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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My First Trip to Mexico

In 1973, I hauled my duffel bag  stuffed with bikinis (yes, itsy bitsy bikinis), towels, sleeping bag, mess kit, and summer reading on a greyhound from San Rafael to meet my then boyfriend Kirby in Elko, Nevada. Kirby came from Ketchum, Idaho in his beater VW bug—the Spud Mobile. We were headed south to Old Mexico, but first we had to stop at Kirby’s grandmother’s winter home—she was a snowbird—in Sun City, Arizona “to check on things.” Actually to borrow her pickup with a camper shell on the back.

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We were vampires, sleeping in the air-conditioning all day, only appearing outside after dark when the temperature cooled off to 95. We saw a lot of the late night golf course, a popular hang-out for the over sixty and after ten o’clock set. I didn’t see much more of Sun City other than the grocery store and gas station, but we managed to outfit our expedition and get underway in about five days. Seriously under-capitalized and under-prepared.

 

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We crossed the Nogales border at dawn on August 8, and made Kino Bay by the full heat of the day. We pitched camp perched on an empty bluff over a beach where gulls circled and called and took inventory of our equipment and supplies. Folding chairs. Check. Camp stove and fuel. Check. Tarps and nylon rope. Check. Flipflops. Check. Pancack mix, eggs, beer, watermelon. Check. Reading material: Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth, The Abortion: An Historical Romance by Richard Brautigan and Tom Robbins’s Another Roadside Attracton. Check.  I sat down in one of the folding chairs and got to work on Jonathan Livinston Seagull. Kirby popped a cold one.

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The next time I looked up (the book engaged me) we’d made Mazatlán. We found a palm shaded trailer park outside of town right on the beach and sank roots. The place was half filled with characters from The States. One hippie woman, living in her school bus with her small, naked children, kept a pet coatimundi, a south American cousin to the raccoon, that thrived on rum and coke and liked to sleep in a hammock with me. Old Tom told us stories about anything and everything, mostly his exploits in the war. We bought fresh fruits, vegetables and marijuana from Raul who drove his horse drawn cart to the trailer park every other day. We paid him $20 for a medio kilo.  I cut out a lid of the best buds then sold the rest to the surfer dudes who arrived a few days later for $20 and a bottle of rum. Everyone was happy, especially Kirby and the coatimundi, who did not smoke pot.

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Raul and son. “Hey amigos, wanna little smoke?”

For a month we swam, snorkled, ate fresh fish, saw the sights and finished our summer reading in the hammock. We went to the disco, took a boat ride to the island, and ate at the Shrimp Bucket. Until we ran low on money.

Time to head home.

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Kirby drove straight up to the border, and I dumped the baggie of pot out the window before we crossed. We spent all but a few dollars on gas in Nogales, AZ to get us to Sun City. The desert, so fragrant and wide open with limitless possibility on the way down had turned inhospitable—an endless dun-colored landscape, dangerous and foreboding. images-1But we were kids, and when we’d spent all but our last dollar at the breakfast counter in The Silver Dollar Casino in who-knows-where Nevada, I invested it in the giant dollar slot machine and won fifty silver dollars.

In 1973 it was enough to get home.

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Kirby

 

 

Meet me in Mexico!

 

Amazon    Nook     Kobo

 

 

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Filed under Autobiographical Writing

It Was a Set Up from the Start

San Albarradas, Oaxaca  October, 1991

In 1991  I drove to Mexico to research a novel. I bought a 1969 VW pop-top camper and tricked it out with everything I thought I’d need for a six-month stay: no-see-um netting, a generator to run my desk lamp and a pre-laptop portable Toshiba computer and printer, solar fans to suck the heat out of the cabin and air shocks to  smooth out the bumpy, pot-holed back roads of Mexico.  My eleven-year-old German shepherd, Parsley, co-piloted from her red leather seat salvaged from a Cadillac, the twin to mine.

California had taken an economic nose dive around the same time we bombed Iraq and I’d gone from a thriving bookkeeping and tax preparation business with little in my savings, to a bulging portfolio and clients who couldn’t pay me anymore. The universe pointed south. It had been my dream to learn Spanish and delve into the mesoamerican cultures while exploring Mexico, and overnight, the dream became reality. I made a plan, custom-built my bus’s interior, packed my bags and headed out.

Three years later I hadn’t written the planned book, but I’d lived an amazing array of experiences, starting with being threatened by armed narco-thugs on a lonely stretch of the Pan American Highway in the State of Michoacán—just like JadeAnne Stone, the heroine of the books I did write. It may have been a long time coming, but it was a Set Up from the start!

When JadeAnne Stone and her German shepherd, Pepper, are kidnapped off a lonely highway in Mexico en route to locate a banker’s missing wife, she unwittingly enters a world of high-stakes oil politics, money laundering, and El Narco’s grab for power. JadeAnne finds the missing wife and realizes she’s been set up. To stay alive she must unravel the Aguirre family’s secrets. Who will she trust as loyalties shift and greed rules?

