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Left Coast Crime Reads, Part 1

Left Coast Crime provided new spring reads. Loads of fun, face-to-face, and too many books to read in lifetime. Here are my picks from LCC 2022.
Loads of fun, face-to-face, and too many books to read in lifetime. Here are my picks from LCC 2022.

After Left Coast Crime San Diego shut down on March 11th 2020,  and we attendees had to go home before  participating on our panels, it was bliss to attend this year’s conference live and in person in Albuquerque. I decided to make the most of the events, including the panel I moderated titled, When Bad *** Finds Your Protagonist on the topic of amateur sleuths. 

“Making the most” meant, for me, reading at least one of each panelist’s books before the event, and in a couple of cases, reading two. I turned off the TV at the end of my work day for the month of March and instead, lost myself getting to know new  protagonists and several new-to-me authors. 

My panel featured my “sibling” from Sisters in Crime Norcal, vice president Glenda Carroll (find a review of Dead Code here), Connie di Marco, Peggy Rothschild and Linda Sands. Each author featured an amateur sleuth and each delighted me with a unique  and entertaining twist on the genre. 

If you want to find Glenda Carroll , she’ll be in, on, or under water—and writing about it. She understands water sports on a very personal level since she swims, surfs and sails. Her books, debut Dead in the WaterDrop Dead Red, and the newest, Dead Code, are based on personal experience in open water swimming.  She’s raced in more than 150 open water events in Northern California, as well as Hawaii and Perth, Australia.

Open Water Swim

Glenda has written a weekly sailing column and a twice-weekly surfing column as well as feature articles for local, national and international sailing publications.  She branched into travel writing and her features have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Travel & Leisure, Ford Times, Chevron USA, Defenders of Wildlife, and Bay & Delta Yachtsman. Currently, Glenda tutors high school students in English and writes the Trisha Carson mystery series.  

When I reached out to the panelists  to organize our event, Connie di Marco enthusiastically jumped in with information, suggestions, great panel questions and tons of good humor. Connie still recalls the first time she saw an astrological chart. She says she felt as though she’d been granted a peek at a key to unlock the secrets of the universe. She didn’t know what the arcane symbols meant, but knew she wanted to learn a lot more. “An astrological chart, like a good mystery, is a puzzle that begs to be solved.” And so Julia Bonatti, San Francisco aslotroger, was born. 

Although Di Marco’s latest book is the fourth in the series, Serpent’s Doom A Zodiac Mystery, I prefer to start a series with book 1 to observe the  protagonist’s arc of change and have the stage set for  books to come.  If I’m hooked on book one, I’m sure to become a fan! And The Madness of  Mercury had me from page one. Maybe it’s because Mercury seems to be going retrograde every month this year, or maybe because the story is based out of the true events of the 1970 Jim Jones cult based in San Francisco. Or maybe because Julia Bonatti is a truly likable character—smart, caring, loyal, spunky and determined. 

During  a Mercury retrograde, Julia is targeted by a cult leader and his followers whose protesting and vandalism force her and her cat from their cozy apartment in San Francisco’s Avenues. She flees to the Telegraph Hill home of an astrology client who cares for her two elderly aunts. One of the aunts might suffer from dementia and the other has fallen under the spell of the Reverend Roy. To add to the confusion, a young man appears on the doorstep, claiming to be a long-lost relative. Julia tries to sort out the Mercury retrograde mess through astrology. She knows Mercury wasn’t only the Gods’ messenger. He was a liar and trickster too, and she’s forced to put aside her charts and put her boots to the ground to rescue the aunt and stop an insidious, evil plot. 

The Madness of Mercury has everything! It’s well written, intricately plotted with twists and turns aplenty, and paced to perfection. One reviewer  says,  “As a traditional mystery the book is stellar. The Madness of Mercury takes a fascinating look at people and their inner workings, their motivations. It is a complex mystery which combines astrology and cult mentality, showing what can happen when divergent beliefs cross paths an intolerance rears its ugly head.” I highly recommend the Zodiac Mystery series. I was entertained, edified and enthralled! If you’re not into astrology, you might change your mind. 

