the world of high tech start-ups where her sex-pot friend Babs goads her into crazy, risky behavior and she starts a new affair with a despicable, nerdy and brilliant coworker that is a train wreck in the making. Things are not improved with the arrival of Sheldon and all of their worldly possessions rescued from the marriage. Samantha in typical response flees, the marriage over and the start-up job a bust. She goes home to Mom and Dad who are drunker, more critical and impose more expectations than ever.

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Drunk Parents

Samantha doesn’t last long at home. She hops a Greyhound for New Your City and falls into one relationship after the next as she suffers her irrational and demanding boss’s insane demands until she can’t take it anymore. Leaving a string of failures, she flies to Rome for a “power-confession’ at the Vatican. She ends up at the Trevi fountain to toss coins into the water and cry. images-3Her wallet goes missing, her ex-husband has appeared, and although a handsome Lothario is making love to her over espresso, she has an epiphany.

In Samantha’s words, I paced around my hotel room and obsessed over the facts. I had been married, divorced, fired, disowned, and almost excommunicated by a meddling nun.. . . Now it was all about my come-to-Jesus meeting with Sheldon, fitting considering my proximity to the religious capitol of the world. She keeps her lunch date with Sheldon and through their interaction comes to understand she’s not a bad person, but a normal woman who had fought hard to break away from her family’s vision of her and finally won. Samantha has forgiven herself, her parents and Sheldon. She’s free to finally live her life.

Throughout all the trials and tribulations of her own marriage, separation and divorce, Sam maintains a snarky wit, often making fun of herself. She appears to thrive on drama and is a popular culture junkie—reading every self-help article in every woman’s magazine. She constantly compares real life to the information in the articles through humorous observations, as she slowly grows from immaturity, naïve denial, fear and overwhelm to the contentment of knowing who she is and what she wants.

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Really?

Although at times I wanted to grab Sam and shake her for her blind, helpless attitudes and behaviors, especially all the vomiting, I found her lesson to be similar to my own, and often much funnier. Author Christina Julian demonstrates the makings of a fine contemporary humorist in her first Rom-com. Her writing occasionally goes over-the-top with the boozy “wah-wah” of Sam’s pathetic life, but is redeemed in its modern wit, sarcastic humor, fast-pace and detail laden prose. The Dating Bender’s plot is rich in disaster and soul searching, and Samantha is a complex character with a wide range of emotions and behaviors that attest to Julian’s powers of observation and empathy. I like how she’s put it all together to lead readers through the arc of growing out of dysfunction into a satisfying conclusion of acceptance, forgiveness, and redemption.

images-6I’m certain that Samantha Serrano is going to be a beacon for thousands of young women trying to balance their upbringings, their families, their work and their notions of God to create for themselves a healthy life, living free of outmoded thought, dogma and stress. Happiness? I hope everyone finds it, but sometimes the process of finding it is what’s compelling. The journey to master herself in a changing world (with dramatic style) and find peace and love is what draws us to Samantha. My heart went out to her as along the way she made so many of the mistakes I made. Samantha shows me that no matter how awful and wrong our origins, we can’t run away, but we can prevail in finding ourselves and establishing the life we should have. Weeks after reading The Dating Bender, Samantha Serrano still haunts me.

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Here’s a hearty congratulation to debut novelist Christina Julian on Launch Day!           May you delight us with many more to come.

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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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Oink

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I’ve never taught at a university, but I know what schools are like. After I won my MA, I accepted a position as a non-credit teacher at a local community college. Wow! I was stoked—I planned to put all that theory into practice and knew my school would celebrate my work and dedication.

Let’s just say I was delusional. It didn’t take long to discover I was regarded lower in status than that broke second cousin on the doorstep. Like credit staff, non-credit teachers are expected to attend meetings, plan, assess and report but for half the hourly pay. As Alma, a character in Oink, says, “It’s all work, low pay, and no respect.”

It’s always a delight to meet a protagonist that embodies my own values. Emily Addams is a professor of women’s studies at Arbor State University. Founded as an agricultural college in Northern California, it is rapidly shedding its reputation as an easygoing and humane community as the university adopts the worldviews of the corporations funding research into new technologies and cuts funds to the small programs.