Now available     Amazon      B & N        Kobo

If you enjoy the book, please take a moment to go to your retailer and leave an honest review. It won’t take long, and it will enable me to write more of JadeAnne’s adventures for you.

Thanks for being part of the journey.

~Ana

 

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Filed under Books, Memoir, Thrillers

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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One Year Later

One year ago today, writer Dana Rodney lost her American Dream in the Tubbs Fire. This is her story.

 A Middle-Income First-time Homebuyer’s Suburban  California American Dream

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Dana Rodney’s home in Coffey Park, Santa Rosa 10/8/2017      Photo Dana Rodney

I used to live in a sprawling suburban subdivision called Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, California, named after its original owner, Henry Coffey.  Its streets were dubbed the likes of:  Mocha Place and Espresso Court.  It was a lower-to-middle income, first-time homebuyer’s, suburban, California American Dream.  But in the course of a few hours the night of October 8, 2017, over fifteen hundred homes in Coffey Park burned to the ground as a result of a monstrous wind-driven wildfire.

UnknownI wasn’t living in the house the night it burned down, and I seem to lose many people’s compassion when I say that.  I lived in it for 6 years, then rented it out to a single mother who was newly divorced.  I identified with her, since I had been a single mom, which was one of the reasons I had been so proud to buy the house on my own.

With my own daughter gone, I had moved to a smaller, less expensive place, as a money-saving plan.  Still, that house represented my life’s savings from a business I started 20 years earlier on a wing and a prayer in the Great Napa Valley—the famed wine-producing, exclusive, tourist-attracting, high-income land of the beautiful people who could afford it.  Ironically, even though I had a successful business in the Napa Valley, I couldn’t afford to buy there. My house was in the next county over. Still, that house was my pride and joy. It was my retirement plan.

But I wasn’t living there the night the house burned down.

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abcnews.go.com

 

I texted my tenant as I followed the news that night.  “It’s time to get out,” I told her.  “I have already left,” she replied.

I went to visit the site a week or so after the fire with my insurance adjuster, an obese, nicotine-drenched fellow they shipped in from Texas, who showed me my insurance summary in progress on a laptop from the tailgate of his truck.  My life savings was in the hands of a bloated, over-worked man in a pick-up truck. We had to drive through a line of National Guard soldiers who handed us face masks and shovels and leather gloves before allowing us to proceed to the property.

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Pressdemocrat.com

It was a pile of ash.  Where was the refrigerator?…let alone the second floor…the foundation… the chimney? It was just a flattened  pile of ash. Unrecognizable. Texas Guy said, “I have seen all I need to see.”  We drove away.

A few weeks later I went back on my own.  The National Guard was gone; it was old news.  I walked around the lot, just taking it in. One of the only things that survived was a cement statue of Quan Yin I had placed in a corner of the garden. The Goddess of Compassion. How fitting—or not. I decided it was the one thing I would take with me from the burned lot.

As I struggled to lift it into my car, a man parked a car nearby and began walking toward me.  “Are you one of my neighbors?” I asked, guessing.

“No,” he said. “I am from an organization in the Bay Area that wants to help fire victims. Was this your home?” He asked. “Could you use some financial assistance?”

“Sure,” I said, honestly. I was expecting to sign some forms or be asked further questions. Instead, he pulled out a wallet and started peeling off twenty dollar bills and handing them to me. It was shocking.  He didn’t know me.

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dreamstime.com

For the first time since the fire happened, I cried.

Dana Rodney started writing seriously after retiring from being a small business owner in St. Helena, CA in 2016. She is currently working on an historical novel titled “The Butterfly Wing” about a female Chinese immigrant to San Francisco in the 1850s, as well as a collection of humorous pieces about growing older as a single woman, titled “Turning into a Pumpkin: The Menopause Monologues.” Dana lives with her dog Jasper in St. Helena, CA.

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Filed under Fire Season, Memoir, Students

Storm Clouds

Welcome back, Robert Nathaniel “Bob” Winters. Today Bob warns us the political climate winds are a changin’ and we better get ready.

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 Have you noticed so many ex-hippies are getting their hips replaced? Maybe from taking too many trips. Okay, sorry bad pun.

Seriously, if your body needs a hip replaced get it done, because the hip bone is connected to the leg bones, is connected to the feet bones, and we all need to do what we need to do to get up and march.

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bonesmart.org

We now have a president who is so odious and Orwellian that he makes Nixon look good in hind-sight. Can you believe the party that was once dominated by Joe McCarthy is rejecting NATO and kowtowing to a Russian Dictator?

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adirondackdailyenterprise.com

Mr. Trump it seems even borrows from Hitler’s playbook, “If you tell a lie often enough it becomes the truth.”

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I’ve looked a storm clouds from both sides now. Thunder and lightning’s a-coming. So, old friends, get your hips fixed and be ready to rock and roll. You don’t have to be a weatherman to know that climate change winds are going to blow.

Nathaniel R. Winters

July 2018

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ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT

Memoirist Lynne Hakes joins us today with her story of turning away from her family culture of prejudice and elitism. This is a story for today, as our world becomes more and more divided. When did you realize hate isn’t the answer?