When A Deadly Bone to Pick protagonist, Molly Madison, makes her cross country move to Pier Point, CA with the only friend she has in town is her golden retriever, Harlow. Author Peggy Rothschild knows exactly what Molly is going through. But unlike Molly, Peggy didn’t flee her hometown to avoid rumors about involvement in a crime. She lost her home to a wildfire in 2017 and, after going through a years-long rebuilding process, she moved back to her old address only to decide she was ready for a change. Peggy didn’t move across country so still sees old friends, unlike Molly who must make new friends. Both author and character cherish all the new friends they’ve met along the way, even if Molly is more at ease with pups than people.


Ex-police officer and former P.I. Molly Madison is starting over. After the murder of her husband, she and her golden retriever move cross-country to California. But as charming and peaceful as the beachside town seems, she soon learns its tranquil tides hold dark secrets.

Molly is barely through the  front door of her new home when a huge, slobbering Saint Berdoodle stops by for a visit. The dog belongs to a neighbor, a handsome over-worked emergency room doctor. Molly winds up taking on the responsibility of training Noodle from the too busy doctor. On one of their daily beachside walks, Noodle digs up a severed hand. Once Molly alerts the police and they run a background check on her, her past makes her an immediate suspect. Too bad Noodle’s testimony to clear her name won’t hold much water in court. 

Meanwhile, her realtor posts fliers around town for Molly’s dog training service and she’s approached by an eight-year-old math prodigy from the neighborhood whose dog desperately needs training—and her first local human friendship begins, but when Molly finds the mother drugged and neglecting the child, a secret is revealed. At the same time, the realtor is killed and Noodle sniffs out a ring buried in the sand near where he found the severed hand. Molly is again in the police’s sights but her police background won’t let her leave the case alone, and she investigates. After all, she must clear her name.

I listened to the audiobook and found A Deadly Bone to Pick to be a perfect match for both dog lovers and mystery buffs. And being the first book, it’s a charming and intriguing start to what I hope is a successful series. Molly is instantly likeable—your heart goes to her when you learn her backstory. Rothschild’s descriptive style is flawless and the mystery is surprising and believable. It’s been compared to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. High praise indeed. 

Peggy Rothschild presents a cast of engaging and quirky characters who I want to meet—especially the dogs. She sure knows her canines! Jennifer Chow (another author I met at LCC—a review of her Mimi Lee Gest a Clue coming in a future post) describes the book as “Rothschild’s twisty mystery, filled with adorable canines and abundant clues, is plain paw-some.” I totally agree. The only drawback to reading A Deadly Bone to Pick was how much it made me miss my cherished chocolate lab long gone to the celestial bone pile. Dog lovers, this one’s for you!

My panel and I connected in our hotel bar the evening before our  event, and imagine my surprise when I met Linda Sands, a sophisticated, willowy blonde in a LBD and killer heels. I’d pictured someone entirely different after listening to the audiobook of the first title in the Cargo Series featuring Jojo Boudreaux. Why? Because Jojo is a trucker and the quintessential kick-ass protagonist—“bad shit” finds her, she can’t help it. She’s fearless and funny with an insanely strong sense of justice and is nobody’s idea of an “uptown girl.” But looks are deceiving, Linda Sands is more like Jojo than she appeared in the Atrium. She’s fearless, taking a public stand against human trafficking (Cargo Series  #2), and a writer I’m going to watch (and read!) 

“Jojo Boudreaux and her co-driver beau Tyler Boone spend their days- and nights- delivering cargo coast to coast. Old Blue, their custom Peterbilt tractor-trailer makes the perfect home for a man who never had one and a Louisiana tomboy who thinks an oven is for storing guns. But life on the road isn’t all sing-a-longs and sunsets.” 