A new Vice Provost has come aboard and Emily and her colleagues from the interdisciplinary programs face a difficult and perplexing choice for funding purposes. If they don’t choose, they may lose their programs, but even if they come in under the umbrella of Humanities or Social Sciences, they will have to prove their programs worthy of receiving funds. One way or the other, the warm community built over the years looks doomed. Building community and fighting injustice are important to Emily and she’s spent her career doing both, especially through cooking and eating.

PigBaby1Emily learns that Peter Elliott, a Professor of Plant Biology has been found face down in one of the school’s pigpens, presumably poisoned. The rumor says a group opposing genetically engineered crops is behind the poisoning as Elliott is researching GMO corn and a staunch supporter of Syndicon, the major GMO seed controller. Emily had learned about the GMO issues at a panel on GMOs and wondered, “was it GMOs themselves or the policies of the corporations that produced them— the relentless focus on profit, the resistance to regulation, the absence of concern for harming, or even helping, others… “ that gave GMOs a bad name?

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But Emily has other worries. Forty something with a young daughter and recently divorced, she’s getting into the dating game. As we meet her, she’s worried that her hair-do has flattened (I empathize with that) because she’s meeting mathematics professor Wilmer Crane after work for their first date. Crane tells Emily about finding Elliot in the pigpen clutching a piece of cornbread, which turns out to contain goat cheese and caramelized onions—Emily’s signature recipe.     2077366

Emily is named a suspect and rallies her community with food and camaraderie to investigate what really happened. She learns Elliot was receiving secret corporate funding for his new strain of genetically modified corn, he’d betrayed two of his women students and his highly accomplished wife through his philandering, as well as the Save the Fields organization gunning for him.

Named one of the funniest books coming this spring by BookBub.Com, author J.L. Newton describes the first of the Emily Addams series, “Culminating in a twist as curvy as a pig’s tail, Oink: A Food for Thought Mystery is at once a sly send-up of the corporatized university and a reminder of why community belongs at that heart of human life.” She makes a good case for community and organic food, punctuating her points with delectable recipes at the end of each chapter. Her language is both accessible and intelligent, Emily and her colleagues sound like professors, parents and friends in realistic dialog and witty narration. I appreciated the thoughtful and often humorous look at two important themes, the corporatization of campuses and GMOs.

Newton does not support corporate influenced universities, but she does make a case for the potential for GMO foods to feed the world. Respected scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences and thebc2f1ddf99da4c777b98768be883078e_400x400 World Health Organization, have concluded that the GMO crops on the market are safe to eat. Even pundit Michael Pollan said recently the technology itself may not fundamentally pose a greater health threat than other forms of plant breeding. “ I think most of the problems arise from the way we’re choosing to apply it, what we’re using it for, and how we’re framing the problems that it is being used to solve.”

Cozy mystery fans, fans of food novels, and readers concerned with the health of our world and its people will enjoy the twisting plot and the delicious dishes shared throughout the novel. I’m working my way through the recipes and reliving the scenes as I cook. Part of that enjoyment comes through the vivid sense of place Newton has created. At times her description becomes lush and lyrical as she details the flora and fauna, the climate and the bucolic campus.

Emily Addams comes alive on the page. She is intelligent, caring, witty, concerned and a great cook. She connects with people through sincerity and food and doesn’t try to be more than her capabilities. She fears, questions herself, doesn’t give up easily and does what is right. I’m really pleased to find a new voice in Emily Addams who I can both identify with and share a corn and cherry scone!

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Congratulations to J.L. Newton for her debut of what I’m hoping is a long-lived series of Food for Thought Mysteries. Smart, timely, readable but not dumbed-down—“Oink is a celebration of community connected to the joy of food and fellowship.”—Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, authors of The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Oink is out today.  Pick up your copy at Amazon or your local bookstore. And if you’re local, join J.L. Newton for her launch of Oink In Berkeley.-1

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Dying on the Vine

 

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I didn’t think it could get any better than a wedding in Mexico turned murder mystery, but Marla Cooper has proven me wrong with the second Kelsey McKenna, Destination Wedding Mysteries, Dying on the Vine. This time Kelsey and her intrepid crew solve a crime close to home—the Napa Valley—Wine Country.