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I grew up in a family of bigots. I was led to believe we WASPS were superior to other races, other beliefs, other anything. No one needed to act out to prove it because it was just true. The grown-ups sometimes used derogatory terms for the “others,” but not in public and not in anger. It was like saying,   “Of course white bread is the best.” We were taught to be kind to everyone, and rudeness was never tolerated.

My dad didn’t talk about race or social classes. He grew up on a small farm in Illinois where everyone was the same. His father, grandfather and other ancestors were Masons who, historically, had no use for Catholics or Blacks, but as a teenager he left the farm to escape asthma and moved to Southern California. There he blended in with the local culture.

Mother grew up in New Mexico and Southern California where there were Latinos but few Blacks. Her parents were nice people who treated everyone well, and I never heard any talk of other races in their home. But there was Aunt Inez, Grandad’s sister, who was an elitist and lived in a mansion in Beverly Hills. As little girls, Mother and her sister spent a lot of time with their aunt and learned bigotry first-hand.


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Aunt Inez grew up modestly in Kansas. But when her husband struck oil in Oklahoma in the 1920s and became a millionaire, they joined the “upper crust” in Southern California. Aunt Inez took on airs and lived up to the Hollywood stereotype of “rich people.” A self-absorbed woman with no children, she was close to my mother, her niece.

Superiority was one of Aunt Inez’s less endearing qualities. One should be kind to everyone, but one should know her superior place in the world. Mother and her sister were groomed to be bigots.

A critical review of the novel The Help

When I was a teenager, a black woman named Annie cleaned house for us. She was treated well in our home, but of course we knew she was “different.” I went to a small high school, where there were a few Latinos, but no blacks. We were a small, close-knit class in our sheltered little community. Racial bias never came up.

Until I was a freshman in college, the cleaning lady was the only black person I knew. There were a few on campus, but I didn’t have any contact with them until my philosophy teacher, Miss Rose, decided to give us alphabetically assigned seats in the large classroom. I was an “H” and right next to me was another “H” and she was black. We introduced ourselves and shared a common fear of taking a hard class like philosophy.

As the teacher took her place in front and we settled down, an imaginary bolt of lightning struck.

Next to me, chatting with me was a black girl. And it didn’t feel any different from being next to the white girl sitting on the other side. What was the big deal? We were two frightened freshmen, wondering how we would get through this class. How could I be better than she? I was puzzled. I admit to having some biases, but the one against race left me that day. It didn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense. Do any prejudices make sense? My life is richer for having friends and acquaintances of other races and cultures.

Thank you, my black classmate, wherever you are. I’m glad you were an “H.” And thank you, Miss Rose for giving us assigned seats and forcing me to face up to my training in bigotry.

         Global Educator Institute

Sorry, Mother, it didn’t work. I adjusted my attitude. No, I guess “H” adjusted it for me.

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Just a Little Sky

Poet Donald Turner Joins us today with a little sky ditty.

 

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Ana Manwaring 7/2012

Drifting sky of white on blue

Painted sky in Autumn hue

Sculpted sky in shades of gray

Twinkling sky at end of day

 

photo credits: giphy.com, freepik and David K. Prothero

 

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Firestorm

We’ve seen her brilliant and horrifying photo, now here is Cathy’s experience of the terror of the October fires. Please welcome guest blogger, Cathy Carsell.

Cathy Carsell writes from the heart, taking inspiration from natural beauty and emotional essence. A songwriter, poet and editor, she graduated from San Francisco State, becoming an audio engineer in the burgeoning music industry of the Bay Area. An avid sports fan, Cathy breathes and thrives in the captivating community of the Napa Valley.

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Photo by Cathy Carsell

Firestorm

Mid October night
Especially long hot summer
Red flag warning, trees falling
Alarm bells ring in my head

Wild wind whipping
Power lines snap
sparking dried tinder
from years of drought
Look out, look out there
ridge of flames rises
as we stand on my deck

Alarm bells ring in your head
Alarm bells ring in your head
Send up a prayer for the dead
You know you’re going to find some dead

 

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Fire don’t discriminate
You’re in it’s way you’re done
Faster than a man can run
Run everybody run

Grab your kids and grab your dog
No time to hesitate
No warning it’s too late
Like a tsunami wave
Only your life to save

Alarm bells ring in your head
Alarm bells ring in your head
Send up a prayer for the dead
You know you’re going to find some dead

Five fires in one night
How we going to fight this fight
Wind whips a firestorm
Racing over miles and miles
Taking homes, taking lives

 

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cnn.com

Check on Grandma
Roll her down
Load the horses, get the sheep
Pray for all our souls to keep
Through hot blazing nights

Alarm bells ring in our heads
Alarm bells ring in our heads
Sending up prayers for the dead
Know we’re going to find some dead

Check with friends and family
tell them I’m OK
I know I’ll never be the same
after these October days

Alarm bells ring in my head
Alarm bells ring in my head
Sending up a prayer for the dead
Glad I’m not among the dead

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