The plot kicks into gear when Jojo and Boone are called in to deliver an abandoned load of high-profile pharmaceuticals to a secure warehouse, and their planned vacation is garaged for the quick, easy job with the big paycheck. The “paycheck” comes in the form of a mysterious accident that kills Boone and  brings in private investigator Gator, with some information to encourage Jojo to help him look into what might be a murder.


Grand Theft Cargo is described as “a wild ride from start to finish with a secretive highwayman, explosive house bombs, singing telegrams, flaming mice, secret cancer drugs, dead truckers, an agency that can’t be named, and enough crashes and car chases to remind you these road cowboys have no qualms crossing the zipper to walk the dog in the hammer lane.” For readers  in the know, Sand’s facts ring true. And for the rest of us, this is a glimpse, at times humorous, into the world of trucking via sharp-witted dialog through a cast of vivid characters (Charlene, the dispatcher!) The pacing is energetic, and the plot full of curves as the story speeds along like Sabrina, Jojo’s new rig after Old Blue is wrecked. 

Grand Theft Cargo is one of the most original mysteries I’ve read. I can’t say it any better:  “Strap yourself in before you start to read this one.”;  “a high-speed thrill ride with enough crashes and explosions to keep your heart racing from the first to last page!”; “Grand Theft Cargo is east bound and down with great characters, loaded up and truckin’ with action. This is 18 wheels of mystery firing on all cylinders. Get behind the wheel and enjoy the ride.”

And with a line up like this? How could our amateur sleuth panel event not be standing room only?

Next time at LCC Reads Part 2 , Gregory C. Randall, Jennifer Chow, and Dominic Martell

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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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Turn to the Sun

5121eFu6ZuL._AA160_-1JC Miller’s latest novel, Heliotrope, has been called “a coming of age story for the ages.” And it’s more than that. Heliotrope is a story about finding one’s path in a complicated world and finding peace in one’s own skin. It’s about finding a place we belong.

For Kit Hilliard, home is a place to escape. She goes as far from the dusty, brown desert town of her shattered childhood as she can, to attend college in the lush green world of 1975 Arcata, California. “Kit’s vision filled with green, quenching the arid ground of her birthplace, softening the brittle places in her heart. Eager to reinvent her life and thirsty for uncharted ground, Kit opened up like a flower turning to light.” But on the cusp of her senior year and graduation, her world begins to shift.

Kit falls in love with her senior seminar professor, Jonathan Wakefield. But Jonathan, a best-selling author, is not who he appears to be. He is another escapee. “He’d actually believed a geographic adjustment could cure him, but now he realized his affliction was permanent.”

True to the spirit of the times the jug wine, marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms flow freely. After a dinner party goes awry, Kit flees to the comfort of her buddy, Milo, and makes a discovery that shocks her. Betrayed and embarrassed she lashes out in revenge.

Remembering her moral compass, Kit tries to make amends. Jonathan takes a hard look at his life and finds no loving net awaits him back home. With Kit’s graduation looming and Jonathan’s teaching contract coming to an end, the future is uncertain. They must recognize and embrace whom they are, both the beautiful and the ugly, and create the lives they yearn for.

As in all of JC Miller’s work, the writing is both straightforward and lyrical. Miller is adept with figurative language and can root into the deepest recesses of her characters for truth. She’s got her pen on the pulse of humanity. Her characters are likeable, real, and experience the full range of human emotions. The story unfolds naturally in a smooth, organic progression, leading the reader to a satisfying and hope filled conclusion.

Heliotrope is a book to think about. First, it takes place in my own era of “coming of age” and I often found myself reminiscing about my college days. I compared experiences with Kit and remembered my professor, Lenny. But mostly, Heliotrope made me think of the rocky paths we must tread to find a place to belong in a complex and ever-changing world. Heliotrope will resonate with anyone who has experienced the bruising of coming to terms with life and remembers the pain and joy of finding oneself at any age.

By the way, I absolutely couldn’t put the book down!

JC MILLER

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

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