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3eaf37254262351bb62495396d14dbaaThe Napa Valley is possibly one of the most beautiful places on earth. I’m lucky enough to drive through it every week to work, and lately the vines have broken into bud, the mustard has begun to bloom and the fruit trees have exploded into clouds of flower. The wineries have put on their party dresses, welcoming the start of tourist season— locals are flocking out to partake of the spring bounty exuberantly sprouting around us.

Even I left my computer to attend a medieval

birthday party at St. Helena’s Castello di Amarosa, a 13th century castle brought over and assembled by the Sattui family, I pictured the disaster if barrels started rolling. Kings, queens, ladies, nuns, even the Pope wouldn’t be safe—I was reading Dying on the Vine at the time.

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Ok, so they don’t wear medieval costume in the book, but danger lurks in the real lives of wedding planners! Kelsey McKenna isn’t coddling a bride in an exotic setting as the story opens; she’s helping out her friend Brody, a wedding photographer, at his booth at the Wine Country Wedding Faire. She isn’t looking for clients, more interested in the cupcakes, but she’s approached by Haley Bennett and Christopher Riegert in a pinch because her father has fired the planner, Babs Norton. Kelsey can’t say no but, as Babs is the “Queen of Wine Country Weddings,” she calls on Babs to smooth the water and collect Babs’ files. Unfortunately, Babs lies dead on her office floor.images-5

 

The wedding planning community is small and buzzing by the time Kelsey attends the funeral. There, she is accused by Babs’ assistant, Stefan, of murdering his boss. Because she found the body, Kelsey’s a person of interest. She will have to clear her name and enlists Brody and her new assistant, Laurel, to help.

Meanwhile, the wedding looms and Kelsey and Laurel don’t know any of the details. Simple things like who is the caterer? Where are the flowers coming from? The couple left everything up to Babs and the file isn’t accessible. Kelsey needs to do some sleuthing just to find out what still needs to be done for the wedding and as she uncovers the plan, she also uncovers secrets that send her down one wrong turn after the next.

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It’s when another planner is attacked that Kelsey starts to fear for her own life, but it’s too late to turn back. The wedding must go on. And in the end, it does, but with that expected Cooper twist!

Cooper has crafted another funny, smart and on trend cozy mystery. This book may be better than the last, pointing to an author who takes her craft seriously. While the Dying on the Vine is often hilarious, Cooper has woven chilling suspense and heart thumping pacing throughout, balanced out with plenty of descriptions and opportunities to slow down and get to know the characters. The twists and turns kept me reading almost all night and the big climax was a total surprise. I didn’t see it coming—those Cooperesque red herrings again (but I missed the tequila donkey this time).

I fell in love with Kelsey and Brody in, Terror in Taffeta, and I’m pleased to get to know them better in this second of the series. Kelsey proves her integrity and again demonstrates her professionalism, but we also see her more vulnerable side. She needs her friends to help solve this murder. The three, Kelsey and her two sidekicks, Brody and Laurel are well characterized and create an agreeable synergy. Each personality is distinctly portrayed through their actions and the crisp, modern dialog. Kelsey’s and Brody’s banter reminds me of siblings or best friends, funny and familiar. Laurel is new to the scene, but she holds her own, proving her mettle through her trustworthiness, initiative and competence.

Dying on the Vine is a delicious late harvest Zinfandel boasting notes of humor and suspense, full-bodied character and a sweet finish. Marla Cooper and Kelsey McKenna don’t disappoint.

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Congratulations Marla Cooper! Dying on the Vine published yesterday and I’m already hankering for my next destination. Might it be Kelsey’s own dream wedding? Where will we cozy-up next?

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Lovers at the Alhambra, Generalife, Spain

P.S. Don’t you love Cooper’s book covers?! Read my review of  Terror in Taffeta here.